Scootaloo narrowed her eyes, looking around the boutique porch suspiciously, but it was empty as usual. Nothing marred the perfect white wooden planks, the posts, nor the awning. The moonlight bathed the area in an eerie white aura. In fact, if one had just looked at the porch, they would have probably guessed that the building was unoccupied.
Satisfied, she inched the door open, stopping part of the way as the door squeaked ever so slightly. When no pony burst through the doors at the far end of the lobby, Scootaloo glanced over her shoulder and silently motioned for her accomplice just behind the bush.
Apple Bloom jumped out, the leaves rustling loudly, and landed with a thud on the porch.
Scootaloo grimaced and whispered, “Hey! Be quiet unless you want to wake Rarity.”
Sitting down, Apple Bloom slapped a hoof over her mouth. “Whoops. Sorry!”
Rolling her eyes, Scootaloo motioned again and crept into the shop, lying low to the ground. She wormed her way to the stand and mirrors where Rarity modeled dresses on ponies and darted behind it. Looking back, she grinned and nodded as Apple Bloom slid into place right behind her.
Peeping over the stand, they double checked that the coast was clear. Except for the stands on the other end of the shop, it was still empty. Nodding to each other, they silently darted over to the ponyquinnes that lined the wall by the stairs up. They slammed into the stands and spent the next few seconds scrambling to prevent any from tipping over.
When they were sure they had all the stands steady, they sat there silently for a few more seconds. However, Rarity didn’t appear, and they breathed a sigh of relief.
“That was close. Too close for comfort.” Apple Bloom wiped some sweat off her brow as she tip-toed over to the edge of the ponyquinnes and stood by the stairs. “After this, Ah never want to sneak through Rarity’s boutique at night again. It’s just plain creepy!’
Scootaloo joined Apple Bloom and made a low whistling noise. When she ran out of breath, she turned and said, “I don’t think it’s all that creepy.”
“Well, Ah do!” Apple Bloom exclaimed. “Maybe it’s just the way that the room is completely empty except for those stands. The way the moonlight hits them, highlighting their faceless faces...” She trailed off with a shudder and turned her attention back to the stairs.
A second later, Sweetie Belle appeared at the top and nodded. She carefully stepped down the stairs one at a time. Each time she stopped on one, it would squeak slightly and each pony would hold their breath, praying that Rarity hadn’t heard.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity to Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle daintily stepped off the last stair. Motioning for the group to move out, Scootaloo rolled across the floor back to the central stand. as her friends joined her, she peeped over the edge and scanned the shop. Determining that they were safe, she slid across the floor and out the door.
She waited until her fellow crusaders had followed her out and then gently closed the door. “Go!” she hissed, taking off at full speed towards the edge of Ponyville.
They darted along the walls of several houses, checking around the corner for any adult ponies before continuing on. Finally, they shot out from behind a row of houses and collapsed at the town entrance, giggling wildly.
“I... Hehe... I told you we could manage it!” Scootaloo exclaimed, gasping for breath. She smirked at her friends. "Easy as pie!"
Sweetie Belle grinned and leaned against Apple Bloom. “I never doubted you!”
“At this rate, we’ll get our cutie marks in bravery in no time!” Apple Bloom smiled broadly, bouncing in place. “Ah can’t believe we didn’t think of it before! A cutie mark in a... whatchumacallit.”
“Abstract idea,” Sweetie Belle filled in as she caught her breath. “You see, I thought that maybe our talents don’t lie in actually doing something tangible, but in an idea.”
Scootaloo rose to her hooves as the last of her giggles subsided. “And I thought of the idea of bravery! I mean, think of the adventurers we could be if we our cutie marks told everypony how heroic we were.”
Pointing to the forest, Scootaloo stared in awe at the splendor of the dense line of trees marking the border. Taking a deep breath she said, “All we have to do now is go to the center of the forest and back! And it’s the perfect night to do it!” She took a deep breath of the chill air, savoring the night.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Sweetie Belle cowered back a bit, a look of fear crossing her eyes. “Th-the center? I thought we were going to go to Zecora’s hut and back. That's what we agreed on, wasn't it?”
Apple Bloom nodded, scuffing the ground awkwardly.
Scootaloo turned to face them, staring at her friends in disbelief. “What? You’ve gotta be kidding me! We can’t earn cutie marks in bravery if we just walk to Zecora’s hut! That’s way too easy!” She sat down and huffed when neither of her friends moved. “Humph! I guess cutie marks in sneaking are alright, though.”
