Journey's End

by GentlemanJ

First published

As the darkness in the west reveals itself, Marshal Graves is called to fight once more.

Day grows cold and dusk draws near,
The winding path no more shall bend.
Sunlight takes its its final rest,
As every journey meets its end.

This is the final story in The Journey of Graves.

Chapter 1

This is a short story in The Journey of Graves.

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

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

And so, the saga continues...

Journey's End

By: GentlemanJ

Chapter 1

Nobody paid attention to the man walking down the street.

Now this was a most usual occurrence in Ponyville where every face was known or otherwise made so upon arrival. Yet on this day, the crowds completely ignored the odd man as he made his way through the bustling noonday street, twirling a cane that looked made of spirals of spun, multicolored glass as he whistled a strange, sibilant tune.

As he passed by, his footsteps echoing the discordant strains of his song, small bits of strangeness occurred. Here, a coin toss between two youngsters ended in awe as the golden bit landed edgewise up on the uneven pavement. There, spilled coffee stained a pristine, white tablecloth with a distinctive floral pattern, almost as if deliberately made in hazel-hued watercolors. Then, to the shock of all within earshot, Diamond Tiara said something nice and actually seemed to mean it.

None would have attributed the strangeness to the stranger, though indeed they should have. From his lilac, suede shoes tapping lightly over the cobbled stone to his checkered suit of citrine and royal purple, everything about the man screamed for attention and recognition. Yet none was paid as he made his way through town like a minnow through still waters with oddity and curiosity rippling in his wake.

Step by soft-soled step, he progressed, the familiarity of his path clear from the languid confidence of his strides. Unheeded as he was, it didn’t take long for him to arrive at his intended destination. He looked up, panning eyes over the massive tree that stood hollowed out yet still living, a repository for vast collections of texts and tomes. Truly vast collections indeed, but right now, those were not what concerned him.

Today, it was the keeper that he sought.


Twilight didn’t turn immediately when she heard the bell ring over the opened door.

“Be right with you!” she called out, brow knit in focus as she flicked her wand in a series of minute gestures. At the motions, the dozens of books that floated above, each shrouded in a glittering haze of purple light, drifted back into place on their now cleaned shelves. Smiling in satisfaction, the sweater vested librarian now turned her attentions to the newcomer.

“Hey there, how can I help–”

– she blinked –


Twigs and leaves rained down outside as with almost savage ferocity, Twilight Sparkle assaulted the intruder with the force of a class ten earthquake. Gravity Well, Binding Light, Chains of Perdition, and even her experimental and highly dangerous Time Lock. Any and every spell she knew that could possibly tie down a target was used as she hurled an astronomical deluge of arcane might forward. The massive tree thrashed like a landed silver pike, shaken more violently by Twilight’s onslaught than any storm it had ever weathered, or likely ever would.

Only when her entire repertoire was spent twice over did the young mage stop, amethyst eyes flashing and chest heaving from exertion as she ceased her barrage. It was all well and good that she had: the magical cocoon she’d concocted was probably strong enough to seal in a supernova and was already distorting the visible light spectrum for a good ten feet around.

And yet it still might not be enough.

“You,” she panted, double, triple, and quadruple checking the soundness of her spell crafted prison as sweat trickled down her forehead. “What are you doing here?”

“Come now, is that anyway to greet an old friend?”

And the Spirit of Chaos smiled very widely indeed.


Boot heels pounded on pavement as Graves raced across town, gunmetal grey eyes harder than steel spear tips as urgency gave wings to his feet. The silver star pinned to the inside of his coat was glowing with a faint, crimson light as the metal flowed to form a simple and disturbing message: Twilight. Emergency. Help.

He’d entrusted the librarian with that guarded frequency because he knew she had good judgment. Calm and rational in any crisis not academically sourced, he knew she’d never abuse the call for anything less than a genuine disaster. Of course, he’d never thought she’d ever need to use it at all, which was what made it all the more disturbing.

And so, ignoring the startled cries of the townsfolk he bluntly brushed aside, Graves took legs already strained to their utmost limit and pushed them just a bit faster.

Kicking the door down, the marshal ducked in the cover of the frame, spell gun charged, glowing, and ready to unleash the full force of a thunderstorm at the slightest need. Before the door had even hit crashed home, though, his gunmetal grey eyes were already scanning the interior. Top floor clear: no marksmen to worry about. Kitchen area clear: no signs of a waiting ambush. As reasonably satisfied that his flank was clear as a quarter second would allow, Graves darted across the open portal to check the other side and–

–blinked just as the heavy, oaken door slammed into the wall.

“Graves!” Twilight gasped, her voice cracking from strain as she flashed him a smile with more gritted teeth than happiness. “Thank Celestia you’re here! I’ve got him pinned down, but I don’t know how much longer I can hold him; I need your help!”

Pinned down was an understatement. Though he was no expert, the raven-haired marshal could make out at least fifteen different binding spells layered together to form an incandescent web snaring her victim to a nearby bookcase. Of course, the fact that she’d been able to not only cast so many high level spells, but consistently maintain them was a marvel in itself, yet even that wasn’t why he faltered. Instead, that honor belonged to the smiling man that she held in confinement.

“D?” Graves gaped with confusion to rival Applejack at a trigonometry convention. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh you know,” the elderly youngster replied as his single fang flashed in a toothy grin. “Just… hanging around.”

Twilight blanched.

“Wait,” she cried, very nearly losing control of her spells at the unexpected shock. “You two know each other?”

“Why of course I do my dear,” he laughed, the sound richer than any aged wine and sweeter than warm honey. “I’ve saved his life, after all. Twice.”

The mage girl was unconvinced, and by unconvinced, she would have sooner entrusted King Sombra with the Crystal Empire for a day while taking the Crystal Heart to be polished. After all, their last encounter had consisted of nothing but lies, falsehoods, and debilitating half-truths designed to twist the mind and confound reason. In light of this, Twilight had been more than prepared to disregard everything coming of his scheming mouth and blast him back to the Paleozoic Era. But when she looked to Graves and saw the recognition in his face, saw the unfazed acceptance of a simple truth in those confused, but undenying grey eyes, well…

Concentration shattered like thin frost as spells and weaves dissolved and their glittering strands faded into the ether.

“There, much better,” the strange man laughed as he nonchalantly adjusted his garish suit and straightened the single streaks of white in his otherwise coal black hair. “I must say, I was expecting a warm welcome, but nothing quite so festive. You’ve certainly come a long way, haven’t you, little Miss Sparkle?”

“Graves, what is going on here?” Twilight asked, completely ignoring the jibes in his words as she rounded on the marshal. “How do you know him? How exactly is it that he can say he saved your life?” Graves shrugged.

“Because it’s… true?”

Needless to say, Twilight found his response just shy of sufficient. Wide, amethyst eyes turned from the marshal to the man behind, who responded with a jaunty, little wave. Slowly, Twilight reached out to pull and took Graves by the lapel of his long, brown coat as she pulled him in for a private meeting.

“Graves,” she whispered. “You do know who this is right?”

“He calls himself D. That’s all I’ve got.”

“D. Right.” Twilight took a moment to massage her temples: how could it be that a man who was so perceptive on the battlefield could also be denser than a neutron star? “Graves, that D happens to stand for Discord.”

He stared at her. Flatly. Blankly.

“Discord?” Twilight repeated. “As in the Spirit of Chaos? Ancient enemy of Princess Celestia and Luna? The one who held the world in a perpetual state of bedlam and misery for who knows how many eons? The bucking Lord of Disorder himself?! That Discord?!”

“… Sorry.” Graves shrugged. “Slept through most of History.”

If frustration could be harvested for energy, then Twilight could have single-handedly levitated Ponyville to Cloudsdale-level heights till the next Equestrian Games.

“Look, I get you have some, uh… problems with D. Discord. Whatever,” Graves nodded, his gravelly baritone a dull rumble as he did his admirably insufficient best to placate the glaring girl. “But I’m guessing he hasn’t done anything yet, has he?”

“… No…” Twilight begrudgingly admitted.

“And I’m sure figuring out why he’s here is something we won’t regret, right?” he continued, now turning to give the man in question a decidedly pointed glance. D actually managed to look surprised.

“Me? Acting in unpredictable and possibly dangerous ways for my own ends and amusements? Perish the thought!”

Twilight was not exactly convinced, and rightly so considering his history in Ponyville. But Graves did sort of have a point. Discord hadn’t done anything yet apart from make a thoroughly unexpected entry through her front door. He certainly wasn’t up to anything now, not unless doing a very bad tap routine could be considered criminal.

As she thought, Twilight glanced back at Graves and noticed that despite his conciliatory words, he’d never let the barrel of his still-charged rifle stray a micron from their errant visitor. The young mage may not have trusted Discord, but she did have a good bit of reliance in a trigger-happy gunman ready to unleash electric death at a moment’s notice.

“Alright then,” she sighed. “I suppose I can at least listen to him.”

“Gasp! Little Twilight Sparkle actually cares to listen?” Discord squealed. “Oh jubilation! This calls for libations and spontaneous musical scores from here to the hinterlands!”

“Don’t push it, Discord,” Twilight glowered. “I still don’t trust you farther than I can throw you, and despite carrying books around, that still means my thin, noodly, and decidedly not made for throwing egghead arms. So just spit it out already: why are you here?”

And then, with eyes roiling like pools of molten gold, Discord said the last thing she had ever expected to hear.

“It’s quite simple really. I need your help.”


Twilight blinked. And then she blinked some more. And then in an act that would have horrified Rarity were she present, Twilight stuck a finger in each ear and gave them good, squeaky rubs, just to make sure there was nothing between eardrums and the words she definitely could not have heard.

“I’m sorry, could you run that by me again?” Twilight smiled sweetly. “I must have been temporarily delusional, because I could have sworn you just asked me for help.”

“No my dear, you most certainly weren’t,” the trickster cackled as he dropped to his knees upon the floor. “Here am I, poor, lonely Discord, set adrift without a friend in the world, come to Twilight Sparkle on bended knee to beg her aid.”

“Help,” she repeated, sounding out the word as if it were some fringe dialect of a long dead language. “You… want my help.”

“That’s right,” he smiled. “With a capital ‘H’, lowercase ‘e’, italicized ‘l’, and comic sans ‘p’. I need, your help.”

Twilight looked to Graves, wide eyes pleading for him to make sense of the situation. All he could really do was shrug. A man was asking for help. What else was there to say?

“Why?” the sweater-vested librarian demanded as she vented her confusion in the best way she could: research. “What could I possibly do that you can’t manage yourself? I mean, you’re the bucking Spirit of Chaos! Impossibility’s what you eat for breakfast!”

“That’s true,” Discord nodded sagely. “Or rather, it would be true, if I had a mouth with which to dine.”

While his words made no sense, his actions spoke instead as taking up his cane, Discord strode towards the large table at the rooms center and passed right through.

Or maybe passing wasn’t the right word. It was more like he… flowed, as if the table were a rock in the stream and he the water passing by. Instead of simply phasing through, his body rippled and ebbed around the solid oak till he’d passed through and seamlessly joined back together with a wavering finish.

Grey eyes lit up with illumination.

“Astral projection?” Graves asked.

“Give the man a cookie!” Discord laughed aloud as he pressed an oatmeal raisin into the marshal’s coat pocket. “That’s right my boy. What you see before you is merely the thinnest veneer of light wrapped around my disembodied conscience. All the rich nougat and gooey chaos that Twilight Sparkle loves so much is still safely locked away in Princess Celestia’s garden, gathering moss like a good statue should.

“Wait a second,” Twilight called as she held up hand for pause. “If you’re an astral image, then my spells should have had no effect unless you intentionally sought to interact with the corporeal world. If you'd wanted to, you should probably have been able to walk right out of them.”

“That I could have, that I could have,” Discord nodded.

“Then why didn’t you?” Twilight demanded, only to get a sardonic smirk in response.

“Well you seemed to be having such fun, I thought it’d be a shame to interrupt.”

Once on a stint in Acoltpulco, Graves had gotten to see – and indeed trigger – a full volcanic eruption, and while it wasn’t quite the same scale as the natural disaster, the effects were no less spectacular as Twilight Sparkle’s hair literally burst into flames.

“Okay, that is IT!” she cried from beneath her searing inferno. “No more games, no more fooling around! You’ve got ten – no – five seconds to tell me right here and now what you want before I lose my cool and blast you into the sixth dimension. Five…”

“Wait, you mean this is keeping your cool?” Discord laughed.


“Come on, you have to admit that’s a little funny.”


“Seriously, nothing? Not even a smile?”


“Honestly, everyone’s a critic.”


“It’s a message. For Celestia.”

In all honesty, Twilight Sparkle had really hoped Discord would continue with his jokes so she’d have a reason to make good on her threats. In fact, she was seriously contemplating just going ahead and sending him hurtling across the voids of time and space for good riddance. But she hadn’t, because right there and then, something about the crazy man made her pause.

“… Why?” she asked, the flaring halo receding to more of a crimson glow. “Why not just pop in like you did here?”

“I would if I could, but I can’t, so I won’t,” Discord chuckled. “Not only does the palace have more security than Luna’s diary, I really can’t afford to be the bearer of bad news in my currently… delicate constitution.”

“Bad news?” Twilight frowned, flames licking back to life as suspicions renewed. “Did you do something? Because if you did–”

“I swear, it wasn’t me,” the trickster interjected, for once actually looking like he was telling the truth. “All I want is to make sure that Celestia gets a very, truly important notice. That’s all.”

“… What kind of notice?” Twilight asked, resentment dwindling as curiosity piqued.

“Do you promise you’ll send it?”

“I’m not promising anything, Discord,” she huffed. “You either trust me with the message now or you can give it to her yourself.”

For a moment, a myriad of emotions across those golden eyes of his, mostly amusement, a surprising amount of respect, and a cocktail of other feelings as well. What those feelings were, nobody could say because in the fleeting instant they appeared, they were gone, once more hidden behind a veil of smirking confidence.

“… Very well,” Discord sighed as he held up hands in surrender sarcastic enough to resume hostilities once more, “though I doubt it’ll do you much good.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Twilight sniffed. “So what is it? What’s so important for the princess to hear?”

Three words. Just three words to signal the beginning of the end.

“He. Is. Awake.”


Chapter 2

Chapter 2

“He? He who? Who’s awake? Discord?”

Twilight looked up from her ruminations to confront the trickster, only to discover that he’d vanished into thin air.

“Ugh, great,” she muttered. “Stay right here, Graves. I’m gonna go bring the girls here so we can get to the bottom of this once and for all.” Not waiting for a response, Twilight Sparkle withdrew her wand and with a few practiced gestures, disappeared into a flash of amethyst light.

Graves stood there, slightly confused as his spell gun remained charged and aimed.

“She can’t see you?” he asked.

“Funny thing about astral forms,” Discord smiled from the same spot he’d always been. “We’re not so tethered by the rules of the mundane. You should try it some time. It’s quite liberating.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Graves intoned with judicious neutrality.

For a moment, there was silence.

“So… you’re Discord,” the marshal said, just the faintest trace of hesitation on his tongue.


“The Spirit of Chaos.”

“More or less.”

“And you’re… helping us.”

“In a manner of speaking, yes.”

“… Why?” Graves asked with confusion now readily apparent. “Why bother?”

“Really now,” Discord gasped, sounding hurt like Graves had just insulted his mother. “Can’t I come around and throw in a neighborly gesture every now and again?”

“Don’t see how,” Graves frankly admitted, “Helping puts things in order. You’re chaos. Putting those two together just don’t add up.”

“Maybe not,” the elderly youngster smiled with eye of molten gold bubbling merrily away. “Or maybe, the two are one and the same. Maybe helping you out will create such a storm, that I’d have oodles more fun than sitting still could ever be. It’s an interesting possibility, no?”

“Fun, eh?” the marshal nodded, finger tightening a hair’s breadth more on the trigger. “Is that why you helped me? For fun?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Discord richly laughed once more. “For now, let’s just say that the granddaddy of disasters stepped out from limbo to fritter around in the head of some rank and file jarhead because it suited his ends. Ceviche?”

“Not much of an answer,” Graves retorted to Discord’s smile.

“No, but it’ll have to do for now.”



And with a snap of his fingers, the smirking man disappeared for good, leaving the grey-eyed marshal with a gun trained on nothing as another amethyst starburst heralded the return of Twilight Sparkle and her compatriots.

“Graves!” Rarity cried, sapphire eyes wide with fright as she rushed over and took his head in her hands. “Are you alright? Discord didn’t do anything to you, did he?”

“I’m fine,” the marshal smiled, releasing the charge in his rifle as he gently cupped her hands and drew them down from his face. “We just talked. That’s all.”

“That’s usually all it takes,” Applejack frowned, a freshly soiled shovel gripped tightly in hand as if she aimed to cobble the next errant specter that dared pop up. “One second yer goin’ about yer business, and the next… boom. He’s up in yer noggin’, stealin’ yer sense and scramblin’ yer insides like breakfast hash.”

“Which is all well and good,” Rainbow Dash interjected, “but it still doesn’t explain what the hay he was doing here! Seriously, he’s supposed to be giving pigeons target practice in the royal gardens. How did he even get here in the first place?”

“And how the hay does he show up without bothering to send a single chocolate rain cloud my way, hmm? NOT A SINGLE CLOUD!”

Eyes turned to Pinkie Pie, who sat with arms folded in righteous indignation.

“… Well then,” Rarity huffed, doing her best to discretely turn away from her nonsensical friend, “I think we can all agree that how Discord got here is an important question, but not quite so much as why. Why did he decide to appear now?”

“Maybe… maybe he just wanted to say hello?” Fluttershy hopefully squeaked. The sympathetic looks she received made it clear the girls thought it about as likely as Scootaloo ever learning to fly.

“He came because he wanted our help,” Twilight explained. “Specifically, he wanted us to pass on a message to Princess Celestia.”

“An’ what kinda message would that be?” Applejack inquired with as dubious an eye as she’d ever cast at the Flim Flam brothers.

“He is awake.”

“And?” Rainbow Dash pressed.

“That’s it,” Twilight shrugged. “He told us to tell Celestia: “He is awake.”

Befuddlement spread throughout the group like syrup over pancakes.

“Well, what kind of wimpy excuse for a message is that?” Rainbow Dash snorted with much irritation. “Really, he comes all the way to Ponyville and gets us all riled up over three little words?”

“Two, if you use contractions,” Pinkie Pie beamed.

“What on earth do you think it could mean?” Rarity mused as she drew attentions back to more relevant matters. “Do you suppose he wanted Celestia to know he would be returning soon?”

“Well that makes about as much sense as plantin’ pies to make a pie orchard,” Applejack huffed. “What sense would there be in lettin’ the Princess know he’s plannin’ on bustin’ out before he can even git out the door?”

“I would never put anything past Discord,” Twilight murmured. “But I don’t think he would be doing that. Something tells me that whoever he was talking about, it was somebody else. Somebody both him and the princess would know.”

“So, is he telling us something to warn us?” Fluttershy wondered. “Is he trying to help us?”

“Then what I wanna know is why would he ever do that?” Rainbow Dash snorted. “He’s the Spirit of Chaos. His whole schtick is messing with people. There’s no way he’s trying to give us a hand.”

From there, opinions started flying back and forth, thick and fast like pastries at the annual Appaloosa Buffalo Friendship Festival. With about as much result. Though they argued back and forth, none of the girls could say for certain what the trickster intended with his words. Maybe it was an empty statement designed solely to confuse them, as it seemed to be doing a remarkable job of at that precise moment. Maybe it had hidden meaning that would make trouble for the princess in ways they couldn’t even imagine.

Or maybe… maybe he really was trying to help. They just didn’t know.

Seeing that the conversation was going nowhere fast, Twilight Sparkle turned to the cross-armed marshal who stood by and silently watching the proceedings with gunmetal eyes a careful, neutral grey.

“What do you think, Graves?” she asked. “You’ve heard everyone’s opinion, and you’ve also had the most current interactions with Discord. What’s your take on all this?”

Stern face grew downright stony as the marshal lapsed into thought.

“… It’s just a few words,” he finally rumbled. “Why not let the Princess decide?”

Though there were clearly other sentiments in play, what with Applejack’s unsurely pursed lips and Rainbow Dash’s rather disapproving scowl, the marshal’s reasoned statement helped to form at least somewhat of a consensus. Grabbing quill and parchment, Twilight began to scribe a carefully worded letter to the princess, detailing with as much objective detachment as possible the morning’s events exactly as they had played out.

Satisfied with her composition, Twilight handed the letter to Spike, who then sent it off with a plume of viridian flame. With nothing left to do but wait, the girls made themselves comfortable as they grabbed up books and seats to bide the time till Celestia’s response arrived.

One of their numbers, however, was not so inclined to sit idly by, not when there were things on her mind.

“Graves, dear,” Rarity said softly. “A word?”

Eyebrow arching as he caught the hint of something in her voice, the marshal nodded and followed the violet-haired beauty to a quiet corner of the library where they could converse in reasonable privacy.

“Something wrong?” he asked.

“Not quite…” Rarity replied, the statement stretching just enough to show uncertainty. “It’s more of something I’m… curious about.”

“Has to do with Discord, I reckon?” Graves inquired. His comment elicited a small nod from the lady.

“You see, Graves,” Rarity began, “Discord doesn’t have what you would call a stellar reputation, not after the last time he paid us a visit.”

“You don’t say,” he murmured. Rarity smiled as sarcasm was not lost on her sensitive ears.

“I do, which is why your vote of confidence leaning in his favor has left me more than a little surprised. Given your, how shall we say, conservative nature, I would never have expected you advocate on his behalf.”

“Makes sense,” Graves nodded. “You probably thought I’d treat him like a Diamond Dog coming in for a hug, huh?”

“To say the least,” Rarity agreed with a rather amused grin. “But I also know you to be a man of reason – more often than not, at least – so I suspect there’s something I’m not aware of swaying your vote, am I right?”

“You could say that.”

“Well then,” the young lady smiled, albeit with some of her underlying hesitance peaking through, “would you be willing to… share your thoughts, perhaps?”

Graves could feel the care with which Rarity broached the subject. The pretty seamstress was doing her absolute best not to tread on topics that might reopen old wounds for the grey-eyed soldier. He appreciated the thought more than he could say, which is probably why he didn’t find it so hard to answer.

“You remember the, ah… post-Gala fiasco, right?” he began as it now became his turn to speak with care; they were entering territory that held tremendous meaning for them both. “The time when I was out of it?”

“I do,” Rarity frowned. “The doctors didn’t think you would ever wake up, not with how far gone you were. But you did.”

“Not on my own, I didn’t,” Graves continue. “Actually, the one who pulled me out was Discord.”

Rarity’s eyes grew so wide, her brow disappeared behind her violet locks.

“Wait, what?” she gasped, quickly clamping a hand over her mouth as Fluttershy looked her way with her usual, mild concern. “You… you mean Discord was messing with your mind?”

“Not exactly?” Graves replied, scratching the back of his head as he struggled to find the words to explain. “I mean, he pulled up some memories and stuff, but for the most part, we just… talked.”

“That’s what he always does,” Rarity said with a grimace of pure distaste. “He takes words and twists them till up is down, right is wrong, and he’s got you dancing right in the palm of his hand.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” the marshal readily agreed. “But all I know is Discord was the one who let me know I was dreaming. Probably would never have woken up if not for him. Or went after you, either.”

Those last words blindsided Rarity like seeing overalls on the runway.

“Wait, you mean he visited you twice?” she gasped, albeit much more quietly the second time around. “And once being after you awoke?”

“That’s right.”

“But… why?”

“Damned if I know,” Graves sighed. “Honestly, I’d have a better chance of figuring out society than say why he’d bother coming again. But he did, and he talked some bucking good sense into me at that.”

“When you say talked sense into you,” Rarity began, cautionary tones clear in her voice, “you don’t mean that he literally talked something into you, correct? The two of you merely conversed?”

It took Graves a moment, but he finally connected the dots.

“He gave me things to think about and he certainly gave his opinions,” the marshal agreed. “But everything I did was because I wanted to.” With this, he reached out and took hold of Rarity’s hand to give a firm squeeze, not too hard that it would hurt, but hard enough to make clear he had no intention of letting go.

“So… no need to worry about brainwashing or nothing,” Graves finished, a strong flush coming to his cheek as he realized the disgustingly sweet nature of oversentimentally fluffy gesture. The rough cough that followed did nothing to help. “I came back and things worked out. Probably ‘cause you didn’t have the sense to boot me when you had the chance.”

“A grave mistake on my part,” Rarity laughed, as mirth and warmth rang through like the soft chiming of crystal bells. “But I suppose I can live with it.”

“So… we good?” Graves asked, just to be sure. The violet-haired beauty smiled.

“I certainly have no love for Discord, but those actions have definitely earned him some modicum of trust in my books. After all, I’d figure keeping you around is worth a three word message, no?”

“So nice to see my value,” Graves muttered with a grand roll of the eyes, to which Rarity could only laugh once more.

Suddenly, a loud belch sounded as another gout of emerald flame signaled the arrival of a new letter. Instantly gathering around, the girls and Graves looked on as Twilight unfurled the parchment and read the contents aloud.

The response was as short as it was simple, but its urgency could not have been more clearly conveyed were it the length of a novel. Like Discord’s cryptic message, Celestia’s response was only three words, but those three words, penned in such forceful ink that it had twice torn through the parchment, said more than enough.

Come at once.


Chapter 3

Chapter 3

The train pulled into the Canterlot station with the shriek of grinding metal as the bright, afternoon sun shined down in a surreal contrast to tense silence inside. Normally, a train coming from Ponyville should have been full of chatter and laughter as the little town’s travelers disembarked at their final stop in the glorious Equestrian capitol. However, a brief conversation with the station master involving both marshal emblem and Celestia’s personally sealed missive had resulted in one egregiously off-schedule departure not five minutes later. Thus, the seven sojourners aboard sped off as fast as an engine brim-full of coal could run as anxiety pressed on their minds and silenced their tongues.

Cabin doors slid open with a hydraulic hiss and the six girls plus one soldier quickly stepped out onto the empty station platform. Or, almost empty.

“Twilight Sparkle and company?” a lone guardsman in golden armor called out from the cleared platform. “Princess Celestia is waiting. If you would please follow me...”

Quick glances between friends conveyed the same shared sense of unease. The princess had summoned them before of course, but never by awaiting military escort, so it was with growing apprehension that the Ponyville troop boarded the carriages waiting outside and clattered off towards the royal palace.

As they quickly pulled into one of the castle’s many courtyards, the foreboding knots in their stomachs wound a little tighter as they laid eyes on a dizzying flurry of hubbub and activity. Guardsmen were everywhere, dashing to and fro in regimental formation and carrying with them weapons and supply crates as an equal number of liveried servants ducked in between with armfuls of who knows what else. There was noise and confusion enough to match a Saddle Arabian bazaar, but through it all ran a clear sense of purpose. People may have been scurrying as fast as two legs could carry them, but it was always with a definite reason in mind.

At the sight of the Ponyville company, a squad of nearby soldiers came forth and continued the hurried escort along into the palace, clearing a path through the throng to hasten their way. In a much shorter time than the throngs would have suggested, the seven were brought before the grand audience chamber and showed inside, where–

“–and I want you and Colonel Shadow Strike to begin mobilization along the west coast immediately,” Luna commanded, her regal voice echoing through the vaulted hallway. “We’ll be relying on him and Blitzkrieg to bolster the eighth and ninth sections of the eastern wall should reinforcements fail to arrive. At that point, they will be the eastern wall. Is that understood?”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am!”

“Good. Now go. You all know your orders.”

With a quick salute of fist over heart, the cadre of stern faced officers took up their plumed helms and strode out of the hall, those with power armor not even waiting for the open skies before unfurling rune frame wings and taking flight. The ones that passed each gave the new arrivals a look over, appraising them with the sharp, caustic scrutiny the military types seem to do as second nature. It wasn’t clear what they thought, but the lack of change in expression couldn’t have been good.

“Princess Celestia?” Twilight called. “Is… everything all right?”

From her seat next to Luna at the large conference table, the solar sovereign looked up from her stack of reports, the aurora of her hair flowing to an invisible breeze as she gave a smile of obvious relief.

“Twilight, thank goodness you’re here,” she called as she quickly stood up to receive Twilight in a tight embrace.

“Yo, princesses, what’s all this about?” Rainbow Dash called as she turned from making faces at the last exiting officer. “Don’t tell me that Discords weird little message got you all freaked out or anything.”

“As strange as it is fer me tah say it,” Applejack chimed in, “Dashy here’s makin’ a whole heap ah sense. Discord’s more crooked than a dog’s hind leg. There’s no way tah tell what’ll come outta that mouth of his.”

“I am aware of that, of course,” Celestia nodded as her brow furrowed in concern, “but there are times where even Discord wouldn’t dare to speak anything but the truth. I believe this is one of those times.”

“Well what on earth could possibly make him honest?” Twilight asked as she looked up with obvious incredulity. Seeing that her protégé’s confusion was equally shared by the rest, Celestia turned to Luna and gave her a quick nod.

Pulling out her ebony wand, the princess of the night summoned a small, shadowy portal and drew forth a heavy, leaden box bound over in strange bands of coppery metal carved all over with runes and totems, most of which not even Twilight had encountered before. Luna set the box upon the table and after flicking her wand about with deftness to shame even the most celebrated conductors, she began to chant.

Ancient spells formed, spoken in forgotten tongues that had seen ages pass since last they were heard. As the strange words poured forth, the carvings on the bands began to glow as the bands coiled together to form two handles on the now unbound lid. Pulling open the box, Luna paused, almost looking as if she were taking a brief moment to steady her nerves. Then, with all the care of a snake charmer reaching into the viper’s basket, the princess of the night drew out a rounded, crystal phial the size of her closed fist and just large enough to contain…

… Actually, nobody was quite sure just what it contained.

The bulb seemed to house a single black flame, no bigger than the end of a candle’s wick, that flickered as it hung suspended in midair. Of course, this alone wouldn’t have been anything special: the colors of flames could shine in just about every shade and hue imaginable and then some.

But this one didn’t shine. In fact, it almost seemed to do the exact opposite. From the contours of the flickering flame, it almost looked as if the fire were consuming the light itself to leave the space darker than it had before. Of course, that had to be a mistake. After all, who had ever heard of a flame that could burn light?

“What is that?” Twilight asked, her previous worries taking a back seat to her newfound curiosity as she quickly stepped forward to get a closer look. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fire quite like that before.”

“You wouldn’t have,” Luna agreed with a small grimace, “for this flame is not one that you could find anywhere on earth. In fact, it does not actually exist as all.”

“Well of course it does, silly!” Pinkie Pie giggled. “It’s right there. We can all see it!” And as strange as it was for the other girls, they found themselves agreeing with Pinkie. It was certainly weird, being a hue that would make the blackest pitch seem pale, but it was still there, right in that little bottle.

