• 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

  • ...
24
 645
 7,495

Chapter 5

Chapter 5

“Bwah?! Wha… What in the world?...”

What should have been a luxuriously restful afternoon nap was summarily ruined by thunderous crashing, never a good sign in a library. Righting himself from where his upended seat had unceremoniously dumped him, Professor Dewey grabbed his cane and hobbled from his office as fast as his wizened legs could carry him. What he saw almost blew his prodigious mind.

“Twilight Sparkle?” he wheezed, clutching at his heart as if the shock might send him to his knees. “What in the name of logic and reason is going on here?”

Bear in mind, the elderly academic wasn’t surprised to see his favorite bookworm amidst a large pile of books; he’d grown used to that sight long before she’d even grown larger than some of the texts she’d devoured. The only thing was, he’d been used to her being on top of the books, or at least next to them. As it stood, he could hardly make out her purple and pink striped mop as she’d been completely buried under a literal avalanche of dusty tomes.

“Oh, hey Professor,” Twilight winced as a cascading copy of Practical Matters of Military Affairs tumbled straight onto her head. “How’s it going?”

“My goodness, child, are you all right?” Professor Dewey fretted as he pulled his wand from the sleeve of his robe and with a few quick flicks, restored the fallen books to their proper places on the empty shelves next to the young scholar. “How on earth did you manage to get yourself into such a predicament?”

“Well, I was doing a summoning charm for all books relating to the marshal branch of the Equestrian Army,” she began, climbing to her feet and giving herself a liberal dusting off. “Only, I wasn’t expecting to get such a thorough response.”

“The marshals?” the ancient academic blinked. “But why would you suddenly be interested in the marshals? Mind you, I find no quarrel with your endeavors to explore different subjects, but it’s just that you’ve never shown much interest in the more… martial subjects, so to speak.”

“Very true, very true,” Twilight nodded before breaking out into distinctly conspiratorial wink. “But that was before I found a lead on the Dragonslayer’s Mark.”

It was a good thing Professor Dewey was so healthy for a man of his age, or else his heart really might have exploded from pure, distilled excitement.

“You… you have?” he gasped, his eyes sparkling to life behind his massive spectacles. “But how? I must have searched through every text here twice and found nothing!”

“That’s because you were looking for references to the badge through the event Operation Elder, which I’ve found out is highly classified information,” the amethyst-eyed girl explained. “However, I’ve also found out, from General Ironside no less, that one of the soldiers involved in said operation was a marshal named Graves.”

“… Tell me everything you know, Twilight Sparkle,” the old librarian said with an almost childlike giddiness in his voice. “From the beginning, mind you, and don’t spare the details.”

So Twilight did, recapping all the information she’d gleaned since departing from that very library near two weeks ago. Facts and data, she told without reservation, but as close as she was to the professor, the young lady still held back the details regarding why she was so keen to find information on Graves. Some things were personal to the point you didn’t share with anyone but those directly involved, not even those as close as family.

“I see,” Professor Dewey nodded slowly as he stroked his chin in thought. “That… is a most peculiar set of circumstances. And you say you’re familiar with this Graves, but know nothing about him?”

“More or less, no.” Twilight shrugged. “He hasn't told us much, and we have no idea where he was deployed, so it's not like we can really ask him. I thought we might talk Shining Armor to see what he knew, but apparently he's been shipped off too, and nobody seems to know where. That’s why Rarity and I figured we’d go the indirect route and see if we could find any records on Graves. The library still archives the files and records of all military personnel, doesn't it?”

“For the last sixteen hundred years,” he confirmed with a proud smile. “But I doubt you’ll need to go that far back. This Graves of yours can’t be that old, so we should have a fair time tracking him down.”

“You mean you can help us?” the young scholar asked in delighted surprise.

“But of course!” he harrumphed, drawing himself to his full, if somewhat diminutive stature. “You didn’t think to keep this fantastic treasure hunt to yourself, did you?”

“Perish the thought,” she replied with a wide grin.

“Good. Now, it will certainly be good for us to start with the records, but at some point we’ll have to track down witnesses and get some first person testimonies. If this Graves fellow was important enough to send on a mission like Operation Elder, there are bound to be people who know a thing or two about him."

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, professor,” Twilight grinned, looking very much like a cat with cream on its whiskers. “I already got that part figured out.”

“You did?”

“I did,” she nodded smugly. “I’m grabbing books to meet up with Rarity who’s back at the central table. While we’re looking here, I’ve got friends of mine doing interviews in the barracks as well as tracking down a lead we have with the Wonderbolts. With any luck, they’ll be back with news before we even finish checking the indexes.”

