Sunset Shimmer spotted someone rush past the doorway. That familiar wedge of concern and curiosity sunk in. It was common for students to book it through the halls, but she recognized the flash of red and black. A figure that was too quick to glean anything but the bare minimum. One that she had seen for days. Even when she refused to look away, there was no movement, no hint of its return.
"Sunset, are you paying attention?" Rainbow Dash asked, waving a hand in front of her. Sunset blinked and was back in the music room. Her friends seated at the choir stands, except Rainbow Dash, stared at her, worriedly and partially annoyed. She had lost her focus, as she had several times before. Her hands rubbed her eyes, a sigh slipping out.
"Sorry, sorry, I know this is important," Sunset said. The conversation returned in pieces, but the figure was at the forefront. So many questions and not a way to answer them.
"Is something bothering you?" Fluttershy asked softly. Sunset faced her, putting up a smile to mask her mess of a mind.
"Nothing that can't wait," she said. No one was convinced, even Pinkie Pie who narrowed her eyes suspiciously. Sunset averted eye contact, training her gaze to their instruments resting across from them.
"Gah, don't tell me," Rainbow said, the same exasperation she had every time the issue arose, "those weird ghosts again?"
To no surprise, she hit the nail on the head, and Sunset didn't want to reply. Not to correct her, not to defend herself, not even to continue the subject. It caused problems regardless of their stances. Her silence was enough though. Everyone glanced to one another, and Sunset braced herself.
"You did get your eyes checked, darling?" Rarity asked, straightening out the wrinkles on her skirt.
"Maybe it's time to join the glasses club," Twilight Sparkle piped up, adjusting her own glasses with a sheepish laugh. Spike sunk his head, glaring at Twilight from his place on her lap. Sunset appreciated the light joke, even if it fall flat, and returned it with a small smile before it fell back to a frown. It was a good reminder that they were only trying to help.
"Guys, like I keep telling you," Sunset said, crossing her arms and leaning against the wall. "They're not hallucinations, or my eyes going bad, or my imaginary friend."
"I still think it's a valid option," Pinkie whispered to Applejack.
Sunset breathed in, then back out again, "Like I said, it isn't important now."
"It kind of is actually," Rainbow said with a roll of her eyes. Her foot tapped impatiently, and it reminded Sunset of the last time she brought up this ghost, this phantom, with her friends. "I mean, a ghost is one thing. I'm all for fighting a wandering spirit and freeing them from their mortal shackles. You know, Daring Do style."
"Not real," Twilight snipped, doubt laced in her brow. Her fingers drumming against Spike's head, who swiftly brushed them away with his paw. His mild annoyance never left him.
"Point bein', Sunset," Applejack said, pushing herself to her feet. "They're folks only you can see, and knowin' you, it's gotta have somethin' to do with magic. That ain't somethin' to ignore."
Sunset fiddled with a lock of her hair, tugging at it before letting it go to bounce away. She still couldn't meet any of their gazes, seeing fit to glance out the window to the front lawn below. Their claims of magic was not unfounded, and it was the first explanation Sunset had come up with too.
"It's the least of our worries," Sunset said with finality. She twisted around to prop her arms against the window sill. "Even if it is Equestrian magic, we're all here because of everything else, like figuring out how to stop the 'weekly magical incident.' Our normal lives are just as important as our powers or the portal to Equestria, and every other…"
She trailed off. It was the phantom again, except it didn't breeze by in a blur. It strolled through the grass in a wide arc, almost robotically. She had ample time to drink in its appearance, and with every detail she caught, the more thoughtful and unsure she was of its nature.
It was a boy, first and foremost, and one that could pass for a student at Canterlot High. Gray and black with red accents were the primary colors of his attire, fitting snug around his lithe frame. It became complicated from there, with hints of plaid and other small pieces Sunset couldn't parse from the distance.
"See what I mean?" Rainbow pulled Sunset away from the window. Rainbow had a glare that brokered no argument. "You saw another of those ghosts, right?"
Sunset closed her mouth when she realized it hung open. The image of the boy still played in her vision, and with another glance to the school grounds, found he had vanished like the others.
"I'll take that as a yes," Rainbow grumbled before taking a step back, gesturing to Sunset. "You started seeing these things, what, a week ago?"
"Three days ago," Sunset corrected.
"And they've distracted you every time," Rainbow finished with a palm to her head. "It's one thing to say it's not important, but at least focus on the meeting."
"And everything else too!" Pinkie said, thrusting her hand into the air. Her face contorted in thought, tapping a finger to her chin. "One minute you're baking a sheet of brownies, the next your head is in the clouds, where the brownies are not at!"
"And don't forget your studies!" Twilight said, sitting up straight and pushing her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. "I noticed your attention slipping during our last session."
