Griffons on the ridge in front. Crockodile in the swamp behind. And all the while, Devil’s Snare dragging them deeper and deeper into the murky waters below. Rarely did such a perfect trifecta of disasters congregate on one occasion, but today was one of those special exceptions.
“Ohmygoodnessohmygoodness! We have to get out of here!” Fluttershy squeaked as she poured as much energy into her rune wings as she could muster. The effort did lift her a few inches higher out of the water, but it was nowhere near enough to escape the hold of the cursed tendrils.
“You call that flapping?” Rainbow Dash yelled as she seized Twilight and strained till her wings were little more than a translucent blue blur. “I wanna see you put some horse power into those wings and fast!” Brave as her words though, even Rainbow Dash’s best efforts weren’t enough to free her friend as water crept a little higher.
“I don’t suppose… oof!” Rarity grunted, “that you have a spell that would get us out of this mess, would you, Twilight?”
“Um let’s see. Conjuring wouldn’t help, that’d just move any trees or handholds toward us as the fixed points. Levitation might help, but then I’d have to exert an exponential amount of inverse force to break the current bonds, which would probably take too long. Transfiguration probably wouldn’t help either because–”
“Twi, it’s great that you’re figurin’ all these things that don’t work,” Applejack interjected with a strained smile, “but maybe a little less on the can’ts and a little more on the what’s gonna be savin’ our skins?!”
As the girls worked on their end, Graves did his part as well. In the brief interlude where reptile and avians stared each other down, the marshal ran the few scenarios available. Cutting their way out was already a bust; when the first few hacks from his silver service knife had hardly knicked the rubbery tendrils, back into the sheath it’d gone. The spell charging in his rifle had continued unabated, however slow it was, but that one shot he’d scraped together wouldn’t do much against a baker’s dozen of savage creatures. Not unless…
The large creature had lumbered to a halt and currently, its massive bulk lay stone-still as it surveyed the griffons who’d wandered into its territory. Griffons were a rare sight in that swamp, and the massive beast’s undersized brain sluggishly churned to determine its next course of action. As the crockodile stood still, however, silver eyes darted towards the crystal outcroppings on its back as Graves furiously ran the numbers. The chance of it working was small – and by small he meant half-sized to a church mouse’s thimble tiny – but if he had the calculations right, then maybe, just maybe, he might have an idea.
“Applejack,” he called as softly as his gravelly voice could go. “You still have that rope?”
“Right here,” the farm girl replied as she pulled a lasso from the pack now soaking with water. They were now near waist deep in the swamp with it creeping higher by the second. “Why, you thinkin’ of pullin’ our way out?”
“Something like that,” Graves nodded as he turned to the next stage of his plan. “Twilight, can you set your conjuring spell to an object?”
“Uh, sure,” she shrugged. “Why?”
“Because on my signal, I need you to latch us all to that lasso, and that lasso needs to end up on the crockodile over there.”
The girls blinked.
“Marshal,” Applejack asked with very narrow eyes of suspicious hue, “are you suggestin’ that we go ridin’ that gator right on outta this fine mess we’re in?”
“That’s the plan.”
For a moment, the cow girl just stared at the marshal as if he’d declared war on the moon. But the moment passed and she simply nodded.
“Well then, let’s get goin’.”
In the few crucial seconds that it took them to coordinate their plans, time had continued its resolute march forward. The griffons, still antsy after the assault on their nests, were preparing to continue their hunt. The crockodile, irritated at the interruption to its meal, cast a baleful eye on the interlopers who it now considered as additions to the menu. And the Devil’s Snare, already with meal in hand, dragged the party still deeper into the mire. If they were going to get out of here in one piece, it would have to be now or never.
With slow, smooth motion, Graves raised his rifle and pointed the glowing barrel at the crockodile’s back. The mana sickness was still present and his insides still felt more knotted than a post-kitten skein of yarn, but it had at least abated enough to allow him a single, solid shot. One shot wouldn’t do much against any of the griffons, and it would do even less to the thick hide of the stony monster before him.
And that’s exactly what he was counting on.
Graves fired and loosed his arcane lightning not to strike down the crockodile, but to strike the crystal growth upon its back. Spell struck quartz, air crackled with electricity and fresh ozone, and like an errant ray of sunshine, the spell rebounded. Instead of blasting stone apart, the crystal caught and reflected the arcane bolt and sent it careening of its angled facet, away from the crockodile and straight towards the line of griffons.
