A moment passed. Then another. In the aftermath, it took some time to realize, but Twilight found that she didn’t hurt at all. In fact, she was perfectly fine. Opening one eye ever so slowly, Twilight looked up and saw that the one crying out was in fact the leader of the marshals. Bent over and face strained, he clutched at his right hand as silvery arcs of lightning danced across the skin. A few feet away, his spell gun cracked with the same electric energy, a faint puff of smoke escaping from the barrel as the spell charged inside faded.
"WHO DID THAT!?” he roared, clutching the back of his head and turning from Twilight to stare around wildly. “WHO!? SHOW YOURSELF!” The other marshals glanced at each other, confused and rather dazed. None of them had fired at their boss – that would be stupid – but save for the five girls remaining, the town square had cleared out. So if that was the case, then who–
Another thunderclap roared and the ungroomed marshal cried as a silvery needle of lightning struck his spell gun and exploded into a blast of electric light. Three more times, the thunder tolled, and the remaining marshals quickly dropped their weapons with echoed cries of pain.
“WHO’S OUT THERE?” the leader of the marshals called out. “SHOW YOURSELF!” Searching the surrounding buildings frantically, his eyes darted to and fro, but could not locate the assailant. Spotting his gun, he reached for it – at least he would be able to defend himself – but was forced to jump back as another blast of electricity shocked the gun.
“Boss, what do we do?” the fat marshal called out. After seeing what had happened to their leader, none of them attempted to retrieve their weapons: it was simply too dangerous.
“Grrr… get to the horses!” the lead marshal called out. “We have to get out of here!” With that, the five men made a hasty scramble from the pavilion to where their horses were tied to their posts. But just as the managed to get into their saddles, another clap of thunder sounded, even louder than before, and one of their numbers dropped to the ground, completely unconscious as arcing sparks skittering over his whole body.
The marshals ran for it, kicking their steeds into a full gallop. But the unrelenting lightning continued, not nearly as fast as before, but still striking with the same pinpoint precision and even greater force than ever. The second marshal fell as he tried to wheel his horse around while the third collapsed before he’d made it ten pace. With only two left, they had almost made it out of the town square, but another lightning bolt struck the fourth marshal, leaving only their leader to gallop out of sight.
The six friends, the only ones still present in the square, could only stare in amazement. Four of the men who’d held the town hostage at gunpoint lay unconscious on the ground, unmoving save for the occasional twitch of electric shock. All this had happened, and it hadn’t even been a full minute.
It was Applejack who first shook herself out of her stunned stupor and called out.
“Twilight! You okay?” she hollered. With that call, the five girls roused themselves and rushed over to their friend who still remained seated under the tent.
“Oh my goodness, oh my goodness,” Fluttershy gasped, taking her friend's head in her hands and looking her over. “Are you okay Twilight? They didn’t hurt you did they?”
“Uh, I don’t think so...” she said, her expression still slightly dazed and confused. Suddenly, her eyes snapped back into focus, and she looked around desperately, “Spike! Where’s Spike? Is he okay?”
“Let me see,” a low, gravelly voice called out from behind. Jumping, the girls spun around and were flatly startled to see the traveler from this morning trotting over. This initial surprise, however, was soon overtaken by an even greater surprise, for the mysterious bundle he’d been carrying on his back all day was now unwrapped, its contents laid out for the world to see.
He had a spell gun.
But the one he carried was different from the models they’d seen earlier. It was at least half again as long as the others, with a long scope attached to the top and a much thicker body. Also, where the marshals’ spell guns had gleaming silver barrels, polished till they shone like mirrors, this one was a dull grey that seemed to absorb the light. Though seemingly in good repair, the traveler’s gun had many scratches, scuffs, and markings all over its well-worn surface. It was clearly a weapon that had seen extensive use.
The six girls only had a moment to notice this, however, because the traveler quickly strode past them and knelt beside Spike to take a look at the unconscious boy. Pulling up Spike’s eyelids, he checked the pupils, then took his pulse, and finally examined the side of his jaw where a large bruise was already forming. After a moment or two of consideration, he stood up, unslung his rifle, and pointed it right at Spike, the low hum of a spell charge already beginning to build.
“Wait, what are you doing?” Twilight asked in panic. “Stop!”
The gun fired, but instead of a blast of harsh white lightning or scarlet fire, a flurry of ephemeral green petals burst forth. Swirling in the air for a moment, they began to gather on the blackish-blue bruise on Spike’s face. With a faint glow, the petals sank into the skin and faded, revealing only smooth, unblemished skin underneath. Soon, the petal had all vanished, and not single part of the injury remained.
