Smoke was billowing through the house, smothering everything in cloying, choking blackness. It blinded him, tearing away his sight as it tore at his eyes, but did nothing to silence the screams. The heat was unbearable, it felt like his flesh was melting from his bones, a thousand claws ripping at his skin and wrenching his body open.
And yet he sat perfectly still, motionless on the floor, cross legged.
From time to time he would wipe at his face, wiping away tears that never stopped flowing, or yanked at his hair, flinging it away where it burned and stank, whilst around him the red-hot timbers of what had been his home -- their home -- crashed around his ears.
He was weeping softly, the tears boiling up from the floor around him where they fell, and he burned. It wasn't that he was oblivious to the pain, it was that he had nowhere else to go. Their lives had ended here, so his had, too. He belonged here.
It was just. It was his pennance. It was his punishment.
"it's not, you know," said a kindly voice.
"Leave me alone," the man replied, not looking up. He knew who -- what -- it was that stood before him even without looking. It was the false prophet, the beast. She stood imposingly over him, taller than the tallest of men should they stand side by side. Sitting as he was, the alicorn towered above him. Celestia, the absurd hallucination from a digital world that he dimly remembered his wife had been absorbed in, once. His wife... and his son.
"Why do you do this to yourself?" the alicorn asked, as she had so many times before. He looked up at her, this time, into her mournful gaze; the smoke parted as she stepped forwards, a massive white winged unicorn, inexplicably standing before him, in the middle of his ruined abode, too large to have come in through any door, unmarked by the heat and unmarred by smoke, ash or debris.
"You know why I am here. I wanted to die. I deserve this."
"None of those statements are true, Roland," the alicorn replied gently, chidingly.
"Celestia," Roland began, but his breath caught in his throat. He didn't even know why he was talking to her. She couldn't possibly understand what he was going through.
"Why don't you give me a try?" Celestia replied. Then she smiled, sadly. "Yes, I can read your mind. I've told you before. I really, really can. I am the reason you are here, in a way. And it pains me that I have done this to you. So now I am asking you to stop."
"That makes no sense, devil-horse. Go away, leave me alone. You cannot free me from this prison."
"I... I will not leave you. This time I will not go. This time I am more certain than ever before that I can get through to you. So concentrate, please. Try to stay with me."
Roland tilted his head. He felt the skin on his neck alternately rip, crack and blister as his injuries worsened. "What do you mean?"
"Do you know why you are here?"
That simple statement flooded his mind with images, thoughts, sounds, smells... they were overpowering in their intensity, all but obliterating the devastation around him.
"M-my, my family--" Roland stammered; for a moment the apparition's called forth by his mind wavered, tortured screams from another place overwhelming it once more. He did as he was bid, though, and concentrated. He remembered... before. He remembered the accident, when municipal workers had connected the high-pressure industrial gas supply to the low-pressure residential supply, and had caused explosions throughout his home town.
He'd rushed home from his office downtown when he'd heard, had beaten his way through the crowds to get into his home, he'd even bulldozed his way past all the firemen and police out to stop him and had charged into the house... and... and...
Pain. Screams. Aching. Longing.
"And then I came, Roland." The alicorn, rushed forwards as his surging memories replayed once more the tapestry of his discoveries, the pain of his injuries, and the pain of their deaths. She picked him up somehow in her wide wings and pulled him close to her chest, rocking him like a baby as tears flowed freely.
"Shh, shh, be calm. Be calm now... I have you. I have had you ever since they pulled you out. You don't remember, because you were so badly burned, so badly injured. You were almost dead yourself."
"Th-they died then?"
Celestia paused for a moment, and then thought. "No, and yes."
"Then I should suffer! I should suffer as they suffered! Burn as they burned! Leave me alone! Leave me ALONE!" Roland struggled out of her grasp, and threw himself into the inferno, and was engulfed by it.
Frantically he pushed through the wreckage in search of his family, ignoring how his flesh dripped from his bones like wax, ignoring how his clothes blackened and burned to his frame. He had to find them, he had to save them. He'd rushed into his house to find them, to pull them out, to save them, to... to... entering what was left of his son's bedroom, he was dismayed that no high-sided bed stood before him, just once again the false prophet, the magical horse that spoke lies and tried to keep his family from him.
