A radiant sunbeam struck the soldier’s face, and he slowly opened his eyes.
It was late. Well, later at least. The light that shone wasn’t the soft paleness of a dawn just arrived, but the full, blazing brightness of a day long since on its way. Usually, that would have bothered him. Usually, but not today, because for the first time in many mornings, Graves felt not completely horrible. He was tired, yes, but in the way you feel after a really bad fever breaks in the middle of the night. From where he lay on the grass, the marshal slowly tested his body, flexing muscles and bending joints to make sure everything was in working order.
His limbs felt heavy, but a little movement would bring the life back in, no problem. A deep breath brought a strong ache to his side, but it was a far cry from the sharp stabs of agony that had hit him before; he could manage. He couldn’t tell about his insides, that would be a bit much, but with his waking had come the first rumbles of hunger from an appropriately empty belly.
He smiled. He really couldn’t help it. After all, when you wake up in the harshest climes on the planet feeling not that miserable, you just had to smile. So sitting up, Graves tossed aside the blanket covering him and–
He paused, motion falling to stillness as grey eyes alighted on his companion. There, curled up in a slumbering ball beside him lay Rarity, violet tresses forming a soft curtain over a face still caught in the throes of slumber. Graves smiled once more, only this one was colored with the gentle hues of heart-found gratitude. Even when she could labor no more, she’d remained by his side, a comforting presence and silent guard to ensure he rested well through the night.
Softly, Rarity snuffled in her sleep as the departure of the marshal’s body warmth caused her some discomfort. It was with a quiet chuckle and a kiss to her sleeping cheek that Graves settled his blanket over her and got up.
Grey eyes sparkling like quartz-flecked granite in the sun, Graves made his ghost-silent walk to the camp proper. Honestly, after he got a look, it was pretty hard to keep from bursting out in laughter. Even now, the girls lay in various states of repose, tucked in tight right alongside their new griffon guardians. Fluttershy lay curled up to one protective flank, Applejack reclined against the side of another, and the duo of Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash lay sprawled out in the most peculiarly precarious positions over the back of a third. Really, how they managed to snore up a thunderstorm when it looked like a soft breeze could dislodge them was well beyond him.
Predatory senses awakened, one of the sleeping griffons stirred. Blinking a tawny eye, the winged raptor fixed Graves with a piercing gaze, as if to question who would dare disturb its nest and its new, featherless chicks.
“Morning,” Graves nodded, reaching up to tip his hat before realizing he hadn’t put it on. Or his shirt, for that matter. Huh. That wouldn’t do.
The griffon cocked its head slightly, a trace of recognition coming in upon hearing the creature’s gravelly voice. A questioning light appeared in those large, unblinking eyes.
“Yeah, that was me,” Graves nodded again. “The yellow one thought you needed help. I just pulled the trigger.” At this, the marshal pointed to where Fluttershy lay, her stained and scuffed, but still serviceable traveling dress drawing the griffon’s eye. After a moment of consideration, the great beast turned back to Graves and softly trilled in reply.
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” he chuckled. “Probably would’ve done the same.”
“Now I didn't know you spoke griffon.”
Looking up, the marshal spotted a smiling Twilight Sparkle looking down from her perch atop the griffon’s head, her usually neat purple hair all tangled up in a frizzy mass.
“Not that hard,” he shrugged. “They’re smart creatures. Can tell an awful lot if you pay attention.”
The griffon twittered as its chest feathers puffed out with pride.
“I see what you’re saying,” Twilight laughed as she slid down the silky feathers to land next to the marshal. “And I take it by your wanderings that you’re feeling better?”
“Much. Whatever you and Rarity did was perfect.”
“It was Rarity mostly,” Twilight giggled. “I tried to help, but she really has a gift with those gems, so I did what I could with a rigged up mana transference matrix and tried to lighten the load.” Graves nodded. He was starting to get accustomed to the fact that Twilight had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of high level magic up her sleeves. Starting to, being the key.
“So anyway, what are our plans for today?” Graves asked as he began some mild stretching to loosen up stiffened limbs.
“We wait," Twilight shrugged. "We touched base with Celestia last night, and she let us know the plan. They open up the gate today, we sit tight until the miasma clears, then make our way in like previously discussed.
“I see,” Graves nodded. “And when do they open the gate?”
“Four hours ago.”
The marshal froze. Four hours... no, how could that be?
“They needed to work at dawn, when the night and day are in balance," Twilight explained upon seeing the confusion on his face. “And since they’re due east of us, that meant that dawn for them was still night for us.”
