Twilight Sparkle suddenly realized that something was different.
She opened her eyes, then gasped at the sight around her. She'd gone to sleep, as she always did, in her old, creaky bed, nestled in the warmth of tattered quilts and sinking into the softness of pegasus down. Her friends had made it for her, many years ago, and in a sentimental way she felt she could feel their spirit in every scrap of cloth and bit of wood.
Now she was lying among gently rolling hills, looking out on green grass and scattered trees, stretching to the horizon. The sky above was a brilliant blue, scattered clouds dotting the landscape with shadows, yet the sun shone clear and bright from high above. A gentle wind ruffled her coat, enough to keep her from getting too hot, no more.
She didn't recognize any of it.
Springing to her hooves, she looked around for some sign of the familiar, only to be disappointed, seeing only more of the same terrain in all directions; there was no sign that ponies had ever passed this way, much less the streets and buildings of Ponyville. How had she gotten here? And where was here?
Then another oddity came to mind, and she looked down at herself.
She looked... young. Her coat was soft and vibrant, her body free of the lingering aches and pains that had become such a part of her life that she only noticed them in their absence. Her vision was sharp and clear, and a distant bird call let her know her hearing was as well. She was healthy again, in a way she hadn't been in years.
Focusing her magic, she found that flowed without the slightest strain, and with a thought she summoned a mirror, holding it to look at herself, turning it this way and that. The face she saw was familiar, and yet it was one she hadn't seen in so long she'd practically forgotten it. She could be her own granddaughter!
"What happened to me?" she asked herself, gazing into violet eyes.
"The same thing that happens to everypony, my faithful student."
Twilight gasped again, tilting the mirror slightly to reveal her mentor, Princess Celestia, standing on the hill behind her. Then she spun around (and oh, what a delight it was to be able to do so!) and beamed with joy. After all this time, she still felt like a filly whenever she was in the presence of her immortal teacher, and she sank to her knees with an ease long denied her.
"Princess Celestia! Did you do this to me?" she asked, her eyes wide.
Celestia laughed, and the sound was like a chorus of beautiful bells. Twilight had heard her laugh before, but it had never sounded so wonderful. "No, Twilight, you did this to yourself." She paused, and her smile faded, but did not vanish. "I remember you asking me a question once, not so long ago. A question I told you I could not answer. Do you remember what it was?"
Twilight searched her thoughts, one of the few parts of her that had never dulled with age. A memory surfaced, and the implications brought her back to her hooves with a start. "I asked you what happens to ponies when they... die." The memory brought back the sorrow with which she'd asked the question, but there was a strange hope too.
Celestia watched it all in Twilight's eyes, saw the unicorn link the pieces of the puzzle together. "I've always been proud of you, Twilight," she says. "So eager, and so quick, to understand."
Twilight focused again on her princess. "I'm dead," she said. Despite the tone, it was a question. Hypotheses had to be tested.
Celestia inclined her head slowly, her smile fading entirely, but only briefly.
"And this is...?" Twilight said, gesturing about her with a hoof.
Celestia chuckled, looking amused by a private joke. "You little ponies never did much concern yourselves much thinking about it, did you? Our fault, I suppose, for making Equestria a paradise. But yes. This is Elysium."
Twilight looked around, equal parts excited and bewildered. "Where's everypony else? My friends, my family..."
Celestia nodded, spread her wings, then folded them away—and like a conjurer's trick, four faces Twilight had only hoped to see again, and one face she'd seen surprisingly recently, appeared behind them, all restored as she was to the prime of their lives. She gasped yet again, but this time she wasn't the only one; all of them looked as surprised to see each other as they were to see her.
One face in particular drew Twilight's attention. "Fluttershy! What are you doing here? You're—you're still—" She groped for words, not sure how to ask. She realized quickly, however, that the others were as confused as she was by the presence of those who had outlived them.
"Forgive me," Celestia spoke, and six pairs of eyes turned to face her, "but those of you who arrived here first have been here for some time unawares. The relationship you have is so special, I couldn't bear to make any of you wait for your full reunion."
Twilight and the others looked at each other again, the meaning of Celestia's words sinking in. Each of them had, from her own perspective, only just died. Some of them had years of memories together that others had slipped past in an instant. And Fluttershy? The last of them to die? How long had she lived without them? How had she borne it? Twilight felt her eyes tearing up at the thought.
Fluttershy saw her tears, offered her a tender smile. "It's all right, Twilight," she said. "We're all here now, together." The words only made Twilight's eyes sting more, and before she quite knew what she was doing, she rushed toward her friends, throwing her forelegs around them, laughing and crying all at once. Through the tears, she could see colors brighter and more joyous than any she had seen before: the royal purple and pristine white of Rarity, the simple earth tones of Applejack, the bold stripes and splashes of Rainbow Dash, the pale but comforting pink and yellow of Fluttershy, and the color that seemed named after Pinkie Pie rather than the other way around.
They clung to each other for long moments, sobbing and laughing and saying incoherent things, hopes and fears and praises and sorrows spilling out in fragments. None of them knew exactly how long they stood there, holding each other as if they might wake from a wonderful dream at any moment, savoring the presence of friends whether they were long gone or seemingly seen just yesterday. None of them wanted to be the one to end the embrace.
