My Little Pony Monthly Issue 95 (February 1, 2005)
My Little Pony Monthly
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by Clever Clover (Swordrat@aol.com)
A cold wind blew across Friendship Gardens. Clever Clover sat before the fireplace in his living room, staring at the crackling fire. Morning Glory was sitting behind him, reading aloud from a list of petitions from clansponys in town. Clever Clover shook his head. "And what am I supposed to do about all that?"
"Well, you can start by caring. A lot of these ponies just want to know that there is someone looking out for them."
"Are you all right? You seem... distant."
Clever Clover nodded. "I... have some big plans."
"Oh. I don't suppose you'd want any company?"
Clever Clover shook his head. "It's not something you'd enjoy."
Morning Glory nodded. "Well, I guess we've done enough "regent-ing" for the time being. Maybe after your... thing, you'll have more focus."
Clever Clover just stared at the fire.
Morning Glory stood up. "Well, I'll just show myself out."
As Morning Glory was about to close the door behind her, Clever Clover said, "Goodbye." His voice was full of melancholy.
Morning Glory pulled her coat tight against the wind as she made her way home. Clever Clover hadn't been himself since he had lost his memory, but lately he had been getting worse. He had lost much of his defiance, but it seemed like he had given up hope. He barely talked anymore; and when he did, he didn't say much. Morning Glory was worried about him, but she didn't know what to do.
When she got home and hung up her coat, Morning Glory fixed some hot tea. She sat, sipping her tea, wishing she knew how to help her friend. She sat long into the night, long after her tea had grown cold.
* * *
Early the next morning, Clever Clover set out on hoof toward the Flatlands and the Isle of the Emerald Lake. He was not dressed as one would expect of someone who was making such a journey in such weather. He breathed deeply of the cold air, holding his head high as the wind blew through his mane. He set a swift pace, a pace that would be difficult for an average pony to keep up. He didn't sleep. In two short days he had reached the shores of the lake. He waited until dark to venture out onto the ice.
* * *
King Oak and his queen, Gooseberry, took their breakfast as usual. The day seemed as ordinary as any other... until the king went to his throne room. There, seated upon the throne, was Clever Clover.
"Cousin! What an unexpected surprise!"
Clever Clover glared at the king. "And would it have been a surprise if it had been expected?"
"No, I suppose not. Well, I'm glad to see you; and I know how you dislike all the pomp and whatnot of the royal court, but I must insist that you vacate my throne."
Clever Clover shook his head. "No."
The king was livid. "You may be a prince and regent, Clever Clover, but I am still your king!"
Clever Clover leaned forward. "That name, 'Clever Clover'... I never really cared for it. I'd much prefer something more edgy... darker. How about 'Shadow Clover'? I think is suits me. What do you think, your highness?" These last words were spoken with some contempt.
"Who are you!? You're not my cousin!"
"I just told you, I'm Shadow Clover. And you are not my king."
"How dare you!"
A dark figure stepped from the shadows behind the king and leveled a sword at his heart.
"Nightshade!" the king gasped.
Two more figures stepped out from behind the throne, Jack O Lantern and Hemlock. "Well, well, well," said Jack O Lantern. "Here we are, one big happy family again. Only this time, your champion is ours."
"How did you..." King Oak began, but Shadow Clover cut him off.
"That is none of your concern. I serve Jack O Lantern, now."
"Take him away," commanded Jack O Lantern. "Put him with the queen."
Nightshade grabbed Oak by the shoulder but he struggled against her. "What have you done to my wife?"
Jack O Lantern shook his head. "Haven't you been paying attention? I said you would be taken to her. Don't worry. If I had intended to hurt you, I would have done so by now."
Nightshade took the king to his royal bed chamber. When Nightshade shoved Oak through the door, Queen Gooseberry was sitting on the edge of the bed. It was clear that she had been crying.
"Oh, Oak!" she cried and rushed toward him. He put his arms around her as Nightshade slammed the door shut. "What is happening?" she sobbed.
"Our old friends from the Night Clan are up to their old tricks again. Only this time..."
"What is it?"
Oak shook his head. "It seems inconceivable, but Clever Clover appears to be working with Jack O Lantern."
Gooseberry gasped in dread. "That cannot be! He must be deceiving them, like Minoko did."
"Perhaps. But there was something about him... He didn't seem himself, and he called himself 'Shadow Clover'."
