My Little Pony Monthly Issue 84 (March 1, 2004)

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 84
March 2004

1. Survey!
2. Contest!
3. The Storm (by Clever Clover)
4. Welcome to Ponyland Part 5 (by Skye)
5. Shift in Direction (by Sugarberry)
6. Starcross Chapter 3: Dream Valley (by Clever Clover)
7. Wildwood (by Sugarberry)
8. Silent are the Bells Chapter 25-26 (by Sugarberry)

Congratulations to the winners!

Baby Dibbles (
Cherie (
Nibbles666 (
PikaCheck (

Squirk was a giant octopus; his lackey was a little lobster named Crank. I haven't seen that episode since I became infatuated with crustaceans. His character will have newfound meaning when I see him again. (Tabby's random advice of the month: Get a pet crayfish. They're fun!)
And, I'd also like to mention those that entered but fell into my trap (mwahaha!!) of answering incorrectly out of appreciation for their continued support of My Little Pony Monthly:
Jaye (

But now, to announce the winner of the Avon prize:

PikaCheck! You've won the Hollywood eye gloss! E-mail me your address and I'll send out your prize ASAP.

Minty would have sponsored March's contest prize with her name, but unfortunately there are no Avon make-up shades in "minty". So instead, I have Moonstone here with an excellent cosmetic item for these cold, boring, winter months. At this time of year, Moonstone loves wearing Avon Brilliant Moisture lipcolor in this lovely dark mauve Moonstone shade. Not only is it beautiful but it protects against chapped lips! Or, if you're a guy, you'll have a chance at a favorite toiletry item of the Big Brother Ponies: Wild Country soap-on-a-rope! To enter the contest, answer the following question correctly:

True or False: Cotton Candy, Minty, and Butterscotch's names have all been reused in the newest line of "G3" My Little Ponies.

Tell me the answer by e-mailing mailto:TabbyMLP@aol.comor entering through the form at

THE RULES! *ANYONE* can enter. That means anyone as in anyone. Even if you've already participated in the past, you can enter; in fact, I encourage you to do so. You don't even have to be a subscriber of MLP Monthly in order to enter. But if you're not a subscriber, you're probably not even reading this. ^.~
However, now that we've introduced *real* prizes, we will be putting a limit on how many times you can be entered in the drawing for that. If you've already been selected to win one of our prizes in the past, you can't be entered again- BUT, you can still participate and get your webpage graphic! So just because you've won something in the past doesn't mean you can't have any fun at all with our contests anymore. And, of course, if eventually all contest participants are ones that have won a prize, it's fair game for everybody again!
On the contest form at, you will be able to select your gender so we'll be able to determine which prize you get. Or, if you'd prefer to be opted out of the prize drawing, you can select that on the form as well. You'll still get your webpage graphic, however.

What was your favorite episode of the My Little Pony cartoon?

PikaCheck ( says...
It's only been within these past few years that I've started finding tapes for the MLP series. Before that, I had forgotten almost every episode, except for two. One was the Magic Horseshoes, where Mimic was ill and the other ponies had to travel across many lands in order to find the magic horseshoes that would restore her health. The other episode was the one where a Duchess invites the newborn ponies to her castle. When she keeps the newborns as pets for her daughter, the first tooth ponies race to the rescue, and in the process, help restore the throne to its rightful ruler.
It's kinda funny how some things stick with you for so long!

Jaye ( says...
I love many of them, but I think my favourite would have to be either "The Return of Tambelon" or "The Magic Coins." Tambelon probably has a slight edge because I love the climactic scene with everyone madly dashing through the city. :_)

And what random survey question have I come up with for this month...?

Megan's pony was Sundance and Molly's was Baby Sundance. If Hasbro had given Danny a pony, what would he/she have been like (physical description or otherwise)?

Mine, of course, is Butch, Sundance's long-lost brother who spent a time in Bolivia and has a rivalry with Tex. How about you? The URL to enter at is:
The Storm
by Clever Clover (

The snow lay thick over Friendship Gardens. Clever Clover, who was unemployed, as usual for this time of year, was actually taking the time to clean his house. It had become almost a weekly ritual for him since New Year's. Minoko, who abhorred chores as much as she adored Clever Clover, made sure she was out of the house on cleaning day in case she might be asked to help. Belle Star was eager to help, but Clever Clover preferred to do most of the work himself.

"Belle Star, could you give me a hoof over here?"

"Uh huh! What do you need?"

"I want to move the couch a little. If you could grab the other end and lift on three. One, two, three. Okay, now bring it a little this way..."

As the two ponies moved the couch, a small black box fell to the floor and landed next to Belle Star's hoof. "Huh? What's that?"

Clever Clover dropped his end of the couch, dove toward the box, and scooped it up. "Uh, it's nothing."

"Oh. Can I set down my end of the couch now?"

"Yeah. That's fine."

Belle Star dropped the couch and sat down. Clever Clover stood up and brushed himself off.

"Well. It's just about time for hockey practice. Minoko is going to meet me down at the rink. Would you like to come along?"

"Of course! I am your bodyguard, after all."

* * *
So Belle Star and Clever Clover went down to the ice rink. The team was already there. Minoko was giving them a pep talk, but we can't print it here because it contained foul language. Clever Clover had Belle Star take the team onto the ice while he gave Minoko a stern lecture.

After practice, Clever Clover, Belle Star, and Minoko went to a restaurant to meet Morning Glory for lunch. Clever Clover had been arranging for Morning Glory and Minoko to spend more time together in hopes that they could learn to get along with each other. They hadn't made much progress yet.

"So, Clever Clover, what do you have planned for this afternoon?" Morning Glory asked while they waited for the bill.

Clever Clover shrugged. "Nothing in particular. Why do you ask?"

"Well, I've got the afternoon off. I was hoping we could spend some time together."

Minoko arched her eyebrow. "Oh? Your boss sending you away so he can get some work done?"

"This is just a slow season. After Valentine's Day, business drops off until Easter. There just isn't much call for St. Patrick's flowers."

"I guess we could hang out together. Say, have you been out to the Moonbow Falls? It's really pretty this time of year."

"That's an awfully long walk, especially in the snow."

"It's worth it. Besides, it's a great day for snowshoeing. And I've got enough snowshoes for all of us."

"All of us? I was hoping it would just be you and me!"

"Belle Star's my bodyguard, and I doubt Minoko would stand for being left behind."

"Besides," said Belle Star, "the more the merrier!"

Morning Glory hung her head. "Right. Well, I guess a group outing is better than nothing."

"I was planning to take a nap this afternoon, but a nice stroll in the country could promise to be fun."

After Clever Clover payed the bill, as he was the only one with any money, they all went to his place to gear up for the walk. Clever Clover had more than enough snowshoes to go around, though he couldn't say why he had so many. Before long they were on their way to Moonbow Falls. The path to the falls led across some rolling meadows and down into a lightly wooded valley. A small stream flowed through the valley, though it was frozen now. When they reached a fairly level spot, Belle Star took a running start and tried to slide across the ice, but one of her snowshoes caught a rock protruding through the ice near the edge of stream and she went tumbling head over heels. Minoko burst into laughter while Clever Clover offered his fallen friend a hoof up.

"Are you okay, Belle Star?"

"Uh huh. But I'm supposed to be your bodyguard. It seems like you're the one that's always coming to my rescue."

Clever Clover shrugged. "I'm just being a gentleman."

Morning Glory had been watching with some amusement when an idea came to her. She took a step forward, making sure to wedge one of her snowshoes under a root hidden beneath the snow. She stumbled forward, falling to the ground. "Oh, Clever Clover, could you give me a hoof here?"

Before Clever Clover could answer, Minoko bonked her on the head. "You faker! You did that on purpose!"

Morning Glory shot to her hooves. "What!? How dare you accuse me of falling down on purpose! You're the dishonest one!"

"Hey! Just because I'm a pirate doesn't mean that I'm dishonest! Clever Clover, are you going to let her spread lies about me like that?"

"I really don't think we should waste time arguing right now if we want to get to the falls and back before dark. Come on, we're just over halfway there." Clever Clover headed off down the frozen stream with Belle Star following close behind. Morning Glory and Minoko brought up the rear, glaring at each other.

Before long the party reached a river, frozen as solid as the small stream. The river ran through a broad valley with steep, wooded hills on both sides. "Wow!" said Belle Star. "This would be a perfect place to go ice skating!"

"But the ice rink in Friendship Garden is so much more convenient," pointed out Morning Glory.

"Oh, I guess you're right. But next time we come this way we'll have to remember our skates."

Minoko used her magic to transform her snowshoes into ice skates and took off across the frozen river. "For once I have to agree with Belle Star. This is a great place to skate!"

Belle Star clapped her forehooves together. "Oh! Oh! Could you make my snowshoes into skates!"

Minoko skated to a stop right in front of the tan pony. "Sorry, I can only transform something that I'm touching."

"Oh, that looks like so much fun."

"Maybe we could come out here this weekend to do some skating," suggested Clever Clover. "The Moonbow Falls are just a little ways upstream. We should be there before long."

Clever Clover, Belle Star, and Morning Glory trudged along through the snow on the riverbank while Minoko skated up and down the icy river. A light snow had started to fall.

The snow was starting to become moderately heavy by the time the group reached the next small stream that flowed through a deep rocky valley into the river. "The falls are just up there a ways." Clever Clover led the way up the stream.

Morning Glory wrapped her scarf over her face as the wind picked up. "Clever Clover, I'm starting to worry. This snowstorm is starting to get bad."

"I see that. But we can't turn back now; it's too far. There's a place just ahead where we can get some shelter and wait out the storm." Clever Clover had to lift his voice to be heard over the wind. The snow was so heavy that he could barely see his hoof in front of his face. "Hold hooves so we won't be separated!"

The party pressed on through the storm, Clever Clover leading them from memory since he couldn't see where they were going. But before they had gone far, he took a bad step and went tumbling down a steep slope, losing his grip on Belle Star's hoof. Once he got back on his hooves, he looked around, but it did no good.

"Belle Star! Morning Glory! Minoko!" he called out to his friends, but to no avail. The howling wind drowned out his cries.

The purple pony began to climb blindly up the hillside. He couldn't see where he was going, but he did know that he had fallen down, so up seemed the logical direction to go. He called out to his friends as he climbed. He struggled against the howling winds of the blizzard and gradually made his way up the slope. Eventually, the ground leveled off a bit; hopefully this meant he had reached the narrow path he had been leading the others along. But even if it were, he didn't know if he was ahead of where he had stumbled or behind. The snow was falling so heavily that even if he had just walked past this spot a minute ago, all signs of his passing would be obliterated.

Clever Clover began to consider his options. He couldn't just sit tight and wait out the storm; he had to find his friends and get them to safety. He knew the cave he had been headed toward was to his left, and there was a fifty percent chance that the others were between him and the cave, as long as they had not moved since he lost contact with them. But if he went on to the cave and didn't find anyone along the way, he'd have to come all the way back to look for them.

He turned to his right and began feeling his way along the narrow path. He knew the path had been ascending when he had fallen, so if he followed it back to where it began its ascent, he'd be sure to cover all the area where the others might be. Then he could turn back to the cave.

It was hard to tell where the path was going with all the snow, but he managed to stay with it. As the path was starting to level out he bumped into something, or rather someone! "Who's there!" the purple pony cried out.

"Clever Clover! Is that you?" replied Morning Glory's voice.

"Yeah! Do you know where Minoko and Belle Star are?"

"No! I don't know what happened, but I lost track of them!"

"Come with me! We're not far from a cave! Once you're safe, I'll look for the others!"

Clever Clover took Morning Glory by the hoof and led her carefully along the trail back toward the cave. "Hopefully," he thought to himself, "we'll run into the others on the way."

Not long after he had met up with Morning Glory, Clever Clover saw a red glow through the blowing snow. "That must be Minoko!" He hastened his pace and before long Minoko's figure, glowing energy horn upon her brow, took form in the swirling snow.

"Clever Clover! I'm so glad you're all right! I was so worried when you fell!"

"Me, too! I've found Morning Glory; do you know what happened to Belle Star?"

"She fell down after you! I let go of Morning Glory to try and grab the two of you, but I just ended up getting myself lost!"

Morning Glory tugged on Clever Clover's foreleg. "My hooves are starting to feel numb!"

"Let's get to the cave fast so you two can warm up! Then I'll find Belle Star!"

It didn't take the threesome long to reach the cave, but it was about ten feet above the path and the climb was difficult in the wind and snow. Once they were in the shelter of the cave, Minoko summoned one of her energy balls which hung in the middle of the chamber, bathing it in a warm, red light.

"Oh, that's much better," said Morning Glory as she warmed her forehooves before the luminous orb.

Clever Clover turned to Minoko. "Can that energy ball of yours continue without your being here?"

"I'm afraid not. I can only maintain it within fifty feet or so. Otherwise I'd offer to help find Belle Star."

Morning Glory hung her head. "I wish I could help you. I'm just not much of an outdoorspony. If it wasn't for me, then both of you could be out looking for her."

"Actually, if it weren't for you, we wouldn't be here to begin with," Minoko mumbled, too softly for Morning Glory to hear.

Clever Clover, however, did hear her and shot her an angry glance. "Actually, I prefer it this way. I know the lay of the land; if Minoko went out, she'd just get lost and I'd have to find her again. You two stay here until the storm passes. If I'm not back by then, and it's still light, head back to Friendship Gardens. But don't try to make the trip after dark."

The two mares nodded.

Clever Clover set out into the storm again to find Belle Star. Minoko had said she had fallen right after he had, but he didn't know exactly where he had fallen anymore. But even if he did, Belle Star hadn't been there when he was. Maybe she didn't fall all the way down the slope as he had. He followed the path back to where it leveled out again, in case she had climbed back up, but she wasn't anywhere along the path. He returned to where he guessed he had fallen and carefully began to climb down the slope, zig_zagging back and forth to cover the most area. There was no sign of Belle Star by the time he had reached the bottom.

His next move was to search the valley floor, but he had no idea which direction to go again. The path to the cave had started out on the valley floor. He decided to work upstream and then back down, toward the foot of the path, and then on up to the cave. Before long, his snowshoe struck something buried in the snow. He dug furiously through the snow and found one of Belle Star's snowshoes. From the looks of the bindings, it had broken off, probably in the fall. But at least Clever Clover knew he was on the right track. He pushed onward, calling out to his lost friend.

