This Time for Good

by iisaw

2 Cell Mates

The first thing Twilight did was examine the bronze and steel contraption she had seen from outside the cave. It was not a true mechanism, but more of a magical grounding system. Any active magic that tried to act on it would be channeled away and dispersed into the earth.

Twilight did some rough calculations in her head and determined that it would be significantly less effective that most shield spells an average unicorn guard could raise. A few good blasts of direct power would overload it and burn out the wires that were designed to channel away incoming magic.

So, Twilight thought, just a decoy? Something to lure in a curious unicorn? She couldn't imagine what other purpose it might serve, though as bait, it had certainly worked on her.

She tamped down the self-recriminations that sprang to mind and circled the object. Behind it, a tunnel sloped down into darkness. "Anycreature home?" she called out as she lit her horn and sent a detection pulse down into the darkness.

There was no answer and no information from her spell, so she sighed and started walking. The walls looked like ordinary limestone, the passage as if it had been worn by the natural erosion of flowing water. The floor of the tunnel was not as smooth as the walls, and bore the marks of the passage of many creatures. Or possibly one creature many times, Twilight corrected herself.

After a few minutes, Twilight thought she saw a lessening of the darkness ahead and cancelled her light spell. Sure enough, there was a dim glow from the walls: a reflection of some brighter source reflected many times.

Twilight advanced more slowly and cautiously until she was fairly certain only one turn of the passageway separated her from the source of the light. It seemed to be natural sunlight, but surely that was too much to hope for.

"Hello! Is anypony there?"

Aside from a garbled echo from the tunnel behind her, there was no reply. But there was some sound from up ahead—a low "white" noise like that made by distant wind or waves.

Twilight cast a tight shield spell around herself and trotted forward, calling out a greeting again. Within a quarter furlong, she came to a steep slope that rose up into the center of a large open space. She dashed up the ramp and skidded to a halt, scanning the area as quickly as she could for any signs of danger.

The huge cavern was… fairly pleasant, surprisingly. The ground beneath Twilight's hooves was earthy and moist, and there were several scattered patches of severely-cropped grass growing there. That white noise she had heard was a crystal-clear brook running through the center of the space, falling from a fissure in the distant wall and flowing over a clean gravel bed until it disappeared into one of the many openings that pierced the opposite wall.

Perhaps the most important observation (from Twilight's point of view) was the broad patch of clear blue sky some distance overhead. A trap with such an easy out? she thought. Or maybe what's up there is the point of all this? She dropped her shield and reviewed several other spell matrices. Maybe I'll cast an invisibility spell in case there are any hostile creatures up there, and then—

"Huh," came a throaty voice from off to her side somewhere. "I guess there's a reason it wanted me back here."

Twilight spun to face the speaker and found a large, warm-gray pegasus mare emerging from one of the many tunnels in the cavern's walls. She approached with a confident stride, as if she were quite accustomed to the uneven ground beneath her hooves. Her reddish mane and tail were both cropped short, but not severely so. She was powerfully built, but not in the usual lean and wiry way of a speed flyer. Her body was heavy with well-developed muscle and her cutie mark was a dagger buried point-down in a pile of golden coins. Now that's interesting, Twilight thought. Conflict and money. A sport fighter of some sort? With that build, she'd probably be a good one.

The pegasus stopped several body-lengths away and cocked her head. "Got any food in those saddlebags, uni?"

"No, sorry," Twilight replied. "My name's Twi—"

"You don't mind if I check for myself, do you?" the mare replied, and began to advance once more. The way she moved in a slight crouch, her shoulders and haunches rippling with each step, immediately brought the impression of a predator to Twilight's mind.

Time to nip this in the bud, and as long as politeness is off the table… Twilight lifted the burly pegasus off her hooves and then set her down again a few lengths further away from her. She gave one little pulse of constriction before releasing her, as a courteous reminder that there was more than one sort of strength.

"Whoof!" The mare gasped in a lungful of air to replace the one that had been squeezed out of her.

"As I was saying..." Twilight continued in a bright and friendly tone, as if the little test of dominance hadn't even happened. " name is Twilight Sparkle. And your name is…?"

"Uh… I'm Windfall."

"Pleased to meet you, Windfall! Could you please tell me where exactly we are?"

The big mare shrugged and looked away in the general direction of not Twilight. "Celestia-forsaken magic cave, right? I assume you just got nabbed, same as me."

"I'm afraid so. I assume from your tone of voice, that the patch of sky above us isn't a way out?"

"Nope," the mare said shortly. "Not for me, and for sure not for you, even if it wasn't magically jiggered somehow." Windfall looked back at Twilight and suddenly realized that there were wings half-concealed beneath her saddlebags. "Holy flaming skynuggets, you're an alicorn!"

Twilight had never been a pony to consciously depend on her rank or position, but after all the years of fighting for Equestria in an increasingly public way, she was just a little bit miffed when she wasn't even recognized. "Yes. Perhaps I should have introduced myself as Princess Twilight Sparkle, but the situation seemed a bit informal for that."

"So there's two of you now? Aren't you a bit short for a princess?"

"Uh… five of us now, actually." Twilight corrected her, losing her grip on sarcasm in surprise. "Cadance and I became alicorns quite a while ago. And then there's Luna... Where have you been the last several years that you haven't heard about us?"

"No kidding?" Windfall gave her a flat stare. "Well, I never cared much for the doings of royalty," she said with a definite sneer in her voice on the last word. "Been overseas a lot, fighting for… well, a few different employers. The zebs pay damned good for air cover."

A mercenary, thought Twilight with distaste. Why couldn't I be trapped here with a scholar of magic or a historian? "Well, that doesn't matter. What we need to concentrate on is getting out of here. What stops you from flying out?"

