• Published 2nd Mar 2013
  • 7,495 Views, 645 Comments

A Long, Winding Road - GentlemanJ



The marshal's gone, cutting all ties and making clear his intent never to return. Why? What compels the grey eyed soldier to leave? To find the truth, Rarity and the girls start down a long, winding road that will hopefully bring him back. Hopef

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Chapter 10

Chapter 10

“Or maybe he was thirteen. No, wait. Hmm… nope. Twelve. Definitely twelve.”

As General Ironside calmly sipped his tea, Twilight was left to face an unprecedented dilemma. The commander was as reliable a source as she could find, being one whom Princess Celestia trusted with some of Equestria’s most delicate affairs. But she was a lady of logic and the words coming from this source were anathema to reason in a very foundational sense. The resulting paradox of hearing something impossible from a source that meant it had to be possible produced consternation of a density comparable to the heart of a star, which produced a thermonuclear fusion reaction of disbelief that served to fuel one of her most eloquent responses to date.

“Nope! Nuh uh. No way. Nope. Not happening. Absolutely not. There is no way that Graves could possibly have entered the Academy at twelve when Shining Armor didn’t even enter until he was fifteen. That is just a big old stinky pile of absolutely not even remotely possible nope.”

“Pardon me dear,” Rarity interjected, “but is that because it’s really impossible, or because Shining Armor is your big brother?”

“It doesn’t even matter!” she huffed. “My point is, the Academy’s a place designed to take the best and or craziest people and make them into the cream of Equestria’s military crop. Even Shining Armor, the one hailed as the second coming of Medicus Fati, couldn’t start that young, and I refuse to believe that there is someone who is even more talented than he is!”

Yup. Definitely a big brother complex.

“And you’d be right,” Ironside nodded. “Graves isn’t talented at all.”

You’re darn right he’s not! In fact–” The young mage paused, making a mental double take of the last, somewhat unexpected statement. “Hold on a second. What do you mean, ‘isn’t talented at all’?”

“Exactly what I said. He isn’t a talented person at all.”

“… He’s not?”

“Heavens, no,” the big man snorted. “Sure, he’s tough and smart as a whip, don’t get me wrong, but his ability to convert mana to magic is subpar at best and he handles the resulting magic like a drunken sailor attempting fine embroidery.”

“So…” Twilight blinked, “he’s not a prodigy.”

“I believe I just said that,” the general smiled.

“Not even talented?” she continued.

“No way or how,” he agreed.

“But he’s actually… below, average?”

“A textbook case.”

“Then… then how on earth did he ever get to being a marshal?” Twilight gaped. “Hay, how’d he even make it through Academy?”

Ironside drained the last of his tea.

“The simple way. Lots of good old fashioned hard work.”

For even the greatest of minds, there comes a point where mental strength may fail. For the purple-haired mage, that moment was now, as the now critical mass of the general’s absurdity collapsed on itself, creating a swirling black hole of impossibility from which no logic could escape. Twilight had, in fact, reached a spontaneous cosmic explosion of pure incredulity.

“Twilight? Darling, are you all right?”

Nothing. Rarity’s hand waving and finger snapping had no effect on her friend’s vacant stare.

“Well, it seems she’s a bit indisposed,” the young lady replied with as much gracious aplomb as she could afford the semi-comatose scholar. “But I can safely guess what she would ask anyways.”

“And what would that be?” Ironside chuckled.

“How? I’m sure none of us here deny that hard work is integral to any amount of success, but to reach the levels that he did with what you indicate to be no natural talent, whatsoever, well… in some ways, it seems even more far-fetched than the theories we heard earlier.”

“Yeah!” Twilight agreed, the smell of a fresh debate bringing her out of the fugue. “I mean, the Great Vulcanos spent his lifetime perfecting his flame spells, and fire is much easier in comparison to lightning. I don’t care how much hard work you do, you can’t master lightning magic with just a few years of hard work.”

“Well, when did I ever say he was a master?”

Once again, Twilight paused at the hints of misunderstanding.

“You said he was the first person to ever make lighting magic viable in the field,” the she began cautiously. “That’s why he’s so famous and that’s how he got his weird nicknames like the Ghost of Thunder, right?”

“Indeed it is,” the general nodded. “But when did I ever say that that made him a ‘master’?”

“… What are you saying?” Twilight asked, her eyes narrowing with all the suspicion of a detective in the interrogation room.

“What I’m saying,” the general smiled, “is that there’s a world of difference between mastering a field of magic and making it usable. Fact is, Graves only uses the most basic lightning spell there is.”

“Really?” the mage girl blinked. Ironside nodded.