They were right. The phantom did distract her, and the root of it was reactionary. Sunset would catch something in the corner of her eye and couldn't stop herself. Her curiosity was most likely the culprit, eager to learn more of the phantom with every glimpse. She hunched her shoulders, wanting to argue this point, but sweeping across each face proved it was unfair on their parts. Her shoulders relaxed.
"Okay, I get it," Sunset said, nodding. She filled in the blanks to come to a compromise, and made an effort to keep her tone friendly, keep her mindset friendly. "Maybe putting this whole ghost thing on the back burner was a bad idea. I'll write to Twilight, er, the other Twilight, when I get the chance. See if she can help."
There was a round of approval from the others. Sunset felt her frustration slip away like sand through her hand. The support was warm and very welcome compared to her strife over these phantoms. Her problems were theirs as well.
"So, let's try to make up for lost time," Sunset said, invigorated. The others listened with rapt attention. "I wanted to start with a way to address any stray magic. Like containing-"
A phone vibrated, causing her to pause. Twilight smiled in apology as she dug out her phone.
"And that would be our cue," Spike said, shaking his head slowly.
"Spike, what are you-?" Twilight asked before she read her phone. Her eyes widened, and she sprung to her feet. Spike tumbled to the floor in a heap. "We're late! Oh no, I promised Cadance I'd spend time with her today."
Sunset raised a brow, "Today? Why didn't you tell us?"
"I… thought the meeting would last a few minutes," Twilight admitted, twirling a strand of her hair with a finger, apology written all over her. "Sorry."
Rainbow retrieved her own phone, flicking through it before grunting, "Yeah, if Twilight's heading out, I might as well too. Extra Soccer practice never hurt anyone."
Pinkie giggled, "I'm sure that time you broke your ankle doesn't count."
"Nope," Rainbow said monotonically, already typing out a text.
"No point havin' a meetin' if Twi ain't here," Applejack spoke up. Fluttershy bobbed her head, already slipping her bag on.
"Meeting adjourned!" Pinkie yelled, sweeping her arms to the side.
A pinprick of rejection hit Sunset. The fuss over the phantoms and their appearances had taken up too much of their meeting. Their minor frustrations over containing the Equestrian magic put aside for their normal lives. They wanted some semblance of an ordinary life, and Sunset had yet another magical problem.
"Guess we'll have to talk later then," she said, playing with her hands.
A hand was suddenly thrust in front of her, and it took Sunset a second to realize it was offering her a chocolate chip cookie.
"Don't be sad now," Pinkie said with a knowing look. The kind that got a chuckle out of Sunset. She knew how to cheer up a friend. Sunset took the cookie with curt nod in thanks. Pinkie beamed before giving her a peace sign as she followed after Applejack. Their farewells were brisk, as were Rainbow's and Twilight's. Spike merely saluted.
"Don't forget about tomorrow," Fluttershy said with a ernest smile. Sunset recalled her promise to help Fluttershy prepare for an interview, and was glad of the reminder.
"You got it," Sunset replied, shooting her a finger gun and a wink. Fluttershy glowed, smile widening, and left.
The meeting was a setback, but not catastrophic. Sunset had to repeat that in her head a few times, even while munching on her cookie. Her tongue caught a hair follicle, and with a grimace, pulled it out. It was Pink. Sunset wasn't surprised, though slightly put off.
"Do you need to be somewhere, Sunset?" Rarity asked. She tucked a hand mirror into her bag before shouldering it.
"No, why?" Sunset said, taking another bite.
"I was commissioned to work on a chandelier for the Fall Formal, and I'm at a very critical juncture. Would you mind helping me? It'll only be but a few minutes, darling."
"Oh, sure, I'm not busy," Sunset said. She shoved the rest of the cookie into her mouth. It was a good cookie after all.
"I merely have to attach the ornaments," Rarity said, presenting an array of gem-like glass pieces on the table. Each was cut differently of varying shapes, delicately spaced from one another on a silk cloth, and all had a gleam that rivaled actual diamonds. Nearby hung a collection of wires twisting and gnarled together like the roots of a tree. The metal stand supporting it was flimsy, and because the pieces were still glass, Sunset understood why Rarity needed assistance. She kept her focus on Rarity, keeping any other thoughts from invading. A lump formed in Sunset's throat.
On the way to the art room, where the chandelier remained, Sunset had seen two more phantoms. One that had slid through a crowd of classmates, somehow, and another that stood at the end of the hall, disappearing before Sunset even thought of getting closer. Both times, Sunset had to drag her mind away from speculating on them. Handling an easily breakable chandelier with painstakingly crafted - and expensive - glass pieces was not something to take lightly.
Rarity hummed, working the metal wires while scrutinizing each glass piece.
