Picking carefully across rough stone and cavernous crags, the Ponyville troop slowly snaked its way up the mountains. Progress was made, but only at a painfully sluggish pace, with much faltering and backtracking as they clambered along the murderously steep slope. Each step was often checked twice, if not three times apiece because par for the marshal’s predictions, the terrain proved far more treacherous than even its imposing vista would lead you to believe.
There was never any warning for when the ground would often simply crumble away. One misplaced footstep could trigger sudden landslides that sealed off their advance and force yet another scrambling detour to find an unimpeded path. And those were only the inconveniences. More often than they cared to think of, unstable soil gave way to sinkholes full of roiling black mist, and it was only with quick lunges and a strained grasps had kept the girls from taking a fatal plunge.
By midday, with their advance as meager as ever, it was a disheartened group of five that took rest in a narrow crevasse, heads drooped low and tongues stilled from more than the marshal’s order of silence. Climbing the mountain would have been difficult enough, but it was the mental strain of constant worry and vigilance that weighed heaviest of all. In between mechanical bites of their final scraps of bread and cheese, the girls let their minds wander for what little reprieve it would bring.
Melting forth from stone, Graves took a seat apart from the girls and disassembled his spell gun.
“How’s it going?” he asked as he pulled a small twig forth and scrapped dried gore from his gun chassis.
“We allowed to talk now?” Applejack asked with a faint flash of defiance. Rarity pursed her lips in distaste.
“Applejack, please,” she sighed. “We’re all tired here. No need to make things worse.”
“I’m not the one who made it worse,” the freckled farm girl replied sullenly. Nevertheless, she took her friend’s words to heart and settled back into resolute silence. Rarity shot Graves a pointed look, half concern, half admonishment for him to say something. He didn’t respond and instead continued to clean his gun.
Though Applejack was showing the first signs of resistance, the others had not followed suit. Twilight considered the situation with a frown, but said nothing and Pinkie Pie had ballooned her cheeks with similar silence. Fluttershy, of course, had hidden behind her veil of cherry blossom hair. For now, they listened, and that was key. Soften his stance now, and who knows what could happen. It was a precarious balance and would probably last a few more days at most, but that was all he needed.
By now, they were probably a quarter, maybe a third of the way through the mountains. In a few more days, they’d be through those forsaken crags and there’d no need for obedience. They could hate on him all they wanted because his role would be finished. All he needed was a few more–
It wasn’t until he heard the rhythmic humming of spell wings announce Rainbow Dash’s return that Graves realized his mind had been wandering, as it had been doing far too often of late. Giving his head a quick shake, the marshal redoubled his efforts on cleaning his weapon. Had to stay focused.
“How does it look?” Twilight asked as she handed one of their few canteens of water to the cyan clad flyer. Rainbow Dash took a grateful gulp, but stopped well short of emptying it. Despite the strains of constant mana burn from flying, she still couldn’t bring herself to put personal needs before friends.
“So we’ve got a choice,” she said as she fell heavily to a nearby stone to rest. As she sat, though, she extended a finger to draw a crude map in the mountain dust. “Follow this trail up further and we’ll hit a fork. Left takes us towards a winding climb, nothing special and relatively clear. Right pulls us up against a river canyon. It’s pretty narrow, and the fall’s a doozy, but it’s a much straighter shot to the top if we can get across.”
Twilight nodded as she considered the map. Obviously, the winding path was the safer choice, but it was also the more time consuming one. Still, it was better to err on the side of caution, right? But what if the cautious action was to pick up the pace and get to the end as fast as possible? In that case, caution would be dangerous as well.
The girls turned to Twilight Sparkle, waiting for her decision. For a moment, she hesitated, torn by indecision. It was during that hesitation that Graves spoke.
“Rainbow Dash, stay with the group. We’re going right.”
