• Published 2nd Mar 2013
  • 7,472 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 11

Chapter 11

Ironside burst out into bellows of thunderous laughter.

“Miss Rarity, you really are one of a kind,” the big man chuckled as he wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. “But I guess you’d have to be to go after that boy.”

“Some things are just worth the effort, she replied with a weary shrug. “Now please, what can do you know about Graves? Why exactly was he so driven? Why does he feel compelled to push himself to such unreasonable lengths?”

Ironside didn’t answer immediately. After stroking his beard for a spell, he instead decided to reach into the side drawer and pulled out his bottle of Salamander fire whisky. Pouring a finger’s worth into each of two crystal glasses, he handed one to the young lady, who accepted with a wordless nod of thanks.

“… Do you know where a soldier’s worst injuries are?” he asked, taking a slow sip of the fiery drink. When the lady gave no response, the burly officer raised a finger and tapped the side of his head.

“They’re in the mind. We've gotten really good at patching up the regular stuff, what with spells for everything from heart palpitations to wart removal. But what goes on up inside people’s heads, well… even the best mages haven’t been able to do all that much with them.”

“I sort of understand that part,” Rarity slowly acknowledged, “but frankly, I don’t see how it applies to Graves. He was already like that before he entered the service, or else he would never have made it in. How then, does something that would only apply afterwards, affect what happens before?”

“Ah, I see how my statement could be misleading,” Ironside nodded. “I said soldiers because they’re usually the ones who get it the worst. But it’s very possible for other people to get it just as bad.”

“What do you mean?” the young lady frowned as a creeping tendril of apprehension wormed into the pit of her stomach. Taking another sip, the general peered deep into his glass, his blue eyes as somber as an overcast morning.

“It’s odd, isn’t it?" he murmured. "Most parents would never let a child go through such a strenuous test like the Academy entrance exam, much less let said child join in the impossibility that they passed. I mean, just how irresponsible would a parent have to be?”

Though Rarity opened her mouth to speak, her voice caught as the meaning of the general’s words struck home like a two-ton sledge. Still, it took a while for the true magnitude of the idea to sink in, as seen by the ever so slow widening of her sapphire eyes.

“When… How did it happen?” she asked, the words coming out faint and strained, like fabric on the brink of tearing.

“The Warblood Uprising. Must have been, oh, something near fifteen years ago now,” the general sighed. “You were probably too young to remember, but several tribes of orcs in the north began attacking our borders. Eventually, we managed to drive them back, but by then the damage was done and the ruins were... well, let’s just say that you don’t arrive a week later and expect to find survivors in that kind of aftermath. But we did find a very small few, one of them being a little, grey-eyed boy.”

The young lady could say nothing.

“We brought him back to Canterlot and placed him in the Tender Heart Children’s Home. Must’ve been just shy of ten years old at the time. The caretakers there are some of the best in the country, and kids can be surprisingly resilient, but still, that boy had seen things to make a grown man fall apart like shattered glass. Probably why his eyes got so blasted cold. Anyways, it would have taken a miracle for him to get over the trauma, but I don't think anything under this sun could help a kid deal the guilt as well.”

“Guilt?” Rarity blinked, the shock of the last word bringing her out of her stunned silence. “But why on earth would he feel guilty? Surely, nobody would claim that any of this was his fault.”

“Of course not,” the general agreed with a surprising amount of vehemence. “But you have to understand that some things just don’t make sense. Many who survive terrible ordeals, especially if those close to them didn’t, often think that it’s somehow wrong for them to be alive.”

“But… but that…”

“If you think that's utter bollocks, you’d be right,” Ironside sighed. “And that’s what makes it so blasted awful. You can’t help but feel guilty, but you know you shouldn’t. You know that you shouldn’t think like this and that you should get over it and move on with your life. After all, you’re still alive; what right do you have to feel upset? Some people manage to overcome it and move on with their lives. For others, the pressure just becomes too much for them to bear and ends up tearing them apart.”

“Then Graves…” Rarity began, forming a question she wasn’t sure she wanted answered. “Which one was he?”

