• Published 17th Oct 2011
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The End of Ponies - shortskirtsandexplosions



A lone pony of a Wasteland future Equestria finds a way to visit her dead friends in the past.

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Chapters Next
- ACT ONE: THE WASTELAND - Chapter One: From the Ashes

The End of Ponies
by shortskirtsandexplosions

Chapter One – From the Ashes

Special Thanks to Demetrius and Vimbert for Editing

Extra Special Thanks to Valhalla-Studios for Cover Art

The first thing she remembered was how scared Rainbow Dash was. She could feel the pegasus' panting breath as the young filly clung—trembling—to her backside. Rainbow Dash flew them both over the panicked sprawl of Cloudsdale, darting around herds of frightened and hysterical ponies. There was a great shadow falling over the land of Equestria, as if some titanic curtain was being drawn over the noonday Sun, and the pegasi's home in the sky was the first to fall under the blight.

As the chaos reached a deafening cacophony, the tiny pony buried her snout into Rainbow's prismatic mane. “I don't get it!” she shouted. “Wh-what's going on? Why's everypony so freaked out?”

“I can't believe it. Harmony was right! She was right all along!” Rainbow Dash's voice sounded strangely cold, contemplative, distant—like she was flying a million kilometers away from where the two of them were presently soaring. “I wonder who else knew about this! Twilight?!”

“R-Rainbow, you're scaring me,” the filly murmured. Tears welled at the edges of her eyes as she clung all the tighter to her sky-barreling protector. “Who was right about what? Where are you taking us?”

As Rainbow Dash veered around a stampeding herd of rain factory workers, she ignored the little pony's first question and barely tackled the second, “I'm taking you somewhere safe!”

“M-me?” The filly blinked. “But what about you?—WHOAH!”

She shrieked as Rainbow ducked low beneath a falling column of skymarble. Gasping, the filly atop her looked back to see an entire cloudbed dissipating in a wisp of steam; every pegasus that was galloping across it flailed in the sudden plunge and all too tragically succumbed to the weight of several ivory structures overtaking them from above. Far below the clouds, where the hapless pegasi plummeted, the great green expanse of Equestria shuddered and bulged as if a serpent of epic proportions was shredding its way upwards through the surface.

There were even more screams. The young pony looked forward to witness a rainbow factory imploding as three whole levels of cloudbeds collapsed through it. Before her trembling eyes, half of Cloudsdale crumbled into a gigantic earthbound comet. Streams of shattered rainbow patterns and marble shrapnel flew towards them. Before she could scream, Rainbow Dash banked hard to the left, yelling at the youngling to hold on tight.

She obeyed, and clamped her hooves around Rainbow's spine with an iron grip as the pegasus spun them around surging chunks of debris, falling droves of screaming ponies, and white-hot spurts of Cloudsdalian steam. At the end of her acrobatic sky dance, Rainbow Dash heroically soared the two of them heavenward towards a patch of brown haze beyond the last wisps of evaporating clouds. As the clouds gave way, the brown haze turned out to be a caravan of abandoned hot air balloons conjoined about a metal framed gondola large enough to fit four dozen ponies.

Rainbow Dash threaded the two of them through an open porthole in the side of the abandoned royal cargo vessel. Touching down inside, Rainbow planted the young filly on her hooves. The pony stumbled numbly across the metal interior of the gondola, ushered forward by her older friend. After several dizzied blinks, she saw what she was being led to: a series of dark cubicles fashioned out of obsidian metal.

“Arcane vaults?” The filly glanced confusedly up at the pegasus. “Rainbow Dash—Ponies are dying! What are we doing here?”

“Kid, if I place my bets right—and I sure as Celestia wish I didn't have to—all of Equestria is dying. There's no place in the sky or on the ground that's safe—except for here.”

“Why here?”

“It's what Harmony told me. And so far, she's been right about a bunch of stuff,” Rainbow Dash's voice echoed once she had shoved them both into the hollow of one of the arcane vaults. The great dying world shrieked and howled outside the claustrophobic interior like a reverse seashell. “It all makes sense now. I can't take any chances; You're staying here, alright?”

“Staying here?” the filly squeaked in disbelief. She trotted shakily around the interior, eyeing the floor, the roof, the two tiny windows of sickly pale sunlight growing dimmer, dimmer, dimmer. “But Rainbow Dash! What about our friends? What about my—?” There was a large metallic clang, and the filly gasped to find herself shut inside the box-like vault. “Rainbow Dash!” She ran up and scratched her hooves in futility against the thick black door. “Let me out! Wh-why are you doing this?”