"You don't suppose it has something to do with his amnesia? What if Jack O Lantern was able to convince him that he was someone else?"
"I suppose. But in her letters, Morning Glory never indicated that he doubted who he was as much as he rebelled against it. I'd think she would have noticed something if Jack O Lantern were trying to influence him." The king sighed. "But there is no use in speculating. In the past we have relied on Clever Clover to get us out of these pickles; this time we'll have to come up with something on our own."
* * *
The other inhabitants of Malachite castle had been similarly confined to their rooms, with the exception of the Magus, who always seemed to be absent at times like this. The king and queen sat nervously in their room. Oak clasped his head in his hooves, desperately trying to conceive of a solution for this latest threat upon his people. Before he had made any progress in his deliberations, Nightshade stepped out of the shadows near the door. Keeping an eye on the royal couple, she opened the door to admit Jack O Lantern.
The evil wizard bowed. "Greeting, King Oak, Queen Gooseberry."
Oak scowled at the fiend. "Why do you mock us?"
"I do not mock you. I come to you this time not as a conqueror, but as a savior."
"Either you've gone mad, or you think I have."
"Not at all. You see, there is more going on than you are aware of. I, however, know all the secrets. I alone am familiar with both sides in this war. And I have chosen to lead your side to victory against the evil Zotikos."
"Lead?" The king laughed. "You're saying that you must conquer us to save us? Is that it?"
Jack O lantern nodded.
"I don't believe this. All right, Jack O Lantern, since you're holding all the cards, why do you need us?"
"Your people will not accept me as their leader. They love you... and with good reason. They would never acknowledge me as their leader."
"So you need me to be your puppet!?
Jack O Lantern shrugged. "That's an awfully rude way of putting it, but essentially correct."
"And why do you think that we will cooperate?"
"In time, I think you will see things my way."
"Once you have heard what Zotikos has planned and how he has pursued his plans for hundreds of years, you will see things my way."
* * *
Hemlock aimlessly wandered the halls of Malachite castle. Empty suits of armor patrolled the castle for any who might have been overlooked during the takeover. Other armors stood guard outside the rooms where prisoners were being held. Hemlock found himself standing before one such door, somehow drawn to it.
"Who's room is this?" he asked the guards.
"Enchantment," the armor replied, in a hollow echo.
"I would like to talk to her."
The armors bowed and stepped aside. Hemlock stepped between them and reached for the door handle, but stopped. Instead of just opening the door, he knocked.
"Enchantment. This is Hemlock. I'd like to... have a word with you."
"Come in," Enchantment replied after a short pause.
Hemlock opened the door and stepped through. Enchantment sat, staring out the window. "How are you doing," the young stallion asked.
"How do you think?"
Hemlock hung his head. "I...I'm sorry about this. I tried to talk Jack O Lantern out of taking such an extreme step, but he insisted it was the only way."
"The only way to do what?"
"To unify the clans against Zotikos."
Enchantment turned away from the window. "Zotikos?"
"A ghost, from Atlantis. The last time you and I met, I was under his influence. But you helped me overcome him."
Hemlock nodded. "When you confronted me, I could not stand to see you hurt. Even though Zotikos had complete control over me, I was able to stop him... for your sake."
"Thank you, Hemlock."
Hemlock's face blushed bright red. "I should be going now. Um, I'll stop by again later."
* * *
That evening, Shadow Clover paced uneasily in the gymnasium, thrashing about aimlessly with a foil. A voice from the shadows that would have startled another pony didn't phase the purple pony. "You know, Clever Clover used to be quite the swordpony." Nightshade stepped out of the shadows. "I could give you some lessons if you'd like."
Shadow Clover continued pacing and thrashing. "And I could give you some lessons on sneaking around in the shadows."
Nightshade lunged at Shadow Clover, but he gracefully avoided her blade.
"You're not too bad," Nightshade complimented the purple pony. "Good thing you're on our side."
Shadow Clover dropped the foil and stomped from the gymnasium.
To Be Continued...
by Clever Clover (Swordrat@aol.com)
Clever Clover strolled briskly through the blackness. He had grown tired of sitting, waiting for the next ghost to appear. And his legs had been getting stiff. It seemed strange, since this was a dream, that he could experience such a realistic physical sensation, but he did. He didn't know how long he had been walking or how far he had walked or if he had really even walked at all. When the world is nothing but black, it is difficult to judge such things.