For him, the choice was easy as even a casual glance showed that time was not on their side. Rarity’s usually fair skin had gone pale much in the same way as Fluttershy’s. The grim set to Applejack’s mouth clearly belied efforts to keep weariness from showing. Even Pinkie Pie, usually so jubilant and full of life, could only muster a slight smile at the best of times, one that hung under pink curls no longer quite so perky or bright.
Graves saw these signs, and perhaps the girls saw it too. But what stood out most was the harshness of his orders as they fell on their ears.
“Welp, y’all heard him,” Applejack called out as she sent the marshal an unusually calm and level look. “Let’s hop to it and shake up a little dust.”
Without words, but with a few similar glances back at the marshal, the girls rose to move out again. Rarity gave him a wordless plea, practically begging him to change his mind, but the hard set of his gunmetal grey eyes never faltered as he reassembled his weapon and stood. When you only had one path to take, you stuck with it even if it was paved with daggers.
All he had to do was last the next few days.
They followed the trail, pausing when necessary to check for disturbed stone as they wound their way through the crevasse that grew steadily deeper. It took a good hour of careful trekking before they found the fork and several more hours of walking before they came to the pass Rainbow had mentioned. However, as the sun began to sink and painted the mountains with blazing, burnished bronze, they finally escaped the crevasse and found the canyon they sought.
As if cleaved off by the axe of a giant, the stony wall to their right simply vanished, plummeting a good forty paces straight down to rushing, whitewater rapids below. Funneled between their path and the steep face of another mountain over, the surging currents surged between their stone boundaries before roaring underground into whatever stygian caverns lay below. In comparison, the scant, pace-wide path that wound along the cliff before them seemed a decidedly unreliable path above such watery force.
“Oh boy,” Twilight murmured as she peered over the edge towards the river below. “Wished you’d been just a teeny bit more descriptive when you mentioned this earlier, Dash.”
“Eh, words are for squares,” Rainbow Dash shrugged from where she walked behind. “Come on, you just need to follow this path till it the walls come together and hop over.”
“Um… hop over?” Fluttershy squeaked.
“Oh yeah, I guess I forgot to mention,” the colorful flyer winced. “If we wanna keep going, we’re gonna have to make it to the other side.”
Several eyes turned to Rainbow Dash with mixed expressions ranging from puzzlement to furious indignation. That might have been an important detail that she could have mentioned before they’d come all the way out here.
“Keep going,” Graves said as he appeared once more. “We’re getting across.”
The looks given the marshal were not very trusting by any stretch of the word. Nevertheless, between the prospect of spending hours backtracking and moving on, Twilight lead the way as the group traversed the narrow cliff side path. More than once, a step would loosen a rock and send it tumbling into the raging river below, usually with some startled squeak for accompaniment. However, the marshal’s unyielding gaze steadily urged the girls to kept moving forward.
After winding around the canyon for much longer than they’d wanted, the two walls suddenly converged at a pinch where perhaps only ten paces separated their path and another steeper, but straighter path leading further up the mountain.
“Okay, so we’re here,” Pinkie Pie wondered as she looked about. “But how do we get from here to there?”
Graves considered the gap. The girls considered Graves. He seemed to be taking an awfully long time to think. In fact, his eyes seemed a bit glazed, a bit out of focus.
Giving himself a quick shake, Graves turned back to the girls.
“Applejack, you still have your rope?”
With a wordless nod, Applejack dropped the small pack from her back, rummaged about, and pulled out a long length of rope that she quickly knotted into a lasso. Once in hand, she looked back to the marshal with a faint spark in her eyes.
“What do you want now?” she asked, resistance coloring her words once more. Graves heard it of course, but chose to ignore it. Right now, the key was getting out of that canyon; he didn’t like the feel of the place.
“Get it across and make a tightrope,” he said even as he unslung his rifle. “We’ll walk over.”
