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My Little Pony Monthly Issue 75 (June 1, 2003)


My Little Pony Monthly
A publication of Nematode (Electronic) Publishing
Established June 1997
This Newsletter is Safe for All Ages

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Issue 75
June 2003
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Index

1. Contest!
2. Survey!
3. From the author of the Ella stories
4. Another Baby Falling Leaves (by Tabby)
5. Do You Ever Wonder? (by Scribbler)
6. XTREME! Victory or Bust (by Barnacle)
7. Butch Returns! (by Tabby)
8. Chapter #10: Back to Bright Eyes (by Melody)
9. The Bigfoot Hunter: Rockdogs: Part 2 (by Tabby)
10. Welcome to Ponyland Part 2 (by Skye)
11. Anniversary Adventure (by Sugarberry and Tabby)
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Contest!

What a relief! For awhile I thought our contest entries would have dropped by half from last month, but luckily more avid readers came through! Congratulations to our eight winners!

Baby Moondreamer (Nicholley@aol.com)
BJ (maxnmiria@hotmail.com)
Jaye (eightiestoyboy@yahoo.ca)
Kakyuu (kakyuuouhi@yahoo.com)
Lil’ Whiskers (rosakala@yahoo.com)
Pika-Chan (mnjiricek@earthlink.net)
Skye (SkyeSpirit@aol.com)
Violet Star Shine (violet-star-shine@yahoo.com)

The “intelligent” pony from the cartoon was Windwhistler. She was always fun, wasn’t she? Lil’ Whiskers also came up with a “bonus” answer of Honeysuckle, the intelligent Flutter Pony.
For this month...

What is the name of Bunkie’s twin?

Tell me the answer by e-mailing TabbyMLP@aol.com or entering through the form at

http://mlpmonthly.tripod.com/Contact.htm
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Survey!

Happiness! I think we’ve hit a record here– four whole survey entries! How cool is that? Well, here’s how these collectors display their collections:

Baby Jedi (maxnmiria@hotmail.com) says...
I have all of my ponies on my vanity in a pretty set up with Christmas lights all strung around the top of the mirror. The Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe is under my vanity, so it’s a nice little set up & it’s easy to reach my MLPs if I want to play with them.

Pika-Chan (mnjiricek@earthlink.net) says...
Right now most of them are in boxes (except for a few of my favs) until I can get the space to display them. At that point I would like to use something like a China cabinet– to keep them from getting too dusty!

Skye (SkyeSpirit@aol.com) says...
I bought a series of 7 ft. tall white shelves at walmart and put them in groups on those. I have a nicer brown shelving unit with glass covering it for rarer ponies and ceramics. I also set up some of the building on the floor or on furniture and put some ponies in or around them.

Ringlets (ringlets-@yahoo.com) says...
I have my ponies in three main areas. I just redid my room, so it’s a little low on ponies right now. As soon as I finish, a few of my favorites can move back in, but I don’t have much room there. There are also always a few in the livingroom where they wait to be cleaned and officially added to my collection. The main part of my collection has its own corner of the basement on a ceiling-high shelves and in rubbermaid containers.

For our next survey... how about, what kind of surveys would you be most inclined to enter? You can share your thoughts on that, in addition to:

Did you group your ponies into families? Which ponies made up those families?

That URL is:

http://mlpmonthly.tripod.com/Contact.htm
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From the author of the Ella stories: Hello readers! I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve decided to discontinue the Ella stories... it’s just that I’ve been busy, plots won’t come, the characters refuse to be anything but stuff from soap operas and... well, yeah. Tons and tons of lame excuses. And now, if anyone wants, they can completely take over Ella and Evermoor and everything having to do with it and continue the series. Don’t even bother asking for permission. It’s given to whomever wants it. So... I did start a story for this month, but discovered that it was utterly pointless. I didn’t finish it, but if anyone’s interested in it, you can e-mail me at OpalStarre@aol.com and I’ll send it on over. So, I’m sorry if I’m disappointing anyone. And I’m sorry if you all will look upon me as an evil sort of traitor. Please accept my most humble apologies.

Starre
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Another Baby Falling Leaves
by Tabby (TabbyMLP@aol.com)

Baby Noddins was outside staring at her small garden plot when a familiar yellow pegasus came upon her unexpectedly. “Hey, Noddins!” Baby Falling Leaves said.
“Baby Falling Leaves! What are you doing here?” Noddins demanded.
“Guess what!” Baby Falling Leaves went on excitedly. “I have a new baby sister!”
“Really?” said Baby Noddins, instantly perking up at her friends’ news. “Can I see her??”
“No, not yet; the doctors said something about her and Mom resting.” Baby Falling Leaves shrugged. “So Daddy said I could come over here and play ‘cuz I was in the way.”
“So what’s her name gonna be?” Noddins wondered. “Since you’re both girls, you can’t use the Baby Brother and Baby Sister titles. Umm, lemme think... Baby Falling Leaves Number Two? Or Little Baby Falling Leaves. And if you get another sister, she can be Littler Baby Falling Leaves, and after that Littlest Baby Falling Leaves. Oooh, and if you got a brother, you’d all have to add ‘Sister’ onto your names, so you’d be...”
“No, silly,” Baby Falling Leaves Number One giggled. “She’s Magenta Daffodil!”
“Oh,” Baby Noddins sank into silence. “Well... but how does that fit into your family’s naming tradition?”
“ ‘Cuz Mommy was called Magenta Daffodil before she married Daddy,” Baby Falling Leaves explained. “Remember? Anyway, the name never really fit Mommy because she didn’t look anything like a magenta daffodil, but it’s some old family name, so my grandparents called her that anyway.”
Baby Noddins scrunched up her nose. “Why would anyone ever want to call your mommy Magenta Daffodil? She’s all orange and fall-covered, like your dad. No wonder she married him and changed her name.”
“Yeah, well,” Baby Falling Leaves shrugged, “Mommy said she always felt silly being called Magenta Daffodil. But anyway, we’re talking about my sister! And she does look like a magenta daffodil– or at least, she’s magenta! And she’s got a daffodil symbol! So Mommy’s name can finally be used for somepony it really makes sense for!”
“Cool!” said Baby Noddins. “Is she a pegasus?”
“Yeah, but her wings are really tiny,” Baby Falling Leaves said eagerly. “Maybe Mommy will let me teach her to fly!”
“Well, when can I see her?” Baby Noddins demanded.
“I’m not sure; Daddy said they would probably have to stay at the hospital for a few days,” Baby Falling Leaves said authoritatively.
“Well, why?” Baby Noddins said. “If they’re not sick, they should be able to come home, shouldn’t they?”
“Yeah, well, you know how adults are.” The two exchanged a knowing glance.
“I was still little when Bunny was born,” Noddins said pensively. “I don’t remember much about that, and she’s older now. I want a baby sister like you! Do you think Mommy could get me another one?”
“Not sure,” Baby Falling Leaves considered. “You could go ask her.”
“Yeah!” Baby Noddins said excitedly. “Let’s go find her!!”
Alas, poor Frostflake! There would be no peace again in her life for awhile, not while Baby Noddins was on another whim.
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Do You Ever Wonder?
by Scribbler (electric-hairdo@hotmail.com)

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony belongs to Hasbro, as far as I can tell. They created the toy range, anyway, so I’m saying the whole phenomenon is theirs in the hope this little Disclaimer will somehow protect me from their wrath. I have no money, and even had to bump up the rent for the moths in my pockets. Suing me would be a waste of your resources and my time. Flames will be summarily ignored.

AUTHOR’S NOTES: This is essentially a thank-you fic for Harry Wriggle and the splenderific birthday piccy she did for my other work ‘Of Beast and Blade’. Be warned, this is my first foray into MLP territory, and I haven’t watched the show in many moons. Add to that the fact that my memory is rather lacking, and it makes for some interesting literary consequences. Basically I just took it upon myself to write some characterization for a couple of characters I feel were woefully neglected by the scriptwriters.

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“Friendship is genuine when two friends can enjoy each others company without speaking a word to one another.” – George Ebers

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Masquerade was, by nature, not the most happy-go-lucky of ponies. Although she wasn’t as anti-social as some, and participated in many playful pursuits, she could often be found alone in one of her ‘secret spots’, just pondering the universe and watching the world go by. It was difficult to approach her when she was in such a mood– most notably because she chose to vanish for hours on end where nobody could find and bother her. Still, there had been occasions when some had tried, and felt the sharper side of her tongue as a result.
Which was why she wasn’t best pleased to be turned out into the cold, one night, when all she really wanted to do was settle down in the attic with a new book.
The reason for her expulsion was simple. Fizzy was missing. The flighty unicorn hadn’t been seen since the previous evening and had missed all of her meals between then and now. It wasn’t like her to just disappear without a trace like that, and so search parties had been dutifully dispatched to look for her.
Just my luck I was the only pegasus within shouting distance, Masquerade grumbled to herself as she dipped and turned over the plains and fields that surrounded Paradise Estate, peering downwards all the while in the hope of spotting a telltale splash of green. Of course, it was almost pitch dark outside, which made such a colour difficult to see amongst the shifting shadows, but she ploughed on nonetheless.
It wasn’t that she didn’t *like* Fizzy, but the other pony was just so.... capricious seemed the best word to describe her. Fizzy’s voice was always so bubbly, especially at the most inopportune times, that it often made Masquerade question whether the unicorn was a few sandwiches short of a picnic basket.
Of course, her light-heartedness and oft-times foolishness made her a great favourite with most others. If ever there was a dull moment, then you could be sure Fizzy would be called upon to make some inane comment or other and revel in the peals of laughter that followed. It was just so.... superficial, Masquerade thought to herself. Fizzy was an airhead without a care in the world, but she just didn’t seem to mind. In fact, she almost seemed to take pleasure in her own stupidity. Her calling card, so to speak.
A particularly strong gust of wind buffeted the yellow pegasus, and she instinctively wheeled high to regain her composure in the air. A cloud bank appeared beneath her hooves and she tutted, skirting around the edges to a less volatile patch so that she could resume her search.
“You wouldn’t catch Windwhistler doing this,” she groused. “Oh no, Miss High-and-Mighty’s probably locked up in the library again. They’d never make *her* leave her books to go out looking.”
Her annoyed litany continued as the colossal bulk of Dream Castle rose up on the horizon, dwarfing the smattering of trees planted around its base. The trio of pennants attached to the tower spikes fluttered in the stiff breeze, and she circled around them, wondering if Fizzy had taken it into her head to go visit the Grundles.
But that wouldn’t explain why she never came back. Or why she never said where she was going, she corrected herself.
Since the inhabitants of the castle were obviously sound asleep, Masquerade decided to move on and perhaps come back to question them later, if her searching proved fruitless.
She wasn’t unduly worried about Fizzy. Not like the others, at any rate. Earth ponies were apt to get frantic at the slightest thing, and she’d long-since stopped listening to the most part of their babble, filtering out the important information needed from their verbal chaff. Masquerade had decided early on not to think the worst of situations before negative factors presented themselves. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, as such. More that she was keeping an open mind until someone closed it for her.
At least a venture like this allowed her to stretch her wings a little. Her muscles were cramped, and she soared for a few seconds to get the stiffness out of them. It could get so stuffy on the estate. No privacy anywhere. Up in the air the only things one had to worry about were birds and other pegasi, and she was doubtful many of the latter would be abroad this night with a wind like this.
Well, maybe Whizzer, but she hardly counted. Whizzer looked upon bad weather as a challenge and was more likely to be practicing loops far above Paradise Estate than actually be traveling anywhere.
Unlike me.
Masquerade spiraled down a little as another blast of wind hit her in the face. She was nearing the eastern border of Ponyland now and still no sign of Fizzy anywhere. She’d have to turn back soon and try somewhere else. The dark bulk of the Black Mountains beyond it was a forbidding sight, and she gave a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold.
A small clump of trees reared up at ground level. Not big enough to merit being called a wood, but at the same time not small enough to really be a copse. It was one of Masquerade’s favourite places that she went to get a little privacy. The nearness of Porcina’s old lair and the strange mountainous creatures that now inhabited it made other ponies avoid coming out this far if they could help doing so. Perfect for a little downtime.
On a whim, she spiraled down towards the leafy cluster. She didn’t know why she did it. Perhaps for comfort. This was one of the places where she could be herself without anyone around to judge her. Just her, the wind and the greenery. Few ponies would be able to understand the joy of just reclining back into nature like that. They were too concerned with trivial things like clothes, parties, and playing games. Posy might, but she was so...obsessed with the aesthetic. Her ruthlessly weeded garden spoke for itself on that front. Posy had no time for imperfection, and abhorred anything she deemed ‘ugly’. One would think the incident with the Crab-Nasties would teach her, but it hadn’t taken long for that lesson to wear off. No, Masquerade preferred just letting herself go here, weeds, warts, and all.
She alighted on the branch of an overhanging oak, whose limbs dipped in rather an unnatural fashion as the result of growing under a weed patch in its youth. It made for a good landing, and the yellow pony found her feet with ease, despite the wind.
Around her the trees shushed and bristled, whispering their outrage at the weather for tearing their leaves away so savagely. Her ears flicked back and forth, listening to them.
And then she heard it.
Another sound, soft and low. One might almost have mistaken it for a trick of the wind. It wasn’t unknown to hear strange things on blustery nights that couldn’t be heard on fine days. Yet somehow Masquerade knew that this wasn’t just some manifestation of her own imagination. It was too solid, too real.
It was the sound of someone singing.
Curious despite herself, the Pegasus launched from her perch and glided down to floor level. The tree branches interlocked too closely for her to fly in here, and so she walked the rest of the way under the network of wood towards the voice.
The wind was pretty much blocked by the trees the further she went, and the singing grew louder, signaling she was headed in the right direction. Masquerade picked her way through the fallen twigs and leaves, crunching them underhoof. Sometimes twiggy fingers snatched at her face and mane, but she knew her way around this place well enough to avoid them for the most part.
It was as she was nearing the Flatstone, as she named it, that the singing stopped. The Flatstone marked the very centre of the trees, and nobody had any explanation as to how it got there in the first place. There were rumours that it used to be the marker for a coven of witches long before any ponies inhabited this land, but Masquerade, ever pragmatic, shook them off as just that-- rumours.
Even so, she froze at the sudden silence, and the hair on her withers started to rise at its eeriness.
“Who’s there?”
She blinked. She knew that voice. That high-pitched, airheaded voice that was never without a laugh or a twinkle. “Fizzy?” Masquerade started forward again, pushing her way through the underbrush and into the clearing that held the Flatstone.
It was an odd name to give the huge rock, really. The Flatstone wasn’t really flat at all, but had a smooth surface that made it perfect for a little pony to sit on without falling from the impressive height. The stone itself was a good six feet high, at least, and Masquerade had always assumed that only a pegasus could actually get up there, even with wingbeats to help.
Yet atop it now crouched a familiar green form.
“Fizzy? What’re you doing all the way out here?” Masquerade pattered forwards to where she could face the other pony, and was surprised to see the unicorn’s face uncharacteristically bleak.
“Just.... thinking,” was the vague reply.
“Thinking? You’ve put the entire of Paradise Estate in an uproar by vanishing off the face of the earth and you tell me you were just *thinking*?” A note of derision crept into her voice, and she wrinkled her nose in disgust. That was just like Fizzy, doing something stupid without a thought for anybody else. Typical.
But Fizzy’s reply to her words was anything but typical. “It’s not unheard of for me to think, you know. No matter what others might think of me.”
Blink. Where did *that* one come from? Masquerade tilted her head a little. “Are you OK?”
Fizzy sighed, staring off at some spot in the distance. “Yeah, I’m fine.” She didn’t say anything more, and made no move to come down.
Masquerade bunched her legs under her and flapped her wings into a jump that got her approximately halfway up the side of the Flatstone. She clawed with her hooves a little, prising her way up until she could sit next to Fizzy. The stone was wide, wide enough for them both to rest without knocking each other off. The yellow pegasus settled herself, whipping her tail about to clear away the dead leaves and plant her rump down. Fizzy didn’t even acknowledge her, and just kept gazing at nothing. Her eyes, since they were the jeweled kind, betrayed little by way of her thoughts or emotions, but were still decidedly unfocused.
They sat that way for a while, neither saying anything nor bothering the other. It was unusual for the bubbly unicorn to stay silent for so long, and Masquerade had the feeling that it would be wrong for her to interrupt, somehow. Finally, Fizzy broke the taciturnity herself.
“Masquerade, do you ever wonder.”
Masquerade blinked, unsure of what to say. “Wonder about what?”
“About.... stuff. Everything,” Fizzy waved a hoof at the surrounding area and then let it drop. “Nothing. Do you ever wonder about us?”
“Who? You and me?”
“All ponies. All creatures. Grundles, humans, trolls, goblins– the works. Do you ever just stop and think about them, about how they came to be here? About what they’re doing right now?”
Masquerade glanced at her companion. That was deep. Deeper than Fizzy was generally wont to go, and it puzzled her a little. “Sometimes. Why? What sparked this off?”
Fizzy sighed again and drew invisible circles on the rock with the tip of her hoof. “Just something Windwhistler said.”
Masquerade frowned. Windwhistler. I might’ve known it. The knowledgeable pony seemed to take sport in making others feel small with her excesses of information and random facts that she liked spouting at odd moments. Recently she’d taken to singling out the meeker ponies, most notably Sweet Stuff and Shady, until Megan took her friend to one side and told her to stop it. Apparently she had, if only to move on to Fizzy.
“What did she say?”
Fizzy shrugged. “It doesn’t matter that much. But it got me thinking, y’know? I never actually just wondered about stuff before. I just accepted it. I never tried to figure out why ponies are here. Why this is our land and nobody else’s. Until the Grundles came to live in Dream Castle, we were the only creatures in Ponyland besides the forest animals. Even the name was kind of a warning sign, like saying ‘keep out, this patch is ours’. Ponyland. We say we’re welcoming, and that we like to make new friends, but it took almost losing our home completely before we even considered letting others move in.”
“What about the Bushwoolies?” Masquerade suggested. “They live here, too.”
“I suppose,” Fizzy was forced to concede. “But still, haven’t you ever wondered about it?”
Masquerade hunkered back on her haunches for a moment, considering the question. “I’d be lying if I said I never have,” she said at last. “But it’s never bothered me unduly. Other creatures can come and live in Ponyland if they want to. We’re not stopping them.”
“But they never want to,” Fizzy persisted. “That’s what I was wondering about too. Why don’t other folk want to live in our lands? Are they afraid of us? Of our magic?”
“Except that most ponies don’t actually have any magic,” Masquerade reminded her. “Only you unicorns.”
“So, does that mean that if there weren’t any unicorns in Dream Valley, then other races would like to live here?” Her pretty face down-turned a little. “That’s a depressing thought.”
Masquerade let the subsequent lull in conversation continue for a few long minutes before letting a breath out between her teeth and asking, “Fizzy, what’s wrong? You’re not usually this serious.”
The flash of furious jeweled eyes and grim set of Fizzy’s mouth startled her a little.
“What? The minute I’m a little astute there has to be something wrong with me?” she snapped. “I *do* have a brain, you know. Contrary to popular opinion, I’m not a *complete* airhead.”
Masquerade was taken aback. “I never said that,” she defended herself.
Fizzy turned away, obviously hurt and angry. “Yeah, well, you were thinking it. Don’t lie and say you weren’t. Everybody does.”
Clearly there was more to this than met the proverbial eye. Masquerade regarded the other pony, cocking her head to one side. She and Fizzy weren’t friends, not the same way Heart Throb and Truly were, at any rate. They were more acquaintances who just happened to share the same home. Fizzy always seemed to have a gaggle of ponies around her at any one time, whilst Masquerade, more often than not, preferred her own company above anyone else’s.
And yet.... Masquerade couldn’t help but wonder, now that she’d caught the green unicorn in a more vulnerable moment. Fizzy, it seemed, was not quite the idiot she made herself out to be; and in the light of this, her companion-of-the-moment found herself questioning just how much of her outward demeanor was actually true. How much of the real Fizzy did the little ponies really know?
“You don’t have to keep staring at me, you know,” Fizzy said without turning around. “If you want to say something, then say it.”
Masquerade’s mouth flipped shut, telling her for the first time that it had been open. “I wasn’t staring,” she said, perhaps a little too quickly. “I was just.... thinking.”
Fizzy let out a bitter laugh, quite unlike her usual light giggle. “Yeah. This place tends to make you do that, doesn’t it?” She paused for a second, hesitating, then added; “I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
Masquerade shrugged. “S’alright. No biggie.”
“It’s just that,” Fizzy went on, chewing her bottom lip as if thinking how best to phrase things. “It’s just that, everybody simply assumes that I’m some kind of moron. It’s all they ever think of me as. There goes Fizzy, resident airhead. Not a serious bone in her body. I think ‘Bubble Brain’ is my latest nickname.”
At this, Masquerade winced. She’d heard that epithet and even used it herself a few times. Fizzy, however, seemed not to notice the action.
“I know I don’t do much to stop them thinking that. I guess I kinda encourage it, even. It’s just a lot easier that way. When people think you’re just a stereotype bimbo they don’t bother you as much. You’re not a threat to them. But sometimes....” she sighed a sigh that seemed to come right from the bottom of her hooves, “Sometimes I wish I could just quit being so... so vacuous! I *do* have thoughts of my own. Just because I don’t choose to voice them all the time doesn’t mean they’re not there. I’m not wise or clever like Windwhistler, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid.”
Masquerade listened to her outburst without a word, nodding but not interrupting until the unicorn had finished. When Fizzy didn’t seem able to say more, she spoke. “I won’t lie to you, Fizzy,” she said with her usual amount of bluntness. “You *don’t* help yourself with the way you act. Perhaps if you stopped acting like a giddy teenager all your life, people would stop *treating* you like one.” She faltered, then added, “But don’t for one minute think that just because you don’t spout wisdom from the treetops like Windwhistler that people think any less of you. *I* don’t.” And, to her great surprise, she realized she was telling the truth. She didn’t. Heck, Masquerade thought wryly, who am I to talk about putting on a disguise to other ponies? I do it. I guess I just never considered other ponies did it too.
Fizzy was quiet for a moment, and Masquerade wondered if she’d taken offence. It wouldn’t be the first time a pony had misinterpreted her words. However, her doubts vanished when the unicorn shifted around to look at her. There was watery smile on her face; thin, but genuine. Much more so than her customary grin, in fact.
“Thanks,” Fizzy said sincerely. “That means a lot to me, Masquerade.”
Suddenly struck by embarrassment, Masquerade waved a careless hoof at her and fought down a blush. “Meh,” she growled, pleasantly startled at the warm, glowy feeling her words elicited. The pegasus rose to her feet and shook herself, dislodging a few dried leaves that had settled on her coat during their conversation. “We should really head back,” she advised. “The others are all worried about you. If Cupcake sees you not turning up for another meal again, she’ll have an apoplectic fit!”
But instead of rising, Fizzy stretched out a hoof and touched the yellow pony’s foreleg. “Wait,” she murmured, her eyes wandering to the small patch of sky visible through the tree branches overhead. “Can’t we stay just a little longer. You can see the moon from here.”
Masquerade looked up, following her gaze to the splash of night sky. She felt like she should make some cutting comment to that, but the remark died in her throat, and instead she hunkered down again on the Flatstone. “Yeah. I guess we could make them wait a little longer.”
Silence stretched between them once more as they sat, staring at the sky; but it was a companionable silence, and somehow neither felt the need to say anything to the other.
Slowly, the moon rose in the darkness, and they sat together. Not quite friends; but perhaps a step more towards friendship than before.