“Can’t do much first aid,” the traveler said, slinging the spell gun back on, “but he should be fine with that.”
“Oh. Thank you,” Twilight breathed, knees buckling as she collapsed onto the ground in absolute relief. First being held at gunpoint, and then seeing what she thought was Spike about to be made a good head shorter, well… it’s enough to tire out a girl.
The traveler, upon noticing this, reached into his coat and pulled out a small, tinfoil packet.
“Here, eat this,” he said, handing the packet over to Twilight. She merely gave him a quizzical look. She was grateful to him, to be sure, but at this point, she didn’t know what to expect from this definitively strange man anymore.
“It’s just chocolate,” he said, unwrapping the packet and showing her the contents. “It’ll help with the shock.”
“Oh. Thank you,” Twilight repeated as she took a bite. The sweet snack seemed to warm her up from the insides, and she quickly began demolishing the entire bar.
“Ooh, got any more?” Pinkie Pie asked, eyes wide in anticipation. The young man looked at her and, almost smiling, reached into his coat for another packet, which Pinkie Pie received most gratefully.
“So, I reckon you’re the feller who saved our bacon earlier,” Applejack said, more statement than question at this point.
“One way of putting it,” the traveler said with a shrug.
“Well, we sure are grateful,” the freckled-blonde continued, taking his hand up in a body rattling shake. “Them marshals was causin’ a heap 'o trouble, and your fancy shootin' really did the trick.”
“Yeah, too bad he didn’t get them all,” Rainbow Dash added with a slight look of disappointment.
“Rainbow, don’t be rude,” Rarity admonished. “This man just saved Twilight’s life."
“I don’t think he was gonna go that far,” Twilight said, her need for accuracy forcing her to speak up despite what she’d been through. Rarity, however, remained unperturbed.
“He threatened your good looks, darling,” the seamstress sniffed with a toss of her violet locks, “and that’s just as bad, if not worse.”
“Oh. Right.” Twilight said nothing else. After all, you just didn’t argue with Rarity logic.
“Well like I said,” Rainbow Dash continued. “We appreciate it and all, but what do we do about the one that got away?”
The traveler just looked at her.
“Who says he got away?”
“Huh?” Rainbow Dash replied dumbly.
“Where’s the tallest building in town?” the young man asked, already scanning the skyline for the answer.
“Um, I guess that’d be the town hall, over there,” Rainbow Dash said, pointing over his shoulder. “But why do you –” the rest of her question was cut off as the traveler took off run, his long strides eating up the distance as he headed straight for the aforementioned building. The six friends looked at each other in puzzlement.
“What do you think he’s doing?” Fluttershy asked curiously.
“I don’t know,” Applejack replied, “but whatever it is, I reckon it’s somethin' worth seein'.” And with that, the six friends took off after him, Twilight carrying Spike on her back, who now seemed more like he was asleep than unconscious. It was probably the snoring that gave it away.
When they reached the inside of the town hall, the traveler was already halfway up the stairs to the upper gallery. Setting Spike in a corner to curl up and finish his nap, they chased him up, finally arriving at the top floor where he stood on the open veranda. From here, they had a clear view of the entire town and its surrounding countryside.
“What… are you… doing… up here?” Twilight gasped, the run up the long flight of stairs winding her. She was a scholar, for goodness sake, not a track star. The traveler merely pointed out towards the horizon, where a tiny speck was almost out of sight.
“What's that you’re looking at?” Pinkie Pie asked as she bounced over to the railing. “Ooh, ooh, let me guess! Is it… a raisin? No, raisins don’t move. A bug? It’s a bug isn’t it? A squishy little bug!”
“Is that…” Rarity began, squinting her eyes to see better. “Good heavens, is that the marshal that got away?” The traveler just nodded as he began adjusting his spell gun.
“Sir, I don’t mean to be rude,” she continued, “but do you mean to fire it at a man riding at full speed from this distance?”
“That’s the plan,” he said, giving the scope on top a slight twist.
“Hey man, about what I said earlier,” Rainbow Dash began, “I didn’t really mean what I said, you know? It’s not like you have to go and prove anything. Really.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not,” he said, hefting the gun to check it’s balance as the familiar hum of a spell charging began to grow in volume.
“But what can you do from here?” Twilight asked, eyes toward the horizon. “He’s almost out of sight. I mean, really. At this distance, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll miss.”
The traveler glanced down at her, a mild look of surprise on his otherwise impassive face. And then, for the first time any of the girls had yet seen, he smiled.
Well, it wasn’t exactly a smile. It was more of a grin, one of those sort of goofy, cocky and cock-sure, full-of-confidence smirks men his age seemed to specialize in. It lit up his whole face, and for moment, the disconnected emptiness around his eyes faded.
