Hours passed since their friend fell from the sky, and she hadn't so much as opened her eyes. Much to the relief of her friends, all of whom had been standing by her bedside since the nurses wheeled the pegasus' still body out of the emergency room, Rainbow was breathing on her own.
But that was all she was doing.
"Your friend is very lucky to be alive," informed Doctor Caramel. "Whatever was in her suit probably saved her life."
"In her suit?" Twilight asked.
"My nurses had some trouble cutting Rainbow out of her speed suit," Nurse Redheart said, "made worse by the liquid spilling out of the remaining intact areas. Luckily, one of them was quick on their hooves enough to procure a sample for analysis," presenting the vial to Twilight.
"Hmm," Twilight pondered as she brought the mystery vial for closer examination. "I'll have to look into this later. Was her suit saved?"
"It should be. I'll go retrieve it for you, Twilight," Redheart replied, turning to leave to bring back more evidence into what harmed Rainbow and destroyed a good part of Equestria.
"I'll leave you all alone with Rainbow, as I have a few patients who were just as lucky as she. Nurse Redheart should be back with the suit soon," Dr. Caramel said.
The room fell silent for the next few minutes, the slow, steady beep of the EKG the only sound. Outside the window, the sun had set over a hazy blue-gray sky, the result of the hypersonic triple halo's destructive wake setting ablaze the hillsides above Ponyville and what little forest around Canterlot that hadn't been protected by Shining Armor's forcefield.
"Twi, do you think that stuff there in that vial was the cause of that light show?" Applejack quietly asked.
"I'm not sure. All I know is that suit doesn't use any magic I would recognize."
"There might be a reason for that, Twilight Sparkle," popped in a quiet, commanding voice.
"Princess Luna! Princess Celestia! How did you get here so quickly," Twilight exclaimed as all bowed before the Royal Sisters.
"Once the halos passed and the shields were lowered, my sister and I quickly teleported here," Celestia explained.
"I saw the halos smash into Canterlot… Is everypony okay? Are Shining Armor and Cadance all right?"
"All are safe, my faithful student," Celestia gently smiled, wrapping a wing around Twilight.
"Princess Luna, you said Twi might not know what in RD's suit caused her to explode?" Applejack asked.
"The halos may have been caused by a substance called Etherium, a rare but dangerous element once mined beneath Canterlot."
"You mean the crystal caves where Cadance and I were locked away during Chrysalis's attack?" asked Twilight.
"A long time ago," began Celestia, "when Luna and I were very young, unicorns and earth ponies mined for gems in the mountain whereupon Canterlot rests.
"One day, a group of miners found a large deposit of what they originally thought were sapphires, the bluest, most radiant, most ethereal ever seen. The crystals possessed an eerie glow about them, and the smallest sample brought to the surface was the size of my horn."
Luna continued, "The sample had magical properties that were never before seen by anypony, including the ability to produce limitless energy. Our mother and father thought this would revolutionize all of Equestria, Mother going so far as to give the element its name. Thus, Canterlot's best scientists and engineers studied how best to exploit all Etherium had to offer."
"Unfortunately," Celestia finished, "the first time a unicorn used magic to tap into a small sample of the element, a powerful explosion, described as possessing a 'bluish-white glow,' ripped through the lower east wing of the castle.
"Nothing was left." she frowned.
* * * * * * * * *
"Pandora, what's it like? You know, being a Shepherd?"
"It's never easy, my dear Rainbow," Pandora replied as the duo glided through an orchard full of apple trees on their way to meet her twin sister, Minerva. "In spite of fulfilling my duty for over two millennia, bringing a spirit into my personal realm still pulls at my heart at times."
"I'm sorry," Rainbow said.
"You needn't be sorry, dear spirit." she reassured her charge. "Besides, my visits aren't always filled with sadness. For example, do you know how griffons mourn the passing of a loved one?"
"I think I'm gonna have to go with 'no' on that one."
"It's all very moving, Rainbow. When a griffon -- be they a friend, a wife, a son, or a soldier -- departs from the mortal coil, their fellow griffons gather around their fallen comrade, placing their right claw onto the body.
"In ancient Griffon, those left behind enter into a chant that builds and builds until they turn their heads and eyes toward the sky, letting out a loud roar to let those who have already entered my realm -- called Valhalla in their culture -- that a Griffon warrior is about to arrive. Brings a few tears to my eyes every time."
"That's nothing to be sappy about. It sounds pretty awesome, actually," noted Rainbow.
"Funny you should mention that. Every griffon spirit I've brought back to Avalon thought the same thing as you when it comes to my being overwhelmed with emotion. Of course, I do catch a spirit 'being sappy' now and again." Pandora winked.
