Graves dove headfirst into the narrow, canyon-side crevice and, ignoring his pounding heart, held his breath in a desperate attempt to erase his presence. Blinking away a mixture of sweat and rainwater, the marshal tightened the grip on his spell gun and waited, straining his senses to pick up some trace of his pursuer.
He couldn’t see. He couldn’t hear. The torrential rainstorm pouring down all around him robbed the raven-haired soldier of vision as all other sounds where overwhelmed by the crash of cascading water. Worse, the chimera was playing smart. Where many other creatures would have simply roared and charged, his pursuer was using the environment. It hid under the cover of the elements and carefully stalked its prey, steadily getting closer and closer with each passing second; it hunted for its dinner, and the marshal was the main course.
But Graves could still smell, and a brief, stinking whiff of brimstone gave him just enough warning. Leaping to one side, the young marshal barely escaped as his hiding spot exploded into a roaring mix of fire and shrapnel.
Ignoring the searing chemical flames and stone fragments whizzing past like angry hornets, Graves spun around to face the chimera. In one smooth motion, he brought his rifle to bear and fired, a crackling bolt of arcane lightning bursting forth. Not stopping to watch, the marshal landed and began running again, smiling grimly as he heard the creature roar in agony; the shot had found its mark.
However, his elation was cut short as Graves felt his stomach clench like dragon claws around a jewel. Ducking behind another pile of rocks, the young man pressed a hand hard against a stomach that felt like it was digesting razorblades. It didn’t help much.
“Can’t keep this up for long,” he thought, panting as he fought for control over his body. “Got to finish it quickly, or else…” Well, he’d rather not think about that just yet.
Another roar echoed through the canyon and Graves felt himself grin just a little. Smart as it was, the monster was getting angry again. That was good. Angry meant it’d be easier to take down. Angry meant he might actually survive.
Dashing from cover, Graves fired again and was once more rewarded by a furious cry of pain. Emboldened by the sound, the marshal shoved all thoughts of exhaustion to the furthest corners of his mind and continued his assault. Now using the storm to his advantage, he darted from one hiding spot to the next, confusing and disorienting the beast as he kept up a relentless barrage of magical lighting.
Throwing himself behind a nearby rock outcropping, Graves gasped as he forced magic into his spell gun, cramming it with as much energy as his wearied body could muster.
“Just a little more,” he thought, praying for all he was worth that he could hold out for just a few more minutes. The beast was already seriously injured; one good shot, one well placed blast, and it should go down like a house of cards. But one shot was all he’d have. The pain from his stomach was already spreading to the rest of his body. It would only grow more intense and very soon, would shut him down completely.
“Just a little more,” he whispered as the beast rampaged, his rifle only moments from reaching the charge he needed. “Come on; just give me a few more seconds...”
But fate is rarely that kind. The chimera roared in triumph as it spotted the marshal and, much to the marshal’s surprise, charged headfirst to crash through the stony barrier. Diving out of the way, Graves narrowly managed to avoid being crushed, but instead caught a heavy blow to the side from one of the monster’s massive legs. Ribs cracking with a wet snap, the blow drove all air from his lungs and sent him sprawling to the muddy ground.
The great beast turned on him, eyes glinting malevolently as Graves rolled onto his back, still struggling for breath as he unsteadily raised his rifle. Except, it wasn’t there. Perhaps ten feet away, his spell gun lay on the ground, rain splattering against its glowing surface that slowly began to grow dull. The charge was fading. If he didn’t get his rifle back in time, all the energy he’d already stored would dissipate, and any chance he had of escape with it.
But that distance might as well have been ten miles. Arrogantly, the chimera sauntered over, coolly keeping an eye on Graves and the fallen spell gun. It wasn’t stupid: it had dealt with humans before, and it knew that without weapons, they were nothing more than tasty morsels. This one had proven particularly troublesome, but even he was powerless without his tool.
Thus, with a low, satisfied growl, the salivating beast advanced, ready to devour its hard-earned meal.
But then it stopped, confused.
Something had stung its pelt, a feeling hardly worth noting, but the chimera had felt it nonetheless. Where had it come from? The little human was unarmed, so it couldn’t have been him. All the insects had long since gone as well. So where had the sting come from?
All was made clear however, as soon as a loud, shrill voice called out from the canyon edge above.
“Don’t you dare, you great, big brute!”
No. She couldn’t possibly be– What was she still doing here? She was supposed to be gone! She was supposed to be safe!
Looking – or more correctly, gaping – up, Graves could hardly believe his eyes as he spotted Rarity standing tall and proud on the canyon edge, her eyes flashed like blue lightning as she vehemently shouted at the creature below.
“Stop that right this instant! You harm so much as one hair on the marshal’s head and I’ll rip you pieces! Do you hear me? I WILL DESTROY YOU!”
…What in the name of Celestia was she doing?!
“Graves? Are you alright?” she called out, her face contorting with exertion as she magicked a great stone into the air.
“What are you doing here?” he shouted, finally remembering he could speak. “I told you run!”
“You also told me you’d be right behind me!” she shouted back. “And I am not going to leave you behind!”
Flinging the rock with all her might, the stone sailed lazily through the air and struck the chimera. Such a feeble attack would normally do nothing, except that this one managed to strike the undulating serpent’s head right on its wounded eye. The chimera howled in pain.
“Rarity! Run!” Graves cried out. But it was too late. Turning its attentions from the marshal fully to the young lady standing at the top of the gorge, the beast bellowed, shaking the entire canyon with the sound of its fury.
Color drained from Rarity’s face as she stood petrified, eyes wide with terror; it was one thing to antagonize and distract monster, but quite another to face down its full, unimpeded wrath when you succeeded.
