The next couple of hours were a bit blurry for me.

I don't really remember the details of what happened, just vague sorts of flashes. A couple of the soldiers recovering Mom's body. The way none of them could quite bring themselves to meet my eyes as they went about their business. Rainbow's wing over my back and her awkward, scratchy-voiced attempts to comfort me.

The strange thing was, all I could think about was how I should be crying. For the love of Luna, Mom was dead. That's something most ponies would cry like foals over. On top of that, I'd made my first kill against that bug monster thing. I've never taken a life before, and everything I've heard says that the first time it happens is supposed to leave you really shaken up. I should be a complete sobbing mess right now, but instead I just felt ... numb.

We eventually got to the Guard's field camp. It was unsettling, the way almost all activity in the camp ceased once we got close enough for the ponies to see that we were coming back with two bodies. Dear Celestia, I didn't wanna deal with this right now. Ponies staring at me, recognizing who I was, and then realizing that I was coming back to camp with Mom's corpse.

Thankfully, we had a good excuse to not go mingling with the rest of the Guardsponies. My foreleg was still a complete mess thanks to getting chomped on by that bug-monster, and there's a big difference between slapping a bandage on it and getting it looked at by a proper doctor. Not to mention Dash and I had picked up a couple other cuts and bruises that ought to get checked out. Better safe than sorry.

Guard medics tend to come in two flavors—young and idealistic, or old and cynical. I got the latter of the two, a grey-maned old unicorn mare whose face seemed to be stuck in a perpetual scowl. "Alright, have a seat and let's see what you've done to yourself."

I wasted no time following her instructions. Guard medics tend to have a reputation for showing zero tolerance for any form of horseapples. Rainbow was likely to get a rude awakening if she was her usual sullen and uncooperative self whenever medical stuff came up. Then again, I half-suspected that Redheart had done a few years as a Guard medic to pay for med school. She certainly had the attitude for it.

The medic took the field dressing off my leg with a few precise telekinetic flicks, and I got my first good look at the damage since the fight. From how bloody the bandage was I could tell it was gonna be bad, but I still wasn't quite prepared for the sight of it. A pretty big chunk of my foreleg was a nasty mess of mangled flesh, and I was immensely grateful when the medic tossed an anesthetic spell onto the injured area. Now that I wasn't pumped full of adrenaline or too out of it to think straight, my leg feathering hurt.

The medic gave a neutral grunt, and got to work cleaning my leg up. When it comes to just about any delicate medical work, it's hard to beat a unicorn's precision telekinesis, not to mention some of the other spells they could do. Her anesthetic spell was good enough that there was barely any pain, though after a while I had to stop looking at what she was doing. That bug thing had sported a really nasty set fangs, and I probably hadn't done my foreleg any favors by wrenching on it while the monster still had its teeth in me. I'm pretty sure I saw bone before I looked away. "So what's the damage, doc?"

"Couple dozen stitches, at the very least." The medic frowned, and waved a hoof at the cut on my neck, which I'd almost forgotten about. "Plus three or four more for that. Could've been a lot worse, though. You had a nicked vein in your leg, but no other major blood vessels took damage, and the bones are a bit battered, but no serious damage. If you're lucky, you won't even come out of this with a limp. Gonna leave a nasty scar, but your coat should cover it up once it grows back."

"Grows back?" It took me a second to put two and two together. Blame it on the blood loss and emotional trauma. "Right, right, gotta shave the area you're putting the stitches in."

The medic gave a nod. "You'll need to take it easy on your leg for the next week or so, until the stitches are ready to come out. After that ... well, it'll depend on how you're healing up."

Any further talk about how my leg was doing came to an abrupt end when I heard an indignant squawk coming from the other side of the room. A second later Rainbow Dash zoomed past me, before perching on top of an IV stand. "Look, it's just a stupid little scratch," she snapped. "I don't need some weird pony I don't know getting his hooves all over my butt! It'll heal up fine on its own, so back off!"

A couple seconds later a medic came trotting along in her wake, forcing a patient smile onto his face that belied the way his ear kept twitching in annoyance. "Miss, if you don't let me treat your injury it could get infected." When that argument didn't get Rainbow down from her perch, he tried switching tactics. "Or you could end up with a scar. You don't want a big ugly scar there, do you?"

Rainbow hit the medic with a suspicious glare. "Hey, eyes off the prize, buster—this mare's taken. Besides, you're old enough to be, like, my grandpa or something." Rainbow was exaggerating a bit there—at most, the stallion was only old enough to be her grandfather if Rainbow was the age she was acting right now.

"I swear, Dinky handles visits to the doctor better than she does," I told my medic, making sure to pitch my voice loudly enough for Rainbow to hear.

Sure enough, that pulled Rainbow's attention off the medic trying to help her and onto me. "Oh yeah?" she snapped. "Well you—"

Before she could get any further, the medic took advantage of her distraction to nail her with a paralysis spell. Rainbow tumbled off the IV stand she'd been perched on, and thankfully got snagged in a telekinetic field before she hit the ground. From the way they moved, I had a feeling they'd had a bit of practice at this type of thing. Rainbow probably wasn't the first uncooperative patient they'd dealt with.

Now that Rainbow couldn't put up any more resistance beyond harsh language, the medic got her on a table and started patching her up. For her part, Rainbow loudly and at length discussed the medic's heritage, making several wildly improbable and contradictory accusations.

As soon as our wounds had been treated, the medics let Blossom in. Two seconds later, she was wrapped around me and doing her best to crush my ribs. Guess that explains why they kept her out until they were done fixing me up. Once she was done with the initial hug, she shifted to something a bit more gentle, taking care to avoid my bad foreleg while holding me and gently running a hoof through my mane. "Cloudy, I'm sorry. I'm so, so, sorry..."

I brought my good foreleg around her and halfheartedly returned the hug. Getting my wounds checked out and Rainbow's antics had provided a brief distraction, but now that empty numb feeling that had been hanging over me ever since I found Mom was back. Still, the contact felt good. "So I guess you heard about..."

"Everypony's talking about it," Blossom confirmed.

"Oh." I tried to think of something to say, but nothing came to mind. Rainbow trotted over to join in on the hug, and for a while I just sat there and let the two of them hold me.

A while later, the three of us got hustled to Canterlot, along with a substantial escort. I wasn't quite sure what was going on, but presumably word had come down the chain of command from Dad.

Once we got to Canterlot a couple of guardponies I vaguely recognized as Kickers pulled Blossom aside, while Rainbow and I were hustled deep into the secure sections of the castle. I didn't know for sure what was going on, but I could take a pretty good guess that it had something to do with the whole bug-monster-spying-on-Equestria thing. That was a pretty big security issue.

Sure enough, five minutes later Rainbow and I were in a secure underground room deep in the bowels of the palace. To my vague discomfort, the two of us were alone in the room with the battered remains of the creature that had taken Mom's place. Being alone in a room with a corpse was incredibly awkward, especially when it was a corpse I'd created.

The longer we waited, the more uncomfortable I got. I hadn't recognized the ponies who'd brought us here. Who was to say that they weren't more of those shapeshifting bug monsters? If they'd replaced Mom, surely they could've gotten other ponies too. Maybe they'd already infiltrated Canterlot, and now Rainbow and I were about to get rubbed out to keep the conspiracy under wraps. I'd had a hard enough time dealing with one of those bugs; if we had to go up against a whole squad of them...

Thankfully, when the door finally opened we didn't get swarmed by bugs. However, we faced something that was just as intimidating—a grim-looking Princess Celestia. Rainbow dropped into a bow, while I tried to manage as best I could with one foreleg in a sling, until she waved me off. "No need for formalities, especially when you're injured. I'm very sorry for your loss, Cloud Kicker. Nimbus Gust was an exemplary pony."

I gave a vague sort of nod to her. "Thank you, Your Highness." I probably should've said something else to her given the circumstances, but I couldn't think of anything that wouldn't sound stupid or pointless.

Princess Luna followed her sister in, which was just a tiny bit uncomfortable considering what had (probably) happened the last time we'd met up. A second later I felt a wave of guilt hit me in the gut for even worrying about that. Mom was dead, and there I was thinking about stuff like whether or not I'd done the business with one of the co-rulers of Equestria.

Rainbow didn't seem to have my problem with figuring out something worthwhile to say. "What's going on, Princess? Everything's gone crazy on us! One minute Cloud Kicker's mom has gone missing, and then suddenly we're thinking she's a traitor, and then it turns out that she's been replaced by some weird freaky bug thing that can turn into other ponies! What gives?"

Celestia held up a hoof to forestall any further questions. "Patience, Rainbow Dash. I might have an easier time answering your questions if you gave me a chance to speak before moving on to the next one."