Even though the blowing snow blotted out the sky, Clever Clover could tell the sun was almost set. It was beginning to look like he would not find Belle Star, because once the sun set, the temperature would plummet, and Clever Clover would be forced to return to the cave until morning.

Just as he was about to turn back, however, a strange noise met his ear. The sound of steel striking stone. He rushed toward the sound, as much as he could through the deep snow and blowing wind. The sound was coming from a hollow in the base of a steep cliff face. The cliff offered some shelter from the wind, allowing Clever Clover to see as well as hear where the sound was coming from. As he neared the cliff, he could clearly see the form of Belle Star seated in the hollow, striking a stone against the back of her sword.

"Belle Star!" Clever Clover cried out as he rushed toward her.

Belle Star looked up from her labors, dropped the sword, and jumped to her hooves. "Oh! Clever Clover! There you are!"

Clever Clover ran up to Belle Star and threw his forelegs around her. "Belle Star, I'm so glad that you're all right!"

Belle Star sobbed and pulled away.

"What's wrong, Belle Star?"

"You had to rescue me again. I can't keep being your bodyguard if you always have to rescue me."

"Belle Star, I don't want you to be my bodyguard."

"Oh! The snow's ended!"

"Wha? Oh, I guess it has. But the sun's almost set and...would you look at that!"

The two ponies, stumbling around in the snow, had inadvertently reached their destination, Moonbow Falls. The frozen falls, like columns of ice cascading down the cliff face, caught the last rays of the setting sun and danced with living light.

Belle Star gazed upon the falls with wide eyes. "It's so beautiful!"

"Yeah," was all Clever Clover could say for a moment. Then he turned to Belle Star and took her hooves in his. "Belle Star, as I was saying, I don't want you to be my bodyguard, but I do want you to be a part of my life, forever. I hadn't planned to do this here or now, but at the moment I can't think of a better place or time."

Belle Star was confused as Clever Clover dropped onto a knee and gazed into her pale blue eyes. "Belle Star, will you marry me?"

"Ah, I don't know what to say! I never thought of you and me, but..." She started to giggle like a schoolgirl and tears welled up in her eyes.

"Is that a 'yes' or 'no'?"

Belle Star blushed deep red. "Oh! Are you really going to make me say it?"

"Yeah! How else am I going to know the answer?"

"Then...YES! Oh! I can't believe I'm getting married!"

Clever Clover stood up, took Belle Star in his forelegs, and kissed her as the last rays of the setting sun faded away. After the kiss, they stood for a moment looking into each other's eyes.

"I can't wait to tell Morning Glory and Minoko! They'll be so happy for me!"

"Ah, yeah. But first, you should have this." Clever Clover took out the small black box that he had just recovered that morning. "It must have been destiny," he said as he opened the box and took out the ring.

"It's gorgeous!" said Belle Star as she offered Clever Clover her hoof. He slipped the ring on and a shudder ran through her body.

"Are you all right?"

"The's really cold..."

Clever Clover slipped the ring back off. "Right. I guess that can wait. Now, Morning Glory and Minoko are probably getting worried by now, so we should get moving."

The two ponies headed off for the cave, unaware of the shadowy figure that watched them from atop the falls. "An interesting development," the figure whispered, and then disappeared, leaving no trace in the new fallen snow that anyone had just been there.

"Ah, Belle Star," Clever Clover said. "It may be better not to tell Minoko and Morning Glory about our engagement right away."

Welcome to Ponyland
Part 5
by Skye (

Author's Notes: This is the final part of Welcome to Ponyland.
Featuring: Collector Ponies, Wish Fairies, and Birthflower Ponies
Rating: Family and Children Safe

"Minty?" a soft, troubled voice said as the sun began to set.

"Yes? What is it, Patience?" Minty asked, concerned.

"The sun is setting, and when you awake the next morning, I will not be here."

"Will the other you be here instead of the pony you?" she asked, hopeful.

"I'm afraid not, Minty. I have to return to my home."

"Why?" she asked, now disappointed.

"I am needed there to defend Order from the upcoming battle."

"I don't understand."

"I know, but you will. Soon enough, the answers will come in the form of a golden messenger and then you will understand your purpose."

"My purpose?"

"Fear not, young one, you will be victorious. I have faith in you and I will always call you a friend."

The pair leaned against each other for comfort. Minty tried to stay awake as she held back tears of sorrow, knowing that while she slept her friend would leave her. She eventually lost the battle as heavy eyelids closed.

Patience, wide awake, watched as her friend slept. "I will always be with you, Minty. Remember me."

She stood up and changed back into her fairy form, turning to the Ancient Apple as she did so. "I leave them in your care. Watch out for them." The tree gently shook his branches, pledging the oath to the Wish Fairy. Casting a soft smile down at her green friend, she disappeared.

* * *
Tolerance had been following Blossom all day and for countless miles. She had directed the pony in a full circle around the land that surrounded the castle. When the pony finally stopped short, her legs giving out under her, the Fairy kept her distance.

"I will not hurt you," she finally said after some time, providing a sweet treat for the pony to eat.

Blossom would not take it. "Leave me alone!" Her tone was tired but sour.

"Do you really wish to be alone here in the darkening forest?"

The pony's eyes shot upward and she remembered the depressing, frightening feeling that had overcame her the night before. This night, the dark violet pony was nowhere to be seen. "No," she shot out, afraid the creature would leave her alone.

"All right, then, I will not leave; but we really should introduce ourselves. My name is Tolerance; that is my function as well."

The pony simply blinked at her.

"Do you know why you are here?"

"Not exactly," she replied, trying to muddle through clouded thoughts. "I know I'm supposed to do something important, but I don't know what it is or when."

"Your clouded memories are caused from a creature named Confusion. He works under Fear for the Dark Lord of Chaos, ruler of the Night. He clouds your mind so your true purpose remains hidden from you."

"Who are they and what is my purpose?"

"A golden messenger will explain who they are to you. As for your purpose..."

* * *
Compassion had a hard time explaining to Blue Belle why she must leave her friend. The pony was sensitive, and she didn't want to hurt her feelings, but she sensed the growing threat in the East. Her leader, Light, the Lord of Order, would need her and the others.

"Listen to me, Blue Belle. You are a wonderful creature with a purpose higher than you know. I am only a temporary guide to help you overcome your fear and anguish. I have done this and now I am needed elsewhere."

"You are my friend as well. Can you not stay with me?" Blue Belle's tone was pleading.

"If there was anyway to spare you from this and the pressing battle, I would. Unfortunately, I am not much more than a messenger; you and your friends are the warriors in this battle."

"I just don't understand what you're talking about. Please explain to me, Compassion."

"One day very soon a war between Good and Evil, Light and Dark, will begin. This beautiful land, this beautiful world will be the prize to the victor. You and your friends must choose on which side you will fight." Compassion stroked Blue Belle's tear-stained cheeks.

"I don't want to fight. I just want to be here with you."

"Fight you will and you must or there will be no here anymore. Dark is the evil-bringer of Chaos, thus his name. He will not rest until this place and this world are his. A nightmare it will become. Nothing will grow, no food to be eaten, no gentle animals will survive. He will poison the water and air making it foul and unusable. Blue Belle, he will not rest until everything peaceful and good in this world is dead or destroyed. The castle is your protection from him. It is the one place he cannot enter. Dream Castle is safe for you and the other ponies; but should light turn to dark, if balance is not maintained...."

"What? Finish you must."

"Should we be unable to defend Light and keep Order, should we fail, Balance will be overthrown and Chaos will rule."

"How can we stop Chaos? You must tell me!"

"You can't. Stopping him is like stopping the wind from moving. It cannot be done. Where there is good there will be evil, and where there is light there will be dark. He cannot be stopped, merely slowed through Unity."

"What is Unity?"

"It is a merge between Order and Chaos, and all of us who serve them. It is what we have feared since the division, but may one day be necessary should the scales not remain balanced."

"If Order and Chaos merge, then can you come back?"

"No. If there is a merge, none of us can. We will no longer be, cease to exist. We will go back to our host and be lost forever. This is why we fear Unity. It must be used only as a last resort."

Blue Belle rose up suddenly from her comfortable spot in the thick grass. "Tell me what I have to do!"

* * *
The night had slowed the golden pony down. Ponies were creatures of the day and not meant to be running about in wooded forests, but Butterscotch was running out of time. Just as the sun was coming up, announcing the beginning of a new day, a darkened sky closed in from the East. She was tired but determined; she knew what the shadows were. She must find the others. She must hurry!

* * *
"If there is trust between friends anything is possible," Cotton Candy repeated out loud. She had enjoyed her new friend's company and trusted her she did. The day before, Trust had taken the pink pony on a tour around the castle, showing her different edibles she could consume. Their time together had been very brief, she regretted, but well spent. In the morning when she woke, the Wish Fairy was gone, as she told Cotton Candy she would be. The pony was sorry to see she was gone, but now she was more comfortable in this land and not unhappy. She could move about it freely and that she did, at least until the shadows closing in toward the East sent shivering winds down on the peaceful land.

She stood there, frozen, as gray clouds seemingly formed horrible shapes in the sky above. The green pony she had seen in the castle before was charging down the hill toward her, and the dark purple was approaching on her left. She should have been concerned about them, as their first introduction had been unpleasant, but the clouds above rattled her more than the other ponies were able to do.

* * *
"Remember what you have learned, Blue Belle. There isn't anything you can't accomplish if you try," Compassion had told her before disappearing. She remembered these words as she charged back toward the castle. She saw two others returning, and another was standing just in front of the castle. The final two she did not see.

"Hurry up!" a voice called from behind her; it was the lighter of the violets. "We don't have much time."

"I know! We have to get to the castle!"

They paired up and continued their pursuit to the castle. They skidded to a stop, joining the others just in front of the gate. Animals were gathering around them, fearful of the strange events that began taking place. They knew the castle to be a magical safeguard, as the Ancient Apple had told them. They wanted to be admitted inside, but the gathering ponies blocked the gate.

"What is going on here?" Cotton Candy said to the others. She wore a terrified look upon her face.

"POONNIIEESS!" a voice sounded from the building cloud mass overhead. The animals cried out and the ponies reared and screamed. Snuzzle shot out from the group, kicking and biting at the air. "SERVE ME OR DIIIEEE!"

"Get inside the castle!" Butterscotch screamed as she charged the final stretch toward home.

"Yes! Get inside, everyone!" Blossom ordered. "Get inside Dream Castle!"

"What about the animals?" Minty asked. "What about the apple tree?"

"Move aside and let the animals into the castle. Hurry!" Blue Belle told them. All the ponies save Cotton Candy, who was paralyzed in fear by now, moved. The animals rushed past, taking their chances with the ponies rather than outside with the unnatural storm. "Hurry, everyone, get in the castle!"

"My apple tree!" Minty yelled again.

"Leave it! There is nothing we can do for it!" Blossom yelled over the wind.

"Get inside," Blue Belle said once more, following the animals into the castle. Blossom, Snuzzle, and Minty, who finally resigned her plea for the tree, followed her. Cotton Candy was stunned and only Butterscotch's intentional collision into her snapped her out of her fear.

"My knees!" she screamed, looking downward to make sure they were not damaged.

"Hurry, run!" Butterscotch screamed, pushing the pink across the metal bridge. "Raise the gate!"

"We don't know how," the others told her.

Butterscotch and Cotton Candy entered the castle just as black phantoms emerged from clouds right overhead. The ponies screamed as they neared, and the animals huddled in the back parts of the stone sanctuary.

"What do we do?" Minty screamed.

"I don't know. Everything was supposed to be fine once we were all together in the castle," Butterscotch yelled over the phantoms' screams.

"Look, the gate is rising!" Blue Belle cried out.

The shining door pulled itself skyward, closing itself shut against the red-eyed phantoms and terrible winds. Its bright reflection hurt the phantoms, and they dared not try to enter its protected walls. They circled the castle, waiting for those who would dare leave its stony embrace.

"What are we going to do?" Cotton Candy cried. "I don't want to be here anymore. I don't!"

"Someone please help us," Blossom pleaded.

* * *
"We're too late!" Carnation told them as the band of Birthflower Ponies arrived on the Western Peak of the Mountain Range bordering the valley below. The others came up suddenly and looked at the devastation below.

"The waterfall, the river, they're black!" Water Lily said, aghast.

"The air is smokey and unclean; we are too late!" Rose agreed.

"Dream Castle's gate is closed, no one can save them now," Cosmos said sadly.

The group watched from afar, knowing the darkness would spread its infection throughout the land. It would only be a matter of time before it took the castle and spread to Flower Valley. There was nothing they could do to stop it, and nothing to help the ponies and woodland creatures trapped inside.

"We failed them. We failed them all!" Poppy cried.

Shift in Direction
by Sugarberry

The mantle of snow still hung over Pony Pride, belying the fact that spring was on the way. Sidewalks were bordered by mounds of the white stuff and a core sample of the heaps would have chronicled the numerous snowfalls that had started back in December. The gleeful sounds of the students' voices as they traversed the campus between classes, however, verified the eternal optimism of youth. Spring would come, and with it the rebirth of the natural world in all its refreshing palette of colors.

In an office in one of the buildings on campus sat the country blue stallion who was the head of the mathematics department. A telephone receiver in one hoof, the stallion sat in his chair behind his desk... but he was not relaxed. He was listening intently to the party on the other end, not moving a muscle until it became his turn to speak. Then, he brushed a hoof through his mane as if uncertain about the topic under consideration.

"This is going to take some serious thought, Giorgio," Vanguard finally stated, "although I'll admit that I'm sorely tempted."

"I understand that you'll need some time to discuss the pros and cons with Sugarberry, but I hope the two of you will choose in my favor," the Vulcanopolis stallion encouraged. "I'll be waiting to hear your decision."

As Vanguard hung up the phone, he got to his hooves and walked to the window to view the campus from his second floor vantage point. The evergreens were beautiful with their coating of snow; even the barren maples and elms were charming, their branches outlined with pristine white from the latest storm. The movement of students was now reduced to only a few stragglers hurrying to slip into their respective classes... one of them being the rose-red Wishbone, Vanguard noted with a grin.

