All life fades. This is fact. The four Princesses were not taken off-guard when Applejack finally died, but they were left defenseless; they are no longer able to wield the Elements of Harmony. Equestria is left exposed.
All life fades. This is fact.
Four alicorn princesses: The Sun, the Moon, Love, and Friendship. They share the weight of immortality equally. Equestria is in their hooves, and they're trusted by its citizens. It is their duty to defend and protect, for justice to prevail over all.
So when Applejack dies, it's not unexpected. But as the Tree of Harmony slowly withers, Twilight realizes she is the last Element of Harmony. Equestria is now left exposed and defenseless to attack.
With her cocky and dynamic student, Flash Freeze, Princess Twilight must slowly come to terms with immortality and find the five new Element Bearers before it's too late. And even though Flash Freeze loves her dearly, the youngest alicorn princess can't bring herself to commit to his tutorship.
Howdy from Appaloosa. By now I’m sure you’ve heard the news about my sister Applejack…
“You know what this means, Twilight.”
The lavender alicorn turned towards her much older mentor, Princess Celestia. “I know what it means,” she snapped. Decisively, she folded the letter and tucked it away into her desk, keeping her expression flat.
Applejack had been the last.
Without reading the letter, Twilight knew what it said. It had probably happened while she was out walking through the orchard or playing with her grandfoals, or maybe while trying to buck one last apple tree. It had been sudden, and peaceful, and there was going to be a very quiet, simple ceremony in Appaloosa for her. She was just old. Ponies age. It happens.
She suddenly wanted to destroy something. Anything. Four times she had already been through this, reading pages upon pages of explanation, condolences, and finally the phrase it happens. Because it did. Life rolled on unceasingly; time didn’t stop marching just because you were an Element of Harmony.
Twilight didn’t realize she had unfolded her wings until Celestia came beside her and put a hoof on her back. She shrugged off the offer of comfort and tucked her wings flush against her body, determined not to tremble.
When Rainbow Dash had died, Twilight had gone into a rage. You didn’t give me a choice! she had screamed at Celestia, flaring her wings. You didn’t ask me if I wanted to be immortal!
Celestia had just looked at her with those dark eyes and shook her head.
Twilight took a breath. “I need…I need to go to Appaloosa,” she said quietly. “There’s going to be a ceremony.”
“Of course. Do you want –”
“No. Stay here.”
Celestia exhaled, and in the space of a second Twilight could see her weighing the options in her mind. Then slowly, the princess extended a wing and hugged her gently.
“I’m sorry, Twilight.”
Hidden beneath the I’m sorry, Twilight could hear I didn’t have a choice, either.
“Spike. Spike, wake up.”
The dragon stretched, yawning widely and showing double rows of wickedly sharp teeth. His dull purple scales rustled as he stretched, and when he blinked sleepily, Twilight could see the baby dragon he used to be. Now he was half-grown, and large enough to require a double-sized bedroom for his naps—Twilight fought back tears.
Celestia had a phoenix. Twilight had a dragon.
How clever of Celestia, to give them immortal companions. Friendships never faded, but lives did. It made her wonder if Luna had ever been given an immortal companion; the Princess of the Night was lonely enough already. But they were all lonely, in a way. Cadence especially. Four lonely princesses with nobody but each other for light and comfort. With four separate backs to bear it, immortality seemed a little lighter.
Wasn’t that why Celestia and Luna had chosen to make Cadence and herself alicorns? To share the burden? To have someone new to talk to, after a thousand years had worn all conversation to dust?
“S’matter, Twilight? What are you doing up so early?” Spike mumbled, rolling over.
“We’re going to Appaloosa,” she answered, her throat tight. “Applejack…Applejack died.”
There was a pause.
Spike was used to it too. They had been to four ceremonies already, watched four different crystal plinths erected in the Canterlot Gardens; how many times could you rip a scab off and still feel pain?
“Yesterday. We’re leaving tomorrow afternoon.”
