This Time for Good

by iisaw

First published

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

Just before her crowning moment, Twilight Sparkle's life is derailed by a message from Star Swirl with excerpts from his journal that he swears he's never written... at least, not yet.

Commissioned by Archangel of the Silent.

WARNING: Contains Shenanigans!

1 Curiosity and Cats

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Princess Twilight Sparkle was in a bit of a tizzy when Spike walked into the library of the Castle of Friendship carrying a bundle of papers in his arms. Twilight rapidly scribbled notes in the margins of papers that were already festooned with notes. She sorted several documents into piles, paused, and the re-sorted them into different piles. She added little torn scraps of colored paper as bookmarks to stacks that already sported so many like scraps that they resembled piñatas more than paperwork.

All the while, her exact and careful organizing was underlain by the nearly subconscious drumbeat of a thought: It has to be perfect. It has to be perfect. It has to be perfect.

To anyone else, the tizzy would have been nearly unnoticeable, but Spike spotted the rapid, jerky movement of Twilight's eyes as she scanned the mountain of paperwork spread out across the largest table in the library, and knew exactly what was happening. He also knew the cure.

"Twilight? I know you're busy with the preparations for the coronation and all that, but I think you should look at this right now," he said, holding out the paperwork he was carrying.

"Mm?" Twilight startled ever so slightly, and the cycle of competing conflicts and logistical problems she had been chasing in circles for the last half-hour vanished as she turned her attention to what Spike was offering her. The envelope on the top of the pile was clearly embossed with the cutie mark of Star Swirl the Bearded.

"Oh, thank you, Spike!" she said as she levitated the bundle out of his arms. She glanced back at the table and sighed.

"You can use one of the little tables. Y'know, the ones by the comfy chairs? I'll go and make you some coco to sip while you read."

Twilight knew exactly what he was doing. "I do need to take a break, don't I?"

The little dragon grinned at her. "Yep! And while you're reading your fan-mail from old beardy, I'll look through some of that pile and see if I can't find a dozen or so things that aren't as important as you think they are."

Twilight felt a slight frisson at his words, but took a deep breath and calmed herself. Delegation, she told herself. And trust. I know I can depend on Spike, I just have to believe it!

"Don't forget to make a mug for yourself," she told him with a fond grin.

"Do I ever?" he replied with a smug smile, and headed off for the castle's kitchen.

Twilight settled into a big wingback chair that seemed more snug than it had only a few months ago, and broke the wax seal on the envelope. The letter began with little greeting and no pleasantries.

Twilight,

Along with this letter, I am sending you several sections that have been torn out of my journal. I must assume that they are from some future date, as I have absolutely no memory of having written them, and no knowledge of the events described.

Time spells are inconvenient and irritating at best, and though the journal claims otherwise, I cannot imagine what would have, or will have motivated me to meddle with them again, even in such a small matter as to send a bundle of paper back to my present self, as I appear to have done.

I am vexed beyond measure, and as a certain significant location specified in the text is conveniently near to Ponyville, I am sending you this problem to sort out. I sincerely hope that I need not be pestered with further involvement in this nonsense, but I leave that up to you to decide once you have looked into the matter.

-SS

Twilight sighed and set the letter down on the small table at her side. She unwrapped the bundle and saw that it was, indeed, several bound signatures that looked as if they had been roughly torn out of a book. The writing on the top page began mid-sentence, and made little sense. Without context, the rest of the entry wasn't much better. As best as she could determine, it had something to do with missing supplies or equipment for an alchemical experiment. Nothing that would merit time-shenanigans.

Twilight flipped the page. There was no date on the next entry, which was unsurprising. The journals of Star Swirl's she had read in the Royal Archives as a young student rarely had dates attached to entries, and were all written in the same terse style and appalling penwork she now found before her.

Despite my best efforts to isolate myself, my so-called patron seems to have no trouble in locating me. This morning I found a case full of rare reagents on my workbench along with another set of instructions! My wards and shields are still intact, my warning spells untriggered. If this mysterious figure is so magically powerful and subtle, why cannot they manage their own project?

It is true that some of the reagents are nearly priceless, and will benefit my research greatly, but I almost would rather do without, rather than work with time magic again. Still, what is asked of me seems innocuous enough though foolishly complex, and the rewards have been ample…

But I have misgivings.

