Since the time before time, before light and warmth and comfort, there was the dark. The darkness had always been there, lurking in the infinite void, consuming all that there was and leaving nothing but wasting emptiness in its wake. Save for those celestial beings that had imprisoned it, there was no threat to its power, no stopping its rampage. All living things would succumb to sate its hunger, for the dark was absolute, and its power was unquestioned.
So why was it, that despite the strength of the dark, it could now no longer feed?
The shadows searched and prowled about those floating stones and sought out the elusive prey they had seen beneath those black and crimson skies. But instead of tasty morsels rendered down to nothingness, they instead found pain. They hunted for food, but soon found it was they who were hunted instead. Each time they sought to corner the prey, it would disappear, a figment of smoke and illusion with far less form than they. Yet as soon as back was turned, it would strike, searing them with blazing light and rending them with its glittering fang. They would turn to confront, but it would disappear and strike again, a single being that seemed a hundred at once.
The shadows chased but could not catch, reached but could not seize. And this confused them. How was it that a thing of flesh and blood could stand to the dark? How was it that their prey could not be consumed?
The shadows questioned, but did not stop. They would not be deterred, for it was the way of flesh to fail. Time upon time again in the ages since the dark, the darkness had seen such stories play out before. Creatures fought and ran, but no creature could run forever.
In the end, the shadows always fed.
Though the battle continued to rage below, headquarters stood silent. From his vantage point at the front of the command pavilion, Ironside stood quietly as he looked down on the valley below. He stood quietly because at this point, there was nothing left to say. There were no orders were left to give.
The sun was beginning to set on the sixth day of ceaseless combat. Six. It was a miracle they'd lasted through four. It was impossible that they'd reached the fifth. But now, pushed back nearly the entire length of the valley, the allied forces and their dragon companions clung tenaciously to the far side of the Jotun Pass as a sea of black pressed against them. Supplies had run out, mana was long since exhausted, and the only thing keeping them in this fight now was the knowledge that failure meant the death of not only themselves and their comrades, but of everyone they stood to protect back home.
But even such feelings could only last so long, and it was with steadily dwindling hope in a salvation from afar that the soldiers held their ground.
"Any news?" Ironside idly called out as he kept ice blue eyes locked on the battlefield.
"Nothing of note, sir," Sonar replied. "That tower mage... Trixie, was it?... is still leading some of the enemy on a merry chase, but her estimated exhaustion point's still the same. When that happens, the flame cannons will be done for.
"I see," the general nodded. "Well, not much we can do about that. S'not like we have the energy to keep them running, do we?"
"Very true," Sonar nodded just before he let out a long, weary sigh. "Looks like this is the end."
Indeed it was. They'd fought long, and they'd fought well. If Ironside could have given each and every soldier on that field an Equestrian Star, he'd do it by hand if need be. But that would involve surviving, and it didn't look like any of them were going to be doing that. That just left one course of action left.
"Sonar, go full spectrum," Ironside rumbled. "Tell everyone to gather for a charge."
"... Yes sir."
Tweaking the various knobs and dials on the communication array, Lieutenant Sonar aligned the various resonant metals and crystals to the same magical harmonics. With the push of a single button, headquarters would be able to address every officer in tandem for a single, cohesive order.
Suicidal rush. The last hurrah.
Once calibration later, and Sonar swiveled around in his seat to turn attention to the general.
"Shall I make the call?"
"No, let me," Ironside sighed. "If anyone's going to go to the grave with that weight on their mind, it ought to be-"
"Nay! Belay that order!"
Blinking in surprise, Ironside turned towards the sound of the voice and saw Shining Armor climbing the stairs to join them. Well, limping was more like it. Leaning heavily on a makeshift crutch with one arm and doubly so on a young soldier with a shock of blue hair beneath his scarred and battered armor, the handsome captain was a haggard mess. With shadows under his eyes deep enough to join the opposing forces, the gaunt-faced officer only took a moment to hack out a spray of electric blue sparks before speaking once more.
