• 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 1.2: Tableau

The path was almost featureless, like they were walking through a fog. Aside from the occasional sound of grinding stone or dripping water, Twilight could hear nothing but their own hooves. There was no way to tell how far they’d gone, or how long they’d been walking.

“Well, it was a mighty dry year,” Applejack began. “Long time ago, when I was just a filly. Guess you would’a been too, somewhere off in Canterlot. Anyway, every now and then the weather teams schedule a nice long drought—I couldn’t tell ya the reasons for it, though I’m sure it’s somethin’ to do with the wilderness needin’ specific conditions fer seeds to germinate and whatnot.

“Anyway, point is that things were real dry. We still don’t know exactly how the fire started. Could just be a bit a glass got loose in the dirt somewhere, or maybe one of the haybales just sorta started. They can do that sometimes, when it’s really dry…

“Whatever it was, a fire started. It was in the early mornin’, and nopony was up yet. First thing anypony knew, there was a fire sweepin’ up against the farmhouse door. It’d already got the barn, got the silos, and it was eatin’ up most ‘a the wheat by then…”

She trailed off, slowing as the path began to level out. The path split there in several different directions, though that wasn’t what Twilight noticed about the place. A wall of bleached skulls stared vacantly at her from the side of the passage, faint candle flames flickering from within their eyes. She made sure to walk extra far away from them as they passed, as though they might reach out and bite her.

Applejack picked a path without much thought and started off again, resuming her story. Her voice cracked as she spoke, and she reached up towards the hood of her robe with one hoof. “W-well… Ma and Pa had their bedroom right up against the wall with the old silo. Fire was already… already inside by the time Big Mac woke me. I still to this day don’t know for sure why Ma and Pa never woke up… best guess it was the smoke. We were right poor then, so Big Mac and Apple Bloom and me all slept together on this little mattress on the floor. Might just be we were too short to breathe it in.”

“I’m sorry,” Twilight whispered. “I’d… I knew it was a fire. I read the obituary on file in the library. I didn’t know it’d be…”

“Y-yeah,” Applejack croaked. “But it was even worse than the paper made it out to be. Only mercy to that whole thing was that Granny was still living with ‘er sister. If she’d been there… well, I’m gettin’ ahead a myself.

“So, fire’s sweepin’ through the farmhouse. It’s already made it to the door. Smoke’s got the whole place so gummed up that we ain’t got no way out. Big Mac tried to break a window, but they were too high up to get to and we didn’t have no furniture.”

Twilight could almost picture it: two young ponies and a foal huddled together in terror as their home burned down around them. No way out, no response from their parents, no training on what to do. Only certain death.

“We were dead, see. Would’a been. By all rights, we should ‘a been. And that’s when I saw her. Mare… kinda like I look now. Black cloak, no face, real strange voice. She shows up, and the whole thing just sorta stops. ‘You’re dead,’ she told us. ‘Come with me now, so you don’t have to suffer.’ That’s… Well, that’s one of the mercies you can give a pony. Death can be…” She trailed off.

Ahead of them the walls finally fell away, and Twilight could make out something on the horizon.

She could think of no other word to describe so incredible an underground space. The path became a bridge over a vast, unimaginable emptiness. The light from Twilight’s horn faded away revealing no trace of what was below them. Only the walls, and a sheer drop off either side. A few steps in the wrong direction, and it looked like a pony could fall forever.

In front of them was… a plateau, larger than any cave she could imagine. Larger than any cave in Equestria should be, given the limits on the strength of rock. The ceiling was so high up she could only see it because it provided its own light, a constant blue radiance that washed the color from everything and made it look muted and gray. Only her body, lit by the horn on her head, preserved any of its color.

A little further ahead, past where the bridge met the vast plateau, Twilight could make out the shapes of structures, and ponies moving slowly about between them. Is that a village? They were right below Ponyville.

Applejack was still speaking, apparently oblivious to the spectacular sights all around them. Twilight had to hurry to keep up.

As she did so, speeding briefly into a trot, she could hear the echoes of her own hoofsteps coming back from far below, accompanied by new sounds. It sounded like an ocean of bones, shifting as unseen things swam beneath its depths.

