• Published 21st Dec 2019
  • 686 Views, 60 Comments

This Time for Good - iisaw



Just before her crowning moment, Twilight Sparkle's life is derailed by a message from the future.

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4 Chalk Marks, No Rain

"Uh… Do you really think that's going to help, Princess?"

Twilight briefly glanced over at her shoulder at Windfall, who was wearing a severely skeptical expression and then went back to chalking symbols next to the tunnel entrances around the cavern. "You said these move around, right? If I can keep track of them, maybe I can establish a pattern. I'll be labeling the tunnels themselves as I explore them and keeping an index in my fieldbook."

"Yeahhhh…" Windfall said. "About that… It ain't gonna work. We scratched marks on the walls and they healed up as soon as we took our eyes off them."

"Well, chalk marks are additive, not subtractive, so maybe the maintenance magic won't… Wait." Twilight paused and turned to face Windfall. "You said, 'we.' We? As in you and…?"

Windfall eyes widened and she sputtered what sounded like a foriegn word before answering. "I did? Huh. This place is driving me crazy. Next thing you know, I'll be seeing the Tooth Breezy."

Twilight stared at her for a long time and then turned back to her work. She knew Windfall was lying, but not why or about what exactly. She kept one ear cocked back at the mercenary pony as she drew her symbols. "Wouldn't it be nice if we could reliably find our way to the room with the apple tree?"

Windfall shrugged. "Sure, but with your magic, at least we're not going to starve."

"Ah… About that…" Twilight kept working, but also listened carefully for Windfall's reaction. "Aging magic—the stuff I used on the grass—it takes almost as much energy as a pony gets from food grown that way, so yes, we will starve if we depend on it alone." She didn't mention that her Earth Pony magic would encourage the grass to grow in a different, if slower, way.

Windfall replied with another couple of words in a foriegn language.

"Is that Zwahinney? I speak a little bit, but I don't recognise that phrase."

"Yeah, no surprise there. I bet you don't even know those words in Equuish, Princess!"

Twilight thought for a moment. She had learned a word when Zecora had accidentally slopped some very hot potion on her foreleg one day. A word that Zecora had refused to define for her. A word that wasn't in the official Zwahinny-Equuish dictionary.

"I know kumanina."

Windfall gaped at her for a split second and then laughed. "D'you kiss your mother with that mouth, Princess?"

"Right now, I'd rather eat apples with it. Are you coming?" Twilight turned away and walked into the nearest tunnel.

Still chuckling, Windfall followed her. "You're lucky I have a spot open on my social calendar, Yer Highness."

Twilight chalked another symbol and an arrow a few yards into the tunnel, then continued walking. In a few minutes, they came to a three-way intersection, and she made more marks on the walls of all three tunnels. Otherwise, there was no significant difference between them, so she chose the right fork.

Moments later she heard a low rumbling sound and felt an instant of slight dizziness. She looked questioningly at Windfall.

"Yep, that's it, Princess. The maze just scrambled itself. You want to go back to the split and see for yourself?"

"It will be a few hours before it does that again?" The pegasus nodded at her. "Alright, let's turn around."

They returned to the three-way junction, which was now a four-way split. The tunnel they were in still had the mark Twilight had made, but the other three had completely blank walls.

"Ah! This is good news!" Twilight grinned.

"Uh... I'm beginning to suspect we don't define that word in exactly the same way. What's good about it?"

Twilight cleared her throat. "The mark in this tunnel is still here. That means that the tunnels are probably stable and it's the connections that change. Easier to keep track of than if the stable parts are the intersections. Of course I don't know if that's true of the rooms, or clearings as you call them. That's still to be determined." She turned and began retracing her route into the marked tunnel.

"Don't you want to label these other three?" Windfall asked her.

"No, I'll only be marking ones I can completely transit between shuffles for now, and I'd like to keep moving forward. Do you have a rough estimate of how many leagues of unique passageways there are?"

"You've got to be kidding me."

Twilight shrugged. "Didn't hurt to ask."

They kept moving and marking for another hour or so until they encountered a tunnel that had already been marked. Twilight did a quick mental calculation and wrote a note in her book. They moved on, and encountered another labeled passage in slightly less time. Twilight wrote in her book again.

"Well, you were right about the chalk marks sticking around, Princess. That was some good thinking. Plus… y'know, you had some chalk on you. A lot of chalk, really. Which is—kinda weird, if you ask me." Windfall shook herself and got back on track. "So, is this starting to make some sense to you?"

"Little pieces, Windfall. Each little piece helps reveal the whole image. Like doing a jigsaw puzzle without the box, you know?"

"Yeah, I'm more of a card-playing pony, but I know what you mean. Hey, look! Grapes!"

Sure enough, they had come to a little "clearing" at the end of the tunnel, and its walls were covered in grapevines. There was a small circle of unreachable sky above and no other exit.

Twilight marked the end of the passageway and joined Windfall at the vines. The grapes were perfectly ripe and delicious. After a quarter of an hour of satisfying munching, and while Windfall finished the last bunch, Twilight quietly worked her hooves into the ground near their roots and gave the vines some pony-of-the-soil encouragement. There would be more grapes the next time they returned.

"Let's get back to work," Twilight said, turning toward the chamber's exit.

"Sure thing, Prin—"

Windfall was interrupted by a sharp crack and rumble as a huge slab of stone broke off the wall and dropped across the exit. Twilight jumped and gave a yelp of surprise, but her companion only sighed.

"This again," she said in a low, disgusted voice.

