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The Cursed Garden.

by JK93

When one thinks of a garden one oft thinks of tranquility. And when one thinks of tranquility, often does the mind picture scenic views and soft melodic birdsong. But this garden was different. One might say it was tranquil at a glance. But its quietness was less comforting than the loud bustling of Manehatten's busiest streets. For the garden lacked sound whatsoever, instead sitting in eerie quietude. No birds or insects dared disturbed the sounds of silence. "But at least this garden still has its beauty!" Some might say. But the garden held beauty only in glimpses. Only in the quick glances of passerby who turned there heads away just as fast and quickened up their trot. For if one looked too long, they would see that the garden had only the thinnest veneer of beauty. The wrought iron fencing that surrounded the property had long rusted over. The aging metal was choked out by twisted vines that wrapped and clung to the fencing tightly, and yet the creeping foliage itself looked as if it were decaying as well.

And this is where Hot Scoop found himself. Standing outside the gate to a dying garden that caused the hairs on the back of his neck to rise and tempted his ears to flatten in fear. But the stallion snorted and and shook his head as if to dispel the ominous aura that was desperate to cling to him. After all, why should he be scared? Hot Scoop was a freelance journalist who never feared jumping headfirst into dangerous situations to get the next big story. And that's what brought him to this particular piece of dilapidated public property. A garden in one of Vanhoover's oldest districts. And something of a local legend he'd found.

After doing some digging, he'd heard everything from curses to beasts to Nightmare Moon herself plaguing the garden. Nopony dared go inside, save for the occasional teen with something to prove and nosy outsiders like himself apparently. There were no caretakers for the property, neither private or city funded. And while its state of disrepair spoke to that, it had yet to completely fall apart. Maybe there was something to those rumors after all?

That got a chortle out of Scoop. There wasn't too much to be worried about in Equestria these days. It was hard to find some curse or evil being that didn't get sorted out by the powers at be. But still, stories were drying up for him recently. It couldn't hurt to walk around a bit and write up a quick piece that ended on a cryptic note. There were a couple papers that he knew would eat it up. So with his decision made, the stallion marched forward. Even in the middle of the day there was something about this garden that made him feel uneasy. He chalked it up to his disappointing lunch. A half full stomach plays tricks on the mind you know.

Approaching the garden's gates, he took a moment to look them over. They were completely unlocked, which wasn't too surprising since it was supposed to be accessible to the public. But with its condition and rather horrible reputation, he was surprised to see the lack of padlock or even a simple chain. But what the gate did have was an inscription carved across the top.

Let all who pass this threshold know that they leave their old world behind.

Hot Scoop raised an eyebrow. That was certainly an interesting sentence. Of course it was metaphorical, it had to be. Just the designers telling the guests that they were symbolically entering a new world. And there wasn't anything saying you couldn't leave. And yet the dread continued to eat away at him. But hey, that story wasn't going to write itself! So Scoop pushed the gate open.

The first thing the stallion noticed was how easily it glid open. He didn't have to shove hard. There was so ear-splitting screech of rusty hinges. The gate slid smoothly open to reveal what lay beyond. Cautiously he stepped inside, moving completely through the gateway before any doubts could get the better of him.

Hot Scoop took a moment to just stand still and swivel his head around. The ominous aura that he had felt emanating earlier was beginning to disappate. There was nothing special about this garden. Nothing remotely special. The area he stood in was an open rotunda. A cracked and long dry fountain occupied the very middle, while worn benches circled the edges. This place wouldn't look half bad if it got a decent cleanup. he thought to himself. Opposite him of the other end of the rotunda were three paths that seemed to branch off deeper into the garden. With more of his confidence being restored by the second, Hot Scoop trotted towards the leftmost path, intent on exploring all three. And yet before he started down that first path, he looked back towards the gate he had come through.

It still stood open, giving him a glimpse back into the way he had come. A sudden knee-jerk reaction came over him. An urge to flee, to run headlong back through the gate and never look back. And he almost did. But Scoop shook his head. No, he was being silly. He turned around to face the way forward again and started his way down the path. He was just being silly and letting local tales get the best of him. Alas, he would have been proven wrong had he looked back anymore. For as he walked away, the gate silently swung shut.

The path he walked appeared to be some sort of hedge maze. And he could only imagine walking it at night would be terrifying for somepony who was filled to the brim with tales of the cursed garden. Although it wasn't much better in broad daylight, reluctant as he was to admit it. Although hang on, the sun was lower in the sky now. Surely it wasn't much later in the afternoon. Perhaps he had been staring at the front gate for too long and lost track of time. Yes, that had to be it.

