“You’re… Nul,” Graves repeated, the word sounding oddly dull from the confusion thick in his voice. The man smiled, the very picture of gracious ease.
“That’s right. I’m Nul.”
“As in The End.”
“The one we’re here to seal?”
“And the one it took Celestia, Luna, and Discord together to stop before?”
"The very same.”
Now Graves thought he knew absurdity. He’d seen a man light himself on fire because he thought doing so would keep summer from ending. He’d seen two warring tribes wipe each other out because a man had touched another’s drinking gourd without apology. He’d seen Pinkie Pie finish two dozen donuts, a quart of fudge-ripple ice cream, half a gallon of sarsaparilla, and still have room for a whole apple pie not fifteen minutes later. But this series of statements was so absurd, so beyond the realm of possibility that whoever made it must either be a stark, raving lunatic, the greatest liar to ever spin a tale, or both.
Well, the man certainly didn’t look mad. With a casual stance and an easy smile on his handsome face, one probably a few years the marshal’s senior, the stranger had the air of a true aristocrat in complete control of considerable faculties. His clothes, all of which glittered a pristine, glacial white, only served to enhance that effect. From the snowy cashmere of his paletot coat to the marble sheen of his spotless loafers, the clothes he wore were cut to grace the high boulevards of Manehatten at the very least. Even the silken scarf bound around his eyes seemed to be nothing more than an exotic accessory of the latest haute couture.
Whether it was in poise or dress, manner or clothing, there was simply nothing, nothing from the ebony gloss of his neatly trimmed locks to the soles of his spotless shoes that didn’t seem absolutely perfect. And he was supposed to be destruction itself.
“You don’t look convinced” said the man claiming to be Nul, a little more amusement coming to a voice both vibrant and cool.
“Honestly, I’m not.” Graves frowned.
“Any particular reason why?”
“You’re…” The marshal paused, trying to his sentiments to words. “… not exactly what I expected.” An immaculate eyebrow arched over the silken scarf.
“Oh? In that case, what did you expect?”
“Something… demonic. Hellfire and brimstone at least,” Graves shrugged. “I mean, Nul’s gonna destroy the world, right?”
“Well, that doesn’t mean I can’t look good doing it, does it?” The man broke out into ringing peals of honest laughter, a sound that sang of the purest amusement and greatest mirth.
Was it a bad thing that Graves felt like laughing along? Because if it was, then the twitch at the corner of his lips was a sign of things starting to go very wrong indeed.
“But in any case, that’s not important,” the man in white chuckled. Now it was the marshal’s turn to arch an eyebrow.
“End of the word isn’t important?”
“Relatively speaking,” the man nodded.
“Relative?” Graves repeated. “Relative to what?
The man didn’t answer. Instead, he raised a hand, a clear and elegant for the marshal to join him for a little stroll.
Normally, the marshal would never have even considered an offer like that. After all, a clearly crazy man inviting you to wander off into dangerous woods on your lonesome? That was shoot first, questions never territory if he ever did see one. But despite knowing all of this and noting the clearly suspicious circumstances with complete and unyielding precision, Graves could simply not find a reason to refuse.
The man just wasn’t a threat. Of course, he clearly had some amazing powers – nobody, not even Rarity, could keep clothes that fresh and clean so far out in the wilderness. But whatever powers he held, Graves somehow knew that they were not and would not be directed at him. It was honestly hard to say why. Maybe it was something about the man’s posture. Maybe it was the openness of his expressions, or the ease of his smile. Or maybe it was that something about the man seemed almost familiar. Graves had certainly never met the man before – he doubt anyone could forget such a unique individual – but that didn’t stop the feeling from forming all the same. In fact, it was almost as if Graves had met him before, time after time in fact, but simply never realized the two were one and the same.
Whatever it was, Graves knew, deep in his gut, that the man walking beside him was as harmless a newborn lamb. And so, in possibly the most absurd moment in a long string of absurdities, Graves lowered his rifle and walked.
Quietly, the two strolled further and further away from the camp as the strange sense of wellbeing extended over the sleeping girls as well: whatever happened next, he somehow knew that they’d be safe until it was all well and over. That left him free reign to silently observe the man beside him.
Despite the wrappings around his eyes, the man clearly had no trouble navigating the rough terrain in the setting sun’s fading light. If anything, he moved with greater ease than Graves. The spring in his step, as if he’d smuggled childhood joy into the graceful stride of a gentleman, propelled him over stone and gravel with uncanny ease.
“So…” the marshal rumbled.
“So…” the man replied.