Twilight skimmed through another couple of entries that seemed to be only about everyday activities, before she found another one mentioning time magic.

My benefactor/taskmaster has sent another message, and this one leaves no doubt as to their growing impatience. I suppose I will have to set up their mechanism for them without further delay. I have chosen a cavern in the Everfree as a suitable spot. A bat, raccoon, or whatever such vermin as may inhabit the place accidentally displaced in time should make no inconvenient ripples in causality, I think. It should be safe enough.

Below the entry was a roughly sketched map showing the location of the cavern in the limestone bluffs not far from Zecora's home in the forest. Three more entries followed, the first two almost entirely composed of Star Swirl carping about the amount of time the mystery project was taking away from his own work. The third was more interesting.

I completed the mechanism, and after one last check to verify that it contained no offensive spells or anything but pure temporal magic, I set it running. Exactly as I suspected, it sent itself back in time using a ridiculously convoluted and wastefully complex matrix.

I left the cavern and waited for well over the period the device would take to propagate itself forward on a causality wavefront. I detected no changes in the timeline, and there was certainly no explosion due to temporal collison.

I was never able to penetrate the opaque nature of the automatic spell matrices I was given to include in the thing, but I assume they created some compensatory ability to leap-frog over its brief duplicatory existence these past few days.

In any case, my patron left no instructions to verify anything after the device was set running, and so I will return to my own work and hope that they never call on me again.

There were a couple more entries about the alchemical experiment Star Swirl himself was working on, most of which were an extended complaint about a flaw in his crystal alembic, and that was all.

Twilight put down the mangled journal and frowned. There was a mug of lukewarm coco on the table next to her. She reheated it with a bit of magic and sipped at it as she considered what she had read. Sometime in the future, Star Swirl had built a time machine for an unknown person, and then sent back an infuriatingly vague portion of his own journal to…do what? Why not just a note? Had some other pony sent back the journal? What did it all mean, and was there any threat to Equestria involved? Why had Star Swirl done something so risky in the first place? Twilight shook her head. Too many questions. She needed more information.

"Spike? Would you mind holding down the fort while I go check on something?"

Spike looked up from the table and the stacks of papers which were beginning to thin out a bit. "No problem! When will you be back?"

"A few hours at most. I'm just going to see if this thing—" She tapped the journal pages with a hoof tip. "—is where Star Swirl says it is… or should be, anyway."

"Okay," Spike said, returning his attention to the paperwork. "But don't forget that Minuette and Moondancer are coming down on the evening train. You said you'd meet them at the station."

"I should have plenty of time," she replied.

= = =

Zecora poured Twilight a cup of herbal tea and one for herself. "I know the place of which you speak, but not the cave you claim to seek."

Twilight shrugged. "It might not be there now. Maybe the entrance is hidden… or maybe this whole thing is somepony's idea of a weird prank. I'd still like to go out there and take a look."

Zecora nodded and smiled. "Then drink your tea, and let us go. I understand; you have to know!"

They left the tree house and strolled through the peaceful half-light of the woods together. "You are going to come to my coronation, aren't you? I'll send an air chariot just for you, if you like."

Zecora shook her head emphatically. "Through the air to swoop and glide? I would be too terrified!"

Twilight laughed outright at that. "Zecora! You live in the Everfree Forest! Only one pony in a thousand would be brave enough to set hoof in here, and you're scared to fly?" She held up a hoof to stave off another protest. "How about a private railway carriage, then?"

"A public one will quite suffice! To go with friends is very nice," the zebra replied with a grin.

They arrived at the bluffs only minutes later, but the forest changed character quite a bit in that short distance. The usual background sounds of the woods faded away and birdsongs disappeared entirely. The trees thinned out near the rocks, but their shadows stretched out toward them, even though that seemed impossible from the angle of the sun. The additional sunlight had spurred the heavy growth of vines and shrubs across the rise, but they were twisted and discolored in an unnatural way that Twilight couldn't pinpoint. They just seemed subtly wrong somehow.

"There might be a cave mouth hidden behind this vegetation," Twilight speculated. "I'm going to scan the area."

Zecora stood and watched as Twilight swept her magic across the overgrown slope. It was only a moment before she found something. "Ah-ha! Yep, there's an opening just there." She pointed with her horn. "Star Swirl was right."

