Midwinter Nightmare
written by Clever Clover

The imposing edifice of the Pony Sea Patrol Zodiac Island Fortress loomed over the still ocean. The pale moon cast a long shadow into the night. Near the top of the imposing citadel, Commander Leo sat behind his desk reviewing the daily status report. Everything was normal- everything, that is, except the Sea Patrol’s guests: the wizard Jack O Lantern and his apprentice Hemlock. Three of the most powerful sorcerers in the Sea Patrol had been assigned to Zodiac Island to oversee the captives until a permanent prison could be arranged.

At any one time one of the three would be on guard, monitoring the anti-magic cell where the prisoners were being held. In the weeks since the prisoners had been brought to the fortress, all had been quiet- unnervingly quiet. The two prisoners simply sat in their cells with their eyes closed except at feeding time. They ate little; but since they did little, they had no great need of food.

Their presence bothered Leo. He had never been comfortable with magic and magic-users. All things that he could not control nor comprehend were like that. He had just gotten used to the fact that he no longer had to deal with the bumbling of Belle Star when his new guests had arrived. But at least these two weren’t causing him any trouble... none that he knew of, anyway.

As Leo read his report, a shadowy figure moved silently along the fortress wall, not far from his office. It moved with almost unnatural grace toward the prison tower where Jack O Lantern and Hemlock were kept. Though guards stood watch atop the numerous towers of the fortress, none of them noticed the shadow figure. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, it disappeared... or seemed to.

The figure slipped through an impassably narrow window in the prison tower and into the chamber where the sorcerer stood watch. But the shadow figure moved without magic, and in his magical trance, the sorcerer was unaware of its passing. The shadow came to rest in the antechamber to the enchanted cell.

A heavy door blocked the inner chamber where the prisoners were contained. A small window in the door allowed the guards to check on the prisoners and feed them. The shadow figure slid open the window.

“Master, brother, are you well?”

Hemlock’s eyes shot open. “Nightshade? You’ve come to rescue us!”

“Silence, my pupil. We will not be leaving... not yet, anyway.”

Nightshade, the shadow, glared at Jack O Lantern. “After I went through all the trouble of breaking in here, I’m not leaving without you.”

“Oh, but you will. Take your brother. I have relayed my plans to him and trust him to carry them out. I must remain here for the time being to maintain the illusion. As long as the sorcerers believe we are imprisoned and powerless, they will not be hunting us; and the two of you will be free to do my bidding.”

“A clever scheme, master, but couldn’t Hemlock stay in your stead? Would not your talents be more suited to your plans than his?”

“It is true, master. I am but the apprentice. I cannot take your place.”

Jack O Lantern shook his head. “You are right, which is why I must stay. You could not fool the sorcerers. Now go before the guards arrive.”

“Very well, master.” Nightshade easily picked the lock and swung open the heavy door. “Come, brother. We must move quickly.”

Hemlock rose from his seat, though his image remained. “Do not worry, master; I will not fail you.”

“You’d better not. Now go!”

“Come, brother.” And with that, the two ponies disappeared into the shadows.

* * *

Two days later, on another island far to the east of Zodiac, Hemlock and Nightshade were back in the laboratory of Jack O Lantern. Hemlock organized magical ingredients and talismans at the workbench while Nightshade sat in the corner polishing her sword. “So, brother, what is master’s plan?”

“We replace the king and queen of the Isle with dopplegangers. They pardon us and restore Jack O Lantern to his post, and he rules from the shadows without anyone suspecting anything.”

“I suppose that works for the first step, but how does he plan to parlay ruling the Isle from the shadows into ruling the world?”

“Once the first phase is complete, Jack O Lantern will be free. He only entrusted me with his designs for this phase.”

“Hm, I’d rather not have to bother with such convoluted subterfuge. But I suppose master knows what he is doing. Well, if you won’t be needing me, I’ll be out in the woods.”

