Journey's End

by GentlemanJ

Chapter 22

Chapter 22

Rainbow Dash was not a morning person at the best of times. At the best of times, she liked mornings about as much as Diamond Tiara liked going outside and mingling with the peasants. Today was not one of those best of times. Today, the morning felt like triple homicide with a rusty spoon.

“Blaargh…” Rainbow Dash moaned as she cracked a bleary eye open.

“Mornin’ there, sunshine,” came Applejack’s familiar drawl as her familiar, freckled face appeared above the prone flyer. “How yah feelin’?”

Like aching, throbbing death, actually. After six days of constant flying, Rainbow Dash’s body was showing her a whole new world. Of pain. The muscles of her back weren’t just knotted with tension, they were braided, right from the sides of her neck to the top of her tailbone in one continuous strand of cramping agony. Then there was her head.

Never even in the longest training camps had she spent quite so many hours in the air under such draining conditions. The prolonged mana burn plus intense mental focus had started taking a toll on her body, the most notable symptom being a noggin that vacillated from dull, throbbing pain to something akin to gremlins stabbing at her brain with evil little pitchforks.

A combination of Fluttershy’s herbal teas and good rest were usually enough to clear up the symptoms, but it looked like that was no longer the case. After the last two days, Rainbow Dash was starting to seriously consider whether trepanning might be a viable cure for her pounding gourd.

In other words, she didn’t feel very good at all.

“Blaargh,” Rainbow Dash eloquently repeated as she rolled back over and ducked back into her sleeping bag like the world’s angriest burrito.

“Well, you can blaargh all yeh want there, missie,” Applejack shrugged. “I’m jess sayin’ that you’d better get yer rear in gear if yah want any breakfast. Pickins're scarce enough as it is and I ain’t about tah let what we got go tah waste.”

Tough choice. On one hand, Rainbow Dash’s love of sleeping was a very close second to her love of flying. On the other hand, she needed food to continue both her love of flying and sleeping. Only a few minutes up, and her stomach was already rumbling fit enough to wake the dead. So with a few choice grumbles under her stinky morning breath, Rainbow Dash clambered from her bed and stumbled over towards the campfire.

“Morning, Rainbow Dash,” Fluttershy smile, quickly rising from where she sat with the others and handing her friend a tin cup of hot tea. “Here you go. A little moongrass should help with your headache.”

With a nod that managed to be both surly and grateful at the same time, Rainbow Dash took the proffered cup and sipped. Then blinked. It almost tasted like tea, but the mix was so light, it was really hard to taste anything beyond hot water. Fluttershy noticed the flash of surprise and flushed.

“Sorry it’s not much,” she murmured from behind her veil of cherry blossom hair. “We lost more than I realized in the last few days, so I, um…”

“Was thinking like a cold-blooded business shark, yessiree bob!” Pinkie Pie beamed as she threw an arm around the shy one’s shoulders. “That’s what we call budgeting and fiscal responsibility and synergy, I tell you. Why, she’s a regular old tycoon in the making.”

“I hardly think she’s gone that far,” Rarity enjoined with a fond roll of the eyes. “Nevertheless, Pinkie does have a point. Given our present circumstances, it seems that a little belt tightening is just the solution. Plus, it does wonders for you figure.”

“Blaargh,” Rainbow Dash grumbled.

“Blaargh?” Pinkie repeated. The flyer nodded.


Finishing off the weak tea, Rainbow Dash filled up her tin cup with similarly weak soup, dropped in a single stale biscuit, and downed the contents in one, horrifyingly efficient gulp. Far from full – flying like this usually required a half-stack of pancakes dripping with syrup – the cyan-clad athlete nevertheless kept silent and uttered not a word of complaint. After all, it’s not like complaining would help when things were actually starting to look a bit grim, right?

Instead, Rainbow Dash took a seat beside the small fire and turned her attentions to the rest of camp, eyes narrowed as she worked to figure out what was naggling her noodle.

Soon as she’d woken up, Rainbow Dash felt that something was different. It wasn’t anything major like a bloated demon-beast trying to eat them in the dead of night, but even small details could mean the difference between headwind or tailspin. Problem was, everything looked just about the same as always.