Rainbow's ears went flat on her head and she gave the Princess a sheepish little smile. "Uh, right. Sorry. I just—I'm a little freaked out right now, okay?"

"It's quite understandable." The Princess turned to look at the thing I'd killed, and gave it a quick once-over. "An encounter with a changeling Infiltrator can be a most unsettling experience."

So these things were called changelings, then? Well, I guess that works better than 'Shapeshifting Bug-Monster.' Once more, Rainbow chimed in with the obvious question. "Okay, so we've got these changeling bug things running around. The one we nailed said it was working for somepony—something—else. Some queen or something. So are we fixing to get invaded by a bunch of freaky bug things?"

To my immense relief, Celestia shook her head. "This particular entity is a changeling Infiltrator, not a normal drone." Rainbow's blank, slightly slack-jawed expression made it very clear just how little that distinction meant to her. In her defense, I didn't get what the difference was either, and even Princess Luna had a faintly confused frown on her face. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that a changeling Infiltrator is probably better at, well, infiltrating, but aside from that rather obvious point I didn't get what the difference was.

Thankfully, Celestia seemed to pick up on the fact that nopony else had a clue what she was talking about. With a weary sigh, the Princess made herself comfortable and started explaining. "Conventional changeling drones are actually very poor at imitating ordinary ponies or any other creature they might replace. While their shapeshifting abilities allow them to take the form of anypony they wish to, their nature as philouphages makes it all but impossible for them to properly mimic pony behavior, save in the most superficial of ways."

Rainbow Dash actually raised her hoof, like she was still a schoolfilly. "Uh, Princess? What's a filofage?"

"An emotion-eater," Princess Luna helpfully clarified for us.

"Well why didn't ya just call it that instead?" Rainbow grumbled under her breath.

While I was pretty sure Rainbow hadn't meant for Celestia to hear that, the Princess' ears are apparently pretty sharp. "Perhaps knowing the proper terminology will be of use to you at some point in the future, Rainbow Dash." The Princess delicately cleared her throat, and got back to explaining things. "Now then, because changelings are emotion-eaters, they can't properly imitate or understand the way emotions impact equine behavior. While the changeling can perfectly imitate a pony's appearance, any sort of social contact beyond the the basic pleasantries will quickly give away that they're not what they seem to be."

"But that wasn't the case with..." I waved a hoof at the changeling I'd killed. "I mean yeah, in hindsight there were a couple things that were off about how she was acting, but nothing so huge that I ever thought there was something seriously wrong, up until the fact that she was spying came out. So, I'm guessing this is where the difference between these normal changelings and the Infiltrators comes in?"

"Indeed." Celestia frowned at the changeling corpse. "Queen Chrysalis, their leader, destroyed thousands of her own children while experimenting to find some means of overcoming that limitation. Eventually, she succeeded, and the changeling Infiltrators were created: changelings capable of experiencing and understanding the full range of normal emotions, and thus capable of far more accurately imitating their targets."

Luna hissed something under her breath that was in a language I didn't recognize, though from the context I could make an educated guess that there were obscenities involved. "How could she manage such a thing?" the Princess of the Night demanded. "Everything we understood about the nature of the changeling hive mind says that—"

"She partially disconnected them from the hive mind," Celestia gently cut her sister off. "That's how she was able to create agents capable of independent thought and emotional depth. However, her success would ultimately prove to be her downfall."

"Lemme guess," Rainbow chimed in. "She gave them a bit too much freedom, so they stopped following orders?"

"Precisely," Celestia confirmed.

"S'just like what happened in 'Daring Do and the Golden Golems'," Rainbow announced with a satisfied nod. "Guess she never read that book."

"That novel is a wildly inaccurate account of the incident in any case," Luna grumbled. "I certainly do not recall Daring cavorting about with a useless mare who did nothing but scream in terror for the entire adventure, and there were certainly no ponies running about with preposterous names like 'Alotta Plotta,' 'Tail Tosser,' or 'Muffins Galore'."

Rainbow let out a giggle-snort at the horribly punny names, which earned her a mildly disdainful glare from Princess Luna. "What?" Rainbow snapped out, sounding just a tiny bit defensive. "Those names are hilarious, and you know it."

While I normally would've agree with Rainbow wholeheartedly, and probably made a crack about how Derpy would leave me in a heartbeat to hook up with a pony named 'Muffins Galore', I really wasn't in the mood for jokes right now. "Could we get back to the matter at hoof?" I asked testily. "Or shall we continue talking about pulp adventure novels?"

Rainbow fell silent, though Luna shot me a somewhat offended glower. Guess it's not everyday somepony corrects her like that. To be honest, I was having a hard time caring if I'd gotten her annoyed with me right now. Compared to everything else that had happened today, getting a Princess mad at me just didn't seem like a very big deal.

Princess Celestia delicately cleared her throat, and got the conversation back on track before anypony else's feathers could get ruffled. "Just as Rainbow Dash said, eventually Chrysalis's new Infiltrators grew tired of obeying her commands and used their freedom to rebel against her. Some of them simply abandoned the hive completely, while the remainder banded together and attempted to overthrow her. They somehow managed to steal control of many drones from Chrysalis, perhaps by using some residual connection to the hive mind. The battle for control of the swarm was devastating. Chrysalis eventually won, though I believe she died at least a dozen times during the fighting."

"Wait, what?" Rainbow cut in. "How did she die a dozen times? Wouldn't she be, y'know, dead?"

"Not quite," Celestia explained. "You see, Chrysalis herself is not a distinct individual entity, but rather a manifestation of the swarm's gestalt consciousness. Thus, the destruction of her physical form is little more than a temporary inconvenience."

"Oh yeah, that explains it." Rainbow vigorously nodded her head, trying to make it look like she actually understood what the Princess had just said.

"In any case," Celestia continued, "the civil war between Chrysalis and these new Infiltrators pushed the species to the brink of extinction."

"Not close enough," I grumbled under my breath. I tried to accompany it with an annoyed wave of my hoof, but having my foreleg in a sling kinda killed that idea.

To my surprise, Luna nodded in agreement. "A civil war that left the changelings on the verge of annihilation would have been a perfect opportunity to remove the threat once and for all, sister. I am surprised you didn't act upon it."

Celestia gave both of us a pained look, and I could hear the disappointment in her voice. "Do not be so quick to suggest exterminating another species. Xenocide has no place in a society dedicated to love and harmony." The Princess took a calming breath, then continued, "The few Infiltrators who escaped Chrysalis's purges fled as far from the swarm as they could. Some have remained in hiding, simply living out ordinary lives in their assumed forms, but a few have opted to put their skills to use. Chrysalis made them to be the perfect spies, and there are many who would pay handsomely for their services."

Well, damn.

"So knowing that it was a changeling doesn't really tell us anything at all." I let out an annoyed sigh. "If these Infiltrator things are working as mercenaries, then just about anyone could be paying the bills." For a moment, I almost regretted killing the creature. There were a whole lot of answers that died with it. However, I had a hard time really caring about the fact that Equestria's national security might have been compromised. It was hard to think about the big picture when the primal part of my brain kept screaming about how that monster had murdered Mom.

"Well, it does tell us one thing, I guess," Rainbow said. "If this Queen Chrysalis is all pissed about wanting these Infiltrators dead, it probably wasn't her."

"Indeed," Celestia confirmed. "And while some of the Infiltrators might be working as mercenaries, even if Chrysalis cast aside all reason and tried to hire one, none would work for her. Not to mention our long-standing treaty with her—Chrysalis would not casually violate an agreement that has stood for centuries."

"You made a treaty with Chrysalis?' Princess Luna sounded positively stunned. "Sister, what could possibly have possessed you to do such a thing?"

"Necessity," Celestia answered shortly. "It was an agreement I neither sought nor desired, and one that was made for me in my absence, but the fact remains that for the last nine hundred years the changeling swarm has avoided our borders. Changelings have gone from being a perennial plague on the ponies of Equestria to the stuff of ancient legends, forgotten by all but a few historians. I will not apologize for that."

Luna let out an annoyed grumble before waving a hoof and reluctantly conceding. "I do not approve, but it is in the past. It would seem the agreement has served Equestria well enough in my absence."

"Yes, it has." Celestia went silent for a bit, then turned back to me and Rainbow Dash. "Did the creature say anything to you that might let you know who it was working for?"

"Not much," I admitted. "Pretty much all we got was it saying that it was working for some queen or something. That doesn't narrow it down much, especially since spies aren't exactly known for being honest with their enemies."

"No, it doesn't." An annoyed grimace crossed Celestia's face. "I'm sure the Guard will arrange to have you two properly debriefed. If you can think of anything, anything at all that might be of use, no matter how insignificant, please let me know." Rainbow and I both assured the Princess that we would. "Thank you." She hesitated for just a moment before adding, "I'm afraid there is one other matter. I'm going to have to ask both of you not to tell anypony the details of what happened. Not even Blossomforth, or Twilight Sparkle and your other friends."

