“Everybody on your feet! Now!”
Bleary-eyed and still half asleep, the girls peeked out of their tents as Graves stormed back into camp, his heavy, leather coat billowing behind with the hurricane force of his entrance. Even before they had a chance to blink, his rapid-fire orders continued.
“Packs on now. We don’t have time and I want a clean getaway should the need arise. Twilight and Rarity, get this place cleaned up: do whatever it takes to get rid of our scent. The rest of you, sleeping bags first then break down the tents. You’ve got three minutes before we’re on our feet.”
Eyes bleary and minds fogged, the girls just stared.
“What are you waiting for?!” Graves snapped. “MOVE!”
Jolted to alertness by the harsh crack of his words, all the girls jumped up and got to work. Wands came out as cleansing light washed over the camp, removing residue of their presence as quickly as the crackling backfeed of excess mana would allow. Meanwhile, the others manhandled sleeping bags into more manageable bundles amidst the hasty rearrangement of other supplies.
As they worked, Twilight Sparkle turned a worried eye toward the marshal.
“Graves, what’s going on?” she asked, mouth moving but magic never ceasing even as she spoke.
“You don’t feel that?” the marshal muttered. “You really don’t feel it?”
Twilight frowned in confusion just before her eyes widened in surprise. In the surprise of the sudden rousing, she’d been too busy to pay much attention to anything but the angry soldier and her rapidly assigned duties. But now that she paused to think, she could clearly feel heavy, rumbling tremors shaking the ground beneath them.
“Um, Graves?” Twilight smiled weakly, “what exactly is that?”
“It’d tell you if it’d do any good,” Graves muttered. “But really–”
All throughout the camp, the cry of a canary sounded.
Several choice expletives flew from the marshal’s mouth as Twilight gasped, not from the nature of the vocabulary, but at the sound of the bird’s call. There were no canaries in the Savage Lands, nothing even close given the harsh landscape and ferocious creatures that lived here. That’s what made it the perfect signal for anything that breached their protective barrier with the intent to do them harm.
“Time’s up,” Graves called as he shouldered up his packs. “We’re leaving.”
“What?” Applejack called out. “But we ain’t even finished–”
“Don’t argue with me and just do what I said!”
It was only an instant, but a flash of indignant rage flared up in the farm girl’s apple green eyes as she stared back into the marshal’s gunmetal greys. But she said nothing, choosing instead to reply with a curt nod as she hurriedly picked up her things.
The group moved, leaving half of their shelter behind as they took off in as hurried a jog as they could manage. It was just as well too, because less than a minute after they’d left the camp site, the earth trembled as an unholy shriek sounding of rusted nails dragged across hard slate pierced the pitch-black night.
“Aw geez, what the hay is that?!” Rainbow Dash wheezed as the fetid smell of rotting meat wafted over the group.
“I don’t know, but I’m sure glad we made it out of there in a jiffy,” Pinkie Pie beamed. “Good thing Graves got the jump on whatever it was before it squashed us like pancakes.”
Though Pinkie Pie was being as optimistic as ever, the rest of her friends didn’t share in her positivity. True, Graves had gotten them out early, but he didn’t have to be such a jerk about it, did he? The way he barked and snapped at them like a rabid Doberman, it was like he’d forgotten they were supposed to be friends. Of course, they understood he must be under a lot of pressure, but still didn’t give him a blank check to act like that, right?
But then again, only one of them had ever seen him in the field and she was preoccupied with other thoughts.
“Um… Graves?” Rarity huffed as she continued trotting along as fast as she could, “a moment?”
“What is it?” he replied absentmindedly. Even keeping the rapid pace through the moonless night, the marshal still turned back every hundred paces to cast a hard eye back towards camp.
“When you asked us to… clear out the camp,” she puffed, “was there a particular reason for it?”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “If it’s what I think it is, we can’t let it catch our scent. If that thing starts on our trail, we’re humped.”
Distracted as he was, Graves couldn’t see Rarity’s fair skin grow even paler. He did however, hear that keening shriek as it sounded again. Directly behind them.
“No,” he muttered. “No no no no no! How could it find us?! HOW!”