"Now general," he wearily grinned, "I get you're all gung ho about going down in the history books, but let's be reasonable here. We all know that a charge is going to get us wiped out faster than muffins in the mess hall."
"First off, you can't be worried about the books when there's nobody left to write them," Ironside corrected. "Second, we don't have any other options, now do we?"
"Oh, but we do, my most illustrious general," Shining Armor smiled. "We still have the most magnificent of grandiose aces still left up our little sleevies."
Normally, Ironside would have been tempted to court marshal any officer who would dare use the word 'sleevies' in a command center. Uncommonly, he would have just sighed and sent them off to the infirmary where he knew the soldier desperately needed to be. But in this case, the sight of eyes still shining with unyielding spirit, even through the thick fog of exhaustion that clung to every particle of the young man's being, changed the general's course of action.
"You've got a plan, soldier?" Ironside asked. Shining Armor shook his head.
"Nope. But my darling wife on the other hand? She's got herself a great idea."
Partly propped up by whatever supplies they could scrounge together in the pavilion, Shining Armor slumped over the pylons that allowed his shields access to the valley below. Silent since the fifth evening except for sporadic events as dictated by dire straights and limited by nonexistent strength, those pylons may have been the only real things keeping the guard captain from falling face first to the floor.
"This is a hair-brained scheme," Ironside called out as he paced back and forth, looking like a cross between an irate bear and a particularly volatile glacier. "If you'd tried to pull this sort of chicanery in my tactics class, I'd have booted you back to basic faster than you could sign your own name."
"Then it's a very good thing we're not in class, isn't it?" Cadance smiled. Worn to the bone and drained from nearly sixteen hours afoot despite her pregnant state, it was the crystal princess who shouldered much of her husband's burden as she held fast to her love. "Now, is everything ready?"
"Oh, it's ready alright," Ironside replied with a bark of laughter. "Celestia take me for a two-bit simpleton, it's all in place."
With a satisfied nod, Cadance turned attention away from the general and towards her husband.
"Are you okay, dear?" she asked, her voice level and calm despite the worry clear in her eyes. "Can you really make this work?"
" 'Course I can, sweetie," Shining Armor grinned. "There's no way I could mess this up."
"Well, you are the amazing-"
"Not me," he interrupted. "I meant that with you by my side, I could take on the universe."
Slurred, tacky, and completely hyperbolic, but the words didn't matter. What really mattered was that in the guard captain's eyes, nothing remained but pure, undying love for the woman who held him close. And even with the war that ranged, a princess spared a moment for a flushed, delighted smile.
"What a silver tongue," Cadance laughed as she lovingly tucked a stray hand of his azure hair back into place. "I just hope our son has a little more sense in using it than his daddy."
"I'm sure he will," Shining Armor grinned, "so let's make sure we've got a chance to find out, eh?"
"By your leave, captain," Cadance giggled.
And reaching up to cup her cheek in the palm of his hand, Shining Armor smiled and kissed his lovely bride.
The mountain erupted, not with fire or magma, but with bright, rose-hued light that flooded the entirety of the valley below with its gentle glow. That was the signal, and the signal was the start.
With a grand roar, the dragons still capable of flight took to the skies and deep breaths to fill strained and heaving chests, breathed out plumes of primal fire. The dark hordes swarmed to stop them, but in a move of almost reckless zeal, the allied forces rallied to their defense. Fighters with wings half clipped warded off winged demons as mages of Equestria and Tower alike launched the last dregs of their magic at the eldritch abominations below. Even as the tides pressed in, Changelings and aura mages fended them off so that the dragons could get the support they needed.
The offensive only lasted a minute, probably less, but it was enough. In that amount of time, the dragons had been able to lace the ground with fire and set light to the hordes below. The numbers were hardly dwindled from the assault, but destroying the enemy had not been the goal. Setting the blazes had been.
