Officer Key of the Pony Sea Patrol sat in her Port Scurvy office sorting through a pile of arrest reports. There was a knock on the door, a welcome distraction from mind-numbing paperwork. Key pushed back from her desk and sighed. The knocking repeated.
"I'll be right there." The officer crossed the small room and opened the door. Standing on the doorstep was Lucas, the delivery pony. He extended an envelope to Key.
"I have a letter for Ms. Key."
"That's me." Key took the envelope and was about to return to her desk when young Lucas cleared his throat. Key turned back to the delivery pony and saw his hoof extended, as if he was waiting for something. "I'm sorry, I can't really afford a tip."
Lucas shook his head. "Postage due."
"Oh." Key looked at the envelope. If it had been addressed to "The Office of the Pony Sea Patrol", she could pay the bill out of the office operating budget; but it was addressed to her personally, so the money came out of her pocket. After rummaging for some loose change, she handed the money to Lucas. He carefully counted out the coins and dropped all but one into his pouch.
"Did I overpay?"
"Oh, come on! It's only one jangle!"
"Like I said before, I can't afford tips. If you've got a problem, take it up with the cheapskate who gave you the letter to begin with."
Lucas handed Key her coin and turned to leave, grumbling. "Yeah, like I'm going to peddle all the way to Port Cactus for a measly tip."
Key returned to her desk and regarded the envelope. It was addressed to her, but there was no return address. She opened the envelope and withdrew the folded page within.
* * *
The weeks wore on since Jack O Lantern had occupied Malachite Castle. The evil wizard payed a daily visit to the king and queen to convince them of the reason of his plan. King Oak had requested that his wife, Gooseberry, be excluded from the daily ritual, but Jack O Lantern insisted on her presence. Nightshade always accompanied the evil wizard, but never contributed anything to his dialogue.
Jack O Lantern paced before the king and queen as he made his daily argument. "Why will you not listen to me! Zotikos is the greatest threat the clans have ever faced. He will not abandon his mad dreams. Not even the grave can keep him from them. Against such a force, the clans must be united under a strong leader."
"I am more than capable of leading the clans. If you want to help the clans, you will join us and bring the Night Clan back into the fold!"
"That will not do. We need a leader who can make strong decisions and make them fast. I know Zotikos. I can make the decisions that need to be made without hesitation. Even if I were to join you as an advisor, the time lost in committee could be our downfall!"
"The clans will not follow you. If you insist on leading the clans, it can only lead to Zotikos' ultimate victory."
"That is enough for today." The wizard and swordpony left the royal couple to contemplate what had been said.
The queen, sobbing, threw herself onto the bed. "Oh! Dear Oak! What are we to do? I am losing hope."
Oak put his forelegs around his queen. "There, there, my love. I'm sure everything will turn out for the best. We just have to be patient and wait for the right opportunity."
* * *
Much as Jack O Lantern made his daily visit to the king and queen, his young apprentice Hemlock visited Enchantment. But their discussions were less gloomy than that of the adults. Both of them being apprentice wizards, they had plenty of anecdotes of embarrassing mistakes and surprising successes to share, as well as their thoughts and dreams for the future.
One day, as Hemlock was leaving, Enchantment laid her hoof on his shoulder. "Hemlock, why are you doing this?"
"I enjoy your company."
Enchantment shook her head. "That's not what I meant. Why do you continue to serve Jack O Lantern?"
"I... Zotikos is dangerous, to all the clans. Jack O Lantern knows him better than any other clanspony, having been his host for so long. He may have chosen the wrong path to Zotikos' defeat, but he is our best hope of defeating him."
"You were also his host. If you joined us, could you not guide us as well as Jack O Lantern?"
"Thank you for your trust, Enchantment, but I could not. I lack the strength." Hemlock walked through the door and signaled the armored guards to close it.
"You are stronger than you think," said Enchantment as the door swung close.
* * *
Shadow Clover spent much of his days in the gymnasium, thrashing about with a sword. It was at the same time both exhilarating and frustrating. It seemed there should be something more to it, but however hard he tried to find the true meaning of the sword, it always escaped him.
One day, Nightshade entered the gymnasium while he thrashed, but she didn't sneak in through the shadows as she usually did; sneaking did her no good with Shadow Clover. "You know, it helps if you do that with another pony," she commented on his exercise.
Shadow Clover lowered his sword and glared at the dark swordpony. "Why is it that you always want to stick your nose into my business?"
"We're on the same side. I want to be sure that you can handle yourself when the time comes."
"Handle myself? What is that supposed to mean?"
"Have you ever heard the saying, 'The chain is only as strong as the weakest link'? I know what Jack O Lantern, Hemlock, and I are capable of. You are the only link in our chain that is untried."
Shadow Clover raised his sword. "Very well then, test me if you wish. You will not find me lacking."
