Clever Clover sat up and looked around. He was surrounded by blackness. It wasn't necessarily dark, as he could he see his hooves quite clearly. He was sitting on a cold, hard surface, but it was as black as everything else.
"Am I dreaming?" the purple pony mumbled.
And then, without warning, a pony stepped out of the blackness. It was a large, noble-looking stallion. Clever Clover thought the stranger looked familiar, but he couldn't place him.
The first pony was joined by a second, this one a filly. "Greetings, my son," she said.
Suddenly, Clever Clover remembered the strange stallion from a painting in the Hall of Kings at Malachite Castle, the painting of his father.
The strange ponies nodded.
"We are very proud of you," said his father. "You have grown into quite the pony."
"But... how is this possible? You're both..."
"Dead?" his mother finished the sentence. "But isn't this just a dream?"
"Yeah, I guess so. But I kind of wish it were real. I never had a chance to get to know you."
"But we have been able to get to know you quite well," said his father. "You have lifted the curse lain upon our people by Jack O Lantern, you have begun the reunification of the clans, and you have displayed great character."
His mother shook her head. "But we fear you are lost."
"Lost? What do you mean?"
"You must find yourself..." Clever Clover's parents disappeared into the blackness.
Clever Clover searched the blackness for his parents, but to no avail. There was no sign of any other pony, nor any sign that there ever had been. All there was, was blackness. "If this wasn't a dream," Clever Clover mumbled, "I'd be afraid of getting lost."
Then a familiar scent reached his nose, the smell of the sea. He looked around, but all was still blackness. The sound of water lapping on the shore broke the silence. Clever Clover could see the faint shimmer of moonlight on the waves, though there was no moon to be seen. A lone figure stood knee deep in the surf, a midnight blue unicorn mare. Her coat was wet and matted.
"Who are you?" the prince asked.
"My name is Datura."
"Do I know you?"
The unicorn shook her head. "You do not know me, but we are very close."
"What do you mean?"
"My little Toadstool. I'm very proud of her, you know."
"Who is Toadstool?"
The mare smiled. "You ask a lot of questions. So did she, when she was little. She overcame such hardship." The mare's smile faded. "Such a hard life, you can't blame her... for being a little rough around the edges."
The apparition began to fade. "If you see Sanjiro, tell him I always loved him..."
Clever Clover was once again alone in the blackness. "That was... strange. But I guess in a dream..."
Clever Clover sat in the midst of the blackness. He had lost track of time, not that time had any meaning in a dream. He had already talked to his parents, and another ghost whom he didn't recognize, but that seemed like ages ago. He was beginning to wonder if another ghost was going to appear to him, or if he would wake up soon. "I wish something would happen. All this black is getting boring."
"Well," said a voice from out of nowhere, "I don't know if this counts as something, but I wouldn't mind having a little conversation to pass the time."
Clever Clover shrugged. "That'll do. My name's Clever Clover."
"Oh yes, you're quite well know among certain circles. I'm pleased to finally have the chance to meet you."
"I'm flattered. But I didn't catch your name."
"Ah, but what is in a name?"
"Now, don't go getting all poetic on me."
"I'm sorry. But I found his work, so insightful and inspiring. I thought it might lighten the mood."
"Normally I'd be all for some classical literature, but this dream has been rather frustrating. I just wish someone would give me some answers."
A tall, thin, dark red stallion stepped out of the darkness. "Forgive me for my insensitivity, my prince. As to my name, it would mean little to you; and if this is a dream, what meaning would it have anyway?"
"You have a point, but otherwise I'll just have to call you 'hey you'."
"You have a point. My name is Mescal."
Clever Clover shook his head. "You're right, it doesn't ring any bells."
The dark stallion nodded. "Well, if it will help you relate, you are acquainted with my children, Hemlock and Nightshade."
"What! You're from the Night Clan?!"
"I didn't think it would come as such a shock, especially considering the circumstances."
