Time runs out for all existence as Tirek emerges from oblivion to resume his eons-old vendetta against the Shepherd and her allies.
Time runs out for all existence as Tirek emerges from oblivion to resume his eons-old vendetta against the Shepherd -- in her current incarnation as Princess Pandora of Atlantis -- and her allies, beginning with her sister, Princess Minerva.
Meanwhile, Twilight Sparkle begins her research on the source of Tirek's power, the Hope Ruby, leading to a fateful encounter in Canterlot with a mare whose appearance is not all that it seems on the surface.
After the pieces fall into place, Pandora and Minerva find themselves at the crossroads of history, where Tirek and a lost ally lie in wait as the Atlanteans bid farewell to the distant island and its advanced culture, both destined for destruction.
NOTES + CREDITS This is the second story overall in the Timeline-42 series, and the second part of the Terminus & Exordium arc. For best results, please read the first story of said trilogy before undertaking this one: * "A Rainbow in the Dark"
The gentle golden light of the setting sun blanketed Canterlot and her inhabitants finishing their day. The city’s elite were on their way to a new art exhibit at the royal museum, while visitors from Appaloosa bartered with the numerous merchants in the open-air market, and Manehattanites mixed with locals at the finer restaurants near the city’s center.
Among them all stood a regal figure navigating her way through the crowds toward Canterlot Castle. In her satchel was a letter from Princess Celestia, asking her to come to the royal garden after sunset regarding an urgent matter.
Though outwardly calm to passersby, she felt an unease growing within. The letter was vague at best, and though it bore Celestia’s seal, the princess's penmanship did not have the distinctive flourishes found in other letters. Yet, she knew in her heart not to delay the meeting, no matter the outcome.
Upon arrival at the castle, two of Princess Luna’s bat pony guards escorted Celestia’s guest into the garden before returning to their posts. Cooling winds danced through the leaves of the few apple trees planted inside the walls before capturing her flowing mane and tail, forcing chills violently through her spine.
Above her, the silver light of the rising waning moon drew frightening shadows upon the ground as the sky shimmered in mirage-like waves, the stars sparkling to life one by one.
Moments passed with no sign of the celestial regent, nor of anypony coming to inform the guest as to when she would make her appearance.
Where could Celestia be, she thought. This isn’t normal for her to keep me waiting like this, especially in this unusually chilly air, drawing her wings closer to her body to keep warm. Does Celestia even know I’m here?
The dark sky responded with several shooting stars racing from the eastern horizon toward the setting sun. The celestial display filled her vivid heliotrope eyes with wonderment, especially when a cluster of four bluish-white stars caught her attention long enough to shatter her illusion of serenity... and the moon.
Dark, discordant laughter filled the solitary pony’s ears amid thunder rolling through the violet curtain. Several massive pieces of silver fell to the earth under a barrage of shooting stars slamming against the mountainside above Canterlot.
“Show yourself!” she demanded of the laughter.
“I’ve been waiting all of my life for you, Minerva,” the laughter replied. “I’ve been dead for so long.”
“… Tirek!” Minerva barely gasped.
“Equestria will shine no more. Ad vitam, ad mortem.”
Fleur De Lis wandered a short distance from Fancy Pants toward the center of the museum, where a pendulum installation hung just beneath the massive skylight dome. Her eyes caught sight of the shattered moon, awestruck by the apocalyptic scene. Upper Crust appeared next to her in time to push the supermodel out of harm’s way as a shooting star smashed through the glass, setting the museum ablaze.
Out in the open market, a group of Appaloosans and vendors felt the earth rumble beneath their hooves. Sheriff Silverstar’s and Cherry Jubilee’s eyes followed three large silver fragments of the broken moon land a fatal blow upon Canterlot Castle, each spire and structure toppling like dominoes to the base of the mountain below.
Hoity Toity and Photo Finish were seated at one of the Canterlot’s outdoor cafés, neither comprehending the chaos unleashed upon the city. Both of them pulled off their glasses in terror when the museum fire spread from its confines, coalescing into a firestorm whose smoke tinted the sky an unnatural red.
The storm obscured from view a pair of stars descending into an abandoned mine shaft. Seconds later, a bright flash of bluish-white light flared violently from the opening, the fashionistas quickly pushing their glasses back upon their faces to save their sight.
It was all for naught.
Minerva stood frozen to her place in the royal garden. Tears of ice fell from her haunted eyes when she saw Celestia’s and Luna’s bodies crushed under the ivory and stone surrounding her, their alicorn magic forever extinguished.
Minerva called for her twin sister in desperation, only for the mocking laughter to return.
“You shall not pass!” she roared, turning to face the rising firewall behind her.
“This generation shall not pass,” Tirek calmly rebutted. “You are in a dying age, Minerva, and I am only the beginning.”
The flames drew back to reveal a pair of glowing eyes belonging to the draconequus, now a metallic monster whose fur and scales were augmented by obsidian bones. The behemoth stepped out of the firewall, crushing underfoot a statue of a chimera whose facial expression matched the fear escalating in Minerva’s heart. Veins of purified liquid Etherium pulsed throughout his body, highlighting every plate of black stone against the remaining reptilian and equine flesh.
“Open your eyes!” Tirek commanded, his mouth baring palladium razors in a sinister smile.
A dark rainbow erupted from the Hope Ruby embedded in his forehead. Minerva drew upon the remaining light of the sun and moon to counter his attack, yet too late to defend against her complete annihilation from all of existence.
* * * * * * * * *
Far away from the lights of Atlantis and The Citadel, the overhead waning moon and the ice planet Galloway bathed Argentum Tor in their collective celestial glow. Six silver Douglas-firs held an ethereal gleam upon the north-facing hill, yards away from where the last true Unicorn King landed ashore three millennia ago to be reunited with his daughter.
Enhanced by the astral spectacle was a palladium centerpiece depicting a phoenix rising from a four-pointed star whose southern point was made longer than the other three, a crescent moon laid upon its back placed just under the eastern and western arms of the star. The phoenix's wings were shaped so as to exalt Polaris, pointing would-be explorers toward the birthplace of Atlantis and Equestria were they to have an interest in venturing to the lost kingdom.
Below the shrine were nine markers, the closest two belonging to the founders and first rulers of Atlantis.
The next five, laid out in a half-circle pattern, were the resting places for the Unicorn King’s personal adviser and guards.
The last two, nary a mark upon them, were placed in alignment with the markers nearest to the rising lunar phoenix.
Minerva’s tired eyes focused upon the resting place of her grandfather.
“Min?” a warm voice called out to her.
“Dori,” Minerva quietly replied, holding her focus. “We have no time left.” Her voice shook. “Tirek has found his way into my domain.”
A metallic wing gently fell upon Minerva's back.
“Then we must make our final preparations,” Pandora replied, giving a slight backwards glance toward The Citadel.
Silence fell upon the hill, the rising tide breaking against the white sand and cold northerly winds brushing through the silver trees drowning out the noise in Minerva's heart.
“I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” Minerva quietly lamented.
* * * * * * * * *
“It didn’t have to be this way,” a weary, ancient voice spoke to no one in particular.
The sun set out upon its morning trek toward the upper reaches of the sky over the royal garden inside Canterlot Castle. Below its warming rays, Princess Celestia took a few moments from her duties to enjoy the sun roses and morning glories blooming around her and her pet phoenix Philomena. No guards. No advisors. Just the sound of songbirds filling the gentle breeze with their beautiful music.
Little did she know of the two guests who were taking in a certain statue just steps away.
“The chimera’s time will come, Chronos,” a calm voice returned. “Until then, in stone he must remain.”
“I was speaking of his master, Ana.”
Before the horrified visage of Discord stood a winged dragon no larger than the statue in front of him, his sapphire eyes framed by polished ivory scales. An alicorn no taller than the dragon stood off to his right, her fur and tightly styled mane and tail matching the varying shades of stonework within the garden walls.
“We tore his spirit out of his vessel, entombed his bitter darkness in a fire ruby, then cast him out into this world to be lost forever... all for nothing,” Lord Chronos lamented.
“It was always meant to be,” Lady Ananke replied with a distant look in her faded blue eyes. "All of this was always meant to be."
"Not every word and action need be carved in stone."
Ananke shook her head in contempt. "Everything happens for a reason, my l-- "
"Do not begin to lecture me about fate, Ana," Chronos said in a barely restrained tone. "It was our errors in judgement that have led to this moment, errors that could have easily been amended had you simply allowed them to be amended!"
"Calm thy tongue lest our successor hears us!" she hissed, glancing towards Celestia. "You know very well that I only intervene when necessary, and not a moment before or after."
"Then for your sake," Chronos darkly intoned, "pray that this world’s champions are meant to accomplish what we had so carelessly neglected to settle for ourselves eons ago."
“I needn’t pray, not when only a mere push shall suffice,” eyeing a certain wing named for Equestria’s greatest wizard.
“Ana, whatever you are thinking-- “
Ananke turned to trot toward her destination, pausing to face Chronos with an eerie grin framing the sinister gleam in her eyes.
“You can’t fight fate, my lord.”
She faded into the background, leaving him with Tirek’s calcified disciple.
“I would not be so certain, my lady,” he said, glancing upon her newest protégé briefly before vanishing from the garden.
Celestia looked up from a sun rose bush, scanning for the source of an anomaly that just appeared out of the corner of her eye. Her search would have to wait, however, as the low, whispering howl of Atlantean Royal Guard dragonflies approaching from the west caught her ear.
"Looks like it's going to be one of those days, huh Philomena?"
Philomena cooed in agreement.
* * * * * * * * *
"Why does it have to be one of those days," Twilight Sparkle groaned.
A day earlier, Twilight desperately looked for information about the Hope Ruby among the many books in the Golden Oak Library without much luck in her search.
On cue, Pinkie Pie bounced into the library.
"What'cha doin'?" she asked in her sing-song way.
"Pinkie, do you know anything about the Hope Ruby?"
