“What’s… that?” Graves coughed out as he strained to look up. Eyes followed his gaze and alighted on the griffons who, despite the fall of the Cyclops, still continued to circle about their nests while sounding their sharp cries.
“Them bird critters are still flappin’ about,” Applejack replied as she shook the stunned stupor from her form. “Wheelin’ about like vultures after Thanksgivin’ supper.”
“Griffons don’t scavenge,” Graves wheezed as he finally managed to right himself. Another sparking cough erupted from his chest, but he forced himself to stay straight. “If they’re flying, they’re hunting.”
“But what are they hunting?” Fluttershy asked, her aquamarine eyes wrought with confusion. “The Cyclops’s rampage must have scared off most things the griffons would eat. Why, the only thing even remaining in this area would… would be… ” Fluttershy’s pallor took on a deathly hue as confusion drained away and was quickly replaced by rising terror.
“Fluttershy?” Twilight asked, praying that the sinking sensation in the pit her stomach was just a false alarm. “What’s going on?”
“Th-the griffons are hunting,” she stammered with a face white as a bleached bone. “B-b-but the only th-th-thing around is… is…”
Eyes darted to the marshal as he stated the same dreadful conclusion that Fluttershy had reached. The griffons weren’t just going to settle down, not after their home had been invaded this way. No, with blood boiling and rage clouding their minds, the lords of the sky were going to make sure their nests were safe, once and for all.
“Everyone. Move,” Graves called as he forced himself to stand despite another shocking cough. Rarity’s eyes widened at the sight.
“Now?” she gaped. “But Graves, you’re in no shape to–”
“Move!” he snapped as the cold chill running down his spine grew to bone-numbing frost as he heard the rallying cry of the griffons sound once more. “Get to the treeline and keep moving. Now!”
The crack of his voice snapped the girls into action. With alacrity born from welling panic, they snatched up their packs, spun on their heels, and began a mad, scrambling descent down the rocky hillside and towards the safety of the trees. But even as they moved, so too did the griffons. Peeling out from the circling patterns over their nests, the giant avians soared across the valley’s sky, shrieking with rage as they descended upon the newest threat.
“W-w-wait!” Fluttershy called out. “W-w-why are w-w-we r-r-running?”
“Um, probably because they’re gonna turn us into shredded Swiss if they catch us?” Rainbow Dash called out, not daring to turn around lest she miss her footing and lose precious speed.”
“But we helped them out!” Pinkie Pie chimed in as she bounded along. “Gotta say, it’s pretty mean of them after we helped them out.”
Graves would have loved to explain. He would have loved to clearly elucidate how in the Savage Lands, niceness was as foreign a concept as dehydrated water. He would have loved to elaborate how animals here were vicious and hungry and brutal beasts and even the supposedly noble griffons could quickly turn into merciless killers. But he couldn’t. Each jarring step he took sent another jolt of agony through his gut as the magic trapped inside, the magic he hadn’t had the time to remove, continued to wreak havoc on his body. At this point, it was all he could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other and not vomit up what likely have been his own shredded entrails.
The Ponyville troop scrambled down the hill and quickly approached the forested tree line. However, the griffons were hot in pursuit and much faster. Drawing in close, the griffons spiraled upwards, flapping their massive wings with hurricane force to soar higher and higher into the sky. Then, when they had just about disappeared into the clouded skies above, they tucked wings to sides and began their dive. Tawny eyes gleaming with bloodlust, predator descended upon its prey, falling faster and faster like a hail of shrieking meteors. The Equestrians were close to the haven of those twisted trunks, but the griffons were so fast, so relentless…
With a last, mad sprint, the group threw themselves under the canopy of the first massive tree with a ragged cry of triumph. Up above, eagle shrieks sounded amidst crackling and snapping branches as the griffons harshly peeled out of their dive. Talons the size of short swords tore gashing rents from the tops of the gnarled canopy, but the griffons themselves proceeded no further.
Not on wings, at least.
“You’ve… got to be… kidding me.” Though Twilight had turned around with a weary, but triumphant grin, that smile melted faster than butter on a hot skillet. When the griffons saw that they could no longer maintain their aerial chase, no less than a dozen leonine hunters descended to the ground and stalked towards them on the forest floor.
A sharp tug to the back of her jacket pulled her back.
