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Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Despite her earlier gung-ho attitude, the journey into the rocky countryside quickly devolved into silent plodding. Rarity led the way, almost afraid to look behind her as the marshal likewise marched along in silence.

Come on now, Rarity berated herself, “You can’t just keep on ignoring the issue; you have to do something. This is the perfect opportunity for you to set things straight. If you don’t do it now, then when will you?” She continued the mental tirade, psyching herself and working up the nerve to start a conversation. In fact, she was so engrossed by this task that she was caught completely by surprise when Graves spoke up.

“So, what are we doing?”

Rarity gave a start and quickly turned to face the marshal. Though she had wanted to take the initiative, the fact that he’d spoken must be a good sign. After all, if he was speaking to her, it meant he’d be willing to listen right? His impassive and unreadable grey eyes gave no hint of an answer.

“Well,” she began uncertainly, “Twilight needs a variety of gemstones for a project and we’re here to find them. I’ll use a locator spell to find where they are, and I suppose you’ll… help me dig them up?”

Graves just shrugged.

“Works for me,” he answered as he looked up at the overcast horizon. “Best if we hurry, though; storm’s heading this way.”

“Oh. Of course.” Rarity wanted to say more, but the tongue-tying awkwardness returned, and the best she could do was turn and continue walking. The marshal followed without a word.

The further they got away from town, the rockier and rougher the terrain became. Small pebbles gave way to larger rocks, which changed into sizeable stones and finally became great boulders. Large outcroppings of shale and limestone began appearing, and as Rarity led them downhill, these stony masses eventually merged into the walls of a craggy canyon. The further they entered, the higher the sides grew, till earthen cliffs rose higher than a hundred feet on either side, high enough to make the space they walked seem narrow in comparison.

“This is where I usually come to collect the gems for my work,” the young lady narrated, eager to break the silence and finally finding a chance to do so. “The selection from earlier along is quite good, but I tend to find that the ones here are higher quality. Plus there’s a much larger variety, so I believe it’s worth a little extra travel time. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“I guess.”

… Okay, that didn’t work,” Rarity mused to herself. “Maybe turning the topic to something he’s a little more familiar with?

“You know,” she continued whilst pulling her wand out, “this is also the area where I first encountered the diamond dogs.”

“Is that right,” Graves murmured.

“Why yes. Spike and I were out looking for gems to make up Sapphire Shores’ costumes for her last tour… now what was it called… ah, yes, the –”

“Excuse me,” the marshal cut in softly, “but what about the gems?”

“Oh. Right.”

Quailing under the marshal’s unyielding grey gaze, any thoughts of conversation Rarity had quickly withered and died. If there was one thing she was sure of now, it was that Graves was not in the mood to talk.

Without much else to do, the two simply began to work. Whenever the lady gem hunter’s spell would detect a cache, she would quietly point out the spot and let Graves take over. He’d work his shovel, uncover the jewels, and deposit them in a sack at his side. Without a word, the two continued collecting stones, Rarity unable to think of anything to say and Graves seemingly content to let the oppressive silence linger.

*****

The morning passed in the same repressive manner, the dark clouds that rolled in matching the depressing atmosphere. Thunder tolled louder as the storm approached, but weather was far from the young lady’s mind.

Rarity was starting to go crazy. The longer the silence lasted, the worst it felt, like wearing a heavy coat as a summer day grew steadily hotter and more humid. She’d known that he was upset, but it seemed to be much worse than she’d feared. After all, why else would he maintain this uninterrupted hush for so long?

You have to do something,” she told herself for probably the fiftieth time that day. “Just… just say something. Anything! It can’t get any worse than it already is, can it?

Many times, she’d thought of ways to bring up the issue, everything from gentle segues in to straight up blurting it out. But every time she’d met that flat, steely gaze, her resolve faded and was quickly replaced by guilt. She wanted to make things right so bad that she just couldn’t do it. And yet, something told her that if she missed this opportunity, she’d never have the nerve to face it again.

“Just a few more, and then we’ll call it a day, Marshal?” she asked, her voice an odd combination of both hesitation and rushed anxiety. It wasn’t most elegant of ways to break to ice, but at least it was a start.

“You have enough?” he asked, hefting the shovel up. He’d been working steadily for several hours, but he hardly seemed worse for the wear. His back was straight and his eyes were as cold and distant as ever. Rarity pressed on.

“The weather doesn’t look too promising. One more should be enough, and then we can head back to town.” She smiled, willing herself to act casual despite the roiling tension in her stomach.

“… Just show me where,” the marshal replied flatly, and Rarity pointed him to a shallow gully nearby. As he hopped in and started digging, the flustered seamstress took a deep breath to settle her nerves. Last cache of gems, last chance. Now or never.

“So, Graves, I’ve been thinking,” she began, surprised at how level her voice came across. “I know it’s been a while, but there’s something I wanted to ask to talk to you about. Well, ask is more like it. I mean, I wanted to ask you about something. About last week.”

The steady sound of the shovel digging into the earth continued uninterrupted, and Rarity’s heart began to sink. If he wasn’t responding, he must not want to talk about it.

On the other hand, he hadn’t told her to stop…

“You see,” she continued, silently praying that he was still listening, “I’ve felt that relations between us have been… strained as of late, and I think I know why. It’s about that afternoon in my shop, wasn’t it? When I stumbled in on you changing. It was completely by accident of course – heaven knows why I’d want to intentionally… – Ahem.” She cleared her throat, hastily gathered her thoughts, and continued.