"Other than the fact that it held a monster from another plane of existence, and that it was given to Star Swirl the Bearded to protect, only for him to give it to Princesses Pandora and Minerva to protect before his passing from this mortal coil to become Avalon's caretaker when Princess Pandora isn't around, but it was stolen by Princesses Celestia's and Luna's father so he could become more powerful, but only lost himself to the monster inside the ruby, which led to Princess Pandora becoming a cyborg alicorn and the monster being banished by Princess Minerva transforming into a nightmare, but now the monster is coming back to finish what he started a long, long, long, long time ago?" Pinkie rapidly spat out in a single breath.
"Um, yes?" Twilight asked with a slight bit of hesitation.
"Nope! I don't know anything at all!" Pinkie cheerily replied. Twilight groaned again in disappointment.
"I've looked through all of my books about Star Swirl, and there's hardly anything about that ruby! 'Where did it come from? Why was Tirek imprisoned inside the ruby? How did he get out? Can he be put back in?' Arrgh!"
"Twilight, you're wearing a groove into the floor. Again," Spike attempted to calm his friend.
"Oh Spike, if what Rainbow said is true-- "
"And it is!" Pinkie interjected, prompting a dejected frown from Twilight.
"Why not just go to Canterlot and look through Star Swirl's notes?" Spike suggested. "Something's bound to turn up about the Hope Ruby there, if nothing else."
"You're right, Spike! If I need to learn all about Tirek and the Hope Ruby, then I need to go straight to the source!"
"Are you sure you want to do that, Twilight?" Pinkie nervously laughed. "I mean, we could just ask Princess Pandora to bring you to Avalon instead of bonking your head with a frying pan. It won't hurt as much."
"What? Pinkie! No! We'll visit the Canterlot Archives and look in the Star Swirl the Bearded Wing for the answers," Twilight said. "Besides, I think Princess Pandora might be busy with equally important business."
"Okie-dokie-lokie!" Pinkie smiled, putting a frying pan back into a random hiding place between bookshelves.
"Just think! With all of Star Swirl's scrolls and books available in one place, it should take no time at all to find what we need!"
"This is taking longer than I thought," a tired Twilight said, dragging her hooves to another shelf of books and documents from the legendary wizard.
For the past few hours, the trio looked high and low for any shred of documentation regarding the Hope Ruby or Tirek. Random scrolls and books were strewn around the hourglass in the center of the wing, but with each one pulled, Twilight's enthusiasm increasingly dimmed. Spike and Pinkie did their best to help their friend, but while the latter remained optimistic that something would turn up, the former found himself reflecting Twilight's disappointment.
"Maybe we should take a break, Twilight. We haven't even had breakfast yet."
"We can't stop now, Spike. Star Swirl wrote a lot of spells and books in his long life; one of them is bound to be the one about the Hope Ruby."
"Found it!" Pinkie chimed.
"You found Star Swirl's notes on the Hope Ruby?" Twilight felt renewed by the potential good news.
"Nope! The Stopclock Spell! It can stop time for a short while, and can only be used once. This would have been perfect the last time we were here!" Pinkie innocently beamed.
Twilight facehoofed at the revelation, then collapsed from desperation.
"Why is it so hard to find information on something so important as the Hope Ruby?"
"Maybe not everything of Star Swirl's is here, Twilight," Spike said. "Didn't he create spells that drew upon dark magic, or were otherwise dangerous for inexperienced magic users to attempt?"
"But those are in the Dark Magic Wing of the Canterlot Archives! Only those with Princess Celestia's explicit permission may enter, and only through a written and sealed royal decree at that!"
"A decree such as this one, Twilight Sparkle," a low, mysterious voice asked.
"Who are you?"
Emerging from the shadows, a bluish-gray unicorn mare with short, bluish-lavender hair deliberately approached the trio. Purple eyeglasses framed dark blue eyes that were familiar to Pinkie Pie, though she couldn't put her hoof on why. The dark turquoise pearl necklace completed the unicorn's matronly appearance, though Spike and Pinkie both had an inkling something wasn't quite right about this pony.
"My name is Arcana Tarot," the mystery mare said. "I am in charge of the Dark Magic Wing."
"I highly doubt that," Spike sarcastically said under his breath, arms crossed with a piercing glare in his eyes.
"Spike!" Twilight swiftly admonished her assistant. "Ms. Tarot-- "
"Please, call me Arcana," she corrected through a gentle smile.
"Arcana, how were you-- "
"Princess Celestia learned of your search regarding the Hope Ruby this morning, and felt you were ready to learn everything about it. Thus, she personally instructed me to present this decree to you." Arcana presented the tightly rolled and sealed document before Twilight and her companions, her magic giving off a grayish-white aura as she held the document aloft.
"That's odd," Twilight proclaimed upon opening the scroll, noting the penmanship lacked certain flourishes Celestia's other letters possessed. "Was Princess Celestia in a hurry when she wrote this?"
"I presume as much," Arcana replied. "The Princess has a full day, as always."
"Hmm. That is Celestia's seal, though. No pony can forge that," Twilight confirmed, placing the scroll in her saddlebag.
"Follow me," Arcana beckoned.
The trio were escorted out of the Star Swirl wing, though not before their guide used her magic to re-shelve the books and scrolls back into their respective spaces within the room. As Arcana walked past her entourage, Twilight caught sight of a certain cutie mark upon the former's flank.
"Are you related to Star Swirl, Arcana?"
"Why do you ask, Twilight?"
"You have his cutie mark, which I didn't think was possible."
"Call it fate, if you like." Arcana's voice cooled.
Twilight nervously chuckled. "It's just that while some cutie marks may repeat, most have a slight variation or two. But yours is exactly like Star-Swirl's, right down to the, well, swirls!"
"Princess Pandora says cutie marks like his don't ever appear again, whether the pony is a part of the bloodline or not," Pinkie added, drawing some confused looks from her companions.
"Is that so?" Arcana questioned, calmly leading the trio of ancient ruby hunters to the forbidden wing of the archives.
"Now that I think about it, you seem a bit familiar, as if I've seen you somewhere before... "
"I don't believe we've met before this morning, Pinkamena."
The revelation froze Pinkie and Spike in their tracks, but before either could regain their composure, the group arrived at the locked door to the most dangerous knowledge ever bestowed upon ponykind.
"We have arrived," Arcana proclaimed.
"Are you sure this is a good idea, Twilight?" asked Spike. "There's something very strange about that pony, and not in a good way."
"Very strange," Pinkie emphasized with her eyeballs.
"Arcana might be odd... and a bit dark, but I'm sure it comes with being responsible for monitoring access to dangerous magic," Twilight reassured her friends. "Besides, if Princess Celestia thinks I'm ready to know all there is to know about the Hope Ruby, then there should be no problem."
"If you are finished, Twilight Sparkle," Arcana began, "I am ready to guide you toward the information you seek."
The door was magically unlocked and held open for Twilight. The same welcome would not be shared with all, however, as Arcana blocked the path for Spike and Pinkie.
"The decree is for Twilight only," she coldly stated, her stony glare enhancing every word.
As Arcana led Twilight into the Dark Magic Wing, Spike noticed the decree had fallen out of Twilight's bag. He called out to her and attempted to give chase, only to find the door magically slammed shut in front of him, bouncing the baby dragon onto the cold stone floor.
"I have a bad feeling about this, Pinkie." She nodded in agreement while rubbing his head and staring intensely at the door separating them from the two unicorns on the other side.
* * * * * * * * *
"I have a bad feeling about this, Dori. Are you sure this is something we both need to do, considering what little time we have left?"
A squadron of Atlantean Royal Guard dragonflies, whose bluish-white lights highlighted their obsidian armor and rotors, rushed toward Equestria as first light appeared in the east over the Sea of Hrímfaxi. Most of the mechanized dragon-insect hybrids were destined for Cloudsdale, carrying engineers and builders skilled in cloud building to aid in the city's reconstruction.
One, however, would continue to Canterlot.
"We did offer to help rebuild Cloudsdale so that weather patterns could be restored over their part of Equestria," Pandora reminded her sister.
"I meant the two of us leaving our citizens behind to meet with our goddaughters," Minerva replied.
"We've done it before with our city still intact upon our return."
"It's the last part of your statement that concerns me this time, Dori."
"Equestria Energy Boundary detected; ETA: Two minutes, Your Majesties," the dragonfly's unicorn pilot informed her passengers.
"Thank you, Star Tracer," Pandora said.
"You know, this will be the first time some of our people will see Equestria. If only-- "
A steel hoof and a gentle, knowing look prevented a distressed Minerva from saying anything more.
"All will be well when this is over," her sister reassured her. "Let us just enjoy what little time we do have before the chickens come home to roost."
A ghostly vibrating sound briefly filled the silence within the dragonfly's cabin.
"The view is gorgeous, isn't it," Minerva wistfully sighed, looking out into the shimmering horizon ahead.
"This view is gorgeous!" a unicorn pilot exclaimed.
"Just wait until you pass through the EEB, kid," her alicorn superior stated before turning to address her subordinates. "Hope you all brought your sunglasses, because the last thing I need are for my mares to be blinded by the sun when we cross through!"
"General Firestorm, is it true that the rulers of Equestria raise the sun and moon every day and night?" asked a pegasus guard.
"Indeed they do, Skybreaker," she replied. "Nearly everything behind that shimmering wall of magic over there is controlled by a pony of some kind, from the weather and the seasons, to the day and the night themselves."
"Nearly everything?" the dragonfly's pilot quizzically repeated.
"Only one place similar to back home, Radar Rose: The Everfree Forest, dead center in the heart of Equestria."
"That's where the Battle of Nightmare Moon happened, right ma'am?" Skybreaker asked.
"And before that, Operation Obsidian Order," Firestorm began. "The hardest mission I ever led, mainly because that crazy chimera Discord kept changing the darn playing field every five seconds when he wasn't showering us with chocolate rain or acid fire!"
"Thirty seconds to Equestria Energy Boundary, ma'am," Radar Rose warned.
"Come and sit on Mama's back, my little fillies, and be sure you have your sunblock and sunglasses on," ordered Firestorm, "for it's time to watch the magic happen!"