Apple Bloom shrugged and looked at her flank. “Ah don’t think that’s it. We’ve been sneaking around for a bit now and... nothing.”
“Then I guess we’ll need to go into the forest or this was all a waste!” Scootaloo exclaimed.
“I guess.” Sweetie Belle gulped, glancing around nervously. “But does it really have to be to the center of the forest? Why not the area around Zecora’s hut. You know, just in case we run into something.”
Making some chicken noises, Scootaloo strutted around her friends and said, “What? Are you... chicken? Bwack! Bwack! Bwack!”
The look of fear passed from Sweetie Belle’s face, replaced by one of agitation. “I’m not a chicken! You’re the chicken!” she retorted. “See! You’re the one strutting around making chicken noises!”
“Girls!” Apple Bloom jumped in between the two fillies, pushing them apart. “Scootaloo’s right. This’ll be a waste if we don’t do something. So...” She looked at both her friends in turn. “Ah think we should at the very least start heading towards Zecora’s hut and we can decide what to do as we go!”
Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle looked at each other and shrugged.
“That works.” Scootaloo jerked around and strode towards the forest. “I guess we could cut off the path at any point in time.”
“As long as we stay in the area of Zecora’s hut, I’m okay with it, I guess.” Sweetie Belle glanced around, a slight look of fear returning as she trotted after Scootaloo. "But I still think cutting off the path would be a bad idea."
Apple Bloom nodded, satisfied with the outcome of her intervention and ran to catch up with her friends.
For a few minutes, they walked in silence, each looking around warily. To either side of the crusaders, the path side was densely populated with gnarled, old trees that bent over the path. Their curved, rough branches reaching out as if to grab an unwary pony. More than once, the three fillies had to sidestep the low hanging foliage.
Light from the moon streamed in through the forest top, making splotches of both bright spots and dark spots. As they walked, the light would illuminate their coats, disappear for the second and then illuminate them once again.
The spaces in between the trees were choked with underbrush and weeds. Their leaves crept out into the path, just waiting to snag a pony. The plants were ragged from being chewed on by various animals and the harshness of the environment.
“So...” Apple Bloom tried to casually say, breaking the eerie silence that had blanketed the path. “Should we give Zecora a visit and head back?”
Scootaloo scoffed and suddenly jumped over the underbrush off the path. “No way! If we went to her, we’d all get in trouble! You know, we kinda snuck out and all?”
Sweetie Belle nodded in agreement. “Yeah... maybe just to her clearing, but not to her hut.” She cowered back, looking up at Scootaloo, fear crossing her eyes. “But I don’t think we should go off the path.”
Rolling her eyes, Scootaloo chuckled and backed a little further into forest. “Come on! There’s a clearing just a bit into the forest. It won’t take long and if we make it, we’ll get our cutie marks in bravery for sure!”
“Ah think Ah’m gonna have to stick with Sweetie Belle on this one,” Apple Bloom sighed and looked towards Scootaloo apologetically. “Sorry.”
“Thank you!” Sweetie Belle threw her hooves into the air and huffed.
Apple Bloom raised an eyebrow at Sweetie Belle and then turned back to Scootaloo, looking at her quizzically. “How do you even know there’s a clearing over there?”
Scootaloo turned and squeezed between two trees before trotting a little further into the forest. “I heard Rainbow Dash talking with Twilight about one that would be perfect to nap in if it weren’t in the forest.”
“But how do you know where it is, exactly?” Sweetie Belle inquired skeptically.
Scootaloo stopped and sat down. Screwing her face up in concentration, she did her best imitation of Rainbow Dash. “Yeah... I was flying over the forest and about two hundred yards off the left side of the path half to Zecora’s hut, there’s a really nice clearing. I would totally sleep there if it weren’t so close to the center of the forest.”
Taking a deep breath, Scootaloo puffed out her chest proudly and said, “That’s how!”
Shrugging, Apple Bloom wiggled between the trees off the path and joined Scootaloo. “Well, if it’s only two hundred yards in, Ah guess Ah’m fine with it. Let's make it quick, though.” A little bit of nervousness crept into her voice.
“But... but...” Sweetie stammered.
“Just come on!” Apple Bloom and Scootaloo exclaimed.