Applejack gave Graves a funny look at the sight of his spell gun being drawn, but she did as he said. With a practiced hand, the freckled farm girl brought the lariat overhead, gave it a few swings, and tossed it across the gap towards a sharp, stony outcrop where it firmly snagged. A few tugs to make sure it was secure, and she knelt down to fasten the rope to a similar protrusion underfoot. Thus, with a makeshift tightrope leading from one side to the other she stood up with a hint of a triumphant smirk.
“Here yah go boss. Just like yah ordered.”
“Graves, dear,” Rarity hastily began with as she shot Applejack a quick warning look, “I love what you’ve done with the supplies and all, but it’s not like we’re a group of trapeze artists, now are we? Frankly, I don’t think anyone but Pinkie could make it across.”
“Psh, don’t look at me,” the curly haired baker shrugged. “Bouncing around on the ground’s one thing, but doing it over a swirling river of head-pounding fury’s a whole other ball game.”
“I w-w-wish you hadn’t s-s-s-said that,” Fluttershy whimpered. Terrified of heights as she was, the stark reminder of very likely demise at the hands of a watery tomb was really the last thing she needed right then.
“Don’t worry about it,” Rainbow Dash said, giving her fearful friend a reassuring pat to the back as she fired up her spell wings once more. They sputtered and flickered the first few seconds, but eventually took up their familiar azure glow. “I’ll hold your hand across the way, help you keep your balance and what not. You just focus on putting one foot in front of the other and you’ll be across the ways in ten seconds flat.”
“Easier said than done,” Twilight muttered. Honestly, why couldn’t they just run into a sphinx with some nice riddles or something? Why did it always have to be about running around and adventuring or other such foolishness? “Oh well, guess I’ll go first. Rainbow Dash, you ready?”
“Got your back, egghead.”
Taking her flying friend’s hand, Twilight took a deep breath, floated her foot above the taut rope, said a quick prayer to the sun and moon, and took a step.
“See? What’d I tell yah?” Rainbow Dash grinned. “Easy peasy.”
The girls watched as step by step, the prismatic flyer led Twilight across the rope till with a sigh of relief fit for a doctoral thesis defense, she stepped onto the good old terra firma on the canyon’s other side. Despite their weariness, the Ponyville girls couldn’t help but send up a rousing cheer for a possibly small, but undeniable victory.
Graves noted the crossing for a moment before he shifted his attentions back to the ever present duty of keeping watch. Turning about back towards the way they came, the marshal began to cast his gunmetal grey eyes about before they blinked in surprise.
Graves was so used to keeping his eye out for the hidden threats that he never expected something to be staring him right in the face, quite literally as the marshal found a pair of eyes looking right back at him.
“Gremlins?” Graves frowned. “In the open?”
His surprise was well founded. Hunched over on long but bluntly clawed knuckles, the creature was probably only a foot long from its squashed, pug face to the end of its short, stubby tail and by far one of the smaller inhabitants of the Savage Lands. With weak constitutions and cowardly natures to match, the diminutive creatures preferred to spend the days hiding in the mountain crags, only venturing out on their spindly limbs to scavenge for scraps in the deadest parts of night.
The sun was still up, yet here it was. Crouching before Graves, the gremlin blinked up towards the marshal with twin pairs of beady peepers, bold as you please and plain as the mangy fur on its–
No, wait. Their. There were two crouching before him. As he’d stood wondering, another gremlin had crawled out from around the bend to join his first compatriot. Together the two continued to stare at the marshal, dull read eyes blinking as a third crept up and joined them.
And a fourth.
And a fifth.
“Girls, get going. Now.”
The marshal’s flint-like tones came out razor honed as his vision slowly filled with more and more of the gremlin hoard. No longer limiting themselves to the path, several more clambered above and below to hang from rocky crevasses with their sturdy hooked claws. In less time than it would take a man to shave, their back road had filled with no less than a two dozen scurrying figures with more joining at every moment.
The girls were not impressed.
“Uh, seriously?” Rainbow Dash snorted from where she hovered close by. “Those little fur balls are what got you worried?”
