Oh Celestia, where am I? That fall was really something…
Pinwheel blinked slowly, trying to make sense of her surroundings. Shakily, she rose to her feet. All around her was darkness. In the shadows, she could make out faint, muted swirls of color, like smoke from some hidden candlestick. Her whole body hurt. Her legs trembled underneath her, as though they could barely carry her weight. A persistent throb trembled behind her skull. Letting her eyes adjust, she noticed her glasses were cracked.
"Hello?" Pinwheel called into the blackness. Only echoes answered. A thrill of fear rippled down Pinwheel's spine. Where in Celestia's name was she? No matter how hard she squinted, she couldn't see anything or anyone. There was no light anywhere. Yet, looking down at her hooves, Pinwheel could make out the light blue color of her coat. It was as though she exuded a light all her own. Hesitantly, Pinwheel took a few steps forward, "Is there anyone here?"
No answer. Pinwheel frowned. She tried to remember what had happened. An…an accident. She'd never been flying before, but her pegasus friend assured her that it was perfectly safe. 'It'll be fine, Pinwheel! You'll love it, it's really fun!' Dizzy Twist reassured her, 'Just hold on tight to me.' Pinwheel was nervous about flying for the first time. Earth ponies were meant to stay on the ground, after all. If Earth Ponies were meant to fly, they'd have wings like the pegasi. But nothing would convince Dizzy Twist. Finally, Pinwheel gave in. Dizzy was so excited. Even so, Pinwheel had her apprehensions. Dizzy was a strong flyer, but she wasn't very good at holding onto things. Pinwheel would never forget the day she accidentally dropped a flower pot on some poor pink pony's head.
Dizzy met Pinwheel that morning just outside of Ponyville. 'We'll just fly around Ponyville until you get comfortable, okay?' Said Dizzy comfortingly. Shaking, Pinwheel climbed onto Dizzy's back. Before Pinwheel even got settled, Dizzy was off. She rocketed into the sky like a firework, zooming up faster than she'd ever gone before. Pinwheel let out a frightened scream, clinging tightly to her friend's back. Ponyville vanished rapidly underneath them.
As they whooshed higher and higher, bursting through layers of cloud, Pinwheel's glasses began to slip off her nose. As Dizzy broke through a dark purple-grey cloud, Pinwheel's glasses slid off her face and dropped toward the ground. Pinwheel let out a squeal, letting go of her friend and making a desperate grab for her specs. But it was too late. Just as the morning sun began to peek over the mountains, Pinwheel tumbled off her friend's back and plummeted back to the earth. 'PINWHEEL!' Dizzy screamed as she fell. By the time Dizzy managed to reverse directions, Pinwheel was already halfway to the ground.
Pinwheel remembered all too vividly the sickening crack and the explosion of pain she'd felt upon hitting the dirt. Everything went dark. The last thing she remembered seeing was Dizzy yelling at her with tears in her eyes. The thought made Pinwheel shiver.
"I guess…I guess I'm dead." Pinwheel finally concluded. The pain she'd felt upon waking up was fading. Before her eyes, her cracked glasses repaired themselves, as though someone had turned back time and sealed the breaks. Dizzy's horrified, sad expression stuck in her memory like a brand on her mind. Lip trembling, Pinwheel lowered her head. Where was her poor friend now? Struggling to get her to the hospital? What would Nurse Redheart say? It wasn't Dizzy's fault that Pinwheel slipped. Really, it was stupid of her to wear glasses on a pegasus ride.
Slowly, shaking out her yellow mane, Pinwheel lifted her head. If this was death, it wasn't so bad. The deep, mysterious blackness was a bit disconcerting, but otherwise, it seemed fairly benign. There weren't any ghosts emerging from the darkness. No ghouls, no haunts, no spookies. Pinwheel took a few more steps. "Hello?" Was she really the only one here?
"Hello?" A voice, a male voice, answered. Pinwheel paused. In the darkness, she could make out the faint silhouette of a purple Pegasus. Upon seeing her, the Pegasus gasped in relief, "Oh, thank Celestia! I've been wandering around in this place for hours!"
"Who are you?" Pinwheel asked, peering at the Pegasus. He was athletically built – not handsome, but strong. His black mane was mussed with sticks and leaves, as though he'd just crawled out of a bush.
"Thunderhead." The Pegasus responded. His cutie mark, a pale blue lightning bolt, seemed to glow in the darkness, "Who are you?"
"Hey, Pinwheel, nice to meet you." Thunderhead responded, lowering his head courteously, "How long you been here?"
"I, er, just woke up here a minute ago."
Thunderhead grinned sheepishly. "I've been here for a couple hours. Maybe more. I can't really tell time in this place…" He sighed, glancing around hopelessly, "I'm really glad to see another face, though. I was worried I'd be all alone in here."
