A Rainbow in the Dark

by Lady Aubernon

First published

Rainbow Dash finds herself on a beach with no idea of how she got there, or how she'll go home.

After an attempt at a triple sonic rainboom goes catastrophically wrong, Rainbow Dash wakes up on a beach with no idea as to how she got there, how she'll go home, or who the other pony towering over her is.

While Rainbow and her new companion attempt to answer the former's questions, Princess Luna goes on a mission to exact justice from the one who bestowed upon Rainbow the gift linked to the disastrous stunt.

Finally, Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie use their connection to their friend in an attempt to find her, only for Fluttershy to find herself fighting to save Pinkie from sinking into a shattering abyss.

WDTP: S2/3

* * * * * * * * *

NOTES + CREDITS:
This is the first story overall in the Timeline-42 series, and is the first story of the Terminus & Exordium arc.
"Granfaloon" appears with permission granted by Alex Warlorn of Pony POV Series fame.
Most of the colour descriptions are derived from Procato's Color Map with Meaningful Names.
For best results, please read the next story of the trilogy after reading this one:
* "Ad Mortem, Ad Vitam"

Act I

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Black.

No lights. No sound. Adrift in an endless sea of nothing in all directions, overwhelmed and lost in the deafening silence. She wasn't sure how she found herself here, but she was determined to find an exit into the light no matter how long it took.

But where, her mind echoed, not sure if she was standing, floating, or something more disturbing.

Is this a dream? A nightmare? Why can't I see anything? Why can't I hear anything?

Why can't I feel anything?

Lost between worlds, not knowing if she was dead, alive, or... No. She couldn't think like that. The thought would only add to the odd, dull throb already pounding slowly in her head while her heart dashed forward in terror, a feeling she could normally put aside in a gust of bravado...

Just not this time.

Let me out of here! Let me out of here right now! Please...

The emptiness responded to her angered pleas.

From behind the lost soul came a streak of light, illuminating her multi-colored mane and the surrounding darkness. Muffled sounds began to echo around her, growing louder until the point of origin drew her attention.

Let's do this!

Flexing her wings, she left the obsidian silence in the wake of a sonic rainboom towards the white glow with a brave face toward the unknown.

* * * * * * * * *

"Wh... where am I?" groaned Rainbow Dash as her world at last came into view, however blurry. She could hear waves gently crashing upon the white beach where she laid prone.

Rainbow looked up to see what appeared to be faint sunlight rising from the horizon, the sky echoing the colors of Twilight Sparkle's mane, and decorated with the sparkles from Princess Luna's ethereal waves.

"I know you," a warm voice sweetly entered into earshot, "though you're not due here for a very long time, my dear Rainbow."

Rainbow blinked, rubbed her eyes, then blinked again, her gaze slowly moving up towards a tall, pale purple pegasus with vivid heliotrope eyes and a very deep heliotrope mane that danced gently of its own will with the ocean breeze.

"You... do?" she asked the unfamiliar mare. She had always dreamed of her name being known far and wide throughout all of Equestria, but hearing those three words and her name sandwiching an odd statement about 'not being due' to arrive for a 'long time' out of a pony she hadn't seen... ever. It was unsettling to say the least, despite of the comforting warmth she felt from the tall, partially armored pegasus before her.

"Of course. I know every living spirit who comes and goes within my domain, though I usually guide them here myself."

"'Spirit'? Don't you mean 'pony'?"

"Ponies, griffons, mules, bunnies... I take care of them all," the mysterious pegasus explained with a gentle smile.

"H-- Wh-- I'm not-- "

"Dead?" she chuckled softly. "No, my dear Rainbow. Just a bit disembodied. I should introduce myself," the regal pony said while Rainbow finally found her hooves and began to rise, though without the confidence she normally possesses. "I am Pandora, Shepherd of Avalon."

"Pandora, how did I-- Oww," she groaned while put her hoof to her head, feeling some sort of phantom pain throb to the surface.

"My guess? You were performing a spectacular stunt -- like the kind my twin sister tells me about all of the time -- when the stunt went awry, sending your spirit here. Do you remember?"

"Heh-heh! Do I ever!" Rainbow beamed to the Shepherd, finally finding her courageous spirit.

* * * * * * * * *

High above Ponyville, a small fluff floated down towards the inedible Sugarcube Corner ever gently as to not disturb Rainbow in her afternoon slumber. Attached to the cloud was a gold fish hook, which in turn was attached to a very pink fishing rod through a sky blue line.

Reeling in her catch, Pinkie Pie giggled to herself, making sure not to wake her partner-in-pranking too soon; it would ruin the surprise, after all.

"Almost there," she quietly proclaimed, smiling brightly as her catch floated ever closer to her window. "Just a little more... and... "

"Pinkie Pie!" Rainbow exclaimed, startled by the gentle boop on her nose, waking to see she wasn't as high as she was before when the blue barnstormer took her daily afternoon nap. "How did I get down here?"

A pink hoof pointed at the golden hook while bursts of wild giggling knocked Pinkie on her back, her legs kicking in the air.

"You are so random, Pinkie," Rainbow smirked before breaking out into a small giggle fit of her own. "So, what's up?"

"I just wanted to see if you were up for any pranks this afternoon. I've got lots of super-duper awesome ideas that I know you'll just love, Dashie!"

"I actually want to try this awesome trick I've been dreaming about for a while now: A triple sonic rainboom!"

"Oooooh! That does sound awesome! Has that been done before?" she asked in awe.

"I'm not sure. I don't think so," Rainbow pondered. "But I'm willing to try," she proclaimed while striking a proud pose on her cloud.

"Ooh! Ooh! All of our friends should see this!"

"Cool! Meet you back here in an hour, pal! There's something else I want to show you, but it's in Cloudsdale, and I have to go get it."

"I love surprises! I'll see you soon, Dashie!"

The merry pranksters went their separate ways, Pinkie gathering the rest of their friends, Rainbow flying up to her home to grab the contents from a special box delivered to her home days earlier.

* * * * * * * * *

"A triple sonic rainboom, huh?" Pandora quizzed the disembodied spirit. "I must say that does sound impressive, dear Rainbow."

"And awesome!" Rainbow added.

"And awesome. Of course," Pandora repeated. "Although--" pausing briefly with a curious gleam in her eyes "--shouldn't you have tried for a double rainboom before trying for three of them?"

"I've done those a few times already," Rainbow grinned. "But a triple rainboom? I've dreamed of doing that for months!"

"I wonder why," she snorted while looking towards the east with an accusing look. Turning back to the matter at hoof, she could only ask if her new friend could remember what happened next.

"Well... ," Rainbow continued with her tale of daring.

* * * * * * * * *

"I'm a little worried, Pinkie," Twilight Sparkle lamented to her bouncing friend as they and their friends trotted over to Sugarcube Corner. "A triple rainboom? Is that even possible?"

"Oh Twilight, don't be silly! If anypony can make the impossible possible, it's Rainbow Dash!"

"Pinkie's correct, darling," chimed Rarity. "You mustn't let yourself worry about Rainbow's attempt at a triple rainboom. Why, just the other day she did a double rainboom with no trouble, though my windows were another matter. Oh, and my ears were ringing for a bit, too."

"Don't worry Rarity! I've got earplugs stashed all over Ponyville just in case of deafening sonic rainbooms," Pinkie gushed, fishing out a pack of foam earplugs from a random tree nearby.

"I hope you're right, Rarity. For Rainbow's sake."

"Right this way, everypony!" a brash voice rang out to her approaching friends.

"Are you ready for your super-duper amazing triple rainboom?" Pinkie excitedly quizzed her friend.

"You better believe it! I even have this amazing speed suit and goggles to help me achieve awesomeness!"

"That suit is quite dashing if I do say so, Rainbow," noted Rarity as she eyed her friend's deep purple suit with a deep magenta stripe in the center, chased with vivid magenta lines glowing eerily from shoulder to flank. "Wherever did you find that dazzling ensemble?"

"I'm not sure where it came from, actually," Rainbow stated plainly. "Derpy dropped the package off one day, but she left before I could ask more about it."

"Was there a note or anything saying who sent it?" asked a concerned Twilight.

"There was, but it wasn't much. Just said, 'I think you'll need these for your next adventure.'"

"Sounds like you have a secret admirer, RD," Applejack chuckled.

"Um, Rainbow Dash, I don't think your secret admirer got your cutie mark right," noted Fluttershy, pointing to a pattern featuring three four-pointed light brilliant cornflower stars in a triangle formation, the center star out front pointing towards a pale cerulean waxing moon with a fourth star on the other side.

"Heh-heh! Yeah, that does seem a bit off. Not as cool as what I've got, but beggars can't be choosers."

"And it's symmetrical," Twilight said as she peered over her friend's left flank.

"I think you meant 'electrical,'" Rainbow attempted to correct Twilight, coyly petting her on her head.

"Actually, she meant that the cutie mark on either side is a mirror image of the other," corrected Rarity.

"Oh. Why didn't you say so, Twilight?"

"I did," she responded, slightly annoyed.

* * * * * * * * *

"Wait a minute! A four-pointed star?"

"Yeah," confirmed Rainbow.

"A four-pointed star like this one?" Pandora asked, pointing to her own cutie mark: A four-pointed light brilliant cornflower blue star exalted by a highly stylized phoenix with vivid indigo and very light phthalo blue feathers, rising from the grayish fuchsia flames marking where the Shepherd's armor stopped and her body began.

"Yeah!"

"Minerva," she muttered, once again looking toward the east with a slight smirk on her face.

"Who?"

"My twin sister."

"Is she a Shepherd like you?".

"No. Just a big fan of yours who has a lot of explaining to do," Pandora sighed in bemusement by the new turn of events. "But we'll worry about that later. Please, finish your story, my dear Rainbow," smiling warmly upon her new companion.

* * * * * * * * *

"Are you sure this is a good idea, Rainbow?" Twilight asked.

"Relax, Twilight! If I can do two rainbooms, how hard can it be to do three," Rainbow confidently replied as she donned the vivid magenta goggles that came with the speed suit.

After a few stretches and wing flexes, she braced herself for takeoff.

"Count me down from five, Pinkie!"

"You got it, Dashie! Five... "

This is going to be so awesome!

"Four... "

A triple rainboom! I mean, how could it not be cool!

"Three... "

And with this rad speed suit and goggles, it'll even be more... what did Rarity say? Oh yeah: dazzling!

A smile appeared on Rainbow's face alongside a determined look in her eyes.

"Two... "

Besides, Twilight shouldn't be so worried. Last time I got seriously hurt, it was just a wing; I got better.

"One... "

The suit's unusual lines began to glow brighter than they had just seconds before.

What could possibly go wrong?

"Go!"

Like a shot from a railgun, Rainbow charged into the heavens, leaving a single sonic rainboom in her wake, and her friends in awe.

"Oh my! We better put those earplugs in," Rarity informed her friends while Pinkie passed out the purple foam plugs to everypony.

High above Ponyville, Rainbow could see a lot of Equestria, from the ivory towers of Canterlot to the many orchards growing in Sweet Apple Acres, even the odd wasteland where weeks earlier a new menace had been blown towards by the power of love. As much as she enjoyed the scenery, however, the dazzling daredevil was ready for her next move: a double rainboom.

Seconds later, two multi-colored halos appeared in the sky, delivering a thunderous explosion towards the ground.

"Whoa!" Pinkie began to uncontrollably shake.

"Uh-oh," Applejack noticed with slight sense of fear in her eyes.

"Pinkie Pie, is your Pinkie Sense telling you something?" Twilight asked, panic and concern manifesting within her voice.

"I don't know, but whatever it is, it's gonna be a doozy!" Pinkie got out as her whole body vibrated faster by the second.