"What?" Rainbow Dash burst out. "Why not? They're my friends! Besides, we've saved Equestria loads of times before, we can deal with whatever this new thing is!"

"This is not an affair for the Elements of Harmony," Celestia announced gently, but firmly. "The Elements are a powerful tool against the likes of Discord, but the Elements of Harmony were designed to contain and defeat a single powerful being. Against an invading army, the Elements are not a very effective weapon. Even if you used them against a general or this queen who threatens us, the army would remain. Leaderless, but still dangerous. Also, I do not wish for knowledge of this infiltration to become widespread. It could incite a panic, especially if ponies learn that there are beasts capable of almost perfectly imitating their friends and loved ones."

"Well, okay," Rainbow's face briefly fell, but a second later her ears perked right back up. "But we could still help even if the Elements wouldn't be all that useful and we gotta keep things quiet! Twilight's got her magic, and I've got my awesome flying, and Fluttershy's ... look, the point is we could help out!"

"No, Rainbow Dash." Celestia's voice lost the gentle part of its previous gentle but firm tone. "Twilight and your other friends are wonderful ponies, but you are not soldiers. This is something for the Guard to take care of."

"Yeah, 'cause they've got a real great track record so far," Rainbow Dash grumbled under her breath.

If not for the fact that my foreleg was in a sling, I would've smacked her upside the head for that. I couldn't use a wing for the job either, since I still had my wing blades on. "What the hay is wrong with you, Rainbow? Mom hasn't even been buried yet, and you're gonna start dumping all over the Guard and what they do?"

Rainbow's ears went back flat on her head, and she scuffed a hoof along the floor. "I—Kicker, that's not how I meant it. I was just..."

"Just what?" I demanded. Rainbow Dash just stared at me, her jaw awkwardly working open and closed as she tried to come up with some kind of adequate answer.

Before Rainbow could figure out what to say, the door opened up again, and two new ponies entered the room. First up was Shining Armor, Captain of the Guard. No surprise he was showing up for what was apparently a pretty big national security problem. If the Princess was talking about a possible invasion, having the head of the Guard close at hoof made sense. Even if said Captain was a noble brat who only got the position because his sister was the Princess' personal student and his father had connections.

After him was... "Dad."

Dad turned to me and gave a single quick nod. "Cloud." A big part of me wanted to just run up and hug him right then and there. Now wasn't the time for that kind of thing though; we were in the middle of a meeting with the Princess, for pony's sake. Duty to the crown came before all the personal family stuff.

Dad stopped next to the body of the creature that had been impersonating Mom, and spent a while just staring at it. While he did that, Shining Armor stepped up and pulled out a scroll. "Your Highness, in light of this new threat I'd like to suggest we implement Defense Plan Seventeen at once."

"Pray tell, what is Defense Plan Seventeen?" Luna gave a slightly annoyed flick of her wings. "There are so many of these plans that I can barely recall the difference between them. When I was Commander of Pegasopolis, we did not bother with constructing these elaborate scenarios."

"Military strategy has evolved a great deal in the last thousand years, Your Highness." Shining Armor tried to keep his tone polite and deferential, but I could pick up on just a tiny bit of annoyance from him. I guess I couldn't really blame him, though. Princess Luna was kinda bashing his plans. The simple strategy of 'take an army in the general direction of the bad guys' might've worked back in the dark ages, but a thousand years of progress makes for some big changes. For starters, these days the Guard was a combined force of all three types of ponies, instead of the all-unicorn Royal Guard and the pure-pegasus clan armies. Not to mention stuff like having ways to communicate near-instantly instead of only getting messages as fast as a pegasus could fly. Fast long-distance communication makes a huge difference when it comes to keeping armies coordinated.

"A great deal has changed in our—in my absence," Luna conceded. Considering the fact that she was still working on getting all the nuances of speaking modern Equestrian down, I guess expecting her to have caught up on modern military procedure was a bit much. "I suppose I shall defer to your knowledge, for the moment. What is this Plan Seventeen, then?"

Shining Armor shot a look towards Rainbow Dash, presumably wondering if he should be talking about this with a civilian in the room. However, an impatient wave of Luna's hoof snapped him out of those concerns. "Right, Plan Seventeen. If we're up against an unknown external threat, we concentrate our forces in Canterlot, fortify the city, and put up a dome shield to protect it, while maintaining a tripwire force on the border so we'll know the instant anything crosses. That way, whenever the threat manifests, we have a powerful mobile reserve in position to launch an immediate counterattack."

The discussion of strategy seemed to finally snap my father out of the fugue he'd been in ever since he entered the room. "It's a purely reactive plan," he commented with a disparaging snort. "It cedes the initiative to the enemy and leaves all of Equestria outside Canterlot practically undefended."

"We are facing an unknown external or possibly even internal threat," Shining Armor countered tersely. "The prudent thing to do is maintain a large force in reserve, ready to respond the instant our enemies reveal themselves. We'll have enough forces on our borders to provide early warning of an impending attack, and hold the line until our reserves arrive."

"Assuming our garrisons manage to hold the line, and the tripwire force isn't completely overrun before it gets word back to us," Dad countered. "If we try to maintain a watch on the entire border and a large reserve in Canterlot, we'll be spread thin. Depending on who we're up against, they might be able to punch through undetected."

"Would you care to offer an alternative then, Lieutenant Commander?" Shining Armor asked tersely, putting just a bit of emphasis on my father's rank.

"I prefer Defense Plan Fourteen," Dad announced decisively. "We probe along our own borders, scouting for any concentrations of enemy troops or other signs of preparation for an impending attack. Even without crossing the border, we should be able to look for signs of supply dumps, base camps, new border forts, the usual indications. Once we know where the attack will come from, we can concentrate on that border and draw up a proactive defense plan, or maybe even launch a preemptive strike to foil the invasion before it happens. You don't win wars by sitting back and letting the enemy do as they please."

"No, that's far too aggressive," Shining Armor announced with a dismissive wave of his hoof. "Do you have any idea how the rest of our neighbors would react if we increased activity on their borders? It would be a diplomatic disaster, and before long they would all start putting troops on their borders to match our deployment. Not to mention that if we don't find out anything useful in time, it will leave our forces dispersed when the enemy strikes." Shining Armor paused for a few seconds, and one of his ears twitched before he added, "And on top of that we haven't ruled out the possibility of a ... strike from within." He shot a quick look around the room.

"If we are facing a threat from a foreign power, our strategy can't just be to sit on our hooves and wait for their next move," Dad countered, starting to sound just a little bit agitated. "And if it is an internal threat, then the gendarmerie should be more than capable of seeing to the matter." Dad had a point there—the Guard has a law enforcement division for a reason. If we were dealing with a couple nobles plotting a coup or something, they'd probably be much better at handling it than frontline soldiers.

"Both plans have their merits," Princess Luna cut in firmly before the argument could go any further. "Perhaps we could craft a strategy incorporating elements of both? Shining Armor is correct that until the nature of the enemy is known we should be prepared for attack from any direction, but at the same time we should make every effort to learn who threatens Equestria."

"Well said, Princess." The Captain of the Guard took a deep breath, and spoke very gently. "I have no intention of sitting back on my hooves, Lieutenant Commander. I understand you're upset about what happened to your wife, but we can't allow our personal problems to dictate the Guard's strategies. With all due respect, you're too close to this, and I think it's compromising your judgement. For all our sakes, take a step back. We need to look at the big picture, think about what's good for all of Equestria. Not go off on a quest for personal vengeance."

"Hey!" I snarled at the noble-born brat. "Don't bring Mom into this!" Seriously, Mom wasn't even buried yet and this brat who'd bought his way into the Captaincy that should've gone to my father was gonna use Mom to take pot-shots at him?

"That's enough, Cloud Kicker!" Princess Celestia's voice hit me like a ton of bricks. She wasn't yelling and didn't sound angry or anything, but there was just this raw authority to it that had me shutting up and trying to figure out how to bow when I only had one working foreleg.

I tried to stumble my way through an apology, but the Princess waved me off. "While he could have been far more diplomatic in raising the issue—" the Princess paused to shoot a meaningful look at her Captain, "—Shining Armor does make a valid point. Nimbus Gust's death is no doubt paining the two of you immensely. It was thoughtless of me ask for your advice on matters of strategy when this wound is still so fresh." The Princess turned to Dad, her voice brimming with compassion. "Tornado, we can work out the details of a strategy incorporating elements of both of your plans later. Right now, your family needs you more than I do. Take as much time as you need to attend to your wife."