"If you could," Rarity beckoned, glued to the chandelier. "I simply need only you to watch the stand as I work. Not a thrilling job, mind you, but the slightest teeter can destroy the ornaments."
"Yeah," Sunset said, scratching the back of her head. "You sure you want me for this? If you haven't noticed, I haven't exactly been… attentive lately."
"Oh, pish posh," Rarity said, opening a nearby drawer to pull out a pair of pliers. With a flourish, she twirled them in her palm before facing Sunset again, hands at her hips. "While you're attention skills have been sorely lacking, keeping a stand upright hardly requires it. An extra pair of hands will reduce accidents too."
It was a surprisingly sound reason, one Sunset was content with as she positioned herself on the other side of the table. The stand was attached to a wooden platform, and with a quick shake, it held together, if wobbly. Watching it wasn't going to be enough, and the others were in use for other art projects, so there was no replacing it either.
"Keep it still now," Rarity said, already holding a glass piece, squinting at the chandelier, "and I'll work my own magic."
Sunset gripped the stand with both hands, and watched Rarity bring one of the smaller fragments to the farthest reaching wire. Her fingers moved like water, smoothly adjusting the wire to encircle the glass to set it in place without marring it. Metalworking was hardly her specialty, but her design and artistic eye never failed.
"So about this, eh, phantom," Rarity said. Her focus was solely on the chandelier, but glanced to Sunset occasionally. "Are you certain it's an actual phantom? Of the ghostly sort? It could very well be someone following you. Not everyone is still fond of you, unfortunately."
The memory incident with Wallflower Blush came to mind and made Sunset's head hot. However, she kept her cool and remembered the facts, clear as day.
"You can't see him, remember?" Sunset said, raising a brow. "Pretty sure that's an indication."
"That's just it," Rarity said, halting her work, "We can't, but you can. Perhaps it is on purpose."
"It's not like that," Sunset said hastily. Defending this phantom came out of the blue, and she reeled in her feelings. Keep to the facts. "It's complicated. He appears in random places, and doesn't really do anything."
"Yeah, it's a guy."
Rarity hummed and didn't respond, getting back to the chandelier. There was conflict in her expression. It showed in her pacing, deliberately holding a piece in place for a few seconds. A lull formed as the minutes passed. Sunset found herself exploring the room. Sets of newly fashioned art pieces held by other metal stands, the spotless tables that smelled of cleaner, and the clock on that wall refusing to go any faster. Her wrists ached from holding the stand for so long.
"Have you thought of bringing a date to the Fall Formal?" Rarity suddenly asked. Sunset had to process that question before looking to her. A sparkle in her eye emerged. A sort of liveliness that Sunset can only associate with these kinds of subjects. She had to hand it to Rarity, she was good at changing the subject.
"Not in the slightest," Sunset said, a sly smirk emerging.
"A shame," Rarity said without faltering. "A year since the last Fall Formal and not a single person caught your interest?"
Sunset shifted her elbows to lean on them, still smiling, "One or two, maybe. But ever since Flash Sentry dumped me, I never really got back into dating."
Rarity tutted while waving a hand, "Forget all the boyfriend-girlfriend dynamics, first of all. This is for the Fall Formal, a one night event. No need to be bogged down by a relationship. It's the fun of choice and what-ifs."
"This would be my first real Fall Formal," Sunset thought aloud. She caught herself and chuckled. Rarity was actually getting to her. "And what about you? Have anyone on mind for a date?"
"No, but that's why I ask," Rarity said with a humorous grunt. "This chandelier is a prop for a photoshoot at the Fall Formal. Portraits, friends, even couples. It has me wondering what we could do to spice up this Fall Formal."
She meant to continue but stopped herself, clearing her throat and angling closer to the chandelier.
Sunset hadn't thought of it that way, frowning. She bowed her head to stare into one of the glass pieces, a teardrop shape with her reflection. Accompanying her friends around was enough, but as Rarity stated, there was fun in going with someone special. Just for the night. At the very least, it was an idea to play with.
And there was the phantom. Its reflection putting him right behind Sunset, moving around wildly. Sunset spun around, still holding the stand, to see it dancing. Dancing! He pumped his legs up, arms matching as though in tune. A simple jig, but he was happy about it. His smile was bright, and his eyes were ocean blue, and his hair was spiky brown, and Sunset was shocked.
"Sunset!" Rarity shouted. Sunset faced the chandelier in time to see a large piece of glass slip and crack against the table before sliding off and smashing onto the floor. Glass skittered across the room as a horrible grip took a hold of Sunset. Her stomach flipped and her throat was tight.
Nobody moved, and the seconds ticked on, and Sunset didn't know what to do with herself. Give an apology, an explanation, an excuse, a promise; too much swirled in her head, making her dizzy. What was worse was the phantom had disappeared, as though it wasn't responsible.
