This Time for Good

by iisaw

7 Spa Day

A full belly and all the exercise had resulted in a good night's sleep for Windfall. She awoke in a mellow mood which lasted only until she remembered the pre-monster attack conversation. She frowned and mentally braced herself for the interrogation that was sure to come.

She looked up and found Twilight sitting and writing in one of her notebooks. A small piece of chalk floated nearby and there were diagrams and symbols on a slab of dark rock next to her. As she watched, a damp neckerchief floated over to the stone and rubbed out a portion of writing, then the stub of chalk marked in a correction, all without the alicorn looking up from her book.

Windfall cleared her throat.

Twilight looked over at her and grinned. "Good morning, Windfall! I should be done with this in a few minutes, then we can go and try to find something nice for breakfast, okay?"

"Uh—sure." Windfall replied. She watched Twilight work for a few moments more, then walked over to the stream to take a drink and splash some water on her face. She inspected her tail-wrap and decided it was getting a bit grotty, so she took it off and scrubbed it as best as she was able in the cold water. She wrung it and twirled it around a bit to get most of the moisture out.

"May I help with that?" Twilight had finished her calculations and walked down to the stream to join her.

Although she wasn't sure what Twilight meant, Windfall shrugged and said, "Sure."

Twilight lit her horn and the wrap steamed for a moment. "There! It should be dry now."

"Neat trick!" Windfall admitted, twisting the wrap around the base of her tail. "Any chance you can conjure up a hot bath?"

Twilight grinned at her. "Sure!"

Windfall blinked. "Wait… You're not kidding?"

"Well, it will take a lot of energy to form the stone tub and heat the water, which will be difficult after the amount I burned through last night, but it's possible." Twilight frowned in thought for a moment. "But with the restrictions this place puts on my magic, soap will be problematic. Can't teleport it in, and there aren't the right materials available for transmutation, I'm afraid."

"Princess, I haven't had anything but cold water splashes in these shallow streams for months. Soap or not, I'd kill for a hot bath right now!"

"Okay, then! Let's make finding some high-energy food a priority today, and tonight, I'll make a couple of baths for us!"

Windfall shrugged and waved a hoof. "You've got the map, Princess. Or whatever it is. Which way do we go?"

"I need more data on those two tunnels nearest the brook. Let's start with those."

They soon fell into a comfortable routine, Twilight making tunnels and checking and updating her notes, and Windfall keeping watch for more unpleasant challenges from the maze.

After a few hours, they found a room with a skylight opening which was filled with lush green growth. It looked very much like a vegetable garden that had been neglected for several years.

"Woo-hoo!" Windfall shouted. "Carrots! Dig in, Princess!"

The two of them ate contentedly until they were full, and then Twilight picked more of the vegetables to pack into her saddlebags.

"We'll leave some here," Twilight said. "I'll give them a charge of magic to encourage them to grow, and hopefully, we'll have another good crop the next time we find this place."

"You seem to have good luck finding the chow, Princess! I haven't eaten this well since I got here. Not regular-like, anyhow."

Twilight nodded. "That probably isn't mere chance. With an alicorn metabolism, I eat enough for three ponies." She swept a wing out. "All the challenges are a waste if the subjects starve to death."

Windfall frowned. "You still think this is some sort of complicated test? It seemed awful willing to give us both a serious mineral shanking last night."

"Hmn…" Twilight turned away and headed out of the room. Windfall barely caught her muttered, "Maybe."

= = =

Most of the day passed without further incident, except for a moment when Twilight did a quick little dance of joy at having correctly predicted the next marked tunnel they would encounter.

But the first tunnel they entered after they'd agreed to knock off for the day held a surprise.

"Big cube of stone up ahead, Princess," Windfall called back to her.

Twilight looked up from her notebook and hurriedly stuffed it into her saddlebag. "Is it blocking the way?"

"Nope. It fills half the tunnel, but we could squeeze by."

"Shift over. Let me just…"

A little burst of lavender magic zipped by Windfall's shoulder and spattered off the surface of the cube.

"Shoot first and ask questions later, eh Princess?"

"The shot was the question and the answer is, yes, this stupid thing is also made with anti-thaumic crystal." Twilight glared at Windfall's silly grin. "I'm going to do it everytime we run into one of these things, because the one time I don't—"

"No, no!" Windfall laughed. "I'm right there with you, honest! So what do you think it is?"