“Perhaps a demonstration, then,” Celestia suggested as she turned once more to her faithful student. “Twilight, do you think you could conjure up an Aegis of Legion?”

“Um… I think so,” the young mage nodded hesitantly. “Shining Armor showed it to me a few times. I mean, it wouldn’t be very big of course, but–”

“Anything will be fine,” Celestia replied with an encouraging smile. “Show me how much you’ve learned.”

Well, if there was anything Twilight was good at, it was passing tests and making teachers happy, so pulling out her own wand, Twilight began the intricate motions and complex litany that made up the strongest barrier known to magic.

A thousand layers of arcane shields, folded over a thousand times and then a thousand times more, compressed smaller and tighter till the near infinite layers of spellwork would have made steel seem like butter and diamond but cheap glass. This, Twilight molded and weaved till she’d composed a sturdy, little buckler of near opaque light that could have shattered a dragon’s fang with ease.

Conjuring done, Twilight smiled and she quickly pushed the pink stripe of hair from her forehead and set her shield before her teacher for inspection.

“Very impressive,” Celestia smiled with warm and genuine delight. “You’ve certainly been applying yourself in Ponyville.”

“It’s nothing,” Twilight grinned, her cheeks flushing red that only came partly from embarrassment: the shield she’d conjured was only about as big as a dinner plate, but the effort after an already trying day quickly painted her brow with beads of condensation: strong as it was, the spell certainly took a lot out of a girl.

“Sister, are you certain about this?” Luna asked as she eyed the shield askance. “To use your student’s handiwork like so…”

“They need to know exactly what they’re up against,” Celestia replied, the words clearly not what her heart wanted to say. “They need to know exactly how dangerous he is.”

With a small nod, Luna waved her wand to levitate the phial, removed the carved lead seal at its mouth, and poured the inky, black contents atop the shield.

Twilight was confused. Everyone was confused as well. Though nobody knew half as much about the mystic arts as their purple-haired friend, they knew exactly how good said purple-haired friend was. It had taken Twilight a full minute of utmost concentration to make that little shield, so whatever it was, it would be some of Twilight’s best work. What could a tiny little candle flame like that possibly–

Silence reigned as the Ponyville troupe, eyes wide with abject shock, watched as that one small flame cut through the shield like a blob of molten iron through ice. In a mere matter of seconds, it had almost completely eaten through the spell and only a timely intervention from Luna and her incomprehensible spells lifted the flames back into the bottle and saved the table from sharing a similar fate.

Twilight could only stare in mute horror as with the sound of shattering china, her intricately wrought spell exploded into a million motes of light and faded into the ether. Her spell, the one representing the culmination of her magical abilities, had been completely and utterly broken.

“What… what the hay is that?!” Twilight cried, eyes fixated on the black flame as if it were a failing term paper with her name on it. “That… whatever that is, it’s not possible. It’s just not possible! There’s no way on earth anything could get through that spell so easily!”

“You’re right, Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia replied as she laid a soothing hand on her protégé’s shoulder. “Your spell was flawless, and truly, nothing on earth could have pierced it. But as I said, this flame isn’t any spell or magic in existence. It is pure entropy.

“Er, entro- what now?” Rainbow Dash blinked.

“Entropy,” Luna repeated, the word clearly laced with disgust. “This is the essence of pure destruction, an all devouring void that seeks the annihilation of everything. It is quite simply, nothingness given form.”

If anything, the eyes fixed on the vial grew even wider. One pair of eyes however, widened not from surprise, but from illumination as like the cascade of dominos, pieces began to fall into place.

“Princess Celestia,” Rarity began. “This… nothingness you showed us, you said it didn’t come from anywhere on earth. Then based on your reaction from Discord’s message and your response to Princess Luna, am I correct in guessing that it came not from a where… but a who?”

Slowly, Celestia nodded.

“His name is Nul and he, to put it simply, is The End.”


Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Diligent eyes and an observant mind are the trademarks of a true scientist, and Twilight Sparkle was living up to her reputation here. Though teeming with innumerable questions that only continued to increase at an exponential rate, the far more pressing concern lay with the appearance of her mentor.

In their many years of study together, Twilight had seen Celestia in all sorts of moods. She’d seen the princess’s playful side when they’d snuck to the kitchens to filch late night snacks. She’d seen her imperial majesty as she’d conducted audience with diplomats from every corner of the globe. She’d even seen the mountainous weight of her sadness when once, when Celestia thought herself alone, she gaze longingly at the portrait of a young girl with hair the colors of a fiery sunset. Twilight had seen Celestia’s highs and lows, the ups and downs, the roller coaster ride of feelings that all people, even ageless rulers are subject to. But still, she’d never seen Celestia quite like this.

“… Princess,” Twilight said softly as she took the hand of her teacher, “Who is this Nul? What does he plan to do to Equestria?”

“Who cares, Sparkles?” Rainbow Dash smirked. “Whoever this guy is, whatever sort of hot shot villain who thinks he’s gonna go all Khan on us, it doesn’t matter. Alls we gotta do is kick his butt like all the other butts we’ve kicked, and bam. World’s safe another day. ”

“The way you go on, you make it sound like we’re a group of crime fighting super heroes,” Rarity laughed.

“No, she’s got a point there,” Applejack grinned as she gave the cyan-clad flyer a playful nudge. “We started out fixin’ up ol’ Nightmare Moon – no offense, yer highness…”

“None taken,” Luna nodded.

“Then we got Discord from before, Chrysalis from the wedding hubbub, and that funny talkin’ Sombrero feller to boot.”

“Wait, he was Mexican?” Pinkie Pie gaped. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?! I’ve been trying to get some help on my chimicherrychanga recipe for like, forever!”

“That’s a pretty nice scorecard you got there,” Graves replied with a low whistle.

“Thank you, dear,” Rarity smiled sweetly. “A professional opinion is always appreciated.”

“My point being,” Rainbow resumed, “is that whoever this Nul guy is, we’ll take him down like we always do, easy peasy lemon squeezy.”

“And there’s lemonade?!” Pinkie Pie cried. “Why do I keep missing these things?!”

“Your optimism is encouraging,” Luna smiled, though the expression never quite managed to reach her eyes. “I hope you can hold onto that feeling in the days to come.”

“You… er… don’t sound too gung-ho about this,” Applejack observed as a hint of uncertainty came into her voice. “There a reason fer that?”

“The reason is Nul,” Luna replied as the smile completely disappeared from her face. “He’s nothing like you’ve ever faced before. Nothing at all.”

“Well, how bad could it be?” Twilight asked with a crooked grin. “I mean, we did beat the Spirit of Chaos, and he can twist break the laws of physics. How bad could facing this Nul character be?”

“Let me put it this way,” Luna intoned. “If the Discord you faced were on par with the strength of a lion, then Nul would have that of a kaiser dragon.”


“You’re… you’re kidding, right?” Rainbow Dash said with a sickly chuckle. “Discord’s chaos itself, so how could this Nul guy be that much worse?”

“Because unlike chaos, which requires reality for its own existence," the princess continued, “Nul is destruction, pure and absolute. He is obliteration and ruin that reduces all to dust and ash. He seeks nothing but complete and utter annihilation of everything in existence. Discord twists reality, but Nul makes reality cease.”

For a moment, none of the girls said anything in response to the princess’s dire words. In all honesty, none of them really understood the true extent of that description, but the slowly spreading unease across their faces showed they were getting a good start.

“… Excuse me, Princess Luna,” Twilight softly interjected. “But I thought that… well… endings were just a part of the cycle of life, the one you and Princess Celestia control.”

“That is true, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna nodded. “But that is an aspect within the cycle and Nul is beyond even us.”

“I… don’t really understand,” Twilight frowned.

“I don’t think any of us really do,” Rarity added on.

“I suppose this is much to take in all at once,” Luna nodded. “Perhaps it would be best if I began from the start.”


Ebony wand raised, the chamber grew dark as Luna’s ethereal aura filled the chamber with the inky darkness of the night sky with nary a moon nor star in sight. Indeed, the blackness would have been total but for a small speck of light that glittered like the first firefly of summer. It was in this darkness that Luna spoke.

“Long ago,” she began, her voice seeming to ring out from everywhere and nowhere at once, “in ages past and eons long forgotten, the skies lay dark and empty, a vast swath of empty space in which naught but silence echoed. It was through these dark reaches that my sister and I wandered, age unto age for time immeasurable.”

The tiny speck grew larger to reveal itself as not a point, but a pair, two slender figures composed of the purest white light that danced about in perfect harmony to a timeless melody only they could hear.

“I know not when we began, nor why, but my sister and I began to wonder. Why should there be nothing but empty? Why should the skies stay dark? For a time, we pondered these questions, but found no answer. So we began.”

It was a subtle shift at first, the soft shift of pure night into the first shades of dawn, but as the figures continued their endless duet, what once had been steady and balanced slowly grew more festive. There was no break in the seamless dance, but each move and every gesture quickened as if lit by a passion that steadily grew hotter with every step. Faster and faster the two danced, their lights streaming forth and blending together, weaving tighter and brighter till uncontainable for a moment longer, a brilliant supernova of pure white light exploded across the cosmos as the very first star was born.

“All across the skies we flew,” Luna continued as the figures continued their dance and brought forth yet more stars to fill the inky void. “We gave birth to the first lights of creation, the first form and substance to a universe of empty space. For ages, we were overjoyed at the works of our hands. But as we continued and considered what we’d done, we grew… discontent. While we had brought forth light from the darkness, it was still somehow lacking. Incomplete.”

This made no sense. Why would they be displeased? As it stood, the starry sky that surrounded them was absolutely perfect in every way, each star a flawless gem in ways even the most polished of diamonds could only hope to be. But as eyes continued to consider that flawless sky, understanding began to dawn.

Flawless. Too flawless. Too perfect. It was true, each star did shine out clear and pristine, but so did every other. Of the millions of lights they saw, each and every one shone with the same perfect beauty as its billion other neighbors. That overwhelming perfection stifled any life those stars might have and made what should have been beautiful almost harsh in the austerity of its cold, unwavering symmetry.

“My sister and I were at a loss. We knew of creation and the joy of bringing something from nothing. But beyond that first fateful step of denying the dark, we had no ideas on where to go thereafter. For a time, we paused, perplexed at just what we should do. It was in that time that we found that something we sought. Change.”

Bursting from the dark like a magician to his stage, a third figure exploded forth in a prismatic rainbow of vibrant hues and lively lights. The figure did not dance with graceful steps as the first two had, but instead leaped and bounded about with the joy of motion and the excitement of the unexpected in every move.

“From the realm of dreams, where the lines between is and not are blurred, Change came forth. It was he who provided the creative spark, the ability not to bring something from nothing, but to take something and transform it into something new.”

At first, the two slender figures shied back, their pristine light flickering in confusion at the presence of another in their empty world, uncertain of the intentions of one so new and strange. But he did not mind. Instead, he approached a star, darting about to admire it from every angle like a child presented with a shiny, new toy. Reaching out rainbow-hued hands, the third figure covered the star, shielding it from sight as the aurora rippled with delight. And when he released, he revealed a star that no longer did shone with its old, immaculate white. No, now it shone a bright and vibrant blue.

The dance resumed, not between two but shared by three in delightful new steps that seemed somehow more beautiful with the introduction of that wild, new life. The three danced and in their wake, new stars formed in all manners of shapes and sizes and colors and hues. The three danced and starts burst, flaring supernovas like fireworks of cosmic proportions lighting up the sky with blossoms of prismatic light. The starbursts faded, but were not forgotten as they left new materials in their wake.

From the dust of the dying stars, yet more was formed. Born adrift of on cosmic winds created by the movement of three, the remnants of these stars swirled together into meteors, shooting starts, and even planets. Like lode stones drawing together, so too did these celestial bodies begin to cluster. Planets adhered to stars like hatchling to a hen to form the solar systems that in turn congregated into constellations and galaxies and nebulae and still so much more. In an eternity that passed in the blink of an eye, the darkness was transformed from the sterile perfection of simple creation into a vibrant masterpiece of infinite possibilities.

“For ages we continued,” Luna said as the visions of space swirled about. “We traveled the universe, continuing the dance of creation. But even as glorious as all our heavenly works were, we were soon to find something even more splendid.

Before their eyes, the princess of the night magnified a single star, a yellow one that shined with a warm, friendly glow. It was not the biggest member of the starry host, nor was it the brightest, but it certainly had something that made it truly unique. There, next to the star, on a little unobtrusive ball of rock and soil, something stirred. Out from the barren red and desolate brown landscape came a small speck of something green. Something alive.

“Can you imagine our surprise?” Luna laughed aloud, the sound of a girl who’d met her baby brother for the very first time. “Ever since the beginning, the laws were clear: we three created and changed the universe. But now, there was something new, something that strove to grow and thrive on its very own!”

And grow it did. Though small and weak and fragile as a frozen spider’s thread, that little speck of green slowly struggled to survive on that desolate planet. Fortunately, it was not alone. The three figures offered it aid, never taking the fight from the little speck, but nurturing it instead, cultivating it, giving it a chance to explore its full potential.

The speck did just that.

Under the guidance of the three, life thrived, spreading out to all corners of the globe, whether it be on the stony crags in the high mountains or the depths of the sea below. Under their care, life not only spread, but changed as well as it steadily adapted to whatever climes it met. Some hardened into sturdy lichen to survive in the snow swept mountains while others strove towards that shining sun in the wide open fields. And still others nourished themselves in the ancient waters where, in the greatest surprise in all of time, the most fantastic treasure in all of creation was born.

The mind.

“We three were timeless, ageless,” Luna said as seven eyes looked on, utterly mystified as the first tiny creature opened its eyes. “To us, the universe was merely a canvas and our creations paints to bring it color. But never, not in a trillion, trillion years, had we ever thought that these creations might be something more. Yes, stars were beautiful and galaxies were wonderful. But this? This tiny creature, one so small that a grain of sand would seem a boulder? This was a miracle.”

The three had found a calling, one far greater than any heavenly hosts could compare. Pouring all of their wondrous might into the care of that little speck, the three figures laughed and marveled as it began its journey. From one came two, two to four, so on and so forth till the seas teemed with life. Small though they were, even specks moved not according to the whims of the waves or the blowing of the winds, but according to their own desires. No longer did they struggle simply to exist, they struggled because they existed.

The three continued their work and guided this fragile life towards all it could be. Larger and stronger they grew, some taking to greater depths while others answered the call and made the first steps onto dry land. Under their care, small creature grew. Weak and soft became strong and sturdy as bird and beast and fish finally began to take their form. All across the world they spread, growing greater and mightier with each passing day. With joyful hearts and soaring pride, the three watched as the smallest of specks grew into mighty beings that cast dominion over all the lands and skies. Great dragons, ancient behemoths, grand leviathans, this was the age where life grew full and unbridled.

“Though small in space and matter, this world truly became the treasure of our hearts,” Luna smiled as she gazed at an image of a world long since passed. It was a fond smile, one of warm memories and cherished remembrances as a mother who remembers the child she’d held so long ago. But slowly, that smile faced and warmth turned to frost as off in the distant, just at the edge of vision, something began to stir.

“But where there are treasures,” she spat in words of pure, venomous bile, “there will also be thieves and vandals. As life grew, the darkness stirred in protest. It was out of that darkness, out of the deepest pits of the abyss itself that Nul appeared.”

And the first of many stars disappeared.

“As if summoned by the coming of life into the universe, darkness blacker and fouler than anything we’d seen in all of creation arose. We didn’t know what it was, but we could see clearly what it sought: the end of everything and the return of reality to its cold and empty shell.”

Another star winked out. And another. And still another. But what should have simply been empty space like it once was somehow became somehow… less. It was even darker than before, the black so unwavering and absolute, it was as if even the memory of light vanished in its wake. For those that went out, new stars sprang up to take their place, new creation to fill the void left behind. But though the cycle of destruction and rebirth continued ten thousand times over, each wave of darkness grew a little stronger.

“We tried to stop it, but our attempts were as futile as holding back the tides. Nul advanced and we retreated, having no recourse but to create lights anew to replace those we lost. However, we one day reached a point where we could no longer retreat. The empty planets and constellations, we could afford to lose, but the cradle of life? For this treasure, Nul could no longer have his way and so, in final, desperate bid for salvation, we fought back.”

The skies exploded. All through the cosmos, waves of blinding, prismatic light surged forth against the rushing tides of black. Light was created, light to pierce the dark, now transformed so that its power and splendor grew magnified tenfold and tenfold still. Destruction rippled through the universe as the clash of two absolutes threatened to rend reality asunder. The light pushed against the dark as the dark consumed the light as it flickered a little more with each passing battle. The darkness was never-ending, a bottomless pit that consumed all. The light grew dimmer as the darkness surged and feasted upon the aurora of life. And then, just when it seemed as if destruction was assured, there came an explosion of pure white brilliance the likes of which the universe had never seen, nor would ever see again.

And creation fell silent.

“We could not defeat the dark, but we could contain him. In our final act, the three of us ripped the power from our very beings and together, used it to create a prison, one that could contain even Nul’s unending hunger.” And as the starry sky returned in the brilliant glow’s aftermath, there came a new light. Hanging in the sky was a new great light, one composed of equal part golden warmth and cool silver, two swirling seas that met at a sinuous line of rainbow lights. The light was as beautiful as the three had been, but beneath that radiant glow, eyes could see a shadow lurking underneath. The beast was caged, but not destroyed. You could not destroy destruction itself.


Chapter 5

Chapter 5

“And thus, we came to earth,” Luna wearily finished as the light finally returned to the audience chamber. “No longer the spirits of creation we once were, we use our remaining power to bury the prison at the planet’s core where we hoped it would remain for all eternity.”

“Why here?” Twilight asked, the first to respond from the overwhelming tale with a pertinent question. “I mean, wouldn’t it have been better to toss him into the furthest corner of the universe you could?”

“Keep your friends close,” Graves rumbled, “but keep your enemies closer.”

“Precisely,” Celestia nodded as she helped her sister towards her seat. “Kept close to us, we would always be able to keep an eye on Nul and respond should the need arise. But beyond the need to watch over him, his prison was needed for the world as well.”

“How do yeh reckon that?” Applejack asked with head cocked askew. “Never heard ah nobody ever needin’ a cage fer nothin’ but cagin’ critters.”

“This was different,” Luna explained. “Stripped of our powers, we could no longer renew the universe as we had before. Stars will burn out and planets will crumble, but there will be nothing new to take their place. That is why we hoped that the power emanating from Nul’s prison, composed of the force of creation itself, would be enough to sustain at least one world.”

“So we have to keep the most dangerous of enemies close by because without it, our world is doomed?” Rarity gasped. “My word, it’s like when fur’s in style during an exceptionally hot winter; you just can’t win.”

“What I don’t get is how he got out,” Rainbow Dash frowned. “Like, didn’t you three build the universe’s greatest trap and stuffed Nul inside? How’d he break free?”

“He hasn’t, at least not yet,” Luna replied. “Believe me, if he had, then there would be no world left to save.”

“Then what happened?” Pinkie Pie joined in. “Did it spring a leak?” At this, Luna turned to her sister, who replied with a small, tight-lipped nod.

“It was not an accident, if that is what you mean,” the night princess answered with eyes dark like a clouded night. “In truth, we were betrayed. By Discord.”

Eyes all around went wide with surprise a that pronouncement, but none more so than the marshal’s gunmetal greys.

“But… why did he do it?” Fluttershy squeaked. “You three were so close. Why would he do something like that?”

“We do not know,” Luna sighed. “When we combined our powers, our minds were one and our hearts beat in unison. But… perhaps our confrontation with Nul damaged him beyond what we had expected. As my sister and I found our place in the world of man, Discord drew further and further away until he disappeared altogether. We were concerned, of course, but he had always been a free spirit. We thought that the confines of our earthly existence simply chafed too much for his liking.

“How wrong we were,” Celestia spat as she surprised everyone present with the pure venom of her voice. “When he did return, he did so as the Spirit of Chaos, his mind and form corrupted and twisted by Nul’s destructive will into the form you know today.”

“But… I thought Nul’s goal was to destroy everything,” Twilight frowned. “What happened to Discord sounds a lot more like… conversion.”

“Perhaps he is,” Luna replied as she placed a soothing hand on her sister’s shoulder. “Even Discord couldn’t undo the bindings of Nul’s prison, but master of the impossible as he was, he did somehow manage to form the thinnest of breaches in the shell. It was through this tear that some of Nul’s power came through, not enough to match the destructive flames you saw before, but enough to decay and corrode till form and thought are worn away to shadows of their former selves. I assure you, though Discord still lives, who he used to be ceased to exist long ago as the first true victim of Nul.”

“First?” Graves blinked. “You mean there were more?”

“There were,” Celestia nodded. “After Nul was sealed and even memory of him forgotten, mankind entered a golden age where civilization grew, culture thrived, and the mystic arts reached their height of grandeur and depth. Though my sister and I were involved, the true leaders of this time of prosperity were perhaps the greatest mages ever born to history, the great sages Coronus and Crystallia.”

With a flick of her ivory wand, the image of two figures almost as regal as the royal sisters appeared, a man and woman standing side by side in harmonious splendor. The man was dressed in gleaming silver armor and crimson cape, the platinum circlet that ringed his brow holding back a lion’s mane of jet black hair. The woman was clad in gossamer sheets of glittering silk, bright and lush as a summer canopy and somehow still paling in comparison to the emerald hair that fell around a sublimely beautiful face.

“Just as Nul had corrupted Discord, so too did Discord corrupt them,” Celestia said as the image slowly began to transform. “With their great powers, the two delved deep into the heart of arcane lore and through discovery of Discord's betrayal, discovered the existence of Nul himself. Tempted by the existence of such power, they changed. Coronus was no longer content to be a steward of the people and instead sought to possess all for his own. Crystallia, seeking more and more of the people’s adoration, sought to become the sole object of their affection. Both found Nul and got the power to do as they wished, but only in exchange for a truly terrible price.”

Once glorious images of the great sages quickly changed. The man’s once kind face twisted into a fanged grimace of cruelty as his body faded into the dusk and darkness. The woman, once so lovely and serene, grew cold and haughty as skin crackled and gave way to inky black chitin.

“Coronus gave to the power completely, losing his mind and becoming a demonic shadow that sought to consume and possess all just as he had in ages past. Crystallia fared better as she had the sense to withdraw before the corruption consumed her completely. But even so, the change could not be stopped. The two of them rose up against us and the ensuing war shattered the great world they’d worked so hard to build. The people were scattered and the kingdom fell.”

“Land sakes,” Applejack grimaced. “From the sounda things, it looks like Nul here’s the source of every rotten apple in the barrel.”

“Perhaps,” Luna nodded somberly. “But Nul did not create those monsters, not entirely. He simply loosened the bonds that held them in check. I should know.”

“You mean…” Fluttershy gaped as the princess’s words struck home. Luna nodded.

“I was the third and final betrayal,” she answered, her words making no excuse even as they hung heavy with shame and regret. “After Equestria was formed, I grew hateful and resentful of my sister for her place in the people’s hearts. That bitterness drove me to find solace in the same source of corruption I’d fought so hard against before.”

“My sister is too hard on herself,” Celestia cut in as she gave Luna’s shoulder a firm squeeze. “Nul is the very source of destruction, and his imprisonment has made his power that much more insidious. Luna may have been jealous, but her loyalty to the people and her kind spirit would never have allowed her to do such things on her own. Nul is the one who took her goodness away, and that is why he must be stopped.”

“… S-s-s-s-s-o w-what are w-w-w-e sup-p-p-p-p-p-osed to d-d-d-d-o?” Fluttershy asked, the first to break the silence despite the jackhammer clattering of her teeth.

“What do we do? What can we do?” Rainbow Dash asked. “If it took both Princesses and Discord to lock this guy up, then what chance do we have?”

“Now I’m all fer givin’ it the ol’ what fer,” Applejack replied with an askew shrug, “but wouldn’t it make a lot more sense fer you princesses to… I don’t know… put on yer fancy universe makin’ duds and just patch everythin’ up all nice an’ proper like?”

“We could,” Luna nodded. “And the moment we did, the powers would return to us, the prison would crumble, and Nul would be free once more. His all-consuming flames would devour the planet and leave only my sister and I to face him. But yes, we could I suppose.”

“Uh… never mind,” Applejack murmured. “Ferget I said anythin’.”

“But that still raises the question on what we're supposed to do,” Twilight frowned. “If Nul’s as bad as he used to be and he’s awake and busting out now, what exactly can we do about it?”

“He may be awake,” Luna corrected, “but he is not yet free. The prison Celestia, Discord, and I constructed still holds. He would be like Discord is now, conscious and free to roam, but with the vast portions of his powers sealed. My sister and I no longer have the powers we did, but there is a way that you six might become what we once were.”

“The Elements of Harmony!” Twilight gasped. “Of course!”

“Formed when we three achieved true unity in the battle against Nul, the Elements serve as a link to the vast powers that created the universe,” Celestia said as she place a hand on Twilight’s shoulder with a proud smile. “Forming Nul’s prison as it does, my sister and I can no longer serve to stem the darkness. But you as the Bearers may yet touch the powers of creation the shell contains and repair the breach to return Nul to his slumber once more.”

“Slumber party, I love it!” Pinkie Pie squealed. “So how do we go about that?”

“The hard way, which is about only way we, can, I’m afraid,” a thunderous voice called out. Turning around, the Ponyville troop spotted General Ironside striding up to meet them, not in his simple tunic as usual, but now in the full crimson robes of an Equestrian officer.

“Apologies for the delay, Princesses,” he continued, saluting with fist over heart as he approached the table. “Organizing the carriers took longer than expected, but all is well.”

“Thank you, Ironside,” Luna smiled “And I’m afraid the general is correct. Nul’s prison still lies at the center of the earth, and the road to get there will not be easy.”

“Maybe we should get Maud in on this,” Rainbow Dash chuckled as she gave the giggling Pinkie a knowing wink. “Bet she’d have us at rock bottom in a flash.”

“Fortunately, that will not be necessary,” the night princess explained as she raised her wand once more to bring up a simple projection of the earth before them. “After Discord’s betrayal and the breach was discovered, my sister and I realized that some of his power continued to escape. Thus, we constructed three gates to the surface to keep his corruption from building up.”

“Tartarus, in the Savage Lands, Hel in the northern tundras, and Gehenna on the southern continent,” Celestia explained as three points of light appeared on the projection. “In order to make it to Nul, you will have to cross the Savage Lands and–”

“Wait, what?!”

Graves had been standing so still and silent, he’d practically blended into the stone work. So when his harsh, gravelly voice called out in startled surprise, it was as if one of the carved statues adorning the castle had sprung to life with choice, defamatory statements.

“You can’t be serious,” he continued, taking a step forward as he turned to address the general. “There’s no way they would survive the trip.”

“Hey, we’re a whole lot tougher than we look,” Rainbow Dash snorted as she crossed her arms in a huff. “Except for me. I’m exactly as tough as I look.”

“I’m sure you are,” Graves absent-mindedly agreed as he kept eyes fixed on Ironside. “But that doesn’t change the fact that just crossing the border is a Class C mission at best. Why on earth would you choose to send them there?”

“Necessity,” Ironside grimaced in reply. With a few swift gestures, he pulled the projection about so that they were zoomed in on a deep rent on the northern slopes of a range of snow-swept mountains. “The Jotun Pass here is going to be occupied and Gehenna caved in twenty years ago. Unless you know an easy way of moving a mountain’s worth of boulders, I doubt it’s gonna work.”

Graves could see the necessity; limited options made for limited choices, after all. But that didn’t make the choice any easier and frustration at the circumstances showed in a stonier set of his face.

“Well, they’ll at least get a proper escort, right?” Graves sighed, to which the general offered a wry grin.”

“Of course. You’ll be going in to make sure everything’s in order.”

“Aw yiss! Road trip!” Rainbow Dash grinned, and the marshal couldn’t help but grin as well.

“Great. What else?”

“That’s it.”

Three seconds. That’s how long the marshal’s grin had lasted before it slid from his face like water from an oiled canvas.

“That’s… it,” he repeated blandly. “You’re sending them into the Savage Lands with only me for company.”

“Can you think of something better?” Ironside challenged with one eyebrow arched. “Seven’s already a large party, and any more will attract attention you definitely don’t want around. You’re all they can afford, soldier. Get used to it.”

“Okay, so Graves keeps us company as we go intah them rough neck ah the woods and we patch up that hole like a leaky roof?” Applejack asked as she sent the marshal a small nod he didn’t seem to catch. “That seems simple enough.”

“For you, yes,” Ironside nodded as a fresh frown. “But see, there’s the problem of plumbing.”

“What does the potty have to do with anything?” Pinkie Pie inquired.

“Same sort of blockage,” the general explained. “The good princesses have informed me that the gates were made to release Nul’s blow off in discretely safe quantities. Problem was, they’ve been spewing off a whole heap more than what we could call safe for a good while now, which raising a very important question: if all three gates are already strained past their limit, then what happens when you pop just one of the corks on that fine bottle of champagne?”

“Ooh ooh! Pick me!” Pinkie Pie cried with arms flapping in the air. “Um… I’m guessing all the bubbly fizzy goodness goes exploding out that way, right?”

“Give the lady a cookie,” Ironside laughed. “The first gate we open’s gonna unleash a tidal wave of pure, roiling madness like tree pollen in spring. Which is why,” the general finished with a wicked grinned, “that’s exactly what we’re gonna do.”

“… Wait, what?!”

“Like the pink one just explained,” the giant general chuckled at the girls’ dumfounded expressions, “no matter what gate we open, we’re gonna get hit with a faceful of ugly. That’s why the royal guard are gonna pop the first one, pull all that nastiness into the open, and clear the way for you seven to get down there and fix the root of this mess.”

“That sounds way too easy if you ask me,” Rainbow Dash frowned. “I mean, this is the granddaddy of all bad guys we’re talking about. He’s like, the super end game boss you fight after you finish the actual game. How are you gonna hold him off long enough for us to lock him back up?”

Here, Ironside looked to Graves with a familiar light in his eyes before he turned to address the group.

“The only way we can. Ladies? Princesses? Equestria is officially going to war.”


Chapter 6

Chapter 6

“Twilight? Twilight? Twilight Twilight Twilight Twilight Twilight! Twiiiii–”

What, Pinkie?!”

“Isn’t this exciting?!”

For the umpteenth time, Twilight Sparkle groaned as she brought her fingers to gently massage her temples. Princesses’ orders or no, long trips with the overly bubbly baker were not exactly easy, especially in their present circumstances.”

“I still can’t believe it, can you?!” Pinkie beamed as she and her mane of bubblegum curls bounced in her seat. “This is, like, the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in like, ever, even more than that time when Princess Celestia sent us on a trip to the Ivory Tower to act as diplomas!”