“If you’re Nul, how are you here?”
Technical question. Should be a safe start.
“Astral projection,” the man answered. “My mind comes and goes as I please.”
“So what, you’ve just been watching the world go by?” the marshal asked incredulously.
“For the most part,” the man nodded. “Of course, every now and again, I have to answer the call of some fellow or another looking for my gift. Rather tedious, really.”
The image of a little girl and pale blue flame came to mind, but Graves quickly clamped down on the rising heat in his belly. Whoever this man was, he had information that the marshal needed. Graves needed to keep his cool.
“You could always ignore them,” he offered through a stiff jaw.
“And why would I do that?” the man asked, puzzled like someone had asked Pinkie Pie if there were a reason to eat a slice of chocolate cake. “I’m all about destruction. Why would I deny help to people who want to see the same results?”
Made sense, Graves had to admit. Not sane sense, but sense nonetheless.
“Then again,” the man continued, “I suppose the end of the world can wait. Have to prioritize my activities, don’t you know.”
There it was, the real question.
“Yeah, about that,” Graves intoned. His words sounded almost casual, but one look at those piercing eyes and too perfectly measured steps revealed him to be anything but. “You said there was something more important. Care to explain?”
“Of course,” the stranger laughed. “Before I end reality as we know it, I knew that I simply had to come out and meet you.”
Silver eyes blinked.
Okay, clothes or not, demeanor or no, this guy was more cuckoo than a clockmaker’s workshop.
“Really,” Graves stated flatly, skepticism positively dripping as he resumed his walk once more. “Meeting me is just that important.”
“Indeed it is,” the man beamed, his expression the bright, open joy of a boy at the first sight of the tree on Hearth’s Warming Day. “After all, you’re special. You, my friend, are Gunmetal Graves.”
Shoes softly crunch on loose gravel.
“That’s not saying much,” the marshal frowned. The man in white merely laughed.
“It says a lot more than you might imagine. Gunmetal Graves, lone survivor of the Special Twenty Sixth. Notable exploits include exterminating the archlich of the Shadow Swamps, the dread knight of Iron Heights, and the dismantling of the Stygian Cabal. Of course, your crowning achievement was and may always be slaying Typhon, Firstborn of the Dusk, with a single shot.”
“So you know my record,” Graves nodded. “What, you break into archives on a lark?”
“Nothing so passé,” the man laughed. “I had front row seats.”
“As in you were there.”
“Sure you were,” Graves intoned.
“It’s true,” the stranger smiled. “I could even describe the wound from Nito’s Rekyem, if you’d like.”
It was a testament to the marshal’s skill that he didn’t stumble there and then.
Liches didn’t use weapons. There was no need as their arsenal of spells and curses that forged an unstoppable tide of living dead was more potent than any blade. Yet after infiltrating archlich Nito’s citadel, Graves found that the grave lord, a once proud hero of a bygone tribe, was one exception to the rule. Still wielding a great lance as he had centuries ago, that deathmarked steel had almost been enough to send Graves to a grisly fate. The existence of the spear had gone into the report, but the name, carved into that rust-colored blade, had not. That name was only known by the two who’d fought, and one of them hadn’t walked away from that fight.
“So you saw that one,” Graves asked, his voice surprisingly quiet and calm as he tucked a thumb into his belt. “Any others?”
“All the ones of note,” the man in white nodded. “All the ones I said and more.”
“… I see.”
In the blink of an eye, the man in white was pressed against a nearby tree trunk, silver spell blade pressed against a throat half crushed in the marshal’s vice-like grip.
“Why did you do it?” Graves asked, his voice surprisingly quiet and calm as the blade came a hair’s breadth away from drawing blood. “We both know that it was your corruption that drove Typhon mad. Why?”
“Don’t lie to me,” Graves cut in, his grip tightening with the groan of strained cartilage beneath his iron-banded fingers. “I just want to know why you did it.”
“I didn’t,” the man in white repeated, just as calm, if not more so than the marshal despite the death grip around his windpipe. “I am awake, but cut off from my strength, and the miasma that changed Typhon was bleed off from power that I no longer control. I had no choice in the matter, Graves. It was not my design.”
Glinting grey eyes peered up at the bandaged face and slowly, the grip loosed.
Graves believed him. He had no idea why, but something in the man’s words made it the only real choice. It wasn’t magic, nor was it trickery, nothing that suggested any hint of devious, underhanded play. Instead, it was compelling simply for the honest, heartfelt sincerity lacing every utterance. Whether right or wrong, the man clearly believed every word and wanted to make sure Graves knew it.
