Rise of the Elements Part II: Return of the Avatars

by Radiant Dawn

Chapter 33: The End is just a New Beginning

Chapter 33: The End is but a New Beginning

Perspective change -- Rainbow Dash

The war was officially over, but that didn’t mean my job was anywhere near done. Along with a few dozen others, I oversaw battlefield cleanup and tallying the dead and injured. It wasn’t a glamorous job and I’ll admit it was a little depressing for the most part, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel: after this was done, we could go home once and for all.

I missed home even more now, knowing that Fluttershy, Rarity, and my other friends and herdmates who hadn’t been on the battlefield would be waiting for me, and of course I’d get to see Scootaloo again. There were a lot of ponies who were worried about me and the others the whole time we were gone, but stars-willing we’d be going home to see them soon. For now though, I had to focus as me and twenty others went through battlefield reports one-by-one to get an accurate count on just what we were dealing with in terms of casualties and combat wounded. Having been the weather manager for Ponyville most of my life meant I was no stranger to paperwork, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t bored out of my mind.

“You alright over there, Dash?” Gilda called from beside me, nudging me with her shoulder.

I sighed and rubbed the space between my eyes with a hoof. “Yeah, just tired. I swear, I’m sleeping for a year when this is over.”

Gilda’s clawed hand patted my shoulder as she muttered, “Almost done Dash, almost done.”

I nodded and got back to work, though I thought it better to help pass the time with some small talk to keep me focused without nodding off. “So, what are you doing after this is all over?”

Gilda grunted and scratched out a few words and numbers on her tally sheet before shrugging. “I don’t know. I can’t really go back home because I’m labeled as a deserter, but-”

“Equestria thinks you’re a hero,” I interjected with a smile, “and so do I. You’ve done more than your fair share in this war, so if your own kind doesn’t want to take their heads out of their flanks to let a little desertion slide, it’s their loss.” I nudged her back and softly added, “You’re more than welcome to stay here, G. Even in Ponyville, you’re not just ‘Meanie-pants Gilda’ anymore: you’re a veteran of a war that was volunteer-only for all of Equestria, and you fought for us instead of against us.”

Gilda snorted, shaking her head. “Not like I really had a choice. Who else was I gonna fight for, Death?”

My smile grew as I extended my wing around her back. “All ponies see is the fact that you willingly risked your life so they didn’t have to. You’re a war hero now, and you know darn well that me and everypony else would vouch for you.” I then shrugged, clearing my throat nervously. “Besides, it would be nice to have another one of my best buds living close by.”

Gilda nodded, and I removed my wing. “I’ll need some time to think about it. I’ll admit it’s a pretty attractive offer, but even the threat of being brought to the courts of Highmount for desertion isn’t enough to make me never want to go home again.” She then shrugged and glanced at me. “What about you? Still gonna join the Wonderbolts someday?”

At that moment something interesting happened: instead of answering with an immediate and strong “yes”, I found myself having to actually think about my answer. Truth be told I hadn’t even thought about the Wonderbolts since a little after my wedding (“my wedding”...never thought I’d say that). Just a little over a year ago they were all I could talk about, but now...I don’t know, it just didn’t seem as important.

What had I wanted out of the Wonderbolts in the first place?

Well, my foalhood was pretty sheltered until I went to flight school, so I knew part of it was that I wanted to get out and see the world. Also, I’d had confidence issues for a long time, so praise from others was a big thing to me too. Not a lot of ponies could tell at a glance, but it wasn’t any secret among my friends that a lot of my bravado was an act I put on to get noticed. It made sense then that with my special talent being flight itself, I would want to join a group that specialized in being the best at flying. Now though…

“I never thought I’d say it, but I don’t think so.” I muttered, half-surprised by my own answer.

Gilda just stared at me while I started going through reports again.

I figured she wouldn’t let me go without explaining, so I elaborated a bit (geeze, all these big words lately; Twilight’s never going to let me live it down). “Look at what we’re doing right now, Gilda. We’re counting up how many have died or been maimed in a war we both fought in, and we’ve traveled all over the world for it. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough adventure to last a lifetime from this; I wouldn’t turn down a fight by any means, but I’m not going to go out and look for fame and excitement. I have ponies that would miss me if I left now, and I value one of them more than I do thousands of screaming fans.”

Gilda snorted as she returned to her own work. “Who are you and where did you hide Rainbow Dash?”

“I’m what Rainbow Dash should be, Gilda.” I returned with a smile that filled my face. “All those years of big talk and boasting -- only worrying about being awesome -- and I was just wanting ponies to love and accept me for who I really am.” I sighed. “But I was terrified to let them in. For a long time I thought that they wouldn’t like who was underneath it all, but Frost showed me that ponies who didn’t like the real me weren’t the type of ponies I should have in my life.”

For the first time in my life, I could say I was proud of who I had become and what I had done, because while my loyalty would always be something I would be praised for, I could now say I willingly risked my life for ponies and other races I didn’t even know. When I put myself on the front lines, I wasn’t thinking about the abstract idea of doing it for the entirety of Equestria -- I was thinking about the individual ponies that made up the kingdom. I didn’t care that I would likely be praised for what I did -- and already was practically worshiped, being an alicorn and all. Instead, I did what needed to be done to try and save as many lives as I could.

