A Long, Winding Road

by GentlemanJ


Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Hemmingmane heaved another weary sigh as he rolled his neck under what was becoming an increasingly hot and heavy helmet.

Those sighs seemed to be coming a lot more often as of late as he realized the life of a royal guard wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Not that he’d taken the job with any high hopes, mind you. His end goal had always been finding inspiration for his novel, a work that would rock the literary world with bold prose, ageless characters, and revolutionary insights into the human condition. He’d thought that the life of a soldier, one filled with danger and adventure, would serve as the perfect fuel for his creative fires. However, after being stationed in Canterlot where the biggest disturbance was an accidental case of littering, he was beginning to think his muse might be hiding somewhere else.

“I could probably find more inspiration in a bowl of alphabet soup,” he moaned as he rolled out his stiff shoulders once more. What he wouldn't give to get that clunky suit of armor off and get back to his beloved desk and quill. “Man, I’m so bored. I wish there was something to do!”

“Well in you got some time on your hands, mind helpin’ a couple of gals out?”

“Sure, what do you–”

His jaw dropped faster than a dive bombing falcon.

“–need?”

Ladies and gentlemen, his muse had arrived. Standing in front of him, heralded by shining light and the singing of cherubs, was the most downright gorgeous girl he’d ever laid eyes upon. With big emerald eyes, flawless freckled face, and a braid that glittered like a cord of spun gold, the vision before him was a goddess of the harvest in a ten gallon hat.

“Oh, are you alright?” her friend with soft, cherry blossom hair asked quietly. “I’m sorry if we startled you.”

“N-no, it’s not that,” Hemmingmane stammered, working to get his wits back about him. “It’s just I wasn’t expecting anyone like you to come and talk to me out of the blue.”

“Like us?” the gorgeous girl frowned in puzzlement. “What do yah mean by that?”

“Oh… um… I meant, uh…” he struggled to find a way out of the hole he’d dug for himself. “It's just that, I meant most people in Canterlot don’t usually talk to us guards, so I guess I was caught a little off… guard. Or something.”

“Well that’s a might strange, but I guess it makes sense,” the beauteous blonde chuckled. “ We've been tryin’ tah get some of you fancy soldier types to answer some questions, but the answers've been about as plentiful as strawberries in the dead 'o winter.”

“Really? Maybe I can help.” the sentinel grinned, elated by the chance to help out such a lovely lady. “My name’s Hemmingmane, and I've always been told that I talk too much for my own good.”

“Applejack, pleasure to make yer acquaintance,” she smiled back and took his hand up in a surprisingly firm handshake. “This here’s Fluttershy.”

“Hello,” the meek girl squeaked.

“Pleasure to make your acquaintances,” Hemmingmane replied as he surreptitiously stretched out his hand. His own grip wasn’t anything special, considering it was mostly used for pen and paper, but her hand could probably have squashed his digits like so many stale pretzels. “So what is it that you had questions about? Directions? Sightseeing spots? A chance to meet the Princesses?”

“Naw, we already dropped by and said hello earlier,” Applejack drawled. “Seemed plumb tuckered out from worryin’ about some big ol’ mess goin’ on way out yonder.”

“Um… okay then,” the slightly befuddled soldier replied. He must have heard wrong, because it sounded an awful lot like she’d just referred to the sovereigns of Equestria like… close, casual friends or something. But that couldn’t be right. “Then if not the usual stuff, what did you want to ask?”

“Well, we were wondering,” Fluttershy said as she peeked from her halfway hiding spot behind her more forward friend, “if you knew anything about a marshal named Mister Graves?”

“Graves? As in Gunmetal Graves?”

“So yah have heard of him!” Applejack whooped in delight. “Thank heavens, I was jess about to start thinkin’ that he mighta been a ghost or somethin’, seein’ as how near every person we asked didn’t seem tah know a lick about ‘im.”

“So, I don’t exactly know him, per se,” Hemmingmane corrected hastily, not wanting to give the two ladies any false hope. “He’s a marshal, and they’re in a class all their own. But I’ve done some research into him at least, and I have heard most of the stories there are about him, at least.”

“Stories? What kind of stories?” the Fluttershy quietly inquired.