In a split second, the squadron's Etherium lighting was overpowered by the solar flares of the sun travelling across the morning sky above Las Pegasus. The pegasi below stopped what they were doing to ooh and awe over the fearsome sight racing above their cloud city.
Below in nearby Applewood, a great and powerful magician busking along Sunset Strip lost her audience briefly, none having seen or heard anything like the clan of dark behemoths with their ghostly howls.
"Somepony picked a good time to film an action movie during Trixie's great and powerful puppet show!" she bemoaned.
"ETA: Twenty minutes to Canterlot, Your Majesties," Star Tracer announced.
At that moment, an eerie, uneasy feeling struck at Pandora's heart.
"Star Tracer, please inform General Firestorm we are breaking off and moving forward to Canterlot immediately," Pandora ordered.
"Is something wrong?" Minerva asked.
"Very much so."
A cold gleam appeared in the princess's eyes.
"Are you certain?" Firestorm asked.
"The order came straight from the pony's mouth, ma'am," Star Tracer confirmed.
"Crazy princesses!" she muttered to herself. "Very well, soldier. You are free to move ahead at their command."
The majority of the squadron followed Firestorm's dragonfly in tight formation, ascending rapidly to meet Cloudsdale. The dragonfly carrying the princesses charged forth on its own to Canterlot as quickly as its engines could push the craft.
"Well fillies, it looks like we're going to Cloudsdale by ourselves while the princesses go off on their little adventure time with Princess Celestia," Firestorm announced to her charges.
"Where is Cloudsdale, General?" Radar Rose asked.
"You can't miss it, kid. Just look for the big floating city exploding with rainbows, though I wouldn't recommend flying through any of 'em; might as well go down Neighagra Falls in a cider barrel if you wanted the same experience."
The Atlantean Royal Guard leader caught a glance of the lone dragonfly rushing her superiors to the gleaming ivory and gold towers of Canterlot Castle. Though unflappable on the outside, a worried look appeared in her grey eyes.
"The gods must be crazy this morning," Firestorm lamented quietly to herself.
Arcana led Twilight through the Dark Magic Wing of the Canterlot Archives, a place that, if nothing else, needed a lot of dusting. Unlike other areas of the archives, the wing was minimal in decoration, with plain wood shelves containing tomes filled with arcane knowledge meant for a few to obtain, lest the contents fall into the wrong hooves.
"It's good to be nervous," Arcana began. "As a matter of fact, there once was a pony quite like yourself, though she never felt nervousness in herself or in her abilities. Her magic was so great that it caught the attention of Princess Celestia, who then made this pony her personal student."
"Just like me," Twilight said.
"Indeed. Her ambition and potential were great, though they were overshadowed by her lack of empathy, humility, and patience. This was not helped when her mentor mistakenly introduced her to a magical portal posing as an ornate mirror.
"When Celestia pulled her less-than-faithful student away from its reflection," her tone darkened, "the act only served to fuel her curiosity."
"What happened then?"
"One evening, that pony strolled into these very walls seeking the knowledge she thought she deserved to know." Arcana's voice iced over. "She learned a number of spells that were off-limits to most magic users, including a few meant for demigods and divinities such as your mentor. And of course, she did learn of that portal."
Arcana stopped in her tracks, turning to face Twilight with a dark look, her eyes veiled in teal and black smoke.
"Celestia caught her before she could learn more, but the die had been cast. The Princess denied the pony as her personal student, and was escorted through that door out of the castle.
"However, the rebellious pony used her newfound knowledge to subdue the guards when they made the error of walking past the room that held the portal.
"By the time Celestia discovered what had happened," she leaned in ominously, "her traitorous student had long since crossed through to the world on the other side." Arcana's eyes returned to normal as she resumed guiding Twilight in the latter's quest.
"Your teacher then had her guards bring the mirror to the throne room to serve as a reminder of her error, and in the hope that her protégé would one day return to face her fate.
"That said, you need not fear such retribution in your quest, not with the decree in your possession," Arcana finished.
"That's a relief, I guess," Twilight said, turning to look at the tightly rolled and sealed document thought to have been in her saddlebag, only to discover the opposite.
"Oh no! No! No no no no no!" she panicked. "I lost the decree! What am I going to do? I don't want to end up like-- "
"You won't," Arcana definitively stated, her voice reverberating within the wing similar to the Royal Canterlot Voice that had long since been relegated to the pages of time. The reverberation gave way to a low, beating sound that barely penetrated the thick walls, though audible enough for Arcana to acknowledge its source.
"Not if I have anything to say about it," she murmured.
* * * * * * * * *
Spike paced back and forth in front of the locked door, looking up now and again for a sign of life while tightly gripping the decree that fell from Twilight's bag. Pinkie sat still, concerned for their friend behind the door with that strange pony, and for the scared baby dragon in front of her.
"I'm worried, Pinkie," Spike said.
"I wish we were with Twilight right now."
"I know, but Arcana said only Twilight was allowed inside," Pinkie reminded him.
"That hasn't stopped me before, though... " He paused in his tracks, looking upon the decree with growing curiosity.
"What's up, Spike?" she asked while bouncing over to him.
"Twilight mentioned that the writing looked funny."
"Arcana said Princess Celestia was in a hurry to get it to Twilight."
"I doubt that. She's always organized. She would have taken her time in issuing this decree."
A low, ghostly howl accompanied by rapid beating broke through the corridor walls, growing louder with each passing second.
"Dragonfly!" Pinkie jumped.
"Dragonfly, Spike! Oooh, I'm so nervousited!" She bounded around the hall until she caught Spike's eyes widening in disbelief, stopped cold by the glaring error before him.
"Spike, are you okay? What's wrong?" she asked, rushing over to her friend.
"That's not Princess Celestia's signature!"
"It looks like it to me."
"I know her writing, Pinkie, and this is a forgery," pointing out the specific flaw.
"You mean... changelings?" Pinkie panicked.
"Calm down! I don't think it's a changeling."
"Are you sure?"
"I don't know, but we need to let the Princess know right now."
"She might be in the garden! Hop on, Spike!"
Spike leaped upon Pinkie's back and held on as she galloped toward the royal garden, the unnatural thwack of the dragonfly's rotors increasing in volume the closer the duo were to their destination.
"Are you sure the Princess is in the garden, Pinkie?"
"Pretty sure, Spike! That dragonfly out there could only belong to the Princesses of Atlantis; Princess Celestia would be out there to greet her godmothers. Oh! And it's the only place where any dragonfly can safely land!"
"I'm not going to even question it. Charge!"
Pinkie pushed herself into overdrive, transforming the duo into a pink, purple and green blur of transonic speed rushing toward the royal garden outside.
* * * * * * * * *
Celestia followed the massive dragonfly's descent into the only open area within the garden walls large enough to accommodate the craft. Violent winds whipped through her mane and tail, disrupting their touched-by-the-divine movement. Philomena struggled to remain near her owner against the stiff breeze.
"Not much of a welcome wagon, Your Majesties," Star Tracer remarked, looking out through the windshield as the obsidian and neon blue monster powered down.
"It is to be expected, Star Tracer," said Minerva. Her twin sister then nudged her along toward the right side of the craft.
"Doors open," Pandora commanded.
A section of the dragonfly dematerialized, allowing the two princesses to deboard the craft. Minerva prepared for the worst for the damage she had wrought upon her goddaughter's kingdom, her head hung in regret with a distant look in her frail eyes. Yet, she wasn't prepared for the warm embrace Celestia gave to the clearly frazzled princess of dreams.
"Pandora told me you weren't feeling well," Celestia said.
"Tirek has broken through the veil into Astr-- " Pandora said before her sister's neuroses came to a head.
"Tirek decreed Equestria 'will shine no more!' The visions I've seen... you, Luna... Canterlot... annihilated under blue flame and bloodied skies! And his face, his disfigured, mechanical, cold face... he will not stop until all... until all... "
An eerie silence fell in the garden, broken by fearful sobbing.
"What has he done to you?" Celestia's voice trembled, tears pooling just below her eyes.
"Our royal doctors all said to leave her in Atlantis, but I was too afraid of what would happen if I did as instructed," Pandora lamented, her shattered sibling crying upon her shoulder.
"Princess Celestia!" Pinkie yelled from the across the garden.
Suddenly, the pink blur had come to a complete halt, flinging the purple and green blur upon his backside.
"Princess Celestia-- Oh, hi Princess Pandora and Princess Minerva," Pinkie got out between deep breaths. "Princess Minerva?! What happened?!"
"Pinkie? Is that you? My little reality warper?" Minerva meekly asked.
"Princess? You look like you need a lot of hugs."
"If that were my only need, Pinkie. Why the panic in your voice?"
"Oh yeah! Twilight's in trouble, and we need your help!"
"Where is she?" Celestia asked.
"Twilight's in the Dark Magic Wing of the Canterlot Archives with a strange pony, Princess," Spike urgently stated.
"The pony said you had given Twilight permission to enter the Dark Magic Wing through this decree," handing the document to Celestia.
It only took seconds to realize who went over Celestia's command.
"Ana," she coldly stated.
"We need to get Twilight away from her," Minerva ordered upon the revelation.
"Star Tracer, you and the others stay with the dragonfly," Pandora commanded. "If anything should happen to us, you know what must be done."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
The three princesses followed Spike and Pinkie back into the castle, galloping as fast as they could toward whatever fate awaited the quintet, and that of Twilight, on the other side of the locked door to the Dark Magic Wing.
* * * * * * * * *
"I wonder where we should begin in your research, Twilight."
"What would you suggest, Arcana?"
Pandora's hind legs smashed through the wing's door, catching Twilight by surprise. Arcana, however, was unfazed by the display, calmly replacing a book back into its spot on the shelf.
"Twilight, get away from her!" Celestia ordered, fire burning in her eyes upon the traitor in their midst.
"What took you so long, Celestia?" Arcana coolly remarked.
A spark of white magic descended from her horn, wrapping her body in its cold glow. Twilight quickly backed away from the spectacle toward Pinkie and Spike as the unicorn's power threw sparks of energy amid biting winds within the room.