"We better get ready to catch Rainbow if she loses it," Applejack steeled herself.

"There's a life net in the bushes behind me," pointed Pinkie as she jackhammered the ground.

"Got it!" Fluttershy and Rarity said, rushing over to retrieve the necessary tool to help save Rainbow, fearing the worst was about to come.

Circling around above her friends, Rainbow felt an excitement she hadn't felt since her second-ever rainboom, knowing it was now or never for her latest stunt. Her suit was just as excited, the neon lights glowing brighter than ever and throwing off random sparks. Though she was a little concerned about the sparking, Rainbow decided it just added more style to the triple rainboom she was about to create.

"It's go time, Rainbow!" she said to herself. "Let's do this!"

Rushing downward and righting herself, she figured she would speed toward the Everfree Forest, then arc upward and to the east towards Sugarcube Corner where her triple rainboom wouldn't bust out windows or eardrums while still providing the most spectacular show Equestria ever saw.

'Who knows," she mused. "This might get me into the Wonderbolts!"

Rainbow made a few loops of increasing height, gaining momentum before her big rush toward the unnatural land containing the former home of Princesses Celestia and Luna, the place where the Elements of Harmony were recovered and used to redeem the latter from the darkness of Nightmare Moon just two years earlier, and the place where her friendship with those cheering her on below was first founded.

"This is it! Three... two... one... Go!"

Rainbow rocketed upward into an eastbound arc towards Sugarcube Corner, flying faster than she had ever known herself to fly. The energy generated by her flight coursed through her speed suit, magically propelling her higher and faster into the heavens.

At that moment, the suit's cutie mark finally activated, giving off an eerie blue-white light that began rapidly blending with the neon magenta lines and Rainbow's multi-colored mane, turning the pegasus into a glowing missile.

"She gonna do it! She gonna do it!" exclaimed Pinkie.

I'm gonna do it! I'm gonna do it! excitedly thought Rainbow.

Miles above the sun and all of Equestria, the glowing missile went critical.

Seconds later, the sky shattered not with a triple sonic rainboom, but with a roaring hypersonic triple light halo that shone brighter than a thousand suns.

Pinkie's shaking stopped.

* * * * * * * * *

On a distant island somewhere to the west of Equestria, a flash in the night sky caught the eye of a few alicorns, as well as an iron-legged pegasus who stood just as tall as her subjects. She felt a certain calling enter her mind, prompting the caretaker to head northwest, vanishing behind a veil of mist as she galloped.

Tending to the royal garden, her twin sister also caught the flash. Instinct took over as she trotted to the northeast wall to meet the spirit set to arrive any second, calmly fading out with a beaming look of joy in her eyes.

* * * * * * * * *

In Canterlot, Shining Armor witnessed the halos spread rapidly towards the castle. Thinking quickly, he threw a protective shield around the entire city as he had when another threat to Canterlot made itself known.

Lying in her private chamber, Celestia looked out of her window to see the shield go up, followed by the first halo smashing into the protective bubble, throwing electrical arcs and auroras with the force of a 12,000-wingpower hurricane.

Sensing the other two halos immediately approaching with greater force, the princess lent her magic to boost the strength of her nephew-in-law's forcefield, turning away from the blinding white light generated by the halos.

* * * * * * * * *

Resting in her sleeping quarters in the mountains above Canterlot, Luna startled to life as the sickening howl of the halos shook her and her closest guards to the core of their spirits. The princess and two unicorn guards used their magic to erect a barrier of their own to keep the halos from vaporizing all inside the cave. Though it held, each successive strike from the three hypersonic rings drained their magic.

* * * * * * * * *

Big Macintosh and Applebloom were preparing to bring down a few bushels of apples into the family apple cellar when the blackened roar approached Sweet Apple Acres. Wasting no time, he grabbed his baby sister and rushed down the steps, slamming the door behind him just as quick.

Granny Smith, who was organizing the harvest already in the cellar, asked her grandson what all the ruckus was about when the door blew open. Big Mac threw himself over his kin, yelling for them not to look into the light as the halos incinerated the parts of the family farm that were at the same elevation as Canterlot.

* * * * * * * * *

Cloudchaser and Spitfire had caught the tail end of Rainbow's attempt, curious as to what her big finale was. They weren't expecting to run for the nearest wall cloud as the first halo tore through Cloudsdale, a city that was built as sturdy as the pegasi it housed. Each ring triggered electrical storms the likes of which had never been seen in the cloud city's long history, shaking Cloudsdale to its foundations with every successive rumble of thunder.

The two pegasi hoped it would stop soon.

* * * * * * * * *

After the blue and white waves began their race to all corners of Equestria, five ponies on the ground bore witness to a sky filled with stars, all twinkling in an endless inky sea. Neither the sun nor moon were in sight.

Applejack looked to the southwest to see her farm razed to the ground. Unable to do anything, her only thought at the moment was that her family had managed to avoid the fate of her parents.

To the northeast, Twilight watched another part of the halos bash themselves against the forcefield her BBBFF threw up to protect her teacher, her sister-in-law, all of Canterlot. She then looked higher up to the mountain above her former home to see more sparks thrash upon a magic barrier that glowed violet with each strike.

Directly overhead, blue and mulberry auroras danced violently within Rarity's gaze. Though terrifying, she couldn't help but notice how beautiful the show in the obsidian sky was.

The demonic roar was too much for Fluttershy, trembling before whatever unholy entity unleashed this horror upon her lifelong friend and the town she called home through muffled, tear-filled squeaks.

Pinkie focused on the spot where seconds before a bluish-white light that was her friend, her prank buddy, had exploded three times, hoping Rainbow wasn't lost in the cold darkness that had been a beautiful day up until that point.

* * * * * * * * *

As the last ring dissipated into the ether, the sky slowly returned to normal against the sound of silence that had broken in Ponyville.

A lifeless body emerged from the void, her purple and magenta suit torn and scorched, its magical neon burned out. The unconscious mare's rainbow mane was singed through and through, and the goggles' glass was a shattered mess just barely holding together.

Rainbow Dash then began her decent to the earth.

"I'll slow her fall," said Twilight, snapping back into reality to put her organization skills to work. "Applejack, Pinkie, Fluttershy, get the life net ready. Rarity, help me direct Rainbow to the net."

The two unicorns used their magic to protect their friend during her free fall as best as they could, though Rainbow continued her increasingly rapid downward spiral. Twilight strained under the pressure exerted against her impromptu air brake, Rarity facing a similar challenge in keeping Rainbow from drifting too far from the life net waiting to catch the smoldering body, her limp wings sprawled out and aiding her twisting flight to the surface.

"Here she comes, girls!" Twilight warned. Both she and Rarity rushed over to the rest of their friends to help as Rainbow entered the final stage of her re-entry. Between them, they were able to at least turn the falling pegasus on her back, preferring a broken wing over a broken neck.

Thirty seconds passed before Rainbow returned to the earth, knocking her saviors over in their attempt to catch her fall.

"Dashie! Are you okay? Wake up! Please, please wake up!" Pinkie begged, tears coming to the surface.

"We have to get Rainbow the hospital quickly!" Twilight urgently ordered. Carefully, they gathering the broken pegasus with the torn remnants of the life net, then galloped off to Ponyville Hospital as fast as they could.

* * * * * * * * *

"I... was... so... AWESOME! Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh! A hypersonic triple light halo? I didn't even know there was a such a thing!" Rainbow bounced in excitement.

"Nor did I," Pandora calmly replied. "I've always known ponies were made of strong stuff -- especially pegasi -- but you definitely take the cake in durability!" she smiled.

"Oh I can't wait to tell my friends," she grinned. "But wait a minute. That still doesn't explain how I woke up here, or how I got this headache," she groaned, placing a hoof to her forehead and tightly shutting her eyes.

"Rainbow Dash, you are in a coma right now. Your spirit was separated from your body when your suit fused with your pegasus magic to create those halos. Luckily, there is still a connection between worlds; otherwise," Pandora leaned in slightly ominously, "I would have been in Ponyville to retrieve you."

"Oh," Rainbow dejectedly stated.

"As for your headache, that is from the concussive waves your head took when the triple halos exploded from the breaking point. It will go away eventually while you are with me, but you will be feeling it when you return to your body," Pandora laid out for her friend.

"Return? But how?"

Looking out into the inky blue ocean, Rainbow sat for a long time, lost in thoughts about her friends and how worried they must be. She looked up for a moment at a cloud, thinking of Cloudsdale and the Wonderbolts, then looked out into the distance again, trying her hardest to see any sign of Equestria.

Only the sea emerged from the horizon.

Finally, she looked toward a faint tower-like object off in the distance to her left that gleamed like the walls of Canterlot, the memories of Celestia, Luna and the Elements of Harmony flooding her battered head as she looked through the veil.

A metallic wing wrapped around the sobbing pegasus, reminding the latter of how Fluttershy would comfort her... if she were back in her body in the physical world.

"It will be okay, my dear Rainbow. We will get you back home soon."

"You-- you promise?" sniffed Rainbow, her bravado broken.

"I promise you, my sister and I will return your spirit to your body. And I will get to the bottom of why she wanted you here in the first place."

"You mean that suit was supposed to transport me here?"

"I believe so. Minerva and I have been preparing for something for quite a while; I think you -- and your friends -- are being called upon by fate to help us at this time," Pandora gently explained. "Now, dry your eyes, my little daredevil. I have a lot to show to you. Think you're up to it?"

"Up to it? I was born up to it!" Rainbow turned to face her new friend, her bravado returning once more. "Lead the way, Pandora!"

The two pegasi gazed upon the horizon one more time before turning eastward to the lush forests surrounding Avalon.

Act II

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Hours passed since their friend fell from the sky, and she hadn't so much as opened her eyes. Much to the relief of her friends, all of whom had been standing by her bedside since the nurses wheeled the pegasus' still body out of the emergency room, Rainbow was breathing on her own.

But that was all she was doing.

"Your friend is very lucky to be alive," informed Doctor Caramel. "Whatever was in her suit probably saved her life."

"In her suit?" Twilight asked.

"My nurses had some trouble cutting Rainbow out of her speed suit," Nurse Redheart said, "made worse by the liquid spilling out of the remaining intact areas. Luckily, one of them was quick on their hooves enough to procure a sample for analysis," presenting the vial to Twilight.

"Hmm," Twilight pondered as she brought the mystery vial for closer examination. "I'll have to look into this later. Was her suit saved?"

"It should be. I'll go retrieve it for you, Twilight," Redheart replied, turning to leave to bring back more evidence into what harmed Rainbow and destroyed a good part of Equestria.

"I'll leave you all alone with Rainbow, as I have a few patients who were just as lucky as she. Nurse Redheart should be back with the suit soon," Dr. Caramel said.

The room fell silent for the next few minutes, the slow, steady beep of the EKG the only sound. Outside the window, the sun had set over a hazy blue-gray sky, the result of the hypersonic triple halo's destructive wake setting ablaze the hillsides above Ponyville and what little forest around Canterlot that hadn't been protected by Shining Armor's forcefield.

"Twi, do you think that stuff there in that vial was the cause of that light show?" Applejack quietly asked.

"I'm not sure. All I know is that suit doesn't use any magic I would recognize."

"There might be a reason for that, Twilight Sparkle," popped in a quiet, commanding voice.

"Princess Luna! Princess Celestia! How did you get here so quickly," Twilight exclaimed as all bowed before the Royal Sisters.

"Once the halos passed and the shields were lowered, my sister and I quickly teleported here," Celestia explained.

"I saw the halos smash into Canterlot… Is everypony okay? Are Shining Armor and Cadance all right?"

"All are safe, my faithful student," Celestia gently smiled, wrapping a wing around Twilight.