As Scoop continued to trot along, he noted how boring this garden was. It was easy to see how it had become abandoned. All it had going for it was a fountain and far too many hedges. But despite his internal scoffing at the garden, he recognized the very real possibility of getting lost. That was something he wanted no part in, especially with the sun seeming to get lower and lower. So he started snapping branches in the hedges, leaving markers for his path. After what seemed like an eternity of walking, he concluded he had explored every inch of the maze. His improvised trail markers had allowed him to backtrack and assuredly go every direction.

He found himself surprisingly disappointed. There was no end to the maze, no exit to somewhere else. He followed his way back to the rotunda, exiting the way he had come in. Back in the circular area, he could now see that the gate was closed. But he wasn't too terribly worried about it. Probably just the wind blowing it closed. Still, fear tickled his hackles. Scoop decided it was best to leave soon, but not before taking a quick peek down one of the other paths.

The stallion began a quick trot down the middle of the three paths. As he had expected, there was nothing particularly notable about it. Just more hedge mazes. He almost turned to leave when something caught his eye.

A broken branch.

More specifically, one of the ones he had snapped to mark his trail. The stallion started to feel chills crawl up his spine. How was this possible? Were the three paths connected somehow? He had been so sure to explore every twist and turn, but he must have missed something. He quickly traced back his steps to the rotunda and sprinted down the third path. It was strangely familiar to the other two and he quickly found his trail marker. What was going on?

In full gallop now, Hot Scoop returned to the Rotunda and checked the other two paths. With growing horror he realized they weren't similar. They were all exactly the same.

Hot Scoop had had enough. Story be damned, it was time to leave! With sunlight fading over the horizon, he charged across the rotunda towards the entry gate. But the stallion almost went head over heels when he abruptly stopped himself. He sank to his flanks and let out a shuddering sob.

The gate was gone.

The stallion pushed his hooves against the fence, the wrought iron structure seeming so much taller than before. The vines that grew around it no longer seemed as dead, refusing to yield as he pulled and tugged at them. The foliage formed an impenetrable barrier to the outside world. The stallion sat in despair, all of the fear he had tried to brush away earlier returning in full force.

Hot Scoop was unsure how long he had sat in place, but it was the dead of night when he stood on shaky legs. He turned towards to the three paths, only to find them gone. Instead they were replaced by a singular gate. Swallowing his fear, the stallion stumbled over towards it. The gate looked exactly like the one he had entered the garden through. Except this one had no professional inscription. Instead, there were words carved into the wood by somepony that seemed desperate to leave message.

theres another threshold. if i can cross it i hope im free. in the name of celestia its been so long.

Seeing no other option, Hot Scoop pushed open the gate. It swung open as easily as the other one had before. But this one didn't hesitate to close behind him once he had stepped through. In fact, the stallion watched it disappear into a mass of vines. Despondent, he began walking. He was in yet another hedge maze. Although he realized going back was probably a futile effort, Scoop started to mark his trail again. But no matter how many branches he snapped, his markers would always disappear on him. The hedges seemed to change on him, attempting to guide him towards a specific direction. He refused as long as he could, but no matter where he went it seemed like has going in circles.

After what seemed like hours, the stallion relented. He chose the path that seemed to be presented before him. And just like that, progress seemed to come. Hot Scoop felt he was finally getting somewhere. And that somewhere was a gate. He wasted no time in pushing it open. He cried in relief at seeing something new.

He walked into a closed area, the only decor being a stone diorama of the maze. Around it were various buttons and levers of unknown use. But Scoop had no hesitation in reaching out and pulling one. Suddenly the diorama shifted. The stone recreations of the hedges shifted to create new paths.

"Thank Celestia you made it."

Hot Scoop whirled around to find the gate gone, replaced instead by an elderly unicorn.

"I can't tell you how grateful I am that you're an earth pony. I used all of my magic to fight against this maze when I was in your hooves. Made it hell for the controller. But you couldn't do any of that. Can't fly either. I hope you get another like you." He pointed to the stone diorama. "It's a puzzle that you make, a game you play with whoever else enters. Only one can enter the threshold at a time. You have to bring them here." The stallion started to become transparent, fading into the shadows. Tears of joy dripped from his eyes.

"I'm so sorry, but it's my time."

And with that he was gone, leaving Hot Scoop alone with the puzzle machine.