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The six ponies immediately burst into babbling, talking over each other in their excitement.
"Ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh—"
"You can't be serious, Princess Celestia! I don't know the first thing about being... well, you!—"
"Oh my! You mean I'd have to look over... all the ponies, and bunnies, and chickens, and mice, and—"
"I never even imagined that I would be offered such an incredible responsibility—"
"Now hang on a second! It's a long way and a half to go from running a farm to running a country—"
"Ooo, does that mean I get wings? I've always wanted wings. I can be all zoom, and everypony will—"
"—ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh—"
"—have to research government, and land management, and public speaking, and philosophy, and—"
"—oh, but what about the animals that eat other animals? Is that okay? Can I do something about—"
"—pressure would be intense, even if nopony would dare tell me if any of my designs were flawed—"
"—just a simple earth pony! I don't know nothing about princessing, or magic, or any of that sort of—"
"—and then I can be all 'chocolate rain for everypony!' Oh wait, that would be bad. Maybe if I—"
"—ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh—"
Celestia and Luna waited patiently for the ponies to get it out of their system and calm down, at least somewhat.
"We know this is a difficult decision," Celestia said. "Becoming a god brings great rewards, but also great responsibilities. You will have to devote your lives to the people of your world, and it will be up to you to nourish and guide them. Gods who are negligent, or worse, cruel, can have terrible effects on the worlds under their care."
"There's something else you should know too," Luna added. "If you choose to become gods, it means leaving Equestria behind. We'll gladly have you back when you have the time, but..." She fell silent, looking down at her hooves, and the ponies realized that time might be far off.
Celestia spoke again. "But we would not ask this of you if we did not think you could see it through. As the bearers of the Elements of Harmony, you share a special bond, one that has given you the opportunity to repeatedly demonstrate your worthiness for the task... and you have made us very proud."
"New worlds must have new gods," Luna stressed. "We've been given the chance to put you in charge of a new world, and if you say no... I don't know who will get the duty in your place. There are far worse things than Discord that hunger for another chance."
Twilight and the others looked around the circle, considering the words of the princesses silently, expressions shifting.
"You may have all the time you need to come to a decision," Celestia said. "My sister and I will depart to let you consider the issue. When you have decided, you have only to will it, and we will return." She and Luna shifted somehow, and then they were gone, taking the sky with them and leaving behind a strange grayness that nonetheless allowed the ponies to see.
Rainbow Dash, again, broke the silence.
"So are we doing this or what?"
"Rainbow Dash!" Rarity scolded. "This is not a decision to be entered into so lightly!"
"Hey, you heard them!" Dash protested. "If we don't do it, some total jerks might get the job! Besides, what could be more awesome than being princesses of our own country?"
"Gods," Twilight automatically corrected.
"Whatever," Dash said. "Hey, wait, can we pick our own titles?"
"What I don't understand is why anypony has to do it," Twilight mused. "Is there somepony who decides who gets to be in charge of new worlds? Somepony more powerful than the princesses?" The thought felt blasphemous.
"Do you think we'd have to make a lot of public appearances?" Fluttershy wondered. "I mean... I want to help, but..."
"I never really thought about what I was gonna do when I was dead," Applejack said. "I mean, if you'd asked, I'd have hoped to be reunited with all my kin. Maybe there's some sort of... Sweet Apple Afterlife Acres I could help out on. And now they're wanting me to pack up and move straight out of Equestria?"
"Spike," Twilight said, clasping her forehooves together. "Oh, he'll be so sad that I'm gone." Fluttershy nodded solemnly, but Twilight didn't see her. "And when he gets here, if I'm not there to greet him..."
"Whoa, what if they put us in charge of some weird squidgy blob things?" Rainbow Dash said. "I don't wanna be the fastest blob in Blobnia."
"Sweetie Belle," Rarity murmured, sitting down and looking up at the gray sky. "Can I leave her without me? Can I leave without her? Even if she could come with me, for her not to be able to see her friends for who knows how long..."
"What if there are... d-dragons there? Would I have to take care of them too? I mean... I'd be a princess. Maybe they wouldn't be so scary?" Fluttershy twitched her wings, tried to imagine looking as strong and confident as either of the princesses.
"I wish Granny Smith were here. She'd know what I should do," Applejack said. "Hang on, she should be here. Wonder how I'd go about wrangling her up for a chat?"
"Pinkie Pie?" Twilight asked, drawing the other ponies' attention. "You're awfully quiet." The party pony had, in fact, been sitting perfectly still since the princess departed, her popcorn and odd glasses gone, a serious expression on her face. She turned to look at the other ponies as they looked at her.
"What do you think?" Twilight added, then silently braced herself for one of Pinkie's unique, out of left field answers. Pinkie managed to surprise her anyway.
"We're gonna do it," Pinkie said.
"What," Rarity protested, "just like that?"
"No, not just like that," Pinkie said. "But I figure, we can have a big long argument about whether or not we should do it and spend a lot of time being sad about the stuff we'll have to give up and how hard it's going to be, or we can skip straight to the part where we decide we're gonna do it. Because we're gonna. They wouldn't have asked us to do it unless it were super duper important that we did. There's a whole world out there that needs to know kindness, and honesty, and loyalty, and generosity, and friendship, and laughter. And whatever else we lose, we'll still have each other."
The others were silent for a long moment.
"I've lost a lot of animals in my life," Fluttershy said softly. "And I've always wished that I could do something more for them. If I could..."
Rainbow Dash scuffed at the grass with a hoof, suddenly somber. "I'll stand by you guys, whatever you decide. Pretty sure it's an all or nothing deal anyway."
