The Continuation of the Beginning Part Five
written by Barnacle

"Weird," Kracken said as he gazed through the gap between the cliff face of the mountain top and the mysterious floating structure before them.

"Creepy," Davey agreed. Both of the two Bushwoolies were lying on their stomachs and cautiously peering over the edge as well.

Standing at the farthest eastern point of the Dakytins kingdom, the strange group of adventurers found themselves at the very top of a vertical cliff that dropped thousands of feet down to a valley floor somewhere unseen below. More disconcerting than this, however, was the giant mass of rock which floated before them. It looked as if the top of a craggy mountain had been cut cleanly off with a knife and turned on its top so that the flat side could be neatly landscaped with lush gardens and thick hedges. But to make it even more exotic, the whole thing just floated there in midair, not moving so much as a hair's width despite the high winds that blasted up the mountain's side. This was the SKY BRIDGE!

"I'll say one thing for you Dakytins," Kracken said. "You sure know how to make a stair case."

"While zis is true, you are mistaken when you apply zat sentiment to the sky bridge," Pierre replied. "Ze Dakytins did not build it."

"ARR," Barnacle said, "so where did it come from, then?"

"No one knows; it 'as always been 'ere for as long as we 'ave."

Malteeze stepped forward with his massive frame at this point and said, "Are we sure we want to trust our faith– nay, our very lives– on this?"

"How dangerous can it be?" Kracken asked and lightly stepped across the one foot gap before anyone could stop him. The sky bridge did not move in the slightest. It was as if the huge chunk of floating rock was somehow fastened tightly to the ground even though that was plainly not the case.

"Most unusual," Protius commented. "I wonder how it manages to stay aloft."

"Magic?" Kracken suggested.

"Per'apse giant engines?" Pierre said.

"I hear no machines," Malteeze stated bluntly.

"The wind!" Jones exclaimed suddenly.

"Yeah, yeah!" Davey agreed. "Like, really big sails, mon."

"Nor do I see any sails," Malteeze snarled, beginning to lose what little patience he had.

"ARR, quiet! All o' ya!" Barnacle said. "It don't really matter how this thing be keepin' itself aloft. It's our only way down outta these mountains, so we be have'n no choice but to give it a go."

"Besides," Kracken added, "if the sky bridge has been here for so long, why would it pick right now to stop working?"

"ARR, I think you be forgetting the parts of our little adventure that brought us up to this point," Barnacle replied.

"Oh, come on. I think our share of bad luck must have run out by this point," Kracken laughed. "Nothing but smooth sailing from here on in!"

"I sincerely hope you are correct," Protius said.

Groaning, Malteeze muttered, "Why couldn't they have just built a staircase?"

Very shortly, everyone was across the small yet imposing gap. Protius probably could have made it without any trouble even considering his age, but Malteeze lifted him over just to be on the safe side. The shaman did not complain in the least; any mishaps would have proved fatal. Naturally everyone feared that Davey and Jones would have problems with the task at hand, but amazingly they safely made it onto the sky bridge without assistance. Apparently they weren't quite so clumsy when their lives were at risk.

"So who tends the garden?" Kracken asked.

Arrayed before them was a wide stretch of lush green grass that eventually gave way to tall, neatly trimmed hedges. All about the area were numerous trees, shrubs, and flower gardens all arranged with the utmost care and all perfectly maintained.

"Zis is yet another mystery of ze sky bridge," Pierre said. "No one has ever been seen tending ze gardens."

"You would lead us to believe that these plants grew this way of their own accord?" Malteeze questioned.

"I would lead you to believe nozing," the Dakytin replied as he admired the scenery.

"Maybe somebody lives here and takes care of everything," Kracken said.

"Yeah! Yeah!" Davey agreed with zeal and ran about on the trimmed grass. "Little wood fairies!"

"Fairies?" Jones stopped dead in his tracks for he had been picking some of the beautiful flowers. "Do you think they'll get mad if I take these, huh?"

"ARR," Barnacle exclaimed, "there be no such things as fairies!"

"Oh, good!" Jones said and happily returned to his flowers.

"Ah, Captain Barnacle, always the voice of reason," Protius said with a bit of sarcasm.

"ARR, that's right," Barnacle quickly agreed. "Now I think we best be on our way and quit sight seein'."

"Actually, I meant that we really should not be to hasty to rule out any possibility in this strange and wondrous place," Protius clarified to the pirate. "However, you do have a point. We should get moving. No one has any idea how long this sky bridge is and it would be most advisable to put it behind us as soon as possible."

Kracken stepped up to the giant parrot. "Really?" he said. "I'd have thought a place like this would be really neat in your estimation."

"So would I," Protius concurred. "But something about this place unnerves me."

"I know what you mean, master," Malteeze added. "It's as if..." he trailed off as he took in their surroundings. "There is something here but I cannot quite place it..."

Setting out with a purposeful step across the grassy space, Barnacle headed for the hedges at the far end. "ARR, enough talk; it be time for action."

