“… Alright, we’ll stop here for the night.”
With a grateful groan, the girls dropped down and heaved long, luxurious sighs as they unshouldered their packs and took a much needed rest.
“Land sakes, that was a doozy,” Applejack whistled as she knuckled the small of her back with a series of crackling pops. “My back feels like it’s been bent intah an oversized horseshoe.”
“You think that’s bad?” Rainbow Dash snorted as she landed next to the freckled farm girl and let her translucent spell wings flicker and fade. “I’ve got so many knots in my back, Rarity could probably make a sweater out of them, am I right?” The cyan-clad girl looked up for a response.
“Ugh, good heavens, no,” Rarity sniffed would keen distaste. “That would undoubtedly be the tackiest thing I ever had the misfortune to create.”
“I really don’t know how you do it, Dashie old buddy, old pal,” Pinkie Pie beamed she threw an arm around her now frowny friend. “I mean, you were totally up there all day today. Drop down for lunch and a break here and there, but the rest of the time, you’re just up and at em’ like a little turbo charged bunny rabbit.”
“Which is good advice for all of you,” Graves rumbled as he suddenly reappeared behind the pink-haired baker and sent her jumping up with a forced that would have many any turbo charged bunny rabbit green with envy. “The faster you get fixed up, the faster you can really rest. Now move it, while the sun’s still up.”
“Alright, dad,” Rainbow Dash retorted with a roll of the eyes for good measure. The marshal pretended not to hear the giggles that followed in the comment’s wake.
With groans that contained at least a margin of good humor, the girls roused themselves from their weary seats and set to the task of making camp. Fortunately, it wasn’t all work and doldrums because even chores become a lot more pleasant when you have people to share the work. Just another thing that the girls did that colored the marshal impressed.
When Graves had taken Shining Armor’s advice to heart, he’d done so in the only way he knew how: work. Each folder he’d prepped had been designed to take advantage of their unique abilities and hopefully, increase their chances of survival. Over the past two days, they’d performed admirably.
Twilight Sparkle, at the head of their little column, led them along an unencumbered route. How? With magic of course. Despite the confounding mana that hung heavy in the air, she’d been able to not only conjure up the magical compass from the spells she was provided, but also a fair projection of the surrounding terrain to guide their steps. This in turn was supplemented by Rainbow Dash’s constant patrols as their eyes in the sky. A week of tinkering with her rune frames transformed the little athlete’s usually small, speed-oriented wings into large gliders like those of a hawk. With those, Rainbow could stay airborne all day, circling back every twenty minutes to provide them with valuable intel of what dangers could lay ahead.
Of course, just seeing what lay ahead didn’t matter if you didn’t know what it meant, which is where Fluttershy came in. With her encyclopedic knowledge of animals expanded by every scrap available in the Canterlot archives, it was she who provided context to the information gathered. A foul-smelling cave? Probably a chimera’s den. Trees scorched, but only from fifty feet up? Likely a nest of char wasps. Her knowledge not only told them what to avoid, but also helped Applejack in her job of finding what to seek. Being chock full of home-grown ingenuity, the freckled farm girl kept an eye to the ground for materials to keep their supplies well-stocked. It was all thanks to her that they’d been able to eat so well and keep their supplies intact for leaner times should they ever come.
That just left Pinkie Pie and Rarity, the ones who raised the confounding question of what a dressmaker and a party planner could do in the woods? Honestly, it was rather surprising. Pinkie Pie’s uncanny energy and good humor helped to keep up morale as they marched. Even with typical excessed reigned back by the marshal’s very, very strict warnings, the bubbly baker still managed to bring the happy as she danced her way up and down the column with quick jokes and bright smiles to keep their spirits high.
Rarity, however contributed in a much more subtle manner. A single knotted blade of grass here, a stack of pebbles in a tree branch there… nothing to catch the eye, but clear signs for those who knew where to look. All these, the creative designer prepared just in case one of their number became separated, a process she took just as seriously as the meticulous task of cleaning up the rear and removing other evidence of their passage. After all, it wouldn’t do to have a troglodyte swarm decide they wanted to tag along, would it?
All this to say that while those girls may not have been soldiers, but Graves had to admit they were filling out their roles a whole lot better than expected.
“Honestly, it just wallops my withers every time,” Applejack whistled she deftly pitched her tent. “How in the name o’ Goshen did these trees get so blasted big? Why, if I could my orchard tah grow a portion as big as these fellers right here, I’d go down as the greatest apple farmer in history.”