Rarity admitted, "I don't know if I'm up to the task. I mean, I've always prided myself on my ability to bring out someone's inner beauty, but how useful would that be in a situation like this?"
Applejack looked her way, "Don't sell yourself short, sugarcube. Yer element's Generosity, not Froo-frooness. I reckon you'll inspire a lot of good just by being yourself. We all will." She looked away suddenly, gazing into the distance.
They turned to Twilight, who'd always been the leader of their group, but the unicorn remained silent, looking at the ground.
"Twilight?" Applejack asked. Twilight didn't answer right away, but after a moment she raised her head and looked at the others.
"I won't make any of you do this if you don't want to," she said. "I think... each of you should tell me, privately, how you feel, and if anypony wants out, we'll tell the princesses no." She turned and walked a short distance away, stopping with her back to the group; they looked at each other, then, one by one, approached her, murmured in her ear, and returned to the group.
When the last of them had spoken her peace, Twilight followed, her face showing no sign of the decision they'd come to. "Thank you all," she said softly, then looked up at the sky. "Princess Celestia? We're ready."
The princesses appeared again as suddenly as they'd left, bringing the strange dual sky with them. "What have you decided?" Celestia asked simply, her and Luna's ears pricked in anticipation.
Twilight took a slow, deep breath, letting it out in a ragged sigh. "...we'll do it." The others each nodded, even Pinkie Pie looking nervous but determined.
Celestia and Luna sagged, just a little, with relief. "Thank you, my faithful student. Thank you all."
Twilight fidgeted, then asked the foremost question on her mind. "So what happens now? How do we actually become... gods?"
Celestia replied, "The Elements of Harmony possess a power greater than you know. They cleansed my sister of her insanity, a feat that was beyond my power. They sealed Discord away not once but twice."
"Hey, hang on a sec," Rainbow Dash interjected. "If Discord could stop you, does that mean he's a god too?"
Luna nodded. "We were friends once, the three of us. Many years ago. But his lust for chaos and power forced us, in the end, to stand up to him, using the Elements of Harmony."
"What are the Elements?" Twilight wondered. "If they're powerful enough to do that to a god..."
Luna smiled gently. "Sometimes, if people need a new god badly enough, they can call one into being. The ponies and other people of Equestria cried out against Discord's reign, and their spirit became the Elements. They helped us defeat Discord and rise to the positions we hold today."
"Y'mean, all this time we've been carrying around gods?" Applejack said, eyes wide.
"In a sense," Celestia replied. "But you have not seen them in their full power, just as Luna and I have lived as mere immortal princesses. We never wanted to live apart from our people, as some gods do, and so we have restrained ourselves."
"So how do we become gods?" Twilight repeated.
"The Elements of Harmony will give you some of their power," Luna replied. "Celestia and I will do so as well. You won't be as powerful as us at first, but your powers will grow as you care for your world."
Celestia added, "A god's strength depends on her followers. Whether she rules with love or fear, their prayers are the only nourishment she needs. A god without followers is hardly a god at all."
"Is that how gods die?" Twilight wondered hesitantly. "What happens to a dead god, anyway?"
Celestia and Luna looked at each other uneasily. "...we don't know," Luna admitted. "Some gods choose to die and be reborn, and some of us believe that the power of new gods is drawn from the power of the old, but what happens to us if we die is as much a mystery to us as it is to many mortals. The Caretakers might know, though they claim not to."
"Caretakers?" Rarity echoed.
"The ones who..." Luna sighed. "Some say enforce the rules for gods. They claim they're just manifestations of the way everything works, that they don't choose or decide anything. They're the ones who gave us the chance to pick gods for a new world."
"What kind of rules do gods have?" Rainbow Dash asked skeptically.
"Not interfering with a world that isn't your own, for one. There are some others. You can't steal worshipers from another god's afterlife... um, on some worlds, there's more than one afterlife, and different people go to different ones, depending on the rules the gods set. If you kill a god, you take its power—"
The ponies' eyes widened. "Who would do something like that?" Dash blurted.
"Not every group of gods are as close friends as you, my little—no, soon to no longer be my little ponies," Celestia answered. "Indeed, in some worlds there is eternal battle between the gods. We granted Discord mercy when we fought him, an action I feel is for the best; not only is killing a heavy burden on even a god's heart, but it would have meant his power, his very nature, would have become part of us."
The thought of Celestia or Luna acting anything like that playful yet dangerous lunatic widened eyes even further.
"At any rate, the Caretakers will answer any questions you have about that sort of thing," Luna said. "One will be waiting for you when you get to your new world."
Twilight looked at her friends, then back at the princesses. "Well, I guess we're as ready as we'll—"
"Wait!" Applejack blurted. "Before we... before we do this, I need to say goodbye to my family. They'd never forgive me if I just up and left." The other ponies startled, then nodded; each of them had their own friends and family who'd left the world before them.
Twilight added, "Is there any chance I could talk to Spike? He's going to be alive a long time without me, and..." She looked down again, a lump in her throat.
Princess Celestia smiled sympathetically. "It is a difficult thing for the dead to speak to the living. But not impossible. I will help you."
"And I'll take the rest of you to meet with whoever you want to talk to," Princess Luna added. The ponies walked her way, some of them perking up at the thought of meeting friends long past, others looking bitter at the thought of being reunited only to say goodbye. Only Twilight remained with Celestia, eyes closed, bracing herself for what was to come.
The princesses twisted space once again, and the hill was empty.