Everyone fell in behind the pirate captain and made their way to where he now stood beside the hedge row. The thick growing plants grew in a huge semicircular arch which stretched from one side of the sky bridge to the other. At first glance it seemed to present an impassible barrier; but as the group got nearer, they realized that a heavy bronze door was hung on two stone pillars right in the middle of the living wall.

"ARR, I'm guessin' that be our way outta here," Barnacle said as they examined it.

Reaching out and getting a firm grip on the handle, Kracken braced himself and prepared to pull the door open. "Here goes," he said, and then gave a mighty pull.

"Careful," Pierre warned.

To everyone's surprise, the door popped open right away– in fact, it swung open so easily, Kracken lost his balance and fell on his back. "Hmm, that was easier than it looked," he commented as Pierre helped him up.

"ARR, somebody hasta be keepin' this stuff up," Barnacle said. "Otherwise that thing woulda been rusted closed and it woulda taken all of us to pry it open."

"Curious," Malteeze said and then peered past the great door. On the other side lay a long passage made up of more hedge. It went for a way and then split to the right and left at perfect right angles. "A hedge maze?" the feline said.

"Apparently..." Protius said.

"So much for your 'smooth sailing'," Pierre said good-naturedly and slapped Kracken on the back.

"Yeah, I just had to be wrong, didn't I," Kracken replied, somewhat disappointed.

So, with nowhere else to go, the mismatched group set off into the hedge maze. As the last member set foot across the entrance, the metal door swung quickly closed of its own accord. Even with everyone present pushing against it, the door would not budge. They were now thoroughly trapped inside the strange place. There would be no turning back.

"This is just wonderful," Kracken muttered in disgust. "Our day just keeps getting better and better."

"Don't lose hope yet," Protius said positively. "Just as every maze has an entrance, so too it must have an exit."

"Yeah," Kracken agreed. "But we have to find it before we can use it."

"ARR, then maybe we should get started," Barnacle said.

And so, they did just that. At first it was easy; there was only the one way to go, but that changed fast enough when they came to the "T" junction ahead of them. Protius, Malteeze, Kracken, and Davey all thought they should go right while Barnacle, Pierre, and Jones considered left to be the best bet. After a good deal of arguing, it was finally decided that they would take the right hand passage for now but that they would then take the first left after that.

Barnacle and Protius both thought this was a fairly decent plan because it would keep them moving in the direction they wanted to go. However, Kracken pointed out that the exit might not be on the opposite side as the entrance. Everyone grumbled slightly at this comment but Barnacle once again set them straight.

Since they had absolutely no idea which direction was going to bring them to the exit in the end anyway, they might as well continue in a single direction instead of simply wandering about aimlessly. They continued in this fashion for some time, always taking a left after a right and a right after a left so as to keep going in a more or less straight line. With all the different paths at right angles to one another, it helped with this tactic; but it wasn't long before they came to a dead end and had to backtrack to the last intersection.

The day was already getting on and it seemed to the group as if they had made little progress at all. Every junction in the maze was beginning to look like every other junction and the band was beginning to get quite weary with their journey. But then, all of a sudden, something completely different came into view and instantly everyone's spirits picked up.

Set into the end of what would have otherwise been just another dead end was a bronze door that looked very similar to the entrance gate. Everyone stood for a moment and stared, not entirely sure what to make of it.

Finally Barnacle spoke up and the very sound of his voice startled most of those present. "ARR, Kracken, since it was yee who opened the last one, maybe yee'd like to give this one a shot as well," the pirate captain suggested.

"Oh well," Kracken replied with a shrug and grasped the pull ring. "I just hope this is the exit."

With that he pulled at the door and it swung open as easily as the last one. On the other side was a wide open space of neatly trimmed grass and flowers. A small pavilion made of trimmed hedges could be seen not too far away from the door where they stood.

"Yeah, yeah!" Davey cried and rolled through the open door. "We be free, mon!"

"Yeah, free!" Jones added and followed his brother.

The rest of the group followed them but with a bit more caution. After all they had seen in their adventures so far, they were expecting the worse. The worse, however, never came.

Perchance only the second worse...

"ARR, this be great," Barnacle said as he looked around the place they now stood. "We're not free o' this maze yet. Look, the hedge goes all around this clearin'."

"Yes, my captain," Pierre said. "But look, zere is another door an ze far side."

"ARR, check it out," Barnacle instructed. "But something tells me it won't be that easy."

The tall lizard man hurried off with inhuman grace to investigate the door. Meanwhile, Protius and Malteeze had made their way to the pavilion that stood in the exact center of the clearing.

"Hmmm..." Protius said as he examined something before him intently.

"What is it?" Barnacle asked as he walked up behind the parrot.

"What?– oh, have a look at this," Protius said and gestured to a stone tablet set on a marble stand.

Barnacle gazed at the writing on the slab for a moment but could make nothing of it. Reading the tablet aloud he said, " 'SHONIX... what comes next?' ARR, what does that be meanin'?"

"Shonix?" Kracken said. "Wasn't he a king or something?"

"Not to my knowledge," Protius replied as he rubbed his beak in thought.