“Me? Miss?” he asked, giving his hat a little flick. “ Not by a long shot.”
With one swift motion, the traveler raised his rifle and pointed it out at the horizon. He stood perfectly still, the light of the afternoon sun reflecting off his grey eyes like silver disks. And as he stood, his back straight, his arm steady, and his face set with cool, unwavering determination… in that moment, the same thought ran through the minds of all six girls: this is what a hero looks like.
A furious clap of thunder roared as a brilliant lance of crackling white light erupted from the gun’s barrel with an intense blast of wind. The girls cried out in surprise as the byproduct of the spell buffeted them. And though the traveler's coat whipped around him in a raging frenzy, he himself remained perfectly still, firm and unyielding as he calmly watched the arcane bolt fly forth.
Far faster than any arrow, the lance of energy flew across the countryside, drawing rapidly closer to the tiny moving dot. The six girls crowded at the railing, eyes straining to see the result of the traveler’s shot. The bolt drew closer and closer until… There was a bright flash of light, as if a star had suddenly been born on the horizon.
As the light faded, the six girls continued watching. Waiting. And suddenly, their eyes grew as they saw two specks in the distance. One continued moving at the pace of a galloping horse. The other was completely still.
“WHOOPEE!!!!” Pinkie Pie screeched as she began bouncing around in excitement. “THAT WAS TOTALLY THE MOST AWESOMELY AMAZINGLY STUPENDOUS THING I’VE EVER SEEN!”
“Omygoshomygoshomygoshomygosh!” Rainbow Dash repeated over and over, her hands pressed to her cheeks in amazement. “That was so… COOL! Oh my gosh, you are like the coolest person of like, all time ever!”
“Told you I don’t miss,” he said, pulling his hat over his eyes as he turned his back to them. Rarity and Fluttershy leaned curiously forward to examine him a little more closely. If they didn’t know any better, they could have sworn that he was… blushing.
“Hey Twilight? Why’s your pocket there all glowy 'n stuff?” Applejack asked, pointing to her friend’s hip. Reaching inside, the scholar girl found that the blank letter she’d received earlier was emitting a soft purple light. Unfolding it, she was quite surprised to see that elegant flowing text was scrolling across the page.
“Oh, a Conditional Event Charm, of course!” Twilight said, eyes lighting up as she finally understood the nature of the message. “It’s all so simple!”
“Well, that’s nice and all,” Applejack commented, “but what does it say?”
“Oh, right.” Twilight angled the paper so that both of them could read it together.
“Now hold on just a minute there,” Applejack said after both of them had read the letter. Twice in fact, to make sure they hadn’t gotten it wrong.
“Trusted agent…” Twilight thought.
“Awful brown coat…” Applejack continued.
“You don’t think…” The two girls turned, eyes wide, to where Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie were busily flitting and bouncing around the traveler. And together, the two letter holders said at once, in perfect surround sound stereo,
“You’re a marshal?!”
Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash crashed to the ground as the four girls stared at the ones holding the letter, then back to the traveler.
“Whaaaaa?!” Rarity gasped, a rare moment of uncivilized behavior appearing with her surprise.
The young man paused, as if trying to find a way to slink out of sight and avoid having to answer. But the way the six girls were looking at him pretty much made it clear that that wasn’t happening. So with a sigh, he pulled open the right side of his coat to reveal a silver badge pinned inside. Like his spell gun, it was not nearly so shiny as the others and had clearly seen better days, but the winged shield still stood proudly on its scratched, worn surface.
“Well land sakes,” Applejack breathed, “I reckon he really is a marshal.”
“Oh my gosh!” Rainbow Dash squealed, “That makes you like, fifty times cooler than before!” With that, she and Pinkie Pie began bouncing around in uncontrollable excitement again. The others just ignored them.
“How’d you know?” the traveler asked. Twilight handed him the letter so he could see for himself. This is what he read:
My dearest and most faithful student,
If you’re reading this letter now, then it means events have transpired as I’d expected. Recently, I’ve received reports that a group of my marshals have been abusing the authority of their post to terrorize the citizens. While it pains me to admit it, not even the royal marshals are completely free of corruption.
In order to correct this, I’ve sent one of my most trusted agents to you in order to catch them in the act. With this spell activated, it means that my agent has successfully dealt with the corrupt marshals and all is well.
That being said, I should tell you that the reports of wild animals running rampant close to Ponyville are completely true. This is why I also decree that my agent will remain in Ponyville until the threat is cleared and the town’s safety is assured. (If you’re not sure who he is, just find the quietest person you don’t know yet and ask to see his badge). I hope that you’ll welcome him warmly and treat him with extra kindness: he’s not very good at making friends.
