Monday, October 30, 2017

Grokking the Divine

[Originally posted at]
[I'll have notes at the end about where this came from, why the title and chapter title heading don't make sense as going with this story, and why this story, which could easily be in any original setting you like if I hadn't taken the trouble of replacing normal words with things such as "everypony", is explicitly in the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic universe.]

He will wipe every tear from their eyes // Death will be no more

When I say that I've wondered about it for as long as I can remember, you have to realize this isn't exaggeration.  I saw it when I was very young.  I kept seeing it.  That, I suppose, deserves some explanation.  What was somepony that young doing in the castle ?  Well, ok, I'll tell you.

In a way, I started working in the castle before I was old enough to be allowed to work.  Equestria has laws against foal labor after all.  They're well meaning.

It's said that in the dark days before they were passed foals were forced to work in unsafe conditions and were seen as disposable and their only hope was that Celestia or Luna –this was a long time ago, you understand, and no one had heard of nightmare moon yet– would happen upon whatever Tartarus in Equestria they were laboring in and declare Jubilee.

Having a law definitely seems much easier than all that.

But there aren't laws against tagging along after your mother in your free time.  There are rules at most places of employment, but the castle is kind of a special case.  If you put up enough of a fuss, then a princess might notice.

Squeaky wheels and all that.

When I told Celestia about how I didn't have any friends, and all the other foals my age made fun of me by calling me a colt instead of a filly, she made a deal with me.  I could stay by my mother's side as she preformed her duties, if I would agree to try to make friends.  I almost burst out crying when I heard her condition, but she assured me that she wouldn't force me to befriend the ones who were so mean to me.

And that's how I got my start.  I followed my mother everywhere, and she taught me how to do her job.  I got my cutie mark when she was sick but her stubborn pride wouldn't let her just tell her boss she couldn't make it.  I hid her clock and covered the windows in blankets, so that she'd get the sleep she needed, and then did the work myself.

I got my cutie mark.  I also got in trouble.  There are, after all, laws against foal labor.  No, I didn't get in trouble with those laws.  I got in trouble for trying to trick everypony into thinking my mother did her job while I did it for her.  I got in trouble for turning off my mother's alarm clock.  And, you know, everything else.

But it worked out in the end and from then on my mother actually took sick days off.

So I've working in the castle forever.  Celestia agreeing to let me follow my mom as she did her work is my earliest clear memory.

I've grown up, I did make friends, I've even met famous ponies.  Sunset Shimmer once ranted at me about how I hadn't dusted properly.  Twilight Sparkle ignored me.  I prepared rooms for fake Princess Cadance, who was a jerk, and real Princess Cadance, who was not.

What I hadn't done, until recently, was find out what's behind the door in the east corridor, second floor.  It's got four locks on it.  No one talks about it, in public at least.  No one looks at it, though some make a point of looking away.  Some of the older staff even walk in a sort of semicircle around it rather than straight passed it.

The door is always closed.  When I'd asked in the past I got non-answers.  When I asked in a roundabout way I'd get shot down just as fast.

No one ever goes in, they say.  No one ever comes out.  They say.

I've always known that's absurd.

If that were the case then no one would know what was behind the door.  If no one knew what was behind the door, then ponies would investigate.  If ponies investigated they'd go in.  If they didn't come out then other ponies would go in after them.  Eventually somepony would come out.

I always knew it was false.

What I didn't know was what was true.  There was always a tension when you tried to find out.  Some ponies knew, and they seemed afraid, most ponies didn't, and they seemed afraid that knowing would somehow be dangerous.

I tried so long and so hard to find out that finally –finally– some ponies decided to take it upon themselves to tell me.  So I wouldn't do something stupid like try to break in.

As if I could.  There are four locks on the door.

* * *

So the day came when I finally learned the truth.  A mare lives there.  She gets her food through a dumbwaiter, thus it doesn't need to be delivered through the halls.  She cleans her own room.  Laundry is handled much like the food.  Ponies do go in and out of the door on occasion, but they always make sure no other ponies are looking.

Behind the door, you see, is death incarnate.  Ish.  Sort of.  Death more or less in pony-form.

Ok, not really, but that's how they say it.

Behind the door is a mare who has been there for a very, very long time.  Some of the oldest ponies I knew were inducting me into this “Secret of the door in the East Corridor” club, and they say she was there and full grown when they first came here as young workers.

None of them knew exactly how she got there.  None of them knew exactly why she was put there.  None of them knew exactly who she was.

What they did know was that her talent was death.

