Morning sunlight pierced the dense canopy of the forest, thin beams of gold falling between the cracks in a deep green rustling sky. The briefest flashes of colour winked in and out of existence as birds dashed through the brilliant shafts carved into the gloom, pursuing their daily affairs with an accompaniment of energetic birdsong.
Deeper below, vines tickled the knobbled tree trunks as they wound their way towards the leafy atmosphere, fighting for a share of the life-giving illumination filtering from above. They traced a purposeful spider web across the bark, reaching from the depths. There, the great trunks themselves burst from earth moistened in the young day's evaporating haze, punching through a thin film of fog as it flowed across the floor. The fog ebbed lazily along its path, guided by various shrubberies dotted about the quiet clearing. It seemed the peaceful scene would last an eternity.
The hoof of a dusk-red foal abruptly pierced the morning calm. Bright green eyes wide with wonder, the pegasus drank in the tranquil scene. So this was the Everfree Forest! It was better than he'd expected. Bigger than the ponyfolk back at the village had made it out to be. Cavernous, even! Look at those gigantic trees! He stamped a forehoof appreciatively, and looked over his shoulder with impatience.
"Cloverbeam!" he called, eyes searching the ground-level foliage. A bush rustled a short distance away, revealing a slender young filly with an ivory coat. Her lemon-yellow mane and tail hung gently around her, their lightweight frame seeming to shift unannounced in the rippling, dappled sunlight.
"We shouldn't be here, Arrowtail," she quietly said, little ears twitching wildly back and forth. "You know it's dangerous!"
Arrowtail's wings twitched irritably. "I'm an adventurer, C-beam! I'm not scared of anypony!" He flared his diminutive plumage and struck a brave pose, before attempting to preen his earthen-brown mane. "You heard the stories! Ponies vanquish beasts from the forest all the time. You heard how one mare stopped a manitcore in its tracks? I'm gonna be next! Or - or maybe I'll force a dragon to leave Equestria!" He spat out an errant twig, and toed the carpet of fog, pointing at it with certainty. "Yeah, see? Definitely a dragon in here somewhere. Look at all this dragon puff." He trotted deeper into the maze of trees.
Cloverbeam followed suit. "Arrowtail! That's not dragon puff, dragon puff is much darker." Her ears still swivelled around, tracking the noises of animals hidden in the brush.
"Have you ever seen dragon puff? For real?" Arrowtail replied, hopping over a few gnarled tree roots Cloverbeam trod carefully around.
"Well, then! Look, you can go back if you want. But me? I've got stuff to vanquish."
"You use that word too much!" Cloverbeam scolded. She wouldn't have come here at all - but with no older ponies around to run to, she'd felt obliged to pursue Arrowtail when he announced his intention to go exploring at the crack of dawn. Maybe he'd come back if she tried hard enough. Then they could play something less dangerous! They must be very, very deep inside the forest by now. "I hope you don't think this will earn you your cutie mark," she muttered, but if Arrowtail heard her, he didn't respond.
Their little hooves traversed a mulch of dead leaves as Arrowtail led them through the filmy haze. It swirled about their legs, rippling in their wake like a translucent, treacly puddle of water. Cloverbeam didn't like it at all. It was just another element of the Everfree Forest that seemed all too independent to trust. The animals here had little interest in interacting with ponyfolk, and the weather was free to roam the sky as it saw fit. Cloverbeam had a distinct impression the forest didn't need ponies - and definitely didn't want them. Her ears swivelled all the harder, but she kept to Arrowtail's side.
Stupid foal! He really was in his element, though. Strutting bravely through the forest, wings braced, ears straight ahead as he traced a path through the fog. Every bit an adventurous pegasus, it was typical of Arrowtail - always flying before he could walk! Wherever there were rules, Arrowtail was there to try and break them. If she didn't think it was so unnecessary for them to be here, she'd have found his attitude reassuring. Cloverbeam sighed, earning a reproachful look from her intractable companion.
"We'll find the dragon, you'll see," he said assuredly. "Then when I vanquish it, we can go home, oka-aaAAY!" Arrowtail was disappearing headfirst into the fog! Cloverbeam bit down on his tail is it whipped past her head, digging in her hooves to arrest his descent. Arrowtail yelled as his tail snapped taught, his little wings buzzing as he bounced back out of the ground. They collapsed in a heap together, before scrambling to their feet.
Arrowtail's wing wash had dissipated some of the fog. Before them in a large clearing was the lip of a vast hole, vanishing almost vertically into the ground. The entire circumference could not be seen; to either side of them, the lip vanished into that thin silvery blanket of fog. If the hole covered the entire clearing though, it was easily twenty ponies across - or more.
"I knew it!" Arrowtail exclaimed, punching the air. "Dragon cave!"
"I don't think it's a dragon..." Cloverbeam said, studying the walls of the hole as she swished her tail apprehensively. It looked unnatural; like it had been carved into the earth with sheer brute force. Great rents ran deep in the walls, as if the soil and rock had been dragged free in massive chunks. "Do dragons live right down in the ground?"
"I bet... I bet ground dragons do," Arrowtail reasoned, brow furrowed in thought. "Yeah. They live down there 'cuz it's warmer than the mountains and more spacey than up here in the forest, see?" For a moment, Cloverbeam turned this over in her mind. She'd never heard of ground dragons before, but she'd certainly defer to Arrowtail's experience when it came to horrible monsters. He wouldn't shut up about vanquishing the things. In the schoolhouse, he'd often impress the class with drawings of various beasts of the land. Their teacher, Cheerilee, did not approve. Wait a minute - what was Arrowtail doing?!
"Arrowtail!" she shouted, crossly stamping the earth. Juvenile wings a blur, he was far over the lip of the imposing hole, with the biggest rock he could carry in his hooves. "What are you playing at?! Come back at once!"
