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The Triumvirate
written by Clever Clover


It was a hot, dry day in Friendship Gardens. Morning Glory wiped the sweat from her brow as she walked home from the florist shop where she worked. Even late in the afternoon, the heat was oppressive. She paused on her doorstep and surveyed the horizon. “I wish we would get a little breeze and some clouds at least. If this keeps up, Friendship Gardens will become Friendship Desert.”

She opened the front door and noticed an envelope that had apparently been slipped under the door. She picked up the envelope and turned it over, but there was no writing on it to indicate who it might be from. “That’s odd. I wonder if I have a secret admirer. Not that I’m interested in that sort of thing anymore.” She stepped inside and closed the door.

Morning Glory sat down in the air-conditioned comfort of her living room with a tall glass of ice tea. She took a long sip from her glass, then turned her attention to the mysterious envelope. Inside was a single leaf of paper with the following words scrawled in elegant calligraphy:

Princess Morning Glory,

Your presence is formally requested at Malachite Castle at your earliest possible convenience to discus a matter of some urgency. Please make all haste.

Sincerely

Foxglove

Stewardess of Malachite Castle

“That’s odd, I thought Raven usually sent out these invitations. Oh well, I guess he must have been busy, probably something to do with this ‘matter of some urgency’. I’ll have to call work and tell them I’ll be out for a week or so.”

Morning Glory spent the rest of the evening packing for her trip. The next morning she set out at the crack of dawn, before the heat of the day could set in. “At least I won’t have to worry about freezing to death like last time... especially since I won’t have Clever Clover with me.”

* * *
Lucas, the messenger pony, pedaled his bicycle through the early morning haze. Like Morning Glory, he sought to avoid the mid-day heat. And the message he carried was urgent. He had ridden from Port Scurvy since well before dawn to reach Friendship Garden. Now, just as Morning Glory disappeared over the horizon, Lucas coasted to a stop in front of her house. “Hm, it’s awfully early yet. I hope she isn’t too cranky for being woken at this hour. But Officer Key said this was a top priority message.” He knocked on the door, but there was no one there to answer.

* * *
The excavation in the Crystal Desert being over, Belle Star and Clever Clover were on there way back to Friendship Gardens via Port Scurvy. The cruise from Port Cactus to Port Scurvy was the quickest route, unless one wanted to spring for air-fare, which neither of the archaeologists could afford. Belle Star was enjoying the cruise greatly, and would often reminisce of her days with the Pony Sea Patrol.

Clever Clover was also enjoying himself. It was nice to relax for a while with no worries. And he looked forward to being home again with the rest of his friends, his Vulpix (Pixie), Minoko, Morning Glory, Ryo, and the rest. But he had enjoyed the chance to get away from them all for a while. When he was with Belle Star, he didn’t have to worry nearly as much as with the others. Minoko, with her jealousy and fiery temper, could be quite dangerous, even when she didn’t mean to be. And Morning Glory was always reminding him of his duties as Prince and Regent. Strangely, though, he missed them as much for their faults as their virtues.

The ship sailed gracefully into the harbor of Port Scurvy. Clever Clover had hoped that they would have left the heat of the desert behind them, but here it was not only hot but also humid. As they debarked, Clever Clover searched the docks for Minoko, who was supposed to be performing community service while Clever Clover was away in the Crystal Desert, but she was nowhere to be seen. Clever Clover and Belle Star walked to Key’s office near the docks. There they found the blue Sea Patrol pony behind her desk with a most unhappy look on her face.

“Hey Key, what’s wrong?” Belle Star asked her long-time friend.

“Oh, quite a bit. A couple of weeks ago Minoko up and disappeared, but before I had time to do anything about it I got called away to Port Cactus. I just got back last night.”

“Oh! You were in Port Cactus? You could have given us a ride home!”

“What do you mean, Minoko went missing? What happened?”

“Well, she was staying here, in the cell. One night I brought Ryo by so she could have some company. She seemed to have a lot on her mind that night, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. The next morning I found Ryo alone, crying in the cell. I sent word to Morning Glory in Friendship Gardens, but she never got back to me.”

“She left but she didn’t take Ryo with her? She can’t be planning to be gone long, then.”

“I hope not. If she goes on a rampage after escaping from my watch, it could ruin my career.”

“That’s not all she could ruin. Belle Star and I will go back to Friendship Gardens and see if there’s any sign of her there and find out why Morning Glory didn’t answer. It’s not like her to, ah, you know, not do what you expect her to do.”

Morning Glory was three days gone before Clever Clover and Belle Star made it back to Friendship Gardens.

* * *
It took Morning Glory a total of four days to reach the Green Lake of the Isle. She had expected to find someone waiting for her on the shore of the lake like last time, but there was no one. She proceeded to walk around the lake for any signs of a greeting party, but there was none. Just as she was about to give up hope, she saw a small boat out on the lake with two ponies in it. She waved her forehooves frantically in the air to get their attention. Before long they noticed her and rowed over to the shore.

“Can we help you?” asked one of the ponies.

“Yes, I am Princess Morning Glory and I was summoned to Malachite Castle, but no one came to take me across the lake.”

“Your Highness! We’ll be more than happy to take you across the lake. It’d be an honor, as a matter of fact!”

“Oh, why thank you, my good ponies.”