“Really. Spell guns already focus and amplify power as it is, and with his modified long range cannon of a rifle, even the most basic spell would pack plenty of punch. Plus, it takes a whole lot less mana, so even a shallow bucket like Graves can make a fair number of shots.”

“But, but even so, “she continued, “it’s not like the basic spells are easy either. Even a simple lightning blast would require–”

“– what, a thousand repetitions?” the big man interjected. “Ten thousand?” Twilight nodded.

“Maybe more. They say that for average people, that’s the number of times it takes to become merely proficient. Even with the simplest spell, a soldier who has to do it time and time again in different, difficult circumstances might need two or even three times that much practice.”

“Congratulations,” Ironside chucked. “You’ve covered about the first month of that boy’s training.”

“… Wut?”

“To learn that spell, Graves had to repeat the same litany ten thousand times a week, every week for two straight years. Shocked himself more often than a steel porcupine in a thunderstorm, but he did manage to get it eventually.”

“Okay… I guess that makes sen– hey, wait a minute! No it doesn’t!”

“It doesn’t?”

“No, it doesn’t,” Twilight frowned. “If he spent that much time working on a single spell, then how on earth did he manage to find time to do the mandatory spell work for his classes?”

“By not doing them?” the general shrugged. “Except for a handful of absolutely vital utility spells, he pretty much didn’t bother. Sort of explains why his grades were so low, come to think of it.”

“… Oh.”

An obvious answer, of course, but understandably overlooked. For a studious girl such as herself, the concept of not doing classwork was about as foreign as sanitation to a troll.

“Well, even if he didn’t do his classwork,” Twilight continued, albeit awkwardly as she admitted such a scandalous notion, “he’d still have to learn some spells, right? I mean, charms like Iron Soul, Zephyr’s Swiftness, and Revitalizing Spring are all basic to the marshals because they’re super useful. There’s no way he could just skip those.”

“Those are some very crucial spells, that’s true,” Ironside nodded as he stroked his beard in careful contemplation. “Making your body hard as metal is fantastic for both offense and defense, especially in conjunction with enchanted speed. And of course, the ability to reenergize a tired body can mean the difference between life and death. But you have to remember, no matter how useful a spell is, it’s only in relation to how much mana you have, which is why marshals are almost always naturally gifted mages.”

“But for a person like Graves,” Twilight continued in quiet contemplation, slowly fitting the pieces together, “who’s not naturally gifted–”

“–it’d be like pouring water into a bowl with no bottom. Even if he bothered learning them, he’d never be able to use them.”

“So what then?” the young scholar asked. “How’d he make up the difference?”

“Same way as he did with the magic,” Ironside replied. “Lots and lots of hard work. You don’t need a spell to make you tougher if you’re already solid as a rock to begin with, and you won’t need to bother with energizing a tired body if you just don’t get tired.”

“Still, is that enough?” Twilight countered once more. “Those spells can boost a person’s natural abilities to technically superhuman levels. Even if Graves pushed himself to the pinnacle of physical performance, he’d still be a good bit shy of the levels other marshals could do.”

“And that,” Ironside replied, “is when you stop relying on ability and look to skill. You’re right, Graves just didn’t have that much potential, and that's why he got the skills and techniques needed to maximize the potential he had. I mean, you don’t need to fire a dozen spells if your first shot always hits, and you can probably guess that martial skills create countless ways to help the weaker man win. Course, it’s much harder to learn these things, which is why people prefer to use spells, but it is possible. Very difficult, very time consuming, and incredibly painful. But… possible.”

Amethyst eyes met icy blue, considering them as she might pawns on a chess board. A small curve appeared on the corner of her lip.

“So, Graves reached this point through hard work, correct?” she asked levelly.

“Indeed. Had to put in more than three times as much effort as a normal cadet, but he did it.”

“Three times as much,” the sweater-vested girl impassively repeated. “Every day?”

“Far as I knew,” Ironside nodded before narrowing his eyes in a return of suspicion. “Why do you ask, anyway?” Here, Twilight’s smile finally came to full, smug fruition.

“Because I’ve finally caught your story in a snag,” she beamed. “You say that Graves isn’t anything special, that he got to where he did with lots of hard work. But then you said he put in three times the normal effort on physical training every single day. This, dear general, creates a logical impasse. If he’s as normal as you say, then his body would break apart from an unsustainable amount of wear and tear. The only way it could happen was if he did have some sort of special traits or abilities that set him apart.”

“And this is relevant how?” Rarity prompted, eyebrow arched in query.

“I’m… not actually quite sure,” Twilight admitted. “I sort of just figured that if I found a flaw with his story, it’d indicate he was trying to pull a fast one on us and we might be able to use that to leverage the real story out of him.”

“Pretty good thinking there,” Ironside grinned. “Ever considered a career in intelligence?”