“Diplomats,” the young scholar corrected.

“That too!” Pinkie grinned. “That was super exciting too! Man oh man, I can remember it like it was just yesterday…”

“Pinkie, it was just yesterday,” Twilight sighed as she contemplated jumping out the window and taking her chances with experimental flight charms. “So please, can you try and calm down? Just a little bit?”

Pinkie Pie did as she was asked and sat down hard in her seat, but her puffed cheeks, strained lips , and white-knuckled grip on her cushion gave clear indication that another explosive outburst was due in… probably thirty seconds. It wasn’t much, but Twilight would take what she could get.

In that brief interlude of silence, the purple-haired scholar used the time to quickly review their instructions. After Ironside’s dramatic declaration, things had tumbled forth at such a rapid pace, she’d hardly had a moment to process since.

Equestria was going to war. In order to gain them access to Nul’s prison, the entire might of the Royal Guard was being marshalled towards the Jotun Passage in the frozen tundras of the north. There, they would open the Hel Gate, channel Nul’s foul corruption into the narrow choke, and hold fast till the Elements of Harmony could enter through the Tartarus Gate to do their work.


Even in the most ideal of conditions, their chances of victory were slim, which is where the Ponyville six came into play. Alone, Equestria couldn’t hope to come out victorious, but perhaps they didn’t needed to stand alone. In pairs of two, the girls had been sent out as official envoys to bid aid from the three great powers in the world: the Ivory Tower, the Griffon Imperium, and the Dragon’s Enclave. Alone, Equestria would snap like a brittle twig, but together? Together, they might just make it.

“I still can’t believe we get to go out like this,” Pinkie Pie squealed as what little of her self-control shattered like fine-spun glass. Honestly, Twilight was impressed; Pinkie had lasted a whole eight seconds longer than expected. Fortunately, Pinkie was precluded from an any further shenanigans as a gentle lurch notified the pair of their descent. Looking out the portside window, Twilight gasped as her eyes laid eyes upon the greatest center for magical research and development anywhere in the known world: the Ivory Tower.

Standing a thousand feet tall like a pillar to support the heavens, the Tower gleamed pure white as the sun sparkled off pristine, marble walls housing research that had advanced mankind over the last eight-hundred years. Of course, that wasn’t to say that everything was contained within the tower, per se. As the airship made its slow, circular descent, Twilight was greeted to views of the surrounding plains where dozens of small villages dotted the open plains. From one, the telltale golden smoke of rune crafting rose from smokestacks of thaumaturgical furnaces. From another, explosions of fire and geysers of stone fountained into the air as others sought to further their knowledge of the primal elements.

As far as the eye could see, the country of magic spread and increased the world’s richness of knowledge and insight. For such an avid bookworm as Twilight, it was almost too much to handle.

“Sooooo?” Pinkie Pie intoned with the smuggest of smug expressions on her face. “Isn’t this exciting?”

“Erm, yes, Pinkie, it is,” Twilight replied after an awkward cough to clear both throat and thoughts. “But remember, we’re here on important business, not vacation.” At this, the curly-haired girl frowned.

“Well why can’t it be both?”

Before Twilight could elaborate on how delicate diplomatic negotiations with the fate of all mankind hanging in the balance should be separated from playtime, a gentle bump signaled that their airship had arrived.

“Miss Sparkle? Miss Pie?” an armored guardsman called as he peaked his plumed helmeted head inside. “We’re here.”

And just like that, the butterflies that Twilight had been working to ignore for so long suddenly exploded into gale-force action. It was really all she could do to follow the guardsman and the bouncing baker out the airship hatchway and onto one of the open fields next to the tower proper. Though several magicians, wizards, and conjurors looked on in curiosity, Twilight hardly noticed as dozens of thoughts careened their way inside her skull like soda-addled chipmunks. How should she act? What should she say? Were there certain protocol and customs she should know about? Celestia had assured her there was no need to worry, but she had experience here. Hay, she hadn’t even let Twilight check out some books beforehand. What if she messed up? What if she–”

“Holy moly guacamole, would you look at that!”

Following Pinkie’s pointed gaze, Twilight gapes as a circle of stone rippled and separated from the Tower wall to form a disc of polished marble that gently floated down towards them like a feather on the breeze. Such subtle manipulation of material integrity and gravitational forces. The scholar in her was itching to figure out how it worked, but the nervous wreck quickly wrested control as she saw that the stone disk brought company.

Two of guests were acolytes, clear by the simple grey robes they wore. But they didn’t matter. I mean, not that they didn’t matter matter, but it’s just that the third person sort of made everything around him seem insignificant in comparison. It didn’t take an expert to realize that the leader was a mage of the highest order. From his flowing grey beard reaching to his knees as the aura of wisdom he seemed to exude like a halo, he was one who had clearly devoted lifetimes to unravelling the secrets of magic and seen those truths firsthand. But discerning eyes, in this case an amethyst pair that slowly increased with exponentially growing awe, realized that–

“Hey there, I’m Pinkie Pie!” Pinkie Pie beamed as she bounded forward to greet the newcomer. Or, she would have, had Twilight not taken her to the ground in a truly spectacular diving tackle beforehand.

“Pinkie, what do you think you’re doing?!” Twilight hissed as she sat on her squirming friend. “Don’t you know who that is?”

“Uh, probably the person we’re here to meet, duh?” Pinkie frowned

“And do you know just who person actually is?” Twilight continued.

“… Noooooooo?”

“Um, Abbot?” one acolyte asked in tentative confusion. “Are these the Equestrian emissaries?”


Had Pinkie known anything of Ivory Tower lore, she would know that the robes of its initiates came in nine distinct colors, grey for the new initiates and eight others representing the eight major branches of arcane learning. Aside from those robes, the initiates wore no adornments to show their dedication to the mystic arts. But one was exempt from such rules. Clad in simple grey like the acolytes, the old man standing before them wore a golden medallion inscribed with the eight pointed star, the one symbol of authority granted to the sage who presided at the peak of the arcane tower and above all eight houses.

This was Abbot Apocrypha, leader of the Ivory Tower, master of the arcane arts, and quite possibly the greatest mage in the entire world.

“Celestia told me her representatives would be unusual,” the elderly mage mused as he stroked his flowing beard. “However, I never would have guessed they’d be quite so colorful.”

“Your abbotship! Sir!” Twilight squeaked as she scrambled to her feet and bodily dragged Pinkie Pie along with her. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to–”

Whatever words of contriteness she would have said were quickly lost under the merry rumbling of Apocrypha’s chuckles.

“My dear Twilight, there’s no need for apologize,” he smiled as eyes, so deep and vast with profound knowledge, twinkled like a schoolboy's on holiday. “Colorful antics are what keep the mind young and spritely, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I… guess so?” Twilight hesitantly nodded before pausing in confusion. “Hold on a second. You know who I am?”

“But of course!” Apocrypha laughed aloud. “After all, I’ve been you’re fan for quite some time now.”

Twilight’s heart skipped a beat. No, wait… nope, full-blown cardiac arrest.

“You’re… a fan… of me?!” she gaped as if Luna had just announced plans to colonize the moon. Maybe more so.

“Indeed I am,” the abbot nodded. “Your theories on stabilizing distortions in the space-time continuum for instantaneous transmission of matter are truly inspired. I’ve been following along your publications ever since!”

Twilight looked up at the abbot for a moment and blinked a time or two. She then turned to her curly-haired friend and blinked twice more.

“Pinkie, I need to you pinch meeyowch!” Before she’d even finished, Pinkie Pie, as if by some mysterious precognitive power, delivered a hearty pinch right to Twilight’s soft, bookworm backside, who cried as her surprisingly robust bookworm legs propelled her a good three feet in the air.

“It’s not a dream!” Twilight grinned as tears from both happiness and a very tender bottom welled up in her eyes. “Best. Day. Ever!”

“I know, isn’t it?” Apocrypha smiled. “Now, I’d love to discuss your ideas some more, but first, I believe we should–”


Twilight blinked. No way. It couldn’t be. That voice…

A burst of smoke. A flash of light. And when it cleared…

“So, Twilight Sparkle,” the newcomer grinned from beneath a star-spangled conjurers cap and flowing white hair. “We meet at last.”

“Oh, hey, it’s Trixie!” Pinkie Pie beamed. “Hello!”


“I’m sorry, Miss Trixie,” one of the acolytes nervously called as he hurried forwards, “but you can’t be–”

“The Great and Powerful Trixie goes where she pleases!” the aforementioned great and powerful Trixie called out as yet another series of lights flashed in kaleidoscopic frenzy around. “Now, Twilight Sparkle, it’s time for us to – ouch!”

Starry hat crumpled as the abbot popped the errant mage’s gourd with his staff.

“Trixie!” Apocrypha called out sternly as a parent would a wayward toddler. “What have I told you about accosting our guests?

“But… but your abbotship!” Trixie pouted with big, pleading pony eyes and a lower lip that trembled like a well-set pudding. “Trixie has been training for so long in order to challenge Twilight Sparkle to another magical duel on fair and equitable terms, and you always say to never let an opportunity to achieve your goals pass you by. Surely, you wouldn’t deny me my dreams of a rematch when they’re so close at hand?”

The abbot paused to stroke his beard in sagacious thought.

“Dear me, I do say that, don’t I?" he murmured. “But Trixie, we can’t just…” Though he wanted to say more, those big, soulful eyes and that trembling lip mean that whatever words he intended ended in a weary sigh.

“I’m really sorry about this, Twilight,” Apocrypha apologetically shrugged as he turned back to the appropriately confused mage. “But it seems like we cannot progress until this matter is settled. If it’s not too much trouble, would you be willing to meet Trixie in a magical duel?”

“Well, I, uh…”

“She accepts!” Pinkie Pie cried out in Twilight’s stead. “You just name the time and place, and we’ll be there!”

“Marvelous!” Trixie cried out in reply. “There is no need to wait! We’ll have our rematch right here, in this very spot!”

“You’re on!” Pinkie roared. “Bring it!”

“Oh, it has been more than brought!”

And before Twilight could make heads or tails of the situation, she found herself in the middle of large circle of mages who’d somehow accrued in the odd minute or so since Trixie’s appearance, the beginnings of an eager-eyed audience that only proceeded to swell with each passing moment. With a quick wave of Apocrypha’s staff, two great pillars of earth rose underneath the feet of the two duelists and carried them fifty paces apart where deep trenches filled with water to form impromptu moats.

“Alright,” the abbot called with a voice magnified tenfold to reach the sizeable crowd. “Standard rules apply. First to knock the other from their foothold shall be the winner. Trixie, are you ready?”

“The Great and Powerful Trixie is always ready!” she crowed.

“Twilight, are you ready?”

“Well, yes, but–”


Without a moment’s pause, Trixie withdrew her wand and waved through a series of intricate gestures with the swift deftness of a pianist dancing across a keyboard. Before Twilight’s slowly widening eyes, a massive earthen golem arose from the ground. Standing twenty feet high from sunken head to thick, clubbing feet, the ground trembled as the giant began to shamble forth.

Acting almost by instinct, Twilight whipped her wand forth and summoned tangling roots from beneath the ground to bind the golem’s advance. However, the lack of robust plant-life meant that the roots were about as useful as overcooked spaghetti for binding purposes, and the golem snapped through them with nary a hitch as it continued the advance.

Undeterred, Twilight changed tactics and instead, scooped up great clumps of earth from the field, condensing them and shaping them till soil floated as crafted pylons as dense as stone. These, she flung with great gusto at the oncoming golem and rods struck construct with thunderous crashes as huge, cratered dents exploded on its soil-based body. Twilight continued, hurling freshly formed missiles until the golem crumbled to the earth in a shower of loose debris.

But Trixie wasn’t finished. Wand flashing again, Twilight openly gaped as she repeated the same spell, but twice over. Two more golems arose and together, they lumbered forwards like twin waves of unstoppable earthen force.

Time for a change of tactics. Transitioning from the strong, full-bodied motions of earthen magic, Twilight instead began the delicate, floating gestures to control the air. Letting the earthen rods fall back to the ground, the purple-haired mage conjured forth a raging whirlwind. Arrested by the buffeting gale, the earthen giants faltered in their steps and Twilight gained valuable breathing room to prepare her next spell.

Flicking her wand with fierce force and blinding speed, Twilight summoned forth an array of fireballs and fired them at the constructs’ stumpy legs. An instant before contact, the whirlwind disappeared and allowed the flaming projectiles to strike true and blow apart the appendages in explosions of earth and fire. The giants tottered for a moment, arms milling about in as they fought to keep balance. Fortunately, gravity was the same cruel, unrelenting mistress it always was, and with bellowing roars of crumbling stone, the golems tumbled to the earth in an avalanche of broken dirt.

“Impressive, Twilight Sparkle!” Trixie called from across the field, needing no magic to aid her naturally projecting voice. “As expected of my greatest rival!”

Twilight wanted to respond, but thought better of it as she instead took the moment to catch her breath. The spells themselves hadn’t been that complex, but having to do them in such quick progression with no pre-drawing of mana left her as winded as the time she’d sprinted up the town hall steps at her first meeting with the marshal.

That moment was all she got, because before even her breath had fully returned, Trixie was conjuring again. Only this time, instead of a humanoid golem, the motions brought something much, much bigger. Rising from the earth like the kraken’s tentacles from the deep, Twilight’s jaw dropped lower than Spike’s attention levels in hour seven of proper book maintenance training as no less than eight snaking pillars rose from the ground. Rising to two times the height of the golems, Trixie summoned forth a titanic hydra from the earth that raised its multitude of heads and shrieked to the heavens.

Twilight could only stare. How? How was Trixie doing it? To move that much earth would take ridiculous quantities of magic, and by ridiculous, she meant absurd to the point of stupefying impracticality. And yet there Trixie was, grinning triumphantly as her monolithic beast approached with ground shaking steps.

With little time to think, Twilight rapidly conjured fireballs till it they numbered the eyes of a peacock’s tail feathers behind her and launched them in a relentless barrage at the oncoming beast. The fiery blasts struck the beast, but even when it managed to blow a crumbling head from the body, another would simply rise to take its place.

Then inspiration struck her. Just as she had with the clods of earth, Twilight took a few precious seconds to compress the flaming orbs, adding small vortexes of air around each one till they were spun down into blazing disks of whirling fire. These, Twilight launched at the earthen hydra and sliced it apart faster than it could reform. Once more, the construct crumbled into rubble.

But the hydra wasn’t the only one to crumble. With nary a moment to breath, Twilight’s legs buckled under her as she fell heavily to one knee. If she’d been tired before, then she was exhausted now, as the feat of manipulating no less than two dozen spells at once really began to take its toll. And yet still Trixie would not relent. Smiling in triumph, the white-haired mage began the arcane gestures to summon another golem, one that Twilight would no longer have energy to fight off. Soon it would be upon her and–

… Hold on a second.

With eyes trained to spot inconsistencies from two theses away, Twilight frowned as the whirligigs of her mind began process facts that just didn’t make sense.

How the hay was Trixie still looking so puffed up and proud after such massive exertions? Granted, she was always looked like a strutting rooster, but moving so much earth should have put a damper on even her spirits at least. And why earth? Sure, constructs were impressive, but not nearly as flashy as was her usual modus operandi. Her choice of technique was curious in itself, but it was the results that had Twilight puzzled like a badly syntaxed sentence.

That much displaced land mass should have left them fighting in a massive crater, and yet now that Twilight looked – really looked – she could see that wasn’t the case at all. Sure, there was debris and rubble strewn about and pockmarked with craters from her desperate assaults, but still relatively flat, all things considered. How was it that the terrain remained so unaffected despite the equivalent of three golems and a hydra’s worth of dirt being tossed about?

Amethyst eyes flickered over to Twilight’s opponent as she stood there proudly in her sky-blue robe wand flickering away, and–

And Twilight knew what she had to do.

As Trixie summoned yet again, this time a golem in the form of a dragon that dwarfed even the hydra, Twilight summoned a few, remaining fireballs as she prepared her final stand. Laughing in triumph, Trixie commanded her minion to advance. The few remaining blasts bounced pitifully off its mighty earthen hide as steadily closer it drew. Raising hands high, Trixie prepared to give the final order, to bring her dragon’s claws into the pillar and send Twilight tumbling into defeat–

–before crying in alarm as her footing crumbled and sent her tumbling into the water below.

“Stop!” Apocrypha called. “The duel is over, and Twilight Sparkle is the winner!”

With noise greater than the roars of battle before, the crowds rose into thunderous applause as with a weary grin, Twilight raised a hand and waved to the sea of cheering faces that had exponentially increased to a roaring, thundering mass. Slowly, the earthen pillar lowered to the ground and brought the triumphant girl to where a grinning Apocrypha and Pinkie Pie waited.

“Oh my goodness, that was the most super awesomest, most spectacularly funtastic things I’ve ever seen!” Pinkie cried out as she seized her friend into an organ-bruising hug. “I loved the part where you blasted apart that huge rock monster thingy, and then there was the time you blasted apart that other huge rock monster thingy, and of course, who could forget when you blasted apart that other huge rock monster thingy! Oh boy, that was the best!”

“Indeed, what she said!” Apocrypha agreed with hearty, drumbling chuckles.

“Thanks, Pinkie, your abbotship,” Twilight grunted, not from any displeasure, but from a physical incapability of doing otherwise from within the confines of the embrace. “But actually, I can’t take credit for that. I didn’t actually blow anything apart, rock monster or otherwise.”

Here, Twilight finally managed to take her first full breath since the duel’s start as Pinkie Pie released her so that she could fully gape in confusion.

“Say what now?” she gasped. “But, but I saw–”

“What Trixie wanted you to see,” Twilight finished. “It was all an illusion.”

“How did you know?”

The three turned to spot a dripping wet Trixie standing a few feet off, an odd look on her face as asked in tones much more suited to normal conversation.

“It was all too easy,” Twilight began before catching her words with mild alarm. “Not the duel, I mean. You really had me going there. But when I saw you doing that much magic without breaking a sweat, I felt something was off. Then I noticed the ground wasn’t changing as much as it should have given your spells, and when I noticed your colors, it all came together.”

“You mean her wardrobe is magical?!” Pinkie Pie gasped. “Wow, talk about fancy dud!”

“No, Pinkie, they’re not magical,” Twilight said with a weary smile. “But they do tell me that Trixie’s part of the Illusionist and Conjuring circle, the group that specializes in creating lifelike images that can fool even the most trained eyes.”

“But how did you get me at the end?” Trixie pressed on. “I made sure to block your line of sight. There was no way you could have hit me with a spell in the midst of all that confusion.”

“Not a normal spell, no,” Twilight agreed. “But teleportation’s a whole other deal.”

“Teleportation? Really?” Trixie blinked in surprise, to which Twilight nodded.

“While it looked like I was fighting your dragon, I actually used the time to set up coordinate matrix over the battlefield. Once I confirmed that the space your dragon occupied was mostly empty air, I focused in on the space your pillar was and just… shifted it. The whole thing came tumbling down like the golem without a leg and you came down with it.”

Trixie stared at Twilight, her lavender eyes wide in surprise at the other’s pronouncement. For a moment, it was unclear how she’d react as her mask became a blank slate devoid of any indication of emotion.

Then Trixie laughed.

“Well said, Twilight Sparkle!” she called out loudly, clapping the sweater-vested scholar atop the shoulder as laughter continued to ring forth. “As expected of the rival of the Great and Powerful Trixie, you truly are an impressive magician!”

“You were really good yourself,” Twilight smiled back. “Optical illusions are one thing, but to mimic the haptic feedback of spell impact with such precision is really amazing! You’ve gotten a whole lot better since we last met!”

“Yes, well, um…” Trixie coughed as she quickly brought a hand to cover her mouth and most of her face. “Just what you’d expect from a magician of my caliber, is it not? Now if you’ll excuse me, I have many great and important things to attend to. Farewell!” And with that, a puff of smoke exploded, only to quickly fade away and reveal Trixie’s quickly retreating form.

Twilight blinked. That had… certainly been odd.

“She really does like you a lot, doesn’t she,” Apocrypha smiled to a very confused Twilight.

“Er… she does?”

“Oh my, yes,” he nodded. “Ever since she’s come here, she hasn’t stopped talking about what a fantastic mage you are and how she’ll one day be just as good as you. Her marked growth in her studies and general aptitude are largely due to the tremendous respect she has for you which – if I’m perfectly honest – looks like quite lady crush, if you ask me.”

“She totes wants to be your biffle,” Pinkie nodded sagaciously. “Like, super totes.”

“Um… wow, okay,” Twilight blinked as a paradigm shifting factor entered into her running Trixie calculations. “Well, in that case, I guess I could meet up with her once we–”

“Come now, don’t be such a ninny!” Apocrypha laughed as he gave her a quick nudge with his staff. “Friendship is a magic that should be nurtured at every opportunity.

“But… what about our negotiations?” Twilight blinked. “We still need the Ivory Tower’s cooperation with Equestria for the upcoming battle.”

“Oh, that?” Apocrypha smiled. “I’m sure Pinkie and I can work something out.”

“Yeah, Twilight, sheesh, don’t be such a worry wart,” the curly haired partier grinned. “Now go on, before she gets away!”

As Apocrypha and Pinkie both urged her on with oddly identical smiles, Twilight could only sigh in defeat as she quickly broke into a jog after the retreating figure.

“Hey, Trixie!” Twilight called from across the field. Trixie stopped and turned around.

“Huh? Twilight Sparkle?” she blinked in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

“So… I…” The purple-haired scholar took a moment to catch her breath after her brief but still tiring run. “So… I was thinking. It’s my first time at the Ivory Tower and all, and I’d love to have a look around. I was wondering if you could take me on a tour? I mean, if you’re not busy or anything?”

“… Nonsense!” Trixie cried out as a beaming grin split her face from ear to ear. “I, the Great and Knowledgeable Trixie, shall give you a tour the likes of which the world has never known!”


Chapter 7

Chapter 7

“Watchtower, this is the ERA Swallow, call sign six, two, four, delta, delta, echo, requesting permission to enter Gloriam airspace. Over.”

“Swallow, this is Watchtower. Your escort is en route and will guide you in. Over.”

High above the clouds, the Equestrian vessel quietly sailed forwards under the lift of its large balloons. Suddenly, the quiet was shattered as two additional airships surged from the sea of clouds with the piercing keen of diving falcons. Unlike the clearly peaceful transport, these two were weapons of war, nimble aircrafts with hawk-like speed with deadly talons of hextech armaments. The two ships pealed around to flank the Equestrian vessel, vapor trailing from their raptor wingtips as they decelerated to take up positions alongside their ward.

One Ponyville girl was very grateful for their consideration.

“Yo! Fluttershy! Do you see that? Huh? Did you?” Rainbow Dash called out as she literally bounced about the cabin, her rune crafted wings a flutter of translucent energy that matched her bubbling excitement. “That there’s the new G-17 Thunderbird, top of the line fighter that can hit speeds up to Mach 6! Oh man, what I wouldn’t give to fly in one of those babies!”

“That sounds very nice,” Fluttershy nodded sweetly from across the cabin with absolutely no idea what Rainbow Dash was talking about. “But… don’t you think you should sit down? It looks like we’re going to be landing soon.”

“Yeah, yeah, in a bit,” Rainbow quickly replied while making no move to unglue herself from the window. “Oh man, that thing is so… freaking… awesome!”

Seeing that her friend was not to be dissuaded, Fluttershy contented herself with a small, “oh my,” smoothed her yellow sundress over her legs, and joined Rainbow Dash in looking out the windows. Though she thought that the Imperium airships were quite dashing – indeed, their designs reminded her of her good friend, Pinions Beackington IV, peregrine and noble esquire of Shady Glade’s west end – she didn’t quite see what was so fascinating about an airship when Rainbow herself could well exceed those speed Rainbooming it through the stratosphere on her own two wings.

However, as their own ride dipped through the clouds and she got her first look at the Griffon Imperium’s capitol city, she found a good deal to get her excited as well. You see, everyone in Equestria knew of Cloudsdale, the floating city. Constructed on rocks as sturdy as granite but lighter than air, the city was a naturally levitating construction that wowed all who came to visit. But it was a construction, made from imported stones whereas Gloriam was a true, flying vista.

It wasn’t just a city, but an entire mountain range of floating stones. Complete with thriving forests, torrential waterfalls, and all manners of flying birds and beasts flitting between titanic islands of flying rock, it was as if the gods had lifted the world from the soil and set it free to soar about in the sky. It was between and among these sailing stones that Gloriam sat. Constructed not on one single plane, but several, the entire city was constructed like a spiraling wedding cake with layers upon layers of glittering marble, spiraling columns, and pristine beauty winding its way through the lush foliage of the surrounding greenery.

A combination of artistic grace and natural splendor, the Imperium’s capitol truly deserved its title as the Verdant Star.

“Attention, Element Bearers,” a voice called as the intercom crackled to life. “This is your captain speaking. Just wanted you to know that we’ll be on the ground in about five minutes. That is all.”

“Oh my goodness… oh my goodness!” Fluttershy squeaked as the gravity of the situation suddenly came down and panic started to come up. “What should we do? I mean, I know what we’re supposed to do, but how are we supposed to do it? I’m not very good at talking, though I suppose we’ll have to, but what happens if we–”

“Relax, Flutters, it’s all good,” Rainbow Dash grinned as she finally reclined into her seat. “We’ve dealt with Griffonheim plenty of time before back in flight school, remember? They’re a cool bunch, so no need to get your undies all in a twist.”

Fluttershy was not convinced that her definition of cool and Rainbow Dash’s were exactly the same thing. True, she’d seen many of their winged classmates before, but interacted with almost none of them. After all, it’s hard to interact with someone you’re your idea of successful interaction had been not running away in shyness-induced terror at the first prospect of eye contact. In truth, her only real involvement with the aforementioned Griffonheim had been through a certain friend of a friend, and that meeting had not ended in an exactly cool fashion, had it?

A sudden steeper drop interrupted Fluttershy’s thoughts as their ride quickly approached the large, central island amidst the floating sea. That drop, coupled with the natural convulsions of an already nervous tummy, ensured that the butterflies in Fluttershy’s stomach were tearing about like the G-17’s outside their windows.

A gentle drop, a quiet hum as engines cut off, and the airship doors opened to let the two Ponyville girls descend onto Imperium soil.

“So, is there gonna be a welcome party or something?” Rainbow Dash frowned as she looked about the open and empty plaza around them. “I mean, I’m not exactly looking for a red carpet, but someone to show us where the hay we’re going would be nice.”

“That’d be us,” a voice called out from overhead. Turning to the sound, the girls found themselves looking up at the cockpit of the first Thunderbird where the canopy had popped open to reveal the pilot who now sat with helmet in hand. With a head of rich, brown hair that looked like the sleek plumage of a kestrel, the young man grinned back down with sharp, hazel eyes.

“Sorry for the late introduction,” he continued as he spread wings the same color as his hair to launch himself from the cockpit and lightly descended before them. “My name’s Avis, second son to Senator Aquilam, and your personal guide for today’s festivities.”

“I’m Rainbow Dash, best and only kid to my pops, and it’s good to meet ya,” the cyan-clad flyer smiled back as she reached out to take Avis’s hand in a firm shake. Though his body was long and lean in his fitted silver flight suit – a characteristic shared of all the naturally avian Griffonheim – his handshake was strong and returned with a force to match Rainbow’s before he turned his attentions elsewhere.

“And I don’t think I got your name yet,” Avis said as he looked to Fluttershy with a very different sort of smile.

“Me?” the shy girl squeaked. “Oh… my name is… um… it’s Fluttershy… and… um… … oh my…” Trailing off with a mild cry of alarm, Fluttershy quickly ducked behind her cherry blossom locks and did her best to remain invisible. Under the Griffonheim’s sharp gaze, however, she might as well have been bunny trying to hide from an eagle in open field.

“Fluttershy, huh?” he grinned. “That’s a really pretty name. Makes sense since you’re a really pretty girl.” Rainbow Dash snorted and Fluttershy turned a remarkable shade of crimson, but Avis pressed on with the focus of a diving raptor. “So I was thinking that after you finish all your official business, I might be able to show you a tour around Gloriam. Unofficially, of course. What do you say?”

“Lay off, Avis,” another voice called from above. “Any more and she’ll probably explode before we even get to the forum.”

Rainbow Dash was just about to burst out laughing at the truth of those words when she paused. Those words. Not the words themselves, but the voice that said them. It couldn’t be.

“Come on, Sarge,” Avis grinned as the other pilot descended with wings of soft, ash grey, “gotta at least give me a chance, right?”

“Sure,” she sighed as she ran a hand through the feathery plumage of her hair, “I’d give you a chance if I thought you actually–”

Perhaps it wasn’t the most diplomatic choice, powering up spell wings and diving at your Griffonheim escort, but Rainbow Dash was cool with that.

“Gilda!” Rainbow squealed in delight as she took the blindsided pilot down in a tumble of feathers and confusion. “Oh my gosh, it’s so good to see you!”

Gilda blinked.

“It… is?”

“Tch, duh!” Rainbow Dash snorted. “I haven’t seen you since you came to Ponyville last time, and that’s like, a billion times over way too long ago. Of course it’s good to see you!”

“So, you two know each other?” Avis inquired.

“We were roomies at flight school, why?” Gilda asked as she caught a little extra something in his tone. Following his sharp gaze, it was only then that Gilda realized that she was currently flat on her back while a head of multicolored quills nested itself very comfortably against her chest parts as Rainbow Dash kept arms wrapped arms around her waist in a chiropractor’s nightmare of a hug.

“H-hey! Get off me!” Gilda started as she instantly set to both prying the rainbow-colored barnacle and maintaining some semblance of composure, neither with much success.

“Nuh uh,” Rainbow shot back as she clung on even tighter. “Not till you tell me why you’ve been giving me the cold shoulder recently.”

“What are you talking about?” Gilda asked, her pitch reaching new octaves along with revolutionary shades of red in her cheeks. “I’m – oof – not giving you – grr – the cold shoulder!”

“You two need a minute?” Avis suggested as he threw an arm around Fluttershy. “Cause I can totally take the pretty lady here off if you two want some time alone.” It was hard to see who was more embarrassed at that moment, Gilda or Fluttershy, but the Griffonheim girl made a really good showing.

“It’s not like that!” Gilda screeched as she abandoned all semblances of dignity and began squirming like a shrimp in order to knock the adherence from her person. “She’s just a friend! Just a friend.”

“Hey, I’m not one to judge,” Avis grinned. “You can bat for whatever team you want, Sarge. No feathers off my wings.”

Fuse blowing in her white-plumed head, Gilda could only groan in despair as she fell back to the pavement while Avis continued grinning like the fool of a man he was.