“I’m sorry, Graves,” Rarity apologized, the bitter tang in the marshal’s words drawing a glisten to her eye. “We were in such a hurry, we didn’t have time to go as thoroughly as we’d hoped.”
Somewhere, Graves must have heard the apology, but it didn’t register. His mind was too busy running the numbers.
The creature wasn’t fast, but it was relentless. They could keep moving from now right up till the gates of Tartarus and it’d still be on their trail. Of course, that wouldn’t even be an option. Tired as the girls were from the long day, with less than an hour’s sleep for recovery, they’d never be able to last that long. Even now, he could see the grim set to Applejack’s face like she always had near the end of harvest, and Fluttershy’s pallor had taken on a sickly hue as she nearly tripped over root hidden in the near total gloom. They could keep running, but that meant they’d only die tired.
That piercing shriek sounded again along with a fresh wave of fetid stench.
“Graves, what do we do?” Twilight called from the front.
The marshal considered his options – there were so blasted few – and chose the only one that even offered a chance of survival. Tugging his hat a little tighter and loosening the strap of his spell gun, Graves spoke.
“Stay safe. I’ll find you when this is over.”
Amethyst eyes widened as Twilight caught those words, and more importantly, the tone they carried. But by the time she’d turned around, the marshal was already gone.
Shaking off his travel pack, Graves tucked it into the hollow of a nearby gathering of roots and scored the trunk with his knife. Channeling a trickle of electricity into the blade, sap crackled and bark charred as the heated blade marked the tree. He wouldn’t be able to fight with the pack on, but he wouldn’t be able to travel without his supplies. Graves had to find that pack again or else… no, he’d worry about that later. First, he had to survive long enough to worry about a return.
The crackling thunder of an overturned tree crashing to the ground roused the marshal. Even before he’d started running again, his spell gun was already drawn and charging, but not without price. Unconsciously, Graves winced as a sharp stab of pain pierced his gut before it subsided into the normal flow of channeled energies. It seems that as effective as the Lazarus potion was, it hadn’t done as good a repair job as he’d hoped.
Back on the trail the girls had left, Graves crouched low in the hollow of twisted trunk, dark leather blending into bark and soil as he faded into the shadows. Breath deep and steady, Graves waited as each trembling step brought the stench of rotted meet just a little bit closer. Finally, smashing its way through yet another great tree as if it were a splinter, the monstrosity hounding their steps lumbered forth.
The Jabberwock. Immortalized in children’s tales and nursery rhymes, generations had passed with no one ever having met the fable creature. Nobody that is, except for those who ventured into these violent wilds. It was a good thing, too, because according to the testimony of the few terror-stricken souls who’d seen it, the creature was one that gave even grown men nightmares. Graves had to disagree. From what he could see, it was a whole lot worse.
Whatever it was, it was a truly hideous abomination. Larger than even the biggest of kaiser dragons, the creature’s fat, bloated body stretched out long behind it, dragged along by dozens of legs like some gargantuan millipede. With each stomp of those swollen limbs, noxious sludge – courtesy of the fetid swamp depths mixed with rank pus that oozed from its blubbery hide – sloughed off to form a sickly trail that withered every living thing in its wake.
Not that the beast cared. With eyes too dull for any sort of intelligence, the Jabberwock continued its mindless hunt, the spindly shape of vestigial wings undulating on its back as it continued its lumbering pace forward. But it didn’t hunt with its eyes. Oh no, that would be too easy. Instead, that task went to the wreath of tentacles that writhed all around its too-wide mouth of rotted fangs. Those tentacles, sensitive enough to pick the smell of fresh prey out from amidst the swamp’s decaying odors, had locked onto the smell of succulent flesh. It was those tentacles that prompted the creature to pull back thick, blubbery lips into a demented rictus of delight.
It was on those tentacles that Graves opened fire.
Spacing his charge into several shorter pulses, the raven-haired soldier tagged as many of those wormy appendages as he could with magic lighting. As the creature roared in pain, Graves quickly slung up his rifle, pulled out his field knife, and made a quick gash on his arm. Blood flowed and Graves quickly palmed up as much as he could, brought hand to mouth, and blew the liquid out into a fine, red mist.