"Princess Luna, you said Twi might not know what in RD's suit caused her to explode?" Applejack asked.

"The halos may have been caused by a substance called Etherium, a rare but dangerous element once mined beneath Canterlot."

"You mean the crystal caves where Cadance and I were locked away during Chrysalis's attack?" asked Twilight.

"The same."

"A long time ago," began Celestia, "when Luna and I were very young, unicorns and earth ponies mined for gems in the mountain whereupon Canterlot rests.

"One day, a group of miners found a large deposit of what they originally thought were sapphires, the bluest, most radiant, most ethereal ever seen. The crystals possessed an eerie glow about them, and the smallest sample brought to the surface was the size of my horn."

Luna continued, "The sample had magical properties that were never before seen by anypony, including the ability to produce limitless energy. Our mother and father thought this would revolutionize all of Equestria, Mother going so far as to give the element its name. Thus, Canterlot's best scientists and engineers studied how best to exploit all Etherium had to offer."

"Unfortunately," Celestia finished, "the first time a unicorn used magic to tap into a small sample of the element, a powerful explosion, described as possessing a 'bluish-white glow,' ripped through the lower east wing of the castle.

"Nothing was left." she frowned.

* * * * * * * * *

"Pandora, what's it like? You know, being a Shepherd?"

"It's never easy, my dear Rainbow," Pandora replied as the duo glided through an orchard full of apple trees on their way to meet her twin sister, Minerva. "In spite of fulfilling my duty for over two millennia, bringing a spirit into my personal realm still pulls at my heart at times."

"I'm sorry," Rainbow said.

"You needn't be sorry, dear spirit." she reassured her charge. "Besides, my visits aren't always filled with sadness. For example, do you know how griffons mourn the passing of a loved one?"

"I think I'm gonna have to go with 'no' on that one."

"It's all very moving, Rainbow. When a griffon -- be they a friend, a wife, a son, or a soldier -- departs from the mortal coil, their fellow griffons gather around their fallen comrade, placing their right claw onto the body.

"In ancient Griffon, those left behind enter into a chant that builds and builds until they turn their heads and eyes toward the sky, letting out a loud roar to let those who have already entered my realm -- called Valhalla in their culture -- that a Griffon warrior is about to arrive. Brings a few tears to my eyes every time."

"That's nothing to be sappy about. It sounds pretty awesome, actually," noted Rainbow.

"Funny you should mention that. Every griffon spirit I've brought back to Avalon thought the same thing as you when it comes to my being overwhelmed with emotion. Of course, I do catch a spirit 'being sappy' now and again." Pandora winked.

"Alas, there are times where my tears aren't of joy, but of sorrow. Case in point: The Apples."

The two pegasi came to a stop in front of a barn that was familiar to Rainbow, but not so to Pandora. Around them were newer trees bearing apples that looked like zap apples, but reminded Rainbow of Twilight's tricolored mane.

"Good mornin' Miss Pandora," said a peach-colored mare with white hair and a trio of zap apples for a cutie mark. "What brings you 'round these parts?"

"Rainbow Dash, this is Mrs. Apple. She runs the orchards here."

"Well howdy, Rainbow! Good to meet ya!" Mrs. Apple beamed, shaking the pegasus' hoof. "This here is my husband Mr. Apple," pulling over a tall, stocky light green stallion with blonde hair and a trio of cider barrels representing his special skill.

"A pleasure to meet ya, Rainbow! Hope our daughter isn't givin' ya too much trouble. She can be a might stubborn at times, but her heart's always in the right place," Mr. Apple heartily chuckled.

"'Daughter'? AJ?" asked a stunned Rainbow.

"Mr. Apple makes wonderful cider," Pandora said, gently ignoring the shock on her small friend's face. "A shame I can't bring any beyond Avalon's veil, though."

"Cider?" Rainbow's eyes widened, quickly distracted from the revelation seconds earlier. "Can disembodied spirits drink Avalon cider?"

"I don't see why not, my dear Rainbow. Mr. Apple, a couple of mugs of your finest, if you please."

"Two ciders comin' right up," Mr. Apple said, walking towards the cellar where all the cider is kept.

Mrs. Apple invited Rainbow and Pandora to the kitchen of their homestead, where two other Apple ancestors were whipping up a batch of apple pancakes and apple tarts. A moment later, Mr. Apple brought up a few mugs of cider, including two for their guests.

"Say, how is it morning if the sun hasn't risen yet?" asked Rainbow to nopony in particular.

"The sun doesn't actually rise here, nor does it set," informed Pandora.

"But there's plenty of light to grow our apples," Mr. Apple added.

"You must understand that Avalon is in a different space as far as time is concerned. We're in a state of permanent twilight, for one thing."

"Oh. I see. I think," said a confused Rainbow.

"But as Mr. Apple said, apples can still grow here. Think of Avalon as a place where spirits go to rest before returning to the physical realm; the permanent twilight is part of what makes our domain what it is.

"Anyway, Mrs. Apple, Rainbow and I were headed over to Astra to meet with Minerva, though I couldn't help but notice your new barn," Pandora said while lifting her mug. "Where did it come from?"

"We were just wonderin' the same thing, Miss Pandora. We don't know, either."

"In fact, a lot of things popped up this morning on our farm we can't begin to explain," Mr. Apple began. "The barn, some chickens, some sheep, and a lot of apple trees."

"Really?" asked Pandora.

"You bet!" Mrs. Apple interjected. "Everything was a might bit smokey for a while, but it all cleared up."

"And the apples on our new trees are very odd," continued Mr. Apple. "They look like zap apples, but they have a bit of a glow to 'em, especially on the inside."

"On the inside, Mr. Apple?"

"Sorta blue an' white, I reckon."

"I see. Mr. and Mrs. Apple, I hate to leave like this, but Rainbow and I really need to find Minerva. Thank you for having us over."

"Thank you, Miss Pandora and Miss Rainbow," said Mrs. Apple as the two pegasi got up to leave. "Come back anytime!"

"That cider was awesome, Mr. Apple! It's as good as it is back in Ponyville!"

"It's good to hear you say that, Rainbow. Our family takes pride in our cider, whether in Equestria, or in Avalon."

"Too bad we can't stay for breakfast, though," Rainbow frowned.

"You do have a point, dear spirit," Pandora said as she looked over at one of the new trees. "Would you mind if we took some of those new apples with us, Mrs. Apple?"

"Help yourselves!"

As the Avalon Apple family waved farewell to the duo, Pandora walked over to one of the new trees. Finding three perfect specimens, a dark violet glow arose from the amethyst gem setting in the center of her white gold headband, which sat upon her forehead in a manner suggesting where a horn should be, but was not. The glow surrounded the three otherworldly apples, gently snapping them off of their branches before coming to a halt inside a sack obtained from Mrs. Apple.

"H… how did you do that?"

"All in good time. Right now, we need to get over to Astra and talk about this with my sister."

"Is Astra anything like this place?"

"In a manner of speaking. Anyway, I believe that hypersonic light halo trick did more damage than I first thought, with the results manifesting in my realm. I'm starting to fear the worst, Rainbow," Pandora said as she looked back over at the barn.

"Oh no! You mean that barn is from-- "

"I'm afraid so," she interrupted. "But don't worry. Your friends are safe, as are their families."

"We better go find your sister then. She has a lot of explaining to do!"

"That she does," she quietly agreed.

The two pegasi charged towards Astra as fast as their wings and hooves could carry them.

* * * * * * * * *

"Twilight, I found Rainbow's speed suit," Redheart said as she presented the remains to her.

"Do you mind if I look at that for a moment?" Celestia asked of Twilight.

"Not at all, Princess."

Celestia levitated the speed suit over for a closer inspection when she caught a familiar scent, a scent that caused Luna to reel back in disgust.

"Etherium," they said unison.

"But that's not possible! All of Equestria's Etherium was promptly mined and sent away to an island offshore centuries ago! Who would dare send such a dangerous item as this to an unknowing pony such as Rainbow Dash?"

With the exceptions of Twilight, Celestia and a comatose Rainbow Dash, all in the room fell to their knees, frightened by the fury Luna expressed over the horrific revelation.

"Princess?" Twilight meekly asked Luna.

"My little ponies, if you wouldn't mind, I think Luna and I need a few moments to ourselves."

"Of course, your majesty. Come along everypony," Redheart beckoned.

As soon as the door closed behind the last one out, the only sounds to be heard were of Rainbow's gentle breathing, the soft, steady beep of the EKG monitor, and the strained whispers of the two princesses.

"Lulu, there's a cutie mark on this suit. Does it look familiar to you?"

The color drained from Luna's eyes.

"Atlantis?"

"I'm afraid so. And judging by the design, the suit has our godmother's hoofprints all over it."

"Tia, what of that vial there? I overheard the nurse state that the contents came from the suit."

Celestia lifted the vial over to her, removing the stopper to sniff the liquid within.

"Liquid Etherium," she frowned as her sister also smelled the contents, wincing slightly from the scent of the spent element.

"I think I will have to visit Atlantis earlier than planned this evening. Will you come with me?"

"I wish I could, dear sister, but I need to be here for our subjects right now."

"I understand. I think we should let Twilight and her friends back inside now."

"Agreed."

* * * * * * * * *

The door opened again, all of Rainbow's friends and her nurse returning now that Luna had calmed down.

"Everypony, I have more business to attend regarding the halos. Luna will find out where the suit came from in the hopes of helping Rainbow recover."

"Applejack," Luna leaned in, "I know you want to stay by your friend's side, but you are needed by your family as well."

"You're right, Princess."

"Rest assured, we will do all we can to help you rebuild Sweet Apple Acres," added Celestia.

"I think your relatives are in the lobby, dear," said Redheart.

"Don't worry, Applejack. I'll keep an eye on her," Pinkie Pie said, her mane long since deflated.

"Thank you kindly, y'all," acknowledged Applejack. "RD, I'll see you in the mornin'. And whoever did this to ya is goin' to regret ever messin' with my friend."

As everypony made their way out, Twilight whispered into Fluttershy's ear.

"Um, if it's okay, I'd like to stay with you and Rainbow, Pinkie. Angel can take care of the cottage for a while."

"I think we would like that," sniffed a grayed Pinkie.

* * * * * * * * *

"Princess Celestia, will Rainbow be okay?" Twilight asked as she and her mentor trotted slowly toward the main entrance to the outside.

"I'm not sure. From what you described, Rainbow took a lot of magic into her body before her rainboom became destructive. That said, I have a feeling that she is in good hooves where she is now, and that she'll be home soon."

"I sure hope so, Princess.

"For her sake."

* * * * * * * * *

Luna prepared to fly towards the island of her godparents when she caught sight of Rainbow's room. Peering inward, she saw Fluttershy do her best to console her crestfallen comrade as she would a lost child or baby bunny, only for the pegasus to succumb to the heartbreak herself.

"Don't worry, Fluttershy and Pinkamena. You shall have your friend back, come Tartarus or high water," Luna whispered, wiping away a few of her own tears before turning west towards Atlantis, teleporting in a flash of brilliant white light.

* * * * * * * * *

As the two pegasi approached the veil separating Avalon and Astra, the sky overhead dimmed, lit only by a still, silvery full moon and stars that twinkled in concert with each other. The younger of the duo felt dizzy being in a place that, while strangely comforting, reminded her of the Everfree Forest and all of its weirdness.

As for Pandora, Rainbow couldn't quite grasp what was so odd about her new friend. She was certainly bigger and taller than any pegasus she knew -- other than the overly muscular beast who helped with the tornado earlier in the year, anyway -- and while the armored legs were pretty cool, the metallic wings were another thing altogether.