Time difference. Of course. It was a simple matter, so simple, that it had completely slipped his mind. In doing so, he’d let the dawn of the greatest battle in history, the one where countless numbers of his fellow servicemen would give their lives, pass by while he blissfully slumbered away.
“There’s nothing you could have done, Graves,” Twilight firmly declared as she reached up to press a reassuring hand to his shoulder. “Getting rest and recovering was your job. Trust the princesses and General Ironside to do theirs.”
“Yeah… you’re right,” the marshal sighed as he took a deep breath to steady himself. Really, all of this trusting others business was exhausting, but a sleepy snort from Rainbow Dash, who rolled into an even more precarious position, brought a slight smile to his face and a lift to his spirits.
“So, what do we do now?”
“Best let everyone sleep in,” Twilight giggled as she watched a still comatose Pinkie Pie neatly somersault on top of Rainbow Dash with limbs all akimbo. “We still have a few hours before the gate’s even fully cleared, so we rest as we can, get a good meal in, and then…” Amethyst eyes firmed up into resolute gems. “Then we finish this.”
Twilight’s face grew somber as well and even their sleeping comrades seemed to fall into muted stillness. As wonderfully as everything had gone days before, it was easy to forget that any and every struggle they’d encountered up till this point had been nothing more than the introduction. The real challenge was still yet to come.
However, the moment passed, and Twilight’s bright smile came back once more.
“In any case,” Twilight beamed, “I guess I’ll get breakfast started or something.” Graves blinked.
“You can cook?”
“Um, yes?” the young mage replied, sounding just slightly off put. “Just because I don’t do it very often doesn’t mean I can’t.”
“I see…” Graves intoned slowly. “Tell me something. Since Spike started, just how many times have you made breakfast?” Once more, the color crimson returned to Twilight’s face.
Graves knew he totally deserved every kick to the shin he got, but the smirk he threw Twilight was just so worth it. For a good while, the two danced about as Twilight worked to cause as much blunt force trauma to the marshal’s shins and toes as possible while the griffon merely watched with a weary roll of its tawny eyes. Chicks would be chicks, after all.
Finally, when Twilight realized that she had no honest chance of forcing Graves to succumb, she finally brought her fearsome tirade to a standstill.
“I… am going to get breakfast ready,” she huffed, daring, just daring the marshal to say anything; he was wise enough to keep all comments and expressions to himself. “In the meantime, you will go off and do... whatever it is you marshals do in your free time. Just don’t go getting in my way, alright?”
“Yes ma’am,” Graves answered as he reached up to tug his hat and only then realizing it wasn’t there. Seeing the motion, Twilight couldn’t help but smile as she ran to their small pile of supplies.
“Here,” she grinned, returning with the soldier’s broad, flat-brimmed hat. “Wouldn’t be you without it, right?” Graves grinned as he took it.
“Not at all.”
“Alright, now off with you,” Twilight laughed as she shooed the marshal away like an errant child. “Time to work off those cobwebs and get the blood flowing.”
So Graves set the hat over his raven-hued locks, gave it a little tug, and with an all too cheeky grin, waved a quick farewell and ran.
It began slowly at first, little more than a slight jog to warm his body and waken his heart. But soon, steadily faster and faster, he poured on more speed as long legs began to devour distance in long, sailing strides. His wounds still hurt, and pretty badly, he had to admit. His sides blossomed with aches lanced through with searing pain as tenuously knitted sides strained from the exertion, and his various other wounds made his body feel like the leftover husks of a well-pressed vineyard.
But it was a good pain. The exertion was a tuning fork that provided careful calibration of his physical capabilities after their long state of disrepair. He could feel his body coming back to life as blood flowed through his veins and the sensation of strength began coursing back through his limbs. He knew he wasn’t perfect, but even with the pain, he knew he could continue.
He could fight once more.
Graves wasn’t sure how long he ran, but by the time he stopped, the sun was well over the mountain range and filling the valley with warm, radiant light. Chest heaving and body slicked with sweat, the marshal made his way back to camp, detouring towards the small creek they’d found the night before and giving himself a quick rinse. After gulping down several mouthfuls of clear, refreshing water, Graves took the now discarded blanket to towel off and went to get dressed. It wasn’t till he put his sturdy leather coat over a newly recovered shirt that he realized the holes had been neatly mended to the point of never having existed at all. With a chuckle, Graves made a mental note to thank the pretty seamstress as he headed towards the camp proper.
By now, the girls were up and about, the camp for once a bustling mass of cheery noise the likes of which hadn’t been seen in far too long. Applejack repeatedly swatted away Pinkie Pie’s attempts to pilfer an early breakfast while Fluttershy helped a griffon with its preening as Rainbow Dash strutted about and compared wings with their new avian friends. Twilight and Rarity sat to the side, numerous glittering jewels spread before them as the purple-haired librarian no doubt continued to pick away at the seamstress’s newfound skills.
