The Glimmering Gardener

by ArgonMatrix

Bonus: Wither

Wispy Willow limped deeper into the darkness, his savage scowl flickering by the dying flashlight. His foreleg roared for him to stop, but he’d come too far now. He would see this through, even if it killed him. The stakes were too high.

This deep in the cavern, the stench of mildew and rot and death was overbearing. Every breath was wet and painful, his chest heaving under scrapes and bruises. Fresh blood trickled from beneath Wisp’s mane and curved into his mouth, saturating his tongue with its ferric taste. At this point, he had no idea if the blood was from a previous injury or whatever malevolent force was at work here.

A low, guttural growl sounded in the distance, like the hunger of the earth. Wisp froze and looked at his bad leg, where his EMF detector was still strapped.

The needle held strong at its highest reading.

The flashlight revealed nothing but the same moss and liverwort carpet he’d grown to despise. Wisp glared into the darkness and roared, “Come on! Show yourself!”

Please… You must leave,” called the faint voice. It sounded on the verge of tears. “I’m trying to save you…

“I’m not leaving without my evidence!” Wisp bellowed.

Just ahead, at the very limit of the flashlight’s reach, something moved. It looked like an amorphous black lump—like shadows given life. It made a horrible squelching noise as it writhed.

Through gritted teeth, Wisp whispered, “Gotcha.” He readied his camera in his trembling, mutilated hoof and lurched forward.

Several hours earlier…

LXI. Peak Grove Caverns
To close out our section on hauntings outside Equestria’s borders, here we have one of the most enigmatic sites on our list. The Peak Grove Caverns are famously rumoured for being host to some of the rarest flora on the planet—most notably natural plundervines and phlume. It’s a veritable siren’s song to any botanist, and many have gone hunting for these elusive plants.
These caverns are on this list, though, because not one pony has ever come out.
A formal expedition of Peak Grove Caverns has never been conducted, but there is more than enough evidence to support its being a paranormal treasure trove. Elmshire mountaineers have relayed all manners of evidence: unnatural cold spells, inexplicable blinking lights. Multiple witnesses have even reported moans and shrieks from within the caves, perfectly in line with empirical phantasmal examples. This activity is reportedly more frequent in late spring, when the plants are most lively.
No one knows exactly what lies beyond this cave’s shaded maw, and perhaps it’s best left that way. It is highly unadvisable for even the most experienced paranormal researchers to venture here. The danger inherent to—

For the umpteenth time, Wispy Willow reread the passage he’d torn from Nature’s Haunts with a goofy smile. This time, though, it was from more than anticipation. He took a swig from his water bottle and looked straight ahead.

The entrance to Peak Grove Caverns looked like a hole in space. It loomed large on the cliff face, and the little sunlight that breached the forest canopy disappeared only a scant few inches into the cave. Dense, blackish moss rimmed the entrance from top to bottom—clumps of it sagged where the moisture was thickest. Gnarled vines hung from the ceiling like the rotten teeth of some eldritch horror. The cavern looked for all the world like the sinkhole where all joy and comfort vanished into dead oblivion.

Wisp beamed. The butterflies in his stomach fluttered gleefully, and he inhaled a mighty breath—never had the smell of mildew been so enticing.

Standing up and shaking his hike-weary legs, Wisp rummaged through his saddlebags. He put away his water bottle and pulled out the necessities: a hooves-free flashlight that wrapped around his ear, an EMF detector with a strap for his leg, and his trusty camera with the well-worn strap. He donned the equipment—its familiar weight instantly put him in the moment—heaved the saddlebags across his back, and trotted into the cave.

Like passing through a veil, the world beyond the entrance changed. Wisp nearly gagged as the pungent smell of rot invaded his nostrils. The brisk spring air gave way to a wet, icy atmosphere that smothered his lungs with every breath. The ground at his hooves became mulchy and slick. And the needles of sunlight became just a memory. All that protected Wisp from the pitch black was a thin cone of light that stretched far but revealed little; it was thick moss, dead vines, and toxic mushrooms as far as he could see.

Wisp’s heartbeat quickened as he delved deeper and deeper. He checked the EMF detector every few moments, but its needle wobbled stubbornly at its baseline reading. His steps were slow and deliberate as he listened and looked for anything remotely paranormal. Yet as the minutes wore on, the sights never changed and the only sounds came from the moss squishing at his hooves and his pulse thrumming in his ears.