“Impressive,” the man in white nodded, his voice as smooth and sincere as ever. Not even a hint of a bruise remained to mar his skin. “You could easily snap a man’s neck with a grip like that.”
“Maybe I should’ve,” Graves answered as he turned and resheathed his knife. “Maybe you’re telling the truth about not having a choice, but it was still your power that made everything possible.”
“Very true, my powers are the cause,” the stranger nodded. “But they can also be the solution. That’s why I’m here today.”
“The thing that’s more important than the end of the world?”
“Precisely,” the man in white nodded. “The reason, in fact, the only reason I appeared before you is so that I could give you a gift.”
“And just… what kind of gift would that be?” The marshal wasn’t sure he wanted to know, but he was sure that he had to.
With a smile, the man reached out, palm to the sky as he raised a single finger and summoned forth upon its tip, a small, black flame. Though it flickered and danced, no bigger than the light of a household candle, there was no mistaking that all-devouring darkness, the one that melted even the evening’s breeze as it consumed the very light around it. It was the flame of pure destruction, the fires of entropy itself.
“Power,” the man in white smiled. “I am The End, and really, what is power except the ability to control of the end? Every authority in the universe derives its right from the strength to bring about an ending, the ability to give form to that frightful absolute. I am power itself, Graves, and that power, I offer to you.”
Gunmetal grey eyes flickered from the inky, black flame to the handsome face, smiling like a father who’d bought a new toy for his son. The son, however, was not convinced.
“How can you give me anything?” Graves challenged as eyes narrowed and his hand strayed towards his belt knife once more. I thought you were split from your strength.”
“And that I am,” the man amicably agreed. “I no longer control the entire river as I once did, but that doesn’t mean I can’t offer you a glass. Surely, Discord has demonstrated that even our shadows carry some weight.”
“But why would you?” the marshal continued, still not convinced. “You help those who match your ends, but I’m not one of them. Why would you give me something I’d just use to stop you?”
“Because you can’t stop me,” the man in white simply stated. “You may stop me now, but that only delays the inevitable. Everything has an end, and I’m willing to wait if it means I get to spend some time with you.”
“… Sorry, not interested,” Graves grunted and strode forward as if to leave the man in white behind.
“Aw, why not?” the stranger called out. Though it was probably a faulty comparison, Graves couldn’t help but think he sounded like Fluttershy anytime someone couldn’t make it over for tea. How was that even possible?
“Same reason I don’t take shots of crystal viper venom,” Graves answered with as much blasé as if he’d announced the weather. “Everything you touch rots. I’ve seen it myself, and I’d sooner stick my hand in a tiger’s jaw than take the curse you offer.”
Silence greeted the marshal, and as he turned, he found the stranger looking at him in stunned disbelief, the flickering flame forgotten as bandaged visage openly gaped. For a moment, Graves worried, not for his safety, but because he was almost afraid that he’d really hurt the man’s feelings.
And then the man laughed.
“Oh, Graves,” the man laughed, chuckling deep from his chest as if he’d heard a wonderful joke. “Of course it’s a curse. Why do you think I came to specially offer it to you?”
The black flame descended and touched down onto the man’s palm where it instantly began to blaze and burn. Skin crackled and split as the flesh underneath blackened and charred, crumbling to dust that vanished in the wind. In moments, there was naught left but pale bone that gleamed bleach white in the gloom of a set sun.
“Power is a two-edged sword,” the man explained as he examined his own skeletal remains. “Though you can turn it on those you choose, it is never one slip away from biting you as well. The greater the power, the greater the risk and the greater the price of every mistake you make.”
Graves said nothing. The lingering pains of a stomach not fully healed filled the silence for him.
“Yet despite that,” he continued, the flame reappearing as he passed it from fingertip to fingertip, a trail of faded dimness following in its wake, “people still crave power. They long for it, lust after it, sacrifice everything they once held dear to get just a little taste. It’s that desire that drove them all – Tirek the Devourer, Webweaver Aagh, Coronus of Light, Heavenly Lily Crystallia, even the pup Discord – drove them all and countless more to seek me for my gift. Everyone seeks power, dear Graves. But few understand it. So very precious few.”
“And you think I do?” Graves muttered, almost amused by the thought. “What, you think that I have some special, deep-seated connection with the soul of destruction?”