Applejack, the strongest pony Twilight had ever known, would have wanted her to be strong. Twilight remembered zap-apple jam and apple fritters and rebuilding barns; the smell of lather and sawdust and the sweet, crisp taste of apples all filled her senses. Applejack had been about family and friendship and honesty. She was loved deeply and widely, and her life touched everyone who knew her.
And AJ would have wanted her to be honest.
Twilight leaned her head against Spike’s warm side and let the tears slip down her cheeks.
She heard him tumble inside in the middle of the night. Out with his “friends”, as usual. His friends wouldn’t save his life. They wouldn’t help him when he was struggling or teach him lessons about friendship. They would drink cider and gamble and laugh at absurd jokes together, but not much else. When he came back to the castle, he would smell of the city—of smoke, of magic, of cider and risks and beautiful mares.
It all came so easily to him. When she had been his age, she had been reading books and trying experiments, not socializing and daring other ponies to perform complicated spells. She had seen it when Celestia first introduced them; the charm, the wit, the silver-tongued compliments all melding together to make a cheerful, if occasionally irritating, colt named Flash Freee.
“Heeyyy, Princess,” Flash Freeze said, sidling past her. She didn’t look up from her chemistry, her enchanted quill still studiously taking notes. “You all right? You’re up late.”
“I’m fine. Spike and I are going to Appaloosa tomorrow, you’re welcome to come if you want.”
“Of course! Visiting Miss Applejack again?”
“No. Attending her funeral.”
One heartbeat of stunned silence, and then Flash Freeze burst out, “She died?”
“She was old,” Twilight answered quietly. After a moment, she put down her quill. “It happens.”
He shook back the snow-white curl which always got into his eyes. “I know, but she seemed so…healthy. We only saw her a few weeks ago, right?”
A few weeks. That was the blink of an eye in an alicorn lifespan, but to Twilight it felt like a decade. How long had it been since she last saw Applejack? Far too long. And now she was dead, so what did it matter? She couldn’t write letters to a tombstone.
“I’m so sorry,” Flash Freeze said, and came over to her. He was broad, comforting and reminded her of Shining Armor. Her brother was thankfully still living, if only thanks to Cadence’s sheer willpower. The alicorn princess of love wouldn’t let go of her soulmate without a fight, and the Prince of the Crystal Empire was still going strong thanks to his wife.
Twilight swished her tail and resumed writing. “Thank you. I’ll…I’ll miss her. But it wasn’t unexpected. This had to happen eventually.”
“You seem so calm,” her student noted with a furrowed brow. “Miss Applejack was…I mean, she was the last Element, wasn’t she? Or is Miss Fluttershy still alive?”
“If you had been paying any attention to the history books I asked you to read last week, you would have known that Fluttershy died three years before you were born,” Twilight told him somewhat acidly. “It’s very late, Flash, you should go to bed.”
Chastened, the colt clopped slowly off to bed, his head low.
It hardly mattered anymore. Flash Freeze was a unicorn, and she could still remember when he had been a small foal, full of energy and exploding with magic. He would get older and learn under her, and write her letters, and then one day he would die as well. And there would be another crystal plinth made in the gardens, until a place of beauty would just be sheer crystal, full of past lives and memories.
Appaloosa was always hot and dusty. The humidity had built up to a truly thunderous heat, and Twilight thought she would melt from the pressure. Overhead, heavy black storm clouds rumbled threateningly, sometimes striped with lightening. Two lone Pegasi were doing their best to keep the storm at bay, hoping to give the ceremony a bit of respect and dignity. At the moment, with the flies buzzing around, the lather on everypony’s coats, and the raspy cawing of a few crows, the funeral had all the dignity of a pair of old work boots.
“Dearly beloved, we gather here today to mourn the passing of Applejack, the Element of Honesty,” a somber old pony said, settling his spectacles along the bridge of his nose.
