The human lived in the iron city, and he lived all alone.
He no longer had the small, round shape of his fat-faced youth, and when he stood to full height the human was tall and lean and spindly, like a sapling out of its first few years. Two long legs were all that supported him, despite the fact the he could easily use his shorter arms for support, and even lacking a tail for balance. His stride was smooth all the same.
His hide was the color of bark from a yew tree, with the soft, thin delicacy of a flower petal. The majority of his body had barely any fur to protect him from the elements. A light dusting of fuzz ran along his limbs and a slightly thicker patch of hair trailed his jawline, but that was all. The only true bit of fur on him was a mane of soft, dark curls, which had the thickness of sheep wool.
Against the elements, this meager bit of hair was certainly not enough for the man, even in his metal shelters, and he wrapped himself in woven cloth and leathers to compensate. In the winter even this was not enough, and often spent his nights curled up tight and shivering in the corners of his buildings.
Certainly, the human was not the strongest of creatures. At least, not physically. Despite a similar shape to the minotaur, he had none of their bulk, nor half their strength. He was outpaced by many of his fellow predators: the wolf, the mountain lion, the bear, and even their smaller cousins the cat and coyote. The slowest of ponies could outrun him barely going into a trot. His teeth were almost comically small and practically useless in combat.
From the ends of his arms stretched out thin paws that split into five long, tapering digits ending in blunt little pink claws. They were not unlike a dragon's claws, though to directly compare the two would be a mistake. The paws had an elegant grace dragons never had, their fingers a nimbleness that raccoons only dreamt of, and diamond dogs had only brutish imitation.
Indeed, they were not truly paws at all, but something else entirely: hands. With them he was able to carry, lift and twist. By their power alone the human called forth fire to be his servant. For him it was a simple manipulation of wood, stone, sometimes the sun and glass. A puff of air from his lung gave it life, and grateful fires crackled tamely for him. Flames grew and shrank and gave off smoke according to only his hands and will.
No horn, no magic, no spells. None at all.
With a movement the delicate digits folded under to make a blunt attacking instrument: the fist. In the times just a fist did not suit him — often, for fists were still made of breakable bone— the human simply created something else that worked better.
Every object around him could be manipulated to serve his needs. Metal bent backwards into whatever shape he wished, helping him pry open tight spaces, or smash in a skull. He took harmless bits of twigs and sharpened them into sharp spikes to impale flesh, or fiercer yet, sharpened his metals into blades sharp as griffin talons.
With these he tore into the other animals fierce as any other predator, catching them by surprise in traps and throwing his sharp twigs into the air, killing even when he was far away.
The river along the east side of his territory was where he often hunted, taking the ducks on the bank and fish in the water, and squirrels in the trees. On his city's edge he could sometimes catch rabbits, or if he was exceptionally lucky, a deer.
These creatures he was the most fond of killing, not only because they had more meat than squirrels, but he could also peel the pelts from off their bones to create a sort of macabre pelt for himself. He did not prey on his fellow carnivore for whatever reason, although if he felt a hunger one day for coyote or falcon or tomcat, there would be nothing stopping him.
More often he ate pigeons. A long time ago, the hands of his mother and grandmother had taken a metal fence, warped and twisted it into a cage, then captured many pigeons to keep inside it. The human's mother told him once that when she was small, the birds were wild, pecking at hands and beating their wings uselessly against the cage. The man always found this hard to believe, with the way pigeons waddled carelessly about the enclosure, happy as can be to alight on his shoulder and then defecate on it. (They had a habit of defecating on everything and there was sadly no way to make them stop.)
Every three days his pigeons were let out to fly all about the city, and came back to him by the end of the day. When they had become fat enough, the hands stopped petting their feathers and snapped their necks instead. Some days he felt a little sad about eating them. After all, they were his only companions.
His very favorites even had names, names he gathered from the ancient words that surrounded him: Park, Yield, Subway, Fines, Low-Bridge, Starbucks, and little One-Way, who had a charming spot on his head. These six the man resolved to never eat, even in the winter when food was scarce. He still had no problem devouring their brethren, however.
The human fancied sometimes that pigeons could understand his language, and some days as the sun went down he held them close, softly whispering to them. He wondered if they somehow remembered his mother, who raised them from eggs before she died of the winter coughs. He knew they probably didn't, but he fancied the thought anyway.
One spring afternoon, new creatures came to the city.
Two of the little ponies that were nothing like the ancient ponies walked under the bridge spanning the river. The first was an earth pony that moved cautiously as she stepped along; the second, a unicorn, trotted merrily alongside her.