She turned to Zecora. "Will the… uhmn… the forest mind if I clear away the brush here?" She eyed the malformed greenery with suspicion.

Zecora shook her head. "Be sure to use a gentle touch. A little lift; it won't take much."

Twilight found that Zecora was right. The plants were mostly vines draped across the cave entrance and, with care, she was able to lift them high enough to see the entrance without uprooting them. Another spell grew sturdy hooks of rock where she hung the thick strands so that she could concentrate on other magic.

Her horn brightened and a globe of light formed at the tip of her horn. It detached itself and floated forward into the cavern. The globe revealed a tunnel that went back a long ways before opening up into a larger, darker space.

"Hmn… I don't feel any active magic," Twilight said, half to herself. "Oh! What's this?"

She stepped under the draped vines to peer into the dim light of the cave. Her bubble of light bumped against a large metal object like a curious bumblebee against a window pane. The object was built out of intricate bronze and steel panels and looked fairly new, or at least well cared-for.

Twilight backed up and stood to one side of the mouth of the cavern, motioning Zecora to do the same. "I'm going to give that thing a little magical nudge. If there's a big boom or something, I'll toss a heavy shield spell across the entrance. We should be okay here."

Her zebra friend didn't reply, only lifting one eyebrow slightly as she backed further away from the cave.

Twilight's horn flared briefly and the interior of the cave lit up with a bright lavender glow. To the vast surprise of both mares, the light faded away, and absolutely nothing else happened.

"Huh. Seems to be totally inert. That pulse would have resonated with any basic system, so…" Twilight stood in thought for a moment and then shook her head. "It's a fun mystery, but I don't have time for it right now. I'm going to seal up the entrance and come back when I have a free day or two."

She stepped just inside the mouth of the cave and carefully examined the rock walls and ceiling. "Yes, I can transpose in a plug of granite a few lengths thick here. That should—"

She took one last, unfortunate half-step forward and a pressure plate clicked under her hoof. A purely mechanical mechanism beneath the plate triggered, and two sealed jars smashed together, unleashing a pulse of alchemical energy that activated the spell circle hidden beneath the ground in front of the cavern mouth.

From Twilight's perspective, the tunnel was suddenly down, and she fell forward into the cavern. She threw her wings open and flapped to a stop just before gravity corrected itself and dumped her on the floor of the tunnel. She spun quickly, but the tunnel now ended abruptly behind her in a smooth rock surface.

The tunnel lit up as her horn blazed and she ran through several analytical and defensive spells. It seemed that there was no more active magic in play, but a quick teleportation probe revealed nothing but dense stone where the outside world ought to have been.

Twilight scowled and pushed strength into her probe. Incredibly, it revealed nothing but solid rock for thousands of leagues around her. Except for the dark cavern that stretched into the blackness behind her, of course.

"Tambelon take it!" Twilight cursed. "I guess I'll have to do this now." She turned again and walked into the darkness.

= = =

=

2 Cell Mates

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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. "...my 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.

"Hey!"

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!"

= = =

=

3 Meanwhile, Back in Ponyville

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"Discord!"

"Yes, Fluttershy?" The draconiquis looked up from the wastebasket he was reading to find his tiny pegusus friend glaring at him. She was adorable when she was angry. She was adorable at just about any other time he could think of as well, but her anger (such as it was) gave her adorableness an extra tang, somehow.

"I am so disappointed in you!" She stomped her hoof with an adorable little whumf on the soft rug that lay before her sofa.

"Is this about the goose? Because the whole thing was his idea."

"You know exactly what I'm talking about!"

The thing was, Discord didn't know, and that utterly delighted him. A secret that he had told to nopony was that one of the reasons he loved Fluttershy so much was that she was constantly able to surprise him. Him! The Lord of Chaos and King of (admittedly sometimes unpleasant) Surprises! He felt a shiver of wonderful anticipation.

"No really! I don't know what you're talking about. Please… tell me."

Fluttershy sighed and closed her eyes for a moment, then she took another deep breath and opened her eyes. "This thing with Twilight. It's upset everypony, and there are hundreds of guards out trying to—"

"Wait! You know about that?" Again, the delightful surprise!

Fluttershy rolled her eyes. "Who else is powerful enough to make something like this happen? It's not funny!"