“Well hey there, marshal,” Applejack grinned as she brought the soup ladle cracking down hard over Pinkie’s knuckles once more. “Yer lookin’ fit as a fiddle this mornin’. Sleep well?”
“Like a rock,” Graves grinned as he took a deep breath. “What’s that you got there?”
“Fresh applesauce seasoned with wild granola, wild cinnamon, and wild, passionate love!” Pinkie Pie groaned as her mouth dribbled like cascading waterfall. “Come on, can we get started already? I’m starving!”
“If you’d hold yer horses an’ let me finished, we’da started ten minutes ago,” the freckled farm girl huffed before turning back to the marshal. “But we’ll get started in a bit. Hope you’re hungry, Graves. There’s plenty to go around.”
“Don’t worry about him,” a melodious voice called out from behind. “I’ll make sure he eats everything. After all, a growing boy needs his strength.” Graves didn’t need to turn around to see who spoke. The voice was obvious enough, and the slender arms wrapping around his waist just made an easy question easier.
“You certainly seem to be feeling better,” Rarity said, her obviously cheery voice muffled as she spoke into the marshal’s broad back. “I wonder why that is?”
“No clue,” Graves shrugged as he turned around to meet her smiling face. “Strangest thing, too. Turns out my coat’s looking like it came fresh off the rack. Any idea how that happened?”
“None whatsoever,” Rarity replied with perfectly demure innocence. “But I’m sure that whoever it is would appreciate a token of appreciation.”
“Oh, get a room you two!”
Turning about, the young couple spotted Rainbow Dash riding over on the head of a griffon who walked along with a look of transcendent patience. Having small creatures perched atop its crown was not the norm, but sometimes, sacrifices had to be made for the hatchlings' good.
“I thinks it’s kind of sweet,” Fluttershy smiled as she came over with three other griffons trotting along like star struck puppies. “I mean, it’s good to see that Mister Graves is feeling better, right?”
“Sure am,” Graves nodded with a tip of his hat. “Thank you. All of you,”
“Bah, don’t worry about it,” Rainbow grinned. “Let’s just skip all the stuffy nonsense and get to the grub!”
“Go ahead and knock yerselves out,” Applejack laughed. “Soup’s on, everybody!”
With that, breakfast began. There was applesauce, hot and sweet, thick with wholesome cereal, and fragrant with fresh spices, just as Pinkie Pie promised. Oddly, the taste seemed familiar, but faintly, as if from a now remembered dream Graves had where Rarity had been spoon feeding him even during his catatonic state. But that would be preposterous. There was no way even she would do something so gut-wrenchingly embarrassing, right? Anyhow, to round out the sweet, which also consisted of more fresh berries and apples, came a hearty stew and even several thick steaks searing away on a flat, heated stone, courtesy of the griffons, no doubt. After so many days of rationing out steadily staler bread and dry cheese, the assortment of fresh goods before them was as good as any feast they could’ve wanted.
The girls laughed and ate, joking about like they were on a picnic as Graves focused on getting as much food into him as possible. Whatever healing they’d done to him had worked, but it had left him with a ravenous appetite. And so it was that he devoured a couple of wild game steaks, numerous bowls of the thick, rich applesauce, and polished off an orchards worth of fresh fruit on the side. By the time he was working on the last serving, the girls had long since stopped and were simply watching along in something akin to awe.
“Where does he put it all?” Rainbow Dash gaped as the marshal scraped the last bits of applesauce into his bowl. “It’s like he’s got a bottomless pit in there.”
“Oh Rainbow Dash, don’t be silly,” Twilight laughed. “It’s much more likely that there’s a temporal rift transporting the contents to a pocket dimension. That’s the only logical explanation.”
“Hey, as long as he’s happy,” Applejack shrugged. “With as little as he’s been eatin’, it’s a good thing he’s able to make up for lost time now.”
At this, Graves let out a loud, satisfied burp.
Rarity said nothing. Rainbow Dash just snickered as she helped Applejack with another round of grilling for the griffons. While Graves had made a good showing, the majority of the meat had actually been consumed by the griffons who seemed to have developed a taste for the culinary arts.
“So now that we’re all back and ready for action,” Twilight said as the group gathered around the campfire, “I’d like to know what’s happening next. Pinkie, are the griffons still up for giving us a ride?”
“Yup yup!” the curly-haired one smiled. “Just as soon as they finish eating, of course. After that, it’s a straight shot wherever we want to go!”
