Cadance, Tirek, and Twilight stood in front of the restroom mirror. Twilight was scanning it with her device; it let off an occasional soft 'ping' along with a steady, sharp staccato crackle not unlike a Geiger counter. Meanwhile, Tirek's crystal was glowing with a faint, steady pink light.
"The phoenix disappeared into this mirror," Tirek rumbled, tapping his chin.
"There's something very strange about that mirror," Cadance said. "Earlier, I was in here touching up my makeup, when..."
Tirek and Twilight both looked at her as she trailed off. "When what?" Twilight asked. "You told me on the phone you saw something really weird, but you wouldn't say what."
Cadance played with her hair. "Well...you're probably going to think I sound really crazy if I tell you what I saw."
Tirek raised an eyebrow. "We just saw a phoenix fly into a mirror in a high school restroom, Dean Cadance. I think we can agree to keep an open mind."
Cadance nodded. "Alright. Well...like I said, I was just touching up my lipstick when this...this...horse came out of the mirror."
Twilight blinked. "A horse?"
"Well, kind of," Cadance said. "I mean, it looked like a horse, except it...it looked like the kind of toy horse little girls play with." She crossed her arms over her chest defensively. "And...and it was pink."
"Pink," Tirek repeated.
"And it had a horn...like...like a unicorn," Cadance said. Then, in a small voice, she added, "And...and its face, and its hair..." She swallowed. "It...it looked like me."
The others blinked at her. "I beg your pardon?" Tirek asked.
"I know how insane that sounds, but...the horse...had my face, and my hair. Just...just more...horsey." Cadance blushed and looked away.
Twilight tilted her head. "Okay...so then what? Where did this pink horse that looked like you go?"
"Back into the mirror," Cadance said. "It...she...apologized, then went back into the mirror."
Twilight raised her eyebrow. "The horse...talked?"
"I know it sounds stupid!" Cadance snapped, cheeks burning. "But I swear it happened!"
Tirek stroked his goatee. "We did just see a phoenix disappear into that mirror," he said thoughtfully. "And did we not hear a voice? A female voice?"
"We did hear a voice," Twilight said. "It didn't sound anything like Cadance's, though."
"But we found no one else in this restroom," Tirek said. "Which suggests to me that whoever spoke was on the other side of that mirror." He leaned against the lavatory, peering thoughtfully at his reflection. "It's reasonable to assume that creatures we consider to be mythical exist on the other side. If a phoenix came through this mirror, it stands to reason there might be a unicorn there as well." He snorted. "Which is fascinating, but ultimately irrelevant. The more immediate concern is that we have found a source of legitimate magic in our world, and if the readings here match the data Twilight has collected thus far, then there is more magic to be found at this...Canterlot High School."
"Magic?" Twilight repeated. "Are you serious? You think this is magic?"
"I know this is magic," Tirek insisted. He held up his crystal. "I was given this by a master of the mystic arts in my homeland. He has studied magic and mysticism for decades, and has taught me much." He nodded at the mirror. "There is magic here. Powerful magic."
Cadance frowned doubtfully. "Okay, so...assuming that's the case...what do we do about it?"
"We study it," Twilight said. "Carefully. When nobody else is around. And...and this weekend, or maybe one night this week, we should go over to Canterlot High and take some readings there."
"Prowl around CHS at night?" Cadance asked. She sighed. "Twilight, you know if they catch Crystal Prep students hanging around CHS at night, it's not going to look good. Not with our school's history of pranking them."
Twilight scoffed. "That juvenile rivalry over the Friendship Games? Dean Cadance, this is more important!"
"I would tend to agree," Tirek said. "If the two of you won't investigate this other school, I most certainly will, and I dare anyone to try to stop me."
Cadance sighed. "I can see you're not going to let this go. Alright, but we need to do this diplomatically." She tapped her cheek. "It just so happens I'm friends with their vice-principal. I think I can probably arrange an excuse for the three of us to visit CHS and do some research into...whatever's going on." She glanced at the mirror. "In the meantime...what do we do about this?"
"We seal off this restroom," Tirek said. "We claim it's out of order. Until we know exactly what we're dealing with here, we can't afford to allow the other students inside."
"And how do you propose we convince Principal Cinch that a perfectly serviceable restroom is out of order?" Cadance asked, raising an eyebrow.
Tirek snorted and walked over to a stall. Throwing open the door, he crouched down, grabbed hold of the toilet seat, and wrenched it free of its plastic bolts, tossing it across the room. Then, with a yell, he delivered a violent axe kick to the tank. The ceramic shell shattered dramatically, pieces of it falling away and exposing the pressure mechanism on the inside.
"GAH!" Twilight cried.
With another kick, Tirek smashed the pressure flush mechanism. Water sprayed into the air.
"That should suffice," he rumbled.
"Uhh..." Cadance blinked at him.
Tirek turned to her and raised an eyebrow. "I will—discreetly—pay for the damages, of course."