“…Maybe both?” Ironside shrugged. “He’s still around now, so we know he didn’t take the most drastic route. But I think that somewhere along the way, he got it in his head that he needed to… I don’t know… atone for surviving? Maybe he thought that if he suffered enough, or did enough good, then maybe it’d justify how he still drew breath.”

“And that’s why he pushed himself to get into the Academy?”

“More or less, from what I can tell,” the general nodded. “He was chewed up like twice trampled roadkill by the time he finished the entrance exam, but he’d put enough work in during those two years to just scrape a pass, and according to our military laws, any Equestrian citizen who passes the exam has a right to serve. Might need to take another look at that now, but what's done is done, no?"

"Then, when he got to the Academy," Rarity queried. "Did things get better?"

"Er, not exactly," Ironside reluctantly admitted. "Truth be told, Graves was pretty much all by himself as the other cadets didn't take much of a liking to him.”

“Really?” Rarity remarked in surprise. “I would have thought that those in the academy would sympathize with him better than anyone.”

“Eventually, yes,” the general agreed, “but not at the offset. Most go for years without ever experiencing that kind of ordeal, and few if any go through it as bad as he did. In short, they just couldn't understand what he was going through. Consider that, plus the age difference, his outright manic work schedule, and a gaze that could bore holes through steel, and you end up with a boy who's pretty much always on his own.”

“But, surely he must have had someone to talk to,” the violet-haired girl protested in disbelief. “What about Shining Armor? They were in the same class for training, were they not?”

“That they were, and thank the princesses it was so,” Ironside called with the utmost of fervent sincerity. “I don’t know how or why, but Twilight’s brother took a shine to Graves and absolutely refused to leave him alone. Even joined him on his insane training binges just to create a chance to talk. I bet that rubbed our dear marshal wrong for a good bit, but eventually, the persistence wore him down and Shining Armor became maybe the only real friend Graves ever had.”

“There, you see?” Rarity smiled. “Surely a friend who’d be willing to go that far would be willing to lend Graves an understanding ear when he needed it, no?”

The general’s sigh sounded like the last warm breeze of summer.

“Willing, yes. Understanding, not so much. Keep in mind, Shining Armor was the exact opposite of Graves: loving parents, an adoring little sister, that Princess Cadance whom he got married to, he had it all. He was a good friend, no doubt about that, but even so, there’s no way someone like him could really understand what Graves went through, no matter how much he wanted to.”

“That just doesn't seem right,” Rarity murmured, “to not even be able to confide in your closest friend, especially when you have no one else.”

“Probably not,” Ironside agreed. “But he was there for Graves, and that counts for more than you know. He’s the one who taught Graves to open up, however little it was, which was more than can be said for anyone else. That is at least, until graduation.”

“What happened then?”

“That’s when Graves finally found his home in marshal team twenty-six. Usually, we only have twenty five teams, but we decided to create an experimental unit of highly skilled, if somewhat odd individuals, to see if we could create an exceptionally high performing group. Normally, we try to keep new recruits together under a senior captain, but given how good Graves had gotten at his specific skill sets and how... unique his disposition, we figured it’d be as good a place as any to stick him. Plus, they needed a sniper.”

“And… how did that turn out?” Rarity asked hesitantly. Truth be told, the thought of such a young man joining a team of hardened soldiers, what with their rough lifestyle and undoubtedly uncouth behavior, was enough to curdle her stomach. To her surprise though, the commander burst out into booming peals of laughter.

“Not sure if Graves liked it, but they took to him like pigs to mud. Everyone was a good bit older than him and thought he was just about the cutest little thing to ever happen to their squad. I don’t think he went a full day without somebody teasing him for being a baby-faced cherub or something of the like.”

“Dear me,” the young lady intoned. “I can’t imagine that was pleasant at all.”

“Maybe not, the general smiled fondly, “but it was good for him, because for once in his life, there were people who understood him. Everyone on that team had been through the same kind of thing, maybe not quite so young, but enough to understand what it was like. Graves finally had people who weren't unnerved by his frigid eyes and actually wanted to help him through what he’d experienced. They became his brothers and sisters, the family he'd lost, and they were the ones who finally helped him patch up that gaping rend inside.”