How does she even fly with those? And how do you begin to brush that mane? she wondered, noting the way Pandora's mane and tail sparkled and danced as if it were touched by the hoof of a divinity.

However, none of that compared to the biggest piece of the puzzle: How can a pegasus such as she use magic like Rarity, or Twilight… or the Princesses?

"Lost in thought, are we?" teased Pandora with a bright smile.

"Um, er… yeah. Sure."

"I know you have lots of questions, dear spirit. Care to ask?"

"Okay. How are you able to use magic like that?"

"It's all in the tiara. It allows me to use the magic within myself, though sometimes I need a little extra help."

"Like what?"

A simple hooded white cloak appeared over Pandora's body.

"When I escort a spirit into my realm, I need to do so on their plane, not in the physical existence of those left behind. This cloak allows me to go to them, and it seems to work most of the time when it comes to my presence."

"Most of the time?"

"Animals. They and children are the only ones who can see me even with the cloak. Alas, animals are a bit difficult to wrangle, especially bunnies."

"I bet Fluttershy and Applejack could help you! They're really good with animals!"

"Funny you should mention those two, my dear. I don't think Applejack would want to help, considering… "

"Her parents?"

"Yes. Tragic farming accident years ago. My heart broke for their whole clan that day. The Apples are truly a tight-knit bunch; always have been. Applejack took it the hardest, though; painfully close with her mother and father. Applebloom was just a foal then… "

Pandora paused, tears forming beneath a pair of eyes that knew of over two millennia of love and loss.

"Pandora, are you okay?" Rainbow asked. "Please, don't cry. It wasn't your fault. You were just doing your job."

"I'm sorry, my dear Rainbow," apologized Pandora. "I just sometimes wonder why Fate saw to choose me to fulfill this duty."

"Probably because you have a big heart like Fluttershy. You and her seem to have a lot in common, like with animals and stuff."

"I suppose that's true," she sniffed. "Speaking of your shy friend, I've visited her cottage a few times, usually to retrieve a bunny or robin."

"Really? She never mentioned seeing you," Rainbow said.

"The cloak, remember," she returned, finally mustering up a slight smile.

"Oh yeah! Sorry, heh-heh."

"Although… I do sometimes wonder if your friend can see me. I recall a few times where I visited Fluttershy's cottage at night, catching her staring out the window. At first, I thought she was just staring out into the Everfree Forest or her front yard, but soon I realized-- "

"She was using her stare on you," Rainbow finished.

"Yes. The Stare. The most unnerving pair of eyes I've seen attempt to pierce through my veil. I've never felt so… possessed. It's as if she's trying to seek me out, to bring me under her spell."

"Pandora, this is Fluttershy we're talking about here. She's not, like, a witch or anything."

"You're right," Pandora chuckled. "Anyway, we're almost to the veil between my realm and my sister's. We shouldn't keep her waiting."

"Heh-heh! Last one up that hill is a rotten dragon egg!"

"You're on, Rainbow!"

* * * * * * * * *

Luna appeared a good distance from Atlantis, the moon shining full in the night sky, light sparkling in the oceans below and above. Rising from the island's heart was a tall monolith of polished obsidian and violet energy irradiating the darkness.

Flying above this structure were not pegasi or alicorn guards, but a trio of mechanical drones whose engines pulsed like fireflies.

Below the veil of light surrounding the base of this futuristic citadel, the city was alive with activity that would be the envy of Manehattan, let alone the dream of many a Canterlot elite or Ponyville denizen.

"No matter how many times I come here, I cannot help but be amazed at how advanced Atlantis is compared to Equestria," Luna said to herself. "Would we be in their shoes if we had kept some of the Etherium for ourselves? Would we want to be?

"Questions to ponder for another time, Luna. Right now, you have a job to do," she said with a determined gleam for justice in her eyes, looking one last time upon the torn rags that nearly took Rainbow away from this world as she flew toward the dark obelisk before her.

* * * * * * * * *

"Star Swirl! I wasn't expecting to see you here," Pandora said while she and Rainbow caught their breath.

A moment earlier, an old unicorn appeared from the veil separating Avalon and Astra in the same manner Avalon was separated from the physical realm. He tipped his star-spangled hat up in order to see the fastest young flyer in the history of Cloudsdale race his old friend to the top of the hill where the dream realm began, the bell at the top jangling in the wind.

"Minerva said you'd be here soon. I see you have the lost spirit with you," Star Swirl noted.

"Lost? I thought you said I was disembodied!"

"You are. Star Swirl just has a funny way with words at times, and I wouldn't have it any other way," Pandora tickling his beard with her metallic hoof.

"Rainbow Dash, this is Star Swirl the Bearded, the longest-lived, most famous wizard Equestria has ever known."

"Who knew unicorns could live as long as I!" he laughed. "Thirteen hundred years is far longer than I would have imagined living! If Pandora here hadn't shepherded me into Avalon when she did, who knows how much longer I would have gone on!"

"Fate had a lot to do with your long life; you had a lot of work to do," reassured Pandora.

"I suppose she did, heh-heh! Anyway," Star Swirl continued, "Minerva told me to tell you that in the event you would have her guest, you are to bring her to the royal garden immediately. She's waiting for you there."

"The royal garden," she sighed. "Very well.

"Rainbow," she turned, "it appears as though you are about to receive a crash course regarding my twin sister and I. No offense."

"None taken," Rainbow smirked.

"It was a pleasure to meet you, Rainbow Dash. You and your fellow Elements have done a great service to all of Equestria. Long may you continue to do so," bowing before the smaller pegasus.

"Wow! Wait until I tell Twilight about this!"

"You will soon enough. Are you ready to re-enter the physical world," asked Pandora.

"You bet!"

"Star Swirl, take good care of Avalon until I return."

"Don't I always, Princess," he said with a mischievous wink.

* * * * * * * * *

"Fluttershy," began Pinkamena, "do you think Dashie's gonna wake up soon?"

"I hope so. I wonder what kind of dreams she's dreaming about."

"You can dream in a coma?"

"I think so. I've read in one of Twilight's books about how sometimes when ponies are in a coma, they can hear and respond to the voices of their loved ones. They can even respond to touch!"

"I want to hope so; I don't think I can cry anymore," said Pinkamena, putting her head down on the bed next to her blue friend.

"Come on, Pinkie. I have an idea."

Fluttershy took one side of the bed, encouraging Pinkamena to take the other.

"See! It's like a slumber party!"

"Yeah, if you like having slumber parties in a hospital bed with somepony who can't wake up," Pinkamena sighed wistfully.

"This way, we can all dream together. And who knows? We might even share the same dream!"

"I hope you're right, Fluttershy," she yawned.

"Trust me," her friend returned. "Good night, Pinkie."

"Good night, Fluttershy."

"Good night, Rainbow," they said in unison.

A slight smile appeared on their friend's face as the lights were turned off.

* * * * * * * * *

A blue-sparkled mist appeared within the walls surrounding the Atlantean royal garden, a usual occurrence given who ruled the city-state. From this mist emerged a rainbow-maned pegasus walking underneath the metallic wing of a larger pegasus, stepping out into the center of the garden's courtyard as the mist evaporated into the ether.

"That… was… so… awesome! So awesome I can't stand it!" Rainbow squealed enthusiastically.

"I've had practice," Pandora replied.

"So, you're really a princess?"

"I am. Here, I am Princess Pandora, the co-ruler of Atlantis."

"Atlantis? No way! I thought that was an old mare's tale!"

"Not to everypony," she winked.

"Wow! This is so cool! Though there's still one thing that's been bugging me since I met you?"

"What would that be, Rainbow?"

"Well, you seem to be awfully big and tall for a pegasus, not to mention the whole 'magical doohickey' thing you've got on your head."

"That is because my sister is not a pegasus, Rainbow Dash," a dark yet gentle voice appeared.

"Who said that? Come on out!" Rainbow challenged.

"But of course."

From the rose bushes emerged a pale purple alicorn with vivid heliotrope eyes and a very deep heliotrope mane that, like Pandora's, danced and sparkled of its own accord. The only other difference, aside from possessing a horn while lacking metallic wings and legs, appeared on the alicorn's flanks: A pale cerulean waning moon-turned-dreamcatcher with a four-pointed light brilliant cornflower star off and above to the right of the moon.

"Allow me to introduce myself, Element of Loyalty. I am Princess Minerva, Dreamweaver of Astra and co-ruler of Atlantis."

"Rainbow, this is my twin sister. My identical twin sister," Pandora emphasized.

"Up until that fateful night over 1,400 years ago, alas," added Minerva.

"Minerva, did you have anything to do with Rainbow's appearance in my realm?"

"I suppose I owe you both an explanation," she said.

Before she could begin, however, a powerful thunderstorm appeared high above the garden, hurricane-force winds howling through the bushes and trees.

Within the eye of the storm flashed an angry third alicorn princess.

"Princess Minerva of Atlantis," Luna boomed, "thou hast brought destruction unto Equestria! We seek justice for our land, for Rainbow Dash, and for Rainbow's friends!

"What sayest thou?"

Minerva fainted.

Act III

View Online

"Princess Luna?" a stunned Rainbow asked amid the maelstrom surrounding the Atlantean royal garden.

"'Tis indeed I, Rainbow Dash. I see that my godmother, Princess Pandora, hast kept thee safe."

"Godmother?"

"Lulu, honey, I know you're very upset with my sister -- and you have every right to be -- but could you perhaps… take… the… sturm und drang-- whoa! Down… a notch… please," Pandora asked of her goddaughter, barely holding her ground against the howling gale while making sure Rainbow's spirit didn't blow away either.

"Very well, Pandora. But only because thou said, 'Please.'"

Luna's storm dissipated as quickly as it had began, the light of the moon and stars returning to view. She descended upon her godmothers to meet them on their level, and though her glowing eyes reverted to their normal ice blue, the rest of her had changed significantly.

"Are you sure that's Princess Luna?" Rainbow asked Pandora.

"Hmm," she said, examining her younger goddaughter. "She certainly has grown since the last I saw of her... two nights ago, but that is, indeed, my little Lulu."

"I hav-- I mean, I have?"

"See for yourself," she said, using her magic to create a mirror for Luna to use.

Luna could not believe her eyes. She had grown to be as tall as her sister and godmothers, but the biggest changes took her off her guard:

Looking upon her flank, then back into Pandora's mirror, she noted the crescent moon of her cutie mark had become a very light azure, all surrounded by a violet cloud.

The icy blue eyes then darted up to find her forelock now matched the rest of her mane and tail, which had turned deep purple with an aura of dark blue violet.

Finally, Luna's jaw dropped when she saw a deep violet alicorn mare reflected back into her eyes, her fur matching the color of her sky during a new moon.

"Have I… I'm not… "

"No, my dear Luna, you are not Nightmare Moon again. You are as you once were centuries ago," Pandora beamed.

"But how-- "

"Your heart. That is all I shall state."

"Uhh, Princesses," Rainbow interrupted, "I'm really happy Luna's all grown up now, but can somepony please explain to me just what is going on here? And maybe wake up Sleeping Beauty," she lamented, pointing to the still passed-out Minerva.

"She may be out for awhile, Rainbow Dash. It would appear as though I may have… overdone my appearance," Luna informed.

"No. Really."

"Lulu always had a flair for the dramatic. She could definitely act up a storm. Sometimes literally," Pandora nervously chuckled.

"Okay. My head really can't take more of this," Rainbow started, pushing her hooves against the returning dull throb pounding her brain. "First, you tell me you're a shepherd of… whatever Avalon's supposed to be! Then, I find out you can use magic like a unicorn through that fancy tiara of yours!

"And now, not only do I find out you're also a princess of a kingdom I only read about in my adventure books, but that you're actually an alicorn? And that Princess Luna is your goddaughter?"

