In his laboratory on the Dark Isle, Jack O Lantern chanted a spell over a dark orb encircled with candles. As the chanting ended, the candles went out and the orb melted away, revealing the figure of a pony standing in the darkness.
"So, this is to be my prison?" the dark pony hissed.
Jack O Lantern grinned. "It is only a prison if you view it to be such. I think you will find that this body is less pathetic than you imagine. And I know just how you can test its potential..."
* * *
Clever Clover and Belle Star had returned to the Crystal Desert to explore the mysterious chambers that they had discovered under the kiva the year before. In Port Cactus, they met up with Kiva, who was directing the work; and Coyote, who would be working with them.
"It's good to see you two again," said Kiva.
"What have you been up to?" asked Coyote.
Clever Clover and Belle Star both blushed. "Ah," said Clever Clover. "We've gotten engaged, for one thing."
Coyote stared in disbelief. "You mean, to each other?"
"Uh-huh!" Belle Star replied, with a nod.
"Ha ha! I knew the two of you were more than just friends last summer already! When's the wedding?"
Clever Clover shook his head. "We haven't decided yet."
"Well, let me know when you decide... and don't forget to invite me!"
"We won't forget you, Coyote," said Belle Star.
"I'm happy for the two of you," said Kiva. "But we've got work to do. The bus is loaded and ready to go, and daylight's wasting. Let's go."
The four archaeologists boarded the bus and set off across the desert.
On the bus, Coyote questioned Clever Clover. "So, why haven't you two set the date?"
Clever Clover shook his head. "Some people aren't too happy about our engagement.."
"Oh?" said Coyote. "You mean the princess and the pirate?"
"Actually, they're taking it rather well..."
* * *
Meanwhile, in Friendship Garden, Minoko knocked on the door of the apartment of the painter, Coral. The pinkish pony with sea-foam green main, streaked with blue, opened the door.
"Hi, Minoko. I had a premonition it might be you."
"Yeah. May I come in?"
"Sure." Coral led Minoko into her studio. "What do you want?"
"I want you to paint a picture of me." Minoko struck a sexy pose.
"It's for Clever Clover."
"Oh? I'd heard you'd had a thing for him, but he's marrying Belle Star. She seemed to think you were over him."
Minoko grinned evilly. "I was just playing nice so Clever Clover could see that I could behave if I have to. Besides, they're not married yet. He hasn't even met her parents."
"Has he met your parents?"
Minoko's head drooped. "I... never knew my parents. Just like Clever Clover. I guess that's one thing we have in common. But we never talked about it. Maybe if I had..."
"Well, I guess Belle Star wouldn't mind; she's not the type. But you'll have to wait; I've already got a client." There was a knock at the door. "That must be her now." Coral opened the door to admit Morning Glory.
"Hey! What's she doing here!?" cried the princess.
"What! You're painting her!" Minoko replied.
Coral shrugged. "She is a princess. And she has money."
"So, it all comes down to money, eh? It's not like I don't have money, you know!"
"Oh? And where would this money come from? Everyone knows you haven't done an honest day's work since you got here." Coral led Minoko to the door. "You should be going now. I have work to do and I don't like working in the middle of an argument."
* * *
It was near dusk when the cliffs came into view. The ancient ponies of the desert built their homes and temples on ledges high on the cliffs. It was one of these temples, or kivas, at the very top of the cliff face, that the four archaeologists had come to explore.
As the bus pulled up to the base of the cliff, to the surprise of the archaeologists, they found a small tent already set up. A lone pony with beads and feathers in his mane and tail sat in front of a small fire outside the tent. The bus came to a stop and Kiva debarked.
Without looking away from the fire, the strange pony addressed Kiva. "This place is your birthright. Why did you bring the outsiders?"
"Who are you?" inquired Kiva.
The strange pony was silent.
Coyote poked his head out the bus door. "Hey! I know you! You're that crazy shaman who's always protesting all the land developments and stuff. Crow, isn't it?"
The shaman sighed. "You are one of us, but you are young. You have much to learn about respecting your elders."
The young archaeologist hopped off the bus. "I didn't mean any disrespect. I meant 'crazy' in a good way, you know, like 'Crazy Horse'."
Belle Star and Clever Clover got off the bus.
