Rise of the Elements Part II: Return of the Avatars

by Radiant Dawn

Chapter 34: The Shadowed Road Leads to a Better Tomorrow

Chapter 34: The Shadowed Road Leads to a Better Tomorrow

Perspective change -- Celestia

The next few days were a complete and utter nightmare by anypony’s standards. Foreign diplomats and soldiers were working to open up new alliances and friendships with us, and ponies were reuniting with friends and family as we began sending them home. With all of this, however, came lack of adequate sleep and more than a few heated disagreements between the races gathered. It was clear that while we had worked together to ensure mutual survival against death itself, old hatreds and rivalries were still strong enough to cause problems.

The gryphons had never gotten along with the zebras, and more than a few issues had cropped up now that the situation was de-escalated enough that survival was assured. Among this came quite a few unpleasant history lessons about slavery, attempted genocide, and biological warfare between the two, which was just barely kept civil by my presence alone. In the end, the two races parted ways with a tenuous alliance, but it was clear the leaders were doing this more for their people than because of trust.

Whispers had begun trickling through the ranks that the Cervidaen people may have been in league with Death himself, using their wild, misunderstood magic to help our enemy. While it was true Cervidae was an unknown for many years, I knew for a fact that they were only guilty of self-isolation and reluctance to trust the other races of the world. Ponies, it seemed, still feared what they did not understand. I put a stop to the rumors immediately, but I knew thoughts were far more difficult to defeat than an army. I would need to keep an eye on the situation to be sure nothing particularly unpleasant became of it.

On a more positive note, our fierce draconic allies were welcomed with open arms by my ponies, likely because two of their ranks were well-known and respected members of Equestrian society. While Spike was raised as an Equestrian and Darkflight was an alien, the presence of both as a go-between for the two races did wonders for the new friendships forming after millennia of misunderstandings. I saw the potential for Equestria to grow and flourish with our new friends, so much so that I foresaw more than a few personal relationships -- and even romances -- forming between just the soldiers themselves. The dragonkin had shown themselves to be the opposite of what many ponies had once thought of them (of fierce, ravenous monsters), which seemed to conjure a mutual interest in each other by our two races. Even now among the streets of Canterlot, dragonkin of all shapes and sizes could often be seen walking, flying, and talking with their new pony friends. I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of just how much good had come of it all, even with so much loss of life. I now truly believed such death was not in vain.

Gryphons, too, became a prominent presence in Equestria. While still wary around the half-avian race, ponies were prepared to give the more friendly gryphon nations a chance to prove themselves as respectable, steadfast allies. I expect in the coming months and years, “Equestria” may need to change its name, with so many other races than just ponies within its the lands. Still, I know that my own people come first, and so I vowed to do all within my power to ensure the integration of so many races was done properly, so as to avoid any cultural faux pas or misunderstandings. While war may have brought us together, the fact still stood that ponies and gryphons were very different in a number of ways, so our relationship would need to be taken slowly and carefully.

Of more personal matters was my worry for Frost, though I was assured that he and the others that were recuperating would be fine. I was a princess, and so I knew my duty was to the masses first -- to treat all equally -- but I could not help but worry about my own personal friends. Many times, I would find myself daydreaming about the time when things were so much simpler, and we had the time and ability to focus only on each other without the threat of war bearing down on us.

Would things ever go back to the way they were?

Unfortunately, I knew such a thing was impossible. Our lives -- our very personalities -- had changed because of the mutual trials we endured...but that didn’t need to be a bad thing. We survived together, somehow, and while we had received new scars -- both physical and emotional -- because of such horrible events, I knew we were stronger for it. That doesn’t mean I won’t shed tears for the losses and trauma accrued, but it was, after all, for the greater good.

“Hey Cel, you alright?”

I turned my head to my fellow alicorn -- and fellow herdmate -- smiling broadly. “Yes Rainbow, I am fine. I’m simply thinking about all that has befallen us.”

