The Atlanteans, the Equestrians, and their allies unite to make their last stand against Tirek upon his return from exile.
The Equestrians wake from their nightmare to discover a greater horror in the skies above Canterlot, the last omens before Tirek emerges from his centuries-long exile to finish his eons-long war against The Shepherd.
While Equestria prepares for the oncoming final battle, the Atlanteans bid farewell to their island nation, soon to be the latest victim of the draconequus' undying hatred.
Finally, the Shepherd and her allies unite to bring down Tirek once and for all, making what could be their last stand among the ruins of the nation where it all began for Equestria and Atlantis three millennia ago.
Twilight and her friends walked out onto the balcony where Celestia and Luna raised and lowered their respective heavenly bodies, having just escaped their brief encounter with Tirek in Astra moments earlier, when Twilight noticed the unusually cold, silver light of the sun over the western horizon.
Locked into permanent twilight with the low-hanging full moon to the east, the sun drenched the earth and sky in hues of red, violet and blue, spilling onto the formerly grey clouds carried aloft by the intensifying winds of the encroaching storm.
Above the bewildered ponies, Galloway and her surrounding stars shed their warm, welcoming glow to impose a relentless glare upon the remaining dark patches of sky, coating all they touched in a celestial veil of ice.
"I'm afraid this not of my doing, Twilight," Celestia said.
"Whatever is affecting Atlantis now is spreading toward Equestria," Luna added. "I fear we have little... time... "
All eyes turned toward Pinkie's psychic tremors.
"That can't be a good sign," Rainbow groaned.
"Pinkie, what is it?" Twilight begged.
"I don't know, Twilight," Pinkie said, her voice bouncing as hard as her entire body, "but whatever it is, it's going to be a really, really, really, really, really big doozy!"
On cue, Spike spat out a scroll against her face, miraculously bringing a dead stop to the Pinkiequake.
Dread darkened upon the mysterious scroll tied with a ribbon of dark purple, sealed in silver-colored wax bearing a four-pointed star rising off to the right of a waning crescent moon dreamcatcher.
"The royal seal of Princess Minerva," Luna said.
"That's the seal on the note about my speed suit!" Rainbow gasped.
Twilight gently picked up the scroll with her magic, breaking the seal and slipping off the ribbon to reveal the message sent.
"'The Sword falls upon Atlantis,'" she read aloud. "That's all there is."
Sheer terror fell upon Celestia's face, her body drained of color and shimmer.
"Princess, are ya alright?" Applejack asked. "You look paler than usual."
One by one, sirens suddenly wailed down from Cloudsdale, their fear-inducing notes fusing into a harsh, continuous, pulsing drone carried by the four winds generated from the few windmills still functional after the skyquake days ago.
"What is going on here!" Rainbow yelled. "Is this what the Atlantean Royal Guard were doing while 'rebuilding' Cloudsdale?"
"My little ponies," Celestia hesitated, "the letter Princess Minerva sent refers to the Sword of Atlantis. It is a weapon of last resort, built into the framework of The Citadel. The only way its destructive power can be realized is through incredible dark magic, the type of dark magic Tirek now possesses."
"That still doesn't explain the sirens!" Rainbow reiterated, holding a frightened Fluttershy close to her.
"Did anypony notice the violet lights of The Citadel?" Luna asked. "The source of the illumination is liquid Etherium, the same found in your speed suit, Rainbow Dash."
"You mean The Citadel is a bomb?! I knew that place was Creepytown, but what the hay, Atlantis?!"
"Just how powerful is the Sword of Atlantis?" Twilight asked.
"I don't know, Twilight," Celestia lamented, "but based on what happened in the past whenever Etherium interacted with magic, I'm afraid those sirens are for all of Equestria."
"Then we must prepare ourselves for Tirek's impending arrival," Luna solemnly vowed, her icy gaze directed toward the creeping red horizon.
* * * * * * * * *
Firestorm led the princesses and the last of her soldiers urgently across the gantry into the bridge of the Aria, making up for lost time when Minerva penned, sealed, and transmitted her letter to Canterlot. The six fireflies hovered beneath the massive ark in a protective formation, with Iris in lead position.
"Status?" Firestorm barked.
"All vaults and necessary cargo have been secured, the alert code has been transmitted to all world stations, and all citizens minus those sent to Argentum Tor are present, ma'am," an alicorn stallion reported.
"Release Aria from her earthly ties!" she ordered.
The Aria decoupled from her gantry and support structures, floating back up to her original position after bobbing down a few feet.
"May the world forgive us for what we are about to commit," Pandora quietly proclaimed upon placing her right hoof in an indentation keyed to her magical signature on a triangular control console facing toward the front of the bridge. Minerva and Firestorm followed suit with their hooves placed in similar keyed indentations opposite each other.
"Signatures recognized," Aria's mare-voiced AI spoke. "Awaiting Sword of Atlantis activation codes."
"Aria, this is Princess Pandora, Regina primus Atlantica. Activation Sequence One, Code: 11A."
Tense silence filled the bridge, eyes focused upon the three alicorns entering into the binding sacrificial pact.
"Aria, this is General Firestorm, Imperator exercitus Atlantica. Activation Sequence Two, Code: 11A2B."
The trio shared the same look of duty and dread among each other, knowing the fate of all life was now in the hoof of one final voice.
"Aria... this is Princess Minerva, Regina secundus Atlantica. Activation Sequence Three, Code: 1B2B3."
"Activation sequence completed and engaged," Aria confirmed. "Awaiting final instruction and arming code."
Pandora scanned the bridge, locking eyes upon the Royal Standard of Atlantica.
"Three millennia... ," she whispered in lament.
With a heavy heart, she gave the last command.
"Aria, begin final sequence upon detection of magical signature... detonate upon first strike. Arming Sequence Zero, Code: 616-Apsinthium-4."
"Sword of Atlantis is armed," proclaimed Aria.
"Ex vitam ad mortem, sic transit gloria mundi," Minerva softly lamented as a veil of blue magic formed over the ark and her defenders.
"Fiat voluntas nostra in honorem et memoriam Aeterni," Pandora replied, bowing for the final time with everypony on the bridge before the royal standard now fading from view as the Aria's windows shifted from transparent to opaque.
* * * * * * * * *
Below Argentum Tor, a pair of black obelisks traced in blue light rose from the white sand to meet the highest spire of The Citadel, identical pairings to the south, east and west completing the center section of the superstructure. Four more pairs traced in violet covered the ordinal directions to complete the outer circuit, the 60 souls gathered on the hill raptured by the raw display of power beginning to take hold.
Energy from each section of the dark ring arced back and forth, ascending to the top as an inner ring of eight single obsidian structures lined in red penetrated the bloodied sky above Atlantis. The violent display buzzed the ears of the ailing ponies in a dark orchestral movement with the swirling storm, their eyes drawn to the city's eternal veil of light fading rapidly to black.
Blue-white and violet beams jumped in pairs toward their corresponding inner obelisks, spurring the creation of a crimson ring nestled within the outer blue-violet ring. A few ponies caught the scent of burning Etherium from the wind gusts spiraling outward in all directions from the rapidly spinning rings of light, though another, more sulfuric note threatened to suffocate the entire group as they drew whatever fabric they could find to cover their muzzles.
"Wh-wh-what is that?" a frightened pegasus colt pointed toward the main spire of The Citadel.
A malevolent, eight-pointed star descended upon the heart of Atlantis, corrosive beams of light consuming every cloud they touched on the star's journey through the decaying sky. A dark spot coalescing upon its southern pole funnelled energy from the halos unto itself, unhinged, acidic laughter tormenting the ailing souls struggling to hide among the few Douglas-firs closest to the open-sky monument. The towering obelisk under the vile sun glowed violently against the cold light in empathy with its subjects.
Bright, violet coronal flares accompanied by black lightning exploded from the dark spot, opening a supermassive white hole from which a Citadel-sized Tirek slowly emerged to begin his reincarnation. The crimson sun then collapsed into an inverted rainbow through the black hole forming within the center of the pulsating fire ruby, driven through the behemoth's codifying essence already stained in Etherium and the golden light of the Pythia.
His magical signature now detected, the Sword of Atlantis' arming system drew condensed beams of violet-pink energy from the inner crimson ring through the octagonal center spire's capstone. The liquefied elemental veins glowed brighter as the energy permeated down through the entirety of The Citadel, shrouding the obsidian castle in a vibrant veil unlike any witnessed by the city-state's citizenry. At the same time, ribbons of blue, violet and red light snaked from the tops of the outer and inner spires, riding the maelstrom toward their intended prey.
One by one, the ribbons wrapped around Tirek, aggressively constricting and contorting the draconequus to their will the more he struggled to break free of his bondage. A pair of ribbons strangled him with the amulet's meteoric iron chain to better position the cursed ruby directly above the Sword of Atlantis, whereupon a stream of violet-pink light rushed forth from the center spire into the ruby, ripping out Tirek's magical energy and assimilating it back into the now-spiraling feedback loop. The Sword plunged deeper and deeper into the monster, tearing apart every fiber of his essence on its way toward delivering its climatic finishing move.