Dad went stiff as a board. "I am to be cast aside, then?"

The Princess's ears went flat on her head. "That was not my intention, Tornado."

"Just the result of your actions, it would seem," Dad growled under his breath.

Luna bristled at Dad's tone. "Lieutenant Commander, that is not an appropriate way to address your Princess."

"It's alright, Luna," Celestia gently cut her sister off, playing good gendarme to her bad one. The Princess turned to face Dad, and very gently said, "I'm aware of the sacrifices your family has made for Equestria over the centuries. Nopony is expendable to me." She took a deep breath, and then continued, "I am not casting you aside. I am simply giving you the time you need to take care of your wife and daughters. For their sakes, if not your own. I need you, Equestria needs you, but right now the ponies closest to you need you more."

Dad shot Princess Celestia a stoically neutral look. "How many of those ponies do you remember? Faces, names, cutie marks? Whether they died for you, or just lived?"

Princess Celestia closed her eyes, and let out a pained sigh. "I remember too many, and at the same time too few."

That answer didn't seem to satisfy Dad, but before he could say anything I stepped up to his side. I was about to put a wing over him when I remembered that I was still wearing wing blades. "Dad, calm down. Getting mad isn't gonna convince anypony that you're thinking straight." If I was gonna be completely honest with myself, Dad probably did need some time off. If I couldn't manage a weather team, he probably couldn't run an army either. "Let's just go home, okay?"

Dad turned to me and let out a weary sigh, before reluctantly nodding in agreement. He gave a quick salute to the Princesses and respectfully but quickly said his farewells, then started heading for the door. A moment later I followed suit, and after a second of hesitation Rainbow came with us as well.

After we'd shut the door behind us, he turned to me and very quietly mumbled under his breath, "I wonder what Shadow would think of the state of Equestria today?" With that the three of us walked out the palace, leaving the Princesses and Shining Armor behind. Dad and I really weren't in the mood for conversation right then, but Rainbow Dash was more than willing to fill the silence with a lengthy rant about everything that had just happened. In an odd way, I was grateful for her chatter. Otherwise, I would've been stuck trying to figure out what the hay I could possibly say to my father after what we'd just gone through.

"And that Shining Armor guy!" Rainbow gave an angry wave of her hoof. "I mean, bringing your Mom up like that just wasn't cool, It's a good thing I'll never have to see his ugly face again, or I'd ... well I don't know what I'd do, but he wouldn't like it."

"I'm sure you would, Dash." It felt strange, to fall into our often-repeated routine of Rainbow blowing off steam and me listening to her calmly. It was an old, familiar way of doing things that simultaneously felt oddly comforting, and completely wrong. It was nice to do something so normal, but how could I be doing anything normal when Mom was dead? I'd found her body earlier today, and I was already back to doing normal things. That just seemed ... wrong. How could I be doing normal, everyday pony things at a time like this?

I found myself slowly drifting away from Rainbow Dash and over to my father's side. Dad ... okay, if I'm gonna be completely honest, he looked like a mess right now. Dad had always been this pillar of fatherly strength ever since I was old enough to remember, but now he just looked worn out. The Sisters' horsefeathers out-of-hoof dismissal was just more weight on him, adding to the lines under his eyes. His usually neat-cut amber mane was looking ragged, and his white coat looked like it hadn't been brushed out properly in days. His wings were—well, functional, like he'd done enough half-awake preening to make himself airworthy and not much else.

In short, he looked bad enough that I could almost understand why a pony might think that the whole thing with Mom was getting to him enough that he needed a break. Almost. Yeah, he was hurting, but Kickers don't let our personal problems get in the way of doing our duty. Sure, I'd made a bit of a mess of my efforts to run the weather team, but Dad was made of tougher stuff than me. I mean ... he's Dad. But now Princess Celestia had told him that he was useless, on top of being a widower. From the way his shoulders slumped and his wing-tips were practically dragging on the ground, I could tell that the one-two punch was getting to him.

I tried to think of something, anything I could say to make him feel better, but I had nothing. What can you say in a situation like that? There were no words that could come remotely close to doing the job, so I did the only other thing I could. I walked alongside him, in the vague hope that my silent presence might at least offer some small measure of comfort. I would've put a wing over his back, but I was still fully armed and armored, so even that wasn't really an option. Wing hugs really don't work when you've got a wing blade on, and even without the blade he wouldn't really feel it through his own armor.

Eventually, the three of us got to the Kicker Compound. The place had started off as old red-granite fortress on the edge of Canterlot back in Shadow's day, but nine hundred years of Canterlot growing and the clan living there had done a lot to change it. Now, it was more like its own neighborhood within Canterlot. As I passed through the gates, I couldn't help noticing that we had the Equestrian flag and our clan banner at half-staff. It seemed like a small thing to notice but it somehow made it really hit home for me. I knew Mom was dead, I'd seen her feathering body, but coming home and seeing the flag hanging low in mourning ... I dunno. It was like that made it more real or something. It wasn't just me anymore, it was all of us.

There was a subdued air hanging over the entire compound, and once ponies there saw me and Dad it got worse, until all conversation and signs of life just stopped. Every single pony there, even the non-Kickers, was just quietly staring at us in respectful silence, aside from offering the occasional sympathetic murmur. I suppose I should've appreciated the gesture, but for some reason it just made me ... I dunno, almost mad. Now Dad and I couldn't even walk home without a bunch of ponies stopping, staring, and thinking about how Mom was dead.

Aunt Wind and Blossom were waiting for us when we got home. As soon as I walked through the door Blossom walked up to me and wrapped her forelegs around my neck, while Aunt Wind went up and gave Dad a sisterly nuzzle. I got a hug from Aunt Wind too, once Blossom finally let go of me.

After a long, painful silence, Aunt Wind spoke up. "Storm should be back tomorrow, but Star's going to be tied up for a few days longer. They think her talents might be useful for the investigation into Nimb—into what happened."

Blossom shuffled on her hooves, and quietly added. "The Princess sent somepony to collect any messages we wanted to send to Ponyville." She couldn't quite bring herself to meet my eyes as she said, "I wrote a quick letter to Derpy about—about what happened. She'll probably be on the first train to Canterlot in the morning with Alula."

Dad nodded and gave a vaguely approving grunt. Any joy I might feel at having my baby sis close at hoof again didn't last long, considering the circumstances. Dear Shadow, how the hay were we supposed to tell 'Lula about Mom? I could barely handle the news myself, and now I was gonna have to explain to my baby sister that her mommy was gone? Or even worse—that she'd been calling that feathering thing 'Mom' for who-knows-how-long.

Aunt Wind looked between me and my father, and gave a slight nod. Then she turned to my two friends. "Rainbow Dash? Blossomforth? Could you two help me put together a quick dinner? I think we could all use something to eat."

I thought about telling them I wasn't hungry, but it just didn't seem important enough to actually come out and say that. Besides, it wasn't that I wasn't hungry per se—I'd had one hay of an active day—it was just that food ... didn't sound good right now. I dunno. It was hard to really build up much enthusiasm for anything in my current state of mind.

Blossom gave me one last hug before following my aunt out of the room, while Rainbow opted for awkwardly hoofing me in the shoulder and offering a shaky little smile on her way out.

And then it was just me and Dad, alone together.

Dad walked over to the couch, shedding his armor as he went. If I'd ever treated my armor with that sort of casual disregard back at West Hoof I would've had every single Sergeant Instructor within eyesight getting on my flank, or Dad himself if it had happened at home. It was the closest I'd ever seen him come to losing it; his helmet hit the ground with a dull clang, any reverence or respect for what it stood for discarded like the bit of shiny metal it really was. Backplate, peytral, crinnet, his heavy hoofguards, every last bit of pointless gold was tossed aside.

A part of me was tempted to follow his example, until I remembered just where my armor had come from. This wasn't just another set of Guard-issue plate from the armory, this was something my parents, my mother, had made especially for me. Armor she'd held onto for nearly a decade, in the hope that one day I would finally come home and take it up. This was the legacy she'd left me, and it deserved more respect than that.

I removed each piece slowly and carefully, not wanting to risk the slightest scratch or dent. As I removed it, I realized there were still several bits of dried blood and ichor covering it—I'd have to clean that up later. No way I was letting that thing's ichor stay on Mom's armor. It deserved to be clean. Unblemished. I wasn't going to let the monster that killed her stain the last gift she'd ever offered me.

Next thing I knew, I had a wet washcloth in my good foreleg, furiously scrubbing at the armor. I had to clean it. I just had to. I couldn't leave it like this.

