My Little Pony Monthly Issue 46 (January 1, 2001)

My Little Pony Monthly
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Issue 46
January 2001

1. The Dream Quest Part Two (by Moon Lightning)

2. Clever Clover vs. the Flatlands: Epilogue (by Clever Clover)

3. The Outrageous Big End-Of-Year Story (by Barnacle, Tabby, and Clever Clover)

4. Ginseng and Sassafras Tea Chapters 19 & 20 (by Sugarberry)

5. Puss in Boots (by Sugarberry)

6. New Beginnings (by Sugarberry)


To new and old subscribers alike: don’t forget to send in your submissions to My Little Pony Monthly! You are, after all, what keeps this newsletter going; and all of us here who work on it would love to see your compositions regardless of length. If you have something you think would be appropriate for MLP Monthly, send it on to

Happy New Year!


The Dream Quest
Part Two
by Moon Lightning (

“Oh! Oh, my!” Orbit cried, realizing that she was not presentable in front of the queen. Thinking quickly, she tried to bring the attention away from herself. “Where is Princess Midnight Star?”

Misty Moon wondered why anyone, much less Orbit, would look up to that particular vain pony. Never mind the fact that Midnight Star was a princess, but that did not matter anyway because she would be vain and snooty with or without her title. Perhaps it’s her looks, Misty Moon thought. She is rather pretty. Too bad her attitude makes her horrible.

Before Queen Starica could answer Orbit’s question, Prim Rose pointed to a pavilion covered in flowers. There, sitting on a large satin pillow, was the princess. She looked out over the on-going party with little interest, and it almost looked as if she were annoyed by it.

After excusing herself, Orbit went to add her pies to the long table already covered with cakes and other sweet stuff. There was even a caramel pie there made by Candy Sweet that brought a smile to Misty Moon’s face. Prim Rose left Misty Moon to join up with the younger members of the partygoers who were playing Nick Nack Stone, a game where the children threw small polished stones up into the air and tried to catch them in their tail while turning around in circles three times. Fancy Lace and Dainty Bow, Prim Rose’s best friends, joined her in the silly game.

“It’s a really great party,” Misty Moon said politely to Queen Starica.

“Yes, it is!” agreed the delighted queen.

As she and the queen talked, Misty Moon looked for her friend Orbit who had disappeared after dropping off her pies. I wonder if she is visiting with that princess, she thought as she scanned the crowd. Sure enough, there was Orbit, totally enraptured by the princess’ charm. Midnight Star is graceful, dainty, and indeed beautiful... thought Misty Moon, frowning as she added to herself, Midnight Star is stuck-up! All she does is sit there not having fun or anything! And this is her party, too!...

“Misty? Misty! Dear, are you quite all right?” the queen’s words snapped Misty Moon out of her thoughts.

“Yes, I am fine,” answered Misty Moon, embarrassed that she had been caught mind-drifting in front of the queen. She shook off her animosity toward Midnight Star and tried to have a good time. She found Night’s Dream and Wind Chimes dancing to the music on the dance floor, and went to join them.

After dancing through several songs and tripping over everyone’s hooves-- not to mention her own-- she decided to take a breather. “You leaving already?” Wind Chimes asked when Misty Moon stepped off the floor. Smiling, she nodded and quickly rode off before anyone else stopped her.

It took Misty Moon a little while to get to her “treasure chest” at the bottom of the tree in the woods, but her effort was rewarded because she found a little family of Doninears, small deer-like rabbit, on her way to the tree. After taking a few snapshots, she left the family to graze.

Picking her way back to the party, she took rolls and rolls of film of things that happened there. She even caught Midnight Star turning down yet another suitor. The stallion, Diamond Gem, was not too pleased by this; and he wasn’t alone, for there were other stallions lined up to greet the princess. Misty Moon took pictures of the dance floor and of the foals playing.

Snapping a picture as Night’s Dream tripped over her dance partner, Misty Moon laughed as the two tried to get themselves off the floor, and getting their legs tangled up in a jumble instead.

After two hours of picture snapping and watching, Misty Moon put her camera back in her hiding spot. On her way back to the party, she saw something glisten in the distance. Pricking her ears, she went to investigate.

“What is this?” she asked as she came across a small group of old houses and buildings. One dwelling looked as if it would fall over the edge of the cliff; but when Misty Moon crept around to see it in more detail, she was amazed again at another sight. “What the...? Why, the whole building is supported on the other side as well.” And what a building it was, too. It looked like a spiral with a loft cut out on all sides, like a door with rounded ledge-like balconies.

Smiling, Misty Moon thought it looked like a flower, and she felt like an ant peering up at it. The side facing the cliff had a door-ledge as well facing the valley. Carefully creeping to the edge of the cliff, she could see the party going on at the valley floor. “Well, while I am here I might as well look around.” The pathways were all terribly overgrown; Misty Moon thought with a smile that Leaf Whirl would love to scold whoever had let this place get like this.

Strange bowl-like objects littered the ground, and with a start Misty Moon realized the ground was suddenly hard. What is going on?! Misty Moon thought. I see my reflection on the ground, but that is impossible! Only ice acts like this, but this is not ice. It’s all wrong. Creeping around the overgrown bushes and sometimes having to cut through the vines with her horn, Misty Moon realized that to further explore this place she would need equipment and her camera to document everything.

Turning, she ran past the “Giant Flower” and some smaller outlying buildings that were falling apart too badly to risk going inside. “I will come back!” she whispered to the ruins as if they could hear her. As she ran back to the party, her thoughts seemed to echo throughout the ruins. I PROMISE... I pro-mise... I-p-r-o-m-i-s-e... until the stillness claimed them once again. What Misty Moon did not realize was that a pair of fierce but beautiful eyes were watching and waiting. The owner’s face was crisscrossed by the shadows of the outlying leaves and branches concealing him.

* * *
The party lasted well into the night, so Champion Starr carried little Prim Rose home upon his back. The sleeping filly’s head bobbed on her sire’s back, and it made Misty Moon wonder if that alone would wake her. But the party had been too much excitement for this little cherub of a filly, and Misty Moon followed also in a sleepy bliss, but not exactly asleep.

As they walked back to their soddie, Champion Starr pointed to a distant tower. “Do you see that tower?” he asked.

Misty Moon only nodded, but her thoughts rang out, Yes! Yes! I was there! The ruins! However, she held it inside hoping that this particular conversation would levitate the drama and questions that ate at her all day.

“When I was a youngster, they built that place. Beautiful! Too bad that it was... never mind; anyway, inside it is a big pink crystal.”

“What’s it for?” Misty Moon asked when she finally found her voice.

Champion Starr paused and gave her a look that told her to be quiet before he went on. “No one knows for sure what the crystal does or what its purpose is. Some say it is the source of all ponies’ dreams and wishes. Others think that it is like a large lamp to help guide home night fliers because of the way the sun charges it. I was too little at the time to remember what it was really for.” He smiled back at his gaping daughter. He knew she was deep in thought over the purpose of the Sun Gem. What he did not know is that she had already been there and gone past it to the other buildings. Misty Moon hoped to keep in the dark about it, anyway.

“Really?” said a sleepy voice on Champion Starr’s back. Both sire and young mare looked at each other and smiled because neither of them knew that the little filly had been listening. However, before Champion Starr could answer his little girl, she fell back into a dreamy bliss.

That night in bed, after Misty Moon tucked Prim Rose in, she thought about the Sun Gem. Could it be that it could answer dreams and wishes? Misty Moon always wanted to see the world which was unheard of here in this pony valley. There were stories about the ponies of Dream Valley traveling to far-out worlds and destinations. But that then was a myth. Or was it? She did not know!

Rolling over in her bed, Misty Moon looked at the horizon, where she could see a faint pink glow, now visible because the purple night mists had disappeared early this night.

“Please, if you are really a wishing crystal, then please consider my wish and grant it. I wish...” Misty Moon whispered until she fell into a dreamy bliss like the rest of her family.

In the distance, the Sun Gem twinkled brightly, as if hearing Misty Moon’s unspoken wish.


Clever Clover vs. the Flatlands
by Clever Clover (

“I GOT NIDORAN!” Clever Clover cried triumphantly as he caught the PokéBall in his hoof.

“Rattatta!” his Rattatta replied.

“Good work, little buddy; return.” The purple rat Pokémon disappeared into its PokéBall in a flash of light. “Now, I wonder if there are any more wild Pokémon around,” the pony mussed.

Clever Clover had gone to the Flatlands to investigate a mysterious dream he had. He discovered a plot by his long-time nemesis, Bic the imp. He also discovered that he was a prince, the son of the king of an island nation that had been cursed by the devious imp. Clever Clover had managed to break the curse and free his people. Now he was on his way back to Friendship Gardens and was hunting Pokémon along the way.

“A Weedle! Come out, Farfetch’d! Use leak slap, fast!” But it was too late; the hairy bug Pokémon disappeared into a hole in the tree. “Stay away from the tree hole, Farfetch’d! It’ll eat you!”

“Fetch-far-far?” the wild duck Pokémon quacked in confusion.

“Never mind,” Clever Clover sighed. “We don’t have time to be digging for Weedles right now. We should be heading for home.”

The pony and his Pokémon strode calmly through the woods toward home. After all that had happened in the last weeks, Clever Clover was glad to be able to relax for awhile. Once he got home, he’d have to get back to his job. He wished that for once he could have a vacation that didn’t turn into an adventure.

As the pair passed along the base of a rocky hillside, a strange sound reached the pony’s ears. It was a faint whimper coming from a bramble-filled ravine. “Farfetch’d, go check it out. And be careful.”

“Far-fetch-fetch-far,” the Pokémon replied as it waddled into the bramble, using its leek as a machete to clear a path. Clever Clover followed at a short distance. Soon they came into the view of the source of the sound. A Vulpix had apparently stumbled and fell into the ravine. Clever Clover couldn’t see if it was injured, but its tails were tangled in the brambles. When the fire fox Pokémon saw the newcomers, it growled weakly and bared its teeth.

“Keep your distance, Farfetch’d; it looks weak but it could still be dangerous. Digger, come out and give us a hand. See how close you can get to it, but be ready to go underground at a moment’s notice.”

“Dig dig,” said the mole Pokémon with a nod. It slowly approached the injured Pokémon.

“Vullll,” the Vulpix hissed threateningly.

“Digglet, dig dig!” the Digglet said in near panic, trying to calm the fire Pokémon. “Dig dig digglet dig!”

“Vul vullll vul, pix,” the Vulpix replied sadly.

“Digglet!” answered the mole, cheerfully. He turned to Clever Clover and smiled. “Digglet dig dig!”

“I hope that means what I think it does,” mumbled the pony as he got out another PokéBall. “Rattatta, help our new friend here get untangled.”

The purple rat cautiously approached the Vulpix and began gnawing at the brambles to free its tails. The Vulpix stumbled forward and collapsed with a faint, “Vul.”

Clever Clover carefully picked up the injured Pokémon and carried it out of the ravine to a clearing. He gently began to remove the last bits of bramble from the Vulpix’s tails. “Hm, she’s only got five tails; she shouldn’t be on her own yet. I wonder where the mother is?” He finished removing the brambles and examining the Vulpix. One of her hind legs had apparently been struck by a rock. It didn’t appear to be broken, but it was bleeding. Clever Clover washed the wounds and bandaged them. By this time, the Vulpix was awake. Clever Clover got out an empty PokéBall. “Alright little fella, I think you should go into the PokéBall. It’ll be safer. I’ll let you out when I find your mother or when I get to a Pokémon Center where you can get some proper care.”

The Vulpix nodded. “Vul pix.”

* * *
With all his Pokémon, and the injured Vulpix, now in their PokéBalls, Clever Clover continued on his way. But something was not right. There were no animals around. Even the bird songs had ceased. Suddenly, the pony came upon a most unusual sight. In a clearing was a circle of burn marks. All the vegetation in the area had been trampled. A pair of caterpillar tracks led away from the clearing.

“I was hoping to be done with adventures for the time being, but I can’t just walk away from this.”

The tracks led through the woods into a large cave. Clever Clover slowly advanced into the cavern. Surprisingly, it got brighter as he advanced rather than darker. Before reaching the source of the unnatural light, the purple pony found his progress blocked by an enormous metal gate. There was a platform above the gate where two humans stood.

“I don’t know what you’re doing here,” said one of the humans, a woman with orange hair in two tails.

“But you’d better prepare for trouble,” said the other, a blue haired man with a gruff voice.

“And you’d better make it double,” the woman continued.

“To infect the world with devastation!” said the man in turn.

“To blight all peoples within every nation!”

“To denounce the goodness of truth and love...”

“To extend our wrath to the stars above!”



“Team Rocket, circling Earth all day and night!”

“Surrender to us now or you’ll surely lose the fight!”

Clever Clover stared at the two humans, Butch and Cassidy, as they stood posed dramatically. After a moment of silence the pony replied, “Hey! I know you guys; Tabby told me about you. But as she described you, your hair was better; and where’s your Meowth?”

“Meowth?” rasped Butch.

“You must have us confused with those losers, Jessie and James,” said Cassidy. “That is an insult we cannot forgive. Ratticate, get him!” She hurled a PokéBall that released the large rat Pokémon ten feet in front of the pony prince.

The pony grinned. “Get ‘im,” he said softly. Suddenly, the ground beneath the Ratticate began to shake and gave way, dropping the Pokémon into a deep pit. Clever Clover’s Digglet poked his head out of the ground at his master’s feet. “Now, you didn’t think I’d walk in here without backup, did you?”

“He’s good,” mumbled Butch.

“Maybe, but not good enough,” Cassidy scowled. “Drowzee, go!” This time she released the Pokémon on the raised platform, out of reach of the mole Pokémon.

“Drowzee,” said the psy Pokémon as its fingers and hips began swaying in rhythm. Digger turned toward Clever Clover with an evil look in his eyes. The entire cavern began to shake around the pony.

Clever Clover produced a large axe from his pack; it had belonged to his ancestors and was given to him by Raven, regent of Isle of the Lake. The princely purple pony hurled the axe toward the Drowzee. The heavy blade cleaved the platform, rattling the Drowzee’s concentration. His control broken, Digger was free to turn his attention back to the villains of Team Rocket. The cave shifted, rending the gate asunder. Butch, Cassidy, and their Drowzee tumbled from their perch into the depths of the cavern. The axe fell to the ground at Clever Clover’s feet.

“Good work, Digger,” said the pony as he retrieved his ancestral cleaver. “Now, let’s see what those two were up to.” Clever Clover climbed through the ruins of the gate; Digger just tunneled under. Beyond was a chamber filled with cage upon cage of Pokémon. They seemed underfed and miserable. “I’d be willing to bet that Vulpix’s mother is in here somewhere. Farfetch’d, Rattatta, help get all these cages open, before those Rocket clowns come back.” The pony and his Pokémon set to work, but before they could get far a low rumbling emanated from the depths of the cavern. A massive clawed construction riding on twin caterpillar tracks came rolling into the chamber.

“You won’t beat us that easily!” cried Cassidy from atop the machine.

“This Pokémon collector is entirely Poké-proof,” boasted Butch, as the dastardly duo ducked into the machine’s control room.

“This does not look good,” mumbled Clever Clover. “Everybody! Get out of here! Now!”

The massive claws lashed out and began to gather up the fleeing Pokémon. Clever Clover hurled his axe once again, but it merely glanced off the armored hull of the contraption. “This does NOT look good,” said the frustrated pony. The axe, when it landed, struck one of the cages, knocking the door off its hinges.

A Vulpix poked its head out of the cage and let loose a massive burst of flame upon the massive machine, but to no avail. “Vuuuul,” the Vulpix moaned in disbelief. One of the PokéBalls in Clever Clover’s pack began to rattle, the one in which the injured Vulpix rested. A flash of red light burst forth from the PokéBall.

The young Vulpix stood defiantly on shaky paws before the metal monstrosity. “Vuuuul-pix!” it cried.

“Vuuulpix,” the Vulpix in the cage replied.

“Hey, it’s that little one that got away!” cried Butch, peering out through a narrow view slit.

“Ha! We should thank that pony for catching it for us,” said Cassidy evilly.

The little Vulpix’s eyes began to glow. Soon the fiery glow surrounded the entire Pokémon. A slender finger of flame shot out from the fox’s mouth. The flame shot through Butch’s view-port and exploded, turning the control room into an inferno. The roof hatch blew off, firing Butch and Cassidy clear through the roof of the cave.

“Wow,” was all Clever Clover could say. Then he looked to the Vulpix who had vanquished Team Rocket. The little fox Pokémon had collapsed from the exhaustion of its concentrated fire blast. Clever Clover rushed to the side of the fallen Pokémon, as did the Vulpix from the cage. “It looks like she’s alright, just exhausted,” said Clever Clover. “So, you must be this little one’s mother.”

“Vul,” said the Vulpix with a nod.

Clever Clover rummaged around in his pack for a Pokémon potion. “This should make her feel better,” said the pony as he administered it to the young Vulpix. The mother Vulpix, who had been examining the child’s bandaged leg, nuzzled her child lovingly. “That kid of yours is something else.”

Clever Clover and his Pokémon returned to the task of releasing the wild Pokémon. After they had finished, Clever Clover said to Digger the Digglet, “Once everyone is out of here, I want you to use your earthquake attack to destroy this cave and bury that contraption forever.”

“Diiiiiig let,” the Pokémon replied.

By this time, the young Vulpix had recovered some of its strength and was standing with her mother. “Well, you two, it’s about time for us to be out of here.”

The mother Vulpix turned to her daughter. “Vul vul pix vul.”

“Vul?” the young Vulpix replied.

“Vul, vulpix,” the mother insisted, as she gestured toward Clever Clover.

“Pix,” the little one replied and walked over to Clever Clover and sat next to his hoof. “Vul pix,” she said, looking up at the pony.

“Huh?” Clever Clover said. “Hey, Digger, do you know what they’re sayin’ “

”Digglet!” said the Digglet.

“Well, that makes one of us.”

“Vul vul pix pix vul,” the mother tried to explain.

“Dig dig, digglet dig,” the Digglet tried to translate.

“That was sure helpful. But I think I’ve got an idea what you’re sayin’. You want me to take care of your kid?”

“Vulpix!” cried the mother in delight.

“Well, if it’s okay with you, it’s okay with me. Now, let’s get out of here.”

* * *
On his way to Friendship Gardens, Clever Clover stopped by the Dream Valley Pokémon Center to have his new Pokémon checked out. “Hey, Tabitha, what’s up?”

“That’s Tabby, Cleve Clove,” the pink nurse pony huffed, then noticing the young Vulpix, who wasn’t in a PokéBall. “Oh, I see you’ve got a new Pokémon. What a cute peacock tail!”


Clever Clover scowled. “She’s got five fox tails, no peacock tails. And I’ve got two others in PokéBalls, a Digglet and a Nidoran.”

“Eww, a corndog,” said Tabby.

“Are you going to check out my Pokémon or insult them?”

“Don’t worry, I’m a professional. Chansey, would you take care of these Pokémon for me.”


“So, now that that’s taken care of, how was your trip? Did you find me any eighties toys?”

* * *
“And so I’m a prince from an island kingdom and Bic is finally out of my life for good, I hope,” Clever Clover finished recounting the tale of his adventures.

“Narfy,” Tabby replied.

“Chansey!” the nurse Pokémon announced.

“Oh, your Pokémon are ready.”

“Cool, I’ve got to be going now,” Clever Clover said as he gathered up his PokéBalls and turned to leave, with Vulpix right behind. “Yeah, and about this prince thing, I’d rather not have it public knowledge just yet, okay?”

“Oh, sure,” said Tabby as she dialed Sugarberry’s number on the phone. “Hey, Sugarberry, guess who’s a prince...”


The Outrageous Big End-Of-Year Story
by Barnacle and Tabby ( and
with the Epona scenes by Clever Clover (
and with miscellaneous assistance from Sugarberry, Spike, and Friendly

It was a late December morning in the dark forest and a bitter wind blew through the trees kicking up a little of the dry snow laying about. Most people would prefer to avoid this type of weather as much as possible, but two individuals standing there in the expansive wilderness didn’t seem to notice.

One of them was Dreamcatcher, the Native Pony who made her home in those parts. It was not at all uncommon to see her about in the forest attending to her many duties and chores in all kinds of weather, so her presence there on that day was not too far out of line with her normal routine.

Her companion, however, was not the sort who would be seen anywhere around there. She was a human but her dashing garb would have set her apart from the few others that lived in Ponyland. The wind caught her long black cloak and her blue hair and tossed them about, but she did not seem to mind. She was focused on nothing in particular, but it consumed all of her thought none the less.

Finally the woman spoke, but she did not even turn to face her friend when she said, “This is gong to be bad.”

Dreamcatcher merely nodded in silent reply.

* * *
The flame-maned unicorn with a coat of gold stood atop a mountain overlooking Dream Valley, a look of worry upon her face. She was Epona, a mysterious pony who watched over the Little Ponies and offered guidance in times of darkness. She was worried now, though, because she saw a great crisis on the horizon. But this time she feared she would not be able to guide them. She longed to gallop down the mountain to warn Brightblade, the warrior she had been grooming as her champion, but something had changed. She was no longer sure what danger lurked beyond the present. New signs had arisen; old ones had faded away. Most recently she had received a message calling her away from Ponyland. The sender was a mystery, but he insisted that the outcome of the coming events could be dependant on her immediate presence at Stonehenge. As guardian of Ponyland, she could not simply ignore the message.

Epona winked from the mountaintop, hoping she would be able to return in time. She appeared at Stonehenge in human guise. It was cold and dark; no one else was around. The flame-haired woman pulled her coat tightly about her to ward off the frigid winter mist. Whoever had summoned her obviously did not feel the meeting was as urgent as his message had suggested. “Hello!” she called into the night. “If you can hear me, I haven’t got time to waste!”

“Oh, you’ve got all the time in the world,” replied a devilish voice from behind her.

Epona turned to see an impish figure sitting atop one of the massive stone trilithons. “Bic!” she spat in disgust. “What is this treachery?”

The imp grinned. “Oh, I’m just doing a favor for an old acquaintance.”

“But you are forbidden to interfere with the ponies! Or in any affairs within Ponyland!”

“That is why you were lured here. Fortunately for me, you’re not really a pony. And outside your protectorate, your power is nothing compared to mine.”

“What do you want from me?” the guardian demanded.

“I have no interest in you or in the action you sought to prevent. I was simply asked to hold you here until events have played out; then you’ll be free to return to Ponyland-- or at least what’s left of it.”

Epona was aghast. She tried to wink away but could not. “What witchcraft is this?”

“These ancient places have great power,” the Imp explained. “If you know how to tap into that power, you can do great things. Too bad for you the powers recognize only one master; and for now, that master is me.”

“You cad! Only one so vile as you would willingly play pawn to such a dark power!”

“Ah, good guardian, your judgement assumes such things as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ exist. The powers I choose to serve are neither. To demonstrate my ‘neutrality’ in this affair, I will be generous and let you watch as the events transpire.”

“You are too kind,” the flame-haired guardian bit out spitefully.

The imp hopped down from his perch and spat in a pool of water and stirred it with his toe. As the water settled, a scene unfolded before the captive guardian.

* * *
“Say, what did Barnacle have to say on the Skeleton King when you told him about it?”


“Remember when we saw him in the Dark Forest, and he mentioned a pirate?”

“Barnacle in the Dark Forest?”

“No, the Skeleton King.”

“Oh, that. I thought you were going to tell him. What did he say?”

“Are you sure you didn’t say anything? I thought that’s what you were talking about after the meal on Christmas.”

“Oh, no. That’s when we were discussing with Spike what to do with that 12" Speeder Bike, the Target exclusive. Spike couldn’t sell it, y’see, so Barnacle offered to buy it off him because it had stopped shipping and all and he thought that Spike shouldn’t just return it and– oh! No, I didn’t bring up the Skeleton King.”

“I suppose he’s back in Port Scurvy by now.”

“Uh-huh. Well, Barnacle is, not the Skeleton King. If it’s that important I guess you’ll have to call him.”

“Does he have a phone?”

“Hmm, good point. Then we’ll just have to visit him personally.”

* * *
And so that was why Tabby and Thomas, on a fine late December day, took a ferry out to Calimidad Island to consult with Barnacle whether the world was in danger again or not.

Even though Calimidad Island was a haven for pirates and the like, it remained popular with the public– especially in these winter months– because of its warm, tropical climate. Many ponies took advantage of the ferry rides to get a little bit of sun during this frigid season. But the sun wasn’t all they went for, in some cases... like in that of the Xtreme Ponies.

The group of six had also booked a ride on this same ferry, unknown to Tabby and Thomas; but they would not be in the dark for long. Catching sight of the couple on the opposite side of the deck, Jet quickly went to work. “Dude! Like, dude!” he exclaimed, running over to meet them. “Dude!”

“Hey, Jet!” Thomas greeted, looking up. “I wasn’t expecting to see you.”

“Hi!” Tabby said brightly, waving.

“Dude!” Jet agreed. “Like, what’re you guys doing?”

“We’re going to see Barnacle,” Tabby answered in a low tone. “We think he may be somehow involved in yet another attempt to destroy the world.”

“Duuude,” Jet breathed. “I didn’t know Barnacle had turned bad!”

By this point the other five Xtreme Ponies had gravitated over to the area and joined in the conversation. “Yeah, the waves are really good over there this time of year,” Cliff explained their reason for being there.

“We’re going surf-ing!” Bungee cried joyously.

“And you said you were going to see Barnacle?” Luge asked curiously.

“Yeah, what’s all this about destroying the world?” Cliff added.

And so, Tabby went on to explain in detail how they had been out in the Dark Forest catching Pokemon when they had heard the sound of an approaching voice; and shortly they found out that the voice did in fact belong to the renowned Skeleton King that Tabby and her friends had had the pleasure or displeasure of encountering several times in the past; this time he had been accompanied by a scraggly little Bushwoolie.

By this point, however, the ferry had reached Calimidad Island, and everyone disembarked. The Xtreme Ponies all grabbed their surfboards, and said their goodbyes to Tabby and Thomas; but Cliff and Luge changed their minds at the last moment.

“Hey, mind if we come along with you to see Barnacle?” Cliff asked, catching up to them.

“We would like to know more about all this and if we can help in any way,” Luge added.

“I don’t see a problem with it,” Thomas stated, and looked to Tabby for her thoughts on the matter.

Tabby’s mind, though, had wandered off elsewhere. “I wonder if there are any thrift stores here...” she murmured, staring at the bustling town.

* * *
After a short walk through the rain forest-like jungle, the foursome came to Barnacle’s unique home, which consisted of many platforms strung together in several large trees. No one appeared to be at home at first glance; but then, looking down towards the shore, they saw that Barnacle and all of his crew were indeed still in the area.

Everyone was there– Barnacle, of course, the pirate pony captain; the two Bushwoolie brothers, Davey and Jones; Kracken, the human first mate; Pierre, the French lizard; Malteeze, the warrior-cat seeking enlightenment; and Protius, the wise old parrot who was Malteeze’s instructor. All of them were gathered around a brand new shining ship sitting on the waves, with Barnacle presiding over the ceremony.

There were also two additional ponies there whom Thomas knew– Equinox and Solstice, twins who worked for International Geography. Equinox was a photographer, and Solstice was the actual reporter. As of now, Solstice was standing back interviewing the crew members while Equinox was snapping pictures from all different angles, almost getting in the way but never actually disturbing anyone.

Barnacle was waving a bottle of champagne high in the air, facing his crew members. “ARR, it’s been a long and tiresome year, but we’ve finally got our ship finished.. Now’s the time for the fun to begin. We’ll finally be able to go plunderin’ and treasure huntin’ once again like a real pirate should be doin’!” Kracken, Pierre, Davey, and Jones all let out a cheer, while Malteeze seemed more or less unmoved by the speech. “I hereby christen this ship... um, did we ever decide on a name for this thing?”

“Weren’t we going to go with the Sea Wraith?” Kracken asked.

But Pierre quickly intoned, “Non! I am afraid you are mistaken, my dear first mate. Ve had decided to go with Valeur Bateau!”

Malteeze cleared his throat and said bluntly, “Both of those ideas were thrown out long ago.”

Kracken turned around to face him. “Okay, so what did we decide on then?”

“I don’t recall,” Malteeze replied. “But why can’t you just call it the Lucas II?” This, however, got nothing but scoffs from all concerned.

Protius finally spoke-up. “I believe we hadn’t decided on anything, since none of you could agree on one thing.”

“Are you certain? I’m positive it was Valeur Bateau,” Pierre vouched.

“Yeah, yeah!” Davey nodded.

Valeur Bateau, yeah, mon!” Jones agreed.

“No, it was the Sea Wraith!” Kracken insisted.

“Yeah, the Sea Wraith! Yeah!” Davey suddenly changed his mind.

“Yeah, mon! That’s the ticket!” Jones added.

“Barnacle, Barnacle!” Tabby cried out. “Hellooooooo! Why don’t you call it Springtime Splendor?”

Everyone present suddenly stopped in their argument and turned slowly towards the pink unicorn. “ARR! An idea that stupid could only have come from Tabby!” Barnacle declared.

“Well, if it isn’t the Fairfaxes!” Kracken exclaimed. “What brings you to our picturesque island retreat?”

“We’re here on business,” Tabby said solemnly.

“And apparently Barnacle is somehow involved with it,” Thomas agreed gravely.

“Ooh, sounds serious,” Solstice expressed, peering at the pair intently with notepad readily at hoof.

Equinox ran over and began snapping pictures. “Hey, Thomas, what’s happening?”

“The world is, like, totally in danger again!” Tabby elaborated.

“ARR, what you be doin’ this time, Tabby? Run over another cat, did yah?” Barnacle asked.

“That was Tamara’s fault,” Tabby bristled.

“ARR, whatever.”

“No, Callie didn’t get run over.”

“Then perhaps you could tell us what the problem is?” Protius suggested.

Tabby took a deep breath. “The Skeleton King! In the Dark Forest with a strange Bushwoolie and ranting about this weird island and it sounds like they’re planning something!”

“What’s a Skeleton King?” Kracken asked.

“He’s a king, or was a king, but now he’s a Skeleton King and he’s in the Dark Forest or maybe he’s not anymore because he went off with that strange Bushwoolie!” Tabby rambled on.

“Strange Bushwoolie,” Jones said. “That really can’t be good.”

“Yeah, yeah, mon. Strange Bushwoolies never good,” Davey agreed.

“Hmm.” The towering cat man looked down at the two Bushwoolies. “If strange Bushwoolies are not good, then we have a problem here all the time.”

“Yep-yep!” they both agreed, with big, broad smiles.

“Wait a second! What kind of strange Bushwoolie are you talking about?” Kracken asked more seriously.

“ARR, yes,” Barnacle agreed. “What kind are yah talkin’ about?”

“Skinny, with flies, and a stick–!”

Barnacle and Kracken suddenly became grim and turned to one another. Slowly, and with an odd sense of dread, Kracken looked back at Tabby and asked, “This strange Bushwoolie– his name wasn’t Tiny by any chance, was it?”

“He didn’t say.”

“ARR, it probably doesn’t matter. How many skinny flea-infested Bushwoolies have you seen in your life?”

“Umm... just one,” Kracken responded. “And I was kinda hoping I wouldn’t ever see him again.”

“So you know this Bushwoolie?” Tabby queried.

“Unfortunately,” Kracken grieved.

“You guys sure seem to be taking this seriously, just for one little Bushwoolie,” Solstice commented.

“ARR, if you knew him like we do, you’d be takin’ it seriously, too,” Barnacle expressed. “ARR, you said something about an island?”

“An island?” Tabby blinked. “Did I say something about an island?”

“Yes, there was an island mentioned.” Thomas recalled. “They said they were headed for some place called Phalanx Island.”

“That’s right!” Tabby exclaimed brightly. “They did.”

“Phalanx Island? I’ve never heard of the place,” Barnacle noted.

“Me either,” Kracken commented.

“Nor I,” Pierre agreed.

“Hmm... I’ve never heard of a Phalanx Island,” Protius said, “but if my memory serves me correctly, I do believe I read some ancient Atlantean texts once which mentioned a place called Phalanx Base. However, I don’t really remember much more about them than that.”

“Atlantean? You mean, just like the outpost we’re documenting here on Calimidad Island?” Equinox asked.

“Exactly like,” Protius replied.

“Maybe the map we found there could show us where Phalanx Island is,” Solstice suggested.

“It’s worth a try,” Protius discerned. “Unfortunately, my Atlantean isn’t what it once was.”

“I’ve seen this map as well,” Malteeze vouched. “And even if you were still proficient in Atlantean, master, the text is so badly worn I doubt we would be able to read it.”

“So what does it all mean?” Tabby deplored, wide-eyed.

“Quite possibly, the end of the world,” Kracken said in all seriousness.

Tabby promptly let out a small shriek and cowered. “Oh dear. Maybe I should have remembered to talk to you guys at Christmas.”

“ARR, we don’t got time to worry about that now!” Barnacle snapped. “We have to do somethin’ about this right away!”

“Do something about what? I don’t get it. What’s the big deal about a skinny Bushwoolie and Phalanx Island?” Cliff, who had been hanging back with Luge, finally asked.

“ARR, that skinny Bushwoolie is a demonic entity hell-bent on destroying the entire world, and he’s only one of four!” Barnacle explained.

“And don’t forget about the fact that we left them buried under a mountain on Doomsday Island along with their masters, the four Ponies of the Apocalypse!” Kracken voiced dramatically.

“The four Ponies of the Apocalypse?” Luge asked.

“Is this another one of your jokes?” Malteeze asked of Kracken.

“I would hope not,” Protius spoke. “Because I have read other texts about these four Ponies of the Apocalypse, and if what they are saying is true, this would definitely not be a laughing matter.”

“ARR, it’s the truth all right, and we’ve got to do somethin’ about it,” Barnacle prompted seriously.

“Tabby, doesn’t your father know a lot about Atlantis?” Thomas pointed out. “Maybe he could help us.”

“Why, you’re right!” Tabby agreed. “And Cleve Clove, too!”

“They both live in Dream Valley, don’t they?” Kracken inquired.

“Well, Dad’s in Dream Valley, and Clever Clover lives in Friendship Gardens, but ironically I think Cleve Clove was going to stop in and talk to Dad about his recent digs today,” Tabby enlightened.

“ARR, that’s a long way to go; but I don’t think we be havin’ a choice. There aren’t any historians or archeologists on Calimidad Island,” Barnacle said.

“None? How can you be so sure?” Luge queried.

“This is Calimidad Island! All we have here is pirates and ruffians.”

“And tourists,” Pierre added.

“Well, in that case, we’d better get moving!” Kracken urged. “Shall I ready the... um... what’re we gonna call it?”

“ARR, never mind that now, just get the ship ready!”

“Tabby and Thomas, you are going to be ze first two guests zat get to sail with us on our new ship!” Pierre informed.

“And don’t forget about us!” Solstice interjected.

“Yeah, we’re comin’, too,” Equinox agreed. “We’re not going to miss out on this story.”