Tirek's distorted mad laughter and tortured black speech filled the rusting atmosphere over Atlantis and the Sea of Hrímfaxi, savage winds carrying scents of burning blood, Etherium, and sulfur to the ponies paralyzed by the awesome, terrifying display playing out before them. Yet, they would not give the eldritch abomination the satisfaction of silence in the final seconds before the Sword's true power was unleashed.
Kneeling beneath Argentum II's phoenix in the direction of The Citadel, the group loudly delivered their final act of defiance in the face of imminent annihilation:
"Gloria in excelsis Avalon, et in memoriam Atlantica, in nomine reginae ex lux aeterna, fiat voluntas tua in honorem mundi ante oculos de nostra hostis. In amorem et concordiam, nos intrant lux in vitam aeternam. Ave Pandora! Ave Minerva! Ave Atlantica!"
As the last words ever spoken on Atlantean soil left the mouths of their speakers, a double rainbow helix of dark and light magic exploded from the Sword of Atlantis, sinking deep into the Hope Ruby and Tirek before striking down The Citadel in a single action.
The brief silence was deafening.
An intense white flash bloomed from the base of the dark tower, expanding outward rapidly ahead of itself. Every structure and living entity became one with the light until at last, the ponies left behind on Argentum Tor were incinerated by the unholy fire of infinite suns faster than a blink of an eye. The memorial of Argentum II fell as clumps of molten palladium into the steam cloud generated by the boiling waters below.
Milliseconds passed before the blast wave roared in all directions, casting contaminated debris, dust and smoke high into the blacked-out atmosphere above. A trinity of bluish-white halos accompanied the swiftly ascending mushroom cloud, each exploding thrice prior to ejection from the earthbound star below. The destructive gale charged through all in its path with an overpressure no winged creature could ever dream of matching, vomiting the remnants of Argentum Tor, The Citadel, and Atlantis into the raging sea.
Faint blue outlines of a phoenix and six smaller birds underwing miraculously emerged from the epicenter within the stem of the cloud, arcing eastward under the hypersonic rings toward a slit of blue light opening just ahead. The flock shifted and stretched into the opening, vanishing behind a four-pointed spark.
Seconds after the sheer combined power of the Sword of Atlantis and the Hope Ruby dealt their fatal blow, the glassed island collapsed into the black watery veil of the Sea of Hrímfaxi, generating earthquakes and tsunami waves soon to be felt worldwide.
* * * * * * * * *
An eerie quiet permeated the twin cities of Las Pegasus and Applewood, the skies painted black against the small white star quickly ascending from the western horizon. No birds chirped, no hoofsteps echoing off the walls, only an ill wind singing a haunted aria through a lonely Sunset Boulevard.
Equestria's energy boundary glowed erratically against the growing celestine leviathan of light, accompanied by a cacophonic duet between the sea and the wind. Seconds passed before a single, supermassive hypersonic light halo shattered the ethereal blue wall of magic, flooding the air with a divine fire whose all-consuming embrace the cloud city had no chance to refuse. Applewood itself was thrashed upon left and right, tsunami-driven tidal bores clawing away at all that remained of Equestria's entertainment capitals.
The whitish-blue ring of death rapidly fading from view, the blackened sky shimmered with radiant aurorae of blue, violet, silver, and red. Had anypony miraculously survived the onslaught, they might have also witnessed a pale blue phoenix stretch over the desolate landscape from all directions. The survivors' awe may have then turned to panic upon hearing a distorted, tormented voice howl and roar overhead in pursuit of the ring, shrouded in bloodied clouds showering gold lightning and lethal black rain upon the scorched earth.
It would be a while before anypony dared peek their head outside the emergency shelter high in the Applewood hills, however.
* * * * * * * * *
Horns crossed before the various stained glass murals in the throne room, Celestia and Luna combined their magic to block the approaching pale ring from smashing Canterlot. Despite their fears the barrier would not withstand the remaining power of the weakened halo, the sisters stoically maintained their possible sacrifice would not be for nothing.
Twilight and her friends huddled together near the strongest wall of the Dark Magic Wing to wait out the chaos. Slight tremors of sound bounced and echoed within the room, everyone doing all they could to shut out the intensifying cacophonic wail.
In the basement of Carousel Boutique, Big Mac held his baby sister as tight as he could while Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo huddled with Granny Smith nearby, frightened by the oncoming firestorm racing through the countryside. All could only hope to make it through, as hope -- and each other -- were all they had.
Deep within the Everfree Forest, Zecora looked toward the darkened sky. She sensed the dark magic driving the remaining energy through the kingdom's heart would likely tear through her chosen home, as well. Resigned to fate, Zecora retreated into her hut.
The halo tore into Equestria's heart, setting Ponyville ablaze before the blast wave scattered the ashes in all directions. Cloudsdale suffered a second, catastrophic skyquake under violent electrical storms, every structure crashing into or falling through the clouds. The Everfree's eastern edge snapped backwards, dissipating the ring's energy before it reached Zecora or the ancient castle on the other side of the mysterious forest.
The last remnant of the Sword of Atlantis shattered itself against Canterlot, destroying the magical barrier and two-thirds of the castle with its final strike. Debris fell into the garden, smashing the dragonfly still resting within the walls. Broken glass and scattered stones littered the city streets, the flames and smoke consuming all in their path.
Aurorae of red, blue, silver and purple danced in the eyes of the princesses. Rendered speechless by the sight, Celestia quietly removed her royal finery, gently placing them upon her battered throne. Twilight and her friends navigated through the shattered stained glass in time to witness Luna follow in her sister's hoofsteps.
"Princess... ?" Twilight asked.
"It is done," Celestia barely replied, her head hung in dejection as the song of flames and falling stone softly played on in the background.
Luna led her crestfallen sister and their subjects back through the trail of glass when a faint, yet familiar, song entered her ears. Celestia's own ears perked up when she heard a warm, comforting voice singing to her. All turned to find the source of the haunting melody, which was thought to have been Fluttershy until a second, disembodied voice harmonized with the pegasus.
The princesses turned to each other in disbelief, realizing the other voice was their mother's voice, and what she and Fluttershy were singing together was their favorite lullaby. Rarity then noticed a phoenix coalesce from the aurorae, jaws dropping in awe of the ethereal display.
"Is this all" -- Celestia tearfully begged the sky -- "a dream?"
Out of the corner of Pinkie's eye, a blue light flashed in the western horizon. When she pointed it out, everypony saw a large, phoenix-shaped ark with six fireflies hovering underneath.
"Mother?!" Celestia and Luna said in unison.
* * * * * * * * *
"What have we done?" Firestorm struggled to process the annihilation now in full view of all aboard the Aria.
"How many?" Minerva quietly asked her sister.
"... too many," Pandora weakly replied.
"The Sword of Atlantis was meant to decapitate Tirek, not empower him," Firestorm fumed. "The destruction before our eyes? We did that. Our sacrifice" -- her stoicism collapsing like the walls of Canterlot -- "was for nothing! Tirek ripped our sword out of his still-beating heart and flayed every last one of us alive with it --" she turned her burning eyes toward Pandora "-- in complete mockery of all you stand for as Shepherd!"
Firestorm whipped back around, shutting her eyes to avoid looking at anything or anypony. She would have shut her ears as well, were it not for a ghostly lullaby attempting to soothe her wounded heart.
"Please, leave me in silence, Princess Pandora. I can't bear to deal with you or anypony else right now."
"I'm not singing, General," Pandora said. "No one is."
On cue, Aria's AI started singing the mysterious song in a voice painfully familiar to the princesses.
"Princess Aria?" she and Minerva asked.
"It feels strange to be one with my namesake," Aria said as the lullaby continued separately. "I'm not sure I'll ever be used to this experience."
Firestorm's eyes threw open, painful rivers flowing from either point. "Is... is this... a dream?"
"I wish it were so," she replied. "Alas, something wicked this way comes."
* * * * * * * * *
"Mother? Is that really you? Please, answer me!" Celestia cried out to the celestine phoenix, tears streaming unabated down her face.
"Hello, my loves. How I've missed you so."
"Ar-are you in that unusual airship?" she asked.
"You could say that," Aria casually remarked. "I apologize for our brief reunion in Astra, but I had to ensure Tirek never sunk his claws into Avalon, the Shepherd, or her chosen champions... with good reason, it sadly appears."
"Is Tirek vanquished?" Luna wondered.
"No. He survived the attempted execution through his corruption of the Sword of Atlantis."
She sighed, dread entering into her detached spirit. "And now, Tirek has caught up with me."
The toxic scent of burning blood, Etherium, and sulfur swept over Canterlot. Overhead, boiling crimson clouds sent gold lightning and acidic black rain down upon the ruins, tormented roars drowning out the sweet lullaby.
