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Untangling the Knot

by GentlemanJ

First published

The fifth story in The Journey of Graves.

A week has passed since the ill-fated events in Rarity's boutique. The encounter has left a deep impression on Graves as he grows colder and more distant than ever before. Rarity, feeling responsible, wants desperately to make amends, but the multitude of fears and worries plaguing her have made this next to impossible. Even with the help of their friends, it's going to take a miracle to untangle this knot.

Chapter 1

This is the fifth story in The Journey of Graves. Special thanks go to MrBackpack, my spectacular editor, who did so much to help me craft this story.

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...

Untangling the Knot

By: GentlemanJ

Chapter 1

Present:

Graves dove headfirst into the narrow, canyon-side crevice and, ignoring his pounding heart, held his breath in a desperate attempt to erase his presence. Blinking away a mixture of sweat and rainwater, the marshal tightened the grip on his spell gun and waited, straining his senses to pick up some trace of his pursuer.

He couldn’t see. He couldn’t hear. The torrential rainstorm pouring down all around him robbed the raven-haired soldier of vision as all other sounds were overwhelmed by the crash of cascading water. Worse, the beast was playing smart. Where many other creatures would have simply roared and charged, his pursuer was using the environment. It hid under the cover of the elements and carefully stalked its prey, steadily getting closer and closer with each passing second; it hunted for its dinner, and the marshal was the main course.

But Graves could still smell, and a brief, stinking whiff of brimstone gave him just enough warning. Leaping to one side, the young marshal barely escaped as his hiding spot exploded into a roaring mix of fire and shrapnel.

Ignoring the searing chemical flames and stone fragments whizzing past like angry hornets, Graves spun around to face the beast. In one smooth motion, he brought his rifle to bear and fired, a crackling bolt of arcane lightning bursting forth. Not stopping to watch, the marshal landed and began running again, smiling grimly as he heard the creature roar in agony; the shot had found its mark.

However, his elation was cut short as Graves felt his stomach clench like dragon claws around a jewel. Ducking behind another pile of rocks, the young man pressed a hand hard against a stomach that felt like it was digesting razorblades. It didn’t help much.

Can’t keep this up for long,” he thought, panting as he fought for control over his body. “Got to finish it quickly, or else…” Well, he’d rather not think about that just yet.

Another roar echoed through the canyon and Graves felt himself grin just a little. Smart as it was, the monster was getting angry again. That was good. Angry meant it’d be easier to take down. Angry meant he might actually survive.

Dashing from cover, Graves fired again and was once more rewarded by a furious cry of pain. Emboldened by the sound, the marshal shoved all thoughts of exhaustion to the furthest corners of his mind and continued his assault. Now using the storm to his advantage, he darted from one hiding spot to the next, confusing and disorienting the beast as he kept up a relentless barrage of magical lighting.

Throwing himself behind a nearby rock outcropping, Graves gasped as he forced magic into his spell gun, cramming it with as much energy as his wearied body could muster.

Just a little more,” he thought, praying for all he was worth that he could hold out for just a few more minutes. The beast was already seriously injured; one good shot, one well placed blast, and it should go down like a house of cards. But one shot was all he’d have. The pain from his stomach was already spreading to the rest of his body. It would only grow more intense and very soon, would shut him down completely.

“Just a little more,” he whispered as the beast rampaged, his rifle only moments from reaching the charge he needed. “Come on; just give me a few more seconds...”

But fate is rarely that kind. The beast roared in triumph as it spotted the marshal and, much to the marshal’s surprise, charged headfirst to crash through the stony barrier. Diving out of the way, Graves narrowly managed to avoid being crushed, but instead caught a heavy blow to the side from one of the monster’s massive legs. Ribs cracking with a wet snap, the blow drove all air from his lungs and sent him sprawling to the muddy ground.

The great beast turned on him, eyes glinting malevolently as Graves rolled onto his back, still struggling for breath as he unsteadily raised his rifle. Except, it wasn’t there. Perhaps ten feet away, his spell gun lay on the ground, rain splattering against its glowing surface that slowly began to grow dull. The charge was fading. If he didn’t get his rifle back in time, all the energy he’d already stored would dissipate, and any chance he had of escape with it.

But that distance might as well have been ten miles. Arrogantly, the creature sauntered over, coolly keeping an eye on Graves and the fallen spell gun. It wasn’t stupid: it had dealt with humans before, and it knew that without weapons, they were nothing more than tasty morsels. This one had proven particularly troublesome, but even he was powerless without his tool.

Thus, with a low, satisfied growl, the salivating beast advanced, ready to devour its hard-earned meal.

*****

Earlier that Day:

“Hey, G! How’s it hanging?”

From her overhead perch on a low-hanging cloud, Rainbow Dash saw the marshal passing by underneath, apparently coming back from some business in the Everfree Forest. She’d been planning on catching a little shut-eye, but since Graves was here, she figured that could wait a bit and called out her greeting to a fellow cool person. The marshal, however, didn’t even look up and simply kept walking.

Now this didn’t sit well with the young flier. Here she was, the most awesome person in Ponyville, sacrificing valuable nap time to chat with the marshal, and he just kept walking? That just wasn’t gonna cut it.

“So what you been up to, G?” she asked as she drifted down to float alongside him (maybe he hadn’t heard and getting closer would help). “Haven’t seen you in a while: been busy chasing down all sorts of creepy monsters and stuff?”

Once again, Graves didn’t respond and simply kept walking, blowing off the coolest person in Ponyville for a second time.

Multicolored hair bristling, Rainbow Dash flew in front of the young man and planted herself squarely on the ground, arms crossed as she looked up at him with challenge in her eyes.

“Okay, G, what gives?” she demanded. “I know you’re about as chatty as Big Mac most of the time, but how come you’re just ignoring me all of a sudden? What’s your problem?”

Graves gave a start, as if only just now realizing somebody was talking to him. Giving his head a little shake, he looked down and saw Rainbow Dash standing in front of him, arms crossed over her cyan sports top and looking distinctly displeased to boot.

“I’m sorry, what?” he asked dully.

“How come you’re ignoring me?” the young flier repeated in a huff. She was going to have to dock some serious cool points from him if he kept this up.

“Did I?” he asked again. “Sorry about that; I didn’t notice.”

Rainbow Dash was about to rip into him yet again, but something about the marshal’s reaction made her stop. She looked at him again, a bit more carefully this time, though the way she squinted so intently probably made her look more angry than inquisitive.

“Is… there a problem?” he asked hesitantly.

“You feeling okay, G?” Rainbow Dash asked, her tone a little less heated than before. “You seem a bit… off.”

Never let it be said that the young flier was the most sensitive of girls; after all, her idea of good advice was, “Just be cooler; like me.” Still, even she could see that something was amiss with Graves. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was, but something just wasn’t right.

“Nothing worth mentioning,” he shrugged. “I’m fine.”

“You sure?” Rainbow Dash asked a touch skeptically. “'Cause if there is, you could… you know, talk about it or something. Uh, guys do talk about things, right?” It wasn’t the most eloquent of inquiries, but the straightforward honesty of the question brought a slight smile to the marshal’s lips, if not his eyes.

“Thanks," he said, his gaze a dull, flat grey like overcast skies, “but there’s nothing to talk about. Have a good morning.” And with that, Graves stepped around the rainbow haired girl and continued walking.

“… Okay, what was that all about?”

**********

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Fluttershy was in a mild state of panic. Granted, she was almost always in a mild state of panic, but this time it was legitimate. Actually, it was more than legitimate: in this case, it was downright called for.

Rarity had missed their spa appointment.

Rarity never missed a spa appointment. The two girls had been meeting weekly at the spa for quite some time now, and while the busy seamstress might arrive late and looking like a frazzled hurricane, she’d always show up. Only today, Fluttershy had waited in the steam room till she was completely cooked, then waited some more in the mineral baths. The result of that were one very tired young lady, some very pruny fingers, and still no Rarity.

“I wonder why she couldn’t make it,” the demure girl mused as she walked out of the spa, head light from the heat yet heavy with worry. “I don’t think she’s ever missed an appointment since… well, since ever!” Then Fluttershy gasped. “What if she’s in trouble? Maybe she couldn’t make it because she got into an accident! Oh my goodness, what if she’s hurt? Rarity!” Breaking off into a dead run, Fluttershy sprinted for her friends boutique as her coral pink hair streamed behind her.

"Rarity? Are you alright?” she called while frantically (but gently) pounding on the door. “Rarity, please open up! If you don’t then I’ll, I’ll… kick it down! I mean, that is, if you don’t mind…” she finished meekly. Fortunately, the sound of footsteps approaching the door precluded any need for Fluttershy to unleash the full fury of her panic. Unfortunately, what she saw didn’t exactly assuage her worries either.

Rarity looked like a complete mess. Her white silk blouse had a few stray wrinkles, her hair was in a mild state of disarray, and the reading glasses she wore hung slightly askew at the tip of her nose. So in all honesty, she didn’t look too bad, but by the fashionista’s standards, it was the equivalent of answering the door in a burlap sack.

“Oh, hello, Fluttershy,” Rarity said, sounding rather tired and absent-minded. “How are you today?”

“I’m fine, thank you,” the shy girl replied politely. “I was just wondering if you were doing alright.”

“Me?” Rarity asked as if surprised. “But of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well...” Fluttershy hesitated: she really didn’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill. “I was just a teensy, itty-bitty bit concerned since I didn’t see you at the spa today.”

Rarity blinked, then ducked back into the boutique to pluck the little desk calendar from her work station.

“My goodness, was that today?” the disheveled seamstress gasped. “I’m so sorry, Fluttershy, it seems to have completely slipped my mind.”

“That’s okay, Rarity,” the quiet girl replied kindly. “I’ll bet you were working on something really special and got really absorbed in your work, right?”

“Er… something like that,” Rarity rejoined with an awkward smile.

“Well, I’m just glad that you’re feeling okay,” Fluttershy smiled. Though she meant to be encouraging, the expression faded into pensive silence as she took a hesitant pause. “You… do feel fine, don’t you?”

Rarity opened her mouth to respond, but seemed to catch herself and smiled sadly. Hearing about her friends’ problems would upset Fluttershy, but later hearing they’d been hiding them would simply devastate her.

“Honestly, no,” she admitted. “Things have gotten a bit… complicated recently.”

“Oh my, that sounds serious,” came the demure girl’s wide-eyed response. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“I’m afraid I can’t,” the seamstress sighed sadly; there was a fine line between confiding in friends and breaking a confidence. “I believe this is something the marshal and I have to deal with ourselves.”

“Well in that case, why don’t I bring him here? I’m sure that he’d–”

“No!” Rarity cried in abrupt alarm. Fluttershy was so startled, she merely squeaked in alarm and fell silent. Taking a slow, deep breath, the violet-haired girl calmed herself and smiled reassuringly at her friend. “I’m sorry, darling, that came out wrong. It’s just that I’m not quite ready to deal with the marshal at this time. You understand, don’t you?”

“I... I guess so?” the shy girl replied uncertainly. “Are you sure there’s nothing I can do to help?”

“Thank you for the offer,” Rarity smiled, “but right now, I just need some time to think.”

“Okay. In that case, I’ll be heading back now. I hope you and Mr. Graves get things patched up soon.”

“Thank you, Fluttershy,” the pretty seamstress smiled gratefully. “I hope so too.”

With one last uncertain smile, Fluttershy walked off and Rarity closed the door. Alone once more, the dressmaker sighed before wearily trudging back to her workshop.

*****

Settling back down at her desk, Rarity took a sip of tea that had long since grown cold, the bitter taste doing nothing to remedy her brooding mood.

The last week had been decidedly unpleasant, ever since her last real encounter with the marshal. Even the memory of the incident made her cringe, not because of what she’d seen, but solely based on the way she’d acted. The perfectly, dreadfully, horrible way she’d acted.

She had seen Graves without his shirt on, which would never have been an issue save for the fact that his body was covered in massive, ragged scars. Rarity had been completely unprepared for the sight and in a rare moment of shock, she’d screamed. That’s when things started going wrong.

Though people might not believe her, the pretty seamstress, from the bottom of her heart, regretted how she’d acted. Graves was a good man: a bit gruff on the outside, but surprisingly thoughtful and daresay even gentle underneath his rugged soldier’s exterior. She should have known this better than anyone; after all, she’d just spent an entire day getting to know the man behind the badge. And yet, when it had counted, she’d let her emotions get the best of her and treated the marshal like he was some… some kind of monstrosity.

It had been an awful, a judgmental reaction based solely on the shallowest of external features, and Rarity wanted nothing more than to apologize for her shameful outburst. Only, she’d never gotten the chance. The very next morning, Graves had received orders to deal with a banshee infestation and had been unreachable for more than two days. Various chance occurrences kept them still apart, and by the time Rarity actually met the marshal again, she no longer knew how to even broach the subject.