The man frowned, a little disappointed the hoof beats he heard weren't from a deer after all. Certainly he wasn't about to try hunting ponies. As a rule, eating things that spoke was a bad idea. But he still thought them interesting to watch.
They were smaller than the human had imagined them to be, with coats that were shockingly bright against their drab surroundings. The unicorn was the white of fresh sidewalks and road paints, and a silky blue tail with caution-yellow streaks streamed behind her. The earth pony friend's green mane was cut short and sensible, and she was the warm terra-cotta color of newly made bricks.
"I dislike the feel of this place," said the earth pony. "The soil in a human's city can soak in the unnatural elements around it in time. Bad place for making houses."
The unicorn laughed — a high, tinkling sound. "Humans! Really? Humans?! Why, my dear Topsoil, here I was thinking you so modern and rational. You old jokester, you." She started to laugh again, but it died when she noticed her companion frowning.
"I am just as rational as I have ever been, thank you. Furthermore, have you ever known me to chaff, Light Heart?"
"Aww." Light Heart jostled Topsoil's shoulder, but the frown just deepened. "Awww, come on. Don't be sore, old girl, you know I don't mean anything by it. But truthfully, now. You've seen too many tapestries, dear."
"Hm. Maybe you haven't seen enough of them."
"The humans are all long gone by now and lost to the ages, if there even was such a fantastic creature to start with. These are just ruins like any other." Light Heart paused to examine some iron girders. "Aren't they?"
The earth pony experimentally tapped on a rock. "Then why don't vines climb the walls, or blades of grass burst out from small cracks in the stone? I can't feel the earth under my hooves at all. Not even a little. Only hardness. Why do many of the flowers only grow in boxes? Have you noticed there aren't any animals here?"
"Well, I did see a pigeon earlier. It was little and white; so cute!"
Topsoil raised an eyebrow. "And what else besides that? In all the other forgotten ruins ponies find otters in the streams, eagles nesting in the iron trees, and possums sleeping in the shade. There are some creatures here, yes, but most of them seem to be hiding. There are barely any fish in this river. What do you suppose they are hiding from?"
Light Heart had nothing to say to that.
"I tell you," Topsoil continued, "there is at least one human left in the world, and as long as it roams these roads we cannot make a home here. Ponies and humans should never live so close together. I know their ways, humans."
"Do you think…" The unicorn looked around and lowered her voice. "Do you think we might chase it out?"
"You know better than that. Even believing they never existed, you know better than that."
For a short time, the ponies walked on in silence. Then Topsoil said, "You know... my ancestor met a human once."
"Great Great Grandmother Shady. She used to tell me about it when I was a filly. Spent quite a while with it, actually."
"Goodness me!" Light Heart gasped. "However did she get away?"
"Get away? Why, Grandmother couldn't get enough of the creature! Absolutely adored it."
"Did the human use a golden bridle to drain her willpower? Or weave a terrible net to catch her with? Oh, my, was there torture involved?"
A little smile crossed Topsoil's face. "No," she said. "No bridles or nets or torture. The human used friendship. They would frolic in the valley, picking berries, singing silly songs, and watching over the foals."
"She let the human touch foals?"
"Oh, yes. Lots of times the human was the one who helped the little ones settle down for a nap. A couple of times it helped Grandmother Shady chase away mean, troublesome creatures that threatened the valley. I think it was her friend. There was sometimes bitterness when she talked about the human; usually her stories were about how it liked to spend time with other ponies instead of her. Then she'd grouse and complain about it for the rest of the day." Topsoil laughed, "But then again, Grandma Shady complained about everything."
"Sounds nothing like any human I ever heard of."
"T'was a special breed, I think. It was smaller, with a longer mane it kept tied back with a bow, the way ponies in those days tied them at the base of their tails. I think it was a sign of solidarity, maybe." Topsoil flipped her tail in thought. "It was a breed called a… Morgana? A Marvel? Hmm. Oh! No, no, no, I remember: a Megan! My Great Great Grandmother Shady was friends with a Megan."
Light Heart suddenly burst into a grin. "Oh! Maybe the Megan breed lives here! Could it, Topsoil? It could, couldn't it? Maybe we could get it to help us build a house on this strange soil or maybe we could just live peacefully as neighbors. These ruins are so big; surely it wouldn't mind giving up a little room?"
"Hmm. I don't think so. Not many humans are Megans. They were always a rare breed, I think. And even if it was, we still couldn't live here. Even the Megan human Grandmother Shady knew always went back home at the end of the day. Shady slept in her own little house, and the Megan went to its own. We never live in the same place, I told you. Maybe travel together, or come around for a visit, but not live together. It simply is not done."
