His body was heavy. Limbs of lead, torso of iron, Graves was amazed that he could even float at all. But float he did, drifting through the river’s speeding current till it finally tossed him onto the banks somewhere far downstream.
Pulling himself up the sandy shores, inch by wearily clawed inch, the marshal hadn’t even made it halfway from the water before his arms gave out. Using the last dregs of his strength, Graves roll himself over and lay there, staring up at that featureless, slate-grey sky as the river continued to lap around his legs.
He couldn’t move well, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t evaluate his condition. The myriad of lesser slashes and cuts went ignored as the marshal focused on the truly serious wounds. A gash deep enough to lacerate the muscle of his left thigh, a souvenir from one of the Jabberwock’s razor spines. Four cracked ribs on the right from when that bloated tree trunk of a tail had sent him flying like a child’s ragdoll. Three lengths of barbed claws, torn from various driders, now lodged in a shoulder, forearm, and clavicle. His left hand devoid of skin and movement as the underlying flesh gaped cracked and charred. The knife’s handle, insulated though it was, had seared the flesh of his hand as the conducted lightning transformed the blade into a superheated brand.
All in all, it wasn’t the worst shape he’d ever found himself in, but it certainly wasn’t the best. Not by a longshot.
“Should wrap the leg first,” Grave muttered as he pushed himself to his feet. Or at least tried to. He was so tired, it took him a good three attempts before he could even get off his back. Even sitting up felt like trying to uproot a great oak with his bare hands.
But eventually, he did make it, and once he did, Graves took off his hat and gripped onto it tightly with his teeth before drawing his silver knife once more. He channeled in a thin, wavering trickle of electric energy. It was hardly more than static at this point, but eventually, the blade was charged and glowing a dull red as he held it in his unmangled right.
Only when Graves was sure was sure that the leather held well and firm between his teeth, he took a bracing breath and pressed the blade against his wounded leg. The air filled with the crackling hiss of burning flesh, the stink of charred skin and hair as Graves nearly bit his hat in two. Again and again, he repeated the process, first painstakingly removing the serrated blades before burning his flesh once more. Only when the marshal was absolutely sure that he’d cauterized the major wounds did he remove the hissing blade. Unclenching his jaw took far longer, but he slowly worked it loose as he cut the tattered sleeves of his shirt to make some rudimentary bandages.
Field dressing completed, Graves heaved himself to his feet, using his spell gun as a crutch and tentatively tested out his wounded leg. He wouldn’t be running any marathons, any time soon, but he’d be able to walk. It’d have to do until he got his supplies back and could give himself a bit more medical attention.
“Wow, you look like a complete mess.”
Looking up, gunmetal grey eyes fell upon the white-clad figure of Nul as he stood before the marshal, still immaculate, still looking amused as a boy at the fair.
“Well great,” Graves grunted as he hobbled his way forward. Painfully. “Look buddy, in case you haven’t realized, I’m not exactly in the mood to chat right now.”
“I know, I know,” Nul nodded conciliatorily. “I just wanted to let you know: flinging yourself into the Jabberwock’s mouth to kill it from inside out? Genius. Pure genius.”
“Thanks, but autographs are still five bits,” the marshal smirked as he continued moving. “Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got to go.”
“Not in that direction, you don’t,” Nul replied lightly, turning his bandaged eyes away from the raven-haired soldier to walk alongside him. “Trust me, over that hill right there? Not where you want to end up.”
“Why, what’s over there?” Graves asked.
“Thought you weren’t in the mood to talk?”
After sending Nul a withering glare, Graves set off for the hill in question. It could be a trick to set him up, but Nul didn’t seem the kind for such duplicity. Plus, a high vantage ground would help him get his bearings and figure out where he needed to go.
It wasn’t a particularly large hill, nor was it very steep, but it still took Graves the better part of ten minutes to make its crest. His body did loosen up as he walked, giving him some more semblance of normalcy, but the wound on his leg twinged with every step and the bone shards grating against his lung made every breach a stabbing chore. All the while, Nul said nothing, simply choosing to walk alongside the marshal in contented silence. Graves, never one to initiate conversation, focused his efforts on reaching the hill’s peak.
Falling to his stomach and crawling the last ten paces to the top, Graves peered over the grassy ridge to see take a cautious glance to what lay on the other side. Unfortunately, it was that glance that proved Nul was completely and absolutely right.
“Is… is that…?”
The other side of the hill fell sharply off towards a broad basin that connected to a narrow valley pass winding through the northern hills. The space was clear, one of those long, open gashes the Equestrians had seen occupied by the Cyclops yesterday – had it really only been yesterday?