“… You've truly grown into such a wonderful young scholar,” Professor Dewey sniffed, his voice choking with emotion as he dabbed at his eye with the corner of his sleeve. “And to think, it seemed only yesterday when you thought picture books were Celestia’s gift to man.”

“Hey, Puffy the Purple Hippo was one of the greatest literary works of all time,” Twilight retorted, her cheeks turning a brilliant shade of red as she did.

“Of course, of course,” the elderly academic chuckled. “But we can discuss the merits of story time later. Until your friends get back, let’s see what light we can shed on the subject of your elusive Graves!”

*****

It was only through supreme force of will that Soarin managed to stifle a whimper as he sat down for a brief respite in one of Canterlot’s many parks. It wasn’t so much the pounding headache that came from exerting too much magic during extended practices or even the multitude of muscular pains and general, miserable soreness that came from the extra training that followed said extended practices making him groan.

No, what nearly drove the man with a head of blue quills to tears was the state of his lunch.

The Wonderbolts were going to be putting on a show to commemorate the grand opening of the new Canterlot history museum. A big show like that meant extra practice, and more importantly, special diets. All snacks, alcohol, fatty foods, excess salts, extra sugar, and generally anything containing a semblance of taste had been banned and replaced with the blandest of bland health foods. It was this sorry state of affairs that caused Soarin to sniffle as tears welled in his eyes.

“It’s not fair,” he sullenly mumbled as he stared at his designated plate of undressed salad and – he shuddered to think – soy-based tofurky cutlets. “Just because we’re practicing doesn’t mean they need to treat us like rabbits. Would it really be that bad if we had bacon while we practiced? Or at least some real eggs? How do you even make–”

“Hey there, Soarin,” Rainbow Dash grinned as she abruptly slid onto the bench next to him. “How’s it hanging?”

“Oh, hey there, Dash,” he smiled in reply. “Business as usual. How you doing?”

“Good, good,” she casually replied. “I see you’re getting ready for a big show. Special diet and everything, huh?”

“Unfortunately,” he grimaced as his former dejections returned full force. “I swear this isn’t real food. I mean, I’m no science guy or nothing, but I don’t think we’re meant to eat something that looks like it’s already been eaten, if you know what I’m saying.”

“Ugh, I think I do,” the cyan clad girl nodded with a look of horrified revulsion. “So why don’t you just get some real food, like a burger or something?”

“Tch, yeah right,” Soarin snorted. “Spitfire’s put all of Canterlot on alert. Nobody in the entire city’s gonna sell us so much as a french fry.”

“So…” Rainbow Dash began as innocently as a newborn bunny rabbit, “You’re telling me that there’s no way for you to get real food, so all you’ve got to eat is that… stuff, right?”

The Wonderbolt nodded his head in dour acceptance.

“Well then…” Here, the young athlete quickly glanced around to make sure no bystanders were in earshot before sliding closer and whispering. “What if I told you that I know a gal who can hook you up with a little something something, if you catch my drift?” Soarin’s eyes slowly widened.

“You sure?” he asked, not quite daring to believe his good luck. “Who is it?”

“It’s me!” Pinkie Pie squealed as she flew from the bush and landed squarely on the bench next to him. “If you’re looking for some sugar, then look no further, cause Auntie Pinkie’s got everything you need!”

“But… I’m older than you,” Soarin blinked. The curly haired baker merely waved a hand in dismissal.

“Details, details,” she giggled. “We’ll worry about those later. Right now, I want you to take a look at this and tell me what you think.” Reaching into her backpack, Pinkie Pie pulled out a white cardboard box and opened it to reveal the golden treasure inside.

“Is… is that…?” the flyer stammered, his eyes sparkling with desire as his mouth began to water like the World’s End falls.

“Yes, yes it is,” Pinkie Pie grinned. “One genuine Sweet Apple Acres home-style apple pie, made with extra cinnamon, extra sugar, and extra love by master baker Applejack herself. And it can all be yours… for a price.”

“Deal!” Soarin cried as he pulled out his wallet faster than Storm Stepper's barrel rolls. “Here, I got twenty bits with me; that should be enough, right?”

“Whoa, not so fast,” Rainbow Dash called. “Who said anything about money?”

“Then what do you want?” Soarin asked, his eyes never for one moment leaving the delicious pastry sitting so tantalizingly close by.

“What we want is information,” Pinkie Pie replied, enunciating the words with all the aplomb of a 1920’s B-movie gangster, “specifically about our mutual friend Graves.”

“Graves?” the flyer blinked. “Okay, sure! What exactly do you want to know?”

