• 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 35

Chapter 35

Silently, cautiously, the Equestrians advanced step by painfully hesitant step. Before leaving, Graves had made it abundantly clear that each should keep an eye out. A single shadow, a single shifting spot of darkness, could be a new creature they absolutely had to find before it found them. Fortunately, the Ponyville girls rose to the task admirably. With eyes trained to find a single missing sequin, a single weevil amidst the leaves, or the tiniest of splinters amidst the fur of an animal’s paw, even these shadows couldn’t escape their sight.

Several times they did. The first was some kind of slithering being with a mass of tendrils sprouting from its upraised chest. The next was a skittering creature with far too many legs to ever make sense. The further they went, the more they saw, each growing stranger and more grotesque. But in each of those misshapen forms lay two ever-present constants: the unyielding darkness and that massive, leering grin.

Once seen, the girls would freeze and signal to Twilight who would raise her wand. A simple thought charm, barely a blip on the conscience that inspired Graves on just where he should look. Once locked, a clean pull of the trigger, and the beast was gone.

Thus they advanced. For a while. But soon, there would be more than one. Eventually, two or even three of those shadow forms would appear at once, making their treck increasingly difficult. It reached the point where Graves could no longer rely on his spell gun. Instead, he would have to flit about, becoming more shadow than the shadows themselves. Only when silent as moon fall could he approach the beasts unseen and swiftly plunge in his crackling blade of electric wrath.

“How you holding up, Big G?” Pinkie Pie frowned, handing the marshal the last satchel of Nighbloom tea as he returned from yet another one of these nerve-fraying escapades.

“Little tired,” he admitted as he took a hearty gulp and quickly wiped the sweat from his brow with a quickly dampening sleeve. “Being quiet takes a lot out of you.”

“I hear ya,” Rainbow Dash nodded before Rarity quickly nudged her aside.

“You rest right here,” she ordered as glittering gemstones came out once more. “And if you think you’re going to talk me out of doing this, mister, you’ve got–”

“Wasn’t gonna,” he answered, the faintest of grins on his lips. “Thanks.” Rarity remained stunned for only a moment before she resumed energizing the weary marshal.

“Alright, so I’m thinkin’ it’s time to change the tune o’ this dance,” Applejack frowned. “We’re taking a heap longer tryin’ tah’ git ahead now compared to when we started out. Maybe we should jess make a run fer it and hope fer the best.”

“Wouldn’t work,” Twilight answered with a sad shake of her head. “It’s going to take a lot of concentration to use the Elements. We need to find a place where we can really hunker down, and the middle of a pack of those dark things probably wouldn’t be the best place.”

“Um… do you think that maybe, possibly… we could do it here?”

Eyes turned to Fluttershy, who turned back to them after handing Graves a thermos of still warm tea.

“I mean, we are pretty close as it is,” she murmured softly. “It could work. Right?”

It was only when she spoke that the others looked up for the first time and saw just how far they’d really come.

What once had seemed but a speck of light in the distance now hung a giant, brilliant orb of radiance right before their very eyes. Only, it was not so radiant as they had thought. Though the orb glittered and sparkled enough to put any jewel to shame, deep within those shining depths, the girls could make out the darkness. It seethed and roiled, a mass of utter blackness and hunger so absolute that they were sure madness would set in from merely seeing it unleashed.

But they didn’t, for in between, elegantly simple in its design yet breathtaking in its grandeur, stood before them lay the most beautiful cage in creation. Nothing could contain destruction. It was impossible. And that’s exactly what they used. Shining with the color of a hundred rainbows, prismatic lights flickered and danced in a never ending waltz around the pitch-black core. Change and chance, probability and impossibility. It was barrier of pure maybes that rendered all it touched into what might have been and what still could be.

Of course, even such powers would fade after time, for nothing is eternal. That’s why they created more. Around that brilliant aurora lay the gold and silver seas, two halves that slowly swirled, gentle tides constantly pushed and pulled in the eternal dance of creation. With one shimmering in the soft, silver hues of a midnight moon and the other glowing bright with the gold of the midday sun, these two powers created what darkness destroyed and replenished what the madness devoured. An impossible wall to hold the tides. Creation itself to repair the wall. In such a way, the great darkness had been held back for eons since the birth of time itself.

Almost.

Everyone saw it. Amidst the perfection of the glowing sphere, there was one flaw. In the divide where silver met gold, at one spot along the glittering rainbow of that sinuous divide was dimness. Not a hole outright, but a fray in the pattern. It was from this small spot of weakness that they saw a perpetual black mist seep forth like steam from a kettle and drift off like the smokey omens of war.

“That’s it?” Rainbow Dash gaped. “Seriously, the entire world’s on the line because of that little speck?”

“Considering that we are talking about the incarnation of absolute despair itself,” Rarity answered through furrowed brow, “yes, that sounds about right.”

