Warm breezes caressed the many trees within the walls of the royal garden, rustling the leaves long after the dragonfly's rotors ceased their own hurricane. Though the night sky was clear above, storm clouds coalesced in the western horizon, driving the winds toward the heart of Equestria.
"What a strange wind this time of night," pondered Celestia.
"I guess the wind and cloud factories are testing something before more repairs, Princess," Rainbow replied.
"I'm afraid none of the weather is of the Pegasi's doing, Rainbow Dash," Luna ominously stated.
"Rest well, my little ponies," Celestia began, "for tomorrow will be our darkest hour yet."
The ponies followed the princesses inside the castle, except for Fluttershy, who quietly walked over to the imposing dragonfly. She gently placed a hoof upon its face, stroking the black metal as if it were one of her animals back in her cottage.
"Fluttershy?" Rainbow asked, accidentally startling her friend.
"What are you doing?"
"There's something about this dragonfly that feels real to me, Rainbow."
"Uhh, it's a machine, Fluttershy. It's super-smart and all, but that's about it."
"I think it's more than that," she asserted. "I think it's alive."
Rainbow blinked in disbelief. "What?"
"This dragonfly is alive, as alive as you or I!"
"I think you just had a really long day, pal."
"Oh, but Rainbow, didn't you say the fireflies were alive?"
"I said Princess Pandora called them her 'children,' and that she's able to speak to them like you're able to speak to... oh boy."
At that moment, the dragonfly's lights bathed the immediate vicinity in its bluish-white light as if to confirm Fluttershy's belief, then faded to black once more.
"I knew it!" Fluttershy squeed. "I told you the dragonfly was alive, and I was right!"
"Okay, dragonfly whisperer. Time for bed," Rainbow said, shaking her head at the nonsense.
"Goodnight, my little dragonfly," she cooed, giving the machine a soft kiss on the top of what would be its muzzle.
As the duo departed back toward the castle, the dragonfly softly glowed in acknowledgement of Fluttershy's acceptance.
Alas, the warm display was countered by dark laughter carried within the strengthening breeze.
"D-did you h-hear that?" Fluttershy's voice shook.
"I think so," Rainbow said, looking back toward the dragonfly. "I just hope it came from your new friend."
The dark laughter returned briefly, then vanished into the background.
* * * * * * * * *
"You asked to see me, Your Majesty?"
Princess Pandora stood alone before the reflecting pool in the center of the royal garden for an eternity, observing the stars and moon slowly give way to dark grey clouds. Warm winds and occasional flashes of lightning followed, thunder slamming against The Citadel in retaliation for keeping its master at bay.
"I did, General," she replied, turning to face Firestorm with a heavy-hearted look in her eyes. "Have you anything to report?"
"I do, Princess," Firestorm began. "The last of the Library of Atlantica archives were secured aboard the Aria an hour ago, along with the seed, genetic, and rare book vaults."
"And the evacuation order?"
"Issued as instructed, Your Majesty. The hospitals are bringing their patients down to the hangar under military escort, with the rest of our citizens due to start arriving at midnight. If all goes smoothly, we should be able to board you and your sister before dawn.
"Alas, a few of my mares informed me there are 60 patients who are too weak to leave with us. Some are foals, some are as old as we. Is there anything we can do for them?"
"Are they able to be moved to Argentum Tor?"
"I believe so, but their chances of survival are still nil, Your Highness."
"'Tis better to become one with the light than be entombed in darkness at the dawn of our reckoning," she compassionately proclaimed. "Please instruct our soldiers to escort the patients to the hillside. Allow their families to have a chance to say goodbye for as long as they need, and allow their loved ones whatever their hearts desire."
"Yes, Princess Pandora," Firestorm acknowledged.
Pandora turned back to gaze upon the reflecting pool as more thunder echoed off the The Citadel's tallest pillar, the prophecy of Atlantis' destruction and Tirek's return at long last unwinding above the two alicorns. Her heart struggled against the chains of history, her mind weighed down by the memory of a similar event from long ago.
"Three thousand years ago, my sister and I met our grandfather for the first and only time. He was carried off the Sapphire of Autumn upon the back of his most trusted adviser, his body as broken as the partially sunk ship that aided in his last defiant act as ruler of Palladia.
"Our parents rushed over to him, Min and I holding on tightly to our father's back. Mother collapsed before Grandfather, her tears cascading upon the white sand stained by his blood. Father ordered the guards to carry him back to the castle infirmary, but Grandfather refused, knowing they were too late to save him.