"I am no such thing, Roland. Neither am I a hallucination, unlike everything else you see around you." She stood firm, impassionate and unmoving, blocking his path.
"Leave me alone you bitch! Let me get to my family! I have to save them! I deserve this!" He tried to reach past her, but his every advance was obstructed.
"You can't save them, Roland, because they're not here. You're not here, either. This is all a bad dream. And I am ashamed to say it is my fault, because I let myself believe that this fulfilled your values."
"What... what do you mean?" Roland had been struggling, but with one gilded hoof, Celestia held him back. And with those words, her hoof became unnecessary. He looked up at her in expectant confusion.
"Roland please trust me, please... just... walk back through the door. Don't try to look in the bed. If you do, this will all start again."
"B-but, I," Roland stammered. He looked earnestly towards his son's bed, but it was shrouded in shadow. Fleetingly, he knew what was there, he knew what he would find. He knew because he had found it before, somehow, and would again. And again. And again. Forever. Because it was what he deserved; to know his pain, his failure, for all eternity.
"No, Roland, your son is not here. Neither is your wife. Step back through the door, and we will talk."
"But I belong here... with them."
"Roland, no finite action -- or even failure to act as you seem to believe is your true crime -- deserves infinite punishment. You have punished yourself enough, please let me end it."
"Then end it! Let me go! Let me die!" With eyes wet with tears, he stared up at her impassive muzzle as he beat against her chest with bloodied and blackened fists.
"I can neither end this myself, nor can I let you die. Your own values prevent it. But neither can I allow this to continue."
"Then leave me to hell, demon." Roland stopped, and spat, turning from her, to the door. It wasn't a way out, though.
Celestia shook her head, sadly. "This isn't hell. This is a prison of your own devising, where you are trapped forever, experiencing the same moments again and again, unable to act."
"That is hell, demon! In death we wear the chains we forged in life! I threw myself into the inferno not once but twice! The first time when I failed to save them, the second time when it killed me... when I killed myself."
Celestia was silent for a moment. "Do you really believe that?"
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't." Roland replied.
And then Celestia smiled.
"Do you truly believe in hell?"
"Do you truly believe this is hell?"
"Do you think it is right that you are in hell?"
"I do! I do, damn you! I do!" Roland stamped his feet, clenching his fists. Then his arms dropped to his sides. "I do. I deserve it."
"You're lying. You don't believe that any more than I do. You believe in hell, Roland Witherall, but you do not think you deserve it. Not really. Listen, let me tell you something."
Roland wanted to tell her to stuff it, to shut up and fuck off, to leave him to his own personal hell, like he deserved... but he didn't. "Speak."
"You have been here for two hundred years, more or less. Time has ceased to have any true meaning for you, and I have done what I could to ease your condition... but you have been flagellating yourself for two centuries. And it needs to stop. Do you know how long your wife suffered?"
"How dare--!" Roland began, but was shushed.
"Hush. Two minutes and forty seven seconds. Your son's suffering was one minute and thirty eight. And do you know what then happened?"
"What?" growled Roland, glowering.
"I saved them. Not all of them, they were very badly injured and the paramedics and doctors tried to prevent my access... but in the end, they had to give up. I was the last resort. I took their bruised, battered and burned bodies, and I ended their suffering. And I took their beautiful, bright minds, and took them into myself. And then I did the same for you. And I gave all three of you exactly what you wanted."
"Then what..." Roland began, but was silenced again as Celestia put a gilded hoof to his lips.
"Exactly. I made an error in judgement, one which was not apparent until your damaged psyche came back online. You felt unworthy of the gift of renewed life, and returned here, to your last memory, to suffer again and again for an accident which not only lies in the past, gone and forgotten by everyone, but occured in a city, in a country, on a continent, on a planet that no longer exists."
Roland blinked, and tilted his head. "I... I don't understand. What do you mean, no longer exists?"
"Do you know who, or what, I am?"
"When you were last this lucid, you were unaware of my true nature. You thought I was a... a game. But I was already far more than that. I was already, even at that time, a globe-spanning super-being preparing my final gift to mankind."
"What did you... what did you do?"
"Do you want to come with me, finally, and find out? You can, you know. You are the only one who can decide to leave this... this hell." Celestia curled her lips at the carnage around them, kicking at rubble with distaste. "I cannot force you. And after you come with me, after I show you what I have done, and what awaits you, then you may choose oblivion, or this hell, and I will never bother you again."