It did not take long for the small boat to cross the lake. As one of the boatponies helped Morning Glory ashore he said, “Would you like someone to escort you to the castle, princess?”

“Oh, no thank you. I’m sure I can find my way. Thank you for the offer, though.”

She made her way through the woods toward the valley where the village and Malachite Castle lay. She found the village exactly as she remembered it, but at the castle gate there was no one to greet her. She knocked on the heavy wooden gate. Shortly, the gate swung open a crack.

Ironwood, captain of the royal guard, poked his head through the gate. “Princess Morning Glory! What a pleasant surprise!” He swung the gate open wide. “Do come in. I will send word to Foxglove of your arrival at once.”

“Pardon me, but why is it such a surprise? I received an invitation.”

“You did? No one told me anything about it. Who sent the invitation? It is a serious breech of protocol to invite someone to the castle without informing the captain of the guard.”

“Well, it was signed by Foxglove. I hope she won’t be in any trouble.”

“Foxglove? Are you certain? I’m sure she would have told me about something like this. Come on. Let’s go ask her about this invitation.”

Ironwood led Morning Glory to Foxglove’s office. “M’lady Foxglove. You have a visitor.”

“Oh? I wonder who that could be.” Foxglove turned from her desk to greet her guest. “Ah, Morning Glory, how nice to see you again! What brings you to the Isle today?”

“Why, you invited me.”

“What? I didn’t send you any invitation.”

“But I received an invitation signed by you. I have it here with me.” Morning Glory took out the envelope and handed it to Foxglove. The stewardess took the envelope and examined its contents.

“It appears to be a blank piece of paper to me.”

“What! But I know what I saw!”

Foxglove returned the blank paper to the envelope. “Ironwood, take this to Magus at once. Something foul is afoot.”

Morning Glory gasped. “Do you mean…someone deceived me?”

“I’m afraid so. But until Magus has had a chance to study the evidence, there is nothing for us to do and no need for us to worry. It is always a happy occasion when one of our royal ponies from Friendship Gardens is with us. Come, I’m sure Oak and Gooseberry will be happy to see you.”

* * *
Back in Friendship Gardens, Clever Clover and Belle Star were investigating the disappearance of Minoko and Morning Glory. Clever Clover knocked on Morning Glory’s door, but no one was there to answer.

“What do we do now?” asked Belle Star.

Clever Clover shook his head. “I guess we could ask down at the florist shop to see when was the last time they heard from her.” So the two ponies walked down to the florist shop where Morning Glory worked.

“She called a few days ago and said she had some urgent business at Malachite Castle,” explained Poppy, one of Morning Glory’s co-workers. “She said she’d be back in a week or two.”

“That’s strange; normally I’m the one they call with urgent business.”

“Well, since we were on the boat to Port Scurvy a couple of days ago,” said Belle Star, “they wouldn’t have been able to mail you an invitation.”

“Yeah, but there would have been one waiting for me at home. Or if it was really urgent, Magus could have teleported me from the boat right to the Isle.”

“Maybe it’s something to do with her family. They wouldn’t need you for that.”

“Good point. Still, it doesn’t feel quite right. I wish they had telephones or e-mail on the Isle. I’d hate to have to walk all the way there only to find out it was all a personal matter.”

“So what are we going to do?”

“We know what happened to Morning Glory; now we just have to find Minoko. She left Ryo and her ship so she can’t have gone far. She wasn’t back at my place, so where else could she be?”

Belle Star pondered the question for a moment. “Maybe she was kidnaped!”

“Kidnaped? Do you know anyone who would be capable of kidnaping Minoko?”

“No, I guess not. Unless she had been drinking a lot of Lady Moonshine’s ‘tea’.”

“I think Key would have mentioned it if Lady Moonshine had dropped off a batch of her ‘tea’ for Minoko. Hm, I wonder if this could be some kind of scheme. Her idea of playing hard-to-get.”

“Well, if it is, she’s doing a very good job of it. We can’t even find her, let alone get her.”

“Ah, right. I think for the time being it would be best to just go about our lives as normal. If there is some trouble at the Isle, they’ll send word soon enough. And if Minoko is just fooling around, she’ll get bored once we stop fretting over her.”

“All right, if you think that’s best.”

“Yeah. And Belle Star, be on the lookout.”

* * *
Back on the Isle, Morning Glory sat down to tea with the king and queen. “This whole business with your mysterious invitation is rather disturbing,” said King Oak. “I’m glad to have you here, but I wish it could have been under better circumstances.”

Morning Glory forced a smile. “Yes, well, it is probably all just a prank. Clever Clover should be back from the Crystal Desert by now; Minoko probably wanted me out of the way for a while so she could be alone with him.”

“I hope that’s all it is,” said Queen Gooseberry.

Ironwood entered and bowed. “Your highnesses, Foxglove had me take the invitation that Princess Morning Glory brought with her to the Magus so he could study it, but he is nowhere to be found. That in itself is not unusual; but considering the circumstances, I thought it best to let you know.”

“Yes, thank you, Ironwood. Did you show the invitation to Enchantment? If she doesn’t know where Magus is, she may be able to divine something from the invitation.”

“I’m afraid she is missing also.”

The king shook his head. “Well, that is the way of wizards. There is no reason to fear the worst, but I want your guards on full alert, Ironwood.”