“‘Befallen’ sounds so negative.” she replied, turning her head back to the reports she was working on. “It wasn’t all bad; we survived, after all. In my book, that’s a big, heaping plus.”

I turned away from my own writing desk and stood, stretching and popping the kinks out of my neck and back before giving a flap of my wings. I strode over to Rainbow Dash, who was doing her best to set up the weather for Ponyville and Canterlot in such a way that we wouldn’t end up in a drought. Contrary to how I remembered the young pony from the first few times we met, she seemed much quieter recently. I worried for her, as well as all of my friends, but the normally brash and vibrant mare seemed...less.

“Rainbow, are you alright?” I questioned with concern.

Rainbow Dash dropped the quill from her levitation and turned to me with a raised eyebrow. “Yeah, I’m fine; why?”

I couldn’t help but frown at her response, since it was clear she was stressed. Just like Luna, Rainbow had a habit of holding her pain and discomfort inside instead of finding a way to vent the pressure. I myself had been guilty of the same many times, so I knew from experience how damaging it could be -- doubly so for one with such immense power, such as an alicorn.

Moving closer and wrapping one of my wings around her back, I leaned in and brushed my cheek against hers comfortingly. “Rainbow...it’s alright to be exhausted and stressed. Please, tell me what troubles you.”

Closing her eyes and releasing a long breath, Rainbow smiled up at me with exhaustion clear in her eyes. “I can’t hide anything from you, can I?” She let out a mirthless chuckle before slumping a bit, and I tightened my hold on her protectively. “I’m just so tired. I’m tired of this paperwork, I’ve been tired of the war, and…” she sighed and leaned into my body, nuzzling my neck appreciatively, “I just want to go home. I want to go back to a time when we were all happy, and I actually-” she stopped herself, turning to look me in the eyes, “I don’t even want to join the Wonderbolts anymore; how crazy is that?”

“Time and experience changes us, Rainbow.” I answered gently, doing my best to comfort and teach her at the same time.

Being the comforting, powerful presence was something I had become very good at over the years, but being the same to a close personal friend was one thing I had only very recently reawakened. As I glanced down at the slightly smaller pony in my wing, I couldn’t help but feel a rush of affection for her, which only made being a comforting strength much easier. Being the sure-hearted leader of an entire nation of ponies, but being mentally and emotionally supportive to a pony I cared for in a personal manner was something I found much easier; it came naturally to me, which only reminded me of what I had been missing for so long without ponies like Frost and Rainbow Dash in my life.

“Am I still awesome, Cel?” Rainbow muttered quietly, in an almost frail and pleading tone.

Just like the rest of us, Rainbow Dash was so worried that everything we had been through had irreparably changed who she was as a pony...which was something I couldn’t deny.

“Yes,” I assured without hesitation, and with a small smile on my face, “you’re still awesome, Rainbow. No pony else could inspire hearts and minds just by flying through the sky, and few others can make scars look so ‘dashing’.” I nuzzled her left ear, which had a split through the side of it from battle to go along with the thickened, blue stripe of flesh that ran the length of her ribs.

She chuckled low at my pun before returning the gesture of affection. “Thanks. You sure know how to reassure a pony.”

“I’ve had quite a bit of practice, Rainbow.” I explained with a grin. “Only a thousand or so years of it, but I think that’s enough to support those I care about.” I rubbed my cheek against her once more before standing and pulling away. “Come, let’s finish these off. Once we finish, I think I could use your help with a good preen.”

Rainbow raised her own wing and looked at it, grimacing slightly at the state of the appendage. “Yeah, same here; it’s been awhile since I’ve had some TLC done to them.”

We were silent for a few moments before I reminded, “Light at the end of the tunnel, Rainbow.”

