The river sliced through the springtime splendor of the valley, working its way between the foothills. The water was undoubtedly cold; but the air was mild, and the sunshine was warm. The grass was an emerald green, saturated with life after spending the winter under its blanket of snow; in scattered patches, the greenery was broken by the hues of wildflowers in white, pink, blue, and yellow.
Sugarberry was ecstatic. "This is a gorgeous day for our excursion, isn't it?" she bubbled. "It was beautiful last year, too, when Wigwam brought a group of us out here." She flashed Vanguard a smile that let him know that his presence this year made the journey much more delightful.
In addition to Vanguard and Sugarberry, there were two other ponies on this trek. The mare, an orange unicorn with a dreamcatcher symbol, was a relative newcomer to Dream Valley; the stallion at her side was even more recently transplanted to the area. This pale green stallion was Fetish, Dreamcatcher's friend who had followed her to her new location. Today's outing was an opportunity for Sugarberry and Vanguard to become better acquainted with their new friends, as well as to visit Wigwam's prize discovery from last June-- a Native Pony cave with simple yet powerful drawings done years and years ago by some unknown artisan.
"It was after this point that everyone began finding artifacts," Sugarberry announced with an aside to Vanguard. "Except me."
"Artifacts should not be arbitrarily removed from their location," Dreamcatcher stated. She was a very proper Native Pony, living in a tepee in the Dark Forest and following the ways of her ancestors.
"The majority of them were catalogued and are stored at Pony Pride for study until Dream Valley deems fit to build a museum." Sugarberry wisely refrained from mentioning the arrow point she had at home as a memento of that trip last spring.
"Digger and Ages are pressing Queen Serena to make a decision," Vanguard added.
"You've had experience in museum work, haven't you, Fetish?" asked Sugarberry.
"I helped to clean artifacts and verify their authenticity at a Native Pony museum back in our home town," the stallion responded. "I'd be interested in getting involved with plans for a museum here. Who should I talk to?"
"You'll meet Ages and Digger at the site today. Memoria, the head of the History Department at Pony Pride, is acting as their advisor in this project; and there are several prominent citizens who are backing them up," Vanguard said.
"There's the rock cliff ahead. That's where we go up," interjected Sugarberry.
"Not up the face of the cliff, I hope," Fetish said. "I didn't bring a rope."
When the four ponies reached the granite slab, Sugarberry led the others to a point where the rock wall nearly met the river. Carefully maneuvering around the seemingly impassible barricade, the ponies encountered a rough natural stairway that had at some long ago time broken away from the main thrusting rock form.
Once at the top, the ponies were rewarded with a spectacular view of the valley which they had just left behind, with the river sparkling in the sunlight. Sugarberry, her fear of heights no better even with Vanguard at her side, held back as the other three walked to the edge of the drop-off.
"This is great!" Fetish enthused. "I'd like to camp out up here some time."
Sugarberry shivered, and Vanguard returned to her side. "Come over here and we'll sit on these rocks." He guided her to a safe location while Fetish and Dreamcatcher continued to gaze over the landscape. "Smile," he said to his soon-to-be bride. "You're safe here."
The mare smiled, but admitted her real concern. "Last year up here I thought about how far away you were and how long you'd be gone. I didn't want to be separated from you."
"And it will never happen again, if I've got anything to say about it."
"Enough sitting around!" Fetish called. "Where is this cave I've heard so much about?"
"It's not far now; just around this hill."
The scenery changed as they rounded the hill; giant boulders dotted the landscape where they had lodged after releasing their hold on the craggy hilltops that reared their barren heads above the trees. The striking feature, however, was the twisting vein of obsidian that ran like a black snake up the hillside and ended at the cave entrance where Clever Clover and Wigwam now stood.
"Hi, guys!" Sugarberry called out, waving her hoof in greeting.
