No sound. No light. Once more, she was plunged into the endless obsidian sea.
This again? she asked. Hah! No need to panic this time, champ. You got this. Just find the light like you did before, race out of here, and you'll... wake... up...
Where will I wake up?
The emptiness answered. A slit of violet light opened, spotlighting her multi-colored mane. Muffled sounds echoed around her, growing louder until the point of origin drew her full attention.
Let's do this!
Her wings outstretched, she shot forward into the line on the horizon with a sonic rainboom in her wake, and a determined gleam in her eyes.
* * * * * * * * *
The sound of waves softly crashing on the silent shore entered her ears, perking up when a familiar, concerned voice calling her name broke through. A blurry figure colored in twilight shades appeared in her eyes, gently yet urgently shaking her aching body. Details blinked in and out of view for an eternity, finally locking onto the sight of a purple unicorn bathed by a small point of light in the early morning sky amid a rolling tide of sparkling black water in the background.
"Wh... where am I?" Rainbow groaned, struggling to her hooves upon the fine black sand.
"Take it easy, Rainbow," Twilight said, easing her friend onto her flanks. "Are you okay?"
"I... I think so, Twilight. Are we in Avalon? Did we... did we save Avalon?"
"Judgin' by the trashed scenery 'round here," Applejack answered, slowly walking toward the duo, "I'd say we're still in Palladia, RD."
"Twilight!" another voice called out, drawing everypony's attention to the top of the lowest marine terrace surrounding Emerald Harbor.
Spike held on as he and Star Tracer quickly descended upon the trio, appearing no worse for wear. Twilight grabbed him as soon as he leaped down from his mount, giving him the biggest hug she could muster.
"Don't I get a hug, too?" Star Tracer teased.
"Big hug!" Pinkie said, glomping onto the surprised general.
"Pinkie! Where did you come from?!"
She giggled. "From Avalon, silly!"
"I don't think I've seen so many stars in the night sky," cooed Rarity, walking from the west with Fluttershy and the princesses. "And the silver aurorae with Galloway standing in for the moon, lending its gorgeous beam of light upon the beach, is a beautiful touch!"
"If only it were my work, Rarity," Luna replied. "Not only have I not yet regained power over the night, but I can't help but feel something isn't right about what I do see... even though nothing is out of the ordinary... I think."
"You're not the only one, Luna," Celestia said.
A glint of light caught the corner of Fluttershy's right eye, stopping her in her tracks.
"Oh wow! Look, everypony!"
Specks of starlight blossomed from the obsidian sea, ebbing from one color to the next. The celestial tidewaters washed over everypony's hooves and feet, leaving behind rainbow galaxies upon the blackened beach.
"Hey! That tickles!" Pinkie said, giggling from the errant snowflake landing on her muzzle. Everypony looked up to see more glittering flakes fall from the star-filled pre-dawn sky, despite the complete lack of clouds to deliver such precious cargo.
"What is going on here? And why are the snowflakes singing?" Rainbow asked, her ears catching wind of a faint melody.
"Y'all can hear it, too?" Applejack replied.
"It doesn't sound like the song we heard earlier," Fluttershy said. "It sounds like-- "
"A waltz!" she and Rarity said in unison.
"And a mournful one, at that," Rarity added.
"A mournful waltz?" Luna asked no pony in particular. "Did we... did we really save Avalon? Is this all a dying dream? Tirek can't still be alive after all of this, can he?"
A flash of light and shadow caught Star Tracer's eyes. "I believe the answer is coming to greet us."
All eyes turned toward the blinding glow in the west. A dark figure slowly walked from the horizon toward everypony. Glittering mists of white and silver raced ahead of her in every direction, rays of light filtering around the mysterious shadow.
"Could it be?" Rainbow wondered, shielding her eyes with her front right hoof.
The shrouded light evaporated into the chilling air, revealing an unusual silver alicorn mare with ice blue eyes. Her flanks bore an equally icy cutie mark of a flame-like quill bent into a waning crescent, cradling a field of diamond-shaped stars great and small. Her shimmery mane and tail danced and flickered like the ghostly flames they were.
Everypony gasped. "Pandora?"
"Indeed," Pandora replied, her voice warm as always, yet darker in tone.