But the expression of ease disappeared as quickly as it had come as the stallion's thoughts turned immediately back to his unexpected conversation with Giorgio. Vanguard sighed. This was going to take some serious contemplation. His gaze left the scene outside and turned to the framed picture of his wife that ornamented his desk. How was he going to broach the subject with her?

* * *
"Garnet, you go and sit down. Chocolate Chip will help me get the table ready."

The two younger mares shared a smile before Garnet responded. "Sugarberry, the foal isn't due until October. Dr. Toby says I can carry on my life as normal."

"That may be, but you look pale. So, sit."

"You should do as she says, Garnet," Chocolate Chip advised her sister-in-law, looking at her closely. "You do look done in."

"I've been so tired," the mare admitted, dropping into a chair only to have Banderol climb up on her lap with his Puffalump in tow. "Hi, sweetie. I bet you're tired, too." She welcomed the foal with a kiss on top of his head.

Wigwam came in the back door, setting a snow shovel in the corner. "I got the drifts cleared out of the path, Sugarberry. And Vanguard and Wishbone are..." The door opened once more to reveal the two just-mentioned stallions. "... home."

Banderol slipped off Garnet's lap to run to his father while Wishbone looked with some concern at his wife. "You okay, Garnet?"

"Yes, I'm okay," smiled the mare as she accepted the kiss Wishbone brushed against her cheek. "Sugarberry is just mollycoddling me."

"Mollycoddling?" Wigwam laughed. "What kind of word is that?"

"It describes exactly the excessive consideration Chocolate Chip showers on you," Sugarberry was quick to retort.

"Yes, she's a wonderful wife," the stallion returned, catching the brown mare in his forelegs.

Vanguard took advantage of the teasing that Wishbone directed at the newlyweds to cross the room and bestow a kiss on his wife.

"Hard day?" Sugarberry queried, brushing a vagrant sea-green lock behind the stallion's ear. "You look beat."

"Just a new wrinkle to iron out."

"You'll feel better once you've had something to eat," the mare smiled. "And as everything's ready, we can sit down to eat right now. Licorice said that he and Snapper were going to grab a bite on campus."

When the food had been placed on the table and the ponies had been seated and given thanks, Wishbone glanced around the table, obviously anxious to share some piece of news.

"You look like the cat that swallowed the canary, popinjay," Wigwam quipped. "We all know about the baby on the way."

"This news can't beat that, but it is exciting in its own way." The rose-red stallion flashed a smile at his wife, then continued. "Mom and Dad stopped by on a trip to Hayton to talk to Garnet and me about a proposition they've been considering."

"And that is...?" Sugarberry felt her heart sink for she knew that Wishbone's graduation in May would necessitate more changes in the fabric of her life... changes that she would rather not face.

"They're serious about moving to Hayton and opening a restaurant there. That means The Right Place in Neighberry would need a new manager."

"Wishbone, are you saying that you might move back home?" Chocolate Chip expressed in surprise. She herself had never had a desire to return to the town of her birth and was caught off guard to realize that her brother might have fonder memories about Neighberry than she did.

"It's an option we're considering," Garnet responded. She looked at Wigwam with a wry smile. "I love working at the casino- you know I do- but this is such a wonderful opportunity for Wishbone; his parents would be more lenient over any mistakes we might make as we learn the restaurant business, and he'd be on his home turf which should prove an advantage."

"You'd be leaving Dream Valley," Sugarberry stated the obvious, her voice tinged with sadness. She set her fork on her plate as if her appetite had disappeared with the telling of the news.

"Sugarberry, we'd be close enough to visit often; please don't think we'd ever forget our best friends." Wishbone looked around at the faces that registered varying degrees of surprise. "You have all been there for both Garnet and me for the last number of years and we can never thank you enough; but I think this is a chance too good to pass up, especially with the baby on the way."

"I'd like to hear more of the details, but it should be a profitable venture from what I've seen of Neighberry and the restaurant," Wigwam admitted. His gaze fell on Garnet. "The casino won't be the same without you; but I know that you have what it takes to be successful."

"It's not a sure thing yet," the mare reminded him, but the look of exhilaration on her face told its own story. "Wishbone and I have talked and talked about all the possibilities, and we agree that we can help out Drifter and Twilight Jewel at the same time as getting our hooves on solid ground for the future."

"I think it's a great plan!" declared Chocolate Chip, overlooking her own disappointment that she would soon be separated from her brother and his wife. Not wanting them to feel that a damper had been cast over their enthusiasm, she kept her own opinion upbeat. "What about a house? Would this deal include your old home, Wishbone?"

"Yes. And Grandma and Grandpa are all for the idea, to have us nearby... especially with the baby coming."

"Just remember to keep your mind on your studies until the end of the semester," Vanguard advised Wishbone. "And, Garnet, don't overtax yourself with all the preparations that'll have to be made when the time comes to move. We'll help you out in any way we can."

"Yes. Of course we will," Sugarberry bravely concurred, but her voice broke.

"Oh, Sugarberry, you do understand, don't you?" Garnet pleaded. "The idea of having a solid home and livelihood is like a dream come true for me. When I was growing up and always on the move- and later when I had to fend for myself- I tried to imagine what it would be like to belong somewhere... really belong. I found that here with all of you, but this is a chance for Wishbone and me to carve our own niche and make a good foundation for our baby. It would be perfect if we could stay in Dream Valley, but the opportunity exists for us in Neighberry right now. Please be happy for us."

"Just looking at the joy on your faces makes me happy," Sugarberry smiled tremulously. "I'm already looking forward to eating at your restaurant once your settled."

The conversation moved on about her, but Sugarberry refrained from saying any more. Her heart was not in it.

* * *
The house was quiet as Sugarberry checked on Banderol one more time before calling it a day. He was sound asleep with Kitty-Kitty tucked under his head for a pillow and his blanket in a muddled heap at his hooves. Tenderly, Sugarberry tucked the blanket around the precious youngster and found herself thinking ahead to the day when he would be grown and ready to strike off on his own as Garnet and Wishbone were doing now. She could not prevent a tear from escaping and sliding down her cheek.

Unlike Garnet, Sugarberry had spent all her life in one place- Dream Valley. It had been her parents who had opted to move on when they had found the larger orchard for sale near Berryville, giving her father a more independent outlet for his love of the land and growing things. Her oldest sister, Gooseberry, had married a stallion from Berryville who also made his living from neighboring land, thus facilitating the transition for her folks. It was also aided by the middle sister, Raspberry, who, unattached and a hard worker, had moved with her parents.

At that time, Sugarberry made the decision to stay with what was familiar, even though it cost her the loving shelter of her family; her shyness and her inability to handle the unknown had necessitated her decision. She had remained in Dream Valley alone from the time of her high school graduation to live among the close friends and familiar places of her foalhood.

This dependence on her surroundings made it difficult for the strawberry-patterned mare to adopt to change of any kind; each new shift in direction for any of her friends or family brought about a period of melancholy that she had never yet learned to stifle.

Her thoughts were so engrossed as she pondered the future without Garnet and Wishbone that she was unaware of Vanguard's entrance into Banderol's chamber until she felt the soft touch of his mane against her shoulder. Instinctively, she leaned into him for his solid support.

"Things are changing again," she whispered.

"Wasn't it Carlyle who said that change is indeed painful... but necessary?" Vanguard reached out and touched her cheek gently as he spoke.

"It's the painful part I don't like," Sugarberry pouted.

Vanguard chuckled. "Just like Banderol didn't like the pain of getting those teeth of his, but he surely enjoys using them... if the number of cookies he eats in a day is any indication."

That analogy caused a faint smile to appear on Sugarberry's face. "He's a trooper when it comes to that."

The two stood in companionable silence for several minutes, their love for each other and for their son wrapping them in its warmth. Vanguard would have liked to remain in that euphoria for an eternity, but he knew that he had to face the reality of Giorgio's phone call. Taking his wife's hoof, he suggested that they sit and talk a bit.

One change in Sugarberry's life that she had embraced full-heartedly (along with her marriage to Vanguard) was the make-over of her house after her marriage. A turret and several additional rooms on each floor had extended the living space downstairs and the master bedroom upstairs. The rounded turret space that fed off their bedroom made a comfortable sitting area for reading or talking; in addition to the window seat that offered a cozy spot for daydreaming, there were two snug overstuffed chairs with a small table between them with a Tiffany lamp that provided just the right light for reading or writing. On cold winter nights, those two chairs were just as often occupied by the resident felines as by ponies; but this night the chairs were empty. Vanguard guided Sugarberry to her seat, then settled in his own.

For the first time since her husband had walked in the house before supper, Sugarberry really looked at him. What she had earlier attributed to a long day of teaching and paperwork she now realized was something more serious. He was having a hard time meeting her gaze directly and seemed preoccupied.

"Something's bothering you other than Garnet and Wishbone's announcement. What is it?" She leaned across the space between them to lay her hoof over his, and Vanguard captured it in his grasp.

The stallion managed a smile, but his eyes still held a constrained look. "I received a call from Giorgio today."

"Is everything okay? I know Calla was awfully sick with the flu, but I thought she was over that..."

"Calla and Clare are fine, as is Giorgio. He was complaining of being overworked, however."

"This was his first full year back at Leonardo after his... work for the city. Has it been difficult for him to get back in the swing of things?" Had it been so long since she and Vanguard had exchanged a visit with their friends across the sea? the mare found herself wondering.

"He's capable of chairing several math departments simultaneously," Vanguard grinned briefly, but the clouded look settled again. "His involvement in the workings of the government of Vulcanopolis along with those episodes that hit closer to home have triggered some projects he'd like to see in place to provide a more secure computer system and better safeguards for the city overall."

"He's to do that on the side?"

"That's the crux of the matter, Sugarberry. It's a complicated venture, and it will take all of his time for the coming year."

That vagrant gaze that had been looking at everything in the room except Sugarberry now came to rest directly on the mare, causing her to read some unspoken truths that hung in the balance. Her heart pitched uncomfortably in her chest, and she withdrew her hoof from where it still rested in Vanguard's care. "I imagine Giorgio will step down from his responsibilities at Leonardo for that time span."

"He's taking a sabbatical, of sorts. He has plans that will give Vulcanopolis' officials a state-of-the-art environment for information and security. The scope of the project is overwhelming."

"And who will fill in for him at Leonardo while he's doing that?" Sugarberry could barely get those words out.

"He asked me to, Sugarberry."

"No." The mare shook her head adamantly, then repeated, "No."

"It's not like I'd be going alone; you and Banderol would be there with me this time."

Her eyes opening wider in surprise, Sugarberry stuttered, "F... for a whole y... year?"

"That would seem like an endless span if we were separated; but with the three of us there together, it would be a grand adventure."

Sugarberry unconsciously shivered. "Vulcanopolis has always proved to be too much of an adventure for me, I'm afraid." Their honeymoon and an anniversary trip spent in Vulcanopolis had both involved them in more intrigue than Sugarberry would have wished for in several lifetimes.

"The bad experiences we've had in connection with Vulcanopolis could have happened here just as well as over there. The city is a beautiful place, Sugarberry; you'd love it if you had a chance to get to know it better."

"I'd be looking over my shoulder at every turn."

"No you wouldn't." The stallion grinned, a light creeping back into his somber eyes. "There's still so much I'd like to show you, to experience with you. I spent countless hours when I was there before we were married- I was so homesick for you!- trying to see the sights through your eyes; I know you'd find the beauty of things I'd missed... things that you can't see in a quick visit."

"But our home... and our friends..." Sugarberry looked around her as if all that she was familiar with would disappear before her eyes just because they were discussing such a sensitive subject.

"Just as Garnet and Wishbone will still be available to us, so will all our friends here. And as for the house... well... it could be set up that one of the Vulcanopolis teachers would come here to fill in for me at Pony Pride." When Sugarberry did not comment, Vanguard plowed on. "I worked with Adriano when I was there on my exchange program; he's single, a couple of years older that I am, and always came across as a well-mannered sort of pony. If he would be willing to live here in our house..."

"What about Licorice?"

"That's something we'd have to work out, but he and Adriano would rarely have to see one another."

Sugarberry was not so sure. As much as her friendship with Giorgio now meant to her, she could not completely forget the trouble he had brought to Wishbone by his being in Dream Valley four years ago. She shook her head; she could not think about that right now. "Where would we live?"

"Giorgio said we could have our choice of the country house where we stayed on our honeymoon or the town house next to Iveta and Giles."

"It sounds like he's thought this whole thing through," Sugarberry said, a hint of bitterness in her voice.

"He's had to consider his options. He first thought that Adriano would fill in for him because he took over as department head while Giorgio was... away... before; but Adriano had his fill of managing the department. After some prompting, he said he'd go along with an exchange to a smaller college. Giorgio suggested Pony Pride, and Adriano seemed to like that idea. So Giorgio called me."

Sugarberry turned her blue eyes on Vanguard. "And how do you feel about this?"

Leaning closer to the mare to take her forehooves into his, Vanguard explained his views. "First of all, if you decide that you can't abide this move, I'll stand by you and tell Giorgio to look elsewhere. Secondly, I haven't really had time enough yet to really know my own mind; there are lots of unknowns yet to be discussed.

"However..." The stallion paused, taking a deep breath. "... I think I'd like to go back. The students there were much more interested in learning which made the teaching more meaningful; it's a plus for any teacher to have that desire to learn in his students. Also, I have always respected Giorgio as a teacher..." Here, he grinned a little uncomfortably and Sugarberry could not help but smile in return, knowing full well that her husband had suffered some rather severe bouts of jealousy over the dark green stallion from Vulcanopolis. "... so his confidence in asking me to take over his duties is something of an honor that I would hate to pass up.

"And last of all, as I've already said, I'd like to share the day-to-day life of the city with you over an extended time-period, to live in the partly quaint and partly modish town that at its heart is very warm and welcoming. So many times I wished you were there with me."

"I suppose there might be some positive considerations..." Her voice trailed off, considering the possibilities.

Pleased with the progress he had made, Vanguard continued. "On the plus side, too, you'd have a chance to become better acquainted with any number of ponies that you've only met briefly on our short trips there. And how many new babies haven't you seen yet?"

"Babies!" Sugarberry's rising thoughts crashed, her hoof flying to her mid-section where she suspected a new life was now growing. "What about our baby?"