Twilight looked at the gravestone. A plain slab of rock, rounded at the top, with three apples carved into the middle. Fresh earth had been overturned, a stark contrast to the cracked, dry land around them. She couldn’t feel anything except sweat trickling down between her wings—shouldn’t she be crying, like the rest of them? She had cried at all of the other funerals. Why was this one different?
Her student was sitting next to her, standing out starkly against the yellows and browns. Pale blue coat, spiky white mane—his snowflake cutie mark was particularly appealing in the middle of the desert. Feeling lightheaded, she contemplated creating a magical snowstorm which would take the edge off the heat, at least.
Spike poked her with a claw, and she shook her head. Everypony was looking at her.
“Princess Twilight?” the funeral director prompted.
“What? Oh,” she cleared her throat and stood, shaking back her mane. “Applejack…was a dear friend of mine.”
She looked out over the sea of faces, saw Applebloom in the very back, her eyes full of tears.
Twilight tried again.
“A dear…dear friend.”
The whole town turned out for the funeral. She looked past them, and saw the orchard of lush apple trees just beyond the outskirts of town. Straight through the middle was a wide, clear path, like a river of brown dirt.
“I remember,” Twilight began, not sure where her mind was going, “I remember a very long time ago, when we were all still young, and Applejack brought a tree to your orchard. She named it Bloomberg. You were in the middle of a war, I guess, with the tribe of buffalo who lived here.”
Ponies were nodding, following along. Twilight licked her dry lips. She was so hot.
“Bloomberg meant a lot to Applejack. And it helped you ponies here in Appaloosa, helped out Braeburn and everypony else. And she gave it to you, because she knew you needed new trees. That’s the kind of pony AJ was, she always put others over herself. She never…I mean, she thought of herself, but it was always as an extension of her family. And with Applejack, everyone was family. That’s just…who she was.”
Her throat was feeling very tight, and sweat was beginning prickle into her eyes, making them sting.
“And she was the Element of Honesty. She shouldn’t…she shouldn’t have died. Because the world needs more ponies like her, more ponies willing to be honest and brave and true. I wish I wasn’t speaking at her funeral. I wish…this didn’t have to happen whenever somepony dies. Let’s celebrate honesty when ponies are still around to appreciate it.”
The two Pegasi trying to keep the storm away were sent flying across the sky, and thunder boomed loudly. Rain began pattering down, and a burst of fuchsia magic exploded from Twilight’s horn, showering over everypony. As ponies scrambled for cover, the rain began to deluge, soaking them to the skin, while small green sprouts burst up from the ground.
Twilight dully contemplated a daisy which was blooming near her front hoof. It was a nice effect; she had done the same thing at Fluttershy’s funeral, and it had gone over well. Death represented rebirth, the circle of life, remembrance, and all that. It was an effect that would be gone by morning.
“Twilight? Should we go inside?” Flash Freeze called over the noise of the storm. The rain was matting down his precious mane curl which he spent so much time on.
The rain was beautifully cool. It soaked her mane, plastering it against her back, and the crown she was wearing slipped off her head. She lifted her neck and took a long look at the plain headstone which marked the grave of her last friend. Applejack. Honest to the end.
Slowly, Twilight kicked out of the golden shoes she wore on her hooves. They joined the crown on the ground, and finally she unclasped the heavy golden necklace using a quick spell. The symbols of her stature lay on the ground, quickly becoming covered in mud as the dust started to finally settle.
“Twilight?” Spike asked, taking a step towards her.
With a single, powerful leap, Twilight took off from the ground, her wings blasting her up towards the strong rain.
Spike found her hours later, after the storm had passed, in the middle of the orchard. He sat, and waited.
“They’re all gone, Spike. All of them.”
He curled his tail around her.
“I’m still here.”
They sat there for a long time, two old friends feeling even older. Twilight rested her head against his scaly shoulder. The sun was beginning to set, bloody and glorious, behind the distant blue mountains which nearly surrounded Appaloosa.
“Maybe we should go to Ponyville,” Spike said finally. “Visit the library again. Make sure Dinky is getting along okay.”