She nodded before turning back to her work. “Yeah…”

Perspective change -- Twilight

“...and I understand that, but that doesn’t give you the right to stick a whoopie cushion on my sitting pillow right in the middle of my meeting!” I growled angrily, an embarrassed blush making my entire head feel like it was about to catch fire.

Pinkie giggled and threw her arm around my withers. “C’mon Twi, they were laughing! Laughter is the perfect ice-breaker!”

“They were laughing at me, Pinkie!” I insisted, lowering my head in an attempt to never meet eyes with anypony ever again. “The gryphon commander fell out of his chair; I think I can still hear him laughing! Stars above, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to show my face in public again. We’re lucky Luna was there to take control of the situation and explain your unique brand of humor.” I then sighed and shook my head. “Well, the upside is that no pony else knows about-”

“Afternoon, Twilight Fartle!” quipped one of the last voices I expected to hear at the moment, which made my heart jump both in dread and joy.

I spun around to see Vinyl grinning a short distance away, and briefly my mind warred with itself on whether to hug her or kick her. With a split-second decision, I galloped over and embraced her tightly, unable to stop a pleased sigh from escaping.

“I’m not sure how you found out about that,” I began, my face still buried in the wild blue mane, “but you’re lucky I’m more happy to see you than I am embarrassed that you know.” Sighing deeply and taking in the familiar and comforting scent of her, I held Vinyl at arms length for a few moments before a rush sudden guilt overtook me and I found myself tearing up.

Vinyl noticed of course, and her smirk melted into a concerned frown. “Twi, what’s wrong?”

“W-we…” I choked out, having to swallow down a sob before continuing, “we don’t r-really spend that much time together, and I just realized th-that if something had happened to m-me-”

“Twi,” Vinyl interrupted, smiling softly in a way that was rather uncharacteristic of her, “it’s fine. Just because you and I don’t have much in common in the way of interests doesn’t mean I don’t still care about you, and I know you feel the same way. You’re still my friend and my herdsister, and I care about you the same I do Pinkie, or Rainbow Dash, or any of the others. We don’t have to spend time doing stuff together that one of us doesn’t want to do like some kind of ‘bonding’ experiment.”

“B-but-” I muttered in regretful defeat.

Vinyl shook her head again and put a hoof to my lips to silence me. “Stop. I’m not as smart as you and I don’t like to read, so we wouldn’t have much to talk about in the realm of hobbies.” She then poked me in the chest. “What we do have in common is our care for each other and everypony else, as well as a desire to see Equestria’s ponies smile again.” Throwing her head toward the city, she grinned like a fool. “Now c’mon, let’s go get stupid drunk! It’s been a long time since we’ve been together, so I say we have a night to act like we used to.”

While the sudden change of subject confused me -- while still sounding attractive, mind -- I couldn’t help but blurt out, “But what about everypony else? It wouldn’t be very reminiscent if it’s just us.”

“The only ones that won’t be there are Darkflight’s troops and the Princesses, and Dash will be there later on.” Vinyl assured with a mischievous smile.

My mouth snapped shut as I could only stare in silence for a few moments before replying with a simple, “You already planned it.”

Vinyl nodded again. “Dash’s idea, actually. She told me about it earlier today, so I made sure as many of us as possible could get together for a bit of a victory celebration. You all have been working yourselves to the bone for the past few days, so you need to take a break.”

I glanced back at Canterlot Castle for a moment before answering, “I-I can’t though; what if the princesses need me to-”

“Twilight, I admire your dedication to duty, but I will drag you there if I have to. We both know that I can do that, and everypony in Canterlot will be talking about how Twilight Sparkle was being dragged through the city by her tail.” Vinyl threatened playfully.

Pinkie then started giggling when I blushed, only to explain, “But Vivi, Twilight likes her tail being pulled!”

And, like a switch being flipped, I suddenly wished I knew how to melt into the ground.

“When they write up my incident report,” I mumbled out, doing my best to hide my face behind my bangs, “be sure they put ‘cause of death’ as ‘extreme embarrassment’.”