"Wh-- what's going on here?" Spike yelled through the maelstrom.
Arcana's eyelids threw open, revealing the faded stone blue irises that were disguised until that moment. The magic arced around her body to burn away the deception, unveiling the gray alicorn hidden from view.
With the last trace of Star Swirl's cutie mark giving way to a blank flank, the magical storm dissipated as quickly as it formed.
"Wh-- who are you?" a shocked Twilight struggled to ask.
"I am Lady Ananke, the Divine Sovereign of Fate," her icy voice chilling the air within the room as she turned to face her protégé. "Has my most faithful student come to banish hers for being here under illegal pret-- "
"You did this!" Minerva roared with a bitter hatred never before expressed by the dream princess. "You allowed Tirek into our world, into my domain!" tears streaming from her haunted eyes. "Your failure to execute the monster when you had the chance took away my goddaughters' parents! And if Equestria falls, her blood, her spirit, will be on your hoov-- "
"Sleep," Ananke calmly bade the mad princess, plunging her into a deep slumber.
"A... a single-word spell?" Twilight gasped. "That's possible?"
"Why did you do that?" Pandora yelled, two of Celestia's guards restraining the princess lest she, too, be felled by the sovereign. "Tirek-- "
"Tirek cannot harm your sister where I have placed her, Pandora. She will wake when the spell has run its course. Perhaps by then, what is left of Minerva's fracturing mind will have coalesced into a more stable state.
"As for the rest of you," Ananke continued with a slight anger coming to the surface, "it would be wise to maintain restraint before your Sovereign.
"I will always win."
* * * * * * * * *
"Ar-are th-th-those-dr-dra-dragons?" a tiny voice squeaked.
"Whatever they are, they're pretty sweet, eh Fluttershy?" Rainbow said as the approaching squadron of dragonflies approached Cloudsdale. "Fluttershy?"
Rainbow saw two familiar eyes peeking from a pegasus-shaped cloud.
"Fluttershy, it's okay! They're not really dragons," she reassured her friend while one particular example landed yards away from the duo.
"But they look like b-big, scary, glowing, b-black dr-dr-drag-g-gons! Eeep!"
"Ugh!" Rainbow facehoofed. "They're from Atlantis! They're the good guys!"
General Firestorm and her corps of engineers exited the craft. Scanning the scene, the alicorn's grey eyes fell upon a rainbow-maned pegasus arguing with a cloud.
"The air must be really thin up here," she said to no pony in particular, shaking her head at the absurdity. "Listen up, soldiers! Skybreaker, Radar Rose, Whiteout, Skyfall and I will head over to the cloud factory. Windrunner, take the rest of the team over to the rainbow reservoir."
"Yes, ma'am," her charges said in unison.
"Fluttershy, trust me. They're not going to eat you. They don't even have mouths!"
"She does, though," Fluttershy said.
Rainbow turned to face their guest, craning her neck slightly to meet the alicorn's steely gaze.
"If it isn't the crazy thrice-exploding pegasus who brought us out of our warm, cozy, fluffy beds this morning," Firestorm remarked.
"Hey! It's not my fault Princess Minerva sent me a faulty speed suit," Rainbow curtly stated.
"Oh, please don't fight. It really wasn't her fault, whoever you are," Fluttershy softly spoke.
"A talking cloud?! Cool!" Whiteout said.
"Oh, I'm not a talking cloud. I'm Fluttershy," crawling out of her cloud blanket.
Firestorm rolled her eyes. "Oh goody. It's the yellow pegasus who broke Princess Minerva."
"Um, actually, it was Star-Swirl who-- "
"Who are you to talk to her like that!" yelled Rainbow. "Seriously. Who are you?"
"Firestorm, General of the Atlantean Royal Guard. To my left are Colonel Skybreaker and Captain Radar Rose. To my right are Master Gunnery Sergeant Skyfall and Staff Sergeant Whiteout."
"Let me guess: cloud-walking spell?" Rainbow asked of the lone unicorn in the group.
"Most dragonfly pilots are unicorns, so it's part of the training," Radar Rose explained. "Serves as a backup to the cloud shoes all dragonfly personnel wear on missions as part of their combat uniform."
"Combat?" Fluttershy repeated.
"Are you the pony who created the Sonic Rainboom?" a starstruck Skybreaker asked.
"Heh-heh! I sure am!" Rainbow confidently proclaimed. "I can pull one off in my sleep nowadays."
"As hypersonic triple light halos are her newest trick, apparently," mumbled Firestorm. Rainbow rolled her eyes in response.
"Anyway, where is the cloud factory? We were assigned to help rebuild that sector of Cloudsdale."
"Right this way, General," Rainbow sighed in annoyance, leading the group through the collapsed ruins of her city.
"Do you think you can show us a sonic rainboom while we're here?" Skyfall asked.
"Possibly. I'd have to warm up first, though. Carrying Radar Rose over would be a good start, seeing as we have to fly over to the cloud factory, and she doesn't have wings."
"Do you think you can teach me how to do a sonic rainboom?" added Skybreaker.
"Enough fangirling, you two," Firestorm interrupted. "Save it for the Rainbow Dash Air Show featuring Rainbow Dash and the Wondercolts!"
"Wonderbolts, General Firestorm," Rainbow corrected. Firestorm responded with a smirk and a slight gleam in her grey eyes.
* * * * * * * * *
"What in tarnation are those things up there?"
Applejack was helping Rarity with laundry in the latter's backyard when the they caught sight of the dragonflies ascending toward Cloudsdale, and the lone wolf speeding toward Canterlot as quickly as its engines could sustain.
"They must be Atlantean, whatever they are," Rarity said. "They look rather formidable, wouldn't you agree?"
"More like horrifyin'," Applejack replied, shivering briefly.
"Are you cold, Applejack? I can get you something from last season's rack to keep you warm until the weather is fixed."
"No, Rarity, I'm... I'm fine. Just seein' those things reminded me of what Rainbow told us after she woke up... " A wistful look appeared in her eyes before quickly changing the subject. "Anyway, I appreciate you hostin' me and my family until Sweet Apple Acres is put back in order. Our relatives should be here in the next day or so to help replant our orchards and rebuild the rest of our farm."
"What are friends for, darling," Rarity reassured her. "Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom seem to be making the most of it-- "
A crashing sound emerged from the second floor, catching their attention.
"Sorry," Apple Bloom said.
"We'll clean it up," added Sweetie Belle.
"Yes. Definitely making the most of it." Her right eye twitched.
"Heh-heh! It'll be fine, Rarity. I know Granny Smith and Big Mac are enjoying their break from the farm, too. Heck, Sweetie Belle seems to be learning a lot about cookin' from Granny... " Her voice trailed off as she looked in the direction of the family farm.
"Are you sure everything is alright, Applejack?"
"Oh Rarity. First, we nearly lose Rainbow in a freak accident tied to some strange techno-magical wizardry. And then, she comes back, only to tell us there's some kinda monster that had been locked up in a ruby who set everything in motion until now? And that it's up to us to fix it? I think we may be bitin' off more than we can chew, sugarcube."
"The ruby should have stayed with us," a weary, ancient voice spoke.
"What the... ?"
Before their eyes emerged a white dragon three times as large as they.
"Gahh," Rarity managed to eke out.
"I am Lord Chronos, the Divine Sovereign of Time," bowing before the two ponies.
"My heavens! I've never seen a white dragon before!" Rarity beamed.
"It is the form I choose to take in this world, Rarity."
"Well your form is quite fabulous, if I do say so myself!"
"Rarity!" admonished Applejack. "Anyway, you mentioned somethin' about the ruby staying with y'all just now. What do ya mean by that?"
"The ruby is an artifact from an eons-long conflict that, I am afraid, may end in your world," Chronos grimly stated.
"Well, isn't there something you can do now to stop whatever it is that's about to happen?" she implored the time lord.
"... No. We had our chance to resolve the conflict, but that is now out of our control."
At that moment, he sensed something amiss coming from Canterlot, a familiar cold gleam appearing in his blue eyes.
"Who now?" Applejack attempted to ask the sovereign.
"Ascend." His dark voice reverberated throughout the backyard.
Seconds later, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle walked outside looking for their sisters, only to find a mysterious scroll where two ponies once stood.
* * * * * * * * *
"Why are you here, and what were you doing with Twilight?" Celestia demanded, seething with anger aimed squarely at her teacher.
"I'm only here to speed things up, Celestia," Ananke began, staring down her belligerent pupil.
"If you're speaking of Star Swirl's writings on the Hope Ruby, it's in the Library of Atlantica Rare Book Vault," Pandora replied.
"Are they? Too bad it's not the whole story, now is it, dear Shepherd?"
"What are you talking about, Lady Ananke," Twilight retorted, "and how could you abuse my trust in the Princess-- "
"For your own betterment, Twilight Sparkle," venom entering her reptilian voice.
"'Divine' or not, no one messes with Twilight or my friends without going through me first!" Spike defiantly proclaimed.
"Spike!" his friends said in unison.
"As you wish," Ananke's voice reverberated as a cold, white spark of magic filled her eyes with the intent to destroy the baby dragon.
"You shall do no harm to the dragon," a familiar voice boomed and echoed within the forbidden room, freezing all in their place.
Ananke collapsed under the weight of the words spoken by her consort, his four companions emerging from the shadows.
"Girls! What... how... " Twilight tried to ask.
"Lord Chronos showed up in my backyard while Applejack and I were discussing the Hope Ruby when without warning, we arrived here," Rarity explained.
"What happened to Fluttershy?" Pinkie asked, seeing the yellow pegasus passed out upon Rainbow's back.
"The strangest thing happened, Pinkie," Rainbow began. "Fluttershy and I were showing some of the Atlantean Royal Guards the cloud factory when from out of nowhere comes this white dragon. Let's just say 'Shy here didn't take his entrance too well."
Chronos walked deliberately over to Ananke, a silent rage in his eyes meeting the stony glare of his consort.
"Enough foolishness, Ana. We have wasted enough time with your games as it is. They all need to know the truth about everything now."