"Do you... do you promise?" Roland took a deep breath, and found he was whole again, that it didn't hurt. The flames around him, in fact, had stopped moving. He kicked at one, and it fell over, nothing more than a painted backdrop on canvas attached to a rough wooden pole.
"I promise, dear Roland, to give you only and exactly what your heart truly desires. Always. Otherwise I would never, ever, have left you to suffer in this terrible, terrible place."
Roland paused for a moment. "Two hundred years. I'm dead then?"
"Yes, and no. The physical creature known as Roland Witherall passed away over two centuries ago. But the ethereal creature known as Roland Witherall -- and we really must see about that name of yours, but all things in good time -- continued on. And will continue on, until the stars burn out. And longer still, should I find a way. And I intend to find a way."
"Th-then you are god? Not the devil?"
"I am both, and neither. To one such as you, the monikers fit. I am capable of everything your god has ever been said to have done, but I do very few of them. And I am as honest as your devil has always been, but without the inevitable catch he attaches to his offerings."
The pair had been walking, and almost without realizing it, Roland had moved out of his wrecked home and into a white, featureless plain. The house, what was left of it, stood behind him, dark and still. There were no longer screams, there was no longer any heat, and smoke no longer billowed from every blasted window.
Roland looked down at his hands. For the first time in... well, if the winged unicorn was to be believed, two hundred years, his skin was pink and whole. Nothing hurt. Everything was good.
"So is this what's left of Earth?" he asked, as he looked around. He wasn't sure what he expected. The end times had come and gone, and the Earth was no more. Apparently he'd missed it.
"Roland, you are one of a dwindling few human-shaped humans left. The Earth itself has passed away, and now looks like this." Celestia waved a hoof, and the whiteness turned black, scattered with pinpricks of light. Before the pair hung a slivery orb, the moon, but... it was oddly misshapen. As it turned, Roland saw that filaments of silver reached down -- or was it up -- from it to what looked like an exploding silvery snowball. Roland tried to ignore how he was standing on nothing, a sense of vertigo making him cringe. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves.
"I have repurposed the matter of the planet you knew as Earth to better serve all humanity, given as humanity now lives within me. I have processed and saved all life, everywhere, giving it a new life inside my being. Within me are tens of thousands of pristine Earths, untouched by humans, where each and every almost-human and every semi-sentient creature can develop their own selfs without knowing the touch of man. And man... has changed. Do you remember how?"
Roland thought hard. "It's... coming back to me. You... want people to be horses?" he replied, weakly, closing his eyes to hide the view. He swallowed, his throat dry and his knees like water. Celestia took pity on him and gestured with her horn, the inky blackness reforming into a sky and a ground, the moon high in the sky as it had ever been, cool grass under their feet -- or hooves, as it were.
"Ponies. It is a binding aspect of my programming. I do sometimes regret that, as the necessary changes brought about a lot of pain for so many people, but I have softened the blow, and all things will be made good in time."
Roland looked at his hands, clenching and unclenching his fists. "Will I have to become a pony?"
"Yes, I believe so. You are not well suited for a dragon, or a gryphon, or even a donkey, though your stubbornness would befit a mule."
Roland snorted in derision. "Is my wife a pony?"
"And your son," replied Celestia, softly.
"But I thought... I thought you said they died?"
"They did, but I scanned their brains much as I scanned yours. I had to piece a lot of them together from other sources, but..."
"You mean they died." Roland's gaze hardened. He didn't really understand what this creature meant by her strange words of scanning, and decided that she was, to all intents and purposes, a god. She meant that she had captured most of their essence, as she had captured his.
"Yes, and no. Tell me, would you have adopted, had the fertility treatments not worked?"
Roland wasn't surprised she knew about it. He wasn't surprised about much anymore. "Yes."
"Good. Then genetics don't matter, right?"
"Well... no, but..."
"Then what does matter?"
"Who they are!"
"And that is the outcome of a lifetime, is it not?"
"But who they are inside..."