The two stallions responded, and four more came from the cave: Rocky, the copper-colored geology major; Ages, the azure-blue history buff; Digger, the hazelnut-brown paleontologist; and Gene, the light pecan-colored biology major. As the visitors neared the workers, Clever Clover teased, "We were just commenting on how we were sure that Sugarberry would end up getting you all lost."
"She was an excellent guide," Fetish responded.
Wigwam said nothing but looked beyond them as if expecting someone else to make an appearance. He caught Sugarberry's eye, and she shook her head. "She had to work." Sugarberry had asked the chocolate brown filly to join them on their journey, but Chocolate Chip had pleaded too much to do, even though Prime had recently moved on to New Pony to continue his studies there. Her previous interest in Wigwam was still on hold.
Vanguard introduced Fetish to the crew who had been hard at work at the site throughout the previous weeks. Clever Clover explained how the cave had been opened up a year ago when heavy rains had caused a landslide which had exposed the underground cavern; the unstable conditions had created a near catastrophe when Wigwam and his group of interested explorers had narrowly escaped a second landslide that occurred while they were inspecting the paintings on the cave walls. This second landslide had sealed off the entrance to the cave until this spring when Clever Clover arranged to have official excavations begun.
As Clever Clover educated the others about the project, Wigwam moved to Sugarberry's side. "Come and see what Digger uncovered." He led her to a spot just inside the cave entrance and pointed to a pile of arrow points.
Sugarberry gasped. "That's where Baby Noddins was counting her finds when you rescued her! Those are the artifacts she was so disappointed to have lost!"
"And they were buried under tons of dirt," Wigwam stated. "Sometimes I wonder..."
"Guardian angels," Sugarberry said softly. "They really do watch over us."
After a moment of reflective silence, Wigwam said, "I thought maybe you'd like to work on removing Baby Noddins' cache. Clever Clover is a stickler on going by the book, so make sure you do it right."
They returned to the rest of the group where Clever Clover was finishing up an explanation of the wall paintings. "So as you can see, the earliest pictures were done without symbols on the ponies whereas at this point," the purple stallion directed their attention to a particular drawing on the wall, "they suddenly were put into use. That leads us to believe that the earliest ponies did not have the distinctive rump patterns of today's ponies."
Dreamcatcher peered closely at the unpretentious drawings in muted shades of brown, red, orange, and yellow; it was easy to see how deeply affected she was by this encounter with the past.
Fetish remarked on how fortunate they were that the landslide had not completely collapsed the cave walls. Clever Clover steered his gaze to the natural domed stone ceiling that arched over this chamber of rock; the strength of the stone was instrumental in protecting the grotto.
Ages propounded the theory that there had originally been a tunnel at the back of the cave that led deeper into the hill which might have been the only access to the cave when it was actively in use. The landslide had broken through the one weak spot on the outside wall.
Soon everyone was busy helping to clear the remaining dirt away from the entrance, and Sugarberry bagged and labeled all of the points that had been so hurriedly left behind last year. By this time, the sun was high in the sky; it was lunchtime.
Rocky, Ages, Digger, and Gene, however, with the enthusiasm of youth, scoffed at the picnic lunch that Sugarberry and Dreamcatcher had engineered. "We've set out fishing lines in the river just like the Native Ponies did," Ages enlightened them.
"Yeah, and now we have to go check on our catch," said Rocky.
"We'll cook you up some fresh fish when we get back," declared a cocky Gene.
"But just in case, don't eat everything," said Digger, hungrily looking over the assortment of foodstuffs being laid out on a picnic cloth.
The mares and stallions watched the college ponies bound off down the trail and then sat down to eat. "What are their chances of catching any fish?" asked Vanguard.
"Catching them isn't the problem," Clever Clover snickered. "Cleaning them is where they'll wimp out."
"I can do that for them," Dreamcatcher volunteered.
"You'll never see the fish," Wigwam stated. "They'll release them rather than harm them." For a moment, tension hung on the air as the old animosity between Wigwam and Dreamcatcher flared up. They were both Native Ponies, but they had opposing ideas on how to best honor their heritage.