"What is this madness?" Firestorm demanded.
"Tirek has found us all," Aria proclaimed.
A blue force field wrapped itself over Canterlot, protecting all from the evil ready to emerge from the poisoned shroud. Aria then slowly pivoted to face the darkness coalescing in the west.
"Fear not, my loves," she reassured her daughters. "I will do all I can to protect you and your champions."
The electrical storm revealed pieces of The Citadel molding itself into a dragon-shaped entity, repairing any disfigurement suffered from the catastrophic explosion moments ago.
"I... cannot... ever... die... ," a stretched, black voice hissed in Minerva's ear.
"Tirek!" she shouted at the monster before her view.
Beams of blue and white deflected Tirek's corrupted rainbow, connecting with their intended target. The impact shook the earth and sky at once, the scenery bathed in blinding light. Ponies above and below shielded their eyes in vain as the force fields over Canterlot and the Aria shimmered and resonated with the cascading waves of energy generated from the concussive blast of the ark's first strike.
Silence filled the air in anticipation of the hopeful outcome. As the light quickly faded, however, it dawned upon all that the Atlanteans' dazzling demonstration of power failed to deliver a killing blow to the cybernetic draconequus, let alone draw so much as a drop of blood or Etherium from his body.
"H... how-- ," Twilight tried to spit out.
"How did he survive all of that?!" Rainbow interjected.
"I got a bad feelin' it's only goin' to get a lot worse from here," Applejack flatly stated.
"That should have sent the beast to his grave!" Firestorm shouted in disbelief, slamming her right front hoof hard to the floor.
"I fear Tirek's corrupted magic merged with whatever Atlantean technology he took into his body, rendering him invulnerable to my namesake's energy attacks," Aria calmly replied.
"Speaking of energy attacks," Star Tracer interjected, "it looks like Tirek's about to unleash his next barrage!"
Casting a slight glance upon Canterlot, Tirek drew his dark magic into the embedded ruby for his decapitation strike.
"We can't have that go without a preemptive counterstrike, now can we?" Minerva proclaimed. "Unleash everything we have! Do not hold back!"
Rapidly pulling all of her power into her sole ion cannon, the Aria screeched in harmony with her fireflies to deliver their adversary's soon-to-be-tattered corpse to the gates of Tartarus. Before the beams could hit their mark, however, Tirek let slip his newfound power upon the Atlanteans with a horrific, painful, deafening roar.
"Brace for impact!" Firestorm ordered.
All aboard took cover as his dark rainbow sliced through the attack, landing a devastating blow upon the ark. Every system short-circuited from the energy wave tearing through the craft's hull. The catastrophic strike also knocked out the force field over Canterlot, much to the shock of all onboard, and of those watching helplessly below.
The barrier gone, Tirek rushed to attack Canterlot Castle, effortlessly pulling the debris field surrounding his mutilated body toward the ruin.
"If it's a fight he wants, then it's a fight he shall have," Celestia proclaimed, wiping away her last tear with a gritty determination on her soot-kissed face.
The princess threw all of her magic high into the crimson sky, wrapping the castle in a solar cocoon. He stopped short of the barrier, allowing the debris to bombard his enemies before turning his attention to the disabled ship floating above.
Determined as he was to send the Atlanteans to their fate, however, exploding flares casting his shadow upon the torn surface of the Aria caught Tirek's attention. He turned quickly to witness every piece of obsidian flung at Canterlot burn up within the protective spell, much to his displeasure.
"Woo-hoo! Go Princess Celestia!" Pinkie cheered.
"Way to show that monster who's boss, Princess!" Rainbow added.
"Don't look now, girls," Twilight warned, "but Tirek doesn't seem too happy about any of this!"
Tirek let fly another tortured scream, rushing headfirst toward Celestia. Though his flesh burned and his metal scales melted, the solar barrier shattered through the force of his will.
"Die!" he bellowed, energy flowing through the embedded fire ruby as he took dead aim at the princess.
"Only if you come with me!" Celestia countered, her horn glowing inside the golden aura of magic.
Before either could strike the other, the six fireflies launched a kamikaze attack of their own, ramming their heads into the ruby, right eye, neck, jaw, chest and belly of the behemoth. Pained howls followed Tirek's violent launch into the capital's mountain side, drowned out by the thundering avalanche wrapping his battered body in its stony embrace. A series of small explosions followed, including one occurring just behind the princesses and their closest subjects.
"Iris!" Rainbow rushed toward the fallen firefly, falling to her knees before all that remained of her avatar. "Why? Why did you and your friends have to sacrifice yourselves like that?" she sniffed, cradling the severed left wing bearing her cutie mark. "Y-you dumb r-r-robots could have done something else, anything else, to save Princess Celestia from Tirek! W-why did you... "
"The fireflies saw no other option," Celestia replied, gently wrapping a wing around the sobbing pegasus. "If saving us meant sacrificing their lives, then we can't fault them for actions that ensured another day for us, and ultimately, for everyone."
"We're not out of the woods, however," Luna said. "If what has happened thus far is any indication, our war with Tirek has only begun."
"Whatever happens, Princesses," Twilight began, "we'll all be here to fight at your and your godmothers' side," everypony agreeing with her.
"Let's just hope the Atlanteans up there can fix their airship enough to fight with us before he gets back up," Applejack said, smoke and sparks pouring from the wounded Aria.
"They gave their lives so that all may live free of darkness," Minerva said.
"Their sacrifice will not be forgotten," Pandora added.
"Ma'am, structural damage is at 47 percent, all main systems are offline, we have no weapons or defense to speak of, emergency power is barely keeping us afloat, and we can forget about landing or moving, as those systems were completely destroyed by the second energy attack."
"Any injuries or-- "
"No one has died aboard thus far, General," Pandora quietly said.
"There are reports of minor injuries in Sections 2, 4, 9, 11 and 16," Star Tracer added.
"Those won't matter when Tirek wakes up," Firestorm grimly replied. "He was coming for us before Princess Celestia's solar shield stole his attention; he'll make certain we're the first to be slaughtered upon his escape."
Peering out of one of the ark's broken windows, her grey eyes locked onto the battered castle, smoke and flames ascending into the bloodied skies above Canterlot. Two columns of smoke emanated from the royal garden and what had been the throne room, presumed to be where two of the fireflies laid down their swords for the last time. The worried stares of the eight ponies gathered around one of the columns pierced her heart, all hoping for a better outcome than the one she was about to announce to everypony aboard.
With a heavy heart, Firestorm slowly turned to face the princesses.
"Your Majesties-- "
"No," Aria firmly proclaimed. "Atlantis and Equestria have sacrificed enough. No more shall be made by any of you, nor shall those made previously be for nothing."
Arcs of azure, violet, rose, mulberry, purple and white electricity emerged from the torn surface of the Aria, creeping out from midship to all directions.
"Ma'am! Power is being restored to all sections," Star Tracer urgently reported. "and it appears the ship is... repairing itself?!"
"This is where we go our separate ways," Aria replied. "All of us."
"Your Majesty!" Firestorm begged. "You're not just " -- the Aria's bridge gave way to the inferno that was Ponyville -- "going... to... what?"
Star Tracer pointed at the intense electrical storm rapidly engulfing the ark above Canterlot. "Ma'am, I think we were just evacuated from the Aria... by Princess Aria." She gently pulled Firestorm around. "We're also not alone."
A herd of several thousand ponies stood behind the duo looking upon Canterlot in bewilderment over their seamless evacuation from the ship. Firestorm sensed something amiss about this situation upon scanning the crowd, however.
"Where are Princess Pandora and Princess Minerva?"
Startling Star Tracer, Spike spat out a scroll with a blue ribbon and wax seal bearing a pair of four-pointed sparks crossed on top of each other and surrounded by eight stars.
"Spike?! I thought you were in Canterlot!"
"I was!" he replied. "I was on Twilight's back when suddenly, I was on yours -- " sighing dejectedly at what became of his second home " -- in what I presume was Ponyville."
"'General Firestorm,'" Firestorm interjected, reading from the opened mystery scroll, "'I have evacuated the princesses to be with their goddaughters and their champions in Canterlot in order to take up my sword upon my foreordained demise. May fortune shine upon us all. Yours, Princess Aria.'"
Crumpling the center of the scroll, she grimaced in disbelief. "The gods are crazy this morning -- " she looked back at the Aria " -- but crazy is all we have left if we're to survive now.
"I just hope you know what you're doing, Princess Aria," quietly addressing the now-fully possessed ship.
* * * * * * * * *
"Minerva? Pandora? How-- " Celestia tried to ask.
"Spike? Spike!" Twilight panicked. "Where did he go?!"
"I think the answers to both of your questions are in the scroll tied to Twilight's mane," Pandora answered.
Loosened from her mane, every pony gathered around Twilight as she read from the mysterious tiny scroll with the same wax seal as the one sent to Firestorm.