"True. And that last ghost struck me as a Night Clan sort, especially with a daughter named Toadstool. But Sanjiro isn't a Night Clan name. Do you know who she was talking about? She said I was close to Toadstool, but I don't know anyone who goes by that name."
Mescal shrugged. "She must have been from before my time."
"You know, I didn't even know Hemlock and Nightshade's father was dead. Why am I dreaming about his ghost?"
"Hm, good question. Maybe this isn't a dream at all."
"So what, am I dead?"
Mescal shrugged again. "Maybe your consciousness has opened up to a new level of awareness. It is not unheard of for ponies who have suffered some traumatic event to suddenly find themselves with the ability to see and communicate with spirits."
"Right. So I hit my head and now I can see ghosts? Then why can't I see anything else?"
"Well, I would hypothesize that your conscious mind is unaware of any of this, possibly not aware of anything, while your sub-conscious wanders in the dark places that your conscious mind was ignorant of, or unwilling to accept."
Mescal grinned. "Sorry. I am a wizard, you know. This sort of thing is second nature to me. Perhaps it is best not to question what and why, and just enjoy the company. So, what do you want to talk about? Nothing too heavy, hm, how about women?"
"Women, you know, fillies. Minoko, Morning Glory, Belle Star. What I want to know is how you do it? How do you get so many beautiful fillies just throwing themselves at you? Not that it will do me any good now, being dead and all, but I'd like to have some good advice to pass on to Hemlock. He's always been a little shy with the fillies, you know."
Clever Clover didn't know what to say. "I did not know that," was all he could come up with.
"Oh yes. He seems to have a crush on this Enchantment from Malachite Castle, but whenever she's around, he turns to jelly. When I was his age I was sweeping the fillies off their hooves. I didn't have them throwing themselves at me like you do, but if I put my mind to it, I could win the heart of any filly I chose."
Clever Clover shrugged. "To tell you the truth, it's not like I go out looking for fillies; they just sort of come looking for me."
"Ah, I see. Playing hard to get. I was too impatient for that sort of thing. Some ponies say the chase is half the fun, but I prefer to get right to the death of the relationship. Like they say, 'time is money' and 'a penny saved is a penny earned'."
Clever Clover scratched his head. "All right. I'll just take your word for it. As for me, I always liked, 'slow and steady wins the race'."
Mescal nodded. "Yes, I see. Well, I guess it worked out all right for you. That Belle Star is quite the catch. Not that the other two wouldn't be just as fine. Oh, if only I were still alive..."
"Ah, Mescal, not to be a downer, but I think I would be lax in my duty as prince and regent not to take advantage of this opportunity to find out what I can about the Night Clan."
Mescal shook his head clear. "Quite right, duty before pleasure. What is it you'd like to know?"
"Well, for one thing, what happened to them while the rest of the clans were making the trek to the isle?"
"Well, you know how the Atlanteans scattered the clans. The Night Clan had the ill fortune to end up under the governorship of an ambitious pony named Zotikos. He sought to use our wizardly abilities to place himself on the imperial throne. To make sure no one interfered with his plans, he had us secreted away to a dark isle well away from the watchful eye of the imperial authorities.
"But once Atlantis fell, his dreams were shattered, though he would not let them die. His ghost haunted our island. He possessed our leaders and drove them to paranoia. He had us convinced that the other clans had abandoned us. By the time I came to power, even I was convinced that the other clans were against us and we had to stand strong on our own against the world. And I guess that is why my children turned out the way they did.
"I finally learned my lesson, but it was too late. Zotikos' plans were set into action, and I was not part of them. Jack O Lantern took my place as leader of the Night Clan, even though he was not of the clan. I wish I could have done something to stop him, but I was too old.
"But I have had some opportunity to speak with my son recently. Hopefully I have been able to heal some of the damage I have done during my life."
"I... see. Well, you have been very helpful, assuming this is more than just a dream. Thank you, Mescal."