"Nor mine," Malteeze concurred.

Just then Pierre rejoined the others at the pavilion and reported his findings on the second door. "It is as you feared, Captain," Pierre said. "Ze door does not move; however, zere is a small key hole."

"Locked, then?" Kracken said more than asked. "Maybe we can pick it."

"ARR, it be worth a try, but–"

Before Barnacle could finish, though, Protius suddenly cried out, "Z!"

"Z?" Kracken asked.

"Yes!" Protius replied. "Z. That's what comes next!"


"Yes..." Malteeze said. "I see now."

Barnacle stepped forward and examined the tablet again. "ARR, what do you mean?" he asked.

Protius pointed at the word SHONIX and traced each letter with the tip of his feather as he spelled it out, "S, H, O, N, I, X. It's not a word; it's just letters– all the letters that appear the same when you turn them upside down as they do when you read them right side up. What would come next would be the next and last letter which is like these others... Z." As he said this last part he traced the letter "Z" into the tablet after the others and to his surprise found that the stone was soft in this area. As he pulled his wing away, the letter he had just placed on the tablet stayed there. "Very strange," he said.

"Look!" Davey and Jones both cried out at once and pointed at the base of the pedestal that the tablet was sitting on. Slowly, a hidden compartment slid open and inside was a small gold key.

"Quick," Barnacle cried. "Grab it!"

In their excitement, both of the Bushwoolies dove for the object but instead only succeeded in running into each other. Fortunately, Protius reached out and snatched up the key a split second before the compartment snapped shut.

"Whoa, that was close," Kracken said.

"Aye! Look at zat!" Pierre said in alarm. "Ze tablet is returning to normal!" And as everyone looked, the slab of rock was indeed repairing itself where Protius had etched the letter "Z" into its surface.

"Very strange indeed..." Protius muttered.

"ARR, let's not be wastin' any more time," Barnacle said. "For all we know this whole place will disappear just like that letter did! See if the key'll work in that door."

"Yes... of corse," Protius agreed whole-heartedly.

"I sure hope this one is the way out!" Kracken said enthusiastically.

"Zere is only one way to find out!" Pierre exclaimed. "Come, let us see if this does not open the door!"

"Yes, yes," Protius said as he scuttled across the field. Everyone else fell in right behind him; and when the shaman reached the door, they all fanned out into a semicircle so that they could all see what was happening. Holding the key in the air so that its polished surface caught the light, Protius took a deep breath and muttered some long forgotten verse as if it would somehow effect what was on the other side of the door. All the others held their collective breaths as they watched intently. Except for the leaves stirred by the gentle breezes blowing across the hedge maze, the silence was absolute. No one, however, even noticed since they were so focused on the event unfolding in front of them.

Finally, Protius reached out with the key and just as he placed it at the keyhole, Kracken suddenly blurted out, "Did you hear that?"

Every one of the group jumped slightly at the sound of his voice, for they had been so focused on the drama before them that they had failed to notice the silence of the hedge maze.

But now it was quickly broken.

"ARR!" Barnacle cried. "Hear what!?"

"Voices," Kracken replied. "I thought I heard voices for a second there..."

Davey and Jones grabbed hold of each other in fear and one of them muttered, "The fairies be comin' ta git us, mon."

"Yeah," the other agreed shakily.

"ARR," Barnacle snapped. "There be no such things as fairies!"

"But didn't anyone hear it?" Kracken asked, hoping that someone would back him up on his claim.

"I 'eard nozing, my friend," Pierre said. "But zat does not mean zat you did not."

Malteeze frowned as he looked down at the first mate and shook his head.

"Well, I suppose it doesn't matter one way or the other," Kracken said. "If there are other people in this maze, they're not here now, so we can't do anything about it anyway."

"ARR, that be exactly right," Barnacle said. "The only thing we have to worry about right now is us... so, Protius, if you would?"

Protius nodded and pushed the key into the slot. It slid in smoothly and then stopped. "Well, I suppose here goes nothing," the parrot added as he turned the key. With a heavy thud from inside the massive gate, the door slowly swung open to reveal what awaited them on the other side...

"More maze!" Kracken said in disgust.

Everyone present groaned at this, for that was exactly what was on the other side of the door– another hedge hallway that branched off in various directions.

"ARR, what are yee all waitin' for?" Barnacle said as he boldly stepped into the maze once more. "Now that we be this much closer to the exit doesn't mean it's time to give up! Come on now, move it!"

"Aye-aye, sir," Kracken said, less than enthused, and followed his captain.

One by one the rest followed suit, until Malteze was the last to past the threshold. And as he did, the door slammed shut, just like the last one had. And just like the last one, it was sealed so tightly that it would not open again from their current side.

"Ah, trapped again," Pierre said flatly.

"Trapped," Protius agreed. "But only for the moment. We'll find the exit eventually."

"ARR," Barnacle concurred.

And so they set out into the hedge maze once more. Just like before, they used the same tactics for navigating and hoped that it was taking them in a more or less straight line through the labyrinth. This time, however, spirits were not quite as high as they had been starting off. As the sun sank closer and closer to the tops of the living walls, so too did the collective mood of the group sink.