“Because I'll be darned if I let you die!” Rainbow Dash's bright face hovered outside a barred vent in the door frame. She reached a hoof down and playfully ruffled the filly's mane, all the while sporting a brave smirk. “Don't fret! I'll be back in—like—half an hour, tops! I just gotta find Harmony! She'll know how to fix all of this!” She managed a not-so-stealthy gulp of a lumped throat: “Sh-she has to ...”

“Rainbow Dash, don't leave me!” the filly sobbed, all her tiny weight pressed against the door. “Please—I don't want to be alone!”

“I'll be back! I promise! Now you promise me something! Promise me you'll not leave this airship until one of us girls comes to get you!”

“Rainbow—”

“Promise me! Pinkie Pie Swear!”

“I-I swear,” the filly hiccuped, fighting back her tears.

“Everything's gonna work out. You'll see!” Rainbow Dash's hoof let go of the filly's head as she trotted backwards towards the porthole in the side of the gondola. “Seriously, kid—Would I let the world be any less cool by disappearing?” A wink, a flick of the tail, and she was gone.

The little pony sat there—trembling—in the dark shadow of the arcane vault, with the penumbra of light from two opposite windows acting as her only view to an apocalyptic crescendo. For what seemed like an hour of creeping terror, she listened to the thunderous echoes of her own heartbeat. A sour tumor formed in the base of her throat. With a trembling tongue, she reared herself up and started calling—mewling—Rainbow Dash's name, then Fluttershy's, then even Applejack's. When nopony and nothing answered her foalish cries, she cleared her throat and—in a braver breath—tried a name that she had barely come to comprehend, much less believe in. “H-Harmony?”

It was around that very moment that a tremendous shockwave ricocheted across the roof of the world. The filly felt it, as the entire body of the gondola rattled like a ship dashed against a rocky seashore. The pale bands of light from the opposite windows swam across the vault's interior, and the young pony realized to her horror that one or more of the balloons had exploded. The entire body of the dirigible spiraled in a suicidal plunge earthward. She was only faintly aware of a horrified little voice calling out all the names she had ever grown attached to in her abbreviated life. Several more spins later, her young body flew violently towards the side of the vault. She looked out the barred window and saw the entirety of Cloudsdale falling like a bag of ivory bricks towards an Equestrian countryside drenched in endless flame. Droves of screaming pegasi fell towards the gaping maw of the burning abyss—until suddenly their airborne carcasses exploded in a hurdling wall of ash.

Breathless, the filly's eyes tilted upwards to see the source of the holocaustal blast wave. As a great shadow fell over the plunging vault, she saw the Sun being blotted out by a great circular phantom. It wasn't until the pull of gravity boiled her blood from the inside out that she realized this “phantom” was the Moon. The cold body completely eclipsed the burning one—creating a solid ring of fire for a few brief breaths—until the Moon itself exploded and covered everything everywhere in one thunderous scream, masking hers.


Her scarlet eyes opened wide, twitching.

Ash and snow danced across the endless field of cloudbeds, stretching dark and gray from horizon to horizon, as far as anypony could see, as far as only she could see...

She sighed, her eyes filling with perpetual grayness from the monochromatic world outside. A hint of moisture sprang from her quivering lashes, but they cleared instantly as the pony frowned, sat up straight in her cockpit's seat, and flung a pair of amber-brown goggles over her gaze. The adult mare reached both hooves forward and pulled at a series of levers flanking the left and right sides of her chair, which was positioned in the center of an airship's cramped cabin. Gazing forward across an instrument panel, she focused on the altimeter as it ticked down a spinning scale. The gears and servos within the dashboard hissed and puttered incessantly, speaking to the mare in a language of her own design.

The entire body of the cabin rocked and veered as she navigated her way through a pocket of windy turbulence. She tilted her gaze up towards the curved windows that stretched in front of the dashboard. Beyond the copper-framed, transparent sheets, the flurry of ashen snow kicked up. The air was anything but calm here—a rock face had to be nearby. It was time to stop relying on the instrument panel and trust in gut instinct.

Taking a deep breath, the pony reached a brown hoof up and pulled at a chain-linked handle. A great iron boiler positioned at the very rear of the cabin hissed and billowed hotly. Several brass pipes rattled against the curved walls of the gondola as steam throttled up through them and into a series of gears that controlled the exterior rudders and propellers of the airship. The pony's hoof pulled at another chain, and a shrill whistling sound lit the foggy air as the vessel's lateral vents briefly opened.

A ringing noise sounded across the cabin; the ship descended rapidly. The pony ignored the alarm and proceeded with her sharp plummet. Her brow creased above her amber goggles as she squinted hard through the mist-laden windshield, the fluttering ash outside parting every which way to make room for the ship's piercing path. The altimeter clicked madly; the metal framework of the dashboard rattled and buckled. Finally, as the vessel’s fall gave slack to the pony's seat harnesses, she spotted a break in the ashen blizzard. A great black mass surged through the gray mist ahead.