“But seriously though, we should probably get going,” Avis said as he walked over and helped the tangled pair to their feet. “Forum’s probably already begun and we’d best make our entrance before things start to really spiral out of control.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Rainbow Dash agreed as she finally released the mortified Gilda,

“But seriously,” the Equestrian athlete continued, crossing her arms and giving the taller girl one of her no-nonsense-about-to-break-the-sound-barrier-looks. “I know something’s up when I send my best gal pal like, a gazillion letters and she never writes back. We’re gonna have to deal with that.”

“And deal with it you shall!” Avis laughed. “But business first and pleasure later.”

Though Gilda smacked the backside of his head like a tennis player with a grudge against lime green felt, he could safely say that it was oh so worth it.


The grand coliseum that served as the Imperium’s true seat of power could be seen from all corners of Gloriam. Constructed of pristine white marbles, the soaring columns and intricate murals detailing thousands of years of Griffonheim history gave the arena the somber gravity of a hallowed hall.

The sounds heard from it, however, were much less so.

“Um… is everything okay in there?” Rainbow Dash asked as she glanced up at the building. Even outside of coliseum as they were, she could hear the dull roar of some sort of madness ringing out from its marbled walls.

“Business as usual. Why?” Avis asked.

“It’s just that for a meeting that’s supposed to be in front of the leaders of a country, it sounds an awful lot like a riot,” Rainbow Dash offered with yet another hesitant look. Here, their hazel-eyed friend could only grin.

“Welcome to politics.”

The four arrived at the gates where a phalanx of guards in glittering, bronzed cuirasses opened the grand doors and ushered them in. Guided through the grand atrium where past rulers and heroes of the Imperium stood immortalized in cool, smooth stone, the four were led further down dimly lit halls that took them towards the arena floor. Barred by a heavy oaken door that thrummed from the noise of the other side, Gilda turned to the Ponyville pair with hard, almost worried eyes.

“Alright, so here’s how it works,” she began as she plucked invisible lint from her flight suit. “The Senate’s on the floor and starting the debates about whether or not to join Equestria over this whole going to war business. Your job is to convince them that teaming up’s the best for everyone. It’s probably going to be hard, talking to twenty people at once, but that’s just how it is.”

“Um… pardon,” Fluttershy squeaked with a timid hand raised. “But if there are only twenty people, then why is it so… loud?”

“Oh, that?” Avis shrugged. “That’d be the rest of the city in the stands.”

“T-t-t-the w-w-w-whole c-c-c-ity?” Fluttershy stammered.

“Eh, people love a good show.”

At that moment, Fluttershy’s pallor took on a remarkably similar hue to the marble statues they’d just passed.

“Hey, don’t worry about it, Flutters,” Rainbow Dash grinned as she threw a consoling arm around her friend. “You just leave all the yelling and stuff to me.”

“Ready?” Avis asked as he took hold of the door. “ ‘Cause we’re on in three, two, one…”

The roar of the crowds hit them like a physical wall of sound, the tremors so loud that they rattled bones and brain about like popcorn kernels over the fire. The arena was massive, easily twice the size of Cloudsdales own arena, and yet the stands were completely full. Everywhere the eye looked, tunic-clad Griffonheim occupied the benches by the thousands, some listening to the debates, but most choosing instead to debate neighbors on their own. All through the stands, clusters of winged men and women shouted and ranted at each other like angry in-laws at Thanksgiving dinner. Yet through all the bedlam and madness, a few voices could still be heard above all others.

“The Equestrians have been friends to us since the days of the founding! If they say that this is an hour of need, it is our solemn duty to rise up to the occasion!”

“And who’s to say that this indeed is that hour? Our scouts have reported no such disturbances warranting such unprecedented action!”

“Our scouts have reported nothing because constant cutting of our military’s budget prevents them from roaming two steps from our own borders!”

“Always with the budget! Is it not possible for you to go one hearing without crying about the budget?”

“I will continue to cry until someone learns to hear the sense in my words!”

“And I would hear sense if there were any to hear!”

At the arena’s center floated a large dais made of pearly, white cloud stone. Upon this dais floated twenty carved podiums of the same weightless material. And standing behind these podiums were the most apoplectically enraged bunch the Ponyville girls had ever seen. Though each wore a silk toga and a golden laurel wreath upon the brow, the men and women taking center stage had more red faces, more flying spittle, and more furious arm-waving than that one pro-wrestling match Rainbow Dash had made them all go to. This wasn’t just a debate. This was a battle of words where the other side was to be put down with extreme, unforgiving prejudice.

“Did we come at a bad time or something?” Rainbow Dash blinked as she looked to one Senator who was gesticulating with such force, she nearly lost her balance.

“Actually, it’s perfect,” Gilda remarked. “Looks like things are still pretty quiet for the moment.”

“You’re kidding,” Rainbow Dash gaped. “This is quiet?”

“Nobody’s lost any blood yet, right?” Avis chimed in. “Debates aren’t really official till somebody takes a swing.”

“Enough of this nonsense!” another senator cried out. “Why should we waste our time listening to your nonsensical doubts when Equestria has so graciously provided envoys to enlighten us all?”

“Um… what?” Fluttershy blinked.

“Yes, let’s hear from the Equestrians!” another Senator called out. “Bring them to the stage!”

Before either could make heads or tails of the situations, pairs of winged hoplites descended, took the girls by the arms, and lifted them onto the stage. A flurry of other armored soldiers rearranged the podiums to make room for two more, and before anyone could blink, the circle of twenty now held twenty two.

“So, tell us,” a shriveled raisin of a twice-desiccated grandfather called out with a voice that could have made a grizzly scurry in terror. “What do the children of Celestia have to say?”

It was only then that Rainbow Dash realized everything had gone quiet. Really quiet. Looking to the crowds, her violet eyes slowly widened as she found thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of eyes all fixed on her, waiting for her to speak.

“I… uh…”

Rainbow Dash swallowed. Hard. Normally, she wasn’t one to get stage fright. In fact, relished the attention and thrived off the energy of the spotlight. The roar of the crowds, the thunder of applause, all of it pumped her up like firing afterburners and spurned her on to some of her greatest performances ever. But that was for flying. This was speaking, and speaking meant words, something she’d never put in very high priority. To be perfectly honest, aside from the rare homework assignment she’d bothered to do and the comics that devoured her allowance, words occupied a truly miniscule portion of her childhood.

Much to her dismay as ten thousand citizens silently waited for her to speak.

“So… yeah, about that,” Rainbow Dash began once more after a series of loud and deliberately prolonged coughs. “Princess Celestia sent us here because, uh… she wanted us to talk to you. Talk to you, because… we’ve got really important stuff to say.”

Did they really? Between the twelve dozen things the princesses had been working on, neither of them had had the time to really explain the nature of the whirlwind plans they'd just set into motion, let alone the intricacies of international diplomacy that were needed to make it happen. In fact, beyond the “I’m sending you guys out,” declaration, they hadn’t really gotten anything at all. Just what the hay were they supposed to say?

“And just what is this… ‘really important stuff’, if I might ask?” one senator asked with grey eyebrow arched.

“You most certainly can,” Rainbow Dash agreed, now working to make up for content with bluster. “See, we’ve got a problem. Like, a really big problem. It’s a… a super ginormous, grade A epic disaster problem in the form of a world-ending monster-type guy who’s–”

“–Well, is it a disaster or a monster?”

“I, uh… what?” Rainbow Dash blinked as the question caught her like a right hook from the blindside.

“If the trouble is a disaster, it’s one matter,” the interrupting senator continued, “and if it’s a monster, it’s another matter entirely. So which is it?”

“I… guess it’s more of a monster then?” Rainbow Dash frowned. “But that’s important. The point is that we’ve got to stop it from–”

“–Now just a minute there,” another senator chimed in. “If it’s more of a monster, do you mean that it is part disaster as well? How can something be both corporeal beast and fundamental, natural phenomenon as well?”

“Obviously, it must be an entity that occupies a non-corporeal form,” yet another member of the congress sighed in open exasperation. “Anyone who’s at all familiar with Congue’s works would know that.”

“Well, pardon us for our ignorance, oh learned keeper of useless knowledge,” still another toga-clad Griffonheim sneered. “It seems that we of the martial delegation have been so busy keeping our borders intact, we fell a little behind on our homework.”

Wings flared as arguments began to bubble up once more, not only on the stone table in the arena’s center, but in the stands as well. Rainbow Dash, now completely bewildered at just what the illustrious senators were talking about, tried to assert control once more.”

“Look, it doesn’t really matter what exactly he is,” she called out over the growing din. “The point is that Nul – the thing we’re talking about – is big trouble in whatever shape he comes in and we need your help to keep him in check.”

“I propose a study to ascertain the actual nature of this supposed threat,” an aged woman called as she brought a fist down onto her pedestal. “Until we can be sure of the creature’s actual nature, it is most prudent that we stay our hand.”

“What? Wait, no!” Rainbow Dash cried. “We already know what he is! Celestia and Luna were the ones who locked him up in the first place, so it’s not like we–”

“–I propose we bring Celestia and Luna here for a more thorough roundtable on the topic,” another grizzled senator called whilst contemplatively stroking his beard. “Perhaps over a nice herbal tea and some buttered scones.”

“We don’t have time for snacks,” Rainbow called out once more, a desperate keen coming to her voice as it grew fainter in the rising noise. “What we need is–”

“If we are proposing another meeting, then we must allocate a proper budget for the occasion.”

“Not so fast! According to our fiscal schedule, me must first finalize allotments for public waste disposal before adding on any additional expenditures.”

“In that case, we might as well forget the meeting since the Ipsum cohort refuses to budge an inch on their proposals.”

“We’ve been over this before! Construction of a new aqueductal pathway is imperative to reduce cases of mildew-based allergies by three percent per year! Unless you–”


The senators froze in mid speech as the piercing whistle sliced through the noise like a seagull through ocean spray. All eyes turned to the young Avis who, once sure that he held the crowd’s gaze, turned his eyes to Gilda.

“Citizens of Gloriam!” she called out, her voice clear and strong as it soared to the ears of the populace. “It seems we have forgotten our purpose this day. While we prattle on about petty squabbles and semantics, we neglect the Element Bearers who grace us with their presence!”

A quiet murmur rustled through the stands. Legends of the Elements of Harmony were spoken of in all nations as all lands held reverence for the fabled relics. If these two truly were bearers of the Elements as claimed…

“Celestia has bidden two who hold the power of creation come speak with us,” Gilda continued as her words compelled silence once more. “It would be a stain upon the name of Gloriam and the Imperium itself if we did not give them the courtesy of our ears. Now, citizens and Griffonheim all, will you give them a moment to speak?”

Though it took a moment of consideration and a great bit of grudging acceptance from some, the crowds did turn their attention back to the young fliers from Ponyville, specifically the girl with a head of multicolored quills. Rainbow Dash could feel the oppressive weight of expectation weighing on her like snow on her wings, now twice as heavy given her first oratory fiasco. She’d completely failed to capture the audience and let their turbulence throw her off course. Once struck and twice shy as she was now, she wasn’t sure she was ready to give the speech these people needed to hear.

But maybe she didn’t have to.

“Um… excuse me,” a voice called out softly, so softly in fact, that only half the senators heard it. “So, I’m not sure exactly on what’s going on, but I’d like to say a little something, if I may.”

One by one, eyes turned to Fluttershy who – despite having the pallor of a powdered sugar – stood with a death-grip on the podium and addressed the crowd.

“Alright then, um… My name’s Fluttershy, and Princess Celestia sent my friend Rainbow Dash and I here because we’re in trouble. Sometime soon, a monster called Nul is going to come out of the ground and try to destroy the world.”

“Destroy the world?” one senator scoffed, “what is this, some children’s video…” Words trailed off as a look from Rainbow Dash promised a thousand distinct unpleasantries should he continue speaking; she may not have been the best at speaking, but there was nobody better at backing up a friend. The cyan-clad flyer gave Fluttershy a quick thumbs up and in return, got a grateful nod as the quite girl resumed.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Nul is coming and will destroy everything unless we’re able to stop him. Right now, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna are working very hard and doing everything they can to stop him. But we can’t do it ourselves. That’s why she sent us out to our friends for help. And that’s, um… that’s why we’re here, I think.”

“… You come for help,” a senator with a sharply pointed beard began, his words equally sharp, but not hostile as he spoke, “but what does this entail? What help do you want from the Empire?”

“I’m not… exactly sure,” Fluttershy murmured, looking down towards her feet as she quailed under his raptor’s gaze. “But… I think… she needs your help and hold off Nul until we can lock him up.”

“We?” a congresswoman blinked. “You mean… you and your companions will use the Elements to seal him? Personally?”

Mutely, Fluttershy nodded.

“But you’re just a child!” she cried, less from derision and more in abject shock. “If this Nul is as great a threat as you say, then aren’t you afraid of facing on your own?”

“… Yes… ” Fluttershy squeaked, the confession nearly bringing her to bursting out in tears. Nearly.

“But,” she continued as aquamarine eyes glistening with moisture held just before the verge of breaking, “at least I’m not going to be alone. I have some very good friends coming along with me, and even if we’re not together, we know that the princesses and all the people in Equestria will be fighting alongside us. We have friends helping us, and we'll be ever so grateful if you'd be so kind as to possibly consider helping us out too. If you wouldn’t mind that is.”

And here, despite being on the brink of tears, Fluttershy smiled. It was small and timid and hardly more than a slight wrinkle in her flushed cheeks, but it was so sweet and pure and innocent in its earnest hopefulness, many of the elders in the crowds clutched at their chest and wondered if a visit to the apothecary was required. They reacted, but it was the young who acted.

“My brothers!” a young Griffonheim with indigo wings called out as he stood in the stands. “Let it be known that on this day, Volucris, first son of centurion Larum, pledges his hand to the aid of Equestria!”

“Pica, third son of Senator Milvus pledges his hand as well!”

“Tolleno, second son of city consul Erodio!–”

“Columbae of House Noctua!–”




That was all they heard before the whole stadium was on its feet in roaring applause so loud that the coliseum itself trembled in reply. Once again, the senators broke out into furious discussion, but now of the conciliatory sort. Where energies had been directed towards harsh and insulting words before, they now went to formulating plans, organizing work, and putting actions into motion. After all, when a clearly terrified girl can be brave for a cause, what other response could they give?

Once Fluttershy was sure no more was expected of her, she was content to collapse. Knees buckling beneath her yellow sundress, the Ponyville girl would have tumbled from the stone plinth had it not been for the timely intervention of Rainbow Dash at one side and Gilda at the other.

“Way to go Flutters!” Rainbow Dash laughed as she threw the girl’s arm over hers to keep her on her feet. “You totally knocked it outta the park, didn’t she, Gilda?”

“That was… actually really cool,” the Griffonheim girl muttered as cheeks flushed beneath her snowy plumage. “Didn’t think you had it in you.”

“Really?” Fluttershy gasped in surprise. “Does this mean that I’m cool enough to hang out with you, now?”

Gilda blinked.

“Um… what now?”

“Well, last time you came to Ponyville, you said you only liked to hang out with cool people,” Fluttershy explained as eyes instantly went back to her feet as she flushed for being so bold. “You haven’t come back since, but maybe now we… maybe… could be friends?”

Gilda had once been struck by lightning. There were no clouds now, but the expression she now wore was a carbon copy of that unfortunate event.

“Wait, you’re saying that you… you want to hang out with me?!” Gilda gaped. “Even after the way I acted like a total jerk?”

“Oh my yes!” Fluttershy nodded eagerly. “I mean, you were kind of scary, but you were friends with Rainbow Dash, so you couldn’t be that scary. I thought you were just a little nervous at being in a new town for the first time.”

“Hold on a second,” Rainbow Dash frowned as she looked to Gilda, the gears in her head slowly grinding up to speed. “Is that why you haven’t been responding to my letters? Cause you felt bad?”

“… Can you blame me?” Gilda muttered, her cheeks now so red that she looked like a peppermint with wings. “When you were a royal pain like I was, it’s not like people are dying to keep being friends, you know?”

Rainbow Dash gaped before turning to the gaping Fluttershy so they could both return to gaping at Gilda. Then, gapes turned to grins as the two did the most painful thing Gilda could possibly have thought of.

“Well isn’t that just adorable!” Rainbow Dash gushed as she seized up Gilda in a big old bear hug. “Isn’t she just the cutest?”

“Yes she is, yes she is!” Fluttershy cooed as she mirrored the hug from the other side with, if not quite as much force, with just as much enthusiasm. “She’s just a big old sweetie, isn’t she!”

“Hey! Get off of me!” Gilda screeched as she struggled desperately to escape the mortifying ministration of the two Ponyville girls. But with arms and wings alike pinned down, there was little she could do but endure the egregious displays of public affection. Endure, that is, right up until a most timely intervention.

“Hey,” Avis called out as he alighted before them. “Sorry to break up your love fest, but I think we might want to get out of here.”

“Why, did we piss someone off?” Rainbow Dash asked, concerned, but still not releasing Gilda just yet. Avis scratched his head.

“More of the opposite, really. You see–”

Avis was saved the need to explain by the arrival of the problem. Flapping about in a flurry of feathers, no less than twenty young men landed nearby and began flocking around the trio of girls.

“Miss Fluttershy!” one with a beak of a nose called out. “I was wondering if you needed accommodations for the evening?”

“If that’s the issue, then I’m your man!” another one called out with a flash of forest green eyes. “My house has the nicest view of Gloriam by far. You’ll love it!”

“Forget about sleeping arrangements!” yet one more scoffed as his brawny form pushed his way to the front of the crowd. “What say I take you out to the finest restaurant the city has to offer? Only the best for a lady like yourself!”

“Apparently,” Avis grunted from where the mob had pressed him in, “Fluttershy here’s gotten herself a little fanclub. And by little, I mean all of this.”

“You don’t say,” Rainbow Dash snorted as she deigned to kick away a particular Griffonheim who was getting a little too fresh with his posture. “So how do we get out of this without starting a riot?”

“You don’t,” Gilda sighed. “I give it two minutes before everything goes talons up.”

Fluttershy’s aquamarine eyes opened rather wide.

“Oh my…”


Chapter 8

Chapter 8

“Um, excuse me. Sir?”

Graves slowly blinked before peering up through sweat-soaked bangs at the source of the query. Sergeant… Strider, if he recalled.

“What is it?”

“Pardon the interruption sir,” Strider repeated with a nervous gulp, “but I was wondering if it might be time for a break?”

A break? Gunmetal grey eyes glanced over to the spacious practice chamber’s lone, ticking clock. Apparently, time flies even when you’re not having fun because lo and behold, five hours had come and gone in the blink of an eye. Now that he thought about it though, it sort of made sense. His bones ached, his muscles burned, and sweat had long since soaked through his most recent change of shirts. Even the sturdy leather of his broad, flat-brimmed hat seemed to droop in exhaustion.

“… I’m good,” Graves grunted as he stood up once more and cracked his stiffened neck. “We’re gonna run scenarios fifteen through eighteen one more time and then…“ His voice trailed off as he noticed a decidedly undisciplined fidget coming from the waiting officer.

“Something wrong?” the marshal inquired. Strider swallowed as those steely orbs affixed on him, his six years as an officer doing nothing to keep him from feeling like a greenhorn grunt once more. This marshal just seemed to have that effect.

“Begging your pardon sir,” he called out far more loudly than necessary, “but I think that the break was more… ah… more required by everyone… else…”

Following the officer’s gaze, understanding dawned as Graves cast his eyes over the groaning heaps of semi-comatose cadets strewn across the floor. Casualties of a necessary cause, as one might put it.

The Savage Lands. Honestly, he’d had time to process and he still couldn’t quite believe it. After the first time he’d gone, each of the rare, subsequent visits had been made with the joy of giving Opal a bath. He’d gotten more scars in that handful of missions than he did in a regular year elsewhere. And now, he was making it again, only this time, with six untrained civvies in tow.

It wouldn’t be easy. Never was, The only bright side was that along with the assignment, Graves had also been given administrative leave to use any and all resources necessary to prepare for his mission. On this point, Graves was not about to skimp. Before an hour had passed, Graves had entered the Academy and commandeered two classes of senior students in order to help simulate any and every hostage crisis he could think of. He’d run through scenarios of ambushes, kidnappings, line-breaking charges and chaotic retreats, with the new recruits serving as both the opposing forces and his disorganized charges. When he’d exhausted the list, he ran them again, and when that was exhausted, he invented some more. He couldn’t plan for every contingency, but he could damn well try, and he’d begun drilling with relentless abandon.

That had been three days ago.

Graves wanted to simulate reality, and that meant fighting when he was tired, sleep deprived, and injured. Lacerations crossed his body, bruises formed a leopard’s pelt, and he was pretty sure several bones were no longer where they should be. Toss on only a few hours of rest between each marathon session, and you had a man who’d come up against the brink of human endurance and laughed as he waltzed right on by. And even after all of that, he was still better off than his groaning troop. At least he could still stand.

“Hm,” Graves intoned. “Alright, we’ll end it here. Comet.”

“Yes sir?” a handsome cadet called as he wobbled to his feet.

“Find me a replacement for this lot and have them prepped for practice by thirteen hundred sharp. Dismissed.”

With a trembling salute to the sandy blonde locks plastered down with sweat, Comet slowly set to helping the other groaning cadets get to their feet and back to the sweet release of their barracks. On the other side of the room, the door clicked shut as Graves walked off.

Boot heels clicked against marble tiles Graves walked the pathway linking Academy and palace beneath a clear, starry sky. Luna’s moon was high in its journey already and signaled an hour far beyond what Graves expected. He’d kept those cadets far too long and pushed them harder than he should have, but even as a cool breeze washed over his weary body, Graves heaved a heavy sigh. Everyone had to make sacrifices, and that included those cadets. In total, they’d be working with him for a solid week, perhaps ten days at most to prepare for any and every worst case scenario he could think of, and those ten days were going to be nothing short of pure, distilled pain.

But ten days wouldn’t be enough. Ten weeks might not be enough. In the field, the only thing you could count on is that nothing could be counted on; that’s why good soldiers reduced variability to achieve success. When your job is to protect six girls who do nothing but create variability, sometimes in ways you didn’t even think possible, well… what then? Even if Graves practiced every waking hour from here till launch, would it really make a difference?

“Now there’s a face not even a mother could love,” came a loud and very familiar laugh. “Seriously, I’d show you, but I’m afraid your reflection would turn you to stone.”

“Skipping out on meetings again?” Graves rejoined, a twitch at the corner of his lips as he turned to see the smiling face of Shining Armor.

“Eh, it’s all good,” the azure-haired captain shrugged. “Those old codgers have their hands on every little detail, so I figure I’d hop out and see how you’re holding up. Considering you look ready to chew rocks and spit gravel, I take it that’s not very well.”

“That’s how I always look.” Graves replied as he relaxed his expression. It wasn’t until he actively loosened up that he realized how much tension had been there.

“Uh huh,” Shining Armor nodded, clearly not convinced. Graves offered no response and so the two silent for a spell as the cool wind blew and the moon shined bright.

“So… what’s up?” the guard captain began once more. “The world on your shoulders weighing you down? Or did you and Rarity have a fight? ‘Cause if it’s the fight, then let me tell you, the answer is chocolate. Doesn’t matter what you did, all you need to do is get her–”

“We didn’t fight,” the marshal sighed with a generous roll of the eyes for good measure. “I was just thinking about the mission.”

“Ah, weight of the world, it is then,” Shining Armor nodded. “Well… what’s exactly got you so bugged out? You’ve stopped the end of the world before, right?”

“Few times,” Graves nodded.

“Were you particularly worried about those?”

“Not really,” he shrugged.

“Then what’s so special about this one?”

It didn’t seem like Graves realized it, but the thunderhead came back to his face as lightning flickered in his sharp, grey eyes. Shining Armor looked on, appraising the expression as he would a tactical map, apparently with equal success as his cobalt eyes illuminated.

“Ah, I see,” Shining Armor nodded, doing a very fair impression of the stone-faced marshal. “Well, in that case, there’s only one thing to do.”

“What’s that?”

A quick snap of his silver gauntlets, and a pair of ethereal swords appeared in front of the crimson garbed-captain. Taking hold of the saber, he tossed the straight blade to Graves, who eyed his companion with a most dubious look.

“Fencing?” he rumbled. “Really?”

“Standard competition rules,” Shining Armor smiled as he gave his blade a few experimental swings. “First to land a fatal blow wins. Courtyard serves as the boundaries.”

“Don’t suppose I got a say in this, do I?” Graves sighed. The captain simply smiled.

Without warning, Shining Armor leaped forward and the gleaming edge of his glittering saber slashed out. But Graves was ready. As man who trusted others considerably less than the distance he could throw them, the marshal was ready for the underhanded strike and brought his own sword up to parry the ambushing blow a hair before it found his neck. A fountain of pale blue sparks cascaded to the ground as blade met blade and the battle began in earnest.

Back and forth, flickering and darting faster than the eye could follow, the two slashed and parried their way all across the tiled courtyard. Though the layman would struggle to even keep track of the pair, let alone their blades, a trained observer could discern that Shining Armor held the clear edge in skill. With the grace of a swooping heron, the captain’s sword forms flowed together in a seamless dance to rain down a relentless torrent of lethal strikes. Blindingly fast, but heavy enough to cleave a man in two with the effort of parting silk, Shining Armor’s sword was an immaculate storm of whirling death.

But even in eye of hurricane where one mistake would send its victim into the swirling vortex of bladed fury, Graves did not yield. There was no flow to his movements, no polish to his form, but the marshal’s strikes came from a body mercilessly engineered for combat. Sharp and precise, his straight sword lashed out like a hissing viper seeking blood with savage alacrity and pinpoint precision. Every motion of his was clean, stripped of everything but the essentials for the utmost in efficiency. With this, he created speed, an ungodly speed that was enough to hold ground against the captain’s flawless form. For a time.

Swordplay was not one of the marshal’s true skills and soon it began to show. Glowing slash marks made their appearance on the marshal’s arms and legs, signals of where even his inhuman speed had not been enough. Try as he might, he couldn’t break through the captain’s perfectly composed defense. With a body already worn and wearied from hours of combat, the outcome was inevitable. Shining Armor advanced, Graves gave ground, and suddenly–

–Graves leaped aside, evade the sword only to find the boot as Shining Armor twisted to deliver a whiplash kick to the marshal’s side. Grunting as the captain’s shin caught him full in the short ribs, Graves was a fraction of a second too slow in moving his sword. In that second’s fraction, Shining Armor executed a sharp repost, a fluid thrust, and plunged his saber into the marshal’s chest where it dissolved into a swirl of glittering motes of delicate blue light.

“My win,” Shining Armor smiled, panting, but flushed with the thrill of victory. “As expected.”

“Obviously,” Graves snorted as stretched out his aching side. “But why would one of Equestria’s seven Sword Saints need to cheat?”

“Cheat? Me?” the captain gasped in injured tones. “I’m shocked and appalled you would even say that!”

“Competition rules don’t allow kicks,” the marshal growled as he advanced a very menacing step closer. “Or would you prefer that we go again with that amended?”

“Aw, come on, don’t be like that,” the captain laughed as he clapped the marshal a hearty slap to the back. “I just thought it’d be a great way to illustrate the power of bending the rules.”

“First off,” Graves frowned, “that wasn’t bending the rules: that was tying them in knots and tossing them under the train tracks. And second, why the hay would you need to show me that?”

“Because obviously,” Shining Armor sighed, “a certain simpleton I know has forgotten that fact and needs a reminder.”

Graves blinked, not because the captain’s words confused him – indeed, they were about as clear as quality crystal – but because he couldn’t believe they’d been spoken.

“You know,” he began, his tone taking on the dangerous rumble of an avalanche forming in the highlands as patience started to wear thin, “I’m not exactly in the mood for that kind of talk. You wanna run that by me again?”

“Sure thing,” Shining Armor grinned, completely nonplussed by the tones that would have even stalwart veterans quaking in their stripes. “You. Are. A. Simpleton. A straight forward, bull-headed simpleton who tramples over rules like weeds in a field.”

“Hah?” Graves gaped. “I don’t trample the rules. That’d be you and your officer’s sash.”

“Oh really?” Shining Armor intoned with an eyebrow arched in challenge. “Who’s the one that bucked regulation by skipping previous tour requirements and simply blazed through the Academy’s open exams?”

“Both of us,” the marshal remarked in defense. “You took them the same year I did, remember?”

“Fair enough,” Shining Armor conceded. “But who was it that, despite having about as much magical punch as a potato, decided to join the marshals, most magically intense branch of the military, hmm?”

“That’s… not exactly a rule,” Graves frowned as he found himself on the back foot on that one. “It’s more guidelines than anything else.”

“Very well then,” the guard captain smiled. “Then what about this? One of us – I won’t say who – earned the Right of Petition and decided to use that right to specifically flout the team requirements of a marshal so he could go it alone without a lollygagging care in the world. Refresh my memory; who exactly was that?”

Graves wracked his brain for a response, but nothing came forward in response to Shining Armor’s obnoxiously smug grin. As much as he hated to admit it, as much as it rankled at his sense of propriety like seeing shorts at a military parade… the captain had a point.

“Face it, Graves,” Shining Armor concluded with all the satisfaction of a bureaucrat on tax day, “you break twice as many rules as the next ten contenders. I mean, sure, I might bend them a little here and there just because, but you tear them apart like they owe you money.”

“Okay, okay, I guess I do break convention quite a bit,” Graves cried in exasperation as he finally conceded defeat. “But what does that have to do with anything?”

“What does it…” Shining Armor blinked. “Graves, the entire reason you’re worrying yourself bald is because you’ve forgotten why you broke the rules in the first place.”

“… Hah?”

“Think about it,” the guard captain continued as for once, his smile still in place, but far more intent than usual. “The reason we’ve got all these rules in place is that most of the time, it keeps things safe and in order. But there are times – not many, but some – where breaking the rules creates some pretty big opportunities.”

“Like how a kick to the ribs helps you stab a man?” Graves intoned with eyebrow arched. Shining Armor beamed.

“Precisely. You were always one of those people. You didn’t care what the rules were. You’d cut corners, steal head starts, and flat out make things up as you went so long as it created an opportunity. While other people were worrying about playing the game right, you just went hog wild and played to win. And it worked. Well, mostly.”

“Then what am I doing wrong now?” Graves asked with gunmetal grey eyes sharp as daggers. Most would have thought the raven-haired soldier snapping in displeasure at some unkind words as he had before, but Shining Armor knew better. The only time Graves got like this was when he was hunting for something.

“Your problem,” the guard captain said, the smile fading away for the first time that evening, “is that you’ve been playing your way for so long, it’s become a rule set all on its own. You’ve gotten so used to working outside the rules that you're actually throwing away standard methods that can help you win.”