Then he saw something in the distance. As he walked toward it, the something seemed to get bigger, so he was moving toward it... or maybe it was moving toward him. At first he thought it had a human form, but as he got closer he could see that it was a pony, a yellow unicorn with fire-red mane and tail.
"Allo!" the prince called out to the latest spirit.
The unicorn bowed slightly in reply. "Greetings, Clever Clover. My name is Epona."
"Epona? I think I've heard that name before, but I can't quite place it. You don't look like a clan pony, more like a Dream Valley pony."
"I am neither, really."
"Strange, the rest of the ghosts I've met have claimed to have some connection to me and the clans. What's your story?"
The flame-maned pony smiled. "I am no ghost. And though I have no connection with your past, I am very concerned about your future."
"My future? Well, it's nice to know that I have a future."
"You have faced many adversaries over the years, but I fear you may not be ready for the challenge that awaits you."
"Okay, what challenge might that be?"
"You must defeat yourself."
Clever Clover hung his head. "But I like my feet..."
Epona collapsed in a heap. "That's not what I meant!"
The purple prince grinned ear to ear. "I know, I was just trying to lighten the mood."
The yellow unicorn regained her composure. "If you are to be ready for the fight that awaits you, you must train." She lowered her horn toward Clever Clover. "Are you ready?"
"Ah, I don't have a weapon..." But with a flash of light, a whorled horn appeared upon Clever Clover's forehead. And that flash illuminated all of the blackness for a moment; and in that moment Clever Clover could see everything, but there was more in that moment than his mind could comprehend.
"Whoa! That was intense! But I guess we can spar now."
And so the two ponies sparred in the blackness, in the place without time or space.
My Little Soldier: Sailor Moon
The Rainbow Bows
Chapter 1, Part 1
by Moonstar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Late one night I made wish on a falling star
That your love, a precious gift, would reach me from afar
So near, yet so far away, in my heart I hear you say
"Can you... oh, can you remember that day?"
Wings of moonlight, carry me there
Horn of starlight, without a prayer
Cast your glimmer of rainbow light
Upon what's to be
I believe in you, my little soldier
I know it's true
That we will meet again and again
Like the earth beneath our hoofs
I believe in our moonlight romance
Wings of moonlight, carry me there
Horn of starlight, without a prayer
Cast your glimmer of rainbow light
Upon what's to be
Like a falling star, a moonlight romance
It was quite an unremarkable rock.
In fact, where it lay upon the red volcanic earth, one got the feeling it was a bit too common for its own good to be in such a place. One of its sides was rough and unruly, as if having been newly cut from stone of a dull grey shade, while the other half appeared cultured and lightly polished like the forgotten work of an easily distracted jeweler. All and all, it was a very unnoticeable, dusty fragment of gem spotlighted by dim rays of moonlight that met with a tap of a shining silver hoof as it batted at it softly.
"Wake up," the hoof's owner spoke, his white clydesdale feathers and deep tone easily marking him as male. The stone spun across the bare soil of one of the many halls of the Volcano of Gloom wordlessly, the force of the kick sending it upon nearby marble flooring. "Get up, will you?" the stallion remarked again, an edge of something unbefitting of his rank creeping into his voice.
Silence answered. Again, the rock merely sat.
"My dear..." The male bowed his head down to ground level. The dim moonlight revealed a powerful muscular neck and silver unicorn horn framed by a long flowing white gossamer mane as he whispered to empty space. "...it is time."
The stone shook, rolled over listlessly, and exploded outward in a wave of light. It instantaneously quadrupled in size, giving birth to four hooved legs that pawed the air and a long graceful neck crowned with a small head. The whole form was a marbleized ruby red and emerald green shade, the same that the lifeless rock had displayed just seconds before; the colors now danced upon its surface like a living pool of water. Lastly, a small pair of wings segmented themselves from the pony form's back, and a mane and tail grew from its liquid haunches.
With the dying light of that unknown magic that had brought it into being, the pony's body, having become hardened to a polished luster in the wink of an eye, was set gently back to earth, legs folded daintily beneath it. Its distinct eyelids of ruby and emerald slowly drew upward, revealing deep mint green twinkle eyes. The pony yawned.
"As I said before, Zoisite, it's high time you have awoken. Your kingdom needs you," the stallion spoke.
The stone pony yawned again, this time stretching each wing lazily before returning them to a peaceful tucked position. Ignoring the commanding tone of the stallion, a mumbled reply came from its mouth, now positioned sleepily between two front knees. "Kunzite... love.. tell my 'kingdom' they'll just have to wait... until I feel like it."