“Pretty much what you’d expect from him,” the soldier shrugged. “Most of them are just retelling of his missions, like most soldier stories are. Of course, you've got some class E and D mission, like dealing with a rogue drake or a ghoul nest, like you’d normally expect. The real interesting stuff, however, comes in– ”

“Whoa, slow down a tick, partner,” Applejack chuckled as she held up hand for pause. “I’m not too familiar with yer fancy soldierin’ lingo. What’s all this spelling bee nonsense about E’s and D’s and what not?”

“Oh, my apologies,” Hemmingmane grinned in embarrassment. “I guess I should explain that part, huh? So, in the Equestrian Royal Army, different incidents are graded on a scale of different kinds of danger. The lowest level cases are H, where a standard soldier shouldn't have too much trouble handling on his own. This increases up the alphabet – G F, E, D, C, B, A – and finally S, for the really serious stuff.”

“What… what does really serious mean?” the pink-maned girl timidly asked.

“I think the technical definition is ‘immediate and complete mobilization of all armed forces in response to a national state of emergency,” the would-be-writer intoned. “But you don’t need to worry about that. We haven’t had an official S class incident in hundreds of years now.”

“Well that’s good tah know,” the blond cowgirl smiled appreciatively.

“Indeed,” Hemmingmane grinned in return. “So marshal teams, being collections of very high caliber soldiers, spend most of their time dealing with cases rank and file issues all the way to class C, the highest level a single team of marshals would have a solid chance of success with. Graves is rather peculiar in that he almost always concentrates on class D and up missions, even reaching into the occasional rank B. Top quality performance, to say the least.”

“Hoowhee, that team of his must have been somethin’ real special,” Applejack hooted. “I knew he warn’t jess any run o’ the mill private.”

“He certainly isn’t,” the soldier agreed, glad to see his muse in a good mood. “But, ah… I think you’re mistaken. As far as I know, Graves hasn't actually served on a team; he's pretty much always been all by himself.”

“… Say whut now?”

“I’m sure he must have been on a team at some point,” Hemmingway continued as she straightened his helmet, “but there's absolutely nothing in the records that would indicate that, and if anybody knows otherwise, they're not talking. The only information I have to work with are anecdotes from the past three years, where he’s been conclusively established as operating in a one man unit.”

“I’m sorry, I’m just a teensy bit confused,” Fluttershy interrupted with the assertiveness of a butterfly. “You said that the… class C problems took a team of five marshals. But then you said Graves went and did B things, which are supposed to be higher than C things.”

“I know, it’s amazing isn’t it?” the aspiring author grinned, a genuine, palpable excitement bubbling out as spoke. “As a single man, Graves has managed feats unheard of. He single handedly took down the dread knight haunting the ruins of Hollow Shades. He was also sent on special loan to Saddle Arabia to help them deal with a mad djinn not to long ago. And just this last year, right before his mysterious disappearance, he cleared the San Palomino Hills of the Sand Spider gang. The entire Sand Spider gang!”

“Huh,” Applejack intoned. “You know, fer a guy who hasn't even met the man, you sure do know a lot about him.” Excitement that shone in the soldier’s eyes gave way to embarrassment as Hemmingmane flushed a bright shade of red.

“Oh, that,” he sheepishly grinned. “I mean, the five man formation’s a custom, and daresay even a necessity, that dates back to the formation of the marshals back in the days of General Blitz. It’s an ideal balance of small group dynamics with sufficient manpower for flexibility. The fact that Graves managed to recreate that same functionality in a single person is nothing short of astounding, so I thought it would be a good idea to look into him so I could… you know… use him as a… um… base… in my… book…” The final words came out in such an embarrassed mumble that even Fluttershy, expert in all things quiet and hushed, had a hard time hearing.

“Shoot, I think it’s jess swell that yer workin’ on a book like that,” Applejack smiled once Fluttershy had translated, adding a bracing slap to the back that rang his suit of armor like a gong. “If the marshal’s done as many interestin’ things as you make out he has, then I’m sure your books gonna be one mighty fine read.”