“I… what?” Graves gaped. That wasn’t right. That couldn’t be right. The only reason he’d ever been able to survive for so long was because he always took every available advantage. To hear Shining Armor say otherwise was like hearing him announce plans to retire from the military and join a yodeling folk band. And yet…

“You’ve got a sword,” Shining Armor continued as he conjured up the ethereal straight blade once more. “But you’ve also got a free hand, your legs, a coat, and who knows what else. The only reason you didn’t use them was because you decided to play by the rules. But when you’re out in the field–”

“Sir!” a rapidly approaching voice called out as it was soon followed by a pair of armored guardsman dashing into the courtyard. “Begging your pardon, sir, but your presence is requested in the war room. Now.”

“Duty calls, Shining Armor shrugged as he gave turned to the soldiers and waved his acknowledgment. However, just before he left, the azure-haired officer turned back towards Graves and spoke once more.”

“A man fighting on his own only has so many tools at his disposal. But when that man’s on a team? That’s a whole lot of opportunity just waiting to happen.”

With a clap to the shoulder and a final grin, Shining Armor jogged over to where the guardsmen stood and trotted off. This left Graves alone once more, standing in the courtyard as the moon tipped past high point and began its descent. It was a lot to take in. Or maybe it wasn’t. Shining Armor had left him with some thoughts, but it wasn’t like he’d never had them before. Rather, it was more like he’d had them so long ago, he’d forgotten that he’d ever had them before.

Break the rules. Play to win. But spend all your time outside the rules, and you forget what it's like to be inside them. You miss out on opportunities waiting to happen. Perhaps he’d been going about it all wrong. Sure, he could drill all the unconventional tactics he wanted, but he was going to need more if he wanted to make this mission a real success.

And slowly, the wheels began to turn.


“So can we strengthen up our position on East Seven?”

“I think so. The Ivory Tower has confirmed their support, correct?”

“Yes sir, they wrote in just this afternoon. Numbers aren’t confirmed yet – they’re still working to rally the magisters – but we’ve got at least three full companies confirmed.”

“Excellent. Shine, How many do you think you’ll need at HQ?”

“Ideally, all three. The more mages we have at central, the more flexible we can be with our shield placements.”

“Understood. Nothing promised, but we’ll get you as many we can spare. Now for the Griffonheim…”

Though the hour was late, the lamps in the war room burned bright. Standing around the scale model of the mountain pass that would be their battlegrounds, the Equestrian High Command continued their plans for the upcoming war with break-neck speed. Heads were foggy and bodies weary, but a potent blend of coffee, revitalizing charms, and a sense of urgency kept them well-adhered to the task. The planning they laid out now would directly determine how long their lines held, and how long their lines held would answer whether the world faced salvation or destruction.

“Shining Armor,” General Halberd called. “What’s the status on the Canterlot guard?”

“Sir, we’ve begun transferring them towards the Pass as of twelve hours ago,” the guard captain answered as he handed his commanding officer a nearby report. “Within the next two days, the full group should be transferred over and ready to begin cold weather acclimation, save for a skeleton crew left to run the city.”

“I see,” the general murmured as he flipped through the reports, not without some difficult though as the hook in the place of his hand was not exactly suited for paperwork. Though he could have had any number of prosthetics replace it, rumors said he kept the hook because it was more convenient out at his station in the deserts. What exactly he used it for, none truly cared to ask.

“Not bad,” he finally concluded as he set the slightly shredded report down. “However, I’m concerned that the supply transports aren’t running at optimum efficiency. Any way we can shave down the dead time of each ship?”

“I’ll consult the engineering team as soon as I–”

“–As soon as you do what, may I ask?”

Words died in his throat as with a queasy sense of dread, Shining Armor turned around to find himself looking at his very lovely and very pregnant wife.

“Cadance,” he smiled, doing his best to look chipper and not guilty at all. “I, ah… thought you were overseeing the evacuation of the Crystal Empire.”

“I was, dear husband,” she smiled sweetly. “That’s why I had to fly back to Canterlot and make sure the arrangements to receive them were in order. Imagine my surprise when I went to check in on your room and found you out of bed. Again.”

Cobalt eyes darted to the other officers in the room, but found no support. Regulation stated that in even in states of emergency, high command was required to get six hours of rest every twenty four hours; too much was at stake without having those in charge make silly mistakes from a lack of sleep. True, every officer fudged the rules for a final check here or a second review there, but at least they did it without getting caught.

“It… was only for an hour or two,” Shining Armor tried to explain as Cadance slowly stepped forward. “I just had to make a quick tour of the Academy and straighten out the… ah… emergency… listings…” The captain stopped talking as Cadance merely looked him in the eye and reached out her hand.

“Come with me. Now.”

Red-faced and embarrassed like a student called to the principal’s office, Shining Armor quietly took his wife’s hand as he followed her from the war room. Though he couldn’t see them, he could feel the grins of the veteran officers who had no intention of bailing out the rookie captain, especially not when lady folk were getting involved. After all, they were soldiers, not suicidal.

Out in the hall, Cadance led them along at a brisk pace, quite a remarkable feat considering how swollen her belly was. Once they were clear out of earshot though, she quickly turned on her husband and let loose.

“Shine, you promised me you’d take care of yourself!” she cried in exasperation as she delivered a solid wallop to his arm.

“I did! I am!” Shining Armor called out as he sought to both placate his wife and fend off her angry barrage, neither with much success. “I’ve been getting regular treatments by Doctor Residence: you know how good his charms are.”

“They’re still not a replacement for a good night’s sleep!”

“I’m still sleeping!”

“Two! Hours! A night!” Cadance yelled as she delivered a sound punch to his ribs. “Honestly, you’re getting to be as bad as Graves!”

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Shining Armor winced. “He looks pretty strung out if you ask me.” To his great surprise, this was the comment that stopped the beating.

“You saw him?” Cadance asked cautiously, not quite placated, but at least no longer violent. Shining Armor nodded.

“Probably half an hour ago. He looked nervous. Well, not exactly nervous – he never looks nervous – but a lot worse than usual.”

“I should think so,” Cadance nodded as she finally began to lower her fists. “He has to take Rarity, your sister, and all the other girls out into the middle of the Savage Lands. He must be beside himself with worry.” The crystal princess looked right up at her husband. “You had a good talk with him, I trust?”

“About as good as we ever have,” Shining Armor nodded. “All I know is that when I left, it looked like he was thinking of something.”

“That’s good,” Cadance sighed in relief before her frown returned. “Now if someone would listen to my advice, we’d all be better off.”

“Hey, I totally listen to your advice!” the guard captain grinned. “I just don’t act on it all the time is all.”

“You are utterly incorrigible,” Cadance said with a roll of her eyes as she swatted her husband once more. However, there was no heart in this one as instead, she took hold of his shoulder and leaned into his chest. “I just wish you wouldn’t be like him and try to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. I know you care, but people worry about you too, you know.”

As clever as Shining Armor liked to pretend to be around Graves, he was still a guy and thus, very prone to missing the obvious cues. It was only then, when he heard the concern in her voice that he realized how worried she really was. Kicking himself for being a fool, the young man quickly wrapped his arms around the love of his life.

“Hey, sorry about that,” he said softly as he held her close. “You know me. I get so wrapped in up in stuff, I tend to lose track of time. I’ll get some rest and real soon, okay?”

“You’d better,” Cadance answered as she looked up, violet eyes twinkling as a smile came to her face once more. “Or else I might have to drag you there myself.”

“Whoa there,” Shining Armor laughed. “I thought you wanted me to get some sleep.”

“Aw, are you tired of me so soon?”

As one, the two Equestrians turned towards the unexpected third voice. There, walking towards them with the soft whisk of iridescent silk and a haughty smile on her harsh but beautiful face, came the regal figure of Queen Chrysalis.

“Two timer,” the Changeling monarch laughed as she traced a chitin-clad finger under Shining Armor’s chin. “And to think, you toss me aside after we spent all last night together.”

“Yes, renegotiating the Equestria-Changling Armistice for these present times was certainly riveting,” the guard captain replied without flinching, “as is every other diplomatically necessary discussion we’ve shared.”

“Ooh, so cold,” Chrysalis laughed, the sound arrogant yet musical at once. “I hope you’ll bring that delightful chill to our next meeting?”

“Unfortunately,” Cadance smoothly interjected, “my husband has to retire for the evening. I, however, as a representative of Equestria, would be more than happy to conduct those negotiations on his behalf.”

“Marvelous,” Chrysalis smiled, seemingly not at all off put by the clear undertones of the princess’s words. “In that case, Captain, I’ll see you at some other time. Rest well.”

“Er… yes,” Shining Armor nodded, rather thoroughly off put by the cordiality of her words. “In that case, good evening, Queen Chrysalis. Cadance.”

“Sweet dreams.”

With a quick kiss, Cadance released her husband and watched as he walked off towards his quarters, his steps only a hair faster for the circumstances than they’d normally be. She watched with composed serenity right up until he rounded the corner before she in turn rounded on Chrysalis.

“Look here, sister,” she said, all political niceties tossed aside like dirty laundry. “I don’t know what your game is, but Shining Armor is mine, you hear?”

“Such jealousy!” Chrysalis gasped in delight as she took a deep, savoring breath. “So spicy and piquant, you’d almost think I was trying to steal him from you.”

“Well, what else would you call it?” the princess challenged a she crossed her arms beneath her breasts. “I saw the way you walked up, the way you were made those eyes at him while you sashayed all about.”

“Something you’re familiar with?” the Changeling smirked.

“Please, I’m a princess, not a nun.”

At this, Chrysalis tossed her head back and laughed aloud.

“My dear Cadance,” she smiled as she slowly walked forward, smiling like a spider as it crept forward on its web. “Are you feeling threatened?”

“Not at all,” Cadance smiled with prim confidence. “Shining Armor’s a good man. He’d never leave me for someone like you.”

“And now, I ask you this,” the queen continued, drawing even closer as her smile grew to reveal pearly white fangs. “Who ever said I wanted him to leave?”

“I, uh… huh?” Cadance gaped.

“You two are absolutely adorable together,” Chrysalis grinned as she reached forward to twirl a lock of Cadance’s shimmering tresses. “But as sugary sweet as things may be, why not add a little spice to heat things up, eh?”

“Wait, are you saying–” The crystal princesses worked to speak, but her words ended in a stifled squeak as Chrysalis leaned close. Very close.

“Sharing is caring, isn’t it dear?” the queen said, a very warm look on her usually cool face as she leaned in even closer. “And who better to share such a tasty morsel than a pair as close as us? A pair as…. intimate… as…”

With a strangled cry, a red-faced Cadance quickly pushed the laughing Chrysalis away.

“Think about my proposal, darling,” the Changeling sang as she walked off, willowy hips swaying in the evening breeze. “I look forward to speaking with you soon.” And with a final, musical laugh, Chrysalis was gone.

For a moment, Cadance stood there, face flushed the shade of carnations as the queen’s words bounced around in her head. Just a moment though, because in the next instance, she was hot on her way to where her husband would be undressing right this very instant. Curse that Chrysalis and her devilish words! She was just toying with them, trying to worm her way into her- his head! Well, there was no way Cadance was going to let her win. There was no way she was going to let Chrysalis get her fiendish claws in her- them- him! Him!



Chapter 9

Chapter 9

The whisper of smooth stone on stone brought up the expectant eyes of two Equestrian girls.

“… Audience is granted.”

“Whoo nelly, it’s about time!” Applejack whooped as she tossed her Stetson high in the air. “I was beginnin’ tah think we’d be greyer’n these rock by the time things got rolling. Er… no offense,” she hastily added as the hat quickly came down to cover an embarrassed flush.

It was probably a good thing she did. Respect went a long way with Carregard, Honored Brood of the Anrydedd Salamander Tribe, and from the way his coal black eyes flashed beneath his ember-hued mane, that final apology was the only thing keeping his dragon blood in check. Not that he needed it, of course: a muscular warrior clad in the gleaming chainmail of his clan, he could have squashed the girls like a pair of overly ripe bananas. The fact that he didn’t let Rarity loose another – in what was becoming quite a large number – small sigh of relief.

Thing had not exactly progressed as expected over the past few days. When their airship had touched down before the mountain stronghold, the Salamander guards had greeted them warmly and shown them every courtesy as welcomed ambassadors of Equestria. However, Rarity had quickly learned that they were of the Fintai, and the Fintai’s attitudes were not what they could expect for long.

When they made their request for audience before the head of the Dragon’s Enclave, the girls were taken to the back of the stronghold where the Anrydedd waited. Right from the outset, it was obvious even to Applejack that they were not wanted. For the better part of two days, the pair of them had repeatedly pled their case before stone-faced warriors who met every word with reticence, if not outright hostility. For the freckle-faced farm girl, it was about as confusing as finding pear in a family pie. For Rarity, not so much, but equally frustrating nonetheless.

Finally, though, it seems their persistence had paid off as with a curt nod, Carregard bid them to follow. Rising from their comfortable, if closely guarded quarters, Rarity and Applejack followed behind their brooding guide as he led them further into the stronghold’s depths. The further they walked, the more Anrydedd they met, each with the same look of grim disdain for the Equestrian pair.

The further into the stronghold they went, the fewer windows they saw until eventually, the walls were lit with fiery glow of pyre stones rather than sunlight. Each step brought with it further transformation as well, as carved stone and tiling slowly gave way to rough walls and unfinished rock. It was a gradual process, which is why it was such a surprise when the girls realized they no longer walked through halls, but in tunnels bored into the mountains themselves.

“You know what’s going on?” Applejack softly whispered so as not to disturb the clearly unhappy Carregard.

“I assume we’re being taken to their leader,” her friend replied in equally hushed tones.

“So, that mean we’re gonna be talkin’ to a dragon or somethin’?” the blonde cowgirl asked as her eyebrow arched with slight concern. “What, er… what happens if it tries tah eat us?” Rarity paused to think before replying.

“Let’s just hope it’s not hungry.”

Suddenly, the tunnel widened as they entered a spacious cavern that housed a large, metal door at the other side. Though the strangely eldritch glow that emanated from its ancient carvings would have drawn the curious gaze at any other time, it was rather what stood before the door that captured the girls’ attention.

Dragons. Men. Dragon men. Standing in ordered rows, no less than fifty of the ember-haired Salamanders lined the way towards the gate. However, instead of standing in human appearance as their guide did, these warriors stood with their enchanted blood roaring wide awake. Draconic heads stood atop each shoulder as reptilian eyes glared coal-black through the smoky haze arising from the slits of their nostrils. Arms, crossed before chests, ended with the razor claws and diamond hard scales that could rend through iron like tissue. Upon each back stood a large pair of folded wings ribbed with bone and hung with leathery skin. Imposing, serpentine banners, those wings served as a proud call of challenge to any who dared question the might of the Salamander people.

“These are the visitors?” the foremost warrior asked in more growl than question, the smoke thickening as he glared down at the girls.

“Indeed we are,” Rarity replied with a gracious curtsey, her poise made even more impressive by the way she hid her trembling knees. “Princess Celestia and Princess Luna of Equestria bid us come that we might petition your Honored Elder for aid.”

“…Soft, Carregard,” the Salamander snorted as he turned a fang-filled grin towards the still scowling guide. “Were it up to me, I would have rent these blood-traitors limb from limb upon sight.”

“And I would be the first to join,” Carregard grunted. “But our orders are to lay no such hands on the raw hides. Thus, they walk.”

Despite her outward equilibrium, Rarity couldn’t help but throw a furtive glance towards the downright spooked Applejack. Having two large, reptilian warriors talk about their preference for dismembering you right over your heads was a decidedly surreal experience of the distinctly unnerving kind.

“Well, in they go,” the guardian shrugged as he raised a clawed fist into the air. “Whether they come out, well… that’s for the Elder to decide.”

At the sign of his fist, each Salamander turned and took hold of a link in a pair of massive chains that lay at either side of the cavern. Muscled turned to steel with strain and the air filled with thick plumes of smoke as together, the fifty Salamanders shook the very mountains as they pulled open the metal gates.

“Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” Applejack gaped as she took off her Stetson in reverence. “If that don’t jess beat all…”

It was like opening a portal to another world. Before the gates, the cavern was nothing but smoke-stained rocks lit with the flickering lights of flame-hued stones. After the gates, there were was nothing but crystal. From floor to ceiling, every surface was composed of iridescent stone that ranged from cool blues, serene green, soft violets. The girls knew they were under the earth, but from the light that shimmered from those glittering surfaces, they may as well have walked beneath a frozen ocean lit by a glittering sun of frosty light.

“In you go,” Carregard snorted as flicked an irritable thumb towards the beautiful path. “I’ll be here to collect you when you’re done.”

“You do mean that as in yer comin’ to get us, right?” Applejack smiled. When she got a fang-filled smirk in return, her smile wilted like a bloom in drought.

“Well then,” Rarity sniffed as she grabbed Applejack by the hand, “I suppose we might as well get this done with. Come along, dear Applejack, we’ve work to do.”

Walking between the rows of silently staring guards, Rarity paid them about as much heed as the shrubbery along a walkway as she resolutely made her way forward. Even after they crossed the threshold and felt the large, metal gates closing behind her, she went about with the cool aplomb of a lady at the salon. Once the door ground shut behind them, however…

“My goodness!” Rarity gasped as her legs finally gave way beneath her. “That was… that was just awful!”

“You can say that again,” Applejack barked with laughter, more from broken tension than anything else, as she plopped down beside her. “Them fellers were glarin’ hard enough tah curdle milk with a look.”

“Indeed,” Rarity agreed with a hearty nod. “I mean, I get that they don’t much care for us, but there’s no need to be so inimical. I swear, after these last few days, I wouldn’t be surprised if I found a wrinkle.”

“We’ll be lucky if that’s all we walk with,” she chuckled as the hat in hand quickly became a fan. “But why were they so uptight about us? I mean, from the way those blue-eyed fellers met us, I’d have thought the dragon-folk an’ Equestria were regular peas in a pod. But these other fellers are about as taken with us as granny with the Flim Flams.”

“I suppose they have their reasons to be disagreeable,” Rarity sighed as she tucked a stray curl back into place. “I don’t suppose it matters. Reason or not, it’s our job to make them see past their personal vendettas to work for the common good, and I for one, intend to do my job.”

“Now yer soundin’ jess like the marshal,” Applejack chuckled. “He’s sure rubbin’ off on you a somethin’ fierce.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Rarity smiled as she stood once more and reached down for her friend. Taking the proffered hand, the blonde cowgirl stood and together, they made their way deeper down the glowing crystal hall. On they walked, deeper and deeper into the mountain depths as the translucent stones around them lit the path with their iridescent glow.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the two girls saw the tunnel give way to blackness. Approaching cautiously, Rarity and Applejack came to the hall’s end and saw that it lead to a small, stone ledge, beyond which lay nothing but darkness.

“Uh… we at the right place?” Applejack blinked as she peered into the gloom. “We didn’t miss a turn off or somethin’, did we?”

“I can’t believe so,” Rarity intoned as she gazed about with equal perplexity. “After all, it’d be very hard to miss a turn off in a straight hall.”

“Well then jess what’re we supposed to be lookin’ fer?” the blond cowgirl huffed. “They expect us tah talk to the dark?”

No, child. They expect you to talk to me.

The words were felt more than heard. Deep, rumbling, and vast, the words held such power that they shook the bones and jarred the girls to their very core with each pounding syllable. But the rumbling did not stop with the voice, because even as it spoke, the darkness shifted.

Fire roared. In an instant, what was black as pitch flared to life with the grand light of an erupting volcano. From every direction, brilliant crimson, flashing gold, and searing vermillion refracted from the hundred thousand giant crystals that formed the vast cavern’s walls. Refracted, because unlike the tunnel they had passed through, the light came not from the stones themselves, but from a grand moat of molten magma bubbling away in the depths. But how was it that the girls had not seen it till now?

The answer is quite simple. They didn’t see it because even though the cavern was large enough to swallow a village whole, it was filled by something even bigger.

To call it a dragon would be an understatement. A dragon, even a full grown kaiser, stood fifty paces from haunch to head at best. The creature… no, this, this... behemoth before them, was easily five times that size. Resting on a glittering pile of diamonds the size of a crystalline lake and bathed in the glowing fires of molten rock, was a dragon that seemed born from the very earth itself. Its scales were the boulders of the stony plains. Its spine was the ridge of the ancient hills. The fangs in its yawning maw were swords forged from purest iron birthed from the planet’s core itself.

This was not just a dragon. This… this was one of the great ones, a child of the Dragon Mother herself. This was one of the Firstborn.

So,” the voice rumbled again as the monstrous beast folded wings large enough to fill that vast cave back to its massive side. “What. Have. We. Here?

“M-may it p-p-please you,” Rarity stammered as the trembled like a leaf in the hurricane. “M-my n-name is Rarity and th-th-this is–”

Applejack” the Firstborn interjected with an even deeper rumble that must have been what the earth sounded like when it chuckled. “My children have told me of your coming, small one.

“Well… that’s a relief I guess,” Applejack smiled through a rather sickly pallor. “Then, um… if yah don’t mind me askin’… who might we have the pleasure of addresin’ today?”

My true name is not for the likes of you to hear, whelpling,” the dragon growled as the molten river surrounding him seemed to blaze all the brighter. “But if you must address me, you may call me… Tiamat.

“A pleasure, Mr. Tiamat,” Applejack said as she removed her Stetson once more. “Now, I figure since you know about us, you must also know why we’re here, right?”

Indeed,” Tiamat answered as he scratched his chin with a claw large enough to cleave a house in two. “Your princess sends you to request our aid in the war against Mawr Du of the Great Dark.

“Yes,” Rarity quickly nodded. “Equestria will need all the help it can get if we hope to put him back in his–”

But why?” the Firstborn growled as the cavern rumbled once more. “Why should we help you?

Sapphire eyes blinked in the fiery light before she turned to an equally confused Applejack who could only shrug in reply.

“I’m… not quite sure what you mean,” Rarity hesitantly advanced. “Nul, or… Mawr Du as you call him… is a threat to all living creatures, not just Equestria. We need to–”

WE?” Tiamat roared, the force of his breath bringing hands to ears as a hundred of the closest crystals shattered into glittering dust. “WE need do nothing for the traitors of Equestria. Should the darkness consume your flesh and rot your bones, the dragons would count it as naught but a blessing.

“Wha… well how can you say that?” Applejack snapped as indignation overtook sense. “Yer tellin’ me that you’d rather see a whole country wiped out than raise a hand… er… claw tah help?”

Even if your lands were razed a thousand times over,” the Firstborn growled, “it would still not be enough to atone for my brother’s death.

“Rarity, what the hay is he talkin’ about?” Applejack asked with hands thrown up in frustration. “The way he’s carryin’ on, it sounds like he’s got a blood feud with the whole dang lot of us, or somethin’.” The violet-haired beauty pursed her lips.

“That… might actually be the case.”


It is as she says,” Tiamat rumbled. “Five years ago, one of your marshals, a dog of Celestia… he dared raise his hand and slew my brother. With his accursed lightning, he struck Typhon and ended the life that had been since the days the earth was formed.

“Lightnin’?” Applejack blinked as rusted cogs began to turn. Even flabbergasted as she was, it didn’t take long before she was gaping at Rarity like she’d given up fashion for a chance to become a folk singer. “Wait, is he sayin’ that… that Graves actually offed one of them?!”

“Not my choice of words, but yes,” the fashionista replied with a wry grin.

For you, it may have been years,” Tiamat continued, “but for ones as ancient as we, the wounds are as fresh as if but hours passed. Your soldier committed a grave sin, and for that, he has made an enemy of you all.

“Well, it’s hardly fair to call it a sin, now is it?” Rarity murmured with mild disapproval. “You know as well as I that he only did it because Typhon had gone mad.”

It was not his choice to make,” Tiamat growled.

“Because it wasn’t a choice at all,” Rarity replied. “If those marshals hadn’t intervened when they had, thousands would have perished before the same thing happened. We couldn’t allow one as great as Typhon to rampage in his crazed state, and the fact that there was peace between our people means you recognized he was beyond saving as well. As painful as it may be to admit, the simple fact is that the marshals did what they could to save as many lives as possible.”

Golden eyes flared dangerously at the challenge in the young lady’s voice.

Are you saying that you condone his actions?

“I’m saying that the marshals did what they had to do to preserve life.”

Easy words for one who lost nothing,” the Firstborn answered. “You do not understand the pain of losing a brother.

“But the marshal does,” Rarity answered right back. “The one you continue to vilify lost not one, but four brothers and sisters that day, each one closer than the bonds of flesh and blood. If anyone has a right to hold a grudge, it’s him, but he still stands ready to fight by your side for the sake of protecting others. Shouldn’t you be able to do the same?”

Bah, what does a whelpling know of pain?” Tiamat snorted with thick blasts of dense, black smoke. “I was with my brother when the earth was new. We flew together in the newborn skies and breathed deep of the flames of creation. To say that his loss would equal ours is–

“Oh, would you just hush up already?” Rarity snapped. Applejack stared as if Rarity was the one who’d gone mad and Tiamat’s golden eyes gleamed as he did in fact, fall silent from sheer, unbridled surprise. This gave Rarity all the time she needed to advance.

“I understand, you’re hurt and angry at having to lose one close to you,” she continued with brisk tones usually reserved for Sweetie Belle’s bouts of uncommon silliness. “However, that doesn’t give you a monopoly on feeling bad. Maybe you’re right in that you knew your brother longer, but you have absolutely no right to say you loved him more than anyone else. As such, if you would kindly stop this incessant pity party and start focusing on the bigger picture, I would greatly appreciate it.”

Giant eyes blinked as Tiamat, more stunned than he’d been in the last two thousand years, looked down on the tiny creature who dared to… to lecture him.

… You are either very brave… or very foolish to take such tones with me,” the great dragon rumbled in not quite friendly, but not quite such hostile tones as before.

“I’ll beg your pardon on that point,” Rarity said as she straightened her curls into their neat tresses once more and curtsied. “I tend to get a little… emotional when it comes to the marshal.”

Then you two are broodlings as such,” Tiamat nodded. “He too, dared to take similar tones with me when he came here as well.

“Wait… you met him?” Rarity gaped.

Before peace could be reached, we had to know our brother’s killer. Five years ago, he stood just as you did, spouting defiance and ire at one who could rend him to ash with a simple breath. There was rage in his eyes. Such rage. But it was a clear flame that burned in his iron eyes. Had it not been so, he would not have walked out as he did.

“Wait…” Applejack called with a quick shake of her head. “So if yeh didn’t have a mind to barbeque the feller even after all that happened… does that mean you’ll help us?”

Golden eyes, so vast and old that they may well have been windows to the fiery days of the planet’s birth, grew dark.

A peace was brokered, but the fury remains. I am not so light in my affections that I would easily shed blood for my brother’s killer, regardless the man.


The dragons shall do as they shall do,” Tiamat as wings unfurled with a blast of heated air as darkness descended once more. “Our place is not at Lleiddiad’s side.


Back in the cool crystal hall, the two Ponyville girls walked along in heavy silence.

“Well that didn’t go quite like I hope,” Applejack murmured.

“I suppose not,” Rarity sighed. “I’m not looking forward to breaking the news.”

“You jess let me handle that,” Applejack said with a bracing pat to the back. “After all that standin’ up you did tah that big feller, it’s the least I could do.” Rarity gave her friend a grateful smile as the two fell into silence once more.

Footsteps echoed through the glittering way.

“So… how long did yah know?” Applejack asked slowly.

“After the Gala,” Rarity quietly replied. “After the meeting with the general.”

“Huh. Figures. I always had a feelin’ you knew more’n you were lettin’ on about the marshal.”

“Applejack, please,” Rarity began. “You have to understand, I would’ve said something if I thought it appropriate, but I just didn’t–”

“Now don’t get yer frilly bits all in a bunch,” the freckled farm girl chuckled as she held up a hand for silence. “If anythin’, I think yah did the right thing by keepin’ quiet.”

“You… do?” the pretty seamstress blinked. Applejack nodded.

“Everybody’s got some sort ah skeletons in their closets,” she mused as they walked along. “Maybe they’ve got a heap of regrets, or maybe they’re memories that just hurt like the dickens to even look at. Either way, that stuff don’t belong tah nobody but that one person and if they don’t feel like sharin’, it ain’t nobody’s business but theirs.”

“I’m sure he will one day,” Rarity added with an earnest glance of her sapphire eyes. “After all, you’re his friend too. It… just might take a little time.”

“Shoot, ain’t no skin off my back,” Applejack chuckled. “I’m jess hopin’ you’ll be in shape tah take care of him on yer own till then. Can’t be easy lookin’ after the feller who done offed a legendary dragon, can it?”

“Honestly, I sometimes think he does these things just to give me grief,” Rarity groaned. “But, I suppose that’s part and parcel with territory.”

“Oh, he’s your territory now, is he?” Applejack asked with a playful look, a playful look to which Rarity just laughed.

“But of course. Was there ever any doubt?”


Chapter 10

Chapter 10

“The others are waiting inside.”

“Thank you, darling. You’ve been absolutely lovely.”

As their guardsman escort stammered his blushing farewells, the jetlagged Rarity and Applejack entered the palace parlor for some much needed rest. That rest, however, would have to wait as the instant the door opened, the pair were summarily assaulted by a large, pink cannonball.

“Omigosh, you’re finally here!” Pinkie Pie squealed as she latched onto her friends with the tenacity of a barnacle. “I missed you guys sooooooo much!”

“Oof! Er… Pinkie?” Applejack winced as her internal organs rearranged themselves within the over exuberant embrace. “You realize it’s only been like, a week since we left, right?”

“Trueeeee…” the pink one intoned. “But I was getting so worried because we were all back and you weren’t and I was starting to wonder whether the dragons had gobbled you up or something, but it’s okay now because you’re here and definitely not gobbled! Yippee!”

“She does kinda have a point,” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “When you send a marshmallow and an apple fritter to a bunch of dragons, you sort of expect a little nibbling at least.”

“Well, this marshmallow for one has returned in a decidedly un-nibbled state,” Rarity huff, just slightly miffed at being compared to a fluffy confectionary; just because she was so delightfully sweet and looked good in white did not make her a marshmallow. However, this sentiment quickly gave way to a tired sigh as she continued.

“Unfortunately, we also return with not much in the way of success either.”

“The Enclave isn’t going to come?” Twilight asked in alarm.

“Ain’t lookin’ good,” Applejack shrugged. “Seems like there was a lot more bad blood between us than we thought. Said they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do, so it’s not a total loss, but, well… I’d bet bits to boll weevils we won’t be seein’ scale nor claw any time soon.”

The news, which had gone to Celestia and Luna not ten minutes before, got the same reaction from their friends as the princesses. In terms of raw power, the dragons were a more formidable force than even Equestria’s armies. Their might would not be easily replaced, and it was such thoughts that led to somber moods all around.

For a moment.

“Well, if they’re going to be meanies about it like that, then… then poo to them,” Fluttershy huffed like an angry little bunny. “Our friends, the Griffons, have already started coming in, so it’s not like we’re going to be alone in all this.”