“Looks like you got a line of sight,” Graves remarked as he remained where he sat. “You think you could work from here?”

“I guess so,” Twilight frowned as hand came to chin in consideration. “Yeah… actual distance isn’t so important as being able to spot it. This could work.”

“Alright then. In that case,” Graves grunted as he clambered to his feet and tossed back the last dregs of magic brew, “you guys get set up. I’m gonna go and see if I can rustle up a little noise.”

“Um… Isn’t that like, the last thing you want to do with a bunch of creepy gonna-eat-your-face-and-probably-your-babies-too monsters running around?”

“They go for me, they don’t go for you,” the marshal grinned. “It’s what I do, remember?”

Nobody said anything. It was what he did. It was why he’d been sent along, what he’d been doing since they’d arrived, and what they'd spent the last several days returning to him so he could do it once more. It was all the same, but this time, it felt different. Maybe it was nerves, but this didn’t feel the same.

“… Go do what you must, dear,” Rarity smiled as she reached up to fix his coat and hat once more. “We’ll be waiting right here.”

Graves smiled and allowed his silver eyes to linger for a moment on her sapphire blues. Then with a quick leap, he was off to the next landfall.

“Wait for my signal,” he called, before he disappeared into the floating sea of stone.

“… What, no kiss goodbye?” Rainbow Dash asked, unable to bear the awkward silence any longer. “Isn’t that kind of the norm for things like this?”

“Why would I?” Rarity blinked. “He’ll be back before we know it.”

She smiled as she said those words. What that smile meant, nobody could really say.

“Now come on,” the pretty seamstress tutted, hustling them about just like it was fitting day in her workshop, “we’ve got a lot to do, so we might as well be on our way.”

The girls scrambled, getting everything set up so they could free themselves of distractions and fully focus on working the Elements of Harmony as they had to. For Rarity, this meant one last look towards the direction Graves had gone before a quick shake cleared her head as she went to join her friends.

******

Deep breaths. Deep, steady breaths to clear the mind and calm soul. Twilight channeled, drawing strength not from the air around or the earth below, but from the focal point of that glittering jewel resting on her brow. Like a child pushing at a heavy gate, the young mage had to concentrate, bringing every ounce of her strength of will to bear upon that unyielding door. It fought back and resisted, a stalwart barrier denying any who approached even a glimpse of the treasures within. But inch by grudging inch, Twilight pushed forward, cracking it just a bit…

And then it opened.

Light flooded in. Light and song and joy and logic and reason and secrets and truth and a hundred thousand other things she could never hope to describe poured out and brought her into resonance with the very fabric of the universe itself. Drawing upon the Elements opened the door to truth, and a blinding flood of pure illumination crested forth like a tidal wave into the young woman’s mind. So much knowledge, so much power… It threatened to scour her away like the sands under the pounding surf.

But just like every other time, she was not alone, for in that sea of blinding whiteness came color. Gentle pink, bubbly blue, passionate red, warming orange, and regal purple all gathered around her and shielded her from the roaring tides. Twilight loved those moments. It was there, far removed from mortal bounds and in the realms where minds and souls could mingle that she felt more love and joy from her friends than she ever thought possible. Were it up to her, she would have spent an eternity there, just reveling and communing with those whose ties felt as if they could transcend all of time and space.

She didn’t, though. She had work to do.

Together with her friends, Twilight flew forth to bring herself before the glittering cage. They’d thought it frightening in their world before, but here, they could see the pure depths of its raging depravity. It was a bottomless pit that drew everything in, an all-consuming hunger and appetite for anything and everything in existence. And from somewhere within that infinite depth, a presence stirred.

Soft pink fluttered as the presence cast its baleful attentions towards them, considering them as but morsels in a dish. Fiery red surged, urging them to action, but the warm embrace of orange held it back even as purple’s cool resolve held them firm.

They would act, and very soon. But it was not the time yet. Not quite. They watched the darkness and it watched them, waiting, salivating.

And then it blinked.

Somewhere far from where they were yet close as well came an explosion of a very corporeal sort. Back in the world of men, a piercing blaze of ardent silver lit up the crimson-hued skies of that infernal pit. The shadows turned, casting its attentions towards that light as it pricked him, hardly the sting of a gnat, but a sting nonetheless. It turned away.

Then they struck.

Surging forward as one, they launched themselves at the dimness on the cage where threads hung loose and the veil lay thinnest. The darkness turned towards them, but was driven back by the prismatic powers that confronted him. As they held him at bay, the center moved forward to touch the cage.

Knowledge flooded into her mind and once more, she nearly succumbed to the onslaught. There had been truth before, but this cage… it was creation and reality and all of probability condensed on itself a million, million fold and woven so complexly, so intricately, that to unravel even the smallest fraction would be to unlock the laws of the universe itself. It was an impossible task, one far beyond the comprehension of any mortal being.

