Charred grass crunched under Celestia’s hooves as she landed in the park, her ethereal mane untouched by the breeze which carried the ashes of the city to her.
It had been beautiful here, before the flame. Trees stood tall, providing shade to those who wandered underneath on a warm summer’s day. The grass had always been crisp and fresh; true, you were not supposed to eat it, but it was hard to resist the odd nibble at the perfectly manicured green, watered daily to keep it fresh and vibrant. Now the trees were shattered husks, their splintered trunks barely distinguishable from the ash permeating the city.
Celestia remembered her first visit after the fires came, walking into the park with the vain hope in her chest that some had survived after taking shelter in City Hall. One look at the building had dashed those hopes; only scorched rubble remained where the grand building had once stood, its beautiful façade reduced to a tangled mass of glass, stone, and steel. She had searched anyway, hoping against hope that she would find someone trapped beneath the rubble, alive by some miracle days after the disaster.
Not a soul joined her on her way home that day.
Celestia shook her head, turning away from the ruined building; there was nothing for her here. Pulling out her map from her saddlebags, she unfurled it, golden marks on the waxy paper marking her targets.
“Good thing Luna likes to eat out,” she said to herself as her eyes flicked over the map, lifting her head to get her bearings. She sighed as her gaze came to rest on the collapsed remains of the courthouse, the restaurant below now buried by tons of rubble. “Of course.”
It was a good idea, searching fast-food restaurants; it was a pity Luna had not had the idea sooner. Smaller restaurants kept their food fresh and thus had little need for large freezers. But with their food mass-produced by a central facility before being shipped out all across the country, the chain restaurants kept vast amounts of food frozen in large walk-in freezers so they could pull it out and heat it up to serve to their customers.
Large enough to keep the cold in for weeks, Celestia hoped.
Folding the map back up and returning it to her saddlebag, Celestia turned and began trotting down the street, past the ruins of what had once been a house of law, cutting around the rubble which now covered the road. Once wide enough for four lanes of traffic, now she was lucky to find more than scattered patches of open road. Tiny shards of glass, too small to avoid, crunched under her boots; not for the first time, Celestia thanked the metal separating her hooves from the rubble.
Some buildings had survived better than others. As Celestia trotted into the shadows of the skyscrapers, she couldn’t help but glance up at them; once covered in glass, the steel-reinforced concrete which formed the core of the buildings still stood. Blackened and bare, their hollow eyes watched the alicorn as she strode beneath them, a patch of white amidst an ocean of black and gray. Celestia couldn’t remember who had once occupied these buildings; there were so many businesses here, so many people, they had all blended into a colorful sea of unfamiliar faces.
Now she would never know.
At the next corner, a flash of white amongst the sea of debris caught her eye. “Young Flowers” the sign declared proudly, the plastic letters adorning the shattered remains of a small flower shop. Celestia smiled as she remembered the owner’s face transforming from elation to horror when Celestia announced she had stopped by for a snack. They had insisted that their orchids were intended to be given as gifts, not mere food. She had hesitated for a moment; they truly were beautiful things, arrayed in all the hues of the rainbow.
But only for a moment. They really were delicious.
Celestia’s stomach growled as she started to walk towards the burned-out store before stopping mid-stride, frowning. She could see the scorched pottery and half-melted counters from where she stood on the street; there would be nothing for her there. Reluctantly, Celestia turned her hooves aside, but she could not help looking back over her shoulder until the burnt walls of the next skyscraper hid the small store from view.
Street by street, Celestia made her way north, eyes forward as she tried not to look too hard at the charred signs adorning the bottom floors of the ruined buildings. Here, a coffee shop; there, a shoe store, the once-bright colors of the signs seared black by flame. Tucking her wings in close to her sides, Celestia began to run, her hooves beating out a staccato tune on the pavement as she galloped between the broken buildings, only slowing when the street began to turn away in front of her.
Breathing heavily, she flicked open her saddlebags with her magic and pulled out her map once more, licking her lips as her eyes flew over the streets. It had been so much easier when your phone could guide your steps. Maps were terrible things; they couldn’t tell you which direction you were facing or what street you were on, especially now that many of the signs which had once marked the way had fallen. Folding the map back up, Celestia looked to the right, then to the left before sighing. Taking a step forward, her horn lit up once more, the half-buried post rising from the rubble, bits of the stone and glass falling off the gray metal as it floated away from the street. She twisted the thing, the massive pole swiveling in mid-air to reveal the bent signs that marked this as the corner of 3rd and Pine.
Celestia let the pole crash back to the ground as her gaze moved over to the building which had fallen on top of it. Slowly, her horn began to peel back brick and cement alike until, at last, a golden sign emblazed with the logo of the restaurant emerged from the wreckage.
Whirling away from the building, Celestia ripped the map out of her bags once more, squinting at it. So many had been tried already; so few were left. Shaking her head, she bunched the map up, shoving it back into her saddlebags as she began to gallop down the lonely streets past the wreckage of the steel beasts who had once called it home. It was strange to think that less than two centuries after the horse-drawn carriage was replaced that it would be the best they had once more. All that progress, gone to waste.