“I think they’re actually kind of cute,” Fluttershy smiled. “You really can’t expect us to be afraid of them, can you?”
Them? No, not them by themselves. Gremlins were bone pickers, not hunters. But they were also clever enough to survive in the Savage Lands, where weakness meant death. So if they were brazen enough to wander out into the open, it was only because they had something that could tip the scales in their favor.
But what was that? Perhaps it was the surprise of the situation, or maybe it was simply his own limitations finally catching up, but Graves suddenly found it very hard to pull together a coherent thought.
“Girls, I told you to get moving,” Graves repeated, his tones growing even harsher as he tried to shake his head clear. “There’s a good chance that they’ll…” They’ll what? Cobwebs filled his brain as the weariness of the journey suddenly coalesced to cloud his mind and snared thought as deftly as any spider. There was something obvious he was missing, but for the life of him, he couldn’t think of what it was. What was he forgetting?
“What, give us allergies?” Applejack chuckled. “Honestly, if you’re jumpin’ at the sight of these little critters, your hat might be on too tight.”
Wait, were the girls actually giving him sass? Now? Turning around with wide-eyed amazement, Graves fell thunderstruck as he realized that five of the girls were still on this side of the canyon.
“Girls, maybe we really should–”
“Nah, I’m with Applejack on this one,” Rainbow Dash said as she cut Rarity off. “Look, those little guys aren’t even giving us any trouble. They’re just bouncing around like a whole buncha herp a derps.”
It was true. The gremlins had made no attempt to advance and instead were more concerned with clambering about on the mountainside. Graves didn’t see any of this as his attentions were rather preoccupied.
“Why aren’t you moving?!” Graves snapped as open rage heated his voice. “We don’t have time to be playing around!”
“Apparently, we do because you’ve got enough time to be a great, big, jerky pants,” Pinkie Pie frowned as she blew a loud raspberry at the marshal. “Yeah, that’s right. Don’t you think that we forgot what a big, poopy headed, jerk face jerk butt you were to Mister Skitters.”
“Mister Skitters?” Fluttershy blinked.
“That big old bug Graves that Graves gave what for,” Pinkie Pie nodded sadly. “May he find happiness under the big rock in the sky.”
… That’s what they had taken away from that? That he was a jerk? After a clear demonstration of the dangers of the darkness they faced, that was what they walked away with? Did they forgot what Nul’s corruption could do to even the most harmless creatures? Did they not realize that the miasma sitting all around them could–
Oh…. that’s what he’d forgotten.
Turning around, Graves felt an all too familiar chill ran down his spine as gunmetal grey eyes fell upon the gremlins once more. He’d moved just in time to spot several creature hanging from a higher perch begin to worry away at one particular patch of cliff-side dirt. Hooking claws scratched furiously, releasing a steady shower of grit and gravel on the chittering mass of creatures below. Scratch, scratch, scratch, went the digging claws until–
With one last strike, darkness burst forth as the final blow brought forth not liquid gold, but vaporous death. The black miasma billowed forth in roiling plumes, cascaded down the cliff in an avalanche of inky mist, and swept over the creatures dancing in maniacal delight below. With one mind, the mass of creatures let loose piercing shrieks of savage delight as the corrupting mist went to work.
They grew larger. Destroying the bounds of logic and reason, each of the once small vermin tripled in size, maybe more as they were blessed by unholy powers to become avatars of desolation and destruction. Thin limbs thickened into hulking trunks of muscles. Claws used for scraping grubs and gristle transformed into giant, flesh-rending scythes. Fur bristled and toughened till a once matted hide morphed into a thick carapace of armor-hardened quills.
And mouths. Thin and wide and already too full of needle-like teeth, their mouths positively exploded into maws too full of drooling, distended fangs to ever fully close again. Maws that roared and howled and gnashed as the corrupted beasts worked themselves into a violent feeding frenzy.
“Graves! What the hay’s goin’ on?!” Applejack cried out.