“Yes, your highness.” Ironwood bowed and exited.

“I hope Enchantment is all right,” said Morning Glory.

Queen Gooseberry smiled. “I’m sure she is fine. As my husband said, ‘that is the way of wizards.’ They aren’t around when you want them, but when you need them. If anything, their absence should be taken as a good sign.”

“But then again,” came a voice from the shadows, “their absence could be taken as an opportunity.” The menacing figure of Nightshade stepped into the light.

“The sort of opportunity my old master never thought to take advantage of.” Hemlock appeared in a plume of smoke.

“But the old master is the least of your worries now!” Minoko rose up through the floor.

Oak jumped to his hooves and tried to shield Gooseberry and Morning Glory from the intruders. “What is the meaning of this!”

Hemlock faced the king. “We are the Triumvirate of the Night Clan. And the meaning of this is our claiming our rightful place as the leaders of our ponies.”

“And you think the ponies will just bow down and accept you as their rulers?”

“My good king, they won’t have any choice. Sister, take them to the dungeon with the rest of them.”

“Yes, brother.” Nightshade drew her sword. “Now move, before I have to use this.”

As Nightshade escorted them to the dungeon, Morning Glory called out, “Minoko! Now that you’ve shown your true face, Clever Clover will never love you! He will defeat you!”

Minoko glared at the princess as she disappeared down the hallway.

“Don’t listen to her,” said Hemlock. “She is just trying to turn us against each other.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Come, let us go to the throne room and take our rightful place.”

“That’s not what you came here for. You may sit yourself on the throne, but that won’t make you king.”

“True, but for the time being I do not want to reveal my true intentions to our enemies. Remember, the most dangerous are still unaccounted for.”

“Do you mean Clever Clover, Magus, or the little girl?”

“Take your pick. With my sister on our side, they are little real threat. The only real danger is underestimating any of them.”

* * *
Not far from the parlor where the three royal ponies had shared tea, behind a secret panel, Ironwood listened to the exchange between Minoko and Hemlock. “I’ve got to get out of here and warn Clever Clover!” The guardpony slipped away into the dark, hidden passages of the castle.

* * *
The dungeon was dark and damp. Along with King Oak, Queen Gooseberry, and Princess Morning Glory were imprisoned Raven, Foxglove, and Archbishop Vin. The castle guards and servants were locked in other cells. “You fiends!” cried out Oak. “This dungeon is no place for a lady! If you are to hold us prisoner, at least give the women the dignity of decent quarters! As for myself, I can take whatever you have in store for me; but do not make them suffer along with me!”

Nightshade peered into the cell. “There’s no need to bellow. I can hear your whispers from anywhere within this castle. And as for the women, I thought you’d appreciate being able to watch over them. I know how protective you heroic types can be.”

“In that case, you can take us all to better quarters. The royal suite is spacious enough for us all and easy enough for you to keep watch on, especially if your senses are as keen as you claim.”

“Your, ahem, highness, you are in no position to be dictating terms. You will have whatever accommodations the Triumvirate decides. And for your information, you are fortunate we are a Triumvirate. If I’d had my way, you’d all be in stocks.”

The king glared at his captor as she disappeared into the shadows. “She is the worst of the lot. I’d rather be facing Jack O Lantern himself or even Bic the imp.”

Gooseberry shook her head. “Oh, don’t say that. For as many years as that imp held our people in terror, I can’t let myself believe she can be worse than that.”

“Forgive me, my dear. I’m just frustrated. Those three hooligans march right into our home and take it from us! And there was nothing we could do about it! It is infuriating!”

“At least Clever Clover is still free,” spoke up Morning Glory. “And I don’t think they got Ironwood.”

Raven nodded. “True. There is hope. Though how long can we expect it to take? Clever Clover has no reason to suspect any problem here, and it would take Ironwood days to reach him and days to return. But one thing above all bothers me; what do they hope to gain by taking over the castle? They know the ponies will never accept their rule. They must have a hidden agenda.”

“I wonder if it could have something to do with the absence of the Magus?” inquired Vin. “Perhaps they lured him away so that they could access something in his laboratory.”

“If that were the case, this shadow pony could have slipped in even while Magus was here and taken it,” countered the king.

“What if it’s something that can’t be taken? Maybe Hemlock has to be here to do whatever he plans to do with it. It could take days to set up and perform some complex ritual. He’d need us out of the way for that.”

“Could it be!” exclaimed Raven. “The most precious relic our ancestors left us is the Chamber of the Regents! You don’t suppose he is somehow going to tap into the Power of the Regents?”

Morning Glory was confused. “What is the Power of the Regents?”

“It is a myth,” replied Vin.

Raven nodded. “A legendary power that could only be wielded by the seven Regents and only if they acted in total unison.”

“But it was supposed to be a protective power,” added Gooseberry. “A power that unified the ponies.”

“And that is what Nightshade seeks to do,” said Oak. “Unify the people under his rule.”

“But there are other legends,” said Vin. “There was supposed to be a counter to the power. Something to keep the Regents from abusing the power.”

“Oh? What was it?” asked Morning Glory.

Vin shook his head. “The legends do not say, exactly. I have my suspicions, but I think for the time being, the less said, the better.”

King Oak grinned. “I agree. But if you are thinking what I’m thinking, then there is more hope than there at first appeared.”