“But…” Rarity’s voiced dropped, so low as to make a whisper seem a shout, “he’s not on a team anymore.”

Ironside nodded wearily as he drained his glass.

“No. No he's not.”

“Operation Elder?”

The general nodded once more.

For a moment, the young lady paused, pensively biting her lip as she considered her next question. It was a daring one and almost certainly beyond the reach of her station. But there were some things she just had to know.

“General," she began, hardly daring to breath, "on that operation... what exactly happened?”

For a moment, Ironside simply looked at the young lady, appraising her as he might a cadet’s uniform before parade.

“You do realize that you’re asking me to tell you highly confidential information that bears directly on the safety of Equestria, correct?”

“I do,” she nodded, a good deal more firmly than she felt. “And I also know you’re going to tell me anyway.”

“And how’s that?”

“Because if you weren't going to, you’d have simply said so.”

Despite the gravity of the subject, Ironside couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Again with the subtleties,” he remarked with a slight smile. “I guess you have a point. Graves has got some serious baggage he needs to deal with, and he’s certainly not going to do it himself.”

“And it’s worth breaching law and order by divulging secrets to do so?” The young lady replied with a faint, but amused grin. The general merely gave an airy wave of his hand.

“Rules are meant to be broken. And besides, he’s a bucking good soldier; it’d be a shame to lose him to something that could be solved with a good talking to.”

“Then I guess we’re in agreement,” Rarity nodded, hiding the trembling of excitement by finally picking up her glass and taking a dainty sip of the rich liquor. “In that case, please tell me. What exactly happened on Operation Elder?”

“… It’s kind of funny, really,” Ironside remarked as he settled back in his chair. “Truth be told, the mission was never actually supposed to happen.”

“That, you’ll have to explain,” the young lady frowned. “Marshals only go where they’re needed. How could the mission not have been intended to happen?”

“At first, it was just supposed to be a scouting mission. Back then, we were getting reports of a strange miasma coming from somewhere in the Crystal Mountains. There wasn’t much, but it was nasty stuff that drove creatures to violent madness. Made them twice as dangerous through sheer, unbridled ferocity. Naturally, we had an interest in finding where this was coming from and putting a stop to it.

"That’s where team twenty-six came in: we sent the on a reconnaissance mission to get in, find the source, and plug it if possible, but get out and report if not. Granted, it was deep in the Crystal Mountains, which would have made it a good C Class mission at least, but nothing that team couldn’t have handled in their sleep.”

“So what went wrong?” Rarity asked.

“It’s sort of a good news, bad news thing. Good news is, the team found the source, some kind of underground vent deep in one of the mountain crags. The bad news was, that crag also happened to be occupied by a full grown dragon.”

The Ponyville dressmaker couldn’t help but shudder at the thought. Though dragons were highly intelligent and often reasonable, that still didn’t mean they were anything less than terrifyingly powerful and very, very dangerous.

“And that’s only the start of it,” Ironside continued. “The reason there was so little miasma leaking from the mountains was because most of it was pooling in the crag where this particular dragon had taken residence. Now, dragons have some of the strongest natural resistances to magic of any known creature, but considering a little of this miasma was enough to cause insanity and this dragon had literally been bathing in it for who knows how long, well... I think you get the idea.”

The young lady nodded in mute understanding.

“To make matters worse, this wasn’t just any old dragon. If it were, then the team may still have been able to take it out and gotten back in one piece. But just to show that bad luck travels in packs, this one happened to be none other than…”

The general took a shuddering breath to steady his nerves,

“… than Typhon himself.”

Rarity blinked.

“… I’m sorry, but did you just say Typhon?” The young lady repeated.

“Oh, so you’ve heard of him.”

“Well of course,” the young lady frowned in confusion. “Typhon the Terrible was the bad dragon who tried to steal the sun in the fairy tales my mother used to read to me. Surely, you can’t be suggesting that Graves and his compatriots ran into a character from a children’s storybook.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Ironside replied as he stroked his beard. “But who was it exactly that ran into the infamous Nightmare Moon, villain of old wives’ tales and subject used to scare children into behaving, hmm?”