“You can count me in, too,” Cliff said. “This sounds like one wicked wild adventure.”

“Yes, it sounds like it might even be better than surfing the legendary Calimidad waves!” Luge agreed. “I’m coming, too.”

“ARR, in that case, all of ye get yer land-lubbin’ behinds on the ship!” Barnacle instructed. “We set sail immediately!”

“It’s so exciting!!!!” Tabby shrieked. “Hooray!”

* * *
On the long trip to Dream Valley, they had a lot of time to discuss Barnacle’s misadventures with the Bushwoolies of the Apocalypse, as well as Tabby’s Atlantean exploits; and in no time at all they had reached their destination.

After docking the ship, Tabby, Thomas, Equinox, Solstice, Protius, and Barnacle headed off to find Hubert and Clever Clover. The rest were left with the ship. “ARR, don’t anybody go nowhere, because if you’re not here when we get back, we’ll leave without yah,” Barnacle left firm instructions.

Upon reaching her old home, where her parents now resided, Tabby rang the doorbell and impatiently waited an answer. “Hi-ho!” a cheerful voice greeted them as the door opened.

“Hello, Cleve Clove,” Tabby greeted him. “We should like to consult with you and my father on a matter of utmost importance.”

Clever Clover shrugged. “Sure, whatever. We were just comparing notes on the ancient dragon roosts of the Upper Sentrallie Valley where I was just working.” Turning back into the house, he called down the hallway, “Hey, Hubert, Tabby and some others are here and she says she has something important to tell you.”

Spike, the baby dragon, padded down the hallway next. “Hey, guys. What are you all doing here?”

“ARR! No time for chit-chat! Let’s get down to business!”

“Umm, I believe what Barnacle is trying to say is that we have something of great importance that needs to be discussed as soon as possible,” Protius elaborated.

“What? No!” Hubert, who had just come up to the group, looked in surprise at the feathered scholar peering through the doorway. “I never expected to run into you in Dream Valley.”

“Hubert?” Protius furrowed his brow. “Hubert Fershund? It is you!”

“It’s been a long time!” Hubert commented.

“It has indeed,” Protius nodded.

“You guys know each other?” Tabby asked incredulously.

“We were both at that Incan monastery in the Himalayas,” Hubert explained.

“Yes, I had just finished some meditations about the same time Hubert was just arrived,” Protius added. “This is odd. In fact, I’m surprised we didn’t meet sooner.”

“I see,” Tabby murmured appreciatively. “You mean you guys didn’t run into each other at the wedding?”

“You were at the wedding?” Hubert and Protius asked simultaneously.

“Well, yes, of course I was there,” Tabby said modestly. “Thomas too, actually.”

“ARR, now that we’ve got all the introductions out of the way...” Barnacle paused. “We do, don’t we?” No one said anything, so he continued. “Equinox, why don’t you bring out those photos?”

In short order, everyone there was gathered around the kitchen table explaining the present dilemma while Equinox assembled a mural of the photos he had taken. “What seems to be the problem?” Hubert questioned.

“ARR, you see-“

”It seems that we may have a problem of global significance,” Protius cut him off. “An ancient force of great malevolence known as the four Ponies of the Apocalypse have inadvertently been released on the world and they are planning to carry out a plan of destruction most nefarious.”

Hubert nodded seriously. “I see.”

“Your daughter happened upon some information dealing with their meeting place; however, we don’t know exactly where it is,” Protius continued. “We were hoping you might be able to make some sense out of this map and help us locate Phalanx Island.”

“This is interesting indeed,” Hubert muttered contemplatively, looking closely at the photographed map. “Tabby, would you fetch my charts from the closet? And Clever Clover, you have some maps of your own, don’t you? We may need them.”

“ARR, I’ve also brought my sailing charts along,” Barnacle offered.

“Good. They will be useful as well.”

* * *
After a great deal of contemplation, conferencing, and cross-referencing, they had, as nearly as they could tell, located the position of Phalanx Island. Spike scurried around while they worked, peering over shoulders and offering bits of advice when able.

“ARR,” Barnacle said as he rolled up his charts. “Now we know where we’re headin’ and we can take care of this mess once and for all.”

“Yes, we thank you greatly for all your help,” Protius agreed. “And I’m sure it will come in handy.”

“If you do not mind the intrusion, I do feel the need to be along on your adventure,” Hubert offered gravely. “It could have serious consequences.”

“Don’t tell me you’re going to leave me behind!” Clever Clover spoke-up, grabbing his hat from the chair beside him and throwing it on his head.

“And me!” Spike added, jumping up and down rambunctiously.

“ARR, this is turnin’ into a regular field trip!” Barnacle griped.

“It’s going to be so much fun!” Tabby said brightly, turning the doorknob to let herself outside. However, upon opening the door, she and the others were greeted with a surprising sight: Dreamcatcher, the Native Pony of the Dark Forest; along with a female human whom none of them had seen before.

“ARR, you’re in our way! Step aside, lest you want to taste cold steel!” Barnacle snapped.

“We’re coming along,” the girl stated simply, throwing back her thick cape. A cold, freezing winter wind blew through, tossing her hair in all directions.

Tabby blinked. “Why?”

“Wait a second! Who said we were going anywhere? And even if we were, why would you have to come along? And while we’re on the subject, who are you?” Equinox demanded, stepping forward.

“Oh, Dreamcatcher!” Tabby exclaimed, recognizing the Native Pony who accompanied the girl. “Nice to see you.”

“I only wish we could have met under better circumstances,” Dreamcatcher replied gravely.

“We’re coming with you to stop the Ponies of the Apocalypse, of course,” the girl expressed.

“How do you know?” Tabby gaped.

“My name is Persephone Ravenwood, and I am a Krulotin,” the girl introduced herself. “We know these things.”

“The Krulotin?” Hubert pushed his way through the assemblage. “You’re one of the Krulotin? I was beginning to think we had seen the last of you, despite all the good words spoken in the cave when you were going to send me to the next dimension.”

“We were merely biding our time and waiting for the right moment to once again make our presence known in the world,” Persephone declared passionately. “And that time is now.”

“ARR, Tabby, Hubert, who are these Krulotin people, and what do they got to do with all this?” Barnacle demanded.

“They are the ancient Atlantean royal guards, sworn to protect the royal family and all their interests,” Tabby explained mysteriously.

“Well, then why would they want to help you?” Equinox queried.

“Oh, uh, well, you know, I– we– we’re–“ Tabby floundered, looking beseechingly at Thomas and Hubert. “You see, we really...”

Persephone acted quickly. “This matter involves everyone on the earth,” she advised briskly. “And so it is our responsibility also.”

Tabby breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s exactly what I was trying to say.”

“That’s all well and good, but what’s one girl going to do to help?” Equinox questioned.

“I’m not just a mere girl,” Persephone bristled. “I am a Krulotin, and that means I have been trained for years in the art of combat– plus not only will you have my aid but the full force of the Krulotin as well.”

“ARR, in that case, this might not be so bad after all. We’ll need all the help we can get,” Barnacle predicted.

* * *
Kyrene, reporter for the local newspaper, had been taking a walk through town that day trying to come up with some interesting story ideas– and it looked like she had found something more than she had thought she would. There was a strange group assembled in front of a house on Fifth Street, and it didn’t look like an average family reunion or anything of the type.

The young unicorn sensed a story, and quickly hid herself behind some shrubs on the opposite side of the street, keeping a keen eye trained on them and making out whatever bits of conversation she could.

There was a pirate– a baby dragon– a Native Pony– a large feathered parrot– yes, this had all the makings of a grand front-page tale. But how did they all fit together, and what kind of a scandal were they all involved in? Kyrene went over possibilities in her head, but nothing seemed to fit together. The snatches of conversation didn’t help, either– something about Krulotin, and royalty, and caves. Who or what were the Krulotin? Kyrene needed to know.

But what’s this? she thought to herself, seeing another figure approaching the house. So one more joins the pack!

The pink unicorn, whose appearance was extremely similar to one of the ponies already gathered, looked to be extremely angry over something. Could this be the enemy they had all been awaiting? Kyrene kept her eyes glued to the scene.

* * *
“Look, Tabby, when you say you’re going to help me with something, I expect you to actually be there to help me,” Tamara said menacingly, facing her cousin. “But what do I get for waiting the whole morning for you to show up? Nothing! Not even a call to say you’re going to be late? Tabby, I simply cannot believe you sometimes! You’re impossible! You treat me like an imbecile, and this is what I get in return? If you don’t shape up your act soon, Tabby, I’m warning you that you’d better–“

While Tamara was ranting, Tabby stared at her with glazed eyes. Finally, she interrupted the tirade. “Tamara, the world is going to be destroyed shortly. Cleaning your house just didn’t seem to be a top priority after what we’ve found out.”

“Oh, so now you’re trying to make me feel guilty, huh? Well, I’m telling you, girl, that just isn’t going to work! Now if you don’t give me a good excuse–“

”We were just over to Calimidad Island to see Barnacle and–“

”Calimidad Island? Barnacle?” All the vengeance promptly left Tamara, and her expression turned blissful and soft, with a bit of eagerness mixed in. “Did you see Malteeze? Oh, Tabby, tell me! Did he miss me?”

“Actually, we did see Malteeze,” Tabby informed her cousin impatiently. “But no, he didn’t say a word about you. But actually he’s waiting for us at the dock right now along with the others and if we don’t get moving you’re not going to have a house to clean–“

”Malteeze? He’s really here? In Dream Valley?” Tamara grew starry-eyed. “Oh, Tabby! You can’t imagine how happy you’ve made me today. Tell me you’ll let me go along! Oh, Tabby, please take me with you, to Malteeze!”

“Tamara, I don’t think you understand,” Thomas interjected, stepping forward. Up to this point, everyone had simply stood back and let the two fight it out. “The fate of the world rests on this mission, and I don’t think you’d enjoy it.”

“I will let nothing stand between me and my love,” Tamara declared.

“Tamara...” Tabby ventured tentatively. “Are you sure you aren’t taking Ah-Loh’s advice just a little too seriously?”

“He predicted that I would meet my true love on your wedding day, and I believe I have,” Tamara snapped. “Please, take me to Malteeze.”

“Are you feeling okay, Tamara? Maybe we ought to take you home...”

“You most definitely will not,” Tamara stated firmly. “I’m going with you.”

“ARR, I don’t be thinkin’ this is such a good idea,” Barnacle said skeptically.

“Aw, give her a chance,” Solstice pleaded on behalf of Tamara. “I don’t think she’d get in the way, much.”

“ARR, we’ve already got two extra scientists coming along and a baby dragon, and now we’ve picked up this Krulotin woman and her friend, but I’m drawin’ the line at Tabby’s relatives who just want to come along so they can hang out with members a’ my crew!”

“How dare you try to separate me from my soulmate, you– you– pirate! Tabby, do something! I must see my dear and beloved Malteeze! Don’t be so heartless as to deny me that right!” Tamara blustered.

“Fine, come along! But if you end up in the next dimension, don’t blame me.”

* * *
They’re moving out, Kyrene noted silently. I bet they’re going somewhere interesting. Turning invisible with her unicorn magic, she stealthily followed them.

* * *
When they arrived back at the ship, they found that a great number of Krulotin soldiers in shining armor were already waiting for them there. “ARR, now what’s this?” Barnacle exclaimed.

Kracken stepped forward and shrugged. “I don’t know, boss, they just showed up and said they’d wait for you guys. They didn’t look like they were going to start any trouble, so I figured I’d wait for you to come back and sort it out.” He looked at Persephone with intense interest.

“ARR,” Barnacle said, turning to Persephone, “these wouldn’t happen to be friends of yours, would they?”

“These are but a few of the Krulotin who have volunteered to help in this time of need,” Persephone imparted. “The rest are waiting elsewhere for when they’ll be needed.”

“ARR, at least help like this we can be usin’.” Then, casting a sideways glance at Tamara, added, “Not like some of them we’ve picked up.”

“Oh, Malteeze!” Tamara cried, running up the gangplank, ignoring Barnacle’s snide remark.

Malteeze groaned. “Oh, no. Not you again.”

And so, with the last members of their crew assembled, they set sail for Phalanx Island.

* * *
“This is driving me crazy!!!!” Tabby shrieked hysterically. “How much longer is it going to be???”

Just then, Pierre happened to swing by on a rope and grabbed hold of a shroud line. “Why are you upset? The sea is so lovely! ‘ow could you not enjoy being out ‘ere?”

“Water isn’t my element,” Tabby explained.

“What is your element? Fire, maybe?” Davey queried.

“Wind! Lots and lots of hot air!” Jones chorused.

Tabby glared at them. “Be quiet. Actually, I wish I knew what my element was. I don’t have one.”

“Well,” Pierre continued, “zere are only four of zem. It’s either one of zose three zat we just mentioned, or you’d be left with–“

”Land-ho!” Kracken interrupted, screaming from the crow’s nest.

“ARR, we’re finally there!” Barnacle cheered; and then, barking at his crew, continued, “Prepare for landing!”

“Ooh, time for me to move on,” Pierre realized, and continued to swing around the outside of the ship on his rope.

The ship moved in towards the mass of land, slowing as it approached Phalanx Island. “That’s an island?” Tabby breathed in awe. “It looks like a big wall.”

“Apparently, the whole thing is fortified, and the island is completely covered with the garrison,” Protius noted.


“We’ll need to find a place to dock,” Persephone declared.

“ARR, my thoughts exactly,” Barnacle agreed. “Bring ‘er around; we’ll circle until we find a wharf.”

“Aye-aye!” Kracken answered cheerfully, jumping down from the crow’s nest to carry out Barnacle’s orders.

The ship began to circle around the island. An eerie sense of dread seemed to radiate from the place; but why, none of them could tell. It looked to be abandoned; no one was in the parapets or on the walls. If the adventurers didn’t know better, they would have assumed that the base was not in use.

Finally, they came to an area of the wall that was lower than the rest, and marked only by several posts. As the ship got closer, it became obvious that this was a dock of some kind; and they quickly made preparations to utilize it. As soon as the crew was close enough, lines were thrown across and Pierre swung out to secure the ship with them. In short order, the pirate vessel was lashed to the island, and they were ready to disembark.

Barnacle was quietly pleased with the performance of his crew. They had not all yet sailed together, and the clockwork precision with which they carried out his orders would have been impressive even for a seasoned crew.

Persephone wasted no time, and began yelling out orders to the Krulotin warriors. “Quick! We need to get our gear ready to go.”

“Roger that!” one of them called as the soldiers all set about unpacking their equipment and hauling it across the gangplank.

“Flash, Baratta, guard that gateway. We don’t want anyone sneaking up on us all,” Persephone called as she pointed towards the only entrance onto the dock.

“Roger!” one of them called.

“On it!” asserted the other. Both drew their swords and took a position on either side of the passageway.

“ARR, this is it,” Barnacle yelled to all who were present. “Everyone cross the gangplank!”

Davey and Jones began hollering. “Yay, we get to go too!”

“ARR, no, everyone except for you two,” Barnacle clarified. “You get to stay with the ship.”

“Aw...” they both mourned, their spirits dampened.

“It’s okay, guys,” Spike offered. “I’ll stay here and keep you company.”

This cheered them both immensely. “Yipee!” Jones hollered.

“Party, mon!” Davey agreed.

“And I will volunteer myself to stay be’ind and guard the ship from intruders,” Pierre said valiantly.

“And to guard it from these miscreants here,” Barnacle added, motioning to the Bushwoolies and Spike.

“Yeah, yeah! Miscreants!” Davey cheered.

“That’s us, mon!” his brother elated.

Hubert looked down at the two. “That’s not a good thing, guys.”

“It isn’t?” Jones looked puzzled.

“You’re a miscreant!” Davey shouted at Jones laughingly.

“No, you’re a miscreant!” Jones yelled back. This joking exchange went on for several rounds.

And so, leaving Spike, Pierre, Davey, and Jones with the ship, the rest set out to discover what mysteries Phalanx Island held for them, and to hopefully put an end to the troubles that were threatening the world.

Starting into the halls that covered the island, Kracken was the first to speak. “Does anyone have any idea what the layout of this place is like?” he asked. He, like all the Krulotin, had his sword drawn, ready for danger.

“By that do you mean to ask if we know where we’re going?” Protius questioned.

“Uh, yeah, basically.”

“We don’t have any maps of Phalanx Island itself,” Hubert spoke up, “but most Atlantean cities and colonies were arranged in a ring shape, with the most important place at the center; so that’s the basic direction in which we’re heading– towards the center.”

“ARR, I suppose it’s a good enough plan as any,” Barnacle expressed.

Continuing through the dark, dusty hallways, they frequently came upon wide-open sunlit courtyards which hadn’t been used for hundreds of years. Every inch of the place spoke of its long neglect. So far they had seen no signs that anyone had been here in a very long time.

After finding nothing of significance, the group eventually came to another large, open courtyard. This one, though, was quite obviously ring-shaped and stretched along the outside of a wide, low-set building. This appeared to be the very center of the island, and perhaps what they were looking for lay inside. Cautiously, the heros made their way around this structure and found four completely identical unguarded entrances leading into its depths.

“Does anyone have any suggestions?” Persephone asked of the group.

“All entrances into the central structure seem to be identical, so I would wager to guess that any would be as good as the other,” Hubert maintained.

“I concur,” Protius agreed.

“ARR, then we be takin’ this one,” Barnacle declared as he finally drew his own sword and stepped through one of the passages.

Now inside, this building looked much like the rest of the fort... but for some reason it felt more foreboding somehow. This caused everyone to speak in low whispers and step cautiously on the thick coating of dust.

“Do you hear that?” Persephone asked in a low tone.

“Hear what? That evil chanting sound?” Kracken queried.

“ARR, I hear it too,” Barnacle whispered.

After listening, everyone agreed that there was an evil chanting sound coming from further down the hall. This only caused them to move even more slowly and with more caution. Soon, one side of the curving hallway gave way to a wide ledge with a row of heavy stone pillars down the center.

Persephone motioned for everyone to stay where they were, while she crouched down and moved slowly along down the hall, being careful to stay behind the ledge. When she got to the first pillar, she cautiously looked around it. On the other side was a large sunken area with a great vaulted ceiling and intricately carved stone walls. In the very center was a great fireplace in which currently blazed a mighty fire.

Despite this, the room still seemed dark and ominous– because, seated around the fire at equal intervals were four strange-looking ponies: Thanatos, black with dark purple hair and the symbol of a skull; Aries, grey and red with crossed axes; Hunger, lime green and brown with a balance scale; and Strife, red and yellow with a locust. However, no matter what they looked like, it was obvious that these creatures were pure evil. They could be none other than the Four Ponies of the Apocalypse.

Persephone gasped in shock. She must have been one of the first mortals ever to have laid eyes upon these creatures of darkness, and it had a numbing effect on her. Fortunately, she was able to contain her surprise, and slunk back to the others.

But as the girl moved, she suddenly heard a shriek come from Tabby. What could it be? Had someone snuck around behind them? A quick glance down into the pit confirmed that the Ponies of the Apocalypse had not heard; so what was happening? Persephone hurried over.

Looking them over quickly, though, confirmed that there were no newcomers– the others were only looking at Tabby strangely, except for Thomas and Hubert, who were peering at her intently and waiting for her to talk. “Hey, be quiet!” Persephone said in a hushed whisper. “The four Ponies of the Apocalypse are here. You don’t want to be heard, do you?”

Tabby exchanged only a few more words with what seemed to be nothing, and then turned to the rest of the group with a bright smile to explain matters to them. “This is Kaliope, guys. She was queen of Atlantis once, but she’s a spirit now, and Nur-Ab-Fin is her mortal enemy. Of course you can’t see or hear her, but she says she can help us...”

It had, granted, been a surprise to Tabby when the spirit of Kaliope, the previous queen of Atlantis, had suddenly appeared in front of her and greeted her. Kaliope must have gotten wind of this whole apocalypse thing, and had come with advice, Tabby had reasoned. Now, hopefully, Tabby could convince her friends of this as well.

“And you know her?” Tamara gaped.

“I think those Furbys are really getting to your mind,” Clever Clover doubted skeptically.

“I’m telling the truth!” Tabby protested.

“What does she have to say?” Thomas questioned, motioning for the others to let her speak.

Tabby paused, and let the previous queen talk...

“Tabby, grave times have fallen upon this world,” Kaliope spoke urgently. “But, of course, you have already realized that. The Ponies and Bushwoolies of the Apocalypse have escaped their imprisonment on Doomsday Island, but they were left without enough power to destroy the world as they had been planning. Barnacle demolished the crystal from which they derived their energy, and so without that they needed to find other ways to get back their might.”

“Okay...” Tabby turned from the spirit and back to the others. “The Ponies and the Bushwoolies of the Apocalypse escaped from some island they were trapped on, but their energy was like totally drained, and Barnacle destroyed this crystal or something that they needed to destroy the world... Kaliope, what else?”

“I will explain. Nur-Ab-Fin was released from the disco ball into this world once again by the Bushwoolies of the Apocalypse, and that is why I have come here now. But he is not our only enemy in this battle; there are others.”

“So...the Bushwoolies of the Apocalypse let Nur-Ab-Fin out of his disco ball imprisonment and there are other enemies...” Tabby paraphrased. “Who are the others?”

“Each Bushwoolie has employed the help of an agent in order to help them gain power for their masters, the Ponies of the Apocalypse. Four rituals must be performed before they are back to full power. That is what the Bushwoolies of the Apocalypse need their agents for, and it is extremely important that these rituals not be allowed to be completed. If they are, the world will be destroyed.”

“I thought that was supposed to happen last year,” Tabby interjected.

“They waited until the coming of 2001 to catch people off guard,” Kaliope explained solemnly.

“I see,” Tabby concurred, turning back to the others. “Anyway, there’s four agents in total, one for each Bushwoolie, and they have to perform weird rituals to get power back to the Ponies of the Apocalypse, and we like totally can’t let them finish these or they’ll destroy the world.”

“And even now, the Bushwoolies and their agents have set off to complete the ceremonies. You and your friends must split-up and stop them. Below these ledges are four world rift gates. They will take you to where you need to be. But take care, Tabby. Even if the Ponies of the Apocalypse are in a weakened state, they still have more than enough power to inflict serious harm upon all of you.”

Tabby relayed this quickly. “The Bushwoolies and their agents have already set off to do their stuff, and we’re supposed to split-up and go through these weird rift gate things and stop them but we’re supposed to be careful because they still have an awful lot of power to take us out with...”

“Does she have any insight for how to get past them safely?” Hubert asked quietly, listening in rapt attention.

“Stealth,” Kaliope said.

“Stealth,” Tabby repeated.

“Rift gates,” Protius murmured thoughtfully. “I’ve used them before. A very efficient, if somewhat unexplainable, means of transportation.”

“ARR, then I suppose we’d better use them in a hurry, too,” Barnacle urged them on.

“And there are four gates?” Hubert verified. “How shall we split-up?”

“Barnacle,” Persephone spoke-up, taking charge, “why don’t you take Malteeze, Cliff, and–“

”And me!” Tamara volunteered quickly in an excited whisper. “I’ll go with you guys.”

“ARR...” Barnacle looked displeased at this.

“I’m not so sure if that’s such a good idea, Tamara,” Persephone warned. “I mean, this could end up being pretty messy.”

“Oh, I’m sure Malteeze will keep me out of trouble,” Tamara replied sweetly, batting her eyelashes demurely.

“Don’t count on it,” Malteeze growled.

“I love it when guys play hard to get,” Tamara cooed.

“Okay, fine. We don’t have time to argue,” Persephone sighed. “Barnacle, Malteeze, Cliff, Tamara–“ and here she pointed to some of the Krulotin– “Zorg, Poit, and Blob– you guys are team one.”

Going on, she instructed, “Tabby, Thomas, Equinox, Dreamcatcher, Gordan, Klatoo, Ming, and Troz– you’re all together.”

The third grouping was next. “Hubert, go with Solstice, Kracken, Glarb, Vorton, Flash, and Gork.”

And finally, Persephone designated those who would be going with her personally. “Protius, Luge, Clever Clover, Narf, and Zort– you’re with me.”

“And don’t forget about me,” Kaliope spoke to Tabby. “I’m coming as well.”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it,” Tabby said brightly. “We got yah.”

“What’s that?” Persephone cocked her head.

“Oh, nothing. Just Kaliope. She’s coming, too.”

“Whatever.” Persephone shrugged her shoulders; and with the groupings assigned, they continued on.

Further along, the hallway turned into a wide set of curving stairs that went down to the level of the sunken chamber. They were able to sneak down that far because the ledge continued down the sides of the stairs and offered them enough cover so that they were not seen. However, to get to the rift gate chambers, they would have to sneak across open ground; and that would be very difficult indeed.

At the bottom of the stairs, before going further, they paused again. Barnacle, Hubert, and Thomas peered over the ledge as Persephone gave them directions. “Barnacle, your group and mine will make our way around the outside of the chamber towards the right. When we get to the second rift gate, your group will go through while mine goes on to the third.” Turning to the others, she continued, “As soon as we get to that one, Hubert, you’ll take your group around to the left to the fourth rift gate; while Thomas, you’ll take yours around to the first gate, to the right; and that way we’re not all out at the same time.”

“ARR,” Barnacle agreed. “Good strategy.”

As the Ponies of the Apocalypse were in deep concentration as they chanted around the fire, they would not notice anything amiss around them unless startled by sound, and so Persephone’s and Barnacle’s respective teams were extremely careful as they snuck around the outside wall of the chamber. Everyone’s nerves were on edge, but they reached Barnacle’s gate without a problem.

Each gate was in a small alcove off of the main circle, and Barnacle and his assigned companions ducked inside. They had been instructed to go through the rift gate as soon as possible, but they thought they would wait around a little just to make sure everything went well with the others.

Persephone had the same idea when her group successfully reached their destination. Now it was up to the last two.

It was, to say the least, bad luck when Solstice tripped over a small pebble in her path as she followed after her group. Hitting the ground, she was unable to prevent the small yelp that escaped her. Everyone was alerted to this mishap, and grew rigid with apprehension. Had the Ponies of the Apocalypse heard? Thomas sprang into action and helped his fallen friend back to her hooves to ensure a quick escape.

They had not, however, eluded detection. Just as they thought they were safe, a huge fireball came flying towards them. The four evil ponies had their gazes trained on the intruders, and it looked like more fireballs– or worse– would not be beyond their power.

Hubert reacted quickly this time, and pulled Thomas and Solstice away just seconds before the fireball hit the ground. All chaos broke out then, for out of this fireball rose up a great wall of fire, separating the two groups.

“Get out of here! Now!” Dreamcatcher yelled.

“But Tabby–!” Thomas lunged forward, wanting to remain at his wife’s side; but Hubert held him back.

“You’ll have to stay with us!” Hubert shouted. “It’s too dangerous.”

“Never mind; I’ll be fine!” Tabby called, perhaps a little too confidently, through the flames. “Just go on!”

That didn’t exactly help to alleviate any of his fears; Tabby was not at all incapable of getting herself sent to the next dimension or some equally worse fate, especially with that bold attitude. He tried to protest; but before he could, Hubert had shoved him through the portal.

“Get out of here!” Hubert called, stepping into the portal himself. “Now!” And not wanting to argue, everyone followed suit.

* * *
Epona was troubled by the scenes that unfolded in the pool before her. “They do not know,” she mumbled. The flame-haired guardian tried to send a telepathic warning to the heroes, but Bic’s barrier, augmented by the arcane power of the Stonehenge, prevented even the slightest thought to penetrate.

“You’ll just wear yourself out,” the imp taunted. “Why not just relax and enjoy the show?”

* * *
After the hurried escape from Phalanx Island through the world rift gates, Barnacle’s group had found themselves very far away from that place. The landscape that surrounded them consisted of towering rocky hills that seemed to reach impossibly high into the air. Every inch of the slopes where rock didn’t jut out was covered in a lush carpet of emerald grass.

Though the sun was shining brightly and the blue sky overhead was dotted with only a few clouds, it was still rather dark from their vantage point. The hills blocked all of the direct light from the sky; and from the group’s current position in the very bottom of a deep valley between two hills, they could see that the entire valley was cast in long shadows.

There was a small fort built in ancient times, but long ago abandoned to the elements. All that was left now was a wall of crumbing stone that would hardly keep out a child, let alone an invading army. Fortunately, for the moment, they had neither to worry about.

“I don’t like the look of this one bit,” Cliff said as he peered over the crumbing wall at the rolling hills of bright green grass.

“Oh, I think it’s beautiful,” Tamara cooed.

“The valley or Malteeze?” Cliff asked as he turned to the pink unicorn and saw that she wasn’t even looking at their surroundings.

“What?” she replied distantly.

But just then the tall cat-man in question returned from his scouting and stated in a very serious way, “It would look very nice if it weren’t for all of this impending doom.”

“ARR, what I don’t be likin’ is the fact that we’re the only ones here,” Barnacle replied. “Did yah see anything out there, Malteeze?”

“Not a soul,” he replied. “I’m beginning to wonder if that gate even sent us to the right place.”

“ARR, it has tah be. Otherwise the whole world is doomed.”

But then Cliff had to speak up, “What if it’s a trap? Maybe the Ponies of the Apocalypse let us escape so their agents could jump us here?”

“It was a rather easy escape from Phalanx Island...” Malteeze added.

“ARR, now, talk like that ain’t gonna do no good,” Barnacle snapped. “We gotta keep our focus.”

“Perhaps they know something,” Tamara suggested helpfully, pointing up at the south ridge.

“Wha–!” Everyone else turned quickly to get a look at what she was referring to. Coming over the hilltop to their south was a long line of men. As they stood and watched, another line followed that one and then another and then another. In very short order there was a sizable force of people walking towards the heroes’ position at the ruined fort.

“ARR, kin yea see who they are?” Barnacle asked as he reached for his sword.

“They’re too far away,” Malteeze said. “All I can make out is that they are humans.”

“There sure are a lot of them,” Cliff muttered.

“A whole lot...” Tamara cowered behind a large stone. “I hope they’re not the bad guys.”

“Wait,” Zorg realized. “They bear the colors of the Krulotin! It’s an army of my people!”

“An army? I didn’t know you had an entire army!” Cliff said in surprise.

“ARR, why didn’t you tell us?” Barnacle demanded.

“There are many things about our order that we do not wish to be known,” Zorg replied. “But it makes little difference now; the commander is approaching, undoubtedly to discuss a plan of action.”

Indeed, a large man dressed in the colors of the Krulotin and wearing shiny plate armor of the brightest silver came riding towards the group. He brought his horse to a stop in front of the fort as Malteeze cried out, “Who goes there?”

“I am Nickto, General of the Krulotin,” the man replied in a deep regal voice. “We have marched to this field in all haste so that we could lend our swords to the coming conflict.”

Tamara peeked out from behind her hiding place at the sound of the newcomer’s voice. “Who’s that?” she queried. “He sounds rather handsome.” Fortunately, her remark went unheard by all present.

“ARR, glad tah have yah,” Barnacle said as he climbed up on top of a stone in front of the general. “But who exactly are we supposed tah be fightin’?”

“Them.” Nickto pointed up at the opposite hilltop from the one his army had just marched over. Everyone’s gaze instantly shot to that location, and a collective feeling of disbelief swept through them.

From the north, ranks upon ranks of troops in formation came marching over the rise. The clockwork precision with which they moved denoted them as seasoned warriors of the highest discipline. When ten full companies had cleared the ridge, the commander who marched at their head called out the order to stop; and as one, the mass of bodies came to a halt. Riding out to the front of the formations came three individuals that made Barnacle’s and Malteeze’s blood run cold.

“No...” Malteeze muttered.

“ARR, please tell me they aren’t who I think they are,” Barnacle added.

“I wish I could, but I would be lying,” Malteeze replied.

“They have more troops than we do...”

The others could take it no longer. “Who? Who are they?” Cliff demanded.

Turning to face the young pony gravely, Malteeze said, “Warlords. Three Warlord Brothers of such ruthless cunning and cruelty that they nearly enslaved all the kingdoms north of the mountains.”

“They’re riding this way,” Nickto noted, “most likely to discuss terms of the coming battle.”

As the three brothers came closer, Tamara was able to make a observation as to the nature of these Warlords. “Malteeze, they look like you!”

But this time her comment had not gone unheard. “Of course he does; he’s one of us!” the feline farthest to the left said in a spiteful tone. This one was large– even larger than Malteeze– and his fur was gray with black stripes through it. He wore a partial suit of armor that glistened even more brightly that Nickto’s. His name was Rosweld.

“Or at least he was,” the one on the right added. This one was named Gelatinous and he was a great deal thinner than his siblings and his fur was mostly white expect for a few spots of the deepest black.

“Once a Warrior of the Feline Hordes, always a Warrior of the Horde!” Rosweld mocked. “It’s in his blood and he can’t give it up no matter how much meditation and soul searching he does.”

“Then perhaps we should offer him his commission back so that he can be on the winning side of this war,” Gelatinous suggested in jest.

“I left your service for a reason, and I have no intention of ever returning,” Malteeze finally cried.

Before either Rosweld or Gelatinous could reply, the third brother, Fireball, who had up to this point said nothing, spoke. “It’s just as well, really. I would never have a traitorous whelp such as you on my side in any conflict.” This feline was even bigger than Rosweld and his heavy plate armor was polished to a reflective black that seemed to swim with motion in the light. His long black fur was swept back from his head in wild fly-aways that gave him a frightening look indeed.

“Enough of this,” Nickto instructed. “Evidently you have come here for a fight and we are fully prepared to give you one.”

Barnacle and the others stayed out of this. They knew little of the matters of a war, and they did not want to learn by messing the whole affair up.

“A man after my own heart-- cut through the nonsense and right down to business,” Fireball replied.

“Good, then perhaps we could begin by discussing terms.”

“Terms? I’ve come with no terms other than to offer you the chance to turn away now and leave with your lives,” Fireball said matter-of-factly.

At this Barnacle could not help but speak up. “ARR, and ifin’ we don’t?”

Turning coldly to the pirate, Fireball replied, “You can stay and be sent to the next dimension.”

“It makes no difference to us, but we’d like to retrieve what we came here for with the least amount of trouble,” Gelatinous added.

“Then you’ll have to pay dearly for the prize, for we will not give up, no matter what the cost!” Malteeze stated.

“If that’s the way you’ll have it...” With that, the Warlords headed back to their troops to prepare for the battle. As they reached the front lines of feline soldiers, a diminutive figure came out to join them. He stood no taller than a man’s knees, but he was clad from head to toe in full metal plate armor. From under the heavy plates stuck a long red beard and two bare arms which wielded a lethal-looking axe.

“Now, who’s that?” Cliff wanted to know.

“ARR, that be Mars, the Bushwoolie o’ War,” Barnacle replied grimly.

“That’s a Bushwoolie?” Tamara asked in disbelief.


“Do you think we have any chance of winning this?” Cliff asked.

“They outnumber us three to one, but I’d wager three of theirs against one of mine any day!” Nickto declared. His tone almost made them believe it.

“ARR, I hope you’re right,” Barnacle said.

