Stunned silence filled the room.
Tirek looked down at the scattered shards of crystal littering the table and the bare stump of silver which had attached it to the chain around his neck. He looked up at Princess Twilight, a frown on his face.
Princess Twilight's ears folded down. "I'll get you a new one," she said in a rush.
"That crystal was ancient and unique," Tirek rumbled. "It has been passed down for hundreds of years. It cannot simply be replaced—"
"It'll take about five minutes to make a new one," Sunset interrupted. "It's not even that difficult a spell. I could do it."
Tirek's mouth clicked shut. He blinked once. "Really."
"Yeah, I just need a good quality, pure crystal to enchant," Princess Twilight said. "Magic detection spell, magic frequency isolator spell, location direction spell, fracture-resistance charm..." With a sheepish grimace, she added, "Feedback resistance if you're going to be anywhere near me with it, apparently." She offered a game smile. "Bring me a crystal, I can make you a new one in five, ten minutes tops."
Tirek grunted. "In that case...Dean Cadance, I am going to need a ride to a wholesaler later," he said. "I can easily afford any crystal of decent quality."
"Y-yeah, sure," Cadance said, her eyes having never left Princess Twilight.
"The clearer the better," Princess Twilight cautioned. "Equestrian magic frequencies are distinguished by color. Clear crystals won't distort the visual spectrum of magic."
Tirek nodded. "Interesting."
Twilight adjusted her glasses. "Feedback resistance...you mean you didn't shatter that on purpose? To prove some kind of point?"
"What? No!" Princess Twilight said, her face aghast. "I wouldn't do something like that! I mean, if this Tirek were as bad as the one back home, then yeah, I'd have done it, but that was totally an accident!"
"Looks like it wasn't calibrated to handle an alicorn's magic," Sunset said thoughtfully. "That either means it didn't come from Equestria, or—"
"Or it was created by an Equestrian unicorn, but one who never expected it to come in contact with an alicorn," Princess Twilight said thoughtfully. "If I had to guess? Starswirl the Bearded."
"Well, he did open the door on this world to use it as his personal toilet," Sunset said sourly. "Makes sense he'd leave the locals a way to..." She gestured vaguely. "Watch out for turds."
"Okay can we never use that analogy again? Please?" Cadance said plaintively, her face twisted in a nauseated grimace.
Tirek grunted as he studied Princess Twilight more intently. "Most curious," he said thoughtfully. "You are a tremendously magical creature, and yet you resemble something out of a ridiculous storybook for little girls."
"Hey!" Princess Twilight said indignantly.
Sunset giggled. "Actually, he's right, Twilight," she said. "It took me a while to get a sense of humor about it. It helped that thinking of Celestia as a storybook princess being brushed by little human girls made me giggle." She paused, then grimaced. "Err...please don't ever tell her I said that."
Princess Twilight frowned. "Wait, you mean...really?"
"I'm afraid so," Celestia said with a sheepish smile.
"What exactly are you?" Twilight asked, leaning closer and peering intently at her counterpart. "You are unusually small for an equine, and your anatomy doesn't match any species of equine I've ever read about. Also, why do you have wings like a pegasus and a horn like a unicorn? Those are two entirely different mythological creatures. You usually only see winged unicorns in storybooks or paintings by people who don't bother doing their research."
Princess Twilight took a step back. "I'm an alicorn," she said.
"Alicorns are kind of a super-race of ponies," Sunset explained. "Where we come from, there are three races of ponies. Earth ponies, unicorns, and pegasi."
"And an alicorn is...the perfect combination of the three?" Tirek asked.
"Something like that," Princess Twilight said. "Except it's a bit more complicated. We have the strengths of all three pony races, but we also have unique alicorn magic that's different, it's..." She shook her head. "It's hard to explain, and based on what I know about your world, you wouldn't believe me if I tried."
"In terms you'd relate to here, they're living goddesses," Sunset said. "All-powerful, revered by the ponies of Equestria."
"Ack! I'm not a goddess!" Princess Twilight said, making a face and waving her hooves. "Trust me, I'm the furthest thing from a goddess!"
"It's just an analogy," Sunset said with a smirk and a roll of her eyes.
"But you're so tiny!" Cadance said. "And, well...adorable!"
"Eep!" Princess Twilight squeaked, jumping away from her and blushing.
Sunset laughed. "Get used to that," she said. "I went through a whole weekend of that with the girls. Especially Fluttershy."
Twilight turned to her, pointing a finger first at Sunset, then at Princess Twilight. "Then you're a...?"
"Unicorn," Sunset explained. She pulled the amulet out of her shirt and tapped the glowing teal crystal. "Right now, this is locking the spell that's letting me look like a human." She sighed. "I want my real human body back. I mean, it's great having magic again and all, but..." She chuckled. "I'm used to being human. I miss it."