"Alas, there are times where my tears aren't of joy, but of sorrow. Case in point: The Apples."
The two pegasi came to a stop in front of a barn that was familiar to Rainbow, but not so to Pandora. Around them were newer trees bearing apples that looked like zap apples, but reminded Rainbow of Twilight's tricolored mane.
"Good mornin' Miss Pandora," said a peach-colored mare with white hair and a trio of zap apples for a cutie mark. "What brings you 'round these parts?"
"Rainbow Dash, this is Mrs. Apple. She runs the orchards here."
"Well howdy, Rainbow! Good to meet ya!" Mrs. Apple beamed, shaking the pegasus' hoof. "This here is my husband Mr. Apple," pulling over a tall, stocky light green stallion with blonde hair and a trio of cider barrels representing his special skill.
"A pleasure to meet ya, Rainbow! Hope our daughter isn't givin' ya too much trouble. She can be a might stubborn at times, but her heart's always in the right place," Mr. Apple heartily chuckled.
"'Daughter'? AJ?" asked a stunned Rainbow.
"Mr. Apple makes wonderful cider," Pandora said, gently ignoring the shock on her small friend's face. "A shame I can't bring any beyond Avalon's veil, though."
"Cider?" Rainbow's eyes widened, quickly distracted from the revelation seconds earlier. "Can disembodied spirits drink Avalon cider?"
"I don't see why not, my dear Rainbow. Mr. Apple, a couple of mugs of your finest, if you please."
"Two ciders comin' right up," Mr. Apple said, walking towards the cellar where all the cider is kept.
Mrs. Apple invited Rainbow and Pandora to the kitchen of their homestead, where two other Apple ancestors were whipping up a batch of apple pancakes and apple tarts. A moment later, Mr. Apple brought up a few mugs of cider, including two for their guests.
"Say, how is it morning if the sun hasn't risen yet?" asked Rainbow to nopony in particular.
"The sun doesn't actually rise here, nor does it set," informed Pandora.
"But there's plenty of light to grow our apples," Mr. Apple added.
"You must understand that Avalon is in a different space as far as time is concerned. We're in a state of permanent twilight, for one thing."
"Oh. I see. I think," said a confused Rainbow.
"But as Mr. Apple said, apples can still grow here. Think of Avalon as a place where spirits go to rest before returning to the physical realm; the permanent twilight is part of what makes our domain what it is.
"Anyway, Mrs. Apple, Rainbow and I were headed over to Astra to meet with Minerva, though I couldn't help but notice your new barn," Pandora said while lifting her mug. "Where did it come from?"
"We were just wonderin' the same thing, Miss Pandora. We don't know, either."
"In fact, a lot of things popped up this morning on our farm we can't begin to explain," Mr. Apple began. "The barn, some chickens, some sheep, and a lot of apple trees."
"Really?" asked Pandora.
"You bet!" Mrs. Apple interjected. "Everything was a might bit smokey for a while, but it all cleared up."
"And the apples on our new trees are very odd," continued Mr. Apple. "They look like zap apples, but they have a bit of a glow to 'em, especially on the inside."
"On the inside, Mr. Apple?"
"Sorta blue an' white, I reckon."
"I see. Mr. and Mrs. Apple, I hate to leave like this, but Rainbow and I really need to find Minerva. Thank you for having us over."
"Thank you, Miss Pandora and Miss Rainbow," said Mrs. Apple as the two pegasi got up to leave. "Come back anytime!"
"That cider was awesome, Mr. Apple! It's as good as it is back in Ponyville!"
"It's good to hear you say that, Rainbow. Our family takes pride in our cider, whether in Equestria, or in Avalon."
"Too bad we can't stay for breakfast, though," Rainbow frowned.
"You do have a point, dear spirit," Pandora said as she looked over at one of the new trees. "Would you mind if we took some of those new apples with us, Mrs. Apple?"
As the Avalon Apple family waved farewell to the duo, Pandora walked over to one of the new trees. Finding three perfect specimens, a dark violet glow arose from the amethyst gem setting in the center of her white gold headband, which sat upon her forehead in a manner suggesting where a horn should be, but was not. The glow surrounded the three otherworldly apples, gently snapping them off of their branches before coming to a halt inside a sack obtained from Mrs. Apple.
"H… how did you do that?"
"All in good time. Right now, we need to get over to Astra and talk about this with my sister."
"Is Astra anything like this place?"
"In a manner of speaking. Anyway, I believe that hypersonic light halo trick did more damage than I first thought, with the results manifesting in my realm. I'm starting to fear the worst, Rainbow," Pandora said as she looked back over at the barn.