With the enemy now busy on the opposite side of the field breaking out weapons of war and setting their minds for the coming conflict, Nickto gave orders for the Krulotin Army to pull up into a defensive perimeter surrounding the fort. The old structure would offer no real protection in the battle, but at least it would give the soldiers something to fight for. In a skirmish fought on open fields, it is easy to loose sight of the goal; but here, with those ancient foundations to their backs, they would have something tangible to defend.

The few Krulotin archers that had come had positioned themselves on the walls of the fort while Barnacle, Cliff, Malteeze, and Nickto gathered inside to discuss the coming conflict. Tamara was advised to find a dark corner in which to wait out the battle.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have come along after all,” she said aloud.

“Maybe you’ll let this be a lesson to yah when we tell yah something is too dangerous,” Barnacle said flatly.

“Yes, I’ll have to remember that for next time,” the unicorn replied smally.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Malteeze commented as he leaned heavily on his staff.

“Oh, and why’s that?”

“In all likelihood, there won’t be a next time for any of us,” the feline philosopher explained.


And then there was nothing left for the heroes to do but wait. It wasn’t long at all, but for one who was preparing for war, minutes can seem like hours.

As the sun began to sink in the western sky, a great cry rose up from the opposing camp. The ranks of felines in the most forward ranks raised their weapons and began to charge the fort and the heroes that occupied it.

“What! What is it!?” Cliff cried as he jumped to his hooves.

“The battle’s begun!!!” Nickto replied.

* * *
“There he is,” Thomas said venomously, peering over the towering wheat stalks.

“So is that the one you saw in the Dark Forest?” Kracken whispered.

“What? Oh, you mean the Bushwoolie,” Thomas realized. “Yeah, I guess... but when I get my hooves on that Nur-Ab-Fin, I’ll--“

”Which one’s Nur-Ab-Fin?” Solstice asked eagerly. “Is he one of those bugs?” From their concealment in the humongous field of wheat, the four could see a throng of large robotic bugs gathering the ripe grain and depositing it in front of a small scuzzy Bushwoolie, forming a giant pile before him. “Do you know him? Who is he? What can you tell me about him?” the yellow mare persisted.

“That one over there,” Thomas snarled, obviously having some personal score to settle with this particular monster.

Kracken and Solstice oohed appreciatively as their gaze followed his to a large, bulky robot positioned behind Tiny. This one was nearly eight feet tall; and whereas he was not one of the bug drones, he appeared to be controlling their actions. Hubert only nodded wisely. “No doubt this Nur-Ab-Fin is the agent who was summoned to work with Tiny,” he stated. “His robotic drones are gathering this wheat for Tiny to devour, apparently part of the ceremony which we must stop.”

If it was part of the ceremony, it was a very strange one, for the flea-infested Bushwoolie sat at the foot of the tower of grain, shoving great handfuls of the sustenance into his mouth without stopping. One would think that the small creature would either grow full and stop eating or explore from all the nourishment he was taking in; but he remained the exact same scrawny Bushwoolie that he had always been.

“I bet he has to devour this whole field for the ceremony to be successful,” Solstice said in a hushed tone. “That’s what this ritual is all about. He’s the Bushwoolie of pestilence, so destroying a thriving field like this would be just like him.”

“If you’re right, Solstice,” Hubert said thoughtfully, “if we destroy at least part of the field, theoretically the ritual will be aborted.”

“Uh, Thomas?” Solstice ventured tentatively. “What do you think?”

Thomas, after having caught sight of Nur-Ab-Fin, had remained with his gaze trained on the giant robot and unresponsive to the conversation of his companions. “What?” he asked distractedly. “Yes, yes, sounds good. Just let me have Nur-Ab-Fin.”

“You sound intense,” Kracken commented, bewildered. “Have you met this guy before?”

“If it weren’t for that demon,” Thomas said darkly, “I would have secured Tabby’s affections much sooner than I did. As it was, he turned us against one another and I nearly lost her... and even now I have no idea what kind of a predicament she’s in or if I’ll ever see her again, and if it’s the last thing I do I’m going to give Nur-Ab-Fin a fight he won’t soon forget--!” His eyes blazed with fire as he clenched both his hooves and his jaw.

Solstice and Kracken were both wide-eyed by the end of this speech. “I see,” Solstice squeaked.

“Hm, I didn’t know this guy had any emotion,” Kracken mused.

Hubert went on to explain things a little more fully for those two. “You see, Nur-Ab-Fin is an ancient Atlantean spirit. He once possessed Thomas in order to eliminate Tabby, but thankfully Tabby put an end to it... however, Nur-Ab-Fin did build this large robot body for himself, which makes him a dangerous opponent indeed.”

By this point, Thomas was bound and determined not to let his quarry away, and it took both Hubert and Kracken to hold him back from doing anything rash. “Thomas, let’s stop and think this through first,” Hubert cautioned. “We must devise a plan before we reveal our position.”

“Yeah,” Thomas mumbled grudgingly.

“If Nur-Ab-Fin is controlling those drones,” Solstice ventured, “maybe we could make an interference in their communication.”

“Hmm,” considered Hubert. “That might work.”

“Or grab Tiny and make a run for it,” Kracken suggested.

“What if we ate some of the wheat ourselves? Then he wouldn’t be able to eat it all.”

“But then he could eat us,” Kracken pointed out.

“Eeh.” Solstice looked alarmed.

“But I think Solstice may be on the right track,” Hubert mused. “If we could quickly destroy a large portion of the field, it might be enough to terminate the ritual...”

“But how could we actually destroy it?” Solstice puzzled.

“We could set it on fire, if we had any fire,” Kracken said.

“I suppose nobody has any matches on them,” Solstice sighed.

“Fire would be a good idea,” Hubert considered, frowning in concentration. “Let me take another look around.” Peering over the wheat stalks, he reported back, “It’s a ways off, but I can see a small grouping of trees to the east. If we could reach that without being detected, we might be able to find some fire-starting tools there.”

“It’s on the side of the field the drones haven’t started on yet,” Kracken pointed out hopefully.

“How long do you think it would take to make it that far?” Solstice asked. “Do you think they would detect us?”

“It’s hard to say,” Hubert said thoughtfully. “If they aren’t concerned about this section of the field yet, we may have a good chance. But if this is what we’re going to do, we’ll have to move fast; there are a lot of drones working, and they’re stripping this field quickly.”

“I say, go for it,” Kracken declared confidently. “Let’s set the field on fire. Hey, Thomas-- Thomas? Where is he?”

Solstice gasped. “What happened to him? I didn’t notice anything. Oh dear! What if they...”

“He must have went off on his own will,” Hubert said rationally. “If spotted, our enemies wouldn’t have taken just one of us; and besides, we didn’t see or hear anything. It almost sounds like--“

”He winked,” Kracken stated simply, pointing towards Tiny and the pile of grain, behind which Nur-Ab-Fin was engaged in battle with Thomas. “He’s really got something against that robot, doesn’t he?”

Solstice groaned. “Oh, why’d he have to go and do that?”

Kracken took command. “Okay, I’ll go get Thomas back,” he ordered. “And you guys go do what you gotta do.” Without waiting for an affirmation, the human took off through the wheat field towards his battling comrade.

“What choice do we have?” Solstice said, looking helplessly at Hubert. They both took off in the opposite direction towards their tree grove, and hopefully a means of fire.

* * *
Persephone peered carefully through the leaves of the think jungle they had landed in. In the sandy region away from her concealment stood Dr. Malcolm Shane, the diabolical whale-man, along with Discord, the Bushwoolie of Strife. Directly beside Shane stood a rather large mean-looking crab, ready to do his bidding. Beyond the sand was a shining sea of bright blue water, and Persephone got the impression that they were on an island.

Clever Clover, Luge, and Protius stood behind her. Persephone had elected to leave the four other Krulotin they had brought with them back to guard the rift gate. “What is happening?” Luge asked.

“There’s only three of them,” Persephone answered in an extremely low whisper. “I think we can take th– oh no, maybe not.” With dismay, she realized that it would not be as easy as she had originally thought. She now saw that instead of just the one sizeable crab, there was a great multitude of other crabs milling around on the beach and in the water. Albeit they were not as big as the first, they would be a formidable enemy when brought together. “They have a lot of helpers,” she told the others. “We’ll have to work out a plan. Let’s just listen to them for awhile and see if we can glean anything from that.”

“It’s a good thing we found you, Dr. Shane,” Discord commented. “Your mind control over sea life has been a great help in this venture.”

Shane chuckled. “Yes, I know. And my others squids should be returning soon. It won’t be long until we have all fifteen crystals.”

“They had better be able to find all of them,” Discord said seriously.

“Don’t worry; my pets are very reliable,” Shane assured him, and glanced behind him where a path led further into the jungle. “We’ll have all five of the devices filled with their crystals in no time.”

“And then the Ponies of the Apocalypse will gain the power they so greatly need!” Discord commented approvingly.

“There’s one of them now!” Shane exclaimed, pointing out to sea. A giant purple squid could be seen nearing the shore, and the whale-man ran to greet it. “Have you got the crystal?”

Obediently, the hulking squid held out one of his tentacles and dropped the specimen into Shane’s flipper.

“Splendid!” Shane said happily. “Good job. You deserve a rest now.”

“Now we’ll take it to the clearing,” Discord declared authoritatively, grabbing the crystal from Shane and turning down the cobbled path into the jungle. Shane followed along, and for awhile both of them could be neither seen nor heard by the as-of-yet undiscovered eavesdroppers.

When the two villains reemerged off the path, Shane was complaining. “This seems to be a hassle for us, Discord. Why don’t I just let Maru take the crystals back? She’s more than capable.” Saying this, he patted his large crab on the head.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you or your crab,” Discord replied, “it’s just that I don’t trust what might happen if I did.”

“So why don’t we just wait at the bay for all the squid to return, and then take all fifteen of the crystals back at once?” Shane persisted.

“The same reason as before, Shane...” Discord drawled. “This is the best way to do it so that it can’t get messed up.”

“Of course,” Shane muttered as the two of them strolled back up to the bay where they awaited more of Shane’s squid.

Persephone and her companions turned away and grouped together to discuss the situation. “I’d like to know more about this place they need to put the crystals,” Clever Clover spoke up. “If we knew how it worked, it would be easier to stop them.”

“It’s possible that if one snuck into the holding for the crystals, one could free the crystal they just placed, thus preventing the ceremony from being completed,” Protius suggested.

“I agree,” said Luge. “Would it be possible for one of us to go that distance without being detected?”

Persephone frowned in thought. “I don’t think it would be too difficult,” she confided. “Would anyone object if I went? I’ll just stay long enough to see just what kind of devices we’re dealing with, and report back to you guys.”

That seemed to make sense, so Persephone stealthily started out on her journey. She would have to go through some open space on her way across to that part of the jungle, but no one was guarding that area and the trees themselves obscured her from being seen by them. Swiftly she made her way across, and when she had reached the jungle section, she waved to her friends to let them know she had made it.

The jungle quickly opened into a small clearing, nicely finished with a floor made of smooth stones. Persephone also took note of the path that Discord and Shane had taken, and of the crab that was apparently there to guard the place. Taking a quick view of the clearing, she saw the aforementioned “devices” that were vital to this ceremony. There were five positioned in a circle around the edges of the clearing, each apparently having slots to hold three crystals. The holders looked almost organic; slender limbs curled upward to make room for the actual holder, glowing a transparent blue. They reminded Persephone of an intricate lamp of sorts, the holders for the crystals being like places for light bulbs.

The guard crab had his back turned to her at the moment, and Persephone took the opportunity to dash over to the one lamp that currently held the first crystal. Reaching out and taking hold of the object, Persephone tugged at it; but it didn’t budge. The crystal was very securely placed, and she simply couldn’t get the thing out. She would have tried some more, but the guard was just turning in her direction. Jumping quickly back into the jungle, Persephone swiftly went back to report to her friends.

* * *
“ that’s what I found out,” Persephone finished telling her tale.

“Oh yes, I’ve heard of these crystals,” Protius commented. “I believe they were once used to focus ambient atmospheric energy into a more useable form by some ancient culture which is long since disappeared.”

“That doesn’t really help us, though,” Clever Clover pondered.

“If we cannot take a crystal once it has been placed, we would need to intercept one before they had a chance to take it to the clearing,” Luge suggested.

Clever Clover frowned in thought. “If we waited until another squid came in at that north bay, we might be able to get the crystal away from it if we could cause a distraction to keep Shane and Discord away.”

“And then hide the crystal in the forest; they won’t be able to complete the ritual without it,” Persephone finished eagerly.

“Does anyone have any other ideas?” Luge questioned.

After everyone had slowly shook their heads, Persephone leaned forward. “Okay, now here’s what we’re all going to do...”

* * *
The four carefully made their way toward the north bay. Once they had assured themselves that no one had noticed their presence, Luge and Clever Clover went on to the other side of the bay to create a distraction when the next squid came in. Protius was left further inland, as he couldn’t run as well as the others in case of emergency; and Persephone waited on the edge of the forest to run out and swipe the crystal when the time came.

When the next squid came in to deliver a crystal, everyone readied themselves for their part in the plan. Luge let out an ear-splitting scream while Clever Clover snapped some twigs in two and shook the foliage off the trees; it made a satisfactory ruckus, and both Shane and Discord centered their attention on what was happening there. Seeing this, Luge and Clever Clover took off into the forest to let Persephone do her part.

While those two were distracted, Persephone dashed out into the open and tackled Shane onto the ground. Being taken off guard, Shane made it easy for Persephone to wrestle the crystal from his grasp. Getting what she had come for, she ran back to the forest.

Discord, though, was on the ready; as she turned to go, he held up his heavy staff and prepared to bring it down over her head. Persephone was on the lookout, however, and anticipated this move, dodging at the last moment. The Krulotin was trained well, and Discord was no match for her. Before he had time to strike again, she was gone.

“Maru! Take your crabs and track her down!” Shane hollered to his pet. “Get the crystal!!”

Maru nodded obediently and went off with a regiment; but Persephone was nowhere to be found.

* * *
In a short while, Persephone had met back up with Clever Clover and Luge at their designated meeting spot where they had left their parrot companion. “Where’s Protius?” Persephone frowned, seeing that he was nowhere to be seen.

“He doesn’t seem to be here,” Luge said in concern. “It’s not like him to go against a plan like that.”

“I know, but what could have happened?” Persephone’s face was filled with worry.

“Maybe some wild animal found him…” Clever Clover ventured.

“Don’t even say that,” Luge shuddered.

Just then, a horn was heard to blow from down at the beach. “Persephone Ravenwood!” Shane’s voice called. “We wish to speak with you, Ms. Ravenwood!”

“What should we do?” Luge whispered.

“I hope not, but… maybe they know or have something to do with Protius’ disappearance,” Persephone confided, carefully hiding the crystal within her cloak “It may be a trap, but we can’t risk it. Let’s go and meet him.”

The three came carefully out of their concealment and walked slowly down the beach. When their enemies came into view, they all gasped at the dreadful sight: Maru holding their feathered friend in her claw upside-down!

“Look what Maru found while out on patrol,” Shane chuckled, stepping forward.

Discord, in true salesman fashion, began laying down the facts of the situation. “Have you ever had this happen to you? You consider yourself to be a fine, upstanding hero, in total control of the situation, when the minions of evil kidnap one of your own? Of course you have! That’s why, for a limited time only, I’m willing to make a deal with you! Yes, it sounds too good to be true; but wait, there’s more! Yes, order now and we’ll send you your feathered little friend in completely undamaged condition for the low-low price of that crystal which you stole from us! But wait, there’s more! If you act right now, we’ll throw in absolutely free: your lives! I know you’re thinking it must be some kind of trick, but it’s not. That’s right, all this for the mere cost of one little crystal. You get your friend and your lives to do with as you please. Act now; offer expires while you wait!”

“You don’t leave me many options,” Persephone said dryly.

“That’s the point,” Shane laughed cruelly.

“Don’t do it!” Protius cried from his uncomfortable position. “If they get the crystal, there will be no stopping the Ponies of the Apocalypse!”

“And if I don’t, they’ll send you to the next dimension!” Persephone said grievously.

“Be quiet,” Shane snapped.

“Yes… but I can’t let them get away with this…” Persephone bit her lip.

* * *
Pierre, moving equipment around on the ship, was suddenly startled by a small “eep!” emitted as he stepped upon a tarp.

“Vos?” he questioned, stopping and turning around. “Tarps do not ‘eep’.” Stooping, he picked up the covering and peered underneath. “Ah-hah!” he declared, understanding lighting his face. “We have a stowaway!”

“I really hope you’re not planning on sending me into the next dimension,” the young aqua mare pleaded with the lizard man. “You see, I’m a reporter, and when I saw your group in Dream Valley, I thought it might make a good story to find out more about what you were doing, and well...”

“Ahh, so you’re saying you want to interview me?” Pierre said brightly. “Well, I don’t usually grant this privilege to everyone I run across; but in this case, I’ll make an exception.”

“Wow!” Kyrene was surprised by such a warm welcome. “That’s great. So, what exactly are you doing here?” She had her pen poised upon a pad of paper, ready to write.

“I, fair maiden, am guarding the ship, from invaders most hostile!” Pierre declared.

“And why do they mean to invade the ship?” Kyrene queried.

“Because we mean to stop them!”

“Oooookay. Who else is here with you right now?”

“Davey and Jones, the fearless sailing Bushwoolie brothers of Calimidad Island! And Spike, the bloodthirsty fire-breathing dragon of Dream Valley!”

“That sounds impressive. But exactly what are you doing here?”

Pierre, looking puzzled, replied, “Um, we’re guarding the ship. I already told you that.”

“But no, I mean, what is the ship doing here? What are you doing here? How did this all start?”

“Ahh!” Pierre realized suddenly, his face brightening with recognition. “It all began fourteen years ago in the Kingdom of the Dakytins. I was born to a poor peasant family on the outskirts of the fruit orchards. At the tender age of one week, I was kicked out of the house to fend for myself.”

“That’s terrible!” Kyrene gasped.

“No it’s not. All Dakytins are kicked out after a week,” Pierre said. “That’s the way we do things. But anyway, I wandered aimlessly until I was taken in to be apprenticed by...”

* * *
Several hours later, Kyrene, bored out of her skull, was still seated in the cargo hold listening. She had long ago given up taking notes on the lizard-man’s life history. “...and that brings us up to this moment here,” Pierre finished with a flourish.

“But you still didn’t tell me who you’re here to stop,” Kyrene prodded, slightly exasperated.

“Oh, we’re here to stop the Ponies of the Apocalypse and their diabolical minions! If that’s all you wanted to know, why didn’t you just ask sooner?”

“The Ponies of the Apocalypse?” Kyrene gasped. “Tell me more! Is the world in danger?” She scribbled on her pad furiously.

“Oh yes, terrible danger. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to my duties,” Pierre excused himself, at once wandering off elsewhere on the ship.

Kyrene, now left alone, decided to hunt up some of the others left aboard; perhaps they could give her more useful information than this Pierre had. Up on the main deck, she caught sight of a cute little baby dragon.

“Are you Spike?” she asked tentatively, walking up to him.

“Who are you?” Spike eyed her with interest.

“I’m a reporter,” Kyrene introduced herself professionally, not bothering to explain that she was a stowaway as well. “From the newspaper. Would you like to answer a few questions?”

“Sure,” Spike shrugged. “What?”

“What do you know about the Ponies of the Apocalypse? What is happening?” Kyrene asked heatedly.

“Oh, the Ponies of the Apocalypse,” Spike recalled. “Yeah, I don’t really know what they’re doing or what’s happening, but it sounded awfully exciting and I just had to come along.”

“Is there anyone here who could give me more information?” Kyrene demanded.

“Davey and Jones are working over there,” Spike suggested cooperatively, pointing. “Maybe they can help.”

“Thanks,” Kyrene sighed, strolling off.

Davey and Jones were found pulling a rope through a pulley, trying to bring a huge bundle of gear out of the hold of the ship. It had just cleared the hatch when Kyrene came up behind them. “Hey, are you Davey and Jones?”

One of them looked at her suspiciously. “Yeah, who’re you?”

“I’m Kyrene, a reporter. I was just wondering if I could ask you a few questions.”

Both their faces lighted with excitement and in unison screamed out “YEAH!”, at the same time letting go of the rope. The bundle went crashing back down into the hold, but the Bushwoolies completely ignored it. “What do you want to know?”

“Could you tell me something about the Ponies of the Apocalypse?” Kyrene prodded.

“Yeah, yeah! Mon, no problem!” Davey said agreeably.

“It all started when Barnacle found this treasure map,” Jones explained.

“Yeah, yeah!” his brother agreed. “So we sailed to this island, and the Bushwoolies of the Apocalypse stole the Lucas!”

“Bushwoolies of the Apocalypse?” Kyrene gasped.

“Yeah, yeah! So they went to Skull Island.”

“And then Kracken had to use a squid to get us there!”

“But we blew ‘em up in a cave!”

“And they sank the Lucas!”

At this, both Davey and Jones stopped a moment to sob a bit at the memory.

“But then we built this new ship,” Davey continued.

“And we came here!” Jones continued.

“And that’s the whole story, mon!” Davey finished.

“Yeah, yeah!”

Kyrene was beginning to regret ever coming on this adventure. She was just about to thank the two brothers for their time and leave them be when Pierre cried from above, “To arms! To arms! We’re under attack!”

Davey and Jones immediately panicked, and tried to run somewhere for cover; but they only succeeded in running into each other head first, and fell flat on the deck.

“Man, I really shouldn’t have come on this adventure,” Kyrene sighed.

* * *
Tabby and her group, however, found themselves on relatively familiar ground. “It looks just like the Dark Forest,” Tabby marveled, gazing up at the majestic trees that surrounded them on all sides.

“I believe you are correct,” Dreamcatcher said solemnly. “Indeed, it is the Dark Forest. I recognize this place.”

“Well, where do we go from here?” Equinox said impatiently. “I thought there was a ritual to stop.”

“Tabby, you must hurry,” Kaliope’s spirit spoke urgently.

“Oh! Kaliope! You’re still here!” Tabby realized.

“Yes, I am; but time is of the essence, as there is a life at stake in this dark ritual which you must stop,” Kaliope counseled.

“The queen is speaking to you again?” Dreamcatcher asked seriously.

“Uh-huh. And she says to go... that way.”

* * *
Meanwhile, at the site of the ceremony, a certain baby pony was throwing a fit that her captors wouldn’t soon forget. “You can’t sacrifice me! I got magic, too! I won’t let you!” Baby Noddins fought, straining against her bonds. “I’m a unicorn! I got magic powers!”

The Skeleton King only laughed at her as he tugged her along by the ropes that held her hooves together. “Foolish girl! What kind of powers might those be?”

“I can... I can...” Baby Noddins furrowed her brow. Actually, she had yet to discover her magic power; at this moment it was completely unknown to her. “I’ll...”

Chuckling, the Skeleton King laid the struggling baby pony out on the stone table which was set at the center of the forest clearing. “Who knows, Zanatos,” he spoke to the Bushwoolie of the Apocalypse that was there with him. “Maybe she can poke us with her horn.”

“I’ll show you!” Baby Noddins shouted furiously. “I do got magic! I can... I can... summon up hordes a little fuzzy bunny rabbits!” The thought had come to her at the spur of the moment. Baby Noddins had no proof at all that this was her power, but she hoped it had sounded intimidating.

Zanatos and the Skeleton King had a good laugh over this, and Baby Noddins only grew more angry at them. “BUNNIES! COME OUT AND HELP ME!!!!” she shouted at the top of her lungs, hoping that indeed she could summon up bunnies.

Amazingly, her horn started to glow; and out of nowhere, scores of fuzzy bunnies began pouring into the clearing. Soon they had covered everything, and the ones closest to Baby Noddins began gnawing at the ropes that tied her down.

The Skeleton King promptly went into action, however. Waving his golden staff in the air, he stood before the gathered lagomorphs and declared, “Bunnies of magic, you shall now serve me! Prevent the girl from escaping!”

Immediately, a strange thing happened. The bunnies began to change their appearance. Soft fur melted away into cold, hard bones; and now they looked at Baby Noddins with vengeance in their eyes.

“MY BUNNIES!!!!” Baby Noddins shrieked. “What did you do to my bunnies??? You’re MEAN, Mr. Skeleton King!”

The army of skeletal bunnies now swarmed over Baby Noddins, and Zanatos took his place at the head of the table with a dagger in his hand. Baby Noddins let out a deafening scream when–

Baby Noddins!!! What in the world are you doing here?” Tabby blustered impatiently, suddenly appearing out of the forest.

“Let the child go,” Dreamcatcher said briskly, coming up beside Tabby. “She is not a part of this.”

This interruption caused both Zanatos and the Skeleton King to look up, and Baby Noddins was relieved. “TWABBY!!!!” she screamed out. “SWAVE ME!!!!!” The bunnies, though, promptly covered her mouth so that no more sounds could be emitted.

Equinox promptly took off running into the horde of bunnies and towards Baby Noddins, but the bunnies swarmed around his ankles. Losing his balance, he toppled to the ground.

Dreamcatcher went next, but the Skeleton King intercepted her. Wielding his golden rod, he dealt her a powerful blow to her midsection. Dreamcatcher stumbled backwards, momentarily dazed.

Luckily, before the Skeleton King had a chance to do any further damage to the Native Pony, Equinox had managed to right himself and tackled the skeleton to the ground. “Thanks,” Dreamcatcher gasped.

“Fool! You’ll never be able to defeat me!” the Skeleton King hollered, writhing on the forest floor with Equinox. “Zanatos! Do something!”

This brought Tabby’s attention to the Bushwoolie of the Apocalypse still standing near Baby Noddins. It might be a good idea to get him away from the victim. She dashed forward, but as they had done to Equinox, the bunnies swiftly tripped her to the ground.

Tabby yelped, but inspiration suddenly hit her. “You thought you could put me down, didn’t you, didn’t you?” she said craftily. Just as the bunnies began leaping onto her body and smothering her, the unicorn mysteriously vanished from beneath them.

“Hi, guys,” Tabby waved cheerfully from the other side of the clearing where the stone table was situated. “Tough luck, huh?”

“Those darn unicorns and their winking,” Zanatos grumbled, picking up his staff. “Get away, or–“

”Not so fast!” Catching the Bushwoolie off guard, Tabby swept him up in her hooves and threw him flying through the air, hitting his head on a tree and falling dazed to the ground. Tabby would let the others deal with him and the Skeleton King; now that there wasn’t so much competition around, she would have an easier time of freeing Baby Noddins.

Alas, she underestimated the power of the bunnies. They began leaping upon her back, and for each one she managed to hit to the ground, it seemed like two more appeared. Soon she was overtaken by them, and went rolling to the ground, struggling against the demonic lagomorphs.

“Tabby, the knife!” Kaliope spoke to Tabby urgently.

“The knife!” Zanatos yelped at the same moment, breaking away from Equinox’s grasp and diving towards the spot where he had left it.

“Give it back, you–“ Tabby screamed, breaking free of the bunnies and taking a dramatic leap forward. They both reached the object at the same time and fought for ownership.

Zanatos managed to wrestle it away from Tabby, but she impulsively swatted it from his hand. The item went skidding across the ground, making frenzied bunnies jump out of its way.

“Idiot!” Zanatos yelled, grabbing his staff firmly and proceeding to hit it over Tabby’s head. She stumbled backwards, and was slammed into the altar. Zanatos made a run for the knife, but both Equinox and Dreamcatcher saw this move and tried to intercept him. The bunnies were too much for them, though.

Zanatos was so intent on getting the knife back that he was unaware that Tabby had actually gone to work untying the victim. Dreamcatcher tried to keep Zanatos back unsuccessfully, while Equinox kept the Skeleton King at bay.

“Yes!” Zanatos rejoiced, the knife now in his hand. He held it up high. “Now nothing can stop me!” Not wasting any time, the Bushwoolie turned to the stone altar and recklessly plunged the sharp dagger downwards...

...only to hit solid rock. “WHAT?” he screamed in outrage, seeing that his quarry was gone. He glanced around frantically. Where could the baby pony have gone?

“I guess we’ll just be leaving now,” Tabby waved cheerfully from the woodline with Baby Noddins by her side. “Buh-bye!”

“Twabby, will my bwunnies be okay?” Baby Noddins whined. “What’s gonna happen to them?”

“Shut up,” Tabby hissed. “We’ll talk about it later.”

“No!” the Skeleton King hollered as Equinox and Dreamcatcher trotted to join their companions, and in the process dropped his wand. “Bunnies, get them!”

Alas, now that his wand was dropped, the magic that had affected the beasts was no longer with them. Skeletal bunnies turned back to sweet fuzzy pets, and hopped off innocently into the woods.

“YAY!!! My bunnies are saved!” Baby Noddins yelled as Tabby and the others pulled her back into the forest.

“Come baaaaaaaaack!” both the Skeleton King and Zanatos hollered, but it was too late. The adventurers had already disappeared, and with an integral part of the ritual with them.

* * *
From his perch in the crow’s nest, Pierre could see the attack coming from quite some distance off. It only took him a few seconds to grab a rope and swing down to the deck, but the invaders were moving so quickly that they were already swarming towards the dock by the time he made it there. None of them were more than a foot tall, but thousands of them came scurrying, with the flapping of their bare feet on stone beating out a marching cadence for their haphazard charge.

“Ewww,” Kyrene gasped. “What are those?!”

“Imps, my dear lady!” Pierre declared with a smile as he drew his sword with one hand and grabbed hold of a rope with another. Swinging across to the dock, he placed himself right in the creatures’ path, heedless of the danger these small green-skinned, yellow-eyed, sharp-clawed, pointed-eared little goblins presented to him. Drawing his other sword, he added, “You foul beasts, I challenge you to combat!”

The imps, however, were unimpressed by his bravado and simply swarmed around Pierre, ignoring him entirely. “Have you no honor?!” Pierre cried. “Turning your backs to me, indeed!”

“Heh-heh,” one of the imps laughed. “We’ll git you after we send this boat to the next dimension with all you aboard!”

Some of the creatures had already made it to the gangplank and would soon make it on board if something was not done quickly. Fortunately, Spike had seen this and was already taking care of it in his own unique manner. Blowing out a burst of flame over the plank sent the imps diving off the sides to avoid getting burned.

Unfortunately, Pierre had lunged to catch some of the invaders, unaware of what the dragon was up to. He had to roll out of the way to avoid a face full of flame, but this sent him tumbling over the side of the dock.

“Whoops,” Spike muttered as he peered over the railing to see if his friend had survived. But just as he bent over the side, Pierre came swinging up on a rope and landed lightly on the railing.

“HA-HA,” he laughed. “You creatins will have to do worse than that to do me in!”

“But I did that,” Spike told him.

“No time for that now,” Pierre said as he grabbed hold of another rope and swung out over the side of the ship again. “Now is a time for action!”

With their main means of boarding the ship cut off by fire, the imps now began to leap across the gap between the boat and the dock and grabbed hold of the deck railing. But, from his new position, Pierre was now able to kick the invading imps overboard– a task he carried out with great zeal.

“Spike, more invaders at the bow!” Pierre laughed as he pointed towards the front of the ship. “Don’t let them aboard!”

“Aye-aye, sir,” Spike replied with a little salute before hurrying to take care of trouble there. But as he arrived, he found that there were simply too many of the things to push off into the water. As he would grab ahold of one to hurl it back, two more would swarm past. Growing frustrated with his progress, the baby dragon instinctively lashed out with the only thing he could think of– fire!

This had a much better effect on the imps, and most of them jumped back in fear. Unfortunately, this was not the wisest of combat tactics for use on a wooden ship. Spike realized this too late, however; and by the time he noticed something amiss, great sections of rigging in the area were already blazing out of control.

Pierre, too busy swinging from place to place knocking imps overboard, failed to notice this small problem. Currently he was balanced on a yard arm high above the deck locked in combat with a small but particularly energetic imp who was somehow managing to wield a full-size rapier with an inhuman level of skill. Calling to some of his friends, the imp hopped up on their shoulders so that together they formed a wobbly tower of swaying goblins!

“Ah-ha!” Pierre laughed as he parried a blow from his opponents. “Your power level is nearly as high as mine!”

“Nearly?” the imp cackled. “I think you’ll still find it more than enough to send you to the next dimension!”

But while Pierre was oblivious to the flames, someone else was not.

“Argh! Not gonna let this happen again!” Jones cried in panic as he tossed a bucket of water on some of the flames.

“Nope-nope!” his brother agreed whole-heartedly as he, too, tossed water on the blaze.

At first, after having run into each other, the two brothers had lain on the deck, stunned even after the fighting started. But, at the fist sound of fire, they were up and about putting out flames wherever they found them. Scurrying here and there, the Bushwoolies didn’t even stop to catch their breath as they carried out their tireless duty.

Meanwhile, as they were doing all that, Kyrene went running across the deck to find cover in the cabin in the back. “Help, help!” she yelped along the way. Finally, she pulled the door open and flung herself inside.

“I’m safe!” she breathed; but she spoke too soon. One of the imps apparently had already found his way into the cabin, and Kyrene discovered herself cornered by the hissing beast. She was very scared and didn’t know what to expect from an imp, and she groped around frantically trying to find a suitable weapon. Her hoof fell upon her pen, and she remembered– she hadn’t become a reporter by cowering in a corner whimpering!

“So, tell me,” she said craftily, whipping out her trusty paper and pen. “What’s it like to work for a diabolical force of evil?”

“Huh?” The imp paused, surprised by her response.

“I’d like to interview you, if it isn’t a problem,” Kyrene explained serenely.

“Oh, okay.” Obligingly, the imp sat down on a roll of maps that was on Barnacle’s desk. “So what was that you asked?”

“What’s it like to work for a diabolical force of evil?” Kyrene repeated, looking at him eagerly. Maybe she could get more out of him than she had with the others.

“Oh, the pay’s not so great, but you can’t beat the hours,” the imp replied. “Plus, they have a great dental plan!”

“Why exactly have you been sent here?” Kyrene persisted.

“Oh, the bosses said we have to sink the ship and send everyone on it to the next dimension,” the imp explained cheerfully.

While chatting with him, Kyrene had continued to grope around behind her, hoping to find something that would be useful. Finally her hoof fell upon a loose board, and she gripped it securely.

“,” the imp was explaining when suddenly Kyrene reared up and hit him squarely over the head with the massive bulk of wood.

“This interview is over!!” she cried triumphantly, and took off out the door. “Watch out, you imps! Prepare to be sent to the next dimension!!!!” Running across the deck, she swung her board haphazardly, to and fro, whacking imps senseless.

When presented with this aggression, the imps decided that it might be best to cut their losses at that point and flee with their lives. They ran down the deck screaming, “She’s mad! Run!” The whole host of imps scurried away in front of her like a tidal wave, flinging themselves overboard rather than face the wrath of Kyrene.

Swinging down from above, Pierre looked rather disappointed at the development and cried, “Come back here, you gutter-crawling curs!” Grabbing another rope, he swung over the dock, dropped lightly to the ground, and gave chase to the remaining imps, calling after them as he did.