“Enough with the dramatics Twi,” Vinyl simpered out, pulling me to my hooves, “I’ve watched you, Luna and Dash make out for three hours straight before. I don’t know how you can still find it within you to be embarrassed.”

I whipped my head to glare at her as I reluctantly followed Vinyl and Pinkie. “That was one time and I don’t even remember it!”

“Whatever Sparkle, all I’m saying is that you should really chill out about all that stuff. It’s not like anything particularly amorous was done outdoors, so you’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about.” Vinyl explained firmly, yet in a friendly manner. “If there’s anypony you should feel comfortable talking about stuff like that to, it should be us. Stars, we’ve been there for most of it.”

Even as my face once again began to flush, I glared at the giggling white pony before me. “That doesn’t mean I want all of Canterlot to know-”

“Know what?” Vinyl questioned with a raised eyebrow and a smirk. “That Twilight has a personal life that includes *GASP* sex?” She shook her head and lit her horn with magic, grasping my hoof and pulling me along as she continued to lead me to who-knows-where. “Twi, you’re so adorkable sometimes, but I promise that ponies don’t care. Hay, it would be weird if you were part of a herd and were still ‘pure’.” Before I could fire off another angry retort she added, “And your parents totally know.”

Inside it felt as if something died, and I felt a need overtake me as I blurted out, “You’re right, I could go for some drinks.” Pulling away from her magical grasp and galloping ahead, I hoped that by tomorrow morning, the entire conversation would be forgotten.

Perspective change -- Luna

“Alright Prince Frostbreaker, take it slowly.” the doctor urged as Frost took slow steps away from the hospital bed he had been confined to.

The recovery had taken a far shorter amount of time than I had originally predicted, but the utter weakness and frailty he now bore was worrying, to say the least. The medical staff all assured me it was normal for somepony who had gone through what he had, but that did little to placate my worries. I was, after all, a born worrier, so I could do little but look on in concern as Frost stumbled and winced in pain with each small step he took.

The many bandages that seemed to be the only thing holding him together did not assuage any of my fears.

“Luna,” he began with a pathetic whine, taking another few steps before stopping and looking to me, “I want brownies and ice cream.”

I rolled my eyes despite my worry. “Be a good colt and go through your exercises then.”

He pouted playfully, but it was clear he truly was in pain. I did my best to keep from rushing to assist him, but could not stop a levitation spell from charging in case he fell. A part of me wanted to berate him for continuing to fight on when he was clearly so drained during battle, but I could not argue with the results: the war was over, and we had prevented the annihilation of the world as we know it.

That was not to say that losses were not accrued and scars anew avoided, but such things were a small price to pay for the continuation of freedom of life on Terra.

“Are you well, your highness?” one of my personal guards, Nightshade, questioned worriedly. “Your brow has not stopped creasing in concern since your arrival here. The staff have assured us he will be fine, so there is no need to-”

“Do not attempt to tell me that ‘everything will be okay’, leftenant.” I nearly snarled, just barely keeping my tone respectful. “I have no doubt that if I did not explicitly request he stay alive, the prince would have killed himself again to protect us; as it stands, he nearly did so anyway.”

Well-acclimated to my presence and mannerisms, the pony at my side did not even flinch. “But he didn’t, princess. He will be fine with time, and all of you will live on and look back on this moment as a great victory over Death himself.”

Glancing down at the gray bat-pony at my side, I questioned, “Are you married, leftenant?”

Nightshade balked briefly before composing herself. “Y-yes ma’am; a wife and two foals wait at home for me.”

“If any of them were to come to harm -- even if they lived through it -- how would you react?” I queried, though I knew my guard well enough to already predict her answer. “You would feel concern for their wellbeing regardless, would you not? You would do whatever you must to safeguard them from harm.” I jerked my nose to Frost, who had resumed his slow, tedious walk across the carpeted floor. “I have seen him give, and give, and give so much for this world -- a world he was not born into. Every time he hurts, it causes me pain; every time he sheds a tear, I weep. To keep my sanity and hold onto what happiness I have, I will do all within my power to assist him, no matter how much it may stress me.”