"Rarity," Sunset said, finally having the courage to pull her gaze to her. She felt a tremble through her body seeing how heartbroken she was. "I thought I… I'm sorry."
"It's all right," Rarity muttered, her words slurring together. Her foot nudged a large fragment of glass. "Just the, um, the c-centerpiece that was very difficult to acquire. Nothing that can't be…"
Sunset clutched her hands, feeling her anger build up and directed at herself. As though automatically, she stepped over the glass, hearing a crunch when she misstepped, and headed for the door.
"Sunset," Rarity spoke, but it was a whisper, barely holding in her grief. Sunset walked the halls. Her chest was tight, muscles tense, and all that was on her mind was that phantom dancing without a care in the world.
There was an immediate regret when Sunset slammed the door to her home shut. She had left Rarity alone to clean the mess up, and worse hadn't done anything to rectify the broken ornament. The centerpiece of all things. Standing at the door, staring listlessly to the opposite wall, Sunset had only herself to blame. Not the phantom, just her.
The heaviness in her chest hadn't loosened, and as she made her way through her room, it tightened and strangled her. She climbed the stairs to the loft, where her bed resided, and plopped onto the mattress, face buried in the sheets.
All she had to do was stay focused, keep the stand up. She couldn't even do that. If the phantom had milled around like usual, maybe she could have ignored it, but it had danced. Why it chose to dance was beyond her. It made no sense, but the phantom itself wasn't sensical to begin with. Then she had finally gotten a good look at the phantom. Sunset flipped to her back, wrist resting on her forehead as she reviewed what she saw, if to distance herself from the guilt.
His features were young, more so than she expected. His eyes were the biggest factor. They stood out against his darker hair and clothing. There was also the silver crown necklace. Probably the only defining item on him. She tried to link it to something associated with her, mainly Twilight's crown. But that was gone, having merged with the Tree of Harmony. She hit a blank, and looped back to the broken centerpiece.
Sunset groaned. She needed to distract herself, better than last time anyway. The phantoms only appeared at Canterlot High, and she was immeasurably grateful for that.
Sitting up, she reached for her magic journal and crossed her legs. It fell open on her lap to the last written page, a pencil wedged in the spine. It was a discussion on possible causes for Equestrian magic leaking into Sunset's world. Which devolved into playful banter over the pros of each of their worlds.
Sunset allowed herself a smirk. There was reassurance in speaking with Twilight, like a warm blanket that comforted and protected her. That same reassurance was at her fingertips, but at the same time, guilt still gripped her insides and refused to let go. She took the pencil and eyed the empty page. A pit of uncertainty stirred in her as she raced to find the words to start off.
Straight to the point. That was what Sunset decided with. Nodding, she took a deep breath and wrote:
There's this phantom at Canterlot High. It appears randomly - walking, running, dancing! - and only I can see it. If you have any advice or info on this, I'd really like to hear it.
She thought to continue, add more details, but stopped herself. The lead of the pencil pressed against the paper, but couldn't bring herself to continue. A minute passed, waiting for a response, and when there was none, Sunset grunted and set the journal aside. Twilight wasn't available at every waking moment. It didn't unwind her tension, but patience was a virtue.
Sunset set about to get ready to sleep. Even if Twilight got back to her and gave her a solution, the long day had taken its toll, and Sunset wanted to relax to some degree.
The book vibrated and pulsed with purple. Sunset, dressed in her pajamas, flew up the flight of stairs and dove onto her bed. Her toothbrush was still in her mouth, as was the foaming paste. She tossed open the book to find words write themselves into her journal. The familiar purple glow was like a lighthouse in a stormy sea.
Sunset! Glad to hear from you. I don't think I've ever heard such a phenomenon. Phantoms following you around? Sounds scary. I'll read around to find something useful. The restricted section at the Canterlot library might hold an idea on the subject. Writing to Princess Celestia and Princess Luna couldn't hurt either. Or Starswirl the Bearded!
The list went on for a while, referencing other places in Equestria and a handful of ponies Sunset wasn't familiar with. She made a mental note to ask about them later. Skimming through it wasn't ideal, but when Sunset got through a full page of it, she knew she was in good hands.
That's all I could come up with at the moment. Luckily I have plenty of time to help. It's pretty boring when there isn't any excitement, though I don't know if that's a bad thing. In the meantime, you should try to gather as much information as you can on your end. How long does it stay around? Is there a pattern to what it does? Hopefully it can provide some insight.
Sunset shifted the toothbrush in her mouth, contemplating. It wasn't an idea that Sunset had considered, given she juggled so many other responsibilities already. However, putting in all of her effort would get it out of the way and onto more important prospects. Sunset wrote as much and gave her thanks before closing the book. Her eyes refused to tear away from the cover, mulling over how to gather more information.