“Don’t you?” the man smiled, the black flame disappearing as he clapped hands whole and fresh once more upon the marshals’ shoulders. “Never in all my years have I ever seen someone so remarkable as you. Your own power was as insignificant as a thimble of water next to the ocean, but you sacrificed your blood, sweat, and tears to gain more. You didn’t look for handouts or shortcuts like so many others, but sacrificed life and limb to pursue strength with a passion fit to make any woman jealous.”
“And yet I’m not the only one,” Graves rejoined. “Wanting strength doesn’t make me special.”
“It most certainly does,” the man in white beamed. “Few could make the choices you did for as long as you have.”
“Few,” Graves agreed. “But some, and that means there must be something else that makes me oh, so attractive.”
“Right you are,” the man nodded, proud as if his son had just solved a difficult equation. “Some have climbed the same heights you did, but simply reaching the summit does not equal understanding. Others saw what you saw, but only you have understood the bigger picture.”
“Oh really?” Graves smirked. “And just what ‘bigger picture’ am I seeing?”
With a fond smile, the man reached his face to remove his bandage. What the marshal then saw turned his flesh to ice and blood to frost with terror greater than he’d ever felt before.
There was nothing.
The man had no eyes, but there were no mere cavities in the skull, oh no. All around those holes, bits of flesh and skin broke off and drifted into yawning chasms of pure nothingness, an infinitely decaying ring that framed portals to the abyss itself. He’d thought the black flames had been dark? He’d been a fool. Compared to those pits, the dark fires were brighter than the noonday sun. Compared to that absolute emptiness, the flames were light and warmth. Those holes were oblivion, absolute nothingness so complete and total that the mind threatened to tear itself asunder trying to comprehend it.
But it was in that insanity of incomprehension that Graves realized something; the man was familiar because Graves had seen the man before. He’d seen the man when his body had lain broken and beaten, when death was but a shuddering breath away from claiming its prize. He’d seen him in quiet moments of peace, when all was silent and the world was still. In those moments, the abyss stared at him, vast enough to swallow creation whole as it silently mocked him and revealed terrible truths to his captive mind.
The end comes, marshal. For you, for your home, and for everyone you love. The end claims all as it always has. As it always will. What, you think to defy fate? To save your precious ones by the strength of your puny hand? You are a fool. The fate of all is to end in nothing, and you, dear marshal, will never make a difference. You are nothing, and you can do nothing.
Graves had thought himself over those fears, perhaps not completely, but at least stronger as he stood alongside one he cherished more than life itself. But that was fool’s talk. He wasn’t stronger. He’d only deluded himself into forgetting the truth he’d known since boyhood. It had taken only one look, one moment of meeting the stare of the abyss, to remind his frozen flesh and trembling bones of what they’d known all along.
Nul smiled, a pure satisfaction ringing in his voice as he breathed out the word with almost a caress of delight.
“There’s fear in you Graves,” he continued, smoothly rewinding the bandage over his eyeless gaze once more. “Fear so deep and vast to rival the empty night itself. You’re terrified of going back to the helplessness you knew before. You fear not being able to protect those girls. You’re afraid that you’ll be too weak to change the fate you see hanging over them each and every moment. You fear, dear marshal, so you struggle for power, not because you want it, but because you need it. More than the air you breath, you need power, and you will move heaven and earth itself to seize it.”
The man clapped a hand to the marshal’s shoulder as a warm smile came to his handsome face once more.
“That’s why I come to you, Graves. That’s why I didn’t just wait for you to seek me out as so many have done before. I want you to share in my power, Graves, because you understand the most important truth of all: The End is all that matters.”
Graves said nothing. He simply stared at the man, a rabbit in the face of a smiling cobra as a thousand and one different thoughts flashed through gunmetal grey eyes in an instant. Nul saw this and he quietly nodded.
“I know, it’s a lot to take in. That’s why I won’t look for an answer now. But I should warn you, I wouldn’t dilly dally too long.”
“Is that a threat?” Graves replied, almost out of instinct as the ominous words snapped him back to a semblance of attention.
“No no, nothing like that,” Nul assured him. “It’s merely a precaution. I mean, you are in the Savage Lands, after all. How long do you honestly expect you’ll be able to keep those girls safe? Today was a close call, and I doubt that it was half as bad as what’s coming next.”
And for the first time that evening, as the darkness of night finally unfurled, that creeping, foreboding chill trickled its icy way down the marshal’s back once more.
“What’s going on, Nul?” Graves called to the now empty night. “Answer me!” A voice did reply, a soft echo in the evening breeze.
“Beware the frightful beast, my friend, the jaws that bite and chew. Let your vorpal blade sing true, lest it be the end of you.”
Then the ground began to rumble.