Did you know that there was a time called before dawn? Rainbow Dash didn’t. Well, technically she did, but she thought it only applied to cider days. This was not a cider day, and thus, the pre-dawn times were definitely not expected.
“Huh? Wha?” she snorted, her buzz saw snoring ending abruptly as a boot nudged her side.
“Rise and shine,” Graves called down from looming heights above. “Pack up. We’re heading out.”
“Now?” Rainbow Dash mumbled as she blearily blinked her eyes. “But… sun’s not even up yet.”
“Will be in about twenty minutes,” replied. “Daylight isn’t long here, so we need to make the most of it. Now move.”
The girl scratched her head of multicolored locks and yawned noisily as she looked around. Indeed, everyone else was already up and milling about, gathering their things and restoring the camp site to its natural state.
“So, why are we doing this again?” Pinkie asked from under her frizzled mass of hair as she tossed handful of dirt and debris over the spot she’d slept last night. “I mean, I’ve heard of leaving things the way you found it, but I didn’t think it applied to rocks and stuff too.”
“It’s a safety precaution,” Twilight explained as she meticulously repacked the bags with geometrically calculated care. “If we leave evidence we were here, then something might come after us and make trouble. It’s best to be safe on these kinds of things.”
“Um… and what kind of things might those be?” Fluttershy asked nervously.
“Do this right, and we won’t have to find out,” Graves replied. “Now let’s go.”
Under the marshal’s keen eye, the camp was restored till not even a snake slithering by could tell they’d ever been there at all. As predicted, they finished just as the sun peaked its head over the surrounding mountains. It didn’t exactly light up the jungle around them, but it did at least lift the gloom to a paler shade of grey. That had to count for something.
Onward again they marched, albeit with a bit less exuberance than they had yesterday. On the first day, they’d been fresh and excited, eager to set out on the beginning of a grand adventure and save Equestria as they had before. On the second day, they were positive, but a little less so as the wear of travel first appeared. Now, the toll had risen yet again, and aside from possibly Applejack, the effects were clearly starting to show.
They were used to walking. They were used to running. They weren’t used to trekking tens of miles with heavy loads on for a full day and repeating before the next had really even started. Of course they pressed on, understanding full well that their discomforts were a small price to pay for the work they’d been tasked. But they were just regular young women after all, not soldiers, and the strain showed in slightly tighter lips and quieter tones.
In this respect, Pinkie Pie was the one bright spot in the gloom that made the goings lighter. Well-cautioned by the marshal to keep her volume down, the bubbly baker constantly made her way up and down the line, throwing a lively smile one way and sharing a quick joke another. It was never much and it never slowed the pace, but every now and then, it did bring out a smile and laugh in return. And perhaps it was the walking that warmed up their muscles, or maybe it was just Pinkie’s infectious mood, but as the sun grew higher, so did their moods till they were almost back to the way they were the day before. Not exactly, but still Pinkie Pie approved.
After a good few hours of travel, Graves called for a halt at the sheltered base of a rocky cliff.
“Break time,” the marshal called as he unslung his pack. “Stretch out your muscles; they’ll probably be more than sore by now. Oh, and set something to eat, but not too much; we’re off in twenty.”
“What? That quickly?” Twilight groaned. Bookworm that she was, all this physical exertion was seriously putting her soft librarian butt through its paces. “Can’t we have just a bit more time?”
“Longer we rest, the harder it is to start again,” Graves said with a wry smile. “Oh, and Fluttershy. Fly up to the top of the cliff and keep an eye out for any trouble.”
“But… are you sure?” the coral-haired girl blinked. “Wouldn’t you be much better at that? I mean, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be looking for.”
“I’ve got some stuff to take care of,” Graves shrugged. “Don’t worry. Anything that seems like a problem probably is. Just let Twilight know and she’ll take care of the rest.”
With a last glance around and a satisfied nod, Graves took off into the jungle with ground eating strides and faded like a ghost amongst the trees.
“What do yah reckon he’s up to out there?” Applejack drawled at his departure.