That meeting had been brief and awkward, with Rarity not knowing what to say while Graves remained silent and withdrawn, much like he’d been on his first day in town. They’d quickly parted ways, and since then, Rarity had seen neither hide nor hair of the marshal, giving the violet-haired girl a distinct feeling he was avoiding her. Then again, considering how deeply offended he must be, she couldn’t say that she really blamed him.

Even her tried and true method of problem solving hadn’t helped. Usually, when faced with a tricky conundrum, Rarity would lock herself in the boutique workshop and bury herself in work. The creative process of designing new clothes typically helped her form creative solutions to her problems. This time, all she’d gotten out of this ordeal were several dreadful prototypes, numerous sleepless nights, and now a missed spa date with Fluttershy.

So here she sat, stuck in a vicious cycle of increasing guilt. The longer she waited, the worse she felt. The worse she felt, the more she wanted to apologize, and the more she wanted to apologize, the more terrified she became of actually doing it.

“Still, it’s no excuse for putting it off,” she told herself firmly. “I’ll just have to forgo trying to be clever, walk straight up to him and tell him I'm sorry.”

Of course, if it were really that easy, she’d have done it long ago. The memory of his grey eyes, the way they’d grown cold and distant, as if hiding behind a veil of heavy clouds, very much made her doubt it’d be anywhere near that simple.

This was how Rarity found herself staring into the bottom of her teacup, wishing she could use the leaves to magically divine a solution to her problems. Try as she might, all she saw was a soggy, wet mess.

**********

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

“Here you go, Derpy,” Twilight smiled brightly as she handed over the text. “One copy of Galloping Gourmet’s Big Book of Beautiful Baking for Beginners: the section on muffin’s starts on page thirty-six.”

“Thanks a bunch, Twilight!” the ever cheerful girl with the straw-colored hair replied. “After I get some practice in, I’ll be sure to bring you some of the best muffins you’ve ever had!”

“I’d like that very much: thank you!” Twilight beamed. “Oh, and say hi to the doctor for me.”

“Will do!” With another cheerful wave, Derpy slipped the book in her bag, slipped the bag over her gray, hooded sweatshirt, and dashed out the door, or at least tried to. Cross-eyed as she was, she crashed a couple of times before finally managing to exit the building.

“I still don’t get why she likes them muffins so much,” Applejack mused from her seat at a nearby table. “I mean, they’re alright, I guess, but nothin’ to get excited over.”

“Really?” Twilight asked with a sly grin. “Are you sure that’s not just because muffins don’t have apples in them?”

“I still say they’d taste better with apples,” the freckled cowgirl insisted loyally. “I just need to figure out a recipe that doesn’t end up mushy, that’s all.”

“Well, maybe I can help with that,” Twilight giggled as she brushed back her purple and pink-striped hair. “I remember seeing another book in the culinary section that might–”

Twilight paused as she heard a small, hesitant knock come from the library door. She glanced over at Applejack, who returned a knowing smile: there was only one person in Ponyville who’d knock before entering a public library.

“Hey there, Fluttershy,” Twilight grinned as she opened the door for her timid friend. “I thought you and Rarity would be at the spa right now.”

“Hello, Twilight. Hello, Applejack,” Fluttershy murmured softly as she tiptoed. “Well, actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I’m sort of, kind of, just a teensy bit worried about Rarity, because you see… she didn’t show up at the spa today.”

“What?” Applejack scoffed as she walked over, “Rarity missin’ a day at the spa? Next, you’ll be tellin’ me that Rainbow Dash’s takin’ up knittin’.”

“Oh, but it’s true,” Fluttershy insisted with wide-eyed earnestness. “I mean, I don’t know about Rainbow Dash and knitting, but Rarity really didn’t show up this morning.”

“Well that’s weird,” Twilight said with furrowed eyebrows. “What happened?”

Fluttershy filled in her friends on what she knew, how Rarity had shown up at the door looking very un-Rarity-like, how she’d seem preoccupied with thoughts she couldn’t talk about, and most importantly, her odd comment implicating Graves.

“Well that all adds up to a hill o’ beans. No offense, Fluttershy,” Applejack added before feelings were hurt. “Right now, we still know next to nothin’ about what’s going on. You sure Rarity didn’t say anythin’ else? Anythin’ important?”

“Positive,” Fluttershy nodded. “She really did seem bothered, but said she couldn’t talk about it. All I know is that it somehow involves the marshal.”

As if to punctuate her statement, the library door blew open yet again and Rainbow Dash came barreling, crashing into to a bookshelf on the far side of the room.

“Yo, Twilight. I need to talk to you,” the reckless flier said as she extracted herself from the pile of texts. “I saw Big G earlier today, but he was acting all weird and I have no idea why. You’re the egghead here: help me figure this out.” The librarian, farmer, and animal caretaker all looked at one another in surprise.

“Does it have something to do with Rarity?” Twilight asked, though partially distracted by the task of reshelving the books.

“Uh, not sure,” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Why, what’s Rarity go to do with this?”

To fill in the multicolored newcomer, Fluttershy repeated her story regarding their seamstress friend. Perhaps Graves was worrying about something else, but that’d be a pretty big coincidence, all things considered. The two must be related somehow.

“Okay, so let me get this straight,” Rainbow Dash began, “Something happened between Rarity and G, they’re both getting all bothered by it, but neither one wants to say anything about it?”

“Yeah, that about sums it up,” Applejack nodded. Rainbow Dash just blew a loud raspberry.

“Well that’s stupid. Why don’t they just toss it out in the open and deal with it?”

“It might not be that easy,” Twilight interjected. “Obviously, something happened between them that was serious enough that neither of them feels like they can bring it back up.”

“Especially if you really don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings,” Fluttershy nodded in agreement. “That can make it even harder.”

“Well they can’t jess let it sit there like wood rot,” Applejack pointed out. “They’re gonna have tah work it out at some point.”

“True, but at this point, talking is probably the last thing either of them wants to do.” Twilight sighed.

“I say we make ‘em!” the cyan flyer snorted, puffing out her chest in a distinctly manly fashion. “How about we tie them up, toss them in a broom closet, lock the door, and don’t open it till they're all sunshine and daisies again?”

“You can’t do that, Rainbow Dash!” Fluttershy gasped. “I mean, getting them to talk would be a really good thing, but the tying up and locking them in part just sounds kind of mean.”

“… Actually, that might not be a bad idea.”

Everyone, including Rainbow Dash turned to stare at Twilight in absolute befuddlement as she stood there. It looked like she actually giving the idea some serious thought.

“Um, Twi?” Applejack began with an apologetic grin, “No offense, but this is where you usually step in and put a stop to Dash’s crazy notions.”

“But she did make a good point,” Twilight countered. “I mean, not with the tying up and locking them in part – that’d just be silly – but making them talk might not be such a bad idea.”

“Well how are we gonna do it if we don’t tie them up and lock ‘em in a broom closet?” Rainbow Dash pouted. She’d really been looking forward to that part of the plan.

“What if,” Twilight continued with a deliciously devious smile, “instead of locking them up, we just put them in a situation where they’d have no choice but to talk?”

“Huh?” the three others intoned in unison. Twilight just grinned.

“I’ve got an idea, girls, so listen up: here’s what we’re gonna do…”

*****

The ringing bell from the opening front door roused Rarity from her slumber. She'd been so tired from yesterday’s all nighter that when she’d sat down to sketch a new design, she’d quickly gone and fallen right asleep.

“Goodness gracious, this simply won’t do,” the pretty - if disheveled - seamstress chastised herself as she quickly straightened her clothes. “You can’t very well be found napping when there are customers to help.”

Emerging from her work room in the back, Rarity found Twilight browsing through her vast array of garments.

“Good afternoon, Twilight” the pretty seamstress smiled while stifling a yawn. “What brings you in today?”

“Hi, Rarity,” Twilight brightly beamed. “I was wondering you could do me a really, super big favor?”

“But of course,” Rarity readily agreed. “Whatever do you need?”

“Gems. Lots of them.” Pulling out a roll of parchment, Twilight unrolled it to reveal a meticulously rendered map of the nighttime constellations. “It’s for a project I’m working on for Princess Luna. I’m supposed to make up a huge map of all the constellations for display in the Canterlot Library, so I want it to look extra spectacular.”

“I see,” Rarity nodded, her eyes brightening as her creative spark came to life. “And you wanted some jewels to add a little pizzazz to your rendering, am I right?”

“I knew you’d get it!” Twilight clapped in glee. “I was thinking of using the birthstones for the major zodiac signs, and other stones for the rest. See, Capricorn here should be done up in garnets, and Aquarius over there should be completely made of amethyst…”

As Rarity listened in fascination to Twilight’s plans, she failed to notice one of the boutique’s side windows slowly rising. Once it opened, a black jumpsuit clad Rainbow Dash quietly drifted in and ducked behind a wide hoop skirt.

Silently flitting from display to display, the daring flier stealthily slipped into Rarity’s work shop, emerging a few seconds later with a bulging sack full of small, geometric objects. Getting a surreptitious nod from Twilight, Rainbow Dash flew back to the window and tossed the sack out, where a likewise black clad Applejack caught it and carried it off. With one last, parting wink to their insider on the job, Rainbow Dash flew back out the window and gently closed it behind her.

“…and that’s the plan,” Twilight finished as she let the scroll snap shut. “What do you think?”

“It certainly is very ambitious,” Rarity commented through pursed lips. “But, lucky for you, I should have just the gems you need. Let me get them from the back.”

As Rarity headed for her work shop, the scholastic bookworm couldn’t help but squeal in delight that her plan came to fruition. In a mere matter of moments, Rarity would go to check on her stash of gems, only to find that–

“Well that’s odd,” Twilight heard the seamstress call out.

“Why, what’s up?” she replied, hoping the glee didn’t seep out in her voice.

“I could have sworn I had a chest full of gemstones here just this morning, but now it’s completely empty.”

“Wait, you don’t have any gems?” Twilight gasped, full well knowing the answer already.

“I’m afraid I don’t,” Rarity replied as she came out with an apologetic smile. “It seems that I’ll have to go out and hunt up some more.”

“Can you do it now?” Twilight asked, eyes wide in earnest pleading. “I really want to start on my project, and I really, really need those gems.”

“Now?” Rarity repeated askance, rather taken aback by her friend’s insistence. “Well, I suppose I could… I’ll need to get my things together and close the shop first, but–”

“Great!” Twilight interjected. “I’ll go make up a list of the things I need and meet you outside Ponyville once you’re ready. Thanks, Rarity! Bye!” And just like that, the sweater-vested girl dashed out and slammed the door behind her.

“Er… you’re welcome?”

*****

“So sorry for the delay, Twilight,” Rarity called out as she rushed to the meeting spot. “I couldn’t find the right pair of boots to go with these pants, and then I had to–” Her monologue abruptly cut off and she stared in mute distress at the last person she wanted to see.

“… Afternoon, Miss Rarity,” Graves answered, his words clipped and harsh like rough-cut gravel.

“Good afternoon, Graves,” Rarity replied with a slightly unsteady smile. Her insides felt like one of the skeins of yarn after Opal had gotten to it, all twisted up and knotted into a tangled mess. It was a decidedly unpleasant sensation.

“There you are, Rarity!” Twilight beamed as she trotted up, seemingly oblivious to the palpable tension in the air. “I figured you wouldn’t want to get your hands dirty digging, so I got Graves here to help you out.”

“Fluttershy said she needed a favor,” Graves said turning to the sweater-vested girl. “Didn’t think it’d be this.”

It was testament to Rarity’s composure that she refrained from flinching at the marshal’s words. The conspicuous absence of “Miss” from Fluttershy’s name compared to hers clearly indicated how he felt about her. Though given the way she’d reacted at their last meeting, she really couldn’t blame him.

“Twilight, I hardly think it’s necessary to trouble the marshal over such a… trivial matter,” Rarity said as she worked to maintain her smile. “I’m sure Spike would be more than willing to lend me a hand.”

“And I’m sure he would,” Twilight readily agreed, “but he can’t make it today; he’s helping Applejack dig up some old stumps out on the farm.”

“Is he now?” the pretty seamstress intoned, her smile slipping a hair at the unfavorable news. Twilight just grinned apologetically.

“So, I guess Graves here’s the only one available to help out, eh?” she continued as she winked at the marshal and nudged him in the ribs. “You don’t mind lending Rarity a hand, do you?”

“… If she’ll have me,” Graves shrugged. “Don’t want to be a bother.”

“Bother? Why would you be a bother?” the studious librarian asked. “You’re doing her a favor, remember? He won’t be a bother, will he Rarity?”