“Yes, go. I’ll call you if I need anything.” Hemlock shook his head. His sister knew he wouldn’t be needing her assistance in the lab. For some unknown reason, though their father had been a powerful wizard, Nightshade had inherited none of his magical talent. In fact, she was so un-magical that she was immune to any known magical affect. Also, any magical item she touched was drained of power. To have her assist him would be to ruin any potion he may endeavor to create.

However, she had certain talents that were, to the un-trained eye, almost magical. She could move without sound, disappear into even the smallest of shadows, and her skill with the sword was unrivaled. Despite her inability to contribute anything magical to Jack O Lantern’s plans, she had proven quite useful.

* * *

In the secret laboratory of the Magus, court magician to King Oak of the Isle, the mysterious white pony finished a potion with the assistance of his apprentice, Enchantment. “Yes, it seems my experiment has been successful!”

Enchantment was confused. “But, master, your detection spell indicates nothing.”

“True, my apprentice. But it was not supposed to indicate anything. In fact, I would have been quite disappointed if it had.”

“So what is it that you are not looking for?”

“A contradiction, a paradox.”

“What do you mean?”

“Imagine a spell to block magical detection, something of a contradiction in itself, and into the area of effect of this spell you introduce something that is unaffected by magic. It would not be protected by the spell, but by its nature it cannot be detected by magic.”

“I see. But how do you know you are detecting a paradox and not just nothing?”

“Careful observation. By observing the area around the suspected magical block, I have noticed a void of anti-magic moving into and out of the area, something that would eclipse the weak natural magic emanations around the block.”

“I…see,” said Enchantment, even though she was somewhat confused. “So what do we do now that we know where this paradox is?”

“You will have to go investigate it in person. When magic is not up to the challenge, nothing beats your natural senses. Of course, I won’t be able to teleport you in because of the magical block; but I will be able to get you close. Unfortunately, it is in the middle of the ocean so I’ll need to send a boat as well.”

“Why am I going alone? I’m just your apprentice! Wouldn’t you be better suited to investigate?”

“Perhaps, but how would you learn how to deal with this situation without experiencing it for yourself? I’ve done this sort of thing many times; I don’t need any more practice. Now, remember, whatever is there is being protected by a magical block. Once you pass the block, your magic will function normally, so you may need this.” Magus produced the gaudy magic wand that Enchantment had once used to defeat the evil Jack O Lantern. Enchantment groaned.

“Do I have to? Jack O Lantern is in custody, along with Hemlock. Why would I need that?”

“It is loaded with a general potion. The wand’s augmentative powers may come in very handy.”

* * *

A swirling vortex of mystical energy opened onto the calm waters of the dark sea. A small wooden boat with a single occupant slid silently into the water. The boat glided effortlessly through the water without any sign of propulsion. Shortly the craft ran aground on a black sand beach. The lone passenger, wearing a tattered cloak and hood, disembarked and gestured to the boat; and it was pulled as if by an invisible hand away from the surf.

The beach was surrounded by a dense wood. The cloaked figure stood for a moment at the edge of the wood before making her way through the tangled growth. The branches seemed almost to draw back, making way for the traveler.

* * *

Nightshade strolled down the main street of the village of Blackthorn, the largest village of the Night Clan from whence Jack O Lantern had ruled them since the death of her father twelve years ago. A pall of darkness always hung over the village and the entire island that was home to the lost clan of the night. This Dark Isle was like an antithesis to the bright emerald fields and forests of the Isle where King Oak ruled his people, those that had not been abandoned during the exodus from the oppression of the empire of Atlantis. The Night Clan were such abandoned ponies now living in exile, forgotten on this dark speck of land.

The dark swordpony looked upon her people toiling in the darkness and vowed, as she did every day, to have her vengeance against the ponies who left them behind. They would pay. They would know the eternal darkness of the grave while the Night Clan reveled in the light. As she passed the edge of town into the woods, she encountered the cloaked traveler from the sea. Nightshade paused. The stranger’s shoulders were not drooped from burden and despair; she did not belong among the outcast children of the Night Clan.

“You, there. Who are you?”

The cloaked figure bowed to Nightshade. “I am a healer from the north coast. I have come to acquire some healing herbs that are in short supply at our village.”

