“Get up. It’s time to move.”
True to his words, Graves returned with the first rays of dawn. A few nudges of his boots, a few curt instructions, and he was gone before the first girl got out of the covers.
Words were sparing that morning. Though nobody outright disagreed with Twilight’s decision from the night before, it was clear that nobody was actually happy with the solution. Regardless of how good Graves may have been at this soldiering business, giving him a free pass on simply appalling behavior rankled everyone a something fierce. For Ponyville folk, right results with wrong means was still wrong.
Breakfast didn’t help much either. Upon finding the pot bubbling over a fresh fire, Applejack had been the first to discover that much like yesterday, the contents edible in a much more technical sense of the word. They managed to identify some sort of… fish?... along with various plants that looked more suited for a fantasy game manual than a meal. Beyond that, it was probably best that their questions went unanswered.
Once everything had been consumed – yet another of the marshal’s orders – the girls cleared camp and set off once more. Rarity led the way and read their trail as Twilight cleared the tracks from behind. Through the morning, they traveled along the increasingly steep slopes. What little vegetation that remained soon disappeared entirely to leaven nothing but the massive trunks of twisted trees. Then those disappeared as well.
One moment, they were under the dark green canopies as usual and the next, it was open, slate grey sky as trees abruptly ended behind a razor-drawn line. The girls had been so focused on their footing over the rough terrain that they never even realized they’d finally, after a week’s arduous travel, finally made it through the Savage Land’s forests.
“Well butter my buns and call me a biscuit, we actually made it!” From a gape of disbelief, Applejack’s smile burst forth like the first apple blossom of summer. “Darn near wet mahself more times ‘n I can count in them woods, but we actually made it out!”
“Best. Day. Ever!” Pinkie Pie squealed as she leaped about on a serial hugging spree. “And you know what the best day ever needs?”
“Um… a party?” Fluttershy offered. The bubbly baker’s eyebrows disappeared behind her curly bangs.
“Flutters! You can read minds?!”
“Yeah, hate to be the one who rains all over this parade,” Rainbow Dash interjected, “but you might not wanna pop out the confetti just yet. You… don’t actually have confetti… do you?”
“It’s a secret,” Pinkie Pie answered smugly before she crossed her arms in challenge. “And give me one reason why I shouldn’t start a party right here and now.”
Following the flyer’s finger, Pinkie, Fluttershy, and Applejack turned around to look at where it pointed.
“Hoowee,” Applejack whistled as she craned her neck upwards. And upwards. And upwards. “This ain’t gonna be no walk in the orchard, I can tell you that.”
Mountain. Lots of them, if the wall they faced could even be called that. Instead of the gentle slopes of the Crystal Mountains or even the steeper inclines of the Snowspires, the girls now faced a solid wall of sheer, stony spikes. Each peak stabbed from the ground like a great, earthen fang as dozens, if not hundreds overlapped to form a titanic maw that sought to devour the skies themselves.
The girls may have made it through the forests, but that was only to reach the very heart of the Savage Lands itself.
“Oh my,” Fluttershy gaped as she stared up at the imposing sierra before them. “I uh, don’t suppose there’s a nice, safe, in-no-ways-having-to-go-over-those-incredibly-scary-mountains path we could take?”
“You know, I still don’t get that,” Rainbow Dash frowned. “You’ve got wings. You were born in Cloudsdale. How the hay can you still be afraid of heights?”
“That’s actually not a bad question,” Twilight said, finger tapping against her chin before turning to the marshal. “I meant Fluttershy’s, not Rainbow’s. What would be the best way to get through?”
“Nonstop and straight ahead.”
Everyone jumped as the voice suddenly popped up from thin air before Graves materialized a moment later. Tattered as his long, leather coat was, it blended seamlessly with the rough ground around them as he seemed to melt out from the very earth itself. It was somehow even more disconcerting of an entrance than simply appearing from thin air.
“Rainbow Dash, you’re flying.” he began, instantly jumping into the rapid fire orders he’d delivered in days prior. “I want high level aerial recon of the upcoming terrain. Report back every twenty minutes on the dot, got it?”
Rainbow muttered something under her breath. It was quiet, but not to avoid detection by the marshal’s keep ears.
“You have something to say?” the marshal asked, eyes as flat and dead as ever.
“Yeah, yeah I do,” Rainbow Dash snorted as she crossed her arms and planted feet in defiance. “You wanna give orders? Fine. Sparkle Butt wants to give you first flier spot? Whatever. But how’s about not barking at me like I’m some sort of scrub? The least you could do is say please or something, you know?”
Gunmetal grey eyes grew darker as something new entered their steely depths.
“You will start flying now and stop wasting my time. Is that clear?”