I got most of the mess without any problem, but no matter how hard I scrubbed I just couldn't get it all clean. There always seemed to be some tiny bit of gunk lingering in a crevice or hiding in one of the joints, and as soon as I cleaned that off I found three more dirty spots. It was like some kind of impossible task, like no matter how hard I scrubbed I could never get it clean again. That thing had ruined Mom's armor, and nothing I could do would ever fix it.

But I couldn't stop now. If both my forelegs were in working order I could probably get it all, so that meant I just needed to try harder. I owed it to Mom to make this armor absolutely spotless, no matter how much effort it took. I started trying to work my bad foreleg out of its sling. Sure, I might pop a couple stitches or something, but I could always get those put back in. This was more important than losing a little blood.

Before I could get my other foreleg free, I felt my father's hoof on my shoulder, gently restraining me. "Cloud." His voice sounded scratchy and hollow, like he could barely manage to get the words out. "It's clean, Cloud."

I looked down at the piece of armor in my hoof for several long seconds, before finally setting it aside. I sat there for a while, trying to work through everything going on in my head right then. It was like my brain was running at a mile a minute, yet at the time same barely working at all. Finally, I managed to get a few words out. "I failed her, Dad. She needed me, and I let her down."

Dad wrapped his hooves around me, pulling my head onto his shoulder. I knew I should probably be crying right now, but for some reason the tears just wouldn't come. However, now that I'd finally started talking the words just kept tumbling out. "If I'd joined the Guard like she wanted me to I would've been there for her. That bug thing never would've gotten her, or I would've figured out something was wrong before it was too late, or I might've gotten to her in time to save her. But no, I had to be a greedy little foal and run away from my family duties, and now because I wasn't there Momma's ... Momma's..."

Dad's hold on me tightened, and his deep, strong voice rumbled out of his chest. "No, Cloud. It's not your fault. You did everything we could've asked of you, and more. You found her when none of us could." Dad choked up for a bit, before finally adding, "And nopony could've saved her, but at least you avenged her."

"Revenge." I let out a weak little sniff. "Is revenge supposed to make me feel better? 'Cause I don't think it's working. What's the point of avenging her when she's already dead? I don't want to get revenge for her. Well, I do, but what I really want is her back here. Alive. But that can't happen, and now she's dead because I let her down. Avenging her doesn't change that."

"Cloud," my father said, a bit more firmly. "What happened to your mother is not your fault."

"Yes it is." I know he was trying to help, but he didn't understand. There's no way he could—me deserting had cost him Mom, not just some stupid position. I'd destroyed my own family. To hay with being disgusted at the state of Equestria, Shadow would be disgusted with me. "Mom needed me, and I wasn't there for her. I failed her as a daughter. I failed the entire clan when I ran away from West Hoof. That's all I've ever been for her and the family. A big, useless failure. And now she's dead because of it."

"You are not a failure." I felt my father's forelegs tighten around me, and he spoke in a gentle, soothing tone, the one he used back when I was a scared little filly. "I know you didn't walk down the path your mother and I planned for you, but what child does? You made your own way in the world, and while it was difficult, we learned to accept that."

"But I—"

Dad gently cut me off. "Cloud, your mother and I were both proud, very proud, to call you our daughter." Dad took a slightly shaky deep breath before he added, "And if your mother were here, I know she would say that you did well. Very well."

I felt my body start trembling in my father's forelegs. I nearly broke, hearing that. Nearly started sobbing like a little filly, and let my daddy hold me until I cried myself out. I'm not sure why I didn't, really. Maybe I just hadn't quite gotten over the shock of losing Mom yet. I'd just been hit by too much, too fast, and now my brain couldn't slow down enough to really wrap itself around what had happened. I knew Mom was dead, but some part of my mind just couldn't quite manage to comprehend that fact. Like I kept expecting her to walk in the front door and explain that there had just been some huge misunderstanding, and she was fine.

Or maybe it was something simpler than that. Maybe I wouldn't let myself break yet, because I knew I wasn't the only one hurting. So I just let Dad hold me, and buried that pain. "Thanks, Dad. It—it really means a lot to me, to hear that." I took a deep breath, and took one last moment to think things through. "Dad, I've been doing a lot of thinking about things. Even before what happened with Mom, I was thinking about coming back into the Guard. And now that she's gone ... I wanna do it. I wanna help keep Equestria safe. I want to help make sure that nopony else has to bury anypony they love. Especially if there's some kind trouble coming up. At a time like this, we need to be together."

I'm not sure how I expected Dad to take the news. After all, my parents had been hoping I'd change my mind and gently (or sometimes not-so-gently) nudging me to come back to the Guard ever since I ran away from my graduation at West Hoof. I guess I expected that the news would make him happy. Well, maybe not happy, it was hard to be happy at a time like this, but ... less sad, I suppose. I thought that having me be there with him would do something to salve his pain.

Instead, Dad pulled back from me with a startled little whinny, sharply shaking his head. "No, Cloud! You can't do that!"

I blinked, and had to work my jaw a few times before I could speak again. "What? Why not? Dad, I—"

Dad just seemed to deflate, with all the strength and authority I was so used to seeing around him slowly slipping away. For the first time in my life, Dad looked ... old. Tired. "Cloud, I'm sure you would make a wonderful soldier. I know if you came back to the Guard you would have a brilliant career, but..." Then, suddenly, it was Dad that was shaking in my hooves. "I can't—Cloud, I just lost your mother. If you come back to the Guard, and then something happens to you too..."

I couldn't believe it. Ever since I was young enough to crawl, Dad's been this solid, unshakable pillar of strength for me. There's no way to really explain it, except to say that he was Dad. He was always there for me, always strong. It wasn't ever a question, it was a given. Like my wings pushing me into the air, or Princess Celestia raising the sun every day. Sun shines, grass grows, and Dad's my solid rock. And now, that unshakable pillar of strength was ... shaking. Trembling in my hooves.

"We don't even know when that thing took her," Dad choked out. I saw tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. "I didn't get to say goodbye to her. I'll never even know when I spoke to her for the last time. I'll never know the last time I told her I loved her..."

And then ... Dad started crying. Not the single, stoic, tear you'd expect to see from a tough soldier. No, this was full-out, broken sobbing.

I did the only thing I could. Dad had been my unbreakable rock ever since I was a little filly. He'd always been there for me, but now he needed me to be there for him. "Daddy..." I choked back the tears that were threatening to take me as well, and reached out to slowly pull him into the best embrace I could manage with one working foreleg, letting him sob into my shoulder. "I'm here, Daddy."

I held Daddy until he cried himself to sleep. I thought about trying to get him up to his bed, but threw that idea out pretty quickly. There would be too many reminders of Mom in their bedroom, and when he woke up and saw that big empty gap where Mom was supposed to be... No, that just wouldn't do. It would be salt in the wound. I eventually moved him into our guest bedroom. It would leave Rainbow and Blossom sleeping on the couches, but they could deal with that.

Once I had Dad settled, I went out for a flight. I heard Blossom and Aunt Wind calling out after me as I left, but I didn't care about the dinner they'd been making. Not that I didn't appreciate them going to all the trouble, but I just wasn't hungry right now. I needed to get out for a bit, clear my head and stuff. There would still be food left when I got back.

Night had fallen over Canterlot, but that just meant the lights were turning on all over the city, somehow making it seem even more bustling and alive than it did in the daytime. For a while I just flew around, looking at everything and yet nothing in particular. I don't even know what I was hoping to accomplish with this, really.

As I continued flying around and watching all the other ponies in the city, I found myself starting to hate them. Not because they'd done anything wrong; I'm sure most of them were perfectly nice, ordinary ponies. But that's just it. They were going along with their perfectly nice, ordinary lives. Like nothing had changed. Like it didn't matter that Mom was dead. Mom was dead, and for the rest of Equestria life just kept on going along as if nothing had happened. Shopkeepers did business, young couples went out on dates, all the usual stuff.

Mom was dead, and the universe didn't seem to give a flying feather. If all the ponies down there even knew about what happened to Mom, they probably didn't care. Or if they cared, it was that vague, distant sort of caring. They'd say 'Oh, that's too bad, I feel sorry for her family,' and go on with their lives.

Eventually, I went to the only place I could think of where ponies wouldn't be going along with their ordinary daily lives. The clan cemetery was certainly a fitting place in my current mood, and seemed quite appropriate under the circumstances.

The Kicker cemetery was a bit smaller than you would expect, considering the fact that the clan's been around for such a long time. You could chalk a lot of that up to the old Pegasopolan custom of burying or cremating our dead on the battlefield. For a long time the clan cemetery only contained Shadow's tomb and the graves of a few other notable clan heroes, though we'd eventually started bringing more and more of our dead back for a proper burial instead of just burying them where they fell. These days, it was pretty much standard procedure. Not that I would've left Mom in that damned cave even if we still stuck to the old ways. No way in Tartarus I was gonna leave her in that dank, musty cave where the bug kept her for Celestia knows how long.