The wind began to blow, whispering down the city streets between the wrecks of the buildings, bringing with it the lingering scent of smoke from the few buildings which yet smoldered even weeks later. Above, grey clouds hung in a hazy sky, floating in the breeze as pale flakes began to fall.
Celestia slid to a stop in the street as they fell around her, dancing slowly through the air as they made their way to the ground. She shuddered as they touched her coat, marking it, marking her, and with every breath, she tasted ash.
Spreading her wings, Celestia launched herself into the sky, an angel rising from the dust of a dead world, white wings carrying her above the wind-whipped ash. The city looked more like the map from here, streets still visible as they cut between the burnt-out husks that had once been buildings. Here and there a building still stood, towering above the wreckage, its charred bones bared for the world to see. But she had eyes for only one building – the tower.
Built long ago, it had long since been dwarfed by the buildings around it, and yet of all the things that remained in the city, it was the most recognizable. Bare steel still held the structure aloft, and while broken glass sparkled on the ground around its base, it was still intact and held much of its former glory. In the days after the disaster, seeing it shining along amidst the smoldering ruins had given her hope, and she had gone there to see who had taken shelter in its metallic core.
No one had. Who would believe that the landmark destroyed in every film made about the city would be the one thing to survive the end of the world?
Celestia shook her head as she landed in its shadow, fanning her wings to soften her landing on the street before folding them back by her sides. The map said that there was another restaurant here, right across the street, beyond the tracks. So close to where they had been weeks ago; if the food had spoiled in the interim…
Celestia’s heart sank as she reached the street corner and saw the familiar sign sticking up out of the parking lot. The front half of the building had been crushed, flattened beneath one of the trains which had been thrown from its tracks when the firestorm swept across the city.
Her shoulders slumping, she trotted forward to examine the wreckage. She had never much liked trains. It made sense to design them for the average passenger, rather than for her specifically, but it still rankled having to stand in the aisle or awkwardly spread out across three seats. Her fellow passengers seldom complained, but she could see in their eyes that they were made profoundly uncomfortable by her presence, adding to her own discomfort at being confined to such cramped quarters.
Celestia hopped up on top of the derailed car to peer inside before looking away; it hadn’t been empty when the disaster hit.
The train had exposed the building to the worst of the firestorm; only blackened, twisted metal remained of the tables and chairs, the cushions and wood being tinder to the flame. Without half the walls, the roof had collapsed inwards, covering the back of the store with burned asphalt shingles. Celestia was about to turn away when she stopped. Half-covered by charred wood stood a steel box large enough for her to walk inside and turn around in – still shut.
Celestia ignited her horn once more, ripping back the ruined roof to expose what lay beneath. Water dripped from the wooden beams, a huge puddle extending around the sinks which lay in the back of the store. Stoves and deep fryers sat blackened and burned, whatever heat they produced meager in comparison to that which had purged the city of life. But the freezer still stood with nary mark on its metallic surface, an iron bastion amongst a sea of destruction.
She moved quickly, tearing the rubble away from the front of the freezer, tossing it to the side piece by piece as she made space to open the door. Yellow light engulfed the handle, and as the door swung open, Celestia was rewarded with a waft of crisp, cold air. Shivering with anticipation, she stepped inside, only for her hoof to snag on something frozen to the floor.
Looking down, she realized Luna was not the only one who had realized that the freezers might offer some protection from the flames.
Celestia shivered as she stood over the makeshift grave, the body she had found inside now buried beneath the peaked roof of the building. Her saddlebags full of frozen food, still, she hesitated, looking around the heart of the city one last time.
“Quite the sight, isn’t it?”
“Hello, Discord,” Celestia said without turning.
“Now, now, is that any way to greet your brother?”
“What? Luna and yourself call each other sister, despite your lack of relation; surely I deserve to be called brother just as much.”
“We have nothing in common.”
“Oh, really?” Discord smirked, floating over next to the alicorn and resting his chin on the back of his mismatched hands. “We aren’t so different, you and I. We’re both geniuses. We both have nearly unmatched power. We have nothing in common with those who came before us, or those who came after.”
“There will be more ponies,” Celestia said, straightening.
“Oh, of course there will be more ponies. But no more ponies like you.” Discord stroked his beard with his paw. “Of course, I have always thought of you as more of a horse anyway.”
“What do you want, Discord?”
“Who says I want anything?” Discord lilted, floating up higher into the sky as he looked down onto the ruins of the city below. “Well, other than to enjoy the view.”
Celestia scowled. “There is nothing here to enjoy.”
“Isn’t there?” Discord waved his claw at the city. “It is beautiful, in a horrible sort of way. The city has some real ruin value, don’t you think? Not unlike the Colosseum, or those ancient cities in the desert. Why, future generations will come to see the ancient cities and marvel over their architecture, never dreaming of what they looked like when they were still, you know, painted.” He leaned over to nudge Celestia with his elbow. “Burned concrete and melted steel will be all the rage in a few centuries.”