“Thank you, but no,” the young scholar replied with prim glee. “I would just like to hear your explanation for the situation. Is what you said true?”

“Every word,” Ironside nodded.

“In that case, please explain how a normal person could do an impossible amount of work without any special attributes?” As she finished, Twilight lifted her cup and took a long, satisfied draught of tea.

“Oh, that’s easy,” the big man answered. “He just used a Lazarus Pit.”

*****

Rarity was grateful that she was sitting next to Twilight and not in front, as with bulging eyes and puffing cheeks, the sweater-vested scholar did an honest-to-Celestia spit take.

“What?!” she sputtered, coughing and hacking as a good portion of the Earl Grey went down the wrong pipe instead of out. “Did... did you just say Lazarus Pit?”

“I… did…” Ironside nodded, if rather distractedly as he stared at the suddenly formed puddle on top of his desk.

“Why? How?” Twilight asked, never taking her surprise struck eyes off the general even as she waved her wand and cleared the mess. “How on earth did Graves get his hands on a genuine Lazarus Pit?”

“Oh, that. We keep one in the Academy infirmary. Part of the whole educational process, don’t you know.”

“WHAAAAAAAAT?!”

“Er, pardon me,” Rarity interrupted with a hesitant hand raised. “I seem to be missing something. What exactly is this Lazarus Pit you two are speaking of?”

“Old form of magic,” Ironside explained as he traced a finger over his now spotless desk. “Pool of enchanted potions that rapidly accelerates the body’s healing process. Anything from minor cuts and scrapes to broken bones and even internal damage gets healed up in a matter of minutes.”

“Except what the general fails to mention mention,” Twilight scowled, “is that the Lazarus Pools are a highly, highly regulated form of magic as they teeter on the border between pyrrhic utility and just plain torture.”

“And… how are they a problem, exactly?” Rarity prompted, still in the dark about the subject.

“Ever heard of the phrase, ‘the cure’s worse than the disease?’” Twilight asked.

“Yes? the pretty seamstress nodded uncertainly.

“Well, that saying preeeeetty much came straight from those pools. Sure, they can cure lots of injuries in a matter of minutes, but they say that those few minutes feel like every inch of submerged skin is being stung by wasps.”

“I’d say it’s more akin to being boiled like a potato,” Ironside corrected, “but wasps are a fair description as well.”

“My point,” Twilight shot back through gritted teeth, “is that either way, Lazarus Pits are completely pointless and inhumane methods of treatment given today’s developed medical magic. Which raises the question why the Academy has something like that in the infirmary in the first place?”

The stink eye she gave the general contained all the odors of a dirty rag cloth soaked in month-old milk.

“Like I said," Ironside shrugged, “education.”

“I think what Twilight is trying to say,” Rarity began, intervening before her rather riled compatriot to get revved up and going, “is what lesson could you possibly need such a barbaric device for?”

“Why, the simplest lesson of all,” Ironside laughed, his booming peals echoing through the room. “We’ve got to teach the cadets not to be complete idiots.”

The blank stares he got in return prompted him to continue.

“See, most people who join the army have a certain… wild streak to them,” he began. “That’s not a problem in itself, but it does become an issue if it leads the cadets to do stupid things and take stupid risks. Training accidents and serious injury get normal treatment, of course, but for genuinely bonehead moves, like getting gored when you decide to moon the gorgon, well… they can choose to live with a hole in their butts, or take a quick dip into the pool. Either way, it’s a lesson they don’t soon forget.”

“And despite the very purpose of these pools to be dissuasive,” Rarity began with the utmost of incredulity, “you’re telling me that Graves, as a child, decided to use them on a regular basis?”

“Hay, I bet he used them more than the showers. Broken blisters from running too much? Hit the pool. Hand broken on the sand bags? Hit the pool. Magic backlash, internal bruising, exposure, and even just a common cold? All into the pool. He used that sucker to keep his body in perfect condition just so he could break it back down again without needing to rest. Or at least till he got to the point where he didn’t need it anymore.”

*****

Twilight slumped back into her seat, the figurative weight of a mountain’s worth of information bearing down onto her weary head. It was a stretch, and by stretch, she meant attempting a trip to the moon with nothing more than a spring board kind of long shot. But if it what Ironside had just told them was true, that Graves was somehow mad enough to subject himself to the Lazarus Pits over and over again for the sake of his absurdly spartan training, then maybe… just maybe…. an ordinary man could in fact become a marshal on pure grit and ornery stubbornness alone.

It was outlandish, daresay even fantastical, but the puzzle piece fit too perfectly to be anything else but true.

“It’s a lot to take in at once, isn’t?” Ironside prompted with a small, knowing smile. “But I promise you, with Celestia as my witness, that every word here is the honest truth.