She immediately reached her muzzle up and yanked at a chain-linked handle with her teeth while simultaneously shoving two levers back with a pair of strong hooves. Every dangling supply net and rattling cage inside the gondola swayed forward as the zeppelin came to a hovering stop. The aircraft then fluttered gently down towards a granite cliff that jutted out from the mist like a great black knife. Slowly, the pony piloted the dirigible downward one meter at a time, then one half meter at a time, then she cut all power and simply let the thing naturally drift until there was an inevitable thump of iron against rock.

In one motion, she unclasped all of her safety harnesses and dashed towards the port side of the vessel. Clad in brown leather armor from snout to flank, the agile pony raised her head towards a valve and grasped its handle in her teeth. With a tightly held breath, she cranked and cranked and cranked the cylindrical device forward until—through the edge of her squinting vision—she saw a giant mechanical claw stretching outward from beyond the leftmost side of the great yawning windshield. Once the claw was within reach of the rocky cliff, she let go of the valve and in the next breath pulled at two hooks positioned right next to it. There was a hissing of steam and hydraulics, and she watched in deadpan satisfaction as the metal “fingers” of the claw clamped down tightly onto the edge of the cliff. Locking the fingers in place with a pulled lever, she then trotted to the starboard side of the ship and performed the same feat, so that an identical claw stretched outward from the right and similarly clasped onto the mountainous promontory—successfully anchoring the vessel in place.

The pony shuffled over towards a supply locker on the port side. Instead of a handle, there was a black stone within which a glowing rune was etched. Reaching towards a work bench, she grabbed a leather bracelet within which half-a-dozen severed horns were interwoven with fine stitches. After sliding the multi-colored band onto her right hoof, she cleared her throat and solidly uttered one word: “H'jem.”

One of the many horns on the bracelet shimmered in a brief purple haze. Immediately, the glowing rune on the supply locker faded to black, and the hulking metal cabinet opened with a resounding metallic ring. Reaching into the locker, the pony grabbed and shouldered another thick layer of armor. After donning the dull brown material, she then snatched two sets of saddle bags, followed by a pair of lanterns which she yoked over her neck. Once suited, she procured a long collapsible cylinder of brass fused to a wooden stock. She then made sure to grab two hollow metal magazines filled to the brim with faintly glowing runestones. Afterward, she slid the brass rifle into a sheath on the right flank of her armored shell and the magazines into the left side compartments. Finally, she grabbed a tiny glass jar fitted with a gray metal cap etched with an ancient rune. The container was custom made, as was everything else on her and around her. So adequately geared, the pony took a few backtrots from the closed supply locker and grunted a different word into the air: “W'nyhhm.”

The rune over the middle of the cabinet glowed once again, locking the doors with a magical seal. The pony made one final check of her instruments, lowered the temperature on the boiler in the back, extinguished the lanterns lining the interior of the cabin, and made her way down a winding brass staircase into a dark-lit storage chamber that encompassed the entire floor below.

Strolling past several tables of chemistry equipment and engineering tools, she nonchalantly approached a widely yawning aperture of copper plates positioned at the lower bow of her airship. “H'jem,” the mare uttered once more. The circular door in front of her opened from the inside out, its shiny metal hole pouring a gray spotlight of misty haze across her weathered features. She reached a hoof up to the side of her pilot's cap, dragging a cloth mask down so that it covered her mouth and snout.

She was immediately assaulted by a flurry of bone-chillingly cold wind dotted with snow and ash, a greeting from the dead world beyond. Trotting forward, she hopped down from the lower level of the gondola and onto the black rock of the cliff face—her brass horseshoes nearly slipping on the polished obsidian. She hissed a muffled curse under her breath, groaned inwardly, and marched on past the gently swaying hull of her anchored airship and the faded letters of its name that had been half-heartedly spray-painted thereupon: “HARMONY.”

Pausing briefly to measure the direction and intensity of the wind, the pony reached a hoof up and parted the mask from her lips just long enough to growl: “H'jnor.” The entrance to the Harmony's hangar closed shut like a cat’s eye. “W'nyhhm.” Six glowing runes positioned around the closed aperture suddenly lit up, encasing the body of the entrance in a thin haze of purple shielding.

