Princess Twilight frowned as she examined the portal in ways only an alicorn could. Magical information streamed into her brain, resolving itself into visual and auditory impulses, rhythmic patterns of color and touch that circled the edges of her mind in an ethereal dance.
The mirror and its various intricate magics had certain patterns that were familiar to her. Every time she'd experimented with it, calibrated it, traveled through it, she'd felt the pulsing kaleidoscope of transportative and transfigurative magic Starswirl had woven into it, as well as Celestia's magic bound to the journal and her own magic bound to the wedge that opened the door. Then, too, were the lingering threads of magic from the Elements of Harmony, remnants of her adventures with Sunset Shimmer and, later, the Dazzlings.
But there was something new in the flow of magic from the portal, and it was certainly not something she'd felt from her side.
And that set off alarm bells in her head.
Because she recognized one of the new patterns of magic, and it absolutely had no business showing up on the Canterlot High side of the portal.
*Why am I sensing the Cutie Map here? And what's this other magic it's been bound to? For that matter, who could bind another type of magic to the Map, let alone without me knowing?*
Mind whirling, she teleported back into the school and glided through the corridors, thankful they were empty—even with her invisibility spell in place, the wind her wings stirred up in the hallway would have been noticed.
* * * * *
"So three incompetent leaders squabbling because they were biased against the other types of ponies nearly destroyed themselves and their entire kingdoms, and three underlings with calmer heads literally saved your entire race by becoming friends?" Tirek asked.
"Pretty much," Sunset said. "At least, that's how the story goes. There's probably a lot more to it than the old story goes, but the Windigoes absolutely existed, and hatred and conflict make them stronger." She frowned thoughtfully. "Actually, that makes me wonder if Windigoes and Sirens are somehow related. Maybe Princess Twilight can research that back in Equestria when—"
Princess Twilight abruptly faded into view, startling her counterpart. "Sunset, we've got a problem. I think. I'm not sure. It doesn't make any sense." She started pacing. "I don't know what it means, how it happened, or why, but I think I've found the problem with the portal. I just...I don't know what..." She shook her head. "It's not possible. It doesn't make any sense."
"Whoa, Twilight," Sunset said soothingly. "Slow down. What doesn't make sense?"
"The Cutie Map's magic is all over the portal, but it's on this side," Princess Twilight said. "And there's this other spell bound to the Map's magic, and something about it seems familiar but I can't place it, and—"
"Cutie Map?" Sunset and Twilight both asked. Tirek let out a derisive snort.
Princess Twilight halted, blinking. "Oh! I never told you about the Cutie Map, did I?" she asked.
Sunset shook her head. "I don't think so," she said.
"Sorry," Princess Twilight said. "I thought for sure I did, I mean I meant to, it set us off on that whole mess with Starlight Glimmer and it's a major part of my new role in Equestria, I—"
"Twilight? Babbling," Sunset cut off brusquely.
"Sorry," Princess Twilight repeated sheepishly. She took a deep breath, placing a hoof to her chest and extending it straight out. Once she finished exhaling, she sat down. "My castle has this magical map of Equestria," she explained. "None of us really understand how it works, not even Princess Celestia, but it..." She gestured vaguely with a hoof. "It detects friendship problems happening across Equestria, sometimes even outside Equestria, and it summons me and my friends to go in and solve them."
Twilight frowned. "Friendship problems? What does that even mean?"
"That seems like a patently absurd application of powerful magic," Tirek said.
Princess Twilight shot him a dirty look. "The magic of friendship is the most powerful magic in Equestria. In this world as well. Friendship can overcome any adversity."
"And make giant rainbow lasers that blow holes in the front of the school," Sunset added.
Twilight tilted her head. "Friendship...is magic?" She adjusted her glasses. "Sorry, I'm not sure I can wrap my mind around that."
Princess Twilight groaned. "Anyway," she said irritably, "when the Cutie Map finds a friendship problem, it decides which ponies are best equipped to deal with it, and then it makes our Cutie Marks glow to let us know we're needed. The Map itself shows our Cutie Marks hovering over wherever it is we need to go, and..." She shrugged. "Whoever gets summoned goes."
Sunset frowned. "Makes your Cutie Marks glow? How's that even work?"
"Believe me, we've tried figuring it out. I've given up. I just know it happens. And when we've solved the problem, our Cutie Marks glow again to let us know. It's...a weird sensation."
Twilight held up a hand. "Umm...question. What's a Cutie Mark?"
Princess Twilight opened her mouth to explain, but Sunset put a hand on her flank, turned her side to face the two humans, and pointed at the starburst on her hindquarters. "This is a Cutie Mark," she said.
Princess Twilight yelped and jumped straight in the air, blushing. "Sunset!" she cried.
"Sorry," Sunset said with a smirk.
Princess Twilight rolled her eyes. "It's a magical symbol that appears on a pony's flank when they discover their special talent, the thing that makes them unique," she explained. "Some ponies are only six or seven years old when they get their Cutie Mark, some take longer. I know a trio of fillies who just got theirs and they're almost thirteen." She giggled. "They're late bloomers, but they have a really special talent, so it sorta makes sense."