Discord blinked in puzzlement. "I was trying to help! It wasn't supposed to be funny… exactly. Though the look on Twilight's face when she realizes—"

"Please." Fluttershy took a step forward and placed a gentle hoof on Discord's shoulder. "Could you just undo it? For me?"

Funny things happened to Discord when Fluttershy batted her eyelashes at him like that. Not funny ha-ha, but funny warm and squiggly. He briefly considered pulling out the squiggly bits inside of him to take a closer look at them to try to figure out what, exactly, was going on, but that would have delayed him in saying, "Of course, Fluttershy! I'm so sorry! I'll go fix it right now!"

With a snap of his claw he appeared in "Grogar's" cave, startling the three villains who were (entirely uncoincidentally) conspiring against him.

"Sorry, sorry!" Discord called out to them. "It's all off! You can all go back to Tartarus now. Don't worry, you'll get paid for the full week!"

Before any of them could react, he had snapped his paw and they all vanished. The corroded old bell that Cozy Glow had been holding behind her back dropped to the floor of the cave with a clank. Discord stared at it for a second. "Huh. So many surprises today!"

With another snap, he vanished and the cave collapsed in on itself.

Fluttershy gave out an adorable little eep when Discord reappeared in her cottage. He reached into the aether and folded up the eep and carefully stored it away so that he could enjoy it again later. "There! All fixed!"

"Oh, good! Thank you so much!" Fluttershy gave him a soft, warm hug, nuzzling his side in a ridiculously adorable way. The squiggles inside Discord overflowed into the 7th dimension, making quite a mess.

Fluttershy eased off her hug and looked up at him admiringly. "I know you usually mean well, but... maybe run these things by me first in the future?"

Discord nodded enthusiastically.

"So… where is Twilight now?" Fluttershy asked.

Discord grinned at her. "I have no idea!"

Fluttershy frowned. (Adorably.)

It took more than an hour for them to get things sorted out, and Discord loved every second of it.

= = =

=

4 Chalk Marks, No Rain

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"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."

= = =

=

5 A Few Disappointments

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The night sky, such as it was, was a terrible disappointment.

Windfall didn't say anything, but she closely watched Twilight observe the stars as they appeared.

Twilight, for her part, had her notebook open with her pencil poised above it. As the sky dimmed, her pencil lowered, until she shut the book and put it away in her saddlebags without writing anything.

Windfall couldn't hold out any longer. "So…?"

Twilight frowned. "Don't those stars seem a bit… off to you?"

The pegasus didn't even glance up. She had seen those stars many times before. "I'm no expert, Princess. I spend most of my time looking down. Or at least I used to. The only thing I know about stars are that out in the desert you can see a whole bunch more than that. When the moon's up and full, or near big cities you'd see a lot less, if you saw any at all. So these are what? A medium ammount of stars? They tell you anything about where we are?"

"They're probably not stars at all."

"What?" Windfall finally looked up.

"They're all the same magnitude, and spread fairly evenly across the sky, exactly like real stars aren't." A stone rose in Twilight's levitation field and then rocketed upward. A couple of pony lengths below the rim of the opening, it rapidly decelerated, hung in the air for an unnaturally long time, and then fell back to the floor of the cavern with a dull thud. Twilight snorted. "I could probably crack that dome if I could reach it."

"Kumanina," Windfall growled, and dropped her head to her forelegs with a sigh of disgust.

"I can't disagree," Twilight said quietly. Well… only one more chance at an easy way out of this. It's a longshot, so I'm not going to mention it to Windfall in case it doesn't work. She's gloomy enough as it is. Twilight set about crafting a very particular spell matrix and in only a few minutes, she was asleep.

The paperwork in front of her was written in tiny crowded letters, and she squinted at them, trying to make sense of the important document. She lit her horn for extra light, but nothing seemed to change. She puzzled out a word or two, but then she lost the sense of the sentence and had to start over.

Wait a minute. Twilight increased the light spell significantly, but the room remaned dim. I can't seem to read and the light level won't change, which means something. She sat back on her haunches, lifted her forehooves up in front of her face, and tried to push the tip of one hoof through the frog of the other. Surprisingly, it worked.

Ah, I'm dreaming! She pulled her right hoof out of her left with a muffled pop, and looked around her.

She was in the main room of the old Golden Oaks Library. Odd. I thought this was destroyed… oh right, this is a dream. Too bad.