"Don't worry," Twilight told her. "I can move it." Her horn shimmered to life and the surface of the slab sparkled a bit. But nothing else happened. "Or not." She approached the rock and pecked it with the front edge of her hoof. "Iron. Crystalized with just the right impurities to make it a natural anti-thaumic material."

"You mean your ju-ju ain't gonna work on it," Windfall said. "Not surprised, honestly."

"You expected something like this?"

"Yeah. Sorta." Windfall said. "The maze messes with you in other ways than just switching the tunnels around."

Twilight cocked her head and frowned. "Would you like to go into detail about that?"

"Look, it's different every time, okay? There's no way I can predict what's going to happen."

"You could have warned me that something was going to happen."

Windfall snorted and looked away. "Well, now you know."

Twilight swallowed her frustration and took a deep breath. "Okay, so this is… purposeful? What were the other challenges like? What did it take to deal with them?"

Windfall shrugged but remained silent.

Twilight teleported from one side of the chamber to the other. Then she tried to teleport into the tunnel beyond the rockfall, but reappeared at her origin point. "Okaaay… no blind teleports, and I can't use magic on it directly. I could boost rocks at it until it fractures, but that's an incredibly stupid idea that can wait until I'm desperate enough to be stupid."

Windfall gave her an evaluating look and then strolled over to the fallen slab. "If Ground Pounder was here, he could just shove this out of the way." She turned her gaze to Twilight and gave her an obvious once-over that made her a bit uncomfortable. "You're big for a unicorn, but I don't think even you and I together could shift this thing."

"What if you had an earth pony?"

"Yeah, maybe. Maybe if I had a winch, too, but—"

"But I'm not a unicorn," Twilight interrupted her, moving over to stand by the edge of the stone. "Alicorns are blends of all three tribes. I think you'll find that I'm a lot stronger than I look."

Windfall considered that for a moment and then shrugged and made an after-you motion at the slab of stone. "Pick your spot, Princess."

Twilight set her shoulder under a protrusion of the slab and Windfall squeezed in next to her. "On three!" She counted down and they both shoved with all their strength. Once they got it moving, it was easy to tilt it so that it would fall away from the wall and clear the exit. They jumped back out of the way as the slab hit the floor with a whump.

Twilight shook dust off of her wings and looked up to find Windfall staring at her. "What?" she asked. She expected that Windfall would make some expression of amazement at her earth pony strength, but the pegasus surprised her.

"Figures," she said with a snort.

"Um… what figures?" asked Twilight. "If you don't mind me asking about something that might be critical to our survival, I mean."

Windfall sighed. She looked away from Twilight. She took a breath to say something but let it out again without speaking. She half-heartedly kicked some loose rubble with her fore hoof.

Twilight waited.

"It took both of us," Windfall finally said. Twilight was surprised to detect a note of anger in the mare's voice. "That wasn't an accident. I'm betting that's gonna be SOP with these challenges from now on. This place has some sort of plan."

"Makes sense," Twilight replied, nodding. She stepped closer to the fallen slab and poked at it with a hoof, pretending to examine it. Why is she lying to me? she thought. I'm sure that she knows what's going to happen, but she's pretending to guess.

Twilight looked up at the opening above her. "Do you ever see clouds up there? It's hard to tell without them, but it looks like a different time of day."

"No. No clouds," Windfall said. "But night comes. Stars, no moon."

Despite her terse, clipped reply, Twilight could tell from her tone that she wasn't lying and that she felt more comfortable with that sort of question. "Good. Based on the stars I should be able to determine a few things. I'm sorry I didn't pack a timepiece or telescope, though." She shrugged and turned back to Windfall. "Shall we go back to mapping?"

"Sure thing, Princess," Windfall said, in a voice of forced casualness.

= = =

Around three hours later, they found themselves back in the main clearing. Another shuffle had occurred, but nothing that might might have been considered a challenge. Twilight walked over to where the brook flowed out of the chamber and made chalked a symbol above it.

"What's that for?" Windfall asked her.

"I noticed that the channel is deep enough to swim through. It might connect to one of those other waterways we crossed, or it might go elsewhere."

Windfall's eyes went wide. "You're not planning on trying that are you?"

Twilight shook her head. "Not now. Maybe I can work out some other way of including the water channels in my map without having to traverse them." She looked up at the sky. It was growing dark and she noticed for the first time that the lichen that spotted the walls was slightly bioluminescent.

She got out her notebook and flipped back through the pages. "Nowhere near enough data yet to do more than make guesses. It'll take days to even make a good start at a theory." She sighed and looked up, waiting for the first stars to appear. "I hope my friends and the Princesses aren't over-reacting to my disappearance."

= = =

Most of the bluff in the Everfree was gone, carved away by magic and earth pony muscle. Royal Guardponies controlled the perimeter and fought off any of the forest denizens too stupid to be frightened away by the unprecedented level of activity. So far, no sign of a cavern or any magical artifacts had been found.

Star Swirl trotted up to Princess Celestia and held up a mechanism of bronze and glass. "Only a tiny bit above a normal background reading, Your Highness. The cavern wasn't moved—it was never here to begin with."

"Where does that leave us? Where could Twilight be?"

"Unfortunately, she could be almost anywhere. Without a strong magical signature, there's nothing to go on. If she had left those forged papers behind, I might have been able to glean something from them, but as it is…" The old unicorn shrugged and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Your Highness."

Celestia turned away from him. "I'll leave a detachment of guards here, just in case, but I fear we will have to trust in Twilight to be able to escape whatever has taken her."

= = =

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