Fetish smoothed over the rough spot. "Your deviled eggs are great, Sugarberry. And who made this potato salad? It's tastier than some I've eaten."
"I got that ready-made at Oakley's Market," Vanguard admitted. "I don't do a lot of kitchen work."
"And that's okay with Sugarberry?" asked Fetish roguishly. "Once you're married, she should make you share the kitchen duties."
"I'll wash the dishes," Vanguard compromised with a grin flashed at his fiancee.
"How are Manitou and his mate faring?" asked Clever Clover.
Wigwam opened his mouth to respond, but Dreamcatcher beat him to it. "Manitou and Halona are fine. They have a litter of four pups who are growing into fat little dynamos."
"They'll wear their baby fat off soon enough," commented Fetish. "Once their parents start teaching them how to hunt, they'll get into shape."
"They must be awfully cute," crooned Sugarberry. "What are you going to name them?" She directed this to Wigwam.
The stallion tossed his head. "Ask Dreamcatcher."
"The two males will be Yuma and Palladin, meaning 'son of a chief' and 'fighter', respectively. The two females will be Magena-- because the litter was born at the time of the incoming moon-- and Winona, first-born daughter. I can't be sure on that one, but Halona doesn't seem to mind."
"You put a lot of thought into those names," said Clever Clover. "Of what significance is the mother's name, Halona?"
"It means 'fortunate'," replied Fetish.
"I named her that because she was fortunate that Manitou found her when he did, and we were able to nurse her back to health."
Wigwam stood up and walked a short distance away from the group. The rest finished eating, and Sugarberry called him back to have a chocolate cupcake. Wigwam returned and accepted the pastry, but he called Clever Clover's attention to a peculiar cloud in the sky. "Have you ever seen such a cloud as that?"
Everyone looked up into the bright, blue canopy; off to the west an intensely black cumulus cloud was just becoming visible over the hilltops, the only blemish in the otherwise perfect sky. "Weird," commented Clever Clover.
Bright flashes of light randomly lit up the menacing cloud as it approached with amazing speed. Dreamcatcher and Sugarberry hurriedly picked up the picnic supplies by which time the cloud was nearly overhead. "It's going to rain!" shouted Fetish unnecessarily as the first giant drops began to pelt them.
The ponies quickly escaped into the confines of the cave. "I hope the fisherponies can find a place of shelter," observed Sugarberry as they all watched the torrent of rain which came down fast and furiously.
"It'll be over soon," Vanguard commented. "That cloud was really moving."
Suddenly, at the mouth of the cave, a jagged streak of lightning struck; several more hit simultaneously down the slope of the hill. The boom of the thunder was deafening. After the brilliant flashes, the ponies' world seemed pitch black. When they could see again, they stood in wide-eyed wonder.
* * *
The first thing that became apparent to the ponies was that the cave was now lit with torches that leaned from holders carved into the cave walls rather than with battery-operated lanterns. Sugarberry looked at Vanguard who was standing next to her and found a rather fearsome-looking stallion with slashes of red war paint on his cheeks; Vanguard in turn saw a strawberry-patterned mare with braids fastened with turquoise beads and turkey feathers. Their mouths dropped open as they turned to stare around them.
Fetish, Wigwam, and Clever Clover now had the ominous markings of war paint, too; only Dreamcatcher had not changed as she had come adorned with braids and native trappings. All was silence as they gaped at one another and pondered the circumstances.
"The door to the outside is gone," Fetish observed calmly.
"Look at the paintings!" Wigwam breathed. All eyes swivelled to check out the walls of the cave. The paintings seemed to be much clearer, much fresher than they had before lunch; the colors were vibrant instead of faded; they were almost alive.
Still trying to find some rhyme or reason to their predicament, the group heard hoofsteps coming their way from the rear of the cave. Looking in that direction, they now saw the opening to a passageway; and in that instant, a Native Pony appeared in the entrance, a spear clutched in one of his hooves.