“I dunno, probably scouting around, getting a feel for the land or some other soldiery stuff, probably,” Rainbow Dash suggested.
“If he wanted that, then he could’ve asked me,” Twilight frowned. “I mean, it’s not the clearest picture, but my magic map gives us a clear view for at least a hundred paces in all directions. We don’t need any more than that, do we?”
“Whatever it is he’s up to, I’m sure there’s a very good reason for it,” Rarity nodded, all cool confidence and unruffled poise. “After all, he’s not the sort of man to waste a second if he doesn’t have to.”
“Yeah, and speaking of not wasting a second,” Rainbow Dash frowned through careful, scrutinizing eyes, “when did you find the time to do your makeup this morning?”
“Oh, you noticed?” Rarity smiled. “In that case, I think the real question is why were you paying attention to my makeup, hmm? Could it be that you’d like to try some yourself?”
Before Rainbow’s indignation could fully flare, a soft cry of dismay came from behind. Turning about, the girls spotted Fluttershy toppled over as she struggled to fit on the rune wing set she’d just unpacked.
“Um… girls?” she blushed. “A little help?”
Like clockwork, at exactly twenty minutes after his departure, Graves returned, silently stepping from the mists like a shade from the dark.
“Holy jeebus!” Rainbow Dash cried as she leaped up in fright. “Don’t do that, G! That’s just freaky!”
“Sorry, force of habit,” Graves chuckled. “Anyways, it’s time to go.”
As the girls picked up their packs, they had to admit there was definitely truth to the marshal’s words. Getting up after even their brief respite was about as pleasant as a child getting ready for the first day of school. If they’d taken any longer, it probably would have gotten as bad as pulling teeth. Maybe even worse.
Onward they pressed, trekking through the dimly lit jungle with the same formation as yesterday and the same, careful advance that had guided their steps before. Once more, the sun set, camp was set, and the girls once again wearily collapsed into their beds, aching and tired, but with smiles on their faces and optimism in their hearts. Three days in a row with not a sign of trouble. Perhaps, with just a little luck, their entire trip would proceed in the same, steady fashion.
Then the fourth day dawned.
“What’s that?” Pinkie Pie called out as her ears pricked up. “Do you guys hear something?”
“I didn’t hear nuthin’,” Applejack shrugged. Three hours past dawn, and save for a cautious tiptoe around a worgen lair, nothing had interrupted their steady progress. “Are you sure you’re not jess–”
“Shh! There it is again!”
At Pinkie Pie’s beckoning, the group fell silent and strained their ears. There was nothing. But then, as they adjusted to the silence, it started to come forth. A strange cacophony sounded from somewhere up far up yonder as shrill cries tangled with the earthen rumble of moving land.
“What do you suppose it is?” Rarity queried.
“Beats me,” Applejack shrugged, “but I jess hope that Rainbow Dash gets back in time tah fill us in. I’d rather not run into any nasty surprises.”
“Do you think it’s trouble?” Twilight asked Graves from where he leaned against a gnarled trunk.
“Probably not if we can avoid it,” he rumbled. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll be best if we–”
The rest of the statement was interrupted by Rainbow Dash’s harried return.
“Hey girls?” she called out. “You might wanna check this out.”
Only pausing to exchange quick looks of surprise, the rest picked up and took off after their flying friend. Winding around gnarled trunks and clambering up rocky inclines, the group made its way to the top of a hill overlooking a misty valley below.
“There, on the other side by the big cliff,” Rainbow Dash pointed. “I think that’s the source of the ruckus.”
It was sort of hard to see, what with a sea of fog filling a deep rent in the earth more than two miles wide, but whether by some properties of the magical mist or just a rare moment of clarity, the group spotted the source of the commotion they’d heard. Towering at twenty paces tall, a massive bipedal monstrosity raised boulder-sized fists and pounded on the rocky cliffs, rage and insane fury clouding its single, titanic eye.
“Cyclops,” Graves muttered grimly. “Best if it doesn’t see us.”