The bolt of lightning arced past and clipped a single griffon on its eagle wing. It didn’t do much, hardly more than singing a few wayward pinions, but that was all Graves really needed. Focused as they were on the crockodile, the griffons hadn’t seen the marshal as the source of the blast. To their tawny eyes, the crockodile had been the one who interfered with the hunt by attacking the convocation. This made the crockodile the foremost threat, and with screeches that resounded to the heavens, the griffon’s tucked in their wings and charged head on towards the mighty earthen beast.
That’s when the girls acted. Just before the two sides clashed, Applejack twirled the lasso overhead with a practiced hand and let loose to snag a limestone outgrowth on the crockodile’s tail. Even as the lariat sailed through the air, Twilight chanted. Dozens of minute calculations and equations flashed through her head as she set the conjuring location not to the most familiar reference of her own person, but to the dynamically changing coordinates of the flying rope, all the while manipulating the strands of magic so that they extended to evenly cover the seven Equestrians who now stood chest deep as the Devil’s Snare continued its work.
The task of balancing so many complex calculations with such delicate spellwork was like trying to weave lace on the back of a bucking bronco, only with much more dire consequences. Mess up the lace, and you merely had to begin anew. Mess up here, and the mistake could mean the difference between a person being pulled out or not. Or even worse, only part of them.
Splashing like a landed marlin, the griffons entered the swamp and charged the crockodile. Unaccustomed as the beast was to being aggressed upon, the crockodile made its lumbering retreat deeper into the swamp and further away from the marauding griffons. Lasso snapped taught and with a wet, pulpy tear, seven Ponyville residents pulled free of their ensnarement and splashed into the swamp, soiled and filthy and aching from deep welts left by tearing vines, but free. Mercifully free once more.
“Time to move, girls!” Graves called over the din of battle. “Get going!”
“But what about the supplies?” Twilight called. Despite her best efforts, she hadn’t been able to layer the spell properly over everything and right now, Fluttershy and Rarity’s packs lay soaking in the swamp. A good third of their supplies just sat there, slowly sinking into the muck, and even a girl like Twilight could see the disaster in that.
“Forget the supplies!” Graves roared, pressure adding a sharp edge to his voice. “Skies and spells and get a move on it!”
Stinging like a slap to the face, the marshal’s cry snapped the six to attention and they made their move. Rainbow Dash went to Applejack, Fluttershy grabbed onto Pinkie Pie, and with deep breaths from the fliers, spell wings roared to life as they each took to the air. Partially, at least. There was no way either girl could carry a person all on their own, but the boost of their wings made running that much easier. With flyers pulling from above and runners pushing from below, the girls managed to bound across the swamp far faster than any could ever have hoped on foot.
Twilight, in the meanwhile, latched onto Rarity and in an amethyst flash of light, vanished, only to reappear twenty feet away. Again and again Twilight teleported, blinking short distances repeatedly fast as a step could land to quickly gain ground and separate them from the frenzied brawl that raged behind. Beaks pecked, talons slashed, and great, gaping maw snapped at far faster wings. It was a furious battle of beast and bird, but one that had broken out over prey that was now no longer there.
Graves should have been able to smile. They got out safely, and that was a victory, right? But as gunmetal grey eyes surveyed the field, saw the girls in hard retreat as their provisions disappeared beneath dank waters, he had to wonder. They could have avoided all of this had they just kept moving along. Could you really call it a victory, knowing that?
One of the griffons fixed a tawny eye on the marshal and raised its head, but Graves was already on the move. Raising his rifle once more, the marshal opened fire with what dregs of magic remained in his exhausted body. A silvery spike and spell chain fired out and rooted into a gnarled trunk. With a second pull, the chain rapidly retracted and Graves pulled himself away, swinging as the chain disappeared to fling himself into an long, loping run.
By the time the griffon sounded the alarm, Graves was already gone, vanished like smoke in the breeze.
The sun was still up. They should have continued and pressed on further through the Savage Lands as the hours of daylight would allow. But they couldn’t. Bruised, battered, and caked in enough mud to build a hut, the Equestrian squad was well past the point endurance could bear, and pressing on further in their shape would only have ended in still further disaster. Graves knew this. He didn’t like it, but he knew this, and so when they discovered a quiet, secluded hollow at the rooted base of a giant tree, he called a halt.
“Sweet macaroon of Cancun, I’m tired,” Pinkie Pie groaned as she wearily worked to dig a fire pit for the evening. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this tired in my whole life, not even that time Pa made me rotate the entire marble crop for setting the kitchen on fire.”
“I hear yah,” Applejack mumbled. “Feel’s like zap apple season all over again. ‘Cept worse.”