The pony trotted forward, marching across the glassy black surface of the mountainside. Her clopping hooves were mere pin-drops in an endless howl of wind and snow. Above her thickly armored neck, a ceiling of dark gray clouds swam incessantly across the sky, and beyond that soulless mesh the pony knew to expect only the sputtering hint of starlight or something halfway like it. Soon, the shrieking wind drowned away as she grew more and more distant from the Harmony and closer towards her goal. It was a haunting silence, like suddenly being at the bottom of a deep well with no echoes. But this hardly surprised her—after all, she had been in that exact place before, long ago.

It took barely two hundred meters of trotting before she found the first sign of the ruins. The softly falling snow gave way to a great white mass: an overturned cylindrical tower that had fallen thunderously on its crumbling side countless years ago. Emblazoned across the shattered stalk of the lopsided spire was the faded image of a bronze sun splotched with ash and rusted streaks of long-lost life. This same image blotted the sides of several more buildings—some collapsed, others in a perpetual state of decay—as the grand skeleton of a deceased city exposed itself coldly before her. The pony had reached her destination: the elevated, unclimbable ruins of Canterlot. She pressed on, in search of her target.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The mountainous spires that shadowed Canterlot were natural weather breakers; they pierced the high clouds of ash like gigantic plows. In brief spurts, the endless twilight of the sky glanced down in its dull gray glare, but the remaining towers of the crumbled urbanscape blocked even those meager attempts at “light,” so that the streets were reduced to veritable black chasms. A dead-thick ink bled through the winding alleyways and sporadic courtyards and marble-stepped corridors of the maretropolis. What was once the capitol city of Equestria and home to the Royal Equine had become a grand mausoleum.

Through this, the pony marched slowly, eyeing every shape and shadow beyond lingering corners. Her snout twitched anxiously, ready to reach back towards the rifle on her right flank at any given blink. Her hooves made lonely scrapings sounds of crafted metal against decayed stone. Her breaths—muffled by her cloth mask—came out evenly and calmly, albeit balanced upon the precipice of caution: the sign of an expert explorer who had ventured through many an unwitting graveyard much like this one.

Her amber shaded goggles reflected abandoned storefronts, their dangling signs and painted windows preserved icily through the death-blink of time. She sauntered past lonely market vendors; the many fruits stacked inside had long-decayed into dry pits with hanging scraps of papery skin. Tattered and tossed flags bearing the Celestial crest rested on either side of her as she ascended winding streets of mildew-stained cobblestone, pointing her way towards the palatial center of the cold granite labyrinth.

There was a break in the spires, and a curtain of snow fell to greet her once more. Soft flecks of ash settled on her armored neck and flank; she made no attempt to shrug any of it off. The dead powdery substance had become like a second skin to her, a precipitation that never ceased to fall for any single moment of any single day ever—not that “days” could any longer be quantified in the gray miasma that everything had become.

After another row of steps, a gaping wide entrance yawned before her, announcing the front half of a large ten-story structure built upon the highest point in Canterlot. It was the Royal Quarters; she had made it there in record time. Pressing onward, she twisted her snout left and right, nudging switches built into her yoke that activated a pair of spring-loaded flints which scratched each other inside a pair of gas lanterns. After a few diligent tries, the two lanterns lit up, and they shone a swath of light directly ahead of the pony in a golden halo as she ventured into the darkest part of her sojourn. The last time she was here, she made the mistake of not crafting herself any form of light projection. A near-plummet into a gaping hole in the floor that led into the heart of the mountain taught her a thing or two about such carelessness.

With the lantern light as her guide, the pony made her way through the former living quarters of Equestria's two crowned princesses. She trotted over checkerboard tiles dotted with bits of gravel and debris, hopping over a collapsed coat of arms in order to make her way into the grand library. The shadows of hundreds upon hundreds of collapsed books moved before her like puppets as the shuffling pony shone her light left and right, finally finding the detour she needed through the dining hall. Tables and troughs were filled to the brim with clattered silverware, shattered plates, and bits and pieces of petrified fruits and vegetables.

And it was here—finally—that she saw them: bodies, the hollowed-out shells of ponies. Either in a clattered sea of bones or in the seared cornucopia of plastered leather, she always stumbled upon them this deep into a fortified structure. Any of the ponies that had been left out in the open air of Equestria had turned into ashes ages ago, to forever be lifted up by the cold winds of the plains and snowed back down onto the endless graveyard of Equestria. Here, in Canterlot, in the heart of the Princesses' Palace, many of the remains were hidden in smokey heaps under helmets and saddles of armor, like worthless lint collecting under rusted dustpans. The last time she was here, she confiscated a few of the brass horseshoes off of the guards' remains and smelted them to form new rivets for the Harmony's storage compartment. It was almost worth the near-plunge into the heart of the mountain, almost.