“True dat,” Rainbow Dash laughed. “Seems like Fluttershy’s fan club got the ball rolling on that one.”

“Fan club?” Rarity asked with eyebrow arched in great interest. Before the blushing girl was forced to respond, Pinkie – as always – interrupted at a most opportune time.

“Ooh! Ooh! Me too! So it looks like all of Twilight’s egghead buddies are coming in as well and they’ll be helping out with everything too! Isn’t that great?”

“For the last time, Pinkie,” Twilight cried with exasperation, “they’re not my “egghead buddies.” They’re the Tower mages and they’re going to double, if not triple our magical arsenal. The least you could do is be nice.”

“But I am being nice,” Pinkie Pie replied with a frown of confusion. “Why would I be anything but nice to your amazing egghead buddies?”

Twilight just threw her hands in the air as if she really no longer cared.

“So it look like y’all met with a heap more good luck than we did,” Applejack smiled as the welcomed news did a great deal to boost her morale. “That’s good. Can you imagine what it’d be like tryin’ tah do this all on our own?”

“For you guys, it’s probably gonna be a whole lot more than imagination.”

Turning around, the six girls smiled as Shining Armor came strolling with his usual confident grin. Well, almost.

“Geez, brother,” Twilight called with a mix of standard sisterly badgering and more genuine concern. “It doesn’t look like you’ve slept at all since I left.” This was, as far as Twilight was concerned, a fairly accurate statement. Though he smiled, the guard captain’s pallor was not exactly the rosy shade of health and the dark circles under his eyes were deep enough to serve as wells. Nevertheless, his cheer never wavered as he took up his little sister in a hair tousling hug.

“Ah, just a little worn out. It’s like cramming for finals all over again,” he laughed.

“If you’d just followed the study schedule like I’d planned, then you wouldn’t have had to cram in the first place,” Twilight huffed as she pinched her brother in reply.

“Twiley, nobody could follow your schedules,” Shining Armor wryly answered. “You can’t just schedules the call of nature every forty-seven minutes. Life doesn’t work like that.”

“No way. She scheduled your potty breaks?” Rainbow Dash sniggered. “Egghead extraordinaire right here.”

“I was only eight, okay?” Twilight huffed as not just a little color came to her cheeks. But, deciding that avoidance would probably be easier than explaining, she turned back to her brother in order to turn the conversation. “So, what brings you here? Can’t imagine the high command is giving you much free time to run around these days.”

“Official business, actually,” Shining Armor replied as his expression grew intent. “Now that you’re all back, Celestia needs you to head up for a final briefing. We’ve figured out how we’re sending you in.”

And just like that, smiles faded and gave way to varying shades of resolute determination. Everybody was busy getting ready to do their part in the upcoming war, so it was high time they did the same.

Following Shining Armor’s lead, the Ponyville girls headed through the palace’s still bustling halls towards Celestia’s personal audience chamber, a location usually staffed by eight honor guards but now stood reduced to two. There was simply too much going on for any able bodies to go to waste.

Nodding in recognition, the skeleton crew pulled open the ornately carved doors and ushered the group in. There, amidst a sea of papers, maps and reports and all manners of official documents cluttering the room in haphazard piles, stood the three leaders of the emergency state. The princess sisters, usually so poised and regal, were a shade less so with their aurora hair in disarray (how one can even dishevel an aurora defies comprehension, but nevertheless, it was so) and looking like they could have used a fresh pot of coffee three pots ago. General Ironside, with a grim set to his already hard face, looked as if he’d spent the last week headbutting his way through brick walls and was steeling himself for another round.

One look at the arriving girls though, and all that weariness faded beneath broad smiles of delight.

“A fine day to you, ladies,” Ironside boomed with hearty laugh that had lost none of its impact, even during the trying times. “How’d you like your little vacations across the bright blue yonder?”

“Oh, it was very lovely, thank you,” Fluttershy squeaked with a hasty curtsy. “The Griffons were just wonderful.”

“You did good work out there,” the general nodded with words of sincerest praise. “Having the Imperium standing with us alongside the Tower will actually give us a fighting chance. Shame about the Enclave though.”

“Sorry ‘bout that,” Applejack grimaced as she reached for her Stetson. “We tri–”

A calloused hand rose up to cut off her words.

“No need for apologies,” Ironside rumbled. “Even if you do everything you can and more, some things are just out of our control. That’s life.”

Though he spoke these as words of consolation to Applejack, his glance was towards Rarity, perhaps the only one who truly understood the meaning behind his words. The loss they suffered now was for a world they’d once saved. Hard choices and hard prices, but ones that had to be made. Understanding, the young beauty gave a slight nod in reply.

“So Princess Celestia, Princess Luna… is everything alright?” Twilight asked.

“As well as can be expected, with Armageddon looming overhead,” Luna replied with a wry smile before catching herself. “Pardon me. These last few days have been tiring and my sense of humor is a little off kilter.”

“A sentiment I’m sure we can all understand,” Celestia chuckled. “But we can worry about that later. Right now, the time is meant for you.” With a wave of her ivory wand, Celestia summoned up a hologram of the world, an irregular sphere of monochrome green that showed the planet in remarkable detail. Another flick sent the sphere rotating around till the girls were looking upon the continent upon which Equestria sat. The glowing point marking their location in Canterlot spurred a straight shot toward the western sides of the Snowspire Mountains, after which there was… nothing. Just a large expanse of empty space with a final, glowing point somewhere in the middle.

“Our plan relies on you, the bearers of the Elements of Harmony,” the solar sovereign explained. “On the day of the spring equinox, my sister and I will open the Gate of Tartarus to give you access to Nul’s prison. Using the power of the elements, you will seal the breach in his cage and prevent any more of his corruption from entering the world.”

“Um, Princess Celestia,” Twilight called out nervously. “Isn’t the spring equinox three weeks away from now? Does it have to be that quickly?”

“I’m afraid it does,” Celestia nodded sadly. “It is one of two days when the night and day are truly equal and thus the powers of my sister and I are in greatest harmony. Apart from these days, we would not have enough control to select which gates to open, and waiting till the fall may very well be too late.”

Twilight fell silent. She wanted to argue, find some flaw in Celestia’s explanation, but it was as sound as a peer-reviewed thesis.

“Your journey will be a difficult one,” Luna grimaced. “In truth, the Savage Lands have changed much since we were last strong enough to gaze upon it, and we have very little information on the terrain where Tartarus lies. That we may not offer you greater aid in this regard is to our great shame.”

“Princess, please!” Rarity called out, alarmed and quite thoroughly scandalized to find that the princess was actually inclining her head to them. “There’s no need to apologize for what you just couldn’t do.”

“She’s right,” Fluttershy chimed in with softer, but equal intent. “Nobody’s blaming you for anything, so we should just think of the ways to make this all go well, right?”

“You are wise beyond your years,” Luna smiled gratefully. “In any case, your plan is as simple as always. In one week’s time, when preparations are completed, we will send you past the mountains and onto the edge of the Savage Lands. We would fly you further, but the magical energies in the air and other beasts would make it a foolhardy move.”

“Then it’s just a good old fashioned ground and pound,” Ironside barked with laughter as he joined in as well. “You lot will be hoofing it through the bush till you get to the gate. Once you’re in place, you just use this.” From the inside of his coat, the general pulled forth a small glass vial containing a flicker of emerald flames.

“Ooh, is that a stasis field?” Twilight cooed as she looked on with an insightful interest that none of her friends quite shared.

“Even through the magical interference, dragon fire is strong enough to overcome it, meaning Spike’s breath will allow you us to exchange simple messages,” Shining Armor grinned. “Once that happens, we’ll pop our gate, then pop yours, and down you go.”

“Down?” Applejack blinked. “Is that another one of yer fancy military lingoes?”

“If only it were so,” Celestia replied. “Though we imprisoned Nul in another dimension, we still sealed that space at the center of the earth. In order to repair that seal, you’re going to have to go to where the source of the problem is.”

“Okay,” Pinkie Pie chimed in, “so I’m as big a fan of spelunking as the next girl – unless that next girl is my sister Maude because let me tell you, ain’t nobody as big a fan of spelunking as her – but I’m still concerned about one teensy little problem. How in the name of cherry sasparilla are we supposed to get back out after that?!”

“I believe I might have a solution!”

With a grand swing open of the doors to the interior room, a tall, thin man with fabulous hair and a fine blue suit leaped in with a cross-eyed girl hot on his heels.

“Hello there! Jolly good to meet all of you, don’t you know? Oh, would you look at that, I’ve got chills!” the man grinned as he made his rapid way about shaking the hands of all the Ponyville girls.

“Um… Princess?” Applejack asked as she warily eyed the overly exuberant man. “Who’s this?”

“Oh, me?” the thin man smiled. “I’m The Doctor.”

“Doctor who?” Fluttershy inquired.

“Just The Doctor.”

“Of?” Pinkie blinked.”

“Everything really,” the doctor grinned. “Oh, and I’m sure you’re all familiar with my companion here.”

“Hello!” Derpy called with a cheery wave.

“Okay…” Rainbow nodded with the same confidence she had in one of Pinkie’s experimental cupcakes. “Why do we need a doctor, anyway? What’s he doing here?”

“It’s quite strange, really,” Luna replied with pursed lips. “We were in the middle of a conference on exactly how to get you safely out after you finished sealing Nul, when this most peculiar grinding sound came from the hall. The next thing you know, these two appear and offered a most ingenious solution.”

“Oh, it was nothing, really,” The Doctor giggled with an airy wave. “All I did was suggest that we apply the ideas behind your message in a jar to a phase-shifting temporal distortion within a dimensional boundary line and attach the whole lot to a fixed time point for easy transference. Simple stuff, really.”

They all blinked, but Applejack spoke.

“Um… what now?”

With a grand flourish, The Doctor reached into his coat and pulled out a crystal tube the length of his palm, one which contained what seemed to be a swirling vortex of fiery lights contained in a globe of pristine gold.

“I call it an Instant Transferal Device,” he grinned before just as suddenly frowning. “No, wait, that’s a terrible name. Utter rubbish really. Derpy, what would you call it?”

“Well, it’s in a tube, and it makes a big kaboom when you break it,“ the straw-haired girl mused. “How about a boom tube?”

“I love it!” The Doctor gushed. “Boom tubes! We could make these and sell them out of a little shop! I do love a little shop! But anyway, more on that later. As my dear Derpy says, this is a boom tube. When the containment is breached, it’ll release a big old bubble that’ll gobble you up and spit you out right back in this very room. You can be anywhere in the world and all it’ll take is a little toss and you’re right back where you started.”

“Hold on a second,” Twilight frowned as her brain processed the explanation. “Are you saying that… you actually… you actually figured out long distance teleportation?!”

“Oh no, that was all Derpy,” The Doctor grinned as he pulled the cross-eyed girl in for a fierce, one-armed hug. “The distortions around those Savage Lands were making life a terrible pain, but Derpy here had the brilliant notion of using not one, but two equal yet opposing reference points at the same time. It’s like looking in two directions at once so no matter which way you go, you’re always right. Absolutely brilliant!”

Derpy just beamed like puppy in a room full of tennis balls.

“But… but even so…” the young scholar gaped. “The sheer amount of energy it would take to do that should defy any kind of conventional containment field!”

“Aw, where’s the fun in conventional?” The Doctor smiled. “Funny thing about time and space is that it can get all… wibbly-wobbly. I fanagled it so that the tubes are actually a lot bigger on the inside. Still the dickens to get the stuff packed in even so, like teaching a horse to dance. Not pleasant for me or the horse but the important thing is that the dress is on and everyone’s happy.”

“All this to say,” Celestia interjected as she saw a very familiar look of predatory intent appear in her pupil’s eyes, “is that The Doctor and Derpy created the lifelines we needed to bring you back home. Once you finish sealing Nul, all you need to do is shatter these tubes and you’ll be instantly brought back to Canterlot, safe and sound.”

“Now that’s what I call fancy!” Pinkie Pie grinned. “How many of these you got?”

“Just the seven you’ll be carrying,” Celestia answered. “These, er… boom tubes are incredibly difficult to make, and it will be several more days before we even have enough for each of you. This is why we will Inscribe them onto you to ensure they remain with you: they are simply too valuable to lose.”

“As long as we choose the color,” Rarity shrugged with gracious aplomb.

“Remember, you must be there by the spring equinox,” Luna continued as she raised her ebony wand, “for your sake as well as ours.” A quick flick spun the globe again and magnified it three fold to bring focus upon a glowing point far in the north. With the intricate detail of the image, the girls could even make out where frozen, windswept wastes hid behind a wall of jagged mountains.

“Before we open Tartarus, we will first open Hel and allow Nul’s darkness into the world,” the lunar princess explained. “This darkness will funnel through the Jotun Pass–”

“And that’s where we come in” Shining Armor chuckled as he pointed towards the glowing line. “While you’ve been out and about, we’ve been getting ready here. The entire pass has been fortified and we’ve got our engineers making sure that we’ve got every barrier and ward in place and locked down tighter than mom’s cookie jar. Even Nul’s gonna have a tough time cracking this nut.”

“That’s what we’re hoping at least,” Ironside growled as a low fire began to burn behind ice-blue eyes. “We’ll hold out as long as it takes, but if you could be in place to pop the seal on Tartarus right after ours, you can bet we’d be mighty appreciative.”

“Get in, lock the sucker up, and make a quick getaway,” Rainbow Dash nodded. “Yeah, I think we can handle that.”

“I know you will,” Celestia replied with a warm smile. “But for now, you need to rest. In one week’s time, you will be setting out for some of the most dangerous lands this world has to offer. I suggest you spend it at home with your family and loved ones. You’ll need their strength if you want to carry the day through.”

“Shoot, yer right!” Applejack called. “I still need to teach Apple Bloom how to handle some of my chores while I’m gone.”

“And I need to set up Tank’s training schedule for the race against Berry Punch’s rabbit!” Rainbow Dash cried.

“Oh my goodness, Angel!” Fluttershy gasped. “He’ll be so lonely without me! Again!”

“Enjoy the week, girls,” Luna laughed, perhaps for the first real time since the news had spread. “And may the fates be kind to you until we meet again.”

With a last series of hugs all around and some lingering goodbyes, the girls left the audience chamber and headed for the courtyard where an airship was fueled and waiting. Out in the hall though, they were caught by the return of an unexpected guest.

“Hold yer horses a sec,” Ironside barked out as his massive strides quickly caught him up despite the large stack of documents cradled under one burly arm. “Before you leave, there’s one last thing I needed to tell you, something I didn’t want the princesses to have to worry about.”

“I love surprises!” Pinkie Pie beamed. “So what is it? New song and dance routine? Planning to move to Las Pegasus? Ooh! Ooh! You’re getting married aren’t you?!”

“Er… no,” the general blinked from behind his slate-hued beard. “Anyways, remember how we said that we’re sending Graves to keep an eye on you, right?”

“Indeed,” Rarity nodded as for the first time, she looked about. “Speaking of, where is he? Shouldn’t he have been here for this meeting here?”

“He’s in the middle of training,” the general sighed, sounding like a glacier grating down the side of a cliff. “Told him he should be here for it, but he insisted on using every minute of it to practice.”

“How very like him,” Rarity sighed as well, only hers sounded a good deal fonder than the soldier’s. “Well, I suppose we’ll have to brief him on the details later.”

“Yeah, about that,” Ironside growled. “I’ll send him notice beforehand, but you’ll need to make sure he knows that he’s not the one in charge. Twilight is.”

“Wait, what?!”

“You heard me, book worm,” the general replied with a booming laugh. “You’re taking point on this one. Graves might be there and it’ll be a blasted good idea to listen to every word he breathes, but you call the shots and make him jump if you say toad, got it?”

“But… why?” the purple-haired scholar gaped in the exact same way her friends did. “Why wouldn’t it make sense for you to put the marshal in charge? I mean, he does do it for a living after all.”

“Indeed he does,” Ironside nodded, “but as a solo flying soldier, not the head of a team that needs to survive. I don’t know why, but something in my gut says that the boy’s got other things to worry about instead of managing the squad. That means since Twilight here’s the leader of you lot and one who knows how you girls work best, she’s the one most suited for the task. Got it?”

“Yes sir!” the girls started as they fought down impulses to salute. Ironside nodded.

“Good. Now, one last thing. Graves might not be here, and he might not be calling the shots, but it doesn’t mean he wasn’t thinking long and hard about the lot of you.”

Reaching behind him, General Ironside lifted a thick stack of thick folders, each one neatly printed with the name of one of the Ponyville girls upon it, and began handing them out to their prospective targets.

“Before he went and disappeared into the mountains, he spent the better part of two days putting these together for you.”

“What are they?” Fluttershy blinked as she opened hers and found a vast collection of diagrams and descriptions on various flora and fauna of increasingly strange natures.

“Assignments. Seems like that boy got it into his head that what he needed wasn’t a collection of flat-footed civvies. That’s why he went and worked up plans on how each of you can help make this mission a success.”

“Wait, you mean he’s actually counting on us to do stuff?” Rainbow Dash asked with the utmost of incredulity.

“Far as I can tell, yeah,” Ironside shrugged. “He may be the only marshal, but it looks like he’s expecting you all to carry your own weight.”

The six girls shared surprised glances as each flipped through their own folder. Really, Graves had taken time out of personal practice to come up with these? Ways for them to fight alongside him?

“I know Celestia gave you all the week off,” the general grumbled, sounding like a bear with a sore tooth at having to impose, “and you know I’m not one to go against the princesses, so I won’t. If you’d rather spend the time with your families, I get that, so–”

“Well ah’ course we’re gonna do that,” Applejack grinned as she snapped her folder shut. “But that don’t mean we can’t do it while bonin’ up on our homework, do it?”

“Hey, if Big G needs our help, he’s gonna get it,” Rainbow Dash smirked. “I’m just surprised he didn’t ask sooner. I mean, I’m awesome and he knows it.”

“What Rainbow Dash is trying to say,” Twilight continued with a fond roll of the eyes, “is that we’ll be glad to help Graves out in any way we can. After all, we’re a team.”

Bright blue eyes lit up as the general’s stony face cracked into a broad smile.

“Now that’s what I like to hear.”


Chapter 11

Chapter 11

“No, no, NO! How many times do I have to tell you? When you’re using ice arrows, you shoot between targets to get two birds with one stone! Between! Now do it right on this pass, or I swear I’ll take those arrows and pincushion the lot of you! Again!”

Under the watch of azure eyes twice as cold as the frozen bows they wielded, the platoon of marksmen let loose their frozen volley across the snow-swept plain. Upon impact, each crystalline quarrel exploded into a spray of flawless ice to encase the targets they’d landed between, just as the captain had ordered. Only upon seeing such results did the armored officer finally give a grim nod of approval.

“Good. Looks like the lot of you aren’t completely hopeless after all. Finish up whatever’s left in your quivers, then switch to normal rounds.”


With a salute as crisp as the frigid air around them, the archers took bows in hand once more and returned to their craft. Shining Armor stayed on for a moment – just to make sure that his instructions were duly carried out – before he turned on his heels and walked over to the guardsman waiting at a nearby skiff.

“Never would’ve pegged you for the drill sergeant, sir,” the young soldier grinned from beneath his golden helm as he fired up the vehicle and directed it towards one of the southern slopes. “Always thought it was sunshine and roses with you.”

“You’re probably right on that,” Shining Armor freely laughed once they’d cleared earshot. “But sometimes, you gotta play the part to get the results you need.”

“Were they not living up to standards, sir?”

“Actually, they were too far above it,” the captain replied. “The Hawkeye platoon has some of the best shots on the force. Only problem is when you get so good at hitting the targets, it takes a bit of work to switch to not hitting instead.”

“I take it they’re not used to using the ice arrow?” the guardsman inquired. Shining Armor just shook his head.

“Never could manufacture them quick enough to make it worthwhile. Fortunately, the Tower’s been helping on that end, so we’ll have a good reserve ready by the time we need it.”

“And speaking of the Tower,” the young soldier continued, “you’re scheduled to meet with them and the rest of HQ in ten minutes.”

“Shoot, already?” Shining Armor grimaced as he glanced towards the quickly waning sun. “I was hoping to make a run by the trenches and get an update on the progress.”

“Already done, sir,” the guardsman nodded as he pulled a report from the pouch at his side. “Got this from the Engineering Corp while you were orienting the Hawkeyes. Pit Chief says they’re ahead of schedule and should be able to start on the mountain battlements first thing in the morning.”

A quick glance over the document caused the captain’s grin to grow just a little bit larger.

“You’re a lifesaver, Flash,” Shining Armor laughed as he handed back the report. “Remind me to buy you a drink after this is all over.”

“You could do that,” the blued-eyed soldier grinned. “Or you could introduce me to your sister. I heard she’s a real cutie.”

“Hey, there’s joking, and then there’s volunteering for latrine duty,” Shining Armor laughed with amusement in only half the words. “Now what were you saying again?”

“Me?” Flash Sentry gaped with sublimely played innocence. “I didn’t say a word.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Of course, Flash Sentry knew about the captain’s legendary protectiveness of his sister, which is what made the opportunity too good to pass up. And besides, it was all in good fun. After all, it’s not like a regular guardsman like himself would ever have a shot with Princess Celestia’s protégé, right?

“Anyway, you’d best head on up,” Flash continued, all business once more. “In the meantime, you want me to run by the supply depot and get an updated inventory?”

“Make sure we know the number of Widowmakers we’ve got in stock,” Shining Armor nodded, “then take the number to Pit Chief and revise the layout for the Jotun Pass accordingly.”


As Shining Armor smiled watched Flash Senty leap from the skiff and broke off into a dash towards the depot and his awaiting orders, he spared the departing figure a quick smile as he took hold of the wheel.

He was a good soldier. Newly assigned from the Manehattan branch, the boy was fresh out of officer school, but already showing more that his fair share of promise. Smart as whip with plenty of foresight to boot, he’d halved the captain’s workload by anticipating orders and executing them with flawless aplomb. In fact, the only flaw he might have would be his all-to-willing readiness to make a joke. Not unlike a certain azure-haired officer, Shining Armor had to admit, but something he needed to watch out for. After all, guys like that were strangely popular with the ladies, and if there’s one thing he would not abide, it would be letting a man like that to get within spitting distance of Twilight. Work was one thing. His baby sister was a whole other matter.

Still, levity could only last for so long. Mirth faded away as Shining Armor’s gaze switched from the soldier’s departing figure to take in the view.

From his rapidly rising vantage point, the azure-haired captain could make out the entirety of the Jotun Pass, the long, narrow valley that lay carved into the north side of the Crystal Mountains. With literally every useable pass through the mountains stemming from this one spot, it was a natural chokepoint and the perfect battlefield for the war that would erupt in just two weeks’ time. Nul’s darkness would be funneled through the narrow pass and towards the awaiting armies below.

Of course, nature could only do so much, which is why everywhere one looked, the vast swath of land was abuzz with frantic activity. From the rumbling of heavy machinery tearing furrows into the icy ground, to skiffs that hauled lumber and steel up the wind-swept slopes, men and women labored tirelessly to carve out every advantage they could. Watchtowers rose, battlements formed, and trenches wound a zigzagging maze through the cold soil. Even now, the captain could see the land shaping into a killing field the likes of which had never been seen before nor likely would ever again. No army on earth could possibly hope to breach the rows upon rows of defenses that only grew stronger by the day.

But the armies they faced would not be from this earth, and even all of this might still not be enough.

“Well, it’s not like worrying can do anything, right?” Shining Armor shrugged as he gave his head a firm shake. One of the most important duties of an officer – if not the most important duty – was to believe in victory whatever the odds may say. After all, if the leader didn’t believe the battle could be won, how could those who followed? And so, willing a fresh smile back onto his face like he did increasingly as of late, Shining Armor parked the skiff and headed into HQ.

Well, headed under was more like it. Despite the lofty designation, HQ was really little more than a glorified pavilion with an unimpeded view of the entire battlefield. But under that quickly assembled awning was gathered a group that could have made a cadet’s tent seem a palace.

Abbot Apocrypha stood with staff in hand as he stroked his long, silver beard, his usually mirthful eyes brooding and serious as he considered the ever changing landscape on the table at the room’s center from its northern side.

“It will be a challenge,” he murmured softly, as he reached out a knotted hand to illuminate several glowing points on the map, “but if we could establish focal points at these locations, it should be possible.”

“Excellent,” Ironside nodded from across the table, looking like a boulder come to life as he turned ice blue eyes a third member at his right. “Lord Lacero, do you think your men could assist with that?”

Though shorter than either by far, the wiry man with short, white hair in the well-worn cuirass met the gaze with unflinching ease as he softly adjusted the snowy wings behind him.

“It will be done,” he answered, the words easy yet so full of unyielding strength that he could well have told a real boulder to step out of its path and been unsurprised when it happened. After all, one does not become a Consul of the Griffon Imperium by being soft or weak. “All that I ask is the assistance of Equestria’s engineers.”

“You shall have it,” Princess Celestia affirmed with a quick nod of her head, the rainbow of her aurora tresses shimmering with the simple motion. “As soon as we confirm their other duties are complete, we will– Ah, Shining Armor,” she smiled upon catching sight of the waiting captain, “how go things?”

“Very well, your majesty,” he replied, bowing with fist to heart as he spoke. “If you need engineers, I’ve received word that the corp will complete the current project later today. We’ll have enough manpower to get started on the launch sights and still have enough squads to knock out all the focal points in one go.”

“Impressive,” Lacero nodded as he stroked his sharp chin. “It seems you Equestrians haven’t gotten rusty in the easy times.”

“You think everything outside of total war is an easy time,” Ironside chuckled. “But we can talk about how boot-chewing tough you are later. Captain Shining Armor!” he barked, the sound so ferocious that even the seasoned officer jumped at the sound.


“Clear your schedule, As of now, you’re posted at HQ.”

“… Sir?” the captain gaped, azure eyes wide with surprise despite it being outside every fiber of training he had. Nobody, not even officers like him, just got assigned to HQ. That would be like promoting the bus boy to manager in one fell swoop: it just didn’t happen.

“Did I stutter?” the general asked with a slate-hued eyebrow arched in question.

“N-no sir!” Shining Armor replied as he saluted once more, albeit still having no idea what was going on. Fortunately, the general’s little mean streak was cut short.

“Your reaction has its merit,” Celestia said with a gracious smile as she softly kicked Ironside underneath the table. “Our discussions with the Abbot led us to believe that your talents might be best served here instead of on the field itself.”

“If what you told me is true,” Apocrypha continued, “your mastery of protections and barriers could be a powerful force that changes the landscape itself and alters the very course of this war. Are you prepared to shoulder such a burden?”

“Yes sir!” Shining Armor called, clarity doubling the resolution already forming in his chest. “I won’t let you down.”

“Good, good,” the abbot smiled as he happily stroked his beard. “We’ll need to get you up to speed on our plans quickly, but first, I believe that Princess Celestia has news for you.”

“Indeed,” she nodded as her regal visage grew somber. “I felt that you should know. Your sister and her friends… they’ve arrived.”

Shining Armor stopped. He knew it would happen. It was the entire reason they were here in the first place. But hearing those words, realizing that his baby sister was actually getting started on quite possibly the most dangerous task of all… even knowing hadn’t prepared for the sinking dread that hit his gut like a cannonball.

“Bah, quick moping, boy!” Lacero snorted as he smacked Shining Armor hard across the back. “From the way Ironside keeps yammering on about this Graves fellow, they’re probably safer than you’ll be here.”

“Not just them,” Ironside hooted. “The whole lot of them are ten gauge worth of firecrackers stuffed into a twenty gauge shell. If anything, I’d be more worried about the beasties they run into than them.”

“Your sister is in good hands,” Celestia smiled as she put a consoling hand on Shining Armor’s shoulder. “And she has considerable strength herself. After all, it was she and her friends who have saved Equestria time and time again, correct?”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Shining Armor nodded as he put a smile back on his face. “It’s just… she’s my little sister. I just can’t help but worry, you know?”

“Better than you can imagine,” Celestia laughed, the sound rich and warm as the summer sun. “But right now, it’s not a time for worry, but for faith. I know of none more worthy of our trust than your sister and her friends. Believe in them, Shining Armor. They will be fine.”


Out from the thick bank of iron-hued clouds, the serpentine form of a unique Equestrian airship appeared as it gently touched down on the stony mountain crags. As the whisper-silent engines droned to a halt, liquid metal panels slid aside to reveal the precious cargo contained within. Cargo that shattered silence like a hammer to an egg.

“But how does it work?” Twilight cried out once more, struggling in a valiant effort to remain aboard the ship even as her friends made the even more valiant effort of dragging her off. “If the wave harmonics are reversed in order to cancel out the physical oscillations in the atmosphere, won’t there be a catastrophic loss in power? Theoretically, reaching the tri-squared kiloarcanas needed for flight would be impossible!”

“Now – uff – come along, sugarcube,” Applejack grunted as she work to pry Twilight’s surprisingly persistent fingers from the mercurial doorframe. For a scrawny bookwork, she sure had a powerful grip. Probably all those hours clutching a quill is what did it. “These folks were kind enough to give us a lift. Don’t wanna –urgh – make thing’s harder for ‘em, now do we?”

“Yeah,” Rainbow Dash grunted from where she yanked onto a booted foot. “So quit being an egghead and… let’s… gooooWOAH!”

Living up to her less-than-kind childhood nickname, Rainbow tumbled to the gravelly dirt as Applejack finally finished with the digital displacement. Unfortunately, that meant Twilight came along for the ride, which is how she ended sprawled out on top of her athletic friend in a distinctly ungraceful, yet somehow eye-catching heap.

“Now really, girls, this isn’t a school trip for little children,” Rarity tutted as she descended in a decidedly more controlled manner. "Do try to keep a sensible head about, would you?”

“Says the girl who still brought a jewelry box along,” Applejack muttered under her breath. Apparently, it wasn’t low enough, as the prone form Rainbow Dash snorted aloud and Rarity’s rosy lips pursed up in prim disapproval.

“Now see here, dear Applejack. I’ll have you know…”

“You ah, you sure you’re gonna be all right there, marshal?” one of the pilot called as he eyed the ongoing from safely in the cockpit. Clearly, trusting the fate of the world to a bunch of girls who looked to be on the verge of a catfight wasn’t an investment she was too keen on making.

“We’ll make it work,” Graves grunted as he finished the last detail inspections of his spell gun. Constant care was always important, but it’d be a while before he’d be able to fine tune his weapon like this again. Had to make every little bit count.

“Anyways,” he continued as he snapped the iron framework back into place. “Sure you can’t bring us any closer? Getting off the Snowspires will take a good half day at least.”

“Really wish we could help, chief,” the other pilot grimaced. “But even these prototype engines can only filter out so much extra mana before we crash and burn. And plus…” he swallowed, casting an eye out into the leaden-grey skies, “we’ve got no idea what’s hiding up there.”