As the two continued comparing their aches and pains to various unpleasant situations, Fluttershy cast a nervous eye towards the silent marshal.
“Um… Twilight?” she whispered, her complexion pale and drawn after the day’s affairs. “Could I have a word?”
“Sure, what’s up?”
“Well…” Once again, she glanced towards Graves. He was seated on a gnarled root, coat laid out on the ground and spell gun disassembled atop it as he cleaned each of the mud-caked parts.
“Do you… do you think Graves is mad at me?” Fluttershy whispered, her voice so soft that Twilight actually didn’t hear. When she repeated however, the lady mage’s eyes did a fair impression of the evening’s full moon.
“Mad? Why would he be mad?” Twilight she gaped, making sure to put extra emphasis into the words to emphasize the absurdity. Fluttershy’s gaze dropped to her feet.
“Because… if it weren’t for me… we wouldn’t have gone through this… this mess.” Though she’d managed to keep it in for the hike, the delicate girl could no longer take it and big, wet tears began to flow from her aquamarine eyes.
“Fluttershy, it wasn’t your fault,” Twilight said as she jumped up to pull her friend into a warm, soothing hug. “If anything, it was mine. Princess Celestia put me in charge, and I made the marshal help us out.”
“But… but if I hadn’t…”
“Your heart was in the right place and that’s that.” Twilight cut off with kind eyes that would clearly brook no argument. “But if you’re really worried, I’ll go have a word with the marshal. Let him know that we’ll be a lot more careful now on. Okay?”
Fluttershy couldn’t really speak, so she settled for replying with a small sniff and a nod.
“Good,” Twilight smiled. “Now, why don’t you go help Applejack fix up dinner?”
As the girl with cherry blossom hair made her way to the camp proper, Twilight turned to look at the marshal herself and started wishing she’d really felt as confident as she’d sounded moments ago. While Graves was an imposing figure at the best of times, right now, his stony frown and dark, brooding eyes made him almost frightening. Maybe it was because he was twice as tired as the rest of them, but Twilight doubted that was the case. Thus, it was with a gulp and giant, flapping bats in her belly that she went over to speak to the marshal.
“Hey, Graves?” she said softly as she approached. “You got a minute?”
“Shoot,” he replied. Graves didn’t look up from his gun. He just kept on working, rough horsehair brush scrubbing in and out of the long, steely barrel.
“So… it’s about today,” Twilight began hesitantly. “I uh… wanted to talk to you about what happened today, and to let you know… I’m sorry.”
The marshal stopped, brush in hand pausing upon hearing her words.
“Don’t apologize,” Graves replied as his hands resumed their work.
“It’s very nice of you to say that,” Twilight smiled, “but I really–”
“No. I mean don’t apologize. At all.”
The young scholar blinked.
“Why not?” she asked, now just a bit on the confused side. Here, Graves set down his work and turned to her, his gunmetal grey eyes cooler than a winter night’s breeze.
“You’re the leader. Whatever decisions you make, you stick by them. If you start second guessing yourself, people lose faith, and if that happens, the team falls apart.”
“But… I screwed up,” Twilight protested. “Shouldn’t I say sorry for that?”
“Do you honestly think you screwed up?” Graves asked. Twilight moved to speak, but as soon as her amethyst eyes met his gunmetal greys, she paused.
All through the walk over, she’d thought about what had happened, where everything had gone wrong. At first she’d figured that trying to help the griffons had been a mistake and that even entertaining the idea had been nothing more than foolhardy bravado. But a part of her, one still with stars in her eyes and limitless skies in mind just couldn’t agree. Despite everything they’d gone through, part of her still thought that what they’d done had been the right thing. Of course, if it was so right, why had everything gone so wrong? Here they were, helping out those afflicted by Nul’s corruption, and they’d ended up beaten up, exhausted, and pulling muck out of every nook and cranny. Results were everything, but they did matter, and the results of today painted her choice as a mistake in bold, neon letters the size of a Las Pegasus billboard.
Feelings on one hand, results on the other. In the hour or so they’d marched since escaping the swamp, after the countless times Twilight had asked herself if she’d do things differently, she finally said,
“… I don’t know.”
Amethyst eyes looked away, no longer able to meet that iron stare.
“Then think it over,” Graves replied flatly. “But keep it quiet. Learn, but never let people see you worry.”
“You do realize who you’re talking to, right?” Twilight retorted with a wry grin that hopefully would lighten the mood. Graves tried to respond in kind.
“Never said it would be easy.”
