Amid the still silence, a few sets of hoofsteps calmly approached the broken door to the dark magic archives.
"Celestia, I had the strangest dream," Princess Luna said as she and her trio of bat pony guards entered the room, not yet noticing the guests within. "Our godmother Minerva appeared to me, instructing me to come down here to speak with...
"Oh. I see we have company," she realized. Luna then noticed the broken doors barely hanging on their hinges. "What is going on here? Who did this?"
"And now, all of the Elements of Harmony are in one place," Ananke deliriously murmured.
"Guards, see what you can do about fixing the doors. Make sure no pony other than this room's librarian is allowed to enter," Celestia ordered.
"Assuming Ana hasn't done anything to her," added Pandora.
"If I had, you would have already been here to tend to her spirit, Shepherd," barely mustering a malicious giggle.
A muffled noise made its presence known from the dark corners of the room. Twilight Sparkle was the first to rush over, using her magic to shine a light upon the mystery.
"Candlelight?!" Celestia exclaimed upon finding the librarian, bound and gagged behind a shelf of untouched books.
"I'm sorry, Your Majesty. That alicorn with the blank flank broke into the archives early this morning. I tried to stop her, but the next thing I knew... ," she explained as Spike untied her after removing the gag from her mouth.
"No need to apologize, my dear. There was nothing you could do to defend against her dark magic."
"Guards, please escort Candlelight to the infirmary," Luna ordered. "My sister's stallions shall oversee the security of this room until she is well."
With the shaken unicorn carried away for examination, Chronos walked past the still-dazed Ananke toward the only pony asleep through the chaotic events within the Dark Magic Wing.
"Awaken," his gentle voice reverberated through her mind, bringing her back to the world outside.
"Ch... Chronos? Lord Chronos?"
"It is I, Minerva."
"Did Luna receive my message?"
"I did," she said, appearing from behind Chronos.
"Come!" Chronos commanded. "No more games," glaring at Ananke.
"Where are we going, Lord Chronos," asked Twilight.
"You wanted to know about the Hope Ruby and its link to Tirek, yes?"
"Yes. Yes I do."
Chronos pivoted upon his talons, unfurled his wings, and shut his eyes.
The room darkened for but a brief moment.
"Twilight? Rarity? Princesses? Anypony?" Spike called out to no avail.
* * * * * * * * *
One by one, glimmers of light formed strange patterns throughout the room, slowly illuminating the transdimensional travelers with each new pattern. Their eyes followed the neon trails coalescing toward a golden circle etched into the floor, glowing brighter and brighter until the last lines connected into an infinity sign nestled inside the smallest circle within the heart of the pictogram.
"Where are we?" Twilight wondered in awe at the sight before her and her friends and mentors.
"This is the Oracle of Delphi, Twilight Sparkle," Chronos replied.
"Is this real? Am I dreaming?" Rarity swooned.
"This is not of my doing, Rarity," Minerva answered, feeling a brief peace within her heart.
"It feels so serene!" Fluttershy oohed.
"What about her, though?" Rainbow asked, pointing to the sedated grey alicorn lying outside the largest neon circle.
"Guards" -- motioning over to the eight minotaurs surrounding the perimeter of the oracle -- "take Ana to her chamber. Do not let her out of your sight."
Two of the guards gathered the sovereign off the floor, using the magic in their staffs to support her weight as they and the rest of the group led her away. The chamber doors behind them then solidified into the rest of the walls, sealing the sovereign and his guests from the rest of Delphi.
The Oracle's heart showered the chamber with its brightening ethereal light, painting every tile and brick in gold, filling every ear with an otherworldly melody that felt familiar to all who heard it. Four orbs of various colors materialized and spiraled upward within the fountain, smaller ones orbiting their respective spheres as if each were a single sun. A golden thread weaved its way from a silver disk below, to a bluish-white disk above.
The light then withdrew back into the circle, barely pushing back against the darkened background.
* * * * * * * * *
"In the beginning, there was The One Who Dreamed," Chronos began. "In her slumber, she envisioned a place filled with magic and wonder, far removed from the dark realm she would soon leave behind.
"Upon awakening, she crossed through the Gates of Dawn, igniting the void outside with her dream magic to create the First Cycle, and the Grand Veil that would shroud all life for all time.
"Seeking to guide the new world without interference in its evolution, The One Who Dreamed established Avalon, drawing a veil between it and the newborn omniverse.
"Finally, she unshackled her earthly chains to claim her place over all that was good, becoming the Golden Shepherd of Avalon in so doing.