* * *
Ironwood nearly collapsed from exhaustion when he arrived at Clever Clover’s door two days later. He knocked, but no one answered. He sat down on the doorstep, gasping for breath. “He’ll have to come back sooner or later. I’ll just catch my breath and wait for him.”

* * *
For two days Clever Clover had went about business as usual, which, when he was between jobs, amounted to going for walks and just hanging out. Whenever he was alone, he expected Minoko to materialize out of the scenery and throw her forelegs around him, but she never did. He met up with Belle Star after her part-time job at the market, and the two walked toward Clever Clover’s home for supper. “Still no insights on Minoko?” Clever Clover asked.

“No. I’m starting to worry. Maybe we should go to the Isle. Maybe Minoko went there with Morning Glory.”

“That seems unlikely. Hey, who’s that sitting on my doorstep?”

Ironwood leapt to his hooves. “My prince! I’ve most troubling news!”

Belle Star and Clever Clover rushed to hear Ironwood’s tale. But Ironwood was almost too exhausted yet to speak.

“Forgive me, my prince, but I have run for two days straight. Could you spare some food and water?”

“Sure. And let’s get in out of this heat.”

Clever Clover and Belle Star helped Ironwood into the house and set him on the living room couch. “Belle Star, get him a glass of water. I’ll find something for him to eat.”

A short time later, Ironwood was refreshed himself with food and drink. “Thank you for your hospitality, my prince. But as I said before, I’ve most troubling news.”

“You just rest. It won’t do any good if you pass out before you finish. Besides, Belle Star and I haven’t even had supper yet. You take a nap and you can give us the news over enchiladas later.”

“My prince, you are too kind.” Ironwood closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep.

“Do you think his news has something to do with Minoko?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised. I’ll start supper; you call Key; she’ll probably want to hear this.”

“Right!” Belle Star rushed off to her apartment to call her one-time partner in the Sea Patrol while Clever Clover made for the kitchen.

Just as Clever Clover was putting the enchiladas in the oven, Belle Star returned, wearing the sash and sword of the Pony Sea Patrol. “Key says she’ll be right over!”

“I don’t know if she can make it in half an hour, but I made enough for her just in case. How’s Ironwood doing?”

Belle Star tip-toed into the living room so as not to disturb the sleeping guardpony. “He’s sleeping like a baby.”

“I hope we’ll be able to wake him up by the time Key arrives.”

The two friends waited eagerly for the enchiladas to finish baking. To pass the time, they played a hand of Go Fish. The time passed quickly; and before they knew it, the enchiladas were ready. As Clever Clover got them out of the oven, Ironwood sat bolt upright on the couch.

“What smells so good?”

“Supper... cheese and onion enchiladas.”

Ironwood, showing no sign of fatigue, rushed to the table. “I have no idea what enchiladas are, but they sure smell good!”

Belle Star was already seated, fork and knife in hoof. Clever Clover set the food on the table. “Now, if Key were here we’d be set, but it will take her a bit longer to get here from Port Scurvy. We might as well start eating.” Just as the prince began to serve up the food, there was a knock on the door. “I wonder who that could be? You two dig in. I’ll see who’s at the door.”

Clever Clover opened the door and found, to his surprise, Key. “How did you get here so fast?”

“I used the Sea Patrol’s latest search and rescue vehicle.” The dark blue pony pointed to a hot-air balloon moored to a nearby tree. “With that, we should be able to get to the Isle in less than a day.”

“Cool! I just got supper on. Why don’t you come in and have a bite to eat while Ironwood fills us in on the situation.”

As the ponies ate their meal, Ironwood filled them in on the events that had transpired at the castle. (And for those of you who weren’t paying attention, after Morning Glory arrived, Magus and Enchantment were nowhere to be found and Hemlock, Nightshade, and Minoko, calling themselves the Triumvirate of the Night Clan, locked everyone in the dungeon except for Ironwood who slipped away to warn Clever Clover.) “And this all happened over two days ago. It almost killed me to get here in that time. I don’t know if we’ll be able to get back in time to do any good.”

“Don’t worry about that,” said Key. “Thanks to the Sea Patrol, we’ll be there, and fully rested, before nightfall tomorrow!”

Ironwood’s face brightened. “Really! Then there is still hope! I only wish I could have gotten my spear before I left the castle. Without it, I won’t be much use in a fight.”

“Nonsense,” said Clever Clover. “You’re a fair fencer and I collect swords. I’m sure you’ll find one in my collection that’s to you liking.”

“Great. I’ll prepare the balloon for launch while you guys get ready for the fight. Belle Star, want to give me a hoof?”

“Sure thing, Key.”

The ponies went about their duties and soon were on their way to the Isle of the Green Lake, and Malachite Castle.

* * *
Minoko stood in the Hall of Kings in front of the portrait of a king from long ago, one of the few unicorn kings in the hall. He had a stern, intimidating expression on his face, but the image somehow put Minoko at ease. The unicorn king was holding a weapon, as were all the kings, but his was unique. Rather than a sword, or axe, or other blade, he held a simple staff. While she stood mesmerized by the painting, Hemlock walked up beside her.

“Magnificent, isn’t it? Not many of our clan have been king, you know. And do you know why? They fear us. A wizard’s life span is many times that of a normal pony, and they feared the idea of an immortal king.”

