• Published 15th Nov 2014
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Journey's End - GentlemanJ



As the darkness in the west reveals itself, Marshal Graves is called to fight once more.

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Chapter 21

Chapter 21

“Yah wanna run that by me again, sugarcube?”

“Girls, please!”

Daylight was running short and so was patience. Once again, the Equestrian girls found themselves setting up camp after another harrowing day of surviving these accursed lands. Right now, though, things were going about as well as a lead zeppelin.

Roused with little more than an hour of sleep, the girls had watched as Graves disappeared into the night to keep whatever that… that thing was from chasing them. They’d stumbled their way forward through those pitch-black woods before a mixture of exhaustion and a desire not to snap their fool necks in the dark forced them to set up camp once more. That had been easy. With only one tent between the lot, the girls had nothing to set up beyond their own sleeping rolls. Battered, filthy and weary, the girls had crawled into a small gully and fallen asleep before they hit the ground.

Daylight dawned, the girls woke, and their journey began anew. Only now, running with neither a good night’s sleep nor marshal’s experienced guidance, their day’s travel had been one unhappy mishap followed by another, and the effects were beginning to take their toll.

“No, I wanna hear it,” Applejack continued, the poles to their lone salvaged tent forgotten in her hands. “What exactly does the little miss high-an’-mighty ‘squito over there wanna say tah me?”

“Not much,” Rainbow Dash snorted as she kicked her sleeping bag open. “Only that it’s your fault things turned out so cruddy today.”

Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” the colorful flyer snapped as she rounded to face the bristling cowgirl. “If you hadn’t wasted our time plucking up those few measly carrots, we wouldn’t have had such a hard time getting away from that basilisk.”

“Come on,” Twilight Sparkle interjected, “you know that’s not–”

“And if I hadn’t plucked up them carrots,” Applejack press on, completely steamrolling her friend’s attempt at reason, “along with that burdock, those wild mushrooms, and who knows what else, we’d hardly have anythin’ fer supper tonight. Our stuff’s gone, in case you forgot.”

“Oh, I forgot,” Rainbow Dash smirked. “Even in life or death situations, Applejack always has to think with her stomach.”

The snap of splintered wood cracked through the air like a gunshot.

“That. Is. IT!” Applejack cried, her breath darkening the air as she tossed aside the now thoroughly useless tent pole. “I am sick an’ tired of putting up with the sass an’ nonsense of a parasite who’s only job is wastin’ supplies while she just flits around like a useless gnat!”

“Useless? Useless?!” Rainbow Dash snapped with violet eyes positively livid. “I stopped us from running into that ghouls nest and steered us clear of the catterpebble’s cave!”

“Actually, it was a catopeblas,” Fluttershy softly interjected, “but I really think that–”

“If anyone’s useless around here, it’s you!” Rainbow Dash huffed as a flash of black danced across her heated gaze. “Absolutely and completely useless with a capital Y.”

“You care tah back that smart mouth up?” Applejack snorted, taking a threatening step forwards as the air between them grew steadily heavier and dimmer.

“What, you wanna throw down?” Rainbow Dash growled as she stepped in closer too, now nose to nose with the freckled farm girl. “You really wanna take me on?”

“Jess name the time an’ place.”

“Right here. Right now.”

“Girls, please!” Twilight cried with a final, desperate plea to her friends. “You can’t do this! Not now!”

“Of course you can’t, silly! Not without… these!”

“Uh, Pinkie?” Rainbow Dash blinked. “This is a rubber chicken.”

Indeed it was. While the two would-be combatants faced off, Pinkie Pie had jumped over and slipped, not one, but two genuine, joke-shop-approved rubber chickens between them, one in the hand of each girl. Obviously, one does not expect to be presented with vulcanized poultry on the best of days, and especially not out in the middle of a monster infested wilderness. Hence, the very, very, very long silence.

“Yes, yes it is,” the Pinkie Pie nodded with a face-splitting grin of satisfaction. “I figured if we were about to have an epic rumble in the jungle, we might as well get out the big guns and do it right, you know? Of course, pies would have been nice too, but–”

“Pinkie Pie. Sugarcube?” Applejack interrupted gently. “This is a rubber chicken.”

“Yeah, so?” Pinkie blinked, obviously not understanding the issue.

“So where did they come from?” Rainbow Dash interjected as she brandished her own flexible fowl with equal confusion.