“Keep moving,” Graves called, even as he nudged Pinkie Pie back into a hurried jog. Needing no further urgings, the girls turned tail and continued rushing ahead, or at least tried to. Though they’d all done their share of running about and often with lives on the line, never had they been encumbered as before. Laden down with camping supplies and provisions, even the short dash from the hill had wearied them far beyond what any of them could have expected.
“Oh dear,” Fluttershy panted as she struggled along with some small aid from her translucent coral spell wings, “don’t you think that… maybe… they might be friendly?”
The crackling crunch of limbs torn from trees was all the answer they required.
Griffons were fast on land as well, perhaps even faster than the king of the jungle when aided by their own wings. Fortunately for the Equestrians, even an enraged griffon was a careful and tactful hunter. They had no idea what these new creatures were, but they had taken down the great beast, something not even their entire flock had managed. Even more, the pursuit had led them into the hostile territory beneath the canopy. Whatever dominion they claimed over the sky did not extend beneath the sea of green, a fact that gave pause to their padding steps.
But even so, the new creatures were small and the griffons as powerful as they were furious. Slowed as their stalk was, the pace was still enough to bring death on swift paws to a beleaguered party, and it was all the Equestrians could do to keep what little distance they’d gained. Sweat trickled down every brow and breath came in ragged gasps as lungs burned to fuel muscles fatigued long before the chase had even began. The group stumbled forward, so intent on keeping one foot in front of the other, there was hardly enough time to watch where that foot may fall.
Twilight’s foot slipped on a side embankment and sent her careening down the steep slope in a shower of stony slate and gravel. Applejack reached out a hand and seized her friend’s shirt collar, but the weight of the girl plus her pack dragged the farm girl down as well.
From the back of the pack, Graves saw the two tumble out of sight just as he heard another loud screech, this one sharper and stronger than the rest. Turning to the griffons, gunmetal grey eyes widened as he saw them dig taloned foreclaws into the ground, gripping the soil as shoulders lowered and they made ready to charge. Stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, the marshal made the only choice they had.
Several eyes turned to stare at the marshal with the shared message of, “are you mad, man?” Apparently, he was, because at the back of the group as he was, Graves was able to lunge forward to give each of them a firm ‘nudge’ in the direction of the slope. Pinkie Pie was surprised of course, and Rarity would probably have his hide for this, but he needed to keep them together. Get separated, and the Savage Lands would eat them all alive.
With loud cried, frantic shrieks, and the occasional excited whoop tossed in, the group slid down the slope amidst the hail of torn up grass and loose shale. It was a long slide, and steep, but at least it was in fact a hill and not one of the numerous jagged cliffs the odds could have dealt them. After a careening tumble that battered and bruised them like peaches tossed down a flight of stairs, the Equestrians gave their final crash as their fall ended with a loud, wet splash..
“Everyone okay?” Graves called out, thrusting his spell gun into the boggy marshlands as a crutch to help him stand. “Everyone here?”
“Let’s do it again! Let’s do it–”
“Out of the question!” That would be Rarity silencing Pinkie Pie with a single withering glare from beneath her dripping, violet tresses. “I knew that we’d have some difficulties on this trip, but I still do not appreciate being tumbled into all of this… ugh… icky, icky muck.”
“Aw, lighten up, Rarity,” Rainbow Dash chuckled as she splashed the scandalized seamstress with a handful of bog water. “It’s just a little dirt. It’ll wash right out.”
“Just a little dirt?” Rarity gaped. “I’ll have you know–”
“Save it for later,” Graves cut off in tones sharpened only partially by his concerns. “Applejack, Twilight, you two all right?”
“I think so,” Twilight replied from her perch atop Applejack’s backside. “The fall wasn’t as bad as I expected.”
“You’re welcome,” Applejack huffed. “Now can yeh please get offa me so I can get myself outta this here bog?”
“We gotta keep moving,” Graves called, his eyes already returning to scan the hill they’d just slid down. “Those griffons won’t give up so easily.”
“Then… maybe we should head for that dry patch over there?” Fluttershy suggested as she pointed further into the swamp where a mound of hard-packed earth hosted sprays of dully-gleaming quartz. “It’ll probably be easier then wading through this swamp.”
“Hear hear,” Rarity heartily agreed as she made the first steps towards the mound. “Hiking and mountains, I can handle, but I absolutely cannot tolerate all this vacherie.”