Only one person came to mind.
Sunset clenched the clipboard and pen in her hands. Pacing the school lobby mitigated her annoyance, but every glance down the hall spiked her anxiety. She reviewed what little notes she had written to calm herself down. They consisted of a handful of sightings of the phantom and his activity. They were more frequent as the day went on, and his actions varied with each appearance. Which meant while it is random, it was escalating. To what, Sunset had no clue.
She flipped the paper to the one underneath, growling.
"Where is she?" Sunset said, pulling away from the clipboard to see Pinkie Pie stand unabashedly close. Sunset felt her heart leap into her throat as she jerked back. Pinkie was unfazed.
"Were you expecting someone else?" Pinkie asked, tilting her head to the side.
Sunset straightened herself out, heart still beating rapidly, "Given my circumstances, yeah, sort of."
"That's what I'm here for, right?" Pinkie said, waving her phone. "You texted saying you needed assistance from good ol' Pinkamena Diane Pie for your paranormal activities."
Sunset gave her a strange look, one even Pinkie couldn't ignore. She looked at her phone and sidled up to Sunset, scrunching her face, "You did send this text, right?"
"Wait, your full name is Pinkamena Diane Pie?" Sunset asked, incredulous.
"Yeah, I never told you?" Pinkie asked back, to which Sunset shook her head. "Huh. Feels like one of things you'd already know."
Sunset had to process that, but shoved it to the back of her head. She held up the clipboard for Pinkie to see.
"Here's what I got so far. Not much, but that's why I needed your help."
Pinkie snatched the clipboard, twirling around on one leg before flinging the clipboard up high in one fluid movement. It spiraled in the air and plummeted into Pinkie's waiting hands, and she dug into its contents, a finger sliding down the notes.
"Yeah, okay, okay, seems right," she muttered, her hair bouncing with each nod. She flipped to the next page and gasped dramatically. "It's a boy!?"
"Is that all anyone focuses on?" Sunset snapped, throwing her arms in the air. "Why's that so surprising?!"
The passing classmates stared at her, some whispering to others. Pinkie hunched down with just enough hurt to get across to Sunset. It stung, so much so that Sunset wanted to disappear like the phantoms. She made herself small, blushing, and reigned herself in to settle her flared nerves. She took in a breath, held it, then released it. Wherever that overreaction came from, she could keep it down, keep herself composed. The classmates slowly carried on, but it didn't stop the sense of embarrassment from leaving.
Pinkie held out the clipboard with an apologetic smile. Sunset returned it, taking the clipboard and holding it to her chest. Having it close and in her possession led her to focus on the task at hand.
"All right," Sunset said. Her face was set and determined. "The reason I asked you specifically, Pinkie, was because this phantom has no discernible pattern. In essence, it's completely random. I need you to be yourself to effect the phantom. It's a long shot, but I figure it's worth a try, see what comes from it." She patted her pocket. "I'm going to try and catch a picture with my phone, hopefully get something new out of it. Then try my powers on him. You with me so far?"
"Exactly what do you expect me to do?" Pinkie asked, completely baffled as she looked herself over. "Giggling at the ghosties is my specialty, but I think I need to see it first. And can you touch the ghosty to use your powers? Does it work like that?"
They were valid questions, causing Sunset to hesitate. She wasn't even sure what she wanted Pinkie to do. Having her natural weirdness around wasn't a surefire assurance against the phantom. She may have to dismiss her help, but it put a pit in her stomach thinking about that.
"You know what?" Pinkie said, knocking Sunset out of her fretting. In her hands was a large butterfly net, and she waved it around like it was a flag. "Just say the word and I'll net this phantom boy, even if he is invisible!"
Sunset dumped the idea of forgoing Pinkie Pie. Just having her around to ease the pressure was enough. She smiled, relaxing her posture, and reread the second page of her clipboard. It held general information on the phantom, mostly his appearance, but also noting his attitude. Dancing was certainly different, but it was how happy the phantom was doing it that stood out. There was no awareness from him, as far as Sunset could tell. Which meant either the phantom projected the actual person, wherever he was, or something more far fetched.
Sunset glanced around the lobby, and found a phantom fly overhead. She balked, nearly dropping her clipboard, as he gracefully glided from one side to the other before vanishing over the railing on the second floor.
Sunset immediately took off. She maneuvered around the other students, and those she couldn't, she bumped past with a hasty apology. The second floor. That was where he was. He might disappear again, he might not. Her head filled with these comments and objectives, blaring like sirens and demanding results. She reached the stairs and surged up them, two at a time. She slipped but pulled herself up before she fell, still going.