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Finis

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XTREME!
Victory or Bust
by Barnacle (Raptor@nematodemail.com)

“Quite a turn-out, huh?”
Cliff was not the sort to be taken by surprise. After all, years of training had made him expect the unexpected; but today, wading through a sea of frantic stage hands, this little question caught him completely by surprise. He quickly spun to face the individual who had addressed him and was immensely relieved to see it was only Nikita, the team captain for one of Cliff’s rival teams, the Blade Runners.
“They say the ESL is the highest-rated sporting event since Monday Night Football,” Cliff replied, trying his best to regain his composure. Considering the hustling workers and the din of the crowd in the background, it was doubtful anyone would have noticed.
Nikita was similarly dressed as Cliff, in a protective racing suit with a helmet tucked under one foreleg. “A distant second, I’m sure but it’s still pretty cool. I hear Yanus is even thinking of adding more teams to the line-up.”
“Those two new groups he got for the pre-race entertainment are pretty good,” Cliff jerked his thumb over his shoulder towards the stadium and the crowd’s cheers rose as if on cue. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he worked them into the races.”
“The Sickle-Claws and the Grinders,” Nikita said. “It would liven the races up, that’s for sure.”
“True. I would just hope it would liven them in a good way,” Cliff replied as he scanned the crowd. “Have you seen Luge anywhere? I was kind of looking for her.”
“Saw her a getting a drink a little while ago. Oh, there she is.”
Luge came trotting over holding two icy cold drinks fresh from the refreshment stand. Like Cliff and Nikita, she, too, was decked out in her gear for the competition.
“Hey, Cliff, I got you something to drink,” Luge said as she handed him one of the paper cups. “Hi Nikita, what’s up?”
“Just having a few words with my fellow captain before the race,” Nikita replied. Then in a more quiet tone and with a glance over her shoulder, she leaned in close and asked, “Do you really think that the X-Crew is setting traps just to win the race? I know I’ve asked you, like, a million times since you told me after the last race, but here we are T-minus-thirty minutes. Are you still positive?”
“We haven’t seen anything to change our minds,” Luge snapped, perhaps just a little too harshly.
Cliff put a restraining hoof on her shoulder and replied in a more controlled tone, “And if we had, we would have told you. But as it stands now, I have no doubt that they are going to pull something.”
Nikita took a deep breath. “I knew you were going to say that, but I was hoping you wouldn’t.”
“Sorry,” Cliff said with an awkward smile.
“Thanks for at least being level with me. I know a lot of others who would have kept that kind of information to themselves.”
“You know us, just too darn good-hearted for our own good,” Luge said.
“We’re here to compete, not get railroaded by a bunch of cheaters,” Cliff added.
“Well, thanks again. I’ve got to be getting back to my own team,” Nikita said as she started to walk away. “And good luck out there today!”
“Thanks,” Cliff replied. “And you, too!”
After a brief exchange of waves, Cliff and Luge turned and headed back to their own waiting area. They continued in silence for a few steps before Luge spoke-up saying, “You know, you two did have a point; this is a competition, and we didn’t have any kind of obligation to share anything with them.”
Cliff stopped short and shot a questioning glare at his teammate, “Are you saying we should have just let them go on blindly through all this?”
“No,” Luge was quick to add. “We did the right thing, but it might have been our only advantage. The Blade Runners– and I hate to admit it, but the X-Crew, even without cheating– are both just as good as we are. If we don’t do something soon to level this playing field, we’re going to end up taking the fall on every race all the way through.”
“Are you saying we should just give up and quit?” Cliff asked. “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done– even with the bad points– and I’d be willing to bet it’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done, too.”
“But how long can we let ourselves be made out to be losers?” Luge asked. “We’re not, and I’m not going to let the whole world think that we are.”
“We’ll find a way to set this right, but for the moment we have to stay cool and not lose sight of what’s really important. I know it’s a clique, but if we didn’t tell the Blade Runners, then we’d be doing the same thing as the X-Crew.”
“Yeah, unfortunately, you’re right,” Luge said in a somber tone. The two of them continued on their way at a slightly slower pace. “But I’m not going to stick around if this keeps up for too much longer.”
“We’ll take care of it,” Cliff said. “Shard never would have warned us if he didn’t think it would help us in some way.”
“And just where is the mysterious Shard, anyway? If he really wanted us to do well in this thing, he would have told us about more than the first trap so that we wouldn’t go crazy trying to unravel this huge conspiracy theory that we’re not even sure exists. Why do they make us wear all this gear if we’re not even going to be in the race today?” Luge suddenly tugged at her uniform in a frustrated way as if it didn’t fit quite right.
“You know they need us ready in case one of the others can’t go on. Besides, it looks good for the cameras.” Cliff pointed to a back stage camera operator who was bringing his lens to bear on the two athletes. Luge and Cliff managed to smile and wave, but in a second, the camera was gone to film something else.
“I could care less about the cameras,” Luge said as soon as it was out of range. “And I’ve put this outfit on enough times to be able to do it in ten seconds in my sleep.” Again she tugged at her collar.
Cliff just smiled and nodded. He suspected it wasn’t the uniform she was having a problem with. The concerns she voiced were felt by their entire team and each member was dealing with them in different ways. Luge kept up a brave face in front of the others, but the fact that she confided started to make Cliff realize how important his role as team captain was. It was a huge responsibility, but he had yet to realize just how huge.
Just then, his thoughts were shattered by a shrill call that sounded out above the noise filling the space. “Dude!” Jet called out as he bounded over. “Dude, we have fans! Hundred of girls just throwing themselves at me!”
“I see two girls and a fat guy bothering Blade,” Cliff said with a glance over Jet.
“Yeah, well, uh... dude, you just missed, right? They were just here but they, uh... left.”
“More like you scared ‘em off if, in fact, there were any to begin with.” Luge added, “I better go save Blade; she looks like she’s about ready to freak out.”
“Oh, Lyle’s a good guy. He’s harmless,” Jet called out after Luge. Then he directed towards Cliff, “Really, he’s cool. He’s got, like, all these comics and stuff in his parents’ basement and stuff.”
Waving his hoof, Cliff said, “I don’t need to know this; in fact, Luge might need back-up. Have you seen Mogul? Go time is less than thirty minutes away.”
“Dude, he’s, like, over, there...” Jet pointed off through the crowds. A second later he locked in on his exact position and added, “Right there, you see him?”
Mogul seemed to be talking to a young mare who was decked out with all the equipment of a camera operator. “Is that that Camera Chick?”
“Yeah, Misty,” Jet said. “He’s got a major crush on her.”
Just than Misty slapped Mogul across the face and then stalked away. Mogul looked rather dumbstruck and said something, but the words were lost due to the distance and the background noise. Whatever he said, it didn’t stop Misty in the least. Rubbing his jaw, Mogul made his way over to Cliff and Jet.
“Dude! You are so smooth!” Jet cried out in near hysterical laughter.
Mogul just sniffed as he rubbed his jaw once more. “Yeah, she’s crazy about me.”
Even Cliff had to laugh at that. “Dude, she just slapped you, we both saw it!”
“Me too!” Bungee added, suddenly popping up from behind.
“She’s just playing hard-to-get.” Mogul did not appear to be shaken even slightly. If anything, he acted like it was all perfectly natural. “Although I wish she wouldn’t have done it so hard. My black eye was finally starting to go away. It’s not swelling up again, is it?”
“No, you look great,” Cliff said flatly. “At least as good as your ugly mug can look.”
“Aw, poor baby,” Bungee laughed. “Maybe Blade should take your place in today’s race.”
“Dude, what did you say to her, anyway?” Jet asked.
“Never you mind,” Mogul replied.
“No, you gotta tell us, dude!”
“Sorry, can’t give away my trade secrets.”
As they continued their banter, Cliff caught sight of Mr Yanus making his way through the crowds. “Excuse me, ladies, I’ve gotta go have a chat with the big boss man. The rest of you stay right here until show time; I’m not gonna go track you all down again.”
“Dude! Don’t you trust us?”
“Not in a million years,” Cliff shot back with a smile as he hurried to catch up with the haughty businessman. The crowds were thick through here so Cliff was slowed by more than one pony who got in his way; but with a little quick hoofwork, he managed to get within range of Yanus in no time.
“Mr. Yanus! Mr. Yanus!” he called out.
Mr. Yanus obviously heard Cliff, because he stopped and turned around. Cliff, who was still running at top steed, nearly crashed into the well-dressed pony. Fortunately, the athlete managed to dodge at the last second and came to a halt without so much as bumping into Yanus.
“Ah, Cliff,” Yanus said dryly. “What can I help you with?”
“Mr. Yanus,” Cliff said between a few gulps of air, “I was just wondering if you’d found out anything about what we had talked about the other day.”
“The cheating?” Yanus said. “I looked into it as I said I would.” He took a long pause and for a moment Cliff almost thought he might have good news. “However, I couldn’t find any such evidence.” Cliff had been expecting this answer, but it still hit him like a ton of bricks square in the chest. “All those various pit-falls and obstacles that tripped you and your team up were entirely natural. This is an extreme sports competition, after all, and one has to content with unexpected terrain. It’s part of the game.”
Cliff couldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t let himself believe it. Something had happened on their last two races that was not simply rough terrain. He went over in his mind what Mr. Yanus had just said. He wanted to refute everything, but the calmer part of his being maintained control and he instead said, “So, you didn’t find… anything?”
“No, nothing,” Mr. Yanus said. He seemed completely cool and business-like, but was that a hint of a smile Cliff detected on his face? “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“No. Nothing,” Cliff said. With a polite nod, Mr. Yanus turned and walked away. It was only then that Cliff even realized that his fists were clenched in anger. Taking a deep breath, he shook out his hooves and headed back to his friends.
Back in the Extreme Team pavilion, he found all five of his teammates waiting for him with anxious looks on their faces.
“What did he say?” one of them asked.
“Oooo, this looks heavy,” Lyle said as peaked over Blade’s shoulder. She cringed, not realizing that he was still there.
Mogul stood up from his seat on the end of one of the tables and towered over the plump, greasy pony. “Beat it, this is a private team meeting.”
Lyle held his autographed Extreme Team picture in front of him like a shield as now he himself cringed. For a moment, it looked as if he was going to protest, but then quickly scurried off into the crowds. “You were saying?” Mogul said as re-took his seat.
“He said he ‘couldn’t find any evidence,’ “ Cliff said, making it clear that he in no way agreed with that assessment.
“That’s bull!!!” Mogul cried and smashed his fist onto the table.
“So what do we do now?” Luge asked. She sounded determined enough, but Cliff could see the doubt in her eyes.
“It’ll tell you what we do,” Mogul said. “We go over there right now and lay the smack down on their–!”
Luge jumped in at that point and cut him off. “No fighting,” she snapped. “It’s not going to accomplish anything, especially if Mr. Yanus can’t even see what’s going on. It would just make us look that much worse.”
“Yeah, but it would make me feel better.”
“Why don’t we just follow the X-Crew through the course?” Bungee asked. “If they know where the traps are, we can take the same route they do and then cut them off in the final stretch.”
“Dude,” Jet nodded his agreement.
Cliff’s answer was straightforward. “No,” he said. “We don’t know where any of the traps are. If it’s in the final stretch, we’re still screwed.”
“We have to win on skill, not tricks; that’s their job,” Luge added.
“So then what?” Blade asked timidly.
“The only thing we can do is we get out there and play this thing as good as we can. Traps or no, we can still beat them,” Cliff said. That got a half-hearted agreement from them all, but it was hardly enthusiastic. “Now let’s get ready. Bungee, you’re first out of the gates in...” Cliff glanced at a clock, “ten minutes.”
“Oh, I’m ready,” Bungee replied. “I’m so ready, the X-Crew better be ready for how ready I am.”
After a thought, Cliff felt that he could reply to that, “Good, now let’s get out there and win.”
With that, they all got up and headed off to the starting location. Cliff let them all go past him before he himself followed. Luge came up beside him and put a hoof on his shoulder. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“We all know that we can beat the X-Crew, right? But can we beat them?”
“I don’t know, Cliff. I used to think that we could overcome anything; but now, with the cards stacked against us, I’m not so sure.”
“You sounded confident enough back there,” Cliff replied.
“That’s because you looked confident,” Luge said. “It’s contagious, you know.” Cliff stopped dead in his tracks and just stared at Luge. “What?” she asked. “It’s true. They all take their cue– we all take our cue– from you. I don’t know if we’re going to win or not, but as long as you look like we can, you make the rest of us believe it, too.”
For what seemed like a long time to him, Cliff was silent as he digested what she had just said. Up until then, he had never really seen himself as a leader. Sure, he was the captain on paper, and that meant that he had to play the part for the red-tape, but he never felt like it was really the case. He was just another member of the team, one among equals. However, at some point not too long ago, he had become their leader not only in name but in spirit as well.
All the members of the team had come to him with their concerns and problems in the past. He had just thought that it was to let their opinions be known, not that they wanted him to fix anything. However, regardless of the reasoning, it meant that every decision Cliff made had to be made taking into account the feelings and well-being of everyone on the team. They were not just turning to him to voice their minds but because they KNEW he was going to take care of things. It came as an even greater shock to him than anything before.
“Now is not the time to look weak,” Luge said. “We need you to be strong.”
It took Cliff a second longer to collect himself before he replied, “I should have let Mogul have this job when he wanted it.” At first, Luge thought he was serious; but a second later, Cliff let out a nervous laugh. That in turn started Luge snickering. Before long, the two of them were both laughing.
“If Mogul was captain, we never would have made it this far,” Luge said. “We would have gotten kicked out before the first race for kicking the X-Crew’s tails!”
“At least then we wouldn’t have to deal with them now.”
“We also wouldn’t be on national TV,” Luge added and pointed to a distant camera operator who was just now closing in on them. “Hi, Mom!” she said with a wave.