"Say, for example, your special talent is party planning," Sunset jumped in. "Your Cutie Mark might be balloons or a birthday cake. Or if your talent's related to farming, it might be a certain fruit or vegetable."
"And it just...appears, on its own?" Tirek asked. "And it's there forever?"
"That's right," Princess Twilight said, nodding. "Earning your Cutie Mark is pretty much the single biggest event in a young pony's life."
"So this Cutie Map...it pages you by making your butt glow?" Twilight asked. "This is...this is just weird."
"I'm with her on that one," Sunset said, shuddering. "That sounds like it'd be really freaky."
"It takes some getting used to," Princess Twilight admitted. "Actually, just a few weeks ago it sent Applejack and Rarity to Manehattan to help an old friend save a neighborhood theater revival." She grimaced. "The day we first found out it existed, the Map sent all six of us to the edge of Equestria where we found this little village nopony knew existed. It was founded by Starlight Glimmer, and she...well, I told you before what she did."
Sunset grimaced. "Yeah."
"What did she do?" Twilight asked.
"Starlight Glimmer tried to create her own twisted version of harmony by stealing the Cutie Marks of an entire village of ponies," Princess Twilight said. "I still don't know how she managed to do it, but whatever magic she used, it ripped the Cutie Marks right off our flanks. Everypony whose Cutie Mark she stole lost their special talent...lost all their inherent magic." Her ears folded down. "But that's not all. She was also brainwashing them." She shuddered. "That whole experience was one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen."
"Wow, that sounds terrible," Twilight said.
"I can't even wrap my mind around a spell that could steal Cutie Marks," Sunset said with a shiver. "That isn't just evil, that's sick."
"Anyway, we exposed her as a fraud and got all the stolen Cutie Marks back, but she escaped," Princess Twilight said. "The villagers decided to stay in that little town and get to know each other all over again."
"And what became of this Starlight Glimmer?" Tirek asked.
Princess Twilight shrugged. "No idea," she said. "Anyway, I've spent a lot of my spare time researching the Map to try to figure out how it works and why it works, but..." She shook her head. "The Tree of Harmony created it, so it's one of those things we're probably not really meant to understand."
"And now you've found the Map's magic on this side of the portal?" Sunset asked.
"Yeah, and that doesn't make sense," Princess Twilight said. "In any case, I have a feeling that's part of the problem."
* * * * *
The day had only gotten colder.
By the time Beck and DD were done with a day's hard work and had collected their pay, a thick layer of snow had built up. Beck shivered and buried her hands in her sleeves, hugging herself for warmth. "The hell's up with this snow?" she hissed between chattering teeth.
DD frowned. "It wasn't supposed to get this cold today," he said. He glanced at the sky. "I think we've got time before it gets too dark to get back. Let's stop by the kitchen for a pick-me-up."
Beck shrugged. "Sure. Maybe Belle'll be nice and give us a nip."
Ten minutes' trudge through snow found the weary, cold duo at the southside soup kitchen. There were quite a few homeless people sitting around, drinking hot coffee and soup and generally getting out of the cold. Making their way through the crowd, they got in line. It was several minutes before they were served by a pink-skinned woman with long, curly purple hair and bright purple eyes. She smiled in recognition as they approached. "Hey Beck, hey DD," she said. "Got some nice hot soup and coffee for you. I'll be passing out some fresh bread in a few minutes too."
"Sounds good," Beck said. "Wouldn't happen to have—"
"Sorry, I don't," Belle said. "Ran out an hour ago and I was giving it away with an eyedropper even then." She smiled apologetically. "Everybody wants to warm up in this awful weather."
As Belle filled bowls and cups for them, DD asked, "What is going on with this weather, anyway?"
Belle shook her head. "The weather people don't seem to know. It's got everybody stumped." She frowned, then leaned close and whispered, "And it's been getting weird out on the streets today. I've been keeping an eye on the news in between rushes. People are going nuts. There's been a rash of assaults today. On social media, I'm hearing about all kinds of people just getting angry and violent, people who usually aren't all that mean or anything!"
Beck's brow furrowed. "Yeah, we saw some of that on our way to work this morning," she said. "Car wreck, the guys that hit each other damn near tried to kill each other. And us."
"Now that you mention it, some of the guys at the site were a little testy today," DD said thoughtfully.
Belle sighed. "If I didn't know better, I'd say this weather and people getting mean are related. But...that's crazy, right?"
Beck laughed. "Well, being cold does make people cranky." She took her soup and her coffee. "Appreciate the news, Belle. And the soup."
Belle smiled. "You know, if you ever want a good job and a place to live, I can probably help."
Beck sighed. "I appreciate it, but...you know it's not that simple for me."
Belle's shoulders sagged. "I'm sorry," she said. "It must be awful, not even knowing who you are. You don't deserve this life..."
Beck's eyes clouded. "Sometimes, I feel like maybe this is where I'm meant to be..."