"So, Crow, why weren't you here causing trouble last summer?" asked Kiva.
Crow shrugged. "I had bigger fish to fry."
Belle Star clapped her hooves together. "You're frying fish? I'm so hungry after the long trip; a nice fried fish would taste soooo good right now!"
Crow stared in disbelief. "These are the ones you brought to desecrate our heritage!?"
Kiva stomped his hoof. "We're not here to desecrate anything!"
"We just want to understand how your ancestors lived," added Clever Clover.
"Then why don't you just ask them?" the shaman smiled.
"We can do that?" asked Belle Star and Coyote in unison.
Clever Clover's jaw dropped. "Ah... what?"
Kiva shook his head. "As much as I appreciate your suggestion, we need quantifiable data. But you're welcome to come along and provide commentary and to observe our methods, to insure that we don't unduly desecrate anything."
Crow shrugged. "I suppose that will be a step in the right direction."
The archaeologists set up their camp and turned in for the night.
* * *
Early the next morning, the archaeologists began the long trek to the hilltop kiva. Crow, the shaman, could not be roused from his slumber. By noon, the four ponies had achieved their goal; and to their surprise, Crow awaited them with a small fire and hot lunch. "What took you so long?" he asked.
"Cool!" replied Coyote.
"Oh! I'm so hungry!" Belle Star bowed. "Thank you so much, Mr. Crow, for fixing us such a nice lunch!"
Clever Clover shrugged and sat down next to the fire. "Mm, roasted corn, my favorite."
After lunch, the ponies set up their camp on top of the mesa. They would not be returning to the bottom until their work on the kiva was finished.
* * *
The sun was still low in the sky when the archaeologists made their way to the kiva the next morning. The first thing they did was to drop a plumb bob from the southwest corner of the opening in the floor of the kiva that led to the chambers beneath. Clever Clover made the descent into the chamber to mark with spray paint where the plumb bob touched the floor. The others followed with lanterns, measuring tapes, graph paper, and various drafting tools to begin the mapping of the complex.
It was mid morning before Crow joined the others. "So, what have you grave robbers been up to?"
Belle Star looked around in surprise. "Robbers!? Where?"
"He didn't mean it literally," assured Clever Clover.
Kiva approached the shaman. "I'm allowing you to observe our work; but if you cause trouble, I'm going to kick you out."
"Come on, I'm sure they knew I was just joking. Well, most of them."
"Hm, just keep it in line."
"All right. Now, what are you... scientists up to?"
"We've started mapping the chambers," Kiva explained. "We don't want to go too far into the complex before we've established a reference point."
"Makes sense. You're not taking anything out of here, are you?"
"Not yet. If we find anything, it may need to be taken back to the lab for analysis; but we haven't found anything yet."
"Will this analysis damage the artifacts?"
"As little as possible."
"Hm. Then what?"
"The artifacts will be kept in the university's museum collection."
"Would there be any chance of having them returned to this place?"
"Possible, but ultimately out of my hooves."
"But you would have some influence in the matter."
"Yes, some. Now, if you have no more questions, I have to get back to work."
"Of course. Could I lend a hoof? It could help me appreciate what you are doing here."
"Fine. Come with me." Kiva handed Crow a clipboard. "I'll take some measurements; you write down the numbers as I give them to you."
Crow nodded. "Sounds simple enough."
* * *
Meanwhile, the others had moved on to map the next room. Belle Star and Coyote took measurements while Clever Clover recorded the measurements and added them to the map. Coyote was digging through a pile of sand so that he could get his tape measure into a corner when something caught his eye.
"Hey, there's some kind of drawing on the floor."
Clever Clover went over to see what his friend had uncovered. Where the sand had been brushed away, Clever Clover could see a series of lines etched into the stone of the floor. "They're too deep and regular to be tool-marks from when they carved the room. Why don't you go tell Kiva about this while Belle Star and I finish mapping this room?"
Coyote chuckled. "Oh, right. You two want some alone time, eh?"
"Just go," said Clever Clover, shaking his head.
The young archaeologist rushed back toward the first chamber where Kiva and Crow were taking measurements. "Hey, boss, we found something interesting in the other room."