Nightshade grinned and drew her sword. "I like your attitude. I hope you can back it up." She lunged at the purple pony. Shadow Clover knocked her blade aside with his own and made his own lunge. Nightshade stepped aside and stuck out her hind hoof, tripping Shadow Clover. The purple pony stumbled but quickly regained his footing and twirled about, swinging his sword at Nightshade's neck. She parried the blow and struck Shadow Clover up-side the head with the hilt of her sword in one fluid motion. Shadow Clover leapt backwards and leveled his sword at Nightshade, but he didn't attack. He circled the dark swordpony, waiting for the right moment to strike. Just as he was about to lash out at her once again, Nightshade launched her own attack, striking low, toward his hooves, with the edge of her sword. Caught off guard, Shadow Clover barely jumped in time to avoid the swift blade.
Nightshade sheathed her sword. "You're not bad, but you could use some polish." She turned toward the door.
Shadow Clover didn't let his guard down. He felt more alive than he had since being carried from the passages underneath the kiva in the Crystal Desert. As Nightshade was about to step through the door, Shadow Clover dropped the point of his sword. "Could we do this again?"
Nightshade didn't pause or turn her head. "Sure."
Once Nightshade had gone, Shadow Clover raised his sword. He didn't thrash about as he used to. He weighed the sword in his hoof and felt its balance. He slowly and carefully went through the motions. After a few minutes, he lowered the sword. "This just won't do."
The purple pony stormed from the gymnasium. He made his way through the passages of the castle to the armory tower. He walked the racks of swords, spears, and other arms, picking up the occasional blade and testing its weight. But not finding one that suited his liking, he continued to wander. In the deepest corner of the armory, Shadow Clover found a locked cabinet. With a swift kick, he shattered the lock. Inside the cabinet was a finely crafted sword with scabbard and belt.
He picked up the sword and drew it from the scabbard. Though brightly polished, the blade seemed dark. The cross was intricately etched bronze and the grip was wrapped in braided black silk. A polished black onyx was set in the pommel. The sword felt good in his hoof, neither too heavy nor to light. Satisfied with the blade, he buckled the belt about his waist.
Unbeknownst to Shadow Clover, Magus was watching his search through a crystal ball from a chamber hidden deep below the castle. The wizard smiled. "So, it has finally chosen a master."
* * *
Meanwhile, in Friendship Gardens, Morning Glory was plodding through her daily life. While making flower deliveries, she pondered what had become of Clever Clover. She walked down the lane, concerned more with Clever Clover and her other friends she had lost touch with than with where she was going.
A familiar voice startled her. "Hi, Morning Glory." It was Minoko. The salutation had little feeling behind it. It had become habit for the two of them to greet each other when they happened to bump into one another, if only in memory of the friendship they had shared with Clever Clover. But since his disappearance they didn't spend any time together, even though they were the only two members of Clever Clover's circle left in Friendship Gardens.
"Oh, hello, Minoko." Morning Glory's reply was equally empty. For so long their lives had revolved around Clever Clover; now that he was gone it was not easy to get back to their normal lives. The only thought that gave Morning Glory any comfort was that somehow Clever Clover and Belle Star had gotten back together and were living happily together, though she couldn't bring herself to believe it.
* * *
While Morning Glory contemplated the fate of her friends, Belle Star was rubbing elbows with the elite of New Pony society at a fundraiser for the poor and homeless of the city. The imposing ballroom of the New Pony Grand Hotel was full of well-dressed mares and stallions. Belle Star, who was the hostess of the affair, felt quite out of place. Coral, her closest friend, noticed her discomfort.
"Hey, Belle Star, this is your party. If the guests see that you're not enjoying yourself, they might lose interest in your cause."
The tan pony forced a smile. "Yes, I suppose you're right." Belle Star had taken up the cause of the poor of New Pony. If she could not be happy, she could at least bring happiness to those who were in need.
"Belle Star, I've got someone you just have to meet." It was the artist Rodan, standing next to an orange mare with dark purple and white streaked mane and tail. "This is Viksie. She's a singer."
Belle Star bowed. "It is nice to meet you, Viksie."
"The pleasure is all mine. I really appreciate what you're doing. You see, I grew up in the street. I was able to make a life for myself with my voice."
"Viksie may not be very famous yet, but she would like to put on a concert to benefit the cause."
"Oh! Is that right?"
Viksie nodded. "I don't know how much it will help, but I just have to do something."
"Thank you very much for your offer, but you'll have to talk to mister Roger. He's the one who really arranges these things."
"But you are the one whose idea it was, right? Roger only arranges the fundraisers out of friendship for you. I'm sure if you suggested the idea to him, he'd give me a chance."
"Very well; I'll talk to him."
"Oh, thank you, Belle Star!"
Rodan and Viksie wandered off to mingle with the other guests. Coral slapped Belle Star on the back. "Good job! You see, your smile is your most valuable asset. And I've got a good premonition about Viksie. I'm sure she'll do a lot of good for the cause."
As much as Belle Star appreciated her friend's support, Coral fit in too well with the society ponies. When she had gone to the royal wedding with Clever Clover, even though he was royalty himself, he had been as much an outsider as she was. Neither had been outsiders as long as they had each other. But here, Belle Star was the only outsider.
* * *
Far away, a ship sailed upon the waves. On the deck stood a slender stallion with long blond mane and tail. "I will rescue you, sister."