Walls erupted from the ground, grand barriers composed of equal parts soft pink and light blue. Separating army from army, the enchanted walls did not merely separate, but surrounded as well. All around the valley, more and more glowing panels leaped forth as it wasn't the allied armies that were surrounded, but Nul's.
"NOW!" Ironside roared. "FULL RETREAT!"
Everyone, airship and armor alike, did just that. Pulling away from the spell-crafted walls, every creature that drew breath made tracks in reverse and quit the field in a rapid, tumultuous stampede. The ever-hungry darkness gave chase, or would have, had two young lovers not held them in their place.
Locked together in their embrace, Shining Armor and Princess Cadance worked in tandem amidst a swirling aura of blinding light to erect a barrier the likes of which had never been seen before. On his own, the guard captain would never have been able to create such a construct, but together, that was a different story. Princess Mi Amore Cadenza was unique in that her power was not something that could stand alone, but always paired with another. Like a well carved lens of the purest crystal, the princess could take the strength of another, catalyze it with the deepest desires of the heart, and magnify that power to heights no one could imagine. It was the feelings that they shared, the desire to protect and to live on, that gave them strength to carry on.
To a point.
Shining Armor could feel it slip. He was tired, and the threads he wove to create the barrier ever threatened to slip from his fingers. Cadance helped him hold on, but the grip was tenuous, and no matter how much power she poured into him, even while holding nothing back, there was no denying the limits of a single, mortal man, and the threads continued to pull away from his control.
Faster and faster they worked. The wall, now fully surrounding the valley, grew upwards and inwards as the couple constructed a vast dome to contain the army. The darkness pounded at the confines and in many moments, nearly broke through, but all across the battlefield, even in the midst of a harried evacuation, every entity with any speck of magic, whether it be mage-crafted spells, emerald-green fire, or even the wells of mana that burned in the chest of a great beast, hurled it forth towards the barrier to hold it steady.
The dome held for some seconds, then some more. The air inside grew thick and dank as fires still burning across the field licked up every speck of breath inside. The armies of Nul didn't notice, but Cadance did. In fact, she was counting on it.
Fire burned. Fire consumed. But in order for it to thrive, it needed air. Give a starved flame air, and it would leap after it like a ravenous wolf after sheep and set it ablaze in a glorious conflagration. Inside their dome, there was an entire battlefield of smoldering embers just waiting for the chance to burst back to life. In that case, what would happen when the barrier finally fell and gave every flame exactly what it sought?
It wouldn't win them the day, of course, but it would buy them time. Maybe it'd be enough. It'd have to be, because once they were through, there would be nothing left, and darkness would take them all. So as the two lovers put every scrap and shred of power left at their disposal into the shield, they prayed that it would hold out out and buy them the time they needed. The barrier held, but it slowly grew thin as weariness took its toll on both the captain and princess. The barrier weakened, but held out just a little bit longer. Just a little bit longer until...
With more crash than roll, Graves collided shoulder first into the stony soil before skidding to a halt. His landing was off, understandable considering the amount of blood oozing over his right eye like a blinding, crimson curtain. Or was it the eye itself? He knew one of the creatures had slashed him from forehead to cheek right across his gunmetal grey, but whether it was injury or blood that obscured his vision, he really couldn’t say. After all, he had other things to worry about, air being the first. Graves knew the telltale signs of hyperventilation and did everything he could to keep his lungs from convulsing into a spasming heap. He had to. With the mana sickness as progressed as it was, if he couldn’t keep his breathing under control, death would set in within minutes, assuming he had that long before the shadows claimed him.
There were so many of them. So many. Graves had fought, using every trick in the book he knew to keep them controlled. Lightning blasts pierced through three or four at a time and countless more fell to the flashes of his electric blade. But no matter how many he felled, there were always more to fill the ranks. It was fruitless as fighting the hydra: for each he killed, two more would rise in its place.
So he ran.