"Where are we?"
Thunderhead's grin faded. He ducked his head awkwardly, "Well, uh, Miss Pinwheel…the thing is…I think we're dead." He straightened his neck, "I was in the Everfree Forest looking for flowers, ya see, for my marefriend, and all of a sudden, this ursa minor came out of nowhere. Tore me to pieces, it did. I remember it like it yesterday. Heck, it might have been yesterday for all I know."
"So we really are dead…" Pinwheel sighed, "I fell off my Pegasus friend's back while we were flying."
Thunderhead chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully, "Hey," He began, "Do you, ah, wanna walk with me? Maybe there are others around here."
"You think so?"
"Well, hey, we found each other, right?"
Pinwheel smiled, "That's true."
The endless darkness was a little less scary with Thunder by her side. Together, the two of them walked into the black. No matter which direction they turned, though, or how long they walked, they never seemed to get anywhere. All around was featureless blackness. There were no landmarks to show where they'd been. Pinwheel couldn't hear anything aside from the clip clop of their hooves. "So…er…" Thunderhead began after they'd been walking for a few minutes, "Tell me about yourself, Pinwheel."
"Uh…I lived in Ponyville. I made pinwheels. Kind of boring, I guess. You?"
"Well, I live…well, used to live in Cloudsdale with my marefriend. Worked at the weather factory. I tell ya, I was an expert at making lightning. Just like my pa. Weather making runs in the family, I guess. They'll…they'll probably be pretty upset when they find my body."
"Why were you in the Everfree Forest anyway? They sell flowers in Ponyville."
"Well, uh, my marefriend wanted a special flower. She's all about flowers, ya see. A little strange for a Pegasus girl, but I always thought it was cool. I hope she doesn't cry too much."
Pinwheel frowned, glancing down at her hooves. "Are we sure we're dead?"
"I don't see any other option, Miss Pinwheel." Thunderhead sighed sadly, "Either we're dead or this is a really strange dream. Do you feel like you're dreaming?"
"Neither do I."
They continued walking in silence.
All of a sudden, another sound broke through the muffled silence. Thunderhead and Pinwheel both looked up, heads snapping simultaneously in the direction of the noise. Out of the darkness exploded a cream colored unicorn, rocketing forward at full gallop. Thunderhead leaped out of the way, pulling Pinwheel with him. Seeing the other two ponies, the unicorn pulled to a screeching halt. "Oh my goodness!" She squeaked. Her bright pink mane flopped in her face as she whirled about to face them, "I am SO sorry! I didn't mean to run into you!"
"It's fine, Miss." Thunderhead answered, smiling.
"It's just…it's just that I've been alone here and…well, it was scary! I just figured I'd keeping running until I found something…" She stammered nervously, then began to smile, "I guess I found something. I didn't expect to see anyone else down here. Wherever here is."
"Heck if we know." Thunder answered, shrugging his large shoulders, "What's your name?"
"Philomel." The pink haired unicorn answered, blushing. On her flank, Pinwheel could just make out the shape of a violin cutie mark, "Um…"
Pinwheel turned to her, "So…what happened to you?"
"What happened to me? What do you mean? I just got here…"
"This might sound strange, miss, but we think we're dead. Pinwheel here took a plummet off a pegasus's back and I got torn up by an ursa. Something like that must have happened to you. What's the last thing you remember?"
"Dead?" The pink haired unicorn exclaimed, "I can't be dead! The last thing I remember was…was walking around Manehattan with my friends and…this carriage came speeding around the corner…and…oh my." Tears welled up in Philomel's eyes. Her chest hitched. Gently, Thunderhead walked over and touched his head to hers.
"Hey, it's all right." He soothed, "We're all here together, right?"
Philomel sniffled, "I…I guess so."
"We're gonna find some others and try to figure out what's going on, okay?"
While they were talking, a strange swirl of color crawled through the blackness. Pinwheel caught it out of the corner of her eye. She followed the movement of the current, her companions' conversation suddenly distant and far away. The swirl, like smoke from a fire, shifted shapes as it moved. Finally, dropping to the ground, the smoke formed into the silhouette of a tall colt. As the colt stepped forward, the shadows caught on him like spider webs, forming a dark cloak. Philomel and Thunderhead looked up and fell silent. Slowly, the three ponies backed away from the figure. His face was hidden by the cloak's hood, but Pinwheel could make out the faint yellow gleam of bone beneath it.
"W-who are you?" Philomel squeaked, ducking behind Thunderhead. Pinwheel stood motionless, staring up at the tall, silent figure. His hooves made no noise as he moved across the ground.
"YOU MAY CALL ME DEATH." The robed pony boomed. His voice resonated in the environment, causing everything, even Pinwheel, to shake a little. The voice whispered inside her head, yet echoed all around her.