Fortunately, Twilight was pretty smart.

So as her friends held strong and held back the tides of darkness seeking to surge from the breach, Twilight set herself to reweaving the frayed strands of the cage. A thousand links were formed in that first instant. Ten thousand in the next. Working at the speed of light and thought, Twilight knitted back the patterns to their original, shining forms.

But still a million links remained, ten million yet untouched. Twilight worked, but there was so much to do, and the darkness… it pressed on so relentlessly, so hungry…

She worked as fast as she could, pushing herself to the brink of her abilities and far beyond. So much work to do. She could only hope that she could finish in time.

*****

Landing on a new stone, the marshal’s head snapped around just in time to spot two shadow creatures in hot pursuit. Graves raised his spell gun and let loose a searing blast of lightning and caught the first clean through the chest. Even at it burst into a cloud of black mist, its companion raised a club-like arm and brought it down right where he was. Fortunately, Graves had rolled as soon as the shot was loosed and only suffered the sting of gravel tossed up by the blow. Before the beast could react, the marshal was on his feet, crackling electric blade following his rise to smoothly cut the creature clean in two.

Panting with exertion, Graves took a knee behind what little cover he could find on the floating rock and looked out. It seemed that of his pursuers, only those two had managed to follow his mad careening to his current location. That was good. He could see them, dozens of those black masses with leering, much-too-large mouths searching for him, hunting as they floated through the sky and bounced about. They’d find him. He’d let them. But right now, he could breath and get a quick minute of much needed rest.

“Impressive as ever, Mr. Marshal. Impressive as ever.”

Graves need only turn his head to catch sight of Nul, white suit as immaculate as ever as he smiled behind those winding bandages.

“You really have time to chat?” the raven-haired soldier idly inquired as he fanned himself with his hat. “Clock’s ticking, don’t you know.”

“I assume you’re referring to those children you brought along with you?” Nul smiled. “A side dish, nothing more. I’m much more interested in the main course.”

“Sorry, you can’t afford me.”

Nul’s laugher was bright and clear, the sound of a man who’d heard a fine joke.

“Oh Graves, you never do cease to amuse me,” the specter laughed as he wiped an invisible tear from his eye. “But really, don’t you think it’s time we brought this charade to an end? You know you can’t possibly win, now without my help as least.”

“You sure about that?” Graves smirked. “Cause I think I’m doing pretty well.”

“And you are,” Nul readily agreed. “… For a start.”

“Now that just sounds like sour grapes.”

It was then that Nul smiled in a very different way.

“Really? In that case, perhaps I should join in.”

It was a simple motion. All the man in white did was clap his hands together, a small gesture designed to produce a small sound. But the effects were anything but small.

The very air seemed to howl as the entire confines of the pit began to tremble. Stones shaken from their orbits careened into one another and it was only a quick duck that saved Graves from having his head removed by wayward debris. All around, the world resonated with that wordless din ringing through the air. But it wasn’t the sound that was the worry. It was what it brought.

Like pus oozing from on open sore, black mist began to pour from the breach in the cage faster than ever before. Thick and oily, the blacker than black smoke formed into countless more shadow beasts, ones of greater size than ever before and with far more twisted forms than words could do justice. Graves felt ice form in his veins. He’d seen more monsters in his years than whole regiments saw in a lifetime, but those abominations could send a chill through even his battle-tested heart. Those things were power and fear given form with only the single command written in the form of those disgusting, leering grins:

Devour. Consume. Destroy.

“You were right about one thing, Graves,” Nul smiled as the newly formed army began to drift out in search of prey. “The clock is ticking, but not for me. Not even close.”

Graves knew he should move. He had to find high ground. He needed to draw them away. But in that instant, the sheer, overwhelming weight of the odds kept him rooted firmly in place. There were just so many of them. He could never hope to stop them all.

But he had to try. And so, forcing himself to his feet, Graves armed his rifle and leaped. The first shadow creature he met instantly vanished as Graves neatly lopped its head off with a swipe of his flashing blade. A nearby beast noticed the commotion and roused itself to attack, but a thrusting kick from the soldier’s booted heel sent it careening into a cluster of other forms. All piled together, it was a simple matter for Graves to line them up and take the lot out with a single, well-placed shot.

He didn’t stop there. Graves fired his silver spell chain and used the pulling force to launch himself towards yet another group of shades. These he didn’t destroy. Instead, he spun his rifle about, using the heavy wooden butt as a bludgeon to knock them about like so many shrieking balloons. This got the attention of their brethren as hundreds and hundreds of demons cast their hungry, eyeless gazes towards the marshal.

“Can you do it, Graves?” a voice whispered from behind his ear. “Can you beat the odds like you have before?”

“… Let’s find out.”

**********

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