“Come on, we have to get going, the race is gonna start!” Cliff grabbed Luge by the foreleg and ran for the starting gate. They quickly made their way through the crowds with the help of a few security guards and stormed into the player area. It was a low pavilion-like structure that had been fitted for the starting line of the race. It was also equipped with monitors and chairs so that the team members who were not taking part in this race could watch all the action. Most of the fans were gathered at various points along the course to watch, but a small crowd decided to watch the race unfold from here.
Bungee was already strapped onto her dirtboard and was clearly ready to go. In the gate next to her was Dragon of the X-Crew, who smiled evilly upon seeing Cliff come near. He paid her no mind, though, and went straight to Bungee. He exchanged a few hushed words with her, after which she smiled broadly and took a glance at Dragon. “Oh, you know it!” she cried out loud enough for everyone to hear. Dragon looked puzzled and scowled at Cliff as he walked back to Luge and Blade with a smile of his own. The X-Crew member then shifted her gaze to Bungee, who just laughed and turned her attention back forward to await the start.
“What was that about?” Nikita asked.
“Just instilling a little confidence,” Cliff said. Behind his back, Luge smiled happily.
A second later, the gates sprang open and the three contestants shot out forward. “AND THEY’RE OFF!” Vic’s voice cried out from the microphone.
The nine members of the three teams who were not participating in the match gathered around the small television screens. X and Outré were yelling wildly at the images as if Dragon could hear them. Nikita had Trajan standing behind her, and both stood in silence as they watched. Mehira was quietly bobbing up and down as she wrung her hooves and excitedly muttered something to herself. Blade, as always, was difficult to read and stood in silence as she stared at the monitors. On the other hand, Luge was quite excited and was cheering Bungee on, albeit in a much more reserved tone than the X-Crew.
“Look, Bungee’s in the lead!” she cried out. But her excitement quickly died as a small hole opened up under Bungee’s board, swallowing its front wheel. The dirtboard stopped almost instantly and sent Bungee flying forward into the grass. Valentina, who had been close behind her, didn’t have time to dodge or avoid the wreck and plowed into it at full speed. Both the Blade Runner and her board went sailing through the air above Bungee, missing her head by mere inches. Not surprisingly, Dragon took a completely different path and shot past both of them. Cliff could have sworn he saw a vicious smile plastered on her face as she did.
“Oh, wicked nasty spill!” X said with a laugh directed towards Cliff. Cliff tried his best to ignore him and focused on the monitors.
“Come on!”
“Get up!”
The various members of the two fallen teams were cheering on their comrades, but neither racer needed any encouragement. Bungee had already wrestled her board out of the hole and was heading out again. Valentina was close behind her, righting her board as though it weighed nothing. Before too long, both of them were back in the race and giving it all they had. Dragon’s lead didn’t look nearly as great as it had a moment before.
Just as it seemed like Valentina was about to overtake Bungee, someone cried out from behind them, “Hey, who’s winning!?”
“What the–?” X shouted out in irritation and turned to face a newcomer to the proceedings. A reddish-orange stallion with pitch black hair bounded into the midst of the group.
“Who is this loser?” Max asked.
“This loser is Raptor!” the newcomer said flamboyantly and clapped his foreleg around Max’s shoulder. “I’m a friggin’ bird of prey swooping down on unsuspecting victims, baby!”
“Hey, get him offa me!” Max cried frantically.
“Beat it, freak!” X pushed Raptor away from the X-Crew members.
Raptor stepped backward, looking rather offended by the incident. “That’s fine, I wouldn’t want to watch with a bunch of neanderthals like you, in any case. But this fine specimen is a different story.” Raptor had now caught sight of Mehira and strode over towards her.
“We’re trying to watch here,” Trajan stepped in between the two of them.
“You’re from the Sickle-Claws, aren’t you?” Cliff asked, tearing himself away from the monitor for a second.
“Why yes, yes I am!” Raptor said and bowed low. “Raptor, at your service.”
“Yeah, it’s nice to meet you, Raptor; but maybe you could keep it down, we’re watching the race,” Cliff said.
Raptor shot forward with an energetic fluidity and put his forelegs around Cliff and Mehira, pointing both of them back towards the screens, “Then let’s watch, shall we, for that is why I am here, as well.” Oddly, he actually shut his mouth after that except to quietly ask, “So who is winning, anyway?”
“The X-Crew,” Cliff said. His voice was thick with bile, but it was not directed towards Raptor.
“But-only-by-a-second,” Mehira rambled off. “Valentina-and-Bungee-are-tied-for-second-place-right-behind-Dragon.”
Biting her fingernails, Nikita added, “And here comes the second leg…white water kayaking.”
The monitors showed the scene as Smiley started down-river just as Dragon crossed the bridge over the starting position; however, Kadin and Jet were but mere seconds behind him. With a smile on his lips, Jet let out a high-pitched howl as he crossed over a small waterfall and shot right over the head of Smiley. Though those watching on the monitors couldn’t hear what he had said, they knew well enough what it had been.
“Dude,” Cliff, Luge, and Blade all said in unison under their breaths.
Raising an eyebrow questioningly, Raptor said, “Are you sure you want him out there? He doesn’t look too stable in the head if you know what I mean.”
Cliff in turn gave Raptor a questioning gaze. Fortunately Mehira muttered, “Look-who’s-talking,” so Cliff didn’t have to.
Instead he said, “I wouldn’t want anyone else out there. Jet’s the best there is at what he does.”
“We’re still trying to figure out exactly what that is, however,” Luge added without taking her eyes off the screen.
Throughout the entire kayaking leg of the race, Jet held the lead. At one point Kadin almost managed to pass Smiley, but the X-Crew member nearly struck him in the side of the head. From the camera’s angle, it looked like it could have been an accident; but when the Cliff and Nikita glanced over at X and his goons, they were laughing hysterically at the maneuver.
“No traps on this part,” Luge spoke just loud enough so that Cliff could hear her and no one else.
“So far,” Cliff replied. “It’s not over yet.”
“Just a little further…”
“Yes!” Raptor cried out and threw up his forelegs. Turning to Cliff, he said, “Looks like your boy made it after all.” Then to Mehira, “I’m sure Gryphon will get it on the next leg.”
Cliff and Mehira exchanged a glance and then turned back to Raptor. “Just-whose-side-are-you-on-anyway?”
“Ideally it would be the Sickle-Claws’ side, but that’s not going to happen for a few weeks, so for the moment I’m on everyone’s side.” He again put his forelegs around both their shoulders and laughed. “Check it out! There goes Alex! Good job, guys,” he called out to the X-Crew. Max smiled and gave Raptor a thumbs up, but X slapped his teammate in the back of the head. Raptor laughed again and turned to Mehira. “That was worth it.”
Mogul was now out in the lead and thundering down a wooded path on his dirt bike. Alex was trailing right inside of his dust trail while Gryphon was right alongside and just a hair behind the X-Crew athlete. However, as Mogul rounded a sharp turn, his lead evaporated with a low branch across the trail that almost knocked him off his bike. He managed to regain his balance and keep moving, but it slowed him down enough so that he was now in last place with Alex in the lead.
Even over the monitors and through his helmet, it was apparent that Mogul was mad and understandably so. At first it looked like Alex had taken the turn too wide and that he was going to wipe out in the woods. Instead, he managed to find a hidden path which took him out of range of the branch and allowed him to round the corner without incident. Gryphon followed right behind Alex. Apparently he had come up with the same idea that Bungee had and was following the X-Crew’s route.
Back at the starting line, the others were visibly upset by this latest development and were no longer letting any allegations of cheating keep them quiet.
“What was that!?” Luge cried. “It’s like he knew that path was there!”
“Hey, babe, that’s what they call skills,” X sneered.
“And you don’t have to stay on the trail if you don’t want to,” Outré added. “It’s not against the rules.”
At that moment a thought suddenly dawned on Cliff. It was just clever enough that it might allow them to win the race, but it wouldn’t do them any good since he couldn’t relay it to Mogul out on the course. Cliff turned his attention back to the television sets just in time to see Mogul take another spill. This time he completely left the bike, while Alex had completely avoided the obstacle. Gryphon hadn’t been as lucky this time and was hurriedly righting his bike right alongside Mogul.
“No,” Cliff muttered. “If only I could tell him somehow…”
Mogul and Gryphon had finally gotten back on their bikes and Gryphon roared off down the trail in pursuit of Alex. Mogul looked like he was all set to follow, but instead of accelerating, he stopped and looked to his right, off into the trees.
“Why’d he stop?” Luge asked, but an answer was quick in coming. Mogul revved up his bike and spun it to face the forest before speeding right into the thick of it.
“YES!!!” Cliff shouted. His teammates might have teased Mogul about it, but he was a lot smarter than most gave him credit for. That is, if rocketing full throttle through dense forest was smart. Regardless, he had come to the same conclusion Cliff had, only a few seconds later.
“What!? He can’t do that!” X cried out.
“That’s-that’s against the rules or something, right!?” Max stammered.
“No, it’s not,” Luge was quite smug about it, “and you just said so yourselves.”
“He must be pretty desperate if he thinks that’s a shortcut. He’ll end up in the hospital or worse,” X replied.
“It is easier to react to the obstacle that is seen than to the one that is hidden,” Raptor said as he pressed his palms together and gave a mock bow.
X was fuming. “You’re still going to loose. No crazy trick is going to prevent it!”
“Right back at ya,” Cliff replied.
Everyone quickly shifted their attention back towards the monitors. It was difficult to tell how Mogul was doing in the standings. Going completely off the trail, he quickly lost the two cameramen on the ground who tried to follow him. The only footage now was from a helicopter high over head and it didn’t give any indication as to how close he was to the finish line. Alex was closing in on it quickly, while it appeared that Gryphon had encountered several more hidden pit-falls. As Mogul passed into some especially thick undergrowth, the helicopter lost him completely and those watching from a distance were forced to wonder what had become of him.
Alex had now made it to the final stretch, which was a long straight path a couple of hundred feet long. At this point, even though he was giving the race every ounce of determination he had, Gryphon was as good as out of the running. Just as Alex was halfway down the straight way, Mogul suddenly came crashing through the bushes alongside the trail and nearly sideswiped a camera jeep out quite a way ahead of Alex. Mogul didn’t even slow down as he got his bike facing the right direction again and gunned the engine.
Back in the monitor pavilion, the gathered groups were screaming at the monitors so loudly that they couldn’t even hear the sound of the motorcycle engines growing ever closer to their position, which also marked the finish of this race. No more insults were being thrown, just cheers of encouragement for their friends out on the field.
Alex was shocked by Mogul’s reappearance to say the least. He instantly gave his own bike as much gas as he could. Mogul’s in turn had suffered terribly in the cross country trip and was losing parts as he sped down the final feet towards the finish line. Alex, with a still working bike, was steadily gaining on him and the race had suddenly become too close to call. With every foot, Mogul’s bike lost more power and slowed ever so slightly. Soon it was barely puttering along and Mogul was visibly frustrated as he tried to squeeze the last bit out of it.
He quickly realized it was a futile attempt and dismounted hurriedly and sprinted on hoof for the finish. Alex was gaining even faster now, but Mogul kept going even with a limp. He had only eyes for the finish and would let nothing stop him from making it. He closed to within forelegs’ length of the ribbon stretched across the line and could hear the thunderous roar of Alex, right behind him. Stretching as far as he could, Mogul dive across the finish line, snatching the fluttering ribbon as he did so.
As he crashed to the ground, with several feet to spare, Alex tore past and skidded to a halt. Both athletes tore off their helmets just in time to hear Vic cry out over the speakers, “And the Extreme Team takes it! Yes, The Extreme Team Wins!!!”
Alex tossed his helmet to the ground and kicked his bike, which caused it to fall over in a crash and him to begin hopping around holding his now bruised hoof. Mogul remained on the ground for a few seconds, but slowly began to pick himself up. He was greeted not only by the masses of cheering crowds, but also by the embrace of his three teammates who had been forced to watch the entire affair from a distance.
“We did it!” Luge cried. “We finally did it!”
“Did you ever have any doubt?” Cliff replied.
“Not with me pullin’ the weight,” Mogul said.
The four of them stood there reveling in the cheers of the crowds, oblivious to any of the details. As they stood there, Jet and Bungee came running over from the jeep that had picked them up at the ends of their legs of the race. Pictures and interviews followed. There was some question over the results of the race due to Mogul completing the last bit on hoof, but that was quickly dismissed after a consultation of the rules proved that what he had done was perfectly legal. In fact, the rules basically went so far as to say that the entire race could be completed on hoof if the participants wanted to. The only restrictions pertained to certain types of vehicles on certain parts of the course; and since they had not violated this, their win stood as valid. The only ones who still insisted otherwise was the X-Crew.
After the fan fare began to quiet down and most of the reporters headed out, the Extreme Team was gathered back at their pavilion, still high from the win.
“Dude! This is awesome! We really won!” Jet exclaimed. “It’s just so wild I still I can’t believe it!”
“Believe it, it doesn’t happen every day,” a cool voice said from their side.
“Mr. Yanus?” Cliff said suspiciously. “What brings you to winners’ square?”
“I’m here to congratulate the winners,” Yanus replied. “It WAS a very exciting win. How did you manage to pull it off?”
“Why are you so concerned about it now?” Cliff asked. He was tired after the day’s excitement and was in no mood to deal with Mr. Yanus while pretending to be civil.
“Oh, come on, up until now your team has been the underdogs in this competition.”
“Yeah, while YOUR team has been getting all the preferential treatment,” Mogul blurted.
“That you would even suggest that I’m playing favorites is preposterous,” Yanus said. He looked genuinely angry, but some other emotion was hidden there just beneath the surface. Was it nervousness? Or maybe fear? “This competition is as fair as I can make it, and I will not tolerate this sort of talk.” With those curt words, he turned and stalked away.
“Hmm, no warnings, no threats?” Luge said. “What do you suppose that means?”
“Whatever it is, I don’t think it can be good…” Cliff said.
In the distance, as Yanus walked away, they could see as X crept out of the shadows and began talking to the young business pony. After a few harsh words which none of the Extreme Team could make out, Yanus silenced X with a few curt but unheard words and a wave of the hoof. X still looked mad enough to check through a skateboard, but he kept his mouth shut. Looking around, he caught sight of Cliff’s team watching him, and flashed them a venomous look before stalking back to his own team.
“No,” Cliff added. “Not good at all.”