“Alright you sack of piss-poor excuse for ugly! Over here!” Yelling at the top of his lungs, Graves gathered more blood as he repeated the gory process. Though stories varied on description, one consistent fact was the Jabberwock’s unrelenting, unstoppable pursuit. Once fixated, the bloated beast would pursue the prey for days, even weeks on end, never stopping and never ceasing until it had chased down its prey and consumed it whole. Short of slaying it, which Graves simply did not have the strength for, there was nothing that could stop the Jabberwock. No, the only choice he has was distracting it with prospects of fresher game.
Turning its beady red eyes towards the marshal, the Jabberwock let loose its grating shriek once more and plunged after him, dozens of clawed feet churning to pull its bloated body forward. Smiling with grim satisfaction, Graves turned and ran.
The haze of darkness tinted red in hue as the sun began its ascent into morning. And still the marshal ran. His body ached and dripped with sweat after long hours of continuous exertion, but still he ran because he had to.
The Jabberwock’s greatest strength was that those writhing tentacles would never release your scent till its dying breath, or yours. Considering the entirety of its massive bulk was little more than a warehouse of stored consumption, that wouldn’t be any time soon.
However, that great strength was what the marshal now counted on. By tagging the Jabberwock with a blast of lightning, Graves had managed to shift its focus from the girls onto himself. Of course, he had no desire to end up as another meal for the monster, so he did the only thing he could do: he ran.
All through the night, Graves had led the jabberwock further and further away from the scent trail of the Ponyville troop. As he did, however, he kept those gunmetal grey eyes of his peeled, constantly watching for the components necessary for him to enact his admittedly improvised plan. It took a while in the unforgiving terrain, but just before sunrise, he found it: a long, fast flowing river that wound its way through steep embankments of shale and slate. Though he couldn’t stop running, Graves could spare a moment for a smile.
Loping along the river bank for a bit, Graves looped around and began to circle back to the path he’d run before. That was easy; the Jabberwock’s massive bulk had torn up trees and undergrowth while leaving a fresh trail of fetid slime in its wake like some titanic slug. Graves ran, bounding across gullies and leaping ravines as the Jabberwock continued its pursuit.
The marshal made it back to the river and took a quick knee, splashing his face will cold, clear water as he took a few precious moments to catch his breath. He knew he didn’t have much time before the Jabberwock cleared the tree line, but steadying his pounding heart was absolutely crucial for the gambit to work. Waiting until the very last moment, until a single thundering step would reveal the abomination’s horrid form, Graves took a full breath and rolled into the river.
Instantly, a school of flesh-rending needlefish swarmed the marshal, but a quick pulse of lightning easily deterred them from pursuing him as a snack. As the static charge danced across his skin before being washed away by the rushing water, Graves sank to the river’s bottom, took hold of a rock, and settled in to wait.
Through the muffled barrier of rushing water, Graves managed to catch the rumbling, shuffling entrance of the Jabberwock just before it approached the river’s edge. Lumbering footsteps paused as the beast stood fast, tasting the air with that mass of writhing feelers as it searched once more for the marshal’s scent.
It was confused. The Jabberwock knew that the scent had led it here, but where it went next seemed… odd. The smell was faded and dull, as if its prey’s presence had somehow grown weaker upon reaching the riverbank. In its many years of hunting, it had never come across such a strange occurrence, and thus the beast stood, confused.
This was the marshal’s plan. By hiding underwater, the rushing flow would disperse his scent, leaving only the trail he’d laid earlier. With nothing else to go on, the Jabberwock would hopefully follow the scent back down river, around to its old path, and back in a continuous loop with no end. Of course, by the time it came back around, Graves would be far upstream, no new trail laid and off on his merry way to meet back up with the girls.
The Jabberwock stood still, tentacles dancing around in increasing agitation. The marshal’s heart pounded and the burn in his lungs grew hotter, but he remained as still as the river stones in his patient wait. Soon, the creature would have no choice to move on. Soon…
By some cruel happenstance of chance, the rock Graves clung onto suddenly shifted, shaking his grip and jarring him from his perch. The marshal’s other hand instantly shot out to catch a new handhold, but by now, the damage had been done. Normally, it would have been nothing, but between the mana sickness, the long run, and the lack of sleep, that small, unexpected jar shook the marshal just enough to loosen his lips. From those lips, a small, silvery bubble of air, no bigger than the head of a pin, drifted forth.