She had no need with horseshoes or armor this time. She was here for one thing and one thing alone. She pressed on, ascending several curved staircases lined with tapestries. The woven illustrations divulged to her lantern-lit waltz one historical lesson after another: of colorful ponies overcoming gray hardships before building a golden interwoven city under the watchful gaze of a silk-plastered Alicorn with a starlit mane.

The winding staircase was suddenly pelted with a flurry of cold ash and snow. The pony found herself trotting onto an open balcony overlooking a great westward blight: a land of dead gray fields and exposed black earth, sleeping forever under a swirling bed of cold drifting mist. She had seen it all before, from above and from below. Intriguingly enough—to her at least—she found that the Equestrian Wasteland looked the same on either side of the clouds.

Glancing right, she paused for the first time since she entered the ruins of Canterlot. A three-story tall stained glass window stretched above her. In its epicenter was the swirling infinitude of the Goddess of the Day and the Goddess of the Night in perpetual pursuit of one another. Below and above them were joyous green mosaics of jagged equine figures in hoof-rearing reverie. The tints in the segmented glass were amazingly well preserved. Not a single chip of paint had faded from the artistic craftponyship, a work of art that was two Ages' old at least. But the pony could hardly tell—or care. Color no longer shone in Equestria, not like it used to.

Lowering her snout, she gazed through amber goggles and was mutely pleased to see a loose panel of glass covering the flank of one of the prancing ponies beneath the twin Goddesses. Pushing her leather-armored mane against it, she was able with minimal effort to push the panel off its frame and crawl through the pony-shaped hole. Trotting softly through the stained glass window, she tilted her snout up and flashed her yoke-lanterns widely to reveal the cavernous hollow of Princess Celestia's Royal Throneroom. A curved series of steps led audaciously towards the holy seat in question, still draped with rich purple banners, all emblazoned with the solar crest. The gold plates below the throne had lost their shine, and the water fountains flanking the base of the seat had long dried up. Overall, the place was well preserved with what could only be described as appropriately bitter irony.

She gazed around, reaching a hoof up to adjust the apertures of her goggles. The shadows of the room cleared before her engineered vision. As she flashed her lantern light around, she finally saw what she was looking for. Trotting over for a closer inspection, the pony lowered her snout to study a series of blood-red feathers littered along the far side of the throne room. Her goggled eyes wandered a little further. She spotted a large “nest” of golden thatched threads, huddled just beneath a grand tapestry woven in the image of Princess Celestia herself.

This was it. This was its hiding place. If the pony had any chance of catching it, she had to act soon. She had to bait it here before it was too late. The window of opportunity had been closing even before she lowered the Harmony into its anchorage. If she had any hope of getting paid—much less out of Canterlot alive—she had to act swiftly or lose ...

What was there left to lose?

She knelt down and reached a snout back past her yoke, yanking a string that loosened a pouch on the right side of her forward saddle bag. Shaking it to the side, she dropped loose a paper cylinder crafted onto a wooden block. Tightening the pouch shut, she then propped the fireworks cannon up at the entranceway beyond the throneroom. Stepping back, she kneaded her hooves in counterclockwise twists. With a metallic sound, cleated spikes shot out from the base of her front horseshoes. Next, she scraped her cleats until sparks flew—which she then used to light the tiny cannon's fuse. Swiftly retracting the cleats, she galloped back to the far side of the room and hid beside the throne, out of sight from the entranceway to the grand corridor. Kneeling low, she squinted her eyes and reached a hoof up to a series of dials atop her goggles, dimming the amber lenses just in time for what was about to happen.

With a bright flash of light, the fuse burned into the cannon and the pyrotechnics fired a flare ceilingward. Here in the granite heart of the Royal Castle, the burning plume of golden light shone like a beacon. Its frothing core let loose an unearthly howl, a banshee scream that filled every abandoned corner of the Palace and its surrounding alleyways. There was no way that a living soul in the catacombs of Canterlot could not hear this flashy desecration of silence, and the pony knew that there were only two souls to be had in the entire city: herself, and her target.

The first minute of howling zoomed by like a skittering rat. The second swum by with the delicateness of swarming moths. By the third minute—a limping, shuffling, decaying minute—the pyrotechnics had begun to dwindle into a low groan, like a sea of dying cats. The pony felt her heartbeat once again, and she grew increasingly anxious as the shadows of the throneroom recollected in the absence of her flickering distraction. Taking a few deep breaths, she glanced right for any sign of her prey: none. She glanced left—and her head did a double-take. The dangling haze from her yoked lanterns had caught sight of an unmistakable outline forever etched into the inner surface of her starved eyelids. It was the shape of a record player, and where there were record players...