“No, I believe you,” Twilight nodded dumbly. “It’s just that, I always thought I was a pretty hard worker, but Graves is… is…”

“Crazy? Obsessive? Borderline and possibly clinically insane?” the general offered, to which the purple-haired girl replied with an amused, if not quite completely joking smile.

“Not the words I would have used, but something like that,” she admitted. “I just… can’t comprehend why somebody would push themselves to that extent. It almost makes him seem inhuman.”

“You can say that again,” Ironside replied ruefully. “But it takes all kinds of crazy to get into this sort of career. Guess Graves just happened to be a bit crazier than most.”

Twilight’s sagacious nod was cut off by an abruptly unexpected yawn. It was only upon looking out of the window that she realized the sun had already begun its descent, painting the skies warm orange and bright scarlet as the day drew to an end.

“Good grief, we’ve been at it for quite a while, haven’t we?” Ironside remarked as he too took note of the time. “Maybe it’s best that we call it a day and let you two get some rest.”

“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea,” Twilight replied with a weary smile as she stood up and turned to leave. It was with a start that her amethyst eyes alighted on the third person in the room.

“Oh geez, I’m so sorry, Rarity,” the purple-haired scholar blurted out in shocked embarrassment. “I was so caught up with asking my own questions, I never let you get in a word edgewise.”

“It’s quite all right,” the pretty dressmaker replied with a gentle smile. “You did such an admirable job leading the discussion, I really didn’t need to involve myself at all.”

“You sure?” her friend queried curiously. “We’ve been here for a while, and I know you probably have more invested in this than anyone. I don’t want to get in your way.”

“If it concerns you that much, then maybe I’ll remain for just a bit longer, in case I think of anything you haven’t covered,” Rarity replied reassuringly. “But you really should go and get some rest: you look like Applejack after zap-apple season.

“I guess I am pretty worn out,” Twilight garbled out through a muffled yawn. “Make sure to fill me in on anything new?”

“Undoubtedly,” Rarity smiled. So with a quick hug farewell, Twilight opened the large doors, passed by the two guards who smelled suspiciously like cake frosting, and stumbled her way down the stairs.

*****

Rarity and Ironside sat in silence for a few moments, ice blue and sapphire eyes appraising each other expectantly.

“So, is there anything I can help you with?” Ironside smiled genteelly from his side of the table.

“If you would be so kind,” Rarity replied with the utmost of decorum. “It’s true, Twilight handled everything remarkably, but there was one slight issue that appeared at the end I was hoping you might address.”

“Of course. What would that be?”

“You said you’ve spoken the absolute truth, and I on that point, I believe you,” she began with a gentle smile. “But that would limit the truth to only what was said, wouldn’t it?”

“You’re… going to have to explain that,” Ironside answered, his tone as polite as ever, but now tinged with the slightest hint of reservation. “I’ve answered all your questions to the best of my knowledge.”

“Indeed you have,” the violet-haired beauty nodded, “which might be more of a failing on our part for not asking the right questions. Twilight asked you about hows and whats, which you provided splendid answers. But… you never addressed the why. Why does Graves behave as he does? What serves to motivate his actions? What is the reason? To have answers to everything and not this is akin to someone specifying the type of stitching and the sort of fabric for a dress without ever making mention as to the style.”

“Hmm…” Ironside leaned back in his seat as he slowly stroked his beard. “That’s certainly an interesting notion you’ve got there. But don’t you think you’re reading a bit too much into this?”

“Really?” the young lady replied with arched eyebrow. “How so?”

“Well, you’re saying motivation this, and reasons that, but have you ever considered that maybe he’s just born like that? Some people work hard, and some people are just lazy bums. Seems like Graves is nothing more than a pretty extreme case of the first.”

“General, there’s hard working, and then there’s this,” Rarity replied. “I consider myself a rather industrious individual, but I can only go to feats of extreme diligence when there’s a deadline looming. Graves may be hardworking, but to go the extremes you’ve laid out, there must be some underlying goal that compels him to do so.”

“And you think I know what that is?” the general queried.

“Well, you certainly know more than you’re letting on.”

“How do you figure that?”

“By what you didn’t say,” she smiled. “In our various other queries, you would always expound on what we asked to some degree, letting us learn more than what we asked. All save for this subject where you were very diligent to stay strictly within the bounds of the topic. To do so would usually require some knowledge of what to avoid, and considering how forthcoming you’ve been on the restrictions of our conversation, the matter must be something that you could say, but would if fact rather not.”

Rarity leaned in closer, her sapphire eyes sparkling with earnest intent.

“So what is it, General Ironside? What exactly are you hiding?”

**********