Nightshade paced the study of the castle of the Dark Isle while her brother, Hemlock, poured over an ancient tome. “This is so frustrating, brother! Our plans are flawless and yet our enemies overcome us by sheer weight of numbers!”
“If you would not keep interrupting me, then maybe I could discover the secret to our eventual success.”
“It’s not my interruptions that are the problem, I think. It’s that little filly Enchantment that will be your downfall. I thought you’d said you had that under control.”
“I thought I had. But…”
Hemlock waved her away with his hoof. “Leave me, Nightshade. I have important work to do.”
Nightshade drew her sword and leveled it at Hemlock’s face. “Who are you?” she demanded of her brother.
“Sister, have you forgotten me?”
Nightshade shook her head. “When you dismissed me you called me by name. You never call me by name; but on the Isle you did it also, when Enchantment had incapacitated you. One time I am willing to overlook, particularly considering the stress you were under at the time. But now I know you are not who you appear to be.”
Hemlock grinned. “Very good. I am called Zotikos, of Atlantis.”
“Atlantis! You will leave my brother at once, vile ghost!”
“I will leave him, but not until you have secured an adequate new host for me. Even Jack O Lantern will do. He was easier to control than Hemlock has been.”
“What! I though we were through with him! And even if we weren’t, he’s been moved to the Sea Patrol headquarters on Kuramitsu Island. Even I would have trouble getting into that fortress.”
“I have faith in your abilities, which is why I would ask you to also bring out as many of the other prisoners as you can.”
“You want me to stage a jailbreak of that magnitude? You are ambitious.”
“Yes, and I have had centuries to dream of my ambitions of conquest, but I am growing impatient. The time has come to act, before our enemies can become even more numerous. Now, are you going to do as I ask, or is your brother going to join me on the other side?”
Nightshade sheathed her sword. “Very well, Zotikos. But as soon as I return, you will release my brother; or I will see to it that you never haunt another soul.” And then she disappeared into the shadows.
* * *
Pony Sea Patrol cruiser Yagamo cut through the waves toward Kuramitsu Island. It glided between the massive guard towers into the harbor. As it pulled up to the dock, a lone pony stood waiting, a large brown stallion with golden mane and tail. He wore a more ornate sash than Key or Belle Star wore, for he was the Grand Admiral of the Pony Sea Patrol, supreme commander of the largest fleet in Ponyland, and Belle Star’s grandfather.
The dock Bushwoolies rushed to tie off the Yagamo. When the gangplank was lowered, two ponies debarked, Key and Belle Star. At the bottom of the plank they both stood at attention and saluted the admiral. A broad grin crossed his face.
“Belle Star, there’s no need for that. For the next week you are a granddaughter visiting her grandfather, not an officer of the Pony Sea Patrol. And considering the casual nature of this event, I suppose you can be excused from formality as well, Key.”
Key stood at ease. “Thank you, Admiral.”
But Belle Star held her salute. Seeing this, the admiral returned it. Belle Star lowered her hoof and threw her forelegs around her grandfather. “Oh, Grandpa! I’m so happy to see you!”
“And I’m glad to see you, too, Belle Star. It’s been too long for a grandfather to not see his granddaughter. Come on, let’s get caught up over some tea. Officer Key, you are dismissed. Thank you for bringing Belle Star here.”
“Thank you, sir. It was no problem. See you next week, Belle Star.”
“Uh-huh. See you later, Key!”
While Key went about preparing her ship for the return trip to Port Scurvy, Belle Star and her grandfather strolled across the dockyards toward the town of Kuramitsu, a fortress city surrounded by massive walls, and at its heart was the imposing citadel where the most feared criminals in the world were imprisoned. Despite its martial design, the city was quite pleasant, with wide streets, numerous parks and lawns, and a wide array of shops and restaurants.
“Belle Star, I know you don’t want any special treatment for being my granddaughter, but you are not even on active duty. There is no need to salute.”
“I know, but…oh oh! There’s my favorite noodle stand! Can we stop for noodles, Grandpa?”