“You… you really think so?” Hemmingmane blinked in surprise. The few people he’d spoken to had told him to give up: popular books these days were all about sparkly vampires and nobody would want to read about some tired, old cowboy type like in decades past. To have someone give him a positive review was refreshing to say the least, if rather unexpected.

“I’m sure it will be wonderful,” the demure little lady added with a warm, encouraging smile. “It sounds fascinating just from the way you talk about it. In fact, I’d love to hear more about what you’ve learned about Graves, if you wouldn’t mind that is.”

“Of course not,” the soldier replied with an ear to ear grin. “What else do you want to know about him?”

“How’s about how he got all crazy slick with the marshalin’?” Applejack prompted, throwing Fluttershy a wink on the sly. “A man doin’ that manner of work’s got tah have somethin' up his sleeve by my reckonin’.”

“His fundamental skills are spot on, of course,” Hemmingmane began, delighted to have a captive audience for once. “Marksmanship, tactics, stealth, multi-facet combat ability, he’d be a stellar soldier with just those. But his real advantage, and daresay his defining trademark, is definitely his mastery of lightning magic. Incredible power for a truly miniscule mana cost, it can be flexibly adjusted to stun targets or alternatively focused for superior power effective against even the most resilient of creatures. It’s truly a magnificent skill that sets Graves apart from the rest.

“Well hay, if it’s so durn practical, how come everybody ain't using it?” the cowgirl girl asked as she scratched her head.

“That’s kind of like asking why everybody isn’t out writing symphonies or painting masterpieces. I’m no mage myself, but from what I’ve read, lightning magic is really, really reactive to emotional fluctuation. It takes perfect calm and absolute mental control to keep the magic from back-lashing, which is hard enough in controlled setting and near impossible in a heated combat situation.”

“If it’s so hard, then how did Graves manage to do it?” Fluttershy puzzled.

“Okay… I’m not one hundred percent sure about this, but…” Hemmingmane glanced around, then waved them to come in closer. Once they approached, he waved them in closer yet again. When they were so close that a parasprite would have trouble squeezing in between then, the young soldier finally whispered,

“... I'm almost certain that Graves is a robot.”

“…”

“…”

Fluttershy and Applejack tried to be nice. They really did. But at the utterance of those words, the only expression they could muster were ones of absolute pity for a sad, sad little man.

“What, it’s not that crazy,” Hemmingmane retorted at their painfully disappointed looks.

“A robut? Seriously?” Applejack repeated with more incredulity than even if the statement had been ‘oranges are better than apples’.

“Okay, maybe not a robot,” the imaginative writer conceded, “but a golem probably, or at least some other kind of artificial construct.”

“What on earth would make you say that?” Fluttershy asked in absolute non-comprehension.

“Well, the toughness, for one thing. Graves has gone missions that should've sent him back in the shape of mashed bean soup. Instead, he's still on his feet and fighting like the day he was commissioned. Plus it’d explain why he’s so good at so many things; it was simply programmed into him to be that good. But the real kicker, the winning point, is the issue of his magic and emotion. Lighting magic is impossibly difficult to use, but Graves manages it with as much ease as some people deal with the simplest earth magic.”

“Maybe he’s jess got a knack for it,” the freckled farm girl offered.

“That’s really unlikely,” Hemmingmane said as he shook his head. “The kind of natural talent required to do that would put him well on par with Shining Armor, and there’s no way that kind of talent could remain hidden from both records and public eye. However, if he were a newly commissioned construct, he'd have no records to speak of anyway, and instead of the incredibly unlikely scenario of a person completely controlling his emotions, he could just not have them instead.”

“Not have them?” Fluttershy repeated. “As in, he doesn’t feel anything at all?”

“It would get rid of the mental fatigue and consistency problems," the young writer nodded. "It’d be simply too exhausting for a person to constantly maintain perfect control all the time, and too dangerous to boot, since small mistakes can lead to huge magical backlash. A robot, or golem however, doesn't have emotions to deal with in the first place, which makes it the perfect candidate for the job.”

“Alright, now I know yer barkin’ up the wrong tree,” Applejack retorted, whether miffed or somewhat disturbed, even she couldn’t say. “We’ve been around the marshal plenty and I fer one, know that he’s definitely got feelin’s, even if he only shows ‘em once in a blue moon.”