“Uh, from me? Who else?” Pinkie Pie giggled.

“But where did you get them from?” Applejack asked.

“From my bag,” Pinkie smiled.

“Why were they in your bag?” Rainbow blinked.

“Because I packed them.” Pinkie beamed.

“And why did you pack them?” the two asked together, their previous conflict forgotten in light of this most pressing question. And to this, Pinkie just smiled a little brighter.

“Because, we might need them, duh. And guess what? I was totally right!”

Rainbow Dash looked to Applejack. Applejack looked to Rainbow Dash. Both looked to Pinkie Pie. Pinkie Pie looked up as she idly wondered whether a bunny would be more adorable with a top hat or an English bowler. And what started as a slight curve of the mouth and a trembling of lips broke out into the biggest, side-clutching, gut-busting fits of laughter this side of a Ponyacci performance.

“You’re… you’re kidding me!” Rainbow Dash wheezed from where she rolled on the ground, doubled over in laughter. “So you’ve been lugging a pair of rubber chickens in your luggage through mountains, swamps, and monster chases, ever since we left Equestria?”

“Of course,” Pinkie Pie smiled, now just a bit smugly. “It’s not like rubber chickens grow on trees you know.”

“Good grief, can you believe this girl?” Rainbow grinned as she turned to Applejack with a fresh peal of laughter. “Rubber chickens. Actual rubber chickens.”

“Makes about as much sense tah me as galoshes in a dust storm,” Applejack hooted right back. “But then again, I’m not the one who’d take the time to pack a pair of… rubber… chickens…”

It wasn’t the funniest of comments by far, but Applejack couldn’t contain herself any more and burst into a fresh round of laughter, which prompted Rainbow Dash to do the same. Maybe it was the sheer absurdity of the situation, or possibly the fact that laughs seemed to have been in such short supply of late, but those girls kept on laughing till tears streamed from their eyes and breath ran short into shallow, wheezing smiles.

Of course, even the most absurd of situations can only continue for so long, and eventually, the laughter faded away as the two friends were left to deal with a yet unfinished topic.

“So, um… about earlier,” Rainbow Dash began, some of the rosier shades in her hair now appearing in her cheeks.

“Yeah,” Applejack nodded softly. “Listen, I’m real sorry about all that stuff I said. I didn’t mean any of it, honest.”

“Nah, I’m the one who should be sorry,” Rainbow Dash snorted with a dismissive, but still embarrassed wave of the hand. “All that flying works up a mean appetite, and making sure there’s grub is most definitely not useless. At all.”

“So… friends?” Applejack smiled sheepishly.

“Psh, the best!”

The two moved in for a make-up hug, but were blindsided by a third and fourth party as Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy tackled the pair to join in. Twilight took a moment to roll her eyes, more out of relief than anything else. Whatever dark fog that had hung over the lot of them had been cleanly blown away by some much needed laughter, courtesy of the ever reliable Pinkie. Thus, it was with much lighter heart and steps that Twilight also jumped up to dive bomb her giggling comrades.

“Er… did I miss something?” Rarity called out as she returned. Given the marshal’s absence, she had taken over and now adorned the camp with protective runes.

“Hug party,” Pinkie Pie called from somewhere in the mix. “Attendance mandatory, so hop on in!”

Rarity took a look at her friends, pursed her lips in thought for a second, then shrugged and joined in. After all, bad moods could be as infectious as a virus, but smiles could spread just as quickly.

Once the epic cuddle fest was over with, the girls set about getting prepared for dinner. It wasn’t a very generous affair, merely a simple vegetable soup supplemented with what few rations they’d managed to keep thus far, but it didn’t seem nearly so bad. After all, even a scant meal seems filling when eaten with good company, and you could hardly ask for better friends than these. They laughed, they ate, they joked, and tired though they were, smiles still easily came to their faces.

Well, all except for one.

“I’m sure he’s gonna be fine, Rarity,” Twilight said as she gave her friend’s knee a reassuring squeeze. “You know how he is. Probably just got a little caught up being extra careful not to track another monster back to us.”

“Of course he’ll be fine,” Rarity grinned in admirable confidence. “I’m just concerned that his dinner will get cold before he does.”

Twilight didn’t comment any further. They’d parted ways with Graves early last night. Daylight was fading and that meant that soon, a full day would have passed since they’d last seen the marshal. To be so long gone was a worrying sign, and when the night fell and travel became even more harrowing? It didn’t take a genius to see that Rarity was positively beside herself with concern at the moment, but saying anything else would probably be as useful as adding windows to a safe. So despite her love of words, the purple-haired mage contented herself with another comforting smile.