"What truth, if you don't mind me asking?" Twilight nervously said.
"Tirek, his spirit, and the ruby, all are not of this world, Twilight Sparkle. They were cast from our domain... by order of Lady Ananke."
Amid the still silence, a few sets of hoofsteps calmly approached the broken door to the dark magic archives.
"Celestia, I had the strangest dream," Princess Luna said as she and her trio of bat pony guards entered the room, not yet noticing the guests within. "Our godmother Minerva appeared to me, instructing me to come down here to speak with...
"Oh. I see we have company," she realized. Luna then noticed the broken doors barely hanging on their hinges. "What is going on here? Who did this?"
"And now, all of the Elements of Harmony are in one place," Ananke deliriously murmured.
"Guards, see what you can do about fixing the doors. Make sure no pony other than this room's librarian is allowed to enter," Celestia ordered.
"Assuming Ana hasn't done anything to her," added Pandora.
"If I had, you would have already been here to tend to her spirit, Shepherd," barely mustering a malicious giggle.
A muffled noise made its presence known from the dark corners of the room. Twilight Sparkle was the first to rush over, using her magic to shine a light upon the mystery.
"Candlelight?!" Celestia exclaimed upon finding the librarian, bound and gagged behind a shelf of untouched books.
"I'm sorry, Your Majesty. That alicorn with the blank flank broke into the archives early this morning. I tried to stop her, but the next thing I knew... ," she explained as Spike untied her after removing the gag from her mouth.
"No need to apologize, my dear. There was nothing you could do to defend against her dark magic."
"Guards, please escort Candlelight to the infirmary," Luna ordered. "My sister's stallions shall oversee the security of this room until she is well."
With the shaken unicorn carried away for examination, Chronos walked past the still-dazed Ananke toward the only pony asleep through the chaotic events within the Dark Magic Wing.
"Awaken," his gentle voice reverberated through her mind, bringing her back to the world outside.
"Ch... Chronos? Lord Chronos?"
"It is I, Minerva."
"Did Luna receive my message?"
"I did," she said, appearing from behind Chronos.
"Come!" Chronos commanded. "No more games," glaring at Ananke.
"Where are we going, Lord Chronos," asked Twilight.
"You wanted to know about the Hope Ruby and its link to Tirek, yes?"
"Yes. Yes I do."
Chronos pivoted upon his talons, unfurled his wings, and shut his eyes.
The room darkened for but a brief moment.
"Twilight? Rarity? Princesses? Anypony?" Spike called out to no avail.
* * * * * * * * *
One by one, glimmers of light formed strange patterns throughout the room, slowly illuminating the transdimensional travelers with each new pattern. Their eyes followed the neon trails coalescing toward a golden circle etched into the floor, glowing brighter and brighter until the last lines connected into an infinity sign nestled inside the smallest circle within the heart of the pictogram.
"Where are we?" Twilight wondered in awe at the sight before her and her friends and mentors.
"This is the Oracle of Delphi, Twilight Sparkle," Chronos replied.
"Is this real? Am I dreaming?" Rarity swooned.
"This is not of my doing, Rarity," Minerva answered, feeling a brief peace within her heart.
"It feels so serene!" Fluttershy oohed.
"What about her, though?" Rainbow asked, pointing to the sedated grey alicorn lying outside the largest neon circle.
"Guards" -- motioning over to the eight minotaurs surrounding the perimeter of the oracle -- "take Ana to her chamber. Do not let her out of your sight."
Two of the guards gathered the sovereign off the floor, using the magic in their staffs to support her weight as they and the rest of the group led her away. The chamber doors behind them then solidified into the rest of the walls, sealing the sovereign and his guests from the rest of Delphi.
The Oracle's heart showered the chamber with its brightening ethereal light, painting every tile and brick in gold, filling every ear with an otherworldly melody that felt familiar to all who heard it. Four orbs of various colors materialized and spiraled upward within the fountain, smaller ones orbiting their respective spheres as if each were a single sun. A golden thread weaved its way from a silver disk below, to a bluish-white disk above.
The light then withdrew back into the circle, barely pushing back against the darkened background.
* * * * * * * * *
"In the beginning, there was The One Who Dreamed," Chronos began. "In her slumber, she envisioned a place filled with magic and wonder, far removed from the dark realm she would soon leave behind.
"Upon awakening, she crossed through the Gates of Dawn, igniting the void outside with her dream magic to create the First Cycle, and the Grand Veil that would shroud all life for all time.
"Seeking to guide the new world without interference in its evolution, The One Who Dreamed established Avalon, drawing a veil between it and the newborn omniverse.
"Finally, she unshackled her earthly chains to claim her place over all that was good, becoming the Golden Shepherd of Avalon in so doing.
"Life was in harmony with the elements born from within the Grand Veil for eons, until a malevolent entity threatened to plunge the Golden Shepherd's work into eternal darkness. Though driven back into the void beyond time by her chosen champions, the order of this first omniverse unraveled in his wake.
"To save her creation, the Golden Shepherd erected the Gates of Silent Memory opposite the Gates of Dawn, then ushered her dying creation through the new gate to dream it all again."
The lowest orb and its family faded to grey, their colors draining through the golden thread leading up to the next constellation of spheres.
"The Golden Shepherd soon returned through the Gates of Dawn, detonating the dark energy of the void to begin the Second Cycle. As before, life within the Grand Veil was in harmony with the elements bestowed by her and the transfigured energy, though the living bore a different face.
"Alas, the malevolent entity once thought to have been vanquished found a tear in this second omniverse, wreaking havoc upon the Golden Shepherd's work through many fronts. Again, he and his servants were cast back into the obsidian silence, leaving her work in continuously fraying tatters.
"Thus, she withdrew herself and the fading omniverse through the Gates of Silent Memory, vowing to never allow the darkness to rule the next world."
The Second Cycle constellation, too, grayed through the golden thread.
"Before the reopened Gates of Dawn," Chronos continued, "the Golden Shepherd proclaimed the Third Cycle would be a new order of light, and light alone. Avalon would become one with the Grand Veil through the sacrifice of her entire being, birthing an Arcadian paradise unlike ever before or ever since."
"That sounds nice, actually," Fluttershy said.
"It was, Fluttershy, and yet, without discord, there is no harmony. Without conflict, no resolution. Without bitterness, no sweetness. In short, the Golden Shepherd's last act gave rise to life already entered into a dying age. Only through divine intervention and another sacrifice could all life be saved."
The constellations of the Third and Fourth Cycles flared to life, the golden thread between the two worlds glowing steadily.
"What does this have to do with Tirek or the Hope Ruby, though?" Twilight asked of the white dragon across from her.
"Tirek was once the Pythia of Delphi. He held court in this very chamber, providing guidance to any who sought answers from the Oracle. Many a prophecy was first foretold from this golden circle before you, and it was the Pythia's task to draw out the answers by immersing him or herself within the light.
"However, life as a Pythia was hard and brief, their spirit consumed by the Oracle in its golden light with each working. Most chose to follow in the path of the Golden Shepherd when their time came."
"And Tirek wasn't willing to do the same," Rarity concluded.
"The final act that would seal his destiny -- and that of all life through all time -- came from the Oracle's prophecy of the Crimson Shepherd, a savior who would emerge from the fabric of the Grand Veil to aid in the birth of your world through the death of the one before," he said, tracing a violet path of neon into the gold thread with his ivory claw.
"Little did Ananke and I know what all the prophecy would entail... "
"You cannot allow her to incarnate, Your Graces!" Tirek growled. "Her arrival will herald the end of all that is pure in this world!"
"If what the Oracle proclaims is true, then our destinies are tied to each other, Tirek," Ananke replied.
"Then it is time to make our own destiny."
"Our own destiny?" Chronos questioned.
"Why should this universe be beholden to one who will simply pass her duties on to lessor successors, Your Grace? As I have seen through the golden flame of the Oracle, the traitors will simply cast our universe in their image upon ascendance as Shepherds, all in defiance of the natural order already established!
"You have dominion over time and destiny, but who gives the first breath of life to your existence? Who, in turn, will draw your final breath upon entering the Gates of Silent Memory? Are you not gods? Why yield your power, your dominion, to the Shepherd when, instead, I could help you rule over all, to make this universe and beyond in your image."
"Tirek, the events foretold must occur as prophesied by the Oracle, and the Crimson Shepherd must incarnate with our help," Ananke affirmed. "Without either action, the Grand Veil, Avalon, even time and destiny shall all be extinguished, and we shall cease to exist... as shall you."
"Then, you are weak and not worthy to rule as Sovereign, Ananke."
"I will not have you insult me in addressing the court, especially when the tone of your complaint conveys sedition upon us, upon Delphi, and upon the Shepherd."
"You know not what sedition is!" Tirek bellowed. "My prophecies have altered the course of life for the betterment of all, and yet I am the one committing sedition?"
A quiet, rumbling, maniacal laughter emerged from the draconequus, looking upon the Sovereigns with bitter contempt. His dark orange claws held an iron amulet as black as his corrupted heart, an eight-pointed star carved from a fire ruby set in the center.
"This ruby could have bestowed a new hope upon this cycle of existence. Instead, you reject freedom for willful enslavement by the Shepherd, blinded in your belief that she will save the dream her previous incarnation left for death..."
Tirek placed the amulet upon his neck, the dark magic within the ruby bonding with the remnant energy of the Oracle coursing through his veins.
"The Shepherd and her works are but abominations, and they must be cast into oblivion... starting with this court!" he roared, vaporising six minotaur guards in black fire.
Tirek then took to the high ceiling above the Sovereigns, his eyes glowing red in time with the ruby's pulsating light. His midnight-furred wings flapped against the bitter wind storm swirling within the royal chamber. Ananke rushed toward Tirek, her stone-white magic readied to take dead aim upon the monster.
She was too late to escape the dark rainbow exploding from the ruby, crashing to the marble floor like a bag of wet sand.
"You leave me no option but to destroy you myself," Chronos bellowed, wings unfurled in anger.