It didn't help matters that Kracken continued going on about having heard voices. The thought of being carried away by fairies was really beginning to frighten the Bushwoolies, and they grew more worried with each step they took. Malteeze, on the other hand, was simply getting irritated with Kracken's prattle and an argument was about to break out over it when Barnacle suddenly snapped at both of them to be quiet.

"He started it," Kracken quickly replied, pointing to the large cat man.

"I would think that a pirate of your ilk would at least try to rise above such childish quips," Malteeze said in return. "And besides, you started it."

"Did not!" Kracken retorted.

"Did too," Malteeze said flatly.

This exchange probably would have continued if Barnacle hadn't cried out, "ARR, shut up, both of you! I thought I heard something myself there a moment ago."

"Told you so," Kracken said as he lightly jabbed Malteeze in the ribs. Malteeze jabbed him back, and the force of the impact sent Kracken sprawling.

Protius let out a deep sigh and stepped between the two before the confrontation escalated into anything worse. "Now, Malteeze, you should know by now that violence is never the answer to such trivial things like this," the parrot was saying to his pupil.

Meanwhile, Barnacle continued to listen intently to their surroundings as he slowly made his way to the end of the passageway they were currently in. Pierre trotted up behind the pirate captain and whispered, "Captain Barnacle, did you really 'ear somezing back zere?"

"ARR," Barnacle replied as he scanned the bushes around them. "I can't be sure, but I coulda sworn I heard voices from the other side a one of these hedges..."

However, as he rounded the corner of the passageway, something coming from the other direction collided with him. Barnacle was knocked off his hooves and Pierre instantly drew his swords. Malteeze, Kracken, and the others quickly forgot their differences when they heard the tell-tale sound of cold steel being unsheathed and ran to the end of the aisle to see what the commotion was about.

When they arrived a split second later, what they saw was quite strange. Pierre was standing at the intersection of the two passages with both of his rapiers in hand and ready to strike. Barnacle was on the ground rubbing his head while some newcomer was also laid out on the grass facing the pirate and also rubbing his head.

"Ow," the grey stallion who had run head-first into Barnacle groaned and then looked around. This stranger only needed one quick look before he put up his hooves in defense and began apologizing. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," he said. "No need for swords, man. I thought I heard someone and was coming to check it out. I didn't mean no harm." Pierre backed off somewhat at this but did not put the weapons away.

"Who are you?" Kracken asked.

"And what are you doing here?" Protius added.

"You not a fairy, are ya, mon?" Davey said shakily.

"ARR, I just wanna know why ya hadda run inta me like that," Barnacle groaned as he got to his hooves.

"Look, man, I said it was an accident," the gray pony replied. "I'm sorry."

"Wait a second..." Barnacle said. Now that he finally got a good look at the stranger, something about him looked familiar. "Do I be knowin' ya?"

The gray pony flipped his dingy green mane and took a look at the pirate. "I don't know, but I think I know you. Aren't you Barnacle, the pirate from Calimidad Island?"

"ARR, I am," Barnacle replied. "And you be that Cliff Diver person, right?"

"Yep, you got it, man," Cliff said and then jumped to his hooves as well.

"ARR, so now that we got that out a the way, maybe we can get down to practical matters," Barnacle said. "Like what you're doin' here?"

"Hey, man, I wanna ask you the same thing," Cliff said good-naturedly. "You see, me and my crew, the Xtreme Ponies, were coming up into the mountains here to do a little snow-boarding; but we found this weird elevator thing and ended up stuck in this crazy maze. That was about four weeks ago and we've been stuck here ever since. How about you?"

"ARR, that be a long story," Barnacle said. "But the short version go somethin' like this: me and me own crew were out having a little treasure hunt when we got stuck in these mountains. After a few scuffles we found out that this blasted place was the only way home."

"We've only been in here since this morning but we were already starting to run out of patience," Kracken said. "I can't imagine how you could put up with this place for four whole weeks."

"Well, you know," Cliff shrugged, "this kind of thing is what we Xtreme ponies live for. At first it was kinda fun, answering riddles and finding our way through a maze."

"You mean there are more of these riddles?" Protius asked.

"Oh yeah," Cliff said. "Lots more; we were doing pretty good until this last one got us stumped. We've been trying to figure it out for days."

"ARR, what about the way out?" Barnacle asked. "Do yee know how we can get out a here?"

"Well..." Cliff said. "We're not totally sure but we figure we must be getting pretty close."

"Perchance we could help," Protius suggested. "Maybe a fresh perspective would reveal something that was overlooked before."

At this, Cliff's expression brightened considerably. "Hey, man, we want to get out of here too! Any help you could give us would be great!"

"ARR, then lead the way!"

"Yeah, follow me!" Cliff cried before turning and hurrying off in the direction he had come from. All the others from Barnacle's group needed no persuasion to follow, and everyone took off after Cliff.

"You seem to know your way around pretty well," Kracken commented to the pony when he saw how surely Cliff maneuvered through the winding passages.