“Of course not,” Rarity agreed, the smile now set much more firmly in place. “In fact, I’d be delighted if you could join me, Marshal.”

Graves didn’t say a word; he merely nodded his head and gave his hat a little tug.

“Wonderful! now that that’s all settled, you might be wanting these,” Twilight added as she handed Graves a shovel and Rarity a rolled up scroll. “You two take as long as you need; no need to rush on my account.”

“But, Twilight,” Rarity began, now slightly confused, “I thought you needed these gems as soon as possible so you could begin your project.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” the devious bookworm laughed lightly. “I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time to work on it when you two get back. You two just go out there and have fun.”

“Well, if you say so,” the seamstress-turned-gem-hunter agreed with a hesitant nod.

Frankly, she had no idea what was going on with Twilight, but Rarity did know that she and Graves would be spending the rest of the foreseeable day together. In that time, she would hopefully find some way to properly apologize to him and clear the air between them. In fact, she didn’t plan on returning till she’d made everything right.

“Come along, Graves,” she said, her voice now firm and resolute. “We have a lot of ground to cover, so we’d best be off.”

With a silent nod, the marshal hefted up the shovel, shouldered his spell gun, and followed after the young lady as she walked away from town.

“Bye!” Twilight called out with a cheerful wave. “Have fun!”

The purple-haired librarian kept waving until the pair were well out of sight. Once they were gone, she turned to a nearby bush and called out, “All clear.”

In a clattering rustle of twigs and leaves, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy tumbled out of the foliage. Righting her hat as she spat out a mouthful of leaves, Applejack stood and watched the two shrink into the distance.

“Now, you sure this’ll help ‘em patch things up?” she asked. “The marshal didn’t look like he were in no chattin’ mood.”

“And… and what if the diamond dogs come back and kidnap Rarity again?” Fluttershy squeaked with worry. “I mean, Graves is there, and that’s nice, but… you know… what if?”

“Don’t worry, it’ll be fine,” Twilight confidently replied. “I have it from a reliable source that the diamond dogs cleared out months ago: there’s nothing out there except rocks and empty caves. And just to be on the safe side, I figured Rainbow Dash could follow them from the clouds and keep an eye on things.”

“Yeah, about that, Twi,” the colorful flier interjected. “I’m all for going on a spying mission and all, but a major storm’s moving, and the last place you wanna be when flying is right in the middle of a thundercloud.”

Looking off into the horizon, Twilight was surprised to see some rather ominous clouds rolling in from the west, apparently headed in the same direction as the two gem hunters. She’d been so preoccupied with everything else, she’d completely forgotten to check the weather.

“Oh. Well, I guess we can’t do that then. But that’s okay,” she beamed at her friends, all encouraging confidence. “It’ll be quite some time before the storm hits, and by then, the two of them will have patched things up and gone back to beings friends. No problem at all.”

Off in the distance, the thunder tolled as the clouds rolled forth.

**********

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Despite her earlier gung-ho attitude, the journey into the rocky countryside quickly devolved into silent plodding. Rarity led the way, almost afraid to look behind her as the marshal likewise marched along in silence.

Come on now, Rarity berated herself, “You can’t just keep on ignoring the issue; you have to do something. This is the perfect opportunity for you to set things straight. If you don’t do it now, then when will you?” She continued the mental tirade, psyching herself and working up the nerve to start a conversation. In fact, she was so engrossed by this task that she was caught completely by surprise when Graves spoke up.

“So, what are we doing?”

Rarity gave a start and quickly turned to face the marshal. Though she had wanted to take the initiative, the fact that he’d spoken must be a good sign. After all, if he was speaking to her, it meant he’d be willing to listen right? His impassive and unreadable grey eyes gave no hint of an answer.

“Well,” she began uncertainly, “Twilight needs a variety of gemstones for a project and we’re here to find them. I’ll use a locator spell to find where they are, and I suppose you’ll… help me dig them up?”

Graves just shrugged.

“Works for me,” he answered as he looked up at the overcast horizon. “Best if we hurry, though; storm’s heading this way.”

“Oh. Of course.” Rarity wanted to say more, but the tongue-tying awkwardness returned, and the best she could do was turn and continue walking. The marshal followed without a word.

The further they got away from town, the rockier and rougher the terrain became. Small pebbles gave way to larger rocks, which changed into sizeable stones and finally became great boulders. Large outcroppings of shale and limestone began appearing, and as Rarity led them downhill, these stony masses eventually merged into the walls of a craggy canyon. The further they entered, the higher the sides grew, till earthen cliffs rose higher than a hundred feet on either side, high enough to make the space they walked seem narrow in comparison.

“This is where I usually come to collect the gems for my work,” the young lady narrated, eager to break the silence and finally finding a chance to do so. “The selection from earlier along is quite good, but I tend to find that the ones here are higher quality. Plus there’s a much larger variety, so I believe it’s worth a little extra travel time. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“I guess.”

… Okay, that didn’t work,” Rarity mused to herself. “Maybe turning the topic to something he’s a little more familiar with?

“You know,” she continued whilst pulling her wand out, “this is also the area where I first encountered the diamond dogs.”

“Is that right,” Graves murmured.

“Why yes. Spike and I were out looking for gems to make up Sapphire Shores’ costumes for her last tour… now what was it called… ah, yes, the –”

“Excuse me,” the marshal cut in softly, “but what about the gems?”

“Oh. Right.”

Quailing under the marshal’s unyielding grey gaze, any thoughts of conversation Rarity had quickly withered and died. If there was one thing she was sure of now, it was that Graves was not in the mood to talk.

Without much else to do, the two simply began to work. Whenever the lady gem hunter’s spell would detect a cache, she would quietly point out the spot and let Graves take over. He’d work his shovel, uncover the jewels, and deposit them in a sack at his side. Without a word, the two continued collecting stones, Rarity unable to think of anything to say and Graves seemingly content to let the oppressive silence linger.

*****

The morning passed in the same repressive manner, the dark clouds that rolled in matching the depressing atmosphere. Thunder tolled louder as the storm approached, but weather was far from the young lady’s mind.

Rarity was starting to go crazy. The longer the silence lasted, the worst it felt, like wearing a heavy coat as a summer day grew steadily hotter and more humid. She’d known that he was upset, but it seemed to be much worse than she’d feared. After all, why else would he maintain this uninterrupted hush for so long?

You have to do something,” she told herself for probably the fiftieth time that day. “Just… just say something. Anything! It can’t get any worse than it already is, can it?

Many times, she’d thought of ways to bring up the issue, everything from gentle segues in to straight up blurting it out. But every time she’d met that flat, steely gaze, her resolve faded and was quickly replaced by guilt. She wanted to make things right so bad that she just couldn’t do it. And yet, something told her that if she missed this opportunity, she’d never have the nerve to face it again.

“Just a few more, and then we’ll call it a day, Marshal?” she asked, her voice an odd combination of both hesitation and rushed anxiety. It wasn’t most elegant of ways to break to ice, but at least it was a start.

“You have enough?” he asked, hefting the shovel up. He’d been working steadily for several hours, but he hardly seemed worse for the wear. His back was straight and his eyes were as cold and distant as ever. Rarity pressed on.

“The weather doesn’t look too promising. One more should be enough, and then we can head back to town.” She smiled, willing herself to act casual despite the roiling tension in her stomach.

“… Just show me where,” the marshal replied flatly, and Rarity pointed him to a shallow gully nearby. As he hopped in and started digging, the flustered seamstress took a deep breath to settle her nerves. Last cache of gems, last chance. Now or never.

“So, Graves, I’ve been thinking,” she began, surprised at how level her voice came across. “I know it’s been a while, but there’s something I wanted to ask to talk to you about. Well, ask is more like it. I mean, I wanted to ask you about something. About last week.”

The steady sound of the shovel digging into the earth continued uninterrupted, and Rarity’s heart began to sink. If he wasn’t responding, he must not want to talk about it.

On the other hand, he hadn’t told her to stop…

“You see,” she continued, silently praying that he was still listening, “I’ve felt that relations between us have been… strained as of late, and I think I know why. It’s about that afternoon in my shop, wasn’t it? When I stumbled in on you changing. It was completely by accident of course – heaven knows why I’d want to intentionally… – Ahem.” She cleared her throat, hastily gathered her thoughts, and continued.

“What I meant to say was that when that occurred, I saw things I didn’t quite expect. You know how things are when you don’t expect them: you don’t exactly react in the most graceful of manners. I’m not trying to make excuses, by all means, I just wanted to be clear that my reaction was nothing against you personally, or in general for that matter…”

“… Goodness me, I’m not making any sense, am I,” she nervously laughed. “What I’m trying to say, or rather ask is… the time I saw you, and… and when I cried out… did I offend you?”

Rarity waited, a still hush being her only response. The sound of shoveling had stopped. In fact, the young lady just realized that she hadn’t heard the sound of shoveling for quite some time.

“Graves?” she called out, approaching the gully. “Are you alright?”

A small sound caught her attention and she looked down to her right. Slightly, almost imperceptibly, a small rock was faintly trembling and scraping against other pebbles nearby. Nothing out of the ordinary, except… there was no breeze. In fact, the air stood completely still, as if holding its breath for the oncoming storm. If that was the case, then what was making the stone move?

When the answer's unexpected, it's very easy to miss. That's why Rarity never heard the faint , scratching noise from somewhere just beneath the ground.

*****

“So, Graves, I’ve been thinking.”

When Graves heard his companion utter those words, he froze. Just for a split second, his entire body seized up as his brain launched into overdrive.

Coming out of the blue like that, it was probably something important enough that subtlety was no longer required. Given the way she’d been acting all day, and indeed over the last week, it didn’t take a doctoral degree to figure out just what that something was.

Problem was, that something also happened to be the last thing the good marshal wanted to talk about. Graves resumed digging, shoveling away at a rhythmic pace while hardly hearing a word. There must be some way to change the topic, perhaps distract her from her current train of thought. What if he–

The marshal almost stumbled as his shovel dug into the ground further than expected. Much further. Lifting the chunk of earth, Graves was surprised to see a small spot of darkness, bits of dirt crumbling around the edges of a hole leading to a hollow space below.

He paused for a moment, examining the hole. Had he accidentally dug up a rabbit warren or something? Dropping to one knee, he peered inside the hole, but saw nothing; everything was swallowed up by the inky blackness. The marshal paused for a moment, then picked up a pebble and dropped it in. A second or two passed before he heard it clatter, the faintness of the sound clearly indicating expansive space below.

Graves was quite perplexed now. What exactly was this? He dropped to both knees and put an ear to the hole to listen. He didn’t hear anything inside, just the sound of emptiness and quiet on the other side of the earthen barrier.

And then something changed.

The silence from the hole was suddenly interrupted by a strange, skittering sort of scratching noise. It almost sounded like a crab scuttling over a stony beach, only different. It was louder, but fainter at the same time as if being heard from a distance. And it was oddly echoed, as if the scratching was coming from many directions at once.

Out of the corner of his eye, Graves saw a pebble jump. And then another one as well. Pressing his palm firmly against the ground, the marshal exhaled and held still. The skin of his hand pulsed as he felt the ground move beneath him. It took him a moment, but his brain finally connected the dots, and when it did, that dreadful, foreboding chill he knew all too well crept its way down his spine.

“Rarity,” he called out, voice alert and eyes sharp like steel spear tips, “does anything live around here?”

“Er… well, I suppose the diamond dogs do,” she replied, slightly perplexed. The question hadn’t exactly been the response she’d been expecting.

“Have you seen them around recently?” Graves pressed on, his voice growing more urgent as he felt that dreadful, ill-boding chill travel down his spine.

“I don’t believe so,” the seamstress answered pensively. “Not since my first and last encounter with them, and that was quite some time ago.”

“Have you been out here since then?” the marshal pushed on relentlessly as his head darted to and fro. They were in a canyon. That meant earth walls. That was bad. Very bad.

“I haven’t had to. I had so many gems, there was no need to return till just now.” With a frown, Rarity looked askance at her companion. “Graves? Is something wrong?” Turning to meet her sapphire eyes with his own, the marshal hesitated for just a moment, then nodded.

“We have to go. Now.”

Leaping out of the ditch, Graves took Rarity’s hand in a firm grasp and began walking, his pace so brisk and strides so long that the young lady was forced to break into a jog to keep up.

“Graves, what are you doing?” she demanded, her frown now colored by surprise and just a bit of mild consternation. “Why are we–”

“Shh,” he softly shushed, finger to his mouth. “Don’t talk. And step lightly. Don’t make extra noise.”

“Why?” she whispered back, her voice quiet but still quite charged. “Marshal, you tell me what is going on right this instant.”

“… Skullpions,” he reluctantly replied, his hoarse whisper sounding like it came through gritted teeth. “Diamond dogs left tunnels? They moved in.”