“Wait!” Spike squealed, seeing the fleeing imps and lizard. Promptly he followed after his comrade.

With all the fires on the ship extinguished, Davey and Jones now had an opportunity to sit back and see what was going on. But, upon catching sight of Spike and Pierre running from the ship, they ran down the gangplank after them, laughing and giggling as they went.

Kyrene breathed a sigh of relief as she stood alone on the forward deck. “Whew, I’m glad that’s over,” she said, until she realized that she had been abandoned. “HEY!” she shrieked. “Don’t leave me! Wait!” And so, Kyrene gave chase to the others, waving her board over her head wildly, leaving the ship deserted.

* * *
Tamara cried out in utter terror as a feline warrior charged her position. So far the battle had not been going well for the defenders, and more than once the enemy had managed to breach the walls of the fort. In itself this did not mean very much, but when one considered the fact that to get inside the fort one had to first get past the ranks of Krulotin surrounding it, it meant that things where not going well at all. This lone individual who had stopped Tamara was one of these that had managed to find a way inside the perimeter; but fortunately he was one of only a very few.

At the moment, however, this information would not have calmed Tamara in the least, considering that she was soon to find herself on the receiving end of a sharp lance. Suddenly, from a stone ledge above, someone dropped like lightning from the sky and in a motion too quick for the eye to follow, dealt the attacker a vicious blow to the back of his head.

It took the dazed unicorn a moment to realize that it was Malteeze who had just saved her. He appeared to be asking if she was alright, but over the sounds of battle, she couldn’t really make out any of his words. She was about to thank him for the rescue, but her gratitude went unspoken as two more invaders tackled Malteeze from the side, and he disappeared from her field of vision.

Momentarily, one of the enemy felines flew past Tamara to land in an unconscious heap, followed close behind by a loud thud from the second. Stepping back into view, Malteeze looked down at Tamara and instructed, “Crawl back in that crack as far as you can get and don’t come out for anything.”

Before she could reply, he was gone again. There was still much battle remaining to be fought and that left no time for gratitude or chit-chat. That could wait until afterwards– if there was an afterwards.

Meanwhile, at the west wall of the fort, Barnacle and Cliff were right in the thick of things. The Krulotin forces had been pushed back all the way to the outer wall of the fort, and still the Warlords sent more troops. This battle seemed to be in no way close to finished.

The pirate hopped from boulder to boulder, crossing steel with any intruder that got as far as him. He had taken it upon himself to defend that section of wall and ensure that no one got past him. So far he had done an acceptable job of it, but there were just so many of them that no matter how hard he fought, some of them still got around him. But that was were Cliff came in. He was no experienced fighter, but he had been given a sword and he was more than capable of watching Barnacle’s back. This, however, was no easy task either since they both had to move back and forth along the perimeter in unison, or one of them would be left unguarded and defenseless.

“ARR, I don’t be knowin’ how much longer we kin keep this up!” Barnacle cried to his young comrade as he kicked an angry feline off of a rock.

“Hey! Maybe we won’t have to worry about it,” Cliff replied jubilantly and pointed out at the field of battle. “It looks like they’re leaving.”

“ARR.” It did indeed look like the feline hordes were falling back, but Barnacle didn’t like the look of it for some reason.

“I’m afraid your observation may be a little premature, friend,” Nickto said as he walked up behind the ponies.

“Huh? What do you mean? It sure looks like they’re leavin’,” Cliff replied. Sitting down on the stone on which he had been standing, he took advantage of the lull in the battle to get off his hooves.

“We haven’t beaten them,” Nickto replied. “Not by a long shot. They still have the advantage in numbers and supplies. Right now they are most likely regrouping for the final assault. This doesn’t look good, my friends.”

“ARR, I agree, but there must be something we can do...” Barnacle suggested.

“We attack now!” Suddenly, from out of nowhere, Malteeze stepped up to the group. “It is the last thing they will expect, and we will catch them off guard.”

“A noble strategy, Malteeze,” Nickto replied. “But it has no hope of victory.”

“Waiting here for them to return has even less,” Malteeze replied. “At least we would go down fighting on our own terms.”

“You may have a point...”

Malteeze nodded and then continued, “When I served as Rosweld’s First Prime, we won many battles, but the majority of the fighting was not fought on the battle field; it was fought in the mind. Oftentimes, the mere mention of battle with the Warlord Brothers’ Feline Hordes would be enough to make our opponents surrender. They now expect us to be afraid and cower as we wait for them to finish us off; but if we strike now, it will be the last thing they would ever expect.”

Nickto silently stroked his beard as he weighted these options. None of the choices he had were easy to go with, but something had to be done. Finally he spoke, “How long do you think we have before they attack again?”

“Fifteen– maybe twenty minutes,” Malteeze replied gravely.

Still deep in thought, Nickto said, “Yes, ready the troops; we attack them in seven.”

Malteeze nodded as he backed off; and then he was gone, off to organize the attack. They would have to act quickly and their preparations would have to be disguised as their own regrouping of forces. If the felines were to realize what the heroes were planning, they could easily raise a defense in little time and the entire assault would be for nothing.

As it was, Malteeze managed to move all the remaining Krulotin forces around to the north side of the fort were they would be facing the enemy. This he did very quickly and without being too obvious. When word was sent back to Nickto that all was ready, only five minutes had passed since the order had been given.

Cliff, Barnacle, Malteeze, and Nickto gathered on one particularly large stone overlooking the troops and took a brief moment to catch their breath.

“Friends,” Nickto said in the most serious of tones, “you have all fought bravely and no one here doubts your bravery in the least; but in the coming battle, things will most likely not go well. None of you are warriors, so no one would ever think less of you if you decided not to fight.”

“ARR, that’s awful kind o’ yah, general, but it’s all the same; I’m gonna stay and fight tah the bitter end,” Barnacle replied.

“If we don’t stop them here, there will be nothing left to stop them when they march on the entire world with the full might of the Ponies of the Apocalypse behind them. I cannot stand by and let these monsters do this, not when I helped them do the same so many times before,” Malteeze added.

“I’m in, too,” Cliff declared boldly. “I may not be as good at this as you guys, but I gotta do something when the fate of the world is in the balance!”

Setting a large paw on the young pony’s shoulder, Malteeze said to him, “While your bravery is unmatched, I think what the general said may apply to you. War is no place for the young.”


”Stay here and protect Tamara,” the cat-man instructed. “Stay out of sight, and there is a chance they won’t find you.”

After a moment of silence, Cliff replied with a grudging, “Okay.”

“Then it’s decided,” Nickto said as he stood, drew his sword, and pointed it out at the enemy. “Charge!!!”

And with no further hesitation, the army of Krulotin moved across the field in a great spearhead. They fell upon the surprised and tired Feline Hordes and drove a wedge right through the center of their forces. With their formations smashed, the felines were cast into disarray; but still the battle was intense.

Slowly, the initial momentum from that first charge began to wane as the Krulotin were worn down on all sides by the vastly superior numbers of the enemy. It was a valiant effort, but one ultimately destined to fail...

But then the felines fell back.

The heroes were left dumbstruck by this strange turn of events and stopped in the heat of battle to watch in awe as the Warlords’ forces retreated and disappeared over the northern ridge.

From the highest rampart of the ruined fort, Cliff jumped into the air enthusiastically crying, “Yes, we did it!”

Down on the field of battle, Barnacle, who could barely lift his sword any longer, looked on in disbelief. “ARR, they’re leavin’? Why? They had us beat.”

“Something is not right. They had the advantage of numbers. They would have crushed us if they had kept up their assault!” Malteeze cried out. “This makes no sense!”

“You’re right. Even with their losses, they still outnumber us,” Nickto added.

As the last remnants of the Feline Hordes retreated up the slopes of the grassy hill, four individuals stood motionless in their midst. The ranks of troops parted around them and it was not until the last of the soldiers had passed that these persons could be identified.

There stood Aries and the three brothers, looking down at the smashed army of the Krulotin– laughing...

“What’s going on?”

“We win,” Fireball stated simply.

“So why pull your troops back?” Malteeze demanded. “We were as good as defeated!”

“We didn’t need to defeat you,” Gelli replied with a thin smile. “This ritual needed for a meaningful battle of survival to be fought on these ancient fields.”

“And you have allowed us to do just that,” Rosweld added gloatingly. “Thank you.”


“It can’t be.”

And as the Warlords rode off over the ridge, the heroes were left to contemplate their dire situation and to hope beyond all hope that the other groups fared better than they.

* * *
“Foolish mortal,” Nur-Ab-Fin growled, gripping Thomas in one of his large robotic hands. “You thought you could take me on, alone and unarmed? Hah! You’re more clueless than I thought.”

“Don’t be so sure about that,” Thomas said menacingly. “It’s a good thing I decided to bring this along!” Reaching down, he suddenly brought up an object that was familiar to both of them. Nur-Ab-Fin laughed uproariously.

“That silly whale medallion will get you nowhere,” he chuckled. “It will be a cinch to finish you off.”

“It worked pretty good... last time,” Thomas declared, struggling in the robot’s grip. “But it’s going to be different now, because I’ll be using those powers against you to send you into the next dimension once and for all!”

“That’s big talk for one who possesses a worthless trinket,” Nur-Ab-Fin snorted. “You are an ignorant one.”

“What do you mean... by that?”

Nur-Ab-Fin howled with laughter, and with relish went on to explain. “I no longer have anything to do with that antique medallion. It’s useless now as an item of magic. I was inspiring those powers to come forth out of it before. On your own, you’ll never get a thing out of it!” The demented spirit began tightening his grip on the fragile pony body.

“I don’t believe it,” Thomas said cooly, though he was beginning to get worried. He had been depending on this medallion, which had mysteriously come into his possession, when he challenged Nur-Ab-Fin to battle; but what if the spirit was telling the truth? He had a sinking feeling in his stomach. “You’re only trying to make me give up.”

“Hah-hah-hah!” Nur-Ab-Fin laughed. “Go on then, try it. I’ll be merciful. Go on, try.” He dropped Thomas to the ground, and looked at him expectantly.

Thomas had serious doubts now, but... it couldn’t hurt to try, could it? Holding the whale medallion high, he yelled out, “Tidal-wave smash!

Nur-Ab-Fin stood, feigning boredom, as Thomas attempted the attack. Confident that it wouldn’t do a thing, he prepared himself to move in for the kill. As it was, he was utterly surprised, confused, and mystified as a large wave of water suddenly emerged from the ground and enveloped him, bowling him over to the ground.

Thomas himself was surprised by the result, but he was filled with a fresh spirit of confidence. Obviously Nur-Ab-Fin had only been trying to scare him off!

“But– but– that’s impossible!” the robot-spirit spluttered, trying to right himself. “You couldn’t– you can’t–“

”But obviously I did,” Thomas said imperturbably.

“I had unleashed those powers from the amulet!” Nur-Ab-Fin howled. “That idiot Lamachus couldn’t even operate the thing, until I stole it from him! After I left it, it should have become useless– useless!!!” Filled with fury, Nur-Ab-Fin took a step forward. “Give it to me! Now!”

“A moment ago you said it was just a useless trinket,” Thomas said lightly, winking out of his way.

“Your powers must be great if you can unleash the powers yourself,” Nur-Ab-Fin said menacingly. “You, not even knowing what your true heritage is! The necklace should be mine!!!” He swiped at Thomas, but Thomas was quick to react...

“Crustacean clamp!” he shouted, and Nur-Ab-Fin promptly found himself covered from head to toe with a restricting shell of crustaceans.

“You can’t hold me like this!” Nur-Ab-Fin shrieked, breaking out of the casing with ease. “Now you will meet your doom!”

“If you can catch me,” Thomas said craftily, winking to the opposite side of the grain pile.

“Why, you–“ Nur-Ab-Fin went crashing right through the pile to get at his prey, spraying up particles of wheat in every which direction.

Tiny didn’t seem to notice a thing, and went right on devouring, mindless of what his agent was up to.

* * *
Meanwhile, Solstice and Hubert had run into trouble as they made their way through the wheat field. A robotic bug who had strayed from the main group had spotted the intruders and landed in front of them, buzzing ominously.

“What do we do now?” Solstice gulped.

“Stay still, and don’t make any loud noises,” Hubert whispered.

This didn’t help matters any, though, because the bug slowly began advancing towards them, clicking its front pinchers together.

“Hubert...” Solstice whispered.

“We’ll stand and fight it,” Hubert said confidently.

“With what?”

“With this stake.” Hubert held up a fairly sturdy small log that would make a primitive but potentially potent weapon. “I found it in the field away back, and thought I’d pick it up just in case.”

The robot drone was nearly upon them now, and Hubert brandished his weapon menacingly. He pushed Solstice aside moments before the pinchers lashed out at them; Hubert himself jumped over the deadly protrusions and dealt the bug a nasty blow over the head. The robot was stunned momentarily, its circuits temporarily scrambled.

“There’s more coming!” Solstice alerted, pointing up in the sky. A full regiment of robotic drones were on their way, most assuredly to expel these pests from the field. In hardly no time at all, they were upon the two ponies. Hubert tried to remain steady atop the first bug and lashed out at the others as they flew over, but was soon thrown to the ground.

“Make a run for it, Solstice!” he yelled. “Get to the forest!”

“No, not yet!” Solstice screamed back. “I don’t want to split up more than we already have! Besides, you could never take these alone!”

“I doubt that the two of us can, either!”

“We can try!” Hitting recklessly at bugs as they closed in on her, Solstice saw a means of escape. A drone was flying directly above her, and very low to the ground. She judged the distance and expertly leaped upwards, grabbing onto its underbelly.

“See if you can maneuver it to the grove!” Hubert conveyed, trying to fight off the threatening drones singlehoofedly.

But Solstice had other plans. Taking a deep breath, she swung her back legs down and back up again, dealing the robot bug a hard blow. Part of his paneling fell off, revealing his mechanical workings. A few loose sparks escaped, and Solstice watched as they descended to the ground, hoping they would do the trick.

The sun-dried wheat made a prime fire starter, and the sparks ignited it upon contact. Solstice held her breath and hoped it wouldn’t go out. The fire spread down the stalk of wheat, and then latched onto some of its neighbors. It had worked, but she and Hubert would have to get out of here fast.

The bug she was hanging onto was still stunned from the blow and was no longer too interested in the fleshling attached to it. Solstice managed to climb up on the thing’s back, and went searching for a control panel or anything else of the sort.

Finding the controls, she adroitly switched a few wires around, and smiled with satisfaction. Now she was in control of the robot! Swiftly, she maneuvered it over to Hubert, who had become aware of the spreading fire. “Jump on!” she shouted, coming down lower.

“Good job!” Hubert congratulated her, leaping on without a problem. “Clever idea to start the fire with the drones themselves, and to reprogram one to aid us. This field is going down quickly, so let’s find Kracken and Thomas and get out of here!”

* * *
“Thomas!” Kracken cried, emerging from the wheat onto the battlefield. “Stop! You’ve got to get away!”

“I’m not done here yet,” Thomas stated just as another powerful water attack hit Nur-Ab-Fin. However, he momentarily lost his concentration as he glanced back at Kracken.

Nur-Ab-Fin had managed to dodge the attack, and saw that his opponent was distracted. The robot moved in to deal Thomas a mighty blow. “Hey, get out of the way!” Kracken shouted, leaping forward to defend his companion. Drawing his sword, he intercepted Nur-Ab-Fin just in time and, holding his sword aloft, parried the blow.

“Out of the way, cretin! This fight is between me and him!” Nur-Ab-Fin cried in his metallic baritone.

“Wrong,” Kracken said definitely as he sidestepped and slashed his sword across the robot’s midsection. It had little effect other than to scratch Nur-Ab-Fin’s finish, but Kracken kept up the assault. “I don’t care what you two have against one another, but this whole situation involves everyone on the planet!”

“You couldn’t hope to grasp the gravity of this–“ Nur-Ab-Fin was starting to say when...

Jumping back to his hooves, Thomas cried out, “Shut up! SOUND SPONGE!!!” Suddenly, the robotic monstrosity before them was silent, the power of the amulet adsorbing all sound from him.

“Nice,” Kracken commented as he jumped back.

Nur-Ab-Fin seemed to be rather disorientated by this turn of events and was still trying to figure out what was wrong when Thomas summoned up another Crustacean Clamp to immobilize him. As the robot struggled to free himself, Thomas realized they had only seconds to act. “Kracken,” he cried, “hit him now!”

“Righto!” the pirate replied and charged with his sword. The sharp point of the blade struck Nur-Ab-Fin squarely in the chest and managed to penetrate deep into the body’s inner workings.

Falling forward onto his hands and knees, Nur-Ab-Fin remained stunned as sparks shot out of the wound.

“Not so big and tough now, eh?” Kracken taunted while still keeping his distance.

“Kracken! The field is on fire!” Thomas exclaimed, glancing in the direction of the blaze.

“Huh?” Kracken said as he looked up, “Then Hubert and Solstice must have–“

Just then, the two aforementioned ponies arrived on their new transportation. “Get on quick, guys!” Solstice said urgently. “We’re getting out of here!”

Nodding quickly, both Thomas and Kracken obeyed her command. Nur-Ab-Fin lunged forward with a final spasm of energy in an attempt to grab his drone and pull them all to the ground, but Solstice had quick reflexes and anticipated the move. By the time Nur-Ab-Fin would be able to repair himself, they would already be gone through the portal.

* * *
Persephone carefully weighed the options in her conscience, and finally let out a long sigh. Reluctantly, she reached into her cloak. “Here,” she said grudgingly, tossing it over to Shane. “You win.”

No!!!” Protius protested. Maru looked at him once more and then threw him back to Persephone and the others. She then scurried after Shane and Discord as the two headed back towards the clearing.

“This is the last one!” Discord declared jubilantly. “All we need to do is place it in the device and our part of the ritual is complete!” Both he and Shane began laughing uproariously, and the sound echoed ominously throughout the forest.

“Why did you give it to them?” Protius demanded, staring after the villains. “It wasn’t worth my life.”

“Nothing is worth a life,” Luge said softly.

“That’s right,” Persephone agreed. “Besides, I have a plan. But we have to work quickly. We’re going to stop them at the clearing, crabs or no crabs!”

As they hurried back through the forest, Persephone quickly outlined her plan; and as they arrived at the clearing, Discord was in the process of placing the last crystal. Thinking quickly, Luge picked a stick up from the ground and threw it at him. It hit accurately, and the Bushwoolie lost his grasp on the crystal. It went flying through the air.

It landed a short distance off in a small clump of grass. Everyone looked around at everyone’s faces as a moment of uncertainty followed. Who would make the first move?

That question was answered soon enough as a rambling crab came charging out of the woodline and picked the crystal up in its pincher. Persephone was not about to let it get away with that, so she went after it and delivered a flying karate kick to the crab’s shell. The crustacean’s feet went out from underneath it, and it fell to the ground in a heap.

The crystal it held in its claw fell out and went sliding across the cobblestoned clearing only to stop right at Discord’s feet. “Don’t turn that dial; stay tuned for world domination!” he laughed as he scooped up the crystal. But just as he turned to run in the direction of the holder, Luge charged out of the woods and tackled him to the ground.

But again, the crystal went flying through the air; and this time it landed right in Protius’ outstretched wing. The parrot was about to turn and flee, but just then Maru approached him menacingly, loudly snapping her claw. A quick glance around verified to Protius that he was surrounded, so he did the only thing he could think of. Throwing the crystal as high in the air as he could, he cried out, “Clever Clover, catch!” Several of the crabs snapped at it, but it was out of their range.

The purple pony made a valiant effort to do just that, but the philosopher’s aim had been a little off and Clever Clover had to dive to even come close. As it was, he missed it by mere inches. Scrambling across the ground to get his hoof around it, another crab suddenly shot in from the side, making a bee-line for the crystal. Lashing out, the archeologist grabbed hold of one of the crab’s legs instead and tripped it up just enough to send it to the ground.

Skidding forward, the crab bumped the object and sent it sliding once more. Persephone ran across the clearing and grabbed it in her hand as she ran past, but Discord, who was still wrestling with Luge, managed to throw his staff which got caught up in Persephone legs and sent her sprawling. Fortunately, she managed to hang onto the crystal this time; but as she scurried to the stand, something terrible happened.

“HAH!” Shane said triumphantly, suddenly appearing on the scene and plucking the crystal from Persephone’s grasp. Before anyone could stop him, he had thrust the crystal into place.

“No!” Persephone and Protius cried.

“They’ve won!” Luge gasped.

“The fiends!” Clever Clover muttered.

“Well-well, it looks like we win,” Shane declared smugly as he, Discord, and Maru made their way back down to the beach. “See you on Phalanx! Tah-tah!”

Persephone shook her sadly. “We have no choice but to go back, as well.”

* * *
Persephone stepped forth from the portal and found herself enveloped by darkness. The others stepped through a moment later, all wondering the same thing: Where were they? This was not the same place they had departed from originally on Phalanx Island, and the sound of swords being drawn all around them alerted them to potential danger.

“Wait! It’s Persephone’s group,” someone called out, followed quickly by the sound of swords being sheathed once again.

A moment later, as Persephone adjusted to the darkness, she could finally make out the forms of battle-weary Krulotin. Hubert stepped forward and asked, “Did you succeed? Did you stop them from completing their ritual?”

Looking down at the floor, Persephone said in a somber tone, “We failed.” A gasp ran through the assembled masses. “I’m sorry,” she continued. “We tried our best, but they were too powerful. What were the outcomes of the other encounters?”

In short order, all the groups compared notes; they realized that they had succeeded at only stopping the agents of the Apocalypse at half of the rituals, and the other half had been completed. “This is not good,” Protius noted. “They may not have their full power, but they still have half; and that may be enough for them to do quite a bit of damage yet.”

“Yes, I agree,” Hubert stated. “We’ll have to stop them here.”

“That could be a risky gambit,” General Nickto said as he stepped forward from out of the rank of Krulotin. “But me and all my men who returned from that battle with the Warlords are prepared to do whatever is necessary.” And then, addressing Persephone directly, he added, “I’m glad to see you made it back unharmed.”

Nodding, Persephone commented, “However, I’m a little confused. Why are we in this room? Shouldn’t the rift gates have returned us to the throne room?”

“We’re not really sure what happened,” Hubert said. “But for some reason, when we returned from our respective missions, we all found ourselves here.”

“Most peculiar,” Protius agreed.

“But where is here, exactly?” Luge spoke-up.

“ARR, it appears to be some sort a’ dry dock,” Barnacle explained, motioning to an old ship positioned behind them. It was an ancient Atlantean schooner of superb design and craftsmanship, obviously stored here in this room since the fall of the Atlantean empire. Barnacle, with his love of ships, had already investigated this treasure thoroughly, and discovered that it was still in perfect sailing shape. If he had more time, he would have liked to explore it further.

“We’ve sent out scouts to look around, and we’re still on Phalanx Island, but on the other side,” Kracken stated.

“Then I suppose we should get going; every minute we waste is just more time for the Ponies of the Apocalypse to prepare,” Thomas said.

“Outrageous!” exclaimed Tabby.

General Nickto looked at Tabby oddly, but continued, “Thomas is right. We haven’t any time to waste.”

But suddenly, from the far side of the dry dock, a door sprang open, allowing bright sunlight to spill into the chamber. All of the Krulotin reached for their swords with one hand while blocking the light with the other; but once again, the intruders proved to be no threat.

“Vos is dis? You’ve all returned!” Pierre cried as he stepped through the door. “ ‘ave you seen any imps?”

“ARR, Pierre! What are yah doing here? I thought you were supposed tah be guardin’ the ship,” Barnacle protested.

“I am guarding the ship from a horde of demonic imps that have tried to attack, but we drove them off!” Pierre enlightened. “We had been tracking them, but somehow they evaded us.”

“ ‘We’?” Kracken echoed.

Just then, Davey and Jones, along with Spike, stepped into the light as well, waving and smiling broadly. “Hi, guys!”

“ARR, so yah didn’t leave anyone with the ship?” Barnacle complained.

“Well, we couldn’t very well leave the reporter there,” Pierre went on. “She doesn’t know how to fight.”

“Reporter? We didn’t bring any reporters along!” Dreamcatcher puzzled.

“Hey, what about us?” Equinox cried.

“We’re journalists,” Solstice clarified for her brother.

“Oh, okay.”

Kyrene appeared behind the Bushwoolies and Spike, still wielding her plank. “No more imps?” she asked. “Oh, are these the others?”

“Barnacle, Cliff, Clever Clover, Malteeze, Tamara, Persephone, Protius, Luge, Dreamcatcher, Equinox, Tabby, Thomas, Hubert, Solstice, Kracken, and the Krulotin army, this is Kyrene,” Pierre introduced. “Kyrene, this is Barnacle, Cliff, Clever Clover, Malteeze, Tamara, Persephne, Protius, Luge, Dreamcatcher, Equinox, Tabby, Thomas, Hubert, Solstice, Kracken, and the Krulotin army.”

“Hey, what ‘bout me?” Baby Noddins objected, still at Tabby’s side. After the scrambled escape from the clutches of Zanatos and the Skeleton King, Tabby didn’t have any time to return Baby Noddins to her parents, and just figured it would probably be safer to bring her along anyway. “I’m Baby Noddins, Ms. Reporter Lady!”

“Oh... well, pleased to meet all of you!” Kyrene smiled. “Uh, would any of you like to fill me in on what’s going on?”

“ARR, no time for that now! Pierre, where’d you leave the ship?” Barnacle cried.

“I’m afraid, captain, that it’s still clear on the other side of the island,” Pierre informed.

“Don’t worry about it; we don’t need a boat to battle these monsters!” Persephone rallied them. “Let’s get going.”

A cry of enthusiasm rang out from the gathered Krulotin as they all hurried for the exits, anxious to engage the enemy. They moved stealthily through the ruins of the Phalanx Fort, making their way steadily towards the central throne room. As they arrived at the open courtyard which surrounded the building, they had to stop, for gathered in this courtyard were the collected armies of the Bushwoolies’ agents. All around in formations stood the Feline Horde, the crabs, the robotic bugs, and the imps, each with their commanders at the head: the Warlords with the felines, Shane with his crabs, Nur-Ab-Fin with his robots, and the Skeleton King with the imps, since he had no one else to lead. The heroes took up a hidden position where they could see the courtyard, but where the enemy could not see them.

“Oh, no! Look at all of them. We’ll never be able to get through all that,” Solstice worried.

“Actually, there are fewer of them than there were previously,” Nickto spoke up. “It would appear as though the Feline Hordes did not bring all their troops to Phalanx Island. We may have a chance against them.”

“You mean there were more of them when you guys had to fight them, by yourselves?” Solstice said in disbelief.


But then, from out of nowhere, dark clouds came in from the horizon and covered the island in a curtain of darkness. Lightning flashed in the distance, and thunder was heard. “Ooh, creepy,” someone said.

Then, from the direction of the throne room, a deep rumbling was heard. At first, nothing could be seen, but then the walls of the structure began to sink into the ground. A moment later, the domed roof split open and slid apart like the shell of a giant beetle preparing for flight. In short order, the building that stood before them was transformed. It was now less of a building and more of a pavilion. They could see into the very heart of it, to the firepit where they had first encountered the Ponies of the Apocalypse. Those creatures were still there along with their servants, the Bushwoolies of the Apocalypse. They appeared to be performing some arcane ritual of a diabolical nature.

“We have to do something!” Cliff shouted.

“Against magic like that, our only defense would be magic of our own,” Protius said.

“But where would we find that?” Tamara asked.

“ARR, Kracken, isn’t your sword supposed to be magic?” Barnacle queried.

“Well, uh, yeah, but I can never really get it to do anything,” Kracken shrugged.

“And Thomas, what about your amulet?” Tabby reminded him.

“That’s right!”

“And what about our horns?” Dreamcatcher pointed out.

“I’m afraid that we’ll need more potent magic than the kind found in unicorn horns to battle the great evil of the Ponies of the Apocalypse!” Hubert pointed out. “But, every bit of power we can use will come in handy against their minions.”

“Hey!” Tabby brightened. “Kaliope, do I still have those really outrageous powers I used last time?”

“Of course, Tabby. The queen of Atlantis always has these powers, at least when they are most needed.”

“Truly outrageous!” Tabby shrieked.

“Is there anyone else here who may be able to help?” Luge asked.

Stepping forward, General Nickto said, “I think this may be of use,” as he pulled a short golden rod out of his cloak and handed it to Persephone.

“What is it?” Persephone asked.

“It’s a relic from ancient Atlantis which has been passed down from generation to generation to be used by the Krulotin in times of greatest peril,” Nickto explained seriously. “Now I think you should have it.”

Persephone nodded and accepted the gift. Somehow, she understood what it was and how it would help.

“And let’s not forget about this!” Clever Clover offered, stepping forward. He held up a glistening axe. “It’s my ancestral magic cleaver.”

“If that’s all, I guess it’ll have to do,” Nickto said. “I will lead the rest of us against the troops, which will hopefully create enough of a distraction so that you seven can deal with the Ponies of the Apocalypse directly. It won’t be an easy task, but I trust you all to realize that it’s our only hope.”

“Sounds like fun!” Tabby said.

“Wait a second!” Solstice stalled. “Equinox, do you still have your laptop with you?”

“Yeah, I got it right here in my bag,” Equinox replied. “Why?”

“I think I may have a way we can take out all of those bugs at once,” Solstice explained quickly.

“Excellent,” Nickto stated. “Get to work on it right away.” With that, the twins set to work pulling apart the robotic insect that Solstice had brought back with her.

“What are you planning to do?” Tabby asked curiously.

“Earlier, I managed to rewire this insect so that it would follow my commands,” Solstice explained quickly. “But now I think if I can get at its transmitter, I might be able to send out a signal which will scramble all the other bugs and render them useless.”

“Well, this is all great, but what am I supposed to do?” Tamara queried. “I’m not a fighter.”

Nickto was about to tell her to find a place to hide out, but Kyrene quickly interrupted and said, “Here, take this board and follow me. We’ll take care of those imps.”

Tamara stared down at the board in her hooves. “Well, okay...”

“Yeah, yeah! We’re comin’, too!” Davey cheered.

“Yeah, mon! We’re gonna fight the imps!” Jones agreed.

“And count me in, too,” Spike volunteered. “All the buildings here are made out of stone, not wood.”

“Can I go with Twabby?” Baby Noddins asked eagerly.

“I think that’s going to be a little too dangerous for a little pony like you. Maybe you should stick with Tamara,” Thomas suggested.

“Wokay,” Baby Noddins said cheerfully, skipping over to Tabby’s cousin.

“Okay, group,” Persephone took charge of the magic-wielders. “Here’s what we’re going to do: we’ll sneak around to the north side of the courtyard, because there are fewer troops there; and when the general makes his attack, we’ll move in to deal with the Ponies of the Apocalypse directly. Is everyone ready?”

Everyone was, so they headed out. As they moved, that gave Solstice and Equinox time to finish working on the robotic bug and everyone else to prepare for the coming battle.

“Persephone and the others are in position,” Malteeze said, scanning the far edge of the plaza.

“Solstice, Equinox, how much longer on that bug?” General Nickto asked the two journalists.

Equinox, with a bit of wire clenched in his teeth, muttered something; but Solstice replied with, “It will still be a few minutes; this circuitry is more complicated than it looked.”

“We don’t have any more time to waste,” Nickto stated. “You two stay here and finish; we attack now!”

“And we shall stay here and protect them,” Hubert said of himself, Protius, and Dreamcatcher. “We wouldn’t be that useful to you guys out there, anyway.”

“Very well.” Standing, Nickto strode to the front of his troops and drew his sword. Everyone knew what was coming, so they needed no pep talk or farther orders other than, “ATTACK!!!”

And with that, the army of heroes charged out into the courtyard screaming their war-cries at the tops of their lungs. The assembled troops of the Ponies of the Apocalypse were taken completely by surprise, and the Krulotin and their friends tore into their ranks. However, the initial assault was quickly countered as the Warlords realized what was happening, and they began barking out orders. Soon, they had a full-blown battle on their hands.

Unlike most of the troops on the battlefield that day, Malteeze had a different objective than simply surviving through to the end. Charging directly through the mass of bodies, he made his way right for the head of the beast– the Warlord Brothers! Nothing would hold him back from his destination, and he knocked any who tried to stop him out of the way.

Bursting forth in front of the brothers, all four of the felines paused for a moment. “Well, look who we have here,” Rosweld said. “The prodical son returns for a whipping?”

“Better to be sent to the next dimension by your own kind than by those robotic drones,” Gelli commented. “At least he hasn’t lost all his sense.”

“I’ve had more than enough talk from all of you,” Malteeze snarled. “We end this now!”

Raising his massive sword and charging, Rosweld cried out, “If that’s the way you wish it!”

Malteeze, however, ducked at the last moment and brought the butt of his staff into his old commander’s gut. The air rushed out of Rosweld’s chest and he fell to the ground gasping. But even then, Malteeze was forced to jump to the side as Gelli rushed in with his twirling pair of daggers. This only succeeded in bringing Malteeze face-to-face with Fireball, who promptly brought his own sword around for a slash. A pole vault later, and Malteeze was ready for the next charge by his enemies.

Meanwhile, Barnacle and General Nickto were in the thick of the battle back-to-back and surrounded by robot drones and feline warriors. Pierre had been with them initially, but he had soon disappeared into the crowd, bounding from opponent to opponent in his own energetic fashion.

“ARR, I hope Equinox and Solstice can finish with their little science project fast,” Barnacle cried as he brought his cutlas down through the casing of one of the bug robots.

“Aye,” Nickto agreed. “We could probably deal with these felines, but there are just too many drones here!”

But then, as if in answer to their request, all of the robotic bug drones that were mixed in amongst the feline troops suddenly folded up their legs and fell to the ground motionless.

From their hidden position on the outskirts of the battle, Equinox stood and let out a loud cheer. “Yeah! We did it!”

“Yes, you did,” Hubert said as he pulled the impulsive pony back. “But that doesn’t mean we’ve won yet.”

“Quite correct, old friend,” Protius agreed. Pointing out at the fight, he added, “In fact, I believe our position may have been compromised because of that outburst!”

Everyone snapped around to have a look, and several of the felines as well as a few crabs were heading in their direction. Quickly, Hubert drew out a pair of swords from his satchel and tossed one to Dreamcatcher. “Do you know how to use one of these?” he asked.

“Not really,” she replied, “but I’m sure I can figure it out.”

But the journalists’ subterfuge had also been noticed by someone else. Far on the other side of the plaza, the hulking robot form of Nur-Ab-Fin was crying out in rage as he kicked several of his inactive drones. “NOOO! This can’t be happening! First those fools beat me in that wheat field, but I manage to repair myself; and return here only to be foiled once again!?! I will not except this!”

“Did I hear you were wanting a foil?” Pierre suddenly laughed as he sprung in front of Nur-Ab-Fin with his rapiers at the ready.

