Graves slowly tightened the grip on his rifle.
“I said, what are you doing here?” he repeated, grey eyes hard and voice sharper than chipped flint as he stared down the errant spirit.
“Such a warm welcome,” Discord chuckled as he straightened out his fuchsia tuxedo, unilluminated yet somehow clearly visible even in the deep gloom. “And here I thought that after all our time apart, you’d welcome me back with open arms.”
“Why would I?” Graves snorted. “You’re the one who got us into this mess.”
“Would it help if I said it was an accident?” Discord asked with wide-eyed innocence. The stony set of the marshal’s faced showed he was clearly not amused.
“Psh, you’re no fun,” the elderly youngster snorted.
“And you still haven’t answered my questions,” the marshal said with implacable insistence. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, if you must know, I came to pay you a visit.”
“Really. A visit.” If the skepticism were water, then Graves would have had enough to drown a fish.
“Scout’s honor,” Discord saluted with two fingers raised overhead. “Really, I only came by to have a chat with my favorite gunslinger. Surely I’ve earned that much, haven’t I?”
Graves paused. On one hand, what the princesses had told him about Discord meant he’d rather not touch the fellow with a ten foot long pole of pure adamantium. On the other hand, what the princesses had told him about Discord had also occurred long before his own experiences, and those experiences had mostly consisted of having his life saved. Twice.
With a weary sigh, Graves slowly, reluctantly, loosened his grip.
“Alright then. You wanna talk? Talk.”
“Straight to the point like always. I love it,” Discord cackled. “Well let’s see, what words did I want to bandy with you on this fine eve? Hmm…. Ah, I know! How are you feeling, dear Graves?”
“Feeling,” the man repeated as he straightened his white streaked beard. “You know, those things that go all gooshy in your guts and make you do silly things? Feelings.”
“I know what they are,” Graves huffed. “What I don’t know is why do you even care?”
“Do I have to have a reason for being concerned?” Discord asked with an odd little smile. “I just want to know what’s going on in that head of yours before you go making what could be the worst mistake of your life.”
“Mistake?” Graves asked, suspicion causing his hackles to rise. “What mistake?”
“Ah ah ah,” Discord tutted with a waggle of his finger. “I asked first. You answer my question, and then I answer yours. Quid pro quo, wouldn’t you say?”
Graves gave the man with a single-fanged smile a good, hard look. As always, he had no idea what the elderly youngster was planning. Those topaz eyes that seemed to burn like bubbling gold always looked to be hiding some hidden machination, some clever scheme. But thinking about it with no real intel to work with would get him nowhere. If he wanted to know, he’d just have to play along.
“As well as expected,” Graves finally said, his face growing stony in an effort to give away as little as possible. It might not make a difference – he had the feeling that Discord could ferret out hidden meaning like a truffle by a pig – but he’d take any advantage he could get.
“Hmm, I see,” Discord murmured as he took notes on his clipboard. “And did your expectations include any negative symptoms? Sensations like, oh, I don’t know… worry, perhaps?”
“It’s a mission,” Graves shrugged. “Worry's a given.”
“Is that so?” Discord smiled from behind his spectacles. “So this is just any old job for the illustrious Graves, is it? No special concerns? Nothing that might set this apart as somehow uniquely troublesome?”
“What are you trying to say?” Graves sighed, exasperation heavy in his breath as his patience started to wear thin.
“What I'm saying,” Discord continued, “is that I find it very interesting how you can be so carefree about this whole situation.”
“Of course I’m not carefree,” the marshal snapped as the odd man’s roundabout ways finally pushed him passed his limit, surprisingly quickly considering his normally steely mood. “In fact, I’m only sitting here talking to you because I’m trying to figure out how to keep them from getting themselves killed.”
Here, Discord’s smile changed into something else.
“Don’t you think you’re underestimating them?” he asked, his voice all cool and genteel as the most refined nobleman. “After all, they did return me back to my stony prison.”
“They did,” Graves nodded. “And I’ll bet gold to gravel that you didn’t actually put up much of a fight, did you?”