"When you're stuck in the same place for three days with not much to do, you tend to get to know your surroundings," Cliff replied. "Like, for example: here we are."

And sure enough, ahead of them in the side of the passage, a heavy brass door was hanging open thanks to a well-placed snowboard wedged into the hinges.

"Gee," Kracken said, pointing at the board. "I wish we would have thought of that."

"But we don't be havin any surfboards, mon," Davey said.

"Yeah, yeah," his brother agreed.

Kracken chuckled and replied, "No, I just meant jamming the door open... with anything we have."

"What good would it have done?" Malteeze asked. "We would have been able to back-track through the passages we had already come, but it would not have gotten us any closer to the exit any sooner."

"Always mister positive, aren't you?" Kracken replied.

"I merely see situations for what they are," the cat man said.

Fortunately, before the two got into another argument, Cliff unintentionally intervened and diffused some of the tension. "It may look like a good idea," Cliff was saying, "but we actually lost all of our boards doing this. I don't know how they do it, but these doors are stronger than they look."

But by this point all of Barnacle's group were now in another clearing. Five ponies of various colors were lounging around; but upon seeing these new comers, they all jumped to their hooves and ran over to meet them.

"Dude!" one of them, a green and blue colored stallion, exclaimed as he jumped around excitedly. "I mean, dude!"

"Calm down there, buddy," Kracken said. The way this one was hopping around in circles about them made him fear there might be something wrong with the young pony.

"Don't mind him," Cliff said to Kracken. "That's just the way Jet is; he can't help it."

"Dude!" Jet agreed.

The other Xtreme ponies, however, seemed to be taking the situation more calmly but were still quite excited by the new faces. One of them, a dark purple mare, stepped up beside Cliff and with a slight accent said hospitably, "What strange zings you find, Cliff." And then to the wanderers she added, "I would welcome you all to this place but I'm not sure exactly were this place is."

"Oh, zat is quite alright, madame," Pierre replied. "We have very little idea of were we are, as well."

"So who are they?" one of the other Xtreme Ponies asked rather bluntly. He was an ice blue color with white tail and mane that were both shaved back quite severely. This gave him a bit of a rough appearance which he seemed to be living up to so far.

"ARR!" Barnacle exclaimed and stepped forward. "I am Captain Barnacle, pirate of Calimidad Island. This be my crew: Kracken, me first mate."

With a smile, Kracken gave a little wave and said, "Hi."

"Davey and Jones," Barnacle continued with the introductions.

The Bushwoolies smiled broadly and gave the Xtreme Ponies a peace-sign.

"And next, Pierre, the newest addition to the crew..."

"It is a pleasure to meet you," Pierre said with a sweeping bow.

"And these are Protius and his pupil, Malteeze," Barnacle explained of the shaman and the feline. "They are just travlin' with us for a while till we get outta this place."

"Hello," Protius said. Malteeze just nodded slightly.

"Pirates?" the bright orange Xtreme Pony said distantly. "That's cool." With her purple hair tied tightly into some kind of dreadlocks, this one looked like the strangest of the lot.

"Cool," Cliff said. "And now for my side of the introductions." Motioning to the purple mare standing next to him he said, "This is Luge; I guess you could call her our second in command."

"Bonjour," Luge said with a slight bow of her head.

"This here is Mogul," Cliff continued as he patted the ice blue pony on the back.

"Yo," he replied simply.

"These two are Bungee and Jet," Cliff said as pointed to the orange one first and then the green one.

Bungee waved and Jet stood, pawing at the ground as he said, "Dude! Nice ta meet ya all!"

"And last, but not least, we have Blade," Cliff said and motioned to the dusty rose colored mare standing in the back.

She gave a meek "Hi," and a slight wave.

"ARR, very good, very good," Barnacle nodded as he scanned Cliff's group. Now that all the introductions were over, the Xtreme Ponies descended on Barnacle's crew asking all kinds of questions of them. Most of them wanted to know how they ended up in the sky bridge; but just about any topic one could imagine came up as both groups of adventurers got to know one another.

Finally, after a good deal of chatting, the talking was beginning to quiet down; and Barnacle took the opportunity to ask about the puzzle that stumped the Xtreme Ponies. At this, everyone from both groups stopped talking so that they could hear Cliff recount all the details.

He explained how this clearing was much like the other one that Barnacle's group had been trapped in– a wide open grassy space with scattered flowers and shrubs. However, in the center of this one, instead of a pavilion, there stood a beautiful water fountain decorated with elaborate stone carvings.

Other than that, the only other things is the clearing that they could find was a small hole in the ground and a odd, dried-out gourd. Cliff went on to explain that there was a small ball at the bottom of the hole which they figured was the key to this riddle. The hole, though, was too narrow and far too deep for anyone to reach it; and thus they had remained trapped.

Immediately, everyone wanted to see this hole, so the Xtreme Ponies led them to it. Just as Cliff described, there was small hole in the yard. At first glance, it looked like a gopher had dug it; but a quick inspection revealed that it went several feet into the ground and then stopped. At the very bottom was a small wooden ball.