As we continued the tally, I thought forced its way to my lips before I could stop it. “How do we know if we did enough, G?” I motioned with a hoof to the thick stacks of reports each of us had to go through. “I mean look at this; there must be thousands of names in here.”

“Hey, keep it together.” Gilda chastised with a glare. “We’ve only been out of open combat for like six hours, so don’t fall apart on us now. You can mourn the dead after we’re done; for now, we have work to do.”

I didn’t like it, but I nodded anyway because she was right. For now, I needed to focus; the soldiers of all races were looking to its leaders -- like me and the other princesses -- to lead them through this. Like a huge worldwide adrenaline crash, everyone wanted to just sleep now and forget all about this...but our work wasn’t done yet.

I only hoped that the others were doing alright as well.

Perspective change -- Celestia

At long last, it was finally over.

Though our duties were not done yet, there was now an end in sight to the entirety of the dreaded conflict -- which included cleanup and things of that nature -- at which point we would finally be able to mourn those lost and rebuild our homes. Other than the physical danger involved, I found the actual fighting to be much easier to handle than what was to come, but knew that my ponies and our new allies were depending on me to stay strong and guide them in this time of need.

Twilight was of great help of course, and made sure to delegate things that needed to be done to ponies that could handle it, so as to spread the jobs out among many ponies and expedite the entire process in an attempt to finish in no more than a few days at most. I smiled lovingly at my close friend and herdsister, silently thanking her for her assistance.

“Princess Celestia?” the voice of my current battlefield assistant called, bringing me back to reality.

I glanced down at him, smiling at the grizzled azure-coated pony. “Apologies my dear, my mind was elsewhere.”

He smiled crookedly and nodded. “We’re almost finished, princess -- just a few more hours and we can rest for the night while Princess Luna and the night shift takes over.”

I physically shook myself and focused. “Right; so what is on the agenda next?”

“Well,” he mumbled before looking down at the clipboard floating in his magical grip, “we need to meet with the gryphon battlefield leader, Commander Highwind, and then the changeling queen is requesting our presence in the command tent. After that I’ve scheduled a meeting with High Executor Verus of the Cervidae people, and following that your presence has been requested by the great dragon elder, Varuuthas. After those meetings, your day is free to do as you wish -- the rest is being taken care of by the overwhelming number of ponies at work.”

Never before had I come across so many of my subjects willingly taking on burdens so that I didn’t have to.

“Why do they work so tirelessly, Glitz? Surely it cannot be because they feel invigorated at the end of a battle.” I questioned, and although I directed the question to my assistant, it was just as much rhetorical as anything.

He was silent for a few moments as he joined me in looking out over the living field, which writhed with so many different races all at work. “Well, my opinion is because your ponies have come to know a bit of you as Celestia, instead of just their princess. They’ve come to understand just what you go through, day in and day out, and they want to show their appreciation by giving you a reprieve. Unlike military commanders of old, you fought with your ponies instead of standing off to the side and issuing orders to be followed. While you already have their respect as a wise and competent leader of an entire kingdom, you’ve now proven to them your worth as a mere pony as well, and they want to honor you.”

I giggled good-naturedly. “That’s quite the opinion, Glitz.”

He chuckled nervously and rubbed the back of his neck. “I may have been wondering the exact same thing as I was putting together your schedule, and might have asked around a bit. It seems that while it is true everyone is tired, they are also invigorated by the end they all sought after, and knowing that soon it will be time to go home and spend time with their loved ones. Take it from an old soldier: the promise of going home after a long time away is more motivating than anything else in the world.”

I looked down to Glitz, noting the wooden rear leg that replaced one of flesh and bone. “Do you have any regrets?”

He shook his head, and cracked a tired yet genuine smile. “Only that I was forced out of the fight before it became really interesting; what I wouldn’t give to have been out on that field with you and the others these past few days.”

I took a deep breath, but returned his smile. “Then let’s get on with it, shall we? No sense dragging this all out longer than it needs to be.”

Glitz nodded and levitated his clipboard to the bags that sat just forward of his hips. “Well, let’s get going then. Interestingly enough, the gryphon commander seems very excited to meet you.”

I kept my smile, though now it turned into more of a smirk. “We start out our long-slumbering military with a one-battle conflict with the gryphons, only to ally with them later on. Strange how the world works sometimes.”

“The enemy of my enemy.” he muttered off-hoofedly, only to glance at me and grin. “This time however, I think we may have made some new friends in the world -- quite a few, actually. It seems your stallion and his brother have helped us greatly impress many of the other races of Terra, and I find the situation to be very lucrative.” He sighed almost wistfully. “Imagine: dragonforged armor and weapons, produce and medicines from the Cervidae, and industry from the gryphons. We face a time of unparalleled change ahead of us -- we need only reach out and take it.”

Looking over the churning masses, I nodded. “It seems it is indeed time for a change for Equestria, and we could use more friends across the world. Very well, let’s be off to meet the gryphon commander.”

Without another word, Glitz trotted ahead to lead me through the many races of soldiers milling about, toward the command hill where the gryphon leadership was perched. It still sometimes felt strange to me that we were now allied with the entirety of the gryphon kingdoms, where once Highmount had thought it a good idea to start a war with us. I didn’t fault them for it of course, since many of the worst ideas in history seemed good at the time, but in the same moment I also felt a small bit of contempt for their sad attempt at conquest. I have an entire race I was sworn to protect after all.