“They’re also doing quite well in your assigned tasks,” Discord continued, smoothly answering the question by not answering at all. “Surely, their proficiency at that must give you some piece of mind.”
“Some. But not enough,” Graves sighed once more. Only this time, the sound came out heavy, as if weighed down by mountains balanced on shoulders that stooped just a little more with each word he spoke. “They help, it’s true, but… it’s not enough. Anyone can do a job when the sky’s clear, but what happens when the storm hits?”
“Maybe it won’t,” Discord suggested. The words only brought forth a wry bark of laughter from the raven-haired soldier.
Storms would come. They always did, and out here, they’d be even worse. The girls knew that the lands they walked were strange. They couldn’t say what, but they could sense that something filled the air between those twisted trees as surely as a veil filled the skies. Well, Graves knew exactly what that sensation, the one they knew from the Everfree Forest, only magnified tenfold.
In places where magic ran free and the life it contained along with it, the thing that always grew the fastest was the need to consume. Life required life to sustain it, and thus, it had long since been understood that where the magic was greatest, so was the ferocity as well. Hence, the all too appropriate name of the Savage Lands.
It was an ironclad law of the world, one the marshal knew by heart, yet remained hidden to the six girls that slumbered below. That ignorance was a great source of relief for the marshal, but also a great source of concern as well.
“So, what are you going to do?” Discord asked, his golden eyes bubbling merrily in the shroud of dark around them. “How exactly are you going to prepare them for said oncoming storm?”
“Damned if I knew,” Graves muttered. Honestly, what could he do? The fact that the girls could boldly proceed was one of their greatest strengths, and one that rested on what could only be called their naivety. Break that by trying to prepare them for what they really couldn’t change would only produce more problems than it solved. Hay, it was bad enough that one of their number passed the nights without rest; why should all seven have to suffer the same fate?
“Then what? Do you intend to shoulder the burden yourself? To protect the girls all by your lonesome and with the strength of your arm alone?” Though Discord’s smile remained, jeering laughter could be heard ringing in every word he spoke. But Graves would not be goaded.
“It’s my job to protect them,” he answered, the simple words a stark contrast to the elderly youngster’s mocking tones. “I always do my job.”
“But at what price?” Discord asked, once more with that odd, little smile. “Just how far are you willing to go to do your job.”
“As far as it takes,” Graves shrugged, eyebrow arching slightly over gunmetal grey eyes as he grew slightly confused by the newest question. Discord knew that, didn’t he? After all, the spirit of chaos had been there when he’d taken the blade and cut out a piece of his own soul for the sake of duty. Why should Discord expect any different?
For a while, the trickster said nothing, merely looked on at Graves with that same, odd little smile on his face.
“Did they ever tell you?” Discord suddenly continued as he took a seat on the fine armchair behind him. “The princesses. Did they ever mention why I colluded with Nul in the first place?”
“Should they have?” he asked, once more perplexed by the sudden change of directions. “You betrayed them. What difference does the reason make?”
“Perhaps nothing,” Discord chuckled as his eyes cooled to clouded gems. “Perhaps everything. But let’s set aside the importance for now and simply entertain the question. What do you think, marshal? Why do you think I did it?”
“Who knows?” Graves answered with a half-hearted chuckle. “Trying to figure you out’s like trying to understand women.”
“Come now, even I’m not that confusing,” the elderly youngster laughed. “In fact, it’s really quite simple. After all, my motive was one you yourself have often shared.”
“Oh really?” the marshal intoned dubiously. “And what would that be?”
“… Need,” Graves repeated, the word sounding strange even as he spoke it. “You… the primal spirit of Chaos… needed to deal with the devil himself.”
“A strange notion, isn’t it?” Discord answered with an airy wave of his hand. “Just like you, I once had something I had to accomplish regardless of the cost. It might not have been quite so noble a reason like yours, but it was important enough to me that I decided to take the chance.”
“By going to the entity that sought to wipe out all of existence,” Graves stated flatly. “You decided to go to him for help.”
“It wasn’t even that at first,” Discord sighed. “In the beginning, he was only someone I thought I could talk to.”