“I will crush you, you pathetic Dakytan freak!” the robot shouted in rage as he brought his fists down where Pierre was standing– or rather, were Pierre had been standing a moment before. The agile lizard-man had jumped high into the air and landed on top of Nur-Ab-Fin’s back. The Atlantean spirit howled as he attempted to swat the pest away, but Pierre merely laughed as he dodged all of the attacks.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the round courtyard, Kyrene and her anti-imp task force were having more fun than they should have been having considering the situation. The small army, all armed with planks, were having a grand time making war upon the goblins. “Get ‘em!!!” the reporter continued to scream, running around through the fray. The two Bushwoolies scurried haphazardly after Spike, and Baby Noddins suddenly stopped and stood back for a moment.

“My bunnies can help,” Baby Noddins giggled, pausing to concentrate on her magic. In no time at all, her fuzzy bunnies had appeared on the scene. “Okay guys, go after those funny little people!” Her obedient creatures promptly went to work at herding the imps up.

“Don’t expect me to go easy on you this time,” a familiar voice chuckled from behind her. Baby Noddins looked with wide eyes.

“Oh no!!!!” she shrieked. “Bunnies, bunnies!! Run!” Charging abruptly at the skeletal pony, she managed to take him off guard and his staff went flying through the air.

Tamara had been a little timid as she first went into battle, but after following Kyrene through the process had quickly gotten bolder in imp-whacking. “Take that!!” she blazed, taking down a whole line of them with one blow.

Spike was still keeping the imps hopping with his singeing flame, and Davey and Jones were having quite a ball with their weapons. Baby Noddins, though, was more concerned with keeping the Skeleton King away from his staff; without it, he wasn’t able to harm her bunnies.

“Me got idea!” she suddenly exclaimed, holding the wand in her hoof. Giggling, she promptly winked away with it, and was back in a matter of moments. “I hid it,” she told the Skeleton King smugly. “Go find it!”

“Meddlesome child!” the king ranted. “I’ll get you for this... after I find it!” Muttering, he ran off in search of her hiding place.

Now Baby Noddins and her bunnies could devote their whole attention to the imps again. “Yay!!” the baby pony cheered. “Yeah, this big fun!”

Luge and Cliff, meanwhile, who had managed to hold their own up to this point, were actually doing quite well considering that neither one had really had much experience with war previous to this. Cliff was still wielding the Roman Gladius that had been given to him by one of the Krulotin, while Luge had been given a sword of her own. Together, the two of them were holding quite a few of the crabs at bay, which was making things easier for the Krulotin to deal with the felines.

Under normal circumstances, the crabs’ master, Dr. Malcolm Shane, would have done something about this annoyance; but at the moment, he had discovered something else to occupy his attention. Charging into the midst of the fighting, the large whale-man singled out Barnacle and tackled him to the ground.

“ARR, git offa me, you slimy sea slug!” the pirate cried as he kicked himself free of Shane’s grip.

“Not so fast, pirate,” Shane replied. “I’ve got a score to settle with you!”

Up to this point, Barnacle had not yet gotten a good look at his attacker and just said, “ARR, take a number!” as he swung his sword around.

Shane, however, pulled out a small metal object to parry the blow with, and Barnacle’s eyes went wide with recognition. “My wrench!” he cried. “If you think you’ve got a score tah settle with me, then I’ve got a whale of one tah settle with you!”

“After you destroyed my mind control device on Calimidad Island, I was afraid I might have seen the last of you,” Shane said sinisterly. “I’m glad I was wrong!”

And as all this was happening, Persephone and her group of magic wielders were closing in on the Ponies of the Apocalypse. They had managed to get across the battlefield without being seen after the fight had broken out, and now they were inside the stronghold.

They maneuvered right up to the pit at the center of the structure as quickly as they could, and there they saw the demons themselves. All four of them were gathered in the center of the pit as before; but this time, instead of a fire blazing before them, a swirling mass of purple energy writhed and twisted in its place. At each pony’s side, attending to them, was his respective Bushwoolie.

The very sight of Discord and his creepy smile made Persephone’s blood boil, and she could tell Clever Clover was having the same feeling by the way his hoof tightened its grip on his axe.

“Well?” Tabby asked.

“Let’s do it!” Persephone cried. “Tabby, Thomas, hit them with everything you’ve got! Clever Clover, Kracken, follow me!” With that, all five of them stood and commenced the attack.

Tidal Wave Smash!” Thomas cried out and watched in satisfaction as a giant wall of water rose out of nowhere and crashed down on the Ponies of the Apocalypse.

At the same time, Tabby was muttering to herself trying to remember what some of her attacks were, but in short order she remembered and unleashed a “High Pitched Wail!

The Ponies of the Apocalypse, now drenched and disorientated by these attacks, stood their ground and looked more upset than ever. “Ar’to matrio far’nar gosito!” the four of them cried in unison. The language they spoke was an ancient one which none of the heroes could possibly comprehend, but the tone that it was spoken in still sent shivers down their spines.

Their servants, the Bushwoolies, however, understood well enough, and the four of them wasted no time in picking up their staffs and charging the heroes. The ponies in turn simply went back to their chanting around the pit of energy.

“Not you again!” Persephone muttered as she and Discord met face-to-face.

“But wait, there’s more!” the little creature said. “For a limited time only, you get to deal with my brothers as well!”

“I think this offer has just expired,” Persephone replied as she spun quickly and delivered a powerful kick to Discord’s chest. The Bushwoolie went rolling backwards across the floor until he ran into the wall and slumped down, unconscious.

“Nice one!” Clever Clover cheered, but a moment later, Zanatos fell on him, wielding his skull-topped staff with deft precision. Taken off guard, it was all the archeologist could do just to defend himself.

“Hold on, I’m coming!” Persephone started to say, but suddenly the thin form of Tiny dropped onto her back and clapped his hands over her eyes. Flailing around blindly, the Krulotin attempted to dislodge the small pest, but to no avail.

Meanwhile, Kracken had also found himself an opponent in Mars, the Bushwoolie of War, who wielded a large double-bladed axe. “It’s been a while,” Kracken said, and he parried a strike from the axe with his sword.

Mars simply grunted in reply and spun for another blow.

“Still not much of a conversationalist, I see,” Kracken continued, “which is fine by me, since I’d rather just end this now.” Seeing an opening in the small warrior’s attack, Kracken lunged forward and slashed right across the shaft of Mars’ weapon. To his surprise, the axe was cut in two and the Bushwoolie stumbled backwards from the blow. Kracken followed that up with a left-handed punch to the face, and Mars suddenly found himself out of the fight.

Clever Clover had finally regained his balance and dealt Zanatos a crushing blow. The Bushwoolie of Death fell backwards from the attack and then flat on his back. The stallion proceeded to kick the staff out of his hands, and without a weapon, Zanatos was forced to retreat.

Persephone had at last managed to get ahold of Tiny and pulled him off of her back. With a powerful throw, he soon found himself right alongside his brother, Discord.

Now the heroes were able to turn their attention toward the real enemies. The Ponies of the Apocalypse seemed uninterested in the fact that their loyal servants had just been defeated, however, and they merely proceeded to focus their attention on their meditations. Tabby and Thomas continued to keep up their own assaults against them, but the evil creatures had summoned into existence a powerful barrier of magic that let nothing of the attacks through.

“We’ve got to get through this shield!” Persephone instructed. “Quick, focus all of your attacks!”

Clever Clover rushed over and took a swing at the barrier with his axe, but the strike just bounced off harmlessly. Kracken, too, tried his hand at it, but all he got was a rippling of color through the surface of the shield. But, even though neither of them accomplished much with either assault, they continued to strike the wall over and over again. Tabby and Thomas continued as well. No one could tell if they were affecting it at all, but they had to try something.

Standing back from the rest, Persephone finally pulled out the small golden rod that Nickto had given her. Gripping it tightly in her hand, she closed her eyes and focused. Slowly, a strange tingling sensation began spreading out from her hand. At first she wondered if she was just imaging it, but when she opened her eyes, she could see a blueish-green aura of energy fluxing around her clenched fist.

With a sly smile, she charged the barrier and swung her fist around for a powerful wind-mill strike. The golden rod left a trail of glowing energy behind it as Persephone brought it around to impact the barrier with a bright explosion of splashing energies. The shield of magic seemed to falter for a moment, but quickly sprang back into existence. “Keep it up!” she cried. “Don’t let up!”

“You got it, boss-lady!” Kracken said as he thrust his sword once more. This time, instead of bouncing off, it passed right through, but not without some resistance. Holding it steady, he grabbed hold of the sword with both hands and pulled up and back. The action tore a great section of the wall, and a moment later the whole thing vanished from sight.

“We did it!”

“It’s not over yet!”

And truer words were never spoken, for as Kracken disabled the barrier, the seething pit of energy around which the Ponies of the Apocalypse had been meditating suddenly shot straight up into the air like a great pillar reaching high into the sky.

Alvosta driv almoprstnt!” Thanatos cried with glee.

Er bonfar inack,” Aries replied coldly and turned to face the ones who stood against them.

Tor eenack vorasht!” Thanatos replied.

With that, the ponies reared back and let loose with the full force of their might. A massive column of flame issued forth from Thanatos’ hoof that headed right toward Kracken. Instinctively, the pirate brought up his sword to block the attack, and strangely, the mystic blade did just that. The fire parted around him and went on to impact the walls of the pit, causing the very stone to melt from the temperature.

Meanwhile, Strife began to concentrate on an attack of his own which caused the ground beneath them to start shaking in anticipation. Hunger let loose with a powerful bolt of electricity that sprang towards Persephone, but the Krulotin leapt out the way. No normal person would have been able to react so quickly, but the golden rod she held allowed her to do things no one else could.

The last Pony of the Apocalypse, Aries, overcome by anger, decided that instead of magic, he would crush his enemies with his bare hooves. Charging towards Clever Clover, things looked grim; but Thomas, from his high vantage point, called out, “Crustacean Clamp!

For a second as the sealife sprang from out of nowhere, it looked like this attack would work; but no sooner had it grabbed hold of the target when Aries broke free with hardly any struggle at all.

“Not so fast!” Tabby said. “Seer!” Even as the words left her mouth, Aries was suddenly wracked with pain as waves of burning psychic energy washed over his body. He let out a howl of fury unlike anything they had ever heard.

With Aries thus immobilized, Thomas took the opportunity to let loose with another attack, his “Urchin Spear!” This summoned a pointed lance that struck Aries and sent him crashing into the far wall of the pit. Aries struggled back to his hooves and glared at the ponies who had done this to him. The other ponies now focused on them as well, ignoring Persephone, Clever Clover, and Kracken.

At that point, the demon ponies now unleashed a combined assault against Tabby and Thomas. It was all the couple could do just to dodge the powerful energies directed against them. And, having missed its mark, the attack only succeeded in bringing down a fourth of the roof. Rubble cashed down around the Fairfaxes as they dove for cover.

“Tabby!” Thomas tried to call out, but was choked off by the dust in the air.

But suddenly, from the other side of a fallen pillar, Tabby jumped up on top of the rubble and, with vengeance in her eyes, shouted to the Ponies of the Apocalypse, “Now you’ve made me mad!”

“Tabby! Now, use the Seismic Stomp!”

“Wha–! Who said that?” Tabby was confused for but a moment before she realized Kaliope was still with her. “Right,” she continued, now shouting at the ponies once more, “Now feel the Seismic Stomp!”

With those words, Tabby stomped her hoof down on the ground for dramatic effect, and the ground began to shake even worse than it had been, and bits of the roof began to fall in. Soon, the entire building was collapsing in around the Ponies of the Apocalypse. Fortunately, the others had already removed themselves from the pit and were now at Tabby’s side. When the last of the debris settled and the dust began to clear, it became apparent that the villains were buried beneath several hundred tons of stone.

“You did it, Tabby!” Thomas cheered. But a quick glance at his wife and he was by her side, catching her as she collapsed from the strain.

“Is she alright?” Kracken asked.

“She’ll be fine,” Thomas said, but muttered to himself, “I hope.”

“She better be,” Clever Clover noted as he looked down at the rubble, “because I don’t think that stopped ‘em!” Indeed, the ground was beginning to shake once more, and a fiery energy was shining out from the shattered rubble. Apparently, it would take more than that to finish off the Ponies of the Apocalypse.

* * *
Meanwhile, all of this had not gone unnoticed but those gathered around in the plaza. A lull in the battle had found Dr. Shane back-to-back against Nur-Ab-Fin. “Hmm, this looked like a fairly good idea at first,” the doctor was saying to his companion, “but now, with our employers in this current position, it looks as though we may not be able to pull it off after all.”

“I never really liked you, Shane,” Nur-Ab-Fin replied, “but this once I fear you may have a point.”

“Well, in that case, I’ll see you around,” Shane said as he hurried off towards the ocean, summoning his loyal crabs with him as he went. Nur-Ab-Fin, however, had no such attachment to his robots, so he abandoned them where they lay and left the field of battle as fast as he could.

The Warlords noticed these departures right away, for they were considering the same course of action themselves. The battle had been fought to a stalemate, and the abilities of their masters were proving not to be as all-powerful as they had hoped. And now, without the support of their allies, the situation was not looking like one from which they could triumph. They had already lost too much in this gambit and were not about to sacrifice any more to its cause. With that in mind, they gave the order for their forces to fall back. The heroes watched as they retreated from the field of battle, this time for real, and a cheer went up through their ranks.

The imps, too, noticed this sudden reversal; and when faced with a screaming madwoman wielding a wooden board, they too choose to escape while they still could. As for the Skeleton King, he had finally located his wand and was ready to return to the battle; but upon seeing that he was the only one left, he departed from the scene as well, vanishing into thin air and returning to his tomb in the Dark Forest were he could wait for future Halloween parties.

“ARR,” Barnacle cried, “look at them, throwing themselves into the ocean like rats fleein’ a sinking ship!”

“Unfortunately, I’m afraid your analogy my be more accurate that you had anticipated!” Hubert replied.

The pirate captain was about to ask what he meant by that, but he soon saw for himself. The ground beneath them was beginning to shake quite violently, and large cracks were beginning to spread out from the center of the island.

“What’s happening?!” Cliff asked.

“It must be the Ponies of the Apocalypse,” Protius theorized. “They are obviously trying to free themselves, but they are tearing the island apart in the process!”

“Then we had better get out of here!” Solstice cried.

“Where’s the ship?” Tamara quavered. “I want to get out of here!”

“I don’t think we’ll make it in time!” Nickto cried out. “It’s too far away, and the island’s coming apart too fast!”

“Perhaps we could make use of the Atlantean vessel we saw berthed in the dry dock,” Malteeze suggested.

“ARR, I’m not gonna lose another ship!” Barnacle protested.

“It’s either that or our lives!” Hubert said. “We have no choice.”

“ARR, you’re right,” Barnacle agreed grudgingly.

“Quick!” Nickto urged. “Take those Bushwoolies of the Apocalypse into custody, and help the others!” He motioned toward the magic wielders, who were still in the ruins of the throne room.

Everyone scrambled toward the dry dock as Phalanx Island fell apart beneath them. But, even as they arrived at their destination, they still had to deal with launching the ship. Fortunately, a quick examination revealed a system of pulleys and gears that would easily launch it in no time at all. Barnacle threw a lever, causing a counterweight to drop out of view; and promptly the massive gates were pulled open. A moment later, a loud creaking sound went up as the ship slowly began to slide down into the water.

“Come on, come on, faster!” Clever Clover urged as the dry dock began collapsing around them.

“ARR, everyone on board! Pierre, Davey and Jones, furrow the sails!” Barnacle began shouting out orders. “Everyone prepare to set sail!”

It was a tight fit, but somehow they managed to get every last pony, human, Bushwoolie, lizard, parrot, dragon, and cat on board. And not a moment too soon; the old Atlantean ship shot away from the island like a dart, just as the last bit of the land mass collapsed in upon itself, taking the Ponies of the Apocalypse with it. It was now that the heros were finally able to give themselves a moment to relax.

“We’ve won!” Cliff cried.

“ARR, speak for yourself,” Barnacle said. “I’ve lost another ship. I don’t see it anywhere. It must have gone down with the island.”

“Look on the bright side, Barnacle,” Clever Clover reminded. “We defeated the bad guys and none of us were sent to the next dimension.”

“And look at this! It can be your new boat,” Dreamcatcher pointed out.

“ARR, it is rather a nice vessel, isn’t it?” Barnacle admitted.

“Thomas? Is she okay?” Solstice asked in concern, finding her way to a corner of the ship where Tabby’s still, unconscious body was spread out on the deck.

“I don’t know,” Thomas said grimly. “She isn’t coming to, or responding to anything.”

“That last attack strained her greatly,” Hubert stated seriously, also in the circle around his daughter. “It may have been too much for her.”

“But without it, we may not have won,” Tamara said quietly, tears trickling down her face. “Oh, Tabby– I’m so sorry I was so hard on you this morning, and all those other times. Please don’t go– I–“ Too choked-up to go on, she fell silent.

“Tabby...” Thomas whispered, in shock over the possibility of losing her. “Tamara’s right. You can’t go... yet. We all need you too much...”

“I am pleased with your concern for her,” a regal voice suddenly spoke, and everyone looked up abruptly only to see the pale outline of a pony in their midst. “She should be honored to have such fine friends as you.”

“What... who... are you?” Solstice gasped.

“Queen Kaliope,” Thomas said softly.

“You’re the spirit she was talking to?” Tamara asked, wide-eyed.

“Yes,” admitted the former queen. “I will always be here to look out for the descendents of Atlantis. And now... it appears that one needs my help.”

Everyone was silent as Kaliope stepped forward and placed a ghostly hoof upon Tabby’s forehead. Closing her eyes in concentration, the spirit meditated deeply; and after a short span of time, the color began returning to Tabby’s face, and her breathing pattern normalized. “Now she is but sleeping,” Kaliope announced solemnly; and, looking at Thomas intently, continued, “Your daughter is strong.”

Thomas was puzzled at this. “My daughter?” he echoed, and glanced over at Hubert. “But...”

Kaliope didn’t answer directly, but only continued to look at Thomas intently. “Until we next meet,” she said solemnly. “Farewell.” And promptly, she vanished into thin air.

“Oh...” Thomas murmured, realization dawning on him as he gazed at Tabby, who was beginning to stir. His daughter...

Meanwhile, in another part of the ship, Kyrene was just collapsing onto a bench for some rest. She still hadn’t found out what was going on; and frankly, by this point, she didn’t care any longer. Throwing her pen and paper on the floor, she rested her head up against the wall. All she wanted now was some sleep. She could hunt up another story some other day.

“Have no fear,” Nickto was saying to Malteeze up on the command deck. “The Krulotin will keep the Bushwoolies of the Apocalypse imprisoned, so that they can never again resurrect their evil masters.”

“Yes, the Krulotin have done much good today,” Malteeze agreed. “Not only have they triumphed over the Warlords, but your victory will have decimated their forces enough that perhaps peace can return to the northern kingdoms.”

“And even though all of the agents escaped, I pray that we’ve seen the last of them, though I doubt we have,” Nickto replied.

Tamara had since wandered back over to Malteeze and overheard this conversation. “Oh, Malteeze,” she sighed. “If I’d known that you lived this kind of crazy lifestyle, I never would have listened to Ah-Loh when he told me that you were my one true love.” She paused before going on, and looked at Malteeze to see how he was reacting.

“I see,” said Malteeze, his expression standardly emotionless.

“I’m sorry, Malteeze,” Tamara went on haltingly, “but I don’t think you’re the one for me.”

“Oh, I’m hurt,” Malteeze said flatly. “How terrible.”

* * *
“Well, it looks like your ponies have more ability than you give them credit for,” Bic said with a grin and a shrug. “I’ve enjoyed your company, but it’s time for me to go. I’m a very busy imp, you know.” And with that, the imp was gone, and with him the barrier that held Epona from her protectorate.

“Yes, the ponies prevailed, but at what cost? If I could have saved one Krulotin from their fate...” the flame-haired woman mussed as she disappeared from the ancient place of stone.

The End

Ginseng and Sassafras Tea
by Sugarberry (

Chapter 19

Rushing into his home back at Woodlawn, Laser expected to find his mother in the kitchen; but the room was empty. “She must be working on that dumb ol’ quilt yet,” Laser informed his cousin. The long walk back had driven any nervousness about Hood’s sudden dismissal of them out of his thoughts, not to mention the gnawing hunger that now engulfed him and begged for his attention.

“Me hungry.” Puzzle, too, got down to basics. “Cookie?”

Knowing how famished he himself felt, Laser acquiesced to Puzzle’s request. He checked the cookie jar but found it empty; however, he did succeed in finding a bag of candy bars in the snack cupboard. He was pouring milk when the door opened, and the sour-faced mare from next door walked in.

“I’ve been watching for you two,” she declared impatiently as if they had been the source of untold trials. “You’re to come to my house.” She sighed a deep, all-encompassing sigh that signaled that she was not pleased at the prospect.

Tullybeg had lived in the house next door for as long as Laser could remember, and he had never even once seen her smile. All the foals on the block told stories of how she enticed unsuspecting colts and fillies to come to her house and then forced them to scrub her floors and wash her windows. Her house was said to be the cleanest in Woodlawn because of this odd habit of hers, so the foals avoided her at all costs. Laser felt a chill go up his back at the thought of accompanying her to her place.

“Where’s my mom?” he asked futilely, pushing Puzzle protectively behind him.

“Off to the hospital,” Tullybeg informed him curtly. “Off to have the foal she’s been carrying.”

Laser suddenly felt deflated because he had let his mother down by not being here when she needed him. If he had not proven capable of standing by his mother, maybe he deserved to be put through Tullybeg’s torture. He took Puzzle’s hoof and led him to where Tullybeg waited. Puzzle succeeded in grabbing one last candy bar while he had the chance, his face already covered in gooey chocolate smears.

“Was it a colt or a filly?” Laser remembered to ask as he opened the door and proceeded trance-like across the lawn to Tullybeg’s house, pulling Puzzle behind him.

“Haven’t heard.” Tullybeg did not waste words. She led them to the back door of her house. “Wipe your hooves on the mat before you come in,” she directed.

Once inside, Laser looked cautiously around the room. It was indeed very clean, and the windows sparkled. He wondered why anything so spotless would need cleaning again so soon.

His heart sank as Tullybeg went to a metal broom cupboard in the back room. “You boys can help me out while you’re here.” She came back into the kitchen carrying a mop, a bucket, and a pile of rags.

Laser stared in disbelief-- the stories were true! He looked at Puzzle in dismay, but the foal was busy using his tongue to clean his chocolate-spattered face and seemed undaunted by the events at hoof.

Tullybeg set her supplies down, and commanded Puzzle to follow her. She went to the sink and got a wet cloth; turning, she bent to Puzzle and cleaned his sticky face and hooves until they shone to match the immaculate surroundings of the house.

“You, bring the bucket and mop!” she bid Laser. She led the two youngsters to an enclosed porch at the front of the house. “See up there?” She pointed to a corner of the porch, high up at the ceiling where the walls met.

Puzzle peered at a dark spot on the wall, and jumped when the spot moved.

Tullybeg continued. “That bat got stuck in here somehow and can’t get back out. We’re going to help him.”

She briefly explained her plan. “You,” she pointed at Laser, “climb up on that bookshelf with the bucket. I’ll pry him off the wall with the mop handle, and hopefully, he’ll fall in the bucket.”

Stopping, she seemed to be assessing the odds of success. Finding her plan workable, she explained the next move. “Once he’s in the bucket, Puzzle will cover him with these rags, and I’ll take him outside, across the yard, and let him go.”

Feeling relieved that this venture did not involve scrubbing, Laser rose to the occasion and clambered up on the heavy wooden bookcase supported in the front by an antique table with wobbly legs. Lifting the bucket high, Laser waited for Tullybeg to do her part. When the handle got close to the bat, it dropped off the wall-- but it did not drop into the bucket. It took flight.

Tullybeg, losing her composure, screamed a brief but frazzling sound. Laser lowered himself off the furniture as quickly as he could and ran to open the outside door. The bat, sensing the way to freedom, dipped through the doorway and quickly went his way.

“That worked well,” Tullybeg said in satisfaction, nodding as if that is how she planned it. “Now let’s put this stuff back where it belongs.”

When the equipment was restored to the cupboard, Tullybeg opened another cupboard door and got out a checkerboard. “Here’s something for the two of you to play with while I fix you a bite to eat.”

Puzzle immediately climbed up into a chair and began stacking checkers; he had not yet comprehended the actual purpose of the game, so Laser let him build his pretend houses and walls. It gave Laser time to think.

The colt began to wonder exactly why Uncle Hood was so set on returning to the woods to find the purple butterfly. His uncle enjoyed nature and all its myriad creatures; but he had never been interested in collecting plant species, keeping a list of bird sightings, or even noting the differences between the various kinds of insects. To Uncle Hood, a butterfly was just that-- a butterfly. So why his keen interest suddenly in this elusive purple butterfly?

The tower that Puzzle had just constructed leaned and toppled to the floor in a clatter of wooden disks. Responding to the displeased frown from Tullybeg, Laser and Puzzle began retrieving them, which was much more fun for Puzzle, who was getting bored with quiet play.

“Me goin’ outside,” he stated when the checkers had been put away.

“Oh no you’re not!” Tullybeg informed him, hooves on hips. “You and your cousin are going to go wash up for supper now.”

The colts had missed Tullybeg’s supper hour, but she had fixed them a nourishing meal of macaroni and cheese with fresh sliced tomatoes and a glass of cold milk. Even with the candy bars they had consumed earlier, both colts ate heartily and found room for chocolate cupcakes that their warden presented them with.

Remembering his manners, Laser thanked Tullybeg for the meal and carried his dirty dishes to the sink. Puzzle, copying his cousin, tried to be helpful, too, but only succeeded in dropping his plate, glass, and utensils on the floor. Luckily, they landed on the throw rug in front of the sink so nothing was broken. Picking up the dishes, Laser volunteered to help with dishes, but Tullybeg–foreseeing more trouble than help-- gave new orders.

“You two run along outside and play a bit before it gets too dark.” She peered out the window at the setting sun. “We should be hearing from your folks real soon.”

Laser and Puzzle played hide-and-seek and tag until the mosquitoes ganged up on them mercilessly, and they beat a hasty retreat to the house. The sun had slipped below the horizon, and dusk had settled down over the land; the glowing shape of the moon sat in the black sky.

As the two boys entered the house, they found Tullybeg talking on the telephone, and Laser knew it was to his dad. “I’ll tell ‘em,” she ended the conversation and hung up the receiver. “Well, boys, it looks like the three of us might be spending the night together.”

“Mom’s okay, isn’t she?” questioned Laser fretfully.

“Sure she is,” Tullybeg hastened to verify. “But it looks like this foal isn’t in any hurry to make his or her entrance into the world. Your dad says to sit tight until he calls again.” She bustled off to once again search through the cabinet for something to keep Puzzle occupied.

Laser slumped into a kitchen chair and allowed himself to get lost in self-pity; here he was stuck at Tullybeg’s while the real action was at the hospital. Lacewing would lord it over him for the rest of his life that he had missed the birth of the new foal, while she and her cousins had been right on the spot.

And where was Uncle Hood? Maybe he had gone back to the ice cream shop and heard the news about the foal and had gone directly to the hospital. That thought made Laser sink even lower in the pit of despair. He and Puzzle would be the only ones who had missed the big event.

Coming back into the room, Tullybeg had a deck of cards in her hoof. “You two know how to play Go Fish, I would imagine.” She noticed the downcast look on Laser’s face and handed him the cards. “You deal.”

The game, at least, kept Puzzle entertained; and Laser found himself distracted enough that he forgot to feel sorry for himself. Eventually, Tullybeg announced that it was time for a bedtime snack; and if Kaleidoscope hadn’t called by the time they finished, the two would have to bed down on the sofa for the night. She got out cookies and milk and sat down at the table with the colts to join them in the repast.

“I remember the night you were born,” she said, looking at Laser. “Your dad came home from the hospital so excited and happy that he brought me flowers. And then the same thing when your sister was born.” Her face lightened at the recollection, and the thought ran through Laser’s mind that she probably had not received many flower bouquets in her life.

“The cookies were really good,” he acknowledged.

“And the plate’s empty, so that means it’s time for bed.” The mare got out of her chair and motioned for Puzzle and Laser to follow her. “I’ll help you get cleaned up, then you can help me round up some blankets and pillows for the two of you.”

The last thing Laser wanted to do was to go to bed, but he went through the motions of settling down so that Puzzle would do likewise. Laser vowed to himself that he would not fall asleep; he wanted to be fully awake when his uncle came with the news of his new brother or sister. But as he lay quietly on the blanket listening to the soft, gentle rhythm of Puzzle’s breathing, his eyes grew too heavy to hold open any longer. I’ll close them for just a minute, he said to himself, snuggling into a more comfortable position.

He didn’t know how long he had slept, but the ringing of the telephone brought him wide awake. He slipped off the couch and headed for the kitchen, following the glow of the light through the doorway. Tullybeg was nodding her head, saying, “Yes. A-huh. Okay,” at brief intervals which gave Laser no clue as to the outcome of the birth. When she finally set the receiver down, she turned to Laser and if she was not smiling, she was at least frowning less than normal. “Well, your mom’s had a little filly and both are doing fine.”

Laser felt a twinge of disappointment at the news, hoping that this new addition to the family would be another colt to add to playtime fun; but he grinned out of sheer relief that the waiting was over.

Tullybeg continued. “Your Uncle Kaleidoscope is coming over to pick the two of you up. We’ll wait in the front parlor.” She led Laser into the sitting room and motioned for him to sit on the sofa while she sat in a chair and picked up her knitting. It was a pink and white project, and small; Laser wondered if it was something for his new sister; and, if so, how had Tullybeg known it would be a girl.

Tullybeg was silent as she continued her knitting, the clicking of the needles the only sound. Laser himself was having a hard time keeping himself from going back to sleep when a knock finally sounded at the door. His head jerked up spontaneously.

“Go on and get the door,” Tullybeg advised, and Laser only too gladly went to let Uncle Kaleidoscope in.

“Hey, Laser!” he greeted his nephew. “Your mom says to tell you she’s looking forward to seeing you as soon as we can get back to the hospital; you’ve got a real live-wire little sister now.” He tousled Laser’s cherry-red mane.

Laser led Kaleidoscope into the parlor; Tullybeg stayed in her chair, her hooves automatically doing the knitting as she acknowledged the stallion’s arrival. “The little one’s asleep,” she said, nodding in the direction of the living room.

“Thanks for watching the terrors,” he replied, and winked at Laser. “I brought you these for all the trouble we put you through.” He held forth a dazzling bouquet of peach-colored roses.

The mare laid her knitting aside, and actually blushed as she beamed at Kaleidoscope. “Why, that was a mighty thoughtful thing to do for an old mare like me.” She buried her nose in the fragrant blossoms, and breathed deeply.

“You’ve always been a good neighbor, Tullybeg. And Moonglow says to tell you that you can come over and hold the foal anytime you want to once she’s home from the hospital.”

“That’s a sure thing. Nothing better than rocking a little bundle to sleep.” She walked them to the door after Kaleidoscope had picked up the slumbering foal, the bouquet of roses still in her hooves.

Laser shyly touched Tullybeg’s foreleg and looked up into her stern face. “Thanks, Tullybeg,” he told her. “Your chocolate cake and cookies were the best!”

“Well, well,” she briefly smiled as she patted him on the head. “You’ll have to come over more often and try some of my other recipes.”

Laser grinned at the mare and followed his uncle from the house. Once they were outside and alone in the darkness with the stars twinkling overhead and the moon like a beacon in the sky, Kaleidoscope explained to Laser how his mom had realized it was time for the foal to come while all the girls had been busy on their quilt, and Stardrift had taken the entire crew to the hospital. Crush had met them on the way home from his soccer practice; and because no one knew exactly where to find Hood and the boys, they had just awaited their return.

“By the way,” Kaleidoscope asked. “Where did your uncle go when he dropped you off?”

“We came home alone,” Laser admitted.

“You mean he went on to his shop?” frowned Kaleidoscope. “Drumstick hasn’t seen him.”

Laser’s stomach knotted up again. “Uncle Hood sent us home alone so he could go back to look for the purple butterfly that Puzzle saw.”

“What time was that?” Kaleidoscope questioned quickly, at the same time trying not to let the concern he felt creep into his voice.

Laser had to think about that awhile, but knowing the time he had gotten home, he calculated out a rough estimate.

“I suppose he could have gone home to shower before going back to the shop,” pondered Kaleidoscope. “Maybe he will be at the hospital by now.”

But when they arrived at Moonglow’s room, there was no sign of Hood. As Laser made the acquaintance of his baby sister, Kaleidoscope pulled his wife from the room and informed her of Laser’s information.

“A purple butterfly?” Stardrift responded questioningly. “Since when did Hood become a entomologist?”

“Since he found out that the pillaging around here is being done by a stallion with a purple butterfly symbol.”

Stardrift looked at her husband sharply. “Checker needs to be told.” She stopped for a moment to recollect her thoughts. “While you were picking up Laser and Puzzle, I went to Hood’s Place to make sure he hadn’t gotten back, and I ran into Dreamy. She wasn’t a happy camper. She said she had a date with Hood tonight, and he never showed or called. They’ve had their differences, but he wouldn’t have left her hanging without so much as a phone call unless something serious happened.”

She slipped back into her sister’s room and discreetly motioned to Checker to go out to Kaleidoscope. Noticing that the newest foal was asleep now lying at her mother’s side, Stardrift prodded Laser and the others out the door, too, to allow Moonglow some quiet time to get some rest for herself. “I’ll take the foals to my house for the night,” she informed Moonglow. “Don’t worry about a thing.”

Depositing the foals on a couch in the waiting room, she joined Checker and Kaleidoscope across the room, listening in on their conversation.

“I’ll contact Searcher and see if he’s seen Hood,” Checker decided after hearing about Laser and Stardrift’s reports. He moved to a deserted corner to radio his officer and soon had him in contact.

“What’s it like out there?” Checker demanded.

“All’s quiet; no movement away from the farmstead.”

“How about visitors to the farmstead?”

Searcher’s voice was quiet for a few seconds. “Your brother-in-law passed through on the river trail just before sunset. Is there a problem?”

“He never came back your way?”

“I assumed he continued on and took the loop back to Woodlawn.”

“He hasn’t come back to town yet. Move in closer to the house and check out what is going on.” Checker cast a glance at Stardrift who was hovering at his side. “It’s not like your brother to spend a night alone in the woods by choice.”

“What do you think happened?” she asked breathlessly.

“Barring a simple accident, I’d say there’s a good chance he found what he was searching for.”

Checker’s radio suddenly activated. “Yeah, Searcher, what is it?”

“The filly just ran into me, looking for help. It seems her brother has been injured in a structural collapse. Hood’s with him; he’s okay. I’m going to the house with the filly; you get the paramedics out here fast.”

Checker immediately notified Sparky to organize a rescue unit.

“I’m coming, too,” declared Kaleidoscope when he heard the news.