Rainbow rushed over to her. "Your wings! And your legs, too! They're not metal anymore!"
She glomped onto the Shepherd as if channeling Pinkie herself. Pandora returned the favor, catching Rainbow off-guard in a peculiar manner.
"Uhh, not to be rude" -- looking up into her reptilian eyes -- "but where are your hooves? And why do you have a pair of horns curving backward instead of the long pointy one?"
"Not to mention the dragon eyes, crest feathers, and flaming split tail," Spike said.
"Because she's a kirinix, duh!" Pinkie answered. "Part alicorn, part dragon, part phoenix, and all totally awesome!"
Pandora chuckled. "Reincarnation is a funny thing. I suppose Avalon wanted to leave a little more of herself with me as a token of her appreciation.
"However" -- meeting everypony's eyes with a warm gaze -- "my appearance is the least of your concerns, if I'm not mistaken."
"Is Tirek really gone?" Twilight asked.
The first inklings of dawn shimmered in Pandora's wistful stare over the southern horizon. "Tirek is as one with the Gulf of Elegia's infinite celestine waters as tears are in rain. No trace of his disfigured spirit remains linked to our collective heart."
"Shouldn't there be a bunch of metal bones or somethin' juttin' out into the sky like a sore hoof, though?" Applejack asked. "Tirek wasn't exactly hard to miss, after all."
"The ultimate manifestation of the Pythia's absolute hate, fueled by the lost spirits, realms, and magic corrupted by his heart" -- sand and water slipping through her claws back into the sea -- "all dissolved in Avalon's purifying flames like gold in aqua regia. Nevermore shall Tirek, nor the unbearable pain his soul sustained, be."
Thunder boomed behind everypony, drawing attention to the highest peak in the Frozen North.
"Was that there before?" Rainbow asked.
"Of course it was, darling," Rarity said. "That's Mount Ever... hoof. How exactly do I know that?"
Pandora gazed upon the countless stars shifting into or away from each other, fading one by one from the ever-rippling sky. "Under Avalon's wings, the world you knew passed away. The phantom echos of her cry still reverberate through every degree of the Grand Veil, destroying the old order in ways great and terrifying.
"Those echos also affect you, reshaping both your universe and your memories so they may resonate in harmony.
"For how long this shall last" -- her eyes locked upon a faint reflection of herself lit by the swirling galaxy of silver stars enveloping her claws -- "even I know not the answer."
"Pandora," Celestia began, "my sister and I... our connection with the day and night remains lost-- "
"And never shall they be restored," she said, "for they were never meant to be intertwined with the mortal coil."
Framed in blue smoke, Pandora's icy stare fell upon the spot where the pillar once stood. "Pegasi shaped the weather for the benefit of all. Earth Ponies brought life from the barren earth. The Unicorns used their magic to render day and night subservient to their will. Even when harmony and their great nation were lost, the tribe never let go of the reins. Everyone suffered with every unicorn who followed the past sins of their forebears, centuries after Palladia was purged of its darkness through divine fire.
"Through fate did you, Celestia and Luna" -- turning her smokey eyes upon the princesses -- "fulfill the will of Avalon by reclaiming day and night from the Unicorns, exchanging those sins for deliverance. Yet, the past sin remained, one whose absolution was still out of reach until you gave yourselves over to her to save the Grand Veil from our past sin."
An eastern breeze carried the otherworldly smoke into the heavens, restoring Pandora's eyes to their original state. Fog rolled in from the south, enveloping her in its embrace. The falling snow glittered against the wall of silver light emerging from within the veil, rendering her figure a ghostly shadow. The glowing shroud then swept over everypony, obscuring the Shepherd entirely from view.
"Tetelestai, my children. A new gold dawn shines brightly upon you all."
The ethereal blanket lifted and dissipated as quickly as it arrived. The harbor returned to the lifeless state it shared with Palladia, devoid of the fallen starlight which briefly graced everypony with their presence. No music but the crashing of waves and gentle frozen winds filled their ears. Snowflakes caught in the cold light of dawn continued their ceaseless descent to the earth, steadily burying the ruins and surrounding mountains.