Next: “Mission: Possible”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Butch Returns!
by Tabby (TabbyMLP@aol.com)

Sparkler walked up the sidewalk to her house humming cheerfully to herself. It had been a long time since she’d felt so good about her life– not since Butch had jilted her at the altar just over a year ago. It had been quite a shock then to find out that Butch really hadn’t given up his old ways of banditry, but over time Sparkler had picked up the pieces to her life and had started over. Sparkler could even bring herself to wish Butch well, and wonder if he had had success with the old sweetheart he had alluded to in his farewell letter.
But Sparkler’s new, bright outlook on life had also been helped along by a certain stallion. Several weeks ago, her best friend Powder had introduced her to her brother, Talcum. Since then, Sparkler had been seeing a lot of him and believed his intentions were honorable. In fact, she was hurrying home right now in order to prepare for their date that evening.
However, as Sparkler neared her house, she started as she saw there was a figure leaning against the siding next to the door. She couldn’t be sure, but could it be– “Butch?!” she gasped.
“Uh... hey, Sparkler,” the stallion looked up sheepishly from under his cowboy hat.
“What are you doing here?” Sparkler said warily.
“Well, to pay off my debt to you, of course.” With a flourish, Butch presented her with an envelope stuffed full of bills.
Sparkler took it incredulously. “Your debt?”
“I did take off with a lot of your store’s stock when I left,” Butch said nonchalantly. “You didn’t think I was just going to leave you hanging, did you? That envelope there covers the cost of all the gewgaws I took, plus interest.”
“Butch! I’m amazed!” Sparkler said admiringly.
Butch looked hurt. “Did I really seem like that kind of stallion?”
Sparkler refrained from replying. “Well... thanks. It’s very... kind... of you.”
“And if you could put in a good word for me to the police?” Butch put forward hopefully.
“If you promise not to get in any trouble like this again,” Sparkler said sternly. “But this repayment does cause me to look more kindly upon your past behavior. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Gee, thanks, Sparkler!” Butch said gratefully. “That means a lot to me. I mean to set up housekeeping in these parts again and wouldn’t want any of my past indiscretions to harm my family.”
“Your family?” Sparkler echoed.
“Yep,” Butch said proudly. “Me and my girl back in Bolivia finally tied the knot, and I decided to bring her and little Butch, Jr. back to my home here.”
“A baby, too? Congratulations!” Sparkler said warmly, though she had her suspicions as to why exactly Butch had had to vacate Bolivia.
Butch beamed. “And he’s already taking after his old man. Heh, heh.” He abruptly changed the subject when he saw Sparkler’s censorious look. “Er... well, I’d better be gettin’ back to them. You won’t forgot to see the police as soon as you can, right?”
“I’ll try and get it done before I change my mind,” Sparkler said dryly. “So we’ll be seeing you around again.”
“Could be,” Butch said succinctly, pulling his hat down further over his eyes. “Well, thanks again. I knew I could count on you.”
* * *
Meanwhile, back in Butch’s cabin in the Dark Forest, a mare was industriously working to clear out the dust and dirt that had accumulated in a year while humming a lullaby for the benefit of a newborn baby pony ensconced in a makeshift crib.
Suddenly, a knocking was heard on the cabin door. Bolivia was immediately on edge. Who else but Butch would have come here? And Butch would have simply let himself in. Praying her husband hadn’t gotten himself into trouble, she opened the door with trepidation.
Bolivia’s worst fears were confirmed as a police officer stepped forward, flashing his badge. “Ma’am, do you know anything about the whereabouts of a stallion going by the name of Butch?”
“Oh!” the mare gasped in dismay. “You are here for Butch?”
“Yes,” the officer confirmed. “He’s wanted for a robbery. Any information you could give us would be appreciated.”
“But he told me he’d given up all that!” Bolivia wailed, becoming thoroughly distraught.
“Just what relation are you to Butch, ma’am?” the officer queried, while the two lackeys behind him fended off a duck bent on their demise.
“H-his wife,” Bolivia stuttered, grabbing up the baby pony and clasping him to her protectively.
“Well, why don’t you come down to headquarters with us and answer a few questions about your husband.”
* * *
Butch walked down the forest path, whistling merrily. Now that Sparkler’s cooperation was assured, he wouldn’t need to worry about Bolivia being ostracized for what he’d done last year. Hey, maybe tonight he’d take her around town and show her the sights! The Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe was, of course, a must-see. And then the casino, where he could find out if his luck was still holding out. And, heck, maybe he’d even let Bolivia do some shopping for around the house, even if interior decorating really wasn’t his thing.
“Hey, Liv!” Butch hollered upon opening the door after stopping to greet an obnoxiously quacking Quackers. “I got that debt I told you about settled. How about I show you around Dream Valley tonight? Umm... Liv?” Suddenly realizing he didn’t have an audience, he peered into the other two rooms of the small shack. No one there.
Butch went back outside. “Quackers, what’s up here?” he asked his pet duck, puzzled. “Liv and Baby Butch aren’t outside, are they?”
Quackers quacked angrily and with one wing pointed down the path leading towards Dream Valley. Then Butch started noticing a number of fresh hoofprints in the dirt, ones that he hadn’t made.
“The scoundrels,” Butch scowled as he started off after his wife and son.
* * *
Granite was on duty at the front desk, reading over his latest letter from Niobe, when a furious dark blue stallion barged through the front doors.
“Alright, what have you done with my wife and son?” Butch demanded, standing in front of the desk and glaring down at the stallion.
Granite’s eyes bugged out as he realized the identity of this citizen. “B-Butch?” he stuttered. “Oh, man. Chief!”
The chief, who was in fact Tawny, and not the head of the fire department whom he often got confused with, poked his head through a door off the main entrance. “What is it, Granite?” Then he noticed the other stallion at the desk. “Well, well! Just the pony we were looking for, Butch!”
“Tawny!” Butch snapped, seeing the real object of his ire. “What have you done with Liv and Baby Butch?”
“Don’t take that tone with me, buddy,” Tawny said threateningly. “Stridor brought them in earlier for questioning after we got tipped off to some activity back in your cabin.”
“Is it a crime to move back into the area?” Butch said irritably. “Let me see them!”
“Step on in,” Tawny invited dryly. “While you’re reassuring yourself on their safety, allow us to refresh your memory on exactly why you’re in our black books.”
“Oh, man, don’t tell me it’s still that stunt I pulled with casino!” Butch complained. “That was just some harmless fun, and–“
”That was you?” Tawny said in surprise. “Well, anyway, apparently you’ve forgotten the whole incident with Sparkler last year...”
“Butch!” Bolivia, seated with Baby Butch at a table inside the room, cried out. “Thank goodness you’re here! They said you were involved in a robbery!”
“Aw, Liv, they’re blowing it all out of proportion,” Butch said flippantly. “It’s just a loan I took from a friend before coming to win your hoof. Don’t let these guys confuse you with details.”
Tawny took a seat at the head of the table. “All right, Butch, now that you’re here, let’s hear your side of the story.”
A lot of good Sparkler’s done for me, Butch thought sullenly as he launched into his explanation.
* * *
At that moment, a purple-haired blue-bodied unicorn entered the station, looking self-conscious. “Umm...” she approached Granite, “Is Tawny available?”
Recognition dawned on Granite’s face. “Ah, Miss Sparkler! You must be here concerning Butch.”
“Yes, how did you know?” Sparkler asked curiously. “I want to drop charges against him.”
“You want to what?”
“He paid me back,” Sparkler insisted. “I want him off the hook for the robbery of my store last year. Really.”
Granite looked apprehensively at the questioning door room. “Umm... chief...”
* * *
“Butch! What are you doing here?” Sparkler exclaimed upon being admitted into the room.
Butch scowled at her. “You could have acted a little sooner, y’know.”
“What, how was I supposed to know you’d be getting into trouble with the law so soon?” Sparkler snapped. “I wasn’t about to cut short my date–“
”Hey, that’s just not fair, Sparkler! These officers abducted–“
”Now, now, let’s calm down and discuss this like civilized ponies,” Chief Tawny took charge. “What was your purpose in coming here, Sparkler?”
“Butch came by my house earlier,” Sparkler said after taking several deep breaths, “and explained his reasons for taking off with my store’s stock last year. He also paid me back for everything that was taken, so I’d like those charges against him dropped.”
Tawny looked bemused. “That seems to agree with what Butch told me. Are you sure you want to do this, Sparkler?”
Casting a quick glance at Butch, then at Bolivia and Baby Butch, Sparkler nodded her head. “Yes.”
“Well then–“ now Tawny looked at Butch– “unless you want to tell me more about the casino incident, I guess you’re free to go.”
“Gee, thanks!” Butch said. “See, what did I tell you, Liv? These cops always exaggerate things.”
Bolivia still looked nervous. “Gracias,” she said to Tawny. “Thank you.”
Butch grabbed her foreleg and pulled her towards the door before Tawny could change his mind. “Okay, Liv. Now that that’s taken care of, let me take you out on the town and I’ll introduce you to everyone in style! It’s been a pleasure, Tawny, Sparkler.” He quickly whisked his family out back onto the street.
* * *
“So,” Tabby was saying to her companion, Baby Noddins, over ice cream sundaes, “I’m like, wow! And then Ah-Loh looked in the mirror and said, ‘Me scared.’ “
”Furby dress-up sounds like fun,” Noddins replied. “I’ll have to try it with Waylo.”
“Well, look who we have here!” A dark blue hoof slammed another sundae onto the table. “See, Liv, I told you some of my old buddies would be here. Hey, Tabby! Mind if we join you?”
Tabby gaped. “Butch? You’re back?”
“In the flesh,” Butch said proudly.
Baby Noddins’ eyes bugged out. “Cool!”
“And,” Butch said with a flourish, “let me introduce you to my lovely wife, Liv– er, Bolivia, and, of course, Baby Butch.”
Hola,” the mare spoke up shyly, and Noddins eagerly invited her to sit down next to her.
“Greetings,” said Tabby, still a bit stunned. “It’s a... pleasure.”
“Ooh, he looks just like you, Mr. Butch!” Noddins enthused over the newborn baby pony Bolivia held. “Do you have a last name, Bolivia?”
Bolivia had to admit that she did not, but nevertheless Noddins immediately drew her into an involved conversation on the intricacies of pony names. While they were thus occupied, Tabby turned her attention to Butch.
“Tell me everything,” she demanded, always eager for details.
“Everything?” Butch blinked. “Oh, you mean after I left?”
Tabby nodded sagely. “You did leave under rather suspicious circumstances. And then Tex disappeared in December. What’s been up with you two?”
“Why, I didn’t think you cared about Tex, Tabby!” Butch said in surprise.
“I don’t,” Tabby said venomously. “But I’m curious. So tell me! Why’d you rob Sparkler and run off and all?”
“To get money, of course,” Butch said matter-of-factly. “I wanted to keep Bolivia in some measure of comfort after we were married. Besides, I paid Sparkler back. I guess it was a kinda shabby way of treatin’ her, but I couldn’t find any other way to get enough money to go back to Bolivia before Tex did.”
Tabby’s ears perked up. “Ooooh, you mean both you and Tex were in love with her?”
Butch scowled. “Yeah. But Tex hardly knew how to appreciate her. We both promised her we’d be back when we had enough money to support a family. As you can see, that bounder Tex got too caught up in the local mares to give another thought to Bolivia. That was just as well for me, of course,” he concluded.
“How exciting!” Tabby squealed. “But when Tex left Dream Valley last year, he did go to Bolivia, didn’t he?”
“After his current twinkle-eye dumped him, he finally followed me to try and win Bolivia’s favor,” Butch concurred. “But, of course, it was too late... seeing as she’d already married me and all.”
Tabby clapped her hooves gleefully. She always enjoyed hearing of Tex’s misfortunes. “That’s grand! Hey, you’re gonna stay around here now, aren’t you?”
“That’s the plan,” said Butch. “I still got my cabin out in the woods, and that’ll work for us fine. Quackers has kept any intruders away from it during my absence.”
Tabby scowled as she recalled last fall’s incident with Butch’s pet duck. “Yeah, except for the wild party he threw for all the local pets.”
“Did he, now?” Butch said in surprise. “Well, I suppose he got awful lonely out there. I see he’s got a pretty new mate now, though.”
“Yes, she was supplied by a local farmer so Quackers wouldn’t abduct other pony’s pets any more,” Tabby explained. “And she’s a Rouen, just like him, so there aren’t any family feuds to take them apart.”
“Ah, is that what happened with his first girl?”
“Yes. She was a mallard, you know. Her family wasn’t too pleased that she was involved with a Rouen.”
“My, you sure know a lot about animals, Tabby,” Butch said, impressed.
“Speaking of animals, what happened to Tex after he caught up with you?” Tabby said conversationally.
“I haven’t kept track,” Butch shrugged, “but I heard rumors he was spending some time back in his native Texas. Supposedly found another girl to court.”
“Like that means much,” Tabby said cryptically.
“Hey, is that a hint of ill-usage I hear in your voice?”
Smack! came the resounding reply as Tabby walloped him over the head. Butch quickly took back his insinuations.
“So how old is Baby Butch?” Tabby said conversationally as Butch sat nursing the new wound on his head.
“Oh... ‘bout two weeks or so,” Butch conceded. “Born halfway between here and Bolivia.”
“It can sound very strange talking about two different Bolivias at the same time,” Tabby commented. “Hey, why don’t you and Bolivia stop by for dinner some night?”
“With your cooking? No, thanks,” Butch put up his hooves in defense.
Tabby glared at him. “I have gotten better, you know. I’ll have you know that even without Elaine to help me, I was able to put an entire meal on the table for Mom and Dad. And they actually ate it!”
“Well, you’ve made me curious. This I have got to see. An edible meal made by Tabby, who would have thought!” Butch shook his head and slowly inched away as Tabby started glaring at him again. “Alright, we’ll take you up on that offer sometime. See ya around, girls.” Tipping his hat to Tabby and Noddins, Butch took his leave along with Bolivia and Baby Butch.
“This is so cool!” Baby Noddins enthused after they were gone. “I’ve got to go and tell Baby Falling Leaves.”
“I don’t have anybody to tell,” Tabby pouted. “Sugarberry and Vanguard are off in Vulcanopolis, and Tiffany doesn’t care about gossip anymore... well, I suppose she might be interested to hear about Baby Butch... the new Tiffany will probably immediately send over some aid... plus there’s Tamara too, I keep forgetting she’s back in Dream Valley now with little Hugh... Clever Clover and the guys might be interested, too...” She grinned at Baby Noddins. “You’re right. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Chapter #10:
Back to Bright Eyes
by Melody (markp@gil.com.au)

At the Ice Cream Shoppe, the girls took their places at their favorite booth and ordered toasted sandwiches. Bright Eyes’ eyes sparkled with pleasure. “Bright Eyes looks happy,” whispered Starlight to her friends. It was completely true.
Starlight’s mother carried their tray of toasted sandwiches and milkshakes over to the table. “Enjoy your lunch, girls,” she said before hurrying over to another pony.
The girls had a lot to talk about. “So, Bright Eyes. What are you planning for tomorrow?” asked Sweetheart.
Bright Eyes sighed. “Training Amber, making a poster, working on my report, homework, cleaning up Ponyland…”
“Whoa! Exactly how do you plan to do all that in one day, let alone watch some TV?” asked Patch.
Bright Eyes looked up from her toast and felt a sharp pain in her stomach. Something had dawned on her. “You know what, Patch? You’re right,” she said. The girls were startled. “I’ve figured it out at last,” she said.
“What?” asked Melody.
“I’ve been doing way too much lately, and I haven’t spent enough time with what really counts– my friends,” began Bright Eyes.
“What are you going to do about it?” asked Bon Bon.
“You know I love to study. I still want to spend time doing homework and reports. I love Amber, so I’ll try and train her up a bit. I’m going to go to Clean Up Ponyland twice a week. But I’m going to stop going to those lunchtime environmental meetings. And I’m giving up the market idea all together,” finished Bright Eyes.
In awe, her friends looked at her. Bright Eyes just smiled and took a bite out of her sandwich. No pony said a word. “So, who wants to go play in the snow?” asked Bright Eyes brightly.
Not believing a single word, the other girls stood up. Starlight was first to speak. “Are you sure?” she asked.
“Positive!” beamed Bright Eyes. Cheering, the group ran outside and hugged. They raced each other to the park and began rolling snowballs.
Splat! A big snowball landed on Bright Eyes’ back. “Huh?” she said, looking surprised. Patch burst out laughing and soon all the girls were involved in a snowball fight and were laughing until their sides hurt.
* * *
“And so the flag of Ponyland was proudly raised against the dark night sky dotted with stars, and Ponyland became a country. So from that day long ago until now, Ponyland has always been a safe, peaceful, and happy place,” Bright Eyes finished her report and looked over the class, who were clapping politely. She was proud of herself as she sat down at her desk.
That night, after her homework was finished, Bright Eyes and Classy sat down in front of the TV together. Classy grabbed the remote. “Hey!” shrieked Bright Eyes, wrestling her father.
“Hey what?” he shouted as he switched the channels. They settled down for their favorite show, and Amber even leapt up to lie on Bright Eyes’ lap. The theme song for ‘Pony Quest’ came on, and Amber nestled up against Bright Eyes. Bright Eyes stroked Amber’s fur and looked fondly down at the cat.
When it was bedtime, Bright Eyes snuggled down into her blankets and closed her eyes, ready to dream of cats, her friends, snow, and Lancer. The next morning Bright Eyes bounded off to school. She met her friends and together they walked to the classroom.
Miss Hackney had the results for their reports! It was torture waiting for the teacher to hand out her paper! Suddenly, the paper was placed in front of her. “Congratulations, Bright Eyes,” smiled Miss Hackney. A big red A+ was written at the top of the report.
Bright Eyes was so happy that she felt she could jump a metre high, but all she managed to say was, “Thanks!”
After school that day, she met Lancer in the Ice Cream Shoppe. It was a date! They shared a strawberry milkshake, which turned out to be both ponies’ favorite flavor, and chatted about the day. “Congratulations on you’re a plus,” said Lancer.
Bright Eyes blushed shyly. “Thank you,” she smiled.
When she arrived home, Bright Eyes found Classy reading the newspaper. In unison, Bright Eyes and Classy said, “Great news!”
“Yours first,” urged Bright Eyes.
Classy showed her the front page of the newspaper. At the bottom of the article on the new Music Centre (Melody will be thrilled! thought Bright Eyes) was Classy’s name. Bright Eyes hugged her dad and told him about the A plus. Classy beamed as he looked down at Bright Eyes and said, “Congratulations, Bright Eyes. You deserved it.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The Bigfoot Hunter
Rockdogs: Part 2
by Tabby (TabbyMLP@aol.com)