Wisp rounded a bend, and something shone in the distance. He froze and squinted ahead. A cluster of odd, wobbling lights beckoned him forward. They reminded him of how a lake might warp sunlight. He picked up to a canter and clutched his camera in one hoof, When he was close enough for his flashlight to brighten the spot, he did a double-take at what he saw.

Hundreds of blue-black flowers pushed through the moss like weeds through a sidewalk. But scattered at random among the flowers were a few ghostly, translucent specimens. They caught the light of his flashlight and shone like stars against the darkness. And Wisp only noticed more of them as he looked around—dozens of them. He hadn’t even noticed that the cave had opened up into a massive chamber until he realized the scope of the strange flowers.

With a faint tremble in his hooves, Wisp stepped through the flowers in awestruck wonder. He checked his EMF detector—it remained frustratingly near zero. Regardless, Wisp snapped a few photos of the scene. He quickly searched his saddlebags and pulled out an aural stone. He whipped it against the ground, and it bounced once and floated in the air with a barely audible hum.

“Recording this moment for posterity, if nothing else,” he said. “I tell ya, mom’s shop has nothing on these flowers.” He focused on one flower, watching the globs of light dance and shift through it. “They definitely don’t seem natural—I think they’re made of water—but no reading. Just in case, I’ll leave this aural stone here to—”

Something cracked.

“What?! Who?! What?!” Wisp whipped his head every which way. Even as the cracking sound died in an echo, all he saw were more flowers and more darkness. He trotted a small distance deeper into the cave, and another crack sounded out—closer this time. The cracks came in quicker and quicker succession until they were overlapping each other in a sharp cacophony. Wisp’s instincts told him to prepare for falling rocks, but the sound reminded him more of ice buckling under pressure.

At the very edge of the flower cluster, a pointed tendril jutted at Wisp’s face from the darkness. He stopped dead and recoiled with a little shout. The tendril was thick and spiky and black, and it writhed in the air like a thing possessed. Chips of ice flew all around as it shook loose. And as the last of the ice disappeared from the vine, it slumped to the ground with a muffled thump and went motionless.

Nothing happened for a long moment. Wispy realized he was panting and took the moment to recollect himself. His eyes moved away from the vine—and his heart skipped a beat when he saw no fewer than four other vines frozen in ice. All of them were aimed squarely at him, and all of them extended from a depthless chasm just a few feet ahead of him—a chasm he would’ve walked headlong into if the vine hadn’t stopped him, he realized.

As the shock bled from him, he blinked and remembered himself. He motioned to check his EMF detector.

The vine lashed forth and seized his foreleg. Wisp shrieked and tried to pull free, but the vine only coiled tighter. It yanked him sideways and snapped his leg like dry kindling. Pain blasted through him, but he barely had time to register it before being slammed against the cave wall. The vine jerked another way and smashed him against another wall. And another. His vision flashed white with every strike, and the world returned only long enough for him to see another wall screeching towards him.

All his mind knew was pain. He didn’t know if he was screaming, or if his equipment had been destroyed. Even his name was buried by the barrage of bruises and gashes. He could feel his mind leaving his body—whether it was unconsciousness or death, he had no idea and didn’t care.

Suddenly, the vine stopped cold. It dangled him over the chasm and held unnaturally still.. His senses were still leaving him—his body was still a bundle of blind agony—but he could’ve sworn that he saw the impossible just before consciousness left him. He could’ve sworn the vine was turning to snow, or maybe sand, right before his eyes.


A blur. That was the first thing Wisp saw when his eyes fluttered open: a blur of colour and motion. It was gone before he could make out any form.

The fungal stink of the cavern brought him quickly back to reality. He lay on his side in a bed of plants—not just moss anymore, but liverwort and flowers and herbs and who knew what else. The world flickered in and out of sight as his flashlight strobed. He couldn’t feel or see his saddlebags at all, but his camera still hung from his neck and his leg, bent the wrong way as it was, still had the EMF detector strapped to it.

He blinked. The EMF detector’s needle sat halfway along the meter. It was falling back towards zero, but it had been well beyond baseline.

Sheer adrenaline made Wisp stand. His body ached and stung, but not nearly as badly as he’d expected—his leg was the only thing broken, far as he could tell.