“Anyway, I wasn’t havin’ it. Apple Bloom was too young to be makin’ choices like that, and you know Big Mac… well, I told ‘er no. I told her that she was right there with us, she might as well make herself useful and do a little helpin’. All she’d have to do was give us a boost, help us break a window, and that’d be that. She, uh… well, she weren’t too terribly keen on that. But I begged her, and eventually she took pity on us.”

“The mare told me that she’d been watchin’ ponies die for centuries and centuries… way too long, and she couldn’t do it anymore. See, we can’t help the ponies we come for—when it’s time fer ya to go, that’s it. Cept… there’s one exception. I could take her place—let her finally move on, and do her job until somepony else took it from me. M-might be… might be a long time, she said. Maybe I shoulda’ thought better’a the whole thing, but I didn’t.”

“You said yes,” Twilight muttered. “You… replaced the last pony of Death?”

“Well, one of ‘em,” Applejack corrected. “There’s more’an one, like I said before. Ponies are better off with somepony they trust to see ‘em off. Helps prevent…” She trailed off, looking down at her hooves as they crossed onto the plateau at last. “Well, prevents what ‘yer about to see. The lessa’ this there is, the better.”

Twilight moved closer to her friend as they passed off the bridge and into the ruins of a village. From a distance, she hadn’t recognized any of the structures here, yet now that she was up close, she started to notice a pattern. On their left was the old community library, a single-story affair that had been torn down to make room for an apartment building. Beside that, an old blacksmith’s shop she’d seen sketches of in the Ponyville Express. Apparently it’d burned down in a fire about ten years before she was born. So it was with all the structures here. Buildings left to decay existed here in their intact forms, many so ancient they looked like they could’ve been constructed during Ponyville’s founding.

The town was largely deserted, but not completely. As they made their way through the eerie streets, shadowy figures emerged from buildings, staring at them as they passed.

Up close, the ponies crossed all tribal boundaries, all ages and sexes. Their manner of dress varied tremendously, but one thing remained in common: each of them was wearing funeral garb. Long white dresses, or slim black suits stood out as the most modern, but there was also lacy, clinging gowns, complete with the iron horseshoes that had once been common for all ponies to be buried to aid in their walk along the Styx.

The ponies all around them had almost no color in the washed-out blue light, no cutie marks on their flanks, and distant expressions on their faces. They were each in their prime, though they also had a somewhat sunken cast to their bodies. At least they weren’t rotting corpses.

“P-please…” begged a nearby earth pony mare, whose funeral garments were embroidered by diamonds. They no longer shone, looking cloudy and cracked. “Please, help…”

Twilight stopped, staring at the poor mare. She’d seen this mare before, though she couldn’t remember exactly where. She couldn’t remember her name either. “How can I help?” she asked, unable to keep the desperation from her tone. It was hard to see such pain and not want to help.

“No.” Applejack jerked suddenly on Twilight’s leg, yanking her out of reach of the shambling earth pony. “There aint nothin’ you can do fer her, Twilight. Not a darn thing. And it ain’t safe to stay still.”

Twilight didn’t know what Applejack was talking about—she couldn’t see any danger, not anywhere she looked. Even the Everfree had more dangerous monsters than these pitiful-looking ponies. “We can’t just leave her!” Twilight insisted, raising her voice a little. “Somepony has to help!”

Applejack yanked on her again, lowering her voice to a whisper. “Twilight, look around you. What’s happenin’ right now?”

Twilight looked up, and realized that there were over a hundred pale figures surrounding them. They crowded so close that Twilight could no longer move without feeling them. The air had gone from chilly to icy cold with their proximity, and she realized she was shivering. “O-oh.”

“Fly,” Applejack commanded. “Right now.”

Twilight obeyed, leaping into the air and flapping her wings just as the ponies below lept together for the space she had occupied.

Twilight had only had wings for a few days, not nearly long enough to learn with any skill. She felt something brush against her, felt her limb briefly go numb with cold, until she beat more furiously against the air and rose out of reach. There were pegasus ponies among the crowd, but none of them moved to follow. They only stared up at her, eyes hollow and disappointed.

“Forward, outa’ town.” She heard Applejack’s voice, but couldn’t see the pony. Couldn’t guess at how Applejack could’ve followed her, if she were way up in the air. Yet follow she apparently had. “Fast as ya can go! I’ll meet ya there.”