"Can you help us?" asked Fetish. "We've somehow or other gotten ourselves into a sticky situation."
The Native Pony did not respond; he stared at them with cold, dark eyes. A rustle in the tunnel behind him soon revealed a retinue of more Native Ponies, each carrying a sharp, pointy weapon. They proceeded into the cave, effectively surrounding the Dream Valley ponies.
"We're dreaming," Sugarberry voiced quietly, reaching for Vanguard's hoof for consolation.
He gave her hoof a quick squeeze before being prodded forward by the business end of a spear. "I wish we were," was all he said.
The ponies were ushered into the passageway which was not as well lighted as the cavern they had been in; Sugarberry had the impression that there were further openings into other rock-hewn rooms, but they were herded swiftly down the expanse of tunnel until they finally reached daylight. As they burst forth from the belly of the hill, their momentum was stopped by a solid wall of pony bodies that encircled them.
The Native Ponies stood in silent curiosity over these intruders into their realm. No one spoke or moved until a pony of obvious authority was allowed to move through the ranks and approach the Dream Vallians. "What is your purpose here?" he asked.
Fetish spoke up. "We're lost."
"Lost in our sacred temple?" the pony chief asked. "Strangers are not allowed there."
"It was by no fault of ours..." began Dreamcatcher, but she was silenced by a Native Pony brave near her.
The chief looked at her for a moment, then returned his attention to Fetish. "Explain your purpose."
Clever Clover attempted a response. "We come from a great distance. We were searching for your temple, but we did not know that it was off limits."
The chief considered these words. "You are wearing war paint for such an undertaking?"
"It's not war paint," Wigwam said, rubbing a hoof over his face.
"Explain your appearance so soon after our scouts telling us of the presence of six of our enemies in the area."
"Coincidence," spat Fetish. "Would we bring two of our squaws along on a war party?"
Imperceptibly motioning to the braves with their weapons at the ready, the chief made his decision. "We will hold you until our scouts can verify... or refute... your story."
The braves came forward and separated Sugarberry and Dreamcatcher from the stallions.
"No!" shouted Sugarberry, struggling to remain by Vanguard. But the brave closest to her brusquely grabbed her foreleg and pulled her away. "Vanguard!" she cried. The stallions all bolted to regain the two mares, but the spear bearers knew their job only too well; there was no question as to the outcome. After a valiant struggle, but weaponless, Clever Clover and Fetish were overpowered while Vanguard and Wigwam had blood running from the wounds in their sides. Sugarberry saw the red rivulets and screamed with utter anguish as she and Dreamcatcher were propelled away from the cluster of ponies. "Van-guard!" Her cry echoed off the granite hills in one piteous wail.
* * *
"Shackle them," the chief commanded, and the four stallions were quickly tied with ropes around a back leg and connected to each other to effectively limit their movements. When they were sufficiently secured, the chief gave his orders. "Set them to work."
The stallions were none too gently guided to an area higher up the hill where work was in progress to carve out another tunnel entrance into the rocky mass. They were given chisels of stone to work with and instructed to begin their task. "Where are your own workmen?" asked Fetish, scowling at the tool in his hoof.
"Preparing for war," stated the lone brave who was left to guard them. He moved off to a judicious distance of a spear's throw away.
"It's one against four," muttered Wigwam as the four stallions buckled down to their appointed duty.
"And one well-placed spear will effectively bring us all down from the shear dead-weight, if you get my meaning," added Fetish.
"We can chisel our way through this rope," observed Clever Clover.
"If our guard ever takes his eyes off of us," countered Vanguard, grimacing as the wound in his side rebelled against his moving.
"How did we get into this mess?" wondered Wigwam out loud. "Clever Clover, you're the archeologist here. What went wrong?"
"It must have been the lightning bolt."
"Can you be more specific?"
"I was afraid of that."