“Mitzi! Haiku!” Cazador shouted into the abyss those two had so recently disappeared into. There was no answer except for a slight echo.
“We get to go in after them, right?” Asta said eagerly, already holding rope and other climbing necessities
“You’ll get the rescue on tape, won’t you?” Cazador asked, turning to Psyche, the camera-girl.
“Naturally,” came the affirmative.
“All right! Then let’s go find ‘em, girls!” Cazador said eagerly, leaping over the edge to continue his adventure.
“Hmm,” Asta said, watching the end of a rope disappear with him, too. “He forgot to secure his line to anything.”
“Oh dear,” said Psyche. “Well, let’s go after him.”
* * *
“I do believe we’re quite lost, Haiku!” Mitzi observed as she and her friend strolled through belowground passageways with no entrances to the outside in sight.
“Very observant,” Haiku said dryly.
“Hey, look at that!” Mitzi caught sight of something bright and glittery on the ground and ran to investigate. “Check this out!” She held up a red heart-shaped jewel about half a foot across.
“I wonder how that got here,” Haiku frowned. “It might be connected with that voice we heard earlier.”
“And the earthquakes! Don’t forget the earthquakes!”
“Well, yes. It is due to them that we’re lost within this mountain range.”
“Don’t you think this would look good as a necklace?” Mitzi interrupted, holding the jewel up to her neck.
“Too gaudy,” Haiku dismissed the idea. “Put it back where you found it.”
“Awww...”
“No, you can’t keep it. Besides, something strange is going on in this mountain, and I think it’s best if we don’t disturb anything.”
“Do you suppose it’s the mountain spirit Cazador was talking about?” Mitzi said conversationally.
“Anything’s possible, I suppose,” Haiku condescended. “There could be a rational explanation, however. Whatever it is, I mean to get to the bottom of it!”
“I didn’t know you could be so determined!” Mitzi said in awe, scurrying to catch up with Haiku.
“I wonder how the others are doing up above with the rockdogs,” Haiku wondered.
“I’m sure they’re fine. Cazador’ll be coming to our rescue soon,” Mitzi said cheerfully. “Ooh! Look at that cool rock formation,” Mitzi suddenly exclaimed as they passed a pedestal-shaped rock. “Hey, wouldn’t the heart-jewel-thingy look good on there?”
“Hmm, interesting. But it couldn’t have been created naturally,” Haiku considered the pedestal with a basin at the top molded out of rock. “How long ago were it and the jewel made... and by whom?” Suddenly she realized she no longer had an audience. “Mitzi! What are you doing?”
Mitzi reappeared with the jewel. “I was just going to set it on the stand. Maybe somebody lost it. It’ll show up better there if they look for it.” Before she could do anything, however, the ground started to shake again, the same shaking that had sent her and Haiku into the bowels of the earth!
“Thieves!! Give me back my heart stone!” a voice boomed from out of nowhere.
The girls whirled around, looking for the source of the voice. “Who are you?” Haiku shouted back.
“I’ll destroy you!!” Whoever it was was not in a mood for discussions. The ground shook with more power. Mitzi lost her balance and the jewel went skidding across the ground.
“That wasn’t very nice!” she said angrily. “Is it that jewel-thingy you’re after? I didn’t even know it was yours, and how could I give it back if I don’t know where you are?”
“Fool! Of course it’s mine! Put it on that pedestal!”
Mitzi naturally took umbrage at his tone of voice and grumbled as she went forward and retrieved the heart stone and then placed it in the basin atop the pedestal. “There! Will you stop insulting us now?”
“Mitzi,” Haiku whispered, “let’s not try to irritate him any more.”
The voice, after the heart stone was in place, seemed to become more calm and collected. “I apologize for my earlier outburst,” it rumbled. “My heart stone was knocked askew some time ago and whenever that happens... well...”
“You could get a sturdier place to set it,” Mitzi said helpfully.
“However,” the voice went on, “you and your companions were irritating my rockdogs, and I demand an explanation.”
“We’re with Cazador, the Bigfoot Hunter. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?” Haiku put forward tentatively, and regretted mentioning the ‘hunter’ part as slight tremors ran through the ground. “No-no-no, he doesn’t hunt things in that way. Just on film. That’s why were we were here. We’re just documenting Ponyland’s more-elusive inhabitants.”
“And anyway,” Mitzi interrupted, “you’re the one that made us fall into that cave in the first place! We’d probably be out of here already if it hadn’t been for your interference.” Mitzi glared at the heart stone, the only solid thing she could find to glare at in lieu of the elusive voice.
* * *
Meanwhile, the other three had been wandering through the caverns themselves with no luck finding any sign of their friends. Currently they were following the course of an underwater stream. “Awesome! Ghost fish!” Asta said enthusiastically, pointing into the water.
“Really?” Cazador perked up his ears. “Hey, let’s stop and try to catch one. It can be a supplement for this episode on TV.” Expertly, Cazador extracted one of the nearly transparent fish from the water and held it up to the camera. “These fish spend their entire lives underground with no exposure at all to sunlight. As a result, they’re, like, totally blind! Or something like that. Observe their creepy, transparent scales!”
But the fish, at that moment, began flopping around. In an effort to keep it in his grasp, Cazador tripped over a rock and fell into the icy stream.
“Oh, that’s good,” Asta said appreciatively, offering her hoof to help him off. “That’ll really boost our ratings.”
“Yeah,” Cazador muttered, refusing further comment. “Okay, let’s find Mitzi and Haiku.”
* * *
A short while later, Cazador, Asta, and Psyche turned off into another tunnel from which they had been hearing strange noises. Lo and behold, there were their missing friends, Haiku and Mitzi!
Mitzi turned around as she realized her friends had caught up with them. “Oh, hi guys! We were just having a chat with the mountain spirit dude. What took you so long?”
“You were what?” Psyche gasped.
“It would seem,” said Haiku pensively, “that there’s some truth to the legend after all.”
“He was just in a bad mood because his heart was misplaced. But we fixed that,” Mitzi said happily. “Hey, are we done with the rockdogs yet?”
“I guess, but how about checking out this spirit dude before leaving?” Cazador suggested.
“Mr. Mountain Spirit Dude! Are you still there?” Mitzi hollered. There was no answer.
Haiku frowned. “Strange.”
“And he was here just a minute ago. How rude.” Mitzi stomped her hoof.
“I’d say it was just your imagination running away with you,” Cazador said authoritatively, quickly changing his tune. “Like who would believe in a stuffy old mountain spirit, anyway?”
“I heard that, young stallion!” came a booming voice. The mountain spirit was back.
“Ahh!” Cazador jumped back at the noise. “Oh, I mean, um... hi.”
“You’ll be happy to hear that I just cleared a path for you to the outside, and the rockdogs won’t bother you on your way out. Now I’d suggest leaving before you set me off again,” Mr. Mountain Spirit boomed in a voice that brooked no argument.
“Oh, I could have gotten past them myself, no problem,” Cazador said confidently. “They’re no match for–“
”That’s enough of your insolence! Just get out of here and leave me in peace!” The ground started rumbling threateningly again.
“...but thanks anyway, that’s what I meant. Heh-heh,” Cazador laughed nervously. “Okay, girls, time to leave!”
“Bye-bye, Mr. Mountain Spirit!” Mitzi waved before following the others outside.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Welcome to Ponyland
Part 2
by Skye (SkyeSpirit@aol.com)

Author’s Notes: Sorry for the delay last month. Moving and other unexpected events occupied my time.

Ponies Featured: Same as last time.
Rating: Family and Children Safe

The exhausted pony, only minutes earlier bursting with energy, fell victim to the freezing water. Fighting for as long as she could, she slipped into complacency and sunk beneath the ripping water. Her purple hair floated along the water’s edge before following its bearer below.
Witnesses to her fall were gathered on the steep embankment out of reach of the little pony. They watched as she sank to the bottom of the river, screaming encouragement for her not to give up.
The commotion alerted the trees of the current situation. The wind furiously swirled above the surface, unintentionally impeding birds who tried to dip their short legs in the water and reach for her long hair just under the surface. They were thoughtful in their efforts to help her, but would not have been able to do much good. She was taken too quickly out of their reach.
A small group of ducks dove into the water and followed her below. They tried along with several pods of fish and frogs to push the animal back to the life-giving air. Unfortunately, her own weight worked against her and she remained at the bottom of the river.
The commotion was too much and the Great Oak living in a far side of the Grove shifted its roots. It remained quiet. The pony’s lungs, now on fire, pushed off the river bottom, lifting from the water for only a single moment, just long enough to take a small breathe before returning back under. Birds, quick as lightning, flew in, grabbing locks of her hair. They tried to hold her afloat but she pulled them down. They released their hold of her. They had to or be sucked down with her, ensuring their own deaths.
This rise of possible hope for the pony caused another great commotion from the trees and animals. The Great Oak stirred again, and this time it spoke. Calling aloud its demand to be heard, everything fell to silence. Even the water seemed to make no sound while it spoke.
The Ancient Apple tree upon the hill, who was often thought of as the oldest and wisest tree in the land, obeyed and listened to the oak. None that lived including itself ever heard the Old Oak speak. It listened as it called to the water demanding it to push the pony to the shallow embankment near the waterfall.
The water responded; obeying the wise tree, it pushed the pony through the liquid. Surprised the water was lighter now than at its surface, the little pony struggled toward the sandy bank before her and leapt for her life. She struggled the short distance to the dry, grassy embankment. Creatures at home in the water pushed while the birds and wind pulled and directed her landing. She was almost unconscious as she finally touched the firm ground and collapsed.
She lay gasping for her breath, making no effort to flea or struggle as she felt many bodies around her, touching her. The sounds that came from the creatures were unfamiliar and confusing but she was too tired to care. Nothing could be worse than the freezing cold water and lack of fresh air within it. The pony was afraid to be sent back into it so she remained still and eventually fell into a deep sleep.
* * *
With the pony safe, many of the animals left her and the area tending to their own daily chores. The trees died down and the Old Oak rooted itself again, falling back into its centuries long sleep it had been disturbed from. The apple tree atop the hill thanked the Old Oak for its wisdom and left it to its rest. It rustled its branches, honoring its elder; and the wind, seeing the moving leaves, played among them as if it were a game.
Birds retreated from the wet pony back to the castle where the others remained. They gathered back along the window sills and unoccupied ceiling beams. The green pony, still closest to the window, kicked out and bit at them. Her head was fowled and so was her temper. She stomped and threatened to charge.
The pink pony attempted to retreat, but bloodied knees would not hear of it. She could not rise from the ground and so there she remained, trying to be still and quiet so as to not disturb the green whom she was closest to.
The squirrels reentered the castle’s stony embrace. They traveled swiftly over beam and board, chasing birds from their places as they watched from above. A Swan flew in, scanning the scene below before flying straight at the green who was now rearing at the injured pink. Startled, the green bolted away and backed into a corner. The pink was now safe. The Swan flew out and disappeared from sight as quickly as she had appeared only seconds earlier.
Moments later, the large bird was replaced by a black Raven who also seemed interested in the state of affairs within the castle. It easily entered and investigated the situation. It cawed as its attention fell from the ponies and onto the chittering laughter of chipmunks. They watched directly below them from the mantle of the fireplace while the golden haired pony continued to struggle with the rug.
The area was too dark for the bird’s eyes. It didn’t like the annoying noises the small rodents were making and wanted to know why they were acting up. It flew to the window, snagging a cord which had held shut the window shade. Now it rolled at the top, startling a group of perched chickadees that fled from the castle as the sound was made. Light filled the remainder of the room, and all animals present watched the strangers.
The Swan returned and remounted a column. It watched with the others as the ponies stood alone, stomping and neighing at each other. Even the pink, who foundered earlier, joined in and began biting at and showing teeth to the others. The Raven’s gaze was intense as it waited to see what would happen next.
Suddenly the golden one was free of the rug and bolted toward the light. She dodged away from the green who was now standing to the right of the gate and almost fell off the left side. The birds were quick this time with warning, as was a raccoon who hissed and scowled for her to keep away from the water. She avoided the edge with their help and made it across the bridge without incident. The mint whinnied and began to gallop also across the bridge.
The golden kicked as green caught up, so she took to the left, running alongside the river. The green continued straight and up toward the hill. She had been watching the tree earlier and its swaying branches. She was curious and now decided to investigate, wanting to discover what it was. Grass waved to her as she flew past; its smell attracted her but she continued onward.
* * *
The deep purple pony kicked and screamed, her pink tail swishing back and forth with impatience and intolerance. Her head was becoming unclouded from the impact earlier; she now watched as the lavender paced in circles near the gate, debating on whether or not to venture outside. She couldn’t make up her mind if it was safe or not, having witnessed the other fall from the side and the two others that could no longer be seen. She continued to pace, waiting to see what the others would do.
The Raven was on the move again, this time causing mischief. It dove at the lavender, who screamed and kicked out with her back legs high into the air before charging across the bridge. Her hooves felt weird on the rattling metal and she stopped halfway across it. She became spooked and made several circles before finally charging back into the castle. The purple charged at her and they fought, kicking and screaming at each other. The pink tried to move out of the way but collapsed again upon her knees. She, too, screamed... but from pain, not anger.
The two separated and turned upon the pink. She rolled on her back and kicked the darker of the two ponies in the chest with her hind legs. The lighter of the two spooked at the sound of the thud and bolted across the gate again. This time she continued to run and made it across the bridge leaping the final distance.
The purple was furious and attacked the pink again. The Raven watched, circling above her head, but the Swan intervened. The Swan flew in, flapping powerful white wings in the pony’s face. The impact hurt, but it would not relent. The purple was made to flee from the attacking bird. The large bird chased them away from the castle and across the field that lay below the hill. Satisfied, it returned to observe the pink that remained in the castle.
The earth now wept. The new guests were uncontrollable and dangerous; they lashed out at each other and at anyone trying to help them. The trees told the animals to stay away from them, and the wind and water grew quiet and watched. Many of the animals of the fields and forests could not stay near the ponies any longer. They needed to eat, to drink, to sleep, or to take care of their young. They headed back to their homes, hearts filled with sorrow.
The trees, so eager at the newcomers’ arrival, agreed with the earth’s opinion. They too wept, all except the Ancient Apple who sat quietly watching atop the hill. It would wait before making a decision. It would wait and see what would happen. After all, time for a tree was not long at all. It could wait. After all, it had waited for their arrival. It could wait a little longer to discover what was in their hearts.
Many creatures in the land observed the ponies and wondered what thoughts they carried in their minds and what emotions they might discover lay in their hearts. Both elements and physical creatures had wished for protectors of the peaceful land. They had not expected their wishes to come true, but when the Enchanted Castle appeared they knew something was on the way.
The Ancient Apple had prophesied their coming, and all were eager to meet the new champions. Little did they expect the protectors to be so beautiful yet so dangerous and terrible at the same time. Now other creatures of the world watched the newcomers with interest as well. They watched because they would soon determine their future existence. The ponies would be tested and judged. Their results, if unfavorable, could mean the loss of their very lives.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Anniversary Adventure
by Sugarberry and Tabby (Sugrbery@aol.com and TabbyMLP@aol.com)