"It was then Grandfather looked upon the four of us with a glimmer of hope, and said what would be his final words to all of us:
"'Though I have lost what I have long fought to restore, through your eyes and those of my grandchildren am I able to finally rest in the full faith and knowledge that harmony shall persevere until the world is ready to regain its elements once again, turning the darkness into light.'"
A gust of wind mockingly laughed at the statement, perking the ears of both alicorns.
"Upon those words," Pandora continued, "a flash of white light brighter than a thousand suns rose from the northern horizon, followed by a rolling thunder that seemed to last forever. A trinity of halos surrounded the growing ball of demonic flame as it transitioned into a mushroom cloud. All of us lost our ability to speak at that moment... all but our grandfather, who followed his kingdom and title into history."
Lightning struck the palladium headstone at the top of Argentum Tor, echoing what befell Palladia and her people three millennia before.
"Your Majesty," Firestorm began, "I have served you and your sister for 1,500 years, seeing and experiencing things most would never believe... your goddaughters asserting their power over Equestria from the Everfree Forest... obsidian angels triumphing over nightmares in New Amstermare... the razing of Castle Atlantica in the midst of a changeling invasion... " she paused, her authoritative demeanor cracking with her voice.
"Through it all, Atlantis has not only prevailed in her own right, but raised her allies up from the darkness so that harmony would have a fighting chance. All because you and your sister took hold of the flame that would have been extinguished with your grandfather's passing had he not done all he could to ensure that his legacy would not go quietly into the light."
"... Indeed," Pandora warmly beamed.
"Speaking of your sister, where is Princess Minerva?" Firestorm asked.
"Tending to the dreams of her subjects, as always, General."
* * * * * * * * *
"Need help reaching those clouds, little one?"
Shrouded in the rainbow mist enveloping the Winsome Falls gazebo, Minerva watched an orange and purple pegasus attempt to take flight to be with her idol, her wings struggling to lift her body only a few inches off the ground. The princess' heart cracked and buckled with every crash the filly endured, until her heart could bear no more.
"Wh- who are you?" the young pegasus asked the alicorn emerging from the shroud.
"I am Minerva, and it is my duty to come into your dreams when darkness threatens," she said in a calm, commanding voice. "Who might you be?"
"I'm Scootaloo. Is this really a dream? It feels so real," the dream energy rippling from her touch.
"Indeed, Scootaloo," kneeling down to meet her subject eye to eye.
"Is there something bad that's going to happen?" Scootaloo nervously asked.
"No nightmares shall come your way here, but I know of heartbreak when I see it," pointing to Scootaloo's wings.
"I just want to be up there with Rainbow Dash," tears welling up beneath her eyes, "but my wings are too small to fly with her."
"You needn't shed any tears, little one," the princess warmly proclaimed, directing her subject's attention to a descending Rainbow.
"Hey kid!" Rainbow said. "Would you like to come fly with me around Winsome Falls?"
"Would I?" Scootaloo's eyes widened.
"Come on! I can carry you on my hoof so you can let those bad boys gets some air," pointing to her admirer's wings as they rapidly buzzed in excitement.
Minerva watched her subject beam with pure joy as the pegasi duo zoomed and arced through the rainbows and clouds of the falls, her heart warmed by the feelings and complete innocence before her uplifted eyes.
"I'll catch ya later, kid!" Rainbow said after dropping Scootaloo off at the gazebo moments later before departing back to Cloudsdale.
"Isn't she amazing!" Scootaloo awed, almost forgetting about the alicorn next to her.
"She definitely is," Minerva said.
"Thank you so much for making this happen!" hugging the princess tightly. "I don't know how you did it, but thank you!"
"You are quite welcome, Scootaloo," smiling softly upon her subject.
"Will I see you again?"
The question gave Minerva pause, considering what awaited when the dream was over, but she was not about to break Scootaloo's heart now. Gently and diplomatically, she gave the filly her answer.
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. But do not worry, for there shall always be somepony to take the reins if ever I were to be hindered in my ability to protect and aid my dreaming subjects. This, I promise to you, Scootaloo."
"Well, if I never see you again, I want to thank you for making this a wonderful dream, Minerva!" giving her one more big hug. Minerva responded by nuzzling her subject and holding her as close as she could.
"You are welcome, Scootaloo," she replied, the veil of mist from Winsome Falls clouding the scene once more. "May your dream come true beyond this realm."
An all too familiar sadistic laughter caught her ears.
