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The Ugly Side of Right

by GentlemanJ

Chapter 1


This is a short story in The Journey of Graves.

The series begins with the first story: When the Man Comes Around.

IMPORTANT: If you haven't read the series, please head back to the beginning and check it out. While each story stands on its own, the character and relationship developments will build on each other as the series progresses.

And so, the saga continues...

The Ugly Side of Right

By: GentlemanJ

Muscles taut, nerves frayed to the point of breaking, the three remaining guards stood huddled together under the pale moonlight with eyes transfixed on the darkened jungle before them. Beads of sweat dripped from their foreheads in running rivulets, sweat that had nothing to do with the oppressive, tropical heat.

How could this have happened? In three days, a mere three god-forsaken days, the impregnable villa of Sueno Creador, head of the international Alacran syndicate, had been transformed from a paradise into a prison. For three days, they’d been under siege, hunted like so many rabbits by an unseen predator, a living shadow dwelling amidst the trees.

The first attack had come at dawn, a series of unexpected explosions that had shaken the cartel mansion to its very foundations, scattering the frightened servants and bringing the cartel's machinations to a grinding halt. The guards had responded as per usual by diving head first into the forest in a fast rush of blazing weapons and blood curdling cries. But the shadow was smart. Never showing itself, it would flit just at the edge of vision, tempting those with hotter heads to plunge in after its tantalizing trail. They were never heard from again. By the next morning, half of the near score of guards disappeared into the jungle’s embrace, vanishing like stones tossed into an inky, viridian sea.

Those who remained were quick to learn and glued themselves next to the villa’s walls. But even that did not save them. When they stood on guard as the sun stood high, the shadow remained quiet, silent and hidden. Only the vaguest feelings of dread and the perpetual sense of a hunter’s eyes gave any indication that anything was there at all. For the whole day, they waited, tempers flaring and eyes darting faster as the wait ground down on their minds.

Then the sun had set and the shadow hunted once more. Throughout the second night, the terrified shrieks of their fellow guards pierced the humid air. Unpredictable, random, they had no way of knowing when or where the shadow would strike. Two disappeared in the hour just after sunset. One more vanished at midnight. So on, and so forth, like a macabre roulette, their numbers dwindled down.

By the third morning, only four were left as silence fell once more. It was maddening. To fight against flesh and blood and natural born creatures was one thing, a simple thing. But whatever this was, it wasn’t of this earth. It was fear incarnate, a netherworld shade that devoured men whole. They couldn’t fight it. They couldn’t win.

The fourth guard, possibly sensing the end of his own mortality, had finally snapped. Taking a horse from the stable, he’d tried to make a mad dash for freedom down the only path cutting through the dense foliage. For a minute, it seemed like he had made it. But then they heard the scream.

The sun had set and then there were three.

*****

“Shh! Did you hear that?”

“What, what was it?”

The final guards stood stone still, ears strained to their limits to catch any sign of the shadow. Nothing. Only the sound of chirping insects broke the otherwise silent night air.

“Blast it, don’t do that!” the trio’s leader hissed, his attempted bravado doing a poor job of hiding his own terror. “Don’t just go jumping at every little sound you hear, got it?”

“But I did hear it!” the first guard shot back, his eyes so wide that the wholes of his irises could be seen. “It came from right there! Just between those banyan trees!”

“I’m telling you, there’s nothing there,” the leader insisted, whether to convince the guard or himself, probably even he couldn’t say.

“And I’m telling you,” the guard challenged once more, taking a single step closer towards the jungle, “I heard something right thAAAAAUUAUUAUUUGHG!”

With a ear splitting shriek, the guard fell to his stomach as he was pulled by an unnatural force straight towards the jungle's depths. He clawed at the ground, crying in terror as he fought tooth and nail to save himself from whatever drew him in. But he may as well have been a lamb struggling in the jaws of a wolf; the underbrush swallowed him whole and his cries instantly ceased.

The dam broke.

“YOU BASTARD!” the unhinged leader of one screamed as he unloaded his crude spell gun, lighting the brush up with blazing flames without heed or hindrance for his comrade. “YOU WANT ME THAT BADLY HUH? WELL COME AND GET ME! I DON’T CARE WHO YOU ARE, YOU’LL NEVER TAKE–”

The man’s tirade abruptly ended as without a word, as if soul had been sucked straight from his body, he slumped to the group in a silent, unmoving heap.