He’d stopped fighting long ago and instead focused on hiding away and striking only when their interests in him began to wane. Even then, he had to fight. Each time he appeared, the shadows would launch a merciless onslaught, wide mouths dripping with pitch-black spittle as they fought to consume him. The marshal ran, and sometimes they caught up to him. But when they did, he fought, lashing out with rifle and fist and blade and foot at anything that came close. He was a whirlwind of death that shredded anything within range of that lethal blade or came within line of his piercing gun. Every inch they chased was an inch paid ten times over in their black, misty blood.
But there were just too many and no matter how many he struck, some managed to reach through. A clubbing fist had clipped his left shoulder and dislocated the joint. Graves managed to set it somewhat, but in the brief pause it took, another shadow lanced out a spiky tendril and pierced his foot. A hasty bandage torn from his shirt stopped the trail of blood, but nothing could save the fact that his movements were slowed. The shadows continued the chase and the marshal began to give ground. A slash across the chest. A gash on the eye. A bite on the leg. Piece by piece, the shadows chipped away at the marshal, stealing his movements, his strength, his sight, everything.
Then the old wounds had opened.
The girls had done so much, more than he could have ever hoped, but nothing save the Lazaral Pits could cure his wounds so quickly. One of the marshal’s rare moments of respite had been interrupted by violent, bloody coughs, courtesy of a fresh course of mana sickness wracking his already battered body. His ribs remained intact, thank the twin crowns for that, but blood had begun to flow once more from the tear in his leg–
… Blood. He could use that.
Ignoring the protests of his pounding hear, Graves held his breath and focused, willing the backed up energies in his body out of the bleeding wounds in his flesh. God, the pain. It was unbearable, like the fires of the sun raging through every cut, every crevice, every nook and cranny and fiber of mind, body and soul. Spots danced in his eyes as he almost passed out from the searing agony. Almost, but not quite.
When he opened his eyes and saw his blood crackling with the light of arcane lightning drained from his body, Graves allowed himself the tiniest of tiny smiles.
“Okay, that? That is by far one of the craziest things I have ever seen! And believe you me, I’ve seen plenty.”
Graves looked up towards Nul, silently wishing it hadn’t taken nearly so long. He felt weak, his head weighed down like a leaden mass, and even that small motion took the force of his will to do. But do it he did.
“See?” Graves smirked through blood-flecked lips. “Doing just fine.”
“I must admit, you’ve surprised me yet again,” Nul grinned. “I thought your work on those orcs was impressive, and yet you’ve managed to smash that record without any help from me. Well done. Well done indeed!”
Graves had to let the coughing fit pass him by before could respond.
“Glad you appreciate it. And since you’re such a big fan, how’s about you call this whole thing off and I’ll treat you to coffee, or something?”
“Ah yes, sparkling wit even in the face of insurmountable odds,” Nul smiled sadly. “I might be tempted to even take you up on that offer. If it were even possible, of course.” Gunmetal grey eyes arched imperceptibly larger at the words.
“What do you mean, possible?” Graves repeated warily. Nul extended arms with palms open in a meek display of humility.
“As I told you before, my conscience and power are separated. The remnants of my power that you see around you, those little pets of mine? Not under my control at all. I could as hardly command them to stop as you could. Maybe less, all things considered.”
“So… you can’t stop them?” the marshal asked. Nul merely shook his head.
“The only one who can, dear Graves, is you.”
The marshal cast his eyes to the skies once more. Even from his hidden spot, he could spot no less than a score of shadow forms searching for him as swollen tongues licked at bone-white teeth in anticipation of the meal. Twenty he could see, with no doubt ten times that many only moments away. Maybe ten times that before they were through.
“Won’t be long now,” Nul mused, a slender finger tapping his chin. “You can hide, of course, but they’ll lose interest in you pretty soon; not that smart, these creatures. But once that happens, your precious friends and their elements become the new prey, and believe you me, six tender chicks will satiate them far more than a tough old bird like you.