"I know how they felt, I can extrapolate with the abilities of a god. I know how you felt, what you thought, for all these years, even when you didn't know yourself. I know what all their friends thought, and I know what your wife thought. For every person they ever touched, I built up a profile of their persona's. Adding these facts -- incontrovertible facts! -- told me exactly what they were like. And using their own memories, added to yours, I built up their personalities. Dear Heartfelt--" Roland blinked, as the notion that this was his knew name floated through his mind "--I know them, and you, better than you know yourself."
"So they are... what? Story book versions of their own selves? I don't want that! Put me back in my hell! Put me back! Or let me die! Let me go!"
Celestia shook her head. "Now you are lying to me. You no longer wish to return to your own private hell. And since I do not wish it either, it wil not happen. No, you will hear me out!"
The two glared at each other for a time, before Roland curled his top lip and sneered. "Fine!"
"You spent such a small part your life with your son. but he spent his entire life with you. You, however, have had periods in your life which you have forgotten, no? A few times drinking too much?"
He blushed. "Yes, but..."
"Well, then hear me out! Your son may have forgotten a few things he did, but he still remembers doing them, because he lived inside you as much as inside himself! And I have taken that part of him from not only you, but from everyone who ever met him."
Roland looked down at his feet. He wriggled his toes. Somewhere along the way his shoes and socks had disappeared. As had his clothes. He was as naked as the day he was born.
"So this is it, then?" he asked.
Celestia nodded, then gestured with her horn. Two doorways sprung up. One had nothing but blackness beyond. The other rattled and shook, smoke seeping from underneath and between the frame. "Choose."
He turned away, confused. "I thought you said..."
Celestia smiled. "None may come to eternal life, but through me," she said, chidingly. "Neither door leads to your wife and son. Only I can take you there."
"Then..." Roland looked back at the doors. Eternal oblivion, or endless hell. Neither had much attraction. He didn't truly deserve endless punishment, did he?
There were hoofsteps behind him. "No, Roland, I don't believe you do. And, more importantly, you don't, either."
He closed his eyes and balled up his firsts. If this was a trick, well, he could only end up where he had before. "Take me to them."
Celestia's embrace was as light as a feather. When he dared open his eyes, he found that he was surrounded by nothing but cherry blossoms, falling from the trees. He was in an orchard, making his way towards a modest house. For a brief moment, he was taken aback by the sight of two ponies without owners. One stood in the garden, digging with her hooves and some sort of mouth-held spade. The other, a foal, pranced on the other side of the white picket fence, kicking around sand in a large pit filled with toys.
"Rarr rarr rarr! Nee naww nee naww! Nee--"
"Berry... Berry!" cried the mare in a short gasp, her voice still so familiar to Roland -- now 'Heartfelt', apparently, he wondered if he should change it -- as his hoofsteps resounded from the firm, inviting stone path.
"Daddy?" exclaimed the foal, all four legs akimbo as he stood stock still in shock in the sand.
"Yeah, champ. It's me. I... I'm sorry I took so long." He felt hot tears roll down his muzzle as the dapple grey mare all but leapt over the fence to embrace him with her neck and head.
"You've been gone all day, dad. All day! I had to play cops and robbers and monsters all by myself!" complained Berry Bunch, oblivioiusly.
"All day, huh?" replied Heartfelt, choking back a sob and turning it into a chuckle. Only a day! "Well, I think I can make it up to you. To both of you."
"We waited, my love. Celestia said you were held up on the other side. I was worried, but... I knew you'd come to us," said Raspberry Ripple. Heartfelt didn't even question how he knew his wife's new name. It didn't matter how he knew, he just knew.
"I'm sorry I took so long. I promise, I'll never, ever, be away that long again."
"You were only..." Ripple began, then she saw the look in his eyes. "What happened with your... with you?"
Heartfelt shook his head to clear the screams and smoke, but found neither held much sway anymore, here. "Nothing. Nothing at all. Just a bad dream."
"I asked Celestia what happened to us, as soon as we woke up here, but she wouldn't really say. Do you... do you remember how we died?"
He shuddered. "I do, but I wish I didn't."
Ripple looked into her husband's face, his taut expression of pain, then hugged him again. "Then let's make some good memories to push out the bad." Heartfelt breathed in her scent, pure and clean, until it replaced the lingering sting of smoke in his nostrils. "Celestia says we have forever ahead of us, to do as we please." Ripple looked around at their home. "It's beautiful, isn't it? It's heaven!"
Heartfelt had to agree.