Crystal couldn’t have been clearer nor colder, but Rainbow Dash wasn’t finish yet. At least, that’s what she tried to tell herself. In the air as much as on foot, it was easy for her to forget she only came chest-high to the marshal. But standing before him now, with the weight of those eyes crushing down on her, it was easy to imagine his height being twice what it was. She stood her ground and stared back, but couldn’t hide the nervous gulp that came from the effort. Honestly, it was like flying with a training vest in a hurricane.
“I think what she means, Graves,” Twilight jumped in hastily, “is that instead of just telling us what to do, maybe you could share a little with us? Help us understand what’s going on?”
Surely, that was a reasonable request, right? They were just asking for a little information, a sort of balance between the marshal’s absolute instructions and their Ponyville sensibilities. Surely, Graves couldn’t possibly deny them that, right?
Already dim eyes grew just a little darker.
“You want reasons? Fine.”
Spinning on his heels, Graves set out and began to pace the stony slope.
“Ever wondered why Nul’s presence has been so light?” he asked, at ease only in the way a hunting lion was at ease while it stalked some unseen prey. “Funny how it works, right? We’re here to fix a broken seal, but nothing’s been coming out to speak of. Why do you think that is?”
“Er… lucky draw?” Applejack offered. The marshal’s chuckle could have been crumbling rock for how human it sounded.
“Luck had nothing to do with those,” he rumbled as a ragged sleeve rose towards the mountains. “Wasn’t till I poked around that I realized something. Those mountains? They’ve been keeping back Nul’s miasma from the very start.”
“But… that’s a good thing, right?” Fluttershy squeaked, visibly trembling as she sought to placate the marshal. Though the marshal looked calm and composed, a sixth sense of hers told Fluttershy that danger was looming as surely as when signaled by a bull stamping its hooves. “I mean, if all the poison’s locked away, then there’s no problem for us, right?”
“Not till now, it wasn’t,” Graves intoned as dull grey eyes continued to pan over the rocky slopes. “But the seal’s smack in the middle of those mountains. Now think for a minute. If the mountains are holding back the tides, then what are we gonna be wading through as soon as we set foot in those crags?”
Eyes slowly began to widen as realization dawned.
“Exactly,” Graves chuckled as his stalking search continued. “Every lowland, valley, and impasse could very well be flooded with the stuff by now. So if it’s not too much trouble for Rainbow Dash here, I’d really appreciate a little intel for once.”
His words should have been dripping with caustic sarcasm. Were he actually the panther that he looked to be, his tail should have been bristling to match a rising fire in his iron eyes. But there was nothing, and it was that unnatural, inhuman stillness that had the girls wondering whether the marshal had snapped.
“I see,” Twilight answered with a nervous smile. “Well, thank you very much for that explanation, Graves. It was… very helpful.”
“Yeah, works for me,” Rainbow Dash replied as she quickly worked to get her flying rig on. “You want eyes in the sky, you got it. Just give me a second and–”
“I’m not finished.”
Those words, spoken with deathly calm, rooted the young athlete in place like rusted manacles.
“There’s pooling alright,” Graves continued as eyes glinted a little more sharply. “But that’s not all. See, Nul’s miasma doesn’t just sit. It corrodes, eating away at things like a powerful acid. It pools at first, of course, but when it does, it starts carving its own paths. Nasty little channels, all through the mountains.”
“Nasty, gotcha,” Applejack hastily nodded, almost knocking off her Stetson in the process. “Don’t worry, we’ll–”
“Don’t worry? If you’re not worrying, you’re a fool. If you’re not worrying, it’s only because you don’t realize you’re standing on eggshells.”
The prey was found.
Unslinging his rifle, Graves raised the gun and fired a thin, crackling blast of lightning towards a random plot of ground. Of course, it only looked random to all eyes but those of the hunter who sought it. The magical bolt struck earth, melted stone to slag, and then…
Darkness erupted. From the neatly punctured hole, a geyser of darker-than-night mist sprung forth not ten paces from where the Ponyville troop stood.
Up till now, the miasma had been more of an idea to the girls, a sort of conceptual symbol of what it was they fought against. None of them had ever encountered it before, so none had ever seen the pitch black depths that seemed to devour the ambient light nor smelled the prickling, burning scent of madness and decay that wafted from its midst. The first impression was such a striking one that none of them thought to move even as the mist settled into streams of dense fog and began to trickle towards them.
“It’s already below us,” Graves continued, eyes locked on the streams of darkness before them. “For years now, it’s been eating its way through those mountains, worrying out the insides like termites through wood. Of course, we’ve got to worry about the obvious sources, but it’s the unseen threats that get you ever time. One little misstep, and boom. Into the drink before you can say cannonball.”