Twilight flew, though to use that word might be a tad overly generous. She didn’t fly across the distance so much as she lurched up and down in the air, moving in that general direction. She was exhausted after less than two minutes of flight—nowhere near accustomed to moving muscles she hadn’t had only days before.

Fortunately for her, the ponies chasing didn’t seem to be in any terrible hurry to follow her. If they’d wanted to keep up, they surely could’ve walked as fast as she flew. But without her right in front of them, most returned to where they’d been, walking back to their empty houses or to the areas they’d been gathered, mostly alone.

Eventually Twilight “landed.” That didn’t mean she did so with any grace. Rather, she tumbled, crashing through a pile of thick dirt and landing with her flank splayed in the air over her head.

“Mighty fine landin’,” Applejack said, from a few feet away. Twilight glanced to the side with a moan to see the same robed figure standing there, weapon still slung over her shoulder. “I can see you picked up on those wings right quick.”

Twilight grunted, rolling onto her hooves and rising. She was a little bruised, but nothing serious. It was only her pride that had been injured. “Applejack, I want an answer.” She pointed back at the town. “Is that what happens to ponies when they die?”

Applejack shifted uncomfortably on her hooves. “Well, uh… sometimes.” She pointed towards the path ahead of them. It looked just like the gravel road out of Ponyville, the one that ran along the railroad and led towards Canterlot. “Can I answer on the way? It ain’t safe ta stay still up here.”

“Right.” Twilight joined Applejack at a trot down the gravel path. It was far less scenic than the one she knew from the world she knew. There were trees—skeletal, brown trees, without a single leaf between them. No grass, no bushes, no flowers, no animals.

The rolling mountains that surrounded Ponyville weren’t represented here. Not even the railroad tracks were here. Applejack didn’t seem to be in a hurry to answer, but the longer Twilight remained silent the more uncomfortable she seemed to get. “Most ponies don’t end up down here,” she eventually said. “The Underworld… well, it ain’t the way things are meant to work.”

“So it’s… a place of punishment? Like Tartarus?”

“Not exactly,” Applejack answered. “Tartarus is down here, deep as deep can be. There are a few gates to it direct from the surface though, so bad ponies and such can be tossed in. Guess you already knew that, though…”

“Y-yeah…” Twilight answered. “I made the trip once.”

Silence. They passed over a bridge, one with no river below it. Only dry dirt and a few skeletal young trees. A few farmhouses stood on either side of the path, with ghostly figures milling about, or watching the two of them pass through the fence. None seemed terribly interested in them, though. Nothing grew.

“Well, the Underworld ain’t so much a punishment as it is… a consequence. What I do… what the others workin’ fer Death do… we stop ponies from endin’ up here. But sometimes, ponies can up and do things that keep their lives so dark we don’t even notice when they’re dyin’. Not havin’ no friends, fer one. Real nasty magic, that kinda thing. If we can’t find ya, you’ll end up here.”

Twilight walked along beside her friend in silence, considering her words for a long time. Many miles passed all around them as they walked, and still the huge cavern continued.

“Is there something somepony can do for them?” Twilight asked. “Princess Celestia and Luna must know about this.”

“Yeah,” Applejack answered. “But that pony ain’t you. Princess Luna… well, I reckon you know the story about where bat ponies came from.”

“From the Lunar Rebellion,” Twilight answered, the words coming almost by rote. “They were her troops.”

“Well, not quite. Princess felt bad for all the ponies trapped down here, so she… she made a whole new school of magic. You can go ahead and talk to a bat to learn how it works, cuz’ I don’t know. Maybe cuz’ you’re an Alicorn, you could learn. Maybe not. Whatever it is, it ain’t why we’re here tonight.”

“Right.” Twilight trailed off, glancing around them. She couldn’t see any familiar landmarks anymore. For a few seconds, she’d even tricked herself into thinking she could see the sky. It was easy to let herself pretend that the rock ceiling with its even blue light was the sky. “We’ve got to get to the Well of Souls. Whatever that is.”

“Somewhere mighty dangerous, that’s where,” Applejack answered. “Well, dangerous for you. I ain’t in no danger down here, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Twilight repeated, her tone darkening a little. “Maybe you could prepare me for whatever’s coming, so I don’t get us into trouble accidentally. I could use the time while we walk to prepare my spells.”