But those thoughts were distant because at that moment, Graves lay on the ground, stunned as if struck by the thunders of heaven itself. It wasn’t the space that caught the marshal’s attention, nor the terrain. No, what drew those gunmetal grey like a lodestone drew iron were the contents of that open ground, a sight that defied even the marshal’s wildest predictions.
The clearing was full of them. Milling about like a stirred up ant’s nest, no less than two hundred of the grey-skinned warriors gathered in the valley below. Born to the frozen wastes far north, orcs were forged by the icy steppes and constant warfare into a warrior culture the likes of which had never been seen before. Had.
“But that’s… that’s impossible,” Graves gaped, the sound coming out a strangled whisper as he continued to stare in disbelief at the camp below then. “Ironside shattered them at the Crystal Scar. After Warblood, there shouldn’t have been a single tribe left!”
“There wasn’t,” Nul nodded as he surveyed the crowds with his sightless eyes. “Ironside did shatter them and harried them all the way to the Northern Tundra. But some didn’t return home. Instead, some of the stragglers made their way west, through the Snowspire mountains to settle in the Savage Lands. Not exactly a pleasant place, but for the orcs seem to have adapted rather well, wouldn’t you say?”
Indeed they had. A passing glance would reveal nothing but the tusks and rough grey hides, hallmarks of the orc race. But a closer inspection would reveal much more. There were no women, no children. Clad in the furs and armors of their ancestors, each orc in that valley stood a full two paces tall, if an inch, striding about with more heavy muscle than even the hardiest of laborers could hope. This wasn’t just a ragtag tribe of refugees. No, this was a fully-fledged raiding party, the likes of which had razed Equestria’s northern borders all those years ago.
Somewhere in his mind, Graves knew this. The soldier remembered his duties and meticulously filed information into archives for later use. But as for the man? For him, facts and figures were the last things on his mind as it sat full of something far more important.
It came out suddenly, an explosive eruption of pure, boiling wrath, hotter than the sun and fierce to make the wildest storms seem a gentle breeze. Never before had Graves felt such anger and all-consuming hatred welling up within and coursing through veins like thundering rivers of magma. These filthy brutes, these… god-forsaken abominations, were the blight that had taken away his family before his very eyes.
Fifteen years had gone by since, but not one day had gone by where the scars they’d left had gone forgotten. Fifteen years had gone by while a boy turned soldier waited for news. Month after month and year after year he waited, waited for some report of an orcen incident to begin him on vengeance long overdue. There would be no justice for the orcs, no laws to protect their kind. To Graves, they were nothing more than vermin, and vermin were exterminated.
But fifteen years of silence had passed, and wounds which never quite healed faded with hopes that looked like they would never pass. The orcs were gone. Why hold out for a dream that would never come true?
And here, in the most unexpected way, that had all changed. They were there, filling the valley as if waiting for him, a present tied up all nice and neat like a Hearth’s Warming Day gift fifteen years in the making. Graves could finally have it, the retribution that had kept him awake for so many nights for so many years. It filled him, seared him, burned and raged until it seemed that it would scour all thought and reason from within his skull.
Unaware of the wounds on his bandaged hand, Graves clenched his fists till burnt flesh cracked and blood flowed. Unaware of the strange light smoldering in iron eyes, Graves watched.
“No way you’re going to get through that rabble,” Nul said with a slow shake of his head. “But it shouldn’t be a problem anyway. A little detour around this valley, and you can pass by without them even catching a whiff of your stinky hide and be back to your Ponyville friends in no time at all.”
Like the break from a fever dream, those words reached deep enough to snap Graves from his rage-induced fugue. In the searing heat of the passions, he’d completely forgotten about the most important thing of all. Fulfill your mission, marshal. Keep the girls safe.
Gunmetal grey eyes as hard as jagged flint stared down at the canyon below. They were there, so close. Vengeance called out to him, its voice sweeter than honey and more seductive than any whore could be. At that moment, there was nothing he wanted more than to descend upon the orcs like a thunderstorm and wipe them off the face of the earth. Vermin. Extermination.
But slowly, like a glacier grinding down a mountain, gunmetal grey eyes turned away.
“Where are you going?” Nul asked, wonder coloring his words as Graves slid partial ways down the hill.
“Around. Like you said, detour and they’ll never even know I’m here.”
“And that’s what you want? Even after everything they did to you?”
“I know about the orcs,” the blind man said as an incomprehensible smile came to his face as he spoke to the marshal’s slumped back. “I know what they mean to you. Are you really just content to leave them be?”
“… No choice,” Graves replied, his voice as still as a winter pond. “I have to protect those girls. Got no time for… personal problems.”
And without warning, black flames leaped up all around the marshal.