Though Rarity opened her mouth to respond, nothing came from it. After all, it’s rather hard to argue with fact.

“Truth be told, many of those fairy tales are actually based on real events, some so old that the only way they've been remembered is through bedtime stories and legends; Typhon is one of these. One of the four Firstborn, the Lord of Dusk was a founding fathers of the dragon race and a direct descendant to the Dragon Mother herself. He was there when Celestia sought to establish the nation of Equestria and it was he who challenged her right to do so.”

“But… but that was thousands of years ago!” Rarity sputtered in stunned disbelief. “True, dragons are undoubtedly long lived, but to have been alive at that point and still around now would make him positively ancient!”

“Hence, the codename Elder,” Ironside replied with a wry grin. “And keep in mind, a normal dragon like Razorfang of the Everfree Forest is dangerous enough, but it’d be like a kitten compared to a tiger when put against Typhon. The Firstborn are far larger, far wiser, and far, far, far more powerful than just about any creature in existence.”

“And this marshal team happened to run into one of them.”

“Yup.”

“Who’d been exposed to a miasma that makes them twice as dangerous and vicious.”

“Exactly.”

“… Well, what exactly are they to do?!” Rarity asked in bewilderment. “It’s not like you can expect them to challenge a creature of legend with just five people and that many spell guns!”

“Actually, four,” Ironside corrected. “One of their numbers was an aura mage with spell wings and power armor.”

“Oh, well that makes all the difference,” the young lady retorted with a roll of the eyes. “My point being is they’re completely outmatched. Surely, you didn’t give the order for them to fight the creature, did you?”

“We didn’t have to. They did it themselves.”

“…”

“….”

“Surely you jest.”

“I wish I were,” the general grimaced. “Unfortunately, I’m not.”

“Well why on earth would they do that?” Rarity asked in something akin to outrage. “I’m no soldier, and even I could tell you that the intelligent thing to do would be to withdraw and wait for assistance.”

“That’s the textbook response, yes,” the general nodded. “Problem with that is, while it’s definitely the safer choice for them and by far the smarter choice, it’s the one choice they couldn’t make.”

“Couldn’t? And why not?”

“Think about it. If Typhon ever decided to leave that crag - and with that much maddening miasma, you can bet it'd be an unpredictable event - then there would be no way Equestria could escape unscathed. Even if the entire army and the entire royal family stood together against him, it would still be a super S class threat, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the rise of King Sombra. You let that dragon leave, and there wouldn’t be enough space in the country for all the graves we’d have to dig.”

“Then if the threat was so large, then how on earth would you expect a team of five marshals to deal with it?” Rarity asked in utter disbelief. “Regardless of how amazing Graves is, to expect him and four others to stand against a force even Celestia and Luna couldn’t repel… it’s unthinkable.”

“It is, the general agreed, “except for the only advantage they had: the element of surprise. If one of the Firstborn got going, it would be like trying to stop an avalanche. But thank heaven for small favors, that team managed to find him while he was still asleep. They could ambush him and stop the avalanche before it could become so much as a snowball.”

“But it didn’t work,” Rarity said softly. “They didn’t make it in time.”

“No, no they didn’t,” Ironside sighed. “Though Graves doesn't have the talent, all those years of hard work and constant practice taught him how to focus the magic he did have to the utmost, to sharpen his lightning and create a bolt of thunder so powerful, even a mythical dragon could be felled by the blow. To do that, all he needed was five minutes.”

Rarity tried to swallow the lump in her throat.”

“What happened?”

“Typhon woke up. Now, Graves was the only one who had a shot at getting through that dragon’s armor, but he needed time to make it happen. So the rest of his team, capitalizing on the confusion of just waking and the madness of the miasma, went out to provide distraction, doing what they could to give Graves those precious few minutes he needed to make the shot. Of course, even team twenty-six couldn’t do much against a beast like Typhon, and one by one, they fell.”

“Didn’t Graves do anything to help?” the young lady gaped. “Couldn’t he have done something to assist, to save his comrades?”