"Then instead of a golem," Hemmingmane continued, "what if he were a revenant?"

"... A reve-whut now?" Applejack blinked.

"Revenant. A conglomeration of memories and souls bound into a single body through black magic. It's not as pretty, but it's actually a better theory."

"And... how would this be better in any way?" the freckled farmgirl asked askance.

"It's better because it's a more complete answer," the writer replied. "First off, a revenant is just as tough, if not tougher than a golem. The vessel body can be treated with sorceries and potions to make it as strong as an ox and tough as iron. These kinds of things usually end up killing a living person, but you don't get that kind of problem with a corpse. Also, instead of programming in skills, which might glitch, a necromancer can simply pick apart a soul and attach the pieces it wants. You could get memories and training, all field tested and proven to work, from dozen different sources and collect them in single person."

"T-then what about the feelings?" Fluttershy stammered in dismay. "If this is, um... a new person in a way, then... then wouldn't he be able to feel things like happy and sad just like the rest of us?"

"Not necessarily, Hemmingmane replied with slow shake of his head. "Instead of including emotions, a necromancer could just include the memories of emotion, so the revenant can pretend to be a normal person without actually having to feel them. Golems were advanced to be sure, but they were banned after the Tyrannus Rex insurgency and probably never got advanced enough to pass as human.

"Of course, a revenant who only had memories of emotions wouldn't be perfect either," he mused as he scratched his chin in further thought. "They'd be normal most of the time, but probably would end up with gaps in the way they behaved, almost like a skip in a scratched record or something."

Fluttershy looked to Applejack, who’s usually confident viridian eyes now mirrored the exact same worry as her pink-haired friend. They worried, because they knew exactly what he was talking about. Even now, after half a year in Ponyville, there were still moments when Graves would just disappear. Not that he went anywhere, but he’d get this far off look in his eyes, like he was staring at something a thousand miles away. Those usually firm, silver eyes would grow foggy and empty, as if there were nothing behind those eyes but mists and shadows.

It was a far-fetched theory to be sure, but… what happens when you start to see bits of truth beginning to poke out?

“Anyway, that’s my take on things,” Hemmingmane smiled brightly, if a bit embarrassed at having been caught expositioning for so long in front of such a pretty girl. “No idea whether it’s true or not, but it would make a great plot twist if I wanted to go for a more sci-fi feel, wouldn’t you agree? Of course, the horror vibe from the other version wouldn't be bad either, especially if you went with a whole conspiracy plot. Just think about it: the Equestrian armed forces, using forbidden black magics to create the ultimate human weapon. Riveting, no?”

“Oh… right. Fer sure,” Applejack smiled weakly, trying to bring back her usual cheer and not quite succeeding.

“So, is there anything else I can help you all with today?” the young man grinned, now returning his efforts to winning brownie points with the golden-haired girl. “Any other questions? Comments? Concerns? A tour of the city, perhaps?”

“That’s a mighty temptin’ offer,” the freckled farm girl answered, giving herself a little shake to throw off the bad humors, “but we best get goin’; lots tah do an’ only so much daylight, yah know.”

“Oh, okay,” he replied, unable to keep a bit of dejection from coloring his voice.

“Anywho, like I said, we gotta get goin’,” Applejack continued as she tapped Fluttershy out of her fugue, “but if you ever find yerself comin’ out tah Ponyville, drop on by Sweet Apple Acres. We’d love to have you over some time.”

“You… you would?” he gaped, hardly able to believe his ears. “Seriously?”

“Of course!” the blonde said with a beautiful smile. “Always nice tah have new friends over fer company!”

Oh. Friends. Right.

“So we’ll be headin’ off now, Hemmingmane,” she called back with a cheery wave as the two headed off. “See yah later!”

Hemmingmane waved them off, more than a little bemused by the whole situation and a good deal disheartened by the last comment. Just friends. 'Course, he couldn’t really have expected more from such a short period together, but still, he’d hoped that there’d be something more.

“Ah well,” he shrugged with a small grin. “I’ll just have to spend a little more time around her and show her that we can be more than just friends. I mean, if I can make friends with her in the course of a single afternoon, how hard could that be?”

**********