"'Twilight, I have sent Spike to Ponyville, where he will be safe with the evacuated Atlanteans and Canterlotans.
"'Minerva and Pandora, your greatest roles are yet to come. May you all be ready when the time comes to take up my sword... '" -- shock filled her eyes -- "'upon my foreordained demise'?!"
A celestial flash of magic erupted from the Aria, wrapping itself around the ship and Canterlot amid violent winds dancing and twirling through all that remained.
"It as if Princess Aria is willing the airship onto herself!" Rarity blurted.
"Or she's willing herself onto the airship!" Luna countered.
"That's because she is," Celestia quietly stated.
Within the savage, colorful electrical storm, the Aria's hull buckled, stretched and convulsed. Her tail and wings snapped and bent into a more avian shape. A pair of skeletal legs and feet burst forth from below her developing belly and breast, rapidly wrapped in metal skin. Shimmering gradient feathers of white, rose, azure, mulberry, violet and purple erupted from her tail and formerly solid wings. Similarly iridescent plumage rapidly enveloped the rest of her transforming body, crowned by a crest exploding from the back of her head. Agonizing calls and shrieks escaped from her elongated neck through her newly torn-open beak. The shattered windows of the ship's bridge collapsed, shifted apart, and coalesced into a pair of star-filled, deep violet eyes framed with rose-colored eyelashes and eyeliner.
"You shall not harm my daughters nor anyone else in this omniverse, for this is the day you will cease to breathe!" Aria screamed in the direction of the still-entombed Tirek, her pained voice ringing out through the hypernova exploding from her entire body to all corners of Equestria and beyond.
The wave of light faded, Aria's cutie mark emerged behind the reborn princess, injecting her colors to heal the sickened sky.
"Princess Aria!" Firestorm and Star Tracer gasped.
"Whoa!" Spike awed.
"No words can begin to describe the terrifying beauty before us!" Rarity said.
"Mother?!" Celestia and Luna cried.
"Welcome home, Aria," Pandora quietly proclaimed.
The earth rumbled as a blue force field fell over the remains of Canterlot once more.
"I will see you all in Avalon," Aria said as a spine-chilling roar thundered into the sky.
Tirek clawed his way out of the disintegrating tomb, horrifically disfigured from the savage assault moments ago. Tainted magic from the embedded fire ruby followed the trails of Etherium-contaminated blood pooling into his mangled right eye, transforming it into a blue cybernetic eye to match the one on the left side of his metallic face. Little fur and skin remained upon his body, metal and obsidian replacing and mending every inch of charred flesh, torn wing membrane, and broken bone that wasn't already assimilated.
His palladium razors bared, Tirek bellowed with an anger that boiled away the mountainside. "Thou shalt perish from this world, and thy spirit shall join thine consort's in annihilation!"
"Only half of what you say will be true, but not before I take you down to size!" Aria spat back.
The draconequus lunged at the phoenix's neck, but was set ablaze by her flash attack. Talons penetrated the flames, breaking every rib in her opponent's chest.
"You cannot break me so easily, Aria!" Tirek countered with a violent lash of his partially metal tail, knocking the princess back over the ruined castle.
"Nor shall you break me!" Aria returned, her body igniting into flames of azure, rose and violet as she swept down in front of him. The flame attack blinded him long enough for her to rip out his eyes, crushing them in her claws amid horrible, agonized screams. She then charged headfirst into his left wing, biting down and snapping every bone and tendon off his back. Tirek's broken body impaled itself upon a jagged ledge above Canterlot, liquified dark magic spilling down under Aria's electric rain strike.
* * * * * * * * *
"She is not holding back, is she?" Firestorm asked herself.
"I don't know if I can watch anymore," Spike said, eyes peeking out from his claws now and again.
"Ma'am, that force field isn't going to hold up much longer," Star Tracer stated.
"What?! But my friends are up there! Our princesses are up there with them!"
"How are you able to tell?" Firestorm asked.
"The field shimmers in and out like a heartbeat, a sign of instability with the energy needed to sustain the field properly," she explained. "Furthermore, Tirek's impalement is allowing his -- for the lack of a better description -- 'liquified dark magic' to spill onto the field, rapidly weakening its ability to defend all who remain under it."
"How long until it fails?"
"If they're realizing what's about to happen like we are now, they may be able to escape to safety before it falls within the next few minutes, barring a powerful shattering strike."
"We need to do something!" Spike howled.
"We can't do much from down here," Star Tracer said.
"No," Firestorm began, "but we can fly over to them," glancing over to the damaged dragonflies off to her right.
"We're going to ensure our friends and princesses come out of this alive, and that no harm comes to them in their escape," Firestorm quietly proclaimed, watching the draconequus struggling to free himself from his mountaintop crucifixion.
* * * * * * * * *
"Did she... did she really... with his eyes?" Pinkie asked, her mind close to shutting down from shock.
"I don't think I can watch another wing be ripped off," Rainbow said from underneath Fluttershy's left wing.
"Aria is unleashing 1,400 years' worth of anger upon our enemy," Minerva stated. "Brutality and vengeance are all she has left to give."
"Speaking of givin'," Applejack interjected, "her force field looks ready to give out at any moment."
"Applejack's right," Twilight confirmed. "We need to find shelter before the field dissipates."
"And where exactly are we going to go, Twilight?" Rainbow asked. "There isn't much left standing!"
"Then we're going to have to escape," she said. "Tirek's blood is already causing the field to thin. One good strike will bring it down, and with Princess Aria flying through a blind rage -- no pun intended -- there likely won't be another chance to raise a shield."
"Of course!" Fluttershy gasped. "The dragonfly! She's still in the royal garden!"
"'She,' Fluttershy?" Rainbow questioned.
"That one is," Pandora stated. "Anyway, if she's still functional, we could get away as the field collapses."
"What about the Elements of Harmony?" Rarity asked. "Don't we need to get them first?"
"About that, sugarcube," Applejack gently turned her friend toward the collapsed, burning structure protecting the Elements inside.
"We'll figure something out. Come on, girls! We need to get to that dragonfly!" Twilight said as Aria landed on her own field bubble, sending cascades of electric arcs down all sides and into the writhing impaled heart of her adversary through his blood.
"Don't lose your heart to your own darkness, Mother," Luna quietly stated, looking up with weary eyes at the metal phoenix walking slowly toward her prey.
* * * * * * * * *
A metallic foot slammed down upon Tirek's neck, burning talons tightening around his throat.
"Your time ends now, Tirek," Aria calmly stated, the stars in her eyes bursting into hypernovae.
The princess exploded into the sky, horrifically bifurcating her prey from his impaled heart down. Any dark magic her flames did not burn away rained down on the weakening field, each drop fracturing Aria's protection spell upon impact. She then tossed Tirek high into the air, catching the split ends with her telekinesis before cracking his mutilated body like a whip repeatedly against the mountainside, breaking his arms and right wing, and shattering what remained of his skull, neck, and spine.
Nearly lifeless, the draconequus landed hard upon the field. His adversary followed, using her telekinesis to hold down his pulverized neck. He felt both sets of claws reach into and pulling open his mouth, cascading waves of piercing pain flooding his being upon the loss of his lower jaw and what remained of his upper teeth.
Terror quickly emerged behind the tidal bore upon hearing her cold declaration:
"What has been rendered upon the body, I shall now render upon your spirit."
Aria sunk her talons into Tirek's forehead, grabbing onto the Hope Ruby in an attempt to rip out the source of his power. Tormenting tsunamis overwhelmed him as more dark magic spilled into the cracks and fractures of her force field, building in intensity the more she struggled to free the artifact from its owner.
It was then that a spark ignited in his punctured heart, violently rushing toward the ruby's pulsating center.
"Foolish princess," Tirek telepathically began, "like your starry eyes, you are as blind in your rage as you are in your devotion to the Shepherd. Allow me now to show you the error of your depraved ways."
Black laughter and speech filled the air as the ruby electrocuted Aria, forcing the princess to ascend above Canterlot. Ribbons of inverted rainbows flowed out of the gem and Tirek's mending heart, gently wrapping and levitating the broken draconequus in their healing embrace.
The sky burned in red and gold, the last remnants of his previous life shifting from flesh and blood, to metal and Etherium. A new pair of bluish-white eyes regenerated alongside his wings, teeth and jaw. His bifurcated body fused back together from the heart down amid a torrent of dark magic drenching the force field below. Every bone, organ and muscle in his body transmuted into titanium and woven steel, his scales and fur replaced by Atlantean alloys and obsidian traced in neon lines of red-orange and blue. A mane of tall spikes ran up and over his head, stopping just before the fully charged Hope Ruby, and framed by a pair of black iron horns.
"When I took the Hope Ruby into my own claws, I gave myself over to the Rainbow of Twilight held within," Tirek proclaimed. "Now, bear witness to our true power, Princess Aria!"