“In that case, we might as well set off now; we’ve probably got time, but I'd prefer to err on the side of early, before late. But before even that,” Twilight nodded she turned to the marshal. “Graves, you have any last words of encouragement for us before we head out into the bowels of the earth to confront the manifestation of darkness and destruction itself?”
For a moment, the marshal’s gunmetal grey eyes dimmed as he stroked his chin in thought.
“You make the magic, I shoot the monsters, and we’re all back home in time for cupcakes at the Corner.”
“Best. Idea. Ever!” Pinkie Pie beamed.
“Alright, everyone,” Twilight smiled as she climbed to her feet. “Let’s go save the world.”
The air so high above the snow-capped mountains was frigidly cold and bit at the skin like the snipping jaws of a thousand biting ants. The griffons soared, powerful wings beating as they took the straightest path over those treacherous mountains with the Equestrians huddled against their broad backs to take advantage of the warmth held by their sturdy feathers.
The flight was not exactly a comfortable one, but far better than the marshal could have ever hoped for. Few creatures in even the Savage Lands would dare challenge a full flock of griffons in flight, and the only one who did, a serpentine Titan Drake that undulated through the skies like an airborne sea snake, was quickly dissuaded by a crackling bolt of lightning from a hard-eyed soldier.
Yet even more vital than the safety from creatures was the speed over traversed terrain. Even so high up, Graves could see dozens, maybe even hundreds of jet-black streams crisscrossing the treacherous mountains as remnants of miasma still coursed through the stony crags. Thanks to the griffons, the Equestrians managed to cover in just a few hours what might have been impossible to cover on foot. Really, who would have thought that tactically unsound intervention could be exactly what saved their lives in the end?
As the noonday sun crested to its zenith, the griffons dipped through the clouds and eyes fell upon it their goal.
“Oh my,” Fluttershy murmured as wide, green eyes surveyed the darkness. “I didn’t think it’d be so… bad.”
“Yeah,” Rainbow Dash nodded. “That just ain’t right.”
There was no sound. It seemed like there should have been some sort of noise, but all remained silent. After all, the sea of black mist had no solid form. Nestled at the heart of the stony crags was a roiling mass of pure black pitch. It looked a sea with lapping waves and cresting breakers, but no water could ever reach the inky darkness of those onyx hues. High up above as they were, the girls could only gaze in terrified wonder as the blackness seemed to gaze back, a giant, blighted eye leading to the abyss of the great beyond.
“We ready?” Graves called out. With a hard swallow to clear the lump in her throat, Twilight nodded in reply.
The griffons approached very carefully and very, very slowly, descended towards the pupil, a lonely island in the middle of the black ocean that somehow or another had escaped the consuming mist. Only when thrice sure that they were as far away from the lapping banks as possible did the griffons alight and aid the Equestrians, with legs unsteady after so many hours of riding, down to the large stone dais that sat in the island’s center.
“So… I reckon this is it?” Applejack as she cast a curious eye downward.
At the center of the plinth lay yet another circle, one probably no more than five paces across and composed of twin teardrops of what must have once been brilliant gold and silver. The line at their intersection seemed to be composed of innumerable prismatic hues, but like the rest, the colors were faded and dim. Whatever powers that may once have sat here had long since faded to shades and memories.
There was no talking. As the Equestrians dismounted, each bade a silent farewell to their griffon comrades. The lords of the sky made no reply save for a slight dip of their regal heads as they took to the air once more. Human eyes watched as leonine figures slowly grew smaller before disappearing into the vast blue skies above.
Odd. One would have expected storm clouds and thunder on such a somber occasion, yet the skies remained as bright and blue as ever.
“Ready?” Graves called.
“As we’ll ever be,” Twilight gulped.
With a nod to her friends, each of the six girls rolled up their right sleeve and pressed thumb to the ornate marks on their wrists, ones painted on to match the crests on their back. Magic awoke and the tattoos came to life and lifted from the skin in glowing skeins of light. As one, the marks on the backs of the girls began to resonate, calling forth the ancient relics sealed within those spells. And slowly, as if drawn from those lines of enchanted ink, they appeared.
The Elements of Harmony.
“Damn,” Graves said with a low whistle. “That’s mighty fine.”
“Just wait till you see them in action,” Rainbow Dash grinned as she affixed the golden necklace around her neck, the brilliant crimson lightning bolt at its center blazing with passionate life.
“Which is going to be right around now,” Twilight commented after the last minute adjustment to her glittering tiara. “Alright, girls, let’s get this door open.”