Dinner came to an end and as the girls prepared to douse the campfire for another early night, the shrill cry of a cardinal sounded in the camp. Rarity jumped up instantly, not out of fright, but of excitement. The cardinal sounded only when one of their number crossed the camp’s perimeter. Graves was back.

“Well it’s about time,” she huffed, relief written clear on a face that attempted to look nonplussed and failed miserably. “Celestia knows what sort of state he’ll be in after running around the woods all day.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Applejack chuckled as she prepared a plate. “Just don’t talk his ear off, alright? He’s probably plumb tuckered out an’ probably looking fer a little peace and quiet.”

“I… I know that,” Rarity sputtered indignantly. “I was just saying that–”

In a soft rustle of leaves, Graves stepped out of the underbrush and entered the camp.

“There you are, dear!” Rarity smiled as she approached. “We were just–”

Sapphire eyes widened as the words died on her lips.

“Hey,” came the marshal’s soft response, his voice aged a hundred years in a day. “You girls doing alright?”

“We’re… we’re fine, Graves,” Twilight replied with a faint smile. She noticed his long, leather coat was buttoned up for once. “We’ve got dinner ready. Why don’t you pull up a seat and–”

“Thanks,” he said, raising his right hand for silence as his left remained unnaturally still at his side. “But I’m really not hungry. Think I’ll go settle in.”

“A-are you sure?” Fluttershy asked, color fading from her face as it was quickly replaced by concern. “Maybe I could help you wash up and get you feeling… better…” Her voice trailed off as she met the marshal’s dead grey eyes, dull and listless beyond anything fatigue could create.

“I’ll manage,” he assured them once more. "Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to be alone.”

*****

Graves managed to walk away from camp upright and with hardly a limp. It was certainly made easier by the fact that he had nothing more to carry than his side satchel, what with his supplies having been scoured clean hours before by various scavengers. All rations were gone and most of his medical supplies scattered about as devastating collateral damage.

He’d recovered what he could, but it hadn’t been nearly enough. The few clean bandages not torn to shreds went on the most severe injuries and the single bottle of Lazarus potion was likewise equally rationed. It had been enough to keep him going and allowed him to find Rarity’s markers back to camp. However, with strength fast approaching depletion, he only had enough energy left to mutter his few words and get out of sight once more.

Then he collapsed.

As if breaking forth from a dam, sweat instantly beaded up on the marshal’s forehead as his broken body slumped against the first tree trunk he could duck behind. Everything hurt, and he did mean everything.

The gash on his leg was opened once more from the strain of the day’s journey despite the cauterizing burns and linen threads crudely stitching the wound together. Internal injuries from the Cyclops battle returned with a vengeance in the wake of combat with both jabberwock and driders. And of course, there were his ribs.

Eyes closed, Graves could do nothing but sit there, trying to keep each ragged breath as shallow as possible to prevent his lungs from caressing the razor edges of the shattered bones. He’d attempted to repair them by cutting open the covering skin and manually forcing the fragments back into place, but with at least two of four bones broken apart like fine china, there were simply too many floating fragments to handle. Add that to the myriad of cuts, bashes, punctures, piercings, and the general, mind-numbing exhaustion of running all day with no sleep, and Graves was about as fit for action as a half-rotten hauberk.

Maybe a little rest would help. Not that he could rest long of course. Every camp needed a sentry, and his practiced method of five minutes sleep for every fifteen of waking would work far better than anything the girls could manage. Normally, he’d wait till they were safely bunked down for a bit before catching his own rest, but he could get started a little early right now, right? He could manage that much. Just close his eyes, rest for a minute…

*****

Graves floated in infinite darkness, eyes open with nothing to see save the emptiness of a starless sky. Well, almost empty.

“So good of you to join me,” Discord laughed from his cushy chintz armchair, his taupe and canary yellow striped tuxedo clashing brilliantly with the darkness around.

“What do you want?” Graves asked, mildly surprised to find he had a voice. For the first time in memory of being in memory, he found himself with form and body.

“Oh, not much,” the elderly youngster smiled. “Just thought you’d like to join me for some tea and idle chit chat.” A sweeping arm revealed a lovely little table set out for afternoon tea, white table cloth and dainty cucumber sandwiches included. “What do you say?”