“Skullpions?” Rarity repeated uncertainly: she did not like the way the word felt in her mouth. “Is that bad?”

“The trolls you heard about?” Graves muttered to her grimly. “Kittens to cougars in comparison.”

The young lady gulped. That… that did not sound good.

The two kept on walking, silent except for the soft crunching of gravel beneath their feet and distant thunder in the rapidly darkening sky. Rarity didn’t know why silence was so important, but she didn't bother asking. Everything about the marshal, from the hard set of his face to the relentless pace of his strides, clearly spoke volumes for its importance.

But suddenly, he stopped. Rarity froze as well, not daring to move anything save her eyes. They darted around, trying to pick out what had caught the marshal’s attention, but saw nothing. There was nothing, except stones and clouds and the smell of rain.

“… Rarity,” Graves said softly, his voice so low she almost couldn’t hear.

“Yes?”

“Don’t scream, okay? Whatever you do, don’t scream.”

What did that mean? Rarity never found out, because before she had a chance to ask, the skies opened with a clap of thunder and began its torrential downpour. And that’s when all hell broke loose.

**********

Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Have you ever seen the ground explode? Literally, just explode from out of nowhere like an invisible fist punching through the earth, tearing soil and sand up along with it? Because that’s exactly what it looked like. All around them, huge geysers of rock and dirt fountained into the air as these… things began to appear. What they looked like, Rarity couldn’t say as earth and rain shrouded her vision, but she could hear them. Oh yes, she could hear them.

Screeching bats, nails on chalkboards, and pure, hateful shrieking all seemed to coalesce in the screams of these unholy abominations. Hands clasped to her head, Rarity felt her knees beginning to give as the keening wail pierced her brain. Head swimming, she staggered on her feet, consciousness starting to slip away as the noise reverberated inside her skull.

But Graves caught her, his strong grip on her arm keeping her on her feet even as he pulled her along. Following instinctively, the violet-haired girl found herself moving as the young soldier dragged her along as he ran deeper into the canyon, the screeching monsters skittering along in hot pursuit.

More fountains of dirt exploded ahead and more creatures emerged, but Graves just coolly raised his spell gun and unleashed a blast of electric energy. The arcane bolt exploded in a clap of thunder and burst of light that momentarily cut through the gloom. It was then that Rarity finally got a good look at them.

Shrieking and seizing while bathed by the magical light, it was a testament to Rarity’s nerves that she didn’t faint, let alone kept from screaming at her first sight of a skullpion. The beast was easily as long as a fully grown man, a gigantic arachnid covered from head to toe in spiky, chitinous black armor. Massive claws larger than her head flailed and snapped about while a lethally barbed tail poised menacingly overhead.

And that wasn’t even the worst part. In the front where it’s head should have been, was something that could only be described as a leering human skull. Bone white in contrast to insectile black, the top half of the macabre mask gazed ahead with empty eye sockets while the bottom half, where a jaw should have been, was instead a mass of gnashing mandibles and drooling fangs. Grotesque and horrifying, the skullpion’s face looked like some mutated horror from a child’s darkest nightmare.

She didn’t have time to stare though. Even as it crumpled into a twitching mass on the muddy ground, Graves pulled her forward, all the while firing those piercing lances of light wherever he could, cutting down one insectile beast after another. The two gem hunters ran, charging forward at a dead sprint as they leaped over stunned monsters and slogged through mud in a desperate bid to escape.

They continued running, advancing perhaps a mile or so down the canyon’s winding corridor. But soon, the marshal began to fight as much by hand as by shot. Swinging his rifle, Graves blocked slashing claws, fended striking tails, and cracked down on exposed heads, working his gun like a club in a brutally efficient manner. Still, more and more of these creatures burst forth by the minute, some even emerging from the canyon walls to mix dirt and stone into the pouring rain that continued to pelt them.

Cracking a nearby insect with the butt of his rifle, Graves kicked it aside before turning, chancing a look behind him; what he saw was bad.

At first, the act of surfacing had disoriented them, leaving the skullpions as nothing more than a writhing, chaotic mass of grasping claws and skittering legs. But now, they were organizing, communicating in a mixture of horrible shriek and clicking mandibles as they began to advance. Like an oozing black tide, the arachnids scuttled forth, each passing moment bringing them closer and closer to their prey.

Redoubling his efforts, Graves shot down another shrieking beast as he considered their options. They were still moving, but each encounter meant a pause in their trek. As the number of arachnids grew, they’d soon be fighting more than moving before being forced to stop completely. When that happened…

That thought could wait because suddenly, as if passing through some unseen barrier, the pair of them were running alone. It took Graves a moment to realize it, but one second ago they were fighting off insects left and right, and the next, they were free and clear. Panting hard, the marshal turned to look at the arachnid horde, all paused some twenty feet away as neatly as if blocked off by an invisible wall.

“Graves?” Rarity panted, her face pale, but her wide eyes still alert. “Why did they stop?”

“Not sure,” the marshal replied slowly. Taking the opportunity to inhale deeply and catch his breath, Graves savored both the air and the water that washed over his tired body. The air smelled rather rank for some reason, but that was beside the point: the chase had stopped, giving them valuable time to rest and regroup.

"It looks as if they’re… waiting for something,” Rarity murmured as she wrinkled her nose as she caught the foul odor as well.

“Skullpions don’t wait.” Graves said as he rubbed his nose. “They just eat; only time they stop is when they’re finished or if something’s too tough to swallow.”

“Well, that must be you, then,” Rarity chuckled, sounding quite forced, but understandable given the circumstances. “With all that running and gunning from earlier, I doubt they’ll be trying to snack on us any time soon.”

“Perhaps…” Graves intoned as he thumbed his nose again: the stink was growing worse. “Anyways, won’t be long before they try again. Is there a way out?”

“… How about that?” the young lady pointed out. Next to a nearby cave, a narrow, winding path led from the canyon floor up to the ledge some a hundred feet above. It’d be a fairly steep climb, but from the looks of it, should be manageable. For him at least. He didn’t know about the seamstress.

“Can you… make it up there?” he asked, to which Rarity responded with a pointedly flat glare.

“Really. I keep pace with you all this time, and you still need to ask?”

“Right. Sorry.”

She did have a point. Slim and dainty though she was, Rarity had held together very well in a situation where many men would have been thrown into a state of panic. Clearly, she was tougher than she looked.

“So what’s the plan, marshal?” she asked while keeping one wary eye on the insectile beasts nearby.

“You go first,” he answered. “Once you get to the top, start running, but don’t make a sound: skullpions are naturally blind and hunt with hearing, so let the sound of rain hide you.”

“What about you?” she asked, casting a concerned eye over him. Graves still stood straight and his eyes were still focused like burnished steel, but nobody could exert himself like he had and not feel the strain.

“Be right behind you,” Graves replied, trying to stand a little straighter as he did. “Trust me.”

Rarity looked unconvinced, so he tried to give her a reassuring smile: it wasn’t easy. How many lightning blasts had he fired? Fifty? Sixty? A hundred? Though each wasn’t a huge burden, doing them in such quick succession had made them exponentially more tiring. Already, he could feel his insides beginning to tie themselves into knots, the early promise of far greater discomfort to come later. But Rarity didn’t need to know that.

“Are you sure?” she asked once more, still dubious. “You wouldn’t happen to be putting on a tough front just because you’re a man, would you?”

“'Course not,” he flatly replied as he thumbed his nose once again. “Now hurry. Don’t know how long they’ll behave.”

Giving him one more skeptical glance, Rarity began climbing up the steep incline to freedom. The skullpions advanced slightly at the sound of crumbling rock, but a warning shot from Graves sent them skittering back.

He watched as she climbed higher, keeping one eye on the arachnid mass as he–

Gah, why did it smell so bad? Snorting hard once more, Graves spat as the foul stink in the air seemed to claw its way into the back of his mouth and coat it with a layer of filth. It was terrible, like someone had cracked rotten eggs right under his nose and then–

For the second time in a very bad day, Graves, felt that foreboding chill run down his spine. Rotten eggs. There’s no way that’s what it actually was, and the only other thing he knew of with that kind of smell was sulfur. This certainly wasn’t a hot spring, which meant the smell had to come from something else, and judging by the stink, there was a lot to go around.

A faint rumbling came from the cave and the smell instantly grew worse. As one, the mass of skullpions backed away, a hushed, clicking shriek going up amongst them. The ground shook as something in the cave moved, thundering footsteps heralding its emergence of the cave with another wave of fetid stink.

It hadn’t been the marshal or his spell gun who’d frightened the insects. No, it had been this, this monstrosity that came forth and looked down at them with its four baleful eyes.

Standing there, just a few miles outside the peaceful town of Ponyville, was a very big, and very mean, full-grown chimera.

**********

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Easily fifteen feet high at the shoulder, the lion’s head glared at the skullpion hoard with disdain, sulfurous vapors escaping its mouth with each powerful breath. Its serpent tail, hissing as it undulated hypnotically in the air, kept a cold reptilian watch on Graves and Rarity.

“Graves,” the soaked girl whispered hoarsely, violet hair hanging limply around her frightened face. “What should we do?”

“Just wait,” he replied levelly, hand tightening around his spell gun as his mind raced for a solution. Though the beast’s main focus was on the numerous insects before it, Graves had no doubt where the chimera’s full attentions would turn if they tried to escape now.

There was always the option of fighting, but a second, more intense stab of pain in his gut precluded that plan. It wasn’t easy taking on a class C threat like a chimera even at his best, and he was certainly far from that right now. Plus, that still left the skullpions to contend with, and if he took out those first, the chimera would have him for lunch. Either way, with his current ‘condition’ as advanced as it was, a straight up fight would simply be impossible.

That just left the third, rather crazy and rather desperate option. If he couldn’t run and he couldn’t fight, then maybe, just maybe, he’d be able to weather the storm.

“Rarity,” Graves called out softly. “How fast can you climb up that ledge?”

“Um… a minute, maybe minute and a half?” she replied hesitantly, eyeing the squall-swept cliff with a wary eye. It’d be close, but she could probably make it.

“I’m gonna hold you to that,” the marshal said. Even as he spoke, the spell gun began to glow, a faint hum rising as the artifact slowly gathered magical energy.

“Graves?” Rarity called, a hint of panic in her voice, “what do you plan to do?” From where she stood, she couldn’t see the grim smile pass over his face.

“Let’s just say I’m gonna take this powder keg and blow it sky high.”

*****

Neither the chimera nor the arachnid mass paid much heed to the humans discoursing to the side. In the wild, words didn’t matter; only strength did.

The chimera growled, the fetid stench of rotten eggs wafting out as it took in its prey. Humans were far tastier; their flesh was soft and lacked the acrid aftertaste of insect meat. But the chimera was hungry. Hunting had been scarce in recent times and being driven far from its former home, two measly humans would not fill its stomach. Still, treats like that were hard to pass up, so it leisurely pondered which group to devour first.

The skullpions, on the other hand, chittered and shrieked at each other warily. The human had proved troublesome, what with its magic tricks and confounding noises. Each blast of energy not only took one of their brethren, but also deafened the rest, making tracking difficult indeed. And now, there was the great beast, a threat that even together they might not overcome. The chimera growled again, hunger driving it forward. The skullpions screeched and scuttled back in the beginnings of a retreat

But then they slowed. And then they stopped.

No. They had already been driven from their nesting grounds once. Here, the tunnels provided safe havens for their hatchlings and plentiful feed for all. The great beast may be powerful, but it would not come into their territory and snatch their prey.

Shrieking and clacking claws with redoubled effort, the skullpions skittered forward to face the threat. The beast, sensing a challenge to its meal, roared in defiance and stamped at the ground with one massive hoof. Both groups eyed each other and advanced, drawing steadily closer to the humans.

As focused as they were on one another, neither noticed the small, brown clad man slowly raise the dull grey object it carried. They didn’t notice that, but they certainly noticed the effects.

The chimera roared as it felt a white, searing pain in its shoulder. Turning both heads, the beast saw Graves strafing the canyon wall with the spell gun raised. It bellowed in agony again as another bolt of lightning found its mark, only this time striking the serpent’s head and blinding it.

“Graves! What are you doing?!” Rarity shrieked above the din below.

“Don’t worry about me!” Graves yelled back, never once taking his eyes from the battlefield. “Just keep climbing and get out!”

“But –“

“JUST GO!”

Rarity looked down hesitantly at Graves: between the massive horde of skullpions and the titanic figure of the chimera, he just looked so small. Nevertheless, he’d given her directions, and she’d just have to believe he knew what he was doing. So, with one last, reluctant glance, Rarity began climbing out of the canyon and out of danger.