"Relax!" he grunted through gritted teeth, before dropping the rock into the inky blackness below. Unsteady, he turned and hovered back to a distraught Cloverbeam, fog billowing reluctantly away from his wings. "I want to see how far it goes."
"That's enough, stupid!" Cloverbeam snorted angrily. Enough indeed! "What if you fell! C'mon, I want to go. Now!"
"Shh!" Arrowtail cocked an ear to the hole, holding his breath.
There was only silence.
"Horseapples!" Arrowtail cursed, voicing his disappointment. Cloverbeam bunted him heatedly. "Ow!"
"I want to leave! Let's go!" she demanded again.
"Don't be such a whinnywimp!" Arrowtail snapped. They glared at each other, but before Cloverbeam could retort, a guttural howl erupted from the darkness of the giant hole.
Their animosity forgotten, the two foals froze, gazing wide-eyed at the lip of the hole. The film of fog over the drop frothed and boiled as something enormous displaced the air in its laborious ascent to the surface. Another roar burst from the earthen orifice, its immense pressure leaving the foals' ears ringing as the ground beneath their hooves began to buck and heave.
Thrown into action by the tumbling ground, Arrowtail gave Cloverbeam an urgent shove. "RUN!" he shouted, wings beating to speed their escape. In a daze, Cloverbeam complied as the trees rained branches and leaves from above. They darted around the falling debris as the tranquillity tore itself to pieces around them, ears flat as a skull-splitting howl reached them once more.
What in Equestria was that thing?! The noise - that noise! It seemed to burrow into their very bones; a deep, vibrating thrum bellowed beneath an unholy chorus of piercingly sharp, reptilian shrieks. Worse, whatever was giving chase had reached the surface. It was coming.
"FASTER!" Arrowtail shouted, as he tore through the scrub. Tears of terror in her eyes, Cloverbeam leant further into her sprint. But she was already at a dead run, and she was only a little filly. pegasi are sure on their feet from a much younger age, with their wings bestowing greater poise on their youth. As Arrowtail flicked across the tortured landscape, Cloverbeam tripped and tumbled to the floor with a squeal, her ivory coloured body sprawled across a deep patch of dead leaves.
"Arrowtail!" she cried, struggling hard - but only the shuddering earth answered her call. Cloverbeam tried to stand, but the mulch bogged her down, covering her in forest's decay as the terrible beast drew nearer still. Lungs burning and almost paralysed with fear, she witnessed trees in the distance behind her crack and buckle under the onslaught of the beast they had awoken.
Desperately, the yellow-maned foal dragged herself to her hooves and stumbled onwards. It was no use. The terrible creature was almost upon her, and Cloverbeam felt despair tearing away the last vestiges of her strength. A deafening roar drowned out all thought, and she stumbled again to face the impending nightmare.
It was worse than she could possibly have conceived. Too many legs, thicker than the tree trunks they destroyed, were blundering through the forest towards her, meeting radially around an enormous abdomen of taut muscle and sinew. The legs that didn't reach the ground swept viciously through the air, cleaving branches from the creature's path as it ploughed through the forest. The nightmarish vision bore a head with four bulbous eyes, placed in circular fashion around a maw full of rows of razor sharp teeth, descending deep into its throat. The howling atrocity didn't seem to have a right way up - it was a giant mass of limbs, rolling around as it approached.
Those four big orbs locked onto Cloverbeam as the creature swiped the last barrier of trees aside. Nothing stood in the way of that mighty jaw, as it opened to accept its meal. Cloverbeam closed her eyes; her final moments filled with the overwhelming stench of hot breath and putrefied meat.
But the end never came. As the creature roared, rattling her skull, Cloverbeam opened her eyes to see a dusk-red colt standing aggressively in its path. Hope filled her heart again. She could just make out Arrowtail's words through the ringing of her ears.
The filly didn't need telling twice. With monumental effort, she hauled herself to her hooves and scrabbled away through the mulch. Arrowtail flared his wings, keeping the beast's attention. It lunged at him with its maw agape, but he was ready. With all his strength he leapt into the air, and the creature crashed headfirst into the ground, limbs thrashing wildly as it bayed in dissent. Its uppermost eyes tracked Arrowtail's path, filled with hatred and rage as it launched another attack.
The colt had to keep it occupied. Cloverbeam hadn't wanted to come exploring and Arrowtail would see her escape unharmed. They'd known each other since they were weanlings. She was always there for him - a beacon of common sense to calm his headstrong ways. He thought of the crushing guilt he'd felt when he realised he'd put her in danger; the incredible surge of adrenaline when she'd fallen to the floor. A fierce protective instinct he'd never known before boiled inside his little chest, overwhelming the panic and fear. As Cloverbeam's tail vanished through the foliage, he renewed his efforts - he had to keep the creature here! The monster bellowed malevolently, and his world was plunged into ringing silence again.
Arrowtail winced as he flew, taunting his powerful enemy. But he was not nimble in the air, and his underdeveloped wings could not carry him for long. He dodged the limbs the creature sent his way, but he was tiring fast. He dove around the slicing appendages, curling back and circling in front of the horrific head as it reared towards the canopy, snapping at his legs. Precious seconds had passed since Cloverbeam's escape. It had to be enough. The pain in his wings was unbearable, and as Arrowtail reached the ceiling of branches he drew one last ragged breath. He could not vanquish the beast - but he could urge his friend on home.
Cloverbeam heard Arrowtail scream one last time as she scrabbled through wave after wave of foliage, his distant cry pushing her on through the undergrowth. The sounds of the monster receded as Cloverbeam tore across the Everfree Forest, a bright shadow streaking across the woodland floor. She would not slow her frantic pace until she reached Ponyville.