"Oh no! You mean that barn is from-- "
"I'm afraid so," she interrupted. "But don't worry. Your friends are safe, as are their families."
"We better go find your sister then. She has a lot of explaining to do!"
"That she does," she quietly agreed.
The two pegasi charged towards Astra as fast as their wings and hooves could carry them.
* * * * * * * * *
"Twilight, I found Rainbow's speed suit," Redheart said as she presented the remains to her.
"Do you mind if I look at that for a moment?" Celestia asked of Twilight.
"Not at all, Princess."
Celestia levitated the speed suit over for a closer inspection when she caught a familiar scent, a scent that caused Luna to reel back in disgust.
"Etherium," they said unison.
"But that's not possible! All of Equestria's Etherium was promptly mined and sent away to an island offshore centuries ago! Who would dare send such a dangerous item as this to an unknowing pony such as Rainbow Dash?"
With the exceptions of Twilight, Celestia and a comatose Rainbow Dash, all in the room fell to their knees, frightened by the fury Luna expressed over the horrific revelation.
"Princess?" Twilight meekly asked Luna.
"My little ponies, if you wouldn't mind, I think Luna and I need a few moments to ourselves."
"Of course, your majesty. Come along everypony," Redheart beckoned.
As soon as the door closed behind the last one out, the only sounds to be heard were of Rainbow's gentle breathing, the soft, steady beep of the EKG monitor, and the strained whispers of the two princesses.
"Lulu, there's a cutie mark on this suit. Does it look familiar to you?"
The color drained from Luna's eyes.
"I'm afraid so. And judging by the design, the suit has our godmother's hoofprints all over it."
"Tia, what of that vial there? I overheard the nurse state that the contents came from the suit."
Celestia lifted the vial over to her, removing the stopper to sniff the liquid within.
"Liquid Etherium," she frowned as her sister also smelled the contents, wincing slightly from the scent of the spent element.
"I think I will have to visit Atlantis earlier than planned this evening. Will you come with me?"
"I wish I could, dear sister, but I need to be here for our subjects right now."
"I understand. I think we should let Twilight and her friends back inside now."
* * * * * * * * *
The door opened again, all of Rainbow's friends and her nurse returning now that Luna had calmed down.
"Everypony, I have more business to attend regarding the halos. Luna will find out where the suit came from in the hopes of helping Rainbow recover."
"Applejack," Luna leaned in, "I know you want to stay by your friend's side, but you are needed by your family as well."
"You're right, Princess."
"Rest assured, we will do all we can to help you rebuild Sweet Apple Acres," added Celestia.
"I think your relatives are in the lobby, dear," said Redheart.
"Don't worry, Applejack. I'll keep an eye on her," Pinkie Pie said, her mane long since deflated.
"Thank you kindly, y'all," acknowledged Applejack. "RD, I'll see you in the mornin'. And whoever did this to ya is goin' to regret ever messin' with my friend."
As everypony made their way out, Twilight whispered into Fluttershy's ear.
"Um, if it's okay, I'd like to stay with you and Rainbow, Pinkie. Angel can take care of the cottage for a while."
"I think we would like that," sniffed a grayed Pinkie.
* * * * * * * * *
"Princess Celestia, will Rainbow be okay?" Twilight asked as she and her mentor trotted slowly toward the main entrance to the outside.
"I'm not sure. From what you described, Rainbow took a lot of magic into her body before her rainboom became destructive. That said, I have a feeling that she is in good hooves where she is now, and that she'll be home soon."
"I sure hope so, Princess.
"For her sake."
* * * * * * * * *
Luna prepared to fly towards the island of her godparents when she caught sight of Rainbow's room. Peering inward, she saw Fluttershy do her best to console her crestfallen comrade as she would a lost child or baby bunny, only for the pegasus to succumb to the heartbreak herself.
"Don't worry, Fluttershy and Pinkamena. You shall have your friend back, come Tartarus or high water," Luna whispered, wiping away a few of her own tears before turning west towards Atlantis, teleporting in a flash of brilliant white light.
* * * * * * * * *
As the two pegasi approached the veil separating Avalon and Astra, the sky overhead dimmed, lit only by a still, silvery full moon and stars that twinkled in concert with each other. The younger of the duo felt dizzy being in a place that, while strangely comforting, reminded her of the Everfree Forest and all of its weirdness.
As for Pandora, Rainbow couldn't quite grasp what was so odd about her new friend. She was certainly bigger and taller than any pegasus she knew -- other than the overly muscular beast who helped with the tornado earlier in the year, anyway -- and while the armored legs were pretty cool, the metallic wings were another thing altogether.
