"Princess Luna?" a stunned Rainbow asked amid the maelstrom surrounding the Atlantean royal garden.
"'Tis indeed I, Rainbow Dash. I see that my godmother, Princess Pandora, hast kept thee safe."
"Lulu, honey, I know you're very upset with my sister -- and you have every right to be -- but could you perhaps… take… the… sturm und drang-- whoa! Down… a notch… please," Pandora asked of her goddaughter, barely holding her ground against the howling gale while making sure Rainbow's spirit didn't blow away either.
"Very well, Pandora. But only because thou said, 'Please.'"
Luna's storm dissipated as quickly as it had began, the light of the moon and stars returning to view. She descended upon her godmothers to meet them on their level, and though her glowing eyes reverted to their normal ice blue, the rest of her had changed significantly.
"Are you sure that's Princess Luna?" Rainbow asked Pandora.
"Hmm," she said, examining her younger goddaughter. "She certainly has grown since the last I saw of her... two nights ago, but that is, indeed, my little Lulu."
"I hav-- I mean, I have?"
"See for yourself," she said, using her magic to create a mirror for Luna to use.
Luna could not believe her eyes. She had grown to be as tall as her sister and godmothers, but the biggest changes took her off her guard:
Looking upon her flank, then back into Pandora's mirror, she noted the crescent moon of her cutie mark had become a very light azure, all surrounded by a violet cloud.
The icy blue eyes then darted up to find her forelock now matched the rest of her mane and tail, which had turned deep purple with an aura of dark blue violet.
Finally, Luna's jaw dropped when she saw a deep violet alicorn mare reflected back into her eyes, her fur matching the color of her sky during a new moon.
"Have I… I'm not… "
"No, my dear Luna, you are not Nightmare Moon again. You are as you once were centuries ago," Pandora beamed.
"But how-- "
"Your heart. That is all I shall state."
"Uhh, Princesses," Rainbow interrupted, "I'm really happy Luna's all grown up now, but can somepony please explain to me just what is going on here? And maybe wake up Sleeping Beauty," she lamented, pointing to the still passed-out Minerva.
"She may be out for awhile, Rainbow Dash. It would appear as though I may have… overdone my appearance," Luna informed.
"Lulu always had a flair for the dramatic. She could definitely act up a storm. Sometimes literally," Pandora nervously chuckled.
"Okay. My head really can't take more of this," Rainbow started, pushing her hooves against the returning dull throb pounding her brain. "First, you tell me you're a shepherd of… whatever Avalon's supposed to be! Then, I find out you can use magic like a unicorn through that fancy tiara of yours!
"And now, not only do I find out you're also a princess of a kingdom I only read about in my adventure books, but that you're actually an alicorn? And that Princess Luna is your goddaughter?"
"As is Princess Celestia," Pandora added.
"Oh! And speaking of sisters, there's the fact that I may have been brought here against my will through some sort of magic your twin sister used on me that may have also destroyed my friend's apple orchard and took away her family… "
Rainbow howled in agony.
"Rainbow," Pandora said, "your entire journey has been full of revelations, and it has all been a lot to process in such a short time. But I assure you, Applejack's family is alive and well back in their current existence."
"No offense, but I don't know if I can believe you, Pandora. It's just... too much!"
"Then believe me," Luna finally stepped in. "I was at Ponyville Hospital with my sister earlier this evening. Applejack was at your bedside with your friends while her family was in the lobby waiting for her to come out. Fluttershy and Pinkamena are with you now keeping a vigil."
"Yes, Rainbow Dash. Though Minerva may have made a few errors in judgement, neither of my godmothers have ever meant any ill will in their hearts. Of this, I am certain," Luna concluded.
For a moment, the only sounds to be heard were the ocean breeze blowing through the trees, and the slight hum of the drones patrolling the sky above the Atlantean castle, their engines glowing like fireflies against the deep violet curtain.
"Sorry for yelling at you, Princess Pandora."
"It's all right, Rainbow," Pandora said.
"So, if you're really an alicorn like Princess Luna and Princess Minerva are, then what happened to your horn?"
"The same thing that happened to her legs and wings," Luna said wistfully.
"My little pegasus, what happened to me I would not wish upon my worst enemy… especially the one who did this to me in the first place," Pandora said, looking upon her identical twin with a mournful gaze in her eyes.
* * * * * * * * *
Under an eternal night sky, two ponies woke up from their slumber, finding themselves not in their friend's hospital bed, but lying upon the soft grass of an expansive meadow surrounded by zap apple trees. While the surroundings were familiar to Pinkamena, Fluttershy felt out of place, to say the least.