Graves reached out to stop it, but whipped the bubble away and slipped it right through the marshal’s outstretched hand. Lazily, the bubble drifted upwards and before horrified iron eyes, reached the surface where it quietly, gently popped.
That was enough. Tentacles flaring in delight, the Jabberwock shrieked to the heavens as that tiniest puff of breath was enough to help it find its prey. Hunching over, the best opened up the vestigial wings on his back to their fullest, and then a little farther. Rotten membrane tore as the bony framework separated into a nest of long, prehensile spines, spines which the Jabberwock sent flying into the river with the most disgusting smile.
Trapped underwater as he was, Graves had little in the way of escaping those deadly skewers. Water churned as the bony barbs pierced the river, those knobbed spears lancing for where the marshal lay. Fortunately, the waters flowed in his favor as the distortion of light threw off the Jabberwock’s aim even as the fast current carried him further downstream with a quick release of his handhold. Unfortunately, it still wasn’t enough to escape unscathed as one of the spines gashed him deeply across his thigh and brought a crimson bloom to the rushing waters.
Graves surfaced with a gasp as he twisted aside to narrowly dodge another stab. Realizing that floating in the river made him a sitting duck, the marshal pulled up his spell gun, loosed a silvery bolt into the rocky embankments around the river, and pulled himself not away, but towards the Jabberwock who sat ashore.
He couldn’t run. Running would only have him end up dying tired, and he doubted that he’d have the energy to last long enough to pull another stunt like he had. The only option left to him was taking down the Jabberwock before he ended up on the menu, however low the odds might be.
Clambering onto shore, Graves jumped aside as three spiny barbs crushed the stone where he’d stood just moments before. The lancing strikes continued to rain down, a lethal rain of bony spears falling faster than the hoof beats of a galloping horse. But now? Now the raven-haired soldier was fighting on solid ground once more.
The abomination’s hide seemed to boil as the Jabberwock continued its relentless assault, but silver eyes remain clear as his rifle slowly began to glow. Graves was no fool. Despite the power of lighting, he knew that the sludge coating the Jabberwock was a problem almost as great as the monster’s thick hide. It’d take too much time and energy to charge a shot that could pierce both, but a well-placed bolt to pierce the monster’s eye should bring it down like a house full of cards.
Of course, a shot that strong would still need time, and so, Graves danced. Ignoring the blood that flowed from his overburdened leg, grey eyes flashed like polished spear points as Graves dodged back and forth between the Jabbberwock's strikes with the deadly poise of a stalking panther. He never moved more than necessary, never more than a hand’s breath from impalement and certain death. Every spare ounce of energy went to his spell gun as he desperately fought to buy himself more time.
Brighter and brighter the rifle glowed, louder and louder the familiar hum grew till at last, satisfied with the charge, Graves raised up the spell gun with a single fluid stroke, drew sight on the Jabberwock’s dull, beady eye, and–
Graves tried to halt the motion, but it was too late. His finger tightened on the trigger and electric loosed. But it never struck the target.
Gaping at luck bad enough to turn gold to lead, Graves was nearly impaled by the continued rain of spines as his leather coat was caught and tore with a loud, wet rip. There, lying on the ground, lay the charred husk of some spidery creature, a flattened disk of mottled chitin with spindly legs curled up in the throes of death. Whatever it was, it had thrown itself in front of the Jabberwock’s back to take the blow meant for the beast itself.
Only now did Graves turn his eyes towards the monster’s back, and just in time. That thick layer of sludge which he’d thought only roiled from the Jabberwock’s movement? It literally came alive. Popping like a series of pus-filled boils, the slime burst open as dozens of those same, spidery creatures skittered forth and came towards the marshal.
Mud driders. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Graves surmised that the scavengers of the swamps had formed a symbiotic relationship with the bloated beast. The Jabberwock would hunt and feed, and the driders would get to pick the scraps. Ecological interest would have to wait, however, as Graves now found himself in a frantic fight for his life.