As we approached the cluster of command tents (which were rather crude, since gryphons generally did not build structures that tethered them to the ground) I noticed a fair few of the half-feline people eyeing me curiously. They were not looks of hostility or even uneasiness; they were simply expressions that said they were unsure why I was in their camp. Their armor was generally not as flashy or intimidating as dragonkin or even Equestrian protective gear, but it had proven very functional and practical in its use, protecting key areas while still allowing full range of movement. From fighting beside them, I had learned not to underestimate their ferocity.

The commander himself was talking with a small group of guards animatedly, likely reliving their battlefield exploits with stories of glory, and glanced up at me with a hawkish smile as I approached. “Ah, the prestigious Princess of Equestria has arrived. You honor us.”

I nodded to him, hiding a smile of my own. “After that battle, I think the honor is mine. The way you and yours fell upon those deathdragons was awe-inspiring just to watch.”

He smirked in return. “A true gryphon warrior runs from no one, princess. Terror unto our enemies, and glory to our honored dead!” The commander’s shout was greeted with hundreds of voices answering around us. A part of me wished I could feel as triumphant about my own kind perishing in battle, but I simply could not muster more than a polite smile in return.

“Yes indeed; well fought, commander.” I returned politely, but genuinely.

He shook his head, running a claw through the feathers above his eyes. “Just Highwind is fine, princess. I think you and yours have proven you aren’t the soft, squishy little prey most gryphons thought you all were.”

I ignored the half-veiled barb and returned one of my own. “And it appears gryphons are far more honorable and skilled than the brutish fools most ponies think they are. It seems we both have much to learn about each other.”

“It seems so.” Highwind replied neutrally before reaching into the satchel at his side and pulling out a stack of folded documents. “These are trade agreements straight from High King Keeneye, requesting a reopening of the borders between our nations. He requests a response as soon as you are able, as well as any changes you deem reasonable.”

The straightforward jump into alliance caught me off-guard momentarily, and I likely looked rather foolish staring blankly for a few seconds before grasping the documents in my magic and levitating them to Glitz, who filed them away in his saddlebag. With a nod and a much brighter smile, I offered my hoof to the commander. “Pass on word to the high king that I will respond with haste after I have returned all of my ponies to their families within the next month or so. I thank him for this opportunity for a new friendship to form between our two lands.”

Highwind nodded as he shook my hoof, but then cleared his throat. “And...he shamefully extends his apologies for the actions of Highmount. He declares he had no hand in that event, and hopes you can overlook the actions of one rogue kingdom in light of such a generous proposal.”

I knew that the Gryphon Kingdoms were called such because the gryphon lands were in fact dozens of separate states ruled by separate kings, though they all answered to the elected high king. It appeared that some internal turmoil had come about recently for them, and though a part of me wanted to lash out at the entire race for the actions of a small group, I knew I could not for the greater good of this war’s survivors.

I nodded slowly instead. “To hold every gryphon responsible for the actions of a select few is not only ignorant, but blind. Tell your high king that I accept his apologies, and that what has happened will not affect my dealings with him or the entirety of your people.”

Highwind smiled and shook my hoof once again. “Then with that, I will refocus on restoring the battlefield to some semblance of order before we leave. Thank you for your time, Princess Celestia.”

I returned a smile of my own, opting to send him off with a gryphon saying: “May the wind beneath your wings always guide you home, or to glory.” From the slight widening of his eyes, I could see the commander was surprised I was familiar enough with his culture to understand the saying.

With a much more subdued smile he answered with a surprise of his own. “I pray the sun warms your face on the coldest day, and the moon lights your path on the darkest night.”

I nodded silently to the gryphon commander before leaving him and those under his command to celebrate such a great victory. While I wanted to join them in their revelry, I knew that my position as a princess of Equestria demanded my day be filled with important tasks to accomplish. Oh, how I was going to enjoy taking a breath of relief once Equestria was rebuilt and her people on the mend.

Without a word or preamble, I followed Glitz to the main command tent and entered, zipping it closed behind me before turning to an unassuming white pegasus mare with green eyes. After a brief glance around the interior of the tent, the mare erupted into vivid green flames for a few moments, revealing the queen of the changelings standing in front of me.

“Greetings Chrysalis. It appears congratulations are in order.” I greeted warmly, an act I never imagined I would be doing to this enemy-turned ally.

She nodded, smiling a fang-filled grin. “It is indeed. With your many allies and more than a little luck, it appears you’ve overcome death itself to save this world. Honestly, I’m impressed -- more survived than were killed, which is a victory in itself.”

I stood silently for a moment, mulling over what she had said before answering, “The ancient pact was that no princess of Equestria would fight in a war between our nations, but when Death himself declared war on all that lived, that pact was null and void. I could not -- would not -- sit idly by while my ponies fought and died alone.”

“And it is for that reason alone that I underestimated your ponies, because we both know they would have fought alone if it came right down to it.” Chrysalis replied, idly rubbing a thick scar in the carapace across her chest.

I nodded an affirmative. “But because of you, they did not go into this blind, and had unseen allies the whole time. Equestria owes you a great debt, it seems.”