They sat down at the counter and ordered their noodles, which arrived shortly. Grandfather blew on his noodles to cool them. “So, Belle Star, this prince you’re always writing about, Clever Clover; the two of you are very close.”
Belle Star nodded as she slurped her hot noodles.
“Is he more than just a friend?”
Belle Star gasped in pain, grabbed a glass of water, and drank it to cool her mouth. Once she regained her composure, she answered her grandfather’s question. “Uh-huh. He is my very best friend! Well, him and Key…and Minoko, and Morning Glory, and Enchantment, and Foxglove…”
Grandfather chuckled. “You’re very fortunate to have so many best friends. I’m glad that you’re getting along so well. I wish your mother could be here to see you now.”
Belle Star slurped some more noodles. “Where is Mom, anyway?”
“She’s leading the research team at Isla Soja. It seems the fortress was not created by Jack O Lantern, but by some ancient civilization. She believes it could have been an outpost of Atlantis, possibly a refuge for those fleeing its destruction.”
“Oooh. Clever Clover was telling me about Atlantis. He said they were mean and evil and they enslaved his people, but now he’s friends with their queen.”
“Yes, times can change. Remember the stories of the Sea Clan? They were enemies of Atlantis, but when it began to sink they came to the aid of the Atlanteans and took them to safety.”
“Oh yeah! Clever Clover said something about the Sea Clan, too. Oh! But I can’t remember.”
“That’s all right. You’re not here for a history lesson, you’re here to spend quality time with your grandfather.”
They finished their noodles and walked across town to the admiral’s townhouse. “If you’d like to rest up after your trip, your room is just about the way you left it. I did have the maid tidy up a bit.”
Belle Star yawned. “Thank you, Grandpa. I think I will take a nap.” She went upstairs to her old room and flopped down on the bed. In a moment she was asleep.
* * *
The next morning Belle Star awoke with a stretch and a yawn. She sat on the edge of her bed and looked around the room. “Hm, I wonder where all my stuff is?” She walked over to the dresser, opened a drawer, and started tossing items onto the bed. A dark red ribbon caught her eye. “Oh! This used to be my favorite ribbon!” She tied the ribbon in her tail in a big bow. As she admired it in the mirror she noticed, hanging around her neck, the arrowhead pendant that Clever Clover had made for her shortly after they had met. “I miss Clever Clover. I wish he could have come along. He and Grandpa would probably get along great.” Her stomach growled. “I need to get some breakfast.”
She went downstairs to the kitchen. On the table, she found a note from her grandfather.
I have some business to take care of at the Citadel. Meet me at my office and we can go out for lunch…or maybe supper. See you later.
* * *
A group of five of prisoners, four ponies and a lioness, were being processed by Draco, an officer Belle Star had worked with when she had been assigned to Zodiac Island. One of the prisoners, a pony with bright red mane and tail, protested loudly. “We are not pirates! We’re OUTLAWS! Come on, can’t you guys back me up on this?”
Another prisoner, a pale pony with midnight blue mane and tail, shrugged. “I’m not really even with them. I was just a passenger.”
“How can you say that, Twilight?”
The youngest prisoner spoke up next. “I don’t think your yelling is helping matters any, Starwind. Maybe you should just calm down and I’m sure everything will get worked out in the end.”
“You too, Hawk? My entire crew is turning on me!”
The lioness huffed. “If I was the captain, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
The last pony put her hoof on Starwind’s shoulder. “I’m not turning on you.”
Belle Star, distracted by the commotion, tripped over a snow-white Bushwoolie. “Oh! I’m so sorry…Yuki! I haven’t seen you in years!”
“Belle Belle!” cried the Bushwoolie. “You’re back!”
Draco turned his attention to Belle Star and Yuki. “Oh, great. You are back. Well, I don’t care who your grandfather is; I am not covering for you anymore.”
“Oh, hi Draco! I’m glad to see you again, too! Hey Yuki, I’m having lunch with Grandpa later in the cafeteria; would you like to join us?”