Eventually, though, they did, shuffling apart, wiping at eyes with hooves, clearing throats and swallowing repeatedly. It was Twilight who first broke the silence, as all eyes turned to Celestia once more.
"So... what happens now?" she wondered. "Do we go off together and... do things? Do we get reborn? Or...?" She trailed off, fidgeting under Celestia's gaze. The alicorn looked strangely sad all of a sudden, bowing her head slowly.
"I am afraid that I must ask one last duty of you," she said. "Of all of you."
"No offense, your majesty," Applejack said, "but you sure took your sweet time getting around to asking us."
Celestia laughed; she couldn't help it. "Oh, Applejack. As forthright as ever. Yes, in a way I've been waiting for this moment since you first took up the Elements of Harmony, but I couldn't burden you with the knowledge of this duty in your lifetimes. I wanted you to be free to live as any mortal ponies, without having to worry about the future."
"Well, the future is now," Rainbow Dash said. "So what do you need us for? Somepony causing trouble in the afterlife?"
"Nothing so simple, Rainbow Dash," Celestia said, looking amused by the suggestion. "But forgive me. I should not speak to you of this alone."
There was the slightest suggestion of movement next to her, and then Princess Luna was there. A few of the ponies gasped, Twilight among them, for at her appearance the blue of the sky had vanished, replaced by thousands of twinkling stars, and darkness had swept across the land. Yet the sun was still high in the sky, side by side with the disc of the moon, and each of them seemed to glow with its light.
Princess Luna smiled; though her relationships with the six had started under strained circumstances, she had been granted many years to form friendships with each one, and some of them she felt she knew better even than her sister. "Good evening," she said, and they nodded, murmuring greetings to her with an ease and familiarity Celestia had never successfully cultivated.
"Before we go on," she continued, "we have to explain many things, secrets we have kept from the living. Gather around." The six ponies arranged themselves in a circle with Luna and Celestia, curiosity peaked.
A brilliant light shone in the center of the circle, then expanded into a glowing map of Equestria, its contours exaggerated, great peaks and deep valleys marked out before them. The six ponies realized their vision had become incredibly sharp; if they looked, they could see even the tiniest details, the little houses in Ponyville, the clouds around Canterlot, distant lands only spoken of in legends.
Pinkie Pie had produced not only her customary bucket of popcorn but a pair of odd, flimsy spectacles with gray lenses. "Ooo," she said.
"This is the land of Equestria," Celestia said. "All that it is, that it was, that it will be. Everything you ever knew, and endless reaches beyond." She gestured with a hoof, and the map flattened, taking on the appearance of a page in a book, a fairytale illustration of Equestria.
Then the book itself appeared, the page bound in it. The page turned, and the ponies found themselves looking at another illustration, a map of a place they'd never seen, with great oceans and strangely-shaped islands. Twilight, studying the map, felt her heart jump as she realized the land running off the right side of the map could be joined seamlessly to the land running off the left.
"This is another land," Celestia said, and the page turned again, showing another map, one with four colors advancing from north, south, east, and west to blend together in the center, where civilization lay; the map did not so much end at the borders as gradually fade away. "And this is another." She began to flip the pages rapidly now, the book seeming to have no end of them, showing them world after world after world, offering tantalizing glimpses of places Twilight yearned to learn more about. "An endless procession of worlds, all with but one thing in common." The book snapped shut, then turned to show them the cover, a symbolic sun shining against a gentle curve.
"They all have gods."
The six ponies looked confused. This time, Rarity asked. "Er, what are 'gods'?"
Celestia grinned, looking tempted to giggle, but it was Luna who answered. "Gods are immortals, people with great power who look over a world and the people who live in it. They help people to live good and happy lives, and in return the people offer them praise and thanks."
"Oh, so like you and Celestia!" Pinkie said—then added, "Ooo," as the import sank in.
"Hang on," Applejack said, "you mean there are other princesses out there, looking over all the places you don't? All these different... pages in the book?"
"Well, they're not all princesses," Luna replied, "but yes. Not all of them do it the same way we do, either. Many of them prefer to live apart from the people they care for. Some even go so far as to leave people unsure whether they exist or not. In fact, there are very few things that we all have in common... but one of those things is that we're very important to our worlds."
"Hey, what about the gryphons and zebras and buffalo and stuff?" Rainbow Dash asked. "You don't take care of them."
Celestia replied, "I'm afraid you're wrong about that, Rainbow Dash. To the different people of Equestria, we appear in different forms; it makes our rule easier to accept. Indeed, the form you see before you is not my true form. But your perceptions are still mortal, so this is the form I have made to appear to you in."
"What does this all have to do with us?" Twilight wondered, still dizzied by the thought that there were more beings like Celestia and Luna, indeed a near-countless number if the book were to be believed.
"Nothing lasts forever," Celestia replied. "Worlds, like people, die, and gods die as well, though for no reason as simple as time. But new worlds are also born, and new gods as well. Sometimes, gods come together and give birth to a new god. Other times, the gods of a dead world will choose to die and be born anew. But sometimes... if a mortal is wise, or brave, or clever enough... she can be chosen to become a god."
Silence reigned over the group for a long moment as the ponies stared at the princess. Rainbow Dash broke it.
Luna chuckled. "Yes, Dash. We're asking if you want to become gods."