“Prisca! Donato! How wonderful to see you again!” Sugarberry cooed as she hugged the two caretakers of Giorgio, Sr.’s country home near Vulcanopolis at which she and Vanguard had spent their honeymoon two years earlier and which had again been opened to them to celebrate their second anniversary and to attend the forthcoming wedding of Nello and Mooncurl.
“My, you look as pretty as ever!” Prisca returned, studying the strawberry-patterned pony. “Motherhood has agreed with you.” Her eyes encompassed Vanguard and Banderol and her smile widened. “What a darling foal! And just like his papa.” She lost no time in scooping the foal from his father’s forelegs. “What a handsome bambino!”
Flashing a wink at her husband, Sugarberry agreed with the housekeeper’s assessment. “I think so myself.” She then looked to Donato to compliment him on the appearance of the lawns and the flowers while Vanguard informed Prisca of the rather bumpy flight that had caused Sugarberry some tense moments and Banderol some disrupted sleep.
Prisca soon had her charges seated at the cozy breakfast table with caffe and pasta sfoglia and a loaded bowl of frutta. Allowing time for the travelers to sate their appetites, Prisca then launched into a detailed account of the steps she had already taken to arrange the modest gathering of friends that Sugarberry had requested of her in previous correspondence. It was Sugarberry’s desire to cook and serve a meal for the Guardini family who had been so kind to her and Vanguard; and Prisca had entered the project with enthusiasm, delighted to act as Sugarberry’s helper for the food preparation, the menu having been built around those dishes that Sugarberry’s own mother had passed on to her.
While the mares prattled on with the details of shopping and organizing the planned dinner party, Vanguard escaped to the veranda with Banderol, introducing him to the many colorful blooms that cascaded from heavy, carved stone planters that graced the setting. Banderol squealed in delight as a fluttering blue butterfly danced around him, and he stared in fascination as the Lepidoptera landed on the tip of his nose for a whimsical moment.
Coming to join her husband and son, Sugarberry surveyed the sun-flooded surroundings with pleasure but was unable to stifle a shiver that ran through her body as she recollected the evening two years ago when she had been abducted from this very location by Giorgio’s nemesis, Zaverio. Noting the frisson that shook his wife, Vanguard hugged the mare to him and Banderol.
“Is it going to be too hard for you to stay here, my love?” he asked.
“We’ve discussed it and decided I should meet the memories head on,” Sugarberry sighed. Her eyes sought Vanguard’s. “I can’t deny, however, that being in the same spot now weakens my resolve tremendously.”
Cringing to see the haunted look in Sugarberry’s eyes, Vanguard could only guess at the terror she had felt when Zaverio had grabbed her in the pitch black night and forced her to accompany him to the distant and dirty stable where he planned to hold her for ransom. Vanguard’s panic at losing her had been profound, but he had the advantage of knowing that he was on her trail and would stop at nothing to rescue her.
“Keep in mind that Zaverio has turned over a new leaf; everyone says that he has become a model lawyer for the city now that he’s back at work.”
“Being told is one thing; believing that a pony can change so drastically is another.”
“I won’t let you out of my sight,” Vanguard promised.”
The mare grinned. “That could prove awkward... in certain circumstances.”
“Within reason, then,” he parried, content to see that her depression had lifted. He glanced at Banderol whose head was nodding and made a suggestion. “Why don’t we turn Banderol over to Prisca while we take a walk.” The idea of keeping an eye on his lovely wife suddenly seemed the perfect way to spend the rest of the afternoon. He had in mind a quiet little glen nearby where they could sit and talk for hours without interruption.
Noting the tender expression in the lavender eyes that held her blue ones, Sugarberry capitulated without another thought. “I’m sure Prisca would love to watch our little darling,” she acquiesced, her smile revealing all for which Vanguard could hope.
* * *
The first full day of Sugarberry and Vanguard’s anniversary vacation in Vulcanopolis had been spent wandering the city, renewing their acquaintance with the sights and sounds and tastes that were so distinctly different from those of Dream Valley. Banderol seemed to notice that the environment held none of the familiar vistas of his hometown, and the baby pony’s attention was held fast by the color and motion around him.
“That must be the new convention center that Clare was so excited about,” Vanguard said, pointing to an architectural fantasy that gleamed in the sunshine.
“The landscaping is magnificent,” offered Sugarberry, her love of flowers drawing her attention away from the building itself. The lanes bordered with orderly rows of well-tended plants with brilliant blossoms exerted a strong pull, and the family succumbed to the pleasure of meandering the walkways. By the time they had seen all there was to see, Banderol was adamant in his desire for food; and Vanguard escorted them to an outdoor café that basked in the pleasant summer sunshine.
Sugarberry sighed with delight. “This has been the most relaxing day!”
“You’re not homesick yet?” Vanguard teased, remembering his wife’s last backward glance at their home when they had begun their journey the previous day.
“Well, not precisely,” the mare procrastinated, a twinkle in her eyes. “Wherever you and Banderol are is home.” She patted her husband’s hoof. “However, I have this recurring impression that Wishbone’s attention will not be quite as fixed on the needs of the garden as I would like.”
“Just because he can’t tell the difference between the vegetables and the weeds?”
Sugarberry giggled. “I’ve noticed that the ones he likes, like sweet corn, have a higher success rate under his care than the ones he doesn’t... like spinach.”
“In this particular case, I’m with Wishbone,” Vanguard grinned. Then, catching sight of a stallion he had worked with as an exchange teacher at Leonardo University, Vanguard invited him to meet his family and join them for lunch, and the ponies settled down to a spirited exchange of life happenings while Banderol yawned gustily and fell asleep in his mother’s forelegs.
* * *
The following morning, Sugarberry, Banderol, and Prisca, accompanied by Vanguard and Donato, visited the market to inspect the foodstuffs and choose the freshest and tastiest ingredients for the dinner party to be held that evening. In charge of the menu, Sugarberry had final say in all the choices, but she listened to Prisca’s wise counsel and allowed herself to be swayed in several instances by the native mare’s experience of local produce and the vendors who sold it.
Loaded down with fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and wine, the ponies were finally able to remove themselves from the exciting atmosphere of the marketplace and return to the country house that was home for the coming week. After a quick lunch, Vanguard left his wife and son in the care of Prisca and Donato while he went to the Leonardo campus to renew professional contacts with the professors with whom he had once worked while Sugarberry buckled down to the task of preparing desserts for the meal and then later tackling the salad, bread, and main course recipes.
The day was not so hectic, however, that she was not unable to spend some time with Banderol on the sun-soaked veranda while Prisca sat with her needlework. On this bright day with her time filled with pleasurable activities, Sugarberry found that she could face with equanimity the ignoble memory of the pain Zaverio had caused her and Vanguard. The peacefulness of the setting and the warmth and fragrant smell of the air around her served as a balm to set to rest any reservations she had felt about the hospitality of this place; as she thought back to the friendliness of the market sellers, she realized that surely a pony like Zaverio could not be immune to the therapeutic nature of this environment; and she felt a renewed respect for Giorgio’s and his father’s attempts to bring the errant stallion back into the fold.
This happy mood was disturbed, however, when Prisca heard the telephone ringing and rose to answer it; Sugarberry, suddenly skittish, was unable to bear the thought of being alone on this patio and, gathering up Banderol and his toys, she followed the mare into the house.
* * *
The first guests to arrive that evening were Giles and Iveta with their nearly two-year old foal, Jacopo. Having been Vanguard’s next-door neighbors during his tenure in Vulcanopolis, they had remained in close correspondence.
“My, how he’s grown!” Sugarberry remarked over the development of the colt which she had not seen for some time. “Do they really grow up so fast?” She frowned, thinking ahead to the day Banderol would no longer look on her as the center of his world.
Iveta only laughed. “Do you know how many diapers I’ve changed and bottles I’ve warmed in the last two years, not to mention the lost sleep and the teething battles?”
“And,” Giles grinned proudly, “the fact is that he will be joined by a brother or sister before the end of the year.”
“How wonderful!” trilled Sugarberry, drawing the family into the comfortable parlor where Vanguard was watching Banderol. The stallion greeted his former neighbors with genuine pleasure, after which Donato escorted two more couples into the room.
The new arrivals were Hydrangea and Pacificus with their son, Dante, along with close friends of theirs who had also befriended Vanguard and now Sugarberry, Eugenia and Federigo. The room was filled with the clamor of the happy reunion as questions were asked and answered.
Eugenia chuckled over the sight of the three foals. “My, we have quite a nursery forming.”
“I hope there’s room for one more,” came a voice from the entry as the Guardinis arrived– Clare, Giorgio, and Calla, along with Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica. Following in their wake were Alda and Emma, the families’ respective maids serving the two households; those mares had been more than happy to be put in charge of the youngest members of the group who would be fed in the kitchen and relegated to temporary beds as the evening advanced.
For the time being, however, the foals were appropriately fussed over and admired; everyone admitted that they made an impressive showing: Calla, soft springtime yellow with lavender mane; Banderol, his father’s country blue coloring topped with seafoam green mane with his one individual streak of his mother’s red hair; Dante, cinder grey with carnelian mane and tail; and Jacopo, mint green with apricot highlights.
Although Sugarberry had been responsible for the preparation of the meal, Donato and Prisca did the serving; all the guests were impressed with the way their local foodstuffs had been given a new interpretation by their incorporation into the family recipes Sugarberry had chosen to present to them. Due acknowledgment was given to the helping hooves of Prisca, who flushed shyly as Sugarberry heaped her praise upon the mare who had aided and abetted her kitchen efforts.
As it so often happened in the favorable climate of Vulcanopolis, the gathering gravitated to the veranda to enjoy the mild temperature and the glorious floral displays that Donato so tenderly cultivated. The foals joined their parents so that they, too, could make the most of the pleasant evening until sleepy yawns and nodding heads overcame their gregarious natures; Sugarberry carried Banderol to his bed with Jacopo toddling at her side while Alda and Emma took charge of Calla and Dante.
After seeing her son and the other foals peacefully settled, Sugarberry returned to the company of her guests only to stop short as she stepped onto the veranda. Lights had been put into use as the evening dusk fell, but shadows curtained the edges of the flagstones. Conversation had ceased as all the ponies looked toward the ornate wrought-iron gate that fed onto the paths through the floral garden that swept down to meet the manicured lawn and then to merge with the pasture and wild country behind the noble house.
In the silence, the clicking of the gate’s latch seemed to echo in Sugarberry’s ears, bringing back to her the intense fear and isolation that metallic sound had signified to her the night when Zaverio had dragged her from this veranda as a hostage to use in his revenge against Giorgio. The closing of the gate behind them had cut her off from the love and protection of Vanguard, and hearing it now caused her to experience that anguish once more. With pain-filled eyes, she searched out what new dread this unexpected arrival brought.
The unknown pony advanced only a step or two onto the veranda before lifting a mandolin that he carried and began to play a lilting melody that immediately diffused the tenseness of the moment. Vanguard, who had come to his wife’s side when he noticed her trepidation, smiled at her as he offered his hoof and escorted her to an available seat on one of the cozily grouped benches and had the satisfaction of seeing the haunted look in her eyes disappear to be replaced with one of pleased curiosity about the newcomer.
The sunflower yellow stallion continued to play his music as he moved among the ponies who were affording him their full attention as the melody he played was beautiful in its simplicity. Only when he had struck the last chord and had bowed to his audience did his identity become known. It was Hydrangea who revealed the answer as she jumped to her hooves and greeted the musician.
“Solidago! Now I know why you were so curious about our plans tonight!” Turning from the stallion to face her friends, Hydrangea continued. “For those of you who don’t know, this is my brother, Solidago. He imagines himself to be a wandering minstrel misplaced in today’s society. His family tends to humor him.” She gave her brother a sisterly kiss on his cheek.
Solidago took the less than flattering introduction in his stride and smiled winningly at the ponies around him. “I hope you don’t mind my uninvited arrival, but it’s my way of drumming up support for a group in which my friends and I perform. May I ask for your permission to entertain you?”
Receiving a flurry of positive responses, Solidago began a dirge-like tune that brought a somber atmosphere over the swiftly falling nighttime, yet the melodious notes could not cause sadness. Solidago followed that with another livelier number that he accompanied by a fine singing voice, a delightfully blithe verse that paid heady compliments to the beauty of the females in attendance, causing their eyes to sparkle with glee.
“What an enchanting entertainment!” Enrica enthused as Solidago ended his song and bowed once more. “Hydrangea, you never told me your brother was so talented.”
Hydrangea was Enrica’s daughter; but by a strange twist of fate at Hydrangea’s birth, the mare had been given in adoption to the family of Bertramino and Stella Calandra, growing up with a younger brother, Solidago, and an older sister, Primula. It was only several years earlier that Hydrangea accidently uncovered the information that led her to the discovery that Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica were her birth parents and Giorgio her blood brother. Her world had instantly expanded to include two sets of parents and an additional sibling.
Standing self-consciously in the limelight, Solidago colored under the praise while Hydrangea explained. “He and his friends spend a great deal of their time at the house practicing their music; and they honor the Pizzeria Sicily with their genius every Thursday evening.” Hydrangea grinned proudly, unashamed to put in the plug not only for her brother’s minstrel show but also for her sister’s pizzeria where Hydrangea herself also worked on the books.
“When word of this gets out, you’ll be forced to turn away customers,” predicted Federigo.
“I know where we’ll be eating next Thursday,” agreed Giles.
Pleased with this unexpected addition to her gathering, Sugarberry invited Solidago to sit with them and saw to it that he had a lavish helping of the dessert she had made. She grinned at Hydrangea.
“This is a far cry from the days you lived in Dream Valley and worked at the Café Carousel.”
“Oh, my,” Hydrangea rolled her eyes. “Can you imagine that I thought my future lay as far away from Vulcanopolis as I could get?” She looked at her husband with shining eyes. “And all along, it was waiting for me right here.”
“By the way, Flower Bouquet sends her love. She said to mention that there is an opening at the café, if you’re interested.”
“There you go, Hydie,” Solidago teased. “You can tell Prim that you’ve received a better offer, and she’ll have to raise your pay.”
“The commute would be insurmountable,” Pacificus intoned pragmatically, failing to find any humor in their lighthearted banter.
“It doesn’t stop Guido,” remarked Giorgio. “He’s off to a new vista every day, or so it seems... if not for Macrohard, then for one of his charities.”
“I did invite him to our dinner tonight,” Sugarberry confessed. “But as you say, he was already committed to some distant destination. I must confess that I was eager to hear what he thinks of Tiffany’s beneficence of late.”
“It is true, then, that the princess has expanded her horizons?” queried Enrica, herself an avid promoter of a number of charitable causes.
“Quite dramatically so,” chuckled Vanguard. “It goes to show what falling in love can do for a pony.”
“Oh? How’s that?” asked Enrica’s husband.
Sugarberry explained. “What nudged Tiffany into seeing that she could use her regal position to help others was her dramatic introduction to a tiny foal born, surprisingly, at the Royal Paradise.” Sugarberry went on to detail the events of Tiffany’s transformation, ending with, “So it was love at first sight for Tiffany and the newborn foal. Little Mesquite opened Tiffany’s eyes to the fact that not everyone had such an easy life as she was living.”
“I interviewed the princess for the newspaper when she and Guido were engaged,” said Eugenia. “Her priority at that time was organizing the grandest wedding possible.”
“And all to no avail,” sighed Sugarberry. “It was a shock to everyone when the two called off the wedding at the eleventh hour.”
“Now look at the two of them,” mused Enrica. “Both of them seem to be better for the experience. I wonder...” She cut off her reflection with a shake of her head.
“At least Nello and Mooncurl will have a happy ending to their courtship,” sighed Clare, thinking ahead to the wedding just two days away.
Solidago, as if bored by the conversation of ponies out of his immediate circle, rose to his hooves. “I want to thank everyone for their kind reception of my entertainment this evening, but I think I should be going now.” He turned to Sugarberry. “The pie was delicious; maybe you could give Hydie your recipe,” he said with a wink.
The decampment of the young stallion started a trend as first Giles and Iveta retrieved their foal and headed home, followed by Eugenia and Federigo whom Pacificus and Hydrangea with Dante decided to accompany. Clare and Giorgio, along with Enrica and Giorgio, Sr., lingered on, however, as Giorgio, Sr., was interested in learning how Sugarberry’s parents were doing with their orchard in Berryville at this busy time of year; and Clare was curious as to what comments were floating around Dream Valley concerning her current fashions on display at Lemon Treat’s Boutique.
Before leaving, Enrica made a leisurely tour of the flower displays with her husband and Clare– this was her house, after all– while Giorgio talked privately with Sugarberry and Vanguard.
“I noticed your consternation, Sugarberry, when Solidago came through the garden gate... and I’m well aware of the reason. I want you to know that Zavario is out of town right now, basking on some languid tropical beach for a well-deserved vacation for a couple of weeks. He’s been a model citizen since his unconscionable attempt at revenge two years ago, and both my father and I believe that he has put his disreputable past behind him.”
Glancing at Vanguard before answering, Sugarberry finally said, “I trust your judgement, Giorgio, but I still cannot fully forgive him for the action he took. Maybe someday I’ll no longer cringe when I hear his name; but for now, it’s still a curse... even if he is hundreds of miles away.”
“I can’t fault you for that, after what he put you through. I just wanted you to know that your stay this time will be devoid of any contact with the stallion.”
Vanguard put a protective foreleg around his wife. “That suits us just fine.”
* * *
“Mooncurl is a beautiful bride, but what else could anyone expect?” Sugarberry commented as she, Vanguard, and Banderol stood outside the church in Vulcanopolis where the gorgeous model, Mooncurl, had just become the wife of the photographer, Nello, and were now greeting their guests in the receiving line.