The young lady took a step forward, and just as her booted foot fell, that all-too familiar, icy chill ran down the marshal’s spine once more, a foreboding contrast to the burning acid still sitting in his stomach. Good lord, what could it possibly be now? If they didn’t get out of here, the griffons would be on them and then they were as good as dead. But even hard-pressed for time as they were, he couldn’t just blindly lead them on, not until he figure out just what was off with this scene.
What was wrong? Bogs were always dangerous, to be sure. Lack of sure footing and liquid cover all around made it a tactical nightmare. That’s why moving towards high ground, a sound choice in most situations, became doubly so. Then why had things seemed so off as soon as Rarity had headed… for…
They’d slid down the hill in a shower of shale and slate. Rarity was walking towards a hill with piles of large quartz crystals, the only of its kind in all the miles they’d traveled. Graves would wager silver to sand that those crystals weren’t native to the area and no amount of searching would produce another of its like. But stones didn’t just up and deposit themselves in the middle of a swamp. They couldn’t.
So why were they there?
“Rarity, stop!” Graves called, stumbling forward with hand reached out as if he could somehow halt her steps simply by the act of willing it. He couldn’t, and as the violet-haired girl took that last fateful step, the earth shuddered and came to life.
Out from the murky depths of the swamp rose the primordial reptile known as the crockodile. Easily ten paces from snout to tail, the stony beast roared in delight as it lumbered forth towards the stunned Rarity. Sapphire and silver eyes alike widened with shock as a maw full of flinty teeth opened wide, craggy eyes of milky-white marble locking on the delicious morsel, and –
– snapped its jaws shut not two feet from Rarity’s face as a prismatic blur yanked her back.
“Don’t just stand there,” Rainbow Dash cried. “Get moving!”
Roughly jarred from her stupor, Rarity made tracks back towards the others, even managing to surpass Applejack and Twilight as Pinkie Pie bounded off with Fluttershy hot on her heals. Now both of them loved the little alligator Gummy to pieces, but he was a far cry from the earthen monster that now lumbered in their wake.
Graves ran as well, but trailed towards the back to make sure there was at least one barrier between the girls and the crockodile behind them. Unslinging his spell gun, he tried to focus and charge it up should the need to stand and fight arise. A trickle of magic came forth, but the flow was weak and faltering. He’d already worn himself thin taking out the Cyclops and without even a chance to catch his breath, his body was simply not ready for more casting.
A few choice words escaped his lips as he forced whatever mana he could gather into the weapon in hand. Focused as he was on his gun, Graves didn’t notice the large canvas pack in front of him until he bumped right into it.
“What’s the hold up?” Graves snapped as he found himself already caught up with the group. He should not have caught up with the group. “I told you, we have to move!”
“I’m – urf – trying,” Twilight grunted. “But I think my feet are stuck."
Celestia on high, really? Feet getting stuck? Of all the rotten luck to have, this had to be–
No, not luck. Luck would have been one girl getting stuck. But five? That was something else entirely. Right now, every girl on foot was in the same situation as Twilight, straining and struggling to advance while making absolutely no headway. With the waters agitated as they were, Graves felt the motions before he actually saw them. Somewhere beneath the murk, he could feel the creeping, gripping sensations of tendrils wrapping around his boots, tendrils that not only held him fast, but slowly began to pull him under.
Devil’s Snare. Living vines that slowly pulled ensnared prey into watery pits, pits where submerged roots would slowly absorb its catch as they rotted into a fetid stew. In their haste to escape, none of them had thought anything of the bloated, blackened vines that now hung all around them or noted the subtle shifting of growth as they’d advanced past the point of no return.
With a crackling roar, the lumbering crockodile crashed back into sight as it finally caught up with the Equestrian troop. The stony scales of his rough hide weren’t exactly conducive to movement, but if they were, they would certainly have been curled up in a smile of delight. Entrapped prey would sink quickly, but not quickly enough to avoid being stolen away by the earthen juggernaut. Rainbow Dash tucked wings and dove, aiming to strike its eyes as the griffons had done before, but the crockodile simply lowered a second pair of eyelids and allowed the crystalline husk to deflect whatever puny blows the flyer could muster. Rumbling forward like an all-devouring wave of stone, the beast advanced.
That was when the eagle’s cry sounded once more and the ridge above them quickly filled with a line of raging griffons.