• 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 27

Chapter 27

Step by step, pace by pace, soldier and the lady continued through the darkness. They had no idea how long they walked, or how far. Time had no meaning in those abyssal depths, and any attempts to count paces were quickly forgotten amidst the thousands of steps they took. It didn’t really matter, of course. All that that really mattered was that they kept moving forward.

When they were tired, they rested, and they were often tired. When they were hungry, they ate. The fish Rarity neatly lassoed from underground rivers and streams were by and large tasteless, but a little touch of aquamarine fire from her wand made them a pleasantly hot meal at least. And honestly, it wasn’t all that bad. Between the bitter and acrid, the pungent and putrid, bland actually seemed to be an improvement. Who knew that being underground could be so rewarding?

Not to say that their journey was easy by any means. Sure, the caverns were mercifully quiet compared to the Savage Lands above, but progress was still slow, painfully so at times, as injury had clearly taken its toll on the soldier’s body. The tunneling path was never straightforward and often brought unexpected hazards to their journey. Sometimes, it would narrow into crawling spaces barely large enough to wriggle through. Other times, it would bank up so steeply that it became more climb than walk.

The road was not easy and battered as he was, Graves struggled to proceed. But whether for lack of energy or lack of something else, this was the first time when he didn’t try to hide it. He simply focused all his efforts on putting one foot in front of the other, with spell gun serving as a crude crutch on one side and Rarity providing strength on the other.

In truth, it was the young lady who made it all possible. With an arm pulled over her slender shoulders, Rarity supported the marshal with every step he took. It wasn’t easy of course. Graves looked to be carved of steel and probably weighed as much as well in lean, hardened muscle. Yet despite the unseemly burden and despite the sweat that beaded on her brow, the stalwart young woman pressed on with resolution in her step and, most remarkably of all, a twinkle of delight in her eyes.

Though Graves said little – every breath was reserved for yet another pace forward – it would have taken a half-blind, fully dumb cave grub to miss the wonder that set in his gunmetal grey eyes. Here she was, trapped underground with little to no hope of escape, lugging around a half dead lump of full dead weight, and there was hardly a moment where he couldn’t find a smile on her face.

When she washed and rebandaged his wounds with the remnants of their sleeves, it was with the soft, serene smile of a gentle nurse. When she gathered luminescent moss to fashion the glowing garlands that lit their way, it was the contented look of a housewife tending to a happy home. And when she draped those garlands around Graves, fashioning especially pretty ones for his neck and broad, flat-brimmed hat, it was the playful, giggling delight of young woman who had all she wanted and simply couldn’t wish for anything more.

It was at one such stop, a large cave where a subterranean stream gently flowed on through, that Graves knew the silence couldn’t continue any longer.

“… Anyone ever tell you you’re amazing?”

“A few,” Rarity smiled coyly. “But I could always do with once more.”

“It’s true,” Graves murmured as she brought a handful of cool water to his lips. “How you’re still smiling is just beyond me.”

To smile in happy times was a normal reaction. To smile in trying times was a mark of fortitude. To smile in the fubared straits of their dire predicament? Hay, that kind of resolve could command coals to tighten up and get diamonds in return. The marshal had known a few who could accomplish such feats, but the number wouldn’t have outlasted the fingers on a single hand.

“Aw, it’s not so much,” Rarity laughed as she playfully flicked his nose. “After all, everything’s always easier when you’ve got a goal in mind.”

“Your goal is to smile?” Graves intone, eyebrow arched in question. “Didn’t know I was walking with Pinkie Pie.”

“Maybe you are,” the young lady giggled, “because my goal is to get you to smile. It’d make things so much easier for you if you’d just crack a little grin. Really changes your entire mood, you know?”

At the request she so obviously hinted at, Graves gave his best attempt at a merry smile. It certainly had a pleasant effect, but only in the sense that Rarity got a grand kick out of a decidedly awkward look.

“Er… maybe you should hold off for a bit,” she chuckled while wiping a tear from her eye. “I suppose in the meantime, I’ll just have to smile enough for the both of us.”

Once she’d made sure that Graves was properly propped up against one stone wall, the young lady took up several garlands of glowing moss and proceeded further into the cave. They’d stopped to rest, it was true, but also because they now faced a rather new conundrum.

Which way were they to go next?

Up till now, the trail they’d walked had been a winding, but continuous road. With no branches or forks to speak of, they’d had no choice but to move forever forward. But now, now they faced a choice of not one, not two, but four branching paths, each of which could take then further deeper into endless tunnels beneath. It was these various roads that Rarity now considered with pursed lips and keen eyes.