* * *
The two mares were taken away and turned over to the control of the Native Pony mares of the village that occupied a level depression between two of the surrounding hills. After a terse conference among the Native Ponies, Sugarberry and Dreamcatcher were taken to a gently sloping hillside where numerous mares were preparing the soil for planting. They were given trowels with which to overturn the matted soil and assigned an area to cultivate.
The mare who seemed to be in charge of them began to work herself, so Dreamcatcher and Sugarberry were free to talk. "What happened to the stallions?" Sugarberry asked of her companion.
Dreamcatcher was slow in answering. "It depends on how far back in time we've come."
Sugarberry stared at the mare. "Back in time?" she gasped. "You can't be serious."
"You forget that I'm a unicorn, and I have a magical power."
"You can... see... into the future."
"And my vision did predict a confrontation with the past, although I failed to read it correctly."
"You knew this was going to happen?"
Dreamcatcher smiled patiently at Sugarberry. "I knew that I would encounter the Native Pony culture up-close and personal, but I assumed it would be through the artifacts and wall paintings at the cave. I never suspected such a dramatic rendezvous."
"I am making the most of the situation, Sugarberry, but I am not about to spend the rest of my life digging holes in the ground." She held up the trowel and grimaced.
"You think we can rectify the situation?" Sugarberry asked hopefully.
"Tonight, let me sleep on it," Dreamcatcher smiled. "I get my best visions when I'm asleep."
"In the meantime, we'd better pray."
* * *
The four stallions worked in silence but were aware of their captor every moment, waiting for any opportunity that might give them the edge. The Native Pony proved uncompromising in his duty, however, and never lowered his guard. The stallions continued with their monotonous exercise with no chance for a break. The sun was setting behind the hills before the guard indicated that they were to stop. Dusk came down quickly. He prodded them back down the hill in the direction of a cluster of trees that camouflaged a village of tepees that stood ghostlike in the failing light except for the flickering fires.
"Sugarberry and Dreamcatcher must be in one of these," whispered Vanguard to his companions as they were escorted between the dwellings.
"Stay sharp so we can isolate which one," Wigwam responded.
It was Clever Clover who first saw them. "There they are, to your right." A line of mares was just coming in from work in the fields, and Sugarberry and Dreamcatcher were in their midst. Vanguard groaned as he saw how tired and defeated Sugarberry looked. Dreamcatcher was apparently up to the job at hoof; she showed no sign of flagging. For one brief moment, Sugarberry looked up to catch sight of Vanguard and the others; for an instant a look of joy came over her face, but she was immediately shoved through an open door of a tepee decorated with painted deer dancing over the skins. Dreamcatcher followed.
"They're holding them together. That's a point in our favor," Fetish commented as the stallions were jostled in their shackles to sit with their backs up against a tree trunk. Bowls of a mush-like substance were thrown on the ground at their hooves.
"It could use some sugar," Wigwam mused after tasting the concoction.
"And some spices," Clever Clover agreed.
"Eat up for the hunger that's coming, as Grandma used to say," Vanguard added.
"I could use a glass of water," Fetish ventured.
"How's the gash in your side?" Clever Clover asked collectively of the two wounded stallions.
"Not bad, considering," Vanguard admitted. "Those points were highly sharpened."
"Easy in, easy out," Wigwam clarified. "Fortunately, they didn't go too deeply."
Vanguard looked at his blistered and raw hooves. "My hooves hurt worse than my side; teaching mathematics doesn't prepare one for manual labor of this type," he observed.
"With what we accomplished today, I'd say we have only another ninety-nine years of work on this project," quipped Fetish.
Mealtime was obviously over as the brave who had guarded them during the afternoon nudged them to their hooves. A young colt preceded them to a small brook that coursed down the side of the hill, and the stallions were allowed to drink their fill. They were then shown to their accommodations for the night: They were effectively fettered around their dining-tree trunk, and they bedded down on the hard ground.
* * *
"I've been thinking," Clever Clover softly said into the dark and silent night. A slight shifting of bodies let him know that the others were listening. "Why did the lightning strike where it did?"
"Isn't that the question we've all been pondering?" asked Vanguard.
