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Escape Garden

by AstralMouse

"You sure about this, Pinkie?" I asked, and she nodded like a bobblehead in turbulence.

"Yeppers!" she said.

"I thought escape rooms were, you know, rooms. That you escape from."

"Yeah, but escape gardens are a thing, too, you know. Especially here in Canterlot!"

Escape gardens were certainly not a thing that I had heard of.

"Next! Rainbow Dash." It was the mare at the small, out-of-place wooden desk. She sounded bored.

I stepped forward with a scrunch on my face and more questions buzzing through my head. Pinkie had said it's one of those solo escape rooms. And I may be the best at a lot of things, but solving puzzles was not one of them. Let the eggheads have those trophies.

I looked back at Pinkie, and she gave me a smile and an encouraging nod.

With a mental shrug, I stepped through an iron gate and into the room. Well, not room. Section of garden? Whatever that would be called.

"You have one hour," the mare said from behind me in that same bored near-monotone. "Your time starts now."

And just like that, my mood switched from uncertain to motivated and alert as my competitive instincts kicked in.

"Okay," I said to myself, "we got a hedge sculpture of Celestia, a standard fountain, some gardening tools by a shed, and an empty flower bed. And the exit, of course."

The shed was locked with a comically large red padlock with an enormous keyhole. So, it seemed like step one was to find the key. And because the padlock was painted red, it only made sense that the key would be red, too.

"Red key, red key…" I said, as if keeping it at the front of my thoughts would make me find it faster.

I inspected the empty flower bed first, as it was closest to me. Small flecks of black were mixed with the dirt, and for some reason, it made me uneasy. But it was just dirt. Fancy dirt for growing plants in. Still, something looked off about the black bits. Maybe it was just some fancy kind of fertilizer.

I moved on to the fountain in the middle of the area. A trickle of water burbled up from the middle spire and ran down its decorated sides into the surrounding pool. The water itself was clear, and it was obvious that there was nothing in there. Not even coins tossed in by passersby from before the escape garden was built around it. Still, I knew these escape things could be tricky, and I wasn't gonna forget about it.

The hedge sculpture of Celestia was roughly life-size, depicting her rearing up on her hind legs in an almost intimidating fashion. She was regal. She was powerful. She was… so tall. I wondered if the Wonderbolts could have hedge art made of them too. Maybe sized up a little.

Oh, but there weren't any clues there.

That left the tools by the shed. There was a rake, a watering can, a pair of hedge clippers, and a small hoofheld trowel. The trowel had a sticker on it with small text.

"Dig where the sun sets," I read aloud. That could mean a lot of things. Dig under Celestia? There was no Luna. As I pondered this, I saw some of the same flecks of black stuck to the trowel. "Okay. Somewhere in the flower bed."

I hurried over to the flower bed and looked at it. It was freshly raked, leaving no trace of digging. But it had to be here. So, I did what anyone in my situation would do.

I guessed.

I dug and dug, pushing over mounds of soft soil, combing it for a large key.

It took way too long, but I found it. A big, red key, just as I had thought. I didn't really get the hint, but it was probably in the west part of the flower bed or something. It didn't matter, though. I had to get that shed open.

As I put the key into the lock, it clicked with a heavy and satisfying metallic sound. And turning it immediately popped the lock open. I cheered inwardly, but I wasn't done yet, so I stayed focused.

The light filtering in from the cracked open doorway revealed nothing but a single seed on a plain wooden pedestal. And beneath the seed was more writing on paper.

"Plant me where the sun rises. Water me with water from the spring of life. Pray to our goddess that she may help me to grow."

I shook my head. It all seemed so straightforward for an escape room hint. Er, escape garden hint. I just had to plant the seed and water it from the fountain? Twilight would have been disappointed, for sure.

I still wanted to finish on time, though, so I took the seed out of the shed.

Immediately, it changed from a simple pale white seed to a black hole in my hoof. The dark area was larger than the size of the seed, like it was sucking the light out of the air around it.

"What?" I said simply. Something told me that planting this seed was not a good idea. But it was all just the theme of this escape garden, right? It had to be some kind of spell they put on it.

I returned to the flower bed, and thanks to my guesswork earlier, there was already a nice hole in the eastern side of it. East, where the sun rises, right? I dropped it in and covered it with dirt.

Remembering the watering can by the shed, I filled it with water from the fountain and poured it over the buried seed.

Then I waited.

How much time was left? Could I still make it in time? How much was there left to do?

I waited more.

"Ugh, come on. Grow, already!" I said at the ground, feeling a bit silly for yelling at a seed. Then I realized that Applejack had probably done far sillier things and laughed at the thought.

Nothing was happening, though. I went back over the hint in my head. Plant where the sun sets, water from fountain of life, pray to Celestia.

I paused.

"Oh, come on," I said. Feeling even more foolish but also too determined to not try it, I bowed down in front of the hedge sculpture of Celestia. "Please, Princess Celestia, help my seed grow, because I really can't afford to let Pinkie Pie keep beating me at these things."

Immediately, with a small pop, a simple green stalk shot out of the ground. Then, a round and off-white fruit formed on the end. It grew, weighing the stalk down into a sad droop.

Just as it seemed to be done, a white tag unfurled like a leaf, with more text on it.

"Eat me, and you will see the truth."

It didn't seem right for an escape garden to be asking ponies to eat something. Right? That's just not how they work. But they wouldn't have been doing this if it wasn't safe, either. What would Pinkie say if I asked her about this? Something about not being afraid to try new things, silly. What would Twilight do? Well, she likes truth, so she'd probably eat it.

I was convinced enough.

I hefted the fruit with a hoof, and just like the seed, it turned to black. Light-sucking black. Uneasy but not surprised, I plucked it from the stalk and quickly put it in my mouth.

"Bleh!" I said. It tasted like frozen dust.

But I had to finish it, and I did. When I swallowed, it went down like a cup of gravel.

Hello, Rainbow Dash.

My head felt funny.

I remember you.

Who was talking?

You tried to destroy me.

Where was the next clue?

But you and your friends failed.

The exit was open.

Nightmare cannot be destroyed.

When did that happen?

Come.

Did I win?

Serve me.

Did I do it in time?

I shall rule Equestria, and you will help me.

I stepped over to the exit. It was black. Not dark, not colored black, just black. A wall or veil or portal, I couldn't tell. I knew, deep down, that if I stepped through, I wasn't coming back. But my thoughts were foggy, so I stepped closer, unable to tell why.

It called me.

Rainbow Dash.

It was a place for me. Meant for me. Made for me.

Embrace your fate.

I had to embrace my fate.

Become Nightmare.

I had to become Nightmare.

Serve me.

I had to serve her.

My front hoof was nearly touching the blackness. The exit. Victory.

It is your destiny.

It was my dest--

"Time's up!"

What?

A door behind me opened, snapping me out of my foggy state, and Pinkie Pie pronked in.

"Too slow, Dashie!" she said. "But it's okay, you'll do better next time!"

She hugged me from behind, and I had to shake my head to clear it of… whatever happened. I couldn't remember. It was all hazy.

"Haha, were you trying to open the exit door without the key?" she asked.

The exit was closed.

"Heh, yeah, I guess so…" I said. Was that what I was doing?

Well, no matter. I failed, and Pinkie won.

"Come on," I said, "let's go try the next one."