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Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Have you ever seen the ground explode? Literally, just explode from out of nowhere like an invisible fist punching through the earth, tearing soil and sand up along with it? Because that’s exactly what it looked like. All around them, huge geysers of rock and dirt fountained into the air as these… things began to appear. What they looked like, Rarity couldn’t say as earth and rain shrouded her vision, but she could hear them. Oh yes, she could hear them.

Screeching bats, nails on chalkboards, and pure, hateful shrieking all seemed to coalesce in the screams of these unholy abominations. Hands clasped to her head, Rarity felt her knees beginning to give as the keening wail pierced her brain. Head swimming, she staggered on her feet, consciousness starting to slip away as the noise reverberated inside her skull.

But Graves caught her, his strong grip on her arm keeping her on her feet even as he pulled her along. Following instinctively, the violet-haired girl found herself moving as the young soldier dragged her along as he ran deeper into the canyon, the screeching monsters skittering along in hot pursuit.

More fountains of dirt exploded ahead and more creatures emerged, but Graves just coolly raised his spell gun and unleashed a blast of electric energy. The arcane bolt exploded in a clap of thunder and burst of light that momentarily cut through the gloom. It was then that Rarity finally got a good look at them.

Shrieking and seizing while bathed by the magical light, it was a testament to Rarity’s nerves that she didn’t faint, let alone kept from screaming at her first sight of a skullpion. The beast was easily as long as a fully grown man, a gigantic arachnid covered from head to toe in spiky, chitinous black armor. Massive claws larger than her head flailed and snapped about while a lethally barbed tail poised menacingly overhead.

And that wasn’t even the worst part. In the front where it’s head should have been, was something that could only be described as a leering human skull. Bone white in contrast to insectile black, the top half of the macabre mask gazed ahead with empty eye sockets while the bottom half, where a jaw should have been, was instead a mass of gnashing mandibles and drooling fangs. Grotesque and horrifying, the skullpion’s face looked like some mutated horror from a child’s darkest nightmare.

She didn’t have time to stare though. Even as it crumpled into a twitching mass on the muddy ground, Graves pulled her forward, all the while firing those piercing lances of light wherever he could, cutting down one insectile beast after another. The two gem hunters ran, charging forward at a dead sprint as they leaped over stunned monsters and slogged through mud in a desperate bid to escape.

They continued running, advancing perhaps a mile or so down the canyon’s winding corridor. But soon, the marshal began to fight as much by hand as by shot. Swinging his rifle, Graves blocked slashing claws, fended striking tails, and cracked down on exposed heads, working his gun like a club in a brutally efficient manner. Still, more and more of these creatures burst forth by the minute, some even emerging from the canyon walls to mix dirt and stone into the pouring rain that continued to pelt them.

Cracking a nearby insect with the butt of his rifle, Graves kicked it aside before turning, chancing a look behind him; what he saw was bad.

At first, the act of surfacing had disoriented them, leaving the skullpions as nothing more than a writhing, chaotic mass of grasping claws and skittering legs. But now, they were organizing, communicating in a mixture of horrible shriek and clicking mandibles as they began to advance. Like an oozing black tide, the arachnids scuttled forth, each passing moment bringing them closer and closer to their prey.

Redoubling his efforts, Graves shot down another shrieking beast as he considered their options. They were still moving, but each encounter meant a pause in their trek. As the number of arachnids grew, they’d soon be fighting more than moving before being forced to stop completely. When that happened…

That thought could wait because suddenly, as if passing through some unseen barrier, the pair of them were running alone. It took Graves a moment to realize it, but one second ago they were fighting off insects left and right, and the next, they were free and clear. Panting hard, the marshal turned to look at the arachnid horde, all paused some twenty feet away as neatly as if blocked off by an invisible wall.

“Graves?” Rarity panted, her face pale, but her wide eyes still alert. “Why did they stop?”

