• 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 1.3: Boatman

As it turned out, the plateau did have an end. Twilight couldn’t have mapped it to any place in the real world above—they’d been walking far too long for that. Probably days had passed in Equestria, or at least it felt that way. Time could bend to gravity, but she’d never thought the core of the planet could bend it that much.

How many times will I have to tell myself this follows the regular physical laws before I admit it doesn’t?

A flowing river had washed away the end of the plateau. The water ran cloudy and fierce, roiling in white rapids and expelling noxious odor with every splash. The river was at least fifty feet across, maybe more. She could have flown it, but Applejack rested a hoof on one of her wings, stopping her. “No.”

“W-why?” Twilight asked, indignant. “We have to cross, don’t we?”

“Yes, but not like that. You’ll never make it if you try to fly, that just ain't how it works.”

“But… I can see the other side!” Twilight insisted. And she could. The ground was black there, broken with uneven stone. Almost as though the buildings there had been crunched down by time into small pieces. She saw no more ghosts, if that’s what the ponies down here really were.

“Don’t,” Applejack said again. “It’ll just get longer forever. When I said we don’t break the rules, I meant it in more ways than one. Often times ya just can’t, no matter how much a pony might want to. The place won’t let you.”

Twilight didn’t argue further. It sounded preposterous, obviously, but so was an underground kingdom of the dead. “So how are we…”

She noticed the boat then, an old rowboat that somehow remained moored to their side despite the current. A little length of wooden dock was all it had to keep itself from being washed away. A tall being leaned on the boat, taller than anypony Twilight had ever seen. Like Applejack, dark cloth obscured its features. Even so, she could tell there were gripping appendages of some kind, based on the way it held its rod, ready to push them through the water.

“You’re joking,” she whispered, only loud enough for her friend to hear. “Those stories were true too?”

Despite how careful she had been, the figure spoke. It was male, with a voice so ancient it sounded like a sack of gravel rubbing together. He stooped over on his rod, weighed down with unimaginable years. “Every story is true, Twilight Sparkle.”

“Even the contradictions?” She approached the boat, surprised to see Applejack falling in beside her, silent.

“Especially the contradictions,” answered the boatman, gesturing to the empty seat on his vessel. “You will be taking the next leg of your journey with me, pony princess. I trust you to be more entertaining than many of the passengers I have transported.”

“I am?” She glanced to Applejack. “Is this really how we’re doing this? That skiff doesn’t look… safe.”

“Not we,” Applejack answered. “Only the living and the dead can ride the ferry. Unfortunate, but I’m not either one. But don’t you fret none, I’ll meet ‘ya down there.”

“Yeah.” Twilight turned back to the boatman. “In the old stories, ponies paid for passage across the river.” She smiled slightly, levitating the little pouch Luna had given her out of her pocket. She removed a pair of gold coins from within, staring at the strange beings depicted on them. They weren’t ponies, that much was clear. “Will this do?”

The figure nodded, offering a limb to accept the gold. Twilight couldn’t see it through the wispy cloak, but whatever stood underneath looked withered and skeletal. She looked away from the limb, suppressing a shiver. “This must be the Nightwatcher’s doing,” he said, sounding disappointed. “You were supposed to owe me a favor for the trip. I could have used a pony on the surface.”

Twilight glanced back to her friend, or at least to where Applejack had been standing beside her on the dock. The farmpony had gone without a trace—not a breath of wind, not a teleport, nothing. Twilight shivered, stepping into the boat. Though the currents didn’t seem to move it, her own hoofsteps made it rock up and down, listing gently back and forth in the water.

“Ponies are all about being helpful, Mr.….”

“Charon,” the figure answered. He waited until Twilight was secure in her seat, then pushed off gently from the edge. They weren’t swept away instantly in the flood, swallowed by dark water, and bashed to death against unseen rocks. “A humble boatman needs no other name to one so great as you. A pony princess… how high you rose.” Despite his ancient frame, he showed no sign of weakness as he navigated the river, pushing against the bank with his rod and keeping them in constant motion.

“Not a princess yet,” Twilight corrected. “Alicorns are usually princesses, but not always. I haven’t had a coronation yet, so I’m not a princess.”

“Humility,” Charon muttered, his voice so low it was hard to hear over the sound of rushing water. “Remember me as you pass by, as you are now so once was I. As I am now so you must be. Prepare for death and follow me.”

“Even if the whole reason I’m coming here is to be immortal?” Twilight asked, speaking just loud enough for him to hear. “Or… close to it. Celestia didn’t give me much choice.”

“There is no such thing as an immortal,” said Charon. “Some beings don’t die from old age, but even they can be destroyed. The greatest kings must all eventually wither and watch their accomplishments crumble to dust. Those who once moved whole civilizations to their will are reduced to faint whispers on the wind, inaudible to all but the most attentive observer.”

They passed around the bend of the river, which seemed to be taking them down a steep slope. Wherever the river was going, they were going more quickly by the moment.

“You think the one you call Celestia is immortal?” He laughed. “All time is a matter of perspective, Twilight Sparkle. Nothing endures but time itself. Yet even that will be rendered meaningless, when there are no longer any living to experience it.”

Twilight stared over the dark water, shivering as she considered the boatman’s words. They passed many dark places—buildings rose along some banks, while on others she saw spectacular land formations, towering columns and valleys filled with houses. “What about you, Charon? You sound like somepony who’s seen a lot. Are you immortal?”

“No.” He chuckled. “I’m just old. I’ve carried many on my boat. The age of gold and harmony, of silver and discord, of bronze and war. Fair Peleus sat where you now rest in the age of heroes.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, boatman. I studied history… maybe you could help me settle something! Did you carry a pony named Star Swirl? Nopony can agree on how he died, but he must’ve. You could settle things for the history books.”