Nightshade nodded. “The apothecary is down this road on the right, past the square.”

“Thank you, my lady.” As Nightshade disappeared into the darkness, Enchantment pulled back her hood and looked around at the downtrodden ponies of Blackthorn. A tear of pity came to her eye at their miserable plight. But she had more pressing matters to concern herself with at the moment.

She had already encountered the source of Magus’s anomaly, the dark swordpony. She had sensed nothing when they passed at the edge of the village, and a pony with absolutely no magic is quite an anomaly. The young pony needed now to find the source of the magical block- and hopefully undo it- so that Magus would be able to help these poor ponies.

At the apothecary shop she found a grizzled old gray stallion grinding leaves into a fine powder. He said nothing when she entered. “Hello. Do you have any drakeroot?” she asked.

The old stallion looked up from his work. “I’m no sorcerer. And you’ve no business asking about such things. A young lass like you, no reason to throw your life away.”

“Forgive me. But were I to need some drakeroot, where might I find it?”

“The master’s home. Though his apprentice is not likely to let you have any. You’d best go back home and forget whatever it is you’re thinking.”

“Thank you for your advice, good sir.” Enchantment bowed and turned to leave the shop.

“Hold on there. Who are you and where do you come from? You are not of the Night Clan.”

Enchantment froze in her tracks. “Why do you say that?”

“You carry yourself as one who has hope. Hope has abandoned the Night Clan.”

“Then I am Hope. And I have come to restore your clan to its proper place.”

The gray stallion shook his head. “If what you say is true, than godspeed to you. Though I cannot believe that it is.”

Enchantment turned to the elder pony. “By the time this night is through you will believe.” And she left the shop.

* * *

While Enchantment explored Blackthorn, Nightshade ran through the woods at unnatural speeds toward the north coast. There were two small villages in the north and numerous scattered homes. It would not take long, though, for the most unusual pony to make her way to the last of these settlements to confirm the story of the stranger at Blackthorn. She reached the first village, a cluster of five huts, in a matter of minutes.

“Magistrate!” she called out in the center of the village. A bent old pony emerged from one of the huts.

“What is your desire, Mistress Nightshade?”

“Have you sent a healer to Blackthorn for healing herbs?”

“I have not.”

“Do you know of any shortage of such herb?”

“I do not.”

“Very well.” Nightshade disappeared into the darkness once more, bound for the next village where the series of events played itself out in the same manner.

* * *

Enchantment made her way to the fortified manor at the center of Blackthorn. Two ponies in dark armor stood before the massive wooden gate. Enchantment strode confidently toward the imposing edifice. Though she did not know exactly what she would encounter within, she was sure that Jack O Lantern was in custody of the Sea Patrol and so was Hemlock. The apprentice mentioned by the apothecary must be a new one. And Enchantment was confident she could have taken on Hemlock if she had to; a newcomer would be no problem.

The guardponies brandished their halberds at the young pony. They didn’t speak. But their icy glare told her everything she needed to know. She threw off her cloak and twirled the wand over her head. “ALAKAZAM!” she cried as she leveled the wand toward the gate. A great explosion splintered its timbers, leaving a gaping hole. The guards were dumbfounded. Enchantment walked right past them and through the shattered gate.

Beyond the gate was a small courtyard paved with black stones. Barrels and jugs were stacked against the walls beneath thatched awnings. Across the yard from the gate was the door to the manor house. The door swung open as Enchantment approached. She stepped through into a grand entry hall. Three doors led from the chamber, but Enchantment’s mystical senses led her to the stairs along the right hand wall.

At the top of the stair was a double door which opened, of its own accord, into a library. A heavy layer of dust lay upon everything, but it had been recently disturbed. Several sets of hoofprints led to a door in the back of the room. She approached the door cautiously. As before, the door slid silently open before her.