I bet if I wanted to, I could look around the place until I found the grave they were digging for her. I didn't really wanna do that though. I wanted to ... Shadow, I don't know what I wanted. I guess I wanted to be alone. To think, get my head clear, and sort this all out.

And that told me the perfect place to go. It's ... kind of a strange ritual sort of thing, but a lot of Kickers go to Shadow's tomb when we feel like we need guidance. Guess it figures, really. Shadow was our big famous legendary ancestor after all. I don't buy into the hero-worship thing that surrounds her as much as some of my clanmates, but even I think she's fairly impressive. Compared to saving Equestria, telling a pony how to deal with death wasn't a very big deal.

Granted, Shadow couldn't literally give anypony advice, on account of being dead and all that, but the one or two other times I'd gone by her tomb I'd felt this sense of ... connectedness. It's hard to put it into words, but it was like I could feel her watching over me from wherever the hay it is ponies go after they die. It was almost enough to make me buy into the old stories I'd heard around the clanhold, about how Shadow was still around in some form. Like her spirit was still watching over us, or something.

Whatever the case, Shadow's tomb seemed like a good place to go now. Going off her memoirs, Shadow would've been fine with a simple anonymous grave like any other soldier, while just about everypony else wanted to build a massive memorial. Eventually, they settled on a large but fairly modest stone sarcophagus. Well, it had started out as modest, at least. Over the years, enough embellishments had been added that I had to wonder if Shadow's bones were spinning around in the middle of it.

The sarcophagus proper rested in center of a rectangular stone structure, with spaced columns in place of walls so that it would resemble the cloud styles of old Pegasopolis, and a domed ceiling. The sarcophagus itself was covered with engravings depicting her battles and victories, and atop it stood what was supposedly a perfectly-to-scale statue of my ancestor. Personally, I suspect that they bulked up Shadow's proportions a bit, just to make her look more impressive. Not that she needed it.

Unfortunately, when I got there somepony else had already beaten me to it. I wouldn't have been shocked to run into another Kicker at the tomb considering what had happened to Mom, but I hadn't expected to run into Princess Celestia herself. The ruler of Equestria was just sitting there in front of the tomb with her eyes closed as if she were deep in thought.

After a moment's hesitation, I turned around to leave. I certainly didn't want to interrupt Princess Celestia herself while she was doing ... well, whatever she was doing. On top of that, it just seemed wrong to intrude on a private moment like that. With the rest of the clan, Shadow's tomb is a big public thing that's really more a monument to a heroine than anything else. But Princess Celestia was probably the only pony in all Equestria who had actually known Shadow while she was alive. It might be a monument to us, but for her it was the grave of a pony who, at least judging by what I'd read in Shadow's memoirs, the Princess was rather fond of.

The Princess spoke up before I could clear the area. "You don't need to leave, Cloud Kicker." I'd have asked how the hay she knew it was me when she still hadn't even opened her eyes, but this was Princess Celestia we're talking about. "In fact, I think I would prefer that you stay."

"Um, okay." I uncertainly settled down in front of the tomb, a respectful distance away from the Princess. I'll admit, my initial plan of sitting down for a bit to think and clear my head was pretty much dead in the air now—pretty much all I could really think about was the fact that Princess Celestia was right there, just a few steps away from me.

For several seconds an awkward sort of silence hung in the air between the two of us. Then the Princess turned to me, her voice oddly subdued. "Do you agree with your father, Cloud Kicker?" Her eyes drifted over to Shadow's tomb. "Do you also think she would disapprove of my handling of this matter?"

I took a couple seconds to mull things over before I gave my answer. Now that I'd had a couple hours to calm down and look at things a bit more objectively I was feeling very slightly less pissed off, but I still wasn't happy. "Yeah, I still think Dad's got the right idea. Somepony—something—is out there, and you're hiding from it."

Princess Celestia's eyes widened, and her tone picked up a bit an edge to it, as if I'd offended her. "I am not hiding. It is only prudent to act with caution while the true nature of the threat against Equestria remains unclear. For all we know, whatever power is planning to launch an attack might have canceled those plans after their agent was uncovered."

"There're a lot of ponies that don't live in the most heavily guarded city in Equestria," I countered. "Showing how strong we are at the heart of the realm doesn't do a lot of good to anypony outside of the city limits, and there are a lot more places to infiltrate." And a lot more ponies out there who could get nabbed by these Infiltrator things.

The Princess bowed her head in silence for several seconds before finally answering me. "According to our most recent intelligence reports, there are less than a dozen Infiltrators left in the world—and most of them of them either work in fields other than espionage or were last seen far from Equestria's borders. Chrysalis was very thorough in her campaign of genocide. The odds that any of Equestria's enemies could enlist multiple Infiltrators are infinitesimal."

"Yeah, well what did your intelligence reports say about the chances that there was a spy in the heart of your armed forces, Princess?" I could feel the bitterness welling up in my voice as the words spilled out. "Hay, how many times did you meet with that thing pretending to be my mother and not notice anything wrong?"

The Princess gave a very slight flinch at that, then fell silent for several seconds before she took a calming breath and continued. "I did not come here to argue with you, Cloud Kicker. The last thing I wanted was to introduce more bitterness and pain to your life at a time like this. I regret that things went so poorly with your father. It was never my intention to pour salt into an open wound."

"It just happened that way." I stubbornly set my jaw, almost wanting to pick a fight with her. Hay, a fight sounded like a perfect way to blow off some steam. Sanity eventually prevailed, though, and I let out a weary sigh. "What're you doing here, anyway?"

It was several seconds before the Princess answered me. "I come here, sometimes. When I find myself dearly missing her counsel."

"Mm." No need to ask who this 'her' was when we were sitting in front of Shadow's tomb. I was tempted to toss out something bitter about how she didn't seem to have much interest in getting advice from Kickers who hadn't been dead for over eight hundred years, but the words wouldn't leave my throat. Instead, I opted for something just a bit more diplomatic. "So what d'you think her counsel would be, here?"

The Princess took a few moments to consider that question before giving her answer. "Most likely that I should throw all the nobles out of Canterlot and use them as bait."

I admit, that got half a snort of laughter out of me. I could certainly give the Princess a couple of suggestions on particularly expendable nobles. "Bait isn't supposed to repel what you're hunting, Princess." My smile didn't last long, though. It couldn't, not on a day like today. "But that's the thing, isn't it? She'd tell you to get out and hunt down the threat and deal with it. Find out who's planning to come after Equestria and neutralize them before anypony else dies. Not turtle up and hope the numbers are right."

The Princess very slowly nodded in agreement. "As your father said. His suggestions might have been too aggressive in some aspects, but there was still merit to his overall position. However, Shining Armor was also correct to say that we must maintain a secure base and a mobile reserve in a central position in order to quickly respond to any attack." After taking a few seconds to think it over, Celestia gave a sharp nod to herself. "A division of forces, then. Luna will seek out the source of this threat, while I see to the safety of Canterlot."

I wasn't quite sure I felt about that solution. I guess it was a decent compromise, but it still seemed a bit too defensive. Then again, right now anything short of burning whatever nation sent that spy to the ground and salting the earth sounded a bit tame to me at the moment. "And who else? Princess Luna is..." I needed a couple seconds to come up with the right word to describe the Princess of the Night. "She's formidable, but she's only one pony."

A faint smile tugged at the corners of Princess Celestia's lips. "I am to negotiate my entire defense plan with you then, Cloud Kicker?" When I didn't return her smile, it slowly faded away, replaced with a more serious, businesslike expression. "I am sure Luna will pick appropriate ponies to assist her."

I shifted around a bit, wondering if there might be some way to get myself on the team helping out Luna. Probably not an option, though. Even if Dad's fears of losing me too weren't an issue, there's the fact that I would pretty indisputably be emotionally compromised when it came to going after whoever or whatever it was that killed Mom. Well, not literally what killed her, but they gave the orders that resulted in her death. Same thing, really. "S'long as they get the bastards that killed Mom, I guess I'll be alright."

"You have my word, Cloud Kicker," the Princess announced firmly. "I will not let this attack go unanswered."

"Good." I gave a single sharp nod, and and let out a sad little grumble. "'Cause she deserves better than that. She deserves to be alive. They took that from her. They took that from us."

"Yes." I could hear the sadness in Princess Celestia's voice. Not the sort of polite faked sadness that a lot of ponies would offer in a situation like this, which probably would've just gotten me mad at the Princess again. No, this was the real deal. I guess that counted for something, that Princess Celestia was genuinely sad about what had happened to Mom.

"Your mother deserved to live a full, happy life." The Princess turned to me, and dipped her head slightly. "I am truly sorry for your loss, Cloud Kicker."