"Life was in harmony with the elements born from within the Grand Veil for eons, until a malevolent entity threatened to plunge the Golden Shepherd's work into eternal darkness. Though driven back into the void beyond time by her chosen champions, the order of this first omniverse unraveled in his wake.
"To save her creation, the Golden Shepherd erected the Gates of Silent Memory opposite the Gates of Dawn, then ushered her dying creation through the new gate to dream it all again."
The lowest orb and its family faded to grey, their colors draining through the golden thread leading up to the next constellation of spheres.
"The Golden Shepherd soon returned through the Gates of Dawn, detonating the dark energy of the void to begin the Second Cycle. As before, life within the Grand Veil was in harmony with the elements bestowed by her and the transfigured energy, though the living bore a different face.
"Alas, the malevolent entity once thought to have been vanquished found a tear in this second omniverse, wreaking havoc upon the Golden Shepherd's work through many fronts. Again, he and his servants were cast back into the obsidian silence, leaving her work in continuously fraying tatters.
"Thus, she withdrew herself and the fading omniverse through the Gates of Silent Memory, vowing to never allow the darkness to rule the next world."
The Second Cycle constellation, too, grayed through the golden thread.
"Before the reopened Gates of Dawn," Chronos continued, "the Golden Shepherd proclaimed the Third Cycle would be a new order of light, and light alone. Avalon would become one with the Grand Veil through the sacrifice of her entire being, birthing an Arcadian paradise unlike ever before or ever since."
"That sounds nice, actually," Fluttershy said.
"It was, Fluttershy, and yet, without discord, there is no harmony. Without conflict, no resolution. Without bitterness, no sweetness. In short, the Golden Shepherd's last act gave rise to life already entered into a dying age. Only through divine intervention and another sacrifice could all life be saved."
The constellations of the Third and Fourth Cycles flared to life, the golden thread between the two worlds glowing steadily.
"What does this have to do with Tirek or the Hope Ruby, though?" Twilight asked of the white dragon across from her.
"Tirek was once the Pythia of Delphi. He held court in this very chamber, providing guidance to any who sought answers from the Oracle. Many a prophecy was first foretold from this golden circle before you, and it was the Pythia's task to draw out the answers by immersing him or herself within the light.
"However, life as a Pythia was hard and brief, their spirit consumed by the Oracle in its golden light with each working. Most chose to follow in the path of the Golden Shepherd when their time came."
"And Tirek wasn't willing to do the same," Rarity concluded.
"The final act that would seal his destiny -- and that of all life through all time -- came from the Oracle's prophecy of the Crimson Shepherd, a savior who would emerge from the fabric of the Grand Veil to aid in the birth of your world through the death of the one before," he said, tracing a violet path of neon into the gold thread with his ivory claw.
"Little did Ananke and I know what all the prophecy would entail... "
"You cannot allow her to incarnate, Your Graces!" Tirek growled. "Her arrival will herald the end of all that is pure in this world!"
"If what the Oracle proclaims is true, then our destinies are tied to each other, Tirek," Ananke replied.
"Then it is time to make our own destiny."
"Our own destiny?" Chronos questioned.
"Why should this universe be beholden to one who will simply pass her duties on to lessor successors, Your Grace? As I have seen through the golden flame of the Oracle, the traitors will simply cast our universe in their image upon ascendance as Shepherds, all in defiance of the natural order already established!
"You have dominion over time and destiny, but who gives the first breath of life to your existence? Who, in turn, will draw your final breath upon entering the Gates of Silent Memory? Are you not gods? Why yield your power, your dominion, to the Shepherd when, instead, I could help you rule over all, to make this universe and beyond in your image."
"Tirek, the events foretold must occur as prophesied by the Oracle, and the Crimson Shepherd must incarnate with our help," Ananke affirmed. "Without either action, the Grand Veil, Avalon, even time and destiny shall all be extinguished, and we shall cease to exist... as shall you."
"Then, you are weak and not worthy to rule as Sovereign, Ananke."
"I will not have you insult me in addressing the court, especially when the tone of your complaint conveys sedition upon us, upon Delphi, and upon the Shepherd."
"You know not what sedition is!" Tirek bellowed. "My prophecies have altered the course of life for the betterment of all, and yet I am the one committing sedition?"
A quiet, rumbling, maniacal laughter emerged from the draconequus, looking upon the Sovereigns with bitter contempt. His dark orange claws held an iron amulet as black as his corrupted heart, an eight-pointed star carved from a fire ruby set in the center.