“I figured as much,” Twilight sighed. “Well, anyway, dinner’s going to be ready soon. It’s not much after today, but at least it’s something. You coming?”
“In a minute,” Graves nodded. “Need to finish cleaning.”
“Okay. Join us when you’re ready.
As Twilight walked back towards the camp where Rarity worked a makeshift comb of twigs through her tangled hair, the marshal’s hard stare followed her every step with breath seized up within his chest. Only when he was sure that she was back and every girl well occupied, no longer free to pay him any mind… only then did he move.
Grave coughed as quietly as he could, keeping a hand to his mouth in order to catch the flecks of blood that escaped from his lips with each ragged hack. Ah yes, the wonderful after effects of a particularly nasty bout of mana sickness. Running and straining himself as he had that day, Graves had never gotten a chance to properly expunge the magic from his system. Raw magic was never good for the body, but when that magic happened to be lightning, the elemental force renowned for its destructive powers, well… I’m sure you can imagine what that does to flesh and bone.
Reaching into a small, almost invisible side compartment of his bag, Graves withdrew a thumb-sized crystal phial of roiling green liquid that seemed to thrash around in a violent fit. Popping the cap off, the raven-haired soldier only paused for a moment before he upended the vial and downed its contents.
It hurt. By the twin crowns, it hurt so bad. Not even drinking pure, boiling-hot grain alcohol could have been as bad going down, and the gut-wrenching pain from the mana sickness were kitten kisses compared to what he felt now. Made sense really. Potions from the Lazarus Pit were not meant to be consumed. But out in the field, where medical supplies needed to be both fast and potent, it was the only thing he could think of that could patch up his insides and keep him going.
When the pain finally subsided, mere moments that had felt a thousand times longer later, Graves finally opened his eyes and let out a low, shuddering breath. That’s when he almost smiled.
It’s funny. Lazarus Pits were designed to teach cadets not to take stupid risks in the field. He’d never actually felt the need to learn that lesson himself and here he was, taking it all in like he was a green-horned rookie once more. Fluttershy wanted to help animals? Fine. Twilight wanted to save the world? Great. Those were wonderful, heart-warming sentiments that made those girls the kind-hearted people they were, the sort of people that gave Ponyville its life and spirit. He still should have taken those sentiments, tossed them in a sack, and hurled that sack into the nearest furnace he could find. Barring a lack of furnaces, a nice ravine would have done just as well.
Why on earth had he let himself go along with their stupid. ideological babble? This wasn’t some backyard camping trip. This was war. You didn’t go sticking your neck out for random people, let alone random animals. You stuck to the plan, kept your head low, and did your job. He knew that. Hay, he’d always known that. And yet for some reason, he’d found himself wanting to go along with their naïve ideals and even… ugh… play the hero.
Well, they were definitely paying for it right now. Right now, they were half a day behind schedule, twice as worn out as they needed to be, and demoralized from having those morals explode right in their naïve little faces. In truth, it was nobody’s fault but his own, and the thought curled his insides almost as bad as the Lazarus potions had.
Like freshly forged blades emerging from the flames, the marshal’s gunmetal eyes glinted with a new edge in the light of the setting sun. Ponyville had been good to him. Those girls had been great to him. But he didn’t need soft right now. He didn’t need nice. What he needed was to be strong, to do what it took to cut through these wilds and get the girls to where they needed to be. That meant getting rid of weak ideals like saving random passerbys and focusing on the mission.
With his in mind, Graves passed under the tree’s stretching shadow and joined the girls by the fire, a little late, a little changed.
Dinner was a somber affair, one strangely at odds will the still, somewhat light of the forests around them. Filthy and exhausted as they were after the day’s ordeal, none could muster up much energy for conversation or laughter. Indeed, even Pinkie Pie’s usually unbounded energy seemed drained from such a wearying day.
Making do with a quick meal of the rations that remained unspoiled my muddy swamp water, the girls cleaned themselves off as best they could in a small spring at the base of the tree’s tangled roots. Once refreshed, or as near refreshed as they could manage in the situation, it was off to their tents to collapse for some well needed rest. The sun was still up, but not even a minute had passed before Rainbow Dash’s sawing snores could be heard through the quiet camp.
One lady, however, wasn’t quite so ready to bed down just yet.
“You should get some rest,” Graves said as he banked down the fire to a smoldering bed of coals. “Today was rough.”
“Yes, yes it was,” Rarity idly remarked as she sat down beside the marshal, knees hugged close to her chest as she eyed the warm embers. “And that’s why I wanted to make sure you were alright.”
