Flash had hung around for a little while, asking questions and receiving a crash course on Equestria, ponies, and what kind of life the girl he had been crushing on lately actually lived. He'd left late in the afternoon with a lot to think about and a promise to help keep Sunset's little secret.
Monday dawned cloudy and cool. The weather news on television predicted periods of rain throughout the day.
After breakfast, Sunset received a message from Twilight.
I'm sorry I haven't been in touch since the other day. We've been busy here. Princess Celestia suggested moving the mirror and the portal generator from my castle back to Canterlot and setting it up in the Aethenaeum, but I wasn't sure trying to move it again would be a wise idea—the last time I moved the portal across my own castle, I almost didn't get it working again. Instead, we decided to create a second stable portal into your world using Starswirl's research here in Canterlot. Moondancer—she's a friend of mine who's helping with the research—had reservations about it, because she thinks we might just be making the problem worse, but we're confident we can collapse the portal with minimal impact to both dimensions if it contributes to the thaumetric instability. Besides, with the original portal closed for now, I don't think we need to worry too much about the negatives—especially since we're racing the clock here no matter what we do.
Last night, Celestia, Luna, and I created the new portal. It's stable, we've tested it, and it works. It doesn't come out at CHS, though. It seems to come out at some other school—I looked around for a few minutes, and I think it's called Crystal Prep? Does that ring any bells?
We'll be using the second portal to advance our research. Unlike the original portal, this one is permanently open, so we're being extremely careful. Don't worry, I don't think we'll have to deal with a bunch of teenagers wandering into our world, and we've got guards watching the portal just in case. We've also asked Cadance to come to Canterlot and watch over the portal while we're researching. Celestia's suspended her court until we're done with this. She's worried about you.
I'll let you know as soon as we have any new information. If anything strange happens there, be sure to write me back immediately.
Princess Twilight Sparkle
Sunset smiled as she read the letter. *Wow. I have FOUR princesses working to fix this. I really don't deserve such kindness...*
She wrote back a short reply saying nothing had changed that she was aware of, then stretched and looked around her empty apartment.
The girls were at school, she'd already cleaned the apartment from top to bottom, and she wouldn't have any schoolwork to deal with until the girls dropped by later...
With a sigh, Sunset turned on the television and looked for anything to watch to keep her distracted.
* * * * *
"Twilight, are you SURE this portal is a good idea?"
A pair of pegasus guards stood to either side of a large, utilitarian crystal mirror that stood in Celestia's throne room. One of the guards was Flash Sentry; his eyes occasionally flickered over to the newest alicorn princess even as he struggled to remain firmly at attention. Cadance sat upon Celestia's throne. The great doors to the throne room were closed; unicorn guards stood to either side of them.
Twilight had emerged from the Aethenaeum for a breath of fresh air and to take a few readings on the emanations from the new portal. "Honestly? No. But even if the other portal was stable enough to move, we haven't ruled it out as the cause of the thaumetric imbalance yet. It's safer to use this new portal as a control while we research the problem and try to find a solution that doesn't entail slamming the door on that world forever." She levitated a hoofheld crystal device up to the portal and took a reading; the crystal glowed green and let out a soft, ringing chime. "So far so good." She looked at the guards. "Just be careful. I don't think someone from the other world will accidentally stumble into the portal, but be on the lookout just in case."
The guards nodded. "We won't let you down, Your Highness," Flash said.
Twilight smiled, then turned and teleported back to the Aethenaeum.
Cadance raised an eyebrow at Flash Sentry. "That's never going anywhere. You know that, right?"
Flash sighed. "Yeah, I know..."
The other guard snickered.
* * * * *
Twilight Sparkle shrank against a row of lockers, clutching her books protectively against her chest, as the new foreign exchange students walked past. While she was far from the most social student at Crystal Prep, nobody she'd ever met made her skin crawl like the son of the Kentarosi Ambassador.
*If he'd at least wear the school uniform, maybe...* Twilight shook her head. *No...he'd still be creepy.*
Everything about the Kentarosi teen oozed malice—his tall, lean figure, the foreboding red hue of his skin, his hard-edged face, his shaggy silver hair, his tiny, pointed silver goatee, his sharp, cold eyes. Even the way he dressed—a metal mesh muscle shirt, tight black leather pants, and steel-toed boots—made him look brutal and dangerous. Principal Cinch had tried, several times, to enforce the uniform code, but had given up when it became obvious making a fuss would lead to an international incident.