Eyes the size of dinner plates, the final guard stared at the still body of his leader. However, his attentions soon turned towards the jungle, for out of the burning brush, with the slow, inevitable pacing of death itself, came the sound of footsteps. From the inferno, the spectre emerged, a tall, shadowy figure cloaked in night and wreathed in fire, a figure straight from the infernal bowels of hell itself. The creature approached, shedding the darkness that surrounded it and finally allowing the lone survivor to glimpse its face.

Eyes rolling back and froth at his lips, the final guard dropped into a dead faint as he looked upon the visage of terror and nightmares itself.

Only then did Graves finally remove his mask.

*****

Eyes scanning the quiet night, the raven-haired soldier unscrewed the light-eating silencer from the front of his rifle and stored it back in his coat. The stealth and cover it provided were handy to say the least, but the additional mana cost would make it more of a burden should a firefight break out.

But no one came. The night stayed silent, its quiet unbroken save for the buzzing of nocturnal wildlife.

Kneeling down, Graves placed two fingers to the fainted guard’s neck, checking for and finding the thready pulse he expected. Pulling out a couple of enchanted cords from his belt, Graves placed one on the wrists of each of the unconscious guards. They came alive like spiraling snakes and lashed themselves around the men’s hands before melding theirs ends into seamless bindings. Once bound, Graves then applied the stasis spell tags, enchanting the two to remain invisible and unconscious till they were under custody and the tags could be removed, just like all the others he’d captured before.

When Graves had cut down the snare trapping the last vine-suspended guard and done the same, he turned his attentions towards the dark silhouette of the palatial estate.

*****

Shirt soaked through with sweat, Sueno Creador sat alone in the dark of his study, a gilded hextech pistol clutched tightly in hand as he waited. He knew the shadow was coming for him. He’d known about it for days, ever since his servants had fled and his guards had begun disappearing. He knew it was inevitable, but that didn’t mean he intended to go down without a fight.

A creak in the hallway. Leaping to his feet, the head of Alacran brandished his pistol towards the antique doors that separated him from his fate. Pulling back the hammer, he slowly approached the door, training his weapon forward even as he reached for the handle.

He turned the knob –

– and his world exploded in pain.

*****

Feeling a satisfying thud as the door he’d kicked connected with flesh, Graves leaped through the open portal like a darting lynx. Spinning his rifle, he brought the butt down to deliver a crushing blow to the man’s wrist, eliciting both a yelp of pain and a surrender of the glittering pistol. Two rapid strikes, one to the liver, one to the diaphragm, and the other man dropped to the ground with a silent wheeze.

Aiming his rifle by the light of the moon, Graves looked down to examine his handiwork. On the ground, dressed in the finest quality silks money could buy, lay a large man doubled over in breathless pain. With hair bound up in a ponytail and meticulously trimmed beard, he was an individual that many would have considered handsome if not for the curling scorpion tattoo around eyes too cold and cruel for any sort of beauty.

“Creador,” Graves said softly as he bound both his target’s hand and feet. “You are under arrest for the crime of producing and distributing the Class A narcotic, Lotus Dust. You will be brought to Canterlot where you will be tried for your crimes.”

“Ah, an Equestrian marshal, no?” Sueno smiled through gritted teeth, his suave, cultured voice twisted with derisive scorn. “I had wondered how long before Celestia’s fabled hounds came nipping at my heels.”

Without acknowledgement, Graves pocketed the hextech pistol and headed towards the large, ornately carved desk at the back of the room.

“So, there is only one of you?” Sueno asked, wincing as he pushed himself to sit up upon the plush carpet. “I am hurt. Surely the lovely princesses could have honored me with a more… substantial entourage, could they not?”

The marshal said nothing as he pulled open the drawers and began flipping through the ledgers and journals it contained, gunmetal grey eyes dancing over the pages with precise alacrity.

“Well, it doesn’t matter,” the black haired man chuckled, feigning casual aplomb whilst watching his captor like a hawk. “What does matter is that you are a soldier, yes? I am a businessman, and though many would not consider it so, I feel that we are… kindred spirits of sorts. After all, we are both men of sense and reason, are we not?”

Finishing the contents, Graves turned his attentions towards the next ledger.

“This mission you are on, surely it does not need to end like this,” Creador continued, his smile growing slightly tighter at the marshal’s silence. “After all, you capturing me, putting me behind bars, what does it accomplish? Another will merely take my place. After all, as long as people crave the dreams of their hearts, there will always be a demand for the Dust.”

The soldier remained silent as he turned to the hand-written notebook at the bottom of the drawer.