“Yeah yeah, sure!”
“Good! See you there. Good-bye Draco!” Belle Star pranced off toward her grandfather’s office.
“Good riddance,” Draco mumbled under his breath.
* * *
Grandfather was examining a file when Belle Star arrived at his office. “Good morning, Grandpa!”
“Ah, good morning, Belle Star. I’m sorry I had to come in to work today; Draco brought in a shipload of suspected pirates who may be responsible for a major crime wave recently. But after reviewing the crime scene reports, I’m beginning to have my doubts.”
“I saw them downstairs. I don’t think they’re pirates.”
“Oh, why do you say that?”
“Well, the only pirate I know is Minoko, and they were nothing like her. Well, the red haired one does yell a lot, but Minoko’s scary when she yells; he’s just silly.”
“Yes, he is rather silly, the way he keeps insisting that he is an outlaw instead of a pirate, as if one is any better than the other. But we don’t have any criminal files on any of them. They’re probably just some hippies out for a pleasure cruse. I’m inclined to believe their story; they were just investigating a derelict ship which the real pirates had just plundered and set adrift. Now, are you ready for lunch?”
“Uh-huh. And I invited Yuki to join us. I hope that’s okay.”
They went to the cafeteria and were joined by Yuki, who had been the chief Bushwoolie on Belle Star’s ship back before it had sunk. Luckily all hands escaped without harm because the ship sank in shallow water. The cause of the sinking couldn’t be determined, but Belle Star volunteered to take a leave of absence from the Pony Sea Patrol after that, and ended up doing archaeology in Friendship Gardens.
After lunch, Grandfather had Starwind and company released; then he and Belle Star returned to their vacation.
* * *
After several uneventful days, Starwind and company showed up at the sea gate, towing a pirate ship. Though they denied being bounty hunters, they did accept payment for apprehending the bandits, claiming they had only done it to prove their innocence. But with the pirates in custody, Grandfather had to return to the office while the prisoners were processed. Belle Star came to have lunch with him again, but managed to get lost on the way to the cafeteria. She wandered the halls of the Citadel, searching for the cafeteria or anyone to ask directions. Eventually she bumped into another pony, literally. As she helped the pony up, she asked, “Pardon me, but do you know how to get to the cafeteria from here?”
The eyes of the dark pony she had bumped into went wide. “You!” Before she knew what was happening, Belle Star found herself facing Nightshade’s blade. The dark swordpony lunged at Belle Star, who managed to dodge it despite her confusion.
“I only want to get to the cafeteria! Why are you attacking me?”
“You fool! Don’t you know who I am?!”
Belle Star paused and looked Nightshade in the eyes. “Oh! It’s you! What are you doing here, villain?” Belle Star reached for her sword, but unfortunately she hadn’t worn it today. She backed cautiously away from Nightshade.
Nightshade grinned evilly. “Well, well, well. It seems your luck has finally run out.”
Belle Star suddenly found her retreat cut off. Whatever she had run into, it was as solid as a brick wall, but it had a furry coat. She sensed something looming over her and craned her neck to look behind her and found a giant stallion glaring down at her. He snarled, baring lupin denture. Belle Star leapt aside as he slammed his massive hoof down where she had been standing, cracking the floor stones and rattling the entire hallway. The shock from the impact knocked Belle Star off balance; and as she reeled, Nightshade’s blade narrowly missed her.
Regaining her footing, Belle Star dashed off down a side passage. “After her!” bellowed Nightshade. The massive stallion, who was wearing the hide of a wolf about his shoulders, pulled himself up to his full height, his ears brushing the ceiling, and glared down at Nightshade. She glared back. “Are you forgetting who got you out of your cell? Now go!”
The wolf-stallion growled and took off after Belle Star with surprising swiftness, considering his size. Nightshade then turned to a quartet of shadowy figures in the hallway behind her. “You, too! I don’t want her getting in my way again! Except for you, Jack O Lantern. You stay close to me. I need you to get my brother back.”