Gulping back her fears, Sweetie Belle daintily stepped around a tree, careful to avoid the weeds underneath, and joined her friends. “This is not what I signed up for."
“Then what did you—”
“What do you think a bravery cutie mark would look like? Ah think it’d look like two lion heads roaring at each other!” Apple Bloom cut Scootaloo off, though the excitement sounded forced.
Tapping her chin ponderously, Scootaloo seemed to trot carelessly through underbrush, trampling leaves and flowers alike. The entire time, she managed to dodge around trees as if she were walking through an open field. She even managed to duck under several branches without looking, the old rotting leaves brushing the top of her mane.
“I think it’d be something like the silhouette of an adventurer!”
Sweetie Belle frowned, the fear temporarily forgotten as she thought of response. “Well... I’d have to say it’d be a knight pony. They’re so brave!”
“But that could also mean...” Scootaloo didn’t get to finish as she tripped over an exposed root and tumbled head first through some bushes with a yelp.
“Scootaloo!” Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle screamed. Both broke into a gallop, jumping through the bushes.
As they broke through, they found themselves at the edge of a clearing. The moonlight seemed to illuminate a single tree, a weeping willow in the center. Beneath its foliage, a small pond shimmered, an almost silvery light playing across the top, filtered through the branches of the tree.
Scootaloo popped up in between her two friends and stared in amazement. “Whoa... Rainbow Dash wasn’t kidding when she said that this would be the perfect place to take a nap.”
“Wow, this is...” Sweetie Belle gasped, taking in the entire clearing, any sense of fear completely washed away by wonderment.
Apple Bloom took a tentative step forward, awestruck. “Amazing. That’s what this is! Ah would sleep here every day if Ah could!” She took another, bigger step, forward and exclaimed, “Ah mean, look at it! It’s almost a perfect circle. The forest just seems to end, going from a harsh, eerie environment to a calm, peaceful one.”
Brushing her hoof across the ground, Scootaloo said, “It even looks like somepony has been taking care of the grass. I mean, look how neat it looks. Almost as if it were cut.”
Sweetie Belle seemed to be paying no attention to her friends. Instead, she walked around the pond, admiring its beauty. The surface was crystal clear and about a yard down, she could see the silty bottom. Though, no life, fish or otherwise, moved about in the water.
Turning her attention to the tree, she found herself staring at what could have easily been the oldest tree in the forest. The bark was rough and wrinkled. The branches were gnarled beyond belief, hanging low over the water. The white buds at the end of the branches seemed ready to burst open at any minute, but at the same time, they looked sad. Almost like they were mourning something tragic that had happened eons ago.
As she walked around the tree, a stark white something caught her eyes. Moving the branches that obscured it, she blinked in surprise.
“Hey Scootaloo, Apple Bloom. Come look at this.”
Her friends quickly joined her, raising their eyebrows at the sheet of paper tacked to the tree. Finally, Scootaloo grabbed it. They squished together and examined it. Along both edges of the paper, somepony had scribbled the word "no" six times. In the center, there was a crude drawing of a absurdly tall creature, both pony and not pony in nature. It appeared almost stick-like with two branches coming off the side and ending at its waist.
“What the hay is this supposed to be?” Apple Bloom tore the paper away from Scootaloo and squinted her eyes unbelievingly. “Who would come out to the middle of the forest and put a piece of paper—”
Scootaloo rubbed her eyes and groaned. “Hey, is it just my imagination or is everything going fuzzy?” She stumbled back, grunting as she rubbed the side of her head. In the back of her mind, a persistent buzzing noise slowly grew louder until it rang in between her ears. Taking a step back, she could see her friends through watery eyes. They mimicked her actions, shaking their heads as if a bug were buzzing around in their skulls.
Suddenly, the buzzing cut off, replaced by a slight rustling of leaves behind them. The three fillies trembled as they looked up and straight ahead, their eyes wide open. Slowly, they turned around, and screamed in pure terror. Their cries pierced the night, and any sane pony would have quickly backed off. Except what they saw certainly wasn’t a sane pony.
Nearly face to face with them was the thing of nightmares. It had no face, its head being pure white. If it hadn’t been bent over, it would have easily been three times the height of the fillies. Long, black tentacles writhed in the air behind it, each attached to its stick-like body, popping out of the suit and tie it wore.
A loud, echoing voice reverberated around the clearing, seeming to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. As it bounced around, it grew staticy, as if it were a radio losing reception.
“The forest is closed!”