Finally the reason for our conversation had been brought about, but oddly enough I could see only shame and nervousness cross the face of Queen Chrysalis as she averted her eyes. For a few moments she was completely silent before muttering, “...it was never personal, you know.” At my questioning glance, she elaborated. “My attempted takeover of your land wasn’t because I was angry at being an outcast or anything so childish. To put it simply, my people were starving, and have been for many years now. I could only take hearing their pained cries for so many years before I sought to end their suffering with a more permanent solution.”

“Chrysalis…” I murmured, my empathy allowing me to feel the pain she held in her heart for her people.

She waved a hoof at me dismissively. “I don’t need your apologies, princess; it’s appreciated, but it isn’t going to help my people.” I felt and heard my mouth click shut after her stern words, and for a few moments we simply sat in awkward silence. “My people were never meant to be parasites, you know.”

I raised my brow in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“A completely different species, and yet changelings hold an equine form; more than that, why would a race that is known as great shapeshifters only be able to change into ponies?” Chrysalis explained, though she seemed to almost be talking to herself. “No one ever asks themselves those questions. They just pass off my entire race as monsters -- pests to be disposed of, and nothing more.”

“They’re wrong.” I blurted without thinking, though I still meant it. “You’ve proven just how unique and helpful your people can be.”

“And yet, rather than allow a mutually beneficial symbiosis between us, ponies shun changelings simply because they look different.” Chrysalis growled, and I might have imagined a single, crystalline tear falling from one of her eyes. “But I will not allow my people to starve and die simply because we are looked down upon; if what we need will be kept from us because we aren’t pretty like your blasted ponies, we will take it to survive.”

I always knew there had to be more to Chrysalis and her kind than I thought, but her demeanor and words at that moment confirmed it. Her posture, her tone and even her eyes screamed of pain for her people. She loved her own people as much as I did mine, but unlike ponies, her kind was shunned because they looked intimidating or even downright scary and weird. It wasn’t fair that changelings were looked down upon simply because they looked different, and I could now understand why Chrysalis had done what she did. Truth be told, had I been in a similar situation, I can’t say I would not have let my anger and frustration cause more damage than she ever could have.

“Ponies will demand justice, Chrysalis.” I stated plainly, though the truth of the words still hurt.

She nodded, defeated. “I know. To ignore the voice of the people is to walk the path of the tyrant, and you are no tyrant.”

I approached her and raised a hoof, briefly stopping in my reach before placing it on the shoulder of the slumped queen before me. She glanced up tearfully at me as I asked, “Are you prepared to answer for what you’ve done?”

“Can you assure my people will be provided for?” she countered, her eyes hard yet hopeful.

After a moment’s thought, I nodded. “I can. Starvation will be a distant memory for changelings if I have any say in it -- and I do. Arrive with your subjects outside the main Canterlot gate -- in disguise, please -- two weeks from today, and I will take care of everything.”

Chrysalis eyed me skeptically for a moment. “I have your word?”

I smiled gently. “If I were to go back on my promise to you, I would anger not only my stallion and his brother, but my sister as well. All three of them will be alive too long for me to risk that. Besides that, I am not the type of pony to forsake a promise I made.” The few deep, nervous breaths Chrysalis took made it clear to me that she was struggling to accept the near future, so I gently rubbed her shoulder with my hoof. “Hey, it’s going to be fine. I will assure you are treated fairly, and your people provided for. After your debt is paid, you will be free to go.”

Chrysalis smiled softly in a way I had not seen before, and nodded as she brushed a hoof over her eyes and stood. “Very well, then I will depart and prepare. Thank you for your time, princess.”

I offered a single nod as well. “Safe travels, and I hope to see you again shortly.” Without another word, Queen Chrysalis shrouded herself in another disguise and unzipped the tent flaps, leaving with only single glance back.

Glitz stepped into the command tent after she left, looking back as he did so. “Well, that seemed to go well enough. Alright, next is a meeting with High Executor Verus, and then we will end the day with an audience with the elder Blue.”

I nodded and began trotting after my assistant, smiling gently at how things were going thus far.

Perspective change -- Luna

I kept silent watch as Frost slumbered, hoping that he would wake up sometime soon. Ashamedly, I had jumped at the opportunity to watch over Frost as he rested, leaving the more tedious work to my sister and the others. It was not that I thought I would be unable to handle the administrative tasks that required tending to -- quite the opposite, actually -- but the diagnosis of our medical team worried me more than I cared to admit.

It appeared that Frost’s physical exhaustion was a symptom of the internal magical damage done to him as a result of the enthralling spell placed upon him by Death. I was assured his magical pathways would regenerate quickly upon actual rest, but was told the damage was extensive. To think he had been fighting against this the entire time he was returned to us…

It had only been a mere few hours since the end of the battle and official closing of the war, and I found myself wrapped in bandages and covered in various healing salves, the latter thanks to our allies, the deer-folk. To think that at one time Night was considered the world’s greatest enemy; it appears none of us knew what true evil was. Still, brought from the ashes of this war, a great many new allies and friends had arisen. In the mere twinkling of an eye for the life of an alicorn, Equestria reconnected with our ancient allies, the dragons, and reestablished contact with the Cervidaens. Much had been gained as a result, but at a high cost.

“Pardon me princess,” a soft voice called from beside me as a young nurse pony stepped into the tent, “but I need to take his vitals again to be sure he’s healing properly.” I nodded my assent as she entered, but kept my gaze on the slumbering alicorn before us. After a few moments of the nurse gathering the different readings, she turned to me with a frown. “The medics never told me more than I needed to know, so forgive me if this sounds too forward or assertive, but what happened to him, princess?”