She trotted over swiftly, keeping one eye on her dwindling flare, all the while feeling the weight of the rifle on her armored flank. Once she had reached the left side of the throne room, she exhaled at the sight of a series of supply crates, atop which was indeed a record player, its needle and crank having fallen off and dwindled into splinters long ago. Energized with a seemingly alien euphoria, the leather-clad mare hoofed through the ashen mound of debris besides the crate—kicking up a few red feathers in the maddening search. Finally, she found what she was looking for, hoping for: a black disc encased in white shreds of tattered vinyl. Hungrily, she rotated the record to its side and was astonished to see one particular name on the water-stained label. For the first time in immeasurable “weeks,” a smile graced the last pony's masked lips—or at least something that resembled one. Her hairless tail briefly flicked.

A thunderous roar filled the chamber; the floor and granite foundations of the throne room shook. Pebbles and precipitous bits of dust fluttered downward from the painted ceiling. She gasped and immediately tossed her snout left and right, shoving tiny knobs in her lanterns and killing their golden glow. With a single leap, she slid back into place besides the throne with the labeled record in her gentle jaws. Reaching back, she tossed the black disc into a safe pocket of her left rear saddle bag. After tightening it, she flung her right shoulder forward and bucked her legs.

Her rifle launched forward in midair like a spring. She raised her muzzle, grabbed the weapon’s wooden stock in gnashing teeth, and gave it a shake. With a series of clack-a-clacking noises, the brass cylinder extended and exposed its chamber. Reaching back in a single breath, the pony unsheathed a magazine full of runestones and chanted breathily into them. The armband of horns on her right leg flickered, and the stones glowed a bit brighter as she slapped them into place, cocked the rifle, and slid two hooves into a pair of levers welded into the weapon at ninety degree angles with one another. Sliding into the dark shadows of the throneroom, she squatted besides the golden seat and waited, her goggled gaze locked down the sight of the rifle barrel aimed towards the entranceway beyond the smoldering fireworks.

The strange roar cascaded through the stone hallways of the palace once again, rattling the royal seat besides her crouched body. More dust and paint chips fell from the ceiling as the heat of the room increased by several degrees per minute. Sweat formed in bulbs between the pony's brown coat and her thick leather armor as she waited on her prey. She shook the fear off like she had trained herself to do long before, and her goggled eyes roamed the lengths and breadths of the hollow throneroom in mute anticipation of the inferno that was heading her way. The temperature reached a fever pitch and a bright copper glow washed over the place. However, as the sizzling seconds piled up on one another, she could not tell from where the brightness was coming.

The truth made itself evident to her very quickly as the pony spotted the circular image of the swirling Horse Goddesses swimming over the stone floor and towards the seat. Blinking under her goggles, she craned her neck and turned around. A brilliant cross of gold and scarlet light billowed from just outside the stained glass window, illuminating the entire mosaic of Equestria in ghostly bright colors. A pair of shimmering eyes flickered to life and glared straight through the etched surfaces—and found her. With a grand shriek—filling the Palace once more with a blood-curdling roar—the great burning thing plowed straight through the window. The creature shattered through a sea of stained glass shards as it swooped down towards the pony hidden behind the seat.

The mare held her breath and dove forward into a full-bodied roll. Princess Celestia's age-old throne caught aflame as a pair of golden talons ripped through it with trails of seeping plasma. The air of the room positively boiled, the distant ashes of dead guard horses evaporating instantly. Sliding to a stop against a far wall, the pony hissed as her leather armor steamed from the sheer heat. She propped her brass rifle up over a supply crate and took aim. From her vantage point, a giant flaming bird stared down her sight and shrieked its golden beak wide, a burning tongue lashing at the equine intruder.

“H'rhnum!” the mare shouted into her mask. Her bracelet of horns flickered; the first runestone inside the rifle's magazine burst in a puff of smoke. A shot rang out as a manabullet throttled down the brass barrel of the rifle and soared across the room, finding its way into the avian inferno's chest. Chunks of plasma and plumes of scarlet feathers littered the floor as the thing shrieked and flailed its billowing wings up high, melting and curling the paint on the ceiling. Without a second's hesitation, the pony yanked at both levers of the rifle with alternating hooves, cocking the weapon. It spat the smoking dead runestone out of its magazine and loaded the next one. “H'rhnum!” Another bang. This time the manabullet screamed its way towards the nape of the flaming fowl's neck. The creature intelligently dodged at the last second, and with a bubbling howl the phoenix dove its way at the rifler.

The pony scampered and dodged to the side just as the burning creature slammed into the wall behind her. The supply crates burst into flames, spilling sparks and embers all over the mare's rolling body. It wasn't until the pony stumbled back onto four hooves that she realized her mask was on fire. Cursing, she tossed her snout madly left and right until the fabric was successfully flung from her sooted face. With gnashing teeth, she cocked the gun and spun about, only to meet a flaming talon to her chest.