“And then what?” the officer snapped with surprising force. “If Graves had abandoned his post, yes, he might have been able to keep the others from dying for a moment, but what happens next? Typhon would have turned on him, and if he went down, then everything would be lost.” With a dull crunch, the crystal glass in Ironside’s hand shattered under the force of his grip. He didn’t seem to notice.

“No, the thing he should have done, and really the only thing he could have done, was stay in hiding and make the shot. No matter how much he wanted to, no matter how much it hurt, Graves knew that his job was to take down Typhon then and there, whatever the cost. So just like a good little soldier, he stood his ground, gritted his teeth, and did nothing as his team went down.

"But he made the shot.”

**********

“Well, I guess you now know pretty much everything,” Ironside sighed, pulling out a handkerchief and idly mopping up the shards of liquor-soaked crystal. “After that, Graves disappeared from the sensors and somehow ended up making it back to Equestria, broken eight ways till Sunday, but with Typhon's heartstone and the badges of his comrades in tow. From there, he started his solo career and began putting out the workload of a whole team all by himself, probably as a way for him to keep his team alive, considering we couldn’t even recognize they’d ever existed at all.”

“You couldn't?” Rarity gaped. “And why ever not? Surely sacrifice such as theirs should be honored and remembered for ages to come!”

“More than anyone I can think of,” the general wholeheartedly agreed. “But if we did, then we’d have to recognize that Equestria was responsible for killing one of the dragon’s most revered patriarchs, which could have lead to a full blown war between us and them, which may have been even worse than Typhon’s rampage. The only way to avoid that chance was to hide away all evidence until cooler heads could prevail and peace be brokered in truth. To make that happen, team twenty-six just could not exist.”

“How ironic,” Rarity grimaced with all the bitterness of wormwood. “Just when you think they've given everything, they’re called to give more. It seems that not even the dead can rest in peace.”

“It’s even worse for the living,” Ironside said with an identical, if not even more pained expression. “For anyone, watching your entire team fall, the people who in many ways are closer than natural family, would have been unbearable. For someone who’d already gone through that kind of loss before, well… words can’t do the feeling justice.”

“He seemed so different after being with us, though,” Rarity murmured, her voice growing soft and tender at the thought of her raven-haired soldier. "He seemed so much better. I thought he was happy."

“He probably was," the general nodded. "Don’t know what you did, but Ponyville worked wonders on that boy, like I’d hoped. When Celestia told me about you girls, I figured that if anyone had a chance of salvaging what remained in that tattered head of his, it’d be you all. Turns out I was right.”

“Then what about the Gala night?” the young lady pressed on, her eyes gone wide with urgent need. “Before it, everything seemed to be perfect, then he awoke and he had suddenly changed. Or maybe not changed, but… reverted, like how he’d been when first arriving, only even worse. Do you have any idea why?” Ironside shrugged.

“Doctors told me he had a whole bunch of Heart’s Desire pumping in his veins. My guess is it showed him something that brought back the guilt he felt for surviving yet again. Guys like him just don’t feel like they have a right to be happy, so he probably left to make it so he couldn't. ”

“That’s patently ridiculous,” Rarity scoffed, though without much in the way of emphasis.

“Maybe,” the general nodded. “But that’s just how he sees the world and let me tell you, it’s not a pretty view.”

They sat in silence for a spell, the gray-haired commander watching the young lady as she stared into the scarlet contents of her glass. Whatever answers she sought, they apparently weren’t to be found in the sanguine depths.

“What now?” Ironside abruptly said. Rarity blinked.

“Pardon?”

“I said what now?” he repeated. “I’ve probably aired out more of that boy’s dirty laundry than I had a right to. I’m just wondering what you plan to do with it all.”

“Do?” the pretty dressmaker replied. “Why, I just supposed I’ll have to wait, won’t I?”

“Er… Wait?”

“Well, yes,” Rarity blinked once more, seemingly confused at having to explain herself. “I really have no idea where Graves could be, so I’ll just have to wait for him to come back to me. I daresay, he won’t be returning to Ponyville any time soon, but I should have enough contacts in Canterlot that I’ll be able to catch him on his return.”

“So… you actually plan of waiting for him?” the general asked in simple surprise. “Despite everything I told you?”