There were a long few moments of silence between us, broken only by the grunts and slow thudding of hoods against the ground, before she spoke again. “Permission to speak freely, princess.”

“Permission granted, leftenant.” I answered, turning a curious eye and ear in her direction.

Nightshade seemed to relax ever so slightly. “I wish to see you smile once again princess; for years after your return, I never saw so much as a grin cross your lips when you were in Canterlot. I think that all this worry is doing no favors for you, but if you feel that your happiness hinges on the prince’s wellbeing, then I am certainly not one to argue that. I only wish that you could still still find reason to laugh and smile in spite of it.” She then looked from me over to Frost, who was sweating and wobbling as his weakened limbs threatened to give out on him. “Take joy in the small mercies, such as the fact that he is alive and will recover with time.”

“That’s enough for today, prince. Time to get you some water and food.” the doctor announced, at which point Frost collapsed to the ground in a heap, groaning pitifully while glancing to me. “And no, you may not have brownies and ice cream.”

Another whine was the doctor’s answer.

An hour or two later found me in a familiar hospital room, trying my very best to keep from making cooing sounds as I fed Frost a fruit cup.

I did not entirely succeed.

Still, the doctors were pleased with the progress he was making, and stated that with another week or so of therapy, Frost would be back to normal for the most part. His magical abilities would take more time to regenerate after such overuse, but we were assured he would completely recover from the entire incident.

“Luna, I appreciate it -- truly, I do -- but can you please not feed me like I’m a child?” Frost grumbled, crossing his hooves and looking away from the spoon of assorted fruits that levitated in front of him.

I could not stop a grin as it curled my lips and stretched my cheeks. “If you continue acting like a foal, I will treat you as one. You are recovering, and can do little more than levitate a cup for a few moments without losing your focus; until you are able to do these things on your own, I will be assisting you. Now, open your mouth for the choo-choo train!”

With a mildly amused grin, Frost opened his mouth and allowed the bit of fruit to be deposited in his mouth. He chewed for a few moments before swallowing and replying, “You’re lucky I love you so much, because otherwise I would make you wear this fruit.”

“Then I am blessed to have your heart.” I retorted, sticking out my tongue and blowing a raspberry.

Frost raised an eyebrow at me as he suggested, “Were you going to put that tongue to better use, or is it just for show?” Drawing my tongue back in my mouth, I felt a fierce blush begin to blossom across my entire face as Frost chuckled mirthfully.

After a few moments of him laughing at my expense, Frost’s chortles trailed away as he took on a more thoughtful, sombre expression. “How do you think the others are doing?”

The change of subject instantly drew my attention, and I could not help a sigh from escaping as I answered, “They are working to wrap up the remnants of the conflict. Stars-willing, it will not be long before we are all together again.”

Frost extended his wing to me, affectionately brushing against my shoulder with a smile. “Soon, dear Luna.” He then glanced out the window at the setting sun. “Soon…”

Perspective change -- Gilda

I struggled to keep up with Darkflight’s larger strides, but made due by trotting next to him as we made our way through the cloud district -- more commonly known as “common town” -- of Canterlot. We had been moving from one destination to the next as Darkflight determinedly carried out his self-imposed orders, which I could tell was starting to weigh on him.

Deciding to break the long silence between us, I chose to speak up and let my concern be known. “Dark, we’ve been to like twelve different places today; you’ve done more than enough, so let’s go and get some drinks or something to forget about this.”

Not even glancing to me as I spoke, he simply shook his head and held up a scroll that he clutched in his claws. “One more before the day is over, Gilda. I made a promise.”