"As is Princess Celestia," Pandora added.

"Oh! And speaking of sisters, there's the fact that I may have been brought here against my will through some sort of magic your twin sister used on me that may have also destroyed my friend's apple orchard and took away her family… "

Rainbow howled in agony.

"Rainbow," Pandora said, "your entire journey has been full of revelations, and it has all been a lot to process in such a short time. But I assure you, Applejack's family is alive and well back in their current existence."

"No offense, but I don't know if I can believe you, Pandora. It's just... too much!"

"Then believe me," Luna finally stepped in. "I was at Ponyville Hospital with my sister earlier this evening. Applejack was at your bedside with your friends while her family was in the lobby waiting for her to come out. Fluttershy and Pinkamena are with you now keeping a vigil."

"R-really?"

"Yes, Rainbow Dash. Though Minerva may have made a few errors in judgement, neither of my godmothers have ever meant any ill will in their hearts. Of this, I am certain," Luna concluded.

For a moment, the only sounds to be heard were the ocean breeze blowing through the trees, and the slight hum of the drones patrolling the sky above the Atlantean castle, their engines glowing like fireflies against the deep violet curtain.

"Sorry for yelling at you, Princess Pandora."

"It's all right, Rainbow," Pandora said.

"So, if you're really an alicorn like Princess Luna and Princess Minerva are, then what happened to your horn?"

"The same thing that happened to her legs and wings," Luna said wistfully.

"Huh?"

"My little pegasus, what happened to me I would not wish upon my worst enemy… especially the one who did this to me in the first place," Pandora said, looking upon her identical twin with a mournful gaze in her eyes.

* * * * * * * * *

Under an eternal night sky, two ponies woke up from their slumber, finding themselves not in their friend's hospital bed, but lying upon the soft grass of an expansive meadow surrounded by zap apple trees. While the surroundings were familiar to Pinkamena, Fluttershy felt out of place, to say the least.

"Where are we?" Fluttershy nervously asked.

"We're in Astra, where all ponies get to dream about fun things. Most of the time, anyway," Pinkamena sighed.

"I don't see Rainbow. She must be off dreaming a different dream, I guess."

"Are you lost?" asked an old bearded unicorn with stars and bells on his cape and hat.

"Oh," Fluttershy jumped. "You startled me!"

"My apologies, Element of Kindness," Star Swirl heartily chuckled. "I did not mean to startle you," his hat and cape jingled while bowing.

"We were looking for Rainbow Dash. Have you seen her?"

"Rainbow, Rainbow… ah yes! She is with Minerva, safe and sound."

"Who's Minerva?"

"She's the one who rules over Astra, weaving dreams with her magic while we sleep," Pinkamena joined.

"I was wondering when you were going to join us," he said. "You seem not to be quite yourself, dearest Pinkamena."

"… Dashie," she replied, tears welling up once more in her sky blue eyes.

"Pinkie hasn't been the same since Rainbow fell into a coma," said Fluttershy.

"A broken heart is hard on anypony, kind Fluttershy. However, I am afraid this is just the tip of the iceberg for Pinkamena," warned Star Swirl.

"Really?" she said, looking over at her downtrodden friend.

"Come with me. My cottage in Avalon is not too far from here. The solution to Pinkamena's heart awaits."

"Oh I hope so. Come on, Pinkie."

"Fine," she said flatly, not once looking up from the ground.

Star Swirl led the two dreamwalkers through the veil separating Astra from Avalon, thoughts flashing to the last time he had seen a heart similar to the one Pinkamena possessed, and what had become of its owner.

* * * * * * * * *

Blinking slowly back into consciousness, Minerva's eyes focused on the trio of ponies staring down at her.

"Oh. Hello," she began. "I see the storm has passed. Did Luna leave?"

"I am still very much here, Minerva," Luna said.

"So I see. Good to have you back, as it were," Minerva said knowingly.

"Does this look familiar?" she coldly asked, unceremoniously dropping the scorched and tattered remains of Rainbow's speed suit in front of Minerva's muzzle.

"Wh… what happened?"

"I apparently exploded three times while trying to perform a triple sonic rainboom in that suit," Rainbow said, a slight annoyance in her voice.

"What!" Minerva exclaimed, quickly rising to her hooves. "Why would you attempt such a thing? This suit is too fragile for stunts like that!"

"Then why did you put that idea into her head, Min?" Pandora shouted.

"It was for a later time!"

"But the note said, 'I think you'll need these for your next adventure,'" Rainbow retorted.

"Yes, that is what I wrote, but that is not what I-- "

"Enough!"

Thunder and lightning returned to the sky briefly, Luna's eyes flashing white with renewed fury.

"Minerva, your gift did more than just tear away Rainbow Dash's spirit from her body. All of Canterlot barely withstood the three hypersonic light halos generated from the fusion of her rainboom magic with the liquid Etherium powering her suit."

"Liquid Etherium, Min? Have you gone mad?" Pandora growled.

"Furthermore, areas within the same altitude as Canterlot were razed to ash, while Cloudsdale experienced their first-ever skyquake. Numerous weather factories collapsed or were badly damaged from the shockwaves."

"Cloudsdale… ," Rainbow's voice dropped.

"And while a few ponies are being treated for their injuries -- some at the same hospital as Rainbow Dash -- be very thankful no pony died from such irresponsibility," Luna finished in a voice that could freeze blood.

Three apples tumbled down in front of Minerva's hooves.

"What are these, Dori?"

"A new cultivar the Avalon Apples came upon when they awoke. Why don't you cut one in half?"

"I suppose I should," she quietly replied, using the magic from her horn to split one of the unusual apples in half, the fruit revealing the signature bluish white glow of Etherium inside.

"A huge part of Sweet Apple Acres now resides within my realm, Minerva.

"All I want to know -- all we want to know -- is why," Pandora lamented.

Silence returned as Minerva's thoughts raced. Between an angry Rainbow Dash just now finding out her home experienced the same level of destruction as her earth-bound counterpart, a Luna who now had the full power to seek justice come Tartarus or high water, and a disappointed sibling hardly looking her in the eye, the princess knew there was no way out but forward go.

"Follow me. The answers you seek begin within the walls of the castle," Minerva calmly stated, walking deliberately toward the black monolith.

"Oh no! I'm not following your lead ag-- ," Rainbow tried to get out, only to be silenced by a blue hoof.

"I am sorry, Rainbow Dash. I know you were deceived, and you have every right to be angry. But if we are to get to the heart of the matter, then I am afraid we have no other choice," Luna comforted her subject.

"Fine!" Rainbow huffed, following her princess with Pandora alongside into the obsidian walls of The Citadel.

* * * * * * * * *

Fluttershy could not believe all the sights Avalon showed into her eyes. Here was a place where she could relate as far as caring and nurturing were concerned, even if they were living spirits instead of bunnies and butterflies.

"This is a really beautiful place, Star Swirl! It looks so much like Ponyville!" she beamed.

"Heh-heh! I just take care of Avalon, my dear. You should really thank the Shepherd."

"The Shepherd?"

"Her name is Pandora," Star Swirl said. "Reminds me a bit of you, now that I think about it."

"Oh? Is she nice?"

"I'd say so, judging from personal experience," he winked. "Ah! Right this way, my dears," he said, opening the door to his cottage to usher in his two charges.

The interior of Star Swirl's home held numerous scrolls and books, some being copies of his work from his long life in Equestria, others from his permanent residency as Avalon's caretaker. Fluttershy looked around at the mess held within the dim confines of the cottage, fondly recalling the similar clutter sometimes made by Ponyville's own magical librarian.

Alas, Pinkamena had other plans.

"I think I should sleep now. Maybe I'll find Dashie in another dream," she said, lying down on a star-spangled rug in the middle of the floor.

"But Pinkie, Star Swirl said she's with Minerva. And we have to help you get well! Shouldn't you be awake for that?"

"Let her sleep, Fluttershy," he beckoned. "She will need all of her strength and resolve for what we are about to commit."

"Okay," she said.

"Come out to the balcony with me. There is a lot I need to tell you, and little time to prepare if we are to save Pinkamena's heart."

Fluttershy looked back upon her companion one last time before walking up the steps to the balcony, fearing the worst for Pinkie, and how she and Star Swirl would be able to pull Pinkamena from whatever abyss awaited to consume her heart like so much cake and ice cream.

* * * * * * * * *

The passageways of The Citadel were lit not by torches like in Canterlot, but with thick lines of blue-white neon embedded in the polished walls flowing like an endless river of obsidian glass. Above and below were more neon, placed so as to give proof of a ceiling and a floor, if nothing else.

"This place is sorta creepy, and by 'sorta,' I mean really creepy," Rainbow said. "How can this be your castle?"

"Us princesses of the night are used to The Citadel's eccentricities," winked Minerva as she led her three companions to their first destination.

"Where are you taking us?" demanded Luna.

"Patience, Luna. All will be revealed one layer at a time," she said in a slight ominous tone.

"Why is Princess Minerva so… weird?" whispered Rainbow to the other princesses.

"Min always had a bit of a dark spirit," Pandora replied. "Always interested in what truth could be found in the shadows of life, fascinated by the messages dreams could bestow if the dreamer were capable of interpreting them."

"The nightmares grabbed my attention more than anything, though," Minerva interjected. "What sort of malevolent entity would allow them to exist? Not in over 2,000 years has that thought ever left me, Rainbow. Not even once."

"Anyway, we're here," she finished as the quartet stopped in front of a locked door.

"This is my room, Min. Why are we here?" Pandora asked.

"Luna's box, remember?"

"My what?"

"Something your sister left in our care some 1,000 years ago after she tired of the memories."

"Memories? Whatever do you mean, Minerva?"

"Open the box. Your destiny is inside," Minerva announced wide-eyed as she opened the door for all to enter.

Luna walked over to the box beside Pandora's bed, placing her horn within the lock and using her magic to break the seal as if drawn by instinct… or Fate.

The lid opened to reveal a set of four shoes, a crown and a collar, crafted from the most beautiful sterling silver ever mined and processed in Equestria. The crown and collar had an intricate pattern similar to the ones found in Celestia's royal jewelry, each piece holding a blue moonstone instead of the elder's amethyst settings.

"Tia was going to give those to you on the night you became Nightmare Moon. Your sister couldn't deal with the fact that she had to seal you away with your corrupted self inside that lunar prison; the box just reminded her of what should have been," Pandora informed her younger goddaughter.

"Time to step into the light of your destiny," prodded Minerva.

* * * * * * * * *

"Fluttershy," Star Swirl said as the two stared out of the wizard's balcony into the apple orchards just outside of town, the wind gently rustling the leaves around them, "it was Rainbow's first sonic rainboom that linked you and your fellow Elements' destinies as one, long before the six of you came together through Fate.

"What you might not know, however, is how strong a link Rainbow and Pinkamena had before the rainboom."

"Before?" she asked.

"Soul mates. Kindred spirits. That sort of thing. Your friends have been tied to each other since before birth.

"Anyway, the rainboom ignited the matching flames within; the Elements of Harmony transformed it into a conflagration."

"And this is a good thing, right, Star Swirl?"

"It is in some ways. In others, it is not. And I'm afraid Pinkamena is the weaker of the two in this aspect, not helped by Minerva in the least."

"What does Minerva have to do with this, um, if you don't mind me asking?"

"The Dreamweaver has been pursuing nightmares for a long, long time, Princess Luna's corrupted self having been the most recent. Even Minerva herself became a nightmare, albeit briefly, about 400 years before Luna experienced her own downfall from grace.

"Before I go on, I should add that this Element of Laughter is not your usual earth pony in any sense of the word."