By the time she reached the spot overlooking the lobby, she saw no sign of the phantom. Her breaths were ragged, but kept herself quiet, eyes darting around.
"Sunset!" Pinkie cried from the ground floor, jumping up and down. "Did you see him?! Is he dancing again? Tell me he's dancing!"
It confused Sunset how Pinkie knew about that before remembering she had read her notes earlier.
Sunset made to reply, but the phantom floated straight at her, swallowing her words. She recoiled as it passed through her.
A tornado filled to the brim with dark beings. They twisted and contorted around each other. Their beady yellow eyes pierced the heart. It was hopeless. They were gone.
Sunset stumbled back, catching herself on the lockers. Her mind couldn't wrap around what she saw, what she felt. It was the phantom's feelings, but it was skewed, incomplete. And the monsters… they were something else. Not Equestrian in the least. She turned to the hallway then back to the lobby to find the floating phantom gone.
"What's going on?" Pinkie yelled. "Did you trip? Did the ghosty get you? You know I don't like being left in the dark!"
Sunset shook away the vision, and pulled herself to the railing. On the ground floor was another phantom, standing beside Pinkie Pie. There was a hint of panic that she quelled as best she could. There was no need for it, not when her friend was there.
"Pinkie, he's next to you!" Sunset called, pointing over to her. "See if you can interact with him, affect his behavior!"
Pinkie jumped back, holding the butterfly net at the ready. Her head zipped around like a paranoid bird. Sunset studied him, especially his expression. It was stoic, neutral. There was no nuance to it, just plain and devoid of anything.
Sunset got a better look at his clothes though. Capri pants, glove-like gauntlets, and overly large shoes with yellow straps. Other minute details were swept aside when Pinkie leapt past him, swinging her net like mad.
"Begone, spirit!" she cried. Students gave her space, some having to duck or leap back to avoid getting hit. Sunset wanted to yell at her to stop, yet she was frozen in place, waiting for the phantom to move. Until another phantom strolled past, hands behind his head. Everything Sunset thought she knew about him went out the window. Her gaze shifted back and forth between them, expecting some discrepancy, some mistake.
"Can you at least take your picture?" Pinkie said, out of breath with both hands on her knees. "It'll… it'll last longer."
Sunset felt a jolt through her system and hurriedly dug through her pocket. Her hands were shaking, and her eyes never left the two phantoms. Neither had changed in their actions, one still stood solemnly in the open while the other headed for the front doors. Grasping her phone, finally, Sunset pulled it out, aimed, and snapped a picture.
"Yes!" she said, saving the photo. When she looked back, both phantoms were replaced with one dancing and another waving a hand in farewell. Sunset slapped a hand to her forehead. "You've gotta be kidding me."
"What!?" Pinkie yelled, cupping a hand over her ear.
Sunset clasped the railing, "Nothing, Pinkie!"
"What is all this commotion?"
The voice of Vice Principal Luna filled Sunset with dread, eyes wide. Her stomach flipped seeing her storm into the lobby, the students parting to let her through. Pinkie had the guts to stand her ground, holding the net rigidly in front of her.
"A commotion contest?" Pinkie tried with a shrug. Luna sighed in exasperation. Sunset pulled her phone up to watch the phantoms and check the picture at the same time. Pinkie was somehow a blur amongst the sea of students, but there wasn't any sign of the phantoms. They really were all in her head. Sunset clenched her teeth, her breathing picked up, and fought the urge to scream at the world to let her get something concrete out of it all!
"Sunset Shimmer!" Luna said. And there it was, the words Sunset was afraid of, wincing at the authoritative tone. She looked to Luna, knowing she would lose sight of the two phantoms, to see her wave to come down, none too pleased.
Her hand ran down her face before finicking with her jacket sleeve. She didn't have to look over to know the phantoms were gone, but did so anyway with a sliver of hope. One did remain, but it walked along the wall. The only one to stick around for the consequences.
"Taking pictures of phantoms?" Luna asked, baffled. Her arms were crossed, and she towered over Sunset with a disciplinary eye. She was glad the lobby was empty to avoid the gossip. "Girls, I may have come across a lot of magic - more than I'd like, I'm afraid - but this seems-"
"Interesting?" Pinkie piped up. Sunset closed her eyes, silently begging her to stop talking. "Vague? Spooky? Perhaps charming from a certain point of view?"
Luna leaned forward, glaring at Pinkie. If she wasn't intimidating before, she certainly was at the moment.
"Outlandish," she deadpanned. Pinkie cracked an uneasy smile, but it died as quickly as it came.
"Vice Principal Luna," Sunset said, realizing she sounded frantic, "I know this is absurd, even by magic standards, but I swear it's the truth. I've been… haunted by these phantoms for days. We were looking for a solution, and it got out of hand."