"Where are we?" Fluttershy nervously asked.
"We're in Astra, where all ponies get to dream about fun things. Most of the time, anyway," Pinkamena sighed.
"I don't see Rainbow. She must be off dreaming a different dream, I guess."
"Are you lost?" asked an old bearded unicorn with stars and bells on his cape and hat.
"Oh," Fluttershy jumped. "You startled me!"
"My apologies, Element of Kindness," Star Swirl heartily chuckled. "I did not mean to startle you," his hat and cape jingled while bowing.
"We were looking for Rainbow Dash. Have you seen her?"
"Rainbow, Rainbow… ah yes! She is with Minerva, safe and sound."
"She's the one who rules over Astra, weaving dreams with her magic while we sleep," Pinkamena joined.
"I was wondering when you were going to join us," he said. "You seem not to be quite yourself, dearest Pinkamena."
"… Dashie," she replied, tears welling up once more in her sky blue eyes.
"Pinkie hasn't been the same since Rainbow fell into a coma," said Fluttershy.
"A broken heart is hard on anypony, kind Fluttershy. However, I am afraid this is just the tip of the iceberg for Pinkamena," warned Star Swirl.
"Really?" she said, looking over at her downtrodden friend.
"Come with me. My cottage in Avalon is not too far from here. The solution to Pinkamena's heart awaits."
"Oh I hope so. Come on, Pinkie."
"Fine," she said flatly, not once looking up from the ground.
Star Swirl led the two dreamwalkers through the veil separating Astra from Avalon, thoughts flashing to the last time he had seen a heart similar to the one Pinkamena possessed, and what had become of its owner.
* * * * * * * * *
Blinking slowly back into consciousness, Minerva's eyes focused on the trio of ponies staring down at her.
"Oh. Hello," she began. "I see the storm has passed. Did Luna leave?"
"I am still very much here, Minerva," Luna said.
"So I see. Good to have you back, as it were," Minerva said knowingly.
"Does this look familiar?" she coldly asked, unceremoniously dropping the scorched and tattered remains of Rainbow's speed suit in front of Minerva's muzzle.
"Wh… what happened?"
"I apparently exploded three times while trying to perform a triple sonic rainboom in that suit," Rainbow said, a slight annoyance in her voice.
"What!" Minerva exclaimed, quickly rising to her hooves. "Why would you attempt such a thing? This suit is too fragile for stunts like that!"
"Then why did you put that idea into her head, Min?" Pandora shouted.
"It was for a later time!"
"But the note said, 'I think you'll need these for your next adventure,'" Rainbow retorted.
"Yes, that is what I wrote, but that is not what I-- "
Thunder and lightning returned to the sky briefly, Luna's eyes flashing white with renewed fury.
"Minerva, your gift did more than just tear away Rainbow Dash's spirit from her body. All of Canterlot barely withstood the three hypersonic light halos generated from the fusion of her rainboom magic with the liquid Etherium powering her suit."
"Liquid Etherium, Min? Have you gone mad?" Pandora growled.
"Furthermore, areas within the same altitude as Canterlot were razed to ash, while Cloudsdale experienced their first-ever skyquake. Numerous weather factories collapsed or were badly damaged from the shockwaves."
"Cloudsdale… ," Rainbow's voice dropped.
"And while a few ponies are being treated for their injuries -- some at the same hospital as Rainbow Dash -- be very thankful no pony died from such irresponsibility," Luna finished in a voice that could freeze blood.
Three apples tumbled down in front of Minerva's hooves.
"What are these, Dori?"
"A new cultivar the Avalon Apples came upon when they awoke. Why don't you cut one in half?"
"I suppose I should," she quietly replied, using the magic from her horn to split one of the unusual apples in half, the fruit revealing the signature bluish white glow of Etherium inside.
"A huge part of Sweet Apple Acres now resides within my realm, Minerva.
"All I want to know -- all we want to know -- is why," Pandora lamented.
Silence returned as Minerva's thoughts raced. Between an angry Rainbow Dash just now finding out her home experienced the same level of destruction as her earth-bound counterpart, a Luna who now had the full power to seek justice come Tartarus or high water, and a disappointed sibling hardly looking her in the eye, the princess knew there was no way out but forward go.
"Follow me. The answers you seek begin within the walls of the castle," Minerva calmly stated, walking deliberately toward the black monolith.
"Oh no! I'm not following your lead ag-- ," Rainbow tried to get out, only to be silenced by a blue hoof.
"I am sorry, Rainbow Dash. I know you were deceived, and you have every right to be angry. But if we are to get to the heart of the matter, then I am afraid we have no other choice," Luna comforted her subject.