Something began to sparkle on the wall in front of her. It grew from a pinpoint to a symbol about as big around as her head—a silvery crescent moon. The magical glyph triggered the conscious intent without being forceful enough to awaken Twilight.

Luna! Luna! Can you hear me? I need you!

Something stirred in the darkness.

It wasn't Princess Luna.

A gigantic dark hoof descended and crushed the glowing moon sigil into nonexistence.

The walls of the library shook and the books cascaded from the shelves. Twilight scrambled to catch and replace them, but there always seemed to be more than she could manage.

Windfall looked over at Twilight as she twitched and muttered in her sleep. Her wings jerked and little glimmers of magic sparkled in the grooves of her horn. The pegasus reached out with one wing, hesitated for a moment, and then flicked the alicorn's nose with the tip of a primary feather.

Twilight awoke with a start. "Wha? I… uh…"

"You were having a nightmare, Princess."

"Oh. Right." Twilight didn't look very happy about escaping from her dream. "Thank you."

Windfall didn't reply. She put her head down again and closed her eyes.

Twilight muttered something in Zwahinney and did the same.

= = =

Luna stomped around her private rooms in frustration. She had tried every technique she could think of to reach Twilight through the Dream Realm, but hadn't caught the least hint of her presence. She thought of some of the forbidden books hidden beneath the Royal Archive. Perhaps one of them might hold the answer to—

"Do you know how many hours those poor peasant ponies put into weaving that rug?" Discord asked from far too close behind her. "You're going to wear it out!"

Luna whirled and lashed the draconequus across the face with her mane in a manner that could have been plausibly explained as accidental. "Ah! Discord, you surprised me!"

Discord gave her a half-grin. "Guilty conscious?"

Luna frowned. "Whatever should I be feeling guilty for?"

"Well, your complete and utter failure to rescue poor Twilight springs to mind."

"I have not stopped trying yet!" Luna practically snarled. "And I don't see you doing much to help!"

"Oh! You mean…" He lifted his eagle claw and pressed the thumb against one of the fingers. Luna waited expectantly, but Discord shrugged and put his claw down again. "Nopony's asked me to help."

"Surely, Fluttershy—"

"Oh no! You'd think so, wouldn't you? But she was so busy apologizing for accusing me of causing the whole mess in the first place, that I think she forgot. So maybe, if—"

"Please Discord," Luna said immediately. "I beseech you to return Twilight Sparkle to us! I, Princess of the Night, will bend my knee to you, Lord of Chaos, should you do this great deed for me, and all of Equestria!"

Discord beamed at her. "Well, that's a pleasant thought! Alrighty then!" He lifted his eagle claw again and snapped it loudly.

There was a bright flash just above him and a bowling ball dropped onto his head. It bounced off and hit the poor bedraggled carpet before rolling to a stop against a bookcase. Birds of several species flew in a tight circle around Discord's head, tweeting madly for a second before chasing each other out the chamber's window.

Discord blinked. "Well, that was unexpected."

"Please, Discord!" Luna said. "No pranks! I want Twilight back again. You may ask anything of me…"

But the draconequus wasn't listening. He levitated the bowling ball up and took a closer look at it. On one side was etched, "Stop it, Discord." He felt a little tingle of excitement run down his spine.

"Well, well, well… This is interesting!" He raised his claw and snapped it again.

A second black ball dropped from above him, but this time he dodged slightly to the side and caught it in his lion paw.

On the side of it was written, "I said, stop it!"

"Another bowling ball?" Discord snorted with disdain. "How repetitive!" He turned to Luna. "Shall we see if I can fill up this room with bowling balls?"

Luna frowned at the object still in Discord's paw. "This 'bowling' is a modern sport I am not familiar with. What necessitates the sparkling bit of cord there?"

It was Discord's turn to frown in puzzlement and he spun the ball a half turn. There was a half inch of burning fuse sticking out of the dark sphere.

It wasn't a bowling ball, after all.

Alarmed by Discord's sudden change of expression, Luna teleported away an instant before the bomb blew the top of her private tower to pieces.

Each separate fragment of Discord's shredded body laughed the whole way down to the river meadow at the base of the mountain.

= = =

In the morning, Twilight and Windfall resumed their mapping together. The work went a little slower than the previous day because Twilight also carefully wrote down which already marked tunnels they encountered, and what other tunnels they connected to.