*****

Though he couldn’t see her, something inside told him Rarity was out of danger. Maybe it was gut instinct, the way his shoulders loosened slightly with one thing less to worry about. She was safe: that was good. Now, he could really get down to business.

Neither of his shots had done much damage to the chimera, but they had hurt it. Hurt was good. Hurt made it angry, and angry made it predictable.

Quickly slinging the rifle over his back, Graves ignored the pain beginning to radiate from his abdomen and kept running towards the arachnid brood. Just before he reached the front line of insectile beast, the marshal broke away from the canyon wall and kept running. They chittered and shrieked, but none dared to advance with the giant form behind him.

The chimera roared once more and took a deep breath, its massive chest expanding as a sickly, yellow light glowed in its mouth. Graves slowed, dropping low and gathering strength in his legs as he kept a steely eye on the lion’s head beside him.

Wait for it…” he told himself, every fiber in his body poised for action.

Wait for it …” he said again as the chimera glared at him with baleful eyes.

Wait for it …

Now!

The chimera exhaled and a huge plume of caustic, chemical fire gushed out at Graves. Or more correctly, right where Graves had been. At the moment the beast lowered its head, the marshal had run, pumping his legs for all he was worth and sprinted out of the way just in the nick of time. The tail of his leather coat was singed, but it didn’t matter: the blast had missed him and instead hit is intended target.

The skullpions screamed as one as the chimera’s flames incinerated a dozen of their brethren. Throwing caution to the wind, they charged en mass, swarming over the offending beast and pitting their numbers against its might. Claws snapped and barbed tails struck as the chimera roared in agony. In return, the serpent head struck, the goat hooves crushed, and the lion’s maw breathed out plume after plume of sulfurous flame, carving burning rents in the skullpion ranks.

As the battle raged, Graves ducked behind a stone outcropping and sat down hard, pressing a hand to his stomach to soothe the pain that had grown into stabbing agony.

The battle wouldn’t last long. Dangerous as skullpions were, their claws and stingers wouldn’t get very far past the chimera’s thick fur. With its size and devastating fire, the great beast would soon push the insects back before it turned its attentions back to Graves.

He’d have to be out by then. Peaking around the rock and through the pouring rain, he spared a few moments to survey the terrain. Aside from the ledge Rarity had used, the sheer rock faces of the canyon walls precluded any escape quick enough to avoid the chimera’s breath. Armed with that final piece of information, Graves took a last, deep breath, and ran.

*****

With the chimera and skullpions fighting close by, Graves was forced to waste several seconds running around the battle in order to reach his target. Detouring around the chaotic melee, the marshal was still more than a hundred feet away when the chimera noticed him.

Roaring in anger, the giant beast inhaled and readied another flaming blast to burn its escaping prey. But the skullpions around him had not yet given up. Scrambling up its side, one daring arachnid mounted the chimera’s back and whether by luck or skill, managed to plunge its barbed tail deep into the serpent’s eye.

The chimera cried in pain and turned to face the offending creature. However, the brimstone fires in its lungs could not be stopped and as it swung around, it exhaled his fiery breath out not at the marshal, but instead at the stony cliff side.

Graves gaped, watching in stunned horror as the sickly yellow blast tore explosive rents across the canyon wall before finally alighting on his only means of escape. As the rain washed out the flames and cleared the dust, the marshal could see that the only remnant of the path was a tiny overhang a hundred feet above him: everything else had been thoroughly and utterly demolished.

Finally, proving that misfortunes come in threes, the skullpions chose that moment to shriek and scuttle away in retreat. The chimera had proven to be too much, and well over half their numbers lay crushed, torn, and burned in the mud beneath. Though the marshal stood in their path, none challenged him as each was too focused on escaping back to the safety of its burrow.

Slowly, Graves turned and fixed its eyes on the chimera, its fur torn and soaked, but otherwise still very alive and very dangerous. If Graves hadn’t known better, he could have sworn the chimera was grinning as it turned its remaining three eyes on him.

Roaring in triumph, the beast scanned carnage around it, sniffing and snorting before giving off a satisfied growl. It was hungry, and its stomach growled at the insect feast around it, but that could wait. First, it would celebrate by devouring sweet, human flesh.

Graves was worn out: his legs quivered beneath him, his heart pounded in his chest, and his gut feeling like he’d just drunk a tankard of acid. Yet despite this, the marshal stood straight, head held high as he coolly regarded the beast before him as he would a kitten.

“So, guess there’s no chance we both go our separate ways?” Graves asked lightly, his demeanor almost casual, even lazy. The chimera bellowed in reply, raising its lion head to the sky and howled in defiance.

“… Had a feeling you’d say that,” he sighed, bowing his head as if in prayer as he unslung his rifle. When he looked up again, his face was still relaxed, but his grey eyes now glinted like twin silver daggers.

“Alright, ugly. You wanna dance? Let’s dance.”

The thunder rolled, drowning out even the chimera’s roar as it began its charge.

*****

The sound of explosions and crumbling rock halted Rarity in her tracks. Turning and squinting through the torrential rain back, she caught the briefest sight of oily plumes of smoke rising from the very stop she’d climbed up. The rain washed away the rest.

She wasn’t a soldier. The most fighting she’d ever done was thrashing Rainbow Dash a good bit for stranding her in the desert outside Applaloosa. But even she could tell, right in the pit of her stomach, that something was wrong.

And now Rarity hesitated. Graves had told her to run. But he’d also said he’d be right behind her, and there was certainly no sign of him now. What should she do? Should she follow his instructions and keep running? Or should she follow the feeling in her gut and run back to the danger and mayhem she’d only just escaped?

The thunder rolled, and Rarity made her decision. She ran.

**********

Chapter 7

Chapter 7

Graves dove headfirst into the narrow, canyon-side crevice and, ignoring his pounding heart, held his breath in a desperate attempt to erase his presence. Blinking away a mixture of sweat and rainwater, the marshal tightened the grip on his spell gun and waited, straining his senses to pick up some trace of his pursuer.

He couldn’t see. He couldn’t hear. The torrential rainstorm pouring down all around him robbed the raven-haired soldier of vision as all other sounds where overwhelmed by the crash of cascading water. Worse, the chimera was playing smart. Where many other creatures would have simply roared and charged, his pursuer was using the environment. It hid under the cover of the elements and carefully stalked its prey, steadily getting closer and closer with each passing second; it hunted for its dinner, and the marshal was the main course.

But Graves could still smell, and a brief, stinking whiff of brimstone gave him just enough warning. Leaping to one side, the young marshal barely escaped as his hiding spot exploded into a roaring mix of fire and shrapnel.

Ignoring the searing chemical flames and stone fragments whizzing past like angry hornets, Graves spun around to face the chimera. In one smooth motion, he brought his rifle to bear and fired, a crackling bolt of arcane lightning bursting forth. Not stopping to watch, the marshal landed and began running again, smiling grimly as he heard the creature roar in agony; the shot had found its mark.

However, his elation was cut short as Graves felt his stomach clench like dragon claws around a jewel. Ducking behind another pile of rocks, the young man pressed a hand hard against a stomach that felt like it was digesting razorblades. It didn’t help much.

Can’t keep this up for long,” he thought, panting as he fought for control over his body. “Got to finish it quickly, or else…” Well, he’d rather not think about that just yet.

Another roar echoed through the canyon and Graves felt himself grin just a little. Smart as it was, the monster was getting angry again. That was good. Angry meant it’d be easier to take down. Angry meant he might actually survive.

Dashing from cover, Graves fired again and was once more rewarded by a furious cry of pain. Emboldened by the sound, the marshal shoved all thoughts of exhaustion to the furthest corners of his mind and continued his assault. Now using the storm to his advantage, he darted from one hiding spot to the next, confusing and disorienting the beast as he kept up a relentless barrage of magical lighting.

Throwing himself behind a nearby rock outcropping, Graves gasped as he forced magic into his spell gun, cramming it with as much energy as his wearied body could muster.

Just a little more,” he thought, praying for all he was worth that he could hold out for just a few more minutes. The beast was already seriously injured; one good shot, one well placed blast, and it should go down like a house of cards. But one shot was all he’d have. The pain from his stomach was already spreading to the rest of his body. It would only grow more intense and very soon, would shut him down completely.

“Just a little more,” he whispered as the beast rampaged, his rifle only moments from reaching the charge he needed. “Come on; just give me a few more seconds...”

But fate is rarely that kind. The chimera roared in triumph as it spotted the marshal and, much to the marshal’s surprise, charged headfirst to crash through the stony barrier. Diving out of the way, Graves narrowly managed to avoid being crushed, but instead caught a heavy blow to the side from one of the monster’s massive legs. Ribs cracking with a wet snap, the blow drove all air from his lungs and sent him sprawling to the muddy ground.

The great beast turned on him, eyes glinting malevolently as Graves rolled onto his back, still struggling for breath as he unsteadily raised his rifle. Except, it wasn’t there. Perhaps ten feet away, his spell gun lay on the ground, rain splattering against its glowing surface that slowly began to grow dull. The charge was fading. If he didn’t get his rifle back in time, all the energy he’d already stored would dissipate, and any chance he had of escape with it.

But that distance might as well have been ten miles. Arrogantly, the chimera sauntered over, coolly keeping an eye on Graves and the fallen spell gun. It wasn’t stupid: it had dealt with humans before, and it knew that without weapons, they were nothing more than tasty morsels. This one had proven particularly troublesome, but even he was powerless without his tool.

Thus, with a low, satisfied growl, the salivating beast advanced, ready to devour its hard-earned meal.

But then it stopped, confused.

Something had stung its pelt, a feeling hardly worth noting, but the chimera had felt it nonetheless. Where had it come from? The little human was unarmed, so it couldn’t have been him. All the insects had long since gone as well. So where had the sting come from?

All was made clear however, as soon as a loud, shrill voice called out from the canyon edge above.

“Don’t you dare, you great, big brute!”

No. She couldn’t possibly be– What was she still doing here? She was supposed to be gone! She was supposed to be safe!

Looking – or more correctly, gaping – up, Graves could hardly believe his eyes as he spotted Rarity standing tall and proud on the canyon edge, her eyes flashed like blue lightning as she vehemently shouted at the creature below.

“Stop that right this instant! You harm so much as one hair on the marshal’s head and I’ll rip you pieces! Do you hear me? I WILL DESTROY YOU!”

…What in the name of Celestia was she doing?!

“Graves? Are you alright?” she called out, her face contorting with exertion as she magicked a great stone into the air.

“What are you doing here?” he shouted, finally remembering he could speak. “I told you run!”

“You also told me you’d be right behind me!” she shouted back. “And I am not going to leave you behind!”

Flinging the rock with all her might, the stone sailed lazily through the air and struck the chimera. Such a feeble attack would normally do nothing, except that this one managed to strike the undulating serpent’s head right on its wounded eye. The chimera howled in pain.

“Rarity! Run!” Graves cried out. But it was too late. Turning its attentions from the marshal fully to the young lady standing at the top of the gorge, the beast bellowed, shaking the entire canyon with the sound of its fury.

Color drained from Rarity’s face as she stood petrified, eyes wide with terror; it was one thing to antagonize and distract monster, but quite another to face down its full, unimpeded wrath when you succeeded.

Crude as it was, her distraction had worked and given Graves the few precious moments that he needed to scramble and seize up his spell gun. Good: now that he was once again armed, he might have a chance. But what about Rarity? Ignoring the pain in his stomach and sides, the weary soldier turned his attentions back towards the beast and ran, pushing his legs as fast as they could carry him straight at the chimera. Roaring once more in primal rage, the monster inhaled deeply and opened its mouth, its throat glowing bright with a sickly, yellow flame. If that breath hit Rarity, there’d be nothing left of her; she’d be reduced to little more than a pile of smoldering ash and char.

Like hell he’d let that happen.

He couldn’t stop the blast, but maybe he wouldn’t have to. Twirling the rifle in hand, Graves seized it by the barrel and lunged forward. With a savage cry, the marshal swung the spell gun as hard as he could, bringing every muscle in his battered form to bear as he caught the chimera with a clean hit, square across the jaw.

The monster was large, but the marshal’s momentum plus the force of his swing were just enough to knock off its aim. Rarity screamed and ducked as the chimera roared and unleashed its blazing chemical inferno, the blast mercifully missing and striking not ten feet to the left of where the violet-haired girl stood.

The explosion rang through the canyon and flaming chunks of rock hissed in the rain. A loud crack rang through the gorge, and a large portion of the ridge began to crumble.

And another portion as well. And then another. By some sick chance, the chimera had struck a weak point in the canyon wall. Huge cracks spidered and crackled through the stone walls as the entire ledge started to give way, with Rarity still on it.

Now what could he do? Mind racing, Graves narrowly dodged a darting bite from the lashing snake tail as he tried to form a plan. The ridge was collapsing. A landslide was imminent. The chimera was still loose. Rarity was in trouble. All problems that needed solving. So what did he have?