Light Heart sighed. "Alright. Alright, let's turn around. Look for somewhere else to live." Her face crumpled up miserably. "Oh, but Topsoil, there isn't anypony for miles and miles and miles of here. It was so perfect!"
The earth pony leaned into the Unicorn for a nuzzle. "I know. I know, dearest. Don't worry. We will find another place."
The human peered further out of his hiding place by the wall to watch them go. When they were almost out of sight, the earth Pony suddenly looked back.
In a high voice she called, "Stay where you are, creature of contradictions! This is no world for you. Keep your walls strong and your city secure. Let us leave each other in peace, yes? And, human! I beg you, take care, for you are the last."
After a few moments assured the ponies would not be back, the man approached the spot where they'd been. A tuft of mane caught on a rivet fluttered in the wind. It was sky blue and very soft.
"I am the only human there is?"
They were the first words he'd spoken in nearly a year. The loudness of his own voice frightened him. Until the traveling ponies, the man hadn't realized how much he missed the sound of another voice, the sound of words and laughter and sighs.
The silence that followed was deafening.
"But that just can't be. How could there be none at all? A tiny number scattered here and there, a very very rare thing, certainly. But not gone entirely."
After all, if the Unicorn was wrong about humans living in the city, the hornless pony could have been wrong as well. Just because she hadn't seen or heard of any didn't mean there weren't any.
"Yes," he said finally. "She must have been mistaken." He left resolving to forget the incident altogether.
For ten whole minutes he succeeded.
The human lived near the riverbank, in a stout little building that looked a bit silly compared to the majestic high-rises nearby. There was not a building in the entire city he loved more.
Here he discovered that while hands were impressive all on their own, armed with knowledge they were marvels. This place taught his hands to weave baskets and hammocks and a hat for himself. He learned to craft fine bowls of clay and write poetry. (It was very bad, but still poetry.) The human had always climbed trees, but it the library taught him their names. It helped him let a sad old violin sing for the first time in decades. Voices of the dead told him of ancient kingdoms with bizarre names in a far off time where people could fly and ponies only said "neigh". A time before the fires blossomed across the sky and burned the flesh off everybody's bones.
In those ancient times this place was called a library. The man simply called it home.
But there were no voices of ancient eras that afternoon Echoes from equines hung about him like a shroud. It was such an odd choice of words. They said the humans were "vanished" or "gone". Not "killed", not "extinct", not "dead". Gone. And one did not simply go somewhere without ending up someplace else.
He sat curled in a corner of wall and bookshelf, miserable with doubt and curiosity. For the first time in years there was something he didn't know and that the library couldn't tell him. When he was younger, before he found the library, if he needed to know something he would ask his mother. If she needed to know something (though she already knew a great deal) she'd give a note to one of the pigeons and send away to someone beyond the city, then get a new note back.
The human stood in search of spare paper and something to write with.
When Park and One-Way flew back to him, papers still freshly tied to their feet, the human remembered. The last time a bird flew a message was over fifteen summers ago. Subway, the oldest pigeon in the coop, was only thirteen. The human could always just train them to send messages, but that would take time he suddenly couldn't afford.
The only other way to find out was to see for himself. No, that was a horrible idea. Or maybe it wasn't. Just a matter of asking somebody and coming right back, yes? No. No, it was foolish. He belonged here, in the city. Here with his pigeons and sidewalks and garden and skyscrapers and graffiti and dead poets. If he didn't take care of it, who would?
"I've been fine on my own, anyway."
At the sound of his name, Fines landed upon the man's shoulder. Hands grasped the little white pigeon, held him out and asked, "Why do I even need to know what became of the others? I'm sure they're all doing no better or worse than I am, and if not, what business of it is mine? None. If other people needed my help they would seek me out, and they haven't. So that's that."
Fines blinked little pink eyes.
"So glad you agree."
He let the bird go to join Park and One-Way in the aviary. The human watched the three of them peck at their pile of seeds.
What if they need me?
"Suppose. Suppose they weren't able to come find me? In danger and unable to leave?"
What if they need me?
One-Way hopped after a cricket and ate it with a snap. Fines jealousy glared at her from his perch. Crickets were much better than seed. The sun sank behind the spires and shining towers. They looked like a row of teeth from here.
The human wasn't brave enough to say it out loud. A frightened whisper in the dark, hidden in a fog of flapping wings. "What if they need me?"