"You shall neither torture me any longer, nor shall you gain entrance into the wake world without a fight, Tirek," she declared.
Upon those words, a thick shroud of grey fog enveloped Minerva. His deranged cackling mocked her defiance, bouncing and echoing off the engulfing wall. The princess firmly stood her ground, countering his dark magic with her own. Whatever Tirek wanted, he would have to do his worse.
"Open your eyes!" Tirek commanded.
The fog lifted to reveal the throne room in Canterlot Castle, lit only by the light of the moon. At the foot of the throne stood a behemoth whose fur matched his heart, and whose scales reflected the barely restrained hatred and malevolence he possessed.
Around his neck was an eight-pointed star carved from a fire ruby, set into an amulet of meteoric iron.
"I've waited all of my life for you, dear Minerva," he said in a voice that could freeze the soul. "I have been dead for so long."
"You were dead the moment you turned on the Sovereigns," Minerva shot back.
"The Sovereigns were weak, and deserved to share their fate with all of Delphi and Xiberia. They held no ambition or aspiration to take the Grand Veil and its worlds when the opportunity presented itself, abdicating their rule for eternal slavery under the Shepherd.
"And speaking of her, how is your sister, Minerva?" a row of daggers bared in sadistic mockery.
"You've no right to trespass upon my dominion!" she growled.
"And yet, I'm not the only trespasser before you," he darkly intoned.
Tirek's dark magic revealed eight ponies and one dragon bound and hung from the roof just behind him, Luna, Celestia and Twilight suspended over the throne itself.
"Help us, Minerva!" Pinkie Pie pleaded.
"We will not let you get away with this!" Luna said.
"... They're... you've woken them? In my domain!"
"Did you believe all of this was a dream?" Tirek cruelly asked.
"This is still my domain, Tirek. Let. Them. Go."
"You are correct, Minerva. This is your domain, meaning if they die here...
"Then they shall die in the wake world, as well!" his harsh voice echoed.
"Over my dead body," Minerva proclaimed, her wings drawn to direct a certain spell toward the draconequus.
Ponies from every corner of Atlantis entered the hangar under the watchful eyes of the Atlantean Royal Guard, unaware of the spirit inhabiting the Aria as they boarded in an orderly manner.
'So he has returned,' the spirit thought to herself. 'Time for me to do the same."
The lights in the hangar flickered briefly, spooking the guards and the citizenry alike.
The stinging rain intensified over the royal garden, accompanied by heavy rolling thunder. Pandora turned to the gates to escape when a bolt of lightning struck the reflecting pool, knocking her to her hooves.
'Pandora, your sister needs you,' a disembodied voice calmly called. 'She is in great danger, as are the Elements of Harmony.'
"Where is she?" Pandora asked the oddly familiar voice.
"Look into the pool."
The sight of Minerva battling Tirek while her goddaughters and their champions struggled against their bondage was enough for Pandora to dive into the conflict.
"Spike! Can you direct your fire upon one of us?" Twilight yelled.
"I don't want to set you on fire, Twilight!" Spike exclaimed in horror.
"No! At our ropes! If one of us is free, then they should be able to untie the rest of us!"
A beam of red energy tore the dragon from his ropes, slamming his lifeless body against the wall behind the throne.
"Spike!" everypony yelled.
"How dare you do that him! He did nothin' to ya!" Applejack admonished.
"Escape is futile," his horrid voice echoed.
"As shall be your victory, Tirek," a familiar voice rang out.
"Mother?" Celestia and Luna said in unison.
Two alicorns walked up to Minerva: Pandora upon the left flank, and a long lost princess to her right.
"Princess Aria? Is that you?" Minerva gasped.
A blue aura of magic wrapped around each pony, gently lowering them to the floor after Aria tore their ropes apart. Twilight then rushed over to Spike, levitating him upon her back.
"Disperse," Aria commanded the illusion.
The throne room faded from view, revealing a black marble and gold monument of eight pillars and a reflecting pool, centered in a large meadow surrounded by zap apple groves under the eternal silver moon of Astra.
"Luna, Celestia, please take everypony through the reflecting pool," Aria ordered. "The three of us shall protect your escape."
"Mother-- " Celestia tried to protest.
"Do not worry for me, my loves," wrapping her ghostly wings around her daughters. "I will always watch over you for as long as my spirit exists. Now go, while you still can."
Tirek loomed above the old royal trinity, his red eyes focused upon them as his prisoners escaped through the reflecting pool.
"It is good to see you again, dear Aria," vitriol dripping from his distorted, bending voice. "It shall be my pleasure to kill you once more."