Not time. The pain of his broken ribs, now even more heavily fractured from the force of his swing, merely added to the agony in the rest of his body. The sickness had already spread too far, and now it felt like every muscle had been embedded with shards of glass and rusted blades, with each passing second only serving to make it worse. In perhaps a minute at most, the sickness would fulminate, and–

No. Don’t dwell on the negatives. Think! What did he have? He had his spell gun back, and thanks to Rarity’s timely intervention, a good portion of its magic still remained. That was good. That was very good.

What else? The beast was still dazed from the blow to the head, its wet mane slinging water everywhere as it shook its head clear. It wouldn’t be much, but if he acted now, he’d have a few precious seconds where the chimera couldn’t respond.

And… that was it. A gun and a few moments of respite. Would that be enough?

Steely eyes darting back and forth, the marshal’s mind raced furiously to find an answer. He could use the energy for a spell chain and pull Rarity to safety, but after that, he’d be out of energy and easy meat for the beast. He could shoot the chimera as planned, but even if he could finish it off, he wouldn’t be able to save Rarity. With only one shot, how could he do both?

Then it hit him. It’d be crazy, crazier than even his earlier plan, and borderline suicidal. But if it worked…

“Rarity!” he called out, fighting back to his feet and throwing himself into a loping run. “Jump!”

“What?!” she cried out as the ledge collapsed all around her. “Are you crazy?!”

“Probably! But just do it! I’ll catch you!”

The inner struggle showed clearly on her pale, frightened face. Jumping off a sheer hundred foot cliff into a gorge where a very large and very angry fire-breathing monster rampaged? Fear, reason, and above all, plain common sense all told her it was madness. There was no way she was going to go jumping into mortal danger, crumbling ledge or not.

There was simply no way…

Lightning flashed, and in that moment, Graves saw Rarity flying through the air. Running up a nearby pile of rubble, the marshal jumped for all he was worth, reached out and caught Rarity at the apex of his jump. Even in the heat of battle, he still caught a faint whiff of her lavender perfume.

Turning in midair, Graves kept his left arm securely around Rarity’s waist as he raised his rifle. Behind him, he could hear the loud cracking of rock as the first boulders tore loose. In front, the chimera finally shook its head clear and roared, flames crackling around its mouth as it pulled itself into a ferocious charge.

Slowly, Graves exhaled. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, a minute passing between each beat of his pounding heart as his finger tightened on the trigger. A giant, flesh-devouring monster monster in front and a bone crushing avalanche behind? That would give him one shot.

Just one shot.

His spell gun roared like a cannon as a massive blast of arcane lightning burst forth with the fury of a tidal wave. It slammed into the chimera, lifting the beast clean off the ground and sent it crashing into the opposite canyon wall a good twenty paces away.

Meanwhile, the recoil launched Graves and Rarity back like a rocket, shooting them back into the cascading debris. That was intentional, though the plan hinged on them getting to the wall before they were crushed by falling rocks. Graves grunted as he felt stones as large as his head slam into his back, but it’d be a small price to pay if the gamble paid off.

They were headed for the cave. They didn’t really have any other options anyway: the rubble would soon fill the narrow gorge, and no amount of running would get them out of the way in time. The cave, however, looked fairly deep and should provide safety from the landslide if they could make it inside. Still a pretty big if, but that’s what made it a gamble.

Rarity screamed as they flew back, the crash of falling boulders thundering all around them. They were flying fast, but so were the rocks and a massive stone the size of a small house fell straight towards them. They wouldn’t make it in time.

Consequences be hanged, Graves squeezed every last drop of energy he had into his spell gun and forced out one last, feeble blast. It was weak, hardly more than a small pop of light and noise, but it had just enough force to push them a tiny bit faster. Feeling the giant boulder actually scraping the bottoms of his boots, Graves smiled as he felt the sensation of rain disappear from his skin as the cave shielded them from both rock and water.

Whether they made it away from the avalanche, he didn’t know, because at that moment, his body shut down and his mind faded into black.

**********

Chapter 8

Chapter 8

Rarity couldn’t tell whether her eyes were opened or closed: the absolute darkness of the cave was all she could see.

“Graves?” she called out hesitantly into the black. “Are you there?”

No answer.

Reaching to her belt, the young lady pulled out her small wand and focused. It wasn’t much, but a faint, bluish light appeared and spread its pale illumination through the gloom.

She spotted the marshal, lying just a few feet away in a still, unmoving heap. Scrambling to his side, Rarity turned him to his back and quickly looked him over. His eyes were closed, his breathing was hoarse and raspy, and in the faint glow of her wand, deathly would have been a kind description of his pallor.

This wasn’t good. The earlier battle had clearly taken its toll on the marshal, and soaked to the bone as he was, his situation would only deteriorate. Pressing her hand to his forehead, she was startled to find his skin both cold and feverish to the touch. How was that even possible? If a person had a fever, their skin would usually be hot and clammy. If they were cold, then they’d be cold through and through. If they were both happening at once, then–

No. Now wasn’t the time for idle curiosity: now was the time for action. Graves needed help, and as it stood, she was the only one who could offer it. But what could she do?

Getting him dried off would be a good start. Flicking her wrist, Rarity moved to siphon the water from his clothes, but cried out as a shocking backlash burned her hand. Something about the marshal, something magical, was interfering. Perhaps this had something to do with his unnatural state?

No, no. Focus. So magicking away the water wouldn’t work. What other options were there? A fire? Forcing more magic into her wand, Rarity expanded the glow as far as she could. It wasn’t much, but just enough to let her see that save for the walls and massive pile of stones sealing them in, the cave was empty. Nothing to burn.

Right, so a fire wouldn’t be possible. What about something else, some other way to get Graves warm and dry? Maybe if… yes! There, still tucked safely to the inside of the marshal’s coat, was the sack of gemstones they’d collected, somehow staying safe on his person through the ensuing chaos. A blessing indeed, because these gems just might help save his life.

Pulling out the sack, the fashionista poured its glittering contents on the ground. The blue tint of the light distorted their colors, but Rarity’s trained eyes picked out the ones she needed. Opal. Topaz. Ruby. Citrine. Tourmaline. All stones of warm hue and fiery nature. Arranging the gems in a small pile, Rarity let the light fade and focused on a new spell.

Most people assumed gems only sparkled because of the cut and polish. As a designer, she knew better. Jewels had inherent magical properties, ones that if brought out, could reveal hidden luster and additional sparkle to an already brilliant stone. And that was just the start; focus really hard and take it one step further…

Suddenly, the stones burst forth in brilliant red, orange and yellow light. Rarity allowed herself a small smile of triumph as she bathed in the delicious warmth that also radiated forth. It had taken quite a bit of effort, but she’d managed to bring out the inner glow of the jewels to a very literal degree.

Self-congratulations, however, would have to wait. While the seamstress had been occupied with preparing the fire, she hadn’t noticed that Graves’ breathing had steadily devolved into shallow, desperate panting. She’d missed that, but nobody could miss the raw, ragged cough that tore from the marshal’s mouth.

“Graves!” she cried in alarm, immediately returning to his side, “What’s going–”

Her words caught in her throat as Graves hacked again, a shower of silvery sparks passing between his lips.

That was magic. But how? Magic didn’t just happen, not for humans anyway. It had to be controlled, channeled, and that meant being conscious. Graves was clearly out like a light, so what in the name of Celestia was going on?

Graves continued coughing, silvery-white sparks continuously sailing forth as the fit wracked his body. And then things got serious.

With each cough came an electric spark, tendrils of lighting spontaneously burst forth, dancing and searing their way across his skin. As the coughing grew worse, so did the number of electric shocks till soon, his body was wreathed in their silvery arcs of destructive, arcane energy. Magic was definitely at work here, and it was definitely killing him.

Back to the gems. Rarity flung herself on the pile and desperately began searching through them. Magical energy had someone gotten trapped in the marshal’s body, where it was eating him alive from the inside out. That energy needed to come out, and for that, she needed the gems.

Rushing back with a handful of diamonds, Rarity took a deep breath. If she could channel the energy properly, she could siphon it from the marshal and safely store them in the clear jewels. Of course, mess up and the magical lightning would stream straight into her and probably stop her heart.

Ah well, no time to sweat to the details. Rarity breathed out, closed her eyes, and laid a hand on the marshal’s chest.

*****

Graves slowly regained consciousness and immediately regretted it. With every fiber of his being, he regretted it, mostly because every fiber of his being seemed to be screaming hateful, hurtful things at him through some very powerful bullhorns.

His entire body hurt. Except that wasn’t the right way to describe it. Hurt would imply a feeling similar to running a marathon while carrying a heavy sack of rocks, being beaten with said sack at the end of the race, and then getting kicked around by the team of angry minotaurs who'd swung the sack of rocks for good measure. That would describe hurt, and Graves was well past that by now.

Eyes closed, the marshal simply lay there, trying to ignore the innumerable aches and pains of his body as he struggled to get his bearings. The last thing he remembered was the chimera and the landslide. It’s seems he hadn’t been buried in rubble, which meant it had worked; the blast had propelled him and Rarity far enough into the cave that–

“Rarity!” he gasped, his eyes springing open at the thought. “Where–”

Immediately, the young lady’s face filled his vision. She was caked in mud, her hair was a mess – all unsurprising considering the day she had –and yet when she smiled, she looked even more beautiful than ever.

“Graves! Thank goodness you’re finally awake!” she sighed, relief washing over her features like a cleansing wave. “For a moment there, I thought you had… well…”

“Where… where are we?” he asked, his voice coming out a faint, tired croak. “What happened?”

“We’re in a cave,” she replied, removing a strip of white fabric from his forehead. Walking over to where a puddle of water had trickled through the stones, she wet it and replaced it on his head. It felt deliciously, wonderfully cool. “The landslide’s sealed us in, which I suppose is bad. On the other hand, it has kept those monsters from getting us, so I guess it all evens out. How are you feeling?”

“Huh?”

“How are you feeling?” she slowly enunciated, smiling as if she were speaking to a child. “Considering your condition, I would think it’d be a sensible question to ask.”

“Condition?”

“You weren’t exactly the picture of health, if that’s what you’re asking,” the pretty seamstress said wryly. “First, you’re freezing up but feverish, then you start coughing out this cloud of sparks, and then all this electricity just started shooting out of your body.”

“Ah. I see.”

“You… see,” Rarity repeated flatly as she gave him an inquiring look. From the way she sat there, sapphire eyes intent and arms folded under her breasts, she clearly expected an explanation.

“Mana sickness,” Graves replied, grunting as he tried to sit up. Tried was the key, since his arms were as flimsy as wet pasta and only about half as strong. However, with a good bit of help from the young lady, he managed to get himself leaned up against the cave wall.

“So, this mana sickness,” Rarity repeated, handing him his hat before taking a seat across the fire from him, “what exactly is it? You’re not going to suddenly turn into a newt, are you?”

“Not exactly,” he weakly grinned as he put his hat back on. “It’s what happens when a person draws in too much energy.”

“Draws in too much?” Rarity frowned, not quite following. “But I thought people had limits on how much magic they can use.”

“Safely use,” Graves corrected. “Mind instinctively limits the amount of magic a person draws in. Sort of a natural block. People can push past that and draw in more, but they start to lose control. The energy that should go out starts flowing back into your body.”

“But then that means…” the young lady began, eyes slowly widening in alarm. The marshal nodded.

“I use lightning based magic. Since I used it too quickly, some of it started flowing back. After something like today, well…” he trailed off; after all, she’d been there and seen it.

“But that’s horrible!” Rarity cried, her voice hovering somewhere between sympathy and indignation. “I mean, I’m all for giving a bit of extra effort in a pinch, but pushing yourself to those kinds of lengths is just ridiculous!”

“Sometimes you can’t avoid it,” Graves shrugged. “It was either that or get fried and eaten. I figure it was a pretty good trade.”

“So how do you feel now?” she asked again, leaning in and anxiously looking him over. “You’re not going to just… explode now are you?”

“Actually, I feel alright.” What was even more surprising than his answer was that he actually meant it. Oh sure, he was exhausted, and his body still felt like a herd of bison had used his back for a tap dancing stage, but that was just the normal aches and pains of a hard day’s work. Why, after a good meal and some rest, he’d be good as new.

“You’re sure?” the pretty seamstress inquired, leaning in even closer and carefully scrutinizing him. “You wouldn’t just be saying that to keep me from worrying, would you?”

“Of course not,” he said with a good bit of sincerity, though he definitely wouldn’t have minded if the words had that effect: she was awfully close, and even now, he could still catch the tantalizing scent of her lavender perfume. “It's actually kind of weird,” he continued. “Usually by now, I have to detox, but I just… don’t.”

