• Published 31st Oct 2017
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Secrets of the Mane Six - Starscribe

Everypony has their secrets. Twilight never imagined those her own best friends might be hiding from her, until one of her new duties as a princess brought her stumbling headlong into a side of Equestria she never even knew existed.

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Chapter 1.1: The Call

“I’m sorry, Princess!” Twilight felt the burning in her lungs indicative of a long flight, and had to concentrate to keep her wings from shaking.

The throne room was nearly empty, except of course for the immortal rulers of Equestria Twilight had come to see. Celestia and Luna weren’t resting on their thrones, as they often did when court was in session. Instead they lingered near one of the large windows, conversing in lower voices. Both seemed to hear the door open, though, because they turned in unison to face it, staring at Twilight as she approached.

“Excellent!” Luna exclaimed, loud enough for Twilight to hear even at the entrance. “We had worried you would not arrive in time!”

Twilight galloped to meet them, and as a result she was even more sweaty by the time she skidded to a halt on the polished stone. At least she didn’t crash. “W-what… In time for what?” she asked, panting.

Celestia rested one wing on her shoulder, in the parental sort of way Twilight was accustomed. “You have the time to breathe, Twilight. We can wait that long.”

Despite being the proud new owner of a set of wings of her own, Twilight could still appreciate just how regal the princess appeared. This close to sundown, it seemed the princess's mane was darkening as well, gaining a few oranges and reds to reflect the color of the sky.

Twilight remained silent as long as it took her to recover her breath, before looking up and meeting the princess’s gaze. “I got your letter, came as soon as I could,” she said. “What’s the emergency?”

“You are,” Luna said matter-of-factly, pacing around to sit beside her sister. “Well, mortality is.”


“Luna and I wanted to be certain of the spell’s results after we put you on this path. Starswirl’s method…” She shook her head. “Not even the ancient wizard himself could cast it. We needed to wait long enough to guarantee the spell’s effects would be permanent.”

“Oh.” Twilight nodded, expression going serious. “I understand. You’re going to… teach me alicorn magic now?” An involuntary grin spread across her face. “I won’t let you down, Princess! I’m sure—”

Celestia shook her head, turning to walk away. “I’m sorry Twilight, but that isn’t what this is about. We do have an urgent mission for you, though. Your own life depends on it, and maybe all of Equestria with you.”

“Alicorns are always created for a reason,” Luna said. “No matter the method, no matter the place. Fate always spins its web when Equestria’s needs are dire. But fate is a capricious patron—when she offers a gift there is always a price.”

Celestia turned towards the entrance, where a pair of armored solar guards waited with bored expressions. “Wait outside!” she ordered, voice suddenly imperious. “Do not allow us to be disturbed!”

The guards jerked to attention, startled by the interruption. Both saluted, and they exited the door in a hurried rush, pulling it closed behind them. Only when they were gone did the conversation continue.

Luna advanced on Twilight, the stars in her mane glowing with a sudden, terrible radiance. “What we are about to share with you is one of the greatest secrets in all Equestria. You must swear to absolute secrecy. Your family may never know—your friends may never know—not even your mate, should you ever take one. This knowledge goes with you to the grave.”

Twilight gulped, glancing sidelong at Celestia.

Her mentor nodded. “Luna is not exaggerating, I’m afraid. Equestria’s safety depends on the security of this information.”

“I promise never to divulge whatever you’re about to tell me,” Twilight said, her voice sincere. It wasn’t a promise she had any difficulty making, really. Why should she? Princess Celestia had never, ever led her astray.

“Very well.” Celestia took a deep breath. “Alicorns do not live very long, Twilight. The transformation process effectively concentrates the magical power of a pony, giving them access to the powers of all the tribes. But when a short time passes… one year and one day, to be precise, the pony will die.”