I sighed softly as I placed my hoof upon Frost’s. “Put simply, he used a spell to keep fighting even when he was brought to the brink. His body was already out of sorts because of a spell placed upon him by our enemy, but he refused to rest. While I applaud his loyalty to Equestria and admit it was the right choice, I cannot help but feel responsible for not attempting to talk him out of it.”

Because of their oaths, medical staff of all kinds tended to treat we royals as equals, and it was for this reason alone that I was happy to feel a comforting hoof on my shoulder as the young mare smiled up at me. “He’ll be fine, princess. Give it a day or two more of rest and he’ll be as good as new. Just...try and get him to reign in the recklessness a bit; I don’t like seeing him here.”

“I second that.” I muttered, offering the nurse a grateful smile of my own.

She nodded before removing her hoof and trotting toward the tent flaps again. “I’ll leave you two alone, but should he wake up -- however unlikely that is -- call me.” She left without further conversation, zipping the tent flaps closed behind her.

As silence once again overtook us, I slipped within myself to check my regenerating magical reserves before charging and releasing a spell, finding Night standing beside the bed a moment later. She merely glanced at me before looking down to Frost with a frown.

“I wish I could have done more.” Night murmured, leaning forward and resting her head upon Frost’s chest. “Thousands died as a result of the damnable war, and I just felt so...helpless most of the time.”

I nodded in understanding. “Even when we eventually move past all this, I foresee each of us asking ourselves if we could have done more, or prevented this entirely somehow.” With a deep breath, I shook my head. “But we can’t think that way. Questioning about what could have been will only drive us mad, and I have lost myself to insanity once already in my life.”

Had I not reached out with a wing and laid it across her back, I was quite sure Night would have visibly winced at the latter part of my statement. Instead, she merely nodded solemnly. “I will try, Luna. I’ll feel better once we’re away from this battlefield and the stench of death itself that seems to permeate this place.” She then shifted and leaned against me a bit. “I just want to go home…”

The idea of “home” is usually a very simple thought, and with it comes simple desires: safety, comfort, and familiarity. It had been far too long since any of us had been home for a decent length of time, but now it seemed the time to return home, where our many loved ones were waiting for us, was approaching soon.

With a gentle nuzzle along her cheek, I held Night tighter against me. “I as well, Night…”

Perspective change -- Twilight

Anypony who knows me knows that I love any sort of organizational paperwork, and the more checkboxes and bullet-points, the better. I revel in order and organization, and it’s something I’m also very good at.

After today though, I think checklists and I may need to see other ponies.

I had made entire forts from scrolls and books as a filly, and had checklists so long that a pony could suffocate in the mere amount of stationary, but dear Faust I was so done with paperwork now. If I saw another stack of forms within a week, I was sure I was going to scream.

All the same though, so much paperwork and so little action meant that things were wrapping up, so I had that to look forward to. More than anything though, I wanted to sleep without worrying about waking up to find a few hundred more soldiers had perished while I rested, or learning that another fool unicorn cracked his horn by trying to show off on the field to his or her comrades. It was that type of mentality that showed me daily just how much I had changed in such a short time. At the beginning of the war, I was crying at least a few hours every day at the thought of so many ponies dying. Over time, I became numb to the thought itself, and the many casualties became mere numbers to me.

It was frightening to know that I had become so cold and cynical in some ways.

Luna and Celestia both assured me that such a change was not uncommon or frowned upon, but I still didn’t like it. Tears sprung from my eyes at just the thought of Luna or any of my other herdmates so much as getting a bruise, but these thousands of nameless ponies were just statistics. Did that make me a bad pony; should I be ashamed or glad that I can still smile and laugh in spite of so much death? Thorns of self-loathing stab my heart every time I find myself indirectly glad that another pony took the place of one of my herdmates or family, since I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief every time I thought to myself, “It wasn’t them; they’re okay.”

I had no doubt once the reality of such a great conflict being over finally hit me, I’d probably spend the next few days crying my eyes out for all the ponies that lost their lives, and all the families that would have to be told their husband, father, mother, wife, or child was not going to be coming home. For now though, there were forms to be filed, and thousands of reports to go through.

Perspective change -- Vinyl Scratch

“...that’s right peeps, the war is OVER! Let’s hear it for our ponies in the service!” I shouted loudly over the mic, hearing a ROAR of cheers from the thousand or so ponies in attendance, making this the absolute largest show I’d ever hosted, and also the first I’d not be spinning at. When the cheers tapered off, I nodded with a bob of my head. “I bet they heard that all the way in the Gryphon Kingdoms, but I know you can do better! C’mon, show ‘em some love!” If the sound before was a roar, this time it sounded like the ground was tearing open as hooves, claws, and innumerable voices made tons of noise. It was this moment in particular that I had been waiting for as I shouted, “Well we got a heck of a show planned for all of you tonight, and it’s all dedicated to those brave souls that fought for us. Keep ‘em in your minds and hearts as my good friend Zapper takes you all on a ride!” With a glance at the silver-feathered gryphon beside me I nodded and cried, “DJ, spin that sh-”

The beat dropped like a growling dragon right before I finished my sentence, causing everyone in attendance -- which was a mish-mash crowd of ponies, gryphons, and even a few younger dragonkin -- to lose their minds as I walked off the stage, leaving the show in the capable claws of the DJ in control of the music. I made my way around the back and then to the VIP area, where a few of my best friends were waiting with smiles on their faces.

