The next morning, Princess Celestia treated her two students to a breakfast of elaborately topped pancakes with fruit faces, which she delightedly made herself.
"Wow," Sunset said. "This takes me back."
"You used to make these on special occasions," Twilight said with a smile as she dug in.
Celestia giggled. "I make them a lot more often these days," she said. "Mostly for my sister." She sighed. "Not that she ever...ever really sits down to have breakfast with me..." She shook her head. "Anyway, eat up. We'll head to Ponyville as soon as we're finished."
An hour later, the trio trotted briskly through the grand foyer of Canterlot Castle. Celestia approached the Royal Charioteers, who bowed in deference. She raised a hoof. "Gentlecolts," she said, "we will be taking the chariot to Ponyville, but I will not require your services."
The Charioteers looked at each other in confusion, then back to Celestia. "Y-Your Highness? I don't understand..."
Celestia smiled. "I believe Princess Twilight and I are more than capable of pulling the chariot," she said. "If not for Sunset Shimmer's lack of wings, we would simply fly down to Ponyville ourselves."
"B-but Your Majesty—!"
Sunset blinked. "Wait. You want to...pull the chariot? Yourself?!"
"I need the exercise," Celestia said with a pained grimace. "Besides, we don't know for certain how long we'll be in Ponyville, and you ponies have duties and responsibilities here. Not just to me or the castle, but to your own families." She smiled. "We'll be fine."
The Charioteers frowned, but finally shrugged, relented, and moved to help the two alicorns into harnesses. "Please, be careful, Your Majesty," one advised. "Don't overexert yourself."
Celestia raised an eyebrow. "I raise and lower the sun every day and shepherd Canterlot nobles. I can handle pulling a glorified sleigh a short distance. Come, Sunset, into the chariot, we away at once!"
Sunset facehoofed, shook her head, and climbed into the chariot. Twilight shot Celestia a look that said 'is this seriously happening?', but sighed and spread her wings, keeping pace with her mentor as they galloped for the edge of the launching platform and took flight, the magically balanced chariot trailing behind them.
As they swept around the back side of the mountain and emerged on the side where Ponyville lay, Sunset caught sight of the massive, gleaming branches, turrets, and towers of the shining crystal tree-castle below. Her jaw dropped. "What the hay?!"
Celestia chuckled merrily. "It's quite a sight, isn't it? That, my wayward student, is Princess Twilight's castle."
Sunset shook her head, her eyes wide. "Umm...wow. It's...umm..." Her jaw worked soundlessly for a moment. "Gee, I don't even know the words—"
"Big, gaudy, totally out of place?" Twilight suggested.
"Umm...w-well..." Sunset coughed. "If...if you like it..."
Twilight rolled her eyes. "Jury's still out on that one," she said. "Let's just say I'm adjusting to it. My friends are doing what they can to add little homey touches here and there, but we've all more or less agreed that just fixing up a few rooms and leaving most of it like, well...that is best for now."
"Indeed it is," Celestia said. "At least until you decide on how best to make the castle reflect the princess you want to be." In a conspiratorial stage-whisper that Sunset had to strain to hear, she added, "Just between us, there's only a few rooms in Canterlot Castle that I feel completely at ease in. Most of the castle is just for show, to intimidate and impress ponies."
"Huh?" Twilight asked. "Then why—"
"Because it's what they expect," Celestia said with a weary sigh. "When you wear this crown, ponies expect things of you that you have to give them, even if you don't really want any part of it."
"Oh," Twilight said quietly, thoughtfully. "Sorry, I...I guess...I mean, I'm so new to this whole princess thing, I don't really understand it all yet—"
Sunset blinked. "Huh. You know, I never even thought of that. Maybe it's a good thing I didn't get what I wanted all along."
Celestia laughed. "Oh, being a princess is a delight and a wonderful thing. It's just...sometimes it can be very tiring."
"I see," Sunset said. She bit her lip. "So about Castle Treeskull down there..."
Twilight blinked. "Castle Treeskull?"
"Sorry, human world joke."
"Oh." Twilight pursed her lips. "Well...it's a long story."
"I imagine, but why a tree? Why a castle in a giant crystal tree, like some kind of giant treehouse?"
"It just grew that way!" Twilight said, exasperated. "I mean, it's ridiculously huge and crazy-looking and I know it, but nopony can do anything about it!"
Sunset blinked. "It...grew?"
"From a seed of the Tree of Harmony, yes," Celestia said. "It was...quite surprising to see."
"One minute it wasn't there, the next minute it was," Twilight said. "Everypony's more or less used to it now, but—"
A rainbow blur shot in front of them. "Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Rainbow Dash materialized in front of the chariot, flying backward at the same leisurely pace the alicorns were flying forward, hooves on her hips. "What the heck?" She looked at Twilight and Celestia. "Since when do princesses pull chariots?"