“As you can see, I’m fine,” the marshal replied as he tried to put one of those odd, lopsided grins to his face. But his heart simply wasn’t into it and the smile died before it could even start, a fact that Rarity’s pursed lips made clear she had noticed.
“Well, you’re certainly about on your feet,” she nodded in partial satisfaction, “but I’d hardly mark that down as the only area of concern.” An eyebrow arched in curiosity.
“Oh? And what else would there be?”
“Why, your feelings of course,” Rarity laughed. “After all, even big, strong soldiers might need a shoulder to cry on every now and then.”
“If I ever need that, you’ll be the first to know,” Graves chuckled, the first break in the gloom he’d felt all day. That felt nice. A little laughter could make any day seem brighter, even one as dismal as this. However, laughter faded all too quickly and soon, the two were back to gazing at embers as something else danced in the Rarity’s glittering, sapphire orbs.
“You mean that, right?” she finally asked, a touch of hesitation coming into her words. “If something is in fact wrong you’ll really let me know?”
Slowly, Graves turned from the fire to the lovely lady at his side. Even after everything that had happened, she still looked beautiful enough to take his breath away, beautiful even as worry tightened her lips and brought a wrinkle to her eyes.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Sure.”
Rarity paused a moment more as she peered into his gunmetal grey eyes, almost like she was looking for something in those tired, foggy depths. Whatever it was, she ended the search with a small nod and a gentle kiss on his stony cheek.
“Don’t be up too long,” she smiled as she gracefully rose. “Even marshals need to sleep.”
Graves watched Rarity depart and join Fluttershy in their tent, but he remained by the fire for a moment more. As always, her keen eye and uncanny perception saw more than he’d hoped. Not that it mattered. He had no need to speak of things that could not change.
Once he was satisfied that the camp was in relative order, Graves wearily stood and went back to work. Walking till the glow of the fire was hardly a speck to even his keen eyes, the raven-haired soldier began the task of carving in the protective runes. It was as he walked along, having just finished the third sigil, that the familiar chortle sounded beside him.
“You look like you could use a shower,” Discord laughed as he loofaed himself from a curtained bathtub. “All that rolling about in the mud has got you stinking up to high heaven, I tell you what.”
“Not now, D,” Graves groaned as he pulled his hat lower down. “Can’t you just let me have some peace?”
“Not on your life,” the trickster giggled as he stepped out fully dressed in a resplendent mauve overcoat. “You see, I’ve actually got something important to tell you tonight.”
“Let me guess, this is all a dream and I’m about to wake up soon?” the marshal snarked. Discord’s smile was equal parts smarmy pity and dripping condescension.
“You wish that were true, don’t you? Well sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s actually a good bit more than that. See, I’ve been poking around in the outer worlds, and I–”
Discord paused. Or rather, he froze, eyes bulging as hands jumped to his throat as if it he’d choked on his own words. Before Graves could even blink, let alone move, the elderly youngster’s face contorted into a silent scream as he shattered like cracked glass and disappeared into the breeze.
The marshal needed no further warning as every fiber in his body awoke and stood at full alert. Discord hadn’t wanted to leave, that much was certain. Something had forced him to do so, a something that accomplished a feat requiring enough magical force to move mountains without even alerting him of his presence. Few things could muster that much power so discreetly, and of the many likely scenarios, tangling with an elevated shade was not high on the marshal’s list of wants for the moment. Thus, steely eyes gazed and ears pricked up, the senses strained to their utmost for the source of the threat. He needn’t have bothered.
A footstep sounded, a solid sound, too light for any sort of beast of note, but too heavy for any of the girls wandering the night. It sounded again, and then again, slowly approaching him at the leisurely pace of a Sunday stroll. Graves heard the sound but for some strange reason, had no idea where it came from. It seemed to come from all around him, one moment sounding right behind him then echoing from a hundred paces off, yet always seeming to draw closer.
But the strangest part by far? Despite the unnatural sound and the knowledge of the entity’s proven might, Graves just… wasn’t worried. No chills, no hairs on end, nothing all even hinted that any sort of danger approached.
The footsteps stopped somewhere close by. Or far away. He couldn’t tell, until…
Spinning around, his long leather coat a whirling fan behind him, the marshal raised a glowing spell gun to face the source of the sound.
“What do you want? Who are you?” he demanded, lightning charged and finger pulled so tight on the trigger a mosquito’s breath would have unleashed the blast. The man – indeed, that was what he was –smiled as one would upon meeting a pen pal for the very first time.
“I just want to talk, Graves,” the man replied. “Oh, and I’m Nul.”