“Not sure,” the marshal replied slowly. Taking the opportunity to inhale deeply and catch his breath, Graves savored both the air and the water that washed over his tired body. The air smelled rather rank for some reason, but that was beside the point: the chase had stopped, giving them valuable time to rest and regroup.

"It looks as if they’re… waiting for something,” Rarity murmured as she wrinkled her nose as she caught the foul odor as well.

“Skullpions don’t wait.” Graves said as he rubbed his nose. “They just eat; only time they stop is when they’re finished or if something’s too tough to swallow.”

“Well, that must be you, then,” Rarity chuckled, sounding quite forced, but understandable given the circumstances. “With all that running and gunning from earlier, I doubt they’ll be trying to snack on us any time soon.”

“Perhaps…” Graves intoned as he thumbed his nose again: the stink was growing worse. “Anyways, won’t be long before they try again. Is there a way out?”

“… How about that?” the young lady pointed out. Next to a nearby cave, a narrow, winding path led from the canyon floor up to the ledge some a hundred feet above. It’d be a fairly steep climb, but from the looks of it, should be manageable. For him at least. He didn’t know about the seamstress.

“Can you… make it up there?” he asked, to which Rarity responded with a pointedly flat glare.

“Really. I keep pace with you all this time, and you still need to ask?”

“Right. Sorry.”

She did have a point. Slim and dainty though she was, Rarity had held together very well in a situation where many men would have been thrown into a state of panic. Clearly, she was tougher than she looked.

“So what’s the plan, marshal?” she asked while keeping one wary eye on the insectile beasts nearby.

“You go first,” he answered. “Once you get to the top, start running, but don’t make a sound: skullpions are naturally blind and hunt with hearing, so let the sound of rain hide you.”

“What about you?” she asked, casting a concerned eye over him. Graves still stood straight and his eyes were still focused like burnished steel, but nobody could exert himself like he had and not feel the strain.

“Be right behind you,” Graves replied, trying to stand a little straighter as he did. “Trust me.”

Rarity looked unconvinced, so he tried to give her a reassuring smile: it wasn’t easy. How many lightning blasts had he fired? Fifty? Sixty? A hundred? Though each wasn’t a huge burden, doing them in such quick succession had made them exponentially more tiring. Already, he could feel his insides beginning to tie themselves into knots, the early promise of far greater discomfort to come later. But Rarity didn’t need to know that.

“Are you sure?” she asked once more, still dubious. “You wouldn’t happen to be putting on a tough front just because you’re a man, would you?”

“'Course not,” he flatly replied as he thumbed his nose once again. “Now hurry. Don’t know how long they’ll behave.”

Giving him one more skeptical glance, Rarity began climbing up the steep incline to freedom. The skullpions advanced slightly at the sound of crumbling rock, but a warning shot from Graves sent them skittering back.

He watched as she climbed higher, keeping one eye on the arachnid mass as he–

Gah, why did it smell so bad? Snorting hard once more, Graves spat as the foul stink in the air seemed to claw its way into the back of his mouth and coat it with a layer of filth. It was terrible, like someone had cracked rotten eggs right under his nose and then–

For the second time in a very bad day, Graves, felt that foreboding chill run down his spine. Rotten eggs. There’s no way that’s what it actually was, and the only other thing he knew of with that kind of smell was sulfur. This certainly wasn’t a hot spring, which meant the smell had to come from something else, and judging by the stink, there was a lot to go around.

A faint rumbling came from the cave and the smell instantly grew worse. As one, the mass of skullpions backed away, a hushed, clicking shriek going up amongst them. The ground shook as something in the cave moved, thundering footsteps heralding its emergence of the cave with another wave of fetid stink.

It hadn’t been the marshal or his spell gun who’d frightened the insects. No, it had been this, this monstrosity that came forth and looked down at them with its four baleful eyes.

Standing there, just a few miles outside the peaceful town of Ponyville, was a very big, and very mean, full-grown chimera.