How does she even fly with those? And how do you begin to brush that mane? she wondered, noting the way Pandora's mane and tail sparkled and danced as if it were touched by the hoof of a divinity.
However, none of that compared to the biggest piece of the puzzle: How can a pegasus such as she use magic like Rarity, or Twilight… or the Princesses?
"Lost in thought, are we?" teased Pandora with a bright smile.
"Um, er… yeah. Sure."
"I know you have lots of questions, dear spirit. Care to ask?"
"Okay. How are you able to use magic like that?"
"It's all in the tiara. It allows me to use the magic within myself, though sometimes I need a little extra help."
A simple hooded white cloak appeared over Pandora's body.
"When I escort a spirit into my realm, I need to do so on their plane, not in the physical existence of those left behind. This cloak allows me to go to them, and it seems to work most of the time when it comes to my presence."
"Most of the time?"
"Animals. They and children are the only ones who can see me even with the cloak. Alas, animals are a bit difficult to wrangle, especially bunnies."
"I bet Fluttershy and Applejack could help you! They're really good with animals!"
"Funny you should mention those two, my dear. I don't think Applejack would want to help, considering… "
"Yes. Tragic farming accident years ago. My heart broke for their whole clan that day. The Apples are truly a tight-knit bunch; always have been. Applejack took it the hardest, though; painfully close with her mother and father. Applebloom was just a foal then… "
Pandora paused, tears forming beneath a pair of eyes that knew of over two millennia of love and loss.
"Pandora, are you okay?" Rainbow asked. "Please, don't cry. It wasn't your fault. You were just doing your job."
"I'm sorry, my dear Rainbow," apologized Pandora. "I just sometimes wonder why Fate saw to choose me to fulfill this duty."
"Probably because you have a big heart like Fluttershy. You and her seem to have a lot in common, like with animals and stuff."
"I suppose that's true," she sniffed. "Speaking of your shy friend, I've visited her cottage a few times, usually to retrieve a bunny or robin."
"Really? She never mentioned seeing you," Rainbow said.
"The cloak, remember," she returned, finally mustering up a slight smile.
"Oh yeah! Sorry, heh-heh."
"Although… I do sometimes wonder if your friend can see me. I recall a few times where I visited Fluttershy's cottage at night, catching her staring out the window. At first, I thought she was just staring out into the Everfree Forest or her front yard, but soon I realized-- "
"She was using her stare on you," Rainbow finished.
"Yes. The Stare. The most unnerving pair of eyes I've seen attempt to pierce through my veil. I've never felt so… possessed. It's as if she's trying to seek me out, to bring me under her spell."
"Pandora, this is Fluttershy we're talking about here. She's not, like, a witch or anything."
"You're right," Pandora chuckled. "Anyway, we're almost to the veil between my realm and my sister's. We shouldn't keep her waiting."
"Heh-heh! Last one up that hill is a rotten dragon egg!"
"You're on, Rainbow!"
* * * * * * * * *
Luna appeared a good distance from Atlantis, the moon shining full in the night sky, light sparkling in the oceans below and above. Rising from the island's heart was a tall monolith of polished obsidian and violet energy irradiating the darkness.
Flying above this structure were not pegasi or alicorn guards, but a trio of mechanical drones whose engines pulsed like fireflies.
Below the veil of light surrounding the base of this futuristic citadel, the city was alive with activity that would be the envy of Manehattan, let alone the dream of many a Canterlot elite or Ponyville denizen.
"No matter how many times I come here, I cannot help but be amazed at how advanced Atlantis is compared to Equestria," Luna said to herself. "Would we be in their shoes if we had kept some of the Etherium for ourselves? Would we want to be?
"Questions to ponder for another time, Luna. Right now, you have a job to do," she said with a determined gleam for justice in her eyes, looking one last time upon the torn rags that nearly took Rainbow away from this world as she flew toward the dark obelisk before her.
* * * * * * * * *
"Star Swirl! I wasn't expecting to see you here," Pandora said while she and Rainbow caught their breath.
A moment earlier, an old unicorn appeared from the veil separating Avalon and Astra in the same manner Avalon was separated from the physical realm. He tipped his star-spangled hat up in order to see the fastest young flyer in the history of Cloudsdale race his old friend to the top of the hill where the dream realm began, the bell at the top jangling in the wind.
"Minerva said you'd be here soon. I see you have the lost spirit with you," Star Swirl noted.
"Lost? I thought you said I was disembodied!"
"You are. Star Swirl just has a funny way with words at times, and I wouldn't have it any other way," Pandora tickling his beard with her metallic hoof.