“I don’t suppose you have any idea of where we should go?” Rarity called.

“Beats me,” he shrugged. Navigating caverns were notoriously tricky, and only a few teams had ever spent the countless hours mastering the specialized art of traversing subterranean trails. Even then, it was usually from the stance of going in one way and coming back out, not finding an exit after a rollercoaster waterslide of probably impending doom. Right now, the marshal’s knowhow was about as useful as knife at an all you can eat soup buffet.

“In that case, we go… that way,” Rarity beamed as she confidently pointed to the second path from the right.

“Why there?”

“Because it’s right.”

“How do you know?”

“Obviously, it’s right if it’s not left.

“So’s that one,” Graves pointed out as he gestured to the furthest tunnel.

“True, but it’s better to be right and not too right,” Rarity rejoined. “Never could trust something that sounded too right, you know?”

Honestly, he didn’t, which made sense considering her rational had no sense at all. But then again, it’s not like he knew what to do, right?

“Well then,” Graves grunted as Rarity helped him to his feet once more, “right it is.

More walking, more resting, more walking still. Whenever they came across another fork, they came up with another choice. Maybe left because nobody liked being left out. Maybe the middle because of moderation in all things. The reasons didn’t matter. All that mattered was that they kept moving forward.

Then at some point, after untold miles, a very subtle shift occurred as the luminescence of the moss began to fade. A flash of concern crossed their faces. After all, if their only source of consistent light was beginning to disappear, what would happen when they were left with nothing but total darkness? Yet after a little checking, a bit of closing of eyes and cupping of hands, it was Rarity’s keen eye that discovered the fading was not because of organic death, but from greater ambient light. But how? That wouldn’t be possible, unless…

Pace quickened imperceptibly as the two continued forward. The tunnel they walked slowly grew wider, the walls further and the ceiling higher. Then suddenly, before either of them quite realized what had happened, Rarity and Graves found themselves standing at the mouth of a large cave that opened out to a deep valley below and the open air of the night sky above.

“… We’re out,” Graves intoned even as disbelief tangled his thoughts. “We actually made it out.”

“But of course,” Rarity smiled as she pinched the marshal’s cheek. “And I must, say this scenery is certainly a nice change of pace.”

She was definitely right about that. Sunken deep between the crags of various stony mountains, the small valley they overlooked was a surprising oasis of soft, green life. The fact that anything green grew in these mountains was a shock, and the fact that the life and vegetation remained untouched by Nul’s corroding miasma was simply a factor of two above.

Graves wasn’t sure how either was possible – perhaps the sheer cliffs, over two hundred paces high, if an inch, that bowed inwards formed a sheltering wall against the dangers outside? Whatever it was, the two of them had stumbled upon perhaps the only safe haven left in these darkness blighted mountains. All because Rarity had decided that being right was better than being too right.

“Well I don’t know about you,” the young lady beamed, “but I, for one, am famished. What say you we go out into those trees and see if we can’t find ourselves something tasty for a change?”

“Good idea,” Graves nodded. “Only one problem.”

“Oh? And what’s that?”

“How do we get down?”

Rarity looked to the marshal, then to the path.

“Ah. I see.”

There was no path. The cave they’d exited extended perhaps ten paces further onto a protruding ledge, then simply dropped off. Much like the rest of the valley, the point they had escaped from was but one spot on those impregnable, stony cliffs that surrounded. From where they stood, it was a good hundred feet of straight drop before anything resembling solid ground appeared.

“Well, what now?” Rarity asked.

“We wait,” Graves grunted as he wearily took a seat against the cavern wall. “Figure out a plan.”

“Great idea,” Rarity nodded as she cozied up to him like always. “Anything to start?”

“Not yet. You?”

“Work in progress.”

“I see.”

“Keep me posted, will you?”

“ ‘Course. And you?”

“Anything for you,” she smiled with a quick peck on the cheek.

Brief exchange concluded, the two lapsed into silence once more. For a moment, the two lost themselves to the tasks at hand, safely stowing the garlands of glowing moss in case they should have use in the future even as they worked to escape from their figurative prison on high. Then, thought slowly drifted away as the evening breeze provided a delicious change of pace from musty cavern air below. They’d just escaped the equivalence of being buried alive. They had time for a little break, right?

Of course they did. For about ten seconds at least, because all thoughts of rest were quickly interrupted by an all-too familiar, piercing cry from above.