Graves silently nodded and stood to shoulder his weapon.

“Understood. You let the princesses know we’re on our way.”

With a final salute, Graves took up his packs and descended the ramp to join the girls below. Once cleared, liquid metal flowed back into place as the teardrop ship sealed itself and lifted off to begin its flight back over the mountain for the long trip hope. In a mere matter of moments, the clouds swallowed the ship and it was quickly lost from sight.

Eyes lingering on the vanishing point for just a moment longer, Graves turned his slate-grey gaze to the six Ponyville girls who were now tousling about on the gravelly slope like a gaggle of school children. Honestly, he could understand their concerns.

They were civvies, no two ways about it. Now, he had to admit, they did look a sight more professional than they normally did, even if they normally looked about as professional as sweat pants and sandals. In the week after their briefing, it seemed like Rarity had spent a good portion in her workshop to make up travel ensembles for the lot of them. Clearly designed with each wearer in mind, each outfit bore the trademark colors and patterns that spoke to each girl, but in an entirely new way. The clothes were composed of a unique mix of sturdy leather and breathable fabrics to streamline their forms for ease of movement as well as protection. A run through the ERA enchanting division to lay on more protective charms than a porcupine had quills, and you had field wear that rivaled any suit of armor you could shake a stick at.

But anyone could put on the outfit. The real question was whether they could play the roles, because so far, their bright-eyed stares and lollygagging smiles convinced Graves that there didn’t have enough tension between the lot to draw tight a pair of shoelaces. Well, except for Fluttershy, but her day didn’t start till she’d found a good six things to worry about before breakfast. Anyway, the question remained: civilians that they were, would they be able to handle the rigors of the journey ahead? Graves had to find out.

“Alright, ladies,” he began, his gravelly baritones ringing clear through the crisp mountain air. “Here’s the deal. We’ve got–”

“Now you hold on fer jess a second there, marshal,” Applejack called as she finally stopped the sass battle with Rarity to give in him a knowing look. “I know you mean well an’ all, but I’m pretty sure we all know what yer about tah say.”

“… You do?” he blinked.

“Psh, ain’t it obvious?” Rainbow Dash grinned. “You’re gonna go on about how we’re about to start on some big important missions that’s gonna be scarier than sitting through one of Twilight’s cram sessions–”

“Hey! I was trying to help you get into the reserves!”

“–what with all the monster and boogie men running about, or something like that.”

“Yea, about that!” Pinkie Pie cried out as she waved one arm about in frantic desperation. “Are there really gonna be boogie men out there in them woods?”

“No Pinkie, boogie men aren’t real,” Twilight explained as she threw the smirking Rainbow Dash a withering stare.

“Oh, that’s a relief,” the bubbly baker sighed with shoulder slumping relief. “If we had to deal with things that weren’t even real, I don’t even know what we’d do.”

“And to top it all off,” Rarity smiled as she stepped up to straighten his long, leather coat like she always did, “you’ll go on about how you’ll do your best to take care of us and keep us safe and everything, when really, it’s going to be the other way around.”

“… Hah?”

“It’s simple math, really,” Twilight giggled. “You’ve saved the world before, but we did it twice. Three times if you count the Crystal Empire and the Changeling invasion as half a world saved apiece.”

“Point being, Big G,” Pinkie Pie beamed, “is that between the six of us, we’ve got you beat!”

“Not that we don’t appreciate your concern of course,” Fluttershy hastily amended, just in case that somewhere underneath his stony exterior, the marshal’s feelings had actually been hurt. “But um… what we’re trying to say is that, um…”

“That we got this whole business down pat,” Rainbow Dash crowed. “So save the speeches for the big awards ceremony they’ll be throwing when we get back and let’s go already!”

So it was with much whooping on the colorful athlete’s part and a much more reserved enthusiasm on the rest that the six girls shouldered up their gear, blew past the marshal, and began the trip down the gravelly slope.

For a good while, Graves could only gape in amazement. Did they have no idea what was going on? Did they think that a trip into the Savage Lands, a place where even the hardiest of adventurers avoided like the plague was going to be some… Sunday picnic? They were mad. They had to be, or at least clinically delusional that bordered on dangerously unsound.

But then again… maybe that was a good thing. They may have been civilians with no training and no idea what they were headed up against, but that sort of unbridled confidence to face all obstacles with smile and a swagger counted for something. Not everything, mind you, and certainly not what he’d prioritize for a mission of this magnitude, but it was something nonetheless.

So they had that. The question was whether that would be enough.

With no clear answer in mind, Graves could only offer a silent prayer as he shouldered up his gear and headed after them.


Chapter 12

Chapter 12

“… Alright, we’ll stop here for the night.”

With a grateful groan, the girls dropped down and heaved long, luxurious sighs as they unshouldered their packs and took a much needed rest.

“Land sakes, that was a doozy,” Applejack whistled as she knuckled the small of her back with a series of crackling pops. “My back feels like it’s been bent intah an oversized horseshoe.”

“You think that’s bad?” Rainbow Dash snorted as she landed next to the freckled farm girl and let her translucent spell wings flicker and fade. “I’ve got so many knots in my back, Rarity could probably make a sweater out of them, am I right?” The cyan-clad girl looked up for a response.

“Ugh, good heavens, no,” Rarity sniffed would keen distaste. “That would undoubtedly be the tackiest thing I ever had the misfortune to create.”

“I really don’t know how you do it, Dashie old buddy, old pal,” Pinkie Pie beamed she threw an arm around her now frowny friend. “I mean, you were totally up there all day today. Drop down for lunch and a break here and there, but the rest of the time, you’re just up and at em’ like a little turbo charged bunny rabbit.”

“Which is good advice for all of you,” Graves rumbled as he suddenly reappeared behind the pink-haired baker and sent her jumping up with a forced that would have many any turbo charged bunny rabbit green with envy. “The faster you get fixed up, the faster you can really rest. Now move it, while the sun’s still up.”

“Alright, dad,” Rainbow Dash retorted with a roll of the eyes for good measure. The marshal pretended not to hear the giggles that followed in the comment’s wake.

With groans that contained at least a margin of good humor, the girls roused themselves from their weary seats and set to the task of making camp. Fortunately, it wasn’t all work and doldrums because even chores become a lot more pleasant when you have people to share the work. Just another thing that the girls did that colored the marshal impressed.

When Graves had taken Shining Armor’s advice to heart, he’d done so in the only way he knew how: work. Each folder he’d prepped had been designed to take advantage of their unique abilities and hopefully, increase their chances of survival. Over the past two days, they’d performed admirably.

Twilight Sparkle, at the head of their little column, led them along an unencumbered route. How? With magic of course. Despite the confounding mana that hung heavy in the air, she’d been able to not only conjure up the magical compass from the spells she was provided, but also a fair projection of the surrounding terrain to guide their steps. This in turn was supplemented by Rainbow Dash’s constant patrols as their eyes in the sky. A week of tinkering with her rune frames transformed the little athlete’s usually small, speed-oriented wings into large gliders like those of a hawk. With those, Rainbow could stay airborne all day, circling back every twenty minutes to provide them with valuable intel of what dangers could lay ahead.

Of course, just seeing what lay ahead didn’t matter if you didn’t know what it meant, which is where Fluttershy came in. With her encyclopedic knowledge of animals expanded by every scrap available in the Canterlot archives, it was she who provided context to the information gathered. A foul-smelling cave? Probably a chimera’s den. Trees scorched, but only from fifty feet up? Likely a nest of char wasps. Her knowledge not only told them what to avoid, but also helped Applejack in her job of finding what to seek. Being chock full of home-grown ingenuity, the freckled farm girl kept an eye to the ground for materials to keep their supplies well-stocked. It was all thanks to her that they’d been able to eat so well and keep their supplies intact for leaner times should they ever come.

That just left Pinkie Pie and Rarity, the ones who raised the confounding question of what a dressmaker and a party planner could do in the woods? Honestly, it was rather surprising. Pinkie Pie’s uncanny energy and good humor helped to keep up morale as they marched. Even with typical excessed reigned back by the marshal’s very, very strict warnings, the bubbly baker still managed to bring the happy as she danced her way up and down the column with quick jokes and bright smiles to keep their spirits high.

Rarity, however contributed in a much more subtle manner. A single knotted blade of grass here, a stack of pebbles in a tree branch there… nothing to catch the eye, but clear signs for those who knew where to look. All these, the creative designer prepared just in case one of their number became separated, a process she took just as seriously as the meticulous task of cleaning up the rear and removing other evidence of their passage. After all, it wouldn’t do to have a troglodyte swarm decide they wanted to tag along, would it?

All this to say that while those girls may not have been soldiers, but Graves had to admit they were filling out their roles a whole lot better than expected.

“Honestly, it just wallops my withers every time,” Applejack whistled she deftly pitched her tent. “How in the name o’ Goshen did these trees get so blasted big? Why, if I could my orchard tah grow a portion as big as these fellers right here, I’d go down as the greatest apple farmer in history.”

Applejack’s size envy was understandable. The Savage Lands were a strange place. Though cool to the point of chill beneath the perpetual blanket of grey clouds overhead, the veritable jungle they walked through was composed of trees that could rival tropical growth foot for foot. However, unlike the lush foliage of warmer climes, the viridian sea they traversed showed only darkened husks and outright twisted forms that sprang from rugged, stony soil. Whatever had fueled there tremendous growth, it was not the healthy look of nature at work.

“If you like it so much, maybe you should empty your pack and fill it with dirt,” Rainbow Dash grinned from where she snapped her bed roll out like a locker room towel. “I’ll bet that’d work our real good.”

“You think?”

“It’s not the soil,” Twilight interjected before the excited farm girl got it into her head to do just that. Picking up her wand once more, the purple-haired scholar gave it a quick flick and watched as the tiny spark that emerged instantly flared up into a discordant burst of amethyst light.

“Did you see that?” she asked, repeating once more for good measure. “The air around here’s literally saturated with raw energy, probably anywhere between four to seven times the normal concentrations. That’s probably what spurred the growth and general mutation of the life around it.”

“Um… Twilight?” Fluttershy squeaked as she tentatively filled the fire pit with kindling. “Is that, um… is that why maybe everything out here seems so… um… strange?”

Silence fell. In normal circumstances, most Ponyville folk would chalk this up to Fluttershy being Fluttershy, but they weren’t in Ponyville anymore, and this wasn’t a normal situation. Even more than the perpetual dimness, even more than the unseasonable chill and distorted trunks around them, there was something unnerving in the very air itself. It wasn’t anything solid that they could put their hands on, but it remained nonetheless, just on the edge of conscious thought like the paranoid sensation of losing track of a spider in the house. None of the girls had been consciously thinking of it before then, but when it was brought out to the forefront with questions like that…

Ambling over, Graves raised his spell gun, aimed it, and fired. Instantly, the whole mass of wood in the fire pit flared to life with bright, cheery flame, and whatever worries that threatened to creep in on the shadows of dusk were quickly blown away by the friendly glow.

“Now don’t you worry your pretty little head about that, Flutters, old bean,” Pinkie Pie beamed as she threw a comforting arm around her friend with a completely unnecessary tousling of the hair to boot. “It’s not like the jungle’s full of horrible monsters who’d sooner eat you than look at you.”

“Uh, Pinkie?” Rainbow Dash chimed in. “That’s exactly what this is.”

“Psh, details,” Pinkie dismissed. “Let’s not worry about semantics, shall we?”

As the girls busied themselves with the task of unraveling Pinkie’s dubious choice of words, Graves allowed himself the smallest sigh of relief.


As the sun set, the girls quickly finished setting up camp and got supper bubbling along on its merry way. The supplies they carried were minimal – mostly hard cheeses, sturdy biscuits, and jerky tough enough to resole their boots – but thanks to some successful foraging, a good stock of wild mushrooms and root vegetables rounded out their pantry. Add on a bit of quick marksmanship from the marshal, and you had a very hearty stew bubbling away over their warm, little fire.

“Golly gee, I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse,” Pinkie Pie gasped as she plopped down beside Applejack as she tended the kettle. “Well, maybe not a horse – don’t think horses are meant for eating – but definitely something of comparable size and weight and caloric density.”

“You’re telling me,” Rainbow Dash groaned. “I’m built for speed, not all day marathons. I’ve spent so much time in the air, I’m starting to get a headache.”

“In that case, you should drink this,” Fluttershy started as she quickly pushed a small, tin cup of piping hot tea into her friend’s hand. “We managed to find some moongrass and crimson starburst along the way. It should help with your magic exhaustion.”

“Hey, thanks Flutters,” Rainbow Dash grinned as she ruffled Fluttershy’s cherry blossom hair. “Knew I could count on you.”

“Hold on a sec, what about me?” Pinkie Pie huffed. “I was carrying all your stuff and mine today! Where’s the love, Dashie?”

“Aw, does somebody need a hug?” Twilight giggled as she, too, took a cup of tea.

“Yes!” Pinkie Pie cried out, “lots of hugs! All the hugs! Hug me, Rainbow Dash! HUG ME!”

As Rainbow Dash leaped from her seat and Pinkie Pie jumped up in hot pursuit, Graves could only shake his head in disbelief as he put hands to knees and stood.

“Leaving so soon?” Rarity asked, sapphire eyes widening in mild surprise. “Surely you could stay a little longer and join us for a cup of tea.”

“Want to double check the wardings,” Graves answered in his typical, gravelly baritones. “Might be gone a while, so I want lights out as soon as it’s dark, alright?”

“We can remember our bed time, dad,” Rainbow Dash snickered just before her snort twisted into a jaw-cracking yawn. “But seriously, I don’t think that’ll be a problem. I’m ready to hit the sack as it is.”

“Aw, but what about ghost stories?” Pinkie pouted.

“No! No ghost stories!” Fluttershy squeaked. “Very, very bad idea!”

With a roll of his eyes, Graves ignored Rainbow Dash as she began chasing Fluttershy around the campfire with tales of some ghastly ghoul or another. Taking only a second to make sure the spell gun slung over his shoulder was easily accessible, Graves headed off towards the darkened woods on silent steps. However, just before he passed the outskirts, a faint tug at his coat sleeves arrested his movements.

“Graves,” the melodious voice called out softly, “a moment?”

Turning around, Graves found himself looking into the depthless pools of Rarity’s eyes, eyes that looked up at him with a very peculiar light.

“Is everything all right?” he asked, the touch of concern in his voice bringing an amused smile to her lips.

“Actually, I was about to ask you the same question. You seem tense – well, more tense than usual – and I was just wondering if there was anything you wanted to… talk about?”

Graves arched an eyebrow and gave her a very dubious look.

“You’re asking me if I want to talk?”

“Truly foolish of me, I know,” Rarity laughed as the image of conversing with a tree stump came into mind. Then her expression softened. “Nevertheless, the offer still stands. Whatever it is that’s weighing on your mind, you don’t have to bear it alone. Not this time, right?”

The tone of her words, so light that they wouldn’t have frightened a lake nymph, yet so warm that they could have brought summer to the Snowspires. They put a small, but genuine smile on the marshal’s face. He could tell she was trying to keep the subject light so as not to worry him despite her own concerns. Really, she was one hell of a woman.

“I know that,” he chuckled as he pulled her in close and planted a kiss on her head, the sweet smell of lavender wafting from her hair even now. “And I promise that if there’s anything I need to talk about, you’ll be the first to know.”

“... Very well then,” Rarity smiled, sounding almost relieved as she gave him a quick little hug. “Have fun out on patrol, but don’t stay out too late, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he crisply saluted. “Permission to begin?”

“Permission granted,” she laughed as she smacked his backside and turned back towards camp. Just before she left however, she turned back once more.

“Stay safe, Graves. Love you.”

Two words, thrown out so naturally that they couldn’t have been anything but the truth, had a powerful effect on the marshal. They excited and thrilled him like that first glorious moment of freefall when leaping from a waterfall to escape certain death. They lit a fire in his heart that would have made a blacksmith’s forge feel like an icebox. They also made him wish he could be so open in return.

Making his way around the camp, the raven-haired soldier went about on his work, inspecting the protective warning runes he’d carved into twisting trunks earlier. The barrier wouldn’t actually stop a creature from coming in, but anything seeking to do them harm would trigger the alarms once the line was crossed and kept their noise from escaping out. Not the ideal solution, but as good as could be expected in the given circumstance.

By the time he finished, night had fallen in full and Graves made his shadowy way in total silence. The sky was completely devoid of stars and the darkness held so complete, the marshal could make out the glow of dying coals even a hundred paces off. By now, the girls would be safely in their tents, resting well after another hard day’s travel. In all honesty, he should probably be doing the same. But he didn’t.

Veering away from the only light in that pitch-hued night, Graves instead climbed up the cliff overlooking their little camp. Not bothering with tent or sleeping roll, the raven-haired soldier instead leaned himself against a weather-worn boulder, settling in on the high ground with spell gun cradled in arm and long, leather coat pulled round to ward off the evening chill. He’d get some sleep when he could, but if the last night had been any indication, it would definitely be wise for him to stay up and keep watch.

It was just as well, because not long after he settled in, the marshal sensed the arrival of an unexpected visitor.

“… What are you doing here?” he asked, dully gleaming disks of gunmetal grey boring in on their target. The glowing, golden eyes that met them, however, simply smiled.


Chapter 13

Chapter 13

Graves slowly tightened the grip on his rifle.

“I said, what are you doing here?” he repeated, grey eyes hard and voice sharper than chipped flint as he stared down the errant spirit.

“Such a warm welcome,” Discord chuckled as he straightened out his fuchsia tuxedo, unilluminated yet somehow clearly visible even in the deep gloom. “And here I thought that after all our time apart, you’d welcome me back with open arms.”

“Why would I?” Graves snorted. “You’re the one who got us into this mess.”

“Would it help if I said it was an accident?” Discord asked with wide-eyed innocence. The stony set of the marshal’s faced showed he was clearly not amused.

“Psh, you’re no fun,” the elderly youngster snorted.

“And you still haven’t answered my questions,” the marshal said with implacable insistence. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, if you must know, I came to pay you a visit.”

“Really. A visit.” If the skepticism were water, then Graves would have had enough to drown a fish.

“Scout’s honor,” Discord saluted with two fingers raised overhead. “Really, I only came by to have a chat with my favorite gunslinger. Surely I’ve earned that much, haven’t I?”

Graves paused. On one hand, what the princesses had told him about Discord meant he’d rather not touch the fellow with a ten foot long pole of pure adamantium. On the other hand, what the princesses had told him about Discord had also occurred long before his own experiences, and those experiences had mostly consisted of having his life saved. Twice.

With a weary sigh, Graves slowly, reluctantly, loosened his grip.

“Alright then. You wanna talk? Talk.”

“Straight to the point like always. I love it,” Discord cackled. “Well let’s see, what words did I want to bandy with you on this fine eve? Hmm…. Ah, I know! How are you feeling, dear Graves?”


“Feeling,” the man repeated as he straightened his white streaked beard. “You know, those things that go all gooshy in your guts and make you do silly things? Feelings.”

“I know what they are,” Graves huffed. “What I don’t know is why do you even care?”

“Do I have to have a reason for being concerned?” Discord asked with an odd little smile. “I just want to know what’s going on in that head of yours before you go making what could be the worst mistake of your life.”

“Mistake?” Graves asked, suspicion causing his hackles to rise. “What mistake?”

“Ah ah ah,” Discord tutted with a waggle of his finger. “I asked first. You answer my question, and then I answer yours. Quid pro quo, wouldn’t you say?”

Graves gave the man with a single-fanged smile a good, hard look. As always, he had no idea what the elderly youngster was planning. Those topaz eyes that seemed to burn like bubbling gold always looked to be hiding some hidden machination, some clever scheme. But thinking about it with no real intel to work with would get him nowhere. If he wanted to know, he’d just have to play along.

“As well as expected,” Graves finally said, his face growing stony in an effort to give away as little as possible. It might not make a difference – he had the feeling that Discord could ferret out hidden meaning like a truffle by a pig – but he’d take any advantage he could get.

“Hmm, I see,” Discord murmured as he took notes on his clipboard. “And did your expectations include any negative symptoms? Sensations like, oh, I don’t know… worry, perhaps?”

“It’s a mission,” Graves shrugged. “Worry's a given.”

“Is that so?” Discord smiled from behind his spectacles. “So this is just any old job for the illustrious Graves, is it? No special concerns? Nothing that might set this apart as somehow uniquely troublesome?”

“What are you trying to say?” Graves sighed, exasperation heavy in his breath as his patience started to wear thin.

“What I'm saying,” Discord continued, “is that I find it very interesting how you can be so carefree about this whole situation.”

“Of course I’m not carefree,” the marshal snapped as the odd man’s roundabout ways finally pushed him passed his limit, surprisingly quickly considering his normally steely mood. “In fact, I’m only sitting here talking to you because I’m trying to figure out how to keep them from getting themselves killed.”

Here, Discord’s smile changed into something else.

“Don’t you think you’re underestimating them?” he asked, his voice all cool and genteel as the most refined nobleman. “After all, they did return me back to my stony prison.”

“They did,” Graves nodded. “And I’ll bet gold to gravel that you didn’t actually put up much of a fight, did you?”

“They’re also doing quite well in your assigned tasks,” Discord continued, smoothly answering the question by not answering at all. “Surely, their proficiency at that must give you some piece of mind.”

“Some. But not enough,” Graves sighed once more. Only this time, the sound came out heavy, as if weighed down by mountains balanced on shoulders that stooped just a little more with each word he spoke. “They help, it’s true, but… it’s not enough. Anyone can do a job when the sky’s clear, but what happens when the storm hits?”

“Maybe it won’t,” Discord suggested. The words only brought forth a wry bark of laughter from the raven-haired soldier.

Storms would come. They always did, and out here, they’d be even worse. The girls knew that the lands they walked were strange. They couldn’t say what, but they could sense that something filled the air between those twisted trees as surely as a veil filled the skies. Well, Graves knew exactly what that sensation, the one they knew from the Everfree Forest, only magnified tenfold.


In places where magic ran free and the life it contained along with it, the thing that always grew the fastest was the need to consume. Life required life to sustain it, and thus, it had long since been understood that where the magic was greatest, so was the ferocity as well. Hence, the all too appropriate name of the Savage Lands.

It was an ironclad law of the world, one the marshal knew by heart, yet remained hidden to the six girls that slumbered below. That ignorance was a great source of relief for the marshal, but also a great source of concern as well.

“So, what are you going to do?” Discord asked, his golden eyes bubbling merrily in the shroud of dark around them. “How exactly are you going to prepare them for said oncoming storm?”

“Damned if I knew,” Graves muttered. Honestly, what could he do? The fact that the girls could boldly proceed was one of their greatest strengths, and one that rested on what could only be called their naivety. Break that by trying to prepare them for what they really couldn’t change would only produce more problems than it solved. Hay, it was bad enough that one of their number passed the nights without rest; why should all seven have to suffer the same fate?

“Then what? Do you intend to shoulder the burden yourself? To protect the girls all by your lonesome and with the strength of your arm alone?” Though Discord’s smile remained, jeering laughter could be heard ringing in every word he spoke. But Graves would not be goaded.

“It’s my job to protect them,” he answered, the simple words a stark contrast to the elderly youngster’s mocking tones. “I always do my job.”

“But at what price?” Discord asked, once more with that odd, little smile. “Just how far are you willing to go to do your job.”

“As far as it takes,” Graves shrugged, eyebrow arching slightly over gunmetal grey eyes as he grew slightly confused by the newest question. Discord knew that, didn’t he? After all, the spirit of chaos had been there when he’d taken the blade and cut out a piece of his own soul for the sake of duty. Why should Discord expect any different?

For a while, the trickster said nothing, merely looked on at Graves with that same, odd little smile on his face.

“Did they ever tell you?” Discord suddenly continued as he took a seat on the fine armchair behind him. “The princesses. Did they ever mention why I colluded with Nul in the first place?”

Graves blinked

“Should they have?” he asked, once more perplexed by the sudden change of directions. “You betrayed them. What difference does the reason make?”

“Perhaps nothing,” Discord chuckled as his eyes cooled to clouded gems. “Perhaps everything. But let’s set aside the importance for now and simply entertain the question. What do you think, marshal? Why do you think I did it?”

“Who knows?” Graves answered with a half-hearted chuckle. “Trying to figure you out’s like trying to understand women.”

“Come now, even I’m not that confusing,” the elderly youngster laughed. “In fact, it’s really quite simple. After all, my motive was one you yourself have often shared.”

“Oh really?” the marshal intoned dubiously. “And what would that be?”


Graves paused.

“… Need,” Graves repeated, the word sounding strange even as he spoke it. “You… the primal spirit of Chaos… needed to deal with the devil himself.”

“A strange notion, isn’t it?” Discord answered with an airy wave of his hand. “Just like you, I once had something I had to accomplish regardless of the cost. It might not have been quite so noble a reason like yours, but it was important enough to me that I decided to take the chance.”

“By going to the entity that sought to wipe out all of existence,” Graves stated flatly. “You decided to go to him for help.”

“It wasn’t even that at first,” Discord sighed. “In the beginning, he was only someone I thought I could talk to.”

“Talk to–”

“I’m a primordial spirit of the universe older than reality itself,” the trickster quickly interrupted before Graves could really get going. “It’s not like there’s many I could really commiserate with.”

“Why not Princess Luna? Or Celestia?” Graves challenged. Discord grinned.

“Why not indeed.”

When it was clear that no more answer on that topic was forthcoming, Graves felt he might as well continue to keep the game going.

“So you wanted to… talk to Nul,” he said, the words sounding so ridiculous he could hardly believe he actually spoke them. “That’s where the breach came from?”

“Exactly,” Discord nodded. “Just enough so that like myself, his consciousness might roam, meager as the least of all shadows, but awake and aware nonetheless.”

“But that didn’t last, did it?”

“Need has a funny way of growing,” Discord laughed. “At first, all I needed was someone to talk to, someone who would listen to me. Then I needed someone who would talk back and give me advice. Then, well…”

“You needed power.” There was no question in the marshal’s voice. Only realization.

“It was only supposed to be the smallest bit, a speck to help me accomplish my goal,” the trickster replied, his voice suddenly aging eons in an instant. “But when I’d accomplished the little I sought, I realized I wanted more. But to do more, I needed more, and so I went back again. And again. And again.

“I kept telling myself that it was fine,” Discord continued as a wry, twisted smile came to his face. “I somehow convinced myself that I was in control of actions that had spiraled out of hand long ago. Before I knew, it I’d taken in so much of that… that filth into me that I changed into something completely different. So different, in fact, that dear little Luny even had to give me a new name.”

Gunmetal grey eyes sparked to life.

“You… weren’t always called Discord?”

“Mostly known as Chance,” the man sighed, now looking far, far older than he ever had before. “I was rather partial to Fate for a time, and of course, Luck always tickled me pink. It doesn’t matter though. No use crying over spilled milk, right?”

“But… why tell me this?” Graves asked, his mind now knotted with confusion and tangled with a thousand unasked questions? “What’s your angle?”

“My angle, dear marshal,” Discord smiled, some of his trademark smarm returning with the look, “is that hopefully, a certain someone won’t be a complete blockhead and repeat the same mistake that I did.”

“You think I’ll go dark side,” Graves stated flatly, almost in disbelief. “Like you did.”

“When the storm comes,” Discord smirked, taking the marshal’s words and returning them to the source with vicious barb, “do you really think that you’ll be able to protect those girls all on your own? Do you really think that you’re the legendary hero everyone hypes you up to be and that you’ll have the power to win the day?

“Or…” he continued as words took on true malevolence in their mockery, “do you know that in the end, you’re just one man? One man without the power to do a thing? When push comes to shove can you really say you won’t succumb to temptation and ask for just the smallest bit of harmless help?”

Graves opened his mouth. He wanted to deny it, wanted to laugh it off as some wild fantasy from a sick and twisted mind. But a part of him knew that he’d be lying if he did and thus, gunmetal grey eyes smoldered over a tongue that remained silent.

“Well, I think that about wraps it up,” Discord chuckled, all good humor once more as he stretched out his arms overhead. “Now I know that muscle-bound head of yours is working to find an answer, but no need to strain yourself, alright? Just sit on it for a bit. Stew it over.” And with that, the trickster got up from his seat and–


It was hard to say who was more surprised, Discord for hearing, or Graves for calling out. But the elderly youngster did as he was bidden and looked on with curious, golden eyes.

“About all this…” Graves began, awkwardly scratching his head. “Thanks.”

“… Thanks?” Discord blinked in genuine surprise. “I just told you that I betrayed the world and all but shouted out that you’d do the exact same as me, and you’re thanking me? Are you sure you’re feeling alright there?”

“Just fine,” Graves said with a roll of the eyes. “And I meant it. ‘Cause of you, I know a bit more about Nul and how he works. Makes it easier to deal with when the day comes.”

“Ooh, confident are we?” Discord smirked.

“Knowledge is power,” Graves replied with a short bark of laughter. “Enough of it, and I won’t have to ask for any more.”

“So it is, so it is,” the elderly youngster laughed. “Well then, let’s just hope that it works out as you say.”

And with a final, flourishing bow, Discord turned about and disappeared from sight.


Chapter 14

Chapter 14

Did you know that there was a time called before dawn? Rainbow Dash didn’t. Well, technically she did, but she thought it only applied to cider days. This was not a cider day, and thus, the pre-dawn times were definitely not expected.

“Huh? Wha?” she snorted, her buzz saw snoring ending abruptly as a boot nudged her side.

“Rise and shine,” Graves called down from looming heights above. “Pack up. We’re heading out.”

“Now?” Rainbow Dash mumbled as she blearily blinked her eyes. “But… sun’s not even up yet.”

“Will be in about twenty minutes,” replied. “Daylight isn’t long here, so we need to make the most of it. Now move.”

The girl scratched her head of multicolored locks and yawned noisily as she looked around. Indeed, everyone else was already up and milling about, gathering their things and restoring the camp site to its natural state.

“So, why are we doing this again?” Pinkie asked from under her frizzled mass of hair as she tossed handful of dirt and debris over the spot she’d slept last night. “I mean, I’ve heard of leaving things the way you found it, but I didn’t think it applied to rocks and stuff too.”

“It’s a safety precaution,” Twilight explained as she meticulously repacked the bags with geometrically calculated care. “If we leave evidence we were here, then something might come after us and make trouble. It’s best to be safe on these kinds of things.”

“Um… and what kind of things might those be?” Fluttershy asked nervously.

“Do this right, and we won’t have to find out,” Graves replied. “Now let’s go.”

Under the marshal’s keen eye, the camp was restored till not even a snake slithering by could tell they’d ever been there at all. As predicted, they finished just as the sun peaked its head over the surrounding mountains. It didn’t exactly light up the jungle around them, but it did at least lift the gloom to a paler shade of grey. That had to count for something.