Flutters was demurely sipping her hot tea water while watching Egghead Sparkle fiddle with her wand just like an egghead would. The Pinkster was pestering Marshmallows as AJ watched on with open amusement, so that was normal too. The campfire was set up as it always was, their bedrolls formed a small circle a few paces off, and the small stack of supplies they’d salvaged stood in the center, all as per the norm. Everything looked the same, from the logs they used for seats to the lone pot that hung dully gleaming in the faint morning–

Ah, that was it.

“Eeey…” Rainbow Dash coughed, cleared her throat, and traded off caveman grunts for grownup words. “Hey girls, what time is it?”

“Later ‘n usual,” Applejack shrugged. “By the time any of us woke up, sun was already up. That was probably half an hour back afore I went to get you.”

The sun was already up? Now that was odd. Ever since they’d started traveling, they’d never slept a whisker later than the crack of dawn when the marshal had been around. He’d never let them. Like the world’s most unforgiving alarm clock, soon as the first hint of color tinted the horizon, Graves made his rounds, stomping around in those big old boots of his like some drill sergeant with a grudge against beauty rest as he poked and prodded everyone awake and–

“Hold up a sec,” Rainbow Dash frowned as the first oddity gave way to a second. “Where’s Big G?”

From the looks on her friends’ faces, she could see that nobody knew. That’s probably why every face turned to the violet-haired beauty who sat quietly sipping her soup.

“… What?” she blinked. “It’s not like I’ve got him on a leash.”

“Really? Could’ve fooled me,” Applejack grinned.

“Dearest Applejack,” Rarity intoned with a much-too-sweet smile. “I have never been anything if not accommodating of the man’s freedoms. Surely you should give me a little credit in that regards.”

“So, you really have no idea where he is?” Fluttershy asked. Rarity’s violet tresses gently tussled as she gave her head a shake.

“You know how Graves is, disappearing like designer names off a clearance rack and what not. I’m sure that once he’s got his thoughts well and properly sorted, he’ll return before we even know it.”

The smiles from the girls were somewhat on the hopeful side, but still confident overall. True, his return to camp last night had been abrupt to say the least. Even for a man as pithy in words as he, returning after a night and a day with hardly enough words to fill a greeting card was certainly unexpected.

Then again, was there really a need to worry even then? After all, Graves had apparently come back from the dead so many times, he probably had frequent flyer status along the River Styx. It was a probably just a rough patch that would be ironed out after a good night’s sleep.

A cardinal’s chirp rang through the camp.

“It’s about time,” Rainbow Dash grumbled. Standing up, and cracking her thrice twisted spine, she began limbering up for another day of flying. “Don’t know what’s taking him so long, but we’ve got ground to cover.”

“Says the one who snoozed half the day away,” Rarity smiled.

“For your information, that wasn’t snoozing. That was power conservation.”

“Ah, I see,” the fashionista nodded. “And I assume the loud snoring-like noises were merely a deep breathing routine?”

“You got it.”

Like a shadow through fog, Graves suddenly melted from the surrounding landscape and gave the Ponyville girls a start. The underbrush around their camp was hardly waist high at best, so how he’d managed to approach without being spotted was beyond them. And how the hay did he move about so quietly? Seriously, it was like he’d pressed the mute button on his movements or something. People just weren’t supposed to be that quiet.

“Golly, you must be great at Nightmare Night parties,” Pinkie Pie beamed as she turned to face the marshal. “Ever though to trying your and… at…”

In a very rare occurrence, Pinkie actually found herself at a loss for words, as did all the other girls upon actually catching sight of the marshal.

He did not look good. Buttoned up as it had been last night, the morning light revealed that the marshal’s coat was far more ragged and torn than they’d previously thought, no doubt evidence of hard fought battles that had occurred during his absence. Of course, his clothes weren’t the only ones to show wear and tear. Several small cuts already beginning to clot and scar marred cheeks with a complexion more suited to a mortician’s canvas than a living person. It was this pallor that provided such a stark contrast to dark-rings under his eyes, and it was these dark rings that emphasized the most shocking feature of all.