Not any normal sort of killing.  She's no warrior.  She doesn't use a weapon or a poison.  She uses a word, or a thought, or maybe just a breath.

They're not really sure.  If she wants you dead, you're definitely dead, that much is clear.  From across the room.  Maybe even through a window.  After all, what power would glass have to stop such a force?

They're a bit more hazy on whether she actually needs to want you dead.  Something happens and you're dead.  Gone.  You've been delivered to the next world before you even realized something was up.

The room is death.  The occupant is its instrument.

I should stop asking about it.

That was the gist of being told.

* * *

So, of course, I don't stop asking about it.  Not only do I not stop, I expand my scope.  I research in the archives, I put my ear up to the door when no one's looking.  I try to find out anything I can.

In the archives I find that there have indeed been multiple deaths in the room.  I find that those who examined the bodies found no cause.  I find that there's no record of the room's occupant.

I find no record of any crime that would lead to such perpetual imprisonment.

With no direct records I look for what I think are indirect signs.  Indications that the mare is in the room.  I look in things like maintenance reports, inventories, and such.  If I'm right, she's been there impossibly long.

I'm not satisfied.

I enlist some friends to help, but we don't turn up much more.

Finally I decide to bring the matter up with Celestia.

She beats me to it.

Before I can start work that day, she greets me in the hall.  After the usual formalities and the shock of Princess Celestia seeking me out has passed, she says, “You've taken an interest in the locked room.”

As if there's only one locked room in Canterlot.  Of course I know which one.  Everypony who works at the castle knows which one.  It's the locked room.  Before I officially became an employee, when I was just following my mother around because I was afraid of bullies whenever I left her side, I knew that that out of all the locked rooms, that was the lost room.

“Is it true a mare lives inside?” I ask.

“It is,” Celestia said.

“That's not fair!”

It slipped out.  I hadn't meant for it to happen.  I apologize profusely.

Celestia brushes off my apologies and asks, “What isn't fair?”

“She shouldn't be forced to live in isolation.”

“She's not a prisoner,” Celestia assures me.

Then comes something I didn't expect.  Not in the least.  Not ever.

“I'd like for you to meet her,” Celestia says.

I don't know how long the silence lasts.

“You can, of course, refuse.”

I say things like no, and of course not, and so forth.

Why would I refuse?

* * *

Before going into the room I'm prepared.  I'm told many things.

She really can kill me with just a thought.

She doesn't control her thoughts any more than anypony else.  Sometimes a thought just pops in there.  If I startle her, she could kill me by mistake.

She will, under no circumstances, kill me on purpose.

It is therefore up to me to make sure that I stay alive.

I should not bring up certain topics as, without her being warned beforehand, them being broached beforehand might startle her.

I ask how she could be warned if the process is potentially lethal.

I'm told that a formal warning is less likely to startle her than just having it come up out of the blue.  I'm also told that they don't risk it.  If there is a need to talk about one of the topics, they write it down and leave the room while she reads the list of problem topics.  Once she's mentally prepared herself, she knocks on the door and whoever is to speak to her enters.

I'm tested to make sure I know the topics to not talk about.

I should not do certain things, for they might startle her.  I am again tested on memorizing the list.

On and on it goes.

* * *

When the day comes guards escort me to the room at a time when no one is scheduled to be in the east corridor.  Apparently if somepony else were there when the door was opened the possibility of startling would be dangerously high.  At exactly the scheduled time, a guard knocks on the door.


Oh so softly.

The guards are both afraid.

A knock comes from the other side.

Slowly and carefully, so that no unintended noises are made, the four locks are unlocked.

I go inside.  Alone.

I haven't even gotten my bearings when I hear the locks being re-locked.

There's a pony at a table, a tea set on the table.

“I'm Swift Passage,” she says.

The pony, not the tea set or the table.

I say my name and sit when offered.

“I'm told you've taken an interest in me,” she says.

I nod.

I ask, “Is it true you spend your whole life in here.”

She smiles.  “Celestia said you thought I was a prisoner.”

“Your door is locked from the outside,” I say.

“What do you know about me?” she asks.

“Almost nothing,” I admit.  “They say a great many things.  They say you're death.”

“I'm not death,” she says, “but I do bring it.”

She sighs.

“In another life,” she says, “I think I would have helped the dying.  Given them quick and painless passage to whatever comes next.”

She looks away.  She looks sad.

“Unfortunately I can't control it,” she says.  “I'm sure they told you not to startle me.”

I nod.