“You gotta be kidding me…”

Pushing up from his wall-side leaning, Graves trained his gunmetal gaze to the sky above. It was difficult to make out in the darkness, but sharp eyes did spot seven blurs racing straight towards them behind the wake of yet another keening cry.

“Looks like I’m up,” the marshal grimaced as he raised his rifle once more. “Rarity, might wanna step back a bit.”

“Me? I’m not going anywhere,” the young lady protested. “You can hardly sit up as it is, let alone shoot.”

It was true. Though a little strength had returned over the course of their journey, even lifting the spell gun was a chore in itself. Whatever power he had left was nowhere near enough to do battle with the seven apex predators streaking their way. Well, not alone at least.

“Don’t let me slip,” he nodded. Rarity smiled.

“I never do.”

With slender arms wrapped around his broad shoulders, Graves let his body relax into hers as he focused solely on the rifle in hand. Given the rapidly increasing size of the dots heading their way, it would be a minute, maybe fifty seconds before they arrived, not nearly enough time to even charge a single, proper bolt, let alone seven. At this point, their only hope was to tag enough weaker shots to deter them from pursuing as they retreated back into the caves. Of course, the fact that they were flying forward with the intent of arrows loosed from the bow diminished the chances of that happening even more quickly than the diminishing distance, but hey, maybe they’d get lucky, right?

Steel glowed with a faltering silver-white as the spell charge slowly built from the brace on his knee. Perspiration sprang out on the marshal’s brow and for a moment, his head swam and the lightning threatened to run wild. In that instant, Rarity was there, bracing up the marshal and buying him the few seconds of undisturbed focus he needed to gain control of magic once more.

As the keening cry came once more, the marshal settled back into form and took aim with glinting silver eyes locked onto his targets. Breath flowed out as the meager stores of lightning he’d collected partitioned into three, small shots. A calloused finger tightened on the trigger, hovering a hair’s breadth from the moment of release, and–”

“Wait! Do you hear that?”

Graves froze, instinct interrupted by Rarity’s sudden cry. Hear? Of course he heard. A griffon’s cry was designed to coordinate aerial dives from miles across. There was no way he hadn’t heard–

“Hey! Up here!”

… Okay, that was something new. Adjusting the angle of his rifle, Graves turned sights toward the source of the third voice, a source that seemed remarkably close to the targets he’d been aiming for.

“There they are! See? I told you my spell would work!”

It was Twilight Sparkle. And Pinkie Pie, and Applejack, and Fluttershy, and Rainbow Dash, all riding atop the backs of griffons like a winged, Valkyrie cavalry. Jaw hanging slack in utter astonishment, the spell charge vanished with a faint puff of smoke as Graves gaped at the sight of seven griffons winging their way into the cave’s mouth to deposite five positively giddy girls not ten feet from where they stood.

“Oh my goodness oh my goodness oh my goodness!” a tearful Fluttershy squeaked as she dove headfirst into the pair for a positively monumental hug. “Thank goodness you two are all right! We’ve been worried absolutely sick about you!”

“Yeah, I’ll say,” Rainbow Dash laughed as she joined in on the hug. “When you two decided to take a premature sky diving lesson, I almost had a heart attack. Nearly went in after you myself.”

“Good thing I lassoed you back in when I did, huh, feisty pants?” Applejack beamed as she added her farm-toned arms to the epic hugfest as well. “Messy a shape as you were, we’da probably ended up trackin’ down three runaways instead ah two.”

It was outlandish. It was impossible. Miracles like this didn’t happen in real life, not like this. But no matter how surreal it seemed, Graves couldn’t deny what his eyes told him to be true. After being attacked, separated, and cast into the abyss, they were once again standing together with the girls laughing and crying like… well, like a bunch of girls, actually, and ones at the end of a particularly sappy film about romance and puppies, to boot.

“You know,” Twilight giggled as she wiped happy tears from her eyes, “usually people say something after seeing their friends again. Or is the marshal too cool for stuff like that?”

“… How?” Graves gaped, and meaning the question in more ways than one.

“Told ya that’s what he’d ask,” Rainbow Dash grinned as she held out an open hand. “Always about business, just like I said.”

“Yeah, yeah," Applejack grumbled as she handed over a shiny, red apple. “Guess a rock don’t change its spots so easy.”

“I didn’t know rocks had spots,” Fluttershy blinked in surprise.

“Various sorts of lichens,” Pinkie Pie smiled. “You’ve got your common caloplaca flavovirescens that produce distinct firedot patterns, the physcia adscendens for a more even silver, white coat, and… What?” she blinked as everyone turned to stare. “I grew up on a rock farm, remember?”