Kunzite's brow lowered crossly. "But you've already been asleep over a thousand years!"
"Mmm... five more minutes..." the filly sighed, burying her muzzle and closed eyes into the stallion's nearby mane in a flash.
If there was one thing military training had never given him defensive against, it was like-minded females. Kunzite half closed his ice blue eyes at the unexpected nuzzling, highly considering the possibility of five minutes in such a position. Good Rainbow, but it had been years since...
But the news... oh, the news he had was sweeter... "Jadeite is dead."
Zoisite's eyes snapped open, a slight glimmer playing upon them. "You don't say... I never did like him, the little twerp... all the better for the next in line..." In a flash, she was on her hooves and testing out her leg muscles. "Well, this changes everything. I must get ready, get ready, yes..."
With the sound of trotting hooves and the melody of wind though feathers, the pegasus shed her outer stone covering like a layer of cloth that fell to earth and disappeared. It was replaced by a coat of an ever-so-ordinary shade of red as she took flight into the patch of sky revealed above in the cavern's ceiling.
"This queen's knight has regained his flanking bishop, Nephrite," Kunzite smirked, speaking to no visible pony, fanning out his unseen wings in the darkness. "One can only wonder how you will fair against her..."
The Life of Riley
by Sugarberry (Sugrbery@aol.com)
"He's a chunky little fella, isn't he?" Wigwam asked, eying Coppice warily, then turning his attention to the smaller bundle in his own forelegs. Nestled cozily in his father's embrace, the two-week old Jackpot was sound asleep, and Wigwam smiled down at him with all the pride a new father had a right to feel.
"He's adorable!" Chocolate Chip exclaimed, scooping the chubby Coppice from his mother's care. "And since we haven't seen him for a month, of course, he's grown. And Banderol, too." Chocolate Chip flashed the foal a smile, and he grinned back before ducking behind his father.
Vanguard lifted the reticent colt. "Remember helping Chocolate Chip feed the swans on the casino's lake when we were home for Christmas?"
Banderol obviously did remember, because he giggled over the experience. The large birds had nearly overwhelmed him, but Chocolate Chip had protected him from their exuberant welcome and had shown him how to spread their food so that they were soon engrossed in filling their stomachs, allowing the colt to watch them without fear, so-much-so that the female had taken the liberty to nuzzle his ear with her beak- which tickled- causing Banderol to collapse in a heap of helpless laughter.
"I suppose you're so overprotective of your firstborn that you won't let me hold him," Sugarberry said to Wigwam, tugging at the blanket to get a better view of Jackpot's face. Butterscotch-colored, the foal had a shock of silky yellow mane falling over his forehead which Sugarberry brushed aside. The foal opened his eyes and yawned, then stared up at his father's face with such an intent expression that Sugarberry laughed. "He already thinks of you as his hero."
"As well he should," Wigwam quipped.
"Just let me hold him," Sugarberry begged.
"Only if you promise not to stick a bottle in his mouth."
"I can't help it if Coppice is always hungry!" Sugarberry said, accepting the infant from Wigwam. "How was your flight?" she asked of the parents as she snuggled the foal.
"Uneventful," Chocolate Chip replied, making herself comfortable in a chair so that she could more easily hold Coppice. "Jackpot and I both slept most of the way."
"And missed seeing the alien spacecraft fly by," teased Wigwam.
Chocolate Chip wrinkled her nose. "What I missed is dinner."
"Oh, my! Everything's ready and waiting. All I have to do is dish things up!" Sugarberry relinquished Jackpot to Vanguard, then scurried from the sitting room to the kitchen.
Wigwam chuckled. "Some things never change."
* * *
It was later that same evening that the telephone call came through. Chocolate Chip, Wigwam, and Jackpot had checked into their hotel room and called it an early night, with Chocolate Chip falling asleep instantly. Wigwam, on the other hoof, was not so sleepy; and he stood surveying the city of Vulcanopolis from the third floor height of their room. Street-lamps glinted off the wet pavement as a light but steady rain pattered down
Wigwam was remembering an earlier visit to the city when he had arrived to help trace down Calla and Banderol after their abduction by one of Giorgio, Sr's, political rivals. That episode had, thankfully, boasted a happy ending. This trip across the ocean had been much more relaxed. He had the company of his wife and son.