"What I mean is, lightning-strikes happen all the time, and I've never known of one to transport ponies back in time, if that is indeed what has happened here. Why did this one do the impossible?"
"The spirits of the Native Ponies are angry with us for messing around with their sacred cave," volunteered Fetish.
"Ants," Vanguard replied, swatting at his side. "They keep crawling around on the wound."
"Is that what that is?" asked Wigwam. "I wondered what that weird sensation was." He brushed his hoof over his own lesion.
"Back to my thesis," Clever Clover said. "What if the obsidian has something to do with our fate?"
"Why do you ask?"
"The vein of obsidian runs up the side of the hill and ends at the spot where the cave opens up."
"Opened up, you mean. It's closed on that side now."
"That's a good point." Clever Clover fell silent as he contemplated that new wrinkle in his plan.
"Talk to us."
"My original theory was that the obsidian somehow directed the force of the lightning up the hill, intensifying it, and we were caught in its confluence. Therefore, if it were to happen again, we would have to be back at that same point to take advantage of that surge of power."
"Back in the cave?"
"That's what I thought; but when you mentioned that in this earlier time, the wall of the cave is intact, maybe the results wouldn't be the same."
Everyone was speechless as each contemplated this information.
"We'd have to be on the outside of the hill at the top of the obsidian."
"Unless the spirits of the ancient ones are also involved, in which case maybe we have to be inside the cave anyway."
"We'll have only one chance to find out."
"That doesn't leave any room for error."
A hush settled once more.
"This all depends on the cloud, of course," Clever Clover finally vocalized.
"The cloud, the lightning, and the obsidian," Fetish recited.
"And us being in the right place at the right time."
"And Sugarberry and Dreamcatcher, too."
Another pause passed by interminably.
"We'd better get some sleep."
"Some prayers might be appropriate, too."
* * *
Morning came early to the Native Pony village. Vanguard, Clever Clover, Wigwam, and Fetish were goaded awake, but by the handle end of the spear instead of the blade. "Count your blessings," whispered Vanguard.
They were allowed their porridge and a drink from the stream before they were herded off to their toil. They had been able to catch a glimpse of Dreamcatcher and Sugarberry being led off in a westerly direction, and they all marked that information for later use. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the day became uncomfortably hot; but the guard allowed no time for a break or a drink of water. Nor did he break his constant surveillance.
It was a surprise, therefore, when at mid-morning another brave came hurrying to the guard with what appeared to be urgent news. The guard remained at his post after the messenger had left, but his mind was on other things. He cast frequent glances down the path that led to the village.
"Something's up," Fetish confided to his friends.
"Now's our chance to chisel this hemp rather than the rock," Clever Clover suggested. The four stallions covertly hacked at the rope tying them together, keeping a sharp eye on the guard so that they were hitting stone when he looked their way. But he increasingly watched the village with more concern than he had for his prisoners.
"What's bothering him?" Wigwam queried under his breath.
"They were gearing for war," Fetish answered. "I'd say the die is cast."
"What about the mares?" Vanguard nearly panicked. "Would they be left out in the fields?"
"I doubt it," said Clever Clover with a quick glance at the guard to make sure he had not heard the rise in voices. "They'd probably be moved to the village."
"Let's hope they will be in the same tepee as last night."
Working as feverishly as they dared, the stallions were close to their goal when a spine-tingling shriek was heard at a fair distance from their position. All four raised their heads to stare off in the direction from which the unearthly sound came. The guard, too, was attentive to the scream.
The world seemed to have become completely devoid of sound in the aftermath of that one violent yell, but it was a pregnant silence. In one horrifying moment, the hillsides became alive with the sounds of battle. The guard abandoned his post without so much as a backward glance; his place was with the warriors now.
In no time, Vanguard and Wigwam had the rope between them severed, and they worked furiously to un-loop the ties over their hind legs. Soon, Fetish and Clever Clover broke the bond between them and were able to unravel their hind legs from the encompassing fetters. By then, Vanguard was on his way down the path toward the village.