The driders weren’t too dangerous on their own, but they were numerous, and each one required a swift kick or blow from a whirling rifle’s butt lest they ever get a claw-hold on his person. Being held down would mean certain death, but the efforts taken to avoid it had their toll too. Between dodging the spines and warding off the driders, Graves couldn’t even find time to catch his breath, let alone charge another shot. As the marshal fought, his breath grew ragged. Lungs burned as the never-ending shower of spiny strikes and never-ending wave of skittering insects drained his strength, turned his scored and slashed limbs to sand and stone. It took all his efforts to stay alive, to hold his ground on that gravelly beach, which is probably why Graves didn’t see it till it was too late.
The Jabberwock turned, spinning its massive bulk around with a speed that belittled its size and brought its hefty tail around in a devastating swing.
Unable to dodge out of the giant bludgeon’s radius, the marshal had no choice but to leap in the same direction of the swing and try to reduce the blow. It worked, but only in the sense that ingesting brown recluse venom doesn’t outright kill you. Graves remained conscious, thank the light, but the swing was so heavy it still sent him flying clear across the river to its far bank in a tumbling, mangled heap.
Body wracked by a thousand aching pains, Graves coughed with what little breath was left in his lungs as he brought a shaking hand to his lips. No blood. Good. He’d cracked some ribs, at least four by lancing pain on his right side, but at least they hadn’t punctured his lungs. That was something at least.
Using his rifle as a crutch, Graves forced himself back onto his feet and raised a leaden head to look back across the river. The Jabberwock lumbered forward as the mud driders tossed themselves into the fast-flowing stream, struggling to find claw hold so they could skitter up to the opposite bank and continue the hunt. In a few moments, they’d be on him, and in the shape he was in, once they got there, that’d be it. He’d be done.
Well, no time to dwell on that now. Shoving down the fear that bubbled up from his gut and threatened to boil into full-blown panic, Graves calmed his nerves as he had so many times before and thought. He had to win. A marshal always carried out his mission, and his was to protect the girls. He couldn’t protect anyone if he was dead, so obviously, he had to live on. But how? How could he possibly win against such impossible odds?
That’s when it came to him, an idea so crazy, so absolutely, utterly, and inexplicably insane, that Graves couldn’t help but chuckle through the lancing pain of shattered bone. Well, not like he had anything to lose, right? So as he gripped his spell gun with right hand and drew his silver field knife with left, the marshal took a shallow, shuddering breath and got ready to roll the dice.
Right arm swung around as Graves fired not a lightning bolt, but the silver spike and ethereal spell chain. Arcing with the momentum of the swing, the weighted head swung around and looped itself around the Jabberwock’s neck. It wasn’t much, hardly a thread on the monster’s bloated neck, but the Jabberwock shrieked and drew back in confusion as it tried to pull away and figure out what was going on. But Graves would have none of that. Using both the creature’s pull and the spell chain’s draw, the marshal shot off like a loosed quarrel and sailed through the air.
Straight into the Jabberwock’s mouth.
Shriek arrested in throat as the beast choked. So fast had the morsel flown in that the beast hadn’t even had time to properly chew. Flailing about in mindless panic, the Jabberwock tried again and again to swallow, the large muscles in its neck working to dislodge the lump caught therein.
The Jabberwock tried to shriek, but it couldn’t. Even as the crackling length of electric wrath pierced its throat, it couldn’t shriek. It continued to flail about, but nothing could be done. With the hiss of searing meat and the stink of burning mud, a blade of pure lightning stabbed its way out from that blubbery neck, carved its way through the monster’s gullet, and finally, came full round to end it at the start.
Bursting forth like a moth from its cocoon, Graves took a deep, shuddering breath of air as he emerged from the gory folds of the Jabberwock’s neck, silver knife still clutched tightly in hand even as the crackling blade of magical lightning hissed and faded away.
Toppling from the bloody stump that oozed with pitch-black blood and rancid fluids, the Jabberwock’s still twitching head fell to the ground as the mud driders fell to it. Symbiotic or not, they recognized a fresh kill when they found one and instantly worked themselves into a feeding frenzy. The foul insects gorged themselves on the kill, none paying any mind to the gore-covered man that fell from the Jabberwock’s neck and to the stony soil below. They were far too busy eating to pay it any mind as it clutched its side and crawled for the river.
By the time any of the driders thought to expand their feast by confirming a new kill, the marshal was gone, long since swept off by the river’s rushing stream.