Two of the figures disappeared into the darkness. Jack O Lantern stepped into the light. “I have no idea what you are talking about; but I’m in no position to argue, for the time being anyway.”
“And what about you?” Nightshade pointed her sword at the remaining figure.
“I am not cut out for such pursuits. Besides, I have more important things to take care of, namely reclaiming what is rightfully mine.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The Sea Patrol took something of mine; they have it locked away somewhere in this fortress. I need to get it back!”
“I came here to get as many of you out of here as I could. I’m not going to waste any time searching the entire fortress for whatever it is you think is so important.”
“Ah, but we don’t need to search. I can sense it. Now that I am out of my cell, I know exactly where it is!”
Jack O Lantern nodded. “It might be a good idea to humor him. Only the most feared criminals are held here. If he feels this item of his is that important, there must be a good reason. And if he can lead us to it, it shouldn’t be too much trouble. Besides, with those three chasing that officer, I doubt anyone will notice the three of us.”
“Very well. Lead the way.”
* * *
Meanwhile, Belle Star tried frantically to escape the giant wolf-stallion, but it seemed every hallway simply led to another, and they all looked the same. As far as she knew, she had been running around in circles ever since the chase began. Then, as she turned yet another corner, Belle Star found herself confronted by yet another mysterious pony. He was no larger that she, red with a black mane and tail in long braids. He struck a pose, standing on one hind hoof with his forelegs crossed in front of him. “Kuroi-juuji!” he cried out and shot forward, his crossed forelegs catching Belle Star and throwing her against the wall.
Belle Star shook her head and stood up an wobbly knees. “I am impressed,” said the red pony. “Very few can survive a direct hit from my ‘Kuroi-juuji’ technique. But you will not survive a second hit.” Belle Star turned to run but found her escape blocked by the wolf-stallion. The red pony struck his pose and launched again. But this time Belle Star was ready for him. She countered with a roundhouse kick that sent him crashing into the wall. The wolf-stallion laughed and raised his mighty hoof. Belle Star didn’t have time to get out of the way. The hoof fell and met a massive curved sword.
“Are you all right, granddaughter?”
Belle Star looked up at her grandfather, who had blocked the wolf-stallion’s attack. “Oh, thank you, Grandpa!” She scrambled away from the wolf-stallion and her grandfather withdrew his sword, letting the steel-clad hoof crash to the ground.
The red pony climbed from the hole he had knocked in the wall. “It seems that I have underestimated you. I shall have to resort to more drastic techniques.” He struck another pose and began to chant.
“Granddaughter, go! I’ll deal with these two!”
“That is an order, Belle Star! Don’t worry about me; reenforcements are on their way.”
Belle Star hesitantly turned and retreated down the hallway. Before long she encountered the reenforcements led by Draco.
“I should have known you’d be involved in this,” said Draco. “Where is the admiral?”
Belle Star pointed down the hall. “He’s down there fighting two mean ponies! He needs your help! Please hurry!”
“Come on, men!” Draco led the Sea Patrol ponies into the fray.
At the end of the line was Yuki the Bushwoolie, who carried a large white pom-pom. “Belle Belle! Here!” He tossed the pom-pom to Belle Star. She caught it between her forehooves and it transformed into a transparent red cube.
Belle Star gazed in confusion at the strange device in her hooves. “What the…oh! I remember! She twisted and rotated the cube until a book appeared out of thin air in front of her. “No, that’s not what I want.” She continued to manipulate the cube, conjuring up all manner of items, pots and pans, clothing, tools, and toys, before finally materializing her sash and sword. “That’s it! Come on Yuki, let’s go help Grandpa!”
By the time Belle Star and Yuki arrived at the scene of the fight, it was all over. The hallway was in ruins, as well as several adjacent rooms. Grandfather was winded, but unhurt. The villains were nowhere to be seen. “Oh! Grandfather, you’re all right!”
“Yes, Belle Star, but those two got away. We’ll have to split up to find them. Draco, divide your troops into two parties. Belle Star, you and Yuki will come with me.”