Applejack’s size envy was understandable. The Savage Lands were a strange place. Though cool to the point of chill beneath the perpetual blanket of grey clouds overhead, the veritable jungle they walked through was composed of trees that could rival tropical growth foot for foot. However, unlike the lush foliage of warmer climes, the viridian sea they traversed showed only darkened husks and outright twisted forms that sprang from rugged, stony soil. Whatever had fueled there tremendous growth, it was not the healthy look of nature at work.
“If you like it so much, maybe you should empty your pack and fill it with dirt,” Rainbow Dash grinned from where she snapped her bed roll out like a locker room towel. “I’ll bet that’d work our real good.”
“It’s not the soil,” Twilight interjected before the excited farm girl got it into her head to do just that. Picking up her wand once more, the purple-haired scholar gave it a quick flick and watched as the tiny spark that emerged instantly flared up into a discordant burst of amethyst light.
“Did you see that?” she asked, repeating once more for good measure. “The air around here’s literally saturated with raw energy, probably anywhere between four to seven times the normal concentrations. That’s probably what spurred the growth and general mutation of the life around it.”
“Um… Twilight?” Fluttershy squeaked as she tentatively filled the fire pit with kindling. “Is that, um… is that why maybe everything out here seems so… um… strange?”
Silence fell. In normal circumstances, most Ponyville folk would chalk this up to Fluttershy being Fluttershy, but they weren’t in Ponyville anymore, and this wasn’t a normal situation. Even more than the perpetual dimness, even more than the unseasonable chill and distorted trunks around them, there was something unnerving in the very air itself. It wasn’t anything solid that they could put their hands on, but it remained nonetheless, just on the edge of conscious thought like the paranoid sensation of losing track of a spider in the house. None of the girls had been consciously thinking of it before then, but when it was brought out to the forefront with questions like that…
Ambling over, Graves raised his spell gun, aimed it, and fired. Instantly, the whole mass of wood in the fire pit flared to life with bright, cheery flame, and whatever worries that threatened to creep in on the shadows of dusk were quickly blown away by the friendly glow.
“Now don’t you worry your pretty little head about that, Flutters, old bean,” Pinkie Pie beamed as she threw a comforting arm around her friend with a completely unnecessary tousling of the hair to boot. “It’s not like the jungle’s full of horrible monsters who’d sooner eat you than look at you.”
“Uh, Pinkie?” Rainbow Dash chimed in. “That’s exactly what this is.”
“Psh, details,” Pinkie dismissed. “Let’s not worry about semantics, shall we?”
As the girls busied themselves with the task of unraveling Pinkie’s dubious choice of words, Graves allowed himself the smallest sigh of relief.
As the sun set, the girls quickly finished setting up camp and got supper bubbling along on its merry way. The supplies they carried were minimal – mostly hard cheeses, sturdy biscuits, and jerky tough enough to resole their boots – but thanks to some successful foraging, a good stock of wild mushrooms and root vegetables rounded out their pantry. Add on a bit of quick marksmanship from the marshal, and you had a very hearty stew bubbling away over their warm, little fire.
“Golly gee, I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse,” Pinkie Pie gasped as she plopped down beside Applejack as she tended the kettle. “Well, maybe not a horse – don’t think horses are meant for eating – but definitely something of comparable size and weight and caloric density.”
“You’re telling me,” Rainbow Dash groaned. “I’m built for speed, not all day marathons. I’ve spent so much time in the air, I’m starting to get a headache.”
“In that case, you should drink this,” Fluttershy started as she quickly pushed a small, tin cup of piping hot tea into her friend’s hand. “We managed to find some moongrass and crimson starburst along the way. It should help with your magic exhaustion.”
“Hey, thanks Flutters,” Rainbow Dash grinned as she ruffled Fluttershy’s cherry blossom hair. “Knew I could count on you.”
“Hold on a sec, what about me?” Pinkie Pie huffed. “I was carrying all your stuff and mine today! Where’s the love, Dashie?”
“Aw, does somebody need a hug?” Twilight giggled as she, too, took a cup of tea.
“Yes!” Pinkie Pie cried out, “lots of hugs! All the hugs! Hug me, Rainbow Dash! HUG ME!”