“Do me a favor and stay here,” Checker advised, laying a hoof on his brother-in-law’s foreleg. “Stardrift’s going to need help with the foals, plus I’d feel better if someone was close by for Moonglow.”

So saying, he went back down the hall to check on his wife, and found her fast asleep. He kissed her gently on the cheek, and fondly patted the newborn now lying in the bassinet; she, too, was asleep after the hard work of delivery.

Stardrift and Kaleidoscope went their way with their hooves full: Puzzle was sound asleep again; Lacewing, Crush, and Blush were walking zombies; Laser alone seemed conscious of the current situation. “Uncle Hood’s okay, isn’t he?” he worried.

“Yes, he’s okay. He found his purple butterfly.”

Chapter 20

Passing the time while waiting for Shasta’s return, Hood continued to monitor Bilberry’s condition; he didn’t like the looks of the right back leg that had swollen considerably since he had first come down into the deteriorating basement. His supply of cold water was dissipating, and he could only hope he was doing the right thing for the injured stallion as he again bathed Bilberry’s face and tended his wounds. Then he switched off the flashlight to conserve the battery and began a monologue to fill in the empty minutes. The light from the moon filtered into their prison enough for them to see things in muted perception

Hood prattled on about different things, always trying to draw some response from Bilberry; but for the most part the young stallion remained distant and uninterested, staring up at the glimpse of sky through the yawning doorway. But Hood continued his therapy, hoping to keep Bilberry’s mind off the pain he must be feeling... not only the physical pain from his injuries but also the mental anguish of having failed at whatever it was that he had been trying to accomplish along with his sister in this forsaken ancestral home. Whatever they had done, Hood was sure that the two ponies must have had a very good reason for the actions that had landed them in this tenuous position.

Hood talked about his early days growing up in Grayton, and about his move to Woodlawn. All this succeeded in doing was to cause Bilberry to close his eyes and feign sleep. Hood changed his tactics. “I saw the wildflower haven where your mother was laid to rest.” This, at least, got a reaction; Bilberry opened his eyes and stared at Hood. “The blue spruce you added was from my back lawn.” The eyelids drooped closed once more. But Hood didn’t stop.

“If you and Shasta grew up here, you must have wonderful memories to think back on. I would imagine a colt growing up in the middle of the woods this way would have learned a lot about plants and animals and nature in general. It’s easy to see that Shasta has a way with those herbs of hers; what was your main interest as a colt?”

No answer was forthcoming, but Hood did hear a rustling from overhead; he flipped on the lantern and focused the light beam upward, catching the reflected stare of two yellow eyes glowing in the darkness; they were surrounded by a furry black mask and a brown nose busily sniffing the night air. “A raccoon,” Hood said in surprise, temporarily startling the visitor and causing him to scuttle backwards.

“Tanglefoot?” whispered Bilberry while feebly attempting to lift his head.

Hood watched in wonder as the fat little animal followed a broken railing down at an angle until he could drop to the floor where Bilberry lay. He darted to his wounded friend and began chattering in his peculiar language while nosing through the stallion’s mane as if searching for something.

When satisfied that nothing was hidden there, he came around to face Bilberry and chatter some more, almost as if scolding. Bilberry tried to smile, but his grimace revealed to Hood the pain he was feeling. But he did manage to speak. “I’m afraid I’ve got no corn tonight, little fellow.”

“This striped-tailed critter is a friend of yours?” Hood asked in fascination as the raccoon continued to explore the rubbish that surrounded them, apparently finding some insects to his liking.

But Hood didn’t get an answer as the sound of voices reached their ears; the raccoon took off for cover. Bilberry painfully moved his head, and groaned. “That’s Shasta!”

In a matter of seconds, two ponies peered over the edge of the foundation wall. “Shasta!” Hood called in relief. “You made record time!”

The stallion at the filly’s side pointed a powerful flashlight on Hood and Bilberry. “I’m Searcher from the Woodlawn Police Force. I’ll be down there in no time.” He unrolled a rope ladder over the edge of the wall and anchored it securely before descending into the rubble. Once down, he held the swaying ladder steady as Shasta joined them with her first aid kit clutched in her hoof. She rushed to Bilberry’s side, and Hood gladly moved away to accommodate her.

Hood walked over to Searcher, and the two exchanged information. “He has a bad bump on the head and a deep cut along his left thigh, plus a swollen leg. Is medical help on the way?”

“Yes. I’ve radioed to headquarters. They’ll be here as soon as possible.”

“How’d you get here so fast?” queried Hood as the officer surveyed the damage to the building’s structure. Shasta was capably administering her healing touch to her brother.

“I’ve been on stake-out, watching the place... the fisherpony at the creek.”

“That was you!” Hood realized that the grey stallion with the bright blue hair was the one he had shied away from at the riverbank.

“Luckily, the mare here took the river path to get help, so she ran across me and didn’t have to waste time running all the way in to Woodlawn.”

Motioning to Searcher to move away from Shasta and Bilberry, Hood asked, “Why hadn’t you apprehended them sooner, rather than just keeping an eye on them?”

Searcher raised an eyebrow, and peered at Hood before responding. “Chief Checker confides in his brother-in-law, does he?”

“As if this won’t be front page news in tomorrow’s edition of the Ponderings!” A brief glimpse of Dreamy flashed through Hood’s mind, causing the stallion to flinch.

Searcher, too, grimaced and decided to relent. “You’re right,” he admitted. “We were watching to see where these two were moving their operation. The thing is, only the stallion would actually carry their supplies off, and once he melted into the woods, he was gone. He must be part panther, that one!”

“So you haven’t traced them to a new location?”

“No. If we could, we’d have all the evidence in one spot, nice and neat.”

By this time, Shasta had cleaned and dressed Bilberry’s wounds; and the brother and sister were engaged in a one-sided conversation with Shasta asking questions and Bilberry responding with monosyllabic answers.

“You’ll let them help you, won’t you, Bilberry?” the stallions overheard as they approached the two again. If Bilberry responded, they didn’t hear his reply.

Shasta looked up at Searcher with a troubled expression. “What are you going to do with him?” She put her foreleg across his body as if to shield him from whatever onslaught they had planned.

“Is he strong enough for us to move him out of here?” the officer asked, surveying the disintegrating structure once more under the beam of his light.

Standing up, Shasta shook her head. “His right back leg is broken; it would be better to wait until the paramedics arrive.”

Searcher looked at the watch on his foreleg. “Chief Checker and the crew should be here in another ten minutes. We’ll wait until then.” Hearing that, Shasta returned to her brother’s side.

Moving what timbers and rotted boards as they could safely attempt, Hood and Searcher worked to clear an area large enough to accommodate the rescue team until the approach of several beams of light signaled the arrival of help.

“What’s your status here?” Checker’s voice rang out.

Searcher responded with a succinct account of Bilberry’s wounds and the condition of the collapsing substructure of the building. The medical ponies and officers were soon descending the ladder that Searcher had provided, and knowledgeable ponies immobilized Bilberry’s broken leg. Many hooves and strong backs lifted him onto a stretcher and raised the gurney up out of the crumbling basement and onto what had once been a front lawn. Shasta hovered over the paramedics, not interfering but watching their every move as if she did not trust them to do the best they could for her brother.

Searcher had just exited the basement for the last time when an eerie creaking sound sliced through the night as yet another tired timber released its hold on the old house and fell with a groan into the garbled heap where Bilberry had lain. The thump of its landing was followed by the cascading onslaught of more lumber as the floor overhead, deprived of its support, was swallowed into the depths of the self-consuming structure.

“Your timing was good,” Checker called to Searcher as they watched the basement belch out the dust that accompanied the latest destruction.

Hood turned to see what effect this had on Shasta, and saw her head drop in sorrow as if she had just seen her-- and Bilberry’s-- dreams disappear. Hood moved toward her and laid a hoof on her shoulder. “Is there anything I can do for you, Shasta?”

She looked up into his face with a tired, empty expression, at the same time shaking her head. How could one explain the lose of a lifetime of plans and memories, rotted away like the foundation of the house that had once been the lifeblood of her family. All she had now was the recollection of a happier time when she and Bilberry were young and in the company of their parents.

Checker informed them that the group was ready to start for Woodlawn through the shadowy and silent night. Sparky headed the unusual parade that moved off along the trail, with the medic ponies carrying Bilberry on the gurney; Searcher followed, keeping a close watch on Shasta whom he kept within foreleg’s reach as if anticipating a sudden bolt for freedom.

“Shasta won’t leave her brother,” Hood counseled Checker. “Searcher doesn’t have to treat her like a criminal.”

“He’s only doing his job,” Checker rationalized. He swung the flashlight over the area, making one last review. The yellow “no entry” tape placed around the portals to the farmhouse swayed in the breeze like a spectral being, but everything was quiet for the moment.

Suddenly a rounded shape crossed the beam of light. Recognizing the raccoon that had approached Bilberry, Hood told Checker to keep it in sight. The inquisitive critter went directly to the point in the grass where Bilberry had rested; his noise sniffed out every blade of grass, and his black leather feet felt every square inch. Then rising on his haunches, he faced the direction that the convoy had disappeared and proceeded to emit noises that sounded disarmingly like crying. The forest creature turned and held his gaze on the two stallions for a brief moment, dismissed their ability to aid him, and dissolved into the night.

“Cute little thing,” Checker commented, going back to his inspection.

Thinking back to Bilberry’s exchange with the animal, Hood explained that the raccoon was a pet of the green pony. He found himself worrying about the masked mammal even though it obviously was able to take care of itself. It had been looking for food from Bilberry. Maybe he was hungry even now. I’ll come out tomorrow with some corn, Hood decided.

Finding everything to his satisfaction, Checker’s voice brought Hood back to the present moment. “We’ve got to get you to the hospital!”

Hood turned his head to check on the bandage Shasta had applied earlier in the day. It was coming loose, but was still doing its job of covering the wound. “I don’t need any medical help,” he informed his brother-in-law. “Shasta did an excellent patch-up job.”

Checker scoffed. “I’m not worried about you, buddy! But you do want to see your newborn niece, don’t you?”

Hood’s eyes opened wide. “Moonglow gave birth during this whole escapade?” he asked unbelievingly.

Throwing his foreleg around Hood, Checker laughed. “Just like a mare to pick the most inconvenient time for something like this, huh? Come on! You’ve got to see the little beauty!”


Puss in Boots
by Sugarberry (

“You go sit with Grandpa while your mom and I clean-up the kitchen,” instructed Strawberry Shortcake of her three grandfoals: Baby Wineberry, Baby Huckleberry, and Baby Gooseberry. The three foals promptly obeyed, knowing Grandpa was always good for a story. Huckleberry led the way with Wineberry following; little Baby Gooseberry tried her best to keep up, but her new walking skills landed her in a tangled heap in the doorway. Not growing discouraged, she righted herself and was soon on the way again.

“Come on up, precious,” Grandpa greeted the littlest foal, drawing her up to his lap and wrapping a foreleg around her. He grinned at Huckleberry and Wineberry. “Now. What do you want to hear: the story of The Three Little Bushwoolies or Rumpelstiltskin?”

“Puss in Boots!” exclaimed Huckleberry, slashing his pretend sword in the air.

But Wineberry disagreed. “Tell a story about Mama when she was little,” the seven-year-old requested.

Strawberry Baskets leaned back and gave it his most serious thought. “How about we combine the two... the master of Puss in Boots will be your father, and the princess will be your mother.”

“Ooh!” cooed Wineberry. “Mama would make a lovely princess.” She clapped her hooves in delight. Baby Gooseberry mimicked her older sister, and succeeded in rapping Grandpa quite soundly in the nose.

“Okay then. Settle in, and we’ll begin.” Strawberry Baskets got comfortable in his chair, and Baby Gooseberry snuggled against his shoulder. The other two foals sat on the braided rug at Grandpa’s hooves. “All set?”

Three little heads nodded their assent, and Strawberry Baskets began his tale. “Once upon a time there was a handsome purple prince with green hair who had left his home in search of a kingdom of his own.”

“Why didn’t the king let the prince rule with him?” asked Huckleberry.

“Because he had brothers that were ruling the kingdom for their father already, and they didn’t have room for him,” Strawberry Baskets determined.


“So the prince, whose name was Grapevine, started down the road to find a place for himself. He had nothing with him except a large furry black and white male cat that had always been his closest and dearest confidant, and a pouch containing all the jangles he had in the world.

“Grapevine and his cat had traveled far when they reached an unknown city that appeared to be prosperous; the prince decided to find shelter for the night. But he was stopped in his tracks as a voice behind him asked, ‘Master?’

“Turning swiftly, Grapevine saw no one but his cat. ‘Who said that?’ he asked.

“ ‘I did,’ responded his feline friend.

“ ‘You... you can talk?’

“ ‘Obviously,’ replied the cat. ‘And before we retire for the night, I’d like you to do one thing for me.’

“ ‘What... what is that?’ asked the prince, too dumbfounded to think clearly.

“ ‘Purchase for me a pair of leather boots,’ the cat requested. ‘Preferably black,’ he added as an afterthought.

“The prince, realizing that a talking cat must know what he was doing, went into the town to locate a bootmaker. Having found one, he stated his request: a pair of black leather boots, of finest quality, for a... cat. The bootmaker, thinking the request odd but noting the bag of jangles that the young stallion carried, went about the business of cutting and stitching a pair of the smallest boots he had ever made. He lined them in red napped fabric, and they were very elegant indeed.

“When Grapevine returned to his cat, the creature was very pleased with his boots. ‘You did well,’ he complimented his master. With the boots on his back feet, the cat was now able to stand on his hind feet and walk upright; he strutted like a prince himself.

“Finding a room for the night, Grapevine was soon fast asleep. The cat, however, stayed awake to make plans. And when morning light broke over the land, he quietly left his master behind.

“Taking a bag with him, the cat went out into the meadows surrounding the city and using his keen sense of smell, located many tasty greens fresh in the morning dew and placed a pleasing assortment in the bag he carried. When the bag was full, he set his sights on the castle of the king of this area; the impressive building sat on a hill at the edge of the city. Puss was soon at the entrance to the castle, his bag of greens in paw.

“The castle guards were astounded to see a cat walking on his hind legs wearing boots and with the ability of speech, so they let him pass with no questions asked. The Captain of the Guard took charge of the precocious cat, and led him to the throne room where the king and queen were receiving their subjects.

“When it was Puss’ turn to go before the royal couple, he bowed his most perfect bow and presented the bag of greens to the queen. ‘A fresh salad newly picked for her majesty,’ Puss purred, his yellow eyes meeting the queen’s. Puss had heard of the queen’s fickle nature in regard to the salads served at the royal table, and therefore had determined to approach her from that angle.

“The queen politely contained her surprise to be approached by a talking cat, and accepted his gift graciously; but the king could not contain his astonishment. ‘A talking cat!’ he exclaimed. ‘I’ve never seen the like of it!’

“But after the original shock had worn off, the king complimented Puss on his considerate gift for the queen; and to offer his thanks, he presented Puss with a miniature sword and sheath just the right size for a feline to carry at his side, just like the king’s own knights.

“But Puss had not lost sight of his master’s interests, and informed the royal couple that it was his master, the Prince of Arbor, who had provided the tempting taste treat for the queen.

“ ‘What a fine young prince he must be,’ exclaimed the queen, and the king agreed.

“When Puss was clear of the castle, he hurried back to his master and found Grapevine pacing the floor in worry of his precocious feline. ‘Puss, where have you been?’

“‘I have been to the palace to visit the king and queen of this kingdom where we stay,’ Puss explained, and he went on to fill in the details of his morning’s work.

“ ‘And now,’ Puss proceeded, ‘to continue my plan, you must go to the river outside the city and take a swim near the bridge that is on the road which leads to the castle.’

“Having full confidence in his talking cat by this time, Grapevine was only too willing to do as he was told. ‘But where will you be off to?’ he inquired of his furry friend.

“ ‘I have my own affairs to attend to,’ Puss answered mysteriously.

“Grapevine did as Puss had requested of him and went to the clear, sparkling river to enjoy a swim under the warm summer sun. Before going into the water, the prince laid his pouch of jangles amidst the rocks at the river’s edge.

“Unknown to Grapevine, Puss had followed his master; and as the prince swam to the farthest shore of the river, Puss took the bag of coins and scampered off to hide them before taking his position behind the bridge abutments beside the road.

“Hearing the sounds of a carriage approaching from the direction of the castle, Puss jumped out into the road to intercept the vehicle. ‘Help! Help!’ he screamed. ‘My master has been robbed!’

“The king, upon hearing the ruckus and recognizing the boot-clad cat, had has carriage pull to a stop. ‘What is the matter, my dear Puss?’ he asked.

“ ‘My master has been robbed while swimming in the river,’ explained a properly upset Puss. ‘My poor, poor prince.’

“Looking to the queen who sat at his side and across to his daughter, the princess, who was also in the carriage, the king waited to gather their opinions. ‘If the young stallion has been robbed in our fair kingdom, it is only fitting that we should extend him our hospitality,’ the queen decided. ‘Please come to dine with us this evening, and tell your master that a room will be prepared for him.’

“Puss properly bowed before the king and queen, and watched as the carriage continued on its way before scurrying down the bank to the river’s edge to convey his news to the prince.

“ ‘What was all that caterwauling about,’ the prince asked. ‘And where is my money pouch?’

“ ‘It was stolen,’ nonchalantly stated the cat. ‘And we are invited to dine at the castle this evening.’

“ ‘We are invited to dine at the castle?’ exclaimed the prince. ‘That is good fortune indeed! For I have heard from some of the inhabitants of the town that the beautiful daughter of the king and queen still resides there.’

“ ‘The very beautiful daughter,’ smugly replied Puss, a cat’s smile lighting his face.

“ ‘You have seen her?’

“ ‘She was with her parents in the carriage.’

“ ‘And what does she look like?’

“ ‘You will see tonight,’ was all the cat would say.

“That evening found Prince Grapevine and puss at the castle. When Grapevine saw the princess, he was immediately captivated by her charm and beauty. Her green curls framed her lovely face, and her yellow eyes mirrored the attraction that the prince felt. ‘Princess Gooseberry!’ he breathed. ‘What a pleasure to meet you!’ He took her white hoof in his and kissed it softly.

“Princess Gooseberry blushed a delicate shade of pink, and shyly lowered her eyes. ‘Welcome to our home,’ she murmured.

“Throughout the meal, the king and queen carried on most of the conversation with Grapevine and Gooseberry only remotely listening as their attention centered one on the other. Puss, also seated at the table, proved to be a sparkling conversationalist in lieu of his master’s distracted manner.

“It was only after the dinner party had moved on to the parlor to enjoy glasses of sparkling red grape juice that Grapevine became attuned to what was being said by the king. ‘Our kingdom would be perfect if not for the evil ogre that lives in the neighboring castle to the west,’ the king sighed. ‘He has traumatized the ponies that live under his domain for years now, and no one has ever yet been able to shake his oppressive yoke.’

“ ‘This ogre,’ inquired Grapevine, ‘is not the true ruler of the kingdom he sits over?’

“ ‘No,’ replied the queen quietly. ‘He drove my parents from their castle when I was yet a young foal.’

“Grapevine looked to Puss for guidance, knowing his ability to plan ahead to make the most of any situation. But Puss only shook his head discreetly at Grapevine. To his hosts, however, he said, ‘If you will excuse the prince and I, we must be on our way early in the morning to attend to some business in the area.’ The cat stood up on his booted feet, and bowed his goodnight. Grapevine reluctantly bid goodnight to the princess, and the queen called for a page to escort the two guests to their chamber.

“ ‘Why did you take me away from the princess so early?’ hissed Grapevine. ‘She is the most beautiful pony I’ve ever seen!’

“But Puss was already curling up on the hearthside rug. ‘We must begin our quest early on the morrow,’ he yawned.

“ ‘And what quest would that be?’ asked Grapevine, still envisioning the princess and her endearing charms.

“ ‘To rid the yonder castle of its ogre,’ replied Puss before curling his tail up over his eyes to signal the end of this exchange.

“ ‘So you do have a plan! And what, may I ask, is it?’ But there was no answer, as Puss was already fast asleep.

“It was dark the next morning when the prince was awaken by a not-so-gentle shaking of his shoulder; burying his head under the pillow had no effect... the shaking only became more intense with the addition of bared claws. ‘Come, master; it is time to make your fortune.’

The ogre. Suddenly the events of the previous evening hit Grapevine full force, and he jumped out of bed. ‘Do you mind sharing your scheme with me this morning?’

“ ‘We are going to the ogre’s castle,’ Puss stated calmly.

“ ‘I sort of gathered that,’ griped the prince. ‘What’s the strategy once we get there?’

“Puss looked at his master squarely. ‘You will wait outside until I have vanquished the ogre, of course.’ He turned and went to the door, opening it and peering down the hall. Gesturing for Grapevine to follow him, Puss stepped quietly down the hallway on booted paws. Grapevine followed just as stealthily.

“It was easy to leave the castle undetected; Puss had obviously noted the guarded entrances and chose for their exit a seldom-used door off the servants’ quarters. Puss and Grapevine were soon hurrying along the dark, deserted road in the direction of the ogre’s ill-gotten kingdom.

“The morning light was streaking the eastern sky behind them when the two wayfarers first saw the castle, still far to the west, but situated on such a high hill as to be seen for miles. The first sunbeams to hit the mighty building were reflected off the rich trim of the ornate turrets as if they were coated in gold.

“Prince Grapevine stood in awe of the imposing edifice, but Puss pushed on. ‘Don’t get all dreamy-eyed yet,’ he advised his master.

“Coming out of his reverie, the prince hurried after Puss. ‘But just imagine, Puss; if we can pull this off-- whatever it is you have planned-- think what a home I could offer Princess Gooseberry!’

“Puss only scowled at his master. ‘If I can pull this off, you mean.’

“ ‘Why, of course, Puss, that’s what I meant,’ the prince responded contritely, not wanting to provoke his counselor when so much was hanging in the balance. He began to daydream of bringing the princess as his bride to this magnificent castle, and found the miles melting away. Soon, Puss and Grapevine were traveling through rolling fields that fell away from the base of the high hill that rose up off the plain like some misplaced spire.

“Following the curving road that looped its way up the mountainside, Puss and Grapevine found themselves walking between vineyards of grapes ripening in the warm sunshine, fields that spread in either direction as far as the eye could see.

“ ‘It feels so right to be here,’ mused Prince Grapevine. ‘Your venture surely has to succeed, Puss.’

“The feline was walking tall and fully alert; his diminutive sword hung at his side with his paw at the ready. He was alert to every sight and sound around him. Puss said not a word until they had rounded the last corner; the castle stood directly ahead of them in its full splendor.

“ ‘You wait here,’ Puss directed, motioning to what appeared to be an overgrown flower garden with a rather dilapidated rock-hewn bench in the midst of the tangled greenery. ‘I’ll go on alone from here.’

“ ‘I’d rather go with you,’ Prince Grapevine replied. ‘This is my destiny, you know.’

“But Puss silenced him. ‘Wait here. That’s all I ask of you.’ And he continued his walk toward the main gate of the castle, leaving Grapevine to worry and fret from the sidelines.

“From his vantage point, the prince could see that Puss was allowed entrance into the castle. Now came the hard part... waiting with no idea of what was happening inside. Prince Grapevine paced and pondered until he could take it no longer. He set his steps for the castle gate.

“In the meantime, Puss had made the acquaintance of the ogre-- an ugly scowling creature, humanoid in shape, with snarled black hair and long pointed nails. He wore the skins of animals to cover his body; his hideous face was enough to scare away the stoutest hearts.

“But Puss stood his ground. ‘You are the owner of this castle?’ he asked.

“ ‘I am!’ roared the ogre. ‘And I don’t appreciate snoopy visitors!’

“ ‘But I have heard of your great ability as a shape-changer,’ challenged Puss, ‘and was curious to see if the stories are true for I have never yet met anyone who could genuinely change their true self.’

“ ‘Bah!’ spat the ogre. And before Puss’ amazed eyes, the ogre became a fire-breathing dragon. He shot a tongue of fire towards Puss who quickly stepped out of harm’s way.

“ ‘Interesting,’ said Puss serenely. ‘But cumbersome. Could you become something small and delicate, but lethal, like a mosquito?’

“ ‘What you ask is too easy,’ growled the ogre, swiftly converting to a tiny winged insect.

“Puss, taking advantage of the ogre’s smallness, pounced to grab the mosquito from the air, but he was not swift enough; the insect sped on its way through the arched doorway and out of the room.

“It was just at this time that Grapevine was making his way down the corridor of the castle following the sound of voices-- one of which he recognized as Puss. He was just approaching the curving entrance of the room in which he hoped to find his cat when he felt the annoying bite of a mosquito. Acting on impulse, Grapevine smashed the annoying menace at the exact same time that Puss stepped through the doorway.

“ ‘The ogre...’ Puss said, staring in amazement at his master.

“ ‘Where is the ogre?’ asked Grapevine, looking cautiously about him.

“Puss walked slowly across the stone floor to where a little black speck rested at the prince’s hooves. ‘This,’ he said, picking up the insect, ‘ was the ogre.’

Prince Grapevine, mouth agape, stared first at Puss, then at the inert bug. ‘Y... you... mean’ he stuttered, ‘th... that puny thing...’ He stopped, too stunned to continue.

“ ‘Puny in size, but not in power,’ Puss explained, carrying the mosquito to the open window and setting it on the sill. ‘But he is no more.’ As if on cue, a dainty grey-feathered swallow flew to the window and finished off what-- to the bird-- was a tasty morsel.

“Still tongue-tied, Grapevine stood like a statue, unable to comprehend his good fortune. But Puss came to stand in front of him. ‘You did well, Master.’

“At that moment, the two heard the sound of carriage wheels on the road outside. ‘That sounds familiar,’ Puss noted. ‘I think you should prepare to meet your first guests.’

“Grapevine walked to the main entrance just in time to see the entrance of Princess Gooseberry. ‘You are safe!’ she cried, seeing her prince alive and well. She flew into his embrace, and the prince gladly received her.

“The king and queen followed their daughter at a discreet distance. ‘We were concerned with your absence at breakfast this morning,’ the king explained. ‘And our discussion over what would have caused your hasty departure without so much as a farewell to the princess pointed us in this direction. Gooseberry would have it no other way but that we would follow to ensure your safety.’ He looked curiously about the room. ‘Am I to assume you have accomplished your business here?’ The king looked first at Grapevine, but the prince was too intent upon the princess to respond. It was Puss who illuminated the happenings of their crusade.

“ ‘My master has released the castle and its lands from the grasp of the ogre,’ Puss revealed. ‘I believe this property would rightly revert to the queen’s family.’ He glanced at the prince to see if that piece of information had escaped his notice.

“But the queen settled the matter. ‘My daughter seems to have taken a liking to your master,’ she directed to Puss. ‘And as I have no need for two kingdoms,’ she smiled graciously at her husband, ‘I will gift this property to the two of them on their wedding day.’

“And that day was not long in coming, for the prince and princess were deeply in love. When the great occasion had been properly celebrated, Princess Gooseberry and Prince Grapevine moved into the castle, and Puss in Boots became their trusted aide and advisor. And they lived happily ever after.”

The story ended, Strawberry Baskets sat back to await the consensus of his listeners. “Mama should have been a princess,” Wineberry sighed blissfully. “Just imagine... we’d be living in a castle on a hill.”

“And I could go with Daddy fighting ogres,” gleefully shouted Huckleberry, leaping to his feet and putting Spot, the pet cat, through his paces with the imaginary sword.

Strawberry Baskets looked down at Baby Gooseberry who had listened patiently throughout the telling. Now he saw why... she was sound asleep, her little hooves dangling limply against her grandpa’s mane. “Well, I guess it worked as a bedtime story,” he grinned.

Just then some quiet applause broke out from the kitchen doorway as Gooseberry and Strawberry Shortcake listened in. “You did a great job, Dad,” Gooseberry complimented him. “I can tell because the foals didn’t interrupt you once.”

“It was a wonderful retelling,” Strawberry Shortcake agreed as she crossed the room to kiss her husband’s cheek and retrieve the sleeping foal.

“Where’s Daddy?” queried Huckleberry.

The click of the back door provided the answer as Grapevine returned from his meeting. “Hi, everybody. What’s up?” he asked, shaking off the new snow from his back and hooves.

“My prince!” giggled Gooseberry as she received his hug.

“What’s this about?” inquired the perplexed stallion.

“It’s a long story!” laughed Strawberry Shortcake.

“Yes, Daddy; you got rid of the ogre,” declared Huckleberry.

“And married the princess!” added Wineberry.

“But the talking cat helped,” clarified Huckleberry.

“Well, I’ve never heard Spot talk and I’ve never met an ogre-- unless you count Gridley back in high school-- but I’ve always known I married a princess.” He kissed his wife lovingly, but suddenly jumped back and hit himself hard on the foreleg. He looked dumbfoundedly at the black spot on his arm. “Who ever heard of a mosquito at this time of year?” he said wonderingly as he held up the squashed bug.

But no one had an answer.


New Beginnings
by Sugarberry (

The lone mare walked into the terminal and looked around her as if lost; the luggage she carried was heavy, so she set it on the hard cement at her hooves and continued to peruse the ponies that passed her by. Just like my sister to be late, she griped angrily to herself. It had been a long flight from Dream Valley, and she was anxious to get to her parent’s house and collapse into the caring hooves of her mother.

“Sis! Over here!” a penetrating voice called. Hydrangea grinned through her tiredness and exasperation to finally hear Primula’s call. She looked in the direction of the sound and saw the pale pink mare-- with her springtime green mane and tail flowing around her as she ran down the nearest ramp-- approaching with their younger brother.

The two sisters fell into an exuberant hug as Solidago awaited his turn, and soon all three siblings were entwined in a joyful reunion. “It’s been ages since you’ve been home!” Primula squealed. “It’s so good to see you!”

“Yah,” agreed Solidago. “The house has been too quiet since Prim got married.”

“And just how is Carlo?” Hydrangea asked of her sister. “You haven’t been nagging him too much, have you?”

“Can a wife nag too much?” Primula laughed. “He’s doing just fine, but someone had to stay at the pizzeria while I came to pick you up.”

“I hope I’m not being too much of a nuisance for you,” Hydrangea frowned. “I could have gotten myself home alone.”

Solidago picked up her luggage. “It’s not a problem, Hydie. Prim never works that hard even when she’s at the restaurant; Carlo won’t even notice she is gone.”

“That’s a lie and you know it,” Primula chastised her brother. “If that were the case, we wouldn’t have needed to hire Hydrangea away from her little café in Dream Valley. Did Flower Bouquet take it well when you told her of your plans to return to Vulcanopolis?”

“She knew that I wasn’t as fulfilled there as I thought I would be,” Hydrangea admitted, “and wanted ‘only what would make me smile again’.”

“So you were glad to come back?” Solidago asked.

“Yes. Very glad.” Hydrangea breathed deeply of the air. “It smells like home,” she grinned. “Just as I remember it.” The three ponies walked side-by-side down the path towards their parents’ house. When they got within sight of the stucco building, Hydrangea picked up the pace.

“Slow down,” complained Solidago. “These suitcases are getting heavy.”

“Don’t listen to him,” countered Primula. “You run on ahead to greet Mom and Dad. They’ve been waiting for you.”

Hydrangea took her sister at her word and nearly ran the final distance; the front door opened as she approached the house, and there stood her parents. “Mom! Dad! I’m home!” she called, falling into their open embrace.

“Hydrangea, we are so happy to have you come home again,” her mother cried. “We’ve missed you so!”

“How was your trip, dear?” her father asked.

“Long, but I’m home now,” Hydrangea beamed, all her tiredness fading with the joy of homecoming. By this time, Primula and Solidago had caught up to their sister.

“Need any help in the kitchen, Mom?” Primula asked, sniffing the tempting aromas coming from that room.

“Yes,” Stella affirmed. “I’m baking lasagna, but we must prepare the side dishes yet.” She patted Hydrangea’s cheek. “Your favorite meal, daughter.”

The entire family moved on to the kitchen and while dishes were prepared, Hydrangea shared her stories from Dream Valley and heard the local news of Vulcanopolis. “Carlo and I use all of Mom’s great recipes at the pizzeria; that’s why business is booming. No one cooks better than Mom,” Primula grinned.

“And now Hydie will be a part of that,” Solidago mused.

“When do you want me to start?” questioned Hydrangea.

“Carlo and I both agreed that you should have a few days to readjust to Vulcanopolis and have a chance to get together with your old friends. We won’t expect you to come in until Monday morning.”

“Are you sure?” Hydrangea couldn’t believe her good fortune, knowing how busy things had been for her sister.

“Don’t give her a chance to change her mind,” teased Solidago.”

By the time the meal was on the table and she had eaten her fill, Hydrangea realized how tired she was from the trip. Stella noticed her drooping spirits and led her away with a final command for the others to clean up the kitchen.

Solidago grimaced. “It’s just like the old days. Hydie could always finagle her way out of doing the dishes.”

Primula and Bertramino laughed. “From what I remember, you were the one who came up with the good excuses,” his father stated.

“Yes, but maybe she’s forgotten,” the young stallion grinned.

“Your room has undergone some changes,” Stella said, opening the door as on an album of memories. “I hope you like it.”

Although the furniture was the same, the bed covers, curtains, and carpet were now in new patterns; Hydrangea entered and was enchanted. “It’s beautiful, Mom. And I promise not to stay underhoof too long; I’ll start looking for a place of my own tomorrow.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Stella clucked. “You are welcome to stay here. What do your dad and I need with all these empty rooms?”

Hydrangea hugged her mother. “You may change your mind once you have to put up with me for awhile.”

“You will be busy at the pizzeria. We hardly ever see Carlo anymore, or Primula either. They have had their hooves full since Amico left.”

“Maybe I should start to work tomorrow then,” worried Hydrangea.

“You will do no such thing,” Stella reprimanded. She looked her daughter over once more. “It’s so good to have you back,” she smiled.

“I know what you’re thinking, Mom. When I left, I said I would never come back to Vulcanopolis except for visits. But I found that life in Dream Valley wasn’t that much different than life back here, and I missed my family and my friends.”

“Well, it is good to find such things out for yourself; now you can plan your life accordingly. That is a valuable lesson. But for now, I think you’d better get some sleep; you look like you could fall asleep on your hooves.”

Once alone in her room, Hydrangea emptied her luggage and arranged her things neatly in dresser and closet. She slipped down the hall to the bathroom before crawling gratefully under the covers and found that her eyes would not close. Too many thoughts and expectations were rustling about in her mind to allow her to drift off peacefully.

Had she made the right decision to come back to Vulcanopolis? She had found her life in Dream Valley somehow unsatisfying. But what if the same thing happened here? Maybe she would grow tired of working at the pizzeria just as she had grown weary of the café.

No, I won’t let that happen! Hydrangea sat up in bed and beat the pillow with her hooves. I will be successful with this new job! She rested her head in her hooves, and faced the fact that was haunting her. She had been happy during the summer when she had been dating Driftwood, and looking back she knew that she had tied her expectations to the stallion. She had learned her lesson and wouldn’t allow that to happen again. She would make it on her own merits. Only briefly did she think about befriending Giorgio; it had ended suddenly and seemed only like an illusion.