At this, the marshal twitched as a new thought arose.
“That’s right. You all don’t know what happens with miasma, do you?”
Twilight’s nervous call fell on deaf ears as Graves kicked over a stone. Kneeling down, the marshal’s blistered hands snatched up a small beetle before it could skitter back to safety. One quick look over, and he tossed it into the black.
“Graves! What are you doing?!” Fluttershy shrieked in dismay.
“Answering your questions,” he replied, absolutely no inflection to his words. “You all wanted to know why I needed a little cooperation so badly? There it is.”
Out from the miasma’s current, the beetle emerged. Only, it wasn’t a beetle any longer. Right before their very eyes, an insect once no bigger than a thumbnail quickly swelled till it was well over a foot in length. As it grew, the bug’s body distorted. Knotty spikes and growths exploded from its carapace like angry tumors as extra limbs sprouted out at grotesque new angles. Mandibles, far outpacing the growth of the body, expanded till its chittering mouth was flanked by twin, serrated knives. And all over, colors darkened and faded till the creature was black as the miasma.
Inky mist pulsing out with every breath, the giant insect now rounded on the girls, the stink of madness wafting from its pores as it fixed deranged, compound eyes on all of them at once. With minds reeling from the impossible scene they’d just witnessed, none of the girls were prepared for what happened next.
Chitin cracked with a sickening crunch as the beetle ripped open its own carapace to extend pace long, bloated wings. Snapping the slime from their spans, the distorted insect almost seemed to be grinning as it opened its razor maws wide and launched itself at the girls. With little more than hunger on its mind, the beetle closed the ten paced faster than a blink and prepared for its meal.
A blink was more than enough time. Flowing like water over river stones, Graves whipped forth his silver knife and thrust upwards to impale the beetle through its abdomen with a single, neat strike. Shrieking as certainly no earthly creature ever had, the beetle screeched its death rattle as Graves planted boot to it and pulled his blade out with a wet slick. Inky ichor leaked out and with a final twitch of its dozen of legs, the beetle lay still.
“Any questions?” Graves asked as he calmly pulled out a dirty bandage and wiped his blade clean. “No? Then move.”
Without another word, without a moment’s hesitation, the marshal turned and melted into the landscape to disappear from view. Unlike the times before, however, his departure left the girls in a decidedly different mood than before.
They’d been angry with Graves before. They’d been confused by his actions, hurt by his attitude, and had considered feeding him his own hat on more than one occasion. But even through all of that, they’d held on to the belief that whatever it was he did, it was for the sake of his mission, for the sake of keeping them safe.
But what were you supposed to think of a man who’d nearly loosed a bloodthirsty monster on you just to make a point? True, they had asked for answers, but that response had been colder and harder than permafrost from the deepest north. With a reaction so completely devoid of human warmth and empathy, the girls silently wondered whether the threat of madness came only from outside.
They began their travels once more, now with dazed expressions and shaken steps. One girl, however, noted all of these things: every glance, every gesture, and every expression. With sapphire eyes clear as a summer sky, it was with the heaviest steps of all that she walked on as well.
All was pitch black when Graves returned to camp that evening, quiet as moon shadow in the dead of night. Silver eyes glinted in the dark as the marshal cast sight around. The fire was properly banked, their meager supplies stood protected, and six girls peacefully slept after yet another arduous day’s work. Or so he thought.
“Welcome back, dear.”
Even in the darkness, Rarity caught the faint twitch of surprise that seized his body. Despite the light colored linens she wore, he hadn’t noticed her as she’d quietly sat on the edge of camp. That was worth noting.
“How’d you know?”
“That you’d arrived?” she asked. “Personal warding spell. Prepared one that would wake me upon your return.”
“Because I missed you.”
Graves paused for a moment. When he spoke, the words came out harshly soft, like rough gravel stirred up by a dry and dusty wind.
“Just checking on things. Won’t stay long.”
“In that case, you can sit down and have a bite to eat,” Rarity nodded as she swept up and took him by the arm. “Even a marshal can’t run on bluster and bravado alone.”
Though the lady’s arms were far more slender than his, they brooked no question and easily tugged Graves along to take a seat by the campfire. Stirring up the few coals that remained, Rarity added a faint trickle of magic – very carefully lest the ambient mana explode in her face – and warmed up the remnants of the kettle. There wasn’t very much as even the marshal’s hunting had yielded little from the barren crags, but it was enough for at least one warm tin at least. This, she handed to Graves who received it with a wordless nod.
