Nothing seemed amiss in the morning, so Maud allowed herself to feel excited for shop day in the hopes of seeing Time Turner again.
As usual, geodes were the biggest seller of the day. Maud kept looking up and down the street as the sun began to sink. It was later than the other times she'd seen him and she was beginning to worry. With a little less than two hours left in her day, he finally appeared.
Maud smiled inside as she saw Time Turner wandering her way down the street. His head was low and his steps were slow and careful, almost as if he were half sneaking. As he got closer, she saw a dark blotch around his left eye. He stopped an odd distance away from her table and swallowed.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
“Oh, uh, you mean my face?” he whispered. Time spun around, casting jittery glances to his left and right. “Well,” he began, “I was- I was sleeping in my tent last night when somepony hit me in the face with a rock.”
Maud blinked. “Was the rock magnesium rich basal,t about the size of a kiwi, with a river rock texture?
“Yes,” nodded Time. “Those are the exact specifications of the rock that hit me in the face. How did you know?”
“Because that’s my ex boyfriend, Boulder.”
Time's eyebrows shot up. “Your ex boyfriend threw a rock at me?”
“No. That rock is my ex boyfriend. He’s very jealous and possessive.”
Time looked like he was about to follow up her bizarre claim with another question but instead became distracted by other thoughts as he often did. “That explains the message written in the dirt outside my tent. It said ‘Stay away from Maud,’ but the s was backwards and ‘from’ was spelt with a u.”
“He was never a great speller," explained Maud. "I’m sorry. He used to be so nice. I’m still in shock that he tried to burn down our barn the night before last.”
“Good heavens,” he exclaimed. “Are you in danger?” He shot a paranoid glance over his shoulder, scanning the road for wayward rocks.
“Don’t worry," said Maud. "He can only move at night. He could be watching or listening to us, though.”
Her words did little to comfort him. “Your ex sounds… interesting, especially for a rock. Where did you two meet exactly?”
“At the Painted Hills when I was little. I found him in a cave after falling through a sinkhole.”
Time gasped and put a hoof to his chin as his brain began to roil.
“What is it?” asked Maud.
“I’m not sure… Could you tell me exactly where that hole is?”
Maud shook her head. “That was so long ago, and I’m sure it’s crusted over again. I can tell you it was on the north side, maybe less than halfway up the hills, this end.
“Near the would-be blast site,” he mumbled absently.
“Yes… Does this have anything to do with your plan?”
His eyes flicked back up to her and then side to side as he scanned for eavesdroppers. “It does.”
Maud began gathering up her rocks from the table.
“Wait. What are you doing?” asked Time
“I want to help. I’ll try to help you find it, but you have to tell me what you’re doing.”
“But you’d be neglecting your store again and what if… he sees us together?”
“Are you saying you don’t want me to come?”
“Not in the slightest, but I am concerned for your wellbeing.”
“You’re the one with the black eye.”
“So I am,” he smiled. “Let me help you, at least.” He opened up the back of Maud’s wagon, mimicking what he had seen her do the time before, and brought out two compartmentalized crates to pack the stones and crystals. Maud left her cart in the same spot as last time and they walked out to the hills again.
Time cleared his throat. “I did some research about these hills after I found out that they’ve been considered sacred by the local Buffalo for hundreds of years. I thought maybe somehow if I could get the Equestria Bureau of Historical Preservation involved, I could scuttle the demolition plans. It’s more difficult than it sounds. Sacredness aside, you’d think the hills’ outright beauty would be enough to get them protected, but if that were the case, they already would be. Maybe it’s possible but that would require a significant campaign and petition that we simply no longer have time for. But if we could just find something concrete, petroglyphs, a structure or something of the like, I believe that would be enough to pause the project and have the area reviewed.”
"You think Boulder's origin is some sort of key to getting the hills protected?" droned Maud.
Time took a deep breath. “Call it an inkling, but a speaking mobile rock that attacks ponies doesn’t sound normal and I suspect that if it came from the hills, it has a mystical connection to this ancient culture and there must be something more out there. That cave you fell in is the best lead I have. So, there you have it, I’ve been trying to find something in a week that might take a real archaeologist, years or even a lifetime to.”
“I’d never thought about a connection like this before,” Maud interjected. "He is really old, but he’s never told me much about his past.”
The two hiked up the hills to the elevation where a layer of topsoil, a cushion of yellow grass and smattering of scrub brush capped the earthen uprising.
"This is the area, I'm pretty sure," confirmed Maud.
"Okay," he nodded. "Sinkholes need dirt to form, so we can narrow our search to the area with soil," explained Time, tapping a hoof on the ground.