At least his brother was a nice boy, if a bit of a wimp. Despite having a bushy brown mane of hair and a broad, leonine face, the younger brother was short, slow, pudgy, and every time Twilight had heard him speak, he'd done so in a plaintive, whining tone that annoyed even her.
"Didn't know you were into the bad-boy type, Twily," a voice said into her ear.
"GAH!" Twilight jumped, nearly dropping her books. Flustered, she looked at Dean Cadance, who was giving her a teasing smile. "Dean Cadance!" Shaking her head, she adjusted her glasses. "I'm not," she said. "I just..." She frowned. "He creeps me out. Every time he walks past, I get nervous. I feel like..." Her brow furrowed and her lips pursed. "Like he's going to suck out my soul or something."
Cadance laughed. "Well...I can't say I blame you," she said. "He is a little...intense."
"Why this school of all places?" Twilight moaned.
Cadance shrugged. "The Ambassador wanted his sons to have the finest education money can buy," she said. "And to hob-knob with the children of influential people." She sighed. "Honestly, though? Tirek's a brute, and only the students with the worst disciplinary records want anything to do with him." She shook her head. "And then there's Scorpan. The kid's a doormat if ever there was one."
"I've noticed." Twilight shook herself. "I'm almost late for class! I'll catch up with you later."
* * * * *
Adagio checked her reflection in the mirror to make sure her ears were completely hidden beneath her hood, then put on the red-tinted sunglasses she'd picked up. Beside her, the other Sirens were similarly attired; Aria wore a baggy sweatshirt and a ball cap, with black glasses, while Sonata wore a hoodie and star-shaped blue sunglasses. "Alright, girls," Adagio said. "Blend in, stay out of sight when everyone's in class. Keep your ears and your wings hidden. And Sonata, for the love of all things unholy, stop farting."
"Can I help it if last night's gyros gave me the toots?"
"YOU COOKED THEM, SO YES!"
* * * * *
As the insipid teacher droned on about the early colonial days, Tirek pretended to pay attention while studying something far more interesting and personally fulfilling.
Since his early teens, Tirek had been fascinated with the legends of magic, especially dark magic, that pervaded his homeland and the bordering territories.
Three years ago, he had met an old scholar, Master Sendak, who had spent the greater part of his eighty years researching ancient legends of magic that transcended the bounds of space and time. The legends described beings that appeared from shadows and mirrors; strange beings with inhuman forms, who later adapted human appearances and walked among ordinary people. Sendak had taught Tirek many things, and had given him an ancient relic, a black crystal pendant which was said to react to and locate sources of magic.
Then Tirek's fat fool of a father had been assigned to the Embassy in Canterlot, and had forced his entire family to travel with him. Tirek often suspected it was because Father knew of his association with Sendak and wished to steer him away from such a bad influence.
The other students at Crystal Prep annoyed Tirek to no end. If he could get away with it, he would bludgeon half of them into the ground. His few weeks at the school so far had been an agonizing torture test.
Today, however, something had changed.
This morning, when he arrived at the school, the black crystal began to vibrate faintly. If he held it cupped in the palms of his hands, it shone with a faint, steady pink light.
Elation gripped his being. Providence had smiled upon him. Somewhere, at this very school, was proof of the magic he had sought.
He tapped his pen against his desk as the teacher droned on. Lunch drew ever closer, and with it, the opportunity to seek out the source of magic...
* * * * *
"Well, the portal's holding, and it doesn't seem to be adding to the problem," Twilight reported as she rejoined the others in the Aethenaeum.
"That's good," Celestia said. After a pause, she added, "This portal...you're certain it wouldn't take me to Sunset Shimmer...?"
Twilight shook her head. "Even if it would, I can't let you do that, Celestia."
Moondancer raised an eyebrow. "You can't let the ruler of Equestria do whatever she wants?"
"It's for her own protection," Twilight said. "And for Equestria's. We can't afford to let anything happen to you, Celestia." Her eyes hardened and softened at the same time. "Which means if you even think about going through that portal, I will stop you."
Celestia bowed her head, sadness in her eyes. "You're right. I...I'm being selfish enough as it is, abandoning my duties for this."