“I most certainly do,” Rarity replied, her eyes clear and firm like pure, polished gemstones.

“It won’t be easy,” Ironside grimaced.

“It never is,” she nodded in wry agreement, “but it’s precisely the difficult things that are worth doing. After all, fashion would never have taken off if we went with the easy route, and you’d most likely be wearing a shapeless sack instead of that fetching tunic. Quite the worthwhile endeavor, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I most certainly do,” the big man replied as the corner of his mouth curled upward, “but this isn’t just some little fix it up project. After what that boy’s been through, it’ll take nothing less than a miracle for him to become any semblance of normal.”

To his astonishment, Rarity flung her head back and in one fell swoop, consumed the entire glass of eighty proof whisky in one – somehow graceful – gulp. Delicately slamming the glass to the table, the young lady returned a sweet smile while her sapphire eyes blazed like blue fire.

“General Ironside,” she replied, her voice as polite and musical as ever, but unyielding, like crystal wrapped in silk, “I was in attendance when Nightmare Moon made her thousand year return. I’ve faced off against the Spirit of Chaos and Disorder reincarnate. I’ve confronted dragons and minotaurs, fallen to my supposed doom on numerous occasions, and felt the ire of a particularly vengeful – if somewhat illiterate – shadow being bent on wiping out an entire city.

"I played a part in all those fiascos not because I particularly wanted to, but because I knew I had to. But with Graves, I am perfectly serious when I say I have never wanted anything so badly as to bring him back. To think that he’s been suffering all alone for all this time, thinking that he doesn't even have the right to live...” The young lady took pause, steadying her hand and nerves as she quelled the pent up emotions threatening to burst forth as she spoke. She once again continued, if not as steadily, with an even more brilliant light in her sapphire blue eyes.

“Graves needs help. He needs someone to get it through that thick skull of his just what a silly notion he’s holding onto. Guilt from being alive, indeed. Hmph. Well, I intend to be that someone; I’ve grown too fond of him to let him disappear off into some corner of the globe to suffer alone when I can be there by his side. Of course I know it won’t be easy, but if you think I’m going to back down now just because he has a little more baggage than most, them, I’m afraid to say that you, good sir, are sadly, and sorely mistaken.”

...

Like thunder, like an avalanche, like booming artillery, Ironside burst out into peals of raucous laughter. Unable to contain himself, he clutched at his sides, hooting and snorting till tears streamed down his face.

“Hoo boy,” he wheezed between laughs that continuously wracked his body, “I don’t know whether to envy that boy or pity him.”

“Perhaps both,” Rarity smiled sweetly, all genteel composure once more. “He’s certainly caught my eye, but his simply atrocious conduct will certainly get its reckoning, believe you me.”

“And you’re absolutely sure you want to do this?” the general asked once more.

A single, coolly arched eyebrow was all the answer he needed.

“Well then, let me be the first one to wish you luck,” he smiled, extending his hand to take the young beauty’s in a firm shake.

“Thank you very much” Rarity replied, albeit with a touch of rueful acceptance in the smile. “Celestia knows we’ll need it. I’m not even sure how long it will be before I get a chance to speak to him again, if ever.”

“Right, about that,” Ironside began, his expression quickly growing to resemble a certain navy-haired officer. “I might be able to expedite that process a little.”

“Really?” the violet-haired girl replied with obvious interest. “How so?”

“Obviously, I can’t tell you where he’s assigned or anything; that’d be against regulation,” the general said, pulling out quill and parchment and jotting down notes as he talked. “However, if I just so happened to say that a certain cargo ship was leaving for a certain front, and that it just so happened to be that this front was where a certain marshal was posted, and a certain young lady just so happened to be on board because I decided to allow it, well… I guess we could chalk all that up to a fortunate coincidence, no?”

For just a brief moment, a look of pure, unbridled delight flashed across the young lady's face. Just a moment, though. After all, it wouldn’t be proper to jump across the table and bear hug Equestria’s top military officer in gratitude, now would it?

“Of course,” Rarity smiled, perfectly serene and composed as ever, though unable to keep the glowing smile from lighting up her beautiful face. “Merely a fortunate coincidence.”

**********