"Fine!" Rainbow huffed, following her princess with Pandora alongside into the obsidian walls of The Citadel.
* * * * * * * * *
Fluttershy could not believe all the sights Avalon showed into her eyes. Here was a place where she could relate as far as caring and nurturing were concerned, even if they were living spirits instead of bunnies and butterflies.
"This is a really beautiful place, Star Swirl! It looks so much like Ponyville!" she beamed.
"Heh-heh! I just take care of Avalon, my dear. You should really thank the Shepherd."
"Her name is Pandora," Star Swirl said. "Reminds me a bit of you, now that I think about it."
"Oh? Is she nice?"
"I'd say so, judging from personal experience," he winked. "Ah! Right this way, my dears," he said, opening the door to his cottage to usher in his two charges.
The interior of Star Swirl's home held numerous scrolls and books, some being copies of his work from his long life in Equestria, others from his permanent residency as Avalon's caretaker. Fluttershy looked around at the mess held within the dim confines of the cottage, fondly recalling the similar clutter sometimes made by Ponyville's own magical librarian.
Alas, Pinkamena had other plans.
"I think I should sleep now. Maybe I'll find Dashie in another dream," she said, lying down on a star-spangled rug in the middle of the floor.
"But Pinkie, Star Swirl said she's with Minerva. And we have to help you get well! Shouldn't you be awake for that?"
"Let her sleep, Fluttershy," he beckoned. "She will need all of her strength and resolve for what we are about to commit."
"Okay," she said.
"Come out to the balcony with me. There is a lot I need to tell you, and little time to prepare if we are to save Pinkamena's heart."
Fluttershy looked back upon her companion one last time before walking up the steps to the balcony, fearing the worst for Pinkie, and how she and Star Swirl would be able to pull Pinkamena from whatever abyss awaited to consume her heart like so much cake and ice cream.
* * * * * * * * *
The passageways of The Citadel were lit not by torches like in Canterlot, but with thick lines of blue-white neon embedded in the polished walls flowing like an endless river of obsidian glass. Above and below were more neon, placed so as to give proof of a ceiling and a floor, if nothing else.
"This place is sorta creepy, and by 'sorta,' I mean really creepy," Rainbow said. "How can this be your castle?"
"Us princesses of the night are used to The Citadel's eccentricities," winked Minerva as she led her three companions to their first destination.
"Where are you taking us?" demanded Luna.
"Patience, Luna. All will be revealed one layer at a time," she said in a slight ominous tone.
"Why is Princess Minerva so… weird?" whispered Rainbow to the other princesses.
"Min always had a bit of a dark spirit," Pandora replied. "Always interested in what truth could be found in the shadows of life, fascinated by the messages dreams could bestow if the dreamer were capable of interpreting them."
"The nightmares grabbed my attention more than anything, though," Minerva interjected. "What sort of malevolent entity would allow them to exist? Not in over 2,000 years has that thought ever left me, Rainbow. Not even once."
"Anyway, we're here," she finished as the quartet stopped in front of a locked door.
"This is my room, Min. Why are we here?" Pandora asked.
"Luna's box, remember?"
"Something your sister left in our care some 1,000 years ago after she tired of the memories."
"Memories? Whatever do you mean, Minerva?"
"Open the box. Your destiny is inside," Minerva announced wide-eyed as she opened the door for all to enter.
Luna walked over to the box beside Pandora's bed, placing her horn within the lock and using her magic to break the seal as if drawn by instinct… or Fate.
The lid opened to reveal a set of four shoes, a crown and a collar, crafted from the most beautiful sterling silver ever mined and processed in Equestria. The crown and collar had an intricate pattern similar to the ones found in Celestia's royal jewelry, each piece holding a blue moonstone instead of the elder's amethyst settings.
"Tia was going to give those to you on the night you became Nightmare Moon. Your sister couldn't deal with the fact that she had to seal you away with your corrupted self inside that lunar prison; the box just reminded her of what should have been," Pandora informed her younger goddaughter.
"Time to step into the light of your destiny," prodded Minerva.
* * * * * * * * *
"Fluttershy," Star Swirl said as the two stared out of the wizard's balcony into the apple orchards just outside of town, the wind gently rustling the leaves around them, "it was Rainbow's first sonic rainboom that linked you and your fellow Elements' destinies as one, long before the six of you came together through Fate.
"What you might not know, however, is how strong a link Rainbow and Pinkamena had before the rainboom."
"Before?" she asked.
"Soul mates. Kindred spirits. That sort of thing. Your friends have been tied to each other since before birth.
"Anyway, the rainboom ignited the matching flames within; the Elements of Harmony transformed it into a conflagration."