“… In any case, the how was actually quite easy,” the young mage beamed as she deftly ignored the odd babble of chatter behind her. Stepping forward, Twilight instead chose to lightly tapped at the marshal’s chest, finger striking right where his worn, silver badge hung still pinned inside. “The general once told me before about how these are small transmitters for basic information on the marshal wearing it. Naturally, I figured it’d behoove me to learn a little more about it before we came here. A touch of translocation magic here, a bit of dissonance smoothing there, and it was pretty much as easy to find you as a textbook stacked in the comics section.

“I see,” Graves nodded dumbly despite not seeing at all. There was a reason they had whole monitor arrays set up to track the marshals, but he could worry about that point later. “And… the griffons?”

“Ooh, ooh! Pick me!” Pinkie Pie called out as she bounded over, hand’s waiving in air like a certain bookworm in just about any class. “I know this one! Pick me! Pretty please with sugar sprinkles on top!”

“Okay,” Twilight laughed. “Pinkie?”

A deep, deep breath.

“Weeellllllll… after you and Rarity took a nosedive, Twilight hit the limit, and like a Twilight who hits the limit do, got all super teacher mode and got the rest of moving on because we’d have to get our butts away from those nasty loogie monsters chasing us before we could help you guys out, so we did, only that’s when we ran headlong into one of those super big cravat worms–”

“Crevasse wyrms,” the scholar corrected.

“ –right, Crenshaw wurms,” Pinkie nodded, "which would totally have been a bad thing since they were all hopped up on black gas, don’t you know, but it was picking on this poor little griffon like earlier, so naturally, Fluttershy said we had to help it – again – and me and Rainbow Dash were like, ‘Are you crazy?!” but Twilight was all like, “uh uh, no way we’re not letting Nul getting away with any more of this poopy-headed meany, jerk-face stuff, not any more," so we jumped in and knocked the big guy off a cliff, or something, which got a whole bunch of griffons to turn up, which got Applejack to saying all her prayers like a big Sunday dinner cause they’re about to charge us, but Twilight’s all kinds of miffed at this point, so she goes all super saying–

“Super saiyan,” Rainbow Dash amended.

“ –right, super sapien,” Pinkie nodded, “and lassoes them all down with a huge bunch of spells and starts lecturing them about the difference between protecting themselves and just being mean, though I’m pretty sure the griffons didn’t learn much because they were too confused on how a little girl with hair on fire managed to do that, but then the one griffon we saved came over and started sniffing us up a bit – which is weird, because I didn’t think griffons even had noses – which is great, because apparently, it liked what he smelled and started chirping at the others, which got a few more chirping because some of them were the same ones we’d helped with the cyclone earlier–

“Cyclops,” Applejack suggested.

“–right, Cylon,” Pinkie Pie nodded, “and they all started chirping that since we’d been so nice as to help them out not once, but twice, they should do the same, which is when all the griffons got all super nice and said that they’d not only help us get through the mountains like a great big bunch of feathery taxi cabs, but they’d also help us find you and Rarity to boot, which is how we started riding around while Twilight tracked you with one of her super fancy magicky things all the way here where you almost blew us out of the sky but didn’t because Rarity told you not too, and so here we are!”

Graves looked to Rarity, pretty sure the blank expression on her face was properly mirrored in his own. Then, he turned back to the beaming, bubbly baker, a strange sort of expression on his usually stony face.

“… You speak griffon?” he asked.

“Ch, duh!” she grinned. “Doesn’t everyone?”

Many limits had been reached on this trip. Many limits had been surpassed. But for the first time, Graves found his capacity for absurdity filled to the brim, overflowed, and then completely burst apart at each and every seam.

And so he laughed. Despite the stabs of pain from his shattered ribs, his injured stomach, his lacerated leg, and the dozens of other cuts, gashes, bruises, breaks, and wounds marring his body, he laughed. Tears streamed down his face as he doubled over in complete and uncontrollable mirth, laughing from the very core of his soul with whoops and snorts and breathless gasps than he’d ever had in his entire, turbulent life.

The girls didn’t know what to make of it, but hey, when did Ponyville folk ever need a reason to smile? Needing no invitation, the girls joined in as the marshal’s good humor infected them like some kind of giggling epidemic. Six girls laughed and cried and hugged and did a whole lot more of all three before they were done, yet through it all, one violet-haired beauty laughed far harder and cried far longer than most.

Made sense, really. After all, a lady can only hold in so much.


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