* * *

Hemlock had been alerted to Enchantment’s approach by the explosion at the gate. A wave of his hoof conjured an image of the magical pony girl in a crystal ball. “Why did it have to be her,” the evil apprentice moaned. “No, I can handle this. I just have to focus. Not like the last time. I’ll have to throw her off guard, unnerve her.” With another wave of his hoof, the door swung open before Enchantment. “Now to prepare an appropriate welcome.”

He hurriedly gathered together the ingredients for a potion that he hoped would keep him from having to confront the pretty pony girl from the Isle. He threw the ingredients into a mixing bowl, not taking the time to measure them with the care that he normally would. But his instincts were good; and soon he had completed his potion, just as the door to the laboratory swung open.

Enchantment stepped into the room and pointed the wand at her adversary. “Hemlock!?” she gaped in disbelief.

The dark apprentice looked up from his mixing bowl with a start. “Huh? Shoot, I’m too late!” The two young ponies stood staring at each other for a minute until the stillness was broken by the arrival of Nightshade, the dark swordpony.

“Brother! What are you doing!?”

Hemlock shook his head clear, and Enchantment swung the wand around to Nightshade. The dark swordpony smiled. “Don’t waste your magic... or my time.” She drew her slender sword. “Don’t worry, brother. I’ll deal with this interloper.” Nightshade swung her blade at Enchantment. The Magus’ apprentice knocked the blow aside with her wand, but Nightshade recovered quickly and was about to strike again.

“Hold your sword, sister! Do not harm her!”

Nightshade turned slowly to her brother, still holding the sword menacingly toward Enchantment. “She is our enemy. She serves the king who abandoned our people. Why do you let her manipulate you like this?”

“Manipulate me? No! It’s nothing like that! I…I just feel that she is… important… somehow.”

Enchantment backed slowly away from Nightshade’s blade. “We did not abandon the Night Clan. You were lost and we have been searching for you! We want you to return to the rest of your people.”

Nightshade grinned. “Don’t listen to her, brother. She is trying to manipulate you again.”

“You want us to return? But the master said we were banished to this Dark Isle because our magic threatened the power of your king. I have no reason to trust you, and yet something inside me tells me you are telling the truth.”

“Weakling! I’ll just have to finish this myself.” Nightshade lunged at Enchantment, whose back was against the wall. A moment before the tempered blade found its mark, however, Hemlock muttered an ancient spell over the potion he had just prepared. Nightshade’s blade found only empty air where a moment before the magical pony girl had been.

“What have you done!?”

“What I had planned to do before you arrived... give myself time to think things through.”

Nightshade sheathed her sword. “Now she will report to Magus and the king that you are no longer in the hands of the Sea Patrol. You have seriously weakened our position by letting her go!”

“Perhaps. But what harm can she be? So what if they know that I am free? If they are the ones who banished us here, why would they worry that I have returned to banishment?”

“Brother, you are a fool.” Nightshade turned to leave.

“She was telling the truth, wasn’t she? And you knew all along. It was Jack O Lantern who hid this Isle from them. But why, and why would you go along with him?”

“They did abandon us. Though they eventually regretted it does not change the fact that they left us behind when they fled Atlantis. Why should we believe that they wouldn’t do it again? Of course, all that is a secondary concern to me.

“Jack O Lantern promised me power. And even though I knew he intended to betray me in the end, I planned to betray him first. He relies too much on magic. I am immune to his power. He underestimated me and it would have cost him in the end. But now he is out of the picture. You and I could have the power. You may be a magician but you understand my gifts and respect them. If we worked together there is nothing we could not accomplish!”

“Sister, leave me alone.”

Nightshade bowed her head and left her brother in solitude.

* * *

Enchantment was shocked when she disappeared from Jack O Lantern’s lab and reappeared somewhere else. She was outside, and definitely not on the Dark Isle. The sun shone brightly overhead. Golden sand covered the landscape as far as the eye could see. She held up the magic wand and muttered an ancient spell, but nothing happened.

“Whoever that dark swordpony was, she somehow drained the wand of its power. She could be dangerous. Now, if I only knew if Magus knows where I am. Well, in case he doesn’t open a portal back to the Isle, I’d better start walking.”

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