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Delivery Directive: Do NOT Be Late

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...

Delivery Directive: Do NOT Be Late

By: GentlemanJ

Icy wind howled between the skeletal trees, their gnarled bare branches clawing at the darkened skies above as the frozen gale blew shards of frost between their tangled grasps. Snow continued to fall, heavy, wet, and cold, burying the land beneath in its cold embrace. But for the waiting soldiers, snow was the last thing on their minds. Ears strained for the slightest sound carried by the frigid winds, the Equestrian guardsmen waited, hands tightly gripped on spear shafts, hoping to Celestia and praying to Luna that they would catch sight of their target before it saw them.

They found it.

Off in the distance, the darkness stirred. It was slow, so slow that it may have just been the dancing shadows playing tricks on frayed nerves. But the shadows stirred again, movements coming together into a monstrous form that stalked out from the darkness.

The dire bear, twenty feet and several tons of pure, feral fury. With rending claws, tearing tusks, and a hide thick enough to repel both sword and spear, few could hope to challenge the king of the frozen north, a king that stalked ever closer in the gloom. In that darkened forest, the guardsmen could make out little more than a mammoth grey shadow silhouetted against the pale snow beneath. But there were some things they could see. The heaving of its massive size. The faint glow of a slavering maw and gnashing fangs. The gleam of madness in its blood-reddened eyes.

The madness. It wasn’t just a sight, but sound and smell as well. They could hear the way it panted forth a stinking black miasma in erratic, heaving sounds no intelligent predator would make. And they could smell it. This wasn't the smell of nature, but a dry, burning stench like acrid smoke from sulfurous flames and refuse. None of them had ever encountered the like, but the stench would forever be branded in their minds as the stench of insanity.

“C-captain,” one guardsman hoarsely whispered. “What do we do?”

“We hold our ground, son,” the officer replied, his voice steadier than the trembling hands that betrayed his heart. “We hold our positions like we were told.”

The ranks rustled. Maybe it was the smell, but some of them felt they might be going insane as well. A dire bear, especially one so disturbed as this was nothing to be trifled with, yet all they did was stand out in the open like so many holiday hams on display. Orders were orders, but when those directives told you to stand with no protection against a raging wall of distilled fury, well... it's not quite so easy to listen when it sounds like pure lunacy.

But about the nonsense and fear, those guardsmen trusted their captain. They trusted him to call it right and get them home once more as he always had before. So swallowing panic, the guardsmen held rank, waiting for the behemoth to begin its inevitable assault.

Rising upon its hind legs, the dire bear drew itself to its full, monumental height and howled. Crafted by generations of blood and battle, that roar was perfectly crafted to shatter resolve and send would-be challengers scurrying away in fright. But that was not why this ursine roared. No, it roared with joy, anticipating that in mere moments, it would be able to revel in the gore and entrails of prey torn limb from limb. It didn’t even relish the thought of eating. Tonight, it was solely here for the slaughter.

The dire bear dropped back to all fours and charged, its several ton body moving far faster than anything that size had a right to move. It continued to roar, inky black smoke pouring from its maw as its pounding paws ate up the distance between it and the soldiers. Closer and closer it drew, faster and faster, fangs dripping from a jaw gaping wide open, almost leering in its hunger for death as–

–the veil of night tore asunder when a searing bolt of brilliant, silver light appeared, streaking forward faster than any arrow and with more precision than any surgeon’s scalpel. The crackling shaft of lightning found home, striking the dire bear cleanly in the neck, severing spine and nerve before slicing through and exploding in a supernova of light in the hissing snow beneath.

The behemoth collapsed, crashing to the ground and skidding to a halt not ten paces from where the guardsmen stood.

Stunned silence. Only the captain knew what had just happened, which left the remaining soldiers to wonder just what had stopped the ursine beast dead in its tracks. Eyes went up to the trees, searching and seeking for the source of their salvation.