She was also keeping an eye out for any signs of other ponies.

They came back to the big cavern a couple of times and, on the second return, Windfall suggested they stop to eat. She put her head down and started to graze without waiting for an answer from Twilight.

Twilight briefly considered using her levitation field to cut and eat the grass, but decided that putting her muzzle down was more companionable, if less sanitary.

After their meal, Twilight pushed a little earth pony magical encouragement into the sparse soil and gathered up her things. "No challenges so far today," she said, as casually as she could.

Windfall snorted. "Sometimes you go days between them. Sometimes you get three in a day. No point in trying to anticipate them."

The maze shifted again a little while later. They were in a marked tunnel at the time, and when they reached the end of it, they found a small, rocky clearing. There was no visible plant life, but a small brook ran through the middle.

"Hmn… no other exits," Twilight said, and made a mark near the tunnel. "Do most small spaces like this usually have only one way in or out?"

Windfall had shown more interest than usual in the room and had clambered over the rocks to peer into the crystal clear water of the stream. "Uh… yeah, I guess. Mostly." She seemed distracted, and when Twilight moved to join here she waved her back. "Hang on."

Twilight watched in fascination as the pegasus leaned low over the water and stretched her wings forward, making a nearly complete circle of cover over her own head. Windfall remained motionless for a couple of minutes and then violently thrust her head down into the water with a splash. Her wings snapped shut and she whipped her head up and to the side, spitting out something long and silvery onto the gravel.

"A fish?" Twilight stared at the flopping, gasping trout.

"Yep!" Windfall grinned at her. "I recognized this place. That stream is full of them! Hang on, I'll get another one!"

"What in Equestria for?" Twilight asked without thinking.

Windfall froze and looked at her like she had grown a second head.

Twilight caught up. "To eat?"

Windfall laughed. "Well, I'm not gonna shove 'em up my kuma, Princess! I'm guessing you weren't a pegasus before you got all nobilitated, right?"

"There were griffins and hippogryphs at the school. I've tasted fish before," Twilight said, blushing slightly from embarrassment. She forbore to mention that she had been born into an old noble family.

"Yeah, all nicely cooked and buried under a thick sauce I bet. Now, step back, be quiet, and let me catch my dinner."

Twilight watched the process with interest. She could have easily scooped up any number of fish in her magic, but Windfall showed every sign of enjoying herself, so she kept silent and waited.

It wasn't long before a second trout flew through the air directly toward her face. She caught it in her magic and set it down next to the first one. I get the feeling that Windfall deliberately aimed for me, Twilight thought. If that silly, dripping smile on her face is any indication. "Now what?"

"We clean 'em!" Windfall said, gleefully. "The scales on these little ones are tiny and soft, so we don't need to scrape them off. Just fillet and snack 'em up! Gotta find a halfway sharp rock first, though."

Twilight silently floated her penknife out of her bag, unfolded it, and passed it over to Windfall. "You do the first one, and then I'll give it a try."

"That's the spirit, Princess!"

It was utterly disgusting, and Twilight felt her gorge rise a couple of times while watching the process. When it was her turn, she offered silent, heartfelt thanks to the fates that she didn't have to hold the knife in her mouth.

She managed it. Hers was nowhere near the neat job Windfall had done, and wasn't finished as quickly, even with the advantage of magic, but it was a passable job.

Windfall had slurped down half of her fish before she realized that Twilight was walking away. "Hey! Where are you going?"

Twilight didn't look back. "I'm going to wash off my knife. I don't want my quills to stink of fish."

Windfall shrugged and finished her meal.

When Twilight came back she was carrying a large, flat stone she had washed in the brook. It was just exactly the right size to lay her fish fillets on, which she proceeded to do.

Windfall stared. "What in Tartarus are you doing? Don't tell me you're so prissy that you..." She trailed off as Twilight's horn glowed and the stone began to radiate heat. Within moments, the fish was sizzling.

"You… wait… you…" Windfall sputtered. "Why didn't you tell me you could do that? I ate my sun-forsaken fish raw!"

Twilight flipped her nicely cooking fillets over and gave Windfall the most innocent look she could manage. "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you preferred it that way!"