Gathering together around the dais, the girls extended hands to one another, eyes closing as their breathing came quietly together. Almost immediately, the aurora appeared, a sinuous line of rainbow light emanating from the rose-hued crystal at Twilight’s brow that gently wound around girls before returning to its source. Twilight opened her eyes, two shining gates that revealed the way to brilliant light beyond and channeled.
The prismatic line on the dais vanished. The twin teardrops parted ways like the petals of a morning glory. All that remained was the pit, a deep, wounding gash that lead straight to the heart of the earth and the greatest prison in all of history.
Twilight’s eyes closed and as one, six pairs opened. Blinking away the dizziness, the girls took a moment to regain their bearings.
“My word, I don’t think I’ll ever quite get used to that,” Rarity murmured as she unconsciously checked the amethyst at her neck. “It’s almost like a double serving of Pinkie’s special punch.” Pinkie just beamed.
“The secret ingredient is hot sauce. Always is.”
“Now as great as yer mutual appreciation for funny drinks is,” Applejack called out, “anyone have any idea on how we’re supposed tah get down there?”
That was actually a good question. The pit had certainly appeared, but nothing else. There were no stairs, no ladders, and certainly nothing that would indicate that magic spells would arrest a fall. Curious, Graves picked up a nearby stone and threw it down the middle. Everyone peered over the edge, waiting for the sound of the stone to come.
It never came.
“Er, Twilight,” Rarity hesitantly began. “Refresh my memory. Where exactly did Celestia and Luna say this sealed creature was?”
“In the heart of the earth,” the young mage replied. “Why?”
“Well…” Rarity paused. “Do you think she meant that figuratively, or literally?”
Five pairs of eyes went very wide at the thought. One silvery grey grew slightly with a small arch of the brow, but the amount of shock was very much the same.
“So, um… how are we supposed to get down?” Fluttershy squeaked. Graves turned to Twilight.
“Don’t suppose you have a spell that could do the trick?”
“Not off the top of my head, no,” she grimaced. “Not even sure what kind of spell you’d be looking for. I mean, traveling to the center of the world wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”
The group fell silent for a moment. Perfect opportunity for a certain athletic tomboy to break said silence.
“Okay, I don’t know about you, but I wanna get this done and over with,” Rainbow Dash announced as she approached the hole. “So I say we just hop in and see what happens.” Applejack blinked.
“That has got tah be one of the most hair-brained schemes I ever did hear. What happens if yeh jess fall flat on yer face and go kablooey?”
“Uh, wings?” Rainbow frowned, pointing at her back. “Duh.”
“But what about the rest of us?” Twilight joined in. “You and Fluttershy are good, but there’s no way you can airlift the rest of us.”
“What about an anti-gravity spell?” Graves suggested. “Don’t need to fly down; just slow before you go… kablooey.”
“Huh. Guess I could,” Twilight nodded, hand coming to chin as her mind began running the calculations. “If you take the sum of the individual weighty masses–”
“Now I resent that!” Rarity called.
“– factored by terminal velocity, along with the distortion effect of the Elements, I should be able to safely land four people. Five at a stretch.”
“Alright then, here’s the plan,” Graves nodded. “I’ll head down first and make sure nothing nasty’s waiting for us below. After that, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy come down on wings to help me set up a landing zone for Twilight and co to come in afterwards. First party comes thirty minutes after I drop, the rest ten after, got it?”
Six pairs of eyes locked onto the marshal in unison.
“Um… I mean…”
“No, no offense taken dear,” Rarity smiled. “I just do so love seeing you in form.”
“Like a perfectly puffed pastry,” Pinkie Pie beamed proudly. “Good to have you back and not mister grumpy pants. Never liked him much, and trust me, I like just about everyone.”
“And how,” Applejack nodded.
Lord have mercy, they were about to drop into the abyss and the girls were commenting on his mood? They were just… impossible. But with a roll of the eyes, Graves smiled and turned to Twilight.
“I trust my plan of action is acceptable, ma’am?”
“That it is, soldier,” Twilight giggled. “We’ll be counting on you to do what you do best.”
“Kick butt and take names,” Rainbow Dash chuckled. “And don’t bother with the names.” Graves chuckled.
“You got it.”
“Um… just one question, Mister Graves,” Fluttershy intoned. “You don’t have magic or spell wings. How are you going to get down?”
They all turned to look at the pit. The girls turned to look at Graves. Graves looked up and returned the look.
“Eh, probably like this.”
And before anyone could say a word, the marshal leaned right over the edge and tumbled off into the darkness below.
Rainbow Dash blinked.
“… Gosh darn it, that was cool.”