Onward again they marched, albeit with a bit less exuberance than they had yesterday. On the first day, they’d been fresh and excited, eager to set out on the beginning of a grand adventure and save Equestria as they had before. On the second day, they were positive, but a little less so as the wear of travel first appeared. Now, the toll had risen yet again, and aside from possibly Applejack, the effects were clearly starting to show.

They were used to walking. They were used to running. They weren’t used to trekking tens of miles with heavy loads on for a full day and repeating before the next had really even started. Of course they pressed on, understanding full well that their discomforts were a small price to pay for the work they’d been tasked. But they were just regular young women after all, not soldiers, and the strain showed in slightly tighter lips and quieter tones.

In this respect, Pinkie Pie was the one bright spot in the gloom that made the goings lighter. Well-cautioned by the marshal to keep her volume down, the bubbly baker constantly made her way up and down the line, throwing a lively smile one way and sharing a quick joke another. It was never much and it never slowed the pace, but every now and then, it did bring out a smile and laugh in return. And perhaps it was the walking that warmed up their muscles, or maybe it was just Pinkie’s infectious mood, but as the sun grew higher, so did their moods till they were almost back to the way they were the day before. Not exactly, but still Pinkie Pie approved.

After a good few hours of travel, Graves called for a halt at the sheltered base of a rocky cliff.

“Break time,” the marshal called as he unslung his pack. “Stretch out your muscles; they’ll probably be more than sore by now. Oh, and set something to eat, but not too much; we’re off in twenty.”

“What? That quickly?” Twilight groaned. Bookworm that she was, all this physical exertion was seriously putting her soft librarian butt through its paces. “Can’t we have just a bit more time?”

“Longer we rest, the harder it is to start again,” Graves said with a wry smile. “Oh, and Fluttershy. Fly up to the top of the cliff and keep an eye out for any trouble.”

“But… are you sure?” the coral-haired girl blinked. “Wouldn’t you be much better at that? I mean, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be looking for.”

“I’ve got some stuff to take care of,” Graves shrugged. “Don’t worry. Anything that seems like a problem probably is. Just let Twilight know and she’ll take care of the rest.”

“Oh… okay.”

With a last glance around and a satisfied nod, Graves took off into the jungle with ground eating strides and faded like a ghost amongst the trees.

“What do yah reckon he’s up to out there?” Applejack drawled at his departure.

“I dunno, probably scouting around, getting a feel for the land or some other soldiery stuff, probably,” Rainbow Dash suggested.

“If he wanted that, then he could’ve asked me,” Twilight frowned. “I mean, it’s not the clearest picture, but my magic map gives us a clear view for at least a hundred paces in all directions. We don’t need any more than that, do we?”

“Whatever it is he’s up to, I’m sure there’s a very good reason for it,” Rarity nodded, all cool confidence and unruffled poise. “After all, he’s not the sort of man to waste a second if he doesn’t have to.”

“Yeah, and speaking of not wasting a second,” Rainbow Dash frowned through careful, scrutinizing eyes, “when did you find the time to do your makeup this morning?”

“Oh, you noticed?” Rarity smiled. “In that case, I think the real question is why were you paying attention to my makeup, hmm? Could it be that you’d like to try some yourself?”

Before Rainbow’s indignation could fully flare, a soft cry of dismay came from behind. Turning about, the girls spotted Fluttershy toppled over as she struggled to fit on the rune wing set she’d just unpacked.

“Um… girls?” she blushed. “A little help?”


Like clockwork, at exactly twenty minutes after his departure, Graves returned, silently stepping from the mists like a shade from the dark.

“Holy jeebus!” Rainbow Dash cried as she leaped up in fright. “Don’t do that, G! That’s just freaky!”

“Sorry, force of habit,” Graves chuckled. “Anyways, it’s time to go.”

As the girls picked up their packs, they had to admit there was definitely truth to the marshal’s words. Getting up after even their brief respite was about as pleasant as a child getting ready for the first day of school. If they’d taken any longer, it probably would have gotten as bad as pulling teeth. Maybe even worse.

Onward they pressed, trekking through the dimly lit jungle with the same formation as yesterday and the same, careful advance that had guided their steps before. Once more, the sun set, camp was set, and the girls once again wearily collapsed into their beds, aching and tired, but with smiles on their faces and optimism in their hearts. Three days in a row with not a sign of trouble. Perhaps, with just a little luck, their entire trip would proceed in the same, steady fashion.

Then the fourth day dawned.


“What’s that?” Pinkie Pie called out as her ears pricked up. “Do you guys hear something?”

“I didn’t hear nuthin’,” Applejack shrugged. Three hours past dawn, and save for a cautious tiptoe around a worgen lair, nothing had interrupted their steady progress. “Are you sure you’re not jess–”

“Shh! There it is again!”

At Pinkie Pie’s beckoning, the group fell silent and strained their ears. There was nothing. But then, as they adjusted to the silence, it started to come forth. A strange cacophony sounded from somewhere up far up yonder as shrill cries tangled with the earthen rumble of moving land.

“What do you suppose it is?” Rarity queried.

“Beats me,” Applejack shrugged, “but I jess hope that Rainbow Dash gets back in time tah fill us in. I’d rather not run into any nasty surprises.”

“Do you think it’s trouble?” Twilight asked Graves from where he leaned against a gnarled trunk.

“Probably not if we can avoid it,” he rumbled. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll be best if we–”

The rest of the statement was interrupted by Rainbow Dash’s harried return.

“Hey girls?” she called out. “You might wanna check this out.”

Only pausing to exchange quick looks of surprise, the rest picked up and took off after their flying friend. Winding around gnarled trunks and clambering up rocky inclines, the group made its way to the top of a hill overlooking a misty valley below.

“There, on the other side by the big cliff,” Rainbow Dash pointed. “I think that’s the source of the ruckus.”

It was sort of hard to see, what with a sea of fog filling a deep rent in the earth more than two miles wide, but whether by some properties of the magical mist or just a rare moment of clarity, the group spotted the source of the commotion they’d heard. Towering at twenty paces tall, a massive bipedal monstrosity raised boulder-sized fists and pounded on the rocky cliffs, rage and insane fury clouding its single, titanic eye.

“Cyclops,” Graves muttered grimly. “Best if it doesn’t see us.”

Fortunately, the monster’s attentions were fully occupied by the task at hand. Titanic muscles strained as time and time again, it pounded the cliff side with literally enough force to shatter mountains. Each blow it landed cracked stone and pulverized earth even as it stood under attack. Though harder to see compared to its monstrous form, all around the Cyclops flew a screeching convocation of griffons, lion-sized avians that soared through the sky and dived upon the beast to rake it with their razor-edged talons.

“What’s going on down there?” Twilight asked in morbid fascination as the battle continued. “Why’s it going after the cliff like that?”

“Probably for the eggs inside,” Graves suggested. “Crack open the rocks to get the nests.”

“But that doesn’t make sense,” Fluttershy called out in alarm. “Griffons don’t have any natural predators on account of their size and ability to work as a group. Even something as large as that Cyclops would never challenge a nesting ground like that.”

“I don’t know about that,” Applejack shrugged. “Looks to me like he’s doin’ jess fine.”

From all outward appearances, Applejack was right. The Cyclops’s hide was thick and hard, and though the griffons pecked and clawed valiantly, they could hardly scratch the armored-surface of the titanic beast. But hide or no hide, that didn’t account for one very glaring target.

“Huh, they must be a bunch of bird brains or something,” Pinkie frowned. “I always thought that they’d go and poke him in the peeper. Guess they haven’t thought of it yet.”

Hadn’t they? Of that, Graves wasn’t so sure.

Griffons may have had the strength of a lion with the wings of an eagle, but it was their intelligence that made them such fearsome predators. Able to coordinate their efforts for incredibly complex maneuvers, the griffons may have been nature’s premier militant species, a fact that no doubt determined the Imperium’s name in days long past. All this to say is that griffons anywhere were deadly, and out here where survival was a constant struggle, that natural predatory brilliance should expand to vicious new heights.

So why was it that even in a long fought battle, the Cyclops was still able to see? Why hadn’t the griffons taken advantage of the monster’s single, greatest weakness?

Unslinging his rifle, the marshal brought it up to peer through its sighted scope. Vision soared across the canyon and Graves adjusted the magnifying lenses till he could set his steely gaze on the full form of roaring behemoth. As he watched, the tawny form of a griffon flashed across his vision and raked a talon across the bulbous eye. The Cyclops howled, the same howl they had been hearing ringing across the canyon all this time.

And still it continued.

It was struck and wounded, but the Cyclops simply didn’t stop. Even though its eye was already a mass of oozing gashes, the creature simply kept pounding away, it’s giant fists finally cracking through the first layer of rock and granting it access to the nests beneath. But now that the marshal had sight of it this close up, he could finally understand why.

“Graves?” Rarity asked, swallowing the lump in her throat as she saw his face harden into a stony mask. “What’s going on?”

“Fluttershy was right,” he replied as he watched the first nest get battered to pulp under a crushing blow. “It’s not killing to eat. It’s just killing.”

“What?!” Twilight gasped as Fluttershy’s pallor took on a deathly hue. “Why on earth would it do that?”

That answer lay in the eye. Each line in the Cyclops’s eye, each gaping that marked a griffon’s slash had already filled, not with flesh or magic, but with a dense, black pitch, a black so complete that it seemed even to leech away the colors around it and drink up the light like dry sand a drop of moisture.

“Nul,” Graves muttered with tones nearly as dark. “Miasma’s driven it insane. That thing’s nothing more than death on two feet.”

“Then we have to do something!” Fluttershy cried out. Throwing off her pack, the young lady tore into her gear and pulled out her delicate, runework frames and scrambled to put them on. However, before she could even slip a hand through the fitted harness, a calloused hand pressed gently, but firmly onto her shoulder.

“Hold on a second,” Graves said. “I know your upset, but you’ve got to think this through.”

“What’s there to think about?” Rainbow Dash snorted. “That thing’s making a mess for no blasted good reason at all! If we can do something about it, we should!”

“Normally, I’d agree,” the marshal nodded, “but we can’t afford to right now, not out here.”

“But Big G!” Pinkie Pie pouted. “I thought the princesses told us to fix up the problem with the craziness and what not. There’s a problem right out in front of us. How can we not do something?”

“We have to fix the source, not just this,” Graves replied flatly. Though he could feel disapproval directed at him from several pairs of eyes, he didn’t care. “Our job is to get to gates and seal Nul up for good. If we stop and try to save every critter between here and there, we’ll be too worn out to do a damn thing.”

“So what, you’re saying we should just leave?” Rainbow Dash scowled. “Like, just turn tail and walk away when we can do something here and now?” Graves met her gaze with hard-set eyes.

“That’s right.”

It wasn’t often that someone could face down the marshal’s iron gaze, but this was one of them. Rainbow Dash’s fuchsia eyes shot daggers back at Graves, and even that was nothing compared to the palpable outrage flowing from Fluttershy like heat from a furnace. Of course, on some level, they understood his reasoning. His job was to keep them safe and going up against corrupted behemoth like that would clearly not be to those interests. But even more than that, the fact that Graves chose inaction was almost as bad as if he were out there rampaging himself. The only thing evil needs to thrive is for good people to stand by, and for the life of them, that’s exactly what the marshal’s stance seemed to ask.

While the three glared back and forth with another three looking on in steadily mounting concern, Twilight had remained silent as she considered the words from both sides. Now that she’d taken in all that she could, the amethyst-eyed mage spoke.

“Graves, I know you’re thinking about the mission and that’s good, but I still think that we can’t just turn our backs on a problem we can solve. Yes, sealing Nul back up is our ultimate goal, but we’re doing it stop him from destroying the world. If we willingly let his power run wild, then we’re just helping him in his work.”

“Mess this up, and you finish the job for him,” Graves calmly replied. “Maybe you save this group, but what happens to the world if one of you dies? You might not like it, but sometimes you have the sacrifice for the bigger picture.”

“Maybe,” Twilight grudgingly admitted before she rallied herself once more. “But I won’t make that sacrifice until we absolutely have to and there’s literally no other way. Are you saying that we have absolutely no chance of saving them and getting out safely?”

“It’s… not impossible…” Graves muttered, now his turn to concede. It was possible, and not just in theory. But the cost of the process, the risk…

“We’re here to protect the world from Nul,” Twilight cleanly stated. “If that means we need to detour to stop his darkness from spreading, then that’s what we should do.”

“… Is that an order, Twilight?” Graves asked, his voice hardly more than a rumbling whisper as the rest of the group held their breaths. Steel met amethyst as another thunderous blow rang out.

“I’d rather not make it one,” she finally replied, a frown of distaste marring her face. “But if that’s what it takes to do the right thing…”

She didn’t need to say anymore.

“Very well, then,” Graves nodded as he slowly unslung his rifle. “We’ll help.”


“Ooh, can’t he go any faster? We really need to hurry!”

“I’m sure he’s doing the best he can, Fluttershy,” Applejack murmured consolingly. “We’ll jess hafta trust the marshal know’s what he’s about.”

As the girls stood back on the ridge, all eyes rested on Graves as he sat with spell gun rested across his knees. It had been two minutes at most since he began, but two minutes of absolute stillness has a way of stretching out much longer.

Grey eyes closed, the marshal focused everything he had on his breathing. Inhaling and exhaling at such a regular rhythm, you could have set a clock to it. With every breath he took in, a little more of the abundant mana was drawn through the air, directed into his body. With every breath he let out, that mana was channeled out as electric might into the spell gun resting under his palms. Inside the gun, the force of his will molded the trapped lightning, folding it over itself and compressing it tighter, tighter, tighter still, until it became the molten core of a star itself.

Yet even with all attention focused, sweat rolled down the marshal’s forehead and dripped from his nose as he struggled to maintain control. Even minute amounts of mana made for powerful lightning with every bit added only making it exponentially worse. As if that wasn’t enough, the excess of energy in the air made the delicate process of trickling controlled amounts of energy forward like trying to wet a tissue from a fire hose.

But what else could he do? If the Cyclops’ bestial cries weren’t enough indication, then the frenzied screech of the griffons more than made it clear; come anywhere near that mess, and they’d be torn to shreds. Not that Rainbow Dash hadn’t volunteered of course, but there was absolutely no way she was flying into that hurricane of slashing claws and snapping beaks. Twilight was powerful, but hoping for her to make any sort of shot across the valley that stretched at least two miles wide would have been a shot in the dark to say the least.

That just left Graves with the task of making a shot powerful enough to slay the massive creature in one fell swoop. And so he worked, trying to compress a living, violent mass of electric wrath into even tighter, denser form. Sweat trickled down his forehead as Graves struggled to tame a force that defied confinement, a mass of thrashing rage as wild as flame and fury itself. He held on, but never more than a finger nail’s desperate cling from total failure and absolute annihilation from the thunderstorm he held.

Finally, after minutes that had stretched for hours, when the spell gun shimmered like the moon on a clear winter’s eve, only then did Graves opened his eyes. He moved slowly and smoothly, as if every limb were balancing a needle on its head. Raising the gun, Graves brought the sight to his eyes, the perfected focus bringing the Cyclops leaping into range once more. He watched as the monster brought fists crashing down again to smash another clutch of helpless eggs. The griffons screeched and continued their aerial assault, but to no avail as it raised its mammoth arms once more. Mammoth arms clenched, steely bands of muscles contracted as the beast made ready to strike once more–

And Graves fired.

The girls cried as their world erupted in wind and thunder. Typhoon gales, a deafening roar, and a flashing explosion of crackling, silvery sparks erupted into the air around Graves as he unleashed a magnificent bolt of lightning as long as a lance and bright enough to split the heavens in two. Across the valley it streaked, a hissing bolt of pure destruction to find its mark right in the Cyclops’ neck. Thunder resounded once more as the entire cliff side was bathed in blinding white light.

“Woohoo!” Pinkie Pie cried out, though only barely heard above the din. “That’ll butter up anyone’s biscuit, yessiree bob!”

The light faded and vision returned, letting the Ponyville troop see that the Cyclops had crumpled into a lifeless heap as the griffons continued to circle about. It had taken a bit, and the cliff side nests would never be the same, but they could see some clutches of eggs still remained. Complete destruction had been averted.

“Thank you, Graves,” Fluttershy gasped in sincerest gratitude as tears quickly welled and flowed from her eyes. “I know this isn’t what you wanted to do, but it really means a lot that you helped us protect those griffons.”

“Don’t mention it,” Graves mumbled thickly as he pushed himself to his feet. “Now let’s get moving bef–”

No, don’t you dare. Keep it together. Keep. It…

It was no use. Even as Graves tried to stand, his knees buckled and he collapsed back to the stony soil, coughing and hacking in a violent fit as silvery sparks flew from his mouth.

“Graves!” Rarity cried as she rushed forward. “Oh dear, please don’t–”

“Stay… back…” Graves wheezed in between chest-wrenching hacks. “I’ll… be–”

Wide-eyed looks of alarm darted between the other girls. Though they’d heard the general story before, none of them had ever seen firsthand just what violent mana sickness could really do to a person. Every hacking cough seemed to be a convulsion of the body trying to tear itself apart as crackling lighting splayed across skin in a spider web of searing tendrils. The symptoms itself were frightening, and the fact that they afflicted Graves, the man they’d come to think of as invincible, untouchable? That made it terrifying.

The marshal tried to right himself. He really did. Once the hacking started, though, there really wasn’t stopping it. His body was revolting from the excess magic that had flooded his system and struggled to purge itself.

Graves tried to steady his breath and aid the process, no mean feat considering his stomach felt like it was trying to digest a rusty shiv. But there was so much mana outside already, so much ambient energy clogging the air, it was like trying to sweat on a hot, humid day. Lightning drained from his veins, but slowly. Too slowly.

Not that he’d have time to worry about that, of course, because even as he knelt, a rippling line of frost ran down his spine.


Chapter 15

Chapter 15

“What’s… that?” Graves coughed out as he strained to look up. Eyes followed his gaze and alighted on the griffons who, despite the fall of the Cyclops, still continued to circle about their nests while sounding their sharp cries.

“Them bird critters are still flappin’ about,” Applejack replied as she shook the stunned stupor from her form. “Wheelin’ about like vultures after Thanksgivin’ supper.”

“Griffons don’t scavenge,” Graves wheezed as he finally managed to right himself. Another sparking cough erupted from his chest, but he forced himself to stay straight. “If they’re flying, they’re hunting.”

“But what are they hunting?” Fluttershy asked, her aquamarine eyes wrought with confusion. “The Cyclops’s rampage must have scared off most things the griffons would eat. Why, the only thing even remaining in this area would… would be… ” Fluttershy’s pallor took on a deathly hue as confusion drained away and was quickly replaced by rising terror.

“Fluttershy?” Twilight asked, praying that the sinking sensation in the pit her stomach was just a false alarm. “What’s going on?”

“Th-the griffons are hunting,” she stammered with a face white as a bleached bone. “B-b-but the only th-th-thing around is… is…”


Eyes darted to the marshal as he stated the same dreadful conclusion that Fluttershy had reached. The griffons weren’t just going to settle down, not after their home had been invaded this way. No, with blood boiling and rage clouding their minds, the lords of the sky were going to make sure their nests were safe, once and for all.

“Everyone. Move,” Graves called as he forced himself to stand despite another shocking cough. Rarity’s eyes widened at the sight.

“Now?” she gaped. “But Graves, you’re in no shape to–”

“Move!” he snapped as the cold chill running down his spine grew to bone-numbing frost as he heard the rallying cry of the griffons sound once more. “Get to the treeline and keep moving. Now!”

The crack of his voice snapped the girls into action. With alacrity born from welling panic, they snatched up their packs, spun on their heels, and began a mad, scrambling descent down the rocky hillside and towards the safety of the trees. But even as they moved, so too did the griffons. Peeling out from the circling patterns over their nests, the giant avians soared across the valley’s sky, shrieking with rage as they descended upon the newest threat.

“W-w-wait!” Fluttershy called out. “W-w-why are w-w-we r-r-running?”

“Um, probably because they’re gonna turn us into shredded Swiss if they catch us?” Rainbow Dash called out, not daring to turn around lest she miss her footing and lose precious speed.”

“But we helped them out!” Pinkie Pie chimed in as she bounded along. “Gotta say, it’s pretty mean of them after we helped them out.”

Graves would have loved to explain. He would have loved to clearly elucidate how in the Savage Lands, niceness was as foreign a concept as dehydrated water. He would have loved to elaborate how animals here were vicious and hungry and brutal beasts and even the supposedly noble griffons could quickly turn into merciless killers. But he couldn’t. Each jarring step he took sent another jolt of agony through his gut as the magic trapped inside, the magic he hadn’t had the time to remove, continued to wreak havoc on his body. At this point, it was all he could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other and not vomit up what likely have been his own shredded entrails.

The Ponyville troop scrambled down the hill and quickly approached the forested tree line. However, the griffons were hot in pursuit and much faster. Drawing in close, the griffons spiraled upwards, flapping their massive wings with hurricane force to soar higher and higher into the sky. Then, when they had just about disappeared into the clouded skies above, they tucked wings to sides and began their dive. Tawny eyes gleaming with bloodlust, predator descended upon its prey, falling faster and faster like a hail of shrieking meteors. The Equestrians were close to the haven of those twisted trunks, but the griffons were so fast, so relentless…

With a last, mad sprint, the group threw themselves under the canopy of the first massive tree with a ragged cry of triumph. Up above, eagle shrieks sounded amidst crackling and snapping branches as the griffons harshly peeled out of their dive. Talons the size of short swords tore gashing rents from the tops of the gnarled canopy, but the griffons themselves proceeded no further.

Not on wings, at least.

“You’ve… got to be… kidding me.” Though Twilight had turned around with a weary, but triumphant grin, that smile melted faster than butter on a hot skillet. When the griffons saw that they could no longer maintain their aerial chase, no less than a dozen leonine hunters descended to the ground and stalked towards them on the forest floor.

A sharp tug to the back of her jacket pulled her back.

“Keep moving,” Graves called, even as he nudged Pinkie Pie back into a hurried jog. Needing no further urgings, the girls turned tail and continued rushing ahead, or at least tried to. Though they’d all done their share of running about and often with lives on the line, never had they been encumbered as before. Laden down with camping supplies and provisions, even the short dash from the hill had wearied them far beyond what any of them could have expected.

“Oh dear,” Fluttershy panted as she struggled along with some small aid from her translucent coral spell wings, “don’t you think that… maybe… they might be friendly?”

The crackling crunch of limbs torn from trees was all the answer they required.

Griffons were fast on land as well, perhaps even faster than the king of the jungle when aided by their own wings. Fortunately for the Equestrians, even an enraged griffon was a careful and tactful hunter. They had no idea what these new creatures were, but they had taken down the great beast, something not even their entire flock had managed. Even more, the pursuit had led them into the hostile territory beneath the canopy. Whatever dominion they claimed over the sky did not extend beneath the sea of green, a fact that gave pause to their padding steps.

But even so, the new creatures were small and the griffons as powerful as they were furious. Slowed as their stalk was, the pace was still enough to bring death on swift paws to a beleaguered party, and it was all the Equestrians could do to keep what little distance they’d gained. Sweat trickled down every brow and breath came in ragged gasps as lungs burned to fuel muscles fatigued long before the chase had even began. The group stumbled forward, so intent on keeping one foot in front of the other, there was hardly enough time to watch where that foot may fall.


Twilight’s foot slipped on a side embankment and sent her careening down the steep slope in a shower of stony slate and gravel. Applejack reached out a hand and seized her friend’s shirt collar, but the weight of the girl plus her pack dragged the farm girl down as well.

From the back of the pack, Graves saw the two tumble out of sight just as he heard another loud screech, this one sharper and stronger than the rest. Turning to the griffons, gunmetal grey eyes widened as he saw them dig taloned foreclaws into the ground, gripping the soil as shoulders lowered and they made ready to charge. Stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, the marshal made the only choice they had.

“Follow them!”

Several eyes turned to stare at the marshal with the shared message of, “are you mad, man?” Apparently, he was, because at the back of the group as he was, Graves was able to lunge forward to give each of them a firm ‘nudge’ in the direction of the slope. Pinkie Pie was surprised of course, and Rarity would probably have his hide for this, but he needed to keep them together. Get separated, and the Savage Lands would eat them all alive.

With loud cried, frantic shrieks, and the occasional excited whoop tossed in, the group slid down the slope amidst the hail of torn up grass and loose shale. It was a long slide, and steep, but at least it was in fact a hill and not one of the numerous jagged cliffs the odds could have dealt them. After a careening tumble that battered and bruised them like peaches tossed down a flight of stairs, the Equestrians gave their final crash as their fall ended with a loud, wet splash..

“Everyone okay?” Graves called out, thrusting his spell gun into the boggy marshlands as a crutch to help him stand. “Everyone here?”

“Let’s do it again! Let’s do it–”

“Out of the question!” That would be Rarity silencing Pinkie Pie with a single withering glare from beneath her dripping, violet tresses. “I knew that we’d have some difficulties on this trip, but I still do not appreciate being tumbled into all of this… ugh… icky, icky muck.”

“Aw, lighten up, Rarity,” Rainbow Dash chuckled as she splashed the scandalized seamstress with a handful of bog water. “It’s just a little dirt. It’ll wash right out.”

Just a little dirt?” Rarity gaped. “I’ll have you know–”

“Save it for later,” Graves cut off in tones sharpened only partially by his concerns. “Applejack, Twilight, you two all right?”

“I think so,” Twilight replied from her perch atop Applejack’s backside. “The fall wasn’t as bad as I expected.”

“You’re welcome,” Applejack huffed. “Now can yeh please get offa me so I can get myself outta this here bog?”

“Oh, sorry.”

“We gotta keep moving,” Graves called, his eyes already returning to scan the hill they’d just slid down. “Those griffons won’t give up so easily.”

“Then… maybe we should head for that dry patch over there?” Fluttershy suggested as she pointed further into the swamp where a mound of hard-packed earth hosted sprays of dully-gleaming quartz. “It’ll probably be easier then wading through this swamp.”

“Hear hear,” Rarity heartily agreed as she made the first steps towards the mound. “Hiking and mountains, I can handle, but I absolutely cannot tolerate all this vacherie.”

The young lady took a step forward, and just as her booted foot fell, that all-too familiar, icy chill ran down the marshal’s spine once more, a foreboding contrast to the burning acid still sitting in his stomach. Good lord, what could it possibly be now? If they didn’t get out of here, the griffons would be on them and then they were as good as dead. But even hard-pressed for time as they were, he couldn’t just blindly lead them on, not until he figure out just what was off with this scene.

What was wrong? Bogs were always dangerous, to be sure. Lack of sure footing and liquid cover all around made it a tactical nightmare. That’s why moving towards high ground, a sound choice in most situations, became doubly so. Then why had things seemed so off as soon as Rarity had headed… for…

Of course.

They’d slid down the hill in a shower of shale and slate. Rarity was walking towards a hill with piles of large quartz crystals, the only of its kind in all the miles they’d traveled. Graves would wager silver to sand that those crystals weren’t native to the area and no amount of searching would produce another of its like. But stones didn’t just up and deposit themselves in the middle of a swamp. They couldn’t.

So why were they there?

“Rarity, stop!” Graves called, stumbling forward with hand reached out as if he could somehow halt her steps simply by the act of willing it. He couldn’t, and as the violet-haired girl took that last fateful step, the earth shuddered and came to life.

Out from the murky depths of the swamp rose the primordial reptile known as the crockodile. Easily ten paces from snout to tail, the stony beast roared in delight as it lumbered forth towards the stunned Rarity. Sapphire and silver eyes alike widened with shock as a maw full of flinty teeth opened wide, craggy eyes of milky-white marble locking on the delicious morsel, and –

– snapped its jaws shut not two feet from Rarity’s face as a prismatic blur yanked her back.

“Don’t just stand there,” Rainbow Dash cried. “Get moving!”

Roughly jarred from her stupor, Rarity made tracks back towards the others, even managing to surpass Applejack and Twilight as Pinkie Pie bounded off with Fluttershy hot on her heals. Now both of them loved the little alligator Gummy to pieces, but he was a far cry from the earthen monster that now lumbered in their wake.

Graves ran as well, but trailed towards the back to make sure there was at least one barrier between the girls and the crockodile behind them. Unslinging his spell gun, he tried to focus and charge it up should the need to stand and fight arise. A trickle of magic came forth, but the flow was weak and faltering. He’d already worn himself thin taking out the Cyclops and without even a chance to catch his breath, his body was simply not ready for more casting.

A few choice words escaped his lips as he forced whatever mana he could gather into the weapon in hand. Focused as he was on his gun, Graves didn’t notice the large canvas pack in front of him until he bumped right into it.

“What’s the hold up?” Graves snapped as he found himself already caught up with the group. He should not have caught up with the group. “I told you, we have to move!”

“I’m – urf – trying,” Twilight grunted. “But I think my feet are stuck."

Celestia on high, really? Feet getting stuck? Of all the rotten luck to have, this had to be–

No, not luck. Luck would have been one girl getting stuck. But five? That was something else entirely. Right now, every girl on foot was in the same situation as Twilight, straining and struggling to advance while making absolutely no headway. With the waters agitated as they were, Graves felt the motions before he actually saw them. Somewhere beneath the murk, he could feel the creeping, gripping sensations of tendrils wrapping around his boots, tendrils that not only held him fast, but slowly began to pull him under.

Devil’s Snare. Living vines that slowly pulled ensnared prey into watery pits, pits where submerged roots would slowly absorb its catch as they rotted into a fetid stew. In their haste to escape, none of them had thought anything of the bloated, blackened vines that now hung all around them or noted the subtle shifting of growth as they’d advanced past the point of no return.

With a crackling roar, the lumbering crockodile crashed back into sight as it finally caught up with the Equestrian troop. The stony scales of his rough hide weren’t exactly conducive to movement, but if they were, they would certainly have been curled up in a smile of delight. Entrapped prey would sink quickly, but not quickly enough to avoid being stolen away by the earthen juggernaut. Rainbow Dash tucked wings and dove, aiming to strike its eyes as the griffons had done before, but the crockodile simply lowered a second pair of eyelids and allowed the crystalline husk to deflect whatever puny blows the flyer could muster. Rumbling forward like an all-devouring wave of stone, the beast advanced.

That was when the eagle’s cry sounded once more and the ridge above them quickly filled with a line of raging griffons.


Chapter 16

Chapter 16

Griffons on the ridge in front. Crockodile in the swamp behind. And all the while, Devil’s Snare dragging them deeper and deeper into the murky waters below. Rarely did such a perfect trifecta of disasters congregate on one occasion, but today was one of those special exceptions.

“Ohmygoodnessohmygoodness! We have to get out of here!” Fluttershy squeaked as she poured as much energy