Windfall shut her mouth and stared at Twilight through narrowed eyes. "Ha," she said, very, very slowly. "Ha."

= = =

=

6 Pop Quiz

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The next challenge came as Twilight and Windfall returned to the main room a little before sunset—or at least before the time the sky went dark.

Finding their way back was easier with all the tunnels leading into it marked. So far as Twilight had noted, one end of each was fixed to that one room. "And these three connect to one of those tunnels 27.8% of the time," she told her companion, tapping her notebook. "My sample size is admittedly far too small to be considered accurate, but it's better than nothing. Oh, and with this new traverse added in, that brings the average for this tunnel up to 31.1%! See, we're making progress."

"That's great, Princess," said Windfall. She said it without sarcasm, because Twilight had let her catch two more trout and had roasted them to perfection for her. Also because the prospect of sleeping on a nice bit of turf under the stars, rather than the bare rock of a random tunnel, had put her in a relatively mellow mood.

They settled in, and Twilight began reading and revising her notes on the day's explorations. Windfall stared silently at the ground in front of her muzzle.

Twilight looked up from her book and watched Windfall for a moment, then put away her notes. "So… Trotankamun's treasure, huh? What made you think your friend's map was real? The Everfree is a long way from the southwestern deserts. Odd place for a pharaoh to be buried."

Windfall gave a slight start when Twilight spoke and blinked at bit, as if trying to change mental gears. "Huh? Oh, the map? Yeah, what's the cursed forest got to do with it?"

"That's where the cave entrance is... Ah—or at least it was for me. I take it your cave was elsewhere?"

"Yeah, in the Red Rock Spires of the San Palomino, south of Somnambula a ways. You came in through the Everfree? Damn magical crap!" Windfall wasn't just annoyed; Twilight's question had started her thinking hard about… something.

Twilight gave her a couple of moments before speaking again. "So… different entrances and different lures to get us here. I wonder if they're different for everypony?"

Windfall shrugged. "As far as I know. What difference does it make once they're trapped… ah crap!" She snapped her gaze to Twilight's face, hoping that she hadn't noticed the slip. But of course, she had. "You set me up, Princess."

Twilight ignored the sneer twisting Windfall's face and her sudden tense posture. "We're trapped here together, Windfall. We need to trust each other if we're going to escape from this place."

"Yeah, well maybe we aren't gonna escape from this blighted maze! You ever consider that?" Windfall snarled at Twilight. "Maybe we're gonna die down here!"

"I'm not going to let that happen, Windfall. I promise you," Twilight said, slowly and softly. "Nopony goes to all this trouble—" She waved a wing in a sweeping gesture, indicating the whole of their surroundings. "—to build a simple deathtrap. I will figure it out, and I will—"

Windfall jumped to her hooves, eyes going wide. "Fly!"

Twilight leaped from a seated position into full forward flight. Windfall was a terrible liar and could never have falsely put the full conviction of sincerity into that suddenly shouted warning. Whatever the pegasus had seen behind her was something the merited all her effort to avoid.

Not that Twilight consciously thought about it. If she had spared even an instant to think before reacting, she would have been speared on the rock spines of the monster that leaped out of the sloping tunnel in the cavern floor.

"Up!" Windfall shouted, and rose as high as she could manage.

Twilight followed her and they hovered together as high as the limiting magic would let them. Fortunately, that let them easily stay out of the monster's reach. It hissed and its spines sliced through the air below their hooves. It looked like a giant gray mole covered in porcupine quills the size of a pony's foreleg.

"If I had to bet, I'd bet that thing can't be affected by your magic, Princess," Windfall said.

"I won't take that bet, but let me check, just in case…" She fired off a brief blast from her horn that bounced off the stone spikes and blew a small divot in the cave wall. "Didn't think so. Hmn… let me try something."

Her horn glowed and she lifted a large ball of water out of the brook running through the middle of the cavern, then floated it over to enclose the front of the monster's body where its head ought to have been. The two ponies hovered and waited to see if there was any effect, but after a minute or two Twilight released the water and let it splash onto the floor. "Doesn't seem to need to breathe. Maybe we should try to lose it in the tunnels?"

Windfall shook her head. "No, if this place wants us to deal with it, running away won't do any good. The tunnels might shift into dead ends, and then we'd be clipped for good." She studied the thing for a moment and then began circling it. "Stay there, Princess," she called out to Twilight.