"You are welcome, my prince."
And Clever Clover was once again alone in the blackness.
Clever Clover strolled briskly through the blackness. He had grown tired of sitting, waiting for the next ghost to appear. And his legs had been getting stiff. It seemed strange, since this was a dream, that he could experience such a realistic physical sensation, but he did. He didn't know how long he had been walking or how far he had walked or if he had really even walked at all. When the world is nothing but black, it is difficult to judge such things.
Then he saw something in the distance. As he walked toward it, the something seemed to get bigger, so he was moving toward it... or maybe it was moving toward him. At first he thought it had a human form, but as he got closer he could see that it was a pony, a yellow unicorn with fire-red mane and tail.
"Allo!" the prince called out to the latest spirit.
The unicorn bowed slightly in reply. "Greetings, Clever Clover. My name is Epona."
"Epona? I think I've heard that name before, but I can't quite place it. You don't look like a clan pony, more like a Dream Valley pony."
"I am neither, really."
"Strange, the rest of the ghosts I've met have claimed to have some connection to me and the clans. What's your story?"
The flame-maned pony smiled. "I am no ghost. And though I have no connection with your past, I am very concerned about your future."
"My future? Well, it's nice to know that I have a future."
"You have faced many adversaries over the years, but I fear you may not be ready for the challenge that awaits you."
"Okay, what challenge might that be?"
"You must defeat yourself."
Clever Clover hung his head. "But I like my feet..."
Epona collapsed in a heap. "That's not what I meant!"
The purple prince grinned ear to ear. "I know, I was just trying to lighten the mood."
The yellow unicorn regained her composure. "If you are to be ready for the fight that awaits you, you must train." She lowered her horn toward Clever Clover. "Are you ready?"
"Ah, I don't have a weapon..." But with a flash of light, a whorled horn appeared upon Clever Clover's forehead. And that flash illuminated all of the blackness for a moment; and in that moment Clever Clover could see everything, but there was more in that moment than his mind could comprehend.
"Whoa! That was intense! But I guess we can spar now."
And so the two ponies sparred in the blackness, in the place without time or space.
It seemed like Clever Clover and Epona had sparred for days on end, and Clever Clover didn't even feel the slightest bit fatigued. He didn't remember it ending, but he realized that it must have, as he was sitting alone in the blackness. "That was fun," he said to no one in particular. "I wonder who I'll get to fight next?"
"What are you still doing here?" a harsh but familiar voice boomed out of the blackness.
Clever Clover shrugged. "Waiting, I guess. What are you doing here?"
A figure appeared in front of the purple prince. "Your people are in need; why do you linger in the place of my ancestors?"
"Crow? When did you die?"
The native pony glared at the prince. "I am a shaman! It is my job to walk among the spirits!"
"So you're not dead? Okay, then why am I dreaming about you?"
Crow pulled the prince to his feet and began to slap him back and forth up-side the head. "THIS... IS... NOT... A... DREAM!" he bit out between slaps.
"OW! Aren't you supposed to pinch someone to wake them up from a dream?"
"If this was a dream, wouldn't you be awake by now?"
Clever Clover thought for a moment. "Ah, you've got a point."
"What is your problem? Can't you take anything seriously?"
"I've been here too long to take anything seriously."
"Then why don't you leave?"
"Don't you think I would have done that already if I could have?"
"It's not that difficult. All you have to do is wake up."
* * *
Clever Clover was suddenly aware of a throbbing in his head. He slowly opened his eyes, which he hadn't realized had been closed. He couldn't see anything, which didn't really surprise him, but it was different. It wasn't just blackness, but it was really dark. The ground he lay on was cold, damp, and uneven. He tried to call out to Crow, but found himself a little hoarse. He was sprawled out on his side and could barely move. It took him fifteen minutes of excruciating pain to get up on his knees. "What is going on here?" he mumbled through dry lips. As he tried to stand up he fell forward, and his forehoof struck something.