Celestia sighed as she turned her head to survey what remained of the once-great metropolis. The setting sun blazed over the bay, steel frames and broken concrete jutting up into the hazy sky casting long shadows across the landscape. Plastic signs with bold lettering jutting out of the rubble here and there, still advertising what wares lay buried beneath the broken stone, the long shadows concealing the scorch marks on the lettering. Torn bits of white foam and pink insulation danced in the wind, lending color to the omnipresent haze of gray ash.
“It is beautiful, in a way,” Celestia admitted grudgingly, “But that does not justify what you did.”
“What I did?” Discord cast one misshapen hand over his heart. “Surely you don’t blame me for all this.”
“You put it all in motion. You told them how your power worked.”
“My power? Lest we forget, Celestia, your own power is not so different, miss ‘I can make the Sun rise in the morning and set at night.’”
Celestia stamped on the ground, sending up a small puff of ash as the rubble disintegrated underhoof. “I did not teach them how!”
“But you were planning on it, weren’t you? I merely beat you to the punch.” He looked out at the blasted landscape, rubbing his chin with his talon. “Though I must admit, I did expect them to be a bit more creative.”
“What did you expect?” Celestia snarled. “It was easy; they didn’t need bombs or explosives. Once someone figured it out, everyone with a grudge against the world could make it pay. You don’t need many madmen for the whole planet to burn.”
“Did we ever find out who first discovered they could make it rain fire instead of chocolate milk?” Discord asked, tilting his head.
“No.” Celestia shook her head. “Does it really matter?”
“Well, I think it matters greatly. It is hardly my fault if someone else misused my power, after all. I didn’t teach them.”
“I wonder if Father would agree.”
“Oh, sure, ask him what he thinks. He always sides with you, you know.” Discord stuck out his tongue. “Well, fine. If you are so worried about what the bearded one has to say, I suppose I can help you carry the food back, now that you’re done shopping.”
“You could have helped, you know.”
Discord smirked, raising one hand. “Oh, I know. But once someone else finds the food for me, it is a snap to retrieve it.” With a snap of his fingers the charred landscape disappeared, replaced by pony-sized glass tubes and the giggling of foals, bags of frozen burgers and fries piled on the floor around the pair.
“I knew we kept you around for some reason.” Celestia stepped out of the circle of frozen food, raising her voice. “Luna, are you busy?”
“Ah, sister, you have returned! Have you found food?”
“Yes, and an extra hungry mouth to feed.”
“Truly? You have found a—” Luna trotted out of the nursery, only for her smile to immediately vanish upon spying Discord. “You.”
“Now is that any way to treat your brother?” Discord asked, standing tall as he cast his arms wide.
“No. Fortunately, I do not possess one.” Luna turned to face Celestia. “I suppose I should prepare food for him as well?”
“He is looking rather thin.”
“Oh, you’re just jealous of my graceful physique.” Discord swayed his hips, blinking his eyes coquettishly.
Luna’s frown deepened. “’Tis a pity thy magic cannot create food that grants sustenance, else my sister would need not venture into the city.”
“Yes, well, if my magic was capable of such things, we would have a lot less trouble,” Discord said, waving her off.
Celestia glanced back and forth between the growth tubes, peering past the tiny ponies suspended within. “Luna, where is Father?”
“He went outside. He wished to get some fresh air.”
“I thought it was to avoid having to listen to your butchery of the English language for a moment longer.” Discord grinned. “Speaking of which, while I was wandering around the city, I got a phone call. It was the sixteenth century; they wanted your voice back. I told them they had the wrong number, but they insisted that I pass it along.”
Luna sniffed. “’Tis only proper for we who remain to speak in a dignified manner.”
Celestia shook her head as she left the pair behind, threading her way between the machines that gave life to the technicolored creatures in the tubes. She stopped at one, leaning forward to smile at the tiny filly growing within, setting her hoof on the glass. The little one kicked and fanned her wings in her sleep, the tubes that transported nutrients into her growing body swaying with her movements.
Celestia's ears twitched at the sound of a cough coming from outside. Shooting one final smile at the tiny filly, Celestia trotted away, glancing at the great steel doors that had kept them safe when the world burned.
“Up here,” came the wheezing reply.
Celestia smiled to herself, her horn glowing before she vanished in a burst of light, reappearing behind her target to wrap her hooves around him in a hug. “We found food.”
He started before leaning back into her chest, his beard rubbing against her hooves. “Ah, good. No more baked beans.” His face wrinkled. “Well, fewer baked beans, at any rate.” He leaned back, looking up at her with his pale gray eyes. “Been taking lessons from Discord, have we?”
Celestia chuckled. “Teleportation is useful.” Her smile faded slightly. “Father, about Discord…”
“Is this his fault? I mean, all of this.” Celestia waved her hoof broadly.
“It is no more his fault than it is mine, for giving you all free will.” He sighed. “But I may not be the right person to ask. I made you to be better than us, not make the same mistakes we did. This is your world now, more than it is mine. Yours and those foals inside.”
The old man shook his head, setting his wrinkled hands on her hooves as he looked at the smoldering remains of Seattle. “I may have created my successors, but they are your little ponies now.”