"Wait up!" Fetish warned. "We have to have a plan!"
"I plan to get to that tepee and rescue the girls," Vanguard called over his shoulder.
"Works for me." Wigwam followed in his hoofsteps.
"Let's go!" Clever Clover concurred.
"We need a plan!" Fetish muttered to himself as he joined the hunt.
* * *
Sugarberry and Dreamcatcher had been busy in the field since sunrise and were more than ready for a rest when their supervisor, as they had come to call her, beckoned for them to follow her.
"I could go for a soda right now," Sugarberry fretted as they trotted after the Native Pony mare. The entire field of workers seemed to be headed back to the village, and no one seemed happy to be given the day off.
"Sugarberry," Dreamcatcher said quietly, "we are going to face some danger in the next few hours, and I want you to be prepared. You will have to be very, very brave."
Sugarberry's blood ran cold; she felt like all the support had drained out of her system, leaving her with rubber for legs. Yet she forced herself to keep going, one hoof ahead of the other, following the lead pony. She did not ask Dreamcatcher for any details; knowing might be worse than wondering. She could only put her trust in Dreamcatcher's knowledge and let her lead the way. Vanguard, Wigwam, Clever Clover, and Fetish... surely they were safe and would come for the mares when they could.
The Native Pony who watched over Sugarberry and Dreamcatcher sat in stony silence as the time dragged by in the stifling interior of the tepee, the focus of her unblinking eyes somewhere outside of this place yet her senses fully alert. When a blood-curdling whoop sounded somewhere on the outskirts of the village, Sugarberry was sure her own heart had stopped beating. She looked at Dreamcatcher who seemed suddenly enlivened as if every nerve was on the watch. The Native Pony who watched them did not respond with anything more than a sigh.
Aware of Dreamcatcher's aura of expectation, Sugarberry was apprehensively awaiting the unknown. The heat within the enclosure was quelling enough on its own-- the fear and the worry only added to the oppressive stuffiness; sweat was running down her body in rivulets. In the distance, muffled sounds could be heard; but nothing seemed to be happening in the confines of the village itself. When a noise outside the tepee flap was heard, Dreamcatcher placed a hoof on Sugarberry's foreleg; Sugarberry felt her companion's muscles tense as if preparing for sudden flight and looked expectantly toward the deerskin door.
Within a heartbeat, Vanguard burst into the tepee, followed by Fetish. Both mares were on their hooves. The Native Pony stayed where she was and offered no resistance as if the loss of the two prisoners under her care was no longer a matter of any importance. Only for a moment did her gaze shift to them from the private visions she beheld. Dreamcatcher saw the glance. "Your warriors will return," she stated simply, and the Native Pony went back to her musings.
Having Vanguard back at her side was like a revival of life for Sugarberry; finding Clever Clover and Wigwam standing guard outside the tepee made her joy complete-- the group was together again, and for now, that was the answer to her prayers. What lay ahead would have to be endured one step at a time.
The late morning sun burned down on the village; there was no one in sight at the campfires, there were no foals running and playing in the open spaces between the tepees, there were no voices calling out the news of the day. Only in the area beyond the village to the south were there sounds of tumult; Sugarberry became aware of them as she and the others beat a hasty retreat between the homes of the settlement, steering their way to the north side of the hill that contained the snaking ribbon of obsidian.
"We've determined our best bet is to return to the closest point of our confiscation," Clever Clover informed the mares. "It's nearly twenty-four hours since our unfortunate experience with the cloud."
"Won't we need the presence of the cloud to produce the lightning strike again?" asked Dreamcatcher.
"Look west," said Fetish.
They had just cleared the spattering of trees that covered this side of the hill, and both mares looked to the west as instructed. There, coming across the otherwise clear sky, was the same apparition they had seen the day before: a black, menacing cloud, intermittently highlighted with flashes of light. "It's moving faster than we are!" moaned Sugarberry.