The two began pacing closely side by side, up and down, methodically canvasing a large patch of the hillside.
"Isn't this how they search for dead bodies?" asked Maud.
"I suppose," replied Time grimly. "Sometimes… yes. Or it's how you search for a sinkhole."
"What are those little orange flags?" asked Maud, tracking one of the markers as they passed by.
"Those are the places where they're putting the charges for demolition tomorrow," he sighed. "Isn't life funny," he muttered absently. "When I was little, I wanted to be an adventurer, something like Daring Do, even though we didn't have that back then. That dream died when I realized that I have a bloody awful sense of direction. So I became a scientist, and somehow that landed me a consultant gig with the railroad, and now here I am wandering around on a hillside in some sort of quasi eco terrorist scheme."
Maud spoke up. "When I was little, I wanted to be a rock. Now… sometimes… I still want to be a rock."
"What kind of rock?" he murmured with complete sincerity.
"Smooth granite with quartz veins."
"Oh, that's beautiful; how befitting." Time immediately bit his lip after saying the last part out loud. He sideeyed her to find that she was looking expectantly at him. "Uh…" Before he could get another word out, his forelegs plunged through the ground and his chin slammed into the dirt with a puff of dust.
"Are you okay?" asked Maud, stopping over him to pull him up.
Time coughed as his legs slipped back out of the hole. "Think I found it," he wheezed. "Thank you." He said before shaking the dust off.
Maud peered curiously into the little black void and began carefully knocking away the loose soil around it. Slowly the hole began to widen as Time helped her. Once fully revealed, the hole in the stone beneath the dirt looked to be just barely wide enough for a full grown pony to squeeze through if they exhaled their breath first.
"I can't see anything," grumbled Time, squinting into the darkness.
"We're blocking the light," said Maud, moving away.
"Oh, you're right." He ducked down trying to view at the angle of the sun's rays without obstructing them. There on the floor of the cavity in a little elliptical spotlight was a visible swatch of square shaped stones regimented neatly in a grid, an unmistakable sign of design.
"That looks like mosaic stone work on the floor," gasped Time. "You fell down there as a filly? What did you see?"
"I didn't see anything," shrugged Maud. "I heard Boulder in the dark. Then my family rescued me with a rope. We all just assumed it was another ordinary cave and we stopped playing in this area for safety.” She pushed in close to see the little cropping of the floor.
"I bet it's a converted natural cavern," continued Time. "It wouldn't be a living space. According to my research, the Buffalo who would have built this lived in yurts. Its permanence suggests that it's some sort of shrine or temple for the hills. This hole in the top is perhaps an oculus for a natural light source. There must be a real entrance somewhere."
This time the two split up and searched for a nearby opening a little lower on the hillside. Much less orchestrated and focused than the search for the sinkhole, the two wandered about the hills up and down and all around but turned up nothing except a couple of suspicious nooks that lead nowhere. They'd constricted their search to the immediate area but in reality, the entrance could have been anywhere, even the opposite end of the hills for all they knew. Frustrated, the two met back at the hole. The patch of light inside the chamber had vanished with the lowering of the sun.
"Where's a unicorn when you need one?" Time sighed.
"I don't know of any unicorns in town," mumbled Maud.
"There are a few on the work team, but I'm not going to be able to convince them to help jeopardize their paychecks if the project gets paused or canceled."
"Then what? You have to tell somepony about this," begged Maud, leaning in a little closer to him than she meant to.
"I don't think this is enough proof to convince the overseer who's not going to want to see it, nor is it enough to get swift intervention over the wire with the preservation bureau. It needs to be made glaringly obvious and impossible to ignore."
Maud said nothing, only paused, adopting a glazed over look as she thought hard about the seemingly unsolvable problem. A silence passed between the two as they both went to their private brain corners and the only sound was the soft breeze as it ruffled the grass around them and fluttered the little flags.
Time put a hoof over his mouth as a radical idea crossed his mind. "What if… You know, those flags are pretty close, wouldn't you agree? I mean if I were to say move them a little this way after dark and perhaps place one or two in strategic spots that would crack open this cave for all to see, It's possible nopony would be the wiser until it was too late."
Maud stared into him. "But that would still hurt the mountain."
"It would, but if it halts the project after the first salvo, it would be a nasty cut versus a lost limb."
"You'll get in a lot of trouble if you get caught."
"Then I won't get caught," he smirked.
At that moment Maud had a sudden urge to violently mash her lips against his, but she did not.
"It's late; I really have to go," said Maud as emotionlessly as ever. She turned away to leave. "Good luck and be careful."
"You must be careful too, Maud," he reminded her.
She merely nodded and began descending the hill, regret from her inaction starting to sting her heart.