Graves heard the truth in those words. He’d known it all along himself. Bringing all the force of his will to bear, Graves fought his own body and ordered it to its feet. A heavy foot planted in the soil to brace an aching hand with pushed with all its might to lift him off the ground–
All to no avail. What little strength he had faded and Graves fell back to the ground in a splash of his own electrified blood. Nul looked down on the man, a soft frown on his face and what would most surely have been pity were not his bandages in place.
“Look, Graves,” he said, kneeling down to address him eye to eyeless. “We both know how this ends. There’s no way for you to do this on your own. You need to rely on the strength of others. You need help.”
Odd, isn’t it? Here, they were fighting to keep the Lord of the Dark in his cage, and yet he was offering the exact same advice as Rarity had not days before.
“I can be that help,” Nul continued, the faintest hint of pleading coming into his voice. For all the world, he sounded like a friend at intervention, hoping that the sincerity of his words could draw a loved fool from the confines of their own error. “You know I can. You’ve seen what you can do with my help. You’ve done it before.”
He was right. With that much power, even ten thousand shadows wouldn’t be enough to stop him. Graves would have the power of a god in his hands.
“… But why?” Graves asked, steely eyes boring back at Nul. “Why would you give me the power to seal you away?”
“Come on, we’ve been through this before,” the specter sighed. “I can afford to wait for the day when that seal really breaks. But you, sir, are a once in an eternity opportunity. I just can’t let this pass me by.”
“Well, what if I off myself?” Graves smiled. “Either you back off, or this golden chance of yours is gone for good.”
“An admirable sentiment,” Nul smiled, “and one believe you would carry out without a moment’s hesitation. But we both know that’s a deal not worth taking.”
Buck. That knowing smirk on the man in white’s face showed he understood. Of course, why would he take that deal? Sealed away, the opportunity was lost anyways. Long shot that he’d fall for it, but it was a shot worth taking, anyway.
“So in the end, you just want me to work with you,” Graves continued on, using the time to rip another strip of fabric from his shirt to rebind the gash on his leg. “But you’re still trying to wipe out the world.”
“Keeping my options open,” Nul shrugged. “Of course, the best would be if you just accepted my help and sealed me away. I get the satisfaction of working with the one person who can appreciate my power, and you save the day. Barring that, if you’re out of the picture, well… no reason for me to hold back anymore, is there?”
Graves didn’t respond, partly from thinking, but mostly from the surge of stabbing pain twisting his gut into knots. He’d vented a lot of magic with his blood. A lot, but not all.
“… What happens?” he finally forced through gritted teeth. “After the offer, I mean.”
Nul’s eyebrows rose ever so slowly.
“What do you mean?” he asked, a flutter in his voice as if he were fighting back something desperate to break free.
“Let’s say that for some reason or another, I’m foolish enough to take your offer. What happens after that?”
“Why, what you expect of course,” Nul grinned. “You get the power, you save the day, I’m locked up tight, and everyone goes back to Ponyville happy that the day is saved.”
“I see,” Graves nodded. “And then?”
The smile on Nul’s face slipped a notch.
“I’m… not sure what you’re asking.”
“Let’s say I do make it back,” the marshal continued. “I’ve got your power inside me, eating away at my mind. How long before I start to go crazy?”
“Graves, really,” Nul laughed. “Why do you think I’m so enthralled with you? It’s because you have the strength to not only use my power, but to control it. You’ll be fine.”
“You sure about that?” the marshal challenged. "Coronus and Crystallia couldn’t hold it, and they were the greatest sages in history. Discord couldn’t contain it, and he was the Spirit of Chaos. What makes you think I’ll be any different?”
“Because you fear it, Graves my boy,” the man in white smiled with the love of a father for his son. “You respect and appreciate it because you know how valuable and precious it is. You weren’t born with the power but earned it by paying the cost in blood and sweat and pain. You won’t be controlled by something you’ve already mastered, Graves. Not you.”
He wanted to believe it. He really did. Even now, as he cast his gaze to the skies above, he could spot the shadows growing restless. They hadn’t move out much, not yet, but it was clear that they were nearing the end of their patience. It wouldn’t be long before the marshal was gone from their minds and they set themselves to pursuing easier meat. Graves knew that he needed to do something before that happened. He needed to change the tides.