“Vinyl, over here!” shouted one such friend, somehow getting her voice to carry over the music and the crowd.

I smiled wide and trotted over, embracing my fellow herdsister in a tight hug before sliding into the booth with her. “Heya Lyr, how’re you all doin’?”

Lyra motioned to the other three ponies in attendance, who all wore smiles as well. “We’re just great, Vinyl. We’re glad you could take time to join us, actually.”

“Yeah, you work too hard.” one of the others -- Bon Bon -- commented with a smirk.

“I must agree dear, you have not stopped to take a break for quite some time.” Rarity added with a gentle smile. “I applaud your desire to keep the morale of Equestria positive, but you must allow yourself to let your mane down as well.”

I glanced over the other pony yet to speak -- Fluttershy, who was smiling shyly -- before gesturing to Rarity. “The rest of them I can understand, but what are you and Fluttershy doing here? Not that I’m not happy to see you both, but it just doesn’t really seem like your kind of scene is all.”

Contrary to what I expected, Fluttershy was the one to answer, and somehow doing so with enough volume for us to hear her. “W-well Moonfang and Spike recommended we spend time with all of you to from a strong support for those of us waiting for our special someponies to come home.” She smiled gently, and nodded. “Thank you for putting us on the guest list, by the way.”

I smiled and shook my head. “All my friends are always on my guest lists. Besides, it’s always fun to see a few unexpected visitors to the scene.” I reached over and snatched the drink from in front of Lyra and downed it in a few gulps, enjoying the burning fruity taste left in its wake. “Now, are you girls gonna get up and dance on your own or do I have to make you?” I turned and glanced over my shoulder, waiting for the four to follow me before making my way to the main floor, offering my tail to help guide them through the crowd. I felt one of them bite down on my tail as I continued my way through the gyrating crowd, nudging my way through until we found an open space right in the middle.

Lyra released my tail as Fluttershy glanced around nervously, the latter leaning close and worriedly explaining, “B-but I don’t know how to dance!”

I grinned and looked back to Lyra and Bon Bon briefly. “Girls, you make sure Rarity doesn’t get lonely -- I’ve got ‘Shy here.” Without waiting for her to respond, I stood on my hind legs and pulled Fluttershy up with me, offering my hooves for support as I moved close to her ear and muttered, “That means you’re with me, cutie.”

Fluttershy looked a little uncomfortable, but the past year had done wonders for her self confidence and desire to try new things. So, while it was clear she was out of sorts in a dance club, her faint, blushing smile let me know she was willing to give this a try. She nodded and followed my lead as we slowly began to move our bodies to the rhythm of the music, no set dance steps in mind. In many ways EDM was easier to dance to than other types of music since there was no specific moves that needed to be used when it was playing. Because of this, I simply held Fluttershy’s hooves with my own at let the music flow through me, coaxing her to do the same.

A glance back at the other three showed me that not only was Rarity easily falling into the spirit of the place, but it was clear she was an incredible dancer, and used to being the center of attention. Where I had originally thought Lyra and Bon Bon were going to need to bring her out of her shell, Rarity instead had the two other mares wrapped around her hooves as she teasingly danced with them in what I could only describe as a seductive way. Her bright, confident smile and sensual rolls of her body made it clear that she was in her element anywhere ponies could see her, since she carried this aura that seemed to draw ponies to her no matter where she is. A soft brush of her hoof or tickle from her tail further excited her two partners, and she had them dancing with her as if the entire thing was choreographed.

That mare was dangerous.

A brush of feathers against my fetlocks brought me back to my own dance partner, who was smiling at me shyly before turning around and resting her feathered back against my chest, and I reflexively wrapped my own arms around her as we slowly flowed against one another.

“Well now, I wasn’t expecting this.” I quipped, smiling in a borderline lascivious manner. And don’t judge, because Fluttershy is the definition of cute.

She glanced over her shoulder with wide eyes as she raised her voice just enough for me to hear, “O-oh, I’m sorry. Was that too much? I can stop if-”

“No,” I interjected, still smiling, “this is just so out of character for you. I like it though…” I then leaned closer, my lips just brushing against her ear, “and I bet Moonfang does too.” At that, her wings suddenly sprang out at her sides as a fierce blush began to overtake her face and crawl down her neck, but I just pressed her closer and allowed the music to take us away.

For those of us left behind off of the battlefield, now was a time for celebration, because we knew the ones we loved were going to be coming home soon. With that thought in mind, I chose to enjoy this night and start preparing for said return, as well as further raise the spirits of as many as I could.

Perspective change -- Frostbreaker

The soft sounds of wind and hushed voices were the first things I heard as the waking world came back to me, and my dry throat and the taste of blood greeted me as I struggled to move or open my eyes, neither of which were possible at the moment. I could coordinate my tongue and lips a bit though, so I coughed a few times before licking my dry, cracked lips and wheezing.

“W-water.” I rasped when I heard someone nearby shuffling around. The familiar chime and feeling of nearby magic preceded a cup brought to my lips, which slowly turned up to pour down my throat as a hoof turned my head to accept the life-giving liquid. I was laying on my side and my wings were sore, but the fact that everything seemed to be whole was a relief.