"No," Tirek calmly returned. "You shall sleep," his now-shifting, multi-toned voice reverberated, felling the dragon as quickly as the alicorn who dared to challenge him.
He whispered ominously into the dragon's ear. "The Oracle did proclaim the Crimson Shepherd would return through your actions, but I never said how it would ultimately come to pass."
Sadistic laughter filled the royal chamber as the dark rainbow wrapped itself around Tirek and filled the chamber with its cruel light.
"Thus began The Cyclical War," Chronos continued. "Tirek gathered his forces in the frozen wastes of Xiberia just outside Delphi, then used the Hope Ruby to tear through the Grand Veil. Our army battled him in many guises through each Cycle, while I tended to the health and recovery of my consort.
"When Ananke regained her strength, we led the final charge near the end of the Third Cycle, using the magic gained from the ruby's dark rainbow to draw forth the Crimson Shepherd.
"It was at the Gates of Silent Memory where the three of us defeated Tirek, turning his dark magic against the usurper in ways great and terrifying. The Crimson Shepherd took hold of the dark rainbow, bringing the corrupted spectrum to the Golden Shepherd just as the latter stepped out of the Gates of Dawn for the first time.
"The two Shepherds then wove the rainbow's black energy into the fabric of the Grand Veil and Veil of Avalon, triggering an implosion of elemental energy upon fusion with the Hope Ruby. This final sacrificial act overwhelmed the artifact and its owner, igniting a violent dispersal of new magic-- "
"In a Big Bang!" Twilight interjected.
"Indeed," smiling upon her. "Ananke and I found ourselves outside the Gates of Dawn with our universe intact upon a branch of light emanating from a distant star of an otherworldly nature. Around us were similar universes on similar branches, each slightly different than their neighbors.
"Out in the distance, we could see the other Cycles, each resembling our own and encased in a shimmering veil. The impenetrable stars at the heart of each Cycle were linearly connected through a golden thread, each surrounded by their own strange and wonderful universes.
"As for the Crimson Shepherd, she returned to her ephemeral existence as was foretold by the prophecy."
"You said Ananke was the one who cast the Hope Ruby into our world," Luna said. "When did this happen?"
"The ruby was found intact before the locked gate. Ananke picked up the artifact, which struck her down with its remaining dark magic. Upon careful examination, we discovered to our horror that Tirek's essence had been drawn into the ruby.
"It was then Ananke made her worse error in judgement: She ordered the Hope Ruby be cast out of Delphi, with no instruction as to where other than 'a place where dragons breathe.'"
The earth rumbled upon those words, followed by a crash that brought down the Oracle's magic seal. Before them all stood a mad goddess covered in the blood of the guards she dispatched moments prior.
"Kneel before your destiny, Sovereign!" Ananke roared through a voice similar to that of the traitorous Pythia eons ago.
"All right! It's go time, ladies!" Rainbow proclaimed.
"No," Chronos said. "This one must be handled by me, and me alone."
"But Your Grace, we can't just-- " Minerva pleaded with the dragon to no avail.
"The Oracle held one final prophecy, Dreamweaver: 'Delphi shall fall upon the Sword of Fate prior to Tirek's complete return from exile.'"
"You mean... he... but-- "
Ananke shed her guise to reveal her corrupted form, the Oracle's magic bleeding from her dark body onto the golden circle.
"Disperse," Chronos said, his weary voice reverberating off of the crumbling walls of the Oracle just as he found a horn run through his back.
The golden light faded to black.
* * * * * * * * *
"How long have we been gone?" asked Minerva.
"What is this place?" asked Twilight, her eyes widening at the sight around her.
The trans-dimensional travelers found themselves in the main lobby of a library whose classical architecture complemented the multitudes of data crystals, access terminals, and information screens that had long since replaced the traditional shelves of scrolls and books, reference services, and card catalogs the library once held centuries ago. Every bank of crystals flooded the lobby with an array of hues arranged and color-coded by subject, trails of dimmed blueish-white neon dividing each section of color. The combined glow of the moon, Galloway, and The Citadel filtering down through the domed skylight competed for the eyes enthralled by the display before them, but did little more than enhance the radiant scene.
"The Library of Atlantica," Pandora said. "Every book, every scroll, every spell... whatever information you seek, you will find it here in these archives."
"Not to put a damper on y'all's bewilderment, but Princess Minerva has a point," Applejack said. "Were we really gone for that long in that weird place?"
"I'm afraid so, Applejack," Celestia confirmed, "and I believe in his understandable haste, Chronos cast us all to Atlantis."
"Atlantis?" exclaimed Twilight.
"That would explain the beautiful obsidian castle rising above that gorgeous skylight," Rarity quietly beamed.
"The inside's a bit Creepytown, though," Rainbow said, prompting a frown from her friend. "What? I was here before! I know what it looked like!"
"The Rare Book Vault is down below through these doors," Minerva interjected, pointing to a pair of heavy wooden doors directly across from the group. "It is where we keep the knowledge that cannot be easily converted to data, if at all."
"It's also where we've kept every record of the Hope Ruby, compiled into a single book last touched shortly after my first... 'augmentations' were integrated into my body," Pandora added.
"If nothing else, we might be able to devise a strategy to defeat Tirek and destroy the Hope Ruby once and for all," Twilight proclaimed.
The Equestrians descended into the vault, the Atlanteans closing the door behind them.
* * * * * * * * *
"Three millennia ago," Twilight began reading, "the Kingdom of Palladia fell when the capital city of Palladia and the pegasus city-state of Aquilon annihilated each other in a cataclysmic act that would give rise to both Atlantis and Equestria. Few survived the brief conflict, among them a contingent of flutter ponies led by their regent, Queen Rosedust.
"Too injured to fly, the survivors took the only path available back to Flutter Valley, surviving on the few sun roses along the way that hadn't been contaminated by the resulting fallout. One such location was just outside a cave abandoned by a dragon not too long after the horrific event.
"When night fell upon them, Rosedust gathered her brood into the cave to escape the bitter winds gathering outside. She noticed some of the treasure the dragon hoarded had been inexplicably left behind, including an unusual fire ruby carved into the shape of an eight-pointed star laid upon a pile of gold coins and various jewels.
"Alas, it was not its beauty which drew her attention, but the darkness embedded within, and what the darkness desired most.
"Rosedust gathered the ruby in her torn cape and guarded it all the way back to her castle in Flutter Valley, where it would remain in the possession of the Queen's Throne until an incident with the ruby and Queen Goldenrod's only child 1,600 years ago prompted Goldenrod's decision to find a new home away from her kingdom."
"And that's when Star Swirl the Bearded was given the Hope Ruby?" Luna asked.
"Indeed, Luna," Pandora said. "At that point, his legend was known the world over as the most powerful magician to have ever lived. Along the way, he made a few alliances, one of them with the Queen of the Flutter Ponies. It was Goldenrod herself who bestowed the Hope Ruby to the wizard, entrusting him to keep it away from anyone whose heart was desirable enough to corrupt in its own image.
"With the use of his amniomorphic spell," Twilight continued, "the cursed artifact was sealed in a thick, impenetrable sphere of clay, then placed in a simple wooden box whose bronzework was magically and permanently fused together, foregoing the need for a lock of any sort. From there, it was kept hidden away on a shelf in his cottage in what is now White Tail Woods."
"Unfortunately, even those measures weren't enough. Princess Aria and Prince Helios were close friends with Star Swirl, the wizard often visiting Canterlot to help their daughters Celestia and Luna develop their magical talents.
"For reasons lost in time, Prince Helios visited Star Swirl in his cottage around the winter solstice two years before the Hope Ruby vanished from Atlantis, inquiring of the box containing the cursed artifact. Star Swirl did his best to distract the prince from the dark entity within, but could not dissuade his curiousity.
"Thus, Star Swirl took the box with him on a sailboat, travelling to the furthest place he knew the ruby could be kept hidden from the rest of the world, and from Helios," Twilight finished.
"I believe you know what happened next," Minerva said just as the doors into the vault clicked open, startling everyone inside.
"Princesses!" Star Tracer exclaimed, rushing down the steps to meet the four regents and their party gathered around a table lit by a pair of firefly lanterns. "We've been looking all over for you for hours! Are you all okay? Do we need to do anything immediately?"
"Yes," Pandora calmly stated. "I need you to prepare a dragonfly to depart with our guests."
"Yes, Your Majesty," bowing briefly before rushing out to her task.
"It sounds like you're not coming with us, Princess," Twilight frowned.
"I'm afraid not, my dear," Pandora sweetly stated. "The dragonfly will take you back to Canterlot, where you all will be safe until it is time."
"I hope you were able to gather the knowledge you needed, Twilight Sparkle," Minerva added. "May it serve you and your comrades well in the dark days to come," bowing before the unicorn alongside her sister.
"Um, heh-heh, why are you bowing before me? I'm not a princess like you two, or your goddaughters."
"Call it a hunch, my dear," Pandora said, looking over to her eldest in brief acknowledgement.
* * * * * * * * *
Over the dark waters of the Sea of Hrímfaxi, the dragonfly carried its passengers back to Canterlot as programmed into the craft's guidance system by Star Tracer before departure. Rarity nearly wept as she and the rest of the party circled past The Citadel -- a command Pandora whispered into Star Tracer's ear during the final system check as a surprise for the unicorn -- before rushing toward the eastern horizon, knowing she might never see such a sight ever again, though the glimmering pool below almost made up for what could have been.
"I wonder how a dragonfly would look in white instead of black," Rarity said to herself. "The blue neon lighting is quite daring, especially with the way it highlights the various shapes against whatever materials were used in the craft's construction."
"They're still working on a name for that," Pinkie casually said.
"Pinkie, how fast does this thing go?" Rainbow asked. "I've never seen the water zoom by so quickly!"
"I know, right? Anyway, I heard something about 230 knots once, which is probably why unicorns and alicorns make up most of the dragonfly pilots. I mean, tying all those knots must be hard with just hooves, right? Magic just makes it easier!"
Rainbow and Rarity didn't have anything to counter Pinkie Logic.
"Is everything well, dear sister?"