Twilight sighed. "You'll get to see her again one day, I promise. Just...right now, we need to focus. Moondancer, do you have anything new on thaumetric pressure inversion?"
Moondancer pushed up her glasses. "Actually, yes. I found a journal entry Starswirl made about a world he visited..." She frowned and levitated a book. "One world he visited, the portal was damaged by a local magical inversion weapon." She cringed. "His description of the resulting catastrophe is...very colorful."
Celestia seized the journal and scanned the entry. Her eyebrow quirked. "It looked like Discord had the Trots all over everything," she read. "Yes...that's certainly Starswirl's style."
"It is?" Twilight asked, wrinkling her muzzle.
"In his private journals," Celestia said with a smile. "I once heard him go off on a fifteen minute rant about griffons and their breeding habits that made Luna cry."
Moondancer's eyebrows rose dramatically. "Fascinating."
Celestia continued reading, her brow furrowing. "Oh dear," she said. "I...seriously hope nothing like this happens to the human world."
Twilight sighed. "I may have to risk a trip over there myself," she said. "But I'll have to do it carefully, I'll have to do it without being seen, and before I go, I'll need to see if I can adapt that spell I used to turn myself and my friends into Breezies to turn myself into a human." She frowned. "I'll need to work fast, because it won't last very long even if it works."
"It should be easier than the Breezie spell," Celestia said. "You've been human twice already."
"That's true." Twilight flicked an ear. "In any case, I'll need to be there in person to see how bad the situation is, but...I need to prepare first. Which means testing the spell and seeing how long it will last first."
"Well...no time like the present," Celestia said.
Twilight nodded. "Alright." She closed her eyes and concentrated. Her horn glowed brightly. The dust in the air seemed to sing.
After several long moments of magical buildup, Twilight had transformed from an alicorn into a naked teenage girl. She looked up, blinking. "That...felt strange," she said. She stood, wobbling slightly as she adjusted to her new center of gravity. "Well?"
Moondancer stared at her. "That's what's on the other side of that portal?"
Celestia tilted her head. "Well, you certainly succeeded in becoming human," she said. "There is...one slight problem, though."
"There is?" Twilight looked down at herself and blinked. "Oh ponyfeathers."
"I don't get it," Moondancer said. "What's wrong?"
"Humans wear clothes all the time," Twilight said. "I can't go over there like this." She frowned. "I'll need to get Rarity to come to Canterlot and do something about this. It's a good thing I left Spike in Ponyville..."
"Can you...please change back now?" Moondancer asked. "Sorry, it's just...this is too weird."
"Can't," Twilight said with a helpless shrug. "No horn in this form. I'll have to wait for it to wear off on its own. Besides, I need to know how long this spell is going to last, or this was all for nothing." She walked over to a desk and started writing a letter.
* * * * *
At lunch, Pinkie seemed perturbed.
"What's up, Pinkie?" Rainbow asked.
"You girls are gonna think I'm crazy, but...I think the Sirens are sneaking around the school."
"Yeah, we noticed," Rainbow said with a shrug.
"They're a bit hard to miss. They're quite...conspicuous," Rarity said.
"Shouldn't we be doin' somethin' 'bout that?" Applejack wondered.
Rainbow shrugged. "It's not like they can do anything. Just keep an eye on 'em, if they start messin' with the portal or anything, we'll kick their butts and hand 'em over to the cops."
"We should probably let Sunset Shimmer know when we go over later," Fluttershy said.
* * * * *
Princess Cadance sighed with boredom as she finished her afternoon snack. Tasked with guarding the new portal, with no royal duties to take over from her aunt, there was little to do except sit and watch a mirror that wasn't doing anything.
As it was late in the afternoon, the guards were in the middle of shift change, meaning she had the throne room to herself for a whole five minutes. She stared curiously at the mirror, its surface cool and inviting.
And on the other side of that crystal mirror was a strange world she had only heard about second-hand from Twilight.
Surely a quick peek couldn't hurt...
Rising from the throne, Cadance trotted over to the mirror and, hesitating only briefly, poked her head through...
After the kaleidoscope of bright lights and colors faded away, she found herself staring out at...a bathroom.
A public bathroom, with toilet stalls and hot air hand dryers and paper towel dispensers.
Really, it looked almost exactly like the girls' bathroom at her own high school.
She felt her hooves strike the tile surface of a long lavatory counter. She heard a surprised gasp.