He got up on his knees again and picked up whatever his hoof had struck. He felt around on the familiar object for a switch, which he found and flipped. A beam of bright, white light cut through the darkness. Clever Clover had to avert his eyes from the brightness for several minutes before he could begin to explore his surroundings.
In the light of the flashlight, Clever Clover could see that he was in a cave. It was narrow and the floor sloped steeply to one side. The cave tapered off at both ends; it was no more than twenty feet long and five wide. When Clever Clover shone the flashlight toward the roof of the cave, however, the beam was lost in the darkness. And hanging down from the darkness was a rope.
When Clever Clover finally regained his feet, the rope was mere feet above his head. Holding the flashlight in his teeth, he reached up with both forehooves and grabbed the rope. He pulled himself painfully hoof over hoof up the rope. Just as he thought that he couldn't go any further, he came to a small ledge on the side of the shaft. He sat and rested a while before resuming his climb. The second half of the climb seemed to take forever, but the purple prince finally reached the top.
He shined the flashlight around to get his bearings. He was in the passages underneath the kiva in the Crystal Desert where he and Belle Star had been working. It seemed like such a long time ago, but that was just because of the strange dreams he'd had while laying unconscious in the pit. He couldn't have been down there for too long, or the others would have come looking for him; but then again, the way his muscles felt, it was like he was unconscious for weeks. And he was hungry, not that that proved anything.
Taking the map out from under his cap, Clever Clover set out through the passages and chambers to find his friends. It didn't take him long to find the entry through the floor of the kiva, but something wasn't right. Last he remembered, they had been packing up their equipment, and there had been several large storage boxes in the first chamber under the kiva, but now there was nothing. It looked like nobody had been down there in months. But there was a rope ladder leading up to the kiva.
Though the sunlight in the kiva was filtered, Clever Clover had to shield his eyes. It was several minutes before he could see well enough to find the ladder leading to the surface. There, to his surprise, instead of the archaeologist's base camp, all he found was the shaman Crow sitting next to a small fire, much as when he had first met him at the foot of the mesa.
"You've finally made it," said the shaman.
"Finally? Where are the others?"
"They left... six months ago."
"Six months! But... what's going on here?"
Crow gestured to a pot cooking on the fire. "Why don't you sit down and have a bite to eat; I imagine you're quite hungry after six months."
"Yeah," Clever Clover sighed. "I could use some food."
As the purple prince sat down and started to eat, Crow explained what had transpired. "Six months ago, while you were getting ready to leave the kiva, you fell into a hole. We brought out someone who looked like you, but he had no memories. We assumed it was amnesia. Belle Star and the other you returned to Friendship Gardens, Kiva and Coyote went back to Port Cactus, and I went about my business.
"Then the spirits of my ancestors came to me in a dream. They asked my why you lingered in their holy place. At first I didn't understand. Then I came here to undergo a vision quest. That's when I found you."
"So I was unconscious in a cave for six months? How did I survive?"
Crow shook his head. "You were not in the cave. The cave is a doorway to the spirit world. In the spirit world, time and space work differently than in this world."
"I'm not sure that answered my question, but since I am alive, I'll take your word for it. So what's the deal with the other me?"
Crow shrugged. "I haven't got a clue. But I assumed you'd be eager to look into it, so I made arrangements for transportation from Port Cactus for you. There's still enough daylight to make it there today, if you're up to it."
Clever Clover stood up. "I can't wait."
Crow nodded, stood up, and kicked sand onto the fire. Clever Clover made for the winding path he and the other archaeologists had taken to the top of the mesa, but Crow went another way.
"This way's faster." The shaman led Clever Clover into a narrow crack on the cliff face where, Clever Clover quickly realized, there were crude steps carved into the stone. In no time at all they were at the foot of the mesa, on the far side from where the archaeologists had made their base camp.
Parked at the foot of the hidden stair was a rusty old 1936 Dodge pickup truck.