"We can make it!" urged Wigwam. They had reached the lower extreme of the rift of obsidian and now had only to follow it to its highest point. Vanguard pulled Sugarberry along with him as they followed their compatriots up the hillside. Sugarberry kept her eyes on the ground, concentrating on keeping a steady tread at the fastest pace she could go. She remembered Dreamcatcher's words and vowed that she would remain brave no matter what happened.
The shadow of the cloud had plunged them into an eerie dusk-like environment by the time the ponies reached their destination. Gathering in a cluster, they could do nothing else but wait as the cloud boiled above them. The staccato drum of raindrops filled the air, and Sugarberry looked at Vanguard as he stood next to her at the edge of the group. In that instant, she caught sight of a movement as a hidden Native Pony warrior unfolded himself from the shadowy contour of the hill, his spear raised and at the ready.
Realizing that Vanguard was the intended target, Sugarberry did the only thing she could. She leaped between the course of the spear and her country blue stallion, taking the brunt of the thrust in her chest. Seeing the play of events as if in slow motion, Vanguard could do no more than to catch the limp body of his love as she collapsed into his forelegs, her blood spilling over them both. "My God... no!" he cried. In that instant, the lightning blasted the obsidian with its power; there was a blinding flash followed by utter darkness.
* * *
As the ponies recovered from the burst of energy, Clever Clover spoke up. "That was a little too close for comfort."
"I've never heard a strike that close... it was awesome," said Fetish.
Wigwam smirked. "Van... Sug... the lights go out for a second, and this is what we get?"
Sugarberry and Vanguard pulled apart from a kiss as the battery-powered lanterns flickered back on. "She jumped into my forelegs when the lightning struck; what was I supposed to do?" Vanguard winked.
Dreamcatcher giggled. "That was one electrifying kiss!"
The intensity of the storm passed by as quickly as it had begun. The rain came to an end and the voices of the fisherponies could be heard coming back to the cave.
"Where are the fish?" asked Clever Clover as the four young stallions came into sight.
The quartet exchanged glances. "We had a good catch, but just as we started up that funky stairway, the lighting exploded and Ages dropped the whole mess; they fell back into the river," explained Digger.
"We lost 'em all," verified Gene.
"And that lightning," began Rocky, "was awesome. We thought we'd get back to find the cave closed in again."
"Umm... did you guys have any food left?" asked Digger.
In turning to retrieve the picnic baskets, Sugarberry's mane brushed against Ages. "What's this?" he asked, pulling a cluster of feathers from a tangle of her hair. Several turquoise beads were threaded over the quill tips.
"Never saw it before," Sugarberry shrugged. "Is it yours, Dreamcatcher?"
"No, I never had one with turquoise beads."
Clever Clover took the decoration. "The beads look authentic," he murmured, "and in very good condition. But the turkey feathers can't be old; they'd have disintegrated. Who's trying to pull a fast one?" He eyed the college ponies critically, but they all denied any knowledge of the item in question.
"Memoria was up here yesterday, and I think she had some beads in her hair," said Wigwam, rubbing a hoof over his side.
That action caused Vanguard to involuntarily scratch at his side as well. "There are ants in here." He knocked several to the floor.
Sugarberry lifted a hoof to her chest. "Ugh. They're big and creepy." She brushed wildly.
"They're only ants!" Fetish grinned. "Properly prepared, they're actually..."
"Enough said," interrupted Wigwam. "We've still got work to do."
Ages, eating leftovers as he studied the wall of paintings, remarked, "I still say there's a tunnel coming into this back wall. See where the stallion is rearing? Then there's a gap before the other stallion that's challenging him. Can't you picture a tunnel entrance right between them?"
The ponies stared at the spot indicated, and in one voice Wigwam, Sugarberry, Vanguard, Clever Clover, Dreamcatcher, and Fetish said, "Yes, I can." They looked at one another and laughed.
Clever Clover summed up their feelings. "Somehow, it just seems right!"