Princess Celestia of Equestria
P.S. Oh, and please ask Rarity to replace that awful brown coat of his: it’s about time that boy updated his wardrobe.
After he finished reading, the traveler stood in silence, clearly thinking over the things he’d just seen. The girls looked on, curious about how he’d react. He finally spoke.
“… There’s nothing wrong with my coat,” he mumbled sullenly. At this, Rainbow Dash literally crashed to the ground, clutching her sides in uncontrollable laughter.
“Well, you certainly could do better for yourself,” Rarity added, eyeing the coat very appraisingly. “Might I suggest a –”
“Not now Rarity,” Applejack interjected. “We got more important business to take care of.”
“Right,” Twilight agreed over her fashionable friend's indignation. “Like for starters, why didn’t you tell us you were a marshal in the first place?” The young man looked from one to the other before pulling his hat low over his eyes.
“I… don’t like announcing that,” he said simply.
“Why not?” Twilight continued, her curiosity fully aroused now.
“Always leads to disappointment,” the traveler shrugged.
“Disappointment? Fluttershy asked in surprise. “But how?” Looking back and forth at the girls, it was clear to the traveler that he wasn’t getting away till they had all their questions answered. So with a long sigh, he began to explain.
“People expect a lot from marshals. They’re supposed to be helpful, kind, cool, and heroic.” He gave Applejack, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash and Rarity each a look in turn. “And while not all of us are as bad as those down there,” he continued, flicking a thumb at the still unconscious villains, “people like me don’t live up to half those expectations. So, I figured it’s better to just finish a job and move on.” Once finished, the young man folded his arms and leaned against the wall, clearly done sharing on the topic.
The six girls looked at each other, then back at him.
“So, what you’re saying,” Twilight began a subtle smile coming on, “is that a marshal is supposed to be a lot of things...”
“… like really helpful when there’s folks in need…” Applejack suggested as she recalled the way he’d lent a hand down at the farm.
“… and really nice and not scary at all…” Fluttershy whispered, thinking how quickly both Angel Bunny and herself had gotten to liking him.
“… and wickedly awesome slash totally cool…” Rainbow Dash grinned as she remembered the way he’d made his last shot against incredible odds.
“… and, of course, heroic in every sense of the word,” Rarity smiled, eyeing the way how even now, just standing there with his arms crossed, the traveler exuded the same strength and reliability he’d shown them all earlier.
“And totally fun, too!” Pinkie Pie giggled. The other girls just stared in confusion. “What? He ate a whole pie! A whole pie! That’s amazing!”
“So in other words,” Twilight continued, “those are all the things a marshal should be, and you don’t think you live up to those expectations.”
“Pretty much,” he said levelly. And yet, despite the composure of his voice and hat obscuring his face, the six girls could clearly see a flush of embarrassment tinting the traveler’s cheeks.
It was simply too much. The girls couldn’t hold it in anymore and burst out into fits of laughter that so startled the traveler, he actually jumped away from the wall.
“Anything, you’d care to share?” he asked, eyeing them suspiciously. Maybe he was paranoid, but he had the distinct feeling they were laughing at him.
“No, it’s nothing,” Twilight said, wiping away a tear.
“Yeah,” Applejack continued, trying to suppress another chortle. “We were jess thinkin' that since the Princess told you to stay with us, we might as well take you in.”
“Despite you being such a big… disappointment,” Rainbow Dash snorted, bursting out into a fresh peals of laughter as she did.
“I... see,” the traveler answered dubiously. He really didn’t but what else could he say?
“Well, now that we’ve gotten that taken care of,” Rarity said as the first to finish laughing, though the hint of a smile still tugged at the corner of her lips, “there is one last thing we would like to ask you.”
“Oh?” the traveler said, raising an eyebrow out of curiosity, “What’s that?”
“What’s yer name, silly?” Applejack said, giving him an exasperated smile.
“Yeah!” Pinkie Pie beamed. “If we’re gonna be friends from now on, we gotta know what to call you. I mean, it’d be pretty lame if we went around calling you 'mister' all the time, right?”
“I guess it would,” he replied, the faint traces of a smile now playing across his face as well.
“So anyway, what’s your name?” Rainbow Dash asked as all six looked on expectantly.
“Graves,” he said with a small tip of his hat. “Pleasure to meet you all.” The six friends glanced at each other and smiled. Graves. It fit.
“Well, Mr. Graves,” Twilight grinned, “I’m Twilight Sparkle. These are my friends Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Rainbow Dash. Welcome to Ponyville.”
To Be Continued
The Journey of Graves will continue with the second story: So...What Happens Next?