“What the hell?” Graves called as the onyx blaze flared up and steadily drew closer, tightening around him like a hangman’s noose about the criminal’s neck. “What do you think you’re doing?!”
“Consider this a freebie,” Nul grinned from beyond the veil of flickering black. “A little taste of what is yet to come.”
With a soundless roar, Graves vanished as the black flames swallowed him whole.
Down in the canyon, the orcs prepared to leave camp. Word from some of their scouts spoke of unusual stirrings to the east, stirrings that some said were due to the arrival of pale ones. The news had rumbled through the camps as tusked mouths began to salivate, and it was with much anticipation that the orcs gathered up their hide tents, strapped on their wicked, scything swords, and made way to set out on the hunt.
That’s when the lightning struck.
Out from a cloudless sky, a piercing bolt of pure, electric wrath struck one of their number, leaving a crackling, fist-sized hole where his heart should have been. Another had followed, not two seconds later and blown the head clean off another’s shoulders in a shower of electrified gore.
Then lightning didn’t just strike. It rained. Bolt of after bolt of lightning struck, never even a breath between any two as the lethal lances fell with devastating accuracy. Piercing eyes, hearts, stomachs, temples, the shots that proved fatal were instantaneously so. But others were far less merciful. Here, an orc would stumble as a foot was blown off from the ankle down. There, another fell to its knees as it clutched the cauterized stump where its hand had been. Too accurate to be anything but deliberate, for every fatal strike, two more horribly maimed and crippled, but left the target completely awake for each, agonizing moment.
In less than a minute, more than a fifth of their number had been struck down with twice that again injured or worse. The raid leader had tried to rally his warriors and storm the hill from where the lightning came, but that had been as fruitful as attacking an ogre with a toothpick; any orc that even set foot to approach that hill had been struck down without remorse. The lightning fell too quickly and too cleanly for even the fastest of his warriors to advance, so it was with gnashing teeth and wordless, howling rage that the raid leader called out for a full retreat.
But then the lightning stopped.
A deafening silence echoed through the valley as the incessant thunder fell still, a silence disturbed only by the cries of the injured and fallen. Peeking up from whatever cover they could find, the remaining orcs looked to the hill to see just why the lethal rain had ceased. That’s when they saw him, a lone pale one descending the hill towards them in a way the crude, orcish language couldn’t describe. After all, what use does an orc have for words like calm or leisure?
Blood boiled. Teeth gnashed. Though they didn’t understand the precise nature of the threat, these orcs knew that the pale one was somehow linked to the slaying of their brethren. Howling in rage and with bloodlust clouding vision, the orcs unsheathed their weapons, axes and swords of iron and bronze and stone. As one, they loosed their thundering war cries to shake the ground and sky before breaking into their murderous charge with but a single thought in their collective minds.
Slowly, the pale one drew a single knife and turned to face the first warrior. The seven foot behemoth, banded with studded leather and with arms thicker than the pale one’s waist, tightened his grip on his massive battle axe, raised it above his head with a bellowing cry and–
–fell as hands and head separated from arms and neck.
The pale one turned, his knife now transformed into a short sword whose faultless, glowing blade hummed with the pure, white light of a burning star. It may well have been a star, because whatever that blade touch disappeared. Flesh vaporized, metal boiled into hardened mist, and everywhere, death followed in its wake. The pale one danced among them, never more than a hair’s breadth from any of their weapons, but as untouchable as the moon above. Everywhere he turned, the stench of burning flesh and ionized metal followed. Some fell as headless corpses. Others fell in pieces, torso from waist or even bisected from head to groin. And still others fell with limbs lopped off, wounds neatly cauterized to prevent death from approaching except at the pale one’s call.
Then the blade vanished and the real carnage began.
When the glowing blade flickered and faded, the orcs believed they had a chance. Bellowing with renewed vigor, they’d charged once more at the pale one as hopes ran high. That hope quickly vanished as the pale one set upon them with the most lethal weapons yet: his own bare hands. They were slashing knives, iron cudgels, and merciless steel claws all rolled into one. The first orc to approach him had his sword arm snapped like a dried twig before being impaled through the liver with his own barbaric weapon. The second fell with his head spun full around as the pale one finished giving it a gentle twist. The third survived, but only because the pale one deigned to leave him screaming after crushing his testicles and, once fallen to his knees, gouging out eyes with fingers sharper than a raven’s beak.
The air now filled not with the smell of burning meat, but of blood, hot and wet and raw. It was a familiar smell, but never of their own and never so much at once. Hardened warriors as they were, even the orcs could only stand so much. It began in the back first, where the most cowardly had dropped weapon and ran. But the dissention had spread, worming its insidious way further and further forward like a contagion. Soon, even the most stalwart of their number turned tail to flee the pale demon before them, eyes for once not wide with rage or thrill, but with stark, unbridled terror.