Twilight dearly wished her first library was still standing. Ages ago, when Tirek had attacked Equestria and destroyed her library in the process, the Box of Harmony had created a new library for Twilight. But the damage had been done; her books had been lost. Eventually Twilight moved into the Castle of the Two Sisters, and the idea of going to her old home intrigued her. Dinky Hooves, a sensible older unicorn, had been in charge of tending the castle while they were away. And it would be nice to relax in her old bed once more.
More importantly, she kept all of her friend’s letters there. The very very old ones. The ones she wrote when she first came to Ponyville. If she reread them, she might feel something. Anything.
“Maybe we should,” Twilight said softly. “Just you and me.”
“And Flash Freeze,” Spike reminded her.
Her shoulders dropped. “Right. And Flash.”
The next morning, they prepared to leave. The four sturdy Pegasi guards who had brought them here were waiting with the carriage, standing stiffly at attention. Appaloosa’s thirsty ground had already sucked up any puddle the rain might have left, and foals were out playing in the fresh dirt. Twilight snuck out of the orchard, craning her neck in case anyone saw her. She didn’t have the energy for hoof-shaking and polite introductions, not today.
Flash was waiting for her. “Where did you guys go?” he asked worriedly. “You were gone all night, are you all right?”
“Get in the carriage,” Twilight muttered. “We’re going to Ponyville.”
He perked up. “Really? Are we going to the castle?”
Twilight sat down on the cushioned seat, adjusting her golden slippers. “Yes. Please just get in, Flash Freeze.”
She didn’t have the strength to deal with her exuberant student. Most of the time, Flash’s energy was refreshing, especially when the two of them were discussing a specific spell, or ancient magical history; that was one of the reasons she had selected him as her student—his mood was usually infectious. Today was different. All she wanted to do was go see her old library and bury herself in books until her eyes crossed.
It was a beautiful day to fly. There wasn’t a cloud in sight, and with the breeze ruffling her mane, she could almost forget about the past few years. Spike curled his tail comfortable around Twilight and dozed lightly. Flash Freeze, in a rare moment of introspectiveness, had his chin propped against the lip of the chariot, eyes downcast, wind rumpling his unruly white mane. The sunlight overhead was warm, and slowly, inch by inch, she began to relax against Spike’s scaly side.
A thought pressed against the back of her mind, seeping into her consciousness.
Why did she have a student?
She remembered how cute he had looked when she first saw him; small, chubby, with a mop of tangled white fur for a mane and dirty fetlocks. Celestia had brought up the subject more than once, prodding her towards apprenticeship, although Twilight had always assumed she would tutor one of her friend’s children. Between the Mane Six there were nine children and four grandchildren, but of the two unicorns, neither showed interest in being the student of a princess.
But when she first saw Flash, she knew. She knew he was gifted, exceptional, and would be the perfect apprentice; Celestia had encouraged her readily.
“It’s not a requirement, of course,” the snowy-white alicorn had said over tea one day. “But I thought it would keep you busy. A private student can be one of the most fulfilling and rewarding things to a princess. I should know, I had a wonderful one.” She had said, smiling.
Keep her busy…as though she were a bored two-year old. Celestia’s reasons for wanting anyone to do anything were mysterious; the immortal being kept many things to herself, and although Twilight loved her mentor greatly she was tired of secrets. She was tired of Celestia’s vague predictions and general sense of knowing; whenever she tried to scratch deeper, to see what was layered behind the mirrored perfection, she only found more walls, and more layers.
How could she be close with her own student if Celestia showed her nothing? Princess Celestia had shown her nothing about friendship, merely told her to make some friends and let time run its course. Well, time had run its course, and done it well—now the friends she had loved so dearly were gone.
And all that remained was a half-grown, puppyish unicorn who she tutored in the art of magic.
“What if I mess up?” Twilight had asked Celestia, panicking. “I can’t…I’m not ready for a student!”
Celestia had tipped a hoof beneath Twilight’s chin and said seriously, “Twilight. You must be ready.”