"She wouldn't be Pinkie if she were usual," said Fluttershy, wondering apologetically where Star Swirl was going with this.

"Indeed. What I meant is that she has a sort of magical ability not found in earth ponies," he continued, "let alone pegasi, unicorns or alicorns. Pinkamena is nearly on par with divinities and other entities in regards to her use of magic, being able to teleport anywhere, cross dimensional boundaries with ease, and bend reality to her will when she sees fit to do so, a fact not easily escaped by others in her league."

"Like Minerva!" she gasped.

"Correct, Fluttershy. Being able to bend reality in her own right as a divinity, Minerva kept a close eye on Pinkamena, peering into her dreams, and eventually, into her heart as well."

"Oh my!"

"She saw the potential for Pinkamena's heart and spirit to fracture early on, a potential Rainbow knows of too well, alas. Thus, the Dreamweaver placed a spell around the weakest parts of her self, all in the hopes Pinkamena could weather the darkest storms.

"Unfortunately, this spell had failed once before: 1,000 years ago. And I am afraid it is failing now, a result of Rainbow's connection with Pinkamena having been fractured in the way that it has," Star Swirl said in a grave tone.

"What needs to be done to save Pinkie, Star Swirl?"

"The Element of Kindness always had the ability to heal broken hearts and spirits. I can bring you into her self, and I can tear down the spell…

"But only you," he leaned inward, gently placing a hoof upon Fluttershy's shoulder, "can use your Element to save your friend."

* * * * * * * * *

Three alicorn guards, adorned in black futuristic armor, led the quartet into the hangar where the drones were kept. Between two of the guards was an ancient royal chest containing Luna's old royal finery, no longer needed now that she had newer, more befitting jewelry in her possession.

At that moment, three drones were returning to their hangar, and one in particular caught Rainbow's attention.

"Whoa! Is that supposed to be me?" she rushed over to see her mechanized avatar. "It even has my cutie mark on its fins!"

"She definitely does!" Pandora beamed. "Her name is Iris."

"Really? That's kind of a soft name for something this cool, Princess Pandora."

"Iris is the goddess of rainbows," she gently whispered.

"And I take back everything I just said about Iris," Rainbow blushed. "What is, uh… 'she,' you said?"

"She is what I call a firefly, and there are five others. The yellow and pink one to Iris' right is Flora-- "

"Fluttershy!" Rainbow interrupted.

"Yes! And to Iris's left is Thalia," Pandora continued, pointing to a dual-toned pink firefly.

"Pinkie Pie! Wait. What?"

"Thalia is the muse of comedy, my dear," she giggled.

"Finally, the three departing for duty are Demeter, Phoebe and Aphrodite," directing everypony's eyes to the avatars of Applejack, Twilight Sparkle and Rarity, respectively.

"I bet you're wondering how these six came about."

"Yeah, I-- " Rainbow started to say.

"It was your sonic rainboom that brought these six to life," Pandora proclaimed. "On that fateful day, your rainboom appeared above Atlantis at the same moment my six children were flying together for the first time. The rainboom swept through each firefly, and when they returned-- "

"They became avatars of those who would become the Elements of Harmony," Luna finished.

"Exactly," she said.

"So why aren't they named after us?" asked Rainbow.

"Oh, because they told me their names."

"Huh?"

"Why do you think my sister's cutie mark is a blue-feathered phoenix," Minerva stepped in. "Her special talent is possessing the ability to communicate with -- and give rise to -- machine life.

"Guards, Iris will take delivery of Luna's old belongings back to Canterlot," she ordered, the two alicorns loading the chest upon the firefly's back.

"Iris, I also need you to deliver this to Celestia," placing a scroll bearing her royal seal inside the prismatic drone's beak with her magic. "Make sure she receives it."

"As for the three of you," she turned as Iris rose from her place with her orders, "the fireflies are just a part of the answer you seek. The full answer lies below ground."

The trio followed the elusive princess into an elevator, hoping this wasn't another one of Minerva's delays.

"Do not fret, my dears. Your time is about to come," Minerva darkly intoned, the elevator doors closing off a sinister stare in the Dreamweaver's eyes.

* * * * * * * * *

The descent into Pinkamena's self may have been relatively easy for a mage as long-lived as Star Swirl, but for Fluttershy, the experience left her disoriented, to say the least.

"W-where a-are we, St-Star Swirl?" she asked, the fear showing in her tiny voice.

"A place where life should be, but no longer is," replied Star Swirl.

Before the spiritwalkers laid a barren gray field, reminiscent of the rock farm Pinkamena and her family worked when she was younger. What few trees there were in this lunar landscape were dead, fossilized relics of a happier day.

Thin clouds raced above them toward an endless horizon, cold winds following in their wake. As far as the eye could bear to see, distant stars twinkled like ice in an eternal sea of black, though one particularly bright pink star caught the attention of the spiritwalkers.

"There she is, Fluttershy: The radiant spark of Pinkamena's spirit!" pointing toward a rising plateau in the middle of the bleak wasteland. "Come! We are not too late yet!"

The two ponies charged up the plateau, only to find themselves in the center of Minerva's fracturing spell. The glassed surface composed of glowing violet-pink pictographs of stars, moons, diagrams, and glyphs cracked and buckled, ejecting flares into the sky towards the pink spark rising above it all.

"So this is what your 'anti-nightmare' spell looks like, Dreamweaver," Star Swirl said to himself. "How long did you think it would work this time? She has more in common with the last pony you did this to than the Element beside me. Why are you so adamant about hunting down every theoretical nightmare you come across? Don't you realize yet how much damage you have caused due to your vendetta?"

* * * * * * * * *

"I can hear you, Star Swirl, but I am afraid you and your companion are on your own this time," Minerva replied calmly.

"What was that?" Pandora asked.

"… Nothing. We are almost to our destination," she said, not having looked away from the elevator doors since the start of their descent.

* * * * * * * * *

"Oh, of what use are you, anyway!"

"I'm sorry," Fluttershy apologized.

"Not you, my dear. Minerva heard me through the veil; we're on our own here," Star Swirl said.

Fluttershy's eyes caught sight of numerous copies of her pink friend slowly draining into the spark.

"Are these all parts of Pinkie Pie's self?"

"They are, and Minerva's spell has seen to it that, until now, only one aspect held dominance over the others. The rest could work in concert, but this… this is not right at all.

"And neither is that spark," he realized in horror.

At that moment, a voice cut through the howling winds, one that sounded like the crestfallen pink spirit, though darker and dripping with contempt instead of cotton candy.

"Took you long enough, wizard."

"Show yourself, spirit!" he commanded.

From the blinding flare of the violet pink spark emerged a dark violet-armored bright pink mare with poofy hair and cat-like blue eyes. Her cutie mark was the negative mirror of Pinkamena's, with two dark rose balloons beneath a deep persian blue balloon.

"Anger, fear, despair, all shall soon be over. Only laughter shall reign… forever!" grinning darkly upon the psychonauts, thunder cracking overhead.

"P-p-Pinkie Pie," stuttered Fluttershy.

"'P-p-Pinkie Pie?' Pinkie Pie?" the nightmare laughed sadistically. "Pinkie Pie is no more," pausing to look back into the spark, "or soon will be, anyway. Once she and all of the other Pinkies enter my spark, I will draw upon that yummy, nummy, delicious power so that I may break through into the real world, and throw the biggest, darkest carnival Equestria will ever see!"

"What is thy name, nightmare?" angrily asked Star Swirl.

"My name? I don't want to spoil the surprise yet, wizard. But I am so happy that you know my true nature," she coldly beamed. "Too bad those silly Elements of Harmony won't be of much use at the party!"

"Not if I have anything to say about it!" thrusting his hoof into the glassed-over ground.

"Careful, Grumpy McGrumpyPants. Wouldn't want you to get hurt before I invite you and Fluttershy to my coming out party," she mocked.

"'Coming out party?'" Fluttershy repeated.

"Yes! A party is still a party, even with two party crashers trying to prevent you from throwing an even bigger party in the real world with lots of cake and ice cream and malevolent laughter," she giggled in an unsettling manner. "Anyway, here is your invitation!"

The pink nightmare pulled a spiked mallet from nowhere, driving it down upon one of the cracked pictographs to unleash a tidal wave of magic against her uninvited party guests.

"Surprise!"

The nightmare loomed menacingly over the pair, giggling uncontrollably as they struggled to get up onto their hooves.

"Well, wizard! Since you and that little doormat you call an ally won't be able to partake in any birthday cake when I escape, I guess I should tell you my name.

"You may call me... Granfaloon."

A slasher's smile appeared on Granfaloon's face.

Act IV

View Online

"We are here," Minerva said as the elevator doors opened upon the lowest level of The Citadel, plunging deep into the heart of Atlantis.

"What is this?" an astonished Rainbow asked, looking upon numerous alicorns, unicorns and pegasi hard at work on an unusual, baloonless airship much larger than the fireflies several stories above.

Attempting to follow the princesses out of the elevator, two unicorn guards blocked her exit.

"Let her through," Minerva ordered. "She is with us."

The guards raised their staffs, allowing Rainbow passage into the massive room buzzing with activity.

"Rainbow Dash, Luna, the answers you seek are in front of your eyes," pointing to the mysterious craft floating in-stasis just above the black-tiled floor.

"Minerva, I am afraid I do not understand. How is this the answer to the destruction your 'gift' caused upon so many?" asked a confused Luna.

Minerva gathered her thoughts about how best to explain her unorthodox methods involving Rainbow's sudden appearance in Avalon. She knew that the wrong word or turn of phrase would land Minerva upon her head by none other than Luna herself, not to say what her own sister could do with those magically integrated limbs or the horn surrogate effectively serving as Pandora's royal crown.

Minerva looked up in contemplation at the future of the kingdom she shared with her twin sister for a moment, her vivid heliotrope eyes giving away more than she had intended.

A gentle steel hoof in the grayest of fuchsias found a place upon her right shoulder.

"Min?" Pandora asked with concern in her soft, warm voice.

For the first time in what had seemed like forever, Minerva let drop her guard, allowing her own heart to show through as she began her tale.

"Rainbow," she turned, "I brought you here because I knew that out of all of the current Element bearers, you would be bravest enough to venture to our kingdom.

"Daring Do would have been proud, by the way," she winked.

"Not too many ponies know of Atlantis as anything but, as you put it, 'an old mare's tale.' Thus, I had to give you a map and a way to get here. That was when it dawned on me: Combine the two.

"The speed suit's cutie mark is actually a map, Rainbow," Minerva continued, addressing Luna and Pandora as well. "The three stars represent Equestria while the fourth represents Atlantis."

"And the moon is the boundary between us," added Luna.

"Correct, Luna. The map being mirrored on either flank was intentional; it was to lead you in the right direction," leaning up to Rainbow. "Alas, your rainboom magic interacted with the liquidized Etherium, resulting in the chaos that led us to this point."

"Min, why would you even-- ," Pandora tried to ask before a hoof was placed in front of her.

"I know, Dori," she remorsefully replied.

"Wait. So, if I needed the suit to get to Atlantis, then how did it get to my house in Cloudsdale? I mean, Derpy was the one who delivered it."

"Iris. I brought the package up to the hangar, attached it to her back, and gave her instructions on where to deliver the box; the rest she already knew."

"Lulu, dear, forgive us," Pandora begged. "Iris has been mapping Equestria's key strategic locations for Atlantis for quite some time."

"I can never apologize enough for all I have wrought through my gift," Minerva said.

"You will have all of the time you need to apologize, Minerva," Luna replied in a firm, gentle tone. "But why go through this at all?"

"The prophecy," Pandora interjected, looking up at the massive, bird-like ship above the quartet.

"Atlantis and all of her wonders will soon be no more."