“And Nello seems rather bewildered that he has actually pulled off this fete,” joked Cisani, one of Clare’s designers who was in the company of Elena.
“He only looks that way because he’s not witnessing the wedding through a camera lens,” Elena wryly observed.
“I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him confiscate the camera to make sure he gets the shots he wants of his blushing bride,” observed Gabriel.
At his side, Angela, Pacificus’ sister and Clare’s administrative assistant, giggled. “I’d say that’s a sure bet.”
“One has to admit, Mooncurl’s very photogenic,” Cisani sighed, staring at the bride as she smilingly accompanied her husband down the steps from the vestibule, a vision in white, her large eyes aglow with the joy of the occasion. Nudging the stallion, Elena grimaced. But an echoing sigh came from Gabriel and every other stallion in the area, and Sugarberry sent a questioning glance at Vanguard who also seemed to be quite enthralled at the sight of the diva. After all, he had been the goal of the super model some years back.
Sensing his wife’s disgruntled scrutiny, Vanguard turned to her with a twinkle in his eyes. “She can’t compare to my beautiful wife,” he reassured Sugarberry.
“Whatever that means,” Sugarberry muttered under her breath.
“It means, my love, that you alone are the fulfillment of all my dreams... besides which, something tells me that you are by far the better cook.”
Sugarberry snorted.
* * *
The following dinner proved to be a cornucopia of the finest food Vulcanopolis had to offer, no expense spared. Sugarberry was very suitably impressed.
As the guests began to filter out of the dining hall to the ball room, Sugarberry, with Banderol, located Clare and Calla as Giorgio’s parents were going to take the two foals to their home for the remainder of the day so that Sugarberry and Vanguard and Giorgio and Clare could enjoy the coming dance with no encumbrances. While the two mares waited for Enrica and Giorgio, Sr., they entered into a comfortable chat concerning mutual friends in Dream Valley.
“Is Chocolate Chip comfortable with her decision to work in New Pony?” Clare asked as Banderol and Calla passed a teething ring back and forth.
“She seems to like the job very much, although I think her boss is pushing her too hard; she never seems to have time for herself. Most evenings, she takes work home with her.”
“Face it, Sugarberry. Chocolate Chip thrives on activity. Did she find a good apartment?”
“Fortunately, yes; and it’s not too far from her office but yet is in a relatively quiet neighborhood. And I guess she’s not working all the time, because she’s been to see my aunt, Blueberry Baskets, and Toby’s parents, plus she had lunch with Prime, one of her Pony Pride friends who works in New Pony, too.”
“And how does all this set with Wigwam?” Clare queried while thwarting Calla’s attempt to pull Banderol’s mane.
Sugarberry chuckled. “Believe it or not, Tabby had a little talk with Wigwam after Chocolate Chip left; and it seemed to do him some good because he hasn’t been sulking since. He’s quite busy himself, what with the construction going on around the casino which he watches like an eagle. When he’s not busy at the casino, he’s with his brother out at the Native Pony site. And no matter where he’s at, it seems that Bittersweet is with him.” Sugarberry could not hide a certain amount of resentment from creeping into her voice.
“While you would like to see Wigwam and Chocolate Chip work things out, I imagine,” Clare grinned.
“They both mean so much to me.” Sugarberry hurried to explain. “It’s not that Bittersweet isn’t a seemly companion; she’s actually very capable and a lot of fun. It’s just that I always thought Wigwam and Chocolate Chip would make a match of it.” With a shrug, she admitted, “But that’s not my choice, is it?”
Their conversation came to an end as Enrica and Giorgio, Sr., came to claim their charges. Vanguard and Giorgio, seeing that their offspring would soon depart the festivities, went to join their wives in imparting last minute instructions on the care of the foals and imparting fond hugs and kisses.
“We’ve been looking forward to having these two all to ourselves,” Enrica grinned as she took Banderol from Sugarberry while Giorgio, Sr., fetched Calla. The baby ponies accepted the exchange in good stride, having been jostled from one pony to another for the course of the day.
“Just make sure that you don’t allow them to tyrannize you,” Giorgio grinned at his parents. “They’re quite adept at getting their own way.”
“We’ll get along just fine together,” Enrica promised. “They’ll both be little angels.”
* * *
The wedding dance for Mooncurl and Nello was a very gala time for all who attended, and Sugarberry found herself often on the dance floor. While Vanguard accompanied Clare, Sugarberry was with Giorgio.
“I hear that you will be back on the staff at Leonardo come fall.”
“Yes. They’re willing to take another chance on me, thanks to my father’s influence,” Giorgio grinned.
“I’m sure the university has missed your experience and expertise.”
“Not so very much; no one is expendable, you know.”
“Maybe on a business level, but not on a personal one.”
“Hmm... yes, I guess you’re right. Nello would not have appreciated a last-minute replacement for Mooncurl,, for instance.”
Sugarberry giggled. “Highly unlikely; he dotes on his beautiful bride.”
“And how does Vanguard feel, seeing his old high school sweetheart wed to another?” Giorgio teased.
“My husband assures me that at no time did he reciprocate Mooncurl’s infatuation.” Sugarberry smiled sweetly. “Now, Clare, on the other hoof, did let slip that you yourself were once rather... intrigued ... by the model.”
“Touche!” Giorgio laughed. “But that little escapade forced me to realize that Clare was the only mare for me, so she has nothing to complain about. You and I are very fortunate, Sugarberry.”
“Indeed we are,” Sugarberry agreed as she and Giorgio both gazed warmly at their mates as Clare and Vanguard moved past in the flow of the dance before Giorgio returned his full attention to Sugarberry.
“It will be interesting, will it not, to see in twenty years or so if Banderol and Calla will cement the friendship that binds our families,” he mused.
Sugarberry smiled over the remembrance of the little foals’ adoring reaction when they had first laid eyes on one another this trip, almost as if they knew they were slated to be best friends... if not more. Then she remembered the way they had struggled over the possession of the bright red stacking ring, their disfavor with one another apparent, and laughed. “Who knows what the future will bring?”
* * *
Darkness had descended over the city, and three ponies had just let themselves in the back door of Giorgio, Sr.’s, villa.
“The servant is out of commission for awhile,” a big tough stallion reported, emerging from the kitchen and punching his front hooves together. “Who’s next?”
Zaverio motioned for silence. “I hear voices. They’re that way,” he instructed quietly but firmly, pointing down the hallway. The two assistants followed Zaverio’s lead and they burst in on the room where Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica were comfortably seated.
“So we meet again,” Zaverio sneered. “I trust you’re both doing well.”
Enrica gasped at the unexpected intrusion, and Giorgio leapt to his hooves. “Zaverio! What are you doing here? Why weren’t you announced?”
“Your maid was indisposed. I had to let myself in.”
“Well, what do you want?” Though Zaverio had supposedly reformed, Giorgio did not trust the look in the stallion’s eyes.
“Revenge, of course, revenge,” Zaverio said silkily.
“What do you need revenge for?” Giorgio demanded. “I think we’ve treated you very well for what you put us through.”
“ ‘Well’? You thought it was treating me ‘well’ to condescend to me the way you and your son did?”
“Why, if it hadn’t been for my son, you’d still be in prison!”
Zaverio laughed hollowly. “It would have been better had he left me to rot in that prison cell. No, the time has come for me to reap my revenge on him and make him suffer for what he did to me. What would hurt him worst, I wonder... fear for his progeny, perhaps? A stallion becomes so soft after experiencing fatherhood, don’t you think?”
“Not Calla!” Enrica whimpered. “Giorgio, do something...”
Zaverio’s other assistant, a red mare by the name of Notte, tapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll get the kid,” she said softly. “You take care of these two here.” She gestured towards the couple before strolling off.
“I won’t let you do this!” Giorgio shouted, leaping at Zaverio. In his rage, however, he hadn’t taken into account Zaverio’s other helper, Notte’s brother, Scuro. Zaverio easily side-stepped Giorgio’s charge and gestured to Scuro. Obligingly, the stallion removed a hidden blade. He and the older stallion proceeded to fight; and in the end, Giorgio, Sr., had a knife wound and was knocked unconscious as he fell against the grey marble fireplace.
“He’s in a coma,” Scuro announced with relish.
Hearing those words and seeing the blood on her husband’s inert form, Enrica started shrieking. Zaverio looked at her in annoyance. “Get the rope and tie her up,” he said briskly to his accomplice. “Don’t forget the gag.”
“Hey, Z, there’s two brats in here,” Notte said, poking her head through the doorway. “Do you want ‘em both?”
“Two of them?” Zaverio echoed incredulously and, leaving Scuro to tend to Enrica, followed the mare to the crib to see for himself. “How interesting,” he said, a slow smile spreading across his face as he realized the identity of the second foal, the image of his father. “This one must be Vanguard’s. How convenient! I can get back at both of my nemeses in one shot.” He motioned for the mare to take both of them, and she proceeded to exit the room with one baby pony in each foreleg.
“We’re done here,” Zaverio told Scuro, grinning. “Let’s run.” And the three villains, plus two baby ponies, disappeared into the night.
* * *
As Sugarberry, Vanguard, Giorgio, and Clare walked up to the front door of the house in perfect contentment, Sugarberry asked where Mooncurl and Nello would be spending their honeymoon.
“At an isolated location by the ocean,” Giorgio laughed. “Nello says that for a few days anyway, he wants no interruptions and no cameras.” Using a key in his possession, Giorgio unlocked the door with the confidence of one fully at home in his parents dominion, explaining that there was no need to bother Emma at this hour.
Even without the ringing of the bell, the ponies congenial chatter as they entered the house would have been warning enough of their arrival as they crossed the entrance hall and made their way into the main room where Giorgio, Sr., and Enrica would be awaiting their arrival with two sleeping foals.
“How’d the evening go?” Giorgio was already asking, his eyes scanning the room. Surprised to find it empty, he queried, “I wonder which of our two little darlings has been keeping my parents...” He stopped as he rounded the comfortable sofa that defined the sitting area, horrified at the sight that met his eyes. “Mother!” he cried, dropping to the floor beside his bound and gagged parent.
Clare rushed to his side as Vanguard, his nerves set on edge by the tone of Giorgio’s voice, glanced around the room for some explanation of the horror that now seemed to pervade the atmosphere around him. His eyes came to rest on the inert form of Giorgio, Sr., where he had fallen by the marble fireplace enclosure. Sugarberry’s gaze followed his own.
“Oh, my God!” she gasped, observing the bloodied head and chest of the stallion. She grabbed a napkin from the tea tray to thwart the bleeding while Vanguard felt for a pulse. “He’s breathing,” he said, taking the cloth from Sugarberry to hold against Giorgio’s chest. His eyes caught hers. “This is a knife wound.”
The unspoken message that those words delivered almost caused Sugarberry’s collapse. “The babies!” she whispered, frozen with fear.
In the meantime, Giorgio and Clare had succeeded in removing the gag from Enrica’s mouth, and the mare sputtered and coughed uncomfortably. Clare ran to get some tea from the service, cold but wet, and held it to Enrica’s dry lips.
“He has... the foals,” Enrica forced herself to say, the identification of the he a tangible knowledge for the ponies in the room. Then, on a spasm of grief, she wailed, “He killed... your father!” She broke into uncontrollable sobbing.
Still working to untie the bonds that held his mother prisoner, Giorgio called out to Vanguard as Clare ran to check the bedroom where the foals would hopefully be sound asleep through this nightmare. “Is this true?!”
“He’s breathing, but...” Vanguard trailed off. “He needs medical attention.”
Meanwhile, Clare had met her worst fear. “Neither Calla or Banderol are in the crib!” she cried as she reentered the room, rushing to the telephone to call for help. Sugarberry, hearing those dreaded words, could not meet the reality. She fainted on the spot.
* * *
“The maid was attacked from behind in the kitchen; she’s awake now, but she didn’t see anything,” Franco reported to Chief Matteo.
The police chief turned his attention back to Enrica. “Did Zaverio give you any reason for his atrocities here?”
Staring at the paramedics working over her husband, who had diagnosed that he was, indeed, in a coma, the mare responded weakly. “He said... he said he wanted my son to suffer.” A low moan erupted as if from her heart. “He said... taking Calla away from him was the worst he could do.”
“But he took the second foal, too?”
“He laughed over his good fortune! He said two would up the anti for him! He... he recognized... who the parents were... Banderol looking so much like his father.” She winced as her husband was moved to a waiting litter.
Sugarberry whimpered as she heard her son’s name, burying her face in Vanguard’s chest; she was unable to release the stallion from her grasp since she had recovered from her swoon, as if he would be the next to disappear from her. So distraught were her emotions that she could barely speak.
Beside her, sharing her distress, Vanguard was trying to overcome the loss of a part of him that was irreplaceable by going over the facts of the evening’s events in an effort to determine where Zaverio had taken the two foals. Knowing that Matteo had already set his police force into action was small comfort for a parent facing the loss of a child. Vanguard wanted to be out searching every building he came to but knew that in this moment, his place was here with Sugarberry.
Looking at the sheer despair on his wife’s face, he found himself wishing that she would at least cry. He was used to her tearing up at any emotional crisis, no matter how small. To see her dry-eyed in this unbearable circumstance caused him added fear for her well-being. But for the moment, his attention was drawn back to Chief Matteo.
“Did Zaverio include attacking your husband in his vendetta?” the deep raspberry-colored stallion asked.
“My husband tried to stop him from getting his hooves on the babies; Giorgio put his life on the line to save them.” Her face grew bleak. “He failed; and now I might lose him, too.”
Giorgio and Clare sat on either side of Enrica, Giorgio with a foreleg around his mother’s shoulders and Clare with possession of her hoof. The only thing that kept them sane at this moment was the comfort they could offer the mare while their own hearts were bleeding in agony over the fate of their precious daughter and little Banderol. Neither of them wanted to delve too deeply into the possibilities at hoof; staying focused on the here and now kept them from exploding.
Where were the two little soul-mates who had been caught up in this horrible scheme?
* * *
The two little soul-mates, were, in fact, on their way to the harbor. Zaverio was highly disappointed in his hired help for this job after the numerous delays they had caused. Though the abduction had gone smoothly, Notte had twisted her ankle on the way to their getaway boat; and then Scuro had refused to leave his sister behind. So not only was Zaverio stuck with handling both the baby ponies, but their pace was slowed down considerably what with Notte now riding on Scuro’s back.
“I should have left both of you behind,” Zaverio muttered. “The girl’s crying again, Notte. What should I do to shut her up?”
“You’re so incompetent, Z,” Notte snapped, cross after being immobilized by a twisted ankle. “Maybe you should have realized you’re not good with foals before you came up with this crazy scheme.”
“That’s what I hire assistants for!” Zaverio nearly shouted.
“You two are making more of a ruckus than the kids,” grumbled the usually taciturn Scuro.
“Ah, we’re finally at the harbor,” said a relieved Zaverio as the pier came into sight. “We’ve already lost a good amount of time. Okay, everybody in the boat! We’ve got to get to Isola Vizioso before anyone gets on our tail.”
* * *
His wife having fallen asleep from the sedative the Guardini’s doctor had given her, Vanguard placed one phone call to Dream Valley, overwrought with the need to discuss the current catastrophe with someone from home, yet unwilling to alert any family members, not wanting to expose them to an anguish that they could do nothing about. He counted out four rings before the receiver was picked up.
“Hello!” a stallion’s voice rasped as if he had been interrupted from something important.
“Wigwam... it’s Vanguard.”
Wigwam was quick to note the somberness of his friend’s tone and his heart sank. “What’s happened?”
What sounded like a low moan preceded Vanguard’s announcement. “Zaverio abducted Banderol and Calla while under Giorgio’s parents’ care. He and at least two accomplices have taken the foals to an unknown location.”
Silence hung between the two stallions as Wigwam tried to grasp the situation. “How’s Sugarberry taking this?” he finally asked.
“She’s...” Vanguard’s voice broke. “She’s sedated right now. I can only hope that Chief Matteo has some answers to our questions by the time she awakes.”
The tormented emotion in his friend’s voice was too much for Wigwam. Knowing Sugarberry as he did, he could well imagine the agony the mare was going through as well, and his mind worked frantically to find a way to help. He looked at the clock on the wall. “There should be a flight out for Vulcanopolis within the hour; I’ll be on it, Van. Whatever we have to do to get Banderol and Calla back, we’ll do.”
Before Vanguard could respond, he heard the receiver crash into deafening muteness. Brushing a tear from his eye, the distraught father whispered another fervent prayer for the foals’ safety and added an appeal for their rapid retrieval.
* * *
Meanwhile, Giorgio had his suspicions as to where Zaverio might be taking the two baby ponies. He had seen Zaverio’s family’s ancestral home on Isola Vizioso, and it was exactly the kind of base a villain like Zaverio would feel at home in. The large villa sat atop a steep, rocky cliff overlooking the ocean. The island was prone to inclement weather, so it was often given a sinister appearance– the perfect hideout.
After being clued in on Giorgio’s suspicions, the police force gladly arranged to send a detachment to search the island. Giorgio, who felt better while doing something, invited himself along. By the time the team reached Isola Vizioso, daylight was already descending on the land. The police force swiftly swarmed out over the island, looking for any possible hiding locations either in the villa or elsewhere. Giorgio decided to investigate the house.
Having become separated from the police at some point after entering the house, Giorgio wandered quite deeply inside the premises with no backup. He did not realize the intrinsic danger, however, until someone seized him from behind and he found a knife pressed to his throat.
“Zaverio!” Giorgio choked. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“My revenge that has been long overdue in being dealt out,” the teal stallion said testily.
“Very well then, you’ve had your revenge! Don’t you think I’ve suffered enough, if that’s all you wanted? My father is in a coma and my daughter’s safety is at risk. Can’t you end this all, now?”
“Already? But it was just getting good!” Zaverio said grimly, pressing the knife closer to Giorgio’s skin.
Giorgio stayed rigid. “How far are you going to take this?”
“Until you’ve made up for all the shame you caused me!”
“I don’t understand... what’s wrong with you? I saved you from going down the wrong path, because I knew what it was like! I had done the same thing, and it’s not the way to go! Believe me!”
“Spare me your warm, fuzzy speeches! Yes, you thought you could just wave your magic wand as son of our city’s leader and welcome me into your big happy family. Well, you’re not all-powerful! You can’t make ponies change just by condescending to them. How much better it would have been if you’d left me alone after the fiasco with the election!”
“You would give up freedom as an honest citizen in favor of a life in prison?”