Charon laughed. The motion was violent enough that the whole boat started to rock from side to side in the current. “You’re thinking of the Athenaeum, young pony. I am not the source of knowledge or its keeper. Besides, retaining what I learn from my guests is a matter of confidence. All knowledge that has been lost can be found down here, for it is as dead as those who knew it. But I do not suggest you search. For every tantalizing secret, there are many others which should stay buried. Ask your princess of nightmares how she feels about the forbidden things she learned within the Athenaeum and see if you still desire to find it.”

Twilight opened her mouth to argue, but couldn’t form words. She couldn’t think of any way she could convince this Charon, or anything she could offer. Except… “What was that favor you wanted? I don’t owe it to you, but I might be willing to help in exchange for information. I don’t intend to return anytime soon, so the more I can accomplish with this one trip the better.”

Charon leaned back on his pole for a moment, letting their boat drift across the still water.

Twilight could no longer see anything on either bank. The diffuse blue glow that had lit the upper reaches no longer penetrated, and the faint spark of her horn went only as far as the water itself before being drowned out. Twilight knew better light spells, but somehow she doubted it would be a good idea to get the attention of the creatures that lived down here. The last time she’d tried interacting with the dead, Applejack had needed to rescue her.

“The artistic works of your civilization’s recent history have been far too banal to interest me, yet there is one pony whose creations are different. Her works are unique, and so each original destroyed in the world of the living eventually finds its way down here.”

Twilight felt recognition flood her instantly. She knew many ponies in Equestria, but only one who’s artistic creations were so grand that she was certain they would be leaving an imprint on history. “Rarity? What kind of favor would you like from her?”

“Not from her.” Charon’s navigation became a little more forceful as he pushed them along with his stick. “For her. The days of life are given to men to labor. Then cometh the night of darkness, wherein there can be no labor performed. Let’s just say between us that I keep my ear to these things. I know when a mortal’s schedule comes due. Like all those who serve, I cannot interfere, not even indirectly. I could not suggest to you, for instance, that I greatly admire an artist and I fear for her safety in her most recent endeavor. I could never tell you to take measures to change her course, lest she find herself riding my boat. I could never tell you those things, because doing so would be a great breach of professional courtesy. Yet, I think it would be a tremendous advantage for someone to say such things, in order to prevent a great tragedy from prematurely ending the career of one so talented.”

Twilight sat back in the boat, staring indignantly at its confounding boatman. They continued to drift forward through the dark, yet she could no longer see the shore. The river they had been sailing had since become an ocean, its waters churning and vast. How his pole could be doing anything to propel them, Twilight could only guess.

Yet maybe she’d judged Charon too harshly at first. As strange as he was, it seemed he was taking a personal risk to help her protect one of her friends.

Twilight nodded. “Of course nopony would do something like that. And nopony would’ve been listening.”

“I’m glad we understand each other,” Charon said, and she could almost hear the smile on his face, though of course she still couldn’t see any meaningful part of him through the cloth. “We have almost arrived. Perhaps I will share with you a few words of advice, as has become my habit whenever you equine creatures ride along my boat. I feel… well, a measure of pity for you. To inherit something as dangerous and broken as this. Yet your stewardship has been admirable.”

Twilight remained silent, watching him. If nothing else, the boatman sure liked the sound of his own voice. That was probably to her benefit as well. The more he spoke, the more truths about this alien place she could learn.

“Be wary of Death’s offers,” he eventually said. “It wields great power in the lives of mortals, or at least it seems that way. Mortal beings stand at the intersection of a vast, invisible expanse. The future before you can seem terrifying, because that future is unknown. But it won’t be so frightening when you get there. Don’t give in to the temptation of security, and deprive yourself of your future. Don’t make my mistake.”

Twilight remained silent a long time, soaking in Charon’s words. Ahead of them, she could see a dock, stretching out over a misty sea. A figure already waited on the dock, a pony wearing robes and carrying a long scythe. Applejack had somehow beat her here. “Thank you, Charon. I will… I’ll keep that in mind.”

“You do that, pony princess,” Charon said. “The years seem more precious than they are. Only with an ending can the story be complete. And in the end, that’s all any of us will be” He cleared his throat, straightening a little. “And now the story of your trip has ended. Be mindful as you exit, the Sea of Identity is not one many mortals would wish to swim. Step softly as you proceed, and know you have never been in more danger in your life.”

The boat thumped hollowly against an old dock, its surface covered with slime and many of its planks eroded. A single rusty lantern hung in the dark. Applejack was already there, standing in the light of the lantern. She did say she would meet me here.

Twilight rose and exited the boat, moving slowly enough that it didn’t rock or tilt too badly. The old planks creaked beneath her hooves, but they held. Twilight turned to wave to the boatman, but found Charon and his boat had already gone. I didn’t imagine them. She couldn’t start questioning her eyes now. If she did that, how much of this trip might she rationalize away.

I’m seeing everything. It’s all real. There’s no hiding from the truth. And there wasn’t. With her new Alicorn senses, she would keep these memories with her until the day she died. Though what sense I’ll make of them, who knows. Everypony here seems to think Luna comes more often, maybe she can explain some of this.

Applejack nudged Twilight in the shoulder, startling her out of her reverie. She spoke then, which served to confirm in Twilight’s mind that she was, in fact, speaking to her friend. “You about ready, sugarcube? We’re almost there.”

“Yes,” Twilight said, sounding far more confident than she felt. “I’m about ready. As ready as… as I’ll ever be.”

Applejack turned, facing away from the docks. “Come on then, Princess. The well is just on up ahead.”

Twilight had no choice but to follow.