"I do believe you, Ms. Shimmer," Luna said solemnly. Through her hard exterior, a soft expression escaped before she shook her head. "However, I don't want any excuses for your disruption. Unless these phantoms are a danger to the student body, I can't easily let you continue without some form of punishment." She paused, as though rethinking her next words, then crossed her arms. "You understand, don't you?"
Sunset tried to swallow the lump in her throat, "Yeah, I get it."
"Two days detention, starting tomorrow afternoon," Luna said. She eyed Pinkie, who shriveled. "For the both of you."
"Detention?" Sunset asked, distraught. Luna raised a brow, almost asking her to follow that path. It shouldn't have been a big deal, but Sunset felt her head fill with a longing to finish this escapade, think on her friend's future, her future. "B-but I have so much to do. The Fall Formal is coming up, and Rarity-"
"Sunset," Luna said, resting a hand on her shoulder to silence her. There was remorse, but her tone brokered no argument. "You have a lot on your plate, I know, but one must account for their actions, even if it is for a greater good."
Sunset took a step back, giving a curt nod. In the corner of her eye, she caught the phantom still walking in a circle. Luna reminded Pinkie to pass on her responsibilities for the Fall Formal to another student, but it was background noise to Sunset. It was piling up, one issue after another. She agonized over these phantoms, only to come out with nothing. Luna left them, each footstep clicking from her shoes until they faded away. The lobby felt much bigger and emptier than before.
"Um, Sunset?" Pinkie said, so quiet she might as well not have spoken. There was a spark in Sunset, lifting her phone to see that worthless photo. "I know we didn't get anything today, at least I don't think we got anything." Sunset deleted the photo, insides boiling. "But I wanted to say that I'm sure you'll figure something out." The phantom made another loop around the lobby, and another appeared, floating across, and yet another phantom jumped to and fro. Sunset trembled. "The phantoms can wait, right? We can take a break-"
"You don't get it, Pinkie!" Sunset snapped. She whipped around, shoving a finger at Pinkie. Her blood burned and her head was heavy. "They're everywhere I look, and they won't leave me alone, and it's getting worse! There are three phantoms here right now, and I'm not sure if I can take it anymore! Am I supposed to live with these things harassing me for the rest of my life?! Cause I don't have anything to stop them! Can you just take this seriously for once!?"
Sunset gasped for air. There was a long pause. One second, two, then Sunset's breath hitched. She paled, all the heat in her evaporated to leave her cold. It was worse to see Pinkie Pie, frightened and on the verge of tears. Her arms were held close to her chest, but she didn't turn away. She kept her watered eyes solely on Sunset.
"Pinkie…" Sunset said, coming out as a croak. She reached out, but Pinkie Pie pulled away. Seeing her so quiet and reclusive sent a pang through Sunset. She had crossed a line, and had no idea what to say or do. It shouldn't have been hard - Pinkie was her friend - yet she merely watched her trudge to the door, suppressing a sob. It left Sunset with three phantoms going about like there was absolutely nothing wrong.
"Hello, this is Fluttershy… Oh! Um, I'm not here right now. Maybe later. Just leave a message at the tone-beep noise… B-bye!"
A dull beep followed, and Sunset inwardly groaned, "Fluttershy, I'm so sorry. I completely forgot about preparing for your interview. I'll make it up to you, I promise. We can meet before school starts tomorrow. The afternoon won't work, I've got… detention. I'll fill you in later. I hope you get this soon."
After ending the call, Sunset stared at her phone before gently banging it against her head, "Stupid!"
Five texts and two missed calls from Fluttershy. How Sunset had lapsed on her promise was not hard to figure out, but left her exhausted. First Pinkie Pie, then Fluttershy. And the day before with Rarity too. The walk home was unwelcome, but there wasn't any phantoms to bother her. It was a hollow victory.
The overcast sky matched her mood, and was sure rain would come the next day. A day she had to wake up early if she wanted to meet up with Fluttershy. Even as she slid through the door of her home, she couldn't shake the contempt she had towards herself. Her bag slid off her shoulder and onto the floor, spilling its contents, including her magic journal. She told herself Twilight had an answer, a silver lining, and scooped it up before falling into her couch.
For a while, Sunset sat and stared at her television screen, seeing her muddied reflection stare back. Her mind told her to write to Twilight again, but she wasn't even sure what to talk about anymore. The phantoms were more frequent, half her friends were upset with her, and above all else, she was tired. So very tired.
She opened the book, smoothing out the page.
Sunset, I looked at what was on hoof and couldn't find anything on your phantoms yet. There's still hope though! Princess Celestia wrote back to me that she had an encounter with a phantom some time before Princess Luna's return. Not sure if it's connected in any way, shape, or form, but hope! HOPE! Let me know how things are on your end and I'll try to get back to you as soon as possible.