Celestia and Luna looked out from the windshield of the dragonfly toward the endless evening, the altimeter denoting the difference between sea and sky. At first, Celestia examined the array of instruments used in the operation of the strange craft, how they reflected the outward appearance in design, and how -- with no pilot at the helm but the dragonfly itself -- the instrumentation danced with each other. The princess found the sight fascinating, but other thoughts soon drew her attention to the unrecognizable night sky merged seamlessly with the sparkling inky depths.
"I worry about Twilight and her friends, Luna," she replied. "Tirek is nothing like a Queen Chrysalis or a Nightmare Moon. Not even Discord was as evil...
"Luna" -- pain and heartache filled her eyes -- "there won't be a Lord Chronos or Lady Ananke to help stop Tirek this time."
"Have faith, Tia," Luna softly yet firmly reassured her big sister. "Equestria has faced many a dark hour, and many more will come. Yet with Twilight and her friends in control of The Elements of Harmony, Equestria has, and will, come out stronger every time."
"I know I should have more faith in my student and her friends. I just can't shake this feeling that this may be the darkest hour, Lulu. Not just for us, Equestria, nor Atlantis, but for all existence."
"Equestria Energy Boundary detected. Estimated time of arrival: Two minutes," the dragonfly's mare-voiced AI announced, snapping Celestia out of her worries for the time being.
All of the ponies gathered around to witness the faint blue-violet veil shimmering from the black sea into the heavens.
"Well, I'll be!" Applejack quietly exclaimed.
"It's beautiful!" Rarity and Fluttershy awed in unison.
"Whoa!" Rainbow barely uttered.
"I didn't know there was such a thing, or that it even had a name!" Twilight proclaimed in disbelief.
"Neither did I, Twilight," Pinkie said.
"Really?" all but the princesses questioned.
"Mm-hmm. Unless it goes by a different name... I'll have to check when we get home!"
"I hope Spike isn't too mad at us for disappearing like we did," Fluttershy wondered.
"I think he knew what happened, my dear," Celestia knowingly reassured her, looking back toward the veil's brightening glow.
"Thirty seconds to boundary crossing; no protective eyewear is needed at this time," the AI stated.
"It must be night on the other side," Luna pondered. "But if we were all away, then how-- "
Celestia hugged her sister. "I think I know who took over for us," her eyes glancing upward into the rapidly fading starlight.
"Ten seconds to crossing."
"Goodbye, my teachers."
A lone tear fell from her eyes, becoming one with the veil upon crossing through.
Warm breezes caressed the many trees within the walls of the royal garden, rustling the leaves long after the dragonfly's rotors ceased their own hurricane. Though the night sky was clear above, storm clouds coalesced in the western horizon, driving the winds toward the heart of Equestria.
"What a strange wind this time of night," pondered Celestia.
"I guess the wind and cloud factories are testing something before more repairs, Princess," Rainbow replied.
"I'm afraid none of the weather is of the Pegasi's doing, Rainbow Dash," Luna ominously stated.
"Rest well, my little ponies," Celestia began, "for tomorrow will be our darkest hour yet."
The ponies followed the princesses inside the castle, except for Fluttershy, who quietly walked over to the imposing dragonfly. She gently placed a hoof upon its face, stroking the black metal as if it were one of her animals back in her cottage.
"Fluttershy?" Rainbow asked, accidentally startling her friend.
"What are you doing?"
"There's something about this dragonfly that feels real to me, Rainbow."
"Uhh, it's a machine, Fluttershy. It's super-smart and all, but that's about it."
"I think it's more than that," she asserted. "I think it's alive."
Rainbow blinked in disbelief. "What?"
"This dragonfly is alive, as alive as you or I!"
"I think you just had a really long day, pal."
"Oh, but Rainbow, didn't you say the fireflies were alive?"
"I said Princess Pandora called them her 'children,' and that she's able to speak to them like you're able to speak to... oh boy."
At that moment, the dragonfly's lights bathed the immediate vicinity in its bluish-white light as if to confirm Fluttershy's belief, then faded to black once more.
"I knew it!" Fluttershy squeed. "I told you the dragonfly was alive, and I was right!"
"Okay, dragonfly whisperer. Time for bed," Rainbow said, shaking her head at the nonsense.
"Goodnight, my little dragonfly," she cooed, giving the machine a soft kiss on the top of what would be its muzzle.
As the duo departed back toward the castle, the dragonfly softly glowed in acknowledgement of Fluttershy's acceptance.
Alas, the warm display was countered by dark laughter carried within the strengthening breeze.
"D-did you h-hear that?" Fluttershy's voice shook.
"I think so," Rainbow said, looking back toward the dragonfly. "I just hope it came from your new friend."
The dark laughter returned briefly, then vanished into the background.
* * * * * * * * *
"You asked to see me, Your Majesty?"
Princess Pandora stood alone before the reflecting pool in the center of the royal garden for an eternity, observing the stars and moon slowly give way to dark grey clouds. Warm winds and occasional flashes of lightning followed, thunder slamming against The Citadel in retaliation for keeping its master at bay.
"I did, General," she replied, turning to face Firestorm with a heavy-hearted look in her eyes. "Have you anything to report?"
"I do, Princess," Firestorm began. "The last of the Library of Atlantica archives were secured aboard the Aria an hour ago, along with the seed, genetic, and rare book vaults."
"And the evacuation order?"
"Issued as instructed, Your Majesty. The hospitals are bringing their patients down to the hangar under military escort, with the rest of our citizens due to start arriving at midnight. If all goes smoothly, we should be able to board you and your sister before dawn.
"Alas, a few of my mares informed me there are 60 patients who are too weak to leave with us. Some are foals, some are as old as we. Is there anything we can do for them?"
"Are they able to be moved to Argentum Tor?"
"I believe so, but their chances of survival are still nil, Your Highness."
"'Tis better to become one with the light than be entombed in darkness at the dawn of our reckoning," she compassionately proclaimed. "Please instruct our soldiers to escort the patients to the hillside. Allow their families to have a chance to say goodbye for as long as they need, and allow their loved ones whatever their hearts desire."
"Yes, Princess Pandora," Firestorm acknowledged.
Pandora turned back to gaze upon the reflecting pool as more thunder echoed off the The Citadel's tallest pillar, the prophecy of Atlantis' destruction and Tirek's return at long last unwinding above the two alicorns. Her heart struggled against the chains of history, her mind weighed down by the memory of a similar event from long ago.
"Three thousand years ago, my sister and I met our grandfather for the first and only time. He was carried off the Sapphire of Autumn upon the back of his most trusted adviser, his body as broken as the partially sunk ship that aided in his last defiant act as ruler of Palladia.
"Our parents rushed over to him, Min and I holding on tightly to our father's back. Mother collapsed before Grandfather, her tears cascading upon the white sand stained by his blood. Father ordered the guards to carry him back to the castle infirmary, but Grandfather refused, knowing they were too late to save him.
"It was then Grandfather looked upon the four of us with a glimmer of hope, and said what would be his final words to all of us:
"'Though I have lost what I have long fought to restore, through your eyes and those of my grandchildren am I able to finally rest in the full faith and knowledge that harmony shall persevere until the world is ready to regain its elements once again, turning the darkness into light.'"
A gust of wind mockingly laughed at the statement, perking the ears of both alicorns.
"Upon those words," Pandora continued, "a flash of white light brighter than a thousand suns rose from the northern horizon, followed by a rolling thunder that seemed to last forever. A trinity of halos surrounded the growing ball of demonic flame as it transitioned into a mushroom cloud. All of us lost our ability to speak at that moment... all but our grandfather, who followed his kingdom and title into history."
Lightning struck the palladium headstone at the top of Argentum Tor, echoing what befell Palladia and her people three millennia before.
"Your Majesty," Firestorm began, "I have served you and your sister for 1,500 years, seeing and experiencing things most would never believe... your goddaughters asserting their power over Equestria from the Everfree Forest... obsidian angels triumphing over nightmares in New Amstermare... the razing of Castle Atlantica in the midst of a changeling invasion... " she paused, her authoritative demeanor cracking with her voice.
"Through it all, Atlantis has not only prevailed in her own right, but raised her allies up from the darkness so that harmony would have a fighting chance. All because you and your sister took hold of the flame that would have been extinguished with your grandfather's passing had he not done all he could to ensure that his legacy would not go quietly into the light."
"... Indeed," Pandora warmly beamed.
"Speaking of your sister, where is Princess Minerva?" Firestorm asked.
"Tending to the dreams of her subjects, as always, General."
* * * * * * * * *
"Need help reaching those clouds, little one?"
Shrouded in the rainbow mist enveloping the Winsome Falls gazebo, Minerva watched an orange and purple pegasus attempt to take flight to be with her idol, her wings struggling to lift her body only a few inches off the ground. The princess' heart cracked and buckled with every crash the filly endured, until her heart could bear no more.
"Wh- who are you?" the young pegasus asked the alicorn emerging from the shroud.
"I am Minerva, and it is my duty to come into your dreams when darkness threatens," she said in a calm, commanding voice. "Who might you be?"
"I'm Scootaloo. Is this really a dream? It feels so real," the dream energy rippling from her touch.
"Indeed, Scootaloo," kneeling down to meet her subject eye to eye.
"Is there something bad that's going to happen?" Scootaloo nervously asked.
"No nightmares shall come your way here, but I know of heartbreak when I see it," pointing to Scootaloo's wings.
"I just want to be up there with Rainbow Dash," tears welling up beneath her eyes, "but my wings are too small to fly with her."
"You needn't shed any tears, little one," the princess warmly proclaimed, directing her subject's attention to a descending Rainbow.
"Hey kid!" Rainbow said. "Would you like to come fly with me around Winsome Falls?"
"Would I?" Scootaloo's eyes widened.
"Come on! I can carry you on my hoof so you can let those bad boys gets some air," pointing to her admirer's wings as they rapidly buzzed in excitement.
Minerva watched her subject beam with pure joy as the pegasi duo zoomed and arced through the rainbows and clouds of the falls, her heart warmed by the feelings and complete innocence before her uplifted eyes.