Twilight felt her blood run cold, eyes widening. “W-what?” she stammered, her voice cracking. “B-but… everypony knows alicorns are… they’re…”

“The myth you speak of is a useful one indeed, Twilight Sparkle. Not everypony who rises to change as you have would think of the ponies beneath them.” She looked away suddenly, voice filled with guilt. “It is not uncommon for those with power to abuse it, regardless of the consequences.” Luna trailed off, staring into the stained glass window in front of them.

Twilight followed her gaze to the depiction of the destruction of Nightmare Moon, where Twilight’s own form was reflected in the glass.

Celestia leaned over to embrace her sister, though she didn’t remain close long, returning her attention to Twilight. “This interval has always served to protect Equestria. In one year, a pony can do only so much harm. But you are no danger to Equestria, just as Cadance isn’t.”

“Which is why we called you here so urgently, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna said. “There is a… solution to this difficulty, one Celestia and I discovered many years ago. It is the true secret to the Immortality of the alicorns, one you must either master or perish.”

“Tell me,” Twilight said, her voice weak. “Whatever I have to do… I-I’m not ready to die…”

“No,” Celestia touched her shoulder with one wing, as she’d done so many times before. “And I don’t want you to, Twilight.”

But this time Twilight pulled away, angry and upset. How could Celestia have kept such important information from her for so long? Shouldn’t she have warned her this would happen?

“Your mission, Twilight Sparkle, begins at Ponyville’s graveyard,” Luna said. “There you will meet with the Pale Mare herself, the Grey. Go with her into the underworld, to the well of souls. There you will impune Death for a reprieve from your fate. You will need to offer something, an object of some kind to which your fate will be inexorably tied.” She turned, glancing out the window on the other side of the throne room to where the white glow of the moon was visible through the glass, rising over the horizon. “No doubt your intellect will enable you to guess what Celestia and I chose. I urge you to choose something similarly enduring, for the meaningful existence of your choice will determine the length of your future.”

“That’s all you have to do,” Celestia finished. “You can return to the world you know and never have to think about what you did again. If Princess Cadance was able to make the trip, I’m sure you’ll do just fine. And… no, before you ask, you can’t bring you friends. Without the power of an alicorn, you would not survive.”

Twilight had remained still as they explained her mission, listening intently to her task. The more she heard, the more she began to suspect that every bit of this encounter had been staged. Celestia’s pranks were rarely so mean-spirited, but maybe…

It was easier to believe that she was being pranked than to think she might only have a year to live. “This is… some kind of joke, right?” she asked, her voice tentative. “It’s a little soon for Nightmare Night, but…”

“Nothing we have discussed is in the least bit exaggerated, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna said, her voice grave. As grave as it had ever been when she visited the little fillies and colts during Nightmare Night. “Your task is best completed as quickly as possible—tonight would be best. It is far better to press through difficulty than be weighed down by indecision.”

“Go to the graveyard as quickly as you can, Twilight,” Celestia added. “Use one of those new long-range teleportation spells I’ve seen you playing with, it will be faster than flying. Meet the Pale Mare, and do as she says. You must not disobey her, no matter how much you might want to. Do you understand?”

Twilight nodded, a knowing smile spreading across her lips. “I think I do, Princess. I understand perfectly.”

“Good.” Luna’s tone hadn’t changed. “Then we will wait in eagerness to greet you upon your return trip. News of your ascension is already spreading far and wide in Equestria—the sooner we perform your coronation, the happier Equestria’s citizenry will be.”

“I won’t disappoint you.” Twilight kept back a smile as she embraced her teacher one more time, before turning to gallop away down the throne room, and teleport past the doors. The guards snapped to attention as she passed, but Twilight didn’t even spare them a second glance.

Princess Celestia had been so known for minor pranks that some of the castle servants called her “Trollestia” when she wasn’t near enough to hear. From moving entire castle wings while ponies slept to wearing absurd costumes to court and tricking the elite into imitating her, Celestia was a master at her craft. Yet this one… this had almost fooled her.