"This ruby could have bestowed a new hope upon this cycle of existence. Instead, you reject freedom for willful enslavement by the Shepherd, blinded in your belief that she will save the dream her previous incarnation left for death..."
Tirek placed the amulet upon his neck, the dark magic within the ruby bonding with the remnant energy of the Oracle coursing through his veins.
"The Shepherd and her works are but abominations, and they must be cast into oblivion... starting with this court!" he roared, vaporising six minotaur guards in black fire.
Tirek then took to the high ceiling above the Sovereigns, his eyes glowing red in time with the ruby's pulsating light. His midnight-furred wings flapped against the bitter wind storm swirling within the royal chamber. Ananke rushed toward Tirek, her stone-white magic readied to take dead aim upon the monster.
She was too late to escape the dark rainbow exploding from the ruby, crashing to the marble floor like a bag of wet sand.
"You leave me no option but to destroy you myself," Chronos bellowed, wings unfurled in anger.
"No," Tirek calmly returned. "You shall sleep," his now-shifting, multi-toned voice reverberated, felling the dragon as quickly as the alicorn who dared to challenge him.
He whispered ominously into the dragon's ear. "The Oracle did proclaim the Crimson Shepherd would return through your actions, but I never said how it would ultimately come to pass."
Sadistic laughter filled the royal chamber as the dark rainbow wrapped itself around Tirek and filled the chamber with its cruel light.
"Thus began The Cyclical War," Chronos continued. "Tirek gathered his forces in the frozen wastes of Xiberia just outside Delphi, then used the Hope Ruby to tear through the Grand Veil. Our army battled him in many guises through each Cycle, while I tended to the health and recovery of my consort.
"When Ananke regained her strength, we led the final charge near the end of the Third Cycle, using the magic gained from the ruby's dark rainbow to draw forth the Crimson Shepherd.
"It was at the Gates of Silent Memory where the three of us defeated Tirek, turning his dark magic against the usurper in ways great and terrifying. The Crimson Shepherd took hold of the dark rainbow, bringing the corrupted spectrum to the Golden Shepherd just as the latter stepped out of the Gates of Dawn for the first time.
"The two Shepherds then wove the rainbow's black energy into the fabric of the Grand Veil and Veil of Avalon, triggering an implosion of elemental energy upon fusion with the Hope Ruby. This final sacrificial act overwhelmed the artifact and its owner, igniting a violent dispersal of new magic-- "
"In a Big Bang!" Twilight interjected.
"Indeed," smiling upon her. "Ananke and I found ourselves outside the Gates of Dawn with our universe intact upon a branch of light emanating from a distant star of an otherworldly nature. Around us were similar universes on similar branches, each slightly different than their neighbors.
"Out in the distance, we could see the other Cycles, each resembling our own and encased in a shimmering veil. The impenetrable stars at the heart of each Cycle were linearly connected through a golden thread, each surrounded by their own strange and wonderful universes.
"As for the Crimson Shepherd, she returned to her ephemeral existence as was foretold by the prophecy."
"You said Ananke was the one who cast the Hope Ruby into our world," Luna said. "When did this happen?"
"The ruby was found intact before the locked gate. Ananke picked up the artifact, which struck her down with its remaining dark magic. Upon careful examination, we discovered to our horror that Tirek's essence had been drawn into the ruby.
"It was then Ananke made her worse error in judgement: She ordered the Hope Ruby be cast out of Delphi, with no instruction as to where other than 'a place where dragons breathe.'"
The earth rumbled upon those words, followed by a crash that brought down the Oracle's magic seal. Before them all stood a mad goddess covered in the blood of the guards she dispatched moments prior.
"Kneel before your destiny, Sovereign!" Ananke roared through a voice similar to that of the traitorous Pythia eons ago.
"All right! It's go time, ladies!" Rainbow proclaimed.
"No," Chronos said. "This one must be handled by me, and me alone."
"But Your Grace, we can't just-- " Minerva pleaded with the dragon to no avail.
"The Oracle held one final prophecy, Dreamweaver: 'Delphi shall fall upon the Sword of Fate prior to Tirek's complete return from exile.'"
"You mean... he... but-- "
Ananke shed her guise to reveal her corrupted form, the Oracle's magic bleeding from her dark body onto the golden circle.
"Disperse," Chronos said, his weary voice reverberating off of the crumbling walls of the Oracle just as he found a horn run through his back.
The golden light faded to black.
* * * * * * * * *
"How long have we been gone?" asked Minerva.
"What is this place?" asked Twilight, her eyes widening at the sight around her.