Graves considered the offering and the offeror for a moment, then slowly glided over and took a seat at the table. As gracious a host as ever hosted a Maresian salon, Discord poured the marshal a steaming cup of tea, which Graves received with a grateful nod. In the dream world, matter was irresolute and ephemeral. The tea in the cup was no more real than the air he breathed, even less so in fact, but the memories they conjured of bittersweet warmth and comfortable days beside a crackling fire were real enough.

For a minute, the two contently sipped their tea in silence.

“So…” Discord mused slowly as he set his cup aside. “You met him. Nul.”

“I did.”

“And?” The question was asked with the most casual of tones, but one look at those smoldering golden eyes could see it was anything but. Graves too, set aside his cup.

“I’m thinking of taking the deal.”

To Graves’s eternal surprise, Discord responded not with a smile, not with a smirk, and not with a pithy, snarky remark, but with genuine, unbridled anger.

“Are you mad?!” he cried, leaping to his feet and upending the table as it scattered it into a billion motes of dust. “Wait, scratch that. Of course you’re mad. Absolutely cuckoo, madder than a hatter, stick a fork in it well-done mad. Trust me, I’d know.”

“I fail to see how,” Graves coolly replied from where he remained in his seat, unruffled and immovable like a boulder in a gale. Discord was not so still.

“Of course you don’t. Madmen never do,” Discord fumed, beginning a frantic pacing as he continued to lambast the seated man. “In that case, allow me to explain it to you. This is exactly, exactly what Nul wants. He entices you with sweet words and seductive promises that make the world seem your oyster. Then, when you’re wound so tight that you can’t tell heads from tails, he collects. He charges so much for those hollow promises that you’ll end up with nothing more than wind and sound to keep you together. Please tell me you can at least see that?”

“I’d hardly call them hollow,” Graves remarked as he munched on a sandwich. “They felt pretty real to me.”

Discord blanched.

“You… you didn’t,” he gaped as disbelief crisscrossed his face like lightning bolts in a thunder storm. “You already accepted?!”

“A free sample,” Graves shrugged. “Didn’t require anything in return.”

“Of course he wouldn’t!” the chaos spirit cried in quite literal hair-tugging frustration. “Why would he? He doesn’t need stuff; he’s the bloody bucking End! All Nul wants is destruction and he doesn’t care whether it’s by his own hand or stone-blind servant. Take that offer, boy, and you give him the one thing he truly wants!”

Grey eyes focused into the razor points of spears.

“In that case, why not let him have it?”

Discord stood still, amazed and silent as none had ever seen him before.

“Why… why not?” Discord sputtered. “Why not?! Graves, has nothing I told you sunk in yet? Has absolutely nothing said penetrated that incredibly dense skull of yours?!”

“Enough,” Graves retorted, his voice dispassionate and devoid of heat. “Enough to know that you sold out the world for power. Enough to understand that you’re the greatest traitor in the history of the world. Enough to know that I’m not like you.” Discord looked stunned, disoriented as if the words had caught him a rabbit punch to the back of his head. Graves pressed on, implacable as an avalanche of steel, his ire fueling the onslaught.

“I don’t want to rule the world, okay? Never have, never will. But I do want things, and you know what the number one on that list is right now? Seeing those girls home safe and sound.”

“Graves–”

“But I can’t do that right, now, can I?” he snapped, the word cutting off protest as definitely as a sword. “You’re floating in my head, so you ought to know. I’m a mess. One strong breeze, and I’ll fall apart like a deck of cards. But I can’t fall apart. I fall, and those girls are left all alone.”

Calloused hands clenched tight

“I need power, Discord. Power I don’t have that Nul’s offering on everything but a silver platter. I’ve seen what it can do, and I don’t even need that much. One drop, just a single drop, and I could have them in and out before sundown tomorrow. Nul wants someone to destroy stuff and I’ve got more than enough targets to choose from. So tell me this, Discord; why shouldn’t I take it? Why the bloody hell should I not?”

The words were not spoken as a plea, not a cry for understanding as the marshal justified his actions. They were a bold-faced challenge as Graves laid out the bare facts and invited - no - dared Discord to respond. Discord understood this, and perhaps it was the understanding that prompted his slow, weary nod.

“You want to know why not?” Discord smiled, suddenly looking as ancient as he truly was. “Alright then, I’ll tell you. You can’t take his offer because if you do, you’ll end up exactly like me.”