Only the bit about Ponyville warned Twilight that she was obviously dealing with a prank. If the Pale Mare, agent of Death, had ever existed at all, Twilight certainly wouldn’t find her waiting around a graveyard in the middle of the night doing nothing. Let alone the graveyard of a town so insignificant its only claims to fame were zap apple jam and the fact a new princess-to-be had come from there.

Twilight would have to think of a particularly clever way to get back at Celestia for this one, when it was all said and done. Maybe she could ask Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie for help. But not yet. For the moment, Twilight had to see this through.

Ponyville’s cemetery was on the outskirts of town, where ponies rarely visited. Equestria was a safe place, and Ponyville about as safe a community as ponies could choose for their home. Compared to other Equestrian cities It was quite a new settlement, so didn’t need much in the way of corpse real estate.

Twilight shivered as she reached the rusty iron gate and found it already open. I don’t know what I’m worried about. It’s just a joke. Twilight squared her shoulders, settling the saddlebags on her back, then strode inside. As she stepped over the threshold, the moon chose that moment to come out from behind a thick bank of clouds.

You don’t have to be so obvious, Luna. I realize you’re pulling my tail. You don’t need to show it off. Twilight pulled the gate closed behind her with her magic. It rattled and squeaked in protest as she pulled, shedding bits and pieces of rust as it did.

Mist seemed to be pouring over the space. It washed down from the nearby hill, over and around the graves, then through the metal bars of the fence and onward towards Ponyville.

You probably made sure this was scheduled, too. Twilight swallowed her annoyance, making her way along the cobblestone path. No doubt somepony was hiding here, commissioned by the princess to lurk. I hope Celestia didn’t make me a princess just so she could have somepony to prank for as long as she wanted.

The further she walked, the more Twilight realized she wasn’t alone in the graveyard. Most of the markers were about as high as her knees, so they didn’t obscure much. But a few monuments were larger, obelisks built to honor a dead Rich stallion, or somepony else from forgotten noble lines.

Yet that wasn’t where she saw the figure. Near the back of the graveyard, by a tree she recognized for a Haralred, were a pair of markers set apart from most of the others. A pony rested on her haunches beside them, gazing down into the mist. Twilight couldn’t judge the pony’s identity, couldn’t tell what she might be thinking, not with the fog so thick tonight.

So what will it be Celestia? A vampire to suck me dry? A meat-eating griffon from the ancient past? A dragon? Twilight slowed her pace as she approached, stopping well out of “striking” range for the pony. Twilight knew what to expect, so she wasn’t going to be caught off guard. “Good evening!” she called, keeping her voice low out of respect for their location.

“Twi?” The familiar drawl cut through the fog, and the pony looked up. Even through the gloom Twilight could make out her friend’s familiar hat quite clearly, casting a wide shadow onto herself and the ground all around her. “What the hay are you doin’ out here in the middle of the night?”

Twilight’s fears melted in a second, and she hurried towards her friend. Whatever prank Celestia had planned for the night, Applejack obviously wasn’t part of it. The farmpony would’ve been shaking in her hooves with guilt and regret, even if she were doing the princess’s bidding.

As she got closer, the scene in front of Applejack came into view. There stood a pair of markers, each bearing a familiar name. Fresh bouquets of wildflowers from Sweet Apple Acres rested in rusting metal brackets. There was a bundle of dark cloth beside her friend, presumably what she’d used to carry the flowers.

Twilight stopped just beside her friend, sitting down in such a way as to grant herself full vision of the graveyard around her. She would not be snuck up on here. “Oh, you wouldn’t…” She lowered her voice even more. “I’m sorry to bother you here, Applejack. I know you… don’t really like to talk about…”

“About mah parents?” Applejack asked, her voice pained. “Y-yeah. Guess I don’t get around to that subject.” She stared down at the graves. “Lotsa’ painful memories. I reckon you figure…”

Twilight nodded. “I do.” She rose to her hooves. “I’ll leave you alone. I’m sorry to disturb you.”

“Wait.” Applejack rose, but she didn’t follow. “Why’re ya here, Twilight? Ain’t yer family from Canterlot? You ain’t got no loved ones buried here… and no reason to be comin’ ‘round the dead late at night, neither.”