"And this is a good thing, right, Star Swirl?"
"It is in some ways. In others, it is not. And I'm afraid Pinkamena is the weaker of the two in this aspect, not helped by Minerva in the least."
"What does Minerva have to do with this, um, if you don't mind me asking?"
"The Dreamweaver has been pursuing nightmares for a long, long time, Princess Luna's corrupted self having been the most recent. Even Minerva herself became a nightmare, albeit briefly, about 400 years before Luna experienced her own downfall from grace.
"Before I go on, I should add that this Element of Laughter is not your usual earth pony in any sense of the word."
"She wouldn't be Pinkie if she were usual," said Fluttershy, wondering apologetically where Star Swirl was going with this.
"Indeed. What I meant is that she has a sort of magical ability not found in earth ponies," he continued, "let alone pegasi, unicorns or alicorns. Pinkamena is nearly on par with divinities and other entities in regards to her use of magic, being able to teleport anywhere, cross dimensional boundaries with ease, and bend reality to her will when she sees fit to do so, a fact not easily escaped by others in her league."
"Like Minerva!" she gasped.
"Correct, Fluttershy. Being able to bend reality in her own right as a divinity, Minerva kept a close eye on Pinkamena, peering into her dreams, and eventually, into her heart as well."
"She saw the potential for Pinkamena's heart and spirit to fracture early on, a potential Rainbow knows of too well, alas. Thus, the Dreamweaver placed a spell around the weakest parts of her self, all in the hopes Pinkamena could weather the darkest storms.
"Unfortunately, this spell had failed once before: 1,000 years ago. And I am afraid it is failing now, a result of Rainbow's connection with Pinkamena having been fractured in the way that it has," Star Swirl said in a grave tone.
"What needs to be done to save Pinkie, Star Swirl?"
"The Element of Kindness always had the ability to heal broken hearts and spirits. I can bring you into her self, and I can tear down the spell…
"But only you," he leaned inward, gently placing a hoof upon Fluttershy's shoulder, "can use your Element to save your friend."
* * * * * * * * *
Three alicorn guards, adorned in black futuristic armor, led the quartet into the hangar where the drones were kept. Between two of the guards was an ancient royal chest containing Luna's old royal finery, no longer needed now that she had newer, more befitting jewelry in her possession.
At that moment, three drones were returning to their hangar, and one in particular caught Rainbow's attention.
"Whoa! Is that supposed to be me?" she rushed over to see her mechanized avatar. "It even has my cutie mark on its fins!"
"She definitely does!" Pandora beamed. "Her name is Iris."
"Really? That's kind of a soft name for something this cool, Princess Pandora."
"Iris is the goddess of rainbows," she gently whispered.
"And I take back everything I just said about Iris," Rainbow blushed. "What is, uh… 'she,' you said?"
"She is what I call a firefly, and there are five others. The yellow and pink one to Iris' right is Flora-- "
"Fluttershy!" Rainbow interrupted.
"Yes! And to Iris's left is Thalia," Pandora continued, pointing to a dual-toned pink firefly.
"Pinkie Pie! Wait. What?"
"Thalia is the muse of comedy, my dear," she giggled.
"Finally, the three departing for duty are Demeter, Phoebe and Aphrodite," directing everypony's eyes to the avatars of Applejack, Twilight Sparkle and Rarity, respectively.
"I bet you're wondering how these six came about."
"Yeah, I-- " Rainbow started to say.
"It was your sonic rainboom that brought these six to life," Pandora proclaimed. "On that fateful day, your rainboom appeared above Atlantis at the same moment my six children were flying together for the first time. The rainboom swept through each firefly, and when they returned-- "
"They became avatars of those who would become the Elements of Harmony," Luna finished.
"Exactly," she said.
"So why aren't they named after us?" asked Rainbow.
"Oh, because they told me their names."
"Why do you think my sister's cutie mark is a blue-feathered phoenix," Minerva stepped in. "Her special talent is possessing the ability to communicate with -- and give rise to -- machine life.
"Guards, Iris will take delivery of Luna's old belongings back to Canterlot," she ordered, the two alicorns loading the chest upon the firefly's back.
"Iris, I also need you to deliver this to Celestia," placing a scroll bearing her royal seal inside the prismatic drone's beak with her magic. "Make sure she receives it."
"As for the three of you," she turned as Iris rose from her place with her orders, "the fireflies are just a part of the answer you seek. The full answer lies below ground."
The trio followed the elusive princess into an elevator, hoping this wasn't another one of Minerva's delays.
"Do not fret, my dears. Your time is about to come," Minerva darkly intoned, the elevator doors closing off a sinister stare in the Dreamweaver's eyes.