* * * * * * * * *

"Awww! Why the long faces?" Granfaloon asked of her two unwanted guests. "You should be smiling with me!"

"'Smile,' Granfaloon? I would rather die again knowing I stopped your corruption of Pinkamena than 'smile,'" barked Star Swirl.

"You're funny, Grumpy McBeardy," she giggled sweetly before abruptly stopping, her eyes filled with darkness. "But I know just how to cheer you up:

"Pin the Tail on the Wizard!"

The pink nightmare smashed another fracturing glyph with her spiked mallet, froming the debris and magic with her hooves into a semi-solid, very long pin with a tail attached.

"Now hold still; I wouldn't want to miss tee-hee!"

"Wait!" Fluttershy quietly shouted. "Shouldn't you be blindfolded and spun around first?"

Granfaloon leaned in just enough to instill more fear into the timid pony's heart, cracking a twisted smile. "You're right, Fluttershy! How silly of me!"

The nightmare tore off some of the tail and tied it around her eyes, then spun around one hoof before coming to a dizzying stop.

"Okay! I'm ready!"

"Fluttershy, I think you're onto something," Star Swirl whispered.

"Um, I am?"

"Yes! Granfaloon may be a nightmare, but she is very much child-like compared to the others."

"Ah-ha! Found ya!"

Granfaloon drove her pin down upon the wizard, only to get a taste of her own medicine as a magic flare sprayed her in the face like a tidal wave of fruit punch.

"Fluttershy, listen carefully: Pinkamena likes to play games, yes?" he asked, both running from the nightmare as quickly as their hooves could carry them.

"Yes! Pranks, too!"

"I'm afraid we haven't time for pranks, my dear, not if we are to free your friend once and for all from this spell."

"That's it! Game time is over! Who wants cupcakes?" Granfaloon shrieked, lobbing exploding cupcakes at her two party guests, generating more flares upon impact into the violet-pink spark above the magical plateau.

However, one had failed to detonate, getting the nightmare's attention.

"You gonna eat that?" she asked before gobbling up the cupcake dud, only to find the explosion delayed.

"That tickles my tongue," she giggled, "I baked them myself using only the finest, yummiest ingredients!"

"Granfaloon!" Fluttershy standing muzzle to muzzle with her nemesis, "I challenge you to a staring contest!"

"Ooooooh! I think I'm game for that!"

"If I win, you have to let Pinkie go."

"And if I win, well… let's just say I'll have a lot of fun guests to play with when I kick off my dark carnival of the soul!" Granfaloon creepily grinned while her reptilian eyes poked at Fluttershy's demure irises, making squeaking noises with each poke.

"We shall see about that, nightmare," warned Star Swirl, looking off towards the spark with an idea building in his mind.

* * * * * * * * *

Not a word was spoken as the three princesses and their companion departed the elevator toward the bridge of the Atlantean bird of prey, their shoes clanking across the gantry in near lock-step.

A retina scanner identified Minerva, opening an entrance that had appeared to be completely solid seconds before, allowing the four mares to cross the threshold before the magitek door materialized once more.

Looking out into the windows at the head of the ship, the surrounding hangar continued to buzz with construction activity. One piece after another was added to the docked avian by a group of pegasi, while a group of alicorns and unicorns performed tests on various systems and components. All of this was under the watch of the Atlantean Royal Guard, and the quartet from within.

"Fourteen hundred years ago, none of this was here," Minerva broke the silence. "Not even The Citadel existed. Atlantis was simply an island city-state in the middle of the sea, a place where many a pony and ally called home.

"And of course, 1,400 years ago, my sister and I were truly identical," she sighed. "But all of that would change over the length of one horrible night."

"Min, are you sure this is the right time to go through this?" asked Pandora.

"I have my reasons, Dori," she said, staring off towards the large royal standard of Atlantis.

"Three hundred years before that night, Princess Aria and Prince Helios, the rulers of Equestria after Princess Platinum and her consort, became the proud parents of an alicorn foal they named Celestia, followed a few years later by their last foal, Luna."

"Wait," Rainbow interrupted, "you mean the Princesses have parents?" her eyes widening in slight disbelief.

"Had, unfortunately," Luna added quietly.

"Their father and mother were our allies," Minerva continued, "and they were wonderful ponies to all, especially to their children.

"However, Helios had a darkness growing upon his heart, not helped by an artifact that had been stolen from us, one that had been presented to our kingdom for safe-keeping by Star Swirl the Bearded, 'lest its corruption find its desire':

"The Hope Ruby."

"Somehow," Pandora took over, "the unicorn prince gained possession of this cursed artifact, though we didn't know at the time despite our own search for the relic for over a year, taken from this very chamber during the Summer Sun Celebration.

"Of course, none of that mattered when the friend you thought you knew had changed. Physically, he was as tall as an alicorn, and seemed to have more 'divine' magic flowing through him. Aria didn't seem to mind the changes, but she couldn't see what Min and I saw in his ever-darkening heart," she shivered.

"His deception would not last," Minerva returned. "One autumn night, my sister and I were telepathically called upon by Aria to come to Canterlot immediately. She had discovered a box with a broken clay sphere inside hidden within the royal garden, the very box that once held the cursed ruby.

"Upon our arrival, the three of us heard shrieks of terror coming from the throne room. We teleported quickly, appearing before our little ones and a horrifically changed Helios."

"If only that were the end of it, Min," Pandora sighed. "Unfortunately, the 'nightmare' he had become was only the beginning... "

* * * * * * * * *

"Whatever your intent, Helios, we shall not allow!" commanded a furious Minerva.

"Helios is no more," a cold, gravely, overlapping voice spoke. "I... am Tirek."

The Hope Ruby exploded, releasing a dark rainbow that spiraled upon the possessed prince, consuming his mind, body, heart and soul in totality.

What emerged from the light was a thing of anypony's worst nightmare.

"For 3,000 years, I had been waiting for this moment. And now that I am free once more, I shall make the Sovereigns pay for their mistakes, beginning with your world," the draconequus said, his dark crimson eyes glowing with unrestrained fury.

"What have you done to my husband?" howled Princess Aria.

"Temper, temper, dearest Aria. Anger will get you nowhere in this life," he chuckled. "Thankfully, yours shall be the first to end."

"Not on my watch, Tirek!" roared Pandora, charging toward him with the intent of using her scythe magic to send him back to where he belonged, only for a scaly, bright red-orange tail violently knock the young shepherd hard against the floor near the steps of the throne.

"Your scythe magic is of no use against me, Shepherd. But as your intent was to take my spirit, it shall be my pleasure to rip yours apart."

"No!" Minerva yelled to no avail, frozen in horror as the draco-equine hybrid used his dark magic to counter Pandora's second attempt to cast the demon into the depths of Tartarus.

Pandora lost more than she bargained for.

"Who is next?" Tirek challenged.

A white alicorn with deep violet eyes and a mane of deep purple mixed with vivid rose and vivid azure streaks, whose cutie mark was a four-pointed dark violet spark overlaid upon a moderate mulberry four-pointed spark turned 45 degrees with eight mulberry stars forming a circle around the sparks, stood gallantly against the reincarnated beast.

"You will not harm my daughters, and you shall not last beyond this night!" Aria proclaimed, a look of determination in her eyes.

A sadistic grin appeared on her opponent's face.

"I was hoping you would say that," Tirek gleefully replied.

He rose from Helios's throne and flew down toward the two remaining princesses, both of whom charged against the unrelenting beast. Through their combined magic, they brought down the dark-furred abomination with a violent crash that shook the castle hard enough to open the roof, allowing the light of the moon to illuminate the darkened chamber.

It was all for naught.

"Thank you for opening my eyes, my little princesses. I just remembered what else was bound with me to this ruby," Tirek intoned ominously.

He flew high into the moonlight, his eyes and the ruby glowing brightly as the wind picked up. The two alicorns stood between Celestia and Luna -- who were hiding behind an unconscious Pandora -- when his dark rainbow washed over them.

* * * * * * * * *

"When I came to, Aria was gone. Her body, her spirit, her heart… gone," Minerva's voice shook. "All that was left was her crown and collar… the items your sister wears to this day, Luna.

"My comrades, my friends, the ones who made us you and your sister's godmothers, they were all gone.

"As for my sister, she could no longer stand nor fly. And her horn, her power... "

Stinging, bitter rivers streamed from her heliotrope eyes with no sign of stopping. Only her resolve kept her from completely cracking.

"Tirek was one spell away from vanquishing us all that night. One. Spell. And he would have won. Equestria, Atlantis… perhaps the entire world, all under his reign of darkness for eternity.

"To top it off, I looked into the eyes of my two goddaughters who had just witnessed their mother erased from existence, their father lose himself to the beast locked within that stone.

"In those eyes of blue and purple, I saw fear. Fear that this night would be their last, that the world they knew had ended forever… "

Minerva steadied herself against the flood submerging her heart in memories she had hoped not to ever relive again.

"I felt all of that despair, that hopelessness, all of those dark thoughts and emotions, burn within my heart. I had to do something for you and your sister, something to avenge your mother's and father's lost spirits, something to take up where my sister had fallen…

"And then, I felt a spark."

* * * * * * * * *

"Any last words, my little pony?" taunted the midnight blue and red-orange behemoth.

The earth began to rumble, and with it came a maelstrom of wind that funneled light from the moon and the rising sun into Minerva's levitating body, allowing the spark within her heart to ignite and consume her spirit.

From the light of the hypernova emerged a nightmare whose inky fur sparkled like the Milky Way above Atlantis, her bright white mane and tail erupting like massive solar flares.

Her cat-like heliotrope eyes narrowed as she delivered her answer to her greatest adversary.

"Die."

Nightmare Minerva unleashed all of the power she drew down into her spark upon Tirek, ripping his spirit from his body and tearing the sky open, then casting the sadistic spirit into the white void before cauterizing the wound.

The last thing she saw was the draconequus's body disintegrate as the light wave consumed everything in sight.

* * * * * * * * *

"Fate intervened that night, I like to think," Minerva said, finally turning to her companions aboard the ship. "I don't really remember much of what happened after I blacked out, but I do recall two very scared goddaughters trying to lift my sister to her hooves. I'm just happy Dori wasn't conscious at that point."

"Speaking of Fate," Pandora joined in, walking over to her twin sister, "she and her companion Time visited us during that year's Hearth's Warming Eve celebration."

"She?" Luna asked, feeling slightly confused.

"Lady Ananke. She and Lord Chronos are the Divine Sovereigns of Delphi."

"Where is Delphi?" asked Rainbow. "Is it like Atlantis?"

"You could say that," Minerva replied, "but you will not find it on a map. Delphi exists beyond the veil separating their plane of existence from Astra and Avalon.

"Anyway, they indeed did appear that particular night with grim news: Tirek's torn spirit was barely alive within the void. In time, he would gain back enough strength to find a way back into this world, signs marking the moments until his return.

"How much time do you have left, Princess Minerva?" Rainbow asked.

"None," Minerva grimly replied.

* * * * * * * * *

More flares of magic erupted around the nightmare, the glassed earth shaking and shattering with every ejection into the spark above the plateau.

"Are you sure you want to do this, Fluttershy?"

"I must, Star Swirl. I must."

"Be careful! 'Tis one thing to stare into the abyss; 'tis another to have the abyss return the favor."

"Are we ready, doormat?" Granfaloon said in her sweetest voice.

"I am!"

"Then let's party!"

Fluttershy had never willingly used her stare on any creature, let alone a nightmare trying to escape into the real world. She wasn't sure if it would work, but there were no other options, not if she and the mage wanted to save Pinkie Pie from the growing darkness standing defiantly before her.