"Dunno," Windfall replied unhelpfully. "I flap like mad, and it feels like I'm climbing, but I never get closer to the rim than a couple of wingspans. Must be some kind of magic crap. Isn't that your specialty, Your Elevatedess?"

"Just Twilight," Twilight said, trying to suppress her irritation. "I won't even make you bow in my presence." She lifted her saddlebags off her back, pushing an unnecessary amount of energy into her levitation field to make it sparkle and glow excessively. "Anypony else in here with us?"

Windfall didn't reply at once, and then said in a softer tone of voice than previously, "No."

"Alright then. I hope you don't mind if I check this out for myself." Twilight threw open her wings with a showy whumph of displaced air and leaped upward.

It was pretty much as Windfall had described. Twilight climbed quickly, and then slowed to a stop, even though her wingbeats were constant and powerful. It did feel like she was still ascending. The airflow over her wings, the complex feedback of inertia within her body, and even the subtle signals from her inner ear… all contradicted the absolutely motionless cave around her.

She fixed her attention on the empty, cloudless sky above her and calculated a short teleport; just far enough to put her above the rim and into open air. She triggered the spell, there was a brief instant of interstitial nothingness, and she reappeared… in exactly the same spot she'd left.

Okay, she thought. Whoever put together this little trap was pretty clever. Is it altered spacetime, or just my perceptions? Either way, it seems like I'm not going to be able to brute-force my way out of this. Time to put some brain-power on the problem. Let's see what info I can get out of the muscle-head.

Twilight canted her wings and glided down to the cavern floor, where Windfall was industriously ransacking her saddle bags.


Windfall looked up at her and dropped the empty bags from her mouth. "What? I'm freaking starving, Princess! I haven't had much to eat but wild grass for months, and precious little of that!"

Twilight folded her wings away and frowned at the mess the pegasus had made of her supplies. "I told you I didn't have any food."

"Well, now I know for sure how honest you are." Windfall snorted and walked over to the stream to drink.

Twilight grumbled to herself as she shook the dirt off her papers and tools and stowed them back in the bags. "Okay then, you've been here for months, so you must have explored the place. Where do all these tunnels lead to?

The big pegasus laughed. "Depends on what time of day it is."

"I'm serious," Twilight said, trying to keep her voice level. "I need to get out of here as soon as possible, and I assume you want the same thing."

"You got that right, Princess!" Windfall said, making the word sound like an insult. "And I'm not kidding. Those tunnels move around. Every few hours the whole layout changes. Different directions, different connections. There are other places like this—" She waved a wing at the open cavern. "—but smaller. Some have just grass, some have more decent food, and there's even an apple tree… somewhere. Freakin' hard to get to, or I would have stripped it bare by now."

Twilight nodded. "Good. That's good information."

"What? It's good that this damned place is screwing around with me?"

Twilight had to consciously restrain herself from going into lecture mode. The mare of action she was dealing with would have just as little patience for a well-constructed, step-by-step analysis as Rainbow Dash. Or less. Yeah, probably less, Twilight thought. Simple and direct: "There's a reason behind this. Nopony goes to this much trouble just to 'mess with' other ponies." Except maybe Discord, but he's as subtle as a pie to the face.

"If you say so," the pegasus said shrugging her heavy shoulders. "So what's the reason?"

"That's what I'm going to figure out. I was lured here, so… wait! You were captured, too. What made you come out here in the first place?"

Windfall's eyes narrowed and she looked away for a moment, as if she were considering lying to Twilight. After a moment, she sighed and said, "The lost treasure of Trotankamun. Yeah, I know it sounds like skynuggets, but Millie… that's Millibar, my squad mate… she found this map. Supposed to lead to a tomb full of gold and jewels. Her and Pounder and me went to check it out, and… damnit!" The mare bucked at the nearest wall in anger, smashing limestone and scattering fragments of rock across the ground.

"Don't worry," Twilight tried to reassure her. "I'll get us out of this. You'll see."

Windfall scowled at her. "Well, don't try digging," she said in a near snarl. She held up one badly chipped and worn forehoof. "As soon as you go to sleep or pass out, all your work is filled back in!"

Twilight hated to see the pegasus so agitated. Even considering that Windfall was a strange (and slightly unpleasant) pony she'd just met, it was obvious she'd suffered a lot from her captivity. Twilight, having undergone way too much of that sort of thing herself, empathized with her a great deal. "This is a magical trap, right? Well, I'm one of the most magical ponies in Equestria, and a magical scholar as well. You couldn't ask for a better friend to help you escape from this place."

The scowl on the big mare's face softened, though she didn't actually smile. "Well… thanks, I guess. I hope you can do it." She sighed and looked down at the stubble of grass on the floor of the cavern. "I just wish you'd brought bags full of food, rather than paper."

Twilight considered that for a moment and then tried an object-specific teleport. As she had feared, due to the constraints of the trap they were in, she could no longer produce a piping hot apple pie on demand. But there might possibly be something she could do to alleviate Windfall's short-term hunger.

"Step off the grass, would you please?"

Windfall looked puzzled, but did as she was asked.

Twilight lit her horn and concentrated. The growth spell worked as she had expected, and the short, patchy stubble on the cavern floor sprang up into long, thick blades. "It's still just grass, I'm afraid, but at least—"

Windfall immediately had her head buried to the ears in the lush patch between her hooves and was obviously not listening to Twilight's words. Even if she had been listening, she might not have been able to hear them over the runch, runch, runch of the enormous mouthfuls she was ripping out of the turf.

She raised her head after a minute or two, massive brushes of grass blades sticking out of either side of her green-smeared muzzle like a cheerleader's pom-poms. "Know psumphin', Prinphess?" she said, losing wads of half-chewed grass as she spoke. "I phink you an' me are gonna phe pals!"

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