Draco stepped forward. “With all due respect, Admiral, wouldn’t it be best to leave her out of this? I mean, as far as we know, she’s responsible for letting the prisoners out, though I’m sure she didn’t mean to.”
“It wasn’t me! It was Nightshade! I saw her. She sent those two after me.”
“Nightshade? Draco, send two ponies to check on Jack O Lantern and see how many other prisoners have been released. The rest of us will proceed with the search. Now let’s go!”
* * *
The gray stallion led Nightshade and Jack O Lantern into the depths of the Citadel. The vault where he led them was heavily guarded, but Nightshade was able to slip past the defenders with ease. She quickly located the ornately carved chest the stallion had described to her. It didn’t look all that impressive to her, just a dusty old box. But the stallion insisted that it was important and Jack O Lantern thought it was worth the trouble of recovering. With the box in her possession, she slipped out of the vault to rejoin Jack O Lantern and the gray stallion.
“Did you get it? Give it to me!” The old stallion lunged for the box as soon as Nightshade arrived.
“Not so fast, old timer. What is so important about this box?”
“Give it to me!”
“Just give him the box,” advised Jack O Lantern. “We can discuss the box after we get out of here.”
“Very well.” Nightshade tossed the box to the old stallion who clenched it tightly. The three of them then made their way to the pre-arranged rendezvous point to meet the three who had been sent in pursuit of Belle Star. They found the wolf-stallion and the red pony waiting for them.
“Where is the other one?” asked Nightshade.
The red pony shrugged. “I don’t know. She didn’t show up for the fight.”
“Did the two of you finish off that Sea Patrol pony?”
“No? Then what are you doing standing around here?”
“Before we could finish her off, our fight attracted some attention. Even the two of us couldn’t hold off the entire garrison of Kuramitsu Citadel.”
“Well, if the alarm has been raised, we’d better get out of here.”
Just then a sea-green pony stepped onto the scene. “You’re not leaving without me, are you?”
“You! Why didn’t you help the others? The three of you together could have gotten rid of that pony once and for all!”
“That’s not my style. Not that I’m not grateful for the chance to get out of here, but I’m not into violence.”
Nightshade shook her head. “Very well. Let’s just get out of here.”
* * *
The ponies of the Sea Patrol searched the Citadel from top to bottom and found no sign of Nightshade or the escapees. Draco reported his findings to the Admiral. “Besides Jack O Lantern, four prisoners were released. Also, one item is missing from the vault. Here are the relevant files.” He set a stack of papers on the Admiral’s desk.
The Admiral flipped through the papers. “Hm. Thank you, Draco. Send in Belle Star on your way out.”
Draco left and a moment later, Belle Star entered. “Grandpa…”
“Belle Star, I have a favor to ask of you.”
* * *
“What are we doing here?” complained the red pony at the sight of Hemlock’s study.
Jack O Lantern looked about in disgust. “He has really let this place go. I’ll have to have a word with that former apprentice of mine.”
“Oh really, old master? Remember that if it weren’t for me, you’d still be rotting away in prison.” All heads turned to face Hemlock. “But then, I was never your apprentice. He is simply a convenient host.”
“Host? What are you talking about?”
“I am Zotikos, of Atlantis. You were my host too, for a while. But I never had to exert full control over you. Our goals, for the time, were the same. I simply provided a simple nudge in the right direction from time to time. But now that I have introduced myself, why don’t the rest of you?”
The red pony bowed. “I am called Akujitsu.”
“I have been called many things,” said the wolf-stallion. “You can call me Wolfgang.”
The sea-green lady pony was the next to introduce herself. “I am Lady Sea-Snake.”
Finally, the gray stallion, still clenching his box, spoke up. “My name is Darius.”
Hemlock/Zotikos nodded. “Akujitsu, Wolfgang, your talents will be most useful. As for the other two, I do not think I will be in need of your services. Really, Nightshade, I expected better of you. There were twenty seven inmates in Kuramitsu Citadel and you bring me five, two of which were hardly worth the effort.”