* * * * * * * * *
Rainbow stared out into the distance divided by night and day, sitting on the spot where once an unusual silver alicorn stood. An errant silver cloud caught her eye as it drifted over the destroyed lighthouse tower jutting out from the harbor into the North Luna Ocean. Déjà vu entered her heart amid the desolation from the scene playing out before her eyes.
"Pandora?" she asked the black water rolling onto shore, hoping to hear her voice one more time.
A soft wing of yellow wrapped around Rainbow. Its gentle warmth filled the cracks in her breaking heart.
"Don't worry, Rainbow," Fluttershy said. "A part of Pandora will always be within each of our hearts."
"Literally," Pinkie added, "since we all became one with her for a brief moment back there."
A glimmer out of Rarity's right eye caught her by surprise. "I think Pandora may have left more of herself in the Princesses!"
Confusion in their eyes and those of everypony else, both princesses looked at their cutie marks. Luna gasped upon the sight of several glittering stars great and small filling the clouds on her flanks. The crescent moons, too, were decorated with such stars, including four large ones placed around the crescents.
Celestia was taken by her revised cutie mark, as well. The formerly golden suns now shimmered in compass points of silver surrounding a starburst heart of gold, overlaid by four spiraling arms of blue, green, purple, and pink.
"What could this mean?" Luna wondered.
Icy gusts swept down from the north, chilling everypony to the core without mercy.
"I don't know about y'all, but it sure is gettin' cold 'round here," Applejack said.
"We need to find a way out of Palladia before we're buried by this blizzard," Twilight added.
"Funny you should mention that, Twilight," Spike said. "General?"
Star Tracer nodded in agreement. "Follow us, everypony."
The group followed the general and the dragon back up the hill to where the dragonfly breathed its last. To the shock of everypony else, the craft was not only unscathed by the horrific battle, but glowed with life. The group rushed toward the warm confines of the dragonfly, not wanting to spend another moment caught in the growing blizzard.
"After blasting Tirek into dust," Spike began while Star Tracer conducted a final system check, "Star Tracer and I woke up inside the dragonfly. We thought it had been melted by the same magic that Princess Luna deflected back in the castle tower, but as luck would have it, the dragonfly survived!"
"The cherry on top of this sundae appeared when a warm voice entered my ear," Star Tracer said, "telling me to meet up with everypony on the beach. I looked around to see who said that, but saw no one. Spike said he heard it, too, so we decided to check it out. You all know the rest."
"Fluttershy, the Princesses, and I were near part of the ruins when we heard her voice, as well," Rarity replied.
"Applejack and I woke up on one of the old docks near the beach where Rainbow was," Twilight said. "She told us to be there when Rainbow comes to, and to wait for all of you."
"I was in Avalon!" Pinkie sing-songed. "Pandora told me to go on ahead."
"Pinkie," Applejack said, "how exactly did ya end up at-- "
"All systems 100 percent operational," the dragonfly's mare-voiced AI interjected. "Manual flight control activated."
"Where shall we go, everyone?" Star Tracer asked as she buckled herself into the left pilot seat.
A beam of light from Galloway fell upon the dividing line between dawn and twilight, terminating far beyond the southern horizon. The celestial answer to the general's question held everypony's attention, though none were as intrigued by the display as Luna. An urging to follow the light to its end entered her heart when four star-like objects emerging from the icy planet's position in the sky began moving south at a gradual pace.
"To wherever Galloway and the stars are suggesting we should go, General," she ordered.
"Understood, Your Grace," Star Tracer replied. "Hang on, everypony."
The dragonfly lifted off from its resting place amid the ruin. Flurries swirled in the blade-generated maelstrom, some melting in the exhaust heat from its turbojets. The bluish-white neon lines outlining the dragonfly's shape glowed in harmony with the blanket of snow muting its already quiet, ghostly thwacks.
"Luna?" Celestia asked.
"I think our godmother has one more surprise for us."
"But... Pandora-- "
"I know, Tia," Luna warmly replied. "I know."
The dragonfly flew south over Emerald Harbor toward the North Luna Ocean, behind which thick clouds of snow descended from the northern mountains. Within moments, Palladia's remains at last took their place in history, three millennia after the nation's tarnished spirit bathed in the cleansing fires of the divine.