After I had drank my fill, the cup left my lips and I whispered, “How long?”

“A little over twelve hours.” the familiar voice of Night greeted me, her soothing tone causing me to feel far more secure knowing she and Luna were alive and well. “You gave us all quite the surprise, Winter.”

I choked out a cracked laugh and replied, “A good one I hope.”

I attempted to push myself up, but a firm hoof on my withers pushed me back down to the bed. “You need to rest, Winter. You stretched yourself far too much, and now you will be paying the price for at least a week or so until you recover. I both praise and condemn your desire to place yourself on the line for those you love.”

“What happened to me?” I questioned, my voice a bit stronger now. I finally forced my eyes open, though they felt as if lead weights were tied to my eyelids. Night was frowning softly at me, likely more from concern than actual disappointment, though.

Night smiled down at me when she noticed I could see her, and nuzzled me affectionately. “I am unsure if you remember your battle with Death, but afterward, you collapsed on the ground. The rest of the day we’ve been going through our cleanup operations in an attempt to get as much done as possible so that we can get our soldiers sent home soon. The doctors say that you -- exceedingly stupidly, I might add -- overextended yourself several times over; your exhaustion was as a result of your magical pathways being damaged from the spell Death placed over you. Instead of retreating and taking a respite, you stubbornly fought on, using magic to keep you going.” She sighed and pulled away from me, frowning. “You’re an idiot, Winter...but because of you, the war is over now.”

I released a great breath, one of absolute relief, and laid my head down on the bed. “Thank the stars -- finally. And is everyone-”

“They’re all fine, Winter.” Night assured. “Luna just left a few minutes ago to check on her sister, and the rest are working hard to finish things up before nightfall, when the overnight watch will take over. Hopefully within the next day or so we will be beginning to send troops home.”

I sighed in complete exhaustion. It felt like for the past year I was living on adrenaline alone, and now that it was no longer needed I was crashing hard. Or, maybe it was just unbelievably relieving to know that I wasn’t going to have to spend every waking moment worrying how many more will have died in battle by the time I close my eyes to sleep at night.

“Are you sure you all have everything handled?” I asked worriedly, still hoping they would let me do something so I wouldn’t feel so useless.

Night nodded with a smile. “We’re sure. What you need to do is sleep; we’ll take care of the rest.” She then leaned down and brushed her lips fleetingly against mine before pulling away.

“W-where are you going?” I queried as she began to leave the tent.

Night stopped just by the tent flaps before half-heartedly answering, “Saying goodbye to an old friend. Sleep well, Winter.”

Night then left me alone. With nothing left to do and exhaustion overtaking me once again, I closed my eyes and quickly drifted off to dreamland.

Perspective change -- Luna

Night was just about to fall as the sun approached the far western horizon, and in a lone field outside of the mountains we gathered to watch it. Pony and dragon alike had arrived, though only a few of the former among innumerable drakes and other dragonkin.

“I’ve always enjoyed the sunsets.” the deep, rumbling voice of Varuuthas, the great dragon elder, commented as we all watched sister’s great orb prepare to give way to night. “Just in the same way that the twilight of life often has the most beauty, the time just before evening tends to be the most breathtaking to see.”

“That does not mean I want your day to end, old friend.” I replied, taking a deep breath to keep tears from spilling over. “I know that very few things in this world are permanent, but that does not make saying goodbye any easier.”

Varuuthas looked over all that were gathered before nodding to himself. “I agree, but my legacy will ensure none shall ever forget me.” Addressing the dragons this time, he continued as he pointed to the ponies gathered, which included myself, sister, Rainbow Dash, Night, and Twilight. “By my last word, these ponies have shown that their kind is to be respected and trusted among us. They have shown courage, wisdom, and might in greater amounts than any of us ever expected from such a young race.” He then turned to me directly, a wide smile overtaking his face. “And you, my friend, are as my kin. Moon Princess Luna, friend of the dragons, I salute you for your bravery and continued support of my people.”

I lost the battle against my emotions just as flames sprouted into life along the end of his tail, slowly beginning to crawl toward his body. I wept for the loss of an ancient friend, and for the thousand years of life I had missed because of my banishment. More than anything though, I wept for all the lessons my future foals would learn, but would never know the great drake who taught them to me. The world would truly be less with his loss, and only Tia and I would remember some of the more subtle aspects of his life and personality.

“Luna, look upon me.” he commanded, though in a gentle tone that was every bit as comforting as it was powerful.

With tears streaming in rivers down my cheeks, I looked into his vivid eyes as I struggled to mutter out, “I-I’m not ready…”

With flames crawling from his legs up his torso, he smiled sadly. “None of us ever are, but I know that as long as I am remembered fondly, my life is not wasted.” The flickering flames had moved to his throat now, and he reached out a claw to cup my chin before flames engulfed it. “Live your life with both reverence and love, and you will do this old drake honor. Never forget that the greatest thing you can do with your own life is to willingly love others.”

One of his ear fins twitched as the torrent of fire now climbed to just below his eyes, and he released me as he turned -- we all turned -- to find Night standing behind him, panting heavily as she galloped over to him with tears in her eyes as well.