Melting from the shadows, seeming to step out from a cloak made of darkness itself, came a man. Tall and imposing, his dark brown coat blended seamlessly with the bark of trees. Beneath his broad, flat-brimmed hat, they saw eyes the same color as the spell rifle he wielded, still held up and trained on the fallen beast. They were cold, those eyes, hard as steel and set in a face that could have been carved of stone. Maybe it was. The snow continued to fall, but the flakes that touched his skin lingered far too long for a being made of flesh and warmth.

The man approached the bear, cautiously kneeling down to examine its remains. A moment of silence, and then he stood.

“He’s done for captain,” the man called forth in a rich, baritone voice. “Won’t be bothering you again.”

And just like that, the hardness vanished. He still looked sober as an angry judge, to be sure, but it was as if some internal switch had flipped to bring back the light of life in those cold, silver eyes.

“Sure do appreciate the help, marshal,” the captain smiled with relief as he approached to give the man a firm shake. “Us in the engineering corp aren’t exactly equipped to handle something like this. More bolts and screws for us than guns and explosions, don’t you know.”

“It was nothing,” the gunman replied with a small, but definitively human smile. “It was en route to my next assignment anyway.”

“You sure?” the captain questioned with eyes askance. “You look a bit chilled. Just how long were you up in that tree for anyway?”

“Not sure. Lost count after hour five.”

Well, that would certainly explain the lack of warmth.

“You were out in this weather for that long?” the captain gaped. “Shoot, we need to get you back to camp and warmed up proper. It’s not exactly Canterlot fair, but we’ve got hot soup, strong coffee, and–”

“Appreciate the offer, captain. Really do,” the man replied as he held up a hand with an apologetic grimace. “But I really have to get going right now. Next assignment starts immediately.”

“Ah, of course,” the officer nodded. “Airship’s already been prepped. You can leave as soon as you’re ready.”

“Much obliged.”

And with that final farewell, the stranger dashed off and faded into the night once more.

“… Captain,” one of the guardsmen asked, his voice filled with something akin to awe. “Who was that?”

“Oh, him?” his commander chuckled. “Make a note of this day, boy, because you just had the honor of meeting The Ghost of Thunder himself.”

Wide eyes of already astonished soldiers grew just a little bit wider.

*****

Lands to the north of the Crystal Empire were nothing but barren wasteland with fast swaths of unclaimed forests and craggy mountains covered in snow. At least, that’s how it’d used to be.

Under the leadership of Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, the Empire had set out to expand its boundaries, developing new inroads into the mountains to reclaim the territories once razed to foundation stones by ravaging orcs. With the aid of Equestria’s engineering corp, new pathways began snaking their way into the sierra’s flinty crags to bring with them new settlers and new beginnings.

It was into one of these construction camps that Graves now ran, skin still cold, but beginning to flush from the exertion of his travels. Inside the movable barricades of sensor posts and barrier spells, the camp was alive with activity. Even late into the night, craftsmen labored away, converting iron and stone into rails and roads, creating the arteries that would link outlays to city. The marshal smiled at the pleasant sounds of construction and growth, but his pace did not slow. After all, they had their work and he still had his.

Gliding his way through the hubbub and business, Graves made his way to the camp’s center, a large clearing for airships to bring in the raw materials needed for construction not procurable in the local climes. A quick glance around brought forth the sight of Pit Chief, the bald headed, bushy bearded construction foreman who oversaw all camp activities, including the flow of airships that would take the marshal along.

“Evening,” Graves called out as he slowed his run. “Bear’s been taken care of.”

“He has?” Pit called out, his unusually loud voice probably due to hard hearing from so many years near pounding construction. “Well that’s a relief! Been buggering my crews for so long, advancement’s been halted for near a full month now! Thanks to you, we can finally get moving again!”

“Glad to help,” the raven-haired soldier nodded with a tip of the hat. “Now, about getting out…”

“Oh, don’t you worry about that!” Pit laughed. “We know you marshals run schedules tighter than a six-gauge nut on a ten-gauge bolt! You give me fifteen minutes and I’ll have you shipped off on your merry little–”

Even Pit Chief’s raucous voice couldn’t be heard over the thundering explosion overhead as a massive hextech engine burst into flames.