"So…we are dead…" Thunderhead's ears drooped.
"YES." Death lifted his hoof, exposing a skeletal white leg. He gestured for them to approach, "EARLIER TODAY, YOU THREE ALL MET VIOLENT ENDS. NOW IT IS TIME FOR YOU TO MOVE ON AND GO TO THE AFTERLIFE."
"Wait. Hold up a second." Pinwheel stepped forward. Death cocked his head at her, "We all died violently, right?"
"Y-yeah!" Squeaked Philomel, "I got run over!"
"And I got torn to bits!" Thunderhead asserted.
Pinwheel nodded to the other ponies. "Right. And I fell to my death. Not one of us died naturally."
Death exhaled. His sigh was like a bitter, chilly wind. "YOUR POINT?"
"Don't we deserve a second chance?" Pinwheel begged, "We're all young and it's not fair that we died the way we did."
Death tilted his head back in thought, his cloak hood slipping a little off his head. Pinwheel could see the white bone of his nose. Stomach turning, she looked away. "THREE TESTS, THEN. IF YOU PASS, YOU MAY RETURN TO THE WORLD OF THE LIVING."
"Tests?" Thunderhead asked, "What kind of tests?"
"BE GRATEFUL, PONIES. YOU CAUGHT ME DURING A SLOW DAY." The robed pony boomed. He towered over the three of them, standing feet even over the tall Thunderhead, "THUS, I SHALL GIVE YOU EACH ONE CHANCE TO EARN YOUR LIFE BACK."
Pinwheel stepped forward. "All right. I accept your challenge."
"Me too!" Thunderhead answered charging forward.
"And…me?" Philomel tiptoed hesitantly behind Thunderhead, peering anxiously at the robed pony.
"FIRST…" Death rumbled, "A TEST OF STRENGTH. WHO AMONG YOU CHOOSES THE TEST OF STRENGTH?"
Thunderhead puffed out his chest, "I was the strongest flyer on my team when I was a kid. Shoot, I'll take your test." The robed figure stepped aside, allowing Thunderhead to move forward. Taking a deep breath, Thunderhead walked up and stood beside Death. With a nod of his head, the robed pony summoned two wagons, both loaded down with heavy, black rocks flecked with gold. Thunderhead glanced nervously back at Pinwheel and Philomel, but didn't back down. Magically, the harness floated toward Thunderhead. It fastened itself around his shoulders. Thunderhead grunted, giving the harness a tug. The wagon behind him didn't budge.
Death gestured toward a suddenly appearing goal post in the distance. "PULL THIS WAGON TO THE GOAL POST BEFORE ME," Death rattled, "AND I WILL RETURN YOU TO THE WORLD OF THE LIVING."
"I can do this." Thunderhead puffed, scraping the ground with his hoof, "I can definitely do this. Cloudsdale, here I come!"
Death levitated the second harness over and strapped himself in, robe and all. "LET US BEGIN." With a great heave, Thunderhead pushed toward the goal post. The cart inched along behind him. Sweat glistened on the pegasus's forehead and flank. He strained with the effort, letting out pained grunts. Still, even with his pushing, the cart crawled forward at a painfully slow pace. Pinwheel took a step toward the cart, but a cold, invisible wall stopped her from advancing. Philomel whimpered, watching the contest from behind Pinwheel. The robed pony, meanwhile, pulled the cart with exquisite ease, strolling leisurely along the course with the cart rolling behind him. For every inch Thunderhead pulled his cart, Death advanced a foot or more.
"Come on, Thunderhead! You can do it!" Pinwheel called encouragingly. Thunderhead flashed a smile. Still straining against the heavy load, Thunderhead extended his great purple wings and flapped. His legs lifted off the ground and, flapping desperately, he propelled the cart forward with his wings. Pinwheel and Philomel cheered. Still, even with powerful wings aiding him, Thunderhead was nowhere near fast enough to compete with Death. By the time Thunderhead was halfway down the course, Death had already finished.
"ENOUGH." The robed pony boomed. Both the carts and the goal post vanished. Death and Thunderhead reappeared next to Philomel and Pinwheel, "THUNDERHEAD, YOU HAVE FAILED. COME WITH ME."
Thunderhead lowered his head in shame, his black mane falling over his face. Death lifted his robe with a blindingly white bone hoof. Squeezing his eyes shut and fighting tears, Thunderhead walked into Death's hooves. Death dropped his robe and Thunderhead was gone, leaving behind only a scattering of royal purple feathers. Philomel squeaked with fear.
Death looked down on the two mares before him. "NEXT, A TEST OF SKILL. WHO AMONG YOU CHOOSES THE TEST OF SKILL?"
Surprisingly, Philomel peeked out from behind Pinwheel. "I…I'm good at the violin. Does that…count as a skill?"