"Since we have a unicorn with us who can't fly," Twilight said dryly. "And since Princess Celestia decided she wanted to pull the chariot herself for some reason."
"Good morning, Rainbow Dash," Celestia said primly. "Up early clearing the clouds?"
Rainbow Dash scratched her head in confusion. "Y-yeah," she said. "I mean, I wanted to get an early start so I can spend the afternoon with Scootaloo. Umm. Your Highness." She looked past the alicorns, blinking. "Wait a sec, I know you." She squinted. "Hey, you're Sunset Shimmer, aren't you?"
Sunset waved sheepishly. "Hi Rainbow Dash," she said. "Umm...nice to meet you?"
Rainbow flew in formation with the princesses. "So what's goin' on here?"
"We're headed to the castle to study the portal," Twilight said. "I think the reason it malfunctioned has something to do with the Cutie Map."
"The Map, huh?" Rainbow frowned. "How do you figure?"
"I'm not sure, but I detected the Map's magical signature on the other side of the portal," Twilight said. She bit her lip. "And...a lot of things are going wrong in that world right now, and we, umm..." She glanced at Sunset, then ducked her eyes. "We got kicked off the campus at CHS, so we decided to come here for a bit."
Rainbow snorted. "You. The ultimate egghead. Got kicked out of a school."
"A school that Starlight Glimmer has taken over and has total control of," Twilight said.
Rainbow's eyes widened. "St-Starlight Glimmer?! Are you serious?!"
"Afraid so," Sunset said. "Twilight told me all about what went down with her in this world. Well, somehow or another she's crossed over into my world, and...and she has all her magic."
Rainbow's irises shrank to pinpricks. "Okay that's bad," she said. "Want me to round up the girls?"
"No need for that, my little pony," Celestia said. "It may take a while for us to unravel the truth of all this. Until we know exactly what went wrong with the portal and how Starlight Glimmer has done what she's done, there's little point in attempting action."
"Besides, the other Rainbow Dash is already raising enough hell for both of you, I'm sure," Sunset said with a wry smirk.
Rainbow blinked. "Oh yeah. I'm already there, huh? Heheh." She rubbed the back of her head sheepishly. "Well, umm...welcome to Ponyville, and...I'll stop by the castle later to see if you need any help?"
"Thank you," Celestia said primly.
Rainbow took off higher into the sky. Sunset smirked. "Wow."
"I know, right?" Twilight said with a giggle.
They soon flew low over the outskirts of Ponyville; as they approached the town proper, ponies below looked up, turned to each other and chatted excitedly, and waved at the chariot. Twilight and Celestia waved back. Sunset craned her neck this way and that, taking in the sights with interest. "So this is Ponyville," she mused. "It's so...rural."
"Well, it did start as an earth pony farming village," Celestia said. "But don't let the rural aesthetic fool you. Ponyville may have a certain sleepy, rustic charm to it, but it's far from a collection of muddy roads and low-class rubes." She said the last with a sly wink at Twilight, who grimaced.
"I really wanna know what made those three print that," she groused. At Sunset's confused look, she made a 'later' gesture.
As they flew over the heart of Ponyville, Twilight pointed out some of the places of interest and promised to give Sunset a proper tour of the town. They glided low over the ground as they cleared the busiest part of Ponyville and neared the road leading to the castle. Once they reached the foot of the castle, they landed; Twilight and Celestia unhitched themselves from the chariot, while Sunset teleported out and landed lightly on her hooves beside them. "Alright," Twilight said, squaring her shoulders. "Let's get to work."
* * * * *
"Oh I...I don't like the idea of us, umm...cutting class," Fluttershy said.
The Rainbooms and the Dazzlings met up at the mall shortly after eight in the morning. With some of the girls sporting wings and other unusual features, their appearance was causing quite a stir. They had decided, the evening prior, to make a show of protest over Starlight Glimmer by cutting classes as a group, and to use their hooky time to meet up with the Dazzlings for some strategy planning.
"Yeah, it don't set right with me neither," Applejack said, "but things bein' whut they are an' all..."
"Yeah, we...we kinda need to figure out how to fix the school," Pinkie said.
"I feel like we could do more to, y'know, boost th' morale or somethin'," Rainbow said. "Kinda...counteract that crap she's spewin' in class that's makin' everybody, uhh..."
Adagio raised an eyebrow. "Wow. Seriously? You're the same girls who defeated us—us—in a music competition. When our music is purely magical. It didn't occur to you to maybe try the same tactic here?"
Rainbow blinked. "W-well...I mean, yeah, kids at CHS are easy to sway with a catchy tune an' all, but—"
"But nothing," Adagio said, examining her nails. "We broke her magical control over Luna easily with a little harmonizing. She's not even using her magic on the student body."