A smile spread across his face as the thought flitted across his mind. His son. How fortunate he was that Chocolate Chip had realized that their lives were meant to be united; and now, here they were, celebrating their first anniversary with a precious little one to make them a true family. He had waited a long time for this, and the reality was better than he had ever dreamed.
His thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the telephone. Hurrying to answer it before it woke up Chocolate Chip and Jackpot, he croaked a breathless hello.
"Hope I haven't interrupted anything," a chuckling baritone voice boomed.
It took only a moment for Wigwam to place the voice. "Chief Matteo. How nice of you to call. Do you honor all your visitors with a personal welcome?" It would be wise to be on guard with the Vulcanopolis Chief of Police.
"Only those who've won my respect. I hear you're celebrating an anniversary."
"You're well informed."
"That's my job. And I hear congratulations are in order... a son, wasn't it? How's the casino business in Dream Valley?"
"Very profitable. Is your department in need of a donation?"
"You think I wouldn't call out of personal interest in your well-being?"
"In a word, no."
Matteo chuckled again. "I could use your advice."
"Advice?" Wigwam was suddenly attuned to every nuance in the police chief's voice. He stretched the phone cord around the corner into the bathroom and closed the door so that Chocolate Chip would not be disturbed. "What kind of advice?"
"You're familiar with Ambrogino's, I assume?"
"I've heard of it. Didn't have the chance to stop in on my last visit. Read about it often enough... the highest stakes in all of Ponyland are won and lost there."
"You haven't met Monte Medora then?"
"Only heard of him. He runs a smooth operation. I wouldn't mind getting just one night's share of his receipts."
"I might be able to arrange that."
There was a pause before Wigwam responded. "I'm listening."
Chief Matteo went on to explain the problem. Monte had come to him for help when one patron of the stylish casino had begun to win against the odds with unseemly consistency. Try as they might, Monte and his associates had not been able to pinpoint any irregularity in the pony's method, but they also knew that no one could have such a string of good luck. Ambrogino's was beginning to feel the crunch of such an auspicious player, especially when other patrons were increasingly more likely to watch the charmed gambler win than to join in the games of chance themselves.
"What's the name of this gamester?"
"It's not a he we're dealing with, Wigwam... pardon the pun. It's a mare. She's lavender with long turquoise hair... very striking. Her credentials give her home address as New Pony, and her story for those who ask is that she's a school teacher on an extended vacation. I, for one, would like to take one of her classes!"
"You've run a check on her, Matteo. What's the reality?"
"Everything to date has been verified. She really is an educator from the big city. According to the superintendent, she asked for some time off because of health reasons. And she's smart... too smart."
"Where do I come in?"
"You're here on a pleasure trip; you're a casino owner; no one would suspect your interest in the gaming tables at Ambrogino's. You can watch this Riley surreptitiously to discover something that would point us in the right direction. Monte can't very well throw her out without some evidence that verifies the fact that she's cheating the system."
"The key here, Matteo, is that this is a pleasure trip. My wife and I are celebrating our first anniversary, not to mention the recent birth of our son. That doesn't include working for you, even if it means haunting the luxurious halls of Ambrogino's."
"What better place to wine and dine your wife? And what better cover than to bring... let's say, Vanguard and Sugarberry... along. No one would suspect that you're nothing more than a tourist caught up in the polite gambling world that Monte so graciously provides. Riley wouldn't give you a second thought."
"Thanks, Matteo," Wigwam said sarcastically, "but I'll have to give this some thought and talk it over with Chocolate Chip."
"I don't think that'd be wise. One slip of the tongue and your cover would be blown before you even start."
"My wife can be trusted to be discreet."
"Okay, so she might not say anything out of line. But she'd be watching Riley, just out of curiosity. And that might be enough to tip Riley off."
"From what you said earlier, everyone's been watching Riley. We'd stick out more if we didn't become part of her fan club."
"I'll trust your judgement. After all, I'm only asking that you observe Riley's actions. There's no need for heroics. The main thing is to find out her trick and put an end to her winning."
"Maybe she was born under a lucky star."
"Humph!" Matteo scoffed. "You've become a romantic, Wigwam; don't let that interfere with your investigation."
"Investigation? That sounds official."
"You'll be on Monte's payroll, not mine."
"You can tell Monte that I'll keep my eyes open."