The Rainbow of Twilight exploded from Tirek's fully transformed body, shattering Aria's shield over Canterlot. Aria herself attempted to dodge the oncoming nova, only to be impaled through the spine upon the very spot where the draconequus was so situated moments ago. Etherium gushed from her breast, her entire body engulfed in hellfire amid pained cries echoing through the bloodied sky.
Emerging from the full power of the dark rainbow, Tirek hovered ominously over Canterlot, his glowing blue eyes fixated upon the Shepherd and the nine ponies galloping toward the damaged dragonfly in the ashened, glass remnants of the royal garden.
"Through the hedge maze!" Luna shouted over the cascading booms and shattering magic caused by the Rainbow of Twilight. "The dragonfly isn't too much further!"
"I just hope somepony knows how to pilot that whirly-bird," Applejack added, "especially if we have to fight our way out of Canterlot!"
"As if we need more problems!" Rainbow said. "Canterlot's a complete wreck, Princess Aria's impaled and bleeding on a rock, her force field straight up exploded, and now Tirek's a robot demon thing with an evil magic rainbow coming out of his head! This day could not possibly get any worse if it tried!"
"The dragonfly!" Fluttershy gasped, sliding in her tracks to a complete stop.
"And it just got worse," Rainbow facehoofed.
Jaws dropped before the sight of the fallen dragonfly, its rotors and cockpit smashed and broken, its rear section severed by the remains of the firefly Phoebe. Bluish-white flames and reddish-black smoke engulfed and gutted the machine amid their ascent into the rusting sky.
"That's it, then," Rarity dejectedly proclaimed over the sound of flames and distant, whispering thwacks. "There's no escape."
"Does anypony else feel a pair of blue robot eyes tickling the back of their neck, or is it just me?" Pinkie asked to the bewilderment of all but the four princesses processing the cold, synthetic stare of their nemesis.
"That's awfully specific," Twilight remarked upon sighting Tirek menacingly hovering above the ruined city before an impaled and horrifically burned Aria, whose blood continued to run down the mountainside, coalescing into a violet-pink river upon entering an abandoned mine shaft several feet below her smoldering tail.
"Go," Pandora ordered.
"What?!" every other pony exclaimed in shock.
"Go. Escape while you still can. I'm the one Tirek wants."
"Dori, you can't-- " Minerva protested.
"I'm the one he's always wanted, Min," Pandora calmly replied, never once breaking her gaze into Tirek's cold eyes. "For countless eons and through many incarnations between us, I have been the prey in Tirek's eternal hunt.
"That hunt ends here, and it ends now," her wings unfurled toward her eternal adversary, glimmering with scythe magic at the ready.
Upon her declaration, a shower of rockets rained down from the western sky, followed by a flurry of blasts smothering the mechanical draconequus within their violent embrace.
"No way!" Rainbow exclaimed.
"Yee haw! Looks like the cavalry's arrived!" Applejack said.
"We're coming, everyone!" Firestorm declared. "Punch it, Star Tracer!"
"Hang on!" Star Tracer replied.
The lead dragonfly's rotors shattered into numerous flashes of blue neon, dissipating in the white heat generated by the craft's turbojets as quickly as the disintegration occurred. Spike sunk his claws deep into Firestorm's seat back, hanging on for dear life amid the relentless alarms and structural vibration triggered by Star Tracer's semi-controlled emergency extraction operation.
"This landing might be a bit rough; brace yourselves!" she warned.
"What in tarnation are those crazy Atlanteans doin'?!" Applejack yelled.
"She's coming in too hot!" Rainbow added. "Everypony get back!"
As those words left her mouth, several small rocket boosters fired simultaneously in conjunction with the dragonfly's air brakes, abruptly halting its rapid descent into the charred hedge maze. The hard landing drove the Atlanteans violently against their harnesses, while Spike bounced to a stop near the back of the craft.
"Doors open!" Firestorm commanded the dragonfly, gasping for breath as most of the ponies rushed to board the beaten craft.
"Spike!" Twilight cried upon boarding, nuzzling and hugging the still-delirious dragon.
"Tw-Twilight!" he said, shaking off the fog in his mind to return the affection. "I'm so happy to see you alive!"
"I'm happy to see you alive, too, Spike!" she said. "Looks like you took a quite a hit, though," gently rubbing his head.
Star Tracer interrupted the reunion. "Is everyone aboard?"
"Not everyone," Celestia said, giving a sad glance toward the enraged Shepherd standing before Tirek and Aria.
"What?!" Firestorm growled, still wincing from the abrupt landing.
"It's just you and me now, Tirek!" Pandora hissed. "And this time: I. Won't. Miss."
Through a guttural howl, she unfurled the strongest scythe within her against the mechanized adversary, drawing upon all of her might and magic to deliver the killing blow.
The scythe magic effortlessly passed over Tirek as would a sunbeam, its cutting edge stopping short of dissecting Aria completely.
"How amusing," he coldly proclaimed as the resurrected princess floated lifelessly toward the battered city, violently cut down from her stone pike.
"Aria!" she cried in horror. The earth quaked and thundered upon impact, every street in Canterlot drenched in liquid Etherium from the phoenix's breast and belly.
"The hunt does end here, and it does end now, dear Shepherd...
"But it ends for you and the Elements of Harmony," Tirek remorselessly declared, palladium razors bared and glimmering in the bluish-white glare of another oncoming barrage.
The draconequus ensnared the dragonfly clan's firepower within the Rainbow of Twilight, flinging the concentrated energy charge directly toward the shocked princess with a flick of a tail.
"Princess Pandora!" a familiar voice shouted.
Two walls of fire clashed within the hellscape where once the royal garden bloomed. The resulting blast wave swept away the remains of the fallen machines, revealing an enraged Firestorm protecting her princess behind the pyrokinetic firewall.
"I am Princess Pandora's and Princess Minerva's living shield! You will have to do far more than your best to break through me!" she bellowed for all of Equestria to hear.
"Soldiers! Unleash everything you have! Give no quarter to the behemoth before you!"
On cue, the clan came unhinged, unloading every last missile, rocket, and ion beam upon Tirek as he drew within the dark rainbow's cocoon to weather the storm.
"F-Firestorm?!" Pandora stammered, awed by her general's nearly sacrificial act.
"You will not fall, Your Majesty," Firestorm coughed. "Not when you have us. Now, let's get going. Our ride's here."
She softly smiled. "Lead the way, General."
"Tirek is one tough hombre, that's for sure," Applejack said, watching the one-sided firefight from behind the cockpit windshield.
"I don't call hiding in an evil rainbow bubble 'tough,' AJ," Rainbow replied.
"Hmm," Twilight pondered, interrupted by Pandora's and Firestorm's arrival.
"Doors... closed," Firestorm collapsed.
"Dori!" Minerva cried, hugging her sister tightly from worry.
"Oh my! Are you both okay?" Fluttershy asked.
"I think the sudden landing bruised my ribs. Nonetheless, Princess Pandora is safe aboard," Firestorm replied.
"Speaking of our landing, ma'am," Star Tracer reported, "the crash knocked out a lot of power, including the propulsion system needed for blade generation and forward movement."
"Whatever shall we do now?" Rarity fussed.
"The dragonfly can restore the necessary systems needed for our escape," Firestorm explained while regaining her footing. "So long as the clan maintains their assault -- thus, distracting Tirek -- we'll be able to blow this banana stand within the next few minutes."
"Something's not right, though," Twilight said. "Tirek is absorbing every attack through the Rainbow of Twilight thus far, yet-- "
"The jerk's not fighting back!" Rainbow interrupted. "He's just floating there in his little rainbow bubble as if nothing was happening!"
A wave of panic swept through the dragonfly upon realizing Tirek's strategy.
"Stand down immediately!" Star Tracer shouted through the radio. "Get out of there now! Withdraw! Withdraw!"
"All prey shall be led to slaughter, no matter how insignificant they are to the hunt."
Tirek let slip the newly amplified Rainbow of Twilight upon the clan, vaporizing all aboard as the now-disabled dragonflies spiraled to their deaths at the foot of the mountain. Bursts of energy bounced against the rocks, their booms disappearing into the air still thick with acrid smoke and toxic winds.
The dark rainbow returned, its master's savage eyes framed the remaining dragonfly within the ruin.
"We need to leave before any more lives are lost," Luna said as Pandora briefly flickered, catching Fluttershy's eye while everypony else gazed upon the chaos outside.
"Wake up already!" Star Tracer growled, frustrated with the dragonfly's still-recharging propulsion system while frantically diverting every ounce of power left to activate it in time to avoid a similar fate.
"Firestorm," Minerva began, "are you able to use your magic to defend us?"
"I am, but it may not be enough this time, Your Majesty."
"Then leave it to me," Aria telepathically declared.
"Aria?" everpony gasped.
Aria's cutie mark burned away the crimson clouds, its purifying light shining upon the broken dragonfly.
"Celestia, Luna, I will always love you."
"We love you, too, Mother," the princesses quietly replied.
A blue force bubble washed over the dragonfly and its occupants.