With a wave of his hoof, Death produced a spectral violin. It rested lightly on his great shoulder, ready to play. With a second wave, another violin, formed from shadow, dropped from the air next to Philomel. Her face screwed up in concentration. Her horn glowed and the shadowy violin floated into the air, trailing seeping darkness behind it. "LET US BEGIN." Death rumbled, "IF YOU ARE INDEED A BETTER PLAYER, I WILL RETURN YOU TO THE WORLD OF THE LIVING."
Philomel nodded. Closing her eyes, she began to play. Her notes rang out clearly and perfectly on the shadowy violin, melding together to form a mournful aria. She played flawlessly, not missing a single note. Pinwheel was breathless. Finishing her aria, Philomel lowered the shadowy violin. As she set it on the ground, it split apart and vanished back into the void. Death nodded. Lifting the bow with his hoof, he played the same aria. Pinwheel and Philomel listened, frozen to the spot by the beautiful sound. By the time Death finished, both Philomel and Pinwheel were weeping, though perhaps not because of the aria. Death's playing was more than perfect – it was heartbreaking.
"PHILOMEL, YOU HAVE FAILED. COME WITH ME." Death boomed as his violin vanished. Philomel lowered her head, her shoulders shaking with her tears. Pinwheel tried to comfort her, but was once again blocked by a cold, invisible wall. Philomel walked into Death's hooves and vanished, just as Thunderhead had. Now only Pinwheel was left. She turned to look at Death, gazing the dark pony defiantly in the face.
"So?" Pinwheel demanded, "What's left for me? Are you going to cheat on my test too?"
"CHEAT?" Death echoed, sounding genuinely perplexed.
"You didn't even give them a chance!" Pinwheel yelped, "They did their best, but they still lost right from the start!"
"A SECOND CHANCE IS A VALUABLE THING. NOT EVERYONE IS WORTHY OF IT." Death rasped, "THE FINAL TEST, PINWHEEL, IS A TEST OF WIT. WILL YOU TAKE THE TEST OF WIT?"
"I don't have much choice, do I?"
"THEN LET US BEGIN. LOOK AROUND YOU, PINWHEEL. THERE IS NO COLOR OR LIGHT IN THIS CROSSROAD BETWEEN WORLDS." Death rattled, "IN THE MORTAL WORLD, ALL LIVING THINGS DIE AT MY TOUCH, SO I CANNOT BRING ANY COLOR INTO THIS WORLD WITH ME. GIVE ME AN OBJECT THAT IS BRIGHT AND LIVELY, BUT WILL NOT DIE AT MY TOUCH."
Pinwheel stood silent. "A…a pinwheel." She answered after a few moments of thought, "It's brightly colored…and it spins in the wind. It's not alive, so…so it won't die when you touch it."
"CLEVER." Death whispered. Pinwheel could hear a hint of a smile in his voice, "VERY WELL. IT SEEMS I TAKE ONLY TWO SOULS TODAY."
Pinwheel blinked. "T-that's it?"
"THAT," He boomed, "IS IT."
All of a sudden, Pinwheel woke up. She jerked up, only to be flattened by a horrible pain in her abdomen. Hearing her groaning, Nurse Redheart hurried to her bedside, "By Celestia…I can't believe it." The nurse breathed. Pinwheel blinked at her slowly.
"W-what…?" Nurse Tenderheart appeared next to Redheart, both ponies gawking in open awe. All around Pinwheel, machines began to beep. The room was quiet.
"You were dead…but…" Redheart stammered.
"I was…dead?" Pinwheel blinked slowly, getting used to the bright, white light of the infirmary.
"You fell more than one hundred feet off the back of a Pegasus. Every bone in your body was…destroyed. There's no way you could have survived. You had no pulse…no nothing." Nurse Tenderheart related, "Dizzy was in tears. She won't believe this."
Pinwheel sat up. "What? I'm fine…"
Nurse Redheart stumbled back in shock. "You aren't hurt?"
"I feel fine."
"I don't believe this. It's a miracle, by Celestia!" Nurse Tenderheart gasped, "I've never seen such a thing!"
Hearing the commotion, Dizzy Twist shouldered open the door of the infirmary. Her eyes were puffy from crying. Upon seeing her friend, alive and unharmed, she let out a squeal of delight. "Pinwheel! You're okay! I can't believe it!" Dizzy gasped, fresh tears of happiness spilling out her eyes, "They said you were dead!"
Shakily, Pinwheel climbed out of the bed. She and Dizzy nuzzled. "I thought I was dead too, but I guess not." The two ponies laughed, "It really is a miracle."
"I know one thing." Dizzy giggled, "I'm never taking you flying again. Don't you ever scare me like that!"
"I won't. I promise."