Fortunately, the monster’s attentions were fully occupied by the task at hand. Titanic muscles strained as time and time again, it pounded the cliff side with literally enough force to shatter mountains. Each blow it landed cracked stone and pulverized earth even as it stood under attack. Though harder to see compared to its monstrous form, all around the Cyclops flew a screeching convocation of griffons, lion-sized avians that soared through the sky and dived upon the beast to rake it with their razor-edged talons.
“What’s going on down there?” Twilight asked in morbid fascination as the battle continued. “Why’s it going after the cliff like that?”
“Probably for the eggs inside,” Graves suggested. “Crack open the rocks to get the nests.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” Fluttershy called out in alarm. “Griffons don’t have any natural predators on account of their size and ability to work as a group. Even something as large as that Cyclops would never challenge a nesting ground like that.”
“I don’t know about that,” Applejack shrugged. “Looks to me like he’s doin’ jess fine.”
From all outward appearances, Applejack was right. The Cyclops’s hide was thick and hard, and though the griffons pecked and clawed valiantly, they could hardly scratch the armored-surface of the titanic beast. But hide or no hide, that didn’t account for one very glaring target.
“Huh, they must be a bunch of bird brains or something,” Pinkie frowned. “I always thought that they’d go and poke him in the peeper. Guess they haven’t thought of it yet.”
Hadn’t they? Of that, Graves wasn’t so sure.
Griffons may have had the strength of a lion with the wings of an eagle, but it was their intelligence that made them such fearsome predators. Able to coordinate their efforts for incredibly complex maneuvers, the griffons may have been nature’s premier militant species, a fact that no doubt determined the Imperium’s name in days long past. All this to say is that griffons anywhere were deadly, and out here where survival was a constant struggle, that natural predatory brilliance should expand to vicious new heights.
So why was it that even in a long fought battle, the Cyclops was still able to see? Why hadn’t the griffons taken advantage of the monster’s single, greatest weakness?
Unslinging his rifle, the marshal brought it up to peer through its sighted scope. Vision soared across the canyon and Graves adjusted the magnifying lenses till he could set his steely gaze on the full form of roaring behemoth. As he watched, the tawny form of a griffon flashed across his vision and raked a talon across the bulbous eye. The Cyclops howled, the same howl they had been hearing ringing across the canyon all this time.
And still it continued.
It was struck and wounded, but the Cyclops simply didn’t stop. Even though its eye was already a mass of oozing gashes, the creature simply kept pounding away, it’s giant fists finally cracking through the first layer of rock and granting it access to the nests beneath. But now that the marshal had sight of it this close up, he could finally understand why.
“Graves?” Rarity asked, swallowing the lump in her throat as she saw his face harden into a stony mask. “What’s going on?”
“Fluttershy was right,” he replied as he watched the first nest get battered to pulp under a crushing blow. “It’s not killing to eat. It’s just killing.”
“What?!” Twilight gasped as Fluttershy’s pallor took on a deathly hue. “Why on earth would it do that?”
That answer lay in the eye. Each line in the Cyclops’s eye, each gaping that marked a griffon’s slash had already filled, not with flesh or magic, but with a dense, black pitch, a black so complete that it seemed even to leech away the colors around it and drink up the light like dry sand a drop of moisture.
“Nul,” Graves muttered with tones nearly as dark. “Miasma’s driven it insane. That thing’s nothing more than death on two feet.”
“Then we have to do something!” Fluttershy cried out. Throwing off her pack, the young lady tore into her gear and pulled out her delicate, runework frames and scrambled to put them on. However, before she could even slip a hand through the fitted harness, a calloused hand pressed gently, but firmly onto her shoulder.
“Hold on a second,” Graves said. “I know your upset, but you’ve got to think this through.”
“What’s there to think about?” Rainbow Dash snorted. “That thing’s making a mess for no blasted good reason at all! If we can do something about it, we should!”
“Normally, I’d agree,” the marshal nodded, “but we can’t afford to right now, not out here.”