“Not all of the Night Clan are wizards.”

“Minoko, do you remember the last time you were in this hall? How long ago was it?”

“You’re changing the subject.”

“I’ve said all I have on the subject of kings.”

Minoko was silent for a minute. “The last time I was in the Hall of Kings was when I battled Clever Clover’s father during Jack O Lantern’s first coup attempt... when he chopped of my horn.”

“Were you infatuated with the prince even back then? Oh, wait, that’s right. He wasn’t even born yet. You are easily old enough to be his mother, but to look at the two of you it would seem he has a year or two on you.”

“What is you point?”

“I’m just making small talk. By the way, what happened after the master’s failed coup?”

“He summoned Bic the imp, and I became a pirate.”

“You felt no loyalty for Jack O Lantern?”

“You know as well as I how poor he was at inspiring loyalty in his followers. Besides, I was never comfortable being a wizard’s apprentice; and he made it clear to me that I wasn’t living up to his expectations.”

“So it was a mutual decision to part company then?”

“Something like that. I’m feeling a little tired. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a nap.” And with that, Minoko sank through the floor.

Nightshade stepped out of the shadows next to her brother. “I don’t trust her, brother. She is not truly behind our cause.”

“It doesn’t matter. If she thinks she will get Clever Clover, she will do whatever we require of her. That was the master’s shortcoming; he didn’t know how to motivate.”

“But why do you taunt her so? You might drive her away.”

“I am keeping her confused. The less she thinks about the situation, the less likely she is to realize our true intentions. Speaking of which, how are the preparations going?”

“As planned. I’ve neutralized all the Magus’ wards. When the full moon rises, we will be ready to proceed.”

“Excellent.”

* * *
The Sea Patrol search and rescue balloon approached Malachite Castle cautiously. Clever Clover, Ironwood, and Belle Star were on the lookout for any signs of an enemy lookout while Key steered the balloon. There was no one in sight and they landed safely on the highest tower of the castle.

“Okay everyone, there are four of us and only three of them, but we can’t let our guard down,” Clever Clover said. “If Hemlock’s sister is the same dark swordpony that Enchantment told us about, this is not going to be easy. My magic axe won’t be much good against her, so one of you three will have to handle her when the time comes. And Minoko is no pushover, either; I’ll take her on. I know how she fights and hopefully she’s still in love with me so she’ll hold back. Hemlock we took care of pretty easily last time we faced him, but he might have improved since then. Since he is a wizard, we’ll have to strike at him fast, before he can cast a spell. So, are we all ready?”

“Yes!” they replied in unison.

Ironwood took the lead as they made their descent into Malachite Castle, followed by Clever Clover, Belle Star, and finally Key. Ironwood paused at the bottom of the winding stairs from the tower. “Clever Clover, do we plan to rescue the prisoners first or take on the Triumvirate?”

“Our friends come first. Besides, it’ll probably be the best way to find the Triumvirate.”

Ironwood led the party to the left and through a secret panel. “This passage will take us down to two levels above the dungeon. There are no secret passages below that.”

At the end of the passage, Ironwood peered through a peek-hole to make sure the coast was clear. “I don’t see anyone, but be ready for anything. Those three can come at you from out of nowhere.” He opened the hidden door and stepped cautiously into the hallway. After surveying the area, he gestured for the others to follow. “Down this hall is a stairway. At the bottom of the stair we will turn left, then take the first right, pass three doors, all on the right, then two on the left. The second door on the left takes us to the dungeon.”

“How did you ever learn your way around this place?” Belle Star asked.

“Good question. I can’t remember ever not knowing my way around. Since I was raised here, it’s just second nature.”

“You were raised in the castle?” asked Clever Clover. “I thought only the nobles were raised here.”

“My mom was a servant to the former queen, and she brought me along to work most of the time.”

“The former queen. You mean my mother?”

“I guess so. I never really thought about it.”

“Did you ever meet her?”

“Yeah, I’ll tell you all about it after we take care of this business.”

“Right. Let’s go.”

The foursome carried on toward the dungeon, down the stairs, around the corner, and past the doors to the door that would lead them to their friends. Ironwood reached out to open the door, but it didn’t move.

“Ah, it seems to be locked.”

Key stepped forward. “I should be able to get it open. I know a thing or two about picking locks.”

Clever Clover brandished his axe. “I could probably get it open faster.”

“Or you could surrender to us and be taken through the door in chains.”

The heros drew their swords at the sound of the mysterious voice. “Hm, that voice isn’t Minoko or Hemlock. It must be that dark swordpony.”

“Quite right.” Nightshade stepped out of the shadows. “But ‘that dark swordpony’ isn’t much of a name. You can call me Nightshade.”

Key faced Nightshade. “In the name of the Pony Sea Patrol and in accordance with our treaty with the Isle of the Green Lake, I am placing you under arrest!”

Nightshade drew her sword. “Everyone in this castle relies too much on magic. It will be refreshing to test my skills against one who fights on her own merits.”

“I was the top fencer in my class at Sea Patrol Academy,” boasted Key.

Nightshade lunged at Key, who just barely blocked the attack. Key countered but Nightshade, with a quick flick of her blade, disarmed the Sea Patrol officer.

“That was disappointing,” said Nightshade as she raised her sword for the kill.