“If I'm surprised I . . .  I've killed many ponies.”

I don't know her, I don't know anything about her, but I know that she sounds as sad as she looks.  I reach my hoof across the table.

Then I remember the list.  I stop with my hoof halfway across the table.  I stay like that.  She eventually looks at me, looks at my outstretched hoof, thinks a moment, and gives a small nod.

I take her hoof, try to be reassuring, and say, “It sounds like that's not your fault.”

She gives a smile, but it's sad.  “Thank you, but it doesn't make the guilt any less.”

She sighs again.

“Somehow I get a portion of the lives I take,” she says.  “I should be long dead by now.  Every day I live is a reminder of my failures.”

Our hooves are still touching, I attempt a reassuring squeeze, but I have to be careful –they wouldn't have let me in if I hadn't proven that I'd be careful– and I have no experience with that kind of thing anyway.  “No matter where it comes from, life isn't a bad thing.”

They're my mother's words.  She said them to a friend of mine whose parents should never have been together in the first place.

She gives a smile that almost becomes a laugh, “Do you spout platitudes often?”

“Only when they seem appropriate,” I say.

“Why did you choose to meet me?” she asks.

I tell her that no one should have to be alone.  Especially an innocent pony, but really no one no matter what.  Every pony should have companionship unless they really and truly do not want it.

I tell her about how it broke my heart when I learned there was a mare behind the locked door, a pony who was always alone.  Never able to mix and mingle with others.  Isolated.

I sound incredibly sappy and shallow because I've never learned to sound solemn and deep.

After that we talk a little while about nothing in particular.

Then I hear a soft knock at the door.

It's time for me to leave.

I try to offer to stay longer, but she explains how difficult rescheduling when the door will open is.

I get up, and go to leave.  Before I do she says one last thing:

“I'd like it if you came to see me again.”

I didn't need to think to say, “Of course I will.”

I knock softly on the door and hear the locks being unlocked.

* * *

I talk to Celestia afterward.

She explains that the last time Swift Passage gained a new pony to talk to was when Luna returned from banishment.  She says that it's hard to find ponies who are willing to risk death just to talk to somepony they've never heard of, and only some of those who are willing actually make for good fits with Swift Passage.

She says that she and Luna are both quite busy much of the time and so can't see Swift Passage as often as either would like.  She says Swift Passage is understandably lonely, since she spends so much time alone.

She asks me to keep seeing Swift Passage, if I'm willing, because she wants Swift Passage to be happy.  Or as near to happy as possible.

I tell her I've already agreed.

* * *

I spent years wondering what was behind that door, and now I know.  It's somepony who sacrificed her freedom in hopes that it would make everypony else safer.  She could have tried to find a patch of nowhere where she wouldn't be disturbed, but then she'd risk somepony coming across her by accident, startling her, and dying.

It's somepony who lives in fear.  Fear that she might hurt another without even trying.

It's somepony who doesn't deserve to be alone.

I don't know if it's possible for her to be happy, given the conditions of her chosen fate, but she seems nice enough, and if talking to her is all I can do to help her, then it's exactly what I will do.

As often as she wants.

Whenever she wants.

* *
* * *
* *

Ok, I said I'd have notes.  At Fimfiction (the other-than-here place where I'm posting my MLP fic) there is a story called Knowledge of the Holy that . . . well it's bad.  Most of the content of the story isn't a problem, it's just the cornerstone of the premise that fucks everything up.

The bulk of the text tells a fairly straightforward story and does a passably decent job of it.  The problem is that that story isn't the point.  The story as a whole is only even tangentially related to that story within the story.  That's just a way to communicate the key point.  The key point is that someone with power over death needs to be locked up because they're terrifying.

I may disagree with that.  In case you didn't notice.

Someone, not the author, described it thus:
Imagine you were told there was locked room in the building you work in. No one ever goes in and no one ever comes out. They tell you a woman lives in there. She's been in there as long as anyone can remember. Why is she there? For how long? Who is she? One thing they know is she can kill people just by willing it. Doesn't need a weapon. Doesn't need to even touch you. She just has to want it, or maybe not even that, and bip, you're dead, like she flipped off your light switch. Now someone tells you you have to go in there and talk to her.
I used that as a writing prompt, and produced the above.

~ ~ ~

The author of Knowledge of the Holy eventually described the idea in a comment because the story was extremely opaque about certain important details and in three pages of speculation no one remotely hit on what the author had been trying to communicate with respect to those details.  (Mostly because the author's interpretation isn't supported by the text.  At all.  As I said, it's bad.)