"No, just creepy brainwashing," Pinkie Pie pointed out.
Rarity frowned. "We...did have effective results with a similar tactic back when Sunset Shimmer was, well..."
"You could just shoot her," Sonata pointed out. The Rainbooms all stared at her. She blinked innocently. "What?"
"Umm..." Fluttershy ducked her head. "I...don't think Twilight or Sunset would approve of that," she said. "Besides, umm...I really don't want a juvenile arrest record..."
Rainbow tilted her head. "Uhh, Shy? You were picked up two months ago outside that lab—"
Aria raised an eyebrow. "Oho? This sounds interesting."
Fluttershy ducked her head. "I, umm...broke into a research lab and freed a bunch of lab animals," she said meekly.
Aria snorted. "Aaaand bored again."
"They dropped the charges when she gave the lab director head," Rainbow added with a sly grin. Fluttershy let out a mortified squeak.
The Dazzlings all stared at Fluttershy.
"Well well," Adagio purred.
"That is not what happened!" Fluttershy hissed, her face red. "I agreed to help round up the animals when I found out they were testing cancer cures on poor sick animals that were already dying!"
"Ugh, seriously?" Aria groaned.
"My version's cooler," Rainbow pouted.
"Will y'all git serious?!" Applejack thundered. "This ain't th' time t' be makin' stupid jokes an' stuff, now dang it all!"
"Aww, but the stupid jokes and stuff are fun!" Sonata whined.
"The cowgirl's got a point, though," Aria said. "This is serious. That unicorn bitch in a monkey suit needs to go."
"But we need to do it on our terms," Rarity said. "We need to do it the way Sunset Shimmer and Princess Twilight would do it."
"I'm pretty sure Sunset would be fine with beating her ass into the ground and dragging her back through the portal to Equestria," Rainbow pointed out. "Actually, from what we saw the other day, I think Twilight'd go along with that too."
Applejack scratched her head. "Probably," she agreed. "Only problem with that is, well..." She shrugged helplessly. "She's kinda got us outmatched."
"Unless we shoot her!" Sonata piped up.
"We're not shooting anybody!" the Rainbooms yelled.
A man coughed behind them. "That's good to know."
They all turned slowly, as one, to see a uniformed mall security officer standing behind them.
"Now, mind explaining why you girls aren't in school?" he asked.
The girls fidgeted awkwardly.
"Umm..." Fluttershy began, ducking her head. "We're hoes? And we're, um, older than we look?"
A round of facepalms greeted that statement. "For real?!" Pinkie cried, dragging both hands down her face.
The mall cop raised an eyebrow. "I'll buy that for the girl with the stupidly huge hair and the trashy tramp getup," he said. "The rest of you, well...I happen to know five of you go to CHS, so I think you'd better get a move on. Unless you want me to call your parents? Or the cops?"
The Rainbooms sagged, gave a group round of assent, and trudged for the nearest mall exit. The Dazzlings looked at each other, shrugged, and followed.
* * * * *
"Wow," Sunset said as she examined the elaborate magical contraption framing the portal mirror. "So this is how you got the portal working again, huh?" She whistled. "You are one crazy pony."
Twilight giggled. "Oh, well, you know...I dabble in...kindasorta mad science..." She waved a hoof airily. "Actually, it's thanks to Pinkie Pie I was able to figure it out. She's the one who gave me the idea to use the magic in the journal to trigger the portal matrix."
"Like jumpstarting a car battery," Sunset said, nodding thoughtfully. At the others' confused looks, she shook her head. "Human thing. Nevermind."
Spike tottered in, carrying a massive stack of scrolls and notebooks. "Okay, here's everything from the research," he said. "Hey Sunset."
"Hey Spike. Wow. I think I like you better as a dog. Er, no offense."
Spike shrugged. "It's cool. The dog thing's kinda fun once in a while." He grinned lazily. "Getting scratches behind the ears from Rarity is a nice perk."
Twilight rolled her eyes and spread her notes out. "Alright, these are all the readings I took on this side," she said. "This set over here is from before the portal went crazy, this set over here is more recent." She grabbed a blank scroll and started writing on it. "Give me a minute, I need to get down the data I took on the other side while it's fresh in my mind."
"While you do that, I'll examine the portal myself," Celestia said. Her horn lit up. After a moment, she frowned. "Hmm. I might get a better read on the problem if we activate the portal temporarily."
"Of course," Twilight said. She levitated an old book with Celestia's Cutie Mark on it into a recess at the top of the frame. Gadgets and gizmos connected to the portal began to whirl, spin, turn, glow, and otherwise make a lot of impressive racket as sheets of semisolid magic spun between a set of rollers. After a long moment, the mirror glowed, its surface rippling and bathing the room in a soft light.
"Wow," Sunset said. "It was worth the trip just to see all that."