“I don’t like being beholden to anyone. Anyone, Giorgio!”
“Give it up, Zaverio! The police will catch up to me any second now. Face it, your game is up.”
“I’m not going to let you go a second sooner than I have to. Besides, I wouldn’t say I’ve lost yet. Scuro!” Zaverio shouted.
“Very well. If it’s me you want, let Calla and Banderol go. Leave them out of this when it clearly involves only the two of us,” Giorgio said.
Zaverio refrained from answering, and before very much time had elapsed a dark stallion appeared on the scene. “Whadya need, boss?”
“Help me bring this vermin to the secret room. We can stay there until the police give up, and in the meantime I can determine exactly what I want to do with him.” Zaverio looked at Giorgio in disdain.
“What about the foals?” Giorgio demanded, struggling as Scuro began dragging him off down the hallway.
“Oh, the foals. They haven’t really done anything to inflict my wrath, but...” Zaverio shrugged. “It all depends on what I feel like.”
“Why you–“ Enraged, Giorgio broke free of Scuro’s hold and rushed at Zaverio after landing Scuro a powerful blow that rendered that stallion out of commission for the moment. A scuffle between the remaining two stallions ensued. The writer of this segment does not know exactly what happened, but in the end Giorgio came out triumphant as he stood over Zaverio’s unconscious form.
“Giorgio? Is that you?” Suddenly an orange stallion came trotting on the scene. “What’s th– oh, man, don’t tell me Zaverio’s taken care of already?” Disappointment was evident in his voice.
“I’m afraid so, Wigwam,” Giorgio gasped, a scrape on his forehead dripping blood and a bruise forming around his left eye. “Here, why don’t you watch over these two and make sure nothing happens to them. I’ve got to find the foals.”
“My pleasure!” Wigwam prodded the unconscious form of Zaverio, then dragged him next to the groaning Scuro; picking up the discarded weapon, he grabbed some conveniently located sheeting– from a pile that smelled like last month’s laundry– to make restraints for the two stallions. He was just finishing when a flurry of hooves sounded in his ears, and he turned to see Chief Matteo, Officer Privato, and Vanguard dash around the corner.
Matteo looked at Wigwam with undisguised admiration. “You captured them both single-hoovedly!”
“As much as I wish that were true, it was Giorgio who took these two down. I’m just cleaning up the mess he left behind.” Wigwam looked at Vanguard. “Giorgio ran off that way.” Wigwam indicated the direction with a toss of his head. “He’s looking for the foals.”
Vanguard was off like a shot while Wigwam threw the rest of the rag strips to Privato. “These two are yours; I’m going to help Van.” He ignored Chief Matteo’s admonition to wait for back-up and hurried off after Vanguard who was just disappearing around another corner ahead.
* * *
Notte had heard some muted noises from the main hallway that fed the suite of rooms that Zaverio had designated as his headquarters and set down the jar of applesauce that she was currently feeding the two baby ponies. She then cautiously left the comfortable bedroom, closing the door behind her. She had taken only a step or two across the carpeted floor of the living room of this particular suite when Giorgio burst through the doorway.
“Where are the babies?” he asked in a menacing voice.
Staring at the stallion as if he was a crazed interloper, Notte assumed an imperative pose and lifted her nose arrogantly. “What are you doing in these private digs anyway?”
“I don’t know who you are,” Giorgio responded, trying hard to control his temper, “but I do know that Zaverio has my daughter and another foal somewhere in this villa; and I intend to find the two of them if I have to tear it down stone by stone.” His voice had grown progressively softer as these words were uttered, but the unleashed fury behind them could not be mistaken. Notte shivered slightly before she responded.
“Why would Zaverio have two brats here? That’s not his style.”
Giorgio began an ominous advance across the large room toward the mare, causing Notte to think twice about incurring the stallion’s wrath any longer. With a quick glance at a closed door on the opposite side of the room, she muttered, “But if there’s babies here, they’d be tucked in there.”
Adjusting his march across the room so that he was headed toward the indicated door, Giorgio forgot the mare in his determination to find Calla and Banderol. Notte, quickly taking advantage of the stallion’s dismissal of her presence, grabbed a marble statue from a nearby table and went after Giorgio. Her precipitate pursuit was cut short, however, as an orange stallion entered the room from the point where Giorgio had arrived, flaunting a rather large knife in her direction with the words, “Drop your weapon!”
Notte dropped the weapon, but not quite as Wigwam would have hoped. She flung the heavy statue with unexpected force at Wigwam while she darted for the wall of curtained patio doors that faced the sea. Wigwam dodged the flying sculpture– appropriately of Pegasus– but saw that the mare had already slipped through the one open portal to the courtyard beyond. He and Giorgio both dashed after her, not wanting to lose one of the ponies responsible for the foals’ kidnaping.
* * *
Having followed Wigwam’s advice to circle around to the back of the apartments that seemed to be the center of the current activity, Vanguard found himself on a rocky outcrop overlooking the ocean that surrounded Isola Vizioso; the austere beauty of the rough and ragged island was lost to the stallion at this time as his attention was directed to a long bay of glass apertures that provided Zaverio’s ancestral villa with a marvelous view of the surrounding area. Just erupting from one of those windows was a red mare who could well be the one Enrica had described to the police.
For a brief moment, the mare stopped to stare at the country blue stallion, muttering, “More blasted intruders!” At the same time, Vanguard realized that never in his life had he been called upon to restrain a potentially dangerous mare– not under such serious conditions as this, at least– and he wished he had Wigwam’s training on how to tackle– literally!– such a situation. But before either Notte or Vanguard could respond, Wigwam, followed by Giorgio, burst out of the villa behind Notte. The mare found herself surrounded by stormy- eyed stallions.
“This is private property!” she hissed, maintaining her resolve even when outnumbered.
“As Zavario and his goon are presently under police custody, I don’t think...”
“They have Scuro?”
“If that’s the name of the thug with Zaverio, then yes, the cops have him,” Wigwam assured her.
Notte felt immediate concern over her brother, yet hadn’t she warned him that Zaverio was nothing but trouble? Now, if the cops had both her brother and Zaverio, what would happen to her? If she could escape from these three stallions, did she have a chance to rescue Scuro? And, really, what did it matter? He never listened to her anyway. She had to think of herself now.
The stallions watched Notte in fascinated wonder as the play of emotions swept over her face: concern, fear, confusion, anger, determination. She at first swayed on her hooves as if she might collapse; then, regaining her resolve, she sprang forward toward the cliff edge. Vanguard made an attempt to waylay her progress, but she slipped from his grasp and continued to the very edge of the precipice.
Unfamiliar with the structure of the island, the stallions were horrified to think of the young mare throwing herself into the ocean from this height; but as they followed her to the periphery, they found that Notte knew what she was doing, for a rocky path opened up, spiraling downward to a narrow stretch of beach on which a small motor boat was tethered. It became apparent that Notte was intent on escape.
Giorgio and Vanguard were already committing themselves to a race down the steep slope when Wigwam called them back, nodding to an approaching boat. “That’s one of Matteo’s units,” he informed the other two. “They’ll round her up.”
Exchanging a quick glance, Vanguard and Giorgio had only one thought. “Let’s get back to our search for the foals!”
“You go on ahead,” Wigwam concurred. “I’ll keep an eye on things here in case the mare tries to elude capture again.”
* * *
There were a number of doors and hallways that fed out of the main room in Zaverio’s main suite, so it took the two stallions a bit of searching before Vanguard finally opened the bedroom door that hid the babies. His heart somersaulted at the sight of the two foals, and he broke into a huge grin as he contemplated their current activity. Calling Giorgio to his side, Vanguard nodded his head toward the improvised playpen that stood to the side of the room.
Their lunch having been interrupted by Notte’s hurried retreat, Calla and Banderol had taken affairs into their own hooves and had decided to feed each other. They sat with the jar of applesauce between them, happily dipping their hooves into the sauce for generous servings which they then offered to the other, unmindful of the dollops of crushed fruit that dripped down their forelegs and ran down their bodies and coagulated in their manes.
Upon hearing the familiar sound of their fathers’ laughter, the two baby ponies looked to the doorway and broke out in wide grins themselves. Both foals abandoned their feast and scrabbled to the edge of their confining space to meet their dads who lifted them into their forelegs, applesauce and all, and smothered their sticky, gooey offspring with hugs and kisses.
“Thank God, they’re safe!” Vanguard managed to say.
“Amen to that,” Giorgio returned, holding Calla from him momentarily to verify that she had suffered no ill effects at the hooves of her captors before crushing her to him again. “They seem in good shape.”
“We’ve got to get word to Sugarberry and Clare,” Vanguard realized, recognizing the need to end the mares’ suffering as soon as possible.
“I can take care of that,” boomed a voice behind them as Chief Matteo entered the room. “It looks like you have everything in control here.” Noticing then the messy condition of the foals with their applesauce covering, a good share of which had now transferred itself to the stallions, he amended his statement. “Well, almost.”
When the chief went out to send a message to the mainland and the anxious mothers, Wigwam came in to join the reunion, eying the foals with an avuncular eye. “Well, well, it appears that you two had fun anyway.” He patted the two babies on their heads, then frowned at his now sticky hoof. “Are you sure you want them back?” he grinned at Vanguard and Giorgio.
His mild jest was met with two dollops of applesauce of his own.
* * *
Zaverio’s private quarters had probably never seen quite the bathing that occurred in his opulent hot-tub as Vanguard and Giorgio doused Calla and Banderol, ridding them of their apple-flavored veneer, while Wigwam explained how Notte had experienced second thoughts when she had spied the Vulcanopolis police force landing on the beach below her and had opted to return to the top of the cliff to put herself at Wigwam’s mercy. “She climbs like a mountain goat,” Wigwam noted, scrubbing his own face and forelegs.
“She probably grew up on or near the island,” Giorgio rationalized, bundling Calla into a plush moss green bath towel that swallowed her up. The young filly squealed with delight. Wigwam accepted Banderol from his father, wrapping him into a matching towel. When the foals had been dried thoroughly and had their hair combed, Giorgio stood back.
“Well, I think it’s time for these two little rapscallions to rejoin their mothers, don’t you, Van?”
Vanguard looked down at his small son– clean, dry, warm, safe, and very close to sleep now that the excitement was over– and agreed.
* * *
That evening was spent quietly at the country house; Sugarberry and Vanguard sat on a divan in the small parlor at the back of the house, Banderol securely encircled in Sugarberry’s forelegs. The distress that had paralyzed her while Banderol was out of her care had been dispelled once Vanguard had placed the foal in her forelegs at the dock where she and Clare had been escorted by the police to await their children’s return. The relief she had felt to see her son again had brought a surge of emotional tears that had baptized the baby in his mother’s love.
Now she gazed down at the foal as he played havoc with the once proud bow of a plush cat and smiled. Banderol responded by grinning in return and offering her the rather wet and bedraggled toy. “Thank you, my little angel.” The foal snuggled contentedly against his mother’s shoulder and reached out to touch his father next to them. Vanguard gathered the tiny hoof in his large one and was overwhelmed once again by the awesome responsibility he had toward this little gift of God and the emptiness of life devoid of him. Looking into his wife’s eyes, he knew she was harboring the same thoughts.
Their intimate family circle was broken as Prisca knocked gently on the door before coming in with Wigwam on her heels. “You have a visitor,” the mare announced superfluously, not quite sure what to make of the orange stallion whom she had never met before, yet seemed to claim a familiarity with Sugarberry and Vanguard that could not be denied.
She noted with relief that both of those ponies were all smiles for the newcomer, and Vanguard further set her at ease as he rose to his hooves to make the introduction. “Prisca, this is our good friend from Dream Valley, Wigwam. He helped in rescuing Calla and Banderol.”
Prisca’s eyes took on an aura of admiration. “Signor Wigwam, we owe you a great debt of gratitude.”
“Thank you, Prisca.” Wigwam bowed over her proffered hoof. “But in actuality, I had very little to do with the rescue; Van and Giorgio handled that quite well on their own.”
“Ignore his humility, Prisca,” Sugarberry grinned. “Just his being here was worth so much to us.” The look she settled on Wigwam made him feel like a hero, regardless of the circumstances.
“Is there any further word on Giorgio’s condition?” asked Vanguard of Wigwam.
“I stopped at the hospital before coming here; there’s been no change, but the doctors are optimistic.”
“He put his life on the line for Banderol and Calla,” Sugarberry mused. “He’s got to come out of this.”
Prisca patted the mare on the shoulder. “He’ll fight his way back, no doubt about it. He’s got too much to live for.” Then, getting practical, she added. “ I’ll be bringing in some coffee and dessert.” The housekeeper bustled out of the room to prepare a worthy reward for Wigwam and a reassuring comfort for the others.
“We can’t thank you enough for rushing over here to be with us,” Sugarberry smiled at Wigwam as he came to sit in the spot Vanguard had abdicated. Banderol diplomatically offered him the soggy cat.
Wigwam looked the cat over warily. “No applesauce?” he queried.
Sugarberry giggled. “I wish I could have been there to see the lot of you coated in the fruity substance.” Then she sobered. “Wigwam, we really do want you to know how much we appreciated your coming here to help us; you’ve been so busy with the casino, and you just dropped everything to put our problem first.”
“What could I do, Sugarberry? This little guy means a lot to me, too, you know.” He drew Banderol into his own forelegs and looked the foal in the eyes. “Uncle Wigwam couldn’t let you have all the fun, now, could he?” He turned to Sugarberry with a grin. “And I was very pleased to see that Bandy knows how to show a filly a good time.”
That prompted Vanguard to ask, “What did Garnet think of you leaving the casino in her hooves so suddenly?”
“It just so happens that I talked with her on the phone before I left the police station. She informed me that everything is running smoothly, and that she and Hawkley hadn’t even noticed my absence. So I informed her that if that were the case, I wouldn’t be back for a couple of days yet.” He looked from Vanguard to Sugarberry. “I like the looks of Vulcanopolis and thought that I might as well enjoy the sights while I’m here.”
“That’s a wonderful idea!” Sugarberry agreed. “And you may stay here with us.”
“I’ll not impose on your vacation. Chief Matteo recommended a good hotel.”
“Nonsense,” Sugarberry asserted. She looked to Vanguard for support.
“I’m sure Enrica would want you to stay here after your efforts on her granddaughter’s behalf.”
As Prisca returned with the refreshments at that time, Sugarberry also gained her support for the idea. “I’ll have a room ready for you in no time, Signor Wigwam.” Prisca forestalled his arguments with a raised hoof. “We’ve got plenty of space and it’ll be no trouble at all.”
As the ponies settled back with their coffee after polishing off Prisca’s rich and delicious dessert, the conversation came back to the main events of the day as thoughts were shared and forgotten details were explained.
“I’m impressed at how well you’ve handled this, Sugarberry,” Wigwam noted.
Sugarberry rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t say that if you’d seen the basket case I became when I realized Banderol was gone.”
“Your son was taken by a reprobate, Sugarberry. You had cause for concern.”
“I wasn’t much help for my husband.”
“You kept me sane,” Vanguard admitted to his wife. “By having you to worry about, I was forced to stay in control. Unlike Giorgio, I didn’t have a clue on where to concentrate my concerns for Banderol. It was an utterly helpless feeling.” Sugarberry’s hoof already rested in his, but he pulled her closer while Banderol slept in her forelegs. “Zaverio seems to want his pound of flesh from Giorgio and family, and we keep walking into the middle of his plans.”
“Well, Zaverio will be kept under lock and key this time; he didn’t seem to appreciate the efforts Giorgio and his father had made to reform him, but Giorgio won’t be swayed by any feelings of compassion in this case,” Wigwam asserted. “Zaverio had it made, but threw it all away... and has no one to blame but himself.”
Prisca hurried back into the room. “There’s a telephone call... from Giorgio.” She handed the cell phone to Vanguard, then stood back hesitantly, as curious to learn the news as the rest of them.
“How’s your father?” Vanguard asked, tightening his hold on Sugarberry’s hoof.
“It’s good news,” Giorgio revealed. “He’s come out of the coma and is talking to us.”
After relaying that information to his audience, Vanguard returned to Giorgio. “That’s excellent news. What’s the doctor’s prognosis?”
“They say that as he’s healthy as a horse, he should heal quickly from the knife wound.”
“And how has Enrica withstood all the strain?”
“Mother is exhausted, but she’ll be fine now.”
“So why don’t you sound happier?”
Giorgio sighed. “Father blames himself entirely for what happened. He thinks he should have been able to stop Zaverio from taking the foals.”
“He did everything he could under the circumstances.”
“He doesn’t see it that way... only that he failed to protect Calla and Banderol.”
Vanguard was silent for a moment, remembering the affection that Giorgio, Sr., had always felt toward Sugarberry, then asked, “Would he listen to Sugarberry, right now, over the phone?”
“It’s worth a try, Van.” Giorgio’s voice carried a positive inflection, then he drooped again. “Will she do it? She’s been through a lot, too.”
“Give me a minute to explain matters to her, then she’ll be on.”
* * *
Wigwam had been shown to his room by Donato, and Sugarberry and Vanguard were standing over the crib watching Banderol sleep. Sugarberry had succeeded in convincing Giorgio, Sr., to stop berating himself over Zaverio’s treachery and to concentrate on getting back on his hooves. The stallion had decried the circumstance that had put Sugarberry’s family once more at risk because of his own family’s problems. Sugarberry’s assurance that Banderol was unharmed, and that she and Vanguard suffered no further anxiety would allow the stallion a peaceful night’s sleep, especially after her promise of a visit on the morrow.
Yet Sugarberry was not so positive in her own mind that her own anxiety was resolved.
“He’s so small, and the world’s so big,” Sugarberry sighed, resting her hoof gently on Banderol’s head.
“And he’ll learn to make his way, day by day,” Vanguard returned. “We can’t protect him from everything, Sugarberry; hopefully, there will never be such an occurrence as we’ve just been through. But I don’t want you to worry incessantly and miss all the joy he brings us just by being here.”
“I’ll do my best, but I think I’m going to be rather cautious for awhile.”
“More so than normal?” he grinned, slipping his forelegs around her to turn her to him. “You haven’t forgotten why we’re in Vulcanopolis, have you?”
She felt safe in his embrace and snuggled closer, soaking in the strength of him. “To celebrate our anniversary.”
“Very good. Now, might I suggest that we do just that?”
The mare promptly lifted her head to receive his kiss.
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