Curling up again in the snugness of the blankets, Hydrangea concentrated on the days ahead in this new year. She was back on familiar ground now, with ponies she knew and loved. She had made the right decision; she was sure of it. With visions of a rosy future, the mare was finally able to fall asleep.

* * *
The days of her time off were speeding by, but Hydrangea was enjoying every minute getting reacquainted with friends she had not seen since she had left Vulcanopolis. Her very closest confidant throughout her school days had been Elena, and soon the two mares were as close as ever.

“You must come with me to a party that Clare is giving after work on Friday; it will give you a chance to meet some very nice ponies.”

“Are you sure it would be okay?” Hydrangea asked, looking forward to a chance to make some new acquaintances.

“Sure. Clare is always telling us to feel free to bring a friend and as Cisani and I both work there, we could invite two guests. Is there someone you’d like to include?”

“Not really,” admitted Hydrangea. “It seems like all the stallions we went to school with are either engaged or married.”

Elena laughed. “I’m sure there are a few left; the party will give you a chance to see who is available.”

“Well, it does sound like fun. Sure, I’ll come; maybe I’ll run into someone by Friday.”

Hydrangea had no idea how true her words were. It was the next day after a flurry of shopping that Hydrangea remembered to run into the market to pick up some things for her mother. Dashing around the corner of one of the displays, she collided with a dark green stallion who lifted a hoof to steady her.

“Hydrangea?” the stallion asked.

It was only after hearing his voice that Hydrangea realized who this was. “Giorgio!”

“Fancy running into you here,” the stallion grinned. “What brings you to Vulcanopolis?”

“I accepted a job here,” she smiled in return. “Sorry about clobbering you that way.”

“I don’t see a problem with a run-in with a pretty mare. How were things in Dream Valley when you left?”

“Same as ever. And what have you been up to since you came back?”

“Paying off some old debts.” The stallion smiled in a depreciatory manner.

“I heard that you had some problems.” It suddenly occurred to Hydrangea that Giorgio might be in need of a friend. “I’ve been invited to a party tomorrow evening. How would you like to come with me?”

“That sounds like fun, Hydrangea, but I have other plans. Thanks for thinking of me.”

“Sure.” She smiled to cover up her disappointment. “Maybe some other time.”

“It was nice chatting with you. So long!”

Hydrangea watched as Giorgio left the shop; he had been polite, but she sensed that he had not been as happy to see her as she was to see him.

* * *
Friday night found Hydrangea in the company of Elena and Cisani, who worked as a designer for Clare’s Creations where Elena was an accountant. “Clare likes to keep us happy with a get-together every so often,” Elena explained. “She feels it is good for our morale.”

“Other than you two, will there be anyone else there that I know?” Hydrangea questioned.

“Nello was in school with us,” Cisani offered. “And you might remember Angela; she was a few years ahead of us.”

“Angela,” Hydrangea mused. “Wasn’t she the pretty rose-colored filly?”

Cisani laughed. “Was, and still is. She’s also Clare’s right-hoof helper.”

“Angela’s brother, Pacificus, also works there. He’s in management.”

They had arrived at the restaurant where the gathering was to occur, and Cisani led the two mares into the already active setting where they were met by a chorus of greetings. Nello, who-- Hydrangea noted-- hadn’t changed a bit since she had last seen him, came immediately to her side. “I heard that you had come back. I’m glad of that.” The vanilla-colored stallion led her to the buffet table and got her a glass of soda. “Where are you working now?”

“As of Monday, I’ll be involved with the pizzeria that my sister and her husband run... are you familiar with Pizzeria Sicily?”

“Sure! I’ve been there several times since they opened. The food there is great.”

Elena came to direct Hydrangea to a group of ponies gathered around watching the band set up. “Hydrangea, I’d like you to meet Rita and Jacopa; they both work in manufacturing.”

The mares were engaged in a lively conversation when the trilling laughter of someone coming into the room sounded; all heads turned to watch the arrival of Clare. Hydrangea observed the self-confident mare as she swept into the room; she had seen her briefly when she was in Dream Valley, but had never met her personally, and Clare had not yet made a name for herself when Hydrangea was still an inhabitant of Vulcanopolis. “She’s really pretty,” Hydrangea whispered to Elena. It was then that her gaze fell on the escort that followed Clare into the room-- Giorgio. So that’s what he’s busy with, she thought to herself.

“Are you okay?” Cisani asked, coming up to Hydrangea. “You look upset.”

“N... no... not upset. I just saw someone I had met in Dream Valley.”

Cisani followed her gaze. “Oh, you must mean Giorgio. I suppose you know about the trouble he was in.”

“It obviously didn’t hold him down for long.”

Chuckling, Cisani confided, “Clare took him under her wing after his brush with the law. He’s doing okay.”

Making her circuit of the room, Clare was soon approaching Elena and her friends. Elena, pulling Hydrangea behind her, went to Clare to introduce the two mares. “Clare, this is a friend of mine who has just moved back from Dream Valley. Hydrangea is going to be managing her sister’s pizza house.”

“Hydrangea... it’s nice to meet you,” Clare purred. “ I hope you’re enjoying the party.”

Giorgio soon followed. “Hydrangea! So we meet still again!”

If Clare heard his remark or not, Hydrangea could not be sure for the lavender designer had moved on to a new group of ponies. Hydrangea smiled stiffly at Giorgio. “I had no idea that you and Clare...” She stopped suddenly when she realized how trite that sounded and found herself blushing. Giorgio only seemed to be amused at her discomfort.

“That Clare and I what?” he asked with a roguish grin.

Hydrangea was saved by the appearance of Nello. “Excuse me, Giorgio, but I have someone who wants to meet Hydie.”

“Hydie?” Giorgio repeated the nickname with raised brows. “You never shared that piece of information about yourself, Hydrangea.” Again he set her ill at ease.

Nello watched the exchange, then drew Hydrangea away from the stallion. “You obviously knew Giorgio before tonight.”

“I met him when he was in Dream Valley. I can’t see now why I was interested in him.”

“That’s probably a good thing. After losing Guido, I don’t think Clare would take any competition too lightly. Anyway, there are a couple of ponies here who remember you from some debate club you used to be in.”

After a pleasant chat with the two friends from days gone by, Hydrangea crossed paths with Elena and Cisani; the group decided to load up with some food and watch the dancing that was beginning. Nello rejoined them.

“May I have the first dance?” he queried of Hydrangea as she gazed wistfully at the couples on the dance floor.

“My pleasure,” she smiled at the stallion. She found that he had become a very good dancer; and it was with regret that the music came to an end, and Nello returned her to Elena and Cisani. She later had a dance with Cisani, and several other of the stallions that worked for Clare’s Creations. But all too soon she found herself alone and deserted in a quiet corner.

Glancing around to find where Elena had gone, Hydrangea instead saw Clare and Giorgio across the room, talking together. Whatever Giorgio said caused Clare to look up and focus on Hydrangea after which the two began walking in her direction. Hydrangea turned to discreetly melt away into the crowd, but literally crashed into a stallion who was standing nearby.

“Oh! I’m sorry!” Hydrangea apologized. “This is getting to be a bad habit with me.” She smiled guiltily at the grey unicorn.

Pacificus returned a gentle smile. “I doubt that you have any bad habits.” He looked at her in such a way as to make her feel embarrassingly self-conscious. He seemed to notice her consternation, and introduced himself. “I’m Pacificus; I saw you talking to my sister earlier.”

“You’re Angela’s brother!” Hydrangea heard herself say, and wished she could just disappear for saying such an obvious thing.

But Pacificus responded politely. “Yes. And you are Hydrangea, newly returned to Vulcanopolis from Dream Valley.”

“Yes, Elena asked me to come; she and I were always best friends when we were growing up.”

“Elena is a very valuable asset to Clare’s Creations. Are you interested in joining our family of employees?”

“No,” Hydrangea hastily admitted while wondering if this was the only reason that the stallion was bothering to talk with her. Elena had said he was in management; was equine resources considered management? “What position do you hold with the company?” she asked.

But Pacificus seemed not to hear; his attention was focused on something... or someone... behind her. And whoever it is, Hydrangea pondered, he is enamored with her. Forgetting her original intention of avoiding Clare and Giorgio, Hydrangea looked behind her to see who had affected Pacificus in this manner and found the aforementioned couple bearing down on them.

Clare smiled graciously at Hydrangea, but directed her remarks to Pacificus. “You know how I dislike discussing business after hours, but I received a call from one of our suppliers.” She drew him away with her in intense conversation, leaving Hydrangea with Giorgio. She looked around hoping that Nello was in the vicinity to rescue her, but she found that she was on her own.

When her attention came back to Giorgio, she was exasperated to see again the amused look on his face. “May I get you something from the refreshment table... Hydie?” he asked. “Or would you like to dance?”

Hydrangea found his attitude infuriating; she had liked him better as a rather enigmatic loner who frequented the Café Carousel than as this convivial playboy. “You’ve changed,” was all she said.

“You sound as if you disapprove.”

Clare interrupted them; Pacificus was no longer with her. “The two of you seem to have found something intriguing to discuss.”

“Hydrangea has expressed disappointment in me since our days in Dream Valley,” Giorgio grinned. Hydrangea glowered at him.

“My only comment was that he has changed,” Hydrangea defended herself. “I found him much more compassionate when he and I were seeing each other,” she added spitefully with a drilling glance at Giorgio.

The stallion only laughed, his eyes revealing that he enjoyed the exchange. “There are many who would say that I have changed for the better.”

“I haven’t seen it,” Hydrangea retorted. Clare, to her credit, stood back and let the two of them settle the issue, although her attention was riveted on the altercation.

“But you will, now that we are on common ground again. You must have dinner with Clare and I some evening soon.”

“I’ll be busy with my career.”

Clare finally found an opening. “Elena told us that you will be working at the Pizzeria Sicily; it has a wonderful reputation for the finest pizza in Vulcanopolis.”

“It’s my mother’s recipe,” Hydrangea admitted with pride.

“Then Clare and I must make a point of dining there soon,” Giorgio stated, and Hydrangea allowed her anger to mellow just a bit.

The start of a new dance tune caught Clare’s attention, and she excused herself and Giorgio from Hydrangea’s company. “This is my favorite song; come, Giorgio.”

Giorgio winked at Hydrangea before accompanying Clare to the dance floor. “Till we meet again, Hydie.”

Now Nello showed up. “Let’s dance.”

“Where were you when I needed you?”


“Never mind. Just dance.”

* * *
The weeks had settled into a routine for Hydrangea, and she grew content with her life; she no longer harbored doubts as to her decision to return to Vulcanopolis. Her work at the pizzeria filled her days, and when she wasn’t at Pizzeria Sicily, she was in the company of family or friends. Nello and Dante, another stallion she had known from school, were frequent companions to the dances and social functions around the city. Rita from Clare’s Creations and Dommina whom she met through a church organization had joined her circle of friends along with Elena.

Finishing up her responsibilities for the day at the pizzeria, Hydrangea was on her way out after bidding her sister goodnight when a gray stallion came from the dining area to intercept her. “Hydrangea,” he smiled. “I just wanted to tell you how much my friends and I enjoyed our meal this evening.”

“Hi, Pacificus. But your compliment should go to my sister, Primula. She takes care of the food; I take care of the books.” She gestured to the mare busy in the kitchen. “I’ll make sure to relay the message.”

“Thanks. You look like you’ve adjusted to your homecoming well enough.”

Hydrangea smiled. “Yes. I’m very happy to be home again.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” The stallion hesitated before continuing. “Hydrangea, there’s to be a special performance of the Actor’s Guild on Friday evening; I was wondering if you would like to accompany me to it.”

“Oh, Pacificus, I’m sorry; but I already have plans to attend with someone else. But it was thoughtful of you to ask.”

Looking somewhat downcast, Pacificus said, “That’s okay. Maybe some other time. Goodnight, Hydrangea.”

Hydrangea was almost out the door when Primula passed by with an order of pizza. “Who was that stallion?” she whispered. “He looked as if you had broken his heart.”

“No chance, sis; he was just being considerate.”

“I don’t know, Hydie...”

“Forget it, Prim. I’m going home; I’ve got to be in early tomorrow to do the ordering.” She smiled at her sister and left the pizzeria-- and any thought of Pacificus-- behind.

* * *
Coming home one evening after work, Hydrangea found Solidago ready to leave the house for a date. “Who is it tonight?” she queried.

“Toni,” he replied. “We’re going to the dance at the hall. Want to come along?”

Hydrangea ignored the invitation. “Toni? My, my, two dates in a row with the same filly; this must be serious!”

Solidago grinned. “Her older brother has a really cool computer game; he lets me play it when I bring Toni home.”


“Oh, by the way, Mom and Dad have gone out for the evening. If you don’t come with me, you’ll spend the evening alone. Or is Nello coming over?”

“I haven’t heard from Nello in over a week. What I want to do is look at those old school pictures Mom saved down through the years to see how many ponies I can identify. Any idea where the box is that she kept them in?”

“Get a life, Hydie!”

“I have one, thank you.”

“Who wants to dig through old memories of how dorky we all looked when we were still colts and fillies?”

“You’re still a colt as far as I’m concerned, baby brother.”

“Well, if you are determined to punish yourself, I stuck the box upstairs in the storeroom.”

“Still the same floral-patterned box?”

“Yep. But I did tape it up and put warning labels on it.”

“What? Mom showed off your pictures once too often?”

“Exactly.” Solidago grinned. “‘Oh, what a cut little foal! Weren’t you precious?’” he mimicked.

“Well, you were. What happened?”

“See? You mares are all alike. I’m out of here!” He batted her playfully on the shoulder. “See ya!”

Having the house to herself was a little disconcerting; Hydrangea had gotten used to constant activity around her, and found the quiet overwhelming especially when she opened the seldom-used storage room. It was like stepping through a time portal to an earlier period of her life as her mother neatly saved every scrap of her children’s’ school days and assorted hobbies.

Hydrangea peered into several boxes of mementos before buckling down to find the box of pictures which Solidago had stashed away. She finally found the remembered rose-patterned box stuck in a back corner. She drew it out and was surprised to see the neatly lettered “Private. Do not open” label on the top; she had expected a sloppy “Keep your hooves off!”. She giggled; Solidago was serious about his intention to keep these pictures private.

Slitting the tape that held the lid tight, Hydrangea lifted the top off and exposed the papers inside. “These aren’t the pictures,” she realized, reaching a hoof into the box out of curiosity. She withdrew an official-looking envelope: The Last Will and Testament of Stella and Bertramino Calandra.

She dropped it back into the box ready to leave this avenue unexplored, when she noticed a second document tied with a pink ribbon. The stark, black letters read simply, “Adoption Papers”.

“Mom or Dad never told us one of them was adopted,” she mused. She picked up the paper, her curiosity getting the better of her common sense. The ribbon dropped off as she lifted the papers, and the document opened up. As if by fate, her eyes rested on the date-- it was the year of her birth.

Mesmerized by the implication, Hydrangea read the legal wording. It was involved and difficult, but the meaning was clear. Stella and Bertramino had adopted a female foal, the papers being signed only weeks after the date of Hydrangea’s birth. She stared at the signatures, absorbing the information.

She found that she had no feeling, no emotion, no surprise. It was as if she was experiencing this scenario from a distance, from someone else’s view. Somehow, it didn’t involve her; she was immune.

How long she stared at this startling information, Hydrangea had no idea. But she eventually realized the need to move, to react. She refolded the paper, slipped the ribbon over it, replaced it in the box, and closed the lid. She put the box back in the corner and tried to put her newfound knowledge away as easily. She walked to the door, and now saw the box that she had come for behind the door; she picked it up and carried it to the living room.

Dropping onto the sofa, she curled up, resting her head against the back, the box of pictures sitting unopened beside her. “Memories...” she mumbled. “I went searching for memories, not a revelation.” Her only wish was that she had gone to the dance with Solidago.

* * *
Darkness had settled down over the house when Stella and Bertramino returned home, so it was a surprise to Bertramino when he flipped on the lights to see Hydrangea on the couch. “Honey, are you okay?” he asked in concern, going to her side.

Hydrangea managed to smile, but did not respond. Bertramino put a hoof on her forehead. “Are you ill?”

Stella, putting her hat and purse away in the closet heard the concern in Bertramino’s voice; her motherly ears always open to potential problems, she hurried to the couch. “What is it, Hydrangea? Something is wrong!”

Feeling guilty for having accessed private information, Hydrangea searched for a way to reveal to her parents what was troubling her. She finally realized that the best way was to come right out with it. “I was looking for the old school pictures, and I found a box that I recognized; but it wasn’t what I was searching for after all. It had your legal papers in it.” She stopped and looked from Bertramino to Stella. “I found out that I am adopted.”

Stella looked to Bertramino for guidance, then sat down next to her daughter and took her daughter’s hoof in her own. Her father sat on the arm of the couch on the other side of her. “And how do you feel about it?” Stella asked, her voice trembling.

“Right now I only feel numb,” Hydrangea admitted. “I’ve been sitting here thinking back over the remembrances of the years trying to pinpoint any occurrence that might have been an indication to me that I was adopted, but there is nothing that you two ever did that set me apart from Primula and Solidago. You always loved us equally.”

“Always,” Bertramino stated softly. “You were our daughter from the moment we first saw you, so tiny and helpless and vulnerable.”

“I’d like to hear that story,” Hydrangea said in a hushed voice.

It was Stella who began the retelling of the events that brought the newborn blue pegasus to their care. “Your father and I had not had any foals born to us, so we had applied for adoption. But before a foal became available, Primula was born and we had no need for the agency’s services. Then one day when Primula was about a year old, we received a call from the agency saying that they had a special needs foal that required immediate placement, and they had thought of us when their files could not locate a family who could take her in.”

“Your mother called me at work and said we had to meet with the counselor at the adoption agency in one hour; I dropped what I was doing, and we rushed over to meet the little beauty who stole our hearts immediately,” Bertramino took over. “Because you were born prematurely, you needed extra-special care; and we knew that we couldn’t let you down. We received custody of you immediately, and brought you into our home as if you had been born to us. Primula wasn’t old enough to question the appearance of a baby sister out of the blue, and in our minds and hearts you were our daughter, so we never told her otherwise.”

“So my birth parents... did you meet them?”

“No. We were only told that there were circumstances that made it necessary for them to give up their daughter. The agency had the necessary papers signed by the mother giving up her rights to you, but we were never given any identifying information about the identity of either your mother or your father.”

“So you have no idea who they were?”

“None whatsoever,” Stella confirmed. “There was never a moment when we didn’t consider ourselves your parents. We have thanked them every day in our hearts; wherever they are, I like to think that they know you were well taken care of.”

“It’s a bit unsettling,” Hydrangea murmured, “knowing that out there somewhere are two ponies who gave me life, and I don’t even know who they are.”

* * *
Coming to terms with her new-found information, Hydrangea often pondered over the limited facts she had; but she didn’t allow it to interfere with her life or her work. Primula and Solidago had been told the truth about their sister, and had accepted it as an irrelevant factor that didn’t change anything. As a family, they decided not to reveal the news to any one else at the present time, allowing Hydrangea to adjust to the disclosure. But for Hydrangea, the unanswered questions often haunted her.

It was during this time of adjustment that she received a telephone call from Pacificus. After the usual small talk, he came to the point of his call. “Hydrangea, I was wondering if you would have dinner with me Friday evening.”

“Friday evening?” Hydrangea stalled for time as she tried to think of a legitimate excuse not to accept the invitation. But it dawned on her that maybe it would be beneficial for her to talk with someone who, not knowing her present dilemma, could take her mind off her troubles for awhile. “That would be great,” she responded.

She smiled as Pacificus set the time; he sounded as if he had not expected her to accept his invitation, and his voice stuttered as he bid her goodbye.

By Friday evening, she was having doubts as to the wisdom of dining with a stallion who had not made much of an impression with her, but her mother mildly scolded her for even thinking of treating him shoddily. So it was with a happy countenance that Hydrangea met her date at the door and accompanied him to De Vico’s for a very fine meal.

She was pleasantly surprised to find that the two of them had many interests in common; and as the evening progressed, Hydrangea found herself wondering why she had ever considered this particular stallion dull. She was genuinely disappointed when the repast was over, and there was no longer any way to delay their departure.

It was only on their way out of the dining room that Hydrangea caught sight of Clare and Giorgio seated at a table directly on their route. She stiffened as she saw Giorgio’s glance fall on them, and prepared herself for more of his remarks; she was not disappointed.

He got to his hooves as they approached, and met her with a fond hug. “Hydie! It’s so good to see you again.” Then with a brief look in Pacificus’ direction and a even briefer greeting, his attention once more centered on Hydrangea. “You look lovely, as always.”

“And you and Clare seem to be having a lovely evening as well,” she retorted as Pacificus and Clare shared some small talk before Pacificus guided her away from the twosome and out the door.

Pacificus seemed somewhat uncommunicative for several minutes before breaking the silence. “I feel the need to admit to you, Hydrangea, that I had a schoolboy crush on Clare since we were in design school together; for her part, she barely knew I existed.” He smiled ruefully at the thought before going on to tell her of his attempt to copy Clare’s work to earn enough jangles to pay off a medical debt incurred by his mother through a serious illness, and Clare’s surprising hiring of him even after uncovering his plan. “That only strengthened my feelings for her,” he admitted. “I had hoped that she would return my interest... but she did not.”

“And Giorgio came along to win her affection,” Hydrangea finished for him. They walked in silence for a time before Hydrangea confessed her former attachment to Giorgio. “I dated him for a short time before he left Dream Valley; I suppose he needed someone completely unconnected to his dealings to talk to occasionally.” She found herself feeling guilty for doing the same thing.

“So maybe we can put those two behind us now,” Pacificus suggested as they reached the house.

Hydrangea smiled. “Very easily, I would think.”

* * *
“Mom, Dad, I’ve decided I’d like to find out more about my birth parents; I’ve made an appointment to talk with Petula at the adoption agency this afternoon.” Hydrangea searched the faces of her parents to determine their thoughts. For her part, the weeks of wondering needed answers.

“You are ready to face whatever you can find out?” Stella asked.

“I think so,” Hydrangea responded. “But I want you to understand that this in no way affects the love I have for the two of you.”

Bertramino came to her side and rested his hoof on her shoulder. “Nor does it affect the love we have for you, Hydrangea.” He leaned and kissed her gently on the forehead.

When the scheduled time came, Hydrangea approached the building that housed the adoption agency with hesitant steps. Was she really ready to uncover the truth about her past? This action was frightening but necessary; she knew she would never be fully at peace until she had at least made an effort to trace her roots.

Petula, a take-charge personality, greeted Hydrangea with a welcome smile. “Please sit down,” she offered, indicating a comfortable chair. Petula positioned herself behind the desk, resting her forelegs on the arms of her chair. “What can I do to help you?”

“I’ve recently discovered that I was adopted,” Hydrangea began. “These are the papers my adoptive parents signed.” She handed the official papers across the desk to Petula. “I was hoping that you could tell me something about the two ponies who were my birth parents.”

Petula opened the parchment, taking her time to fully read the information presented.

“You obtained this from your parents?” she asked when she finally looked up from her perusal of the document.


“And they know of your desire to locate your birth parents?”

“Yes, they do. And they approve.”

“Be that as it may, the fact remains that our adoption files are closed, Hydrangea. That means that the confidential information that we have cannot, without a very good reason, be revealed to anyone.”

“I understand that, but couldn’t you at least give me some sort of background information that would help me to picture what they were like or why they gave me up? It is not important to know their names, but I would like to know the circumstances of their lives.”

“I’m sorry, Hydrangea, but our rules are in place to provide privacy and confidentiality to both the birth parents and the adoptive parents. If we made exceptions in every case, we wouldn’t be upholding our responsibility.”

“So you can’t even tell me if they were rich or poor, or if they lived in the city or the country, happily married or not?”

“No, Hydrangea. Again, I’m very sorry, but that’s the way it is.”

* * *
“So how did your date with Pacificus go last night?” Primula questioned nosily of her sister as they worked over some of the pizzeria invoices in the office of Pizzeria Sicily.

“The symphony was great!” Hydrangea responded.

“That’s not what I asked.”

Hydrangea grinned. “Well, if you must know, both of us enjoyed ourselves very much. After the performance, we ate at Coppoli’s, that new restaurant along the river.”


“We both had fish.”

“Hydrangea, you’re impossible!” Primula exploded.

Carlo, who happened to walk in at that moment, raised his eyebrows questioningly. “What’s going on in here? Is our manager attempting to thwart the owner’s whims?” He winked at Hydrangea.

“She refuses to discuss her date with Pacificus,” Primula pouted.

Carlo laughed. “I’m with Hydrangea on this one, Prim. And if that’s all you have to do with your time, you can come and help me set up the tables for lunch.” He gently directed his wife toward the door.

But Primula wasn’t to be stopped so easily. “Did he kiss you?” she threw back at Hydrangea, clutching the door frame with her hoof as Carlo tried futilely to move her along.

“It’s none of your business; but no, he didn’t.”

* * *
Once more Hydrangea walked up the steps to the adoption agency. She had called Petula again, and this time the mare had seemed more cooperative. Hydrangea hoped that she would come away from this encounter with some solid information.

Petula greeted her with a bright smile. Once they were seated, she leaned back and surveyed Hydrangea before speaking. “Stella and Bertramino came to see me, and they asked me to reconsider my decision that I gave you when we first talked.”

“Mom and Dad came here to see you?”

“Your adoptive parents are wonderful ponies, Hydrangea. They were rather persuasive in their arguments on your behalf.”

“So... you can tell me something about my birth parents?”

“I opened your file, yes. It was a very brief affidavit verifying all the necessary legal information; however, the sheet containing the names of your birth parents was missing.”

“Missing? You mean a part of my file is gone?”

“Gone, or never entered in the first place. This happened many years ago, before I came to work for the agency. For whatever reason, your birth parents are not named on the document.”

“So there is nothing you can tell me?”

Petula smiled. “Now you are jumping to a conclusion. I don’t have the names, but I do have a few facts about their life. If I remember correctly, you had stated previously that you would be satisfied to know only a few circumstances about them, something to give you some idea of what their life must have been like.”

“Yes. Anything will be better than not knowing a single thing.”

“Okay, Hydrangea. Here goes! It appears that your birth parents did not have the finances to raise a foal, especially one who needed special medical care because of your premature delivery.”

“They were that poor?”

“It also appears that your mother was physically unable to care for a foal on her own; that would have necessitated further expense.”

“Poor and ill, too?” Hydrangea felt like a parrot mimicking Petula’s words, but found her emotions running too high to think clearly.

“And on top of it all, your father was away at the time you were born; I would imagine your mother was faced with these weighty decisions without any support close at hoof.”

“Poor, ill, and alone?” Hydrangea was totally at a loss for words. She had prepared herself for the worst, but finding now that her mother had been in such dire straits proved no comfort to her unanswered questions. Now she would have the constant worry as to what had become of the mare and stallion who had no choice but to give up their daughter because life had not been kind to them.

“Hydrangea, are you going to be okay?” Petula asked, coming around the desk to sit next to the dazed pegasus. “Would you like me to call someone who could walk you home?”

“No... no, I’ll be okay. Could I just sit here for a few minutes until I can put this into perspective?”

“Sure,” Petula patted Hydrangea’s hoof. “Take all the time you need.”

As Petula returned to her desk to file the papers in their proper place, Hydrangea thought of one more question. “Would you know, was my mother a pegasus like me?”

“It was never mentioned one way or another.”

“I wonder what she looked like,” Hydrangea mused, trying to picture the mare that had given birth to her. “I wonder what my father felt when he came home without having seen his daughter.”

“I wish I could answer all your questions, Hydrangea. But the truth is that at this point in time, no one knows. The window was shut on those facts by whoever decided to leave the birth parents completely out of the picture. It may have been their request to preserve anonymity. You have to respect that.”

Hydrangea stared bleakly out the window. “You are right, of course. I got what I came for.” She stood up and bid goodbye to Petula. “Thanks for helping me.”

“Now, Hydrangea, it is time to help yourself. Let go of the past and hang on to the family that has nurtured you since your birth.”

“I can’t promise on the first part, but you can be sure that my family will never have a doubt as to my love for them.” She smiled, and went forth to live up to her responsibilities.

* * *
“Things are beginning to look serious between you and Pacificus, Hydie,” Solidago teased as the two siblings helped clean up the kitchen after supper. “That stallion has all the markings of a love-sick puppy dog.”

“Solidago!” his mother rebuffed him with a stern look.

But Hydrangea only laughed. “It’s no worse than you and Toni; and at least I have the satisfaction of knowing Pacificus really likes me and not some stupid computer game!”

“Love is blind,” Solidago countered.

“And so it should be,” Stella interjected, “or there would be no chance for the continuation of the pony race.”

“Yes, but Hydie has only eyes for Pacificus anymore. Nello keeps asking about her, and I have to keep telling him that she spends every spare moment with his boss. Boring!”

“Sometimes your attitude reminds me of Giorgio,” Hydrangea asserted. “Whenever I meet him, he ends up tormenting me somehow... just like you, baby brother.”

“Well, Hydie, think about it. Can you be sure he isn’t your brother?”

Hydrangea gasped, and Stella put her hoof down hard. “That’s enough, young man!”

“But it’s true. Just think of the ponies Hydie could be related to!”

“You,” Stella intoned, “are to leave this room and talk to your father about the proper respect that a younger brother should show to his older sister. Do you understand?”

Solidago knew well enough by his mothers flashing eyes that he had to cool it, so he humbly left the kitchen.

Stella’s voice softened immediately. “Don’t let him get to you, Hydrangea. He can be too cocky for his own good sometimes.”

“But he is right, Mother.” But the ringing of the telephone interrupted their conversation. Stella answered it, and handed the receiver to Hydrangea.

“It’s Pacificus,” she whispered, and left the room to give Hydrangea some privacy.

“Pacificus! Did you get held up at work?” The two of them were scheduled to see a movie later.

“If only,” he replied somberly. “Mom’s in the hospital. I’d like to visit her there, which would mean that I’d have to cancel our plans.”

“I hope it’s nothing serious.”

“She had a check-up today and the doctor wanted to do further tests; she had serious problems some time ago, and he wants to verify certain indications.”

“Could I meet you at the hospital? I’d like to see your mother, too.” Hydrangea had been introduced to Pacificus’ parents on one occasion when Angela had invited her to a get-together held at their home.

“You would do that?” Pacificus asked, a hopeful note sounding in his worried voice.

“You know I would. What time do you plan on getting there?”

“I’m going to grab a sandwich, and head straight over.”

“Okay. I’ll meet you there.”

Pacificus was in the lobby when Hydrangea arrived, and the two went to Dulcia’s room together. Angela and her father, Lorenzo, were already there; Dulcia herself seemed to be in good spirits, taking her hospitalization better than the family did.

Pacificus went to her bedside to greet her with a bouquet of flowers while Hydrangea hung back to speak with Angela. “What does the doctor suspect is causing her problems?”

Angela was serious, and wrinkles of worry lined her face. “It goes back to surgery she had a year ago; the doctor sees signs of a recurrence.”

“But he’s not sure?”

“No, not entirely. That’s why he has ordered the tests.”

Dulcia by this time had called Hydrangea to her side. “It’s so nice of you, dear, to visit me here in this dreary place.”

Hydrangea stooped to kiss her cheek. “Your family is so worried, and you radiate sunshine. What’s your secret?”

Dulcia waved her hoof. “What will be, will be. We’ve been through worse than this.” She reached for Lorenzo’s hoof as he came around the bed. “I tell them not to worry, but do they ever listen to me?” She shook her head and smiled. “But I do get beautiful flowers…” a look of pain crossed her face for a moment, “…for my troubles.”

The mare rested for a moment, but soon was questioning everyone about his or her day. When the time came to leave her for the night, Hydrangea said her goodbye first and left the room to give the family some time alone.

As she stood in the hall, she became aware of the patient in the next room staring at her through suffering eyes. The elderly stallion appeared to be watching her so closely that Hydrangea got the impression he wanted something of her, so she entered his room. “Is there something I can do for you?” she asked worriedly, as she sensed the torment he was going through.

But he weakly shook his head to the negative, his gaze never leaving her face. “Just... remembering.”

“I’m waiting for a friend of mine. My name’s Hydrangea.” She wondered if he had confused her with someone else.

“I... am... Jarlath.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Jarlath. Do you mind if I visit awhile, or would you rather be alone?”


“You have some beautiful flowers on your bed stand; are they from someone special?”

Jarlath’s eyes flicked momentarily to the colorful bouquet, but quickly returned to Hydrangea. “Don’t... remember.”

A book lay next to the flowers. Hydrangea picked it up and opened it to the bookmark. “Would you like for me to read to you?”

The stallion nodded in the affirmative, so Hydrangea began reading on the marked page. Jarlath closed his eyes, and Hydrangea wondered if he had fallen asleep; but when she stopped reading, he opened his eyes again as if to see where she had gone. She began again.

After some minutes a young mare came breezing into the room, her white cap signaling her status as nurse. “You have a visitor, Jarlath. How nice.”

The stallion attempted a smile. “Yes... reading...”

“You’ve always treasured your books, haven’t you?” the efficient care giver asked. “But right now we’ve got some things to take care of, don’t we?”

Taking the cue, Hydrangea said to Jarlath, “I’ll be going now; I hope you rest comfortably tonight.”

The stallion’s eyes seemed to bore into her so strongly that for a moment they cleared, and the pain seemed to disappear. “It was... good… of you… to visit,” he whispered brokenly.

Hydrangea squeezed his hoof, and left him in the capable care of the nurse. She still had several minutes to wait before Pacificus and Angela joined her. “Dad’s going to stay awhile longer,” he explained, smiling freely for the first time tonight. “They kicked us out.”

Together, the three ponies walked down the hallway, stopping at the chapel before leaving. When they were finished there, Hydrangea caught sight of the same nurse who had been in the elderly stallion’s room. “Excuse me,” Hydrangea intercepted her. “The pony-- Jarlath-- could you tell me something about him?”

“You don’t know Dr. Jarlath Costa?” the nurse responded. “Why, he’s delivered half the foals in Vulcanopolis, myself included!”

“We’d never met; I just thought he looked rather lonely as I passed by his room.”

“Dr. Costa is suffering very badly, I’m sorry to say. He’s been affiliated with this hospital for so long that everyone is concerned for him, but we are taking very good care of him. He has a great many friends. I only wish we could do more,” she ended sadly. “It was great of you to speak with him; it gets his mind off of his pain.”

“It was no problem,” Hydrangea murmured, and the nurse continued on her way.

“Do did Dr. Costa deliver the two of you?” Hydrangea asked of her companions. She couldn’t shake the piercing look the doctor had given her.

“No,” Pacificus said. “Mom and Dad had to settle for our humble family practitioner. Dr. Costa is a specialist who caters to the affluent; we couldn’t afford that quality of care.”