The monster turned to follow her, ignoring Twilight. Windfall made a complete circuit of the room and then retreated to a position close to the wall and circled again. This time the creature remained focussed on Twilight. "Yeah, that's what I thought," Windfall said when she rejoined Twilight. "It's dumb as the rock it's made out of. Only reacts to the nearest pony. That help?"

Twilight nodded thinking hard. "Let's lead it over to that end of the chamber, and then you turn it around again. See if it can tell I'm closer when I'm behind it."

"Wilco, Your Highness," Windfall said, snapping off a clearly sarcastic salute with her right wing.

How does she do that while flying? Twilight wondered. Maybe I'll get as good with my wings in a couple of decades… When the monster was facing directly away from her, she swooped down close behind it. It didn't react until it had turned nearly another 45 degrees, and then it suddenly twisted and lunged at Twilight with frightening speed. She flapped like mad to get away from it, but still nearly got hit by one of the razor-sharp spines.

"Damn!" Windfall said. "Nothing that big ought to be that fast! That pass tell you anything?"

Twilight nodded grimly. "Yes, but you're not going to like it."

Windfall grimaced. "I've been pretty much not liking anything for the last few months, so just spit it out."

"Okay, then. It looks like there's a soft spot under its tail—or where its tail ought to be, at any rate. No anti-magic crystalline coating there, so a good penetrating blast should wreck the thing."

"And why is that a bad… Oh, I get it. You need me to be the bait, and I need to be pretty much on the ground to give you the best shot at its unprotected ass, right?"

"Crude, but correct," Twilight said. "And even if you can attract it from half the room away, it moves so fast that I'll only get a second to make my shot."

"Right. So." Windfall grimaced. "Any other ideas?"

Twilight shrugged. "We can lead it into a tunnel and I can turn the ceiling molten to try and entomb the thing. The only problem with that is that it'll take every bit of my energy and I won't have the strength to get away if it fails." She considered for another moment and added, "And if the tunnel turns out to be a dead end, as you suggested, the excess heat will roast us both alive."

"Oh, this just gets better and better!"

"I'm open to suggestions."

Windfall sighed and shook her head. "Okay, Princess, let's go with Plan A. If we screw it up, at least this will all be over."

Twilight looked askance at the pegasus, but refrained from commenting. Later, she told herself.

Windfall suggested the exact maneuvers to put the monster into the correct position and the two of them made a couple of practice runs to make sure the thing's reactions were consistent. When they couldn't think of any reason to delay any longer, they took their places and counted down out loud.

"Three… two… one… now!"

The spikey monster tracked Windfall as she circled, and it leaped forward as soon as the pegasus was within striking distance. Windfall hit the ground with all four hooves and stared, unflinching, straight into the thing's tiny beady eyes as it hurtled toward her.

It was less than a pony length away when it erupted into a spray of broken pieces of rock. The flash of the detonation was blinding. By the time Windfall had blinked away the pulsing black spots in her vision, Twilight was standing beside her, asking if she was all right.

"Y-yeah, I guess I am," she said. "Though I'm kinda surprised I didn't get cut to ribbons by the
fragments."

"Oh, I shaped the blast so it went mainly up and to the sides," Twilight told her.

Windfall stared at her for a couple of seconds. "Because, of course you can do that. Tell me, do you get a lot of call for that sort of magic in the princess business?"

Twilight gave her a sheepish grin. "Honestly? A lot more than I'd like."

"Okay, then. I'm going to sleep." The pegasus stepped around Twilight and walked over to the comfortable patch of ground she had been lying on before the attack. "Wake me up if anything else tries to kill us."

Twilight sighed and returned to her own spot. "I'm tired, too, but I haven't forgotten what we were talking about. Think about it and decide what you're going to share with me, will you?"

Windfall opened one eye and glared at her. "You're going to keep bugging me about it, aren't you?"

"Decisions made on bad or incomplete information will only make it more difficult for us to get out of here. I need to know everything I can to beat this place." Twilight curled up, tented the leading edge of one wing over her face, and said no more.

Windfall cast a glance at the other end of the clearing where the fragments of rubble were still smoking slightly. "Maybe you can…" she whispered to herself.

= = =

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7 Spa Day

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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?"

"Steaming!"

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!"

"Mm?"

"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.

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