Princess Twilight patted her shoulder sympathetically. "We'll find a way, I promise."
"You're a unicorn from another world, you have magic powers, and yet you would prefer to be a mere human?" Tirek asked.
"It's a long story," Sunset said. "One I'd rather not tell, if it's all the same."
"You may have to tell them some of it," Princess Twilight said. "I mean, if they're gonna help us figure out how to fix the portal, they have to know..." Her ears folded back. "I mean, like it or not, your personal history is kind of tied to all of this."
Sunset grimaced. "Yeah," she said. "Just...let me get to know them a little better first, alright?"
"For now, let's simply say that Sunset Shimmer's presence at this school is the direct—or indirect—cause of every magical episode we've experienced," Celestia said mildly. She turned to Princess Twilight, a curious frown on her face. "There is something I've been curious about, listening to the two of you talk," she said. She frowned, hesitated, then continued, "Whenever you mention...my other self, or Luna, and now even Dean Cadance here—"
"Princess Celestia is the ruler of Equestria," Princess Twilight said with an understanding smile. "She's also my personal teacher and the wisest, kindest, most gentle pony to ever have lived."
Principal Celestia raised an eyebrow. "I hardly think you need to butter me up," she said.
Sunset chuckled. "She means it," she said. "Princess Celestia is almost infuriatingly perfect. If I'd been less...well, the way I was..." She sighed.
"And is she also one of these...'alicorns'?" Cadance asked.
Princess Twilight nodded. "Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and Princess Cadance are all alicorns. Right now, the four of us are the only alicorns in all Equestria."
"Hmm," Tirek rumbled. "So you concentrate the greatest power among the few chosen to rule."
"It isn't like that!" Princess Twilight said. "I mean, okay, it's kinda like that, but the Princesses don't rule because they have powerful alicorn magic! It's...it's more than that," she said. "It's hard to explain..."
"The pony tribes came to the alicorns to ask for their leadership when they founded Equestria," Sunset Shimmer said. "It's a long story and the basis for one of our most celebrated holidays." She smiled. "I haven't had a chance to tell the story of Hearth's Warming in a long time, maybe I can tell you all later."
Twilight shook her head. "I'm sorry, I can't picture Dean Cadance as a tiny horse creature."
Sunset laughed. "The other Princesses are bigger than Twilight," she said. "She's still pretty much a regular unicorn, but with wings."
Princess Twilight grimaced. "Yeah, I haven't been an alicorn for very long yet," she said. "I've hit a little growth spurt, but it'll be decades before I really hit the kind of growth that makes the other princesses look..." She waved a wing vaguely. "Princessy."
Twilight blinked. "Haven't been an alicorn? What's that supposed to mean?"
"I, umm..." Princess Twilight laughed sheepishly. "It's way too long a story to get into and it'd be saying way too much, but up until about a year and a half ago, I was a unicorn."
"Do you mean to say there exists a system of magical promotion?" Tirek asked curiously, leaning forward with interest.
"Not exactly," Princess Twilight said. "I mean, anypony becoming an alicorn is...it's a huge deal. It's only happened twice in the entire history of Equestria. It only happens if it's destined to happen."
"And Princess Celestia and Princess Luna are the last two original alicorns," Sunset said. "Nobody knows much about their past."
"So what do the other alicorns look like?" Principal Celestia asked.
Princess Twilight quirked an eyebrow and smiled. "That's where you were going with all this, huh?" With a laugh, she aimed her horn at the center of the table. Slowly, a life-size, three-dimensional image appeared of a tall, graceful white alicorn with old, wise eyes, a long, slender horn, and a billowing rainbow mane and tail. Sunset involuntarily gasped, eyes wide, and put a hand to her heart.
Dean Cadance blinked. "Okay, yeah, that's a horse princess," she said.
"Incredible," Tirek breathed. "It's only an illusion, and yet I can feel her power..."
"Twilight," Sunset said, her voice hoarse, "turn it off. Please..."
Princess Twilight glanced to Sunset to see tears spilling from her eyes. Her ears folded back, and she ended the illusion. "Are you okay?" she asked.
Sunset sniffled and wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve. "Sorry," she said sheepishly, her cheeks flushing. "I just...I didn't expect seeing her to hit me that hard..."
Princess Twilight folded a wing around her. "If you want to go see her, you can," she said soothingly.
Sunset sniffled and nodded. "Maybe," she said.
"I'm sorry," Principal Celestia said awkwardly. "I didn't mean to—"
"It's alright," Sunset said, forcing a smile. "Just...just some personal issues I haven't settled yet." She sighed. "I guess maybe now would be a good time to get some closure." She coughed and cleared her throat. "So! Portal. Since you're already in alicorn form, wanna...wanna go take a look?"
Principal Celestia frowned. "Is that a good idea? I mean, isn't this exactly why you didn't want to come to school as a unicorn?"