Graves said nothing as iron eyes met weather-worn gold.

“… Explain,” he ordered, his voice cool to the border of frost.

“Celestia and Luna told you I betrayed them,” Discord sighed as he brought forth a comfy leather recliner and settled in. No longer did he look like the enigma of a youthful elder. Right now, he just looked old, worn, and very, very tired.

“They’re right, you know. In the weaving of the cage, I’m the one who left a small crack open and allowed Nul back into the world. Because of my choice, you face the impossible task before you today. All this is true and I deny not one word. But…” And here, a faded shadow of his former mirth returned, “Haven't you ever wondered why?”

“You wanted power,” Graves shrugged. “Probably took more juice than you had to take the two of them… on…” The marshal stopped, but only because Discord had broken out into a full, throaty chuckle, the familiar, ringing laugh that was as much his signature as his roiling golden eyes.

“Dear me, I was never nearly so melodramatic as that,” Discord answered as he wiped a tear from his eye. “Ruling the universe? Please, I’d as soon take up a desk job as assume that much responsibility. From the amount of paperwork Celestia gets, I somehow doubt there’s a difference.”

“Then… why’d you do it?” Graves asked.

“Simple. I wanted attention.”

The marshal blinked.

“… You’re kidding.”

“Not at all,” Discord said with a wry grin that masked a bitterness stronger than wormwood. “In fact, I didn’t even start with the intent of asking for his power. I just wanted someone to talk to.”

“Okay, now I know you’re messing with me.”

“Am I?” the elderly youngster asked, a strange emptiness coming to his topaz eyes. “After we sealed up Nul, Celestia and Luna were both quite busy settling this little planet and all the little people scurrying about. I never could really understand that. I mean, really, what’s so fascinating about a bunch of monkeys scampering about in the mud? Naturally, as our interests diverged, I found myself spending more and more time alone. Is it really so surprising that I’d want some company of my own?”

“But… Nul?” Graves frowned. “Really?”

“And why not?” Discord shrugged in an eerily similar manner as Graves. “You’ve met him before. Charming fellow, what with the way he was so passionately simple and honest in his goals. Even as we battled him, that part stood out and daresay even spoke to me. Yes, we sealed him away, but how could you completely cut off a person who despite everything, you’ve grown to almost like? I couldn’t, so when we formed the cage, I wove in a tiny, insignificant error. Nothing much, I thought, just enough to let his consciousness wake, his voice out. You never know when you need someone to talk to, right?”

“But it didn’t end there, did it?” Graves asked with very little question in his voice.

“It never does,” Discord chuckled. “Nul approached me the same way he probably did you. A small sample, a simple offer, you know the drill. Said that if I was feeling lonely, I should get their attention. After all, everybody loves a good show, and who’s a better performer than the one who controls impossibility itself?”

“… What happened?”

“It worked. I came back and wowed them, Luna, Celestia, even all the little people too. For a while, things were back to normal and we were back to our merry little games like we’d once had. But as I’m sure you understand, the needs of the many outweigh the wants of the few, and it was back to the daily grind for dear old Celestia once more.

“When that happened, Nul offered me a little power, just a touch to help me up my game. Of course, I had to widen the breach a little more, but it was harmless – he was still sealed, right? In any case, I went back, got the spotlight back, and lost it once more, but I wasn’t worried. I already knew what worked, so I went back to Nul, got just a shade more power, and came back with bigger tricks and flashier games. She loved those, of course, but I could never hold her attention as long as I wished. The cycle repeated, my tricks grew crazier, and it wasn’t long before I became quite… distasteful to some. By the time they all turned away, I'd spent so long doing the same thing, I didn't know of any other way to get them back. I went to Nul, I asked for more–”

“–and you became the Discord we all know and love today,” Graves finished as understanding finally dawned. “And you think the same will happen to me.”

“Can you say it won’t?” Discord smirked. “You use his power to save these girls today. The next mission, you want to save one more person, stop one more disaster. Can you really say you’ll be able to stop before then?”

“I won’t have to, will I?” the marshal said with the faintest of bland smiles in return. “We succeed today, and Nul’s locked up nice and tight till kingdom comes.”

“Will he really?” the spirit asked, eyes shining with molten light. “Celestia thought it was over when we locked him up, but that’s when my betrayal began. Who’s to say it won’t happen with you?”