As he ate, Rarity sat down next to him and quietly watched as he meticulously spooned up the meal and consumed it with slow, mechanical bites. Perhaps unconsciously, Graves straightened up where he sat, doing his best to give off the sense of immovable strength he always had. However, it simply wasn’t enough to escape those searching sapphire eyes.
He was tired. She could see it in the subtle sag of his broad shoulders and the weary droop of his raven-haired head. She could hear it in the shallow breaths he took that hardly distended his chest. She could feel it in the lean stare of dull eyes that peered out from hard-hewn planes of a grimly set face. Hard as his gaze was and cold as his words were, he was still a being of flesh and blood, one that was coming to the end of its rope.
“How are the girls?” Graves asked quietly as he took another careful bite. “They still holding up?”
“For the most part,” Rarity nodded. “The break from flying seems to have helped Rainbow Dash recover, and having her share the supply load has helped Fluttershy as well. We’re holding on.”
Silently, Graves nodded as he continued his meal. Rarity noted the silence and a tender look came to her eyes.
“I know why you’re doing it,” she said softly.
“It’s my job,” he grunted. “Course you know.” But his response drew a shake of violet tresses.
“Not that part. I mean, I understand that too, but I was talking about your display.”
There was no halt in the marshal’s movements.
“I understand why you did it,” Rarity resumed as she gently placed a hand on his knee. “You wanted to shock them, get them to obey you like good little soldiers. Isn’t that right?”
Graves set the empty tin aside.
“You disagree?” he asked, turning to face the young lady. She shook her head.
“I understand, but I don’t agree,” Rarity quietly confirmed. “You can’t force them into obedience by turning yourself into the enemy.”
“It worked,” Graves stated. “They’re listening. That means they’ll live.”
“But for how long?” Rarity challenged as concern laced into her words. “Your methods may work for military men, but I somehow doubt that, and we are far from military men. If you keep up this heavy-handed approach, sooner or later it’s going to come back to bite you.”
“Wouldn’t be the first thing,” Graves chuckled, sounding very pleased with his own little joke. “But as long as we make it, that’s fine by me.”
“Even if it means losing them in the process?”
Rarity knew that Graves wasn’t a stupid man. He had to have seen how they looked at him now, how those gazes grew resentful, even fearful of his presence as his own actions pushed them further and further away. She knew that those looks must have cut deeper than any wound to his body; after all, how many families could a man bear to lose in a single lifetime?
“If they’re still around to hate me,” Graves shrugged, “then it’s a fair trade. Long as they’re still around.”
At that moment, the first sign of the marshal’s humanity returned, but only in the form of exhaustion. His words sounded so worn and bone wearily tired, that Rarity almost burst into tears upon hearing them, even more so because she knew that he meant them. As much as it hurt, Graves would do it anyway. He would do anything he had to, anything he could to make sure they stayed alive, and it was that absolute willingness to act that frightened Rarity the most.
“Time for me to head out,” Graves grunted as he forced himself to his feet, all stone masks and iron eyes once more. Settling his broad, flat-brimmed hat around his head, the marshal shouldered up his spell gun and set out towards the edge of camp, but not before Rarity called out once more.
“You’re not alone, Graves,” she said, whether to convince him or herself, she couldn’t really say. Nevertheless, it had to be said. “You don’t have to do this all on your own.”
The soldier paused on the edge of the fire light and heaved a long, weary sigh.
“Sometimes, I wish I could."
“You can’t possibly mean that,” Rarity replied as she did her best to hide the horrified shock from her face. “We’re your friends. We–”
“I don’t need friends,” the marshal snapped, his voice hardly rising, but the venomous bite in his tone enough to kill the lady’s protests dead. “What I need are people that can fight and carry their weight in this god-forsaken land.”
“W-well, we can–”
“What, what exactly can you all do?” Graves pressed on with eyes flashing molten steel in the ember’s glow. “Make me laugh while a rakshasa pulls the heart from my chest? Maybe give a nice lecture to the mara as it tears the flesh from our bones? Kindly ask a shade to not to rot your soul with its touch? I could go on and on about what’s living in these mountains alone, so tell me, Rarity, what exactly can my friends do?”
She wanted to answer. She needed to answer. But as eloquent as she prided herself on being, the force of the marshal’s question made this moment where Rarity was left woefully and painfully speechless. After all, what could she really say? What theoretical solutions could she offer to combat the horrors Graves had actually seen? Rarity honestly didn’t know and it was with stricken eyes that she returned the marshal’s unblinking gaze.
“… You pay one price to avoid the other,” Graves said softy, almost murmuring in thought to himself as he fingered the heavy ring he wore on his right hand. “And since no one else can ante up, guess that means I’m stuck with the bill.”
Giving himself a little shake, Graves turned around, stepped from the circle of light, and disappeared into the night once more.