“What I meant to say was that when that occurred, I saw things I didn’t quite expect. You know how things are when you don’t expect them: you don’t exactly react in the most graceful of manners. I’m not trying to make excuses, by all means, I just wanted to be clear that my reaction was nothing against you personally, or in general for that matter…”

“… Goodness me, I’m not making any sense, am I,” she nervously laughed. “What I’m trying to say, or rather ask is… the time I saw you, and… and when I cried out… did I offend you?”

Rarity waited, a still hush being her only response. The sound of shoveling had stopped. In fact, the young lady just realized that she hadn’t heard the sound of shoveling for quite some time.

“Graves?” she called out, approaching the gully. “Are you alright?”

A small sound caught her attention and she looked down to her right. Slightly, almost imperceptibly, a small rock was faintly trembling and scraping against other pebbles nearby. Nothing out of the ordinary, except… there was no breeze. In fact, the air stood completely still, as if holding its breath for the oncoming storm. If that was the case, then what was making the stone move?

When the answer's unexpected, it's very easy to miss. That's why Rarity never heard the faint , scratching noise from somewhere just beneath the ground.

*****

“So, Graves, I’ve been thinking.”

When Graves heard his companion utter those words, he froze. Just for a split second, his entire body seized up as his brain launched into overdrive.

Coming out of the blue like that, it was probably something important enough that subtlety was no longer required. Given the way she’d been acting all day, and indeed over the last week, it didn’t take a doctoral degree to figure out just what that something was.

Problem was, that something also happened to be the last thing the good marshal wanted to talk about. Graves resumed digging, shoveling away at a rhythmic pace while hardly hearing a word. There must be some way to change the topic, perhaps distract her from her current train of thought. What if he–

The marshal almost stumbled as his shovel dug into the ground further than expected. Much further. Lifting the chunk of earth, Graves was surprised to see a small spot of darkness, bits of dirt crumbling around the edges of a hole leading to a hollow space below.

He paused for a moment, examining the hole. Had he accidentally dug up a rabbit warren or something? Dropping to one knee, he peered inside the hole, but saw nothing; everything was swallowed up by the inky blackness. The marshal paused for a moment, then picked up a pebble and dropped it in. A second or two passed before he heard it clatter, the faintness of the sound clearly indicating expansive space below.

Graves was quite perplexed now. What exactly was this? He dropped to both knees and put an ear to the hole to listen. He didn’t hear anything inside, just the sound of emptiness and quiet on the other side of the earthen barrier.

And then something changed.

The silence from the hole was suddenly interrupted by a strange, skittering sort of scratching noise. It almost sounded like a crab scuttling over a stony beach, only different. It was louder, but fainter at the same time as if being heard from a distance. And it was oddly echoed, as if the scratching was coming from many directions at once.

Out of the corner of his eye, Graves saw a pebble jump. And then another one as well. Pressing his palm firmly against the ground, the marshal exhaled and held still. The skin of his hand pulsed as he felt the ground move beneath him. It took him a moment, but his brain finally connected the dots, and when it did, that dreadful, foreboding chill he knew all too well crept its way down his spine.

“Rarity,” he called out, voice alert and eyes sharp like steel spear tips, “does anything live around here?”

“Er… well, I suppose the diamond dogs do,” she replied, slightly perplexed. The question hadn’t exactly been the response she’d been expecting.

“Have you seen them around recently?” Graves pressed on, his voice growing more urgent as he felt that dreadful, ill-boding chill travel down his spine.

“I don’t believe so,” the seamstress answered pensively. “Not since my first and last encounter with them, and that was quite some time ago.”

“Have you been out here since then?” the marshal pushed on relentlessly as his head darted to and fro. They were in a canyon. That meant earth walls. That was bad. Very bad.

“I haven’t had to. I had so many gems, there was no need to return till just now.” With a frown, Rarity looked askance at her companion. “Graves? Is something wrong?” Turning to meet her sapphire eyes with his own, the marshal hesitated for just a moment, then nodded.

“We have to go. Now.”

Leaping out of the ditch, Graves took Rarity’s hand in a firm grasp and began walking, his pace so brisk and strides so long that the young lady was forced to break into a jog to keep up.

“Graves, what are you doing?” she demanded, her frown now colored by surprise and just a bit of mild consternation. “Why are we–”

“Shh,” he softly shushed, finger to his mouth. “Don’t talk. And step lightly. Don’t make extra noise.”

“Why?” she whispered back, her voice quiet but still quite charged. “Marshal, you tell me what is going on right this instant.”

“… Skullpions,” he reluctantly replied, his hoarse whisper sounding like it came through gritted teeth. “Diamond dogs left tunnels? They moved in.”

“Skullpions?” Rarity repeated uncertainly: she did not like the way the word felt in her mouth. “Is that bad?”

“The trolls you heard about?” Graves muttered to her grimly. “Kittens to cougars in comparison.”

The young lady gulped. That… that did not sound good.

The two kept on walking, silent except for the soft crunching of gravel beneath their feet and distant thunder in the rapidly darkening sky. Rarity didn’t know why silence was so important, but she didn't bother asking. Everything about the marshal, from the hard set of his face to the relentless pace of his strides, clearly spoke volumes for its importance.

But suddenly, he stopped. Rarity froze as well, not daring to move anything save her eyes. They darted around, trying to pick out what had caught the marshal’s attention, but saw nothing. There was nothing, except stones and clouds and the smell of rain.

“… Rarity,” Graves said softly, his voice so low she almost couldn’t hear.

“Yes?”

“Don’t scream, okay? Whatever you do, don’t scream.”

What did that mean? Rarity never found out, because before she had a chance to ask, the skies opened with a clap of thunder and began its torrential downpour. And that’s when all hell broke loose.

**********