Crow, who had become quite bored recording measurements, was suddenly quite attentive. "Something interesting?"
"Let's take a look," said Kiva.
The trio returned to the chamber where the strange markings had been discovered. "It was over in this corner," directed Coyote.
Kiva knelt down and began to carefully brush the sand back, exposing more of the lines. "This is interesting, but we should finish mapping the rest of the complex before we look more into it. It will take a lot of time to move all this sand away."
Crow looked over Kiva's shoulder. "Are you sure that's a good idea? As you said, it would take quite an effort to move all this sand, and it doesn't look like it could have blown in here from outside on its own. Whoever built this place took a lot of effort to cover up these drawings."
"Do you think it's some kind of curse?" Coyote asked.
Crow shot Coyote an annoyed look. "That is not the way of our people. This isn't Egypt, you know. The inscription may relate to some secret knowledge that was not meant for outsiders."
"But me and Kiva aren't outsiders. We could look at it!"
Crow shook his head. "You two are scientists. If you were to look at it, you would feel obliged to share this knowledge with others."
Kiva stood up. "We don't know why they would have covered it up, and there's no use speculating until we can see what is under the sand. But for now, let's get back to mapping."
* * *
For the next couple of weeks, the archaeologists mapped and explored what they found to be a massive and maze-like complex of chambers within the mesa; while in Friendship Gardens, Coral was finishing her paintings of Morning Glory and Minoko.
Minoko knocked on Coral's door. "Just a minute," Coral's muffled voice replied. Minoko stood, tapping her hoof impatiently for several minutes before the door finally opened. "Hi, Minoko! Your painting is ready. I think it turned out really nice, one of my best works. Come in and have a look!" The artist grabbed Minoko and pulled her into the studio where the portrait stood on an easel. "What do you think?"
Minoko regarded the painting for a moment and smirked. "I like it. You've really captured the real me."
Coral clapped her hooves. "I just knew you'd like it! I had a premonition. Now, about my payment..."
Minoko tossed Coral a large golden coin. "Will this cover it?"
Coral studied the coin for a moment. "Hm, this looks really old. Is it solid gold?"
"Yep, I... ah, dredged it up from a shipwreck off the coast of Pearl Coast."
"Ah... right. Well, I'll just take your word for it. Now I'll wrap the painting up for you and you can be on your way."
"Oh, no need. Ryo!"
Minoko's lop-eared bunny came bounding into the studio and onto Minoko's shoulder. The pony pirate picked up the picture. "Be seeing you." Pony, painting, and bunny disappeared.
Coral shook her head. "Boy, these friends of Belle Star's are going to take some getting used to."
* * *
Minoko and Ryo reappeared in Clever Clover's living room, surprising Morning Glory, who almost dropped the portrait of herself that she was hanging next to the portrait of Belle Star over the mantle.
"Hey! What are you doing popping in here like that!?" demanded the princess.
Minoko glared at Morning Glory. "How did you get in here?"
"Clever Clover gave me a key so I could take care of Pixie."
"So did Pixie ask you to redecorate?"
"This is a surprise birthday present for Clever Clover!"
"Shows what you know, princess. Clever Clover's birthday was last month."
"I know that! That's what makes it a surprise!"
"Well, I'm giving him a present just because!" Minoko proceeded to hang her painting on the other side of Belle Star.
"Humph!" Morning Glory proceeded to re-hang her painting slightly higher on the wall.
Minoko stepped back and regarded the paintings. "Hm, maybe it would be better to hang it closer to eye level, a little lower." She proceeded to lower her painting.
Morning Glory looked back and forth between the two paintings. "You know, I think you're on to something, for once." She then lowered her painting, a little lower than Minoko's. "There! Perfection."
Minoko grinned. "Yeah. I couldn't agree more."
* * *
Clever Clover made his way through the maze of chambers beneath the kiva. He came to a chamber where Kiva and Coyote were mapping one of the many etched floors that had been cleared of sand. The lines resembled a topographic map, though none of the archaeologists could recognize what land it might represent.
"Do you guys know where Belle Star is?" Clever Clover asked. "I was hoping she could help me sort out some paperwork."
"She's showing Crow chamber 103," replied Kiva.
"One-oh-three? Right, thanks."