"The baby can be born in Vulcanopolis just as well as in Dream Valley."

Considering the validity of that statement, Sugarberry smiled and a mischievous twinkle lit her eyes. "I suppose you're right about that; you've never quite forgiven Toby for missing Banderol's birth, have you?"

"It seems to be a habit of his." Vanguard stood up and pulled Sugarberry into his embrace. "Will you think about it, Sugarberry... about this plan to spend a year in Vulcanopolis?"

"I'll think about it... I promise." A sudden thought occurred to her. "When would you be expected to take over your duties?"

Looking heavenward, Vanguard grimaced. "I was hoping you wouldn't ask."


As if his life was forfeit, the stallion blurted out, "By the first of June."

"By the..." Sugarberry gaped.

Vanguard had his work cut out for him.

* * *
"So what do you think?" Norman, one of the senior editors at the Fairfax/Monk Publishing Firm, asked the mare as she reviewed the promotional material for her latest book. Having served as Sugarberry's agent for years before taking a new position with the area's premier publisher, the stallion could easily see that she was not enthused over the material in front of her.

"It's very well done, as usual, Norman." The mare looked up and smiled at the editor, but her heart was not in it.

"If you're dissatisfied with the way I'm handling the production of this title, please say so. Better now than later."

"If I seem preoccupied, it has nothing to do with the book." The mare sighed. She had been unable to think of anything except the potential extended trip to Vulcanopolis. Feeling that she owed her mentor an explanation, she rushed on. "Vanguard is considering a temporary position at Leonardo University in Vulcanopolis, starting as of June 1. The venture was unexpected and now needs to be decided on."

Norman leaned back in his chair thoughtfully. "Vulcanopolis, you say? I would think you'd be delighted over the prospect."

"Half of me is; the other half is balking at the change."

Eying the mare intently, Norman cleared his throat. "You have some influential friends there, don't you? I've heard you mention Clare, the world-famous designer, several times."

"Yes. Her daughter was born right here in Dream Valley less than a day after Banderol. It bonded our families even more closely together."

"Might I suggest..." The stallion stopped as he caught sight of Macarius passing by his doorway. "Macarius! Could you come in here a moment?" Norman got to his hooves quickly as if he would drag the stallion into the room by force if need be.

"Sure. What's up?" Coming through the doorway, Macarius' face brightened. "Sugarberry! How nice to see you! Norman tells me that we can expect excellent sales on your account."

"One would hope," Sugarberry smiled.

"Sugarberry's anticipating a journey, Macarius." Norman seemed more excited about the trip than Sugarberry did.

Macarius raised a quizzical eyebrow in Sugarberry's direction. "And what is your destination?"


"Vulcanopolis." Macarius drew out the syllables of the word while exchanging a significant glance with Norman. Sugarberry did not notice; she was too caught up by her waffling emotions over the decision that she and Vanguard must make to notice the two stallion's expressions. She did manage to repeat the essentials of her current dilemma to Macarius, who seemed to think it was an opportunity too good to pass up.

"Sugarberry, you'll be the envy of everyone in Dream Valley... except Tiffany, of course, what with her gallivanting back and forth since her marriage. I'm delighted for you and your family." He rubbed his forehooves together. "Why don't you stop in my office when you and Norman are finished here? We haven't had a good visit in some time."

This effusive speech did garner Sugarberry's attention and she stared at the retreating stallion until he was out of sight. "Is he working too hard?" she queried as she turned her attention back to Norman.

"You might say that," Norman hedged. "Umm... do you have any questions or suggestions about the lay-out?" He nodded at the artwork and promo literature and seemed anxious for the mare to leave.

"No; I wouldn't change a thing," Sugarberry smiled, knowing when she was no longer wanted. She got to her hooves. "Thanks for everything you've done to insure the success of my book."

"That's my job," Norman said, leading Sugarberry to his door. "Oh, and don't forget to stop by the boss's office."

* * *
Pondering Norman's obvious desire to be rid of her and Macarius' blatant desire to talk with her, Sugarberry was able to escape her concerns about Vulcanopolis for the length of time it took her to walk down the carpeted hallway to the publisher's office. Jasmine, the executive assistant, smiled her welcome and motioned at the open door. "Just go on in," she invited. "He said to expect you."

Sugarberry found Macarius with his back to her, staring out the window, his bearing one of suppressed excitement. She stopped just inside the door and cleared her throat, causing the stallion to spin around, a welcome smile on his face. He crossed the room in several long strides and guided her to a chair before he went to seat himself behind his desk. He leaned back, steepling his hooves before him.

"You've been to Vulcanopolis before," he stated.

"Y... yes. Vanguard and I honeymooned there, and we spent our anniversary there last summer."

"I hear it's a beautiful place, nice scenery, pleasant weather..."

"It's all of those things."

Macarius brushed the tips of his hooves against his chin. "Clare's Creations is there. You're a friend of hers."

"Clare and her husband are very good friends of Vanguard and I," Sugarberry noted, a puzzled expression on her face. Macarius' litany of statements was unnerving. "Why do you ask?"

For several long moments, Macarius said nothing; then, suddenly, he dropped his hooves to the desk and leaned forward. "Sugarberry, I've been wanting to do a book on the fashion industry for some time... an in-depth study of what goes on behind the scenes as well as the glitz and glamour of the final designs being unveiled at a fashion show. I approached Mirabella about the subject, but she flatly refused to cooperate with any outsiders coming into her domain... snooping, she called it. What I wonder now is... would Clare be open to having her company researched for the book?"

"I... I'd have no way of knowing; I can't speak for Clare."

"Is your friendship with her strong enough that if you were to author the book, she would be amenable to the idea?"

A blinding flash of clarity struck Sugarberry's befuddled thoughts. So this is why Norman and Macarius had received her news with such enthusiasm! "You want me to write the book?" she squeaked.

"Why not? This opportunity is too good to pass up... if Clare gives her okay. You'll be right there in Vulcanopolis and you already know the key players. You'll have plenty of time to sit-in on the day-to-day operations of everything from what the top honchos do with their time to what it takes to get a finished design fabricated and every step in-between. What do you think?"

"I've never written a non-fiction work before," Sugarberry frowned as Macarius looked at her hopefully.

"The facts are all there for you; all you have to do is ferret them out. What I have in mind, Sugarberry, is a book that will appeal to everyone. It will cover not only the glamorous side of fashion, but also the behind-the-scenes decision-making that an executive like Clare must make. I want a book that a pony who shops the mall will peruse because of the enticement of high fashion, and a pony who runs the business down the street will want to open so he or she can emulate the success Clare enjoys."

"The practical and the emotional," Sugarberry summed up.

"Exactly," beamed Macarius. "You understand exactly." He leaned back in his chair once more. "This is a perfect opportunity. You'll be right there in the thick of things, so you can really study the company in depth. Once you're familiar with the heartbeat of the industry, I'll send a photographer over to document what you'll be including in your text; we're going to want large, vibrant photos to accompany your insights." Macarius ran a hoof through his mane, tense with the possibilities now within reach... well, almost.

"Macarius, Vanguard and I haven't even come to a consensus yet on whether or not we'll be going to Vulcanopolis," a flustered Sugarberry quavered. Already in turmoil over the conflicting emotions of that decision, she was now faced with an equally serious option tethered to it. Sugarberry put her hoof to her flushed cheek, then ran it up to her temple where a headache was gathering force. "I have to think about this."

"Of course you do, Sugarberry," Macarius empathized. "I know this has taken you by surprise. Talk it over with Vanguard. Let him know that I'm behind you one-hundred per cent." The stallion got to his hooves and Sugarberry followed suit. "You and I'll have plenty of opportunity before the first of June to discuss in detail what I'm aiming at with this project, so don't worry about a thing. By the time you leave for Vulcanopolis, you'll be only too anxious to get started on your writing."

Sugarberry wished she could be so sure.

* * *
Hunched over his desk correcting test papers covered with numbers, symbols, diagrams, charts, and convoluted formulas, Vanguard's wrinkled brow attested to his deep concentration when a light tap drew his attention to the doorway of his office. His brow cleared and a smile lit his face as he jumped to his hooves to meet his wife.

"What a welcome surprise!" Kissing Sugarberry's cheek, he could almost feel the tension emanating from the mare. "What's happened?" he asked, absorbing some of the mare's stress.

"Mental overload," the mare smiled weakly, leaning into her husband for some reassurance. "I was at Fairfax/Monk to see Norman, and the strangest thing happened." She sighed deeply, trying to organize her thoughts. "I had explained to Norman and Macarius about our tentative plan to spend a year in Vulcanopolis, and Macarius couldn't have been happier. It fit into his plans, you see."

"And what do Macarius' plans have to do with ours?" Vanguard asked guardedly.

"Clare's Creations," Sugarberry responded as if that explained everything. Dropping into a convenient chair, she explained the day's events as succinctly as possible, then turned pleading eyes to Vanguard. "It would be a fantastic adventure, Vanguard, but I'm still not sure that I want to leave home..." the mare stopped abruptly.

"And?" queried Vanguard, sensing a certain reticence in his spouse.

"And I'm not even sure I'm capable of doing a real-life study."

Vanguard smiled reassuringly. "I haven't a single doubt in your abilities."

"You have no choice but to say that."

Chuckling, Vanguard teased, "Admit it, Sugarberry. You can't wait to get started just to prove that you can do it."

"It would take a lot of time and a lot of work."

"If you're busy, you won't miss being away from home."

"There is that." Sugarberry still looked downcast.

"Something else is bothering you."

Hesitating, Sugarberry found it difficult to meet her husband's eyes; but with a determination of will, she finally looked directly at him. "I wasn't willing to go to Vulcanopolis for you, but I am willing to go for me. I feel very selfish." Her gaze dropped once more.

"Then you know what I've been going through, asking you to make this sacrifice for me," Vanguard assured her. "If we both have a reason for going, then neither of us can have any regrets."

"It will still be difficult to leave Dream Valley behind."

"That's true, Sugarberry, but let's concentrate on what's ahead."

Chapter 3: Dream Valley
by Clever Clover (

Starcross stood on the outskirts of the city of Dream Valley. Somewhere in this city she would find her parents; at least, that is what the pony she knew as her father had told her on his deathbed. Now that she was alone, she had no choice but to see if his words were true. But where to look? How could she find her parents in this strange city when she had no idea what they looked like? She didn't even know their names. All she knew is that she had been taken while playing in a park. Also, her silver teardrop pendant that she wore had been hers before she was taken.

She wandered the streets of Dream Valley looking for a park. All she could do was ask if anyone knew of a little girl who had worn a pendant such as hers who had disappeared fourteen years ago. The first park she came to was empty, despite the pleasant weather. She sat down on a park bench to rest and wait to see if anyone might show up. A few children eventually passed by, but they wouldn't even have been born when she had been taken.

The next park she tried was quite crowded, mostly with baby ponies. She asked the adults if they knew anything about the pendant. But none of them knew anything. However, one gave her directions to another park on the other side of town that was frequented by families with young children. Starcross bought some lunch with some money she 'found' at the park and made her way across town. This park was less crowded. Again she asked everyone she came across about the pendant but still no one recognized it.

Starcross was just about ready to give up hope. She sat on a park bench and watched as various families enjoyed a pleasant afternoon together. She sobbed softly.

"Is something wrong?" a kind voice asked.

Starcross looked up at the stallion who had addressed her. There was a gentleness in his eyes, and sadness. She forced a smile. "I'm just a little sad. I came here to meet someone, but they never showed."

"I know what that can be like. I often come here hoping to meet someone, but in fourteen years, she's never showed up. When I saw you sitting there I thought you might be the one I was waiting for, but it's probably just an old stallion's wishful thinking."

"Fourteen years?" Starcross held up her pendant, but before she could say anything, tears welled up in the stallion's eyes and he threw his forelegs around her.

"Christine! Could it really be you?!"

"Pa...Papa? Are you my papa?"

The stallion let her go and looked into her tear-filled eyes. "Yes. That pendant belonged to your mother. When you disappeared from this park fourteen years ago, we thought we'd never see you again."

"I came back, Papa. Now you and me and Mama can be a family again!"

The stallion's head dropped. "Christine, I'm afraid your mother isn't with us anymore. A few years after you disappeared she got very sick and passed away. But not before...Christine, you have a little brother."

Starcross, or Christine, as she learned her name had been, didn't know whether to be happy or sad. She had found her true father only to learn that her mother was gone; but at the same time, she had discovered that she had a little brother. It was all so overwhelming that she collapsed and started to cry. Her father sat down next to her and put his forelegs around her.

"There, there, Christine. I know this is an awful lot to take in, but at least you're back home where you belong."

* * *
Sam, Starcross' father, took her back to his apartment. "I'm afraid we've only got two bedrooms and two beds. But I'll sleep on the couch so you can have my room until we can work out something more permanent."

"I can sleep on the couch, Papa. I'm not used to having much and I don't want to be any bother."

"It's no bother. I'm just happy to have you home."

Starcross looked around the small apartment. It was smaller than the trailer that she had been brought up in, but it was a permanent structure. It didn't look as drafty as the trailer, and probably didn't sway in the strong wind.

Sam went to the kitchenette and began fixing supper. "I don't know anything about you, Christine. What foods do you like? Christine?"

"Oh, Papa, could you call me 'Starcross'? I'm not used to 'Christine' yet."

Sam smiled. "Right. Starcross, what would you like for supper?"

"Chicken noodle soup would be good."

"I hope you don't mind canned soup. With my job, I haven't got time for anything fancy."

"That's fine. By the way, where's my brother?"

"Vega's on his way home from school. Or he should be if he hasn't gotten himself another detention."

Starcross smiled. It sounded like she and her brother were cut from the same cloth. As frightened and confused as she had been since her 'father's' death, she was finally starting to feel at peace. Maybe she was finally home for real.

by Sugarberry (

"I don't make mistakes." The deeply-purple stallion crossed his forelegs over his chest, his face a study of contempt. Towering over the two ponies at the elegantly laid out table before him, he made an impressive figure. So purple as to appear black under certain lighting, the stallion's red mane gave him a menacing look which the knife in his hoof accentuated.