Twilight shivered involuntarily, feeling some of her hairs stand on end as Applejack said that last bit. “Well, I…” It felt disrespectful even to mention it around her friend, who’d obviously come here to reflect and spend time with the family she’d lost. But there was no point keeping it secret. “Princess Celestia sent me to meet with the Pale Mare. Apparently she’s supposed to be here on nights she doesn’t have work. I know, it sounds silly—”

In the time it took Twilight to speak, Applejack had closed the distance between them. She stared into Twilight’s face, eyes hard as garnets. “Really, Twi? Are you talkin’ straight with me? Why in tarnation would the princess have you out lookin’ for trouble?”

Twilight wasn’t sure she’d ever seen her friend this angry, not even when the Flim Flam Brothers had nearly won their farm in the cider-making contest. Not even when Canterlot had been attacked by changelings, and they’d had to fight their way through an army.

“I’m supposed to… give a gift, or something? I don’t understand it, Applejack… It didn’t make any sense to me. Travel through the underworld and give my offering at the well of souls,” she repeated, doing her best to match even Celestia’s tone. “I recognized some of the myths she was talking about, but I didn’t think any of it was serious. It… wasn’t, right?”

Applejack turned away from her. Her shoulders hunched as she made her way back to the markers, lifting the bundle of cloth from the ground. She flung it over her back with a flourish, and a thick black robe suddenly enveloped her. Orange coat and yellow mane vanished into the hooded shadows of the cloak, which covered every part of her. Not even a tail emerged from the back.

“Are ya sure this is what ya want, Twilight? I reckon you might decide better on the journey, if ya knew what was down there. Might think better’a getting yer hooves all knotted up in immortality.” She walked slowly towards her, yet as she got closer her face remained veiled, shadowed in the gloom of her cloak. “It ain’t right fer most poines, as it turns out. Death is part of life—ends give the middle parts meanin’, and all that. You sure you wanna do this?” Applejack reached down into the fog, lifting something over her shoulder and resting it on her back. A long scythe, with a glittering silver blade.

“Yes.” Twilight was no longer certain this was a prank. Celestia had always been clever, and maybe she’d have manipulated the weather so things were extra creepy. But getting her friend to be here, pretending to be here for her parents? Not a chance. “I’m sure.” She didn’t mention the other half, about the fact she faced certain death in a year’s time if she didn’t complete the journey. She had given her word, prank or not.

“Alright then.” Applejack walked right past her, back towards the graveyard proper. “Follow me, Princess. It’s a long road to the well.”

Twilight turned to walk behind her, keeping up as best she could. “Why are… Applejack, you can’t be her! You aren’t…” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Death.”

“No, I ain’t,” Applejack said, no trace of hesitation or embarrassment in her tone. “But I work for ‘er. You don’t honestly think she can be everywhere all the time, do ya? Well… I suppose she could, but that ain’t how it works.”

Applejack didn’t stop walking, not until they’d crossed to the other side of the graveyard. Here the markers were overgrown, the path between them lost in untrimmed grass, and thorny brambles twisting around the fence. A particularly overgrown monument rose in front of them, large enough to hold a dozen ponies with an angelic pegasus carved from marble resting atop it. The pegasus too had been overgrown with plant life, its face totally obscured in leafy green.

“How?” Twilight couldn’t stop herself. It felt a little easier talking to her friend now that they were away from the graves of Applejack’s parents. A little easier, but not much. “How could it be you, Applejack? Wouldn’t you rather be working the farm? And why wouldn’t you…”

“Tell anypony?” Applejack glanced over her shoulder—well, Twilight assumed it was still her. Wearing the robe, Twilight couldn’t make out any of her features, even when she was only inches away. “Because ‘ah couldn’t. Most ponies are just better off not knowin’ about that sorta thing. ‘Cept now you’re a fancy princess and all… Guess I shoulda’ figured you’d be comin’ eventually.”