"Of...of course," Cadance said. She grimaced as a pool of water began to spread. "We should get out of here."
"Yeah," Twilight agreed. The three conspirators quickly left the flooding bathroom and the school grounds.
* * * * *
Slightly over two hours passed before Twilight's spell wore off. She shook her head dazedly as she settled back onto her hooves, ruffling her wings beneath the blue cape she still wore. "Woo. I always get so dizzy when I change back."
"So, the spell lasts for about two hours," Celestia said, pursing her lips. "That's not much time."
Twilight sighed. "No, it really isn't." She levitated the journal over to herself and wrote a brief note. "But maybe it'll last longer the more often I cast it."
"You shouldn't use a spell like that too often," Celestia advised. "It could have messy consequences down the road."
"Hey, I don't want to be human any more than I have to," Twilight protested. "But I will need to use it again tomorrow when Rarity's here so she can set me up with clothes."
Several minutes went by before Sunset Shimmer replied. Twilight read her reply aloud for the benefit of the others.
Two hours isn't much time, especially if you need to get from Crystal Prep to CHS. Actually, it's not even possible to make that trip in under an hour, according to Rarity. Even just getting to my place and back before your spell wears off doesn't leave you much time to do anything.
Of course, I'm sure you'll be doing most of your research on the portal at Crystal Prep itself, but we'd all like to see you when you come through if we can figure out how. If you do need to get from there to here or CHS when you come through, it might be best to come through as an alicorn, teleport and/or fly as far as you can without being seen, then use your transformation spell as soon as one of the girls can meet you with a car. If you can cut down on your recharge time on the spell, that might help a lot. But you probably knew that already. I mean, you are a princess.
Sorry if I'm rambling. I'm going a little stir crazy here. Keep me posted!
Celestia's ears drooped. "We need to hurry and help her."
Moondancer tilted her head and frowned. "Your Majesty...have you ever heard of something called a spell amplifier?"
Celestia shot her a sideways look. "Of course I have. I outlawed them three hundred years ago."
Moondancer wilted. "Right...sorry..."
"Wait a second," Twilight said, raising a hoof. "Where are you going with this, Moondancer?"
"It's alright," Celestia said. "I think I know what you're thinking of. Go ahead."
"Oh. Well..." Moondancer adjusted her glasses. "I was thinking that a spell amplifier could extend the duration of Twilight's transformation spell."
Celestia frowned thoughtfully. "It's possible," she said. "The only problem is spell amplifiers take a long time to forge, and since they're illegal by my law, there aren't exactly any lying around ready to be used." She shuddered. "Well, there's one, but...it's not exactly safe for anypony to use. Especially not Twilight."
"The Alicorn Amulet," Twilight said with a grimace. "Yeah, we're not taking that out of the vault ever. It's way too dangerous." She frowned. "But Moondancer's idea is solid, if impractical. There's gotta be a way to extend the life of a transformation spell that doesn't involve creating illegal artifacts."
"What about a spell matrix lock?" a new voice intruded. "Surely you have not outlawed those, Sister."
The three ponies turned to see Luna descending into the Aethenaeum. "Luna!" Celestia greeted.
"It is time to lower the sun, Celestia," she said.
"What was that about a spell matrix lock?" Twilight asked.
"I overheard part of your conversation," Luna replied. "In the old days, if we needed to prolong the life of a difficult spell, we used a spell matrix lock. In fact, is that not the very basis of the Guard Uniform magic?"
Celestia facehoofed. "Of course! It was right under my nose the whole time..." She shook her head. "I have about a hundred of those sitting around in a junk drawer."
"In that case, it could benefit more than just Twilight," Moondancer said. "She could use her spell to return her friend to her human form, then use a spell matrix lock to hold her in that form."
"It would only be good for about twelve, maybe fourteen hours per charge," Celestia said, "but it's not a bad idea. Let me attend to the sun, then I'll gather what we need." She frowned. "In the meantime, I suggest both of you retire for the evening. You need rest if you're going to do anything productive tomorrow."
"Yeah, probably a good idea," Twilight agreed, cracking a huge yawn. "I'll arrange guest rooms for us here at the castle. If that's alright."
"But of course."
With that, the four mares left the Aethenaeum.
* * * * *
Whispers filled the halls of Canterlot High the following morning.
"Whoa, check it out."
"Is she a new teacher?"
"She's a babe."
"I think I'm in love..."
Five girls on their way to class watched as a beautiful pink-skinned woman with long, lush three-colored hair walked confidently down the hall to the faculty offices.
"Oh my goodness," Rarity said. "She's gorgeous. And that hair! I'm rather jealous."
"Who the heck is she?" Rainbow wondered. "I've never seen her around here before."
"She just went into Vice-Principal Luna's office," Fluttershy said.
"I'll find out who she is and what she's up to!" Pinkie Pie declared confidently, sneaking down the hall.
* * * * *
"Well, good morning, Dean Cadance!" Luna said, looking up from her paperwork. "This is an unexpected surprise. And here it is, still months before the Friendship Games."