The trans-dimensional travelers found themselves in the main lobby of a library whose classical architecture complemented the multitudes of data crystals, access terminals, and information screens that had long since replaced the traditional shelves of scrolls and books, reference services, and card catalogs the library once held centuries ago. Every bank of crystals flooded the lobby with an array of hues arranged and color-coded by subject, trails of dimmed blueish-white neon dividing each section of color. The combined glow of the moon, Galloway, and The Citadel filtering down through the domed skylight competed for the eyes enthralled by the display before them, but did little more than enhance the radiant scene.
"The Library of Atlantica," Pandora said. "Every book, every scroll, every spell... whatever information you seek, you will find it here in these archives."
"Not to put a damper on y'all's bewilderment, but Princess Minerva has a point," Applejack said. "Were we really gone for that long in that weird place?"
"I'm afraid so, Applejack," Celestia confirmed, "and I believe in his understandable haste, Chronos cast us all to Atlantis."
"Atlantis?" exclaimed Twilight.
"That would explain the beautiful obsidian castle rising above that gorgeous skylight," Rarity quietly beamed.
"The inside's a bit Creepytown, though," Rainbow said, prompting a frown from her friend. "What? I was here before! I know what it looked like!"
"The Rare Book Vault is down below through these doors," Minerva interjected, pointing to a pair of heavy wooden doors directly across from the group. "It is where we keep the knowledge that cannot be easily converted to data, if at all."
"It's also where we've kept every record of the Hope Ruby, compiled into a single book last touched shortly after my first... 'augmentations' were integrated into my body," Pandora added.
"If nothing else, we might be able to devise a strategy to defeat Tirek and destroy the Hope Ruby once and for all," Twilight proclaimed.
The Equestrians descended into the vault, the Atlanteans closing the door behind them.
* * * * * * * * *
"Three millennia ago," Twilight began reading, "the Kingdom of Palladia fell when the capital city of Palladia and the pegasus city-state of Aquilon annihilated each other in a cataclysmic act that would give rise to both Atlantis and Equestria. Few survived the brief conflict, among them a contingent of flutter ponies led by their regent, Queen Rosedust.
"Too injured to fly, the survivors took the only path available back to Flutter Valley, surviving on the few sun roses along the way that hadn't been contaminated by the resulting fallout. One such location was just outside a cave abandoned by a dragon not too long after the horrific event.
"When night fell upon them, Rosedust gathered her brood into the cave to escape the bitter winds gathering outside. She noticed some of the treasure the dragon hoarded had been inexplicably left behind, including an unusual fire ruby carved into the shape of an eight-pointed star laid upon a pile of gold coins and various jewels.
"Alas, it was not its beauty which drew her attention, but the darkness embedded within, and what the darkness desired most.
"Rosedust gathered the ruby in her torn cape and guarded it all the way back to her castle in Flutter Valley, where it would remain in the possession of the Queen's Throne until an incident with the ruby and Queen Goldenrod's only child 1,600 years ago prompted Goldenrod's decision to find a new home away from her kingdom."
"And that's when Star Swirl the Bearded was given the Hope Ruby?" Luna asked.
"Indeed, Luna," Pandora said. "At that point, his legend was known the world over as the most powerful magician to have ever lived. Along the way, he made a few alliances, one of them with the Queen of the Flutter Ponies. It was Goldenrod herself who bestowed the Hope Ruby to the wizard, entrusting him to keep it away from anyone whose heart was desirable enough to corrupt in its own image.
"With the use of his amniomorphic spell," Twilight continued, "the cursed artifact was sealed in a thick, impenetrable sphere of clay, then placed in a simple wooden box whose bronzework was magically and permanently fused together, foregoing the need for a lock of any sort. From there, it was kept hidden away on a shelf in his cottage in what is now White Tail Woods."
"Unfortunately, even those measures weren't enough. Princess Aria and Prince Helios were close friends with Star Swirl, the wizard often visiting Canterlot to help their daughters Celestia and Luna develop their magical talents.
"For reasons lost in time, Prince Helios visited Star Swirl in his cottage around the winter solstice two years before the Hope Ruby vanished from Atlantis, inquiring of the box containing the cursed artifact. Star Swirl did his best to distract the prince from the dark entity within, but could not dissuade his curiousity.
"Thus, Star Swirl took the box with him on a sailboat, travelling to the furthest place he knew the ruby could be kept hidden from the rest of the world, and from Helios," Twilight finished.
"I believe you know what happened next," Minerva said just as the doors into the vault clicked open, startling everyone inside.