As Rainbow Dash leaped from her seat and Pinkie Pie jumped up in hot pursuit, Graves could only shake his head in disbelief as he put hands to knees and stood.
“Leaving so soon?” Rarity asked, sapphire eyes widening in mild surprise. “Surely you could stay a little longer and join us for a cup of tea.”
“Want to double check the wardings,” Graves answered in his typical, gravelly baritones. “Might be gone a while, so I want lights out as soon as it’s dark, alright?”
“We can remember our bed time, dad,” Rainbow Dash snickered just before her snort twisted into a jaw-cracking yawn. “But seriously, I don’t think that’ll be a problem. I’m ready to hit the sack as it is.”
“Aw, but what about ghost stories?” Pinkie pouted.
“No! No ghost stories!” Fluttershy squeaked. “Very, very bad idea!”
With a roll of his eyes, Graves ignored Rainbow Dash as she began chasing Fluttershy around the campfire with tales of some ghastly ghoul or another. Taking only a second to make sure the spell gun slung over his shoulder was easily accessible, Graves headed off towards the darkened woods on silent steps. However, just before he passed the outskirts, a faint tug at his coat sleeves arrested his movements.
“Graves,” the melodious voice called out softly, “a moment?”
Turning around, Graves found himself looking into the depthless pools of Rarity’s eyes, eyes that looked up at him with a very peculiar light.
“Is everything all right?” he asked, the touch of concern in his voice bringing an amused smile to her lips.
“Actually, I was about to ask you the same question. You seem tense – well, more tense than usual – and I was just wondering if there was anything you wanted to… talk about?”
Graves arched an eyebrow and gave her a very dubious look.
“You’re asking me if I want to talk?”
“Truly foolish of me, I know,” Rarity laughed as the image of conversing with a tree stump came into mind. Then her expression softened. “Nevertheless, the offer still stands. Whatever it is that’s weighing on your mind, you don’t have to bear it alone. Not this time, right?”
The tone of her words, so light that they wouldn’t have frightened a lake nymph, yet so warm that they could have brought summer to the Snowspires. They put a small, but genuine smile on the marshal’s face. He could tell she was trying to keep the subject light so as not to worry him despite her own concerns. Really, she was one hell of a woman.
“I know that,” he chuckled as he pulled her in close and planted a kiss on her head, the sweet smell of lavender wafting from her hair even now. “And I promise that if there’s anything I need to talk about, you’ll be the first to know.”
“... Very well then,” Rarity smiled, sounding almost relieved as she gave him a quick little hug. “Have fun out on patrol, but don’t stay out too late, you hear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he crisply saluted. “Permission to begin?”
“Permission granted,” she laughed as she smacked his backside and turned back towards camp. Just before she left however, she turned back once more.
“Stay safe, Graves. Love you.”
Two words, thrown out so naturally that they couldn’t have been anything but the truth, had a powerful effect on the marshal. They excited and thrilled him like that first glorious moment of freefall when leaping from a waterfall to escape certain death. They lit a fire in his heart that would have made a blacksmith’s forge feel like an icebox. They also made him wish he could be so open in return.
Making his way around the camp, the raven-haired soldier went about on his work, inspecting the protective warning runes he’d carved into twisting trunks earlier. The barrier wouldn’t actually stop a creature from coming in, but anything seeking to do them harm would trigger the alarms once the line was crossed and kept their noise from escaping out. Not the ideal solution, but as good as could be expected in the given circumstance.
By the time he finished, night had fallen in full and Graves made his shadowy way in total silence. The sky was completely devoid of stars and the darkness held so complete, the marshal could make out the glow of dying coals even a hundred paces off. By now, the girls would be safely in their tents, resting well after another hard day’s travel. In all honesty, he should probably be doing the same. But he didn’t.
Veering away from the only light in that pitch-hued night, Graves instead climbed up the cliff overlooking their little camp. Not bothering with tent or sleeping roll, the raven-haired soldier instead leaned himself against a weather-worn boulder, settling in on the high ground with spell gun cradled in arm and long, leather coat pulled round to ward off the evening chill. He’d get some sleep when he could, but if the last night had been any indication, it would definitely be wise for him to stay up and keep watch.
It was just as well, because not long after he settled in, the marshal sensed the arrival of an unexpected visitor.
“… What are you doing here?” he asked, dully gleaming disks of gunmetal grey boring in on their target. The glowing, golden eyes that met them, however, simply smiled.