Then, it had seemed like encouragement. Now, thinking back, had Celestia been issuing a warning? Take a student, for the fate of Equestria rests on your shoulders? If only Celestia weren’t so mysterious and strange. If only her mentor told her about the downfalls of friendship before she experienced them. If only time wasn’t such a race.
But why did she have a student? Because Celestia had asked her to? Because Flash contained all the raw, natural talent of herself at his age?
Or was it selfish, did she merely want companionship?
Cadence, for all her strength and love, was in the Crystal Empire. Luna was a broken clockwork toy, bringing forth the moon every evening but still jerky and uncertain in her movements, too frightened of the monster she held at bay. Celestia was…well, Celestia. After Pinkie Pie’s death, Twilight had gone to Flash Freeze’s parents and asked them if she might continue his education. They had been estatic, of course. His mother had cried. She remembered that.
Was it arrogance? How often had she seen the foals in the schoolyard, thinking of all the things she could teach them? And when Flash Freeze had come along, so bright and excitable and eager to try new, dangerous things, had it been too much?
“Hey! We’re almost there!”
She jerked, and realized she had been dozing. Flash Freeze had his hooves on the chariot edge, looking at the ground as she slowly emerged through the clouds. Spike stretched and yawned mightily, arching his back in a catlike manner. There was scale missing on his chest, and she never noticed it unless he was stretching, or her nose was right up against it. She had often wondered, but never asked; the scale had gone missing after Rarity fell ill. She could do the math.
The chariot crunched into the ground, and Flash Freeze hopped off. He took a mighty breath of air and grinned at his teacher.
“Ponyville smells better than any place else in the world, I swear,” he said, swishing his tail contentedly. “Like apples and wheat and muffins, don’t you think?”
Twilight inhaled. She had to agree, this time of year, Ponyville and the surrounding area smelled like new flowers and fresh apple blossoms, like rain and new grass and…
The wind changed, howling a little as it passed through the treetops. Her nose wrinkled; there it was, the unmistakable stench of death and decay filling her nose and mouth.
Spike coughed. “Ugh. Ewww, what’s that smell??”
Everfree Forest had never been full of daisies and sunshine, and Twilight was familiar with the stagnant water smell that seemed to fill the forest. But something had died here recently, or was dying—it smelled awful. Gingerly, following her nose, she headed across the sleek marble arch which led away from her castle. Many years ago, it used to be a rickety wooden bridge, but after Fluttershy nearly fell through and hurt herself, they had upgraded.
“Princess Twilight? It’s…it’s coming from down here.”
The smell of death got stronger when they approached the staircase towards the Tree of Harmony.
Puddles of dark, inky black sap filled the clearing. The cave, which used to be full of iridescent light, was dark; without even thinking, Twilight used her horn to light up the tree. Flies buzzed noisily, gathering as though around a carcass, and Twilight couldn’t stop her gorge from rising. The stink was truly awful; the Tree was almost completely decayed, rotten through to the core, and the trunk seemed soft to the touch. Branches lay littered around the tree, broken off at jagged edges, and when Spike poked one with a claw, bugs poured out of it.
The six strong limbs which had held crystallized versions of their cutie marks lay rotting on the ground. Smashed pieces of crystal lay in the puddles of rainwater and sap, dull and sticky. Somewhere inside the cave, water dripped and echoed.
In the center of the tree, deep in the core, there was a faint gleam, a bluish twinkle which hadn’t yet disintegrated. The cutie mark which adorned Twilight’s flanks was nearly gone, but at the very tip was a single remaining white star, which shone brightly in spite of the decay surrounding it.
“What happened?” Flash Freeze asked. “Is this because…?”
Twilight couldn’t speak. The last mortal Element of Harmony had died, and the Tree of Harmony was dying.
The Elements of Harmony. Rainbow Power. The Mane Six. All gone—there was nothing left to defend Equestria.
“Spike,” Twilight managed to say, her voice rough, “we need to send for Princess Celestia.”