* * *
That evening brought together not only Wigwam and Chocolate Chip and Vanguard and Sugarberry, but also Giorgio and Clare and Hydrangea and Pacificus who had learned of the plans of the visiting couple to try their hooves at beating the odds at Monte's elite gambling casino. Jackpot, Coppice, and Banderol were at home in the Vulcanopolis town house under the care of Hydrangea's brother, Solidago, while Hydrangea's own sons and Calla were with their grandparents. All four couples were in good spirits and anticipating a lucrative flow of jangles... hopefully for their benefit, not Monte's. Only Sugarberry was dragging her hooves.
"No, I'm not going to play," Sugarberry said, accepting a drink from a passing waiter while shaking her head at Pacificus. "I don't want to waste my jangles."
"But these slot machines are low-stake," Pacificus urged. "You'll have fun, even if you do end up broke. You don't think I'd risk my hard-earned jangles otherwise, do you?"
"We'll see," Sugarberry said, taking a small sip of her beverage.
Clare had already introduced Vanguard to a one-armed bandit while Chocolate Chip and Hydrangea were losing no time in dropping jangles into theirs. Wigwam and Giorgio watched benignly, preferring to wait to try their luck at the blackjack tables.
"Give it a shot, Sugarberry," Giorgio added his entreaty. "Here, I'll even fund your first efforts." He held out a hoof-full of jangles.
"I'm having more fun just watching ponies," Sugarberry responded, ignoring his money. "For instance, look at that stallion over there." She nodded toward the end of the line of slot machines. "What a hairstyle!"
"It's popular among the young and wealthy trendsetters," explained Giorgio, referring to the spiky, heavily-gelled tresses.
"And look at that couple." Sugarberry indicated a middle-aged pair of ponies, one dropping in coins while the other scratched numbers down on a pad of paper, doing complicated mathematical calculations.
"Maybe someday he'll stumble on a surefire way to beat the odds," Wigwam noted, sending a hooded glance around the room to see if he could spot a certain lavender mare.
Sugarberry giggled. "That mare closest to the door reminds me of Miss Hackney. She seems out of place."
Wigwam's gaze took in the nondescript pony. At first glance, she did seem misplaced, but the eyes of the pale face behind the glasses were shrewd; and her concentration was intense. He was not surprised when the machine she was playing showered her with a win, the bright lights and sirens catching everyone's attention for a time.
The mare seemed discomposed by the regard of the other patrons, nervously fumbling with the fringe of a black crocheted shawl that she wore over her shoulders, and allowed the crowd to swallow her up after collecting her modest winnings.
A squeal from Chocolate Chip next caught Wigwam's attention as his wife, too, brought in a winning combination. She showered some of her good fortune on Sugarberry. "You've got to try this!"
"Yes, Sugarberry," Wigwam agreed. "You take Chocolate Chip's place; I'd like to introduce my providential wife to some higher stakes." He held out his hoof to the brown mare who smilingly accepted his escort, with Clare and Giorgio joining the couple as they moved more deeply into the gaming casino.
* * *
"So, what do you think?" Chief Matteo asked of Wigwam the next day. His call had caught the stallion before he and Chocolate Chip set out on a day of sightseeing.
"Riley certainly knows how to play the cards, but I didn't note anything irregular. Maybe it's luck, pure and simple."
"Not according to Monte. Her wins are too calculated."
"Too costly for Monte, anyway," Wigwam chuckled.
"Would you want to have her playing your casino?"
"Not for any length of time."
"Then you see why Monte is concerned. Her winning streak seems to be unstoppable."
"I haven't given up yet, Matteo. As a matter of fact, Giorgio and I are going back to Ambrogino's tonight, just the two of us."
"Your lovely wife is going to let you out of her sight?"
"She's going to spend the evening with Sugarberry and Vanguard at their place. She and Sugarberry have a lot to catch up on."
"Babies, recipes, and gossip," Matteo said.
"And a good share of reminiscing, I'm sure," Wigwam added.
* * *
"This is getting personal," Wigwam muttered to Giorgio as both stallions watched their chips being awarded to Riley. "No one can be that lucky." He glared across the table at the attractive mare who accepted the winnings as her due.
"I'm cleaned out. How about we eat something?" Giorgio suggested. "If we're to go home empty-hooved, we can at least make the most of Monte's buffet."
"You go ahead," Wigwam growled. "I'm staying right here. She's bound to slip up sooner or later."
"Have it your way, my friend," smiled Giorgio. "I'll check in on you later."