* * * * * * * * *
The descent into Pinkamena's self may have been relatively easy for a mage as long-lived as Star Swirl, but for Fluttershy, the experience left her disoriented, to say the least.
"W-where a-are we, St-Star Swirl?" she asked, the fear showing in her tiny voice.
"A place where life should be, but no longer is," replied Star Swirl.
Before the spiritwalkers laid a barren gray field, reminiscent of the rock farm Pinkamena and her family worked when she was younger. What few trees there were in this lunar landscape were dead, fossilized relics of a happier day.
Thin clouds raced above them toward an endless horizon, cold winds following in their wake. As far as the eye could bear to see, distant stars twinkled like ice in an eternal sea of black, though one particularly bright pink star caught the attention of the spiritwalkers.
"There she is, Fluttershy: The radiant spark of Pinkamena's spirit!" pointing toward a rising plateau in the middle of the bleak wasteland. "Come! We are not too late yet!"
The two ponies charged up the plateau, only to find themselves in the center of Minerva's fracturing spell. The glassed surface composed of glowing violet-pink pictographs of stars, moons, diagrams, and glyphs cracked and buckled, ejecting flares into the sky towards the pink spark rising above it all.
"So this is what your 'anti-nightmare' spell looks like, Dreamweaver," Star Swirl said to himself. "How long did you think it would work this time? She has more in common with the last pony you did this to than the Element beside me. Why are you so adamant about hunting down every theoretical nightmare you come across? Don't you realize yet how much damage you have caused due to your vendetta?"
* * * * * * * * *
"I can hear you, Star Swirl, but I am afraid you and your companion are on your own this time," Minerva replied calmly.
"What was that?" Pandora asked.
"… Nothing. We are almost to our destination," she said, not having looked away from the elevator doors since the start of their descent.
* * * * * * * * *
"Oh, of what use are you, anyway!"
"I'm sorry," Fluttershy apologized.
"Not you, my dear. Minerva heard me through the veil; we're on our own here," Star Swirl said.
Fluttershy's eyes caught sight of numerous copies of her pink friend slowly draining into the spark.
"Are these all parts of Pinkie Pie's self?"
"They are, and Minerva's spell has seen to it that, until now, only one aspect held dominance over the others. The rest could work in concert, but this… this is not right at all.
"And neither is that spark," he realized in horror.
At that moment, a voice cut through the howling winds, one that sounded like the crestfallen pink spirit, though darker and dripping with contempt instead of cotton candy.
"Took you long enough, wizard."
"Show yourself, spirit!" he commanded.
From the blinding flare of the violet pink spark emerged a dark violet-armored bright pink mare with poofy hair and cat-like blue eyes. Her cutie mark was the negative mirror of Pinkamena's, with two dark rose balloons beneath a deep persian blue balloon.
"Anger, fear, despair, all shall soon be over. Only laughter shall reign… forever!" grinning darkly upon the psychonauts, thunder cracking overhead.
"P-p-Pinkie Pie," stuttered Fluttershy.
"'P-p-Pinkie Pie?' Pinkie Pie?" the nightmare laughed sadistically. "Pinkie Pie is no more," pausing to look back into the spark, "or soon will be, anyway. Once she and all of the other Pinkies enter my spark, I will draw upon that yummy, nummy, delicious power so that I may break through into the real world, and throw the biggest, darkest carnival Equestria will ever see!"
"What is thy name, nightmare?" angrily asked Star Swirl.
"My name? I don't want to spoil the surprise yet, wizard. But I am so happy that you know my true nature," she coldly beamed. "Too bad those silly Elements of Harmony won't be of much use at the party!"
"Not if I have anything to say about it!" thrusting his hoof into the glassed-over ground.
"Careful, Grumpy McGrumpyPants. Wouldn't want you to get hurt before I invite you and Fluttershy to my coming out party," she mocked.
"'Coming out party?'" Fluttershy repeated.
"Yes! A party is still a party, even with two party crashers trying to prevent you from throwing an even bigger party in the real world with lots of cake and ice cream and malevolent laughter," she giggled in an unsettling manner. "Anyway, here is your invitation!"
The pink nightmare pulled a spiked mallet from nowhere, driving it down upon one of the cracked pictographs to unleash a tidal wave of magic against her uninvited party guests.
The nightmare loomed menacingly over the pair, giggling uncontrollably as they struggled to get up onto their hooves.
"Well, wizard! Since you and that little doormat you call an ally won't be able to partake in any birthday cake when I escape, I guess I should tell you my name.
"You may call me... Granfaloon."
A slasher's smile appeared on Granfaloon's face.