"My sword is now yours to wield, everypony. Use it well."
"We will, Princess Aria," everypony replied.
The dragonfly's blue neon lines gave way to those matching the princess' colors. The ethereal shades flowed seamlessly into each other, outlining the craft with a glow as bright as the moon.
"We have full power!" Star Tracer announced.
"Get us out of here!" Firestorm ordered.
Turbojets roaring to life, the remaining rocket boosters forcefully propelled the dragonfly skyward. Star Tracer arced the craft to the northwest, fighting through its forward momentum to get enough distance between her charges and Canterlot as quickly as possible.
Tirek dropped from the sky before Aria, demolishing several buildings upon landing. Etherium covered his limbs and belly with every step forward, yet his thoughts were focused solely upon his old adversary.
"Delaying the inevitable," he said mockingly, lifting Aria's disfigured face to meet his soulless gaze. "I wouldn't expect any less from you, dearest Aria."
"I'm not delaying the inevitable, Tirek," she spat back. "I'm keeping a promise."
The stars in her eyes became hypernovae for the final time. Their immense collective energy escaped from Aria's hemorrhaging heart into the flooded streets, blazing a path into the abandoned mine through the remaining rivulets from the princess' earlier impalement.
Before a blink of an eye, Canterlot, and the mountain upon whence it rested, ceased to exist.
* * * * * * * * *
The hellscape of Equestria's defiled heart gradually gave way to smoldering peaks dotting the Unicorn Range. Veins of blue raced through the woods north of Vanhoover moments later, black rain failing to extinguish their ravaging light. Ghostly howls and thwacks bounced off the reddened Crystal Mountains soon after, ultimately silenced by the bitter winds and ashen snowstorms of the Frozen North sporadically rattling the dragonfly.
Yet, no matter how far the Atlanteans and the Equestrians flew from Canterlot, Tirek's essence followed, drowning earth and sky in rust, obsidian, and blue fire in his wake.
"This cannot go on," Minerva quietly said to no one, her haunted eyes gazing past the wipers sweeping away the poisoned flurries toward the ever-reddening horizon ahead.
"Huh?" Twilight asked, startling the princess out of her trance.
"Look out before us, Twilight. What do you see?"
"A reddish grey sky, snow mixed with ash... at least, I think it's snow... "
"I see life entering its twilight," Minerva remarked. "An age of harmony and love, consumed by creeping death and absolute hate with every furlong between ourselves and the abomination."
"No," turning to face the two ponies before her with weary eyes. "Tirek is still with us... with me. He's always been with me ever since I tore his spirit from his flesh all those years before, anchored to my heart by a single thread of nightmare energy. Even now, I can feel his corrupt heart feeding upon the windigos which haunt this forsaken place, augmenting his magic and changing him in ways utterly terrifying and eldritch.
"Our adversary is far from defeated, Pinkie and Twilight," Minerva sighed. "But I don't need to tell you this, not when one look at my sister flickering in and out of phase with this realm for every soul left behind to be slaughtered" -- bowing her head in resignation -- "is proof enough."
"Princess... ," Twilight meekly replied as Minerva returned to staring through the fading whiteout ahead of Star Tracer and Firestorm.
Near the back of the dragonfly, Pandora lay with her goddaughters and the rest of the group, her metal wings and limbs darkened by red lights which, like her, flickered every so often as the craft pushed through the turbulent storms. Though most were too busy processing the chaos experienced back in Canterlot to notice, the Shepherd's phasing did not escape the eyes of one curious pegasus.
"Having hooves on both sides of existence presents its own quirks, Fluttershy," she calmly proclaimed with a knowing glance. "What you've caught me doing is bending time to perform my duties as Shepherd alongside those as Princess of Atlantis... a rather taxing act as of late, to say the least."
"Oh," Fluttershy understood.
"Anyway, I wanted to apologize for scaring you at the hospital earlier. I didn't mean to frighten you away, especially since you were only helping Rainbow Dash come back home. I had no idea my stare could unnerve you so much."
"Apology accepted, Fluttershy," Pandora gently smiled, hugging the pegasus gently with her right wing. "You have a wonderful gift, my dear. Each and every one of you," turning to address the rest of the ponies now listening to the conversation. "Your unique gifts have carried you all through challenges great and small, individually and together as one.
"May your gifts continue to benefit all life beyond our darkest hour to come," she declared to the agreement of all around her.
"Speakin' of gifts," Applejack began, rising to her hooves and walking up to the front of the craft, "Princess Minerva, ever since the day Rainbow Dash landed in the hospital, I wanted nothin' more than to knock some sense into the pony who put her there."
"I'm not fightin' her, Fluttershy. I just want-- "
"I'm listening, Applejack," Minerva gently interjected, catching the group off guard. "And you're right. I should have some sense knocked into me, be it through a lecture, or a left hoof to the face."
"Princess Minerva?" Firestorm and Star Tracer barely gasped.
"Believe me, Princess, I want to give you that left hoof" -- deliberately approaching Minerva until she was almost muzzle to muzzle -- "but I won't, because I've had a long time to think about everything. And ya know what?"
Everyone's eyes widened, fear and anxiety running through the group.
"I don't care."
"You... don't?" Minerva asked through a look of a confusion.
"No, Your Majesty. Although the way you asked for our help was dumber than a pack of timberwolves bakin' zap apple pies inside a burnin' barn, I know you and your sister care for your people like our princesses care for all of Equestria; you was only lookin' out for us all," placing a reassuring hoof upon the princess' left shoulder.
"Anyway," Applejack concluded, "please promise us the next time you and your sister need our help, and you're the one put in charge of gettin' the word out, you come to any one of us, instead of sendin' dazzlin' speed suits powered by unstable liquid magic."
"Of course," Minerva replied, nodding in agreement.
"I don't mean to interrupt," Celestia began, "but where exactly are we going?" directing with her eyes to the view outside.
"To where it all began, Princess Celestia," Firestorm solemnly declared.
"And that would be where, General?" Luna added.
"Palladia," Star Tracer quietly proclaimed.
* * * * * * * * *
The snowstorm vanished at last, revealing a bleak, oppressively grey, barren landscape disfigured by glass scars, decorated with fossilized obsidian trees, and walled off from the rest of the world by distant, imposing mountains whose peaks were devoid of snow despite their great height. Lifeless cloud feathers brushed against the cold, vacant sky, racing to the desolate horizon south of the still harbor waters at the foot of Palladia's crystallized heart.
The last of Aria's gift diminished, the now-lifeless dragonfly glided into the remnants of a walled space thrice the size of Canterlot's royal garden, black sand cushioning the landing.
"It's like the rock farm back home, only greyer!" Pinkie chimed upon exiting the deceased craft with the others.
"Your optimism knows no bounds, Pinkie Pie," said Applejack.
"A pity Princess Aria's colors faded from our dragonfly," Rarity declared. "They were quite fetching, especially against all of this endless grey and black."
Fluttershy placed a hoof upon a panel where the dragonfly's heart laid. "I can't feel anything."
Star Tracer walked over to investigate. As soon as she removed the panel with her magic, fine crystalline sand spilled onto the palladium glass beneath her hooves.
Her head met the side of the deceased dragonfly in utter disbelief.
"I can't believe this is where Atlantis and Equestria were born," Twilight said, looking upon the melted palladium pillar in the center of the walled ruin. "What happened here?"
"Hatred," Minerva replied. "A hatred so immovable, those few who still believed in harmony had no choice but to sentence Palladia to death by divine fire," sad eyes gazing up to the vacant sky.
"Always sunshine and rainbows with you," Applejack quipped as snow unexpectedly began falling.
"It hasn't snowed here in three millennia!" Pandora gasped, rolling thunder and sadistic laughter perking everypony's ears.
"Did the sky become less dreary and more colorful all of a sudden?" Rarity asked, pointing to the developing shades of twilight falling into the thin white light in the distant horizon separating the churning black waters from the heavens.
"Oh, my," Fluttershy said upon viewing veins of blue fire erupting from the harbor, her mane now whipped by the thundergust charging from the south.
"Did Atlantis explode again?" Rainbow shouted over the winds. "That white light over there seems to be moving awfully fast!"
"Hang on, everypony!' Twilight said, casting a defensive bubble over everypony with reinforcement from the five alicorns as the wall of white fire embraced Palladia.
The wall coalesced upon the vanquished pillar's foundation into a towering column linking earth and sky. Wind and snow funnelled around the cold fire as it formed a ring of light around the oppressive black moon hovering ominously overhead, filling everypony's heart with overwhelming awe and terror.
"What the hay is going on?!" Star Tracer angrily yelled.
"Open your eyes," Tirek contorted voice telepathically boomed.