"I say you do. This... this..." the seated stallion held up a fork full of a reddish-brown oozing substance and stared at it a moment, "... this poor excuse for sauteed sirloin tips is repulsive at best. You used too much onion and not enough mushrooms, and your choice of spices was odious."

The mare sharing the table with the antagonist patted her escort's hoof, her gaze never leaving the sharp utensil in the larger stallion's grasp. "It can't be that bad, Lyndy. I'm sure Chef Onyx knows what he's doing."

The other guests at the classy restaurant, Gourmet Galley, were by now keenly aware of the confrontation between the leading chef in Hayton and one of the city's most notable businessponies. All eating, all talking, had come to a standstill, and a pin dropping would have sounded stentorian. All eyes focused on the table in question; several of the weak-hearted diners looked rather faint, but the majority of the patrons were wide-eyed and eager to witness the outcome.

"If that were true, darling, then how can one explain this carrion on my plate?" Lyndy drawled, turning his fork over and allowing the substance to plop back to its source.

The chef's hoof tightened on the handle of the knife and his face took on a steely look. A nerve twitched near the corner of his mouth. "Then, surely, I didn't make a mistake," he finally answered. "Carrion is a vulture's favorite food, isn't it?"

The chef spoke the words so softly that only the two ponies at the table were witness to them, but everyone in the room could guess at the winner of the confrontation by the livid look on Lyndy's face and by the restraining hoof that his dinner companion laid on his foreleg when he would have risen to meet Onyx's challenge.

Onyx himself, after one long assessing look at Lyndy, returned to his kitchen.

* * *
"My, my," breathed one of the guests who, along with her mate, had been about to be seated when the altercation occurred. Her vibrant pink hair was accented against a purple body several shades lighter than the chef's. "So that's what Onyx is like when he's in his realm."

"Rather a forbidding spectacle, I'd say," returned the yellow stallion as he helped his wife into a chair. "Are you sure he's the one we want?"

Twilight Jewel chuckled. "We decided that a colorful character would be a draw even if his cooking wasn't high caliber. With Onyx, we get both the character and the caliber."

Shaking his head, Drifter was not so sure. "He won't be easy to work with."

"I never said this would be easy, now, did I?" placated the mare, touching her husband's hoof for a moment. "There will never be a dull moment."

"If we can convince the maverick chef to fall into our plan," Drifter reminded her pointedly.

"Never fear. Onyx may be Sassy and Blackcap's oldest offspring, but I'm betting that he has more sense than the two of them put together."

Once more, Drifter shook his head. This was not the first time that he wondered if his wife had targeted Onyx for his talents or for his relationship to their son's in-laws. Twilight Jewel had welcomed Garnet into the family, but she had never fully accepted Sassy and Blackcap as anything more than opportunists. Was she looking for a chance to flaunt her successful- hopefully- venture in their faces by using their son to get what she wanted?

As he looked at his wife and saw the lights dancing in her eyes, he dropped all his worrisome thoughts. She was lovely, and she was happy in this quest to establish an elite restaurant in the city. Whatever drove her, it had brought out the best in her. She was more alive, more vibrant, more beautiful, than at any time since their marriage. Drifter sighed in satisfaction before turning his attention to the menu.

* * *
"I'm telling you, Onyx, one more stunt like that, and you're out of here... premier chef or not!" The manager of the restaurant, pacing in the kitchen, failed to see the fire in the stallion's eyes or he might have been more circumspect. "For all practical purposes, you threatened Lyndy with a knife in front of a roomful of witnesses!"

Onyx's eyelids half dropped over the inferno that Paddy had kindled. "I was slicing foie gras when my presence was requested at his table."

"You could have left the knife behind!"

"I could leave this restaurant behind just as well," Onyx replied cooly.

No one knew better than Paddy what a draw the colorful chef was for the restaurant; he would never release him willingly for he understood that the personality of the chef had a lot to do with his culinary success. His hasty words had only been meant to make the obdurate chef think twice about his behavior; he did not want Onyx to walk out on him.

"No one's asking you to take such a drastic measure, Onyx," Paddy placated. "What I am asking is that you take a little more care with our customers; they have the final say on whether your presentation is good or not."

"Lyndy wouldn't know..."

Paddy intervened. "Lyndy would know just how to bring this restaurant down."

"So just like a vulture, he could feed off the remains."

"Well, yes; I wouldn't put it that way myself, but it is the truth." Paddy brushed a hoof across his perspiring forehead, then worked with his necktie to loosen it.

Feeling a touch of sympathy, Onyx relaxed his stance. "Okay, Paddy; you still have a chef... for the time being."

The manager smiled faintly. No way was he going to dig any deeper into that pregnant statement... not tonight, anyway.

* * *
The chef had removed his hat and apron and was anxious to be on his way when a staff member, Bubo, came to him. "There's a couple at their table yet who'd like to talk to you."

The raising of his brows gave Onyx a threatening look. "What about?"

"They didn't say... just wanted to know if you were available to speak with them."

"Tell them I'm..." Onyx stopped his denouncement. If some patrons had a bone to pick- Onyx snickered over the inadvertent reference to vultures again- it was better he handle it than have them take their complaint to Paddy... especially now when the manager was talking of ridding the place of him. Onyx had his own dreams, but he did not yet have the backing to realize them.

With a shrug of his shoulders, he waved a hoof, dismissing Bubo of his duty, and walked out to the main seating area where the only diners left on the premises were easy to spot. Noting by their expressions that they did not seem to be chagrined about anything, Onyx found himself breathing more naturally. He certainly did not mind a confrontation; but, on the other hoof, he did not search for one, either.

The stallion at the table stood to greet him, and a prickle of familiarity went through Onyx. He had seen this guy somewhere... and the mare still seated, surely closer to his mother's age than to his... yes! that was it... at his baby sister's wedding... the parents of the groom. He thought hard before coming up with their names but had them in his grasp as he approached the two ponies. "Drifter... Twilight Jewel." He shook their extended hooves. " Garnet and Wishbone are doing well, I hope."

"Exceedingly well," Twilight Jewel smiled. "Perhaps you haven't heard that they are expecting a foal."

The expression on the chef's face softened. "So Nettie's going to try her hoof at motherhood," he said, sitting across from Twilight Jewel.


"That's what I called my little sister when we were all home yet." Onyx grinned, giving him a much younger and more vulnerable image than the earlier face-off with Lyndy would have admitted. "She was such a slip of a thing that Garnet seemed too harsh a name for her. She also was very good at netting marks for Blackcap and Sassy."

"Do you see your parents often?" Twilight Jewel asked.

"Often enough." The tone of Onyx's voice conveyed that the subject was closed.

Drifter stepped into the void. "Twilight Jewel and I have long wanted to experience your cuisine; we found that all the hype about you in dining circles is true... on all accounts."

Swift to understand the inference, Onyx stiffened. "You witnessed the contention between Lyndy and me. I'm sorry that happened."

"Your maverick actions are as much a part of your persona as your creative cooking," Twilight Jewel smiled. "Be assured, Onyx, that we admire what you've accomplished. It's for that reason that we're here."

Something in the tone of the mare's voice caused Onyx to look at her sharply, as if seeing her for the first time. She's up to something, this one, he thought wryly. He waited in silence for her to continue.

"The meal we ate tonight was superb; you know how to bring out the best in any ingredient. It's this kind of perfection that Drifter and I would like to present to the ponies of Hayton with a new gourmet restaurant... with you in complete control of the kitchen."

Onyx stared at the mare, then glanced at her husband whose attention was on the napkin with which he was fiddling as if setting himself apart from the conversation. He turned back to Twilight Jewel. "I share your dream, but it's one that I will realize in my own time and on my own authority."

"And just when will your time come?"

His eyes never leaving the mare's face, Onyx replied, "I keep my own counsel."

The heavily-loaded silence was broken by Drifter, whose attention still seemed to be concentrated on the napkin. "Paddy seemed upset, from what we could hear." Only for the briefest moment did his gaze flash to Onyx's face, which was now closed and shuttered.

"He's always concerned about one thing or another. Now, if you'll excuse me..." The deep purple stallion got to his hooves; but before he could take a step, he was stopped by Twilight Jewel.

"What would you think of a site overlooking Sunset Lake?"

Onyx turned and snorted. "You're new to town; there's no land available out there."

"But just imagine for a moment that there was. Not only land, but a building as well."

"You're crazy." His glance encompassed the two ponies witheringly. "You're both crazy." He turned and stalked away.

Drifter looked up from the well-creased napkin and winked at his wife. "You've got his attention, my dear."

"And two-to-one, he'll be scouting the lake at daybreak tomorrow."

"Your exposure to Sassy and Blackcap last summer seems to have had a lasting effect," Drifter chuckled.

"If it helps us get what we want, so be it." She grinned dazzlingly at her husband before suggesting that they call it a night.

* * *
Twilight Jewel and Drifter waited three days before returning to Gourmet Galley, and they again timed their dinner so that they could speak with Onyx before he left the restaurant. When the chef responded to their message, he approached their table as if it housed a rattlesnake under the tablecloth rather than the respectable couple that sat in full view.

"How'd you swing it?" he asked, ignoring Drifter's invitation to sit down. He remained standing, his face brooding.

"Wildwood is getting on in years, and he doesn't have any family who would appreciate that parcel of land he has," Drifter explained nonchalantly.

"And it just so happened that we talked with him just as he was considering putting the land on the market," Twilight Jewel continued. "And he liked our proposal."

"Which was?"

Drifter turned his head to indicate the cleaning crew that had just shown up. "Is there someplace we can go where it would be more private?"

"My place," Onyx quickly stated. He would feel more comfortable on his own turf.

As the threesome crossed town, they refrained from talking as if each was too preoccupied with his or her own thoughts to even acknowledge the presence of the others. Twilight Jewel would not have been happy if she knew that Onyx, in his own mind, was comparing her and Drifter to his own parents with whom Twilight Jewel was not in harmony. Early on in his adult life, Onyx had distanced himself from the wily couple who had given him birth, but he took with him the knowledge of all their nefarious ways.

He sensed that Twilight Jewel was setting him up to fall into her and Drifter's plan for an epicurean restaurant of fine dining. In itself, that was not a problem; in fact, it was what he wanted for himself. But he distrusted the mare from his long experience with finagling types and could not help but wonder if she was helping him or using him. He would have to listen to this plan before he could correctly determine the path he would take.

Although Drifter was uncertain of the outcome of tonight's visit with Onyx, Twilight Jewel harbored no doubts. She sensed his determination to succeed, and she shared that desire. She was ready to grow beyond the small yet successful restaurant in Neighberry that had primed her for this new opportunity in Hayton, and she meant for it to be a success. For that to happen, she needed a chef of repute, ingenuity, and mastery- namely, Onyx. He would fall into her plan. He had to.

A small, plain apartment was the culmination of their trek. Twilight Jewel noted the sparse furnishings with a hint of disapproval, but she quickly realized that the bare necessities were in good taste and high quality. She sat on a simple but comfortable chair while Drifter took the sofa-bed; Onyx seemed to prefer standing, and he leaned against the counter that bordered his minuscule kitchen.

He stared at Twilight Jewel and Drifter, then drawled, "I saw the sign on Wildwood's main gate; do you care to explain?" He had spent the morning after their first visit perusing the properties around Sunset Lake to the north of Hayton and had been astonished to see a professional placard discreetly fixed to the black wrought iron gate that marked the entrance to a crusty and elderly stallion's home. Wildwood was the name of that stallion, and his domain had always been referred to by the same title. The sign had read, Coming soon... Wildwood, In Good Taste. He knew it had to be the brainchild of Twilight Jewel.

"Sunset Lake is such a charming location, don't you think, Onyx, tucked, as it is, into the foothills of the Black Mountains?" Twilight Jewel responded. "And Wildwood... its natural setting, its refined character, its understated elegance... can you imagine a better setting for an eatery in which to display your skill?"

"I'd be a fool to deny that it is a perfect location and a choice setting. But I do have my doubts that the two of you could get your hoof in the door, let alone the money to purchase Wildwood's grand property."

"You underestimate my wife's persuasive powers, Onyx," Drifter smiled. "As we stated earlier, Wildwood was already contemplating some changes. All we had to do is suggest a rather painless way for him to realize his best option."

"I'm still waiting to hear some facts."

Twilight Jewel sighed as if Onyx was stubborn indeed. Her eyes sparkling, she explained, "With no heirs to his property, Wildwood was concerned about what would become of his beautiful hideaway if something were to happen to him. He took a bad fall about a year ago and hasn't been able to ramble about the place as he was used to doing, so he had determined to let Wildwood go and find himself a smaller domicile.

"His unsurmountable problem, however, was finding a buyer for Wildwood who would respect the natural beauty of the land and the unique architecture of the house; the property had been in his family for generations, you understand, and it was a decision of paramount importance."

Onyx found Twilight Jewel's narrative interesting enough that he joined Drifter on the couch, his attention entirely focused on the import of what the mare was relaying. His mind was already leaping ahead to the possibilities, and his blood quickened. "What's the bottom line?"

"Wildwood will retain ownership of the land and all the property at this time, but we," Twilight Jewel indicated the three of them, "would own the business itself, operating out of the house-turned-restaurant which we'll be renting from Wildwood. It is so perfect, Onyx, spread out as it is on different levels!" The mare could not contain her enthusiasm. "The views from the balconies are breathtaking, even with the landscape covered with snow; I can't wait for spring when the trees and flowers and shrubbery will be a riot of color, as Wildwood assures us they will be."

"There's a caretaker's cottage apart from the main house," added Drifter, "and that's all that Wildwood wants for his personal quarters... that and the gardens attached to it, of course. And..." he grinned, "free meals. His live-in attendant isn't too clever in the kitchen."

"There's also a guest house that has fallen into some disrepair since Wildwood began living in relative seclusion," Twilight Jewel relayed. "It's spacious enough to incorporate into two apartments, if we all want a short commute."

"How long a lease?" Onyx queried, leaning forward as if he could not wait to get started.

"After a year, Wildwood will be free to assess our growth... or lack of it. At that time, he'll have the right to terminate..."

"But our investment..."

"... but he understands it may take awhile to get on our hooves and is knowledgeable enough to make a wise decision from the condition of our accounts. Besides which, he isn't going to want to go through the hassle of changing things again; he likes his peace and quiet. And I, for one, am positive that this venture will be a success; Wildwood will have no qualms about renewing our lease after the year is up."