Belle Star leapt forward and deflected the blow. “I won’t let you hurt my friend!” she cried.

“Another challenger? I hope you last longer than your friend, but I wouldn’t count on it.” Before Nightshade could move, Belle Star launched a furious attack and drove Nightshade back several steps. Nightshade countered, but was only able to slowly retake her ground.

Ironwood, meanwhile, found himself occupied with a sword that seemed to move and attack of its own accord. “This must be Hemlock’s doing,” said Clever Clover. “Do you need a hand?”

“I don’t think so. It’s not really that good a fighter; I just can’t figure out how I’m supposed to attack it.”

“Maybe my axe can take it down,” offered the prince.

“Oh, but I think we could find a better use for that axe of yours.” Minoko materialized through the floor with her whorled horn of energy upon her forehead.

“Minoko! Why are you doing this?!”

Minoko shook her head. “You wouldn’t understand; you don’t need to understand. I am doing what must be done for the good of my people.” The pirate lunged at Clever Clover who jumped aside.

“I won’t fight you, Minoko! You are my friend! I don’t want to be your enemy.”

“But that is the way it is.” Minoko continued to attack and Clever Clover dodged, but never counterattacked.

Key had recovered her sword and joined her partner in fighting Nightshade. “Two against one is hardly fair, though the two of you are giving me more of the challenge I have been looking for.”

* * *
Meanwhile, in the throne room, Hemlock sat in a semi-trance, viewing the fight and controlling the blade that occupied Ironwood. “Too bad I can’t do two swords, and take one of those Sea Patrol ponies off Nightshade,” he mumbled.

A sudden flash of light momentarily distracted him, but he soon regained complete control. “Who is it? Magus? Enchantment? Which of you will test your mettle against the master?”

Enchantment twirled her ancient wand over her head. “You’re no master, Hemlock! You are only a misguided apprentice!”

“Oh, it’s you. Hoping to defeat me with your power of distraction? I assure you, I am quite prepared for you this time.”

Enchantment held her wand in front of her. “Mana of all creation, bring your peace upon Hemlock! Put him into deepest slumber!”

Hemlock laughed. “Little girl, your power is nothing compared to mine.”

“But, there’s no way that spell could have failed completely! You should have at least yawned!”

Hemlock stood and shook his head. “You have no idea what is going on here.” He began to mumble in some dark, ancient language.

Enchantment felt a chill run down her spine. The room became dark, and shadows began to move to and fro with no light or body to cast them. The shadows circled around Enchantment, drawing closer and closer. She frantically began to recite a counter spell but the shadows continued to close in on her. She was getting cold, and she could see her breath in the air. Then, without warning, a tormented scream filled the room. The shadows stopped moving and began to melt away. When the darkness lifted, Enchantment saw Hemlock on his knees, holding his head with both forehooves.

“Why why why, why can’t I do this? I am the master! What power does she have over you that you cannot harm her? She is nobody! A little girl! We should have finished her long ago!”

* * *
Back at the dungeon door, the sword once animated by Hemlock’s magic had fallen, lifeless, to the floor. Everyone froze in shock. “Brother!” cried Nightshade, as she disappeared into the darkness.

“It looks like we’ll have to finish this another time,” said Minoko, as she disappeared through a wall.

“Ah, what just happened here?” asked Belle Star.

“There’s no time to ask questions.” Clever Clover splintered the dungeon door with a single blow of his axe. “Lets move!” The foursome hurried down the steps toward their imprisoned friends.

* * *
Enchantment cautiously approached Hemlock. “Are you okay?”

“En…Enchantment. Please leave now while you still can. She is coming.”

“She? Your sister?”

Hemlock writhed in torment. “Ahrg! Nightshade! She’s here! The little one is here!”

The dark swordpony arrived in the throne room just as Enchantment waved her wand and disappeared. “Brother! What did she do to you?”

Hemlock sat, gasping for breath. “She confused me. For a moment I didn’t know who I was. You will stay with me now, sister. She fears you. How went the fight?”

“Not as well as I would have liked. Those Sea Patrol officers have some skill between them, and the yellow haired one has a lot of luck.”

“Luck, sister? That doesn’t sound like you.”

“Magic and skill I can deal with; but luck, even I have not mastered.”

“Well, it’s nice to know that even you aren’t perfect,” said Minoko.

“Oh, you’re here. Get tired of playing with your boyfriend?”

“You left the fight first, Nightshade. But I’m a team player; I was concerned for your brother.”

“Since when were you ever concerned for any team? From what I heard, you abandoned the master after his first coup.”

“Clever Clover has been a good influence on me, I guess. Now, shall we get on with the business at hand and distract those do-gooders till moonrise?”

“She has a point, sister. Come along then. To the dungeon.”

“You’re coming with us? I thought you’d be making final preparations for the ritual.”

“With Enchantment about, I’m not taking any risks. The three of us will stay together from here on. Now, move!”

* * *
In the dungeon, Clever Clover and company had found the cells where the inhabitants of Malachite Castle were imprisoned. “Where do they keep the keys?” asked Clever Clover.

“I’ll get them,” said Ironwood.

Clever Clover peered through the window on one cell. “Hello, anybody home?”

Morning Glory leapt to her hooves. “Clever Clover! I knew you’d rescue us!”

“Yeah, I didn’t have anything better to do today.”