“But Big G!” Pinkie Pie pouted. “I thought the princesses told us to fix up the problem with the craziness and what not. There’s a problem right out in front of us. How can we not do something?”
“We have to fix the source, not just this,” Graves replied flatly. Though he could feel disapproval directed at him from several pairs of eyes, he didn’t care. “Our job is to get to gates and seal Nul up for good. If we stop and try to save every critter between here and there, we’ll be too worn out to do a damn thing.”
“So what, you’re saying we should just leave?” Rainbow Dash scowled. “Like, just turn tail and walk away when we can do something here and now?” Graves met her gaze with hard-set eyes.
It wasn’t often that someone could face down the marshal’s iron gaze, but this was one of them. Rainbow Dash’s fuchsia eyes shot daggers back at Graves, and even that was nothing compared to the palpable outrage flowing from Fluttershy like heat from a furnace. Of course, on some level, they understood his reasoning. His job was to keep them safe and going up against corrupted behemoth like that would clearly not be to those interests. But even more than that, the fact that Graves chose inaction was almost as bad as if he were out there rampaging himself. The only thing evil needs to thrive is for good people to stand by, and for the life of them, that’s exactly what the marshal’s stance seemed to ask.
While the three glared back and forth with another three looking on in steadily mounting concern, Twilight had remained silent as she considered the words from both sides. Now that she’d taken in all that she could, the amethyst-eyed mage spoke.
“Graves, I know you’re thinking about the mission and that’s good, but I still think that we can’t just turn our backs on a problem we can solve. Yes, sealing Nul back up is our ultimate goal, but we’re doing it stop him from destroying the world. If we willingly let his power run wild, then we’re just helping him in his work.”
“Mess this up, and you finish the job for him,” Graves calmly replied. “Maybe you save this group, but what happens to the world if one of you dies? You might not like it, but sometimes you have the sacrifice for the bigger picture.”
“Maybe,” Twilight grudgingly admitted before she rallied herself once more. “But I won’t make that sacrifice until we absolutely have to and there’s literally no other way. Are you saying that we have absolutely no chance of saving them and getting out safely?”
“It’s… not impossible…” Graves muttered, now his turn to concede. It was possible, and not just in theory. But the cost of the process, the risk…
“We’re here to protect the world from Nul,” Twilight cleanly stated. “If that means we need to detour to stop his darkness from spreading, then that’s what we should do.”
“… Is that an order, Twilight?” Graves asked, his voice hardly more than a rumbling whisper as the rest of the group held their breaths. Steel met amethyst as another thunderous blow rang out.
“I’d rather not make it one,” she finally replied, a frown of distaste marring her face. “But if that’s what it takes to do the right thing…”
She didn’t need to say anymore.
“Very well, then,” Graves nodded as he slowly unslung his rifle. “We’ll help.”
“Ooh, can’t he go any faster? We really need to hurry!”
“I’m sure he’s doing the best he can, Fluttershy,” Applejack murmured consolingly. “We’ll jess hafta trust the marshal know’s what he’s about.”
As the girls stood back on the ridge, all eyes rested on Graves as he sat with spell gun rested across his knees. It had been two minutes at most since he began, but two minutes of absolute stillness has a way of stretching out much longer.
Grey eyes closed, the marshal focused everything he had on his breathing. Inhaling and exhaling at such a regular rhythm, you could have set a clock to it. With every breath he took in, a little more of the abundant mana was drawn through the air, directed into his body. With every breath he let out, that mana was channeled out as electric might into the spell gun resting under his palms. Inside the gun, the force of his will molded the trapped lightning, folding it over itself and compressing it tighter, tighter, tighter still, until it became the molten core of a star itself.
Yet even with all attention focused, sweat rolled down the marshal’s forehead and dripped from his nose as he struggled to maintain control. Even minute amounts of mana made for powerful lightning with every bit added only making it exponentially worse. As if that wasn’t enough, the excess of energy in the air made the delicate process of trickling controlled amounts of energy forward like trying to wet a tissue from a fire hose.