I had to blink a couple times to clear my eyes, then I turned to her and nodded. "Thanks, Your Highness." I turned back to Shadow's tomb, trying to think of anything else I could say to the Princess. Nothing else sprang to mind, and I was suddenly cognizant of the fact that I was kind of intruding on what might be a fairly private moment for her. Besides, Aunt Wind, Blossom, and everypony else were probably wondering where I'd run off to. "Um, I should go."

The Princess gently called out to me before I could even get to my hooves. "Stay a moment longer, Cloud Kicker. There are things I would speak to you of, and I hope that some of it might offer some small measure of comfort to you in this difficult time." The Princess lifted her wing facing me, a clear invitation.

At first I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. On any other day I probably would've been too gobsmacked that Princess Celestia herself was offering me a wing hug. I mean, this was the ruler of Equestria we were talking about.

Well, technically she was the co-ruler now, and I hadn't had much hesitation when it came to making a move on the other half of the diarchy, but Celestia was different from Luna. Maybe it was because Celestia had been here for all those centuries, while Luna hadn't come back to Equestria until I was well into adulthood. Whatever the case, Princess Celestia just had this kind of mystique to her that made the gesture seem like so much more than an ordinary wing hug.

Right now, though, I didn't really care all that much about the whole 'power and grandeur of the Princess' thing. She was offering me comfort, and I needed it. I settled down next to her, moving slowly and carefully on account of my damaged foreleg, and she wrapped her wing around me like a giant white feathery blanket. For the record, Princess Celestia is warm. I guess that figures, what with her being Princess of the Sun and all.

The Princess just let me sit under her wing for a while, probably letting me get comfortable with this strange new position before she started the conversation back up. Once I'd settled in, she looked down at me and spoke in a gentle, almost maternal voice. "You have walked a very unique path, my little pony. Does that trouble you?"

"It's not about the path," I grumbled. "It's always been about who's there with me. About who's not there, anymore."

The Princess closed her eyes for a few seconds. "I cannot heal that wound, Cloud Kicker. Not even I can restore the dead back to life, nor make their absence hurt any less." The Princess let out a soft little sigh. "All I can do is offer you some small measure of comfort, on the matter of your path in life. I will ask once more; do you regret your decision? Do you think you made a mistake by refusing to join my Guard?"

I nodded. "Yeah. I mean, it's the family tradition and everything. Besides, I was really good at all the classes at West Hoof, so I could've made a pretty good guard." Now that I'd started talking, the words just came tumbling out. "But all that's not really important, what matters is that I could've done something if I'd stayed—I would've noticed that Mom was acting different, seen 'Lula get sick and figured out it was 'cause that monster was feeding on her. Hay, I would've been there to see 'Lula be born. I could've been spending all that time together with Mom, and instead I was running around Ponyville and..." The stream words babbling out of my mouth gradually trailed off, and I opted to just rest my head against the Princess' shoulder.

The Princess gave me a while to compose myself before she spoke again. "You feel as if you've abandoned your destiny."

My destiny. I guess that's as good a way of putting it as any. It was like my life had gone horribly off track somewhere between Flight Camp and running out on graduation from West Hoof, and I'd been spending all the years since then running from the problem or trying to find a way to get things back to how they were supposed to be. It was almost like one of those stories you read, where a pony was stuck in this life they don't feel like they belong in, until the truth comes out that they really don't belong there. Except this time, it wasn't some evil sorcerer or something that was throwing my destiny off track, it was my own stupid mistakes. I nodded, not quite trusting my voice at the moment.

The Princess gave me a compassionate smile for a moment, then turned to look back up at my ancestor's grave. "Consider, if you would, whose tomb we both lie in the shadow of." A hint of old yet never quite healed pain entered her voice. "It was her destiny, from the moment of her birth, to rule Equestria at my side. When the time came, I told her of that destiny. And once I'd explained everything to her and asked her to take up her rightful place at my side, she looked me in the eye and lovingly but politely refused." The Princess turned back to me. "She too had a destiny, yet she didn't feel compelled to follow it when she wished to walk a different path. If your venerated ancestor can do such a thing, then surely you can as well."

I could see the point she was trying to make, but it just didn't work for me. "It's not the same, Princess. I didn't refuse power for the good of Equestria, I abandoned my family. And now Mom's dead because of that. There's nothing to venerate, nothing worth remembering about that."

The Princess slowly shook her head. "You give yourself too little credit, my little pony."

It didn't matter. There wasn't anything she could say that could make anything I'd done since I'd left seem worthwhile. Everything paled in comparison to what it could have been, should have been. Having her offer a comforting wing like this just made it worse, in a way. Everypony was small next to her—almost foal-like.

That's when the question came blurting out of my mouth without even stopping to consult my brain first. "Are you my grandmother?" For a second I considered trying to pretend I hadn't said anything, but it was too late now. The question was out there, so I might as well ask it properly. "Well, not my literal grandmother, but my great-great-great-whatever grandmother. Y'know, by way of Shadow's younger daughter." Her biological daughter, whose sire Shadow had never publicly acknowledged. Needless to say, rumors had been quick to fill in the gap with just about every pony Shadow shared more than two words with ... which included Celestia.

The Princess let out a tiny little snort. "Would you believe, Cloud Kicker, that in all the years since then I could count on my hooves the number of ponies who have dared to ask me that question?" For second I wondered if I had horribly overstepped myself, but then she offered me a gentle smile. "All of my little ponies are my children, Cloud Kicker."

My eyes narrowed at that blatant non-answer, and after a few seconds the Princess saw fit to clarify. "There were many silly rumors about Shadow and I, just as there are ridiculous rumors about the relationship between my faithful student Twilight Sparkle and I in more recent times. I can assure you, no such relationship exists between my faithful student and I, nor would I ever desire such a relationship." Her expression softened a bit, and she added, "I can tell you, though, that whoever it was that sired Shadow's younger daughter would be very proud of you, just as I know your mother was."

I started to realize that it had been silly of me to ask about those old rumors—even if they were true, it's not like Celestia could replace Mom. As Princess Celestia's wing settled over my back, a hundred memories all flashed through my head. All of the gentle encouragement from Mom, the silent pride when she looked down at me after a sparring match, or the quiet concern in the hospital. All the promises I'd made just by being her child, shattered and left to gather dust with my armor. The years I'd lost since then, the distant, stoic looks that were the closest she'd ever come to pleading whenever we talked about me coming back to serve in the Guard. To be a part of her family again. I'd give anything to have those times back again.

"I just want my mom back."

By the time I got back home, it was well into the night. Nopony was waiting up for me, which was probably a good thing. Sure, it would've been a nice gesture and all, but I would've felt bad about having somepony staying up this late just waiting for me to come home. Plus, I would be stuck answering a whole lot of awkward questions about where I'd gone and what I'd been doing. I just really wasn't in the mood to deal with that right now.

I walked through the house, trying to make as little noise as possible so I wouldn't wake any sleeping ponies up. The house felt oppressively quiet, this late at night, almost like it was completely empty. But then, it was empty in a way, wasn't it? Not completely empty, but there was this gaping hole where Mom used to be.

It was silly, but I had to check on them, make sure they were all okay. Rainbow and Blossom would probably be napping in the living room, which was a lot closer, but I needed to go check on Dad first, even if it meant going the long way around. I knew nothing could have happened to him while I was gone, but I still needed to make sure he was alright. Just in case.

I was halfway to my parents' bedroom when I remembered that Dad wasn't sleeping there tonight. Too many memories. So I trotted over to the guest bedroom and cracked the door open. Dad was still asleep, and as far as I could tell he was okay. But how could I tell from all the way over here? Sure, he looked fine, but it's not like I could see him that well with the lights out. I had to be sure.

I carefully opened up the door as quietly as I could, and walked up to Dad's bedside. I stopped once I was close enough to hear the sound of Dad breathing, and I could see him well enough to be sure that he hadn't been nabbed and replaced with some kind of bug monster. I let out a breath I hadn't even realized I was holding. Dad was okay.

I went back to check up on Rainbow Dash and Blossom next. I didn't know if Aunt Wind was staying here tonight, or if she'd gone back to her own place, so I could wait to check on her until after I knew the other two were safe. Then there were cousins Storm and Star to consider. I felt a quick tremble pass down my spine when it hit me that they were both still out in the field. What if something happened to them? What if whoever was behind what happened to Mom decided to launch their big offensive tonight, and the two of them got caught up in it?