"Good morning, Vice-Principal Luna," Cadance said smoothly, taking a seat across from her friend. "I need a favor."
"I'd like permission to bring a couple of our students to CHS to explore the campus as part of a project," Cadance said.
Luna raised an eyebrow. "A project?" she asked. "What sort of project? Is this Abacus Cinch's latest attempt to spy on our students? Or perhaps a stealth pranking operation?"
Cadance gave Luna a hurt look. "You know I wouldn't take part in something that petty," she said. "Besides, Principal Cinch has nothing but contempt for CHS and you know it."
"This is true," Luna admitted with a sigh. "Still, what sort of project could two of her students possibly need to come here for?"
"It's...sort of a...social project," Cadance hedged, grimacing. "Canterlot High's social environment is completely different from Crystal Prep's. It would do some of our students good to see it first-hand, you know?"
Luna chewed on her bottom lip thoughtfully. "Well, I see no reason why not," she said with a shrug. "I can have my sister contact Principal Cinch and—"
"Nonono!" Cadance protested, waving her hands. "I mean..." She coughed and composed herself. "This is...this is an off-the-record project. Something I'm doing without Principal Cinch's knowledge or consent."
Both of Luna's eyebrows climbed toward her hairline. "I see," she said. "Well then. When were you planning to conduct this project?"
"I was thinking in the afternoons, after lunch," Cadance said. "Considering the students in question, their teachers won't even ask questions if I sign them out of classes." She fidgeted slightly. "We should only need three or four days, I think. You won't even know we're here."
"Very well," Luna said. She slid her memo pad over from the corner of her desk and picked up a pen. "Just so I know who's visiting, what are the names of these students?"
Cadance smiled. "One of them is a boy named Tirek. The other is a girl named Twilight Sparkle."
Luna's pen froze. She looked up at Cadance. "I'm sorry, did you say Twi-Twilight Sparkle?"
"Yes." Cadance tilted her head. "Is something wrong?"
Luna pursed her lips. "I...no, nothing." She continued writing, then put on a slightly strained smile. "We'll be looking forward to your visit, and I do hope you'll clue me in on the nature of your, ahem, project."
Cadance rose, then reached out to clasp hands with Luna. "See you this afternoon," she said brightly.
As she left, Luna's smile fell, confusion and worry filling her eyes. "Twilight Sparkle is a student at Crystal Prep?!"
The air ducts above Luna's office thumped violently. She heard a muffled gasp, then a loud shriek which bounced cacophonously off the metal walls of the duct:
* * * * *
After lunch, Twilight and Tirek waited for Cadance at the front gates of Crystal Prep. Twilight fidgeted nervously, casting apprehensive glances at Tirek out of the corner of her eye.
At length, Tirek asked, in the quietest tone she'd ever heard from him, "How is it you come to be so close to Dean Cadance? The two of you seem rather familiar."
Twilight jumped. "Ah!" She poked her fingers together. "W-well...I've known Dean Cadance since I was a little girl," she said. "She's been a friend of my family for a long time...she's, well, kind of like a big sister to me." She ducked her head. "My brother kind of had a crush on her for a while, but..."
"Hm. I see."
"Speaking of brothers," Twilight said hesitantly, "yours is, umm...nothing like you."
Tirek grunted. "We have different mothers," he said gruffly. "His mother is from Makuna Hatata, a nation subservient to ours for generations."
Twilight frowned. "You mean ever since Kentaros conquered them."
Twilight fell silent. After a long moment, she hedged, "You and your brother...you're not very close, are you?"
Tirek snorted. "Scorpan is a coward," he said. "He has no ambition and his life has no focus. He merely does whatever our father says. If he didn't have someone to plan his life out for him, I honestly believe he would stand in one place and do nothing for the rest of his life."
Twilight frowned, adjusting her glasses. "You know, ever since you came to this school, I've been...a little afraid of you. You're kind of..."
"Scary?" Tirek prompted with an amused smirk.
"Well, yeah," Twilight said. "I thought maybe I was wrong when all of a sudden you were interested in the same thing I've been looking into, but—"
"Twilight Sparkle," Tirek interrupted gruffly, turning to pierce her with his intense eyes. "I want you to understand something. There is power to be had in this world. Not false power, like what my fool of a father believes he has, but real power—the power to control your own destiny, the power to reshape history." He looked up at the sky, clenching his fists at his sides. "I seek that power. Not to conquer nations, not to usurp thrones. I seek that power so that I will know, always, that I am the one in control. Of my own life, of my own destiny." He turned his face back to her. "I have learned that you are the most gifted student to ever attend this school. Your academic achievements are practically legend. I ask you: what drives your thirst for knowledge?"
Twilight pursed her lips. "I want to know everything," she said softly. "I want to understand everything."
Tirek grunted. "Then in a way, we are much alike."
Before Twilight could respond to that, or even ponder Tirek's words, Cadance's car pulled up to the curb, and the two teens got in.