"Rainbow Dash, this is Star Swirl the Bearded, the longest-lived, most famous wizard Equestria has ever known."
"Who knew unicorns could live as long as I!" he laughed. "Thirteen hundred years is far longer than I would have imagined living! If Pandora here hadn't shepherded me into Avalon when she did, who knows how much longer I would have gone on!"
"Fate had a lot to do with your long life; you had a lot of work to do," reassured Pandora.
"I suppose she did, heh-heh! Anyway," Star Swirl continued, "Minerva told me to tell you that in the event you would have her guest, you are to bring her to the royal garden immediately. She's waiting for you there."
"The royal garden," she sighed. "Very well.
"Rainbow," she turned, "it appears as though you are about to receive a crash course regarding my twin sister and I. No offense."
"None taken," Rainbow smirked.
"It was a pleasure to meet you, Rainbow Dash. You and your fellow Elements have done a great service to all of Equestria. Long may you continue to do so," bowing before the smaller pegasus.
"Wow! Wait until I tell Twilight about this!"
"You will soon enough. Are you ready to re-enter the physical world," asked Pandora.
"Star Swirl, take good care of Avalon until I return."
"Don't I always, Princess," he said with a mischievous wink.
* * * * * * * * *
"Fluttershy," began Pinkamena, "do you think Dashie's gonna wake up soon?"
"I hope so. I wonder what kind of dreams she's dreaming about."
"You can dream in a coma?"
"I think so. I've read in one of Twilight's books about how sometimes when ponies are in a coma, they can hear and respond to the voices of their loved ones. They can even respond to touch!"
"I want to hope so; I don't think I can cry anymore," said Pinkamena, putting her head down on the bed next to her blue friend.
"Come on, Pinkie. I have an idea."
Fluttershy took one side of the bed, encouraging Pinkamena to take the other.
"See! It's like a slumber party!"
"Yeah, if you like having slumber parties in a hospital bed with somepony who can't wake up," Pinkamena sighed wistfully.
"This way, we can all dream together. And who knows? We might even share the same dream!"
"I hope you're right, Fluttershy," she yawned.
"Trust me," her friend returned. "Good night, Pinkie."
"Good night, Fluttershy."
"Good night, Rainbow," they said in unison.
A slight smile appeared on their friend's face as the lights were turned off.
* * * * * * * * *
A blue-sparkled mist appeared within the walls surrounding the Atlantean royal garden, a usual occurrence given who ruled the city-state. From this mist emerged a rainbow-maned pegasus walking underneath the metallic wing of a larger pegasus, stepping out into the center of the garden's courtyard as the mist evaporated into the ether.
"That… was… so… awesome! So awesome I can't stand it!" Rainbow squealed enthusiastically.
"I've had practice," Pandora replied.
"So, you're really a princess?"
"I am. Here, I am Princess Pandora, the co-ruler of Atlantis."
"Atlantis? No way! I thought that was an old mare's tale!"
"Not to everypony," she winked.
"Wow! This is so cool! Though there's still one thing that's been bugging me since I met you?"
"What would that be, Rainbow?"
"Well, you seem to be awfully big and tall for a pegasus, not to mention the whole 'magical doohickey' thing you've got on your head."
"That is because my sister is not a pegasus, Rainbow Dash," a dark yet gentle voice appeared.
"Who said that? Come on out!" Rainbow challenged.
"But of course."
From the rose bushes emerged a pale purple alicorn with vivid heliotrope eyes and a very deep heliotrope mane that, like Pandora's, danced and sparkled of its own accord. The only other difference, aside from possessing a horn while lacking metallic wings and legs, appeared on the alicorn's flanks: A pale cerulean waning moon-turned-dreamcatcher with a four-pointed light brilliant cornflower star off and above to the right of the moon.
"Allow me to introduce myself, Element of Loyalty. I am Princess Minerva, Dreamweaver of Astra and co-ruler of Atlantis."
"Rainbow, this is my twin sister. My identical twin sister," Pandora emphasized.
"Up until that fateful night over 1,400 years ago, alas," added Minerva.
"Minerva, did you have anything to do with Rainbow's appearance in my realm?"
"I suppose I owe you both an explanation," she said.
Before she could begin, however, a powerful thunderstorm appeared high above the garden, hurricane-force winds howling through the bushes and trees.
Within the eye of the storm flashed an angry third alicorn princess.
"Princess Minerva of Atlantis," Luna boomed, "thou hast brought destruction unto Equestria! We seek justice for our land, for Rainbow Dash, and for Rainbow's friends!
"What sayest thou?"