“Anything," Rainbow Dash replied. “Facts, stories, personal affairs, anything that we didn’t know about him before that helps us figure out what’s going on in that thick skull of his.”

“Well, I don’t think I know anything that detailed about him,” Soarin admitted with an apologetic grin. “Graves isn’t exactly the kind of guy you get cozy with in the mess hall, when he’s even there to begin with. But that guy’s got a reputation, so if you’re interested in some stories about him and what everyone says around the barracks, I can definitely help you out with those at least.” The two girls exchanged alerted looks before turning their attentions back to him.

“Alright then, whaddaya got?” Pinkie Pie prompted, all ears and eagerness.

“Well…” the blue haired flier paused and swallowed, his stomach rumbling audibly as he longingly gazed as the pie. With a quick nod from Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie pulled out some utensils and sliced off a not large, but substantially savory sampling of pastry for the hungry performer.

“Oh man, that’s good,” Soarin breathed with the biggest, goofiest grin ever as he almost literally inhaled the delicious morsel. “Okay, so you wanna hear about Graves, that right?”

“Duh,” Rainbow Dash snorted. “That’s what we just asked you, wasn’t it?”

“Oh, right. Well like I said, Graves has got a reputation for being one of the baddest marshals ever to hold a spell gun.”

“Bad?” Pinkie Pie frowned. “But I thought you had to be good to be a marshal.”

“Naw, I don’t mean bad as in not good or bad guy kind of bad,” he amended. “I mean bad as in really good.”

“Well if he’s really good,” the curly haired girl continued, “then why’d you call him bad?”

“That’s because… well, I, uh… ... huh. I don’t really know.” The look of befuddlement on his face wasn’t the first of its kind Pinkie Pie had caused, nor would it be the last by far. Rainbow Dash, seeing the mental gears beginning to freeze up, interjected.

“So Graves is really good at being a marshal, is that what you’re saying?” she pressed. “Just what about him makes him so good?”

“He’s more than good, let me tell you that,” Soarin smiled as he came out from his fog of confusion, “he’s downright brilliant. According to my sources, Graves has cleared enough missions in the last few years to qualify for veteran status. That means he’s cleared the equivalent of ten years’ worth of missions in about a third of that time. Crazy, isn’t it?”

“Well how did he go about doing that?” Pinkie Pie asked. “It’s not like he can be in three places at once.”

“He may very well be,” the blue haired flyer replied, his voice approaching something almost like awe. “Out in the field, he fades away like smoke in the wind, and the only reason you know he's there is the pinpoint destruction he dishes out like whipped cream on a good sundae. Once he's done his job, everything goes quiet for a while and then... poof. Pops right back up at camp, maybe a bit worse for wear, but always ready for the next mission. No matter how bad the odds or how dangerous the situation, he always makes it back. Some say it's because Graves can walk through walls and ride the shadows. Others say it’s because even if you kill him. He. Won’t. Die.”

“... Okay, that sounds just a little farfetched if you ask me,” Rainbow Dash incredulously drawled.

“No, it’s totally true!” the Wonderbolt insisted with utmost sincerity. “I heard that from a guy who was roommates with a guy whose unit worked with him one time a couple of years back! This is seriously legit stuff!”

“…”

"..."

“Okay, maybe that’s not as reliable as I thought,” Soarin admitted as he scratched his head. “But it’s definitely true that he’s been on a lot of successful missions.”

“How would you know that?” Pinkie Pie asked again. “It’s not like you go out on missions with the marshals, do you?”

“No,” the Wonderbolt grinned, “but I did happen to be in on the pool betting on when Graves would clear that veteran mark, which was run and verified by Form Filer down in bookkeeping. Graves cleared the hurdle faster than anyone else on record, and they’ve got records of everything. And I do mean anything.”

“Alright, we’ll check into that later,” Rainbow Dash nodded. “Now is there anything you can tell us about him as a person? Anything about what he was like before he came to Ponyville?”

“Like I said earlier, I didn’t really spend much time around him,” Soarin continued. “He wasn’t a flyer, so I never trained with him, and being a marshal, he was out of Canterlot more often than not, especially with his work load.”

“Yeah, about that,” Pinkie Pie frowned. “Why exactly did they give him so much to do, anyway? You’d think that there are enough marshals around that they wouldn’t lump so much on one guy.”

“Now that you mention it, that is kind of odd,” the blue haired performer mused, “cause from what I’ve heard, the marshal’s aren’t usually assigned missions at all.”

The two girls exchanged a pair of very puzzled looks.

“Huh?” they called out in unison.