Icy blue eyes framed in white metal emerged from the withdrawing flames, locked upon the Shepherd with a merciless stare. The reflection of terrified faces could be seen in his sinister smile of exposed palladium razors. Skeletal, mechanical claws burned frozen footprints into the black sand with every step forward. Thin, long, jewel-like tentacles covered the limbs, spine, head, and tail, their colored light fluctuating into other colors constantly. Elastic steel tendons highlighted his every movement. A heart of white darkened his ribcage, pulsing in time with the now-white fire ruby still embedded in his forehead.
Tirek wasted no time upon seeing the unfurled wings of his adversaries. Rainbow lightning erupted throughout his skeletal frame, followed immediately with a blinding airburst of white light directed toward everypony.
The glow quickly faded, revealing the fire shield Firestorm projected around the rest of the Atlanteans and Equestrians.
"I told you before! I am the living shield of Princess Minerva, Princess Pandora, and their allies!" she said. "You have yet to do your absolute best to break through me!
"Star Tracer, lead everyone who isn't an alicorn away from the battlefield," she ordered, not once looking away from the eldritch abomination before them.
"But-- ," Rainbow Dash protested.
"No," Firestorm interrupted. "If we fall, you and your friends will be the difference between absolute liberation" -- her grey eyes piercing through Tirek's terrifying gaze -- "and utter annihilation."
"Firestorm is correct, Rainbow," Twilight said. "It will do nopony any good if all of us are felled by Tirek at once, not with what's at stake."
Rainbow huffed. "Fine."
"Star Tracer, take this; you know what's inside," Firestorm said, turning to levitating her saddlebags upon her commanding officer's back.
Star Tracer solemnly saluted. "It was an honor to serve under your command, ma'am."
"It was an honor to serve with you, General Star Tracer," she said, fixing one of her stars onto the new general's collar, then returning the salute. The new general ordered her charges to the remains of Castellum Palladia, still towering directly over Emerald Harbor after three millennia of isolation and neglect.
With the Equestrians led away to safety, the five alicorns walked deliberately toward the mechanized behemoth.
"Any ideas?" Luna asked nopony in particular.
"Don't hold back, Your Majesty," Firestorm replied. "Don't. Hold. Back."
Firestorm violently ejected the fire shield, transforming the fragments into a shower of explosive plasma projectiles detonating in rapid succession around Tirek. The airbursts briefly cowed the monster, giving enough time for Celestia, Luna, Minerva, and Pandora to combine their respective magics. The resulting phoenix-like entity rushed the behemoth at full charge, sweeping up through his neck into the sky, the sandstorm pulled forth in the firebird's wake scouring every attached bone remaining. The magic phoenix then delivered its killing blow as a coronal mass ejection, disrupting the electrical energy in Tirek's heart and head, and rendering his disfigured form into a fusion of obsidian and metallic glass in front of the pillar of fire.
Mocking black laughter filled the sky in response.
"Resistance is futile, Shepherd," Tirek telepathically proclaimed. "All shall be liberated from the iron collar you force upon us through every cycle of life and death."
The ring of light fused with the black moon, funnelling through the still-intact fire ruby into his frenzied heart.
"If it means becoming one with every dark spirit and abomination..."
Massive flares of dark magic escaped from the cracking, buckling glass, streaming unhindered into the tearing sky.
"... the entirety of Delphi, Xiberia, and Astra... "
A deluge of souls and cold light rushed from the celestial wound, drenching without end Tirek's rapidly reforming body.
"... and the powers bestowed by Rainbow of Twilight and the Oracle... "
"Celestia, Luna, go. We'll be along soon," Pandora commanded as gold and rainbow ribbons wrapped around the monster.
"... so I may at last annihilate you, Avalon, and the Grand Veil... "
"Valete," Minerva said.
"Virtus junxit mors non separabit," Pandora replied.
"Ad finem ultimum," Firestorm finished.
Turning their now-glowing white eyes directly upon the abomination, Minerva and Firestorm clashed their horns together over an ephemeral projection from Pandora's amethyst gemstone. The resulting fusion of power shook the earth and vibrated the air around the trio, swathing them in a sphere of blinding power.
No time to spare, the Atlantean alicorns made their final declaration loud and clear:
"Acta est fabula plaudite!"
Upon those words, the rapidly expanding sphere charged toward Tirek, pulling burning winds and sand toward the threaded helix enveloping him.
"... then let it be," he declared, his mechanical eyes ablaze in white.
Accompanied by a bloodcurdling howl never heard by any living being, the helix detonated, casting forth a rising wall of terrifying light in the direction of the divine fireball.
* * * * * * * * *
Star Tracer led her charges into the charred throne room at the top of the highest spire in Castellum Palladia, overlooking Emerald Harbor and the massive open area now engulfed in fire.
"This may be the safest location in Castellum Palladia, all things considered," Star Tracer said.
"Good heavens!" Rarity said. "Whatever happened here? It's as if a fire swept through and left nothing untouched!"
"Understatement of the century, Rarity."
Rainbow leaped back from the ash pile on the throne, frightened by a peculiar object peeking out.
"Is that... a jaw bone on the throne?!"
Star Tracer nonchalantly glanced at the remains. "King Argentum III, the last ruler of the Kingdom of Palladia, known as the Usurper King."
"Also known as Argentum Carnifex," Celestia interjected, appearing with her sister in a flash of light. "Nearly all records of his existence were destroyed when Palladia itself succumbed to the darkness of his heart."
"Your Majesties!" all exclaimed, hugging the princesses tightly.
"Is everything okay?" Applejack asked. "Where are your godmothers? Where's General Firestorm?"
The nightmarish howl reverberated within the throne room.
"Get behind me now!" Luna ordered.
As quickly as everypony huddled under Luna's magic shield, the two opposing points of light outside fused together. The resulting starburst resonated with the opaque shield's vibrations, smothering the room in painful light and agonizing heat, cracking and torching the stone floor and walls. The throne itself rapidly melted and boiled away, taking the last trace of the butcher king with it into the suffocating ether.
Less than a moment later, the stellar firestorm gave way to cold air and an unobscured view of the reglassed room.
"Is everypony all right?" Luna asked, her shield dissipating into stardust.
"I think so," Twilight replied. "I just hope your godmothers and Firestorm made it through."
A much louder, more blackened howl eviscerated everypony's ears and injected abject terror into their hearts, followed by the sudden, explosive demolition of the tower thought to be safe from the pandemonium in the expansive courtyard.
* * * * * * * * *
Blurred light and dark pulsed in contrast to the sustained ringing in Twilight's ears. The more she blinked, the more detail emerged until, at last, she could see her friends and mentors regaining their own footing.
"Is everypony okay?" she asked, the ringing gradually giving way to a faint, ghostly lullaby.
"I think we are," Applejack replied, dusting off her hat.
Rainbow groaned, rising back onto her hooves and shaking dust off of her wings. "Did a train just hit us?"
"If only," Star Tracer said, walking over to the others with Spike and the princesses close at her side.
Fluttershy stuttered, cautiously pointing a hoof toward the south. "T-T-T-T-Tw-Tw-Twi-T-Twi-l-light?"
A churning wall of black water climbed high into the white sky, evaporating into the air amid stark apparitions dancing in concert with the caustic light spinning within the void. Glittering flurries wove their chaotic paths through the ruin, skating across the glassed surface before the vile winds took them aloft once more.
Below the eye of the astral hurricane rose a grisly leviathan of platinum bone and crystalline fiber, towering over the highest peaks of the mountain range surrounding Palladia's glassed heart. Long, razor-like horns framed the cold light emanating from his forehead, obscuring his frightening visage from view below. The same cold light also pulsed from his dead heart, flowing rhythmically within each delicate strand growing from the back of his limbs, the impressive lion's mane covering his head and back, and the icy threads snaking forth toward their intended prey.
"Help!" Rarity cried, the first to be ensnared.
"I'm coming, Rarity!" Rainbow said, charging into the sky before she, too, was snagged.
"Let them go!" Celestia ordered, attempting to burn through the threads with her magic to no avail.
"Thou shalt liberate my friends and sister!" Luna said, her lightning strikes briefly severing the threads before they slammed her through a wall.
One by one, the threads captured everypony in their cold, strangling embrace, drawing them all before Tirek's hollow eyes.
"First, Aria. Then, the Shepherd. And now, you," he said. "It's a pity you spirits die so easily, or I might have a sense of satisfaction now!"
Anger burned brightly in Rainbow's eyes. "Why won't you die?!"
"I've been sent to pray for you, love... ," a soft voice sang repeatedly within the winds, perking Fluttershy's and Pinkie Pie's ears.
Spike gasped for breath, the threads strangling his neck and chest. "Where is that music coming from?"
"I am eternal," Tirek declared, his discordian telepathy causing pain to everypony the longer he spoke. "I am one with the thread of time, the fire of the cosmos, the new gold dawn of existence--
"You are one with nothing, Tirek!" said Twilight. "Nothing but the blind hatred you possess for the Shepherd and all she holds dear -- including you! You've lost yourself entirely to your own darkness!"
"Better to be lost in the darkness than to be blinded by the light, Element of Magic."