Wigwam only grunted, his eyes never leaving the lavender face of the mare who was making a fortune... with him unable to stop her.
* * *
Riley made her way alone through the quiet streets of Vulcanopolis, by-passing the ritzy hotels that rose from the heart of the city and heading toward a more neglected part of town that buffered the noise and smells of the fishing docks from the cleaner, quieter realm of the wealthy. Only when she came to a once noble but now rundown edifice of red brick did her pace slow; she walked through the front door of the establishment and made her way stealthily to an upper floor. Looking behind her furtively but finding herself alone, she softly knocked twice, then stepped back to wait. It was only a moment or two before the door creaked open and Riley darted inside. Slumping onto a hard, wooden chair near the doorway, she watched as the only other occupant of the room closed the door upon the world.
The sole source of light in the cramped hotel room came from a weak light bulb in the ceiling fixture, creating darting shadows that scuttled from the moving figure who came to stand next to Riley. Riley looked up at the pony draped in a heavy black shawl that accented the whiteness of the worried face. "Well?" Riley asked.
"One more night," a tired voice sighed. "One more night... if things go as well as they did this time out." The pony under the shawl seemed to brighten momentarily, making her look years younger. "Soon, we'll have Robby... " Her voice broke.
Riley grasped the older pony's hoof in hers and smiled. "One more night... then our family will be complete again, Mother."
* * *
"I'm not comfortable in these surroundings," Vanguard complained, looking around Ambrogino's with distaste. He had consented to accompany Wigwam and Giorgio on their latest outing only because Wigwam's obsession with the casino was beginning to worry him.
"Van, I've explained the situation to you. I need you and Giorgio as cover for my being here. I think I'm on to Riley's method, but I need to verify a few things. And you needn't gamble, if that's what's bothering you. I just need to blend in like I'm here with a couple of friends for a good time."
"Let the good times roll," quipped Giorgio, stopping a waiter and snaring a drink for each of them.
The three stallions worked their way casually around the various gaming tables set up in the elegant surroundings of Ambrogino's, finally coming to the entourage that encircled the table where Riley sat, her winnings already piling up before her. Wigwam spared the mare only a momentary glance before his gaze took in the rest of the spectators. It did not take him long to find what he was looking for... what he had expected to find.
One of the ponies in the group that had become nightly onlookers of Riley's success was the matronly mare with the black shawl. While Vanguard and Giorgio settled their attention on Riley, Wigwam discreetly watched the pony who had reminded Sugarberry of Miss Hackney. She was old enough to be retired, Wigwam surmised, but he had to agree with Sugarberry's assumption that she was- or had been- a school teacher. And the lovely Miss Riley was a teacher as well.
The pony under surveillance must have felt Wigwam's steady regard, for she looked up in his direction, pulling the black shawl more closely around her. Wigwam quickly looked toward Riley, his face assuming an avid interest in the proceedings under way as Riley seemed to hesitate over her bet. Her hoof wavered over the chips for a moment as if undecided; then, with a return of her confident demeanor, she moved a pile of chips forward.
Monte hovered at the edge of the onlookers trying not to let his concern show but failing at the attempt.. With set lips, he watched the game play out and scowled heavily when the cards favored Riley.
Wigwam, however, smiled. Knowing which pony to watch, he now had a fair understanding of what was playing out. With that in mind, he caught Monte Medora's surly gaze and nodded for him to meet him at the edge of the room.
* * *
Something was not right. The black-shawled mare could feel it like a tangible threat. Someone was watching her. She looked up, but could see no one focused on her. Everyone was concentrating on Riley. Good, thought the mare. I must have been imaging things.
Very discreetly, her hoof found the signal button and she relayed the necessary information to a slightly disconcerted Riley; and as the older mare had anticipated, the younger one reaped the rewards.
Finally! the mare whispered under her breath. We've done it!
* * *
"That granny is the brains?" asked a bewildered Monte.
"I guarantee that she's hiding something under that shawl," Wigwam observed. "I imagine it's some sort of computer that's calculating the odds for her."
"I don't believe it! And even if you're right, how is she relaying the information to Riley?"
"Some sort of ear phone, I'd imagine."
"It makes sense," grudgingly agreed Monte. "But I want to see them at work for myself... now that I know what to look for."
"You might not have the chance," said Wigwam, watching the table at which Riley sat. The mare in the shawl had already moved across the room and was now heading for the entrance. Riley gathered together her winnings and made to leave as well.