“What about Rarity?” Graves asked, turning once more to the kneeling figure. “If something happens to her, I… I really don’t know what I’d do.” At this, Nul’s levity faded as he too, grew somber in recognition of the marshal’s care.
“That’s beyond me,” he admitted. “When I’m sealed away, I’ll be gone from this world, unable to affect it even in the slightest way for eons yet to come, if then. If Rarity gets into trouble, I will be completely powerless to help her.”
“… I see…”
“But I can promise you this,” Nul continued, his words grown strong with the force of absolute conviction. “You take my power, and you won’t need me to. You’ll have the strength to protect Rarity from anything that could harm her. After today, you will be the greatest hero of all ages and nothing, and I do mean nothing, could ever even hope to take her away from you. You need never fear losing her again.”
Graves paused, pain fading to the back of his mind as he mulled over those words. The power to keep her safe, eh? That sounded nice. Who wouldn’t want something like that?
“… Does she have to know?” he asked, his voice growing softer as weariness began to creep in. “About our deal, I mean.”
“Nobody does,” Nul replied with the slightest shake of his head. “I wouldn’t betray a confidence. Who would know depends entirely on you.”
Nul held his breath as Graves fell silent once more. Even the shadows seemed to pause in anticipation. Here, was the man who could save or break the world, a matter that depended entirely on whether he chose to accept the offer before him. Graves needed to fight. There was no avoiding that, no negotiations there. Battle had been engraved into his very being, etched in body and bone and soul since the very start. He needed to fight and to fight, he needed strength.
But sitting on the ground as he, broken and bleeding, that was the one thing that he lacked. You could see it in his eyes, those dull grey disks that grew dimmer with each and every second. He was tired. So tired. He couldn’t no longer fight as he needed or even fight the voices that told him to resist. The offer before him was the best he could ever hope for, a chance to safe the world. His friends. Rarity.
He would never have to fear losing her again.
“… Alright,” Graves nodded as a leaden hand slowly reached forth. “Let’s do this.”
Nul smiled. This was victory. This was triumph. This was the sweetest satisfaction the Lord of Ash could ever hope for. Unable to keep his exultation from spilling out, Nul’s face split into a broad, almost leering grin as he reached out and took the marshal’s hand–
And erupted into light.
Hands met and power flowed out. But not from Nul to Graves.
No, it was the other way around.
As soon as they had met, Graves channeled, pouring every ounce of magic he’d been gathering and refining since the first moment he’d smirked. Pure lightning, raw and uncontrolled and primal, lanced through his arm, splitting skin and searing flesh as it poured out like a raging hurricane into the hand he held.
And Nul howled. Though normally, nothing but the strongest of spells could affect an astral form, Nul had made the crucial, crucial mistake of reaching out to touch the mortal world. He wanted to pass power to a living being, and so he had to tie his person, the core of who he was, to a plane where man could touch. Thus, the King of the Abyss howled as pain quite unlike any other poured directly into his mind. With his very consciousness laid bare to the laws of causality, Nul's very being bore the full weight of the marshal’s electrifying wrath.
“You… you arrogant little insect!” Nul roared, the bandages torn from his face by the buffeting winds to reveal searing darkness in the pits of his eyes. “You would dare strike out at me?!”
“ ‘Course,” Graves smirked as the relentless barrage continued. “Why do you think I got so chatty?”
“Insignificant little–” words faded into a fresh howl of pain as the marshal drew on the power not from only within, but without as well.
Funny thing, blood. It’s so common, most people never give it thought, and yet it is by far one of the most powerful magical mediums known to man. Blood was the currency of life and by that, the conduit of magic as well. So Graves had expunged his blood and excess lightning from his wound just minutes before. His blood had remained there on the ground, pooled in sanguine puddles as he’d discoursed with Nul. But what about the magic? Where had it gone?