Under the dull thunder that followed, she thanked her lucky stars that she had packed extra armor. Though her brown coat was slightly singed, the smoldering husk of her chestplate remained intact. She realized this—of course—after only the third or fourth bounce off the palace walls. Groaning, she got up and could tell from her dancing shadows that the phoenix was clawing towards her for another strike. With a sharp breath, she flung her rifle once more over her shoulder—sheathing it—and broke into a full gallop in time to narrowly escape a snarling strike from the flaming creature, now hot on her hairless tail.

The pony ran, dashed, and scampered down a series of meandering hallways at full speed. She had no need of the lanterns anymore, as the bright flare of her pursuing target lit everything hellishly for her. She flung the heavy yoke off and leaped in time to avoid a plume of fire bursting at the top of some winding stairs. The pony then rapidly descended, sliding icily down the laminated banister. Reaching the bottom, she dove with a forward flip, slid comically sideways on a loose rug, and regained her hooves in time to avoid the impaling beak of the dive-bombing phoenix.

Now on even ground, the lone pony made for a gray light at the end of a long passageway leading into the open courtyard of the palace's center. The tapestries and portraits flanking her caught flame as she galloped past them. Up ahead, the passageway yawned open to reveal a marble balcony, at the edge of which hung a brilliant purple banner. Taking a wild chance, the pony jumped and grabbed the edge of the royal fabric in her teeth. Using her momentum, she swung violently forward and leaped at the end of her self-imposed body toss. It was just in time; the phoenix had burst out of the palace behind her, shrieking and snapping at her flailing hooves with a bright beak. The pony out-“flew” the flaming bird, landed her hooves in a dried up aqueduct, and slid down the mud-laden bridge until she cleared the palace gates and pounced full force into the snow-kissed blackness of the Canterlot streets below.

Landing on a second-story awning, she fell through tattered fabric and awkwardly ragdolled onto a wooden market stand below, smashing it to splintery bits. After scampering up to her hooves, she prepared to gain some bonus distance, only to gasp at the realization that her left rear saddlebag had flung open in the haphazard landing. Glancing every which way, she froze jubilantly upon the sight of the black record disc she had swiped earlier; it was still intact. She ran back, slid on four hooves, and snatched it off the street in her teeth. There was a a shrill shriek. The pony glanced up, and her goggles reflected twin golden comets burning down towards her. She barely dashed away from the phoenix's talons scraping the cobblestone street.

The pony tossed the record back into her bag and galloped down the careening, snow-laden avenues of Canterlot. The pursuing phoenix lit the stone-dead blackness of the ruined City like a torch at the bottom of a deep grave. As the seconds wore into minutes—the phoenix gave up running on its talons and took to the air. It hovered a violent halo over the distant image of the scampering pony, all the while screeching angrily like the shimmering ghost that it was. The mare looked up to witness a veritable forest of scarlet feathers falling loosely from the lurching fowl's wings. That was just the inspiration she needed to take a sharp left towards a lower district, leap over a rooftop, slide down its crumbling shingles, leap again, fall two stories, and cannonball weightedly through the balcony window of an abandoned hotel room across the street.

Glass, wood, and bed stuffing flew through the air as the pony barreled over a mattress, tumbled across the floor, and somehow landed on her back with her shoulders pressed up against a wall. There was a clack-a-clacking sound. The leather-armored equine had her rifle aimed out towards the hole she had just made in the windows—peering through the softly-raining ash beyond for any sign of her glowing target.

She gulped, sweated, and hooked her hooves tighter in the levers attached to the rifle. The foremost runestone in the magazine was rattling noisily. Glancing briefly at her limbs, she realized that she was shaking. She winced at her brief loss of nerves and steeled herself with an angry frown. As the agonizing seconds limped on, there was no sign of her flaming pursuer through the shattered balcony window. As the upholstery beside her started to sizzle and smoke, she realized why.

She barely had time to flip up onto her hooves and gallop away when the closet doors behind her smashed inward with smoldering splinters. The phoenix's burning beak ate through the cramped hotel room like a hot knife through butter. Snarling, the last pony spun, propped herself against another wall and took aim. “H'rhnum—!” The shrieking fowl rammed straight into her just before she could get a shot off. The bullet flew pathetically into the floor as the two went smashing through the wall and plunged several meters into the corpse-strewn hotel lobby below.