Stepping only a few feet away from the blaze -- close enough that a normal pony’s fur would have started to char -- and fell to her knees as she wept loudly.

Completely ablaze now, Varuuthas could not physically comfort Night without hurting her, so settled for only a few short words. “Great avatar of night, it has been a pleasure to see you again after such an age. It was a true honor to share the field of battle with you once again.” At this point there was no blue-scaled body to be seen, only a vaguely dragon-shaped inferno in an open field. Still, Varuuthas’ voice still carried strong among everyone gathered. “Watch over our people in my absence, and always remember to temper your passion with compassion.” Glancing once more over the gathered crowd with eyes that no longer seemed to exist, he nodded once before the intensity of the flames increased briefly before his entire body collapsed into a pile of burning coals and embers.

Before any of us could speak, the crowd of dragons parted as a familiar black dragon was ushered forward by Antares -- the late Veroxzhar’s daughter. He looked determined for some reason and nodded to his escort before she reached into the glowing coals and grasped one of them in her hand before bringing it to his shoulder and slowly carving three slanted lines into his arm, followed by a curved, “S” shape near the bottom. The marks were glowing orange even as she stepped away, and a look of pain could be seen on Darkflight’s face.

Antares stepped away and nodded approvingly to Darkflight. “By my right as clanleader and the embers of our honored elder, I formally name you our kin. True you are not of this world and were not hatched from an egg, but you have proven your worth and that you have the true heart of a dragon beating within your chest. With this mark, you carry our dreams with you -- dreams for a truly united Terra, across every race. You have bridged the gap between ponies and dragons, and we look forward to seeing what else you are capable of.”

Still wincing in pain from the seemingly impromptu branding, Darkflight nodded. “I’ll do my best to not disappoint, Antares. Thank you for this honor.”

As I watched, the crowd began to break apart as the dragons went about their own farewell rituals which I allowed them to conduct in private. Night joined my side as I trotted away, followed shortly by Darkflight.

Sniffling a bit to somewhat compose myself, I looked to the drake at my side. “So what exactly was the reason for that?”

Darkflight shrugged, glancing down to the still-glowing marks on his arm. “Antares spoke with me about it shortly after Death was taken down, but said because of the urgency of the entire situation -- what with the elder’s approaching passing -- we couldn’t really wait.” He chuckled and shook his head. “Luckily for her, I’m a pretty impulsive guy. I mean c’mon, a bunch of dragons basically come to me and said, ‘bro, you’re one of us now’. I’d be stupid to turn that down.” He then glanced back at the pile of what used to be an elder dragon. “Still, Varuuthas was pretty wise. I’m gonna miss him.” He glanced down at me, frowning slightly. “Are you gonna be okay there?”

Squeaking pitifully as I attempted to respond, I swallowed before answering, “I-I could use a hug.”

He glanced beside me and stepped between Night and I, wrapping his wings and arms around us as we stopped and embraced, trying not to think about the many losses the conflict had cost us.

Perspective change -- Moonfang

While I had lived the first part of my life as a ravenous predator -- little more than a beast in many aspects -- I remembered enough to know that the protection offered by my wooden armor had been comforting. Flammable though it was, the wooden skin of a timberwolf was also a very useful and powerful form of protection. Its loss had left me feeling exposed and vulnerable, but the presence of my dear Fluttershy made me reevaluate the feeling toward it. The feeling of touch against my bare fur was something I had quickly come to enjoy, as was the experience of wind running across my body.

Like my old wooden flesh, my armor had become a comforting layer of protection between me and any enemies that would wish to do me or my pack harm. My armor now lay discarded beside me though, and I enjoyed the cold evening air as it blew through my fur. I was no stranger to the need to kill for survival, but the gift of sapience and compassion bestowed upon me also made me wish for the calm nights I spent with my mate, snuggled together as we drifted off to sleep.

Venn sat a few paces away from me, looking to the moon as it rose into the sky, and though no words were spoken between us, I knew he was feeling similar to how I was.

War was a construct not of the wild, but of civilization. Animals did not wage wars of ideals or morality, and nor did they fight for anything but food, shelter, or mates. It was in this way that I found myself in some ways jealous of the simplicity of my old life. However, the thought of Fluttershy and my new adoptive pack gave a feeling of utter joy that was worth every complicated thing about civilized society.

As night had fallen and the screams and roars of battle had finally ceased after so long, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the quiet.

“What do we do now?” Venn’s voice carried over the breeze.

I shrugged with my eyes closed. “We will look on to the horizon for the next great trial. Until then, we will live and watch over our pack. They will need us in this time of sorrow, so we must remain strong.”

“I agree.” he answered softly, and though nothing else was said, I could picture a small smile upon his muzzle as we allowed ourselves to finally rest after so long.

Whatever may come, this conflict alone proved to us -- to the world -- that there was nothing we were incapable of when we all worked together. Any darkness that would wash over the land, I knew we were fully able to combat it, and I also knew the bonds built over these years would stand strong against any trial. Blood and death had seemed to nearly consume the world, but after long last, new life would be able to flourish in its wake. It would not be easy and the road would be long, but I knew that my pack -- my family -- was ready to bring our home into a new era of safety and abundance for all.

It would just take time.

“Do you ever regret it?” Venn asked, his voice little more than a whisper.

I smiled gently and shook my head. “Not even for a moment, my friend.”