Graves didn’t answer that question. There really wasn’t any need to when both know what he would have to say. But he did say something else.

“I need power,” Graves sighed, the sound reminiscent of wind whistling through a barren valley. “Nul showed me a world without limits, and that’s when I learned just how small I really am. I can’t do it, Discord. I have to find some way to get these girls home safely, or else…”

The old man sat there silently, fingers tapping together lightly as he considered the marshal’s words and the words still left unspoken. He didn’t have to hear them to feel the weight in every, single one.

“This power…” he murmured. “Does it have to be from Nul?”

Graves looked up, confusion written clear across his face. This confusion flashed into alarm as without warning, Discord materialized a pair of pliers, took hold of his single remaining fang, and with a cry of anguish, pulled it clean from his mouth.

“What the hell?!” Graves cried as he leaped to his feet. But Discord would have none of that, for even as he held his mouth in one hand, his other motioned for stillness.

“Don’… jussh, don’,” he mumbled through a hand covering a mouth steadily filling with blood. “You jussh shid righd there. Gib me a momend.”

Graves did as he was bidden, staring numbly at the startling display of self-mutilation. Once Discord was sure that the marshal would stay in place, he swallowed heavily, took the still bloodied fang in hand, and pressed it tight between his palms.

Out from between his fingers, a warm light and a pulsing hum flowed. A hundred thousand colors of every shade and hue imaginable poured forth with a hundred thousand different sounds chasing in their wake. The two somehow filled the air and driving back the darkness that knew no shape or form, growing brighter and louder till it seemed that Discord held the sun and thunder bottled up between his palms. Then, in one explosive moment, a brilliant, deafening supernova rang forth like the birth of creation itself.

And then it was still.

“T-there. It’s… done.”

Slowly lowering the hand that shielded his eyes, Graves looked to what Discord held out before him. Where the fang should have been now sat a ring, a simple, heavy band of gold inlaid with silver. Or was it the other way around? Upon closer inspection, Graves was surprised to find that it was actually both. There, though wrought of solid metal, the patterns of the ring danced and changed as freely as gale blown clouds in the sky.

“What is this?” Graves asked, genuinely confused by the strange object.

“Power. Not what Nul could offer, but I never met a man who’d say no to a little extra luck, right?”

“Luck?” Graves repeated, his brain processing the concept. And then it clicked. “Discord, you didn’t…”

“Straight from the source itself,” the old man chuckled as he pressed the ring into the marshal’s palm. “Make sure you take good care of it.”

With a dull nod, Graves slipped the ring onto his right hand, the cool metal feeling far too heavy and solid for the dreamscape. Only then did he look up to meet those golden eyes that now stood dull and sunken beneath hair with much too much white and a face with far more wrinkles than he’d ever seen before.

“Why?”

“Who knows,” Discord smiled, that simple act taking far too much effort and showing the space where the fang had been. “Maybe ‘cause I liked you. There’s something fascinating about a man who always makes his own luck, don’t you know? Of course, knowing that Cessy’d have my head if anything happened to you lot doesn’t hurt either, don’t you know.”

“Discord…”

“Now just let me ramble on for a bit,” the spirit continued, the amusement of his words dulled by the thick slur of his tired voice. “The ring can’t do all that much. I’m less than vapor in the real world, especially so close to Nul’s center. What it can do, though, is tip the scales. Heads will pop up a little more than tails, aces show up just a bit more often, so on and so forth. It’s not much, but for a man who walks the knife edge, it might just be enough.”

Graves clenched his hand and felt the metal band press into his flesh.

“What about you? Will you be okay?”

“Bah, you have more important things to worry about than me,” Discord smirked as he waved a tired hand at the marshal. A tired hand that suddenly faded like mist in the morning sun. “Just remember this, Graves,” the old man continue as more of his body continued to fade and his voice dispersed like the last echoes in a canyon’s fade. “Nul offers power, but it’s an empty trade at best. Don’t be pulled in like I was. You have to… find… an… other… w–”

Graves blinked as he looked up into the starry night sky, the feel of rough bark against his back and the cool breeze brushing his sweated brow.

“Find another way, huh?” he grimaced as he looked down at the heavy gold and silver band that rested on his finger. In this blighted land, there were few roads that lead to survival and each was paved with daggers for stones.

He might be able to find a way. The real question was whether he’d be able to pay the price to cross.

**********

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