“Okay, so I’m not clear on the details,” Soarin disclaimed, “but I’m pretty sure the marshals operate on a notice board system. There’s like, a big, central list of all the missions available, and marshals choose which ones to go on; lets them focus on certain areas and bring their best skills to bear. Of course, everyone has a minimum number to clear and some missions are assigned because of priority, but generally, it’s a come as you go kind of system.”

“So you’re telling me,” Rainbow Dash began with brow furrowed, “that Graves has been doing the work of three people because he wants to? Why?”

“Yeah, why?” Pinkie chimed in. “Of course, I don’t get why anyone would want to be a marshal in the first place. I mean, no big fluffy bed to sleep in at home and no friends or family to play with? Nuh uh. So why’s Big G hauling his butt all over Equestria when he doesn’t even have to?”

Soarin tapped his chin for a moment before responding.

“I guess it’s because he has to.”

Needless to say, this answer did not go very far in clarifying the issue for the Ponyville girls.

“But… you just said that it’s on a volunteer basis,” Rainbow retorted as she scratched her head in confusion. “So what do you mean he has to?”

Now it was Soarin’s turn to cast furtive looks around. Once he was sure nobody else was in earshot, he waved in again, beckoning the girls closer to further ensure the security of his words.

“Okay, I’m not really supposed to talk about this, on account of it’s kind of sensitive information, but… the marshal’s aren’t exactly doing so hot these days.”

“They’re not?” Pinkie Pie blinked.

“Nah, not really,” Soarin replied with a small shake of the head. “Thing is, Equestria’s been doing really well for a while. I mean, besides that bit with the Changelings at the Royal Wedding, there hasn’t been any real trouble around these parts for years now. Because of that, recruitment rates have been dropping and it’s been hard for the marshals to keep their ranks up, even with the more relaxed standards.”

“But if everything’s all hunky dory, what do you need marshals for anyway?” the curly haired baker asked. “It seems kind of silly to have a bunch of people sitting around not doing anything.”

“Just because everything’s swell in Equestria doesn’t mean that things are good all around,” the aerial stuntman corrected. “One of the reasons we’re so well off is because the marshals were always really good at sniffing out trouble and pinching it before it gets to be a problem. But if people don’t know there’s trouble, they don’t know they need to do something about it, which makes it even harder for the ones who do know.”

“Then why does Graves have to do it?” the cyan flyer frowned in confusion. “Sure, it looks like he’s been doing this for a while and gotten pretty good at it, but don’t they have like, super soldier types who can take on more of the work? There’s got to be a few Shining Armors around who can blow away the bad guys without breaking a sweat, right?

The strange look on Soarin’s face could have meant anything from concerned apprehension to irritable bowel movements. From what he said next, it almost certainly wasn’t the latter.

“…You girls do realize that Shining Armor’s a once in a hundred year prodigy… right?”

Their mutual blank stares were more than enough to confirm his suspicions.

“Shining Armor is what you would call a... a special case,” Soarin explained. “He’s got, like, more ridiculous natural talent and raw magical power than anyone outside of the royal family and even some inside as well. There’s only one of him, and probably only ever will be one of him in our entire lives, maybe more. So no, there really aren’t others like Shining Armor sitting around.”

“… Huh. Who knew?” Rainbow Dash blinked.

“Yeah, it’s a real shame,” Soarin nodded. “Fortunately, we’ve got Graves, and if there’s anyone who can give Shining Armor a run for his money, it’s him.”

“But how can Graves compete if Shining Armor’s so freaking amazing?” Pinkie Pie asked.

“Because he is one of those ‘super soldier types’ you were talking about,” the blue haired performer grinned. “I mean, he managed to make lightning magic viable in combat. You girls have got to realize how impressive that is.”

Once more, blank stares did all the talking.

“Hoo boy,” the uniformed flyer heaved. “Alright, how do I explain this? So in magic, there’s this thing called the Morgan le Hay Principle. The more powerful a type of magic is, the more uncontrollable, volatile, and downright dangerous it is. Lighting's near the top of the food chain, which is why few wizards even bother learning it and soldiers never use in combat. Just too hard to handle.”

“How hard is it, exactly?” the cyan-clad athlete asked.

“Can you imagine making a 180 peel out of a Mach 2 nosedive plus triple inverted spiral directly into a simultaneous Kamikaze Corkscrew and Hail Mary Hornet combo?”

Rainbow Dash swallowed as her pallor dropped a noticeable few shades of color.

“… That bad huh?”

“Fact is, most didn't think it was even possible till Graves made it happen,” Soarin shrugged. “And when you combine his powers of shooting electric death with his pinpoint accuracy, ability to disappear like a ghost, and all the dozens of other things he does, well… in a proper magical duel, Shining Armor would squash him like a soft biscuit, but throw them out into the woods and just see who comes back? I wouldn't bet lunch money on the Captain and expect I’d get it back.”