Crude as it was, her distraction had worked and given Graves the few precious moments that he needed to scramble and seize up his spell gun. Good: now that he was once again armed, he might have a chance. But what about Rarity? Ignoring the pain in his stomach and sides, the weary soldier turned his attentions back towards the beast and ran, pushing his legs as fast as they could carry him straight at the chimera. Roaring once more in primal rage, the monster inhaled deeply and opened its mouth, its throat glowing bright with a sickly, yellow flame. If that breath hit Rarity, there’d be nothing left of her; she’d be reduced to little more than a pile of smoldering ash and char.
Like hell he’d let that happen.
He couldn’t stop the blast, but maybe he wouldn’t have to. Twirling the rifle in hand, Graves seized it by the barrel and lunged forward. With a savage cry, the marshal swung the spell gun as hard as he could, bringing every muscle in his battered form to bear as he caught the chimera with a clean hit, square across the jaw.
The monster was large, but the marshal’s momentum plus the force of his swing were just enough to knock off its aim. Rarity screamed and ducked as the chimera roared and unleashed its blazing chemical inferno, the blast mercifully missing and striking not ten feet to the left of where the violet-haired girl stood.
The explosion rang through the canyon and flaming chunks of rock hissed in the rain. A loud crack rang through the gorge, and a large portion of the ridge began to crumble.
And another portion as well. And then another. By some sick chance, the chimera had struck a weak point in the canyon wall. Huge cracks spidered and crackled through the stone walls as the entire ledge started to give way, with Rarity still on it.
Now what could he do? Mind racing, Graves narrowly dodged a darting bite from the lashing snake tail as he tried to form a plan. The ridge was collapsing. A landslide was imminent. The chimera was still loose. Rarity was in trouble. All problems that needed solving. So what did he have?
Not time. The pain of his broken ribs, now even more heavily fractured from the force of his swing, merely added to the agony in the rest of his body. The sickness had already spread too far, and now it felt like every muscle had been embedded with shards of glass and rusted blades, with each passing second only serving to make it worse. In perhaps a minute at most, the sickness would fulminate, and–
No. Don’t dwell on the negatives. Think! What did he have? He had his spell gun back, and thanks to Rarity’s timely intervention, a good portion of its magic still remained. That was good. That was very good.
What else? The beast was still dazed from the blow to the head, its wet mane slinging water everywhere as it shook its head clear. It wouldn’t be much, but if he acted now, he’d have a few precious seconds where the chimera couldn’t respond.
And… that was it. A gun and a few moments of respite. Would that be enough?
Steely eyes darting back and forth, the marshal’s mind raced furiously to find an answer. He could use the energy for a spell chain and pull Rarity to safety, but after that, he’d be out of energy and easy meat for the beast. He could shoot the chimera as planned, but even if he could finish it off, he wouldn’t be able to save Rarity. With only one shot, how could he do both?
Then it hit him. It’d be crazy, crazier than even his earlier plan, and borderline suicidal. But if it worked…
“Rarity!” he called out, fighting back to his feet and throwing himself into a loping run. “Jump!”
“What?!” she cried out as the ledge collapsed all around her. “Are you crazy?!”
“Probably! But just do it! I’ll catch you!”
The inner struggle showed clearly on her pale, frightened face. Jumping off a sheer hundred foot cliff into a gorge where a very large and very angry fire-breathing monster rampaged? Fear, reason, and above all, plain common sense all told her it was madness. There was no way she was going to go jumping into mortal danger, crumbling ledge or not.
There was simply no way…
Lightning flashed, and in that moment, Graves saw Rarity flying through the air. Running up a nearby pile of rubble, the marshal jumped for all he was worth, reached out and caught Rarity at the apex of his jump. Even in the heat of battle, he still caught a faint whiff of her lavender perfume.
Turning in midair, Graves kept his left arm securely around Rarity’s waist as he raised his rifle. Behind him, he could hear the loud cracking of rock as the first boulders tore loose. In front, the chimera finally shook its head clear and roared, flames crackling around its mouth as it pulled itself into a ferocious charge.
Slowly, Graves exhaled. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, a minute passing between each beat of his pounding heart as his finger tightened on the trigger. A giant, flesh-devouring monster monster in front and a bone crushing avalanche behind? That would give him one shot.
Just one shot.
His spell gun roared like a cannon as a massive blast of arcane lightning burst forth with the fury of a tidal wave. It slammed into the chimera, lifting the beast clean off the ground and sent it crashing into the opposite canyon wall a good twenty paces away.
Meanwhile, the recoil launched Graves and Rarity back like a rocket, shooting them back into the cascading debris. That was intentional, though the plan hinged on them getting to the wall before they were crushed by falling rocks. Graves grunted as he felt stones as large as his head slam into his back, but it’d be a small price to pay if the gamble paid off.
They were headed for the cave. They didn’t really have any other options anyway: the rubble would soon fill the narrow gorge, and no amount of running would get them out of the way in time. The cave, however, looked fairly deep and should provide safety from the landslide if they could make it inside. Still a pretty big if, but that’s what made it a gamble.
Rarity screamed as they flew back, the crash of falling boulders thundering all around them. They were flying fast, but so were the rocks and a massive stone the size of a small house fell straight towards them. They wouldn’t make it in time.
Consequences be hanged, Graves squeezed every last drop of energy he had into his spell gun and forced out one last, feeble blast. It was weak, hardly more than a small pop of light and noise, but it had just enough force to push them a tiny bit faster. Feeling the giant boulder actually scraping the bottoms of his boots, Graves smiled as he felt the sensation of rain disappear from his skin as the cave shielded them from both rock and water.
Whether they made it away from the avalanche, he didn’t know, because at that moment, his body shut down and his mind faded into black.