She looked up...
A familiar pink face with familiar lavender, rose, and cream hair stared back at her with familiar violet eyes.
The small-nosed creature blinked several times, eyes comically wide.
Cadance blinked. "Oh," she said quietly.
After a long, awkward moment, she muttered a sheepish, "Sorry," then retreated back through the portal, leaving a very confused human Cadance standing there in stunned silence, an uncapped lipstick forgotten in her hand.
* * * * *
At a quarter to four, Sunset got a text from Fluttershy saying she and Rarity would be dropping by.
At a quarter past four, the doorbell rang. Sunset unlocked the door and let her friends in. She blinked in confusion at what Fluttershy and Rarity were lugging with them. Between the two girls, they carried several bolts of cloth wrapped in plastic, a folding easel, a large designer's sketchbook, and two large plastic cases. "What in the...?"
Rarity took off her backpack and rummaged around in it, handing Sunset a folder. "Here's your assignments and homework, darling," she said. She dug a few textbooks out and laid them on the living room table. "I got these from your locker."
"Thanks." Sunset watched Fluttershy set up the easel and the design book, then clear a workspace on the floor. "And the rest of this?"
"Oh, we're just going to work on a few nice little outfits for you," Fluttershy said brightly. "Oh, and I'll need to use your table there."
"Okay." Sunset cleared the table, using her magic to carry all her school stuff to the bedroom. When she came back, she discovered Fluttershy had set up a portable sewing machine on the table and had a kit full of thread, needles, thimbles, measuring tape, stick pins, and assorted accents and paraphernalia open on the floor next to her. "Wow," Sunset said. "Umm...you don't really need to do all this, you know. I mean...I'm not leaving the apartment until I either get back to normal or have to go back to Equestria."
"Oh, but you'll look so precious with some nice little dresses!" Fluttershy said.
Sunset made a strangled noise. "Uhh...Fluttershy? I'm not a housepet. You...you know that, right?"
Suddenly, Fluttershy was right in her face. "Let me have this," she said in a quiet, desperate, dangerous tone.
Sunset recoiled, raising a hoof protectively in front of her face. "Oh...kaaaaaaaaaaay..."
Fluttershy sat back and smiled a big, happy, adorable smile. "Great! Now, let's just do a little color matching before we get started..."
Sunset looked up at Rarity. "Help me," she whimpered.
Rarity, for her part, was staring in shock and horror at Fluttershy. "Is...is this what I look like when I get obsessed?"
"Yeah, pretty much," Sunset said.
For the next twenty minutes, Sunset had to stand uncomfortably still while Fluttershy and Rarity did "fashion stuff" around and to her. After that, they settled in to work cutting and measuring cloth, while Sunset brought her school stuff back into the room, spread it out on the floor, and worked on her homework.
At six, they broke for dinner. "So," Rarity said, "Flash Sentry...ahem...mentioned he stopped by yesterday."
Sunset grimaced. "Yeah, he...freaked out a bit."
"Oh! I almost forgot to tell you," Fluttershy said. "The Sirens were sneaking around at school today."
"They WHAT?" Sunset cried.
"We're not sure what they're up to, but...they can't really show their faces without, well..."
"Getting ganged up on like I used to?"
"Yes, that," Rarity said. "So...for now, we're just sort of...waiting to see what they do."
Sunset sighed. "I don't like it," she said, "but you're right. That's about all you can do for now. But be careful. With Equestrian magic showing up more and more here, they might not stay harmless for long."
After dinner, Fluttershy and Rarity worked on Sunset's outfits for another half hour before heading home, leaving most of their work stuff behind. Sunset cleaned up the dishes and the kitchen, then finished her homework before turning in early.
* * * * *
Twilight frowned at the latest readings her equipment had recorded. "Hmm...that's strange..."
The recent massive spikes in activity, all centered around Canterlot High School, had been sharp deviations from a background level of...something. Whatever it was, it didn't conform to any normal energy, seismic, electromagnetic, or radioactive patterns she knew. Her equipment could measure it, but she couldn't identify it.
But according to her latest readings, the background levels had increased drastically in a few short days...and in the last twenty-four hours, there had been another spike.
Only this activity spike happened at her school.
With a frown, she double-checked her readings, changed clothes, and grabbed her portable scanning equipment and phone.
"I really hope Dean Cadance is still at school..."