This was after I'd written the story, and mostly addressed unrelated details, so it largely doesn't matter, but it does put some things into a very clear perspective.

The key points for this context were: "She's there because she's dangerous, even if she's not evil," and "She's in custody because she's litterally[sic] a one mare harbinger of death and that's frankly terrifying."  And some other stuff about how someone with a lethal power must be locked up even if they're in full control and no more likely to kill than anyone else.

That's the disconnect, of course.  Someone can kill me in ways that I'm not used to people being able to kill me?  Honestly doesn't bother me.  Not terrifying.  Would be terrifying if they were trying to kill me, sure, but it would be terrifying if anyone were trying to kill me.

And so rather than being terrified by the imprisoned character, I'm left wanting to hug her.  Provided she wants a hug and hugging her won't get me killed.  The point is, I'm not left wanting to lock up the character, but instead comfort the character for being unjustly locked up.

The thing I used as a prompt had the possibility of her invoking her insta-death power by accident, and that at least provides a reason that a person might be sequestered.  So I ran with that.  The character in my story is isolated by choice because she's afraid of hurting others.  And that's fucking sad.  So the appropriate response is to try to make things better for her.

~ ~ ~

My title is obviously a reference to Knowledge of the Holy's title.  At Fimfiction every chapter, even the sole chapter in a one piece work, gets a title.  The default title would be "Chapter 1".

The author of Knowledge of the Holy chose to use a quote from Revelation:

And I saw a star that had fallen, and a key was given to that star, the key to the shaft of the abyss

That's the opening of the locust plague.  And that's interesting.  The character in Knowledge of the Holy describes her power as the power to kill plants as, with one exception, that's all she's ever used it for, and she's kind of in denial over the fact that it can be used on anything else.

The locust plague is a plague of things that, by nature, kill plants.  But they don't.  In Revelation they leave plants untouched.  Instead they torment the nonbelievers.  (Not kill, torment in a way that makes them wish for undelivered death.)

So, character kills plants by nature, locusts kill plants by nature, the story hinges on the character killing something not-a-plant (technically her ability to do so), Revelation locusts hurt things of the description: not-a-plant.

Seems like there could be something interesting in the interplay between the quote and the story.  Turns out there isn't.  The author doesn't actually understand the verse.  I'm not talking about deeper meaning.  I'm talking about plain text surface skimming.

This is the Revelation plague that causes neither death nor destruction there aren't a lot of those.  Revelation is the Michael Bay production in the bible so there's always explosions and body count.  The author of Knowledge of the Holy somehow miss the explicitly non-lethal non-destroy-y part about the plague and thinks that the locusts head out of Hell "to destroy and kill".

So I included a Revelation quote for parallel, but I looked for one that at least had some significance.  The narrator, Celestia, and off-screen-Luna are all trying to give comfort, which goes with the tear wiping.  The entire situation is to make magic induced death no more.

Honestly, that might be it.


  1. I read it, and to prove it, there some thoughts or something:

    a) Well, of coure it's not her fault;

    b) no, I still would't want to visit her on my relatively good days. Because on my relatively good days I like being alive. And I *will* startle her. Whether I want or not. Why give her another victim to feel guilty over? I'll be dead when I don't want to be, and it'll make my accidental murderer unhappy when I don't want her to be - all in all, an unsatisfying situation;

    c) something something something about my current fandom that you'd be uninterested in anyway (it has superpowered people. And also various issues with treatment of superpowered people. And just various issues in general.)


    1. Re:b)

      Yeah, somewhere I pointed out not wanting to set her off because then I'd be dead and she'd feel guilty. Everyone loses.

    2. (I suddenly feel the need to clarify, even though nobody asked me to*, that by "issues with treatment of superpowered people" I don't exactly mean "*mis*treatment of superpowered people". Treatment of "muggles" is the whole other rant, I'm not getting into that now, I promise. But more often than not, if you get powers in this world, you're almost guaranteed to go to the dark side, and when you get apprehended by the heroes... well, lately you go to jail, but not so long ago you were basically kidnapped and held prisoner in not particularly humane conditions. That's why your story and its inspiration made me think of that stuff. Oh, but internet informs me that some course corrections are, in fact, happening currently!)

      * I frequently feel the need to clarify things absolutely nobody asked me to clarify. Sorry.


    3. I frequently feel the need to clarify things absolutely nobody asked me to clarify. Sorry.

      So do I. It's nothing to be sorry about.

      Plus, the clarification was quite useful.