I sighed heavily, but decided to hold my tongue for once and let him do as he wanted. Much as I hated to admit it, this wasn’t just for closure for the ponies we were meeting -- it was for him as well.

As we approached a grounded pegasus home (the irony of the term wasn’t lost on me), Darkflight glanced at the scroll a few times before nodding and walking over to the place. With a deep breath to steady himself, he knocked on the door and waited for someone to answer.

After a few moments of waiting, a silver-furred pegasus mare answered and glanced to the two of us. After seeing the expressions on our faces, she began trembling uncontrollably. “N-no…”

Darkflight sighed and removed his helmet, running a hand over the fins on his head before greeting, “Ma’am, I’m commander Darkflight, and this is Gilda of the United Equestrian Air Force. May we come in?”

The mare only stared in horror and growing sorrow as tears began to flow in rivers down her cheeks.  After a few moments of silent awkwardness, she finally collapsed onto the ground, sobbing uncontrollably. Darkflight wordlessly opened the door wider and picked the small pony up, carrying her inside and motioning to me to close the door.

We made our way through the hallway and into the living area of the home, where Darkflight set the mare down on a sofa made of clouds as she continued to whimper and cry, spouting unintelligible broken sentences of pain and suffering. Darkflight removed his gauntlets before again embracing the mare tightly, allowing her to vent the agony she must be feeling.

This would make the thirteenth time today I had to watch this very scene take place.

Nearly an hour passed before the mare had calmed down enough to speak, at which point she only chanted “no” over and over again as she rocked back and forth piteously. Having never been one to comfort a stranger, I was there for little more than support for Darkflight, but I somehow felt it wasn’t enough. After all, one could not completely separate themselves from another’s suffering, especially when you were the one to give the bad news.

Darkflight’s wing and an arm were still wrapped around the mare in an effort to comfort, but we both knew that there was nothing that was going to make someone feel better about losing not one, but both of their sons to war.

I’d like to say that I wasn’t crying because I was a hardass that could just shrug it all off, but the truth was that I simply had no more tears to cry. I truly believe that anyone that could spend an entire day telling parents, siblings, and children that their loved one was not coming home, and not shed tears, is either dead inside or insane. The feathers around my eyes were matted and damp with tears from the entire day, but I wore it proudly to let any who knew me see how much Gilda the gryphon had changed over the years. I wept for ponies I knew, and some I didn’t, simply because I bore witness to just how much pain and suffering war brought. Elders bless Darkflight for his dedication, but I knew this day was going to take a long time for him to recover from.

Finally, after many minutes and many tears, the mare was finally coherent enough for Darkflight to reach into the bag at his side and produce a small, weathered letter. He stared reverently at the parchment before silently handing it to the mare and nodding. No words needed to be said by either: the mother knew what was contained in the letter, and though her pain was clear, gratitude -- however small -- twinkled in her eyes.

“H-how…” she began, only to shake her head, “no...I don’t actually want to know.”

Darkflight was silent for a long few moments, seemingly affected nearly as much as the pony he had been attempting to comfort, before he answered, “We’ll always remember what he fought for -- Equestria will always remember. Every time the Day of Remembrance passes, he’ll be in our hearts and minds, along with every other that bravely gave everything to secure our future.” He then stood and gestured out of the open windows to the city all around us. “Look at what he has won us: Equestria still stands strong, and foals have the freedom to run and play in a world that he fought for -- that he won for us all.” Darkflight then kneeled before the mare and took her hoof in his hand, squeezing gently and smiling with tears trailing down his face -- some of many he shed this day. “Your sons -- both of them -- are heroes. The fact that we can breathe free air and look up at a clear, blue sky is a testament to their dedication and steadfastness. I, we, thank you for raising such great ponies and bringing them into the world.”

The mare -- whose name I didn’t know, to my shame -- only stared blankly into space for a few moments before her eyes rolled to Darkflight. “How many times have you had this conversation today, commander?”