"Don't you see I'm never away... " sang a new, stronger voice.
"Say what?" Applejack asked.
"Avalon, The Grand Veil, the Elements of Harmony, every thread of the Shepherd's essence shall be rendered unto my own until she herself is one with me. We shall all become as tears in rain, dissolved in the infinite waters of the Gulf of Elegia. The Shepherd's cyclical reign of slavery ended forever, never to be reignited."
White fire and lightning exploded from its mane and heart, enshrouding the eldritch behemoth.
"... I'll be watching over you now," the second voice continued.
"Embrace my darkness, Elements of Harmony."
Upon those words, bolts of bluish-white lightning stabbed his heart and severed the threads, allowing a gust of wind to carry everypony away from Tirek up into the vortex forming over the spot where the pillar once stood. The beast charged forth to slaughter his prisoners before they were pulled away, denied only by a wall of lightning and magical energy stronger than the surrounding mountains.
* * * * * * * * *
"What is happening?!" Twilight asked.
"Hold on, y'all!" Applejack said, grabbing onto Rarity as soon as she came near.
"Weeeeeee!" Pinkie added. "This is fun!"
"What is that?" Rainbow asked, looking directly into the eye of the vortex.
"Good heavens!" Rarity said, hugging Applejack as tight as she could. "Are those... ghost phoenixes?"
"I think... that's the Shepherd," Star Tracer replied. "All of them."
Swirling within the vortex's eye were eight bird-like flames of various colors, the largest four bearing wings and crests of gold, crimson, greyish fuschia, and silver. The quartet circling the Shepherds were splashed in colors similar to the ponies they represented, from the grey and pale heliotrope feathers of Starswirl and Minerva, to the multi-colored and muted fire plumage of Aria and Firestorm.
Below, infinite numbers of smaller ghost phoenixes filtered from the blinding eye of the storm into the walls of the vortex itself, gently pushing everypony further and further toward the inner wall until all were under the eye's levitating glow.
"What is this?" Luna asked the sky.
"Is this another dream?" Celestia wondered out loud.
"You have nothing to fear, dear spirits," multiple warm, familiar voices spoke.
"Pandora?!" all replied in unison.
"I am here to lend you my strength, my magic, my power," the four Shepherds said.
"And you are not alone, my dears," Aria added.
"All of Avalon is with you," Firestorm said.
"You, the Elements of Harmony, are the key to unifying our power," Star Swirl explained.
"Open your hearts to us, and we shall become as one," Minerva said.
"How?" Twilight asked. "The Elements of Harmony were destroyed by Tirek!"
"We don't need those charms!" Fluttershy said, echoing the words once spoken to her as an apparition of a butterfly blossomed from her heart. "We are the elements we represent! We only need to look within our hearts to find the magic that was always with us!"
The power of her words allowed the Elements of Harmony to emerge from everypony ever to wield their magic, even Celestia and Luna, much to their surprise. Threads of silver and gold magic connected the bearers's hearts with Spike's and Star Tracer's, allowing the Elements to draw from their respective spirits, and vice versa.
The Shepherds dove from the eye upon their champions, every ghost phoenix following suit from all directions. The apparitions fused around everypony into a growing ball of energy. Cords of souls reached out and joined with the hearts of those inside.
"Let now the Cry of Avalon be heard throughout the Grand Veil, our voices, our hearts, our spirits, unified as one," the Shepherds said in a single voice.
Upon those words, everypony transformed into individual columns of elemental smoke and fire, fusing into an inner core of incredible power within the ghostly sphere. The two entities rapidly assimilated the other, exploding into magic and life not unlike the birth of the omniverse itself.
* * * * * * * * *
Tirek continued to ram and claw away at the wall of energy to no avail when the Cry of Avalon shook the behemoth to the core of his dark soul. Frozen tears fell from his eyes. His skeletal limbs and claws struggled to bear the weight of his body. His heart felt a force his mind could not comprehend. Yet, none of what Tirek experienced could compare to the sphere of burning light washing over him. Absolute pain and terror raced through every piece of his self as he struggled to maintain his footing, his demonic face turned away from the overwhelming power of the spiritual big bang before him.
"Face me now," an otherworldy voice beckoned Tirek.
Finding the heart to obey, the leviathan gazed upon a creature whose appearance sent shock waves into his essence.
Before his pulsating white eyes was a phoenix as large as he, composed of white feathers on her belly and neck. Her face and crest were as fiery as her beak and claws, highlighting her sapphire blue reptilian eyes. Multitudes of color flowed seamlessly into each other, covering her back, massive wings, and long tail. Every part of her shimmered, swirled, and burned like the stars and the sun, her prey captive within her ice-fire gaze as his magic ebbed into her essence. All the while, the lullaby continued unabated, carried aloft alongside the glittering snowflakes by the turbulent winds surrounding the combatants.
"Avalon... The Shepherd... the Grand Veil... the omniverse... all within one perfect being," Tirek said.
"I can take away your suffering, Tirek," she said. "Your pain, your corruption, your spirit. I can take it all away, granting you the liberation you seek... if you surrender yourself unto me."
The leviathan stammered, his mind unable to process her plea. "What are you?"
"I am Avalon," she replied.
His heart felt a semblance of serenity for the first time in eons, yet his eyes could no longer bear her unyielding stare
"Liberation... you promise liberation from this wretched coil... if I fully surrender my essence to Avalon... to you... "
Malevolent laughter rumbled out of Tirek, his spirit renewed with unhinged vitriol and contempt for the creature before him.
"What lies you tell, Shepherd. 'Surrender' myself unto you? Allow your eternal cycle of slavery to continue without interference? Cast everything in your defiled, ever-changing image of how life should be...
"You are a fool, Shepherd! I vowed eons ago to cast you and your works into oblivion, even if it meant taking you with me. And this blasphemous display before my vengeful eyes shall be your last error in judgement, for you and all you represent are exactly where I want you!
Bellowing into the heavens, Tirek reared up and slammed his front legs into the glassed ground. Avalon raced upward to escape the resulting wave of sparkling white energy before she could be pulled under, then dodged several bolts of lightning ejected from his body, unaware of the many threads snaking out from his heart to ensnare her in midair.
Lifted by his dark magic, he rose to meet his prey eye to eye. "Not this time, Shepherd. I will never surrender myself to your defiled heart, not when I can make you surrender your entire being and all you represent... unto me!"
With an anguished scream, Tirek unleashed the Rainbow of Twilight upon Avalon, his skeletal frame straining against itself and the corrupted magic still draining away from his bones. The resulting contact with the phoenix thrusted his lifeless body through the remains of Castellum Palladia, throwing up glass sand and stone upon him.
The dark rainbow dissipated, Tirek felt a terrible fear tear into his heart at the sight above him.
"The Rainbow of Twilight is mine, Tirek, as is the darkness of your heart," Avalon said, levitating the restored Hope Ruby into her breast.
Panic setting in, Tirek reached for his head to discover a sizable hole where the Hope Ruby once resided, then grabbed his heart to retrieve only scant shards of crystal in his claws.
"The die has been cast. Redemption shall never come for you, and I shall never allow your spirit to ever live again.
"Embrace the light you have denied for so long, Pythia of Delphi."
Bitter, frozen tears fell from his fading gold eyes. Avalon's icy denial of his salvation violently forced the eons of torment and defeat from his shattered heart and mind, his essence slipping further and further into the thing he sought to make his own for so long. Tirek's spirit convulsed in agony. White smoke and steam errupted from his body.
Her rejection would be the last mistake she ever made as far as he was concerned.
"Only if you embrace it with me!" he declared.
Tirek leaped into the sky with all his remaining might, the prey reflected in his twisted metal smile. He reached out for Avalon's breast, intending to plunge his frozen claw into her heart and the Hope Ruby.
The tips of his claw brushed her pale pink breast feathers. Vindication flowed through his bleeding, broken heart, victory at last in his grasp.
Tirek passed through a scattering column of glittering snowflakes. His anguished howls bounced off the mountains on his fall back to earth, silenced by a piercing cry from the heavens. Burning talons grabbed the leviathan's ribs, lifting the dying spirit high above Emerald Harbor and Palladia. He could do little to right his projectory, nor anything to defend himself against the last thing he would ever see: Avalon's glimmering ethereal body, surrounded in a rainbow aura of scythe magic, rushing toward him.
Time slowed briefly upon Tirek's beheading before a catastrophic detonation of four hypersonic rainbow halos charged in all directions. Avalon continued her upward arc, her entire self now a rapidly growing apparition of red, gold, and white fire as large as Equestria for but a moment. Plumes of dark and light magic erupted and dissipated continuously from her long tail flames, carried away by each halo on their respective journeys to every corner of the ominverse.
As quickly as she transfigured into fire, Avalon disintegrated, bathing the entire omniverse and the Grand Veil in purifying white light. Her empathetic cry was heard by every living spirit in every world of every universe, healing the damage Tirek's darkness wrought.