"You cannot kill what is already dead, Tirek," Aria spat back.
"There's a first time for everything, Princess."
A bright red beam of pure dark magic escaped from the Hope Ruby, rushing toward Aria with intent to annihilate. She and her allies countered with a combined attack of their own, bringing down the draconequus hard to the earth.
"Aria, Minerva, you are of no concern to me, not when the Shepherd herself has graced me with her presence," Tirek said through his sadistic razor of a smile.
"You will have to go through us first, Tirek!" Minerva declared, her wings shining with the glow of her sister's scythe magic at the ready.
"You shall find that we do not yield easily to any opponent, let alone an abomination such as yourself!" Aria icily punctuated with her own glowing wings.
"Dori," Minerva whispered to her sister, "leave. Aria and I can settle this one."
"Tirek's vendetta begins and ends with the Shepherd... with you, Pandora," Aria said. "If you and Avalon perish, the Grand Veil and all life in it are as good as finished."
"Do not worry about me, dear sister," Minerva added, tears of ice forming under her eyes. "Just remember that I will always love you. Now please, go through the pool back to Atlantis."
"Bu-- ," Pandora tried to spit out.
"Please, go," her sister pleaded.
"... I love you, too, Min," she wept, diving through the reflecting pool against her heart.
"Your sacrifice will be for naught, Minerva," Tirek heckled. "You and the ghost should know that I cannot die, no matter what you do."
The princess scowled upon the mad draconequus, a determined glare piercing through his red curtains.
"There is a first time for everything."
The wind shimmered around the combatants inside the monument, carrying Astra's dream energy through Minerva's wings and horn into her heart as she entered into the incantation that would seal her fate:
"Under the light of the eternal moon, before the new light of dawn, dreams and nightmares no longer bound, the Dreamweaver sacrifices her crown.
"Ad mortem, ad vitam."
Upon those words, Minerva's divine magic violently ruptured from her body, activating the pillars and drawing the moon directly above the monument. Through immense pain, the princess then ripped out Tirek's and the Hope Ruby's magic to create a self-destructive feedback loop of energy, burning the veil separating Astra from Avalon and the physical realm.
"Minerva," Tirek's distorted voice stretched and reverberated, "your foolish act of sacrifice has broken the final seal between worlds! Your generation shall not pass, for I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end! The Grand Veil will shine no more! The Shepherd and her champions shall all perish under my power! Ad vitam... ad mortem!" he hissed through insane laughter as the combined energy of the ruby, alicorn and draconequus magics coalesced into a blinding white light, erasing all it touched.
* * * * * * * * *
Firestorm and Star Tracer comforted their princess at the edge of the reflecting pool, though little time was left to evacuate her to the Aria before dawn broke over The Citadel.
"Princess, I know this isn't the time, but dawn is fast approaching," Star Tracer pleaded.
"I know," Pandora sobbed, "but could I just have a few more minutes, please?"
"Your sister gave her life to save us," Firestorm began, interrupted by a flash of lightning plummeting down the sides of the black monolith, "or, at least, to buy us some time."
"I should have stayed with her! I could have saved her!"
"Your Majesty... ," Star Tracer's voice broke.
Pandora looked into the pool, a heartbroken expression reflected back into her equally broken heart over the loss of her twin sister. The reflection held for an eternity until a slight smile broke upon her muzzle, followed by her sister breaking through the water.
"Minerva!" everypony exclaimed while Firestorm and Star Tracer pulled the weakened princess out of the pool.
"You needn't shed any tears, my dear sister," Minerva labored to say.
"I thought I lost you forever!" Pandora gushed, tightly hugging and nuzzling her twin sister.
"I thought I was forever lost, too, Dori," wiping away a few tears of her own.
"Your Majesty, what happened to your mane?" Firestorm asked.
The sisters broke their embrace to address the general's question, only for Pandora's jaw to drop in shock.
"I haven't seen your mane and tail like that in centuries!" she gasped.
What had once been a physical display of Minerva's divine power now lay dripping wet, stripped of all its magical properties.
"In sacrificing myself to save you and Avalon, I sacrificed Astra and my divinity, as well," she stoically replied.
"Oh Min, I'm so sorry," Pandora cried.
"Don't worry about that now, Dori. If that sky above means anything" -- pointing to the crimson light now contaminating the formerly grey clouds -- "we have little time until Tirek makes his grand return."
A wave of rolling thunder slammed against the pulsing citadel of obsidian and liquefied violet Etherium.