Applejack stepped up beside the monument, raising her voice and shouting into the night. “Skagh! Thegh! Kavagh!” The ground shook, little pebbles rattling right off the edges of the marble monument. It slid open and out of the way of its own accord. The ground swept sharply away beneath it, yet there wasn’t a casket at the bottom. Instead it revealed a set of stairs, worn and covered with lichen. “Last chance to turn back, Princess. Ah still reckon you’d be better off if ya did.”

“No.” Twilight leaned down, gazing into the void. Warm air brushed past her from the graveyard, pulling fog with it, sending it spilling down the steps into the abyss. Any final thoughts she might be the victim of a prank faded, and she realized that everything Celestia had told her was true. You really got me this time. “I’m going. Maybe on the way… maybe you could tell me how you ended up…” She gestured with one hoof, at the robe and the scythe. “It must be quite the story.”

“Yeah,” Applejack said, nodding towards the opening. “Sure, Twi. At least if I can’t get you to see sense and turn around it’ll be good to finally tell one’a my friends about… well, this. All these years not able to say nothin’ ain’t been easy.”

Twilight walked past her into the dark. Stone rubbed roughly on her hooves, dismissing the possibility that she might be looking at an illusion of some kind. A few steps in and she was already below the ground, surrounded by stone walls that rose up and covered the sky above them. Applejack followed her, turning to look up at the sky. “Wegh Khârados!” she shouted. The ground shook around them again, and a flat section of slate rumbled over, covering the stars and the moon and plunging them into total darkness.

Twilight lit her horn with a faint purple glow, just in time to see Applejack make her way past, robe still covering up her face with its magic. “T-that’s… I’ve never seen an earth pony do magic before.”

“Ain’t magic.” Applejack didn’t seem to mind the light, but she also didn’t seem to notice. At least she wasn't running down the steps to get away, but walking slowly enough that Twilight could follow in the gloom without tripping herself. “Passwords. One for in, one for out. Might wanna remember ‘em, in case you ever want to come back without me. That seems like the sort of thing a princess might do.”

“Is that safe?” Twilight asked, walking a little closer to her friend. Close enough that she could feel the wispy cloth of the cloak against her coat. The smell of mildew and rot were strong here, but not in the nauseating way of meat left out in the sun. It was, rather, a natural smell, like a poorly managed forest. It was the sound of dripping water and the rumbling of the planet’s bowels.

“Are ya kiddin’? That’d be about the most dumb as nails thing a pony could do. Not meaning any offense to yer fancy magic or bein’ an alicorn, but this isn’t where you’re meant to be, Twilight. Maybe Princess Luna knows her way around, but that don’t mean you should be wanderin’ in alone. Leave it to the professionals.”

“Then why’d you…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “Nevermind. Why don’t you tell me how this started, Applejack? Frankly, I wasn’t even… I wouldn’t say I believed in the afterlife a few minutes ago.” And I still don’t. But she wasn’t going to say that aloud. “Maybe you could explain this. Even if I’m not supposed to document it, it would be helpful to know.”

“Sure,” Applejack said, slowing a little as she thought. “Ah guess that makes sense. Just… you listen good, alright? I don’t wanna repeat none of this.”

“I will,” Twilight said. “You have my undivided attention.”

They walked in silence for a few minutes. The stairs began to level out as they walked, though there were so many Twilight had a hard time keeping track. There was no other evidence of where they were, nothing but a gradual cooling of the air around them and a constant twisting of the passage, preventing her from seeing very far ahead.

There were no tool marks here, no mortar in the stars. It was as though the entire passage had just spontaneously sprung into existence, already withered with age.

“Alright,” Applejack finally said. “It started with the fire.”

Author's Note:

So, I've been sitting on this story for quite a long time. It's one of the first MLP-related ideas I ever had for a story, in fact. A sortof urban fantasy take on the characters we know. I felt like Halloween was just too good of an opportunity to pass up, particularly with how this story starts.