Nowhere. It was right were he'd left it and so Graves had reached out, drawing on the lightning that had threatened to kill him mere minutes before so he could add its strength to his own, to increase the strength of his blast beyond what he’d ever done before. To take weakness and convert it to strength, to find flaws and convert them to power… such was the way of the marshal. Such was the way of Graves.
And yet it still wouldn’t be enough.
The second wave had done much to wound Nul as a swift right cross would have unsteadied a fighter on his feet. But even now, The Darkness was regaining his bearings and bringing the full extent of his powers to bear. It was small, hardly a speck in the vastness of his true might, but compared to the strength of a lone man, it was more than enough.
“Your insanity truly knows no bounds,” Nul grinned, a tight expression that came with furrowed and sweating brow, but a grin nonetheless. “To think you’d use my own desires against me.”
“The girls got their elements,” the marshal answered, "Figure I’d add in my element of surprise."
And in the middle of that maelstrom, the two shared a laugh, but it was Nul who laughed harder. The marshal’s strength was waning – the lightning, which could have slain any living creature on this earth, was simply not enough to move the Spirit of Destruction. The dark mists that roiled from Nul's form dissipated the lightning's silver light and ate away at the marshal's strength. Graves wouldn’t last much longer and both of them knew it.
“It really is a shame,” Nul smiled as the swirling darkness grew deeper and the light grew dimmer. “For a single man all alone, you have fought remarkably well. It’s only a pity that I’ll have to wipe you from reality now.”
“Yeah, real shame,” Graves grunted as the lightning began to flicker. “Just… one last question before you do.”
“Oh?” Nul asked, smiling as eyebrow arched over eyeless socket. “And what is that?”
At that, it came, the biggest, snarkiest, son-of-a-gun grin Graves could make.
“… Who said I was alone?”
Light burst forth once more, but not the silver light of arcing lightning. No, this was the pure white light of magic from beyond darkness and destruction, from the very heart of magic itself.
This was the light of Harmony.
At the marshal’s initial attack, the presence at the breach had been distracted. The six there had seen it and realized – no, known – that it was the work of the marshal, an opportunity created specifically to invite their aid. All in all, the presence had been distracted for a few seconds, a minute at most, but it had been enough. The six had rallied their strength and instead of simply holding the darkness at bay, had struck back. Hard. The aurora had burst forth and blasted deep into the heart of the darkness. This is what the presence felt and this is why it howled anew. Lightning from the front to draw it in, and light from the back to strike it, the blackness writhed and boiled as light melted away at the darkness.
And yet it still. Wasn't. Enough.
The light burned away at the dark, but the dark ate away at the light. Graves saw this. Tied now as he was to Nul, he could see the tides battling back and forth, pure white on one side and pure black on the other. But slightly, every so slightly, the darkness was winning. Little by little the darkness grew, beating away at the light. They weren’t strong enough. They were losing.
They needed more power. No, wait. Not just more power. More focus. Graves had faced many great behemoths and monsters in his time, many with more power than he could ever hope to wield. But no matter how big or strong they were, each one had the same weakness of consciousness. With no mind to guide it, no amount of power would matter and all it took to remove the mind was a little power applied at just the right point.
He was that point.
The girls had Nul’s might held in check for now, but Graves, hand in hand with the spirit himself, had a clear line to the link holding it all together. All he needed to do was hit it hard enough to knock it out of place. But no matter how Graves struggle, how he poured every ounce of his strength into the arcane lightning, it was of no use. He no longer had enough power to make the shot.
… Or did he?
He ran the numbers. Checked the odds. Maybe, just maybe, it would work. Honestly, it wasn’t the best of odds, an even split on both ends. But perhaps it was because of those odds that in the middle of the storm, hands locked with the great god of destruction with the fate of the world and reality itself balancing on a knife's edge, Graves couldn't help but smile.
So it all came down to a coin toss, did it? Ah well, he’d always been a lucky sort of guy.
And for the final time, the world erupted in blinding light.