"I'll catch ya later, kid!" Rainbow said after dropping Scootaloo off at the gazebo moments later before departing back to Cloudsdale.
"Isn't she amazing!" Scootaloo awed, almost forgetting about the alicorn next to her.
"She definitely is," Minerva said.
"Thank you so much for making this happen!" hugging the princess tightly. "I don't know how you did it, but thank you!"
"You are quite welcome, Scootaloo," smiling softly upon her subject.
"Will I see you again?"
The question gave Minerva pause, considering what awaited when the dream was over, but she was not about to break Scootaloo's heart now. Gently and diplomatically, she gave the filly her answer.
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. But do not worry, for there shall always be somepony to take the reins if ever I were to be hindered in my ability to protect and aid my dreaming subjects. This, I promise to you, Scootaloo."
"Well, if I never see you again, I want to thank you for making this a wonderful dream, Minerva!" giving her one more big hug. Minerva responded by nuzzling her subject and holding her as close as she could.
"You are welcome, Scootaloo," she replied, the veil of mist from Winsome Falls clouding the scene once more. "May your dream come true beyond this realm."
An all too familiar sadistic laughter caught her ears.
"You shall neither torture me any longer, nor shall you gain entrance into the wake world without a fight, Tirek," she declared.
Upon those words, a thick shroud of grey fog enveloped Minerva. His deranged cackling mocked her defiance, bouncing and echoing off the engulfing wall. The princess firmly stood her ground, countering his dark magic with her own. Whatever Tirek wanted, he would have to do his worse.
"Open your eyes!" Tirek commanded.
The fog lifted to reveal the throne room in Canterlot Castle, lit only by the light of the moon. At the foot of the throne stood a behemoth whose fur matched his heart, and whose scales reflected the barely restrained hatred and malevolence he possessed.
Around his neck was an eight-pointed star carved from a fire ruby, set into an amulet of meteoric iron.
"I've waited all of my life for you, dear Minerva," he said in a voice that could freeze the soul. "I have been dead for so long."
"You were dead the moment you turned on the Sovereigns," Minerva shot back.
"The Sovereigns were weak, and deserved to share their fate with all of Delphi and Xiberia. They held no ambition or aspiration to take the Grand Veil and its worlds when the opportunity presented itself, abdicating their rule for eternal slavery under the Shepherd.
"And speaking of her, how is your sister, Minerva?" a row of daggers bared in sadistic mockery.
"You've no right to trespass upon my dominion!" she growled.
"And yet, I'm not the only trespasser before you," he darkly intoned.
Tirek's dark magic revealed eight ponies and one dragon bound and hung from the roof just behind him, Luna, Celestia and Twilight suspended over the throne itself.
"Help us, Minerva!" Pinkie Pie pleaded.
"We will not let you get away with this!" Luna said.
"... They're... you've woken them? In my domain!"
"Did you believe all of this was a dream?" Tirek cruelly asked.
"This is still my domain, Tirek. Let. Them. Go."
"You are correct, Minerva. This is your domain, meaning if they die here...
"Then they shall die in the wake world, as well!" his harsh voice echoed.
"Over my dead body," Minerva proclaimed, her wings drawn to direct a certain spell toward the draconequus.
Ponies from every corner of Atlantis entered the hangar under the watchful eyes of the Atlantean Royal Guard, unaware of the spirit inhabiting the Aria as they boarded in an orderly manner.
'So he has returned,' the spirit thought to herself. 'Time for me to do the same."
The lights in the hangar flickered briefly, spooking the guards and the citizenry alike.
The stinging rain intensified over the royal garden, accompanied by heavy rolling thunder. Pandora turned to the gates to escape when a bolt of lightning struck the reflecting pool, knocking her to her hooves.
'Pandora, your sister needs you,' a disembodied voice calmly called. 'She is in great danger, as are the Elements of Harmony.'
"Where is she?" Pandora asked the oddly familiar voice.
"Look into the pool."
The sight of Minerva battling Tirek while her goddaughters and their champions struggled against their bondage was enough for Pandora to dive into the conflict.
"Spike! Can you direct your fire upon one of us?" Twilight yelled.
"I don't want to set you on fire, Twilight!" Spike exclaimed in horror.
"No! At our ropes! If one of us is free, then they should be able to untie the rest of us!"
A beam of red energy tore the dragon from his ropes, slamming his lifeless body against the wall behind the throne.
"Spike!" everypony yelled.
"How dare you do that him! He did nothin' to ya!" Applejack admonished.
"Escape is futile," his horrid voice echoed.
"As shall be your victory, Tirek," a familiar voice rang out.
"Mother?" Celestia and Luna said in unison.
Two alicorns walked up to Minerva: Pandora upon the left flank, and a long lost princess to her right.
"Princess Aria? Is that you?" Minerva gasped.
A blue aura of magic wrapped around each pony, gently lowering them to the floor after Aria tore their ropes apart. Twilight then rushed over to Spike, levitating him upon her back.
"Disperse," Aria commanded the illusion.
The throne room faded from view, revealing a black marble and gold monument of eight pillars and a reflecting pool, centered in a large meadow surrounded by zap apple groves under the eternal silver moon of Astra.
"Luna, Celestia, please take everypony through the reflecting pool," Aria ordered. "The three of us shall protect your escape."
"Mother-- " Celestia tried to protest.
"Do not worry for me, my loves," wrapping her ghostly wings around her daughters. "I will always watch over you for as long as my spirit exists. Now go, while you still can."
Tirek loomed above the old royal trinity, his red eyes focused upon them as his prisoners escaped through the reflecting pool.
"It is good to see you again, dear Aria," vitriol dripping from his distorted, bending voice. "It shall be my pleasure to kill you once more."
"You cannot kill what is already dead, Tirek," Aria spat back.
"There's a first time for everything, Princess."
A bright red beam of pure dark magic escaped from the Hope Ruby, rushing toward Aria with intent to annihilate. She and her allies countered with a combined attack of their own, bringing down the draconequus hard to the earth.
"Aria, Minerva, you are of no concern to me, not when the Shepherd herself has graced me with her presence," Tirek said through his sadistic razor of a smile.
"You will have to go through us first, Tirek!" Minerva declared, her wings shining with the glow of her sister's scythe magic at the ready.
"You shall find that we do not yield easily to any opponent, let alone an abomination such as yourself!" Aria icily punctuated with her own glowing wings.
"Dori," Minerva whispered to her sister, "leave. Aria and I can settle this one."
"Tirek's vendetta begins and ends with the Shepherd... with you, Pandora," Aria said. "If you and Avalon perish, the Grand Veil and all life in it are as good as finished."
"Do not worry about me, dear sister," Minerva added, tears of ice forming under her eyes. "Just remember that I will always love you. Now please, go through the pool back to Atlantis."
"Bu-- ," Pandora tried to spit out.
"Please, go," her sister pleaded.
"... I love you, too, Min," she wept, diving through the reflecting pool against her heart.
"Your sacrifice will be for naught, Minerva," Tirek heckled. "You and the ghost should know that I cannot die, no matter what you do."
The princess scowled upon the mad draconequus, a determined glare piercing through his red curtains.
"There is a first time for everything."
The wind shimmered around the combatants inside the monument, carrying Astra's dream energy through Minerva's wings and horn into her heart as she entered into the incantation that would seal her fate:
"Under the light of the eternal moon, before the new light of dawn, dreams and nightmares no longer bound, the Dreamweaver sacrifices her crown.
"Ad mortem, ad vitam."
Upon those words, Minerva's divine magic violently ruptured from her body, activating the pillars and drawing the moon directly above the monument. Through immense pain, the princess then ripped out Tirek's and the Hope Ruby's magic to create a self-destructive feedback loop of energy, burning the veil separating Astra from Avalon and the physical realm.
"Minerva," Tirek's distorted voice stretched and reverberated, "your foolish act of sacrifice has broken the final seal between worlds! Your generation shall not pass, for I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end! The Grand Veil will shine no more! The Shepherd and her champions shall all perish under my power! Ad vitam... ad mortem!" he hissed through insane laughter as the combined energy of the ruby, alicorn and draconequus magics coalesced into a blinding white light, erasing all it touched.
* * * * * * * * *
Firestorm and Star Tracer comforted their princess at the edge of the reflecting pool, though little time was left to evacuate her to the Aria before dawn broke over The Citadel.
"Princess, I know this isn't the time, but dawn is fast approaching," Star Tracer pleaded.
"I know," Pandora sobbed, "but could I just have a few more minutes, please?"
"Your sister gave her life to save us," Firestorm began, interrupted by a flash of lightning plummeting down the sides of the black monolith, "or, at least, to buy us some time."
"I should have stayed with her! I could have saved her!"
"Your Majesty... ," Star Tracer's voice broke.
Pandora looked into the pool, a heartbroken expression reflected back into her equally broken heart over the loss of her twin sister. The reflection held for an eternity until a slight smile broke upon her muzzle, followed by her sister breaking through the water.
"Minerva!" everypony exclaimed while Firestorm and Star Tracer pulled the weakened princess out of the pool.
"You needn't shed any tears, my dear sister," Minerva labored to say.
"I thought I lost you forever!" Pandora gushed, tightly hugging and nuzzling her twin sister.
"I thought I was forever lost, too, Dori," wiping away a few tears of her own.
"Your Majesty, what happened to your mane?" Firestorm asked.
The sisters broke their embrace to address the general's question, only for Pandora's jaw to drop in shock.
"I haven't seen your mane and tail like that in centuries!" she gasped.
What had once been a physical display of Minerva's divine power now lay dripping wet, stripped of all its magical properties.
"In sacrificing myself to save you and Avalon, I sacrificed Astra and my divinity, as well," she stoically replied.
"Oh Min, I'm so sorry," Pandora cried.
"Don't worry about that now, Dori. If that sky above means anything" -- pointing to the crimson light now contaminating the formerly grey clouds -- "we have little time until Tirek makes his grand return."
A wave of rolling thunder slammed against the pulsing citadel of obsidian and liquefied violet Etherium.