Onyx sat in deep contemplation, trying to imagine the financial and legal demands of the enterprise being considered. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. For Wildwood to be open to such an undertaking after having guarded his property to the point of obsession for years was in itself a miracle. Now all he, Drifter, and Twilight Jewel had to do was present to the public the most extraordinary fare that any pony had ever had the pleasure of tasting. The setting would draw the customers initially; it was up to him as the chef to keep them coming back.

"You said the other evening that I'd have complete control over the kitchen. Does that still hold?"

It was Twilight Jewel who answered. "As the head chef, you will run the kitchen as you deem best... you have the choice of who will work with you, you will control the inventory, and you will be the final arbiter of the menu choices. Drifter will be responsible for the finances, payroll, and budget as well as physical upkeep. I will arrange schedules, manage the help, and oversee the smooth operation of all aspects of the restaurant, making sure that everything is working as it should and that the customers are getting all that they expect... and then taking it a step further so that they are more than satisfied."

His eyes shining with enthusiasm, Onyx was brief in his assent. "I'm in."

Silent are the Bells
by Sugarberry (

Chapter 25 of 28
The Storm Breaks

Morning light brought news, the first piece of evidence that gave Chief Roberts a glimmer of hope that his officers could now make some headway in recovering Brietta Manning. One of the officers, going out in an ever widening circle around Whitehall Place, had found a mare's hair ribbon caught on the spiny branch of a hawthorn tree two miles north of the mansion.

Now, once Lena had identified the turquoise ribbon as belonging to her daughter and Anna had verified that she was indeed wearing that particular article on the previous day, they had something tangible to go on. The majority of his ponies were directed to congregate their efforts along the route that was indicated by the location of the ribbon. Dorian and Sloan had joined the ranks of those out literally beating the bushes in search of any sign of the ponies involved in the abduction.

Aiden and Conrad received the news with optimism, but they continued their efforts to negotiate the sum of jangles that would be needed to meet Hazard's demand; they would do what was necessary to ensure Brietta's safety. The sum of money was to be electronically deposited into a specified account by noon. Anna and Lena continued to pray.

The dark and gloomy mood of the ponies was a reflection of nature's canopy; having escaped yesterday's storm, Whitehall seemed to be the center of a new system that had settled over the area, encompassing the sky with grey, threatening clouds that boiled and churned like watery waves overhead. Those ponies who were caught up in the pursuit of Brietta's abductor became increasingly nervous as the impending storm menaced them with hints of a restive power to be released.

Dorian was one of those watching the sky as he rejoined Sloan after covering his allotted area. "This storm is going to be wild when it breaks."

"It looks that way," Sloan agreed with a quick glance at the swirling clouds, his expression as tumultuous as the firmament. "Where is Brietta? Why can't we pick up any trace of her?"

"You'd think someone would have seen something," Dorian agreed. "It's like she vanished from the face of the earth."

"That's what Hazard set out to accomplish," Officer Neil said, approaching the two. "The chief wants you to return to Whitehall Place; he doesn't want to have to be bothered with more rescue work once this storm hits."

"I'd like to check in with Aiden and Conrad anyway," Sloan remarked. "Maybe Hazard will have make some contact with them."

The heavy, dark clouds seemed to be closing in on them as they walked back to the mansion. Jagged streaks of lightning played off the clouds to the west, the thunder that had been far distant now rumbling noticeably closer. The air was stagnant as if waiting for the first blow of nature's assault to be unleashed. The mid-morning light was reduced to a dismal, brooding duskiness that warned of a tempest brewing.

The stallions had just reached the front door of Whitehall Place when a jagged spike of white light streaked from the roiling clouds behind them with an accompanying growl of thunder that reverberated through the air.

* * *
Crashing over both the somnolence of the atmosphere and the mare trapped in the bell tower, the thunder echoed through Brietta's hazy bits of thoughts and impressions that had begun to resurface as the drug Hazard had used on her began to release its hold.

She was hot and cold at the same time, her skin soaked with perspiration. She laid in silent darkness as her thoughts became more oriented, the down-side being that she now felt the pain of muscles that were uncomfortably confined. She craved to open her mouth, but found it to be impossible. It even took a herculean effort to get her eyes open. Why? With sickening clarity, the events leading to her imprisonment in the bell tower came flooding back upon her as she stared into the heavy grey atmosphere around her.

Hazard. The stallion who had been responsible for Dorian's injuries and memory loss had done this to her! She strained to fight herself upright, but found that her muscles would not respond. Another fear took hold of Brietta, her memory hazy and confused. Had the drug Hazard injected into her affected her motor control? She closed her eyes and systematically tried to move her hooves, but found herself to be numb. Stay calm, she exhorted herself as her soul cried out within her. Surely Mother and Father will find me here before it's too late.

The other side of the coin was too mortifying to consider.

The mare tried to concentrate on her parents, wondering if they were home yet. How much time had gone by? She opened her eyes once more, peering outward where the slatted walls of the upper tower allowed a glimpse of the world outside. It was dark, she determined, and came to the conclusion that it must be evening; her parents and Grandfather would be here soon.

The mare had no way of determining that another stormy day had begun.

Finding herself drifting off again, Brietta fought to stay cognizant, but memories swamped her in confusing array, mingling and contorting as she tried to put them in order. Dorian was in love with Finella, but that could not be right, she chided herself. Finella loved Sloan... didn't she? A shattering truth hit the mare. I've lost Dorian and Sloan. The thought brought tears to her burning eyes and she found it difficult to swallow; she wanted to rip the gag off her mouth, but could do nothing to help herself. Grief overwhelmed her and fatigue devoured her.

She felt a heavy sleepiness tug at her senses and once more drifted into welcome oblivion.

* * *
"If the power goes out, we'll be unable to make an electronic transaction," worried Aiden as the storm moved closer.

It was difficult to tell if the charged atmosphere in the room was due to the electrical storm or the tenseness of the occupants. Aiden paced the study while Lena dabbed at her moist eyes; Sloan stared out the window, and Dorian tapped his hoof endlessly on the edge of the desk. Anna and Clarence hovered near the doorway, awaiting any need for their services. Chief Roberts had arrived at the mansion within minutes of Dorian and Sloan and was heard in the hallway communicating curtly to his officers.

Only Conrad sat quietly grim-faced but in control of his emotions.

The elderly stallion's thoughts, however, were in turmoil. There was only one other instance in his life when he had felt so helpless, and that was the night his wife had died. After a long and valiant battle against the disease that had consumed her, she had been taken away from him and her son in the space of a heartbeat.

He had been devastated in his grief, overwrought with the helplessness that he had felt as his wife's life had slowly grown weaker and had finally slipped away from him. He had been able to do nothing... nothing!... to protect her and save her. He had lost a part of his own life that long ago night.

Dear God, he prayed, please keep Brietta safe! Please don't take another part of me.

* * *
The sleep that had overcome Brietta inched away; but in its place a stupor settled over her, shielding her body from the physical discomfort that was becoming too intense for her to handle and the mental anguish that threatened to tear her apart. Lost everything... no hope... want to die... God, let me die! The cry was silent, but it rent her soul. All will to fight, to live, ebbed into nothingness... all feeling slipped beyond scope... nothing was tangible...

A cold raindrop filtered through the thin apertures of the tower as the heavens opened to release a downpour of rain. At the same time, a web of lightning crossed the sky; and the wind picked up, causing the tower to shudder. From a tentative distance, Brietta felt the touch of the water and noted the temporary brightness and heard the power of the wind; but she could not react. She could only perceive the reality through a haze of other-worldliness, a filmy curtain that protected her sensibilities.

From her deeply incurred detachment, Brietta vaguely realized that she was not alone in the bell tower; it was an ethereal impression for her at first, but it grew stronger and forced her to open her eyes. Hovering near her was a pale, spectral image of a pony radiating a soft, blue light tinged with pink and transfused with the color of the daffodils of springtime. Showing no fear, Brietta tried to greet the apparition. Grandmother. Her voice, however, was not forthcoming, so Brietta could only stare in profound wonder.

Although the gauzy mare that poised before Brietta now had been gone from life since long before Brietta's birth, Brietta was familiar with the appearance of her grandmother from the picture in the locket only recently recovered. Its retrieval had made a lasting impression on Brietta, a tangible memory of a grandmother she could not possibly have otherwise known because Conrad had relegated the memories of his life with Myrna to a private place, a limbo where even the ringing of the bells was held captive.


Although Brietta could not speak, she could think- albeit in a befuddled sort of way- her mind being influenced by the drug, the lack of food and water, the panic she had felt at her abduction, and the abandonment she suffered from Sloan's dismissal and Dorian's's desertion. She felt the love and concern emanating from her grandmother and found comfort in that solicitude for her safety.

Yet Brietta knew that it was now beyond her grandmother's power to stop what Hazard had set in motion, nor did she want to be saved to face a continuation of a life devoid of two of the ponies who had meant the world to her. Sloan and Dorian had both forsaken her, and Brietta could no longer count on them.

Myrna, she decided, was there, not to rescue her but to lead her to heaven.

Grandmother, ask God to end this suffering soon. I want to be free of this wretched body... and this discontented mind. I understand how devastated Grandfather was to lose you... now that I've lost Dorian. It was bad enough losing Sloan years ago; I can't live through that dejection again. Grandmother, take me with you!

The gossamer image of pink and blue seemed to come nearer to the mare's fragile body, casting a loving smile on Brietta as it did so; an ethereal hoof reached out to caress her cheek, tracing a tingling sensation along its course. The touch reacted like an electrical charge rushing through Brietta's system, so that for a moment Brietta felt a shudder of hope; but as quickly as it came, it passed away.

I want to die, Grandmother; please don't interfere with that. Let me go with you!

A look of intense pleading bathed Brietta's eyes, a powerful yearning for an escape from her bondage, the power to obtain the light and buoyancy of the spirit that confronted her; but the vision only smiled upon her, and Brietta heard as from another dimension the hushed murmur of a diaphanous voice.

Listen for the bells, Brietta.

The ripple of sound, if it had truly been uttered, lingered on the air until it was vaporized by a brilliant flash of light and a ponderous rumble of sound as lightning crashed over the bell tower and unbridled wind gusted into its side.

The booming of nature was joined by another sound, however, the clear and beckoning chime of the bells; the tower was filled with a chorus of measured beat and treasured peal, a song that Brietta had yearned to hear for so many years; a part of her mind contemplated the beauty of the timbre while another part rejoiced to finally experience the clear, sweet melody of those bells.

My death knell. How welcome it is. Thanks, Grandmother.

With the bells belaboring their message, Brietta slipped once more into deep unconsciousness.

* * *
Downstairs, the family had reached a fevered pitch of nerves as the ferocity of the storm broke across Whitehall Place. Lena, frightened by the wild blackness around them in the middle of the day, clung to her husband in obvious distress. As the wind picked up and the lightning flashed, she was nearly undone as the power went out, leaving the room in unnatural darkness. The buffeting of the wind created weird reverberations of sound as shutters battered and tree branches groaned, but one sound stood out above all the wild ruckus.

The bells were ringing.

No one moved as all the ponies strained to catch the cadence of the bells that filled the angry air.

Roberts was the first to vocalize a comment. "The wind... it's powerful enough to cause the bells to sound?"

"They're tied down; they can't be ringing," Conrad replied, his voice strangely subdued by the mysteriousness of the situation. His own hoof had silenced those bells, of that he was sure.

Quiet reigned within the room as the last fascinating tones came to an end, creating a ready stage for Sloan's abrupt outburst. The stallion had been haunted by his inability to come to Brietta's aid; and the passage of time had only accentuated the horrible feeling that, somehow, he was missing something important. Now his enlightenment was no less dazzling than the ragged streaks of lightning that ravaged the sky.

"The bell tower! That's where Brietta is!"

With a mad dash, the stallion quit the room and headed for the staircase.

Officer Neil and several of his cohorts were lingering in the entrance hall awaiting the storm to subside when Sloan dashed by them. "What the..." Neil muttered, taking off after the apparently crazed stallion.

Sprinting up the stairs, Sloan made quick work of gaining the third floor apartments; with a herculean effort, he began moving the work ponies' accouterments out of his way to gain access to the hidden tower entrance. Officer Neil joined in, not fully understanding the import of these actions, but willing to assist. Dorian was close behind. In short order, fueled by adrenalin, the stallions had the passageway cleared.

Finding the tower door locked- as always- Sloan bellowed, "Conrad, the key!" but he could not wait for the delivery of that item; crazed with worry and fear, the stallion began throwing himself against the door, over and over, until his weight and power forced the vintage latch to break; the release carried Sloan with it as the door opened and banged into the tower wall. Recovering quickly, Sloan dashed up the narrow tower stairs with Dorian and Officer Neil close behind him.

The dreary weather made the confined space of the tower loft a haven of dark shadows so that at first Sloan could not make out with any clarity what his eyes were searching for; but Officer Neil clicked on his flashlight and in the small space found the limp and lifeless body of Brietta where Hazard had left her, tied and gagged and drugged.

"Brietta!" Sloan called out, immediately setting to work to release her from the bonds that held her. "Oh, God, Brietta!" He removed the cloth that had constrained her mouth and, tossing it to the side, cradled her face in his hooves. "Brietta, can you hear me?" he whispered in a ragged breath.

There was no response, other than the sagging of her head as Neil and Dorian succeeded in untying the ropes that held her appendages secure. Without their support, her body crumpled pitifully as another gust of wind laden with cold rain slapped at the tower, causing the stallions to shiver from both the sight of Brietta and the colder temperatures that followed the storm.

The shiver enveloped Sloan's body as the awful thought struck him that they had found Brietta too late. His intellect struggled to maintain control of the situation, but he felt as if he was losing his mind. Never had he felt so entirely incompetent. Officer Neil's voice, however, gave him hope.

"There's a pulse."

Dorian finished cutting the last of the bindings that had held Brietta so tightly and was reaching to lift her wasted body when Sloan moved ahead of him and took the mare into his own forelegs, carrying her carefully down the constricted stairwell, across the hallway, and to the recently remodeled bedroom that Brietta had vacated until she and Dorian would share it as husband and wife. Lena was there ahead of him to pull back the coverlet, and Sloan settled Brietta gently onto the bed, brushing the matted mane from her face before abdicating his position to Lena and Aiden who hovered over their daughter in relief that she had been found... and in agony to see her so helpless.