The pony collapsed under a rain of horse bones and petrified skin flakes. The phoenix floundered and thrashed, raining fire and dead feathers all across the cold tile floor. Bounding back up to her hooves, the mare limped over a chair and sofa, reaching back and grabbing at the other magazine of runestones. These glowed with a purple aura as she shoved them into her rifle and galloped out into an open garden full of leafless, gnarled trees. The hotel lobby imploded right behind her from the phoenix's violent thrashings, forcing the pony to collapse from the sheer heat of the shockwave.

Crawling over the gray sand and dead grass of the garden, the last pony rolled to her side and finished clapping the magazine full of runestones into her weapon. Pivoting so that she was lying on her chest, she aimed her barrel at a pair of marble columns still standing in front of the smoldering heap that remained of the hotel lobby. “H'rhnum! H'rhnum!” Despite the sheen of sweat and soot covering her goggles, her aim was true, and both manabullets embedded a runed dart into each marble column. The darts continued to glow a deep purple, even as the pony watched the heap of hotel ruins bulge up from deep within and explode.

The phoenix emerged—wailing—for it had lost a great deal of its plumage. As a heap of its scarlet feathers had fallen loose, so had its flaming brilliance. The fowl now stood—or more appropriately stumbled—as a three-meter tall creature with wrinkled skin and crackling flesh. Its flickering eyes dimmed for a brief moment until it shook its snout and roared with a renewed burst of flames kindling across its body from wing to tail. It scampered like a drooling, flightless reptile the pony's way, threading between the two columns...

The pony took a deep breath and shouted high into the broiling garden air, “Y'hnyrr!” Her bracelet flickered. In response, the purple glow over the twin darts faded as their runes died. The enchanted shields on them dissipated, and volatile chemicals stored inside each dart—otherwise magically separated—were instantaneously fused. Dual explosions rocked the heart of Canterlot, utterly engulfing the phoenix in shrapnel and plasma. By then, the pony had flung herself behind a thick bramble of thorns, using it as a shield. As soon as the thunder from the twin blasts faded, she peered up to see that the briars had burst into flames, as did all the dead trees lining the garden.

Sprawled out in the center of the courtyard of burning trees was the phoenix, trying breathlessly to hold its naked weight up on two quivering talons and a pair of withered wings, its feathers now black smoldering husks. The flickering glow had faded from its eyes, revealing two jaded, red orbs of pale invalidity. The creature hacked and wheezed, crying forth a warbling voice that barely mimicked its years of pride and royal ferocity. It limped and lurched on the four shuddering limbs suddenly given to it, plowing its beak through the dead garden as the pony cautiously paced around the creature, her rifle propped on her flank. As the trees' flaming “leaves” died with several plumes of smoke, the phoenix's breaths grew further and further apart.

The last pony eyed it knowingly. The bird’s helpless gaze danced like dying twins in her amber goggles. The mare had studied hard on the physiology of phoenixes. In a dead world starved of magic, the creature's life cycle was far shorter than normal. The pony had arrived at the precise time she needed to get the job done. It wouldn't be long now.

Staring at her, the phoenix managed one last snarl. Its gnarled flesh glowed from underneath and produced a few scant feathers of hot burning plasma. The pony stopped pacing and immediately propped herself back against a dead tree, cocking her rifle towards the thing's snout until the avian metabeast simply gave up. In a sickly slump, the great bird's eyes closed with finality as the creature exhaled one lasting breath. Just as it did so, its body dissipated into a brittle pile of black ash in the center of the garden. Deafening silence returned ever so softly to the snow-kissed grave of Canterlot.

The pony wasted no time. Leaning her rifle against a dried fountain, she slid down on two knees and reached back to her saddlebag, taking out the glass jar that she had procured from the locker on board the Harmony. Carefully, she unscrewed the runed cap and lowered the jar down—scooping up every single speck of black ash from the garden floor. This was it; everything counted on this moment and no other. She sweated with the effort, but was swiftly done with the task. She slapped the cap back onto the jar, lowered her lips to within a millimeter of the thing, and softly-but-succinctly murmured: “W'nyhhm.”

The rune lit up, and a purplish haze bathed over the jar, sealing the cap magically onto the container. Not a second too soon: for within a blink, the ashes inside the glass jar sparked, sparked again, and lit aflame with such ferocity that the container nearly leaped out of the pony's hooves. With a deep exhale, she gazed as the black ash inside disappeared, and in place of it there billowed a plasmatic core of crimson and gold energy. The flames splashed and kicked inside the glass sarcophagus for a few moments, until the deep glow fell still—and constant. The phoenix was imprisoned, contained.

“Welcome to my life.”

Sighing, the last pony stood on three limbs, juggling the glowing jar briefly before saddlebagging it and marching limply with rifle in tow through the dead streets of Canterlot.

Alone.


The End of Ponies

Act One: The Wasteland


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