Celestia chuckled, then approached the mirror, her horn glowing. She pressed the very tip of her horn against the surface, causing it to ripple and shimmer. "Hmm," she said. "Yes, I definitely feel the touch of the Cutie Map here, and it's strong," she said. She frowned. "There's something el—" She broke off abruptly, stepping back, eyes wide. "That's impossible," she said.
"What is it?" Twilight asked.
Celestia sat down, her brow creasing. "Twilight," she said slowly, "do you recall your misadventure with the time spells in the Starswirl the Bearded wing of the Canterlot Archives?"
Twilight nodded. "Oh yeah," she said wearily. "Not one of my better weeks."
Celestia frowned. "Scan the portal again," she said.
Twilight's brow furrowed in confusion, but she did as asked, dipping her horn into the rippling surface of the portal and concentrating. A moment later, she jumped back, eyes wide. "What the horseapples?!"
"What is it?" Sunset asked.
Twilight shook her head. "Why didn't I recognize..." She began pacing. "The spell I sensed that was connected to the Cutie Map magic...it was Starswirl's time spell. But why would...?" She frowned. "Who'd be casting that spell here, and why? What's it got to do with the Map or the portal? It doesn't make any sense!"
"Time spell?" Sunset asked.
"A spell Starswirl created," Twilight said. "I cast it once, several months before I became an alicorn. It only sent me back in time about a week, and for less than a minute. I didn't even manage to do what I used it for, because I wasted the entire time arguing with myself."
Celestia frowned. "I don't know," she said. "A truly determined and malevolent pony can cause a great deal of harm in a matter of seconds."
"Let me see," Sunset said, dipping her own horn into the portal. After a long moment, she staggered back, her eyes spinning. She plopped onto her haunches and shook herself like a dog. "Whoa."
"Umm...yeah," Twilight said sheepishly. "Not...not something you wanna do if you're not an alicorn."
"No, really, you think?" Sunset said tersely. She rubbed her temples with her hooves. "But I did notice something you both missed."
"What's that, my little pony?" Celestia asked.
"The amplification modification enchantment woven into that spell."
Twilight and Celestia looked at each other, eyes wide. Twilight jammed her horn into the portal again, its magenta glow streaming off in waves. After a long moment, she stepped back, blinking in shock. "She's right," she said listlessly. "There's a spell amplifier enchantment woven into the time spell that wasn't there before. It's...it's a binding enchantment, linking the spell to an artifact..."
"The Map," Celestia said quietly.
The three ponies looked at each other, stunned, then back at the portal.
"Starlight Glimmer...what did you do?" Twilight breathed.
* * * * *
Beck, Sugar Belle, and Double Diamond sat at a table at Los Tacos Hermanos, eating breakfast tacos. They'd finally arrived in Canterlot, and had quickly sought out cheap rooms at a second-rate hotel.
"So what's the plan now?" DD asked.
Beck took a sip of coffee and shrugged. "I'm not really sure," she admitted. "I've been thinking about that. I thought about maybe going to that high school, snooping around, but..."
"Not the best idea," Belle said with a frown. "I mean, she's a student there. You don't know enough about her to fake your way through impersonating her."
"Yeah," Beck said, nodding. "I have a feeling that's gonna be a problem anywhere I go in this city."
DD snorted. "Yeah, unless you cut and dye your hair," he said. "I mean, it wouldn't be the best disguise, but—" He trailed off as he realized the others were staring at him and blinking. "What?"
"That's...not a bad idea, actually," Beck said. "Hmm."
"Well, it'd...it'd be a start," Belle mused. She frowned. "But you have such beautiful hair, it'd be a shame to—"
"Screw my hair," Beck said, rolling her eyes. "Hair grows back. This is a little more important." She took a huge bite of a taco. "Besides, remember how I ended up with the name 'Beck' in the first place?"
DD snorted into his orange juice. Belle blinked. "Umm...no?"
Beck pursed her lips. "Oh, that's right, that happened before..." She coughed, ducked her head, and blushed. "W-well...when I didn't know who I was, didn't have anything to call myself..." She busied herself with the wrapper on her taco. "The guys at the Camp used to call me 'Bacon-head'. It...umm..."
"Over time, got shortened to 'Beck'," DD said with a huge grin.
Belle blinked. "Oh," she said, her lips quivering as she fought not to laugh.
Beck cleared her throat noisily. "So anyway, yeah, I guess first thing I'll do is hit up a pharmacy for some scissors and hair dye, and...yeah."
"I'll help you redo your hair," Belle offered. "If we're gonna give you a makeover, it might as well be a good one."
"Thanks," Beck said.
DD coughed. "Umm...I guess I'll just...hit the streets, kinda see what I can find out."
"Sounds good," Beck said.
Ten minutes later, they left Los Tacos Hermanos to begin their first day in Canterlot.