She noticed the pony for the first time when she was young, not long after she’d received her cutie mark. He had been sitting quietly in the back row at her mother’s funeral, noteworthy only in his utter lack of noteworthiness.
After the service, after the mourners had filed quietly out of the room, after the last of the well-wishers had extended their condolences for her loss, the filly noticed he was still in the rough stone chapel. She watched, peering from around the door with her family behind her, chatting amongst themselves in low murmurs, as the pony approached the casket at the front of the room.
There was something insubstantial about him that she couldn’t quite put her hoof on. A thinness that didn’t match his stocky body, a definite sense that he was far off in the distance yet right in front of her.
He delicately lifted a hoof, resting it on the lid of the polished wooden box, and gazed down at the wizened matriarch’s face. It was a severe face, the face of a mare who had lived a long life and seen many things and ended up largely unimpressed by most of them. The funerary director had done what he could, but the end of her life had been a struggle, and there was a tightness to her that the filly didn’t remember from her childhood.
The pony shifted, leaning closer to the mare, and murmured something the filly couldn’t quite hear. There was a sudden sense of motion, though nothing moved. The pony bowed his head, then stepped back and turned as if to go.
Their eyes met – she at the doorway, he at the altar. They stared at each other for a moment, and she felt as though the world were holding its breath, but then he nodded to her once, solemnly, somehow imparting through the simple gesture that he understood her sorrow and was sorry for it, but that her mother’s passing was simply the way of the world and there was nothing to be done about it. There was a sound like a sigh, and he was gone.
She ran up to the casket, ignoring the startled noises from the ponies behind her, and peered in. Her mother’s body was still there, her eyes still closed, her face still tranquil, and yet... and yet. There was the ghost of a smile on her mother’s lips. She had never thought to see her mother smile again.
That was the first time.
• • •
As the years went on, she saw the pony again here and there – at the scene of an accident, visiting a hospice ward, on the field of battle. She came to expect him, catching herself searching her surroundings for him whenever she was in the presence of a pony who had passed on. Invariably he would make an appearance, visit the deceased, and disappear again. Nopony ever seemed to notice him, save her. Sometimes, their eyes would meet as they had that first time, and she would nod at him, and he at her, before he continued on his way.
• • •
When she was not preoccupied with her work, she would often send her servants away, brew herself a cup of tea, and sit, wondering about the pony. She was bemused to realize that there was very little memorable about him, and she found it impossible to hold an image of him in her mind. She could not for the life of her recall the color of his mane, the shape of his tail, if he had wings or a horn.
She did remember one thing about him. She’d noticed it the second time she’d seen him and made a point to look for it each time following, at first because she didn’t believe it and then because she’d grown to expect it, accept it, be comforted by it.
On either flank, where every other pony had a mark that proudly proclaimed their destiny to the world, he had nothing.
• • •
Many years after the first time, she saw the pony once more. It was at a funeral again, that of her sister’s husband. They were in the same chapel, though it had been rebuilt in the years since. As before, he sat in the back row quietly. As before, when the service ended, the mourners filed quietly out of the room. As before, they gathered outside, to murmur condolences to the bereaved. But this time, she stayed, and sat down next to him.
“Hello,” she said.
He turned and looked at her appraisingly.
“I’ve seen you often, at this sort of thing,” she said.
I know, he said, turning back to face the casket at the front of the chapel.
She paused, and frowned. Her ears hadn’t heard anything; it was as though the words had formed in her mind directly.
“No one else can see you,” she said.
“Are you a hallucination?” she asked.
He smiled and shook his head.
She thought for a moment.
“Are you Death?”
He hadn’t been moving before, but he grew very still at her words, his smile fading. Again, there was a sense of tightness in the air, of the world holding its breath.
I have to go, he said, and slid from his seat, walking to the front of the room. She stayed where she was, watching him, listening to the soft swell of conversation from friends and family outside.
As before, there was nothing on his flank.
He stood over the casket, and leaned in, and murmured something she couldn’t hear. There was a sound like a sigh, and he was gone.
She stood and walked delicately to the front of the room, to gaze down at her sister’s husband’s smiling face.
“Were you talking to someone?”
She turned and saw her sister, and summoned a soft smile. “Just to myself.” Her sister looked doubtful. “Come, sister. It’s time to go.”
Her sister sniffed, and nodded, and they went out.
• • •
Many years later, she saw him again. There had been an accident, and one of her servants had been fatally injured; a nervous mistake by a new hire, tripping on a loose rug and falling down the main staircase, breaking her neck.