“Too many.” he replied without hesitation. “This one makes lucky number thirteen.”

The mare was silent for another few moments before she gasped out a, “Why?”

Darkflight released the hoof he was holding and stood before making his way to the window and gazing out of it. “Because,” he took a deep breath and closed his eyes to control himself, “they were the ones I knew personally. They were not just comrades, they were friends that I willingly put into harm’s way. If nothing else, their families and friends deserved to be told face to face what happened and who was responsible for it.” He turned away from the window, his eyes glassy with brimming tears. “They placed their trust in me, and they died for it.”

Darkflight was suffering from a malady I had only heard about: survivor's guilt. It was a mental illness that was far more common among those in the military, since their brothers and sisters in arms were far more likely to fall in the line of duty than with any other career. In essence, Darkflight felt that by being unable to save the lives of those that fought with him, he had become a failure; worse, he silently felt it should have been he who fell rather than them.

I couldn’t say I was completely healthy either in that respect, but I knew he was taking far too much responsibility on himself.

A long few moments of silence filled the room before it was broken with a simple, “Thank you.”

I turned my focus to the mare who had uttered the word, dumbfounded that she was thanking us for telling her that she hadn’t lost one, but both of her sons.

“Thanks?” Darkflight ground out before chuckling mirthlessly. “What could you possibly be thanking me for? I got your son killed when I should have sent him home.”

The mare shook her head resolutely. “You and I both know there is not a thing any of us could have done to convince Nightwing to come home, especially after the loss of his brother.” Again she shook her head, but gentler this time and with a deep sigh that conveyed all the sorrow she must have been feeling. “I’m not thanking you because you ‘did your best’ or even because you ensured he didn’t die in vain; I’m thanking you for having the respect -- the courage -- to give this news to me personally. You honor the memory of my sons by showing such bravery, and I know that you did all you could to keep them safe. I have no doubt that if you could have prevented what happened, you would have.” Taking another deep breath, she leveled her eyes with the two of us. “The world may never be right for me again, but I can live my life with my head held high with the knowledge that my colts were doing what they felt was right, even in the face of such insurmountable odds.” She then hopped off the sofa and placed a hoof on Darkflight’s knee, smiling sadly as she did so. “Thank you for standing beside them.”

Darkflight turned his eyes away in shame, unwilling to look at this pony, whom he had just given the worst news a parent could ever hear. “I don’t deserve your thanks ma’am,” reluctantly, he turned his face back to the mare in front of him, “but it’s appreciated all the same.” He then gently pushed the mare away and stood, shooting me a glance. “C’mon Gilda, we need to get back to the castle.” As we both moved to the door, he suddenly stopped and turned back to the mare who was sitting in the middle of the cloudy living area. He hesitated only briefly before offering, “If you ever need someone to talk to, come find me. I know what it’s like to lose as well.”

Without another word, we left, closing the door quietly behind us.

I followed Darkflight silently as we weaved in and out of the many streets of Canterlot, doing my best to keep from asking him just what he was thinking today, when he suddenly veered off to an alleyway. My questioning shouts went unanswered, but caused a few wayward glances from ponies walking the streets, so I stayed as discreet as possible and followed him into the alleyway.

“Dark, what in the nine hells are you-?” I questioned, only to nearly trip over myself as he froze. I glanced up at him curiously for a moment before he...fell to his knees and started sobbing. Instantly, concern for my commander -- my friend -- overrode any questions I might have had, and I quickly gathered him up in my wings and talons and held him as tightly as I could. I had never exactly been the maternal type, but I knew that he was hurting in a way that I could only imagine.

In some ways, I idolized Darkflight. He was strong in ways that I wish I could be, and was able to stare at death in the face without even flinching. He was the soldier I aspired to be like -- he was my goal. It seemed, however, that even heroes weren’t without fault.

So, for the next hour, I held my hero in my grasp as he cried.