Granfaloon stared deep into her opponent's eyes, hoping to quickly break Fluttershy before moving on to draw the spark into her self, then taking her place within Pinkie's heart, body, and soul.

What the pink nightmare didn't expect, however, was something staring back into her. No matter how hard she tried to break contact, The Stare would not let her go.

"What is this? What are you doing?" Granfaloon roared. "You can't do this to me!"

"Oh yes I can, and you-can't-stop-me!" Fluttershy returned.

Her cyan eyes penetrated through the nightmare's sky blue curtains, seizing complete control of every thought and emotion running through the terror's essence. All Granfaloon could do was allow herself to submit to Fluttershy's iron will.

"Gotcha!" Fluttershy said, squeeing in success.

The spark had gone hypernova, the result of a well-placed energy spell Star Swirl directed into the heart of the matter while the nightmare was distracted.

"Noooooooooo!" the nightmare howled in agony, tearing painfully away from The Stare that had ensnared her seconds earlier.

The last thing Fluttershy and Star Swirl saw was Granfaloon disintegrate, the explosion tearing apart the plateau while violently undoing the anti-nightmare spell.

* * * * * * * * *

Minerva stood silent for an eternity when a blinding headache suddenly overwhelmed her, collapsing from the successive waves of pain.

"Min!" Pandora shouted, rushing over to her ailing sister.

"The… s… spell… Star… broke," she managed to gasp before passing out entirely.

"Aria, doors open!" Pandora commanded to the ship.

"'A-Aria'? This ship… you named it after Mother?" Luna barely eked out as her godmother rushed outside, calling up two pegasi guards to escort the fallen alicorn from the bridge.

* * * * * * * * *

White.

All around a bewildered Fluttershy and Star Swirl stood a white void with shimmering crystalline drops of pink iridescent rain singing an ethereal, ancient aria.

"What is this?"

"Pinkamena, Fluttershy. Every drop is a tiny piece of her whole self. Her heart, her mind, her spirit, her laughter… it is all here, waiting to be reunited."

"But how? I don't know where to begin!"

"Fluttershy," Star Swirl said firmly while placing a hoof on her shoulder, "remember what I said: I could break the spell Minerva placed on your friend, but only you could save her in the end.

"You must use your Element to heal Pinkamena, lest she be lost forever."

"But my Element is with the others back in Canterl-- "

"You do not need the charm, Element of Kindness; you are your Element. You always have been, and you always will be until the day the Shepherd comes to bring you home.

"Look within your heart, Fluttershy. There you will find your power."

It was then Star Swirl began to fade out of the void.

"Star Swirl! Please! Don't leave me!" cried Fluttershy.

"I'm afraid I must return to my place in Avalon. But do not fear, Fluttershy!" he reassured his charge. "I have faith in you!"

"Wait! How will Pinkie and I return to our world?"

The mage gave a wink before winking out completely, leaving a frightened Fluttershy alone in the pink rain.

"Pinkie Pie, I really hope you're here with me," she said to the pink drops of her friend's essence, closing her tearful eyes to look within her heart, concentrating as hard as she could muster.

A pink, butterfly-shaped spark rose from her heart, rapidly growing larger and brighter, enveloping her body and lifting her up higher into the rain until Fluttershy's eyes threw open to reveal the white elemental glow hidden behind her lids, her spark exploding in a supernova of pink magic.

* * * * * * * * *

Outside in the royal garden, the two remaining princesses and their charge stood under the dark curtain with only the wind and sea making their presence felt. It had been an hour since the guards took Minerva into her room. The royal doctor stated nothing more could be done to help Minerva, that rest was the only way through her ordeal now.

"Pandora, is this a bad time to finish what Minerva was telling us earlier? About Tirek… and Mother?" Luna gently but nervously asked of her godmother.

"No. You and Rainbow need to know the rest, my little Lulu."

"Aria is the name of the ark we have been building for the past 10 years, and it is of no coincidence that she is named after your mother.

"As my sister said earlier, I do have an affinity for machines, being able to understand them in the same way I can understand you two. When a special machine enters my consciousness, one of the first things I hear is their name.

"However," she sighed, "the voice I heard when Aria spoke to me was not of a machine; it was your mother's voice, Lulu."

"It… it was?"

"Wait a minute!" Rainbow interjected. "I thought Princess Minerva said Princess Aria was lost forever!"

"That's just it, Rainbow. I thought Aria's spirit to be lost. It came as a shock to hear her voice at all, let alone see Aria's lost spirit standing in front of the ark."

"'Standing'?" Luna asked. "But if Mother wasn't lost after all... You don't think-- "

"No. Don't ever think that. For your sake, and for your heart," Pandora said gently, nuzzling her goddaughter.

Silence returned for a few moments. While the princesses sorted their affairs, Rainbow stared out into the moonlit horizon, her mind swimming against the strong current of everything experienced within the shadows of life, death and The Citadel, not knowing what to do with any of the pieces in order to puzzle together the complete picture.

From the corners of her eyes entered flashes of grayish fuchsia and silver kneeling beside her.

"My dear Rainbow, I think it's time for us to take you home to your body. It would do no pony any good to have an Element in your state of being."

"Especially if what my godmothers say is true," added Luna. "We will need the Elements of Harmony whole and intact if we are to defeat Tirek once and for all."

"What's going to happen to Atlantis?"

"Our kingdom is destined to fall," Pandora plainly stated, "but Atlantis and all of her wonders are a sacrifice, my brave little flyer. Equestria, the entire world, they're more important. They're the ones that need to be saved."

"But-- "

"Aria will protect the heart of our kingdom, just like her namesake once fought to protect the future of hers," glancing over at Luna.

"What matters now, Rainbow Dash, is preparing for the greatest challenge you and your friends will ever face, and you need to be well to do that," Luna emphasized in a firm yet gentle voice.

"… So, how do I get back?" Rainbow asked.

"It's about time you asked," Pandora teased her charge. "Lulu, Rainbow, shall we?"

The trinity walked toward the east wall of the garden, vanishing into the blue-sparkled mist that had appeared in front of them.

* * * * * * * * *

A concerned voice echoed in Rainbow's head, calling out her name gently but urgently as she blinked back into consciousness. Her cerise eyes eventually came into focus on a purple unicorn whose mane resembled the skies over Avalon.

"Rainbow! You're awake!"

"Twilight?" she groaned, her head pounding just as Pandora warned it would upon the Rainbow's return to the physical realm.

"Pinkie, Fluttershy, wake up! Rainbow's awake!" Twilight said, shaking Rainbow's two bed mates.

"Wh-what?" Fluttershy groggily asked.

"Pinkie? Fluttershy? What are you two doing in my bed?"

"Oh, we're sorry, Rainbow. Pinkie wanted to stay by your side all night, and Twilight wanted me to keep an eye on you both-- Oh no! Pinkie! Wake up! Please be okay!"

Pinkie Pie slowly blinked back into existence, turning toward the voice calling out to her, only to catch two sets of eyes beaming back in a mix of panic and excitement.

"Fluttershy? Dashie? Dashie!"

"Hey! Take it easy," Rainbow said, giggling while her pranking partner -- whose mane and coat finally returned to their normal states -- gave her the biggest hug she ever received.

"It's sure great to have y'all back!" said Applejack as she and Rarity approached the bed.

"We were worried sick about you, darlings," Rarity added, hugging her two friends.

* * * * * * * * *

"Is this what it's like for you, Pandora?" Luna asked as they watched the reunion happen before them.

"You don't really get used to this, but so long as death is thought of as 'an end,' I will always be behind the veil."

"Hi Princess Pandora! Hi Princess Luna! Did you two take care of Dashie while she was gone?" asked Pinkie.

"She can see us?" Luna's jaw dropped while Pandora waved nervously.

* * * * * * * * *

"You can see them, too?" Rainbow asked.

"Of course I can, silly!" Pinkie giggled. "Ooh! Did you meet Star Swirl the Bearded and Princess Minerva, too? Did you get to see Atlantis? Did ya? Huh? Huh?"

"Oww, my head," she groaned, pushing a hoof against the throbbing, dull pain.

"Oh! I'm sorry, Dashie. I guess I just got a little teensy-weensy bit too excited."

"Heh-heh! It's okay, Pinkie," Rainbow said, rustling the cotton candy-covered scalp of her partner-in-crime.

"Well, that was weird," Twilight stated, a look of confusion appearing on her face.

* * * * * * * * *

"Oh Pinkie," Pandora chuckled. "It's good to see your heart has healed as well. I apologize for my sister's anti-nightmare spell not working out as it should have."

"Don't worry about it, Princess. She only meant well," she stated sweetly.

"I can see you," Fluttershy said, her stare penetrating the veil.

* * * * * * * * *

"See who, darling?"

"Her."

"Sugarcube, are ya okay?" Applejack asked, waving a hoof in front of her eyes in an attempt to get her attention.

* * * * * * * * *

"I… I need to go!"

"Pandora?" Luna asked with worry in her voice.

Before Luna could get another word, Pandora rushed out of the room into the ether.

"I apologize, Rainbow and Pinkie."

The remaining princess vanished in a flash of light, returning to her home above Canterlot Castle.

* * * * * * * * *

Applejack felt a familiar chill pierce through her for a brief moment.

"Did anypony else feel that?"

"Feel what, sweetie?" Rarity asked.

"Nothin'," Applejack replied with a slight dread coming through. "Anyway, it's good to have you back, pard'ner!"

"It's good to be back!" Pinkie Pie said.

"Pinkie!" everypony said in unison.

"What?"

"Pinkie… you are so random," Rainbow smirked, everypony laughing along.

Almost everypony. Fluttershy continued to gaze upon the spot where Luna and Pandora stood previously. Applejack looked with her, wondering if their pink and blue friends were onto something.

* * * * * * * * *

The ark stood silent in the darkened underground hangar beneath The Citadel's foundation stones, guards posted outside to prevent sabotage.

* * * * * * * * *

Pandora briefly checked in on Minerva, still in a deep sleep after the link to the latter's spell violently shattered, then left to attend her nightly duties in Atlantis.

* * * * * * * * *

Celestia laid upon her mattress reading Minerva's letter when Luna made a surprise early evening visit, catching her sister off-guard with her new appearance.

* * * * * * * * *

A shimmering, beautiful melody began to play through the veil, accompanied by an out-of-sync chorus singing the words of a lost lullaby.

* * * * * * * * *

Sparks of azure, violet, rose, mulberry, purple and white lightning magically enveloped the ark, altering the craft's appearance.

* * * * * * * * *

"Soon, Dreamweaver, I will finish what I've started so long ago. Your world will pass away," growled the disembodied voice of an enemy long thought to have been defeated.

* * * * * * * * *

The chorus coalesced into a familiar, motherly tone, one heard by those meant to hear it.

* * * * * * * * *

Aria's lights changed from the bluish-white of Etherium to a deep violet like that of her namesake, while a certain cutie mark appeared in-between the ark's eyes and upon its wings.

* * * * * * * * *

"I've been sent to/pray for you, love," the gentle voice dreamily repeated over the ghostly melody.

* * * * * * * * *

"No! It can't be!" an astonished Pandora said to herself.

* * * * * * * * *

"Don't you see/I'm never away/I'll be watching/over you now," the voice rang out over the first haunting verse.

* * * * * * * * *

Minerva woke screaming Tirek's name.

* * * * * * * * *

"Is that… ," Luna began to ask.

"It is," Celestia replied.

* * * * * * * * *

"Princess Aria? You're... here?"

* * * * * * * * *

"Mother," the sisters said quietly in unison, giving a tearful glance towards the direction of Atlantis.

* * * * * * * * *

"So, it has come to pass," Pandora noted softly, returning a mournful look towards the direction of Equestria.

* * * * * * * * *

"I am alive again."