"Well, it's fused to the wall, so it's probably not going to chase us. Let's take a closer look."

Twilight got to the cube first and when she got a good look at the front of it, she froze in shock.

Windfall approached a little more cautiously, after noting the princess's reaction. She found the front surface of the cube covered with dials and sliding bars, but what was in the center of the mechanism caught her immediate attention. It was a thick slab of transparent rock crystal. Behind the window was a large bottle labeled: "Windrose's Extra-Special Lavender-Scented Shampoo."

Her reaction was a complex one, composed of ridiculous hopefulness blended with disbelief and an eerie tingle along her spine. She expressed all of this with a half-strangled, "Guh."

"Yeah," Twilight agreed, still staring at the product behind the crystal. "It's creeping me right out, too."

The two of them traded a look. "We're still gonna use it, right?" Windfall asked.

"Oh Tartarus, yes!" Twilight replied. She finally tore her eyes away from the shampoo and studied the mechanism on the face of the cube. Each dial, bar, or level was marked by a symbol. "This must be some sort of puzzle. A combination lock? Hey! I think I recognise these runes!"

Windfall followed her gaze. "Yeah, those are—"

"This looks like Draconic!" Twilight cried out in recognition. "But it's a version I'm not familiar with."

"Uh, that's because—"

Twilight laughed. "I wish I'd brought along my copy of Ashen Claw's Treatise on the Dragon Dialects! Well, maybe I'll be able to—"

Windfall jabbed a hoof out and pointed to the rune on the knob nearest to Twilight. "That one means 'danger.' And this one means 'lava.' I think I recognize almost all of these."

Twilight turned to stare at her, eyes wide in surprise. "You can read these?"

"I speak six languages," the mercenary said dryly. "Sorry for not conforming to your stereotypes, Yer Highness."

When the alicorn continued to stare at her without saying anything, Windfall added, "And anyway, these are signs the dragons use on boundary markers, not letters, so it's not surprising you don't recognize them."

"Ah." Twilight gave her a half-grin. "A complex puzzle of the sort I do for fun, and symbols only you can read. The maze is being consistent. Will you translate for me?"

"Sure thing!" Windfall said. "Like I said, that first one is 'danger.' And over here we've got…"

Twilight floated her notebook out of her bag and rapidly wrote down a translation table as Windfall went through each character.

She worked at the puzzle, turning dials and sliding bars for about a half hour, Windfall adding helpful comments about how some of the symbols changed meaning when they were placed next to others. Finally, they worked out the right configuration, and there came a loud clack from somewhere inside the cube. The clear crystal slid aside and Twilight levitated the bottle out of its niche.

"Bath time!" she announced, holding up the bottle triumphantly.

"We've still got to find our way back to the big room," Windfall reminded her.

Twilight put the shampoo in her bag and flipped back through her notebook to study a page. "This tunnel should connect with one leading to the room. If I'm right, it'll be the one right next to the stream outflow or the one that's by the big stalagmite."

It was the one by the stream.

"You seem to be getting a handle on how this place shifts around, Princess."

Twilight nodded. "Another day to confirm my calculations and we should be able to navigate fairly easily. That doesn't mean that the maze will always be connected up in a way that will be convenient for us, but we will be able to eventually get where we're headed, even if we have to wait through several shifts."

"Maybe you can find that apple tree?"

Twilight grinned and held out her notebook. A two page spread showed a hexagonal grid crowded with notes and symbols. "The center area is where we are now, and these hexes are where we've found food rooms. Notice something?"

Windfall saw it immediately. "They're spaced out in a regular pattern!"

"Yep! And that means that we will probably find other food rooms here, here, here, and here." She tapped the pages to indicate the locations. "One of them should be the apple tree."

Windfall's smile held for a moment and then faltered a bit. "Any sign of an exit?"

Twilight shrugged. "Well, the most likely spots are the points of the star… um... hexagon that is. Or right here, actually." She motioned to the ramp leading down into the original tunnel she'd entered by.

Windfall didn't say anything. She was sure that Twilight was going to ask her about the other pony and where she had gone, and dreaded it.

But Twilight simply put away her notebook and turned toward the stream. Her horn lit and the rock that formed the bank shifted and changed shape, rising into two smooth basalt tubs. Water swirled up out of the brook into them without a single drop of spatter.

"How hot do you like your bath?"