“GET MOVING! NOW!”
Perhaps triggered by the sound of its prey, the foremost monster snarled an end to its frenzied howls and leaped at the marshal. Reacting on instinct alone, Graves spun his rifle butt around like a halberd and caught flying beast a hard blow across the skull. One last, maddened howl erupted from its distorted throat before it was sent careening into the waters below.
Another beast from the path hurled itself forward and it too, met the same fate albeit, from a jabbing thrust and toss on the rifle’s spell-hardened barrel. One by one, they leaped at the marshal, each one eager to sate its bloodlust by latching fangs around the soldier’s throat. Against the nightmarish creatures, Graves held his ground, his rifle a whirling club that crushed all comers and hurled them from the path as his silver blade cut bloody swaths through their ranks.
But then two started coming at once, and then three clambered for attention, even as more climbed over the cliffs in an attempt to flank and surround the sentry’s stand. Graves held, but the demonic horde slowly advanced and their ranks pushed farther ahead and threatened to encircle the marshal. If they were to succeed in surrounding him and began to attack from all sides…
Faced with no other choice, Graves reached into his coat pocket and removed two small strips of parchment. In between crushing the windpipe of one gremlin with a thrust of his rifle and disemboweling another with a precise slash, the marshal took one sheaf in each hand, the last two of the carefully rationed treasures he had left, and pressed thumbs to the arcane runes at their base. A few muttered incantations, twin tosses, and…
Arcing above and below like darting swallows, the spell tags adhered to the mountain side and erupted with fiery wrath. Out of their inscribed surfaces came twin walls of flame, each flaring a full three paces from the stony surface and hot enough to vaporize flesh from bone. Shooting forth to connect on the mountain path, three fel beasts roasted alive as the others shied back, separated from the Equestrians by a now impenetrable barrier of searing heat.
Graves gasped. His lungs burned hotter than the flames and his stomach knotted into a solid ball of pain. Old wounds had reopen to mingle trickling crimson with the flows stemming from fresh gashes. He couldn’t keep fighting for long. They had to run.
“How we doing?” Graves called out, barely pausing to cover the bloody coughs as he turned to examine their progress for the first time. On the other side, he could make out the forms of Pinkie Pie, Twilight, and Applejack, all safely transferred out of harm’s way. Out on the rope, Rainbow Dash was hurrying along with Fluttershy who, despite her terror-stricken visage, was moving as fast as she could. But that meant Rarity still waited alongside him as the beasts continued their prowl. They needed more time.
“Graves?” Rarity breathed, unable to tear her gaze away from the howling mob wreathed in flame like demons from the pit of hell. “Graves, what do we do?”
The marshal’s words were harder than flint, colder than ice as he turned and locked gunmetal grey eyes on sapphire blues.
“Rarity, I need you to start out on your own. Crawl, shimmy, do whatever you need to, but get on that rope and get to safety. Now.”
She didn’t even hesitate. Without even pausing to nod, Rarity knelt beside the rope and began to cross on her own. Hooking with arms and legs and dangling with back about the raging rapids, the violet-haired beauty steadily crossed the gap.
Graves couldn’t help but smile. Was she amazing, or was she amazing? But smiles quickly faded as he turned to face the howling hordes once more. Even now, the mana stored in those seals was running out and the flames had lost a good foot of height already. In less than thirty seconds, they would be too weak to deter the mist-maddened gremlins, and the attack would begin again. By then, he had to make sure–
Jerking aside, Graves narrowly avoided being struck by a black mass of something that shot past his face. Following through, the marshal saw that the mass was in fact an inky blob of spittle, no doubt hurled from the gullet of one of those disgusting creatures. Spittle that – he noticed with a distinct, sinking in the pit of his mangled stomach – began to melt the stones it landed on like molten lead through ice.