"Kracken," Protius said, "you have long arms; perhaps you can get hold of it."

"That hole is awfully deep," Mogul warned.

"Well, it's worth a try, anyway," Kracken said as he got down on his stomach and reached down into the hole. After a moment he extracted his arm and sat up. "Mogul's right," he said. "There's no way I could get it. Plus, there's a bend in the side, so I can't even get my arm in all the way."

"ARR, this don't be lookin' good," Barnacle said as he rubbed his chin.

"What of the gourd you mentioned?" Malteeze inquired.

"Well, it's like one of those long skinny ones," Cliff explained. "And one side was cut off. Hey, Bungee, where did we put that thing."

"Um... last time I saw it, it was over there, I think," Bungee replied and pointed towards the makeshift camp the ponies had been forced to erect.

"I'll get it," Blade said and trotted over to retrieve the item.

As she was taking care of that, Protius stood and stared into the hole, thinking about how to solve this riddle. Seeing the intense look on the parrot's face, Kracken tried to lighten his mood a bit and joked, "Protius, you're this group's brains. Don't tell me you don't have it figured out yet."

"I wish I did," the shaman replied, "but for some reason, the solution escapes me."

"Don't worry; if anyone can figure it out, I'm sure you will," Kracken said.

Suddenly, Blade came running from the camp looking quite worried. Going straight to Cliff, she said, "It's not there. I looked through all our stuff, but it's gone."

"Oh great," Mogul muttered.

"Dude," Jet said.

"ARR, it's gotta be around here somewhere," Barnacle said. "Let's see if we can't be findin' it."

"Hey. Wait a second..." Kracken said. "Where are Davey and Jones?"

With that, everyone began to look around; and they found that the two Bushwoolies, whom everyone had just assumed were there with them, were gone. Before anyone started to panic, though, Luge quickly put all their fears to rest. "I believe your friends are playing in the fountain," the purple mare said calmly.

"ARR, with those two you can never be too careful," Barnacle said.

All eyes turned and indeed the two rambunctious sailors appeared to be playing in the fountain, or at very least trying to. Since the rim of the fountain was well over both their heads, one of them (perhaps Davey?) was standing next to the stone basin, boosting his brother up. Once Jones was safely on top of the fountain's basin, he leaned down and helped Davey up as well. It was about then that Pierre noticed something odd.

"Eh? But look, what is zat zey are holding?" Pierre suddenly exclaimed and pointed at Davey and Jones.

"Hey, that's the gourd!" Cliff cried.

"ARR, quick, before they break it, git it away from them!" Barnacle said. Almost instantly, everyone rushed across the clearing towards the two Bushwoolies. Up until that moment, Davey and Jones had been unaware that they were being watched. Now, with the sound of eleven sets of feet and hooves pounding towards them, they quickly realized they were the focus of some interest.

"Drop that gourd, you little thieves!" Mogul cried as he ran towards them.

Davey and Jones both screamed in terror and scurried to escape. The stone they were standing on, however, was slippery from the bubbling water in the fountain; and as they tried to run, their feet slid out from under them and into the cool water they fell with a splash!

"ARR, Bushwoolies..."

Everyone from both groups gathered around the fountain and stared, dumbstruck at the thrashing Bushwoolies for a moment.

"Hey, mon, what ya be doin!?" Davey cried as he stood up in the water which luckily was quite shallow.

"Yeah, mon!" sputtered Jones.

"You creeps stole this!" Mogul said angrily as he snatched the gourd out of the water.

"We was only tryin' ta git a drink, mon," Jones said in their defense.

"That's part of this riddle, guys," Kracken said as he helped Davey out of the fountain.

Luge lifted out his brother saying, "It's not for drinking with."

Both of the Bushwoolies looked confused by this and one of them replied, "Sure it's for drinking!"

"Ain't ya never seen a drinkin' gourd before!?" the other added.

"Drinking gourd?" Bungee asked.

"Yeah, I get it," Kracken exclaimed and took the object from Mogul. "See?" Taking the gourd by its skinny end, Kracken dipped the fat end into the water. With one side cut off, it made for a handy drinking cup.

"Yeah, yeah, mon!" Jones said happily.

"We be usin' them all the time back home," Davey said.

Kracken suddenly stopped dead in his tracks and stared off into space. "Wait a second," he muttered. "If this is supposed to hold water..."

"Hey!" Cliff cried. "That could be it!"

"ARR, what could be it?" Barnacle demanded; but by the time the words had left his mouth, he was already starting to see what they meant. And in a few short moments everyone else was fairly certain as well.

"If that ball is made of wood like it looks like..." Kracken exclaimed as he started to run back to the hole. In his hand he carefully carried the gourd, filled to the brim with water.

"Then it should float!" Cliff cried.

"It was so simple, it was staring us in the face the whole time," Luge commented.

Shaking his head in confusion, Protius said, "Why didn't I see that sooner?"

"Fret not, master," Malteeze said. "With any luck we will soon be out of this place and we will no longer have to worry ourselves with these foolish riddles."