She’d rushed to the source of the commotion, but knew at once there was nothing to be done. Not from the hush of the gathered crowd, but from the sight of the pony standing off to the side, half in shadow behind a column.
She stood next to him, watching the upset servants console each other, before looking down at him.
He inclined his head briefly.
“Are you Death, sir?”
He looked up at her. You could say that, he said.
She nodded thoughtfully. “Are you a pony?”
You could say that, too.
“But you don’t have a cutie mark?”
He began moving toward the crowd, and to the unfortunate broken form in its center. Of course I do. Everypony has a cutie mark; it is the way of the world. My mark is Nothing.
She frowned, as the servants parted without knowing why.
• • •
She found him outside one winter, in the gardens, looking up at a proud old oak that her groundskeeper reported would not see the next spring, the last rays of sunlight filtering through its bare branches.
“I’ve heard no shouts, received no reports of missing ponies,” she said.
Ponies are not the only things that die, he said. He placed a hoof on the trunk, murmured a few words, and she heard a sigh. He stepped away. She noted idly he left no hoofprints in the fresh snow.
“Please, sir,” she said. “Don’t leave.”
He paused. I have my duties, as do you.
“I generally find that except in rare circumstances, things tend to look after themselves, at least for a few minutes.”
He stood motionless for a long moment before turning back to her. There is some truth there.
She swept snow off a nearby bench and sat, motioning for him to join her. After a moment, he climbed up next to her. They looked at the husk of a tree together.
You are much larger now than when we first met.
She smiled. “I had a lot of growing up to do. I notice you haven’t changed at all.” A pause. “I remember very little of you when you aren’t here. Not your coloration, not the shape of your face... Even now that we’re sitting together, I can’t decide if you’re an earth pony, a pegasus, or a unicorn.”
It matters not. It is enough that I am a pony.
She let that idea settle in her mind, deciding that in some way it felt right to her. “I get the sense – and do forgive my forwardness – that you lead a very lonely sort of existence.”
He considered this. I would not call it lonely. I meet everypony eventually.
“Even me,” she mused.
Yes, he said. Even you.
“I don’t suppose you could give a girl a little warning, could you?”
It does not work that way.
“I suppose not. I’ll just have to take some solace in the knowledge that the last pony I see is a friend.”
She turned to him, smiling gently. “Yes, a friend. You.”
He turned to her, and she could feel his surprise. A friend. It has been a long time since I have had... friends.
“Too long a time,” she suggested.
Perhaps. He turned back to study the tree. I have to go.
She nodded. “One can only put off one’s duties for so long.” She had seen servants peering outside curiously at her, wondering what she was doing sitting on a bench in the snow.
He stood and faced her. Until next time, friend. And then he was gone.
• • •
More years passed, what felt like an endless ocean of time flowing by. They saw each other occasionally, and she often reflected on the odd dichotomy such a relationship presented her: the joy of reuniting with an old friend – the oldest friend, now – against the background of sadness that always heralded his arrival. They spoke of death, and life, and everything in between, a lifetime of discussions pieced together a few minutes at a time.
• • •
“My sister is gone.”
“Yes, I suppose everypony does by now.”
“Are you?” she wondered.
He said nothing.
“You must be very old,” she mused. “Older than me, older than anypony.”
“What happens?” she asked.
“At the end of all things. When the world turns its last turn, when the sun burns itself out, when all is darkness, what then?”
I will be there, he said.
“Oh,” she said. “Good.”
• • •
The world turned, and the sun burned, and the darkness gave way to daylight, in an endless cycle. All the dizzying array of creatures she met came and went, but only the pony came back.
“What do you say?” she asked.
“When you speak to the dead. When you lean over them, and touch a hoof to them, and come away and they’re smiling.”
That everything is as it should be.
It does not take much. Most are simply afraid to let go, and a little reassurance goes a long way. Sometimes it is not necessary. Sometimes they are ready to go on their own, and I am not needed.
“Everything is as it should be?”
There is no other way for everything to be.
She thought about this.
“How can you be sure?”
I know it, the same way you know the sun will rise each morning.
“It won’t rise if I don’t raise it.”
But you will. You always do, and you always shall, until the world turns its last turn, until the sun burns itself out, until all is darkness. There is no other way for everything to be.
She thought about this.
“I think I shall miss you, old friend.”
Perhaps you will. But when the time comes, I know I shall miss you, Celestia.