“Holy moley,” Pinkie Pie gaped in surprised astonishment. “I never knew Graves was so special.”

“He’s definitely something special,” the Wonderbolt nodded. “I’m guessing that’s why he takes on so many missions and why he’s been operating solo for the last few years. He probably knows better than anyone there's a need for more soldiers in the field and he also knows that only someone like him can pick up the slack. Guy like Graves? He does whatever he can to make sure the job gets done.”

The two Ponyville girls exchanged knowing glances. Whatever he could, huh? That sounded an awful lot like what Feather Duster had told Twilight about the fine line between fools and heroes

“Then…” Rainbow Dash began, her voice quavering slightly with hesitation, “do you think that Graves would feel it was his job to do this? A job he’d have to do even if it meant leaving all his friends behind and being a total jerk about it?”

“I don’t know what being a jerk has to do with anything,” Soarin intoned, scratching his spiky blue head in thought, “but he’s shown that he’s willing to put himself through the wringer because duty calls, so… yeah. I guess he would.”

“…”

“…”

“You… girls okay?”

“Yeah, totally,” Pinkie Pie smiled with almost her usual level of brightness. “Thanks a bunch, Soarin, you've been a really big help! And as promised, here’s the rest of your pie.”

“Oh boy! Thanks!” Soarin grinned like a fat kid at the post Hearts and Hooves day candy sales. “Hey, you two want to sit down and have some with me?”

“Thanks for the offer,” Rainbow Dash replied with a crooked grin, “but we’ve gotta get going. Lots to cover today, don't you know?”

“Gotcha,” he nodded. “Well if you’re ever back in town, call me up and we’ll hang out!”

With a decidedly more enthusiastic response to the promise than his earlier inquiries, Rainbow and Pinkie headed off for parts unknown as Soarin sat down to enjoy his pie.

However, just as he was about to dig in with full force, the Wonderbolt paused.

True, the pie would be the most delicious thing he’d ever get to eat for the next several weeks… but it probably wouldn’t do his flying much good. To most people, that wouldn’t be a big deal. The difference it would make in his flying would be minute, maybe even infinitesimally so. Even if his performance wasn't textbook perfect, it wouldn't matter as long as he put on a good show. After all, he was just a performer, right?”

Maybe he was. But he wasn’t just there to put on a good show; he was there to be spectacular. It was his job not just to show off some fancy tricks, but to really give people something to remember, a sight to behold that would have them gasping in awe and watching with wide-eyed wonder until the final dive. And considering what he’d told the girls about how Graves busted his butt to do his job, could he really justify eating a whole apple pie at the expense of his performance? Could he really?

“Hnnngh,” he groaned, torn between his great love of flying and his equally great love of food. “Oh man, I’m so totally gonna hate myself for this…”

With a whimper, Soarin set down the fork and closed the box on his hopes and dreams.

“Smart move you made there,” an audibly grinning voice called from behind. An audibly grinning and very familiar voice, mind you. Spinning around on the bench, Soarin's eyebrows jumped as he saw Spitfire smiling down at him like a shark who’d spotted the fat kid swimming after the post Heart’s and Hooves Day candy sales.

“Spitfire… what are you doing here?” he smiled oh so nervously.

“Nothing, just checking in on my favorite flyer, is all,” she smiled back as she picked up the box and opened it. “I see you managed to say no to a genuine apple pie. I’m impressed.”

“Yeah, well… I guess there are some things more important than apple pie.”

Spitfire looked down at him, her fiery orange eyes considering him with the twinkling humor of glowing embers.

“Tell you what,” she said. “It’d be a shame for this to go to waste. Why don’t we take it back to the barracks and share it with the team? Just this once.”

“You serious?” Soarin cried in joyous surprised. “Holy cow, Spitfire, that’s totally–”

“Of course,” she continued with a wicked little smile, “you’re getting extra practice for sneaking a piece before the rest of us.” The blue haired athlete’s mood dropped faster than Spitfire when divebombing the field.

“Aw man,” he groaned. “You always ride me so freaking hard.”

“Funny,” she replied innocently. “You weren’t complaining about that last night.”

“Yeah, well…” He blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Better eat well today, lover boy,” Spitfire grinned, “cause I’m gonna be putting you through your paces. All. Night. Long.”

For the rest of the day, his teammates would ask why Soarin had such a ridiculous smile on his face. But for now, that was just his and Spitfire’s little secret. After all, it’s not like the whole world needed to know that Gala night had been the best night ever for the two of them, right?

**********