I took a deep breath, and forced myself to calm down before I got worked up into a complete frenzy. Check on the ponies who were here first, then I could start worrying about everypony else. Blossom and Rainbow were each curled up on our couches, with a couple spare blankets to make things a bit more comfortable. Well, Blossom was neatly curled up, while Rainbow was just kind of sprawled all over the place. I could at least confirm that Rainbow was alright without much trouble, thanks to the way she was lightly snoring and one of her hind legs was twitching. It's an odd thing about Rainbow, but she only ever tosses, turns, and snores when she's sleeping groundside. Guess she's just too used to clouds.

Then I turned to check on Blossom. Thanks to Rainbow's snoring, I had to get pretty close to actually make sure Blossom was okay and still breathing. Too close, as it turned out, though I still assign some of the blame for that to Rainbow Dash. Her snoring was probably keeping Blossom from getting into a proper deep sleep.

In any case, my nose was just a couple inches away from Blossom's when her eyes fluttered open, and she gave a couple sleepy blinks to make sure I was really there. "Cloudy?"

"Hey," I whispered back, trying to keep it down so we wouldn't wake up Rainbow. While she was usually a pretty heavy sleeper, there was no point in taking a needless risk, especially since Dash tends to be a bit cranky when she's woken up in the middle of the night. "I just ... I was just checking on you. Sorry I woke you up. Just go on back to sleep, love."

Unfortunately, Blossom didn't take my advice. Instead of burying herself back under her blankets, she shrugged them off and stretched a bit. "I c—" She cut herself off as she remembered that Rainbow was still asleep, and dropped the volume down to a whisper. "I can sleep later, Cloud. Are you okay? You just flew out of here without saying a word to anypony."

"I'm fine." I tried to give a reassuring little wave of my hoof, but I couldn't really pull the gesture off with my foreleg in a sling. "I just needed a little fresh air. Quick flight to clear my head and all that."

"Cloudy..." Blossom brought a hoof up to my cheek. "You're not okay, Cloud. Your mom just died. How could you be okay after something like that?"

"I'm alright, really." From the frown on her face, Blossom wasn't buying it for a minute. I couldn't really blame her for that, since even I could tell I wasn't okay. Yeah, I was hurting. How could I not be? But if I told her that, she'd make a big fuss about it, and it would be hours before either of us got to sleep. I didn't want to deal with that right now. "Look, I'm a Kicker. We know how to handle death, it comes with being a Guard family." Sure, Equestria had been relatively peaceful aside from the Nightmare Moon and Discord incidents, but even during peacetime you had the occasional monster attack and such. Mom's funeral wouldn't be the first one I'd attended for a Kicker who'd died in the line of duty.

"Cloud..." Blossom didn't have to say anything else, the worried frown on her face got the message across just fine. There was no way I was getting out of this.

I let out a resigned sigh, and gave in to the inevitable. "Not here, we don't want to wake up Rainbow Dash." Blossom nodded, and I led her to my old room. It was the one place we could talk while being reasonably sure we wouldn't wake anypony up.

My room hadn't changed much, but I guess that figured when I didn't use it very much. My parents kept the place squared away for when I visited, though I'd pretty much moved all my personal effects to Ponyville. Not that my room had ever been all that fancy in the first place, but now all that was left were the books I didn't love enough to take back with me to Ponyville, and a couple other odds and ends like family photos I already had copies of.

As soon as I'd shut the door behind us Blossom wrapped her forelegs around my neck, hugging as hard as she could while being careful of my injuries. "Cloud Kicker, I'm sorry about your mom, I'm so sorry. If I hadn't slowed you and Rainbow Dash down..."

"Hey, none of that." I couldn't bring a hoof up to her lips, so I had to improvise by pecking her instead. It got the job done. "You can't go blaming yourself for something that isn't your fault. The only one to blame for what happened to Mom was that thing that killed her."

Blossom sniffled and swiped a hoof across her eyes. "I ... yeah. Thanks, Cloudy." She broke the hug, which I somewhat appreciated, given the mild difficulty of keeping my balance with her hanging off of me. Ponies really aren't meant to get around on three legs. Hopefully my leg wouldn't be out of action for too long—I was probably gonna be getting a lot of hugs over the next couple of days.

I guided Blossom over to my bed, mostly so the two of us would have something to sit down on. She needed a second to compose herself, then asked one of the most painfully awkward questions she could've broken out. "What happened, anyway? I couldn't get a straight answer from anypony; all I know is you and Rainbow Dash came back hurt, and your mother's..."

It would've made my life less complicated if she hadn't asked that, but I shouldn't have been surprised. Of course Blossom would wanna know what had happened to Mom, especially since she'd followed us for more than half the trip out there. Unfortunately, the Princess still wanted the details of that kept quiet, so I couldn't spill the beans just yet. Thankfully, there was a safe middle ground between full disclosure and outright lying. "A monster got her."

Blossom frowned, and I got the feeling she wasn't quite buying it yet. "What about that whole thing with you thinking she was a traitor. I'm guessing she wasn't, but..." She trailed off meaningfully, waiting for me to fill the gap.

"Mom was loyal, I just didn't have all the facts." I really didn't want to outright lie to her just to keep Celestia's secrets, and from the thoughtful little frown on her face I could tell she was going to keep asking questions. That left me with the honest, but unsubtle, approach. "Look, Blossom, it's kind of an ongoing national security thing at the moment, and I'm not supposed to talk too much about it. Sorry."

Blossom sighed and gave a reluctant nod as she dropped the subject. She shifted nervously on the bed next to me, and let out a resigned sigh. "Okay then. Is there anything I can do to help? I just ... I feel so useless here. Rainbow Dash was there for you, she even helped you fight the thing that got your mom, and then there's your family, and..." She trailed off and gave a frustrated little grunt. "I just feel like I should be doing something more for you, but things have been so crazy that this is the first chance we've really had to do anything."

"Just having you here helps, okay?" I turned my head, planning to look her in the eyes and smile, but those plans went out the window when my eye passed over the nightstand. There were a few random family photos there, the usual little collection of moments. A big family photo for 'Lula's first Hearth's Warming, me helping Storm and Star with their homework, a big group shot from the last big clan get-together, stuff like that. But the one that got me was a photo of me back when I was about 'Lula's age, getting ready for wing blade training with Mom. I had the sort of big excited grin you'd expect on a filly who was about to do something rambunctious, and Mom was looking down at me with that quiet maternal pride of hers.

I've mentioned it before, but Mom wasn't the type to get all lovey-dovey. Some ponies would think that made her cold, or distant. The truth was different. She didn't say those kinds of things because she didn't need to. We both already knew it.

For some reason, it was that picture that finally did it. Everything just came pouring out without so much as a moment's warning. One second I was fine, the next I was sobbing my eyes out. Blossom immediately leapt into action, wrapping her forelegs around me and pulling my head down to her shoulder, gently stroking my mane and murmuring reassuringly.

I've got no idea how long she held me. Long enough for to finish crying myself out, I guess. It took a while, but eventually there were no more tears left to shed, just a hollow pit in the middle of my stomach. I felt ... empty. Like everything good had just been drained out of me. I wanted to find something, anything, to fill that void.

I'm not particularly proud of what happened next.

Blossom jumped a bit when I kissed her. I guess me going from crying to kissing so suddenly must've caught her off guard, but it didn't take her long to respond in kind. First she met my lips, then she moved to my eyes, kissing away the last remnants of my tears. "I'm here, Cloud," she gently reassured me.

I didn't say anything, instead I just kissed her again. This one was different from the kisses we'd had in the past. Less gentle and loving, more ... hungry. I just felt so empty, and I wanted something, anything, to fill that hole in my heart. At first Blossom responded in kind, but as we kept going she started hesitating. She might not have ever done this before, but some instinctual part of her brain could tell what I was building up to. When my good hoof moved down to her flank, she finally put a stop to it, breaking the kiss and gently putting a hoof on my chest to keep me from just getting right back to it.


I could see the uncertainty and doubt on her face, and I knew I needed to do something to make it go away. I didn't want to stop, not until the pain went away. "Blossom ... please..." I slipped around the hoof holding me at bay and started gently kissing her neck. "We've both wanted this for a long time, and right now I need you."

"I know, but..." She nibbled at her lower lip, torn between her worries and the way I was making her feel. Then my good hoof moved down to her flank and started gently rubbing her cutie mark, and she let out a soft little gasp. "Cloud ... but ... um ... what about your foreleg? We might hurt it."

"I'll be careful." It wouldn't be the first time I'd banged with an injury. Heck, there was that time back in the day when I was home from West Hoof thanks to a hoof injury, and I'd snuck Lyra and a bottle of chocolate syrup up into my bedroom. Then Mom had walked in on us and...

I moved back to Blossom's lips, driving the bittersweet memories away. Blossom returned my kiss fully this time, her initial hesitation melting away as I worked my magic on her.

And then ... well, let's just say nopony will be able to tell virgin jokes about her anymore.