"Brietta, honey, wake up!" Aiden patted his daughter's face gently, willing her eyes to open, but to no avail. "She should be at the hospital," Aiden muttered as Officer Neil ran his hooves over her extremities, checking for any broken bones or any wounds beyond the blaring red marks where the tenacious ropes had left their blemish.

"She's better off here with all the rain that's falling outside," Officer Roberts reminded him as he assessed the situation.

"There's no major damage," Office Neil reported, "other than the rope burn and exposure." He had begun to pull back when he suddenly isolated his attention to an angry red lump on her hip. From past experience, he knew the cause. "She's been injected with something," he noted.

"There's a doctor on the way," Chief Roberts reported. "We were able to get a message through. He'll be able to determine what it was and what its effects will be."

"In the meantime," Office Neil recommended, "her legs should be massaged." He directed his attention to Lena. "She hasn't been able to move since those bindings were put on her, so her nerves and muscles are going to be rebelling about now. She's lucky to be sleeping through this."

He set Lena and Aiden to work on her forelegs; and Clarence and Anna slipped into place at her back legs, grateful to do something useful for the mare. The two police officers left the room to discuss their plans now that Brietta was safe... for the time being; no one could forget that Hazard was still on the loose. They knew there had to be an accomplice, but who he was would remain a mystery until Brietta was conscious.

Waiting impatiently, pacing and praying, Sloan and Dorian felt as if their own hooves were tied as they watched Brietta's family care for her, the stallions inadvertently cut off from the mare who had come to mean so much to both of them. When Lena suggested that a cool cloth on Brietta's forehead might help bring her around, Dorian dashed into the adjacent bathroom and soaked a washcloth with water, relieved to finally be able to bring some sort of comfort to the mare, insignificant though it was. Brietta slept on without a quiver of acknowledgment.

When the clatter of hooves sounded on the stairs, announcing the arrival of medical help, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. It was too much, however, for Dorian and Sloan when Dr. Finella accompanied the paramedics into the room; the stallions exchanged a look of incredulity. The tangled drama around them could have been sorted more easily without another key player's presence.

Dr. Finella was not thwarted by the circumstances of the personal involvements in play; she immediately took control of the situation, directing her attention to the unconscious mare with a professionalism that served to comfort Aiden and Lena. Now their daughter was in good hooves, and soon she would be restored to them.

* * *
"She's exhausted; and with the drug lingering in her system, she'll want to sleep for some time yet," Finella, finished with her examination and testing of the mare, informed the waiting family clustered in what would have been Dorian and Brietta's living room. "Considering what she's been through, Brietta is holding her own quite well."

"Is there anything more we can do?" asked Lena. "Should she be moved to the hospital?"

"She's warm and dry here," smiled Finella with a glance to the wet windowpanes, "and we've done everything that's needed; for now, rest is the most important thing for her."

"Did she say anything about her abduction?" asked Roberts.

"She barely opened her eyes; she won't be able to give you any information for awhile, chief. It will take some time for her mind to clear if the drug she was given is what I think it was; lab reports will verify that, of course, but I would suggest that you forget about questioning her until at least this evening."

"Time is of the essence, doctor, if we hope to apprehend those responsible for Miss Manning's current condition; she's the only one who knows for sure who came to the door yesterday afternoon."

"She's in no condition to tell you anything," Dr. Finella stated with finality. "Questioning her would be a waste of your time and a detriment to her recovery."

Chief Roberts was not about to back down. "All I need from her is one name; we know who's responsible, but we have no idea who his accomplice is. That piece of information is critical if we hope to apprehend these creeps."

"Roberts is right." Conrad stepped forward, the authority in his voice informing Dr. Finella that his word would be taken as law. "We need that fact." The elderly stallion shifted his steely gaze to Chief Roberts. "But I'll be the one to attempt the questioning." No one made a move as Conrad strode off to his granddaughter's bedside.

Officer Neil returned to the room. "The power lines have been repaired; everything's operational again."

"Good!" exclaimed Anna. "I'll go make everybody some coffee." She set off, gratified to have something to keep her thoughts occupied.

"And some sandwiches, too, Anna," Dr. Finella called after the mare. "I suspect everyone here has been neglecting their own needs." The doctor turned her attention to Lena. "You've been through a lot yourself, Lena; I'd suggest that you sit down and collect yourself; and when Anna returns, I want you to eat something."

"She's right, Lena," Aiden said, guiding his wife to a chair. "Brietta is safe now, so stop your worrying."

Lena's eyes roved to the doorway of Brietta's room. "I won't believe she's okay until she tells me that herself, Aiden."

* * *
Conrad looked down on his sleeping granddaughter and tenderly brushed a hoof across her pale cheek. "Brietta..." he said brusquely. There was no indication that the mare had heard.

Pulling up a chair to the bedside, the stallion sat down and gathered Brietta's right hoof into his, her other foreleg attached to an IV. As he gazed down at her face framed with purple hair against the support of the pillow, he was vividly reminded of the time he had spent at his beloved Myrna's bedside in those long days before she had slipped away from him. That feeling of futility, of susceptibility, threatened to engulf him; and unbidden tears sprang from his eyes to run unchecked down his cheeks. Myrna had been young; it had seemed unfair then, and it seemed utterly cruel now. How could this have happened?

Angrily, Conrad brushed the tears away. He had come here for a purpose, to find out who had taken advantage of Brietta's friendship to enmesh her in such nefarious doings.

"Brietta!" he said, more loudly than before and with a cutting edge to his voice from the tumult of his emotions.

There was the faintest flicker of an eyelid, and Conrad leaned over the prostrate form on the bed to kiss the mare's forehead. "Brietta, can you hear me? It's Grandfather."

The stallion waited, watching for a further sign of cognizance, and was rewarded to see Brietta's eyelids fight to lift. The attempt was unsuccessful, but it gave Conrad hope.

"Brietta, did you hear the bells?" A low, throaty chuckle escaped him and turned into a sob. "You were bound and determined to have your way with those bells, weren't you? I would have rung the bells day and night to have spared you this ordeal, you know."

Conrad was rewarded with a lazy opening of the mare's eyes, clouded and unfocused. "Gr... fath..." she croaked, a frown creasing her forehead.

"Oh, my darling granddaughter," whispered the stallion with an emotion that would have surprised most of the ponies who knew him. "You've been through a horrid ordeal, but you're safe now."

"Gran... moth... er?" Brietta stumbled over the word, trying so hard to enunciate.

Confused, Conrad did not respond. Was Brietta rambling due to the effects of the drug? Noticing a glass of water on the night stand by the bed, Conrad offered it to Brietta, cradling her head as he held the drink to her lips. The mare managed a small sip before turning her head away, and Conrad settled her on the pillow once more.

"She... was... there." Brietta whispered, then closed her eyes from the effort of that speech.

"Myrna?" Conrad asked. "She was there?"

For a moment, Brietta did not answer; and as time went on, Conrad thought she had drifted off to sleep again. But suddenly, the mare's eyes opened. "She... rang... bells."

Her eyes were clearer now, Conrad noticed, but what was going on in her mind that made her think that her grandmother had been with her? The stallion sighed. Daily, he wished Myrna could be with him again. He sat in silence, lost to some private reverie before shaking his head determinedly to return to the matter at hoof.

"Brietta," said Conrad, brushing his hoof through her mane, "who came to the door when you were here alone yesterday?"

"Yes... ter... day?" whispered Brietta, her forehead furrowing again as she thought hard.

"Your parents and I had gone to Grantsburg and Anna and Clarence had gone to Whitehall; you were here by yourself, and somebody came to the front door. Do you remember going downstairs and looking out to see who was there?"

As Conrad watched her face, Brietta's eyes grew wet with tears and she clutched at his hoof in apparent desperation. Conrad could read the events of yesterday in her eyes as they grew angry, then fearful, then spilled over with a surfeit of tears. "Trey..." she whispered through her distress.

"Tray?" Conrad looked around the room. "What tray?"

"He said... he wanted... to see the house; but... he wasn't alone."

"Who was there, Brietta?"

"Hazard... Hazard and Trey."

"Trey is a pony then?"

Brietta did not hear the question; she was lost in her thoughts; her voice came in a ragged whisper. "I was so scared. They left me in the bell tower. Grandmother came for me. She rang the bells, though, instead of taking me with her. I wanted to go with her, Grandfather." Brietta turned to bury her face in the pillow and sobbed as if her heart would break while Conrad tried unsuccessfully to calm her down. As he patted her shoulder and tried to reassure her that everything was okay, Lena came flying into the room.

"I heard Brietta crying," she said, near tears herself to see her daughter in so much distress. She hugged the mare to her, whispering her name over and over while smoothing down her mane just as she had done when Brietta was a foal, and slowly the crying stopped. Brietta allowed her mother to settle her back in the bed and arrange the covers over her.

Conrad, seeing that Lena's presence was bringing comfort to his granddaughter, eased himself out of the room.

* * *
"What did you learn?" asked Chief Roberts.

Conrad gave him a dismissing glance and turned his attention to Aiden. "Brietta talked to me a little bit, but she's still very agitated; Lena's calming her down, and I think she'll sleep now."

"Was she able to verify that Hazard was involved?" queried Sloan.

"Yes. It appears she recognized him from Dorian's description."

"And anyone else?"

"Trey, she said... Hazard and Trey."

"Do any of you know this Trey?" Roberts asked, motioning for Officer Neil to get ready for action.

Sloan and Aiden shook their heads in the negative, but Dorian growled. "That creep! I should have thrown him over the ledge when I had the chance!"

"You're acquainted with a stallion by that name, Dorian?"

"He's Bram Brady's relative... brother-in-law, I think; Brie met him through Bram."

"You didn't approve?" queried Officer Neil.

"Trey thought he was the gods' gift to mares, but Brie couldn't stand him. Bram's wife managed to strand Brie out at the ledge at twilight alone with the cad. I happened to come by just as he was trying to play Casanova."

"And you think Miss Manning would have willingly opened the front door to this stallion?"

"Bram is a close friend of Brie's, and she would have taken that into consideration."

Roberts looked doubtful, but Neil asked, "Does he live around here?"

"No; at least, I don't think so. I think Brie said he was from Durand, but he travels a lot... into antiques and collectibles and things like that."

"Get on it, Neil; check Brady's place first and see if they know where this Trey is. But be discreet... I don't want anyone to realize that Miss Manning has been rescued. As far as Hazard knows at this point, Aiden is simply having trouble getting the funds together because of the electrical outage and the storm. That's the message we'll keep relaying to him. As long as he remains in the dark about his hostage's recovery, we have time to track him down."

"He could be anywhere," worried Aiden. "Anywhere at all."

Chapter 26 of 28
A Tangled Web

"The lab reports are done," Finella told the family later that day. "There will be no lasting effects from the drug once Brietta has slept off the effects. When she wakes up again, she'll want some food... Anna, I'm sure you know what would be appropriate."

"Yes, doctor."

"I'll be returning to town now as I'm sure Brietta will have no further need of my services; however, if you have any concerns, get it touch with me at any time."

"It's still raining; you're welcome to spend the night," fussed Lena.

"I have my rain gear," Finella smiled. "But thank you for your concern."

Roberts intervened. "For the sake of appearances, it would be advisable for Sloan or Dorian to escort you back to town; if the house is being watched by Hazard or Trey, we wouldn't want to attract their suspicion."

"As if the arrival of the paramedics hadn't already alerted them?" asked Aiden with a raised brow.

"They came out with the electrical company employees," Roberts revealed. "No one can suspect much from that. And as Dr. Finella is a friend of the family, she wouldn't be noted as an extraordinary guest of the Manning's. However, being seen in the company of a stallion might verify that it was a visit out of friendship rather than necessity."

Sloan and Dorian exchanged a speaking glance before Dorian cleared his throat and responded. "I'll walk Finella back to town."

* * *
"It's unusual for the rain to last so long after a thunderstorm has moved on," commented Finella to break the silence that hung between her and Dorian as they sloshed through the puddles that abounded. Her cape kept the falling rain off, but the water splashing up from each and every depression in the path had already soaked her extremities to an uncomfortable degree.

Dorian cast a sideways glance at the mare. "Finella, there's something you should know. My memory has returned."

"That's great!" the doctor returned; but after thinking the news through, she added, "That complicates things, doesn't it?"

"You could say that," Dorian replied tersely.

Both ponies withdrew into their private thoughts, and it was only after Dorian had helped Finella over a rough spot in the path that the doctor found her voice again.

"If your love for Brietta is clear to you again, where do I stand?"

"Don't ask me to answer that question yet, Finella. I only recovered my memory after I heard that Brie had been abducted, and I haven't been thinking too objectively since then." He looked at her suddenly as if just realizing something. "You don't know... Brie gave back the engagement ring the night before Hazard got to her; we're no longer betrothed."

"Why would she have done that?"

"I told her that I was in love with you."


"Talk about timing. If I'd have kept my mouth shut for just a little longer, she would never have had to know."

"So the recovery of your memory has obliterated the feelings you had for me?" There was a quiver in Finella's voice, and Dorian had the grace to look shamefaced.

"I don't know what I feel anymore; it's as if two parts of me are doing battle. I need some time to think."

Little more was said until the ponies reached Finella's apartment. Dorian stepped inside to escape the rain, dripping onto the entry carpeting.

"I'll get you a towel," Finella said, turning to fetch one.

"I'll only get wet again," Dorian stopped her.

"You won't stay for awhile?" Finella asked. "I could fix some coffee..."

"I'd like to sort things out on my own," Dorian said, hating himself for being responsible for the sadness that appeared in the mare's eyes. His rejection of beautiful ponies was becoming a habit, one he did not want to cultivate. On the plus side, Finella had no ring to hurl at him in anger. "I'll call you tomorrow; by then, I'll need someone to talk to."

Fire flashed in Finella's eyes. "Brietta can talk to you by then; I'll be busy at the hospital all day."

"I don't want to cut you off, Finella."

"Just leave, Dorian, and do your thinking."

She turned to go into the living room, but Dorian caught her foreleg and forced her to look at him. "Tell me one thing. Were you and Sloan ever serious about one another?"