"Princesses!" Star Tracer exclaimed, rushing down the steps to meet the four regents and their party gathered around a table lit by a pair of firefly lanterns. "We've been looking all over for you for hours! Are you all okay? Do we need to do anything immediately?"
"Yes," Pandora calmly stated. "I need you to prepare a dragonfly to depart with our guests."
"Yes, Your Majesty," bowing briefly before rushing out to her task.
"It sounds like you're not coming with us, Princess," Twilight frowned.
"I'm afraid not, my dear," Pandora sweetly stated. "The dragonfly will take you back to Canterlot, where you all will be safe until it is time."
"I hope you were able to gather the knowledge you needed, Twilight Sparkle," Minerva added. "May it serve you and your comrades well in the dark days to come," bowing before the unicorn alongside her sister.
"Um, heh-heh, why are you bowing before me? I'm not a princess like you two, or your goddaughters."
"Call it a hunch, my dear," Pandora said, looking over to her eldest in brief acknowledgement.
* * * * * * * * *
Over the dark waters of the Sea of Hrímfaxi, the dragonfly carried its passengers back to Canterlot as programmed into the craft's guidance system by Star Tracer before departure. Rarity nearly wept as she and the rest of the party circled past The Citadel -- a command Pandora whispered into Star Tracer's ear during the final system check as a surprise for the unicorn -- before rushing toward the eastern horizon, knowing she might never see such a sight ever again, though the glimmering pool below almost made up for what could have been.
"I wonder how a dragonfly would look in white instead of black," Rarity said to herself. "The blue neon lighting is quite daring, especially with the way it highlights the various shapes against whatever materials were used in the craft's construction."
"They're still working on a name for that," Pinkie casually said.
"Pinkie, how fast does this thing go?" Rainbow asked. "I've never seen the water zoom by so quickly!"
"I know, right? Anyway, I heard something about 230 knots once, which is probably why unicorns and alicorns make up most of the dragonfly pilots. I mean, tying all those knots must be hard with just hooves, right? Magic just makes it easier!"
Rainbow and Rarity didn't have anything to counter Pinkie Logic.
"Is everything well, dear sister?"
Celestia and Luna looked out from the windshield of the dragonfly toward the endless evening, the altimeter denoting the difference between sea and sky. At first, Celestia examined the array of instruments used in the operation of the strange craft, how they reflected the outward appearance in design, and how -- with no pilot at the helm but the dragonfly itself -- the instrumentation danced with each other. The princess found the sight fascinating, but other thoughts soon drew her attention to the unrecognizable night sky merged seamlessly with the sparkling inky depths.
"I worry about Twilight and her friends, Luna," she replied. "Tirek is nothing like a Queen Chrysalis or a Nightmare Moon. Not even Discord was as evil...
"Luna" -- pain and heartache filled her eyes -- "there won't be a Lord Chronos or Lady Ananke to help stop Tirek this time."
"Have faith, Tia," Luna softly yet firmly reassured her big sister. "Equestria has faced many a dark hour, and many more will come. Yet with Twilight and her friends in control of The Elements of Harmony, Equestria has, and will, come out stronger every time."
"I know I should have more faith in my student and her friends. I just can't shake this feeling that this may be the darkest hour, Lulu. Not just for us, Equestria, nor Atlantis, but for all existence."
"Equestria Energy Boundary detected. Estimated time of arrival: Two minutes," the dragonfly's mare-voiced AI announced, snapping Celestia out of her worries for the time being.
All of the ponies gathered around to witness the faint blue-violet veil shimmering from the black sea into the heavens.
"Well, I'll be!" Applejack quietly exclaimed.
"It's beautiful!" Rarity and Fluttershy awed in unison.
"Whoa!" Rainbow barely uttered.
"I didn't know there was such a thing, or that it even had a name!" Twilight proclaimed in disbelief.
"Neither did I, Twilight," Pinkie said.
"Really?" all but the princesses questioned.
"Mm-hmm. Unless it goes by a different name... I'll have to check when we get home!"
"I hope Spike isn't too mad at us for disappearing like we did," Fluttershy wondered.
"I think he knew what happened, my dear," Celestia knowingly reassured her, looking back toward the veil's brightening glow.
"Thirty seconds to boundary crossing; no protective eyewear is needed at this time," the AI stated.
"It must be night on the other side," Luna pondered. "But if we were all away, then how-- "
Celestia hugged her sister. "I think I know who took over for us," her eyes glancing upward into the rapidly fading starlight.
"Ten seconds to crossing."
"Goodbye, my teachers."
A lone tear fell from her eyes, becoming one with the veil upon crossing through.