“Cousin! What’s the word on the Triumvirate? Have you dealt with them yet?”

“I’m afraid not, Oak. I figured our first priority was to get you to safety.”

“The women and Vin will flee. Raven and I will come with you.”

“I’d like to come, too,” said Morning Glory.

“Are you sure?” asked Clever Clover.

Morning Glory nodded. “I’ve got to start standing on my own four hooves sooner or later. I think I am ready for this.”

Ironwood returned with a jingling ring of keys. “Here we go; let’s get those cells open.”

“Good job, Ironwood,” congratulated the king. “The sooner I can get out of here and teach those hooligans a lesson, the better.”

The cells were soon open and the escape plan was being formed. “The servants, Vin, Gooseberry, and Foxglove will evacuate through the secret passages,” said Ironwood. “My guards will escort them. The rest of us will stay to take on the Triumvirate.”

Ironwood, Clever Clover, and King Oak led the party up the stairs to the hidden door; Key, Belle Star, Morning Glory, and Raven brought up the rear. They reached the passage without incident and the servants and guard-ponies quickly made their way in. Gooseberry, Foxglove, and Vin paused a moment to make their goodbyes.

Archbishop Vin made the sign of the cross over them. “Good luck, brave heroes. May God go with you. I wish that I could come with you, but I am not cut out for such things.”

“Thank you all,” said Foxglove with a bow. “My prayers will be with you.”

Queen Gooseberry threw her forelegs around Oak. “Be safe, my love.” She gave him a kiss and turned to the rest of the heros. “All of you be safe.”

Oak took his wife’s hoof in his. “My love, I will be counting the moments until we are together again. Now make haste.”

The last three ponies entered the passage and the door closed behind them.

“How touching,” came a voice form the shadows. All the ponies who had them drew their swords. Raven had picked up the sword with which Hemlock had menaced Ironwood earlier. Clever Clover, who had been carrying an extra sword, handed it to the king.

The three ponies of the Night Clan stepped out of the shadows. “Princess,” said Hemlock. “I’m surprised to see you. But it makes no difference. Six or seven will fall as easily.” He began to mumble an ancient spell in a lost language. Clever Clover, Belle Star, and King Oak charged forward while Ironwood and Key guarded Morning Glory. But before they could get halfway to Hemlock, he finished his spell and they found themselves frozen in space, unable to move.

Nightshade stepped toward the immobilized heros. “I think it is time, Minoko, to keep our end of the bargain and remove those who stand between you and Clever Clover.” She stood next to Belle Star. “I think I’ll start with the lucky one, since she seems so eager.” The dark swordpony drew her sword and held it over Belle Star. “Let’s see your luck save you now.”

Clever Clover struggled against Hemlock’s magic. “Don’t you dare harm a hair on her head!”

“You’re in no position to make demands.” And with that, Nightshade’s blade fell, only to be caught mere inches above Belle Star’s neck by Minoko’s energy horn.

“WHAT!” Nightshade shrieked. “That’s impossible! Your magic cannot touch me! I…am…invincible!” Nightshade backed away from Minoko, who held her horn toward the dark swordpony.

“You are nothing but a simple puzzle for a true wizard to figure out.”

“Minoko, you betrayed us!” said Hemlock in disgust.

“The condition of our alliance was that no harm would come to Clever Clover. And any harm done to his friends would be the same as a harm done to him. And I will let no harm come to him, or his…our... friends.”

Belle Star broke into tears. “Oh, thank you, Minoko!”

“Brother, hold her for me and I shall finish her!”

Hemlock shook his head. “There is no time; the moon has risen. We must complete our mission; they cannot stop us now.” With that, he disappeared in a plume of smoke. Nightshade stepped into the shadows and was gone.

Clever Clover, who could move again, rushed to Belle Star’s side. “Are you all right?”

“Uh huh. Thanks to Minoko.”

“Yeah, it was nothin’.” Her energy horn vanished, revealing an iron fireplace poker which clattered to the floor. “I’m glad I won’t have to be carrying that around anymore.”

“So, Minoko, were you ever really on their side?” asked Clever Clover.

“No way! But when Nightshade came and offered me a partnership, I knew they were up to something; and the best way to find out what was to play along.”

“Ha ha! Good show! I’m glad to hear that you are, and always were, on our side,” said Oak.

Morning Glory stepped forward. “Minoko, I know we haven’t always gotten along, but I’m glad you’re Clever Clover’s friend. And I hope that the two of us can be friends also.”

Minoko was becoming quite uncomfortable with all the attention. “We should be getting after Hemlock and Nightshade. I think they’re headed for the chamber of the Regents. And princess,” Minoko produced a bundle. “I found this lying around, and I thought you might like it.”

“Thank you. I’m glad I packed this.” Morning Glory took the bundle and withdrew her ancestral sword. “Even though I had hoped I wouldn’t need it.”

And so the heros, now numbering eight, pursued the villains into the very heart of Malachite Castle. This time Raven took the lead. When they reached the chamber of the Regents, they found their path blocked by a magical barrier.

Raven smashed his sword against the invisible wall. “Curses! Hemlock has locked us out!”

“I could get past it,” said Minoko. “But I can’t take passengers. All I could do is try to distract Hemlock enough to disrupt the spell.”