"Then why does Brie think that the two of you are so close?"

"I told you once that Sloan has been attentive to me since we first met coincidentally at Pembrook and he found that I was going to do my internship here in Whitehall. But he has never said or done a thing to engage my feelings for him; our friendship has been simply that... a friendship. If you ask me, he was..." Finella stopped and tried to wrest her foreleg from Dorian, but he held his grip firmly.

"Sloan was what?"

"He was using me somehow to get at Brietta."

"For what reason?"

"How should I know? He never confided in me about his relationship with her. It sometimes seemed to me that he wanted her and avoided her at the same time."

Dorian released his grip on her. "That's quite a contradiction, isn't it? What game is Sloan playing?"

"You'll have to ask him," Finella said, suddenly too exhausted by the emotional turmoil to fight anymore. "Good night, Dorian."

The stallion stared at the mare, conscious of emotions that threatened to tear him apart. It was as if he was two different stallions in one body... one of which found Brietta irresistible... the other, Finella. On an impulse, he pulled the doctor close and kissed her, motivated by the turbulence within him. When the kiss ended, he whispered, "Tomorrow, Finella; we'll talk tomorrow."

Then, he slipped away.

* * *
"Have you traced him yet?" Chief Roberts asked as he paced his office at police headquarters.

The young officer who had just entered the room flinched. "No, sir. But we've..."

"I thought we were using the best sleuths we had for the job," Roberts ranted. "I want some results!"

"We're making progress, sir. It's just..."

"I don't want excuses. You have all the equipment you need and the brains to trace the computer being used. And you still can't tell me where Hazard is hiding out?"

"We're honing in on his location. We can tell you he's not in Capital City; we believe he's gone east, probably to New Pony."

"That makes it easy then, doesn't it?" Roberts asked sarcastically.

Another officer came to the door. "A message just came through; Hazard has set a new deadline. He wants the full amount in his account by nine tonight."

Roberts took a quick look at the clock. "That's less than two hours away. You've got to pinpoint his position; we can't let him get away. I suggest you get back to your computer and find him!"

"Yes, sir!" Both officers left their nettled superior officer and were replaced by Officer Neil, back from his questioning of Bram.

"You'd better have some news," Roberts spat.

"Brady hadn't seen his brother-in-law for weeks, but his wife- Trey's sister- admitted that Trey had lunch with her yesterday. She said he was excited because he was going to look at some antiques that afternoon outside of Whitehall. He wouldn't tell her where, but she got the impression it was some wealthy pony; her brother said he was going to enjoy bringing this particular pony down a peg or two."

"And Miss Manning spurned him, according to Dorian."

"The question is, where did he hole up after leaving Whitehall Place? Hazard would have no further use of him."

"No. The dirty work was done." Roberts thought a moment. "The ribbon that was found; who do you suspect planted it to the north of the mansion, Hazard or Trey?"

"Hazard would have his minion do it."

"And Trey would keep going once he was rid of it."

"Straight north."

The two stallions looked at one another for a brief moment before Roberts set things in motion to have the search for Trey concentrated in Excelsior.

* * *
The colder temperature along with the wind-driven rain should have been a serious discomfort to Dorian as he walked back to his apartment, but his mind was so busy sorting out all the repercussions of this day that he did not notice anything at all. In the course of a hoof-full of hours, he had: baldly told Brietta he no longer loved her, for Finella had taken her place; recovered the missing months in his memory banks, realizing that Brietta was his number one priority; and intimated to Finella that he no longer cared for her. The possibility that either mare would give him a second chance was doubtful. What a tangled web!

Unlocking his apartment, Dorian opened the door and walked in, shaking the raindrops off his body before turning on the lights. Once he flipped the switch, he took one look across the room and stared, his thoughts suddenly paralyzed.

"She's been found, then?" the red stallion who stood there asked.

Dorian shook his head as if to clear it. "Yes. She's been found." He accepted the towel that the stallion held out to him and began to rub down his still dripping hair, but he kept his eyes on the intruder.

"I figured. You wouldn't have come back here if things were still up in the air. Now what?"

Nearly choking, Dorian spat, "I told you, Hazard, that I didn't want to go along with your plan, and you threw me over the cliff!"

"My associates got carried away. And if I'd have wanted you out of the way permanently, you would have been. I didn't pick the most vertical spot, now, did I?"

"I was this close," Dorian held up his hooves with a very small space between them, "to getting my hoof in the door of Whitehall Place as the preeminent son-in-law of the Mannings, and you stifled everything for me... you and your greed." He threw the wet towel on the floor and flung himself onto the sofa.

Hazard snorted. "You were so head-over-heals in love with that mare that you would never have gotten around to doing anything practical with that old mansion."

"Don't underestimate me, Hazard."

"I told you years ago, Dorian, that I had high hopes for you." The stallion shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe you still have a shot at glory."

"And what about you, Hazard? Where do you go from here?"

"That's why I'm here. I need your help to get out of the country."

Dorian eyed the older stallion with a smirk. "Where are all your goons now?"

"Two are behind bars on other charges, one is a sitting duck up in Excelsior, and the rest... well, there comes a time when you have to wonder who your true friends are. So here I am."

"What? Me? You tried to kill me! That's not how friends treat friends!"

"I've already explained that. Joe and Gabby were just supposed to rough you up a bit."

Dorian gazed at the stallion with contempt, then shook his head. "Well, I don't like it, but I'm in a bind myself right now."

Making himself comfortable in a chair, Hazard prodded for more. "Go on."

"Before you got your hooves on Brie, I told her I didn't love her anymore."

Hazard glared at the stallion. "Stupid! What'd ya do that for?"

"Because of you, Hazard, my brain was pretty much muddled." Dorian returned the glare, then continued. "It's going to be difficult to get back on track with her; and if I don't, I lose my bid for Whitehall Place, too."

"I can't help you there. Either the mare will accept you back on your own merits or she won't."

"But if she does take me back, I'm going to need your connections to carry out the plans for the mansion. So you see, we need each other."

"What becomes of me in the meantime?" Hazard queried, settling back in his chair as if already having a load lifted off his shoulders."

"We'll get you out of the country as you suggested; I won't need you right away, especially if Brie drags her hooves about getting our relationship back on steady ground."

"I'd rather be where I can keep an eye on things."

"You're out of the picture without me, Hazard. Take it or leave it. I'll help you get away from the cops, and you wait for word from me when it's safe to return. We'll be partners."

"I don't like it."

"Do you want Whitehall Place or not?"

Dropping his gaze from Dorian's set face, Hazard finally made his decision. "Okay. We'll do it as you say."

"Great!" said Dorian, getting to his hooves. "Now, there is one slight problem..."

"I should have known," growled Hazard, getting to his hooves to meet Dorian. "What is it?"


"What's he got to do with it? He dumped the mare long ago, from what I've heard."

"Yes, but he's still interested in her; and she's vulnerable now, what with the ordeal you put her through. If he gets in the door ahead of me to comfort Brietta and ingratiate himself with her family, she might pick him."

"So what do you have in mind?"

"Without Sloan in the picture, I'll be the one the Mannings depend on."

Showing an interest that bordered on glee, Hazard asked, "How do we do it?"

"Same MO," Dorian said. "Over the cliff; only we'll aim at the steepest, most dangerous spot out there. Everyone will suspect you, Hazard, not me; and you'll be halfway across the globe by then while I'm here ready to hold Brie's hoof and take over Sloan's influence at the office."

"I like it," Hazard grinned maliciously, then soured. "How do you plan on getting me out of here with all the cops around?"

"Nothing easier. The cops will have their attention on Whitehall Place until they realize that you're not going to communicate with them again. By then, they'll think you've already skipped the country."

"When do we strike?"

"What deadline did you give the police for the jangles exchange?"

"Nine tonight."

Looking at the clock, Dorian calculated. "That's less than an hour away; when they don't hear from you..." Dorian looked at Hazard strangely. "Who was sending the e-mails? You've never touched a computer in your life."

"Trey took care of it once he got to Excelsior."

"So that's what you meant by a sitting duck," Dorian chuckled.

Hazard shrugged. "I figure they'll trace it sooner or later."

The two stallions exchanged a grin, then Dorian got his mind back on business.

"We'll aim at midnight; the cops will think you're long gone by that time, and Sloan should be back in his apartment, assuming he goes home after things quiet down at Whitehall Place."

"Good," said Hazard, his eyes focused on the kitchen. "That gives us plenty of time to cook-up something to eat."

* * *
It was eleven-thirty when Dorian put his call through to Sloan's private number- with Hazard watching him like a hawk, not so trusting that he would not put it past Dorian to stab him in the back if the chance arose- and in no time at all, Sloan picked up. Hazard moved closer to listen.

"McClere," was all Sloan said, but his voice was tense after the events of the day.

"Sloan, it's Dorian. I've got some word on Hazard; this plot of his goes deeper than we thought. Meet me at the ledge in one hour, so we can discuss it... let's say at that rendezvous point Brie and the Whitehall natives call Godfrey's Gallop."

There was a moment of dead silence. Then Sloan asked, "Why there?"

"Because I have the feeling Hazard is having this place watched. I'd rather this meeting took place out in the open where I can see where the enemy is."

"Remember what happened the last time..."

"Sloan. This is terribly important; it concerns Brie's future. Remember, buddy... Godfrey's Gallop, one hour."

Dorian hung up the phone and winked at Hazard.

* * *
Under cover of the gloomy, wet night, Dorian and Hazard made their way to the ledge, picking their steps carefully as the steady rain had turned the path into a cumbersome and menacing trap that threatened to down any pony who tried to make decent headway. The bad conditions did make their attempt to stay anonymous easier, however, in that visibility was reduced by the curtain of rain that drummed the earth in addition to the cloud cover which allowed not a single moonbeam to penetrate. It also covered any inadvertent sounds that were made, especially when one of the stallions slipped and fell.

"Oof!" grunted Hazard, finding himself in a muddy puddle at the edge of the path close to the bordering trees. His grunts and groans as he lifted himself from the morass seemed to amuse Dorian, if the chuckle from the surrounding darkness meant anything.

Continuing their hazardous trek to the west of Whitehall, the two stallions had only one tense moment when hoofsteps on the path ahead of them forced them to go under cover of a large, overspreading tangle of bushes several yards to their right. They had no sooner gotten themselves hidden when a lone stallion, unfamiliar to both of them, trod by, his steps no more sure than their own.

The last part of their journey proved uneventful, although both stallions were by now coated in mud and grime. The rain had finally petered out to a sprinkle; but the wind had picked up, slanting the fewer raindrops into their skin like shards. Dorian went to the edge of the cliff and looked down, determining their position.


"Godfrey's Gallop, you called it?"

"Yeah. Some old tale about a stallion that was dared to jump over the ledge to save a beautiful princess."

"Did he do it?"

"Yes; he galloped to the very edge and practically flew out into the void; and because he was pure of heart, the gods saw fit to grant him wings in that moment of need. He flew back to conquer the aggressor and rescue the princess... and lived happily ever after, no doubt."

"Pretty story," scoffed Hazard. "I'll bet he wasn't soaked with cold rain and covered in gruesome mud at the time."

"At least we know that Sloan is as uncomfortable as us," Dorian said under his breath.

"And if he isn't, we'll soon make him so," chortled Hazard. "We could use a weapon of some sort to strengthen our odds." He began rummaging through the darkness for a fallen branch. Finding one for himself and a smaller one for Dorian, he whispered, "Armed and ready."

By this time, the rain had stopped all together; and the clouds were parting overhead to allow some moonlight to penetrate and soften the harsh blackness of the night. Nocturnal creatures took advantage of the cessation of the rain to begin their foraging in the underbrush.

Standing under a semi-protective box-elder tree, Hazard and Dorian waited for the arrival of the unsuspecting Sloan. Dorian stood upright, every sense on the alert to the steady fall of hoofsteps approaching from the direction they had just come. Hazard slouched against the tree trunk, his attention seemingly glued to the ragged condition of a front right hoof.

Yet, it was Hazard who first became aware of the third pony's imminent arrival. "He's comin'," he hissed at Dorian.

"Only one?"


The grey pony, his violet hair still slicked down by the rain, stepped out to meet the new arrival while the red pony, his black locks splattered with mud, remained in the shadow of the tree. Sloan, in no better condition than the others, came to a standstill facing his friend.

"Godfrey's Gallop at midnight," Sloan said. "It seems melodramatic somehow."

"As it should," said Dorian; and before Sloan could respond, Hazard lunged from the darkness, his makeshift weapon raised and aimed at Sloan's head.

In that brief moment, the entire top of the ledge came to life. A spotlight beamed out, encircling the struggle that was now ensuing as Sloan, Hazard, and Dorian fought on the slippery ground. Chief Roberts, Officer Neil, and a swarm of other officers came efficiently to join in the fray.

It was Hazard who sensed the danger. Shoving Sloan away from him, the red stallion grabbed Dorian, pulling him dangerously close to the slippery brink of the ledge and using him effectively as a shield between him and the pursuers.

"You set me up!" roared Hazard, tightening his grip on Dorian with an inner fury that gave him the strength of Atlas.

"You've no place to go!" boomed Chief Roberts in return. "Release Dorian and give yourself up."

Darting nervous glances to the left and right, Hazard saw that Roberts was correct. Every level piece of ground was occupied by an officer. Behind him, he knew, was complete emptiness- the drop-off to the cliff base far below.

"I'm not going over alone!" he barked, taking a step backward, pulling Dorian with him.

"What's the use?" argued Roberts. "Your chances at surviving a fall aren't that good. With us, you'll at least by warm and dry before the hour's up."

"Consider it, Hazard," choked Dorian, seriously trying to hold Hazard's attention long enough for Officer Neil, who was the closest of the ponies to their position, to rush in and grab the renegade stallion. "Take my word for it... a fall off the ledge isn't fun."

"And to think I could have been done with you that night!" Hazard angrily shoved Dorian, sending him slipping dangerously close to the point of no return.

But that action had diverted Hazard's attention just enough that Officer Neil made his move; rushing in to collar the reprobate, Neil was within inches of grasping his quarry when Hazard, suddenly aware of the nearness of his capture, swung around as if to reassess his predicament when he stumbled over a rock and plunged over the edge of the cliff.

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