The purple prince headed off through another passage. Though the complex was maze-like, Clever Clover, having drawn a comprehensive map of the chambers, knew his way around quite well. And if he got lost, it was no real problem; he carried a map, and each of the rooms had been numbered with a wooden sign. As one got farther from the entrance, the numbers got bigger. If a pony ever got lost, he or she just had to look for the decreasing numbers to lead them out.
When Clever Clover got to chamber 103, he found Crow sitting in the middle of the room while Belle Star stood off to one side, watching attentively.
Clever Clover observed the unchanging scene for several moments in silence. "What's going on?"
"Shhhh!" Belle Star put her hoof to her lips. "He's meditating, to find out what the spirits can tell him about this place."
"Oh-kay. Why'd he have to come all the way down here to talk to the spirits? Couldn't they come up to the camp?"
"Oh, that seems like a very good question. We'll have to ask him once he wakes up."
"I am awake," mumbled Crow. "And finding it very difficult to meditate."
Belle Star bowed. "I am so sorry."
"So, what did the spirits have to say?" asked Clever Clover.
"Actually, quite a bit, despite your interruption. They are not as offended by your presence as I thought they would be. It seems they have taken a liking to you."
"That's good to hear," said Clever Clover. "Any other news from the other side?"
"Yes. Follow me." Crow led the couple into another chamber. "It's in here."
"Ooooh!" said Belle Star.
Clever Clover looked around at the empty chamber. "What's in here?"
The shaman took a bottle of water he had been carrying and splashed it on the wall. In the glistening of the water on the stone, strange characters appeared. "They asked me to show you this."
Belle Star gazed in wonder. "Wow!"
Clever Clover got out a pencil and paper and started recording the strange images.
"I'll leave you two to contemplate their meaning. I'll find my own way out. Oh, and they don't want you to tell Kiva and Coyote about this."
Clever Clover scrambled to finish recording the strange symbols before the water dried and they disappeared. When he was finished, he held up the paper. "What do you make of this, Belle Star?"
Belle Star pointed to one of the characters. "It looks like this guy is trying to get across the river to that house over there."
"Yeah, it looks like some sort of pictograph. I don't recognize it; but if we can figure out what the pictographs represent, we could get a general idea what it's about. When we get back to civilization, we'll have to do some research to find out more about them."
Belle Star scratched her head. "Um, okay."
Clever Clover folded up the paper and stuck it under his hat. "Come on, we've got some paperwork to do."
* * *
The last weeks of work at the kiva passed relatively uneventfully. What few artifacts had been found while clearing away the sand from the engraved floors were being carefully packed for transport. Clever Clover had been sent back into the passages to make sure that no equipment was left behind. The sun sank low in the sky on the last day before they would begin to transport the artifacts and equipment to the bus, which would take several days. Clever Clover, who was supposed to have been back well before sunset, was nowhere to be seen.
Belle Star wrung her hooves. "Oh! I'm so worried! Where could Clever Clover be?"
"He probably just lost track of time," suggested Coyote.
"Why don't you two go look for him?" said Kiva. "Last time he reported in, he had cleared everything but the east wing."
Belle Star nodded. "Oh, yes! Right away!" She and Coyote made the descent into the subterranean complex with a map and two lanterns.
When they reached the bottom of the rope ladder into the chambers, Coyote said, "I'll hold the map; you keep an eye out for Clever Clover."
"Uh-huh," Belle Star nodded.
"Let's see, the east wing would be this way." Coyote pointed down one of the dark passages. The two archaeologists set off into the darkness.
"Look! Hoofprints!" said Belle Star before long. They were in one of the chambers that hadn't been cleared of sand. "He went this way!" The tan pony rushed off following the tracks.
"Hold up!" Coyote called, as he took off after her. A short time later he heard her cry out in fear. "I'm coming, Belle Star!" Coyote increased his pace and shortly ran into Belle Star.
"Oh, no!" Belle Star cried out.
Coyote saw that Belle Star teetered on the edge of a deep shaft, her forelegs thrashing wildly as she tried to regain her balance. Coyote grabbed her tail and yanked her away from the edge of the pit. Belle Star fell over backwards, knocking Coyote over with her.
"Owie," Belle Star moaned as she rubbed her tail.