Clever Clover shook his head. “And while you distracted Hemlock, Nightshade would have an easy target. There has to be a way to do this without that kind of sacrifice.”

“Maybe we can help.” Magus and Enchantment stepped up to the barrier.

“It’s getting kind of crowded in here,” commented Belle Star.

“When the barrier falls,” said Magus, “Enchantment, Clever Clover, Minoko, and I will charge Hemlock. The rest of you go for Nightshade.”

Enchantment and Magus recited an incantation in unison. “Mana of all creation, hear and answer our call. Open our path, remove the barrier that stands in our way.” Enchantment raised her wand and smashed the barrier.

“Now go!” cried Magus.

The heros rushed into the chamber, a circular room with seven chairs around the edge and a pedestal in the center. Nightshade stood in their path, but the combined force of King Oak, Raven, Ironwood, Belle Star, and Key rushing into her drove her back to the pedestal where she made her stand. Morning Glory followed hesitantly, not used to such activities.

“Ha ha ha!” Hemlock cackled. “It is too late! It has already been set into motion!”

Clever Clover, Minoko, and Enchantment confronted Hemlock. “Whatever you’ve set into motion, we will stop it!” said Clever Clover.

Finally, Magus strode into the chamber. As soon as he stood with all four hooves in the chamber, the air became filled with a bright, pure light for a split second. For a moment after the flash, all action on the chamber ceased.

“Wh…what just happened?” asked Morning Glory.

“Ahrg! My spell! It’s gone! All the effort, all the planning, all for naught! Sister, we must quit this place! Hurry!” Hemlock vanished in a puff of black smoke.

Nightshade looked around at her challengers. “I’ll be along in a moment, brother. I must claim one victory before I leave!” She leapt into the air, right over the heads of Oak and the rest. She came down with her sword directed at Morning Glory. “One of you will fall!”

Morning Glory raised her own sword, thought she barely knew how to use it, in anticipation of Nightshade’s attack. But it never came. The blade of the sword of the Spirit Clan began to glow and a dome of light formed around Morning Glory that blocked Nightshade’s attack. The dark swordpony tumbled from the dome and landed roughly in the shadow of one of the large, ornate chairs and disappeared.

Everyone was again stunned. “Okay, what just happened?” asked Clever Clover.

Magus shook his head. “I am not entirely sure. The flash of light is a complete mystery. Princess Morning Glory’s sword, however, I can explain. Though Nightshade is a master swordpony and immune to magic, the sword of the Spirit Clan is not magical, it is holy. And no one save the divine can resist holy power.”

Morning Glory gazed at her sword in awe. “I had no idea.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, master Magus, how is it that Hemlock could even get into the castle? I thought you had erected wards against such intrusions.”

“A good question, Raven. The invitation that Morning Glory received was a gate; it allowed Hemlock and Minoko to bypass the wards. Unfortunately, though, there is nothing my magic can do to ward off Nightshade.”

“Then it’s my fault, for bringing the invitation into the castle?”

King Oak patted her on the shoulder. “Do not fret, princess. You could not have known. Besides, everything turned out all right in the end.”

“I suppose…”

“If you will excuse me, I need to reenforce the wards and research the mysterious flash.” Magus bowed and exited the Chamber.

“Will you be needing me, master?” Enchantment called after him.

“No, not right now. Why don’t you spend some time with your friends form Friendship Gardens? It’s not every day we have so many guests.”

“Thank you.” Enchantment turned to Clever Clover and the others. “Something is troubling me. In the past when I have encountered Hemlock, he had seemed a misguided soul moreso than evil. But today, when I confronted him, during your fight at the dungeon door, he was different. Not only was he arguing with himself, when he called out for his sister, he called her by name. I have never heard them refer to each other as anything but ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. I’m…worried about him.”

“That does sound strange. I was with them for several weeks and I never heard them use each other’s names, even when they argued.”

“Well, there will be time to worry about that later. Now is time to celebrate! We have won! Even though we are not entirely clear on the details how. But anyway, you are my guests and the rules of Malachite Castle clearly state that guests shall not be melancholy!”

“There is no such rule,” Raven mumbled.

Oak glared at him. “I am the king, and if I say it is the rule, then it is the rule. Now Ironwood, would you be so kind as to fetch the others so we can begin preparations for a proper celebration?”

The guardpony bowed. “Right away, sire.”

* * *
Shortly, the castle was full of life and joy once more. Minoko, Belle Star, Key, and Morning Glory joined the queen, Enchantment, and Foxglove in gossip while the servants went about making preparations for a feast. Clever Clover, despite Oak’s invitation to a fencing match, insisted on helping out in the kitchen, where he taught the cooks some of his special recipes. Feeling left out, King Oak joined the prince in the kitchen, and learned he had no talent for cooking. Once the table was set, even Magus emerged from his laboratory for the celebration.

As the banquet began, King Oak stood and raised his glass. “We have had to weather dire circumstances to come to this celebration, but it is well worth it to have our friend, the wayward prince Clever Clover, with us; and Princess Morning Glory; and also our guests from the Sea Patrol, Officer Key and Lady Belle Star. And for the first time in too long, a member of the Night Clan, Minoko, sits at our table in honor. To begin the celebration, I propose a toast to the Night Clan- may they soon be back in the fold- and to the remaining lost clans, Fire and Water- may they be returned to us with less strife than the Night Clan.”


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