Even then, there was no relief. No escape.
Grey eyes watched as the orcs retreated into the narrow canyon to the north. They considered the options, calculated the possibilities. Then they chose.
The pale one raised his hands towards the heavens and breathed in deeply. As breath left his body, it formed wind, a swirling gale that gathered dark and heavy clouds into the sky above. The clouds grew larger, heavier, and darker, a veil so thick that it blotted out the sun above.
And it rained.
Ten. A hundred. A thousand. The number of lightning bolts crashing to earth were so many that no one could hope to count their number. But it wasn’t the orcs that they struck, oh no. Each of those crackling bolts found not flesh, but stone and soil of the canyons around. The storm brought the very mountains down around the retreating orcs in a terrible avalanche of burning earth. Between the thunders of heaven and the thunders of rolling land, nobody could hear the screams of the orcs as the fell still living into their graves.
Silence fell once more as the pale one lowered his arms, a complete silence as even the wounded lay interred beneath the shattered hills. Buried, but not crushed, not even close. The storm of thunder had pounded mountains into soft, loose soil, and it was under this blanket of earth that the orcs remained in an almost loving embrace. They would live for, what… a minute? Maybe two? In that time, as they lay trapped, with darkness filling their eyes and dirt slowly replacing the breath in their lungs, they would know fear in its purest form.
They would die, of course, but not before they suffered. Not until they suffered, just as the pale one intended.
Seconds ticked by. Silence fell. And only then, only when the pale one stood alone in that vast expanse, did the slow applause begin.
Graves turned to look at Nul, who beamed back at him even as he continued his applause.
“Brilliant. Absolutely, utterly, perfectly brilliant. I had high hopes for you, but never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined you capable of such… greatness.”
The marshal said nothing. Instead, he looked to his hand, flexing the fingers as he considered it with cool, grey eyes. It was his hand. It looked the same, and it worked the same, but it didn’t… feel the same. It felt different. It felt powerful.
“What did you do to me?” Graves asked in tones as smooth as river stones, the lack of apprehension surprising even him. “I thought your power was to destroy.”
“It is,” Nul nodded. “I have the power to end to anything I desire. Most use the crude form to simply cease things like objects and peoples. Others, like yourself, refine the use and end the existence of things far more esoteric. Things like, say… limitations, perhaps?”
Ah, so that was it. That was what the marshal currently felt. It wasn’t that Nul had given him anything per se, but in a way, the man had given Graves the one thing that truly mattered.
All his life, Graves had been subject to the shackles of his own inadequacies. But those confines were gone. For the first time in his life, Graves was free to do as he pleased. Unlimited by his clumsiness with magic, he’d been able to use spells in ways he’d never even thought possible. It came naturally to him, as easy as breathing where he need only form the idea in his head for it to take perfect form beneath his fingertips.
And it didn’t stop there. His body, broken and battered as it was, felt better than it ever had before. His feet were light, his hands were quick, and all the aches and pains he’d accumulated vanished as if they’d never been; hay, he couldn’t even feel the gash on his leg or the broken ribs in his chest. And he’d fought how many orcs? How many muscle-bound warriors had he fended off with fists alone on pure marshal prowess? He didn’t know, but he did know he should have been aching and heaving from exertion, tired as he’d never been from such a hard fought battle. But he didn’t. He simply felt wonderful. Alive.
But even more than that, even more than all of that–
“Well, time’s up,” Nul frowned. And suddenly, Graves dropped to his knees as pain erupted from every fiber of his being, a pain so intense that it clouded his vision and threatened to drown him under a flood of agony.
“It’s over,” the man in white sighed. “Like I said, this was just a small sample with no strings attached. I didn’t want to impose, so I could only give you the tiniest taste, one that will disappear very soon.”
“You mean I’m going back to normal?” Graves gasped as suddenly it became very hard to breath. Nul nodded sadly.
“That’s just the way it is. But don’t worry,” he suddenly smiled brightly. “My power may be gone, but the seed will remain. If you ever feel like you’re in a pinch and need a little extra help, just let me know. I’m never far from one who knows me well.”
And with one last, elegant wave, Nul vanished, taking with him the all the gifts he’d bestowed. All at once, everything came back; the aches, the pains, and exhaustion, all made infinitely worse in contrast to the glorious heights from whence the marshal had just fallen. And as Graves knelt there, clutching his burning sides as each fractured bone grated against his gasping lungs, he groaned.
But nobody came to his aid. Nobody came to help. So, wearily, with a heavy body, with limbs of lead and torso of iron, Graves pushed himself back to his feet and began his lonely trip back.