"But only if this works, dude!" Jet exclaimed as he bounded past, a broad smile stretched across his face.

"A most odd individual," Protius said.

"Indeed," Malteeze agreed.

Meanwhile, the others surrounded the hole again as Kracken poured the water into it. They all held their breath as they waited to see what would happen.

Suddenly Kracken stood up and exclaimed, "Yes! It is floating!"

"But we'll need more water," Pierre said.

"Let me get one," someone said and the gourd was handed off. Soon everyone who wanted to take part had transported at least one cup full of water to the hole and ball was now floating well within reach.

"Would someone care to do the honors?" Kracken asked.

Mogul stepped forward and said, "Yeah, I'll do it." Reaching down into the hole, he picked up the wooden ball in his hoof and held it out for everyone to see. "There it is, people."

"Sure took us long enough," Bungee said.

"Well, you have it now," Malteeze said. "Does it appear to open in any way?"

"Hold on..." Mogul said as he examined it. "Yeah, there's a seam here; maybe it just twists apart...?" As he was saying this, he applied some pressure to the ball; and sure enough, it twisted apart into two halves with no effort at all. Inside the hollow ball was a small brass key that fell to the ground.

Cliff snatched it up and held it in the air. "Victory!" he said.

"And freedom, I hope, as well," Protius added.

"ARR, what're ya waitin' for?" Barnacle asked. "Let's see if the thing does the trick."

Tossing the key to Luge, Cliff said, "Here, why don't you give it a shot?"

"With pleasure," Luge replied and trotted over to the door that was still closed. Inserting the key into the lock, she turned it and with a hollow clunk from inside the heavy brass door, it swung open right away. Everyone ran over to the opening to get a glimpse of what lie on the other side. They all stood in silence for several long minutes before anyone said or did anything else.

Finally, Barnacle broke the silence with, "ARR, I sure be hopin' that that's the way outta here."

"Well," Cliff said, not taking his eyes away from the sight, "it sure looks like the way we used to get here."

On the other side of the opening, there stood another wide expanse of trimmed grass and flowers; but this one was not bordered on all sides by hedges. On the far side away from the large group there was nothing but a sheer drop off. The sky was tinted with vibrant shades of red as the sun set in the west and the misty outlines of mountains loomed not far away at all. The only object which seemed not to belong in this scene was a wooden booth of some kind sitting right on the edge of the sky bridge.

"Is that the elevator you mentioned?" Kracken asked.

"Sure looks like it," Blade whispered.

"Dude! Let's go find out!" Jet cried and bolted through the door.

"Yeah, yeah!" Jones and Davey yelled as they followed the Xtreme Pony out of the maze.

But Cliff stopped them dead in their tracks. "Hold it! No one gets on that thing until all of us are ready to go. I don't want to risk someone being left behind up here."

"ARR, good call," Barnacle agreed.

"Dude," Jet said dejectedly, "I wasn't gonna get in or anything; I just wanted to have a look."

"ARR," Barnacle said, "I'm sure you were, but who knows what those Bushwoolies woulda done."

"Ah, mon!" Davey cried. "We not be leavin' without ya!"

"Yeah, mon, don't ya be trustin' us?" Jones asked.

"ARR, not after what happened to the Lucas," Barnacle replied. The Bushwoolies just lowered their heads at that.

Cliff went on to say, "Jet, check it out, but don't go inside. And keep an eye on those two guys."

"Dude!" Jet said as a way of agreement and then dashed off.

"And I think I shall help in that endeavor, too," Protius said as he stepped forward.

"ARR, good," Barnacle nodded.

With all of that taken care of, Cliff turned to the rest of his Xtreme Ponies and said, "Okay, gang, let's get our gear together and get out of here!"

They all put up a little cheer before hurrying off to gather their belongings. But now Barnacle addressed his crew as well saying, "ARR, why don't we give 'em a hand, crew. It's the least we kin do."

"Aye-aye, sir," Kracken said with a salute and then turned with Pierre to lend a hand. Because the Xtreme Ponies had been trapped in the maze for so long, their supplies were beginning to run low. Fortunately, that just meant that now there was much less to pack and, in no time at all, everything was ready to go.

"Hey, man, thanks for the help," Cliff said to Barnacle as he shouldered his pack.

"ARR, like I said, it's the least we kin do," Barnacle replied. "If it weren't for you findin' us, we coulda been lost here just as long as you were."

"Yeah, but if it weren't for the help on the riddle, we might not have ever gotten out," Cliff replied.

"ARR, then I guess we should just be callin' it even, huh?" said Barnacle.

"Sounds fair to me!" Cliff said. "But could I ask you something? What's the Lucas?"

"ARR..." Barnacle replied.

Not long afterwards, everyone was gathered at the booth. Both sides did several head counts to make sure all were present before every last one of the them scrambled into the strange wooden structure. It was quite large and all thirteen of them fit inside comfortably; but there was some concern as to whether or not the thing had a weight limit. But before they could even think to address this concern, the door closed and they could feel the booth start a slow decent downward.