The blaze of magic from Twilight's horn threw long dancing shadows across the floor of the cavern. She caught her tongue in the corner of her mouth and squinted with concentration and effort. In only moments, wisps of hot vapor were floating above the surface of the water.

The two ponies eased themselves into the hot baths with groans of pleasure. Twilight floated the shampoo bottle over and set it down on the broad, flat edge of Windfall's tub.

The pegasus gave it a glance, from where she was submerged nearly to her eyeballs. She moved only just enough to get her muzzle above the water. "I'm just gonna soak for a while. You go ahead."

Windfall tried not to stare as Twilight washed herself, but seeing the shampoo work itself into her coat and feathers and scrub away as if guided by invisible spa attendants made her a bit envious. The spot right between her shoulder blades was always a pain to get to without help. That thought reminded her of how much she missed Ground Pounder, and she started talking to keep herself from thinking too much.

"Hey, Princess!"


"Thanks for not… harassing me, I guess."

"About the other ponies?"

"Yeah… I… I still don't want to…" Windfall gritted her teeth and sunk down into the water and blew out a long breath through her nose, splashing water up over the rim.

"I won't force you," Twilight replied. She floated the shampoo bottle back over to Windfall's tub and began rinsing herself off. "But maybe there are some bits you'd feel comfortable telling me?"

"I… I guess."

"Even trivial things might be important. Like—" Twilight lifted and spun the shampoo bottle. "Were any of your other challenges as silly as this one?"

Windfall snorted. "Outright puzzles? Not too many... but a magical soap dispenser? Not hardly!" She paused for a moment in thought. "None as dangerous as the one last night, either."

"But all things you had to cooperate to solve?"

"Yeah, pretty much." Windfall waited for Twilight to pounce on that admission, but the alicorn said nothing and concentrated on preening her feathers. Windfall began to lather herself up. "So… Really dangerous and kind of silly. Is that how it's gonna go from now on, d'you think?"

Twilight nudged a secondary feather into place and shrugged. "That's not a bad description of my life for the past several years, so I don't see why not."

Rubbing the shampoo into her chest fur made it bubble excessively. Windfall sniffed at it and made a face.

"Something wrong?" Twilight asked.

"Huh? Oh, no! No Princess, not at all. I'm sure as Tartarus not going to complain about the first hot bath I've had in months!"

"But there's something wrong with the smell?"

"No, it's great! I mean, fine, it's fine! I'm just used to the unscented stuff." Windfall chuckled. "Just try and sneak up on a manticore den reeking of flowers sometime! It's a practical issue in my line of work."

"Makes sense." Twilight nodded and then paused. "But this is my favorite…" She levitated the bottle over to where she could closely examine the label. "It's even a brand I often buy."

She was silent for so long, intently staring at the bottle, that Windfall began to feel uncomfortable. "Is that… Does that mean something?"

Twilight sighed and passed the bottle back to Windfall. "I'm pretty sure it does. Just the fact that we got it as a reward means that the maze, or whatever, or whoever is controlling it adapts to our circumstances. It heard us wishing for soap to go along with our baths and used that as incentive. The type might be a coincidence, but I'm inclined to believe it isn't."

"So we're being spied on."

"Almost certainly. And the maze may know details of our personal lives before we were trapped here."

"Well, that's not creepy at all!"

That got a chuckle out of Twilight, but her expression soon turned serious again. She's not a stupid mare by any stretch of the imagination, but simple logic isn't working for me, Twilight thought. How can I put it in terms that will resonate with her? She's a soldier, so…

"It's bad enough that you and... other ponies were trapped here," she began, hesitantly. "And I don't want to minimize your unfortunate situation in any way, but I'm Equestrian royalty. I was just about to take the throne before I was lured here, and that can't be accidental timing.. That means that whoever is behind this is a threat to the whole kingdom. Wouldn't your loyalty to the nation—"

She was completely unprepared for Windfall's bark of derisive laughter. "I'm loyal to a lot of things, but Equestria isn't one of them, Princess!" She didn't wait for an answer, but ducked under the surface of the bath and shook herself violently to rinse the soap off of her body. Then she leaped out and shook again until she was only somewhat damp.

Twilight watched her stalk away to her usual sleeping spot and plop down on the turf where she began to savagely preen her wings.

Well, that was a miscalculation! Twilight climbed out of her own bath and dissolved the tubs, letting the water sluice back into the stream. I hope I'm not as wrong about the nature of the challenges, or I'm probably going to get myself killed.

= = =