“Er, detox?” Rarity inquired. “What’s that?”

“Vent the extra magic,” the marshal explained. “Kind of rough, but it gets the extra energy out of my system. Strange.”

“Ah, I see. Well in that case,” the pretty seamstress said with a knowing smile on her face, “I guess you’re a very lucky man I happened to be here.” Graves blinked.

"Come again?”

“While you were out and sparking like a fireworks display, I figured it had something to do with magic. So, with a little creativity, I ended up making… these!”

With a flourish, Rarity pulled out the handful of diamonds she’d channeled the energy into. Only now, they looked less like stones and more like stars held in the palm of her hand, glittering with a pure, white light and crackling with life.

“But… how?” Graves gaped.

“Simple,” she grinned. “I just took the magic trapped inside you and stored it in these. It was touch and go for a bit, but I think they turned out quite nicely."

The marshal just stared in wonder at her for a moment before looking back to her hands, then back into her big, sapphire eyes.

“That’s… amazing,” he breathed, his tone floating something between disbelief and awe. “I didn’t even know gems could do that.”

“It’s something I managed to figure out when I was younger,” Rarity replied as a very fetching blush came to her cheeks. “I mean, my cutie mark is a set of diamonds, so I guess I have a natural affinity for jewels and such.”

“Huh. I see."

And suddenly, another, completely crazy and over the wall idea came to Rarity.

"Would... would you like to see?”

**********

Chapter 9

Chapter 9

“…I’m sorry, what?” Graves blinked, certain that he had simply misheard.

“My cutie mark. Would you like to see it?”

Nope, he hadn’t heard wrong. For a moment, the marshal just stared, unable to comprehend what would spurn that kind of question. Rarity, however, took the silence as lack of objection and upon turning around, began unbuttoning her blouse.

“Rarity! Why are you… what are you…?” Though his words were sputtered and disjointed, the meaning behind them was clear as his face lit up to a crimson bright enough to shame any of Big Mac’s flannel shirts.

“Do try and calm down, marshal,” Rarity tisked lightly. “I’m only going to be showing you my back. Honestly.”

“Oh… Right..."

Pulling her violet tresses aside, Rarity slipped the shirt from her pale, slender shoulders and lowered it just enough to reveal the upper part of her back. There, glittering as brightly as any jewel between her shoulder blades, were the images of three brilliant, sky blue diamonds.

“Well, what do you think?” she asked, half turned to face the marshal. Though her long hair partly obscured her face, it couldn’t fully hide the hot glow in her cheeks.

Nobody's cutie mark was ever really a secret, but it's not like they were on display for the world to see. After all, most decent clothing covered it up, and few people would ever see it unless it was explicitly shown.

That's what had lit the fire in the young lady's face. Showing someone else your cutie mark was a pretty personal act of sharing usually reserved for friends. Doing it in private was considered even more so, and considering it was just the two of them, a young man and woman alone and separated from the rest of the world, there was an awful lot of blurring at the moment on just where friendly ended and intimate began.

Ah well, she would worry about that later.

“They’re… nice,” Graves answered, though somewhat halfheartedly as his attention was quite divided: he had just learned that Rarity had some very lovely shoulders and the sight was more than just a little distracting.

“Just nice?” she repeated, smiling at the familiarity of the quip.

“Er… very, very nice?” The pretty seamstress simply gave him a flat look, to which Graves could only respond with a sheepish grin.

“Well, I suppose that’ll have to do,” Rarity sighed, unable to fully hide the playful banter in her voice as she slipped her blouse back on. Once she had finished, the violet haired girl turned to the marshal, only the faintest traces of a flush remaining as she composed herself and continued with her plan.

“Now the real question, my dear Graves," she continued, "is whether you know what it stands for.”

"I'd say it's... your love of fashion?” he guessed. "I mean, you are a designer, after all."

“Points for effort,” the young lady smiled, “but far from the whole picture. That’d be like me saying being a marshal’s about running around and playing with guns all day. I… do assume there’s more than that?” she hesitated: her personal experiences hadn’t exactly done much to alter that image.

“Guess you could say that,” Graves said with a slight grin. “So what does it mean?”

“My cutie mark,” Rarity began, drawing herself up proudly, “represents my love of beauty, whether it’s in people or things, or even places, like all those wonders you’ve seen in your travels. Of course, clothes and fashion are a big part of it,” she giggled. “After all, there’s just something magical about putting on the right outfit, but there’s so much more to me than just ensemble and accessory: do you know what I mean?”

“Not exactly, no,” the marshal admitted.

“Well, I can’t exactly say I’m surprised: you are a man after all,” Rarity sighed. “Let’s just put it this way: fashion isn’t meant to create beauty, but to enhance what’s already there. That’s why certain outfits work for some individuals and not for others. Do you follow?”

“Okay, I get that,” Graves nodded.

“Excellent. Now then marshal, think for a moment. What do you suppose separates a good designer from a great one?”

“Well let’s see,” he mumbled, brow furrowed in concentration. “If you enhance, you support. To do that right, you have to know what’s going on, which can also mean… I suppose you’d have to see what needs… enhancing, no?”

“Exactly,” Rarity beamed. “My talent, what makes me special, is that I’m very, very good at seeing the potential for beauty and bringing it out.” But then, her smile faltered as the violet haired girl looked away. hesitant, almost afraid. “Or rather, that’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“Come again?” Graves asked. He didn’t know why, but at that moment, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Maybe it wouldn’t be disastrous like their last few hours, but something was coming, and it wasn’t going to be pleasant.

“Before we continue, I want you to understand something,” the pretty seamstress began, pressing a hand to her fluttering stomach. “I don’t always behave as I should, and certain things I’ve done violate the very spirit of those diamonds you just saw. I wanted you to see them so you could understand that, and also to make things… even between us.

“Even?” the marshal repeated warily.

“In being exposed. I wanted to be in the same situation as you, to have a personal part of myself on the line before…” Taking a deep breath, Rarity looked back up into the marshal’s eyes. It was now or never. Time to take the plunge.

“... before we talked about what happened last week. You know, when you were in my store and I… I saw you.”

*****

Isn’t it funny? She’d just spent a day running from giant, flesh eating scorpions and an even bigger, flesh eating chimera, and yet here, her heart was pounding harder now than it had ever before. All at the prospect of having a conversation.

But it had been that day that had given her the chance. With the monsters, the cave in, and everything in between, both of them had been too busy trying to survive to worry about awkward tensions between them. And yet, she knew the feeling wouldn’t last. Once they got back to town, the silence would return and when it did, Rarity wasn’t sure she’d ever have the courage to broach the subject again. That’s why now, during the interlude where the walls had dropped, she needed to do everything she could to make sure they stayed down for good.

Graves, however, didn’t seem to share the sentiment, as he averted his eyes and looked instead into the fire. In the light of the flickering gems, they glinted like hot iron in a forge, although considerably colder and dimmer.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” he finally said, his tone now harsh and flat as a winter tundra.

Rarity winced: the walls had come back up and with remarkable speed. Still, she’d already started and with the most difficult first step out of the way, Luna have mercy on her if she gave up after that.

“Well in that case, you can just listen,” she stated briskly, even hastily as she charged on ahead before her nerves failed her, “because I have something very important to tell you.”

“When I accidentally crashed into the screen – accidentally mind you, not intentionally – I was prepared for the sight of certain things but not for others. The way I reacted wasn’t exactly appropriate… no, wait, not that… no, it was most certainly inappropriate, but the only reason I reacted that was because of shock. Do you understand me? Simple, utter shock, in the sense that what I saw wasn’t what I was expecting. At least, not in the list of certain things I would expect in that kind of situation. It was in no ways a statement about your character – which you’ve certainly demonstrated clearly enough here – and should only be regarded as an act of surprise at being faced with something completely unexpected. After all, I’m supposed to be very good at seeing people for what they are, and I’ve certainly seen you for being a very kind and wonderful sort of man because it’s my special talent, which is why my cutie mark is like it is… dear me, I seem to be rambling, aren’t I? I know I’m not being very clear, so I’ll just come right out with it. What I’ve been trying to say is…”

She took in a deep breath…

“I’m sorry, Graves!” Rarity cried, her voice practically a shriek as all the frustration, shame, and guilt of the past seven days spilled out in those few simple words. “I’m really, truly, terribly sorry!”

*****

How the marshal took her apology, Rarity had no idea, because she now stared intently at her lap, her cheeks burning in a mix of heart-pounding exertion and heart-stopping mortification. Apology though it was, she knew what she’d done had been incredibly insulting, and she wouldn’t be surprised if the marshal flat out refused to forgive her anyways. In his shoes, she probably would have too.

But as the seconds ticked by and still he said nothing, curiosity got the best of the pretty seamstress. Unable to help it, she dared to peek up at the imposing man brooding before her.

“Graves?” Rarity asked hesitantly. “Is there something wrong?”

“Not wrong,” he said with an odd expression, not happy or forgiving, but in no ways hard or cold anymore either. “I’m just… a bit confused.”

“I did speak a little quickly,” she admitted with a flush of embarrassment. “If you want, I can repeat it–”

“No, I got that part. Well, mostly anyway. I just didn't get the last bit.”

Now it was Rarity’s turn to look confused.

“Last part?” she asked. “That’s when I apologized, wasn’t it?”

“See, that’s what confuses me,” Graves replied as he scratched his head. “If anything, I thought I’d be apologizing to you.”

“…”

“…”

“… Wait, what?!”

**********

Chapter 10

Chapter 10

Had Graves suddenly sprouted a pair of antlers and claimed to be a reindeer, Rarity still couldn’t have been any more baffled than she already was.

“You… apologize to me?” she repeated, staring at the marshal as if unable to comprehend the words. “But why on earth would you need to do that?”

Graves returned the look in kind, seemingly just as – if not more – confused than the young lady he addressed.

“If you do something wrong, you apologize, right?” he stated quizzically. “I mean, Ponyville’s odd, but it can’t be that odd.”

“That’s very true,” Rarity replied, finally managing to regain her composure. “Not the odd part, mind you, but the rest certainly. What I can’t understand though, is what exactly did you do that required apologizing in the first place?”

Here, Graves just gave her a flat look of incredulity, as if he couldn’t believe he needed to explain something so simple. “Ponyville folk really are crazy,” he mumbled under his breath.

“What was that?” the young lady asked, eyebrow raised questioningly.

“Nothing,” he hastily replied before continuing. “It’s just that where I come from, a man who frightens a lady always says sorry for it.”

“Frighten me?” Rarity repeated. “If you thought that I was frightened, then why did you…”

"..."

At that moment, everything clicked.

“Graves,” Rarity slowly began, “is that why you’ve been avoiding me all week?”

“I haven’t avoided you exactly,” he answered evasively, “I just figured I’d try not to bother you.”

“And that’s why every time I did see you, you never spoke more than two words to me?”

“Thought you were forcing yourself to talk to me; figured if I ended it quickly, it wouldn’t make you uncomfortable.”

“Well you most certainly did!” Rarity cried in exasperation. “Every time you looked at me, you glared at me as if I’d kicked your dog, or something!”

“What?” Graves sputtered in disbelief. “I did not glare at you.”

“No?” she challenged? “Then what do you call this?” And with that, the violet-haired girl did quite the fair impression of the marshal scowling, complete with hard-set jaw and furrowed brow. “Every time you looked me, you’d do it exactly like that, and if that’s not a glare, I don’t know what is.”

“… I was doing that?” Graves asked, a bit of hesitation in his question. When Rarity firmly nodded, he gave a long, exhausted sigh.

“Oh boy.”

“Care to explain, marshal?” Rarity pressed, arms crossed firmly beneath her breasts.

“I wasn’t glaring at you,” Graves began, and when the young lady’s eyes flashed dangerously, he hastily continued. “I know it looked like that, but it wasn’t at you.”

“Then who was it for?” she prodded on. The raven-haired soldier averted his eyes: he really didn’t want to keep talking about this, but she clearly wasn’t going to let up.

“… myself,” he mumbled.

“Yourself,” Rarity repeated, clearly unconvinced. “Why would you be glaring at yourself?”

“Don’t you get it?” he shot back, frustration now creeping into his voice. “It’s my job to protect people, not send them into screaming fits. I got careless, and someone got hurt, which made me feel really… guilty, because it was my fault.”

“Your fault?” the seamstress demanded, sapphire eyes flashing dangerously. “How is it your fault? I was the one who stumbled onto you changing. If anything, it was my fault.”

“But I shouldn’t have been changing there in the first place,” Graves countered.

“You were soaked to the skin and I invited you into a clothing store to get fixed up. How on earth would it make sense not to get changed?”

“When you look like I do, you need to be careful,” Graves insisted.