"They can't leave the premises!" muttered Monte in agitation.
"You keep an eye on Riley and inform your staff what's going on. I'll stall granny." Wigwam moved purposefully in the direction that the pony had taken while Monte barked orders into his walkie-talkie.
* * *
"Excuse me, ma'am, but you dropped this." Wigwam approached the mare in the black shawl, his hoof extended with a jangle resting on it. His smile was warm and friendly, his manner at its best.
"You must be mistaken," the mare answered, watching Wigwam warily. "My jangles are safely here, in my purse." She revealed a crocheted bag that was dangling from her foreleg, then clutched it to her as she turned to leave.
"And a lovely purse it is," complimented Wigwam, trailing after the mare. "Did you make it? My mother takes great pride in her own crocheting. Your shawl has an interesting pattern to it. I'll bet you designed it yourself."
The mare hesitated. The warning that had set her on edge earlier returned. Why was this stallion so interested in her all of a sudden? For all his politeness, there was no reason for him to be showering his attention on her, unless...
"I really must be going." She shot a glance back toward the gaming room to ascertain where Riley was and was relieved to see that the young mare was not far behind. "Take the jangle yourself and plug it into one of the machines. I wish you the best of luck."
She was almost out the door when a body materialized in front of her; one of Monte's henchmen blocked her path. "Mr. Medora would like a word with you."
* * *
Riley, seeing that her mother's secret was in jeopardy, had to make a quick decision. She could stand by her mother's side, in which case not only would the secret of their success be discovered, but also their accumulated jangles would be forfeit. Her other choice was to slip from the casino with the winnings and disappear into the night; that would best serve her brother, Robby, who needed the jangles to pay off his creditor. Her ear phone still in place, Riley heard her mother's electronic command: Go!
Knowing that she did not have a chance at the main entrance, Riley made her move toward an emergency exit set back and to the side of the imposing facade of the building. There were enough casino patrons standing about chatting that she was able to gain access to the alcove in which the door was located without calling undue attention to her movements.
The door was heavy and stiff, but she succeeded in pushing it open far enough to slip outside. The night air felt cool and refreshing; and for a moment she rejoiced over her freedom. But only for a moment.
"That's far enough," a harsh voice whispered from the shadows, and Riley turned her head in that direction. "Payment's due now." She caught the flash of metal and then knew only darkness.
* * *
"Where's Riley?" Wigwam shouted at Monte as the proprietor bore down on the hapless mare being held by his guard.
Monte, his attention solely on the mare who had fleeced him of so many jangles, looked at Wigwam quizzically. "Riley? She's right over..." Pointing to his right, Monte realized that the lavender mare with turquoise hair was no longer there. "Where'd she go?"
"Keep an eye on this one," Wigwam barked, assessing the area and sprinting for the emergency door. "I'll find Riley."
And find her he did, stumbling over her body as he rushed through the door. He dropped to her side and heard her take a jagged breath. "Wh... what happened?" she managed to say, her hoof going to her head where a sizeable lump now sprouted.
"It would appear you were attacked," said Wigwam, brushing the mare's mane from her face to assess the extent of the wound. "You did have a sizeable amount of money on you, didn't you?"
"My jangles!" Riley tried to sit up, but sagged under the pain it caused her pounding head. She felt for the over-the-shoulder bag she carried and cried out, "They're gone!"
At that moment, the door opened again, nearly knocking Wigwam to the ground. "What the..." he began, then stopped as Vanguard and Giorgio came through the opening.
"It's about time you two showed up!" Wigwam growled. He then asked of Riley, "Do you know who would have done this?"
"I didn't see who did it," the young mare stammered.
"But you did see something," Wigwam urged.
Realizing that she and her mother had lost control of the situation, Riley sighed. "It was something he said... Payment's due now. It could only have been Stormburst from New Pony. He must have followed my mother and me here."
"Your mother? The mare in the black shawl?"
"Yes. We were trying to win enough jangles to pay back a loan my brother had gotten from Stormburst. He wasn't satisfied with Robby's weekly payments any longer and wanted it paid off in one lump sum. Robby didn't have the money, and Stormburst came down hard on him." Riley gingerly touched the lump on her head. "That's when Mom and I decided we'd.... take care of things ourselves."
"What's this Stormburst look like?"
"Grey with white hair and a lightning bolt symbol."
"Where is Robby now?"