“So instead of this futile effort to control the people, why not make this a mutually beneficial arrangement? You let me go, and I give you a portion of my not unsubstantial profits. Everybody wins, no?”

Graves gathered the materials and placed them back in the drawer, closing it to move on to the next set–

–he paused.

Under Creador’s furious glare, the marshal knelt next to the drawer and looked it over, placing a hand inside, then out. Pulling out his knife, Graves pressed the blade tip into the edge and twisted, popping out a false bottom and revealing a concealed notebook underneath.

Removing the book, the raven-haired soldier flipped through the pages, quickly and precisely as he had with the others. But then he stopped and instead of setting it aside as he had before, went back to the beginning. He read it again, much more slowly and much, much more intently.

“… What is this?” he finally asked. Though his voice betrayed no hint of emotion, his steel-grey eyes glinted like shards of burning ice under the moon's cold, silver light.

“That?” Sueno shrugged in feigned indifference. “That is a… side project. Hardly anything worth noting. After all, what you’re really after is the Dust, is it not? In fact, it is of such little import, that–”

With a strangled cry, the bearded man fell to an unconscious heap as he was blasted with a bolt of pure, electric wrath. Stepping over the body, Graves dashed out of the room and towards the villa stairs with the journal crumpled in one trembling fist.

He knew he was hunting a criminal, but this? This was simply beyond monstrous. Silently praying that the contents of this journal were no more than dark fantasies, he raced for the depths of the manor where both truth and secrets lay.

*****

Descending into the villa cellar, Graves held up the commandeered lantern and cast his eyes about. Down the long stone corridor, he could clearly discern the iron bars and grates that served as entryways for more than two dozen prison cells. Though they lay empty now, faint traces of past occupants could be seen: a faded stain on the rough stone floor, faint scratches on the undressed walls, so on and so forth. But nothing to indicate that anything living dwelt here now.

As boot heels clicked against the cold stone floors, the raven-haired soldier reached the end of the hallway and entered a cavernous atrium carved from the bedrock below. There, in that echoing chamber, the marshal’s veins filled with ice water as his worst fears were confirmed.

Blood magic. The vilest of all vile arcana, even worse than the abomination of necromancy, blood magic was the long forbidden practice of binding through pain. By subjecting a soul to suffering in life, a sorcerer could use that pain and literally bind a soul to the mortal plane as fuel for its diabolical spells. The stronger the pain, the stronger the bindings; the stronger the bindings, the stronger the spell. So foul and corrupt, blood magic had been banned for over a millennium with any guilty practitioner subject to absolute life imprisonment. But that had clearly not dissuaded all, as this atrium lay full of evidence indicating long practice of the unholy art. Runes and spell circles the color of aged rust decorated every surface, often adorned with bones, entrails, and skins of the victims to increase their arcane potency. Not all of them belonged to animals.

Graves entered the room, panning his steely eyes over every surface. Grisly though the sight was, it wasn’t even the worst part by far. No, that would be the smell. Like a toxic miasma, the scent of fear, of long hours of terror and agony, permeated the room. Blood and bones were only mediums; the real magics lay in the pain. He’d expected the smell, but nothing could accustom a man to a stench more foul than that of a bloated corpse rotting in the summer sun.

He slowly walked the room, looking over the glyphs and sigils adorning the atrium walls. Though Graves was no expert on the topic, he recognized many of the spells in use: Seal of the Damned, Aken’s Embrace, Circle of Hel, and so on. But then he paused.

"What the...?"

In between spells lay further sigils and runes, ones he'd seen before but never in the context of blood magic. They didn't belong to any of the known incantations, nor did they create anything on their own. Instead, they seemed to be... connected?

"I'll be damned," Graves breathed as understanding struck. That's exactly what they were: connections. Instead of individual spells, someone had managed to tie the separate incantations, each one powerful in its own right, together into a long, spiraling chain of blood-stained links. Tracking with his eyes, Graves followed the chain as it ran across the entire wall of the atrium, then to the floor, then continued on, spiraling tighter and tighter until the entire strand connected into a single spell circle in the middle of the room's floor.

"What were you trying to do?" Graves muttered as grey eyes fell to the spiral's center. There must have been hundreds of spells, all tied together, with sacrifices and offerings needed for each one, all to create a chain that tied to a single, focal point. What was the goal? What were they after?

He took a step towards the spell circle and suddenly, the world erupted into blinding light.

“YOU!” A wailing voice screamed out as a swirling pillar of searing cobalt flames erupted from the spiral's core, so high and so hot that the atrium's ceiling instantly blackened with char and soot.

“WHO ARE YOU? WHAT DO YOU WANT?”

Spell gun snapping to attention, the raven-haired soldier dropped into a crouch, trying to stabilize himself against the burning winds that buffeted him and whipped his coat into a snapping frenzy. He couldn't be sure of the voice, so distorted it was by the crackling flames and roaring gales, but he could have sworn it sounded almost human.

“My name is Graves!” he cried out, straining to be heard over the storm’s din. “I'm a marshal sent by Princess Celestia to help!”

“LIAR!” the flames roared, growing hotter and brighter as it cried. “YOU WANT TO HURT ME, JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE!”

“I’m not here to hurt you!” Graves yelled, the super-heated air burning his throat and searing his skin even as he spoke. “I was sent to fix this mess! I’m not your enemy!”

“NO! I DON’T BELIEVE YOU!”

Crouched within the tough shell of his leather coat, the marshal paused and raced through his options. The air was getting hotter by the moment. In under a minute, it'd be too hot to even breath. In two, his blood would boil and he'd be burned alive. Retreat was the sensible option, fall back and re-engage under more favorable circumstance. But there was something about the voice, the way it called. It was crazy, possibly suicidal, but acting on almost instinct alone, Graves moved. Rising up in the maelstrom of blasting heat, the soldier raised up his rifle–

–and let it fall.

The heavy weapon clattered to the ground as Graves stood, his skin and breath burning from the flames, but his steely eyes firm and unwavering. For a moment, the storm grew worse as the flames burned hotter, almost like cat with hackles raised. But slowly, ever so slowly, the fires began to go down.

“...Why did you do that?” the flames asked, still bright and fierce, but now no more than twice the height of a man. “Why didn’t you try to hurt me?”

“Not my job,” Graves coughed as he took a grateful breath of much cooler air. “Told you before, I’m here to help.”

The flames wavered, as if uncertain of the man who stood before it. But under those steady, unwavering silver eyes, the flames faded, revealing the true identity of the entity within. And just for a moment, Graves wished it hadn’t.

“... Who are you?” the child asked, glassy blue eyes peering up at him through her misty veil of hair. The caution in her eyes belonged to a stray cat, not a little girl.

“My name's Graves,” he replied, kneeling down so he could look her in the eyes. “What’s yours?”

The child looked back at him, still not certain of the strange man’s intent. Graves didn’t mind. He could kneel there all night if need be.

“... Tinder,” she finally said, a shade of distrust fading from her face. “Tinder Sparks.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Graves replied, smiling at her as he would when Sweetie Belle had a bad day. “I’m a marshal, and Princess Celestia sent here to help.”

Looking the man over up and down, Tinder’s face shone with obvious skepticism.

“You don’t look like a marshal,” she said, lower lip sticking out in a petulant frown. “My mom told me stories of marshals, and they always wear bright red coats with shiny armor. You look kinda... scruffy.”

“Yeah, guess I do,” Graves chuckled as he reached into his coat. At the move, the specter instantly flared up, cobalt flames doubling her height as she prepared for an attack. Slowly, to show he meant no harm, Graves drew his hand back out, but now holding on to his worn, silver badge.

“But,” he continued, still smiling as he approached slowly, the silver medallion extended before him in a gesture of peace, “I’ve still got this. Must count for something, right?”

Flames died down once more and hesitantly, Tinder Sparks approached the edge of the spell circle. She reached out to take the badge, but her hand froze, pressed up against a wall of nothing that stood as solidly as stone ever did. Graves drew closer, holding up the badge so she could examine the winged shield etched into the now dull silver. Tinder Sparks looked at the badge, then up to meet the gaze of the man whose eyes shone with the same, steely hue.

“... Can you really help me?” she asked, her voice for once cracking out with the first tendrils of hope.

“Sure can,” Graves nodded. “Now close your eyes.”

Hiding behind her hands, the little girl backed up to give Graves the room needed for his work. Pulling out his field knife, the marshal nicked his thumb and squeezed, letting the blood drip freely onto the spell circle below. Fresh crimson covered old rust, obscuring runes one by one till with a final sanguine dash, the magic circle flared a brilliant crimson, then faded with a crackling hiss. It seemed like nothing had happened, but somehow, just a little, the stench of the room seemed a little less foul.

“I feel… different…” the little girl said, her lips scrunched up in not quite understanding. “What’s going on?”

“You’re free,” Graves replied, albeit with a voice thick and slurred from exhaustion as he bandaged his finger. With such a strong seal, the amount of magic it’d taken to break the circle had been substantial. “You're free to go.”

“Go?” Tinder blinked, "You mean... I can leave?"

“Only one way to find out.”

Tinder Sparks peered to the ground, then back to the marshal, uncertain once more. Graves nodded, waving a hand to urge her forth. She paused, but squeezing her eyes shut and gathering up her courage, she went and took a single, tentative step over the line.

"There, that wasn't so bad was it?" Graves smiled.

"So, I'm really free?" the little girl gaped, her expression torn by a surging hope she almost couldn't believe. "I can really get out of here?"

"Soon as you're ready," he nodded, "I'll take you out."

"And then, and then," Tinder Sparks continued, blank eyes beginning to light up with joy that she could no longer contain, "then can you take me to my mom and dad?"

The words hit Graves like a two-ton sledge.

Of course she'd want to see her parents. She was just a kid. But no matter how natural it was for a child to miss her family, it was the last thing Graves could ever let her do.

He had no idea where she was from or how long she'd been missing. Maybe he could find them with enough searching, but that would take time, and time was one thing they didn't have. The longer a spirit remained, the more restless it grew as it stood torn between the need to pass on and whatever it was that compelled them to stay. That tear would grow and distort the soul, twisting its form till it no longer even resembled its former self. Given enough time, the soul would lose all humanity till it became a wraith, an empty husk with no thought but to seek out and devour everything that had kept it here on the mortal plane.

It was perfectly natural that Tinder Sparks would want to see her parents. Graves just couldn't allow it.

"... Not just yet," he replied, pulling his broad, flat-brimmed hat down over his eyes.

"What?" Tinder Sparks blinked, stunned as if his words had physically struck her. "Why not?"

"You're not well," Graves explained, doing his best to keep things as vague as possible. It was very likely that she didn't even know she was a spirit, and agitating her would only make the tearing worse.

"I'm not?" she blinked.

"No," the marshal replied with a small shake of the head. "So before you go anywhere, you need to get better first. And that, Miss Sparks, means getting some rest."

"But... but I'm not tired," Tinder Sparks protested, sounding just like Sweetie Belle before bedtime. "I wanna go now. I wanna see my mom and dad."

"And you will," Graves nodded. "But are you sure you're not tired? Really?"

Something in the marshal's tone gave her pause.

“You feel wrong, don’t you?” he said, his voice soft as he reached out and gently touched her brow. "Your head’s foggy, isn't it? Like you’re supposed to do something but can’t remember what.”

Tinder Sparks nodded slowly, a faint flash of recognition crossing her face.

“That's a sign that you're really, really tired,” the marshal continued as the steady rumble of his voice masked the wrenching in his chest. “So before you can do anything, you need to get some sleep."

"But do I have to?" Tinder Sparks frowned, her once bright cobalt fading into a dull blue. "I really want to see mom and dad now."

"It's just for a while, Graves assured her, even throwing in a little smile for the little girl. “And you'll feel lots better after you wake up. Trust me.”

Tinder Sparks didn’t say anything as she shifted from foot to foot.

"Then," she began, hesitation mixing with hope in every word, "once I feel better... then can I see mom and dad?"

Graves smiled, but it never quite reached his slate grey eyes.

"... Yeah," he nodded. "Sure thing."

*****

Step by painful step, the pair made their way out of the atrium, the marshal's rough, calloused fingers wrapped around the cool, ethereal hand of a little girl. Each foot traveled away from the spell circle was a burden, so bound was Tinder Sparks to the place of her suffering. Though Graves wanted to help her, there was nothing for him to do for one who was more mist and fog than anything else. All he could do was walk beside her, holding her hand as best he could while she put one weary foot in front of the other.

It took some time, but together, the two made their way up from the cellar, out of the villa, and out into the vast, starry sky of the clear, tropical night.

"Mister Graves, I’m tired,” Tinder Sparks mumbled, the stress of even so short a journey apparent in every ragged breath.

"In that case, why don't we stop here?" Graves smiled as he gently led her towards the base of a nearby palm tree. "Seems like a good place for a nap."

Taking off his coat, Graves draped the long, leather garment around her before guiding her to lie down on the grass beneath. However, once Graves had set aside his spell gun and taken his seat against the tree's rough trunk, Tinder Sparks moved. Wiggling around as children are oft to do, the weary girl shuffled about till she was safely tucked against the marshal's side.

“You’re warm,” she mumbled. “I like that.”

"... Glad I could help."

Pulling his hat down over his eyes, Graves settled back to wait. Ghosts didn't sleep. To sleep was to let go, to forgo any lingering desires and accept passage into true rest. So as long as a spirit was willing to sleep, even for a moment, then passage was assured and it could safely move on. All he had to do was wait.

But sleep is a slippery beast, especially for a child, and no matter how the little girl fidgeted or squirmed, rest eluded her hazy blue eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Graves asked as he felt her shuffle around once more.

“I can’t sleep,” Tinder Sparks said through a small, anxious frown. “Every time I close I eyes, I keep seeing… the bad people.”

“Ah, I see." Reaching over, the raven-haired soldier placed an arm over the little girl's shoulder and drew her a little bit closer. "Well, you don't have to worry about them. I stopped all the bad guys already."

"All of them?" Tinder Sparks blinked.

"Every last one," Graves nodded.

"But what if there are more?" the little girl pressed.

"Then I'll stop them too."

"And what if they don't stop?" she asked yet again, glassy eyes growing wider as the realm of nightmares loomed closer. "What if... what if the bad guys keep coming and never stop? What if they take me and start hurting me again? What if they're mad because I tried to get away so they-"

"-They won't," Graves said as he cut her off with a gentle word.

"But what if-"

"They. Won't," he said once more. "'Cause I won't let them."

Tinder Sparks looked up at him. Slowly, like the receding tide, the fear faded from her face and she settled down once more to get some sleep.

Well, almost.

“Um…” she shuffled, clutching his coat tighter around her as she looked up once more.

"Hmm?"

"Well..." Tinder Sparks paused as a deeper navy blue flushed her cheeks. “So, sometimes... when I can't sleep because I'm scared, my mom will come in and tell me a story so I don't feel so scared anymore..."

Graves blinked.

“A story," he repeated. The little girl nodded.

“I think… I think it might help," Tinder Sparks mumbled softly, looking away as deep azure darkened her now very shy face. "Maybe just a little...”

Looking up into the deep sea of stars, Grave scratched his chin. A story huh? Well, he had his missions, and he had recollections of books he'd read, but none seemed to fit. Nothing from his days on as a marshal seemed capable of soothing a frightened little girl, a little girl who only wanted to get better so she could go home to her mom and dad.

In that case, maybe he'd have to go further back.

“... Alright then,” Graves began, his voice soft like the sound of sand rustling in a desert night. "Here goes.

"So, once upon a time there lived a... boy. He was from the north, a far off land of ice and snow and long, frozen winters. It was cold where lived, but the boy never thought so. In fact, he always thought it was very warm.

"You see, the boy had a family. His father was a happy man, always with a silly joke in mind and a booming laugh inside. He was a carpenter, a magician who could make wood sing and carvings come to life. He loved to work in his shop, but he also loved being outside where he would spend time with the boy. The father taught him lots of things, like how to hunt and fish and to live in the land they called home. He also taught him much more, like how to be strong and to fight for what’s right, even when it was hard. His father was a good man, and the boy loved him very much.

"The boy’s mother was a quiet woman, few with words but always ready with a big hug and kind smile. She loved to bake, and there was never a day where the smells of fresh bread and sweet rolls didn't fill the house like warm, summer sun. On those many cold nights, she would wrap the boy in a big, soft blanket and tell him all the stories of heroes from long ago. It was his mother who taught him to be always be kind, to think of others and to put their needs over his own because it was the right thing to do. His mother was a gentle woman, and the boy loved her very much.

"For many years, the three of them lived together, happy and warm in the cold north. But one day, the world changed. The three of them became even happier because one day, the boy became a brother.

"His little sister was a silly girl, always staring about with two big, curious eyes. She loved to watch things, the birds, the clouds, the swaying trees, everything. But the thing she loved to watch most was her big brother. As soon as she could walk, she began to follow him around, always clutching her favorite stuffed rabbit as she watched the boy with those big, curious eyes. At first, the boy didn’t know what to do. After all, he'd never been a brother before. But with a little help, he learned and just as his father and mother taught him, he taught his little sister. He taught her how to fish in the little creek behind their home. He showed her which bushes had the biggest, sweetest berries for miles around. He told her stories that his mother had told him, holding her on cold nights, all wrapped up tight in a big, soft blanket while she watched on with those big, curious eyes. The little girl would smile, because she loved her big brother. And the boy would smile, because he loved her.

"So... even though it was cold and even though there was snow, the four of them - the father, the mother, the boy, and his little sister - none of them were ever cold, because their family was as warm as warm could be.”

Perhaps it was the steady cadence of his voice. Perhaps it was the warmth of those soft, sincere words. Whatever the reason, Tinder Sparks’ next breath came just a little bit slower, a little bit deeper. And little by little, the child’s breath continued on until it finally entered into the even tempo of peaceful sleep.

Like mist in a gentle breeze, the little girl’s ghostly form faded and vanished, leaving Graves with only an empty coat and his memory to know that she’d ever been there at all.

Standing up, Graves put the coat on once more and turned his gaze back to the villa, his eyes far colder than any winter had ever been.

*****

Upon his return, Graves found Sueno Creador free from his bindings, standing at ease in the now well-lit study as he idly spun the gilded globe at the back of the room.

“So, I see you found my workshop,” he murmured. From the inflections of his voice, Sueno may as well have been talking about the evening’s weather.

“I did,” Graves replied, his voice equally level, almost casual. “Tell me, what exactly did you hope to gain?”

“… It’s a funny thing, blood magic,” the gentleman replied, continuing to spin the globe. “It claims to elevate magic to a whole new level by harnessing the powers of the soul. And yet, it simply discards the most valuable portions of said life like offal from a pig’s carcass.”

“What part is that?” Graves prompted. To this, Sueno smiled.

“The magic. Just imagine it,” he continued, his face alighting with an almost loving glow. “What if instead of simply using the soul as fuel, we could distill it, pull the will away and leave a mage's magical powers separate and whole? Then, what if we could take that power and put it into someone else? If one could unlock the secrets of such a skill, then he could make himself an unrivaled sorcerer, the likes of which the world has never known!”

“And to do that, you had to conduct… tests, didn’t you?”

“You can’t make flan without cracking some eggs,” Sueno smiled. For a moment, the marshal’s even façade slipped ever so slightly.

“But it didn’t work,” Graves replied, all calm and cool control once more. “Or else you wouldn’t have said ‘if’.”

“I’ll admit, the man in white’s suggestions were… vague, to say the least,” Sueno shrugged as he languidly inspected his nails. “But it’s only a matter of time till I refine the recipe. Only a matter of time.”

“And you’re sure you’ll have this time?” Graves intoned.

“But of course,” the head of Alacran smiled. “After all, ideas were not the only thing he left me.”

Derringer suddenly in hand, Sueno aimed at the globe and pulled the trigger as black… fire consumed the antique. Or maybe it was something else. It danced and licked like flames, but the inky mass seemed to consume not just the wood, but the metal and stone, the warmth, and even the very light around it. It burned and fed, devouring everything in a searing black void till only an oily soot stain remained.

This wasn’t fire. It was annihilation, the power of complete and utter obliteration wielded in the hands of a madman.

“Like it?” he chuckled, softly caressing the weapon as if it were a woman. “Even without another’s power, I am more than a match for the likes of you, a fact that I will be more than glad to prove.”

Raising the weapon, he pointed it at the marshal’s unblinking face.

“But before that,” Sueno smiled, haughty, arrogant, and proud, “I feel that I must at least offer some sort of courtesy to the one who caused me so much grief. So, hound of Celestia, do you have any last words?”

Graves looked at the man, his face an unreadable mask with eyes of dull, foggy grey. Quietly, he asked a single question.

“Do you know the name Tinder Sparks?”

Sueno blinked in surprise.

“Who?” he laughed, a rich, musical sound completely devoid of humanity. “An odd choice for final sentiments, but to each his own. And now, dear marshal, with my courtesies expended, I bid you–”

Sueno’s final words devolved into an anguished howl. In the blink of an eye, Graves – silent as nightfall – had flickered across the room and seized the gun, wrenching it fully around to shatter the finger still caught in the trigger guard like a brittle twig.

Sueno staggered back, but the raven-haired soldier followed him more closely than the man's own shadow as he delivered a merciless blow to Sueno's side, crushing his short ribs like fine-spun glass. Taking the man’s mangled hand, Graves gave it a violent twist, dropping the cartel head to his knees before pulling the arm straight out beside him. Raising his own hand, Graves brought his palm crashing down upon the straightened elbow like an executioner’s axe. Joints and tendons exploded with a soft, wet crunch.

Graves let the arm drop before spinning to deliver a violent knee to the face that pulverized the cartilage in Sueno’s nose with a spray of blood and mucus. A swift kick to the side shattered more ribs, a spinning heel to the face cracked most of his teeth, and crushing stomp upon a properly extended leg resulted in an irreparably shattered knee.

Slowly, almost casually, Graves walked beside Sueno Creador, aimed his spell gun, and fired. A plume of bright green petals exploded out, alighting on the mangled body and repairing it in soft plumes of viridian light. It wasn't enough to repair the damage by any means, but it was just enough to stave off shock and prevent too much blood loss. After all, Graves needed Sueno awake and alert for what was coming next.

Reaching into his coat, Graves pulled out the crumpled journal and flipped it open. Beyond the mad ramblings that had inspired this man's insanity, the book contained meticulous instructions for each and every one of the procedures needed to properly enact the blood magic spells. Turning to the first arcana, a ritual known as Ania's Touch, Graves reached to his belt and pulled out the sturdy, silver field knife that hung there. Consulting the text once more, Graves turned his dull, gunmetal grey eyes to Sueno, took a knee, and plunged the blade deep into the man's leg.

Sinking in exactly four inches deep, Graves dragged the knife a full foot down the length of Sueno's thigh. It was clean, precise. It had to be. By slicing just so, he could sever flesh without damaging any of the major arteries or vessels while still getting deep enough to drag the silver blade's tip across the leg's thick, central nerve. Absolute agony with minimal blood loss, he could repeat the process over and over, just as the text intended.

Finished with the first slice, Graves removed the blade and sank it back in once more, precisely half an inch to the right for a second cut along the exact same nerve. He took his time, making sure the movements were clean and precise. It was only the second cut after all, the second of two hundred and fifty-six carefully diagrammed actions to complete the first of many spells. Graves needed to be precise if he wanted to finish it all. No room for sloppiness here.

It wasn't until he'd begun the fifth cut that Graves realized Sueno was talking. Somehow, despite the unending howls and self soiling, the gibbering, twitching mess on the floor had managed to take incoherent shrieks and form actual words.

“Pleash,” the man begged through twisted sobs and broken teeth, half choking on the blood and mucus from his own shattered nose. “You’b wun, I gibb ubb. Jush… shtobb. Pleash, jush shtobb.”

The marshal stroked his chin, considering the broken man’s request through foggy grey eyes. Then, leaning in close, so close that Sueno could feel his breath, Graves gave his calm, quiet reply.

“… No.”

The man’s screams lasted long after he ran out of breath to scream with.

*****

Leaden step by leaden step, Graves trudged up the stairs to his Ponyville home. Weary as he was, the usually vigilant marshal didn’t even notice the glowing windows that beckoned brightly under the deep, starry sky.

“Welcome back Graves!” Rarity called as she ran around the marshal’s kitchen, apron on waist and ladle in hand. “You must be starving. Don’t worry, dinner will be ready in just a minute.”

A dash of seasoning here, a sprinkling of garnish here, and with a satisfied smile, Rarity took off the apron as she came out to set the dining room table.

“Now for me, traveling always leaves me a little queasy, so I figured something light would be just what you’d want. We’re starting out with a nice seafood consomme, followed by a seasonal salad and then a main course of… Graves?”

In all her last minute fuss, the young lady had yet to properly lay eyes on the grey-eyed soldier who had simply stood in the still darkened doorway and watched as she’d hurried about. Once she had though, all thoughts of dinner and chatter and, well, of anything really, instantly melted away.

"Graves?" Rarity repeated, sapphire eyes wide with alarm. "Darling, what's wrong?"

“Rough trip,” he mumbled, his gravelly baritones dull and listless. “Don’t worry, I’ll be–”

Graves grunted softly, surprised to find that Rarity’s slender arms firmly wrapped around him, squeezing him so tightly that it was almost hard to breathe. He was even more surprise to find himself returning the embrace, clinging onto her for dear life like a drowning man clung to drift wood.

“What happened, Graves?” the beautiful woman murmured with the purest love and concern lacing each word. "Tell me what happened.”

“I…” he swallowed, trying to clear the lump that strangled his throat. “I saw some ugly stuff out there this time. Really ugly stuff.”

“Well, it's over now,” she cooed, her voice a soothing spring of pure, clean water. “Whatever happened out there, it's over with. Finished. You’re home, so just go ahead and leave all that ugliness behind.”

“No… I can’t,” the marshal forced out in a final, dry rasp. “Not all of it. Not this time.”

Rarity said nothing. Instead, she simply stood there, holding onto the marshal in that half dark room as if her embrace were the only thing keeping him from falling apart.

Maybe it really was.

**********

To Be Continued

The Journey of Graves will continue in the next story: Be a Man.

Return to Story Description

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The Ugly Side of Right

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