Angela frowned at her brother. “Just because Dr. Trinci caters to us poor ponies, big brother, doesn’t make him any less valuable. He has always given Mom excellent care.”

The brother and sister began reminiscing about various exploits concerning doctor visits over the years, but Hydrangea had faded off onto a path of her own. Angela’s statement had cut into her subconsciousness like a sword, merging with Solidago’s teasing earlier. It was like a thunder clap that made her shiver, and her legs felt weak as if she might collapse. But she rallied herself and kept pace with the others.

However, in her mind, she faced the dread that engulfed her: What if Pacificus was her brother? He was from poor parents, and his mother obviously was not the healthiest of mares. Poor, ill… but surely not alone. Dulcia would have had Lorenzo at her side. Hydrangea clung to that thought… it was all she had.

* * *
Dulcia’s tests provided reassuring news—only a minor development in connection with last spring’s surgery was causing the pain she experienced, and it was easily corrected. She was soon home and her family could relax.

Hydrangea tried to put her disturbing thoughts behind her and succeeded when she was busy at the pizzeria or with her family; she was even able to subdue them when she was with Pacificus during their ever more frequent time together. It was only at night, when she was alone in her room, that she would again and again go over the possibilities involved.

Poor, ill, and alone… she tried to put herself into the mare’s position who had given her birth. Dulcia had been poor all her life; even now, it appeared that Pacificus and Angela helped their parents out. She was also plagued with health problems that flared up intermittently; the two points together made a seemingly strong case. But, Hydrangea reassured herself, surely there would be any number of mares in Vulcanopolis who met the same criteria.

And just when she would convince herself that the odds of her having other brothers and sisters was probably small, and the odds of actually meeting one of them even smaller, she would again be hit by the truth that no matter how small, the possibility did exist. Why, she groaned inwardly, do I have to endure these doubts when I have met the stallion that lights up my life like no other has?

When she crawled out of bed one morning—she had the day off—she found her mother alone in the kitchen and confided her musings. “I thought you seemed pre-occupied lately,” Stella admitted, “and I wondered if Solidago had opened up a Pandora’s box for you.”

“Don’t blame Solidago; I’d have gotten to this point soon enough myself.”

“Would it do any good to talk with Petula again?”

Hydrangea’s face brightened a bit. “There is one thing I’d like to check. When Dulcia was in the hospital a couple of weeks back, there was another patient there, a Dr. Costa. I learned he delivered a lot of foals down through the years, and wondered if he might remember something. I almost felt like he knew me.” She grew retrospective and her smile faded. “But Pacificus said he wouldn’t take patients who were poor.”

“It’s worth a try, Hydrangea. And who knows, because of your condition, whoever delivered you may have conferred with him.”

“Would you come with me, Mom, now?”

Stella looked at the baking ingredients on the counter, then back to her daughter. “Certainly. Let’s go.”

Arriving at the hospital, the two mares-- a blue pegasus and a pale green earth pony-- went straight to the room where Hydrangea had seen the doctor, but Hydrangea stopped short as she was about to enter the room. The bed was stripped and several ponies were busy about the room cleaning out the drawers and removing flower bouquets. “Where is Dr. Costa?” Hydrangea asked, her voice wavering as she foresaw the answer. Her mother steadied her with a hoof.

One of the workers, a petite lavender unicorn, looked up from her work. “Are you a member of the doctor’s family?”

“No. But I had wanted to talk with him about... something.”

The unicorn shook her head. “I’m sorry to inform you that Dr. Costa passed away this morning,” she stated, a tear sliding down her cheek.

“No...” Hydrangea felt like crying herself, but her mother guided her out of the room.

“Let’s go sit down awhile, honey,” Stella said. They walked again the corridors that led them to the chapel. Sitting in the back, Hydrangea contemplated the possibilities that had been lost. But, she admitted to herself, the good doctor may not have been able to help me anyway. She looked to her mother who was lost in prayer, and Hydrangea followed suit.

When the two ponies left the hospital, they went by the adoption agency to check with Petula to see if there was any more she could do for them; but the counselor, although sympathetic to their predicament, could offer no helpful advice.

It was with low spirits that the two went home; Hydrangea helped her mother with the baking while they discussed any and every alternative they could come up with; but nothing seemed practical.

When Pacificus picked Hydrangea up later that day for another of Clare’s office parties, he commented on her contemplative attitude; Hydrangea tried to look more cheerful and blamed her distraction on a problem at the pizzeria. By the time they reached the gathering place, her mood was much improved due to Pacificus’ presence at her side; as always, her longing for things to work out as she wanted them to allowed her to bury the doubts in a back chamber of her mind for the present moment.

Enjoying the company of all these ponies, many of whom had now become her friends, also helped to drive away any misgivings that haunted her. Hydrangea was comfortable engaging in conversation with any of the workers from Clare’s Creations, except the one pony who could still rattle her poise-- Giorgio. She had just finished a dance with Nello who had maneuvered her to the far side of the dance floor away from Pacificus-- “To give us a chance to talk,” Nello had stated with a grin on his face-- when she was approached by the dark green stallion.

“Good evening, Hydie,” he smiled; he had adopted the use of her nickname as a regular greeting, and it never ceased to irritate her-- only her family and closest friends used the diminutive of her name; she didn’t appreciate Giorgio being in that group.

But to keep up the congenial atmosphere of Clare’s gathering, she smiled amiably. “Good evening, Giorgio.” She placed a hoof on one of Nello’s to signal him that he was not to leave her alone with this particular stallion under any circumstances.

“Where’s Pacificus?” Giorgio asked, his eyes twinkling as he scanned the room. “Don’t tell me he let you out of his sight.”

Hydrangea found herself wondering where he was, too, as she followed Giorgio’s glance. “And where is your beautiful mare?” she asked absently while still trying to catch a glimpse of Pacificus.

“She deserted me a few minutes ago. Maybe she’s off with Pacificus on some critical business dilemma. Nello, would you relinquish your hold on the lovely Hydrangea so that I can have this dance?”

Nello, who had taken Hydrangea’s hoof in his at her prodding, cast a quick glance in her direction and then wimped out. “One dance, and that’s it,” he clarified to her. “I’ll be waiting right here.” He caught the icy stare that Hydrangea flashed him, but only shrugged his shoulders as if the friend of the owner of the business carried more weight with him than his personal friendship with Hydrangea.

It was a slow dance; and Giorgio held her close. Hydrangea let him guide her across the room, but she resented every step. And the worst part for her was knowing that he knew how she felt, and that he only found it amusing. She avoided all eye contact, trying to spare herself the teasing expression she would find there.

She nearly jumped when he said, “I don’t bite, you know.” She invariably looked up into his face, and saw the hint of laughter in his eyes.

“I never expected it of you,” she retorted, at the same time wondering just how long this dance was going to last.

“Why do you tend to shy away from me since you’ve returned to Vulcanopolis?”

“I learned a lot about you that I never had known... once you left Dream Valley without so much as a goodby. But let me guess, you called Sugarberry with the news; am I right?”

“If I hurt you, I’m sorry,” he responded, but the merriment never left his eyes. “What can I do to make it up to you?”

“Just get on with your life with Clare, and spare me your misguided concern.”

“Why, Hydie. That sounds so cruel coming from you. Can’t we be friends?”

But the music providentially ended, and the dancing partners came to a standstill directly in front of Clare and Pacificus who had just returned from the terrace. Hydrangea looked to Pacificus with obvious relief. “Where have you been?” she asked, pulling him away from Clare and Giorgio.

“Several of Clare’s distributors stopped by before leaving town; we had to give them a courteous farewell. Am I to assume your dance with Giorgio was not to your liking?”

“You know how he always succeeds in making me feel inept; he baits me on purpose.” Pacificus tried to look sympathetic but did not quite succeed. “What? You think I’m imaging it?” She glowered at him in exasperation.

“Hydrangea, I know perfectly well that he enjoys upsetting you; but don’t you think it would be wise to foil his strategy by refusing to fall into his trap?”

“If I could, don’t you think I would?”

Pacificus grinned. “Come on; let’s go by the refreshment table and find something to eat. You’ll feel better then.”

* * *
Following Clare’s party, Hydrangea and Pacificus went with Elena and Cisani to the ice cream parlor before the two couples parted ways; Hydrangea was silent as she walked at Pacificus’ side on the way to her parent’s house.

“Don’t let Giorgio bother you this way,” Pacificus interrupted her thoughts.

“How did you know what I was thinking?”

“A lucky guess... I figured it could be two things: either Giorgio or I had upset you somehow.”

“Never you, Pacificus,” Hydrangea smiled at him.

“You know, I’ve been thinking-- because Giorgio was an only child, he grew up without the benefit of any siblings around the house; so maybe now that his life is more on track, he finds it necessary to do all that teasing that us big brothers are so good at.”

Hydrangea looked at him sharply... us big brothers? “What made you say that?”

“Well, I’ve done my fair share of tormenting Angela.”

Hydrangea breathed easier. “But you wouldn’t be cruel about it.”

“I don’t know; I guess you’d have to ask Angela about that. I was pretty hard on her when she was a young filly just starting to date.”

“I think you have grown out of it; maybe Giorgio will, too.”

“You can always hope!”

“I picture you as a protective older brother to Angela; you seem like a stallion who would have been capable of supplying guidance to any number of brothers and sisters.”

“Mom and Dad wanted a large family; but because of Mom’s health, she wasn’t able to carry any of the others to term.”

“That’s so sad!” Hydrangea sympathized.

“Yes. It is.”

They walked again in silence until they reached the house where they came across Solidago just returning from his evening out. “Hi, you two. How about a late night snack?” He opened the door, inviting them in.

“I think we’ve eaten more than enough for one evening,” Hydrangea stated; Pacificus agreed with her.

“Well, keep me company.” Solidago headed for the kitchen. “I mixed up this great citrus punch this afternoon; try some.” He poured cold glasses of the golden orange drink while the other two made themselves comfortable at the table.

“Quite tasty,” Hydrangea complimented his efforts.

“Too much grapefruit,” Pacificus made a face. “I hate grapefruit.”

“Too bad; Hydie loves grapefruit,” Solidago grinned. “You two aren’t the perfect match I thought you were.”

“Close enough to perfect for me,” Pacificus retorted, taking Hydrangea’s hoof in his. “And that reminds me, Hydrangea... expect a call from my mother concerning a family dinner she’s planning for Sunday.”

“Sounds like her hospital stay isn’t slowing her down any.”

“The problem has been to try to get her to take it easy,” Pacificus confirmed. “And my problem is that I have to get up early to take care of some things at work, so I should be getting out of here.”

After Pacificus was gone and Hydrangea and Solidago were rinsing the glasses before closing up the kitchen, Solidago couldn’t resist a chance to badger his sister. “A family dinner, did he say? Does that mean he considers you a part of their family already, Hydie?” He whistled a few bars of “Here Comes the Bride.”

Hydrangea smiled, but the nagging doubts were returning as the apprehensions of the nighttime hours enveloped her. What had Pacificus said? There were others not carried to term. Was one of those delivered prematurely, and given away in adoption? Was she a part of their family already?

* * *
Dinner was over, and the dishes were done. Hydrangea, Pacificus, Angela, Dulcia, and Lorenzo moved to the sitting room to enjoy some conversation... not that there hadn’t been plenty of talk throughout the meal itself; the others had made Hydrangea feel welcome with their attentions to her, and an informal cordiality had permeated the evening.

Lorenzo had gotten comfortable in his favorite chair, and began telling tales of his growing up years; raised in poverty, he was proud that he had done better than his father, even though he had never become wealthy. “But Angela and Pacificus,” he ended, “they are prepared to make their way in the world; Pacificus will do much better for the mare he marries than I was ever able to do for Dulcia.” His eyes rested on Hydrangea, who blushed prettily and shyly glanced at Pacificus who took her hoof in his.

Later in the course of the chatting, Dream Valley became the topic; Lorenzo revealed that he had been in that city so far away at one point in his life. “That was a bad time,” he reminisced. “The construction business was sluggish here in Vulcanopolis at the time; so for me as a builder, things were really slow.”

“It was probably the worse time of our married life,” admitted Dulcia, grimacing at the thought. “Lorenzo heard of work in Dream Valley, and he had to leave the foals and I here while he went off to take advantage of the opportunities there.”

“Things in Dream Valley weren’t in a slump like over here,” Lorenzo picked up the story again. “The building I helped on was the public library they were just putting up; it was as modern and impressive as they came back in those days. Where is that picture, Dulcia... the one of me in front of the building?”

Angela jumped up and retrieved the snapshot from the end table. “Do you recognize the place, Hydrangea?” she asked as she showed the mare the picture.

Hydrangea studied the picture of a younger Lorenzo standing proudly before the nearly completed Dream Valley Public Library. “Other than the landscaping around it, it looks exactly like this yet today,” she remarked. But inside her brain, the wheels were turning-- Lorenzo had been away from his wife, leaving her alone with two small foals. Alone... a wife who had, to the best knowledge of her children, miscarried several pregnancies. “How old were you at this time, Pacificus?”

“I just vaguely remember it,” the stallion admitted. “When would this have been, Dad?”

Lorenzo thought back through the years. “I imagine it was back in the late seventies.”

Dulcia remembered more clearly. “Angela was two at the time, and Pacificus would have been five. It was nineteen seventy-eight; a lot of things happened that year.” She looked pensive... almost forlorn.

Hydrangea’s blood ran cold. Nineteen seventy-eight... the very year she was born. For a moment, she thought she was going to faint. But the conversation continued on around her, and slowly her senses returned to normal. She was even able to add a few comments now and again and smile at the right times, but her heart was not in it. She wanted to be alone to think, and was glad when Pacificus noticed her restraint.

“You look tired, Hydrangea. Would you like me to walk you home now?”

“The evening was wonderful, and I thank you all for sharing it with me, but I am feeling a bit tired.”

Lorenzo chuckled. “Dulcia’s lasagna has that effect on some ponies.”

* * *
The starry night provided a cosmic backdrop for the walk back to Hydrangea’s. Pacificus, caught up in the reminiscing that had gone on throughout the evening, embellished some of the stories with facts that only he knew-- or admitted to. Adding the proper exclamations or giggles when needed, Hydrangea was absorbed in her own perspective of past events.

It was only after their arrival at the house that Hydrangea realized the need to address the situation immediately; she was hoping for a quick goodbye which would allow her the chance to escape into some private sorting out of her current knowledge. But Pacificus had other plans.

“Hydrangea...” He took her hoof and drew her close to him.

He’s never kissed me before, why would he choose tonight to do so? Hydrangea agonized. And with all the determination she could muster, she pushed him away. “No, Pacificus.”

The stallion looked as if he had been unjustly chastised. “I’m sorry. I thought...”

“I’m sorry, too; I should have spoken up sooner, but I didn’t have the courage.”

“What are you saying?”

Hydrangea saw his face grow pale as he anticipated the seriousness of her behavior and felt the coolness of her manner. “We need to back off from this relationship.”

“What did I do to make you decide that?” His grip on her hoof tightened.

“It’s just... things are moving too fast; I need space to think. I came back to Vulcanopolis to sort out my life, and I didn’t mean to complicate it again so soon.”

Her words shot through him as painfully as if they had been an arrow, and he dropped her hoof accordingly. “That’s what you really want?”

“Yes.” Her voice cracked, but she stifled her tears. “We can still be friends, Pacificus!” She tried to reach for his hoof, to feel his touch one more time, but he backed away from her. The pain in his eyes broke her heart.

And his heart was broken, too. “Good bye, Hydrangea.”

* * *
Crawling out of bed after a long, sleepless night, Hydrangea looked at herself in the mirror and barely recognized the despondent, bleary-eyed mare that stared back at her. She pushed her mane off her forehead and absently ran a hoof through the snarls that had formed during the long hours of tossing and turning. “Can life change so dramatically in such a short time?” she mumbled softly to the unattractive image in the mirror.

She forced herself to go through the routine of a normal morning, and when she finally had combed out her mane and tail after her shower, she found that the mare in the mirror had improved somewhat, though still without the vibrancy that had marked her every movement since she had fallen hopelessly in love with Pacificus. And the dark circles under her eyes stayed as reminders of a night wasted and worn.

“Poor, ill, alone.” Those words had become a triad of discord in the depths of her mind; she wished she could wipe her memory clear of them. Two of the necessary details was one thing-- I could wish away the hoofwriting on the wall with only the two points verified-- but the third fact validated is too conclusive, she continued to torture herself as she went down to the kitchen.

Solidago was just on his way out, and had time for only a quick jab. “You look like you’re just getting home, Hydie. Long night?”

Her mother was more perceptive. “Sit down, Hydrangea. You look as if something is bothering you.”

Sitting at the kitchen table, Hydrangea poured out the story of the events of the previous evening ending with a pathetic cry, “I fell in love with him and now it looks like he’s my...” She couldn’t finish the sentence as fresh tears poured down her face.

“You can’t be sure, Hydrangea,” her mother rationalized, trying to ignite fresh hope in her disconsolate daughter.

Hydrangea shook her head. “There’s no hope left.”

* * *
Stella insisted that Hydrangea not go to work that day and after practically force-feeding her some hot oatmeal, she ordered the young lady off to bed to try to get the rest she had missed in the night. Hydrangea allowed her mother to fuss over her, and once the blinds were drawn and the room was quiet, the exhausted mare succumbed to the welcome unconsciousness of a deep sleep.

A knocking at the door downstairs awakened Hydrangea some hours later; she listened to her mother’s hoofsteps as Stella went to answer it, and heard the distant sound of voices ending when the door once again closed. Looking at her bedside clock, Hydrangea found it to be mid-afternoon; slowly the reality of her situation again settled over her like a suffocating cloud, and she jumped out of bed as if she could physically shake it off.

After once more tidying her hair, she rejoined her mother who was sitting in the living room with a strange look on her face and a notecard in her hoof. “Bad news, Mother?” Hydrangea dropped to her side with all her current worry now funneling itself into this new crisis.

“No, dear, not bad news at all. I was just a little shocked.” She handed the quality stationery to her daughter. “Read this.”

Hydrangea looked at the hoof-written note done in a light, curly penmanship. After a quick reading of it, she looked at her mother. “You and Dad are invited do dine with the Guardini’s? Since when have you been rubbing elbows with Vulcanopolis’s city administrator?”

“I have never formally met Giorgio, Sr. or his wife, but your father did have a chance to talk with him once or twice at meetings they were both in attendance at.”

“So why this invitation?”

“It just one of those things that politicians do; every month, he and Enrica invite some average-type citizens to their villa for a special dinner-- sort of like a town hall meeting, only more personal.”

“And what do you do at these meetings?” Hydrangea found it a relief to have something to concentrate on for awhile other than her own problems.

“Well, we will eat of course, and share ideas, dreams, challenges, and difficulties concerning the government of Vulcanopolis; or so I’ve heard, anyway.”

“I’m happy for you and Dad; it’s about time someone in public office listened to two wise ponies such as yourselves.”

“You’re invited, too, Hydrangea.”


“Look on the envelope... Mr. and Mrs. Bertramino Calandra and Hydrangea.”

“That would be Giorgio’s doing!” Hydrangea spat, dropping the envelope as if it burned her hoof.

“Now, dear, don’t take this personally. The Guardini’s have done this for years; I doubt that Giorgio, Sr. would go along with his son’s personal whims... even if they are getting along better these days.”

“You don’t know him like I do!”

“You’ll have to put your dislike of him behind you, Hydrangea. It is an honor to be invited to one of these doings, and it would be rude to turn down an invitation.”

The stubborn set of Hydrangea’s stance announced that she, for one, would not be intimidated by any of the Guardini’s. But she did ask, “When is this grand occasion scheduled for? I didn’t catch the date.”

“That’s the funny thing,” a puzzled Stella replied. “It’s tonight.”

“Tonight already? That’s not very courteous!”

“The courier who delivered the invitation apologized for the abruptness of it, but he said certain circumstances had come up that could not be avoided. He asked if I could give him a reply immediately.”

“What did you say?”

“I told him that the three of us would accept the invitation with pleasure.”

“You what? You spoke for me?”

“Hydrangea, this will be good for you considering what you are going through right now. And I highly doubt that the young Giorgio will even be there; he does not seem to share his father’s love of politics.”

“All his love is directed at Clare these days,” Hydrangea muttered. Then, being hit by an absurd thought, she cringed. “Giorgio has already heard about my rejection of Pacificus, and is making a move just to annoy me! Pacificus probably confided to Clare who in turn told Giorgio.”

Stella shook her head. “You have a lively imagination, young lady.”

“You don’t know him like I do!” she reiterated.

“I think you are reading too much into this; Giorgio, Sr. and Enrica picked our names as some of the ponies to be included in tonight’s assemblage and, finding that you were living here, politely included you as well.”

“Why not Solidago?”

“He’s not old enough to vote yet.”

“Oh.” Hydrangea was quiet as she thought about it, then acquiesced. “Okay. I’ll join you and Dad on your little trek this evening; but don’t expect me to enjoy it.”

“Your dad! I better call him at work and warn him about this!” She dashed off to use the phone, and Hydrangea went to her room to decide what bow to wear tonight.

* * *
“How many ponies come to these things?” Hydrangea queried as they approached the large villa where the Guardini’s lived and noted the absence of any other ponies arriving at the same time. “We did get the hour right, didn’t we?”

“We better have,” grumbled Bertramino, uncomfortable in the black tie his wife had convinced him to wear. “I didn’t get dressed up for nothing.”

Hydrangea giggled. “You look so handsome, Dad!” she teased in a syrupy voice. “You should wear your tie more often.”

Bertramino silenced her with a glance; he had been informed of her decision to break-off with Pacificus and knew the depression that it had flung her into; he was happy to see her in such good spirits now, but worried that she would soon crash back to the depths of despair. “I believe that your mother warned you to be on your best behavior, too.”

Stella gave her daughter a quick hug as Bertramino rang the doorbell. “You will enjoy the evening, won’t you?”

Hydrangea had no time to answer as the door swung open, and a neatly clad maid answered the door. “Please come in,” she said in her pleasant voice. Once the guests were inside, she directed the three of them into a rather spacious parlor with grandiose furniture and a lighted fireplace against the far wall. In front of the fireplace was a turquoise pegasus sitting in a wheelchair; standing beside her was the dark green stallion who governed Vulcanopolis.

“Welcome to our home!” Giorgio, Sr. greeted them warmly, with hoofshakes all around. He held Hydrangea’s hoof a moment longer than necessary, Hydrangea thought, and chalked some of Giorgio’s behavior up to the example of his father. But she looked around the room in relief; there was no Giorgio in sight-- nor any other ponies, for that matter.

“And this is my wife, Enrica,” Hydrangea heard Giorgio, Sr.’s voice and directed her attention to the attractive but infirm mare.

“It’s very nice to meet you,” Enrica said as Hydrangea offered her hoof. Enrica’s eyes looked bright but watery, and Hydrangea wondered what exactly her medical problem was.

“It’s nice to meet you, too, Mrs. Guardini.” Stella had been very adamant that Hydrangea refer to the adults by their proper titles rather than on a first name basis unless they directed otherwise; she wanted her family to be met with approval. “You have a lovely home.”

“Do you think so?” The mare brightened perceptively, and Hydrangea smiled at her; but the smile turned down as she heard a new voice in the hall.

“You have other things to take care of, Emma; I’m perfectly capable of finding my own way about the house.” And through the doorway walked Giorgio. He took a quick look around the room as if assessing the situation; Hydrangea thought she saw a flicker of surprise on his face when his glance came to her, but she had no time to consider it. The stallion came directly to her, and taking her hoof in his, kissed it gallantly, murmuring, “It’s lovely to see you here, Hydie,” the amused twinkle highlighting his eyes. Hydrangea had no doubt now that this entire escapade was of his planning.

But Giorgio, Sr. called for everyone’s attention. “Please have a seat, all of you.” He waited until the gathered ponies had complied with his request; Giorgio directed Hydrangea to the chair next to his. She was only remotely aware that another stallion had come into the room until Giorgio, Sr. continued. “Very recently, a matter was called to my attention by my lawyer, Quentin Zalfani, who is here this evening at my request to share the same information with you that I and my wife learned for the first time just two days ago. The facts that you are about to hear affect each and every one of us gathered here tonight in a very personal way, and I ask your undivided attention.”

Nice touch, pondered Hydrangea as Giorgio, Sr. stepped back to take a chair next to Enrica; put the future of Vulcanopolis directly in our hooves. But Hydrangea noticed that there were tears running down Enrica’s cheeks and wondered if she needed some attention; she took a quick glance at Giorgio, and saw that he had noticed the tears, too. He made a move as if to go to his mother, but the lawyer’s voice caused him to stay put.

“The papers I hold in my hoof are, as Giorgio Guardini has just said, extremely important to you all,” the lawyer intoned.

Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard that before, Hydrangea griped to herself. Just get on with the political propaganda so that I can get as far away from this stallion as I can. She was in no mood for a shrewd yet boring speech.

“Recently, a noted physician from our community passed away; and, among his personal papers was found an envelope bearing my name and address. The packet was forthwith delivered into my possession; the contents of the papers contained within the envelope are what I am about to read to you at this time.” He paused only briefly to look over his audience, receiving a slight nod from Giorgio, Sr.

The lawyer unfolded the papers in his hoof; Hydrangea, not knowing what to expect from this pageantry, stole a look at her parents and saw that they were as bewildered as herself. The physician referred to could be none other than Dr. Costa. It seemed to be a strange coincidence to come across this same pony yet again. But the time for wondering was over as the lawyer began to read:

“I, Jarlath Costa, have a confession to make... a confession that directly affects a number of ponies who currently reside in Vulcanopolis. Please bear with me as I explain this matter from the beginning.

“I was caring for a mare who was suffering through a debilitating disease; that mare, Enrica Guardini, is the wife of Giorgio Guardini, Sr. Enrica was to have a foal, but her health problem was robbing her and the foal of life itself. I was not sure she would survive the delivery of the foal; and as her condition deteriorated throughout the pregnancy, it became clear that she could not last long past the birth. I was frank with Giorgio, Sr. about his wife’s condition, and he was devastated. The thought of losing his wife seemed unbearable to him; he begged me to do whatever I could to bring her through.

“Enrica was hospitalized by this time, and her husband spent what time he could with her; he knew she was slipping away from him, and he was infuriated that he could do nothing to help her. In his agony, he told me that it would be better for the foal if it were born dead as he would never be able to set eyes on it without feeling the grief of his wife’s suffering.

“But Giorgio had his work to attend to and that work was important to him; he never lost sight of his goal. One day when he was at the university, the foal was born. It had come too soon-- it was small and sickly-- but alive and fighting all odds for survival. Enrica was in bad shape after the delivery, and it was a hard fight to keep her alive as well.

“Now I saw myself faced with a dilemma: a mare who I was sure would not survive much longer, and a foal who would be under the care of a father who had admitted to me that he already felt bitterness for it. Enrica had been too weak after the birth to see the foal; and as it needed immediate medical attention, no one questioned its removal from its mother’s side. I rushed it to the foal’s hospital intensive care unit, and entered false information as to who its parents were; I also stated that the mother was in poor health-- not expected to live-- and that the whereabouts of the father was unknown.

“In the meantime, I notified Giorgio, Sr. that his wife had given birth to a stillborn daughter...”

Hydrangea gasped; she looked to Giorgio to assess his feelings, but he was staring at his father as if trying to grasp what his intentions in putting this particular group of individuals through this private revelation could possibly be. A barely imperceptible shake of the father’s head kept the younger stallion at bay.

The lawyer’s voice droned on. “Giorgio, Sr.’s concern was entirely for Enrica, so questions that might have been asked were not broached. It was touch and go with Enrica for weeks after the birth; by the time she was stabilized and I knew she would make it, both she and her husband had put the tragedy behind them.

“For Enrica, whose condition had been so serious, I think she barely realized the import of what had happened; the memory of the birth was lost in the fight for her own life. Giorgio had his wife and young son; their life returned to normal with Enrica alive, but without the use of her back legs.

“As for the foal, I made arrangements through the adoption agency using the falsified records from the hospital as the basis for the information they received. I told them that the parents were very poor and that the mother had come alone and weakened for help in delivery; she had willingly signed the papers to release her daughter for adoption. The full responsibility for the deception was mine-- no one else was involved.

“Due to the special needs of the foal, the agency procured a home for her as quickly as possible with a couple whom they were sure would nurture the struggling newborn with all the love she needed. That couple was Stella and Bertramino Calandra, and the foal was a blue pegasus with a hydrangea symbol, born on May 25, l978.”

Now it was Giorgio’s turn to gasp; he turned to Hydrangea with none of the amusement playing on his face now-- this news was a bombshell for him. Hydrangea, at least, had already received half the story.

“My conscience had been clear these many years concerning the decision I made and the actions I took. Enrica’s life had been fulfilled in her husband and her son. Giorgio, Sr. had shown by his actions that the foal he never saw would have been relegated to a status of indifference with him just as his son was.

“But in recent months, a number of things have come together to make me think twice of my interference in this affair. The first was the incident of Giorgio’s son being apprehended by the law, which seems to have brought them closer together; I realize now that there was no predictable outcome to the feelings he might have had for his daughter.

“The second occurrence was a personal experience while I have been a patient in the hospital. As I lay, sick and in pain, I looked out my door recently and saw the very same foal that I had delivered and declared dead to her parents, now grown to be a beautiful and charming mare; and she showed compassion to me. It struck me as to the loss it was to her parents to never have known the wonderful creature they had engendered.

“The third factor that prompted this confession is the fact that I am dying-- the hospital that was once my battleground for the lives of others has now become my own. And although it would be possible to take my secret to the grave, I am faced with an eternity of pondering the rightfulness of my actions. To prepare myself for a death which is fast approaching, I am committing this disclosure to Quentin Zalfani who represents Giorgio and Enrica’s legal affairs in the hopes that he will have the foresight to do what must be done to ensure that all parties in this tangled scenario are righted.

“And, lastly, I beg forgiveness from you all.”

“Signed: Dr. Jarlath Costa.”

* * *
The room was sheathed in silence; everyone was dazed to varying degrees. Enrica and Giorgio, Sr., having read the confession previously, had known all the facts coming in to this meeting. Hydrangea, Stella, and Bertramino knew the truth from their side. It was Giorgio who had received the biggest blow; he sat now trying to assimilate all the facts that had been so recently thrown at him.

Knowing that the first move was up to her, Hydrangea looked to Stella and Bertramino for reassurance-- and receiving it-- she stood and walked slowly but steadily to the mare who had given her birth. “Mother,” was all she said as she dropped to her knees in front of Enrica who hesitantly reached out to touch her face.

“My... daughter,” she whispered, experiencing the joy of claiming her child-- a child healthy, vibrant, and beautiful-- if not twenty-two years late. “Let me hug you.”

Hydrangea slipped into the waiting embrace, and joined her newly-found mother in shedding tears of joy. Giorgio, Sr. looked on, not immune to the tears himself. And when the hug had lasted too long for his patience, he gently pried the two mares apart and held Hydrangea at foreleg’s length to look at her as if for the first time. “If only...” he began, but the emotion spilled forth, and all he could do to show what he felt was to clasp Hydrangea to him and let the tears fall freely.

Stella and Bertramino, watching from the sidelines, experienced the happiness of their daughter while at the same time realizing that the love that had been theirs alone since they had taken that small, helpless foal into their home would now be shared with this new element in her life. “She has enough love for all of us,” Bertramino said to his wife as much to counter his own misgivings as to strengthen her resolve. “She will not forget us.”

Stella’s eyes misted over, but she did not allow any more sadness to engulf her; she did what was second nature to her-- she looked for someone more in need of help than herself. She and Bertramino went to Giorgio, still sitting alone and seemingly forgotten.

“She is your sister,” Stella said, laying a hoof on his shoulder. “You will have the years ahead of you to grow close as true brother and sister; but for now, go to her to show your acceptance of this situation.”

Giorgio looked up into her face as if coming out of a dream. He smiled, and a trace of the old spirit showed in his eyes. “You’re right, of course.” He stood, and went to the three who were so caught-up in the freshness of their relationship that they had eyes for no other.

Standing askance from the group waiting for an opening, Giorgio was on the point of giving up when he caught a look from Bertramino that gave him the courage at last to put a hoof briefly on Hydrangea’s, and ask, “Have you got a second for me?”

Hydrangea turned and found a rather subdued Giorgio at her side; she realized how much easier it was for her to accept Enrica and Giorgio, Sr. than it was for her to admit Giorgio into her familial circle. Her eyes must have shown her reserve, for Giorgio hesitated. Maybe, however, it was because they were under the watchful eyes of both sets of parents. But soon the well-known impertinent smile lit his face. “You never answered my question the other night, Hydie... Can’t we be friends?”

For a second, some of the contention that had governed her attitude of late toward Giorgio overpowered her; she saw a hint of the antagonism he used against her, but realized that possibly she was misreading it. She had often seen the same look in Solidago’s eyes when he was pestering her especially hard. Her heart melted, and the smile she sent his way was one of genuine sisterly affection. “I think maybe we could.”

* * *
It was late before Bertramino, Stella, and Hydrangea returned to their home. Hydrangea had promised Enrica that she and Stella would visit her the next evening with all the photo albums of the past years so that Enrica could relive her daughter’s life. “It’s going to be a long session!” Stella had laughed.

With her parents sitting at the kitchen table with mugs of strong, hot coffee, Hydrangea paced the floor, running on adrenalin that would not quit. “This morning I thought my life was going nowhere,” she reflected, “and tonight I have a whole new family.”

Stella, glancing at the clock, informed her daughter, “‘This morning’ was actually yesterday morning by now, and ‘tonight’ is this morning.”

Bertramino shook his head. “Stop thinking, Stella.”

But Hydrangea came to a standstill. “It’s that late? I wanted to talk to Pacificus about this as soon as possible!”

“About what?” asked a muddled Solidago, awakened by the activity.

Everyone ignored him for the moment. “You’re not going to get any sleep tonight anyway, the way you’re acting. You might as well call him and invite him over,” Stella advised her daughter.

“But what if he’s asleep?”

Bertramino rolled his eyes. “You think he will mind getting up at this hour, knowing what you have to tell him-- or at least what I think you plan on telling him?”

Hydrangea giggled. “I’ll go call him right now.” She left to use the living room phone while Stella and Bertramino sat Solidago down to break the news to him about Hydrangea’s new family.

* * *
Misdialing the phone number twice before her shaking hooves could get it right, Hydrangea was relieved to finally hear Pacificus’ groggy voice answer on the fifth ring. “Pacificus! It’s Hydrangea! I need to talk with you. Could you come over?”

There was a pause. “Come over... now?” he asked somewhat disbelievingly.

Hydrangea had a sinking feeling that Pacificus might not be prepared to accept her back into his life. She began to babble. “I’m sorry... I realize it’s awfully late... You were asleep... I shouldn’t have bothered...”

“Hydrangea!!!” Pacificus interrupted emphatically, now fully awake and cognizant. “I can be there in fifteen minutes!” The receiver was hastily slammed down.

He was on the front porch and in Hydrangea’s embrace in nine minutes flat.


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