Coyote stood up and inched cautiously to the edge of the shaft. He shined his lantern down the shaft and gasped at what he saw. "It's Clever Clover!"
Belle Star rushed to the edge of the shaft and almost fell in again, but was able to right herself. "Clever Clover! Are you all right?"
There was no answer.
"He's not moving," observed Coyote. "You stay here and keep an eye on him. I'll get the others!"
"Oh! Clever Clover," Belle Star sobbed. "Clever Clover, say something!" Tears welled up in her eyes. She continued calling out to her fiancÚ for what seemed like an eternity before the others arrived.
"Come away from there," said Kiva. He put his foreleg around Belle Star's shoulders and led her away from the shaft. Coyote took a rope that had been anchored in the next chamber and lowered it down the shaft. The young archaeologist was about to climb down to the ledge on which Clever Clover's still form lay when Crow restrained him.
"I'll go. When I'm not protecting our heritage or leading others to spiritual enlightenment, I'm a paramedic." The shaman gracefully began his decent.
The others watched tensely while Crow examined Clever Clover's still form. After several minutes, Crow called up to them, "He's alive! He hit his head, though. Coyote, go to the camp, take down my tent, and bring it here!"
"And use the emergency radio to call Port Cactus and request an emergency air evac!" added Kiva.
The young archaeologist nodded and rushed off.
"Wh-what should I do?" sobbed Belle Star.
"Talk to him!" called Crow. "Even though he's unconscious, the sound of your voice might help him pull through!"
"I...I don't know what to say."
"Say anything." coaxed Kiva. "Talk about how you two first met."
"Oh...sob...it was my first day on a new job and I fell into a hole and there was Clever Clover...sob."
Belle Star continued relating her life story since she had met Clever Clover, of the attack by the pirate Minoko one winter's night, of her first trip to the Isle for the royal wedding, of Jack O Lantern's kidnaping of Minoko and the chase to Isla Soja, and on and on. When Coyote interrupted the tale with his return with the dismantled tent, Crow was somewhat disappointed that he wouldn't hear the rest of the story. But he knew that Clever Clover's safety was paramount.
"Okay, use the tent to make a stretcher and then lower it down to me!"
Kiva and Coyote went to work lashing the tent poles together into a rectangle and stretching the canvas over it. Once the stretcher was finished, they tied a rope to each corner and lowered it down to Crow and Clever Clover on the ledge below. Crow carefully moved Clever Clover's still form onto the stretcher and tied him down with rope. Then Coyote and Kiva carefully pulled him up out of the shaft. As soon as he was back on solid ground, Belle Star threw her arms around him and began to cry. "Oh, Clever Clover! I hope you'll be all right!"
"There'll be time for that later," said Coyote. "We've got to get him to the surface now."
Belle Star stood up and wiped the tears from her eyes. "Right."
Kiva and Coyote carried Clever Clover out; and Belle Star and Crow, who had climbed up from the pit, followed. When they reached the surface, the med-evac balloon was waiting for them. Clever Clover was quickly loaded onto the balloon.
"Can I go with him?" Belle Star asked the pilot.
He nodded. "Yeah, but the others will have to take the low road. The balloon won't carry all of you."
"That's fine," said Crow. "We'll see you at the hospital, Belle Star."
Belle Star nodded and boarded the balloon. As the balloon drifted off into the sky, Kiva, Coyote, and Crow began their descent from the mesa top, taking only what equipment they could carry. It was dark by the time they reached the bus at the base of the cliff. They drove through the night to reach Port Cactus. When they arrived at the hospital, they were shown to Clever Clover's room. Belle Star sat in a chair next to the bed, asleep.
"It looks like your friend is going to be just fine," explained the doctor who had shown them the way. "Other than the blow to the head, there was no other injury. He could be regaining consciousness any time now."
Almost as if on cue, Clever Clover began to move.
"Belle Star!" cried Coyote. "Wake up!"
Belle Star groggily opened her eyes while Clever Clover shot bolt upright and looked around him in confusion. Belle Star, seeing Clever Clover awake, threw her forelegs around him and began to cry. "Oh, Clever Clover! I'm so glad you're all right."
"Ah, so am I," replied Clever Clover. "But, who are you?"