Lady Sea-Snake stepped forward. “Lord Zotikos, I beg of you, give me a chance to prove myself.”
“You seem awfully eager to serve,” said Akujitsu. “I have no interest in serving anyone. Zotikos, I am afraid I must decline your offer.”
“I have made no offer. I have given you your freedom; in exchange you will serve me. You have no choice. But once I have conquered the world, you will be rewarded, with power and dominion.”
“I like the sound of that,” said Wolfgang. “Power and dominion. Ya, I like the sound of that.”
“What about you, Darius?” asked Jack O Lantern.
The gray old pony shrugged. “I have no preference.”
“I suppose it cannot hurt to serve you for the time being,” said Akujitsu. “But when it no longer serves my purpose, I will take my leave.”
Hemlock turned to his sister. “What do you have to say on the matter, dear sister?”
“Don’t call me that, Zotikos. But since I went to the trouble of bringing Darius and Sea-Snake, it seems a shame to waste whatever talents they might have.”
“Very well then. Lady Sea-Snake, Darius, step forward. One of you will be my new host. The other will have the honor of serving me.”
Lady Sea-Snake bowed. “I am but a humble servant, not worthy to be your host. Leave me free and I will serve you well as I am.”
Darius was silent. Hemlock stepped forward and grabbed Darius’ head and looked into his eyes. A moment later Hemlock faltered and almost fell over. Nightshade rushed to his side. “Brother! Are you alright?”
“Sister,” Hemlock replied weakly. “Where am I?”
“Come, brother, you need to rest.” Nightshade led her brother away.
Jack O Lantern turned to Darius. “So, Darius, or is it Zotikos? Strange, I’ve studied Atlantean history and I never heard of any Zotikos.”
The gray stallion grinned. “Either will do. Darius or Zotikos, we have found this partnership to be more beneficial that either of us had imagined. And I don’t suppose you would have heard of Zotikos; I was but a petty governor of a lowly subject people of the Empire. But I recognized in those people, in the Night Clan, the power that I would need to make myself emperor! I secreted them away to this Dark Isle so that I could work my schemes in secrecy, but before my plan could be recognized the Empire fell. Though I fought to hold the hand of time, I eventually passed away, but my ambition lived on, as did my spirit. I spent the centuries gathering the pieces that would eventually bring me the power that I have always longed for. That is when I met you, Jack O Lantern, and I led you to the Night Clan and I made you my host. Then I moved to conquer the Isle ponies and unite the seven clans under my rule. And then, in an ironic twist of fate, my enemy, Clever Clover, found the key and re-opened the gates of Atlantis to me. And together we will storm those gates! The Empire, the world, will finally be mine! But our first step will be the conquest of the Isle. Then, with the Power of the Regents, we will be unstoppable.”
Jack O Lantern shook his head. “Atlantis is your goal? Then I don’t see what is in this for me anymore.”
“My dear Jack O Lantern, once I rule Atlantis, I will need a governor to rule the Isle. If you join my cause, that position can be yours. Otherwise…”
“Very well. We are allies, for the time being.”
* * *
Key’s Yagamo returned to Kuramitsu Island to pick up Belle Star. As she pulled into the dock, Key noticed a brand new cruiser docked in the next berth. Belle Star stood on the dock wearing her sash and sword. She carried a stack of files. “Hello Belle Star. How was your vacation?”
Belle Star seemed less cheerful than usual. She greeted her old friend with a salute. Key returned the salute. “What’s going on?”
Belle Star pulled a file from the stack and handed it to Key, and the rest of her files fell to the planks of the dock. “Oh! Why does that always happen to me?”
While Belle Star gathered the fallen files, Key looked through her file. “You’ve been returned to active duty? That would explain the new ship. And a jailbreak? That’s bad news. WHAT! A full pardon!? I know Minoko has made some progress, but a full pardon?”
Belle Star had finished regathering the files. “Uh-huh. King Oak put in a good word for her. And I’ve been assigned to be Clever Clover’s bodyguard!”