With no windows or opening of any kind in the structure, this at first made some worried; but as the minutes ticked by the apprehension seemed to fade. In fact, they were all beginning to grow quite happy with the prospect of finally being free, and this more than cancelled out any bad feelings they were having.

At long last the booth's motion began to slow and then it stopped altogether. Several antagonizing moments dragged on before the door fell open and revealed solid ground before them. This sight sent all of the occupants scrambling for the door and in a split second, the booth was empty once more.

"Yeehaw! We made it!" Mogul cried.

"Yes, indeed," Protius replied. "I never thought I would be so happy to set foot on solid ground again."

"You and me both!" Kracken agreed.

Ever sensible, Barnacle looked around at their surroundings. "ARR, this looks to be like the Dark Forest."

"Yep," Cliff replied. "I think this is the same place where we got on that elevator the first time. And that should mean that Dream Valley is just a little way that direction." He pointed into the thick woods down a long overgrown path.

"We'll be home in no time," Luge said. "But it's a shame we missed out on our ski trip."

"Yeah, we missed the best part of the season," Bungee added.

"And, dude, don't forget we smashed all our snowboards propping open the doors!" said Jet.

"At least we made it out," Blade said.

"I've got half a mind ta go back up there and burn the whole place down," Mogul said as he raised his gaze skyward. In the quickly disappearing daylight, the Sky Bridge floating high overhead could not be seen at all.

"In this case, I think it would be best to just leave the entire affair alone and simply be grateful you made it out at all," Malteeze replied to the brash young pony.

"I cannot 'elp but zink zat when I wish to return 'ome, I may be forced to travel back through zat place again," Pierre commented.

"I just wanna go to my home now, mon," Davey said.

"Yeah, mon, yeah," Jones agreed.

"ARR, well then, let's be getting' to it!"

"One thing before we go, though," Cliff said. Picking up a large stone, he walked up to the elevator and tossed it inside yelling, "Go on; get out of here!"

As if it had somehow heard Cliff's order, the door of the wooden box slowly closed and then the strange booth silently floated up into the air and out of sight. A collective sigh of relief went out as it disappeared into the sky.

"Now no one else can get stuck up there like we did," Cliff said.

"ARR, good call," Barnacle said. "But if it's bein' all the same ta you, I still think it might be best if we put some more distance between it and us before we be beddin' down for the night."

"Yeah, I agree," Cliff said. "We should still have a little daylight left."

"Well, then, let's get a move on!" Kracken exclaimed.

And with that, thirteen tired travelers set out into the Dark Forest on the final leg of their journey home.

After about an hour or so a traveling through the forest, everyone decided that it was time to stop for the night. A good site was located, a small fire was lit, and after a meager meal of trail rations, they all settled into sleep. Most of the Xtreme Ponies dozed off right away; but Kracken and some of the others continued chatting quietly amongst themselves for a little while longer.

"So what are you and Malteeze going to do once we get back to civilization?" Kracken asked as he leaned his back against a large rock and stirred the fire with a stick.

"I've been giving that a great deal of thought," Protius replied. "Before I was made a captive of Rosweld, I had been on a journey to seek higher levels of enlightenment. You saw how well that turned out. Now that I have a pupil to teach, I think I may continue with my journey, but this time I must choose varied destinations that will help Malteeze learn true wisdom."

"Sounds like a good plan; Malteeze could use a lot of that," Kracken said jokingly. He was about to go on but a low growl from behind him cut him off cold.

"ARR, so where do yee be plannin' on headin next then?" Barnacle asked.

"I was thinking we might head out to the island confederations," Protius replied. "Perhaps Calimidad Island."

"Dude! Calimidad Island has some of the best waves in all the islands!" Jet exclaimed. "We gotta go there someday!"

"Keep it down," Blade chided groggily.


"Calimidad Island? ARR, that's were I live," said Barnacle to the shaman.

"Yes, I know. I was going to ask if you might consider letting us accompany you there," Protius said.

Before Barnacle could respond, Kracken jumped in for him, "Hey, that would be great! We'd love to have the company."

The pirate captain sneered at his first mate for going around his authority, but said nonetheless, "ARR, it would be a pity ta break up such a successful group. ARR, you're welcome ta come along fer as far as yee want."

"Both me and Malteeze are greatly indebted to you, Captain Barnacle," the shaman said with a slight bow of the head.

"ARR, think nothin' of it," replied Barnacle. "Your quick thinkin' has helped us outta more than one scrape in the past; and Malteeze is always good in a fight."

Malteeze growled irritatedly at that and finally decided to speak up, "Might I remind you that I'm trying to put my war-like past behind me?"

"Malteeze, while your intentions are noble, you must remember that true wisdom can only be attained if it is tempered with opposition and common sense. Your first goal must be to learn when which of the two must be used."

"Yes, master," Malteeze replied and slunk down to meditate on this.

"I love it when he says deep stuff like that," Kracken said to Barnacle.

"ARR," Barnacle replied. "I know what yee mean. They're practically part of our crew already. It just wouldn't feel right without 'em around."

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