Princess Twilight smiled. "Oh, I can manage to move around without anybody noticing me," she said. "I just can't interact with anybody while I'm doing it." Her horn lit up...
And with that, she vanished. A faintly rippling shimmer, like heat on asphalt, filled the empty space where she stood.
Twilight's eyes widened behind her glasses. "Invisibility?"
"Sunset, if you could take my things to the girls' locker room in the gym?" the invisible alicorn asked. "I'll head there and change back as soon as I've had a look at the portal."
"Of course," Sunset said. There was a sudden, intense magenta flash from the empty space atop the table. Sunset stood up, gathering Princess Twilight's clothes. "Well," she said, "if you'll all come with me, I can answer some of your questions."
* * * * *
She'd never had any complaints about the weather in Vanhoover. It was never too warm, and when it got cold, at least you knew it wouldn't be as bad as other places. The rain could get to be a bit much sometimes, sure, but sometimes she enjoyed just sitting someplace safe and dry and watching the rain. And when it snowed...
Well, the city covered in snow was one of her favorite things, as long as she had enough warm clothes to enjoy it.
No, she'd never had any complaints about the weather. At least, not until recently.
Her breath fogged in front of her as she vigorously rubbed her arms for warmth through the layers of flannel and fleece she wore. "Come on," she grumbled, "it's not supposed to be this cold this time of year..."
"Eh, we get late cold snaps sometimes," the tall, broad man standing beside her said with a shrug. "People are acting like this is bad, but ten years ago we had that one really awful blizzard." He shuddered. "That was the year before we built the Camp. I lost a lot of friends that year."
She sighed. "We still lose some good people in the winter. Just not enough of anything to go around."
"Yeah." He looked at her and grimaced. "Dammit, Beck. You shouldn't have to live in the Camp. As young, healthy, and pretty as you are, as smart as you are, you should be able to figure out how to make a real life for yourself."
'Beck' laughed. "Yeah, and how would I do that? I don't exist, remember? Hell, I don't even know my own name." She shook her head. "Come on, DD. I wanna get as much work done as I can before sunset. I'd rather be warm in bed than walking around in the cold and dark, wouldn't you?"
"Yeah," 'DD' agreed. Their boots crunched on the grass as they walked down a broad hill. As they neared the road with its sparse early morning traffic, a light snow began to fall. "Well, look at that! It's snowing!"
Beck shivered. "Great," she muttered sarcastically. "And me without my tobo—"
A loud, violent screech and crash cut her off. Looking at each other with wide eyes, Beck and DD ran down the street. When they reached the intersection, they slowed to a stop. "Whoa," Beck said, blinking.
Two men were standing in the middle of the street, shouting at each other and waving their fists angrily. One of them had T-boned the other's SUV with his car; the car's front end was crumpled, and a significant section of the rear of the SUV was caved in on one side. Busted glass littered the street.
"—drive like a FUCKING idiot!" the larger of the two men roared as they got close enough to make out the argument.
"Oh yeah? Well I had the right of way, you jerk!"
"My foot has the right of way up your ass, punk!"
"Oh you want some? Come and get it, bitch!"
The men rushed each other. Alarmed, DD and Beck charged forward, each grabbing one of the two men and dragging them back. The men struggled, cursed, and yelled.
"GUYS!" Beck shouted over them. "This! Isn't! How! You! Deal! With! This!"
"Yeah, did either of you even think of calling the police yet?"
"GET OFF ME!"
"Let go, you little—"
As they kept trying to hold the men back, a small crowd gathered. Beck watched some people pull out their phones and start recording. "Hey! Wanna maybe do something useful? Call somebody? Even just put away the phone and come help?!" Just then, the man she was holding grabbed hold of a lock of her long copper-and-gold hair and yanked hard. "OW!" she cried. She then let out a grunt of pain as she took an elbow to the breadbasket and was forced to let go. The man rushed forward, a fist cocked to punch out the other motorist...
DD jerked his guy to the side before he could lash out with a foot to kick. While the loose motorist was overextended, DD slammed the forehead of his guy into the other guy's forehead, then let go. Both men dropped to the ground like sacks of potatoes. He snorted, then rushed over to Beck, leaning in to check on her. "You okay, Beck?" he asked worriedly.
Beck coughed once, but nodded. "Yeah, he just took a cheap shot. I'm good." She looked at the two unconscious men. "Nice," she said. "Come on, let's get outta here."
"Good call." DD and Beck pulled their hoods up over their heads as they walked away from the scene.
Just as they rounded a corner out of sight of the rubberneckers, Beck's gaze fell upon three tall, pale girls with glacier-colored hair and ice-blue eyes who hovered at the back edge of the crowd. The girls were dressed in identical fur-lined white parkas, and each had a glittering snowflake-shaped pendant around her neck.
A sudden deep chill ran down Beck's spine that had nothing to do with the cold wind or the snow.