Catching sight of another gremlin swelling its chest in preparation, Graves whipped up his spell gun and fired a bolt of arcane lighting through the veil of flames. It wasn’t a strong shot by far, hardly more than a static pulse, but it was at least enough to disrupt the gremlin’s breath and reduce the bio-artillery to a bubbling, black froth around the creature’s fangs.
Graves continued firing, working desperately to ration his nonexistent strength as he tagged as many of the infected vermin as possible. For once, the mana rich in the air actually helped the marshal as he no longer had the means to fuel the assault on his own. But even so, there were easily dozens of gremlins and only one of him. For every shot he stopped, ten more would sail through the air. Some were aimed at him and required twists and turns, leaps and dives to avoid. However, it wasn’t those shots that worried him.
On the opposite cliff, Twilight pulled out her wand and raised it high overhead, summoning up an ethereal barrier to shield her friends on the ledge as well as the two still crossing, Fluttershy hand-in-hand with Rainbow Dash as Rarity did her best to make do on her own. For a moment, the shield held on and provided a protective canopy against the acidic barrage. But it was only for a moment.
Though nowhere near as caustic as the pure flames of Nul, the gremlins’ spittle was still laced with the powers of pure entropy. As large as the shield that Twilight maintained was, she simply could not make it strong enough to withstand such a steady barrage from so many attackers. Slowly, the spittle began to eat through the mystic barrier, punctured holes in its bulwark before it began to drip on through like an all-devouring rain.
Twilight redoubled her efforts and summoned multitudes of thinner barriers to shore up the holes. These would shatter in moments, but two more would leap up in its stead as the young mage wove spells and wards faster than the eye could follow. With her protection, Fluttershy finally made it to the edge just as Rainbow Dash’s wings flickered and failed.
This was all the opening Twilight needed. With only Rarity out on the rope, the amethyst-eyed mage could focus all of her efforts on shielding her lone friend as Rainbow Dash worked to get her wings back on line. Layers upon layers of arcane barriers surrounded Rarity as she continued her precipitous advance, buying time as translucent spell wings began to flicker back to life. In just a few moments, Rainbow Dash would be ready to take off and help Rarity along. In mere moments, they’d be safe and the marshal could make his escape.
Then it happened.
In the briefest moments, in that half instant between one spell shattering and another takings its place, a single glob of spittle shot up, sailed through a fist-sized hole in the greater mystic wall, and landed.
Right on the rope.
It took only a moment for the sturdy hemp to snap like thread held too close to a candle as the whip crack snap struck the marshal’s ears. One moment for him to turn about and see their road to safety suddenly fall limp. One moment, one moment that seemed to stretch into infinity, for Graves to lay eyes on Rarity as she gazed back with a look of mild, wordless surprise.
The world crumbled.
Somewhere, distantly, like the voice that pierces the dreaming brain, Graves knew his surroundings. He knew the gremlins had begun to force their way through the fiery wall; the smell of charred flesh and fur confirmed that. He knew that his friends were screaming, Rarity was screaming, everybody was screaming as the wind whipped passed his face and the cascading rapids grew larger in his sights.
He knew that the spell chain fired from his spell rifle had shattered as a rain of a million motes of ethereal silver joining him in his downward descent. He knew his body was drained, with not even a scrap of magic left in him even as those all-too-familiar pains began to wrack his body. All these, he somehow knew, but what he didn’t know, in fact the only thing he needed to know, was whether he would reach Rarity in time.
That was when Graves realized he just couldn’t take that chance.
Even as his hand reached, stretched out to the limits of sinew and bone and beyond, he reached deep into the recesses of his mind for that little well of darkness he’d come to know so well. He reached out for it, to ask for help from that tiny voice that had called him with such sweet words through his days of pain and agony and waking nightmares. Future be damned and world be damned, if he could make sure that Rarity was safe, then everything else could burn.
But as luck would have it, a single drop of frothing spray flew up and struck the marshal in one panicked, silver eye. That single drop disrupted thought for a split second, and in that split second, time ran out.
Graves met rushing ice and rage as everything went dark.