“And what’s so special about the way you look?” Rarity pressed. Graves actually scoffed.

“Other than the fact I look like a walking nightmare? Not much.”

*****

Rarity said nothing. She couldn't, because at that precise moment, she had been struck utterly speechless. Rarity didn’t know what had shocked her more, the way Graves had so insultingly referred to himself, or the fact he’d done so with about as much reaction as calling the sky blue or water wet. It was as if the statement was such obvious truth, there wasn't even a need to bring emotion in at all.

“… Why would you say that?” she asked softly, all heat gone from her voice. “Surely, you didn’t just decide that yourself, did you?”

“I pick it up on things," he shrugged. "That’s all,”

“Pick up? Do you mean…?”

Graves nodded.

“Firsthand experience.”

Rarity looked at the marshal, her face a carefully composed mask that betrayed no emotion. Graves looked back at the young lady, his face expressionless as if there was no emotion to show.

“Tell me about them. Your experiences, I mean,” she finally said, her voice surprisingly calm and steady.

“Doubt it's anything you'd want to hear,” the marshal replied, turning away to look at the fire."

“No, tell me,” Rarity repeated once more. “Please.”

Reluctantly, Graves turned back to face the young lady sitting before him, the one watching him with her deep, blue eyes, and frowned. He really didn’t like talking about himself, especially his past. In fact, he downright hated it: any time he did, the raven-haired soldier always thought it sounded like a bunch of useless whining and pointless complaining.

Graves hated sounding like that.

But as Rarity continued watching him, her eyes like twin pools of fathomlessly deep water, he hesitated. He still didn’t get what she meant with her bit about equality, but she’d been very open about herself when sharing on her cutie mark. Openness should be returned in kind…

With a tired sigh, Graves gave in.

“In this line of work,” he began, leaning back to rest his head against the cave wall, “getting hurt happens. Magic healing isn’t always there, so you pick up some… reminders as you go.” He paused and glanced back at Rarity. She continued watching, so he continued speaking.

“You can heal scars. It takes lots of time and effort though, so usually we just do the face so we can blend in and hide the rest. Works fine most of the time, but every so often, things happen. When they do, you can pretty much guess how people are going to react.”

“Your firsthand experience?” Rarity asked, though more statement than question. He nodded.

“First time happened in Manehattan, just after I started traveling on my own. People were disappearing and local law enforcement couldn’t figure out why. That's when I was called in. Turns out, a whole tribe of ghouls had taken residence in the sewers. Managed to clear them out, but I wasn’t exactly ‘presentable’ when I resurfaced, if you catch my drift. So they ship me to a local hospital. Get me all cleaned up: even fix it so I don’t have a new scratch on me. Everything seems fine.

"Then that night, when lights are out, I hear the nurses making rounds. Couldn’t sleep, but pretended I was, and one comes into my room. She takes a couple steps in, waits a bit, and runs out. Really, just flat out runs. 'Course, I’m a little confused, until I hear what’s happening in the hallway.

"The nurse was crying. And not just a little; downright sobbing like a mother at soldier's funeral. Can’t make it all out, but the gist is she just didn’t want to treat me.”

“But why not?” Rarity demanded, a potent mix of shock and outrage playing across her face. “You just saved their lives: how could she act like that?”

“She didn’t know who I was,” Graves stated plainly. “To her, I was some stranger with a body torn up eight ways till Sunday, and that just scared her. Said something like, ‘it just isn’t natural, him looking like that. No decent man would ever look so… so horrible.’”

Graves chuckled, a deep rumbling baritone, and Rarity almost recoiled in fright. Maybe he was just acting tough, but she could have sworn he sounded amused. Not sarcastic, not wry, not dry, but genuinely, honestly amused.

“That was the first,” the marshal continued. “This village out in the savannahs thought I’d cut myself in deals with a demon: drove me out with spears and arrows. One town locked the doors every time I went on patrol: I think they were more scared of me than the goblins I was hunting. The list goes on, but it’s all the same. People see me for the terrifying freak that I am. That’s it.”

Breathing out a long sigh of relief, Graves cracked his neck and settled back against the cave wall. He wasn’t used to talking so much (and still quite surprised he’d done so), which adding to the day’s activities, left him worn and drained.

Rarity lowered her eyes, her pretty face a smooth, impassive mask. She’d clearly heard the marshal, but what she thought about his words remained a mystery as her expression betrayed nothing of her mind’s internal workings.

Finally, she looked up, her sapphire eyes firm and clear like their namesake gems as she met the marshal’s steely gaze.

“Graves, I’m about to do two things, so I hope you’ll bear with me and let me finish. Can you do that?”

Graves eyed her askance. It was certainly an odd request. Why would she even need to ask?

"Um… sure?” he replied hesitantly, to which Rarity responded with a satisfied smile.

“Good.”

Graves staggered where he sat, head swimming and eyes filled with exploding spots of color: without any sign and without any warning, Rarity had just slapped him clear across the face.

*****

Gingerly, the marshal touched the side of his face where a bright red hand print was already forming. Given how tender the skin felt, she hadn’t held back anything when she’d hit him, and it had really, really hurt.

“What was that for?” he asked, not sure whether he was more angry, surprised, or confused at the moment. All things considered, anger was starting to make a pretty good showing.

“That,” Rarity sniffed primly despite massaging her hand vigorously, “was for being such a fool.”

“… What?”

“A fool,” she repeated, clearly enunciating the word. “A stone-blind, mule-headed, incorrigibly thick, fool.”

“Now wait just a–”

“No, you wait,” she interrupted, “and you listen up. The only reason I didn’t clout you when you called yourself a nightmare earlier was because I didn’t know why you did. Now I’ve heard your reasons, and I’m convinced that you must be as thick as a dragon’s hide and probably only half as intelligent for ever saying that.”

Graves could only stare in dumbfounded amazement.

“Did you hear a word–”

“Oh, I heard every word, marshal,” she cut in again, her tirade gaining force and momentum as she continued. “And what I heard was you basing your image, maybe even your entire identity on what other people said about you. I don’t care if you were born with two heads and each was uglier than the backside of a toad, you should never, ever let others dictate how you see yourself.”

“But–”

“But?” Rarity repeated, her eyes glinting dangerously at his protests.

“But aren’t they right?” Graves asked. “I mean, you’ve seen me: don’t they have a right to be scared of that?”

“Of course not!” Rarity screeched, indignation practically burning around her in a righteous halo. “Those… those buffoons treat you like that only because they’re shallower than a puddle in the desert. Your scars, every single one I’d wager, were gotten directly in service as a marshal, in protecting them from harm. The fact that they can’t see anything about your real worth and judge you by the scrapes and scratches on your skin is the… the worst possible thing that they could do! Ever!”

Panting with effort, it took a quite some time for Rarity to calm down and regain her composure, and even then, her eyes flashed like cobalt fire as a clear indication of vehemence being narrowly reigned back.

Not that it was a problem: Graves was just staring anyway, quite figuratively blown away.

“So… are you mad at me, or them?” he finally asked once he was sure it was safe to speak.

“Of course I’m still mad at you,” the semi-furious fashionista replied. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t be mad at them as well. And that, good marshal,” she said, taking a deep breath to further calm herself, “leads me to the second thing I need to do.”

Graves wasn’t sure he wanted to find out: if the first thing she’d done had nearly taken his head off, what was number two going to be like?

The marshal soon found out, however, that the only thing the two events had in common was both caught him completely by surprise. He didn’t even know how it happened. Rarity was just sitting there, looking very much like a cat with a bristling tail after giving him the tongue-lashing of a lifetime, and in the next moment, she was… hugging him.

Rarity simply held him, her slender arms encircling his chest, gently mindful of his injured side, but with an almost vice-like tenacity, as if daring him to pull away. For several heart beats, Graves just sat there, utterly and perfectly confused as her soft warmth slowly seeped into his tired body.

“I don’t get it,” the marshal mumbled. “First you hit me, and now... this? Why?”

“Because you're a fool,” she whispered from where her head rested on his shoulder, her usually melodious voice now grown hoarse and rough. “A stone-blind, mule-headed, incorrigibly thick, giant fool.

"You throw yourself out there every day, facing dangers few men could even dream of only to come back a battered and beaten mess. The people who should be thanking you shun you, even revile you because of the scars you got protecting them. And what do you do? You forgive them. You don’t even hold a grudge, though Celestia knows you should, and you move on. You just… take up your gun and go out to do it all over again. If that doesn’t make you a fool, I don’t know what does.”

Though he couldn’t see her, the faint trembling of her slender frame and the hot spots of dampness on his shoulder told Graves exactly what was going on. Hesitantly, he raised an arm and placed it to her head, gently stroking her silken hair as best he could with his hard, calloused hands.

He’d never really cried for himself. The scars, the pain, the fearful looks, they were all things he’d long since grown used to, prices he’d accepted as part of the work he did. To shed tears over what had to be was something he just couldn’t understand.

But the way she clung to him, the way she silently sobbed as if shedding a tear for all those he never had…

Even he could appreciate that.

**********

Epilogue

Epilogue

“So, what was it you called those giant bugs?” Rarity asked.

“Skullpions. Figure you can see why.”

“Indeed,” she smiled wryly. “The name is rather… appropriate.”

In the light of the gems' warm glow, Graves chuckled softly as he looked over to the pretty young lady sitting next to him. He wasn’t sure how long they’d been like that, just sitting and talking (kind of hard to tell when you’ve got no way of tracking time). It must have been quite some time though, because even the red circles around Rarity’s eyes had long since faded. But the time didn’t really matter, because it had all been rather nice.

Actually, it was more than nice. It just felt… right. It felt the way things had felt a week ago before the whole mess had started, only better. Maybe the day’s experiences has drawn them closer together. Maybe the sharing they’d done, what with Rarity’s cutie mark and the marshal’s past had given them a deeper understanding of each other.

Or maybe, it was because they were stuck in a cave together. Whatever the reason, Graves found he was actually quite content, and he wasn’t about to ruin the feeling by over thinking it.

“So how come I’ve never seen them before?” Rarity inquired, turning slightly to face the marshal. “I mean, I’m no expert on animals, but you’d think with so many of them so close to Ponyville, I’d have stumbled upon one by now.”

“Well that’s just it,” Graves replied. “Skullpions ain’t from around here: they’re native to the Savage Lands, way out west past the Snowspire Mountains.”

“My goodness, that’s at least two days by train from here!” the young lady exclaimed. “What are they doing so far from their home?”

“Not sure,” the marshal admitted. “But that means they came through the Everfree Forest. Might explain why things have been so… active recently.”

“Is that where the other thing came from?” she asked once more. “You know, the big tiger, sheep, lizard looking one.”

“The chimera,” he said, fighting back a grin at her somewhat accurate, somewhat misguided description. “Lion head, goat body, snake tail. Oh, and it breathes fire.”

“So I gathered,” Rarity murmured. “But once again, not something I’ve ever encountered before. Is it also a native of the, er… Savage Lands?”

“Yup. Maybe it chased the skullpions out on a hunt while they ran from it. Might explain things.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. Doesn’t really matter now does it?” Rarity said, ending the topic that’d she’d now grown bored with. “What I really want to know is how we’re going to get out of here.”

“I could try something,” Graves offered. “I’m feeling a lot better, so–”

“Don’t you even think about it, mister,” Rarity admonished, her eyes glinting as she gave him a severe warning glare. “I did not spend all this time patching you up just so you could go you go running about and getting yourself hurt again. You, sir, are going to stay put. Is that clear?”

“… Yes ma’am,” the marshal mutely nodded. He had a feeling that he'd be safer fighting a chimera than crossing the young lady on this point.

“Good.” With a satified nod, Rarity settled back in place, all smiles and good graces once more. “Though I suppose it doesn’t really matter at this point. We’ve been gone long enough that our friends will probably start looking for us soon.”

“Probably? Soon?” he repeated incredulously. “How long will that take then?”

“Why Graves,” the pretty seamstress gasped in mock offense. “Don’t tell me you’re already tired of my company? I thought we were bonding here.”

“Me? I’m just thinking about you,” the young man replied with a perfectly straight face. “Aren’t you bored of being stuck here with me?”

“Being stuck here? Yes,” she stated airily with an offhanded wave. “All this dirt is simply dreadful. I mean, I doubt I’ll ever manage to get the stains out of these slacks.” And then she paused.

“Being stuck with you, however,” she finished with a playful smile, “… I suppose I can endure that a bit longer.”

“Funny,” Graves chuckled, “I was just thinking the same thing.”

**********

End of Season 1

The Journey of Graves will continue with the sixth story: Lazy Summer Days.

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    by GentlemanJ
    15 Dislikes, 4,071 Views

    When a piece of the marshal's colorful past comes back to town, Rarity starts to wonder whether some things just weren't meant to be.

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