“I’m a primordial spirit of the universe older than reality itself,” the trickster quickly interrupted before Graves could really get going. “It’s not like there’s many I could really commiserate with.”
“Why not Princess Luna? Or Celestia?” Graves challenged. Discord grinned.
“Why not indeed.”
When it was clear that no more answer on that topic was forthcoming, Graves felt he might as well continue to keep the game going.
“So you wanted to… talk to Nul,” he said, the words sounding so ridiculous he could hardly believe he actually spoke them. “That’s where the breach came from?”
“Exactly,” Discord nodded. “Just enough so that like myself, his consciousness might roam, meager as the least of all shadows, but awake and aware nonetheless.”
“But that didn’t last, did it?”
“Need has a funny way of growing,” Discord laughed. “At first, all I needed was someone to talk to, someone who would listen to me. Then I needed someone who would talk back and give me advice. Then, well…”
“You needed power.” There was no question in the marshal’s voice. Only realization.
“It was only supposed to be the smallest bit, a speck to help me accomplish my goal,” the trickster replied, his voice suddenly aging eons in an instant. “But when I’d accomplished the little I sought, I realized I wanted more. But to do more, I needed more, and so I went back again. And again. And again.
“I kept telling myself that it was fine,” Discord continued as a wry, twisted smile came to his face. “I somehow convinced myself that I was in control of actions that had spiraled out of hand long ago. Before I knew, it I’d taken in so much of that… that filth into me that I changed into something completely different. So different, in fact, that dear little Luny even had to give me a new name.”
Gunmetal grey eyes sparked to life.
“You… weren’t always called Discord?”
“Mostly known as Chance,” the man sighed, now looking far, far older than he ever had before. “I was rather partial to Fate for a time, and of course, Luck always tickled me pink. It doesn’t matter though. No use crying over spilled milk, right?”
“But… why tell me this?” Graves asked, his mind now knotted with confusion and tangled with a thousand unasked questions? “What’s your angle?”
“My angle, dear marshal,” Discord smiled, some of his trademark smarm returning with the look, “is that hopefully, a certain someone won’t be a complete blockhead and repeat the same mistake that I did.”
“You think I’ll go dark side,” Graves stated flatly, almost in disbelief. “Like you did.”
“When the storm comes,” Discord smirked, taking the marshal’s words and returning them to the source with vicious barb, “do you really think that you’ll be able to protect those girls all on your own? Do you really think that you’re the legendary hero everyone hypes you up to be and that you’ll have the power to win the day?
“Or…” he continued as words took on true malevolence in their mockery, “do you know that in the end, you’re just one man? One man without the power to do a thing? When push comes to shove can you really say you won’t succumb to temptation and ask for just the smallest bit of harmless help?”
Graves opened his mouth. He wanted to deny it, wanted to laugh it off as some wild fantasy from a sick and twisted mind. But a part of him knew that he’d be lying if he did and thus, gunmetal grey eyes smoldered over a tongue that remained silent.
“Well, I think that about wraps it up,” Discord chuckled, all good humor once more as he stretched out his arms overhead. “Now I know that muscle-bound head of yours is working to find an answer, but no need to strain yourself, alright? Just sit on it for a bit. Stew it over.” And with that, the trickster got up from his seat and–
It was hard to say who was more surprised, Discord for hearing, or Graves for calling out. But the elderly youngster did as he was bidden and looked on with curious, golden eyes.
“About all this…” Graves began, awkwardly scratching his head. “Thanks.”
“… Thanks?” Discord blinked in genuine surprise. “I just told you that I betrayed the world and all but shouted out that you’d do the exact same as me, and you’re thanking me? Are you sure you’re feeling alright there?”
“Just fine,” Graves said with a roll of the eyes. “And I meant it. ‘Cause of you, I know a bit more about Nul and how he works. Makes it easier to deal with when the day comes.”
“Ooh, confident are we?” Discord smirked.
“Knowledge is power,” Graves replied with a short bark of laughter. “Enough of it, and I won’t have to ask for any more.”
“So it is, so it is,” the elderly youngster laughed. “Well then, let’s just hope that it works out as you say.”
And with a final, flourishing bow, Discord turned about and disappeared from sight.