“Wha?! Confound it! What happened out there?!” Pit Chief roared as crewmen scurried to and fro over the airship’s exterior, putting out flames and doing what they could to salvage the engine’s remains. At his side, Graves simply stood there, doing his best to appear at ease despite the flash of concern coming to his silver eyes.

“Bad news, boss!” a technician finally called out from above. “Seems like some sprites set up a nest inside the turbine! Once it turned on, well… let’s just say it’s not looking too pretty!”

“What?! What kind of nincompoop would turn on the engines before running a debris check?! You find me the one responsible and have him fired! No, wait! Rehire him and bring him over here so I can introduce him to the business end of my wrench! Then fire him!”

“This airship,” Graves intoned to interrupt the foreman before he really got going full steam, “ it wouldn't happen to be the one headed for the Crystal Empire, would it?"

“Is there any other?” Pit Chief sighed loudly. “I'm really sorry about this marshal, but that's the only one we got right now and next delivery isn’t scheduled till tomorrow evening. We can try and fix this one up soon as possible, but...” Another series of small explosions only served to emphasize the point. "I wouldn't hold my breath."

Graves frowned as he unconsciously checked the small, sealed box tucked inside his coat's inner pocket. This wasn't good. This wasn't good at all. Right now, he had a package to deliver, a package that absolutely had to exchange hands before midnight on the following day; any later and its contents would be rendered worthless, making his entire mission a complete, and utter failure.

Was there a way to avoid it? Didn't seem like it. Out in the mountains, airship was by far the fastest way to travel. Of course, waiting a full day to depart would still put him hours past deadline, making it about as useful an alternative as a lead inner tube. He could hitch a ride with a supply train, but those moved slower than molasses in January, and it wasn’t like he could magically just–

The loud sound of neighing rang through the night.

Slowly, Graves smiled.

*****

Iron horseshoes rang on stone and soil as the marshal rode hard through the night.

Given the foolishness of his crew, Pit had been more than willing to loan Graves one of their workhorses and directions towards the recently established town of Dunnkirk, where he could catch one of the daily trains to the Crystal Empire and continue on his way from there.

It was doable, but it wouldn’t be easy. That’s why Graves rode through the unclaimed forests, forgoing the winding roads in favor of the unbeaten path that caravans couldn’t traverse, but a single rider could. As the crow flew, it would save his trip hours and likely, let his horse last the whole way as well. Thus, Graves rode on, shrugging off the stinging flecks of ice biting into his skin as they thundered through the darkened trees.

For more than an hour, the journey was uneventful, the only sounds in the night the breathing of the horse and the pounding of its hooves. But then, sometime in the earliest hours of the morning, the raven-haired soldier felt a chill run down his spine that had nothing to do with the weather. Whipped by the wind as he was, Graves almost didn’t hear it the first time, the long, eerie howl off in the shadowed distance.

“Easy there,” the marshal called, patting his steed as it whinnied in fear. “Only one so far. Don’t need to worry unless there’s–”

The howl came again, far closer than any creature could move in so short a time, and then again, no longer to the side as the first two, but somewhere far behind. Again and again, the howls came, too distant and too numerous to be one creature alone, steadily growing closer and louder with each fearsome call.

“Great,” Graves muttered to himself. “Timber wolves.”

As if summoned by his words, the woods around him exploded to life. Dozens of hounds with flesh made of lumber and fur of moss leaped out from between the trees, their splintered snouts snapping as they gave hot pursuit to their prey.

Turning in his saddle, Grave let loose a quick bolt, the bright lance streaking through the darkness and striking one wolf flat between the eyes. With a soundless howl, the creature burst into ethereal flames and crumpled into a shattered heap as whatever eldritch magics keeping it together faded into the ether.

That was one down. Only, oh… forty, maybe fifty more to go?