They’d seen hard looks before. They’d seen eyes fit to cleave through stone and bore holes in steel. What they’d never seen before were eyes so devoid of feeling as to look completely and utterly inhuman. That’s what the girls saw. Beyond the appearance of a tatterdemalion shambling from the crypt, they saw a stone-carved death mask set with flat, iron disks, disks that surveyed the group with cold, reptilian intent.

“… Good, you’re up. Pack and on the road in five.”

Eyebrows arched at the statement. It was certainly a very Graves-ish statement, all to the point in its gravelly, baritone rumbles, but the tone was sharper than what they were used to. Much sharper and much harsher as well.

“Morning, dear,” Rarity smiled as she stepped over and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” he nodded. “Twilight Sparkle, how’s the spell map going?”

Now, if eyebrows had arched before, they absolutely shot to the stratosphere with that. Had Graves just… blown Rarity off?

“Twilight Sparkle,” Graves repeated as his voice grew harder, if that was even possible. It was like saying that steel was suddenly sturdier. “I asked you a question.”

“Um… not good,” she started as the cold iron of his voice shocked her back to attention. “Getting a lot of interference – mana resonance seems to be getting worse the farther we progress – so the image is blurry beyond fifty paces.”

Okay, it was official. Graves had definitely blown Rarity off. But before anyone could so much as blink, let alone react with the indignation the situation deserved, Graves had taken off once more and began delivering a litany of orders with the same drive and cadence of a belt-fed chain gun.

“We’re changing formation. Twilight, you take rear and clear tracks as we go. Rarity, you’re point. I’ll leave a trail, you find it and follow. Rainbow Dash, I’m grounding you till you’re needed. Applejack, Fluttershy? Don’t worry about foraging anymore. Not much left to find, so focus on watching our sides. Now hurry up and pack. I want us on the move ten minutes ago.”

Six pairs of very stunned eyes stared at Graves. At least they thought it was Graves. The man certainly looked a great deal like the marshal they all knew, but he’d never been such a cold, relentless person before, had he? Fluttershy, for one, didn’t think so and couldn’t help but recall an entry she’d read on skin walkers. A shape shifter taking his appearance would certainly explain the almost psychotic shift in temperament.

Well, whatever this Graves was, it definitely noticed the lack of response and decided to change that.

“Did I stutter?” he barked. “Move!”

Booming like thunder and snapping like a bullwhip, the marshal’s command produced an almost physiological reaction in all who heard. Before the Ponyville girls realized what had happened, they found themselves jumping to attention and scrambling to clear up the camp like mama was coming in to visit.

Then they paused a moment and realization came.

“Now wait, just a minute, buster!” Pinkie Pie snorted as she rounded on the Graves with soup ladle brandished at the ready. “Just because you’ve got a bajillion years’ more experience at this stuff than us doesn’t mean you get to be so–”

He wasn’t there. Not a leaf rustled to mark the marshal’s silent departure.

“Did– did you see that?” Rarity sputtered, her sapphire eyes wide with shock and disbelief. “He completely ignored me! Me! Now I can understand a curt attitude given the circumstances, but that was just being rude.”

“I hear yah,” Applejack frown as green eyes flashed hotter than raging brushfire. “I get that he’s feelin’ the pressure on account ah things ain’t been so jim dandy recently, but somebody needs to remind him to mind his manners.”

This proposition received much head nodding all around, even from the usually unflappable Fluttershy. See, while folks from Ponyville were the kindest sort you could find and ready to give you the shirts off their back, that didn’t mean they were soft, oh no. Tough as nails with a stubborn streak a country-mile wide, nobody, but nobody pushed Ponyville folk around and got away with it.

Unless the person could disappear like a shade of course. Then, technically, I guess one could push Ponyville folk around and get away with it. I mean, that’s literally what it was, right? But that’s not the point. The point was that as soon as he showed back up, then there wouldn’t be any getting away with anything, of that you could be sure.

So biding time and tempers till the marshal appeared once more, each girl did her part and settled camp as the marshal had ordered. Asked. It was honestly sort of hard to tell.