As Twilight had said, there was hope. Sunset took her pen, but faltered. The phantom had felt the opposite, hopelessness. Maybe it was a reflection of herself. It would explain his pervading appearances. It was her fears manifesting to plunge her into despair. A part of her pondered whether it was punishment for her wrong doings so long ago, and another part of her figured she had gone crazy.
She set the book aside and slid down to lie across the couch. The whole dilemma was a mess, one she didn't know if she could resolve with friends. Even when she tried with one of her friends, it was disastrous. She closed her eyes to see Pinkie crying in her mind's eye, and remembered one of the questions Sunset had asked her in her rage.
In her house, alone, she may very well have to live with these phantoms for the rest of her life.
As Sunset had predicted, it was raining, hard. The path to school was riddled with puddles, and she ended up soaking wet, having lost her umbrella. Her eyes were heavy from drowsiness. She wasn't a morning person to begin with, but had also tossed and turned all night without a wink of sleep. The dark clouds above were the same in her head, dark and muggy. She took in a breath of the crisp air. If Fluttershy hadn't agreed to meet up early in the morning, Sunset wasn't sure what to do with herself.
Her gaze drifted to the houses. She had to concentrate on her tips on interviews, have advice at the ready, but the phantoms distracted her even away from the school. Every step closer mounted her worry, knowing they were there. Not malicious, perhaps, but still never ending.
"What do I say to Pinkie?" Sunset asked herself. A whole new worry tightened a knot inside her. There had been no contact with Pinkie nor Rarity since last they met. She gripped the strap of her bag, wanting to get some comfort out of it.
When the school came in sight, Sunset froze, unable to breathe.
The phantoms were everywhere. There wasn't one or two frolicking in the grass, but dozens of them scattered over the building. Some danced in circles around the old foundation that once held the rearing horse statue, others held their heads up with a fist over their chest. Phantoms zigzagged along the walls, and the windows showcased more sitting in chairs. Her eyes trailed upward to see them fly across the school in a seamless line. Three of them twirled around the flagpole at the top of the glass dome on the roof.
Sunset struggled to move, unsure how to respond. There was so many of them, so many of this one person. Something clicked in her head, and she hurried along the sidewalk to the school grounds. So many questions once again vied to be answered, but one stood out the most.
"Why?" Sunset asked, unable to look at any one place for long. She spotted a phantom lie in the grass, and another with his hands behind his head, relaxed. "Why is this happening?" She turned to find a phantom running at her. "Who are you?"
He passed through her.
"A real leader knows that destiny is beyond his control, and accepts that."
The voice was full of conviction, and definitely not intended for her. Sunset had never heard it before, but there was something to it. She regained her bearings and glossed over the other phantoms with a sense of wonder.
"Who are you?" she snapped. There was too many. She spun around to avoid running into one, making her way through, but one fell from the sky and through her.
A rocky desert strewn with swords. Twelve figures in black coats, their hoods up to shroud their faces. An old man stands at the center, bald with devilish eyes and pointed ears.
Sunset felt fear. Her legs gave out, but held herself up by her hands and knees.
"Stop it," Sunset hissed. Her geode necklace dangled underneath her. She grabbed it, clutching it, and seethed. "Leave me alone!"
There was a flash from her geode, blinding her. For a moment, there was silence, then when her eyesight returned, the rain came crashing down around her again. Slowly, she lifted her head, stunned. All the phantoms were gone, no matter where Sunset looked. She pushed herself back up, limbs feeling heavy, still holding her geode. Her eyes eventually fell to the statue foundation.
A single phantom was left behind. He floated inside the portal, unconscious and serene. Sunset drew closer, preparing for him to jump out or wake up. It was surreal to see him to simply stay within the portal, like looking through a window. Wisps swirled around him and weaved over his arms and legs. Sunset reached out and passed through the portal, setting a hand on his short-sleeved jacket. It was smooth under her touch.
It wasn't another phantom, this was him. The real one. Sunset felt a wave of emotion hit her. Seeing the person behind all the phantoms made her want to lash out.
She could send him through to Equestria. A simple push and he was out of her life. It was an idea that she wanted to follow through. She couldn't handle it, but Twilight could. She wasn't busy and had enough experience to know what to do. It was for the better. Sunset could fix things at school, make things right with her friends. Work towards a normal life…
Yet she couldn't bring herself to push him away.
It wasn't fair to him. Seeing his gentle face was enough proof of his innocence. There was a reason Sunset saw his phantoms, how he arrived at the portal to her. There was a reason, and Sunset wasn't about to abandon him because of her misery.
Her hand took hold of the hem of his jacket and she pulled him effortlessly out of the portal.