But what else could he do? If the Cyclops’ bestial cries weren’t enough indication, then the frenzied screech of the griffons more than made it clear; come anywhere near that mess, and they’d be torn to shreds. Not that Rainbow Dash hadn’t volunteered of course, but there was absolutely no way she was flying into that hurricane of slashing claws and snapping beaks. Twilight was powerful, but hoping for her to make any sort of shot across the valley that stretched at least two miles wide would have been a shot in the dark to say the least.
That just left Graves with the task of making a shot powerful enough to slay the massive creature in one fell swoop. And so he worked, trying to compress a living, violent mass of electric wrath into even tighter, denser form. Sweat trickled down his forehead as Graves struggled to tame a force that defied confinement, a mass of thrashing rage as wild as flame and fury itself. He held on, but never more than a finger nail’s desperate cling from total failure and absolute annihilation from the thunderstorm he held.
Finally, after minutes that had stretched for hours, when the spell gun shimmered like the moon on a clear winter’s eve, only then did Graves opened his eyes. He moved slowly and smoothly, as if every limb were balancing a needle on its head. Raising the gun, Graves brought the sight to his eyes, the perfected focus bringing the Cyclops leaping into range once more. He watched as the monster brought fists crashing down again to smash another clutch of helpless eggs. The griffons screeched and continued their aerial assault, but to no avail as it raised its mammoth arms once more. Mammoth arms clenched, steely bands of muscles contracted as the beast made ready to strike once more–
And Graves fired.
The girls cried as their world erupted in wind and thunder. Typhoon gales, a deafening roar, and a flashing explosion of crackling, silvery sparks erupted into the air around Graves as he unleashed a magnificent bolt of lightning as long as a lance and bright enough to split the heavens in two. Across the valley it streaked, a hissing bolt of pure destruction to find its mark right in the Cyclops’ neck. Thunder resounded once more as the entire cliff side was bathed in blinding white light.
“Woohoo!” Pinkie Pie cried out, though only barely heard above the din. “That’ll butter up anyone’s biscuit, yessiree bob!”
The light faded and vision returned, letting the Ponyville troop see that the Cyclops had crumpled into a lifeless heap as the griffons continued to circle about. It had taken a bit, and the cliff side nests would never be the same, but they could see some clutches of eggs still remained. Complete destruction had been averted.
“Thank you, Graves,” Fluttershy gasped in sincerest gratitude as tears quickly welled and flowed from her eyes. “I know this isn’t what you wanted to do, but it really means a lot that you helped us protect those griffons.”
“Don’t mention it,” Graves mumbled thickly as he pushed himself to his feet. “Now let’s get moving bef–”
“No, don’t you dare. Keep it together. Keep. It…”
It was no use. Even as Graves tried to stand, his knees buckled and he collapsed back to the stony soil, coughing and hacking in a violent fit as silvery sparks flew from his mouth.
“Graves!” Rarity cried as she rushed forward. “Oh dear, please don’t–”
“Stay… back…” Graves wheezed in between chest-wrenching hacks. “I’ll… be–”
Wide-eyed looks of alarm darted between the other girls. Though they’d heard the general story before, none of them had ever seen firsthand just what violent mana sickness could really do to a person. Every hacking cough seemed to be a convulsion of the body trying to tear itself apart as crackling lighting splayed across skin in a spider web of searing tendrils. The symptoms itself were frightening, and the fact that they afflicted Graves, the man they’d come to think of as invincible, untouchable? That made it terrifying.
The marshal tried to right himself. He really did. Once the hacking started, though, there really wasn’t stopping it. His body was revolting from the excess magic that had flooded his system and struggled to purge itself.
Graves tried to steady his breath and aid the process, no mean feat considering his stomach felt like it was trying to digest a rusty shiv. But there was so much mana outside already, so much ambient energy clogging the air, it was like trying to sweat on a hot, humid day. Lightning drained from his veins, but slowly. Too slowly.
Not that he’d have time to worry about that, of course, because even as he knelt, a rippling line of frost ran down his spine.