“Alright horse,” Graves called out as he loosed another bolt of electric fury. “Here’s the deal. I can clear these wolves out, but I’ll need time. Think you can keep us alive till then?”

His steed let loose a whinny, a sound full of fear as predators closed in all around. Leaning forward, Graves gave the horse a few, gentle pats.

“Let me worry about them. You just run. Run like you’re the bucking son of Pegasus himself.”

Maybe it understood him. Maybe it didn’t. But without spur or rein, the stallion put on a fresh burst of speed, putting just a few feet between them and the snapping jaws behind. It may not have been much, but these few feet gave Graves just enough time to let loose two more swift shots, reducing yet another pair of wolves to crackling tinder.

And so the two rode on through the night with death never trailing further than the distance four pounding hooves and two steady hands could keep it.

*****

With brushstrokes of coral pink and lilac gold, the sun began to paint the land below in vibrant hues as it crept over the horizon. Of course by this time, the local rock farmers were already up and about, rotating their crops of crystals and gemstones from one mana vein to the next.

It was at one such rock farm, a little onyx patch on the north side of the Quartz River, that Slate – or Old Man Slate as he was known by all – worked. A rough and tumble sort of man, he and his wife Sandy kept a ways apart from the others, preferring the quiet of the forested side of the rive to the bustle of their little village. So in the quiet of the morning, the sexagenarian farmer followed the early morning light across his little field.

Cracking open a little outcrop, Old Man Slate was pleased to see the onyx was growing steadily, already beginning to form thumb-sized crystals in their solid limestone beds. Now that the growth had started, he could begin rotating the rocks around the field, giving them all an even exposure to the rich mana streams that ran through the fields. After that, it’d be off to the river for the lighter magics to impart shine and luster, and it’d finally be–

With a startled cry, the elderly farmer fell to his backside as a lone rider galloped out of the forest and shot passed him like like one of those new-fangled flying Wondebowl thingamabobs.

Before the steed had even stopped, Graves had already leaped from his back to pull him in a tight, circling stop lest he stumble into the field and snap a leg over one of the many rocky outcroppings.

“Easy now, easy,” the marshal said, his voice low and soothing as he patted the horse’s head. “You did good back there. Real good.”

Though its sides continued to heave, the stallion finally calmed, allowing Graves to remove the saddle with the quick motions of a practiced hand. Once freed of the encumbrance, it wearily wandered to the farm's perimeter and began to graze at the tough winter grass. It was a small reward, but a pleasant one after such a long night’s race.

Long night…

Looking up to the horizon, Graves frowned as the sunlight glinted off his steel-hued eyes. It was true, the race through the forest had shaved hours off their journey, but it’d also forced him to run his horse far too hard. It would be a good few days before his steed would be ready to move at anything more than a walk, and that certainly wasn’t going to help him reach Dunnkirk in the little time he had left.

Turning around, the marshal realized that the farmer was still sitting, still stunned at the sudden appearance of a man riding like a bat from the Tartaurian pits. He’d have to make amends for that.

“Sorry about that,” Graves said as he walked over to offer a helping hand. “Kind of in a rush this morning.”

“So it would seem,” the old man mused as he took the proffered hand. “But if you don’t mind me asking, how’s it that you came through the woods? Place is infested with timber wolves, you know.”

“Oh, those. They’re uh… indisposed of at the moment.”

It only took a quick glance from the young man to the large rifle strapped to his back for Slate to comprehend.

“Well, if that don’t beat all,” the rock farmer beamed. “Blasted varmints attack just about everything that moves, make it a right pain to live in these parts. You’ve just made life a heap more pleasant around here, stranger.”

“It was nothing,” Graves muttered, pulling his broad hat low over his eyes. “Just needed to get through quick.”

“It may be nothing to you, but it sure means a lot to us!” Slate laughed as he gave the raven-haired soldier a hearty smack to the back. For a man who was so thin and wiry, he sure packed a punch. Probably came from rolling rocks around all day.

“Anywho,” he continued, “I don’t have much to offer, but if you need anything, just name it. It’s the least I could do in return.”

Graves was just about to deny it, as per usual, but then he stopped. Grey eyes flickered over to the river, sparkling and shimmering as it flowed along in the early morning sun.

“… Do you have a boat?”

*****

Paddle dipping into the Quartz River, Graves gave it a little twist to keep his vessel in the center of the river’s flow. Slate’s canoe was small, but sleek, slicing through the water like one of the rainbow-scaled trout that swam below, saving him hours of travel as the near straight-shot river guided him towards Dunnkirk’s western banks. With the time he was making, Graves could arrive a couple of hours before departure, giving him time to rest and recuperate before heading onto the train and off for his next destination.

A strong stroke to move even faster, and the marshal continued on his journey, for once feeling that things were starting to fall in relative order.

Of course, that’s when the chill ran down his spine once more.

Sitting up in sharp-eyed alert, Graves glanced around to take stock of his surroundings, searching for any sign of threat or danger. He was currently in a tall, narrow canyon, the current flowing faster as it pressed into the tight confines of the cliffs around. With those high, earthen walls, it’d be unlikely that any threat would come from land. He turned his eyes upward. The sky was a brilliant blue, seeming all the brighter after an overcast night of snow and driving winds. Clear as it was, there’d be no cover for the local thunderbirds to make their hunt, and if the lords of the sky felt vulnerable, there was certainly no concern for the lesser vassals.

That just left the river below.

It was only now that Graves realized the river was strangely empty. Where large bass and silver pike should have been swimming, there was nothing, just murky water that hid the river bottom from sight.

… Hold on just a flea-bitten second. Murky? The Quartz River got its name for its crystal clear waters, fed as they were by pure glacial springs to the north. Even in the canyon’s shadow, the water should have been reasonably clear, at the most a hazy translucent instead of glassy and clean as usual.

But when the murk seemed to shift, Graves realized with a sad, sinking certainty that it wasn’t the water that was the issue. It was what dwelt underneath.

With a terrific explosion, the river erupted into a fifty foot geyser right beneath the marshal’s canoe, splintering the craft and tossing him headfirst into the frigid current below. The water was cold, frozen shock that hit every inch of his body more strongly than any electrical feedback ever could. It was liquid ice that threatened to paralyze his muscles and stop his heart.

And that was the least of his worries.

Rising from the river’s depths, a long, serpentine head appeared, water glistening from its dim, blue scales as it peered down at the marshal with milky white eyes.

A Jormungandr snake. Usually inhabiting open bays and estuaries, these freshwater leviathans were the bane of man and beast alike. Devilishly clever, one of the near fifty foot creatures could stalk all manner of prey, stunning them with swift blows and rock-smashing jets of water before dragging them down into a watery grave.

It was this creature, with its mouth full of pearly white fangs the length of a boy’s arm, that eyed the marshal as its next meal.

Shrieking its war cry, the serpent spat forth an icy stream of liquid death, clearly intent on pulverizing the marshal into a warm and pasty soup. Fortunately, Graves had already charged and loosed his silver spell chain, snagged the canyon wall, and pulled himself to safety a moment before the spot he’d just occupied exploded in a frothing boil.

A quick release to a lower handhold was all that saved him from the second shot that pulverized stone, a second chain all that preserved him from the third. It was mad dash as Graves scrambled across the cliff side, each movement only a second before the next blast of icy water.

It couldn’t last. At some point, he’d be just a whit too slow and a moment too late. When that happened, the cannon stream would blow his body apart into a greasy smear on the stony canyon walls. Either that, or he’d lose his already tenuous grip and tumble back into the river below, where he’d promptly be devoured alive by the awaiting serpent. No, Graves couldn't just keep running. He had to turn the tables, take the fight to the beast.

And he finally discovered how. A daring vaunt up to a higher handhold. A chain shot still further up. Even as the Jormungandr snake continued its volley, Graves steadily crept higher and higher up the cliff until–

Graves leaped once more, not higher up but instead straight out, arcing over the frigid stream sent his way and into the open air above the river. Of course, it wasn’t completely open, because the marshal fell exactly where he wanted to, which was right on top of the serpent’s back. Even before he landed, the marshal swung his rifle and loosed not a bolt of lightning, but another silver spell chain. Sailing through the air, the chain caught itself caught itself across the serpent’s maw as the weighted spike at the end swung itself around and fell right into the marshal’s awaiting hand.

“Aright, you overgrown earthworm,” the marshal grunted as he yanked on chain and rifle much as he would a horse’s reins. “Here's the deal. I'm in a hurry and you just wrecked my boat. Now unless you want to end up as some very nice footwear, you're gonna behave yourself and take me where I need to go instead. Got it?”

Another hissing shriek, and the sea snake tried to dive back into the river’s cold embrace. That’s when its maw was struck with electric agony as Graves delivered a painful shock through the chain and straight to creature’s tender mouth.

“Like I said,” Graves repeated, his voice far harder and colder than the scales he stood upon. “I need to get going, and you’re gonna take me. We clear?”

With a slight shift, milky white eyes turned to meet steely grey.

It wasn’t the man who looked away first.

*****

Scribbles sighed as he checked the wall clock hanging above the station platform. Five minutes until the train set to leave. Good.

He didn’t like dealing with the train, but it was sort of his job. Technically, he was the postmaster and handled the mail and supplies that came in or got sent out. Balanced spreadsheets, even numbers, accounting and checking and forms signed in triplicate… that was nice. That he could handle. The passenger train, however, was decidedly less pleasant, as it required dealing with… ugh… people.

Fortunately, it’d be over in another four minutes, thirty-eight seconds, and with an empty platform, it looked like his least favorite part of the day was done. And just as he decided it was late enough that he could hang up the sign and head off to an early lunch, wouldn’t you know it? Someone decided to show up at the last minute.

“Sorry, we’re closed,” Scribbles called, hanging up the sign. “You’ll have to come around the same time tomor–”

“No, you're not.”

Normally, people would be offended by this sort of language. Normally, Scribbles would just shrug, hang up the sign anyway, and head off for a nice bowl of chowder at the cantine. However, the speakers of such words normally aren’t tall, imposing figures half frozen from still dripping river water, carrying a large gun and glaring at you with eyes that could probably boil ice.

So in a not normal reaction, Scribbles stood right where he was.

“Listen here you little snot,” the man began, his voice strained with the effort of staying composed. “I just spent half a day in the middle of a blizzard to hunt down a crazy devil bear, got chased all night by a pack of timber wolves, and then got done catching a ride on a river snake to make this train. A river snake, mind you, that still tried to eat me after I was nice enough to let it go. I’ve got places I need to be, so you’re going to sell me a ticket right now and we can both leave without our days getting a whole lot worse. Got it?”

Scribbles could only nod as he handed over ticket. His vocal cords were being decidedly uncooperative at this present moment.

“Good,” the scary man nodded, now only looking like he was capable of painful assault instead of outright murder. “Now, one last thing.” Reaching into his coat, he pulled out an ivory fang, long as his forearm with the tip carefully capped in clay to prevent the venom inside from leaking out.

“Postmark this for the Equestrian Department of Science, Canterlot. Keep it on ice and get it to them as fresh as possible, but make sure you don’t get any of the venom on you; stuff'll make you think cutting an arm off’s a bargain to be done with it. Understood?”

Once again, Scribbles could only nod.

**********

As the train whistle sounded and the slow, rhythmic rumble of movement began, then – and only then – did Graves finally begin to relax.

Sparse as the passengers had been that day, the marshal had been the only one to board the cabin. That meant he was free to sprawl out on one of the benches and drip dry as his frozen exterior finally began to thaw in the compartment’s warmth. Warmth, he wasn’t ashamed to admit, that was making him quite sleepy.

He was used to going without sleep and didn’t need much of it usually anyway. Probably bad habits picked up during his cadet years, but that’s another story. As it was, he could go for a night without sleep and function as needed, but it certainly wasn’t something he sought out or enjoyed. And as he lay there, slowly growing toasty as the adrenaline and rush of battle steadily drained from his system, the effects of the night before finally began to take its toll.

Graves pulled his broad, flat brimmed hat over his eyes and settled it, only taking just enough time to check the sealed box still tucked in his coat pocket with a satisfied smile. The train would be at the Crystal Empire in a few hours, he’d be able to grab an airship to Canterlot, and from there, he’d be at his next destination before dinner. He’d done good. He could finally relax.

And of course, just as he was about to doze off, Graves was rudely jolted from his rest by a shriek of grinding steel as the train bucked like an angry bronco.

“What the–”

Leaping to his feet, the marshal popped open a window and peered out to see what was the matter. That was actually an easy question: a large tree had fallen over the tracks, forcing the train to a wrenching halt. Of course, that left another question: how had the tree gotten there in the first place? That too, was soon answered by a keening cry ringing overhead. Looking up, the raven-haired soldier spotted several large, winged figures circling the train with clearly vulturish intent.

Wyverns. Cousins to the dragon race, what they lacked in sentience and intelligence, they made up for in ferocity and savagery. And it wasn’t just the reptilian beasts the marshal now faced, oh no. These wyverns were tamed, obvious by the leather harnesses and the whooping riders astride the back of each creature.

Bandits. Of course it'd be bandits. Drop an object before the train. Force a stop. Raid the contents and make off with the stolen goods. A simple plan really, except for one small wrinkle.

“Oh no,” Graves muttered as he picked up his spell gun and headed for the door. “That. Is. It.”

The marshal was a patient man. Most of the time. Right now wasn’t one of those times as Graves found his travels waylaid once more. Once, he could understand. Twice, maybe. Three times was clearly enough. But four? Four was just out of the question. So as the Ghost of Thunder straightened his hat, charged up his spell gun, and made his way outside to conduct his official duties of maintaining the order, he did so with a good deal more vehemence and enthusiasm than was usually required.

As for the bandits on the receiving end of the marshal's wrath, well... may Celestia have mercy on their souls.

**********

“Have a good night, Rarity!”

“You too, dear! See you tomorrow night!”

With a final, fond farewell, the violet-haired beauty stepped into her immaculate little shop and shut the door to the snowy night.

Shrugging off her long overcoat, Rarity walked through the darkened room towards her cozy, little kitchen. It was late, almost midnight already, but she just didn’t feel like sleeping. So instead, she made herself a cup of hot chocolate and moved to the fireplace, banking the embers back to life for a merry, little fire.

It was a quiet night, one of those magically still evenings that only comes around this time of year. Though the cheery lights twinkled out in the dark, not a soul stirred as big, fluffy flakes of snow continued to fall from the sky.

That's when the quiet was shattered by a loud, keening shriek.

“What in the world?!”

Leaping to her feet, Rarity rushed over towards the window and peered out to spot the source of the disturbance. It really wasn’t that hard to find: a large, leather-winged beast had flapped down and perched itself right outside her storefront with a very familiar rider on top.

She didn’t even bother grabbing her coat.

Rarity made it in time to see the marshal leap from the wyvern’s back into the snowy street below. Silver glinted in hand as he straightened and with a few quick slashes, he pulled forth a field knife and severed the leather straps binding the saddle to its back. A moment’s eye contact between man and beast, a soft smack to the haunch, and the creature took off into the sky, its primal cry fading off as it disappeared into the distance.

Once sure that the beast was gone, Graves finally turned to the waiting lady with a small, crooked smile.

“… Hey. I’m back.”

Rarity said nothing. Instead, she grabbed him by the hand – icy cold as she expected – and dragged him inside, dirty boots and all. A forceful toss into the fireside armchair, a blanket tossed atop afterwards, and it was into the kitchen where she whipped up a fresh cup of cocoa.

Then, and only then, when she’d watched him drain half the cup in a single gulp, did she finally give him an exasperated, but very understanding smile.

“There. Feeling better?”

“Much.”

“Good,” Rarity chuckled as she eased herself into the seat across from him. “Now, would you mind telling my why on earth you were riding a dragon into town in the middle of the night?”

“Wyvern.”

“Excuse me?”

“That's a wyvern. Not a dragon.”

“Pardon me. Why on earth were you riding a wyvern into town in the middle of the night?”

“Train got stopped. Had to hitch another ride.”

“Weren’t you going to take the airship?”

“I was.”

“Then why were you on a train?”

“'Cause the river snake tried to eat me.”

“Why were you canoodling with river snakes?”

“'Cause my horse got tired from the timber wolves.”

"And why were you out playing with timber wolves?"

"'Cause someone blew up the airship."

“…”

“…”

“Graves,” she said with a sweet smile. “I think it might be best if you started from the beginning.”

So he did. He regaled her with the whole story, everything from his last mission up to this moment as Rarity watched with wide-eyed surprise. She didn’t even notice her own cocoa growing cold in hand.

“... That… certainly is quite the tale,” she remarked.

“More eventful than I’d have thought, sure,” the marshal chuckled.

“But there’s one thing I don’t understand,” the pretty seamstress frowned. “Why are you here? Not that I’m not thrilled to see you, by any means. It’s just… you were so rushed, I was almost certain you had another mission to get to. So why is it that you’re here, drinking hot cocoa with me?”

“Oh. Right.”

Setting down the mug, Graves fumbled on the inside of his heavy coat even as he fumbled for his words.

“I remember you said that... it'd be nice to spend the, ah... holidays together. So...”

Finally, he pulled out a small, wrapped parcel and handed it over with a small, lopsided smile.

The clock rang three times before Rarity could move, another three times before she opened the parcel under the marshal’s watching, but nervous gaze.

It would be another six chimes before she could clear the lump from her throat.

With motions unusually gentle from hands so calloused, Graves helped Rarity pull her hair back and fasten the little pin into her hair, a soaring swallow carved from ocean blue jade. There, nestled amid the flowing tresses of her hair, it looked almost alive, a graceful bird soaring freely through a sea of violet waves.

Picking up a silver hand-mirror, sapphire eyes welled with tears as she saw the pin resting as if made for her.

“Graves,” she managed through tear filled eyes, “it’s beautiful.”

The young man smiled, a little expression that was far warmer than any fireplace could hope to be.

“Happy Hearth’s Warming Day.”

*****

The two sat together, warm and content before the slowly dying fire.

“So, you’re telling me,” the young lady began with a playful smile, “that you went through all that trouble, just so you could get me a Hearth’s Warming present on time?”

“Well, you know,” the marshal shrugged, his flush well hidden by the crimson glow of the fire, “I promised I'd be back today, it being the first one and all.”

“Graves!” Rarity gasped, eyes lighting up with delight. “I never knew you were such a romantic!”

“Yeah, yeah,” he mumbled, now thoroughly embarrassed and pulling his hat low. The pretty dressmaker simply continued to smile and planted a soft kiss on his cheek.

“Really, thank you. I love the present, but it’s the fact you went through so much trouble to be here that really makes it special.”

The marshal smiled back, turning to meet her soft lips with his.

“Still, I feel a little guilty though,” Rarity laughed as she finally pulled away. “Me being such a naughty girl, opening my presents early and all.”

“Well, it was midnight already,” Graves smiled. “I’m sure Luna won’t mind.”

And that's when the violet-haired beauty paused, a strange, slightly puzzled look coming onto her face.

“Graves…” she said slowly. “You… do realize that Hearth’s Warming Day isn't till tomorrow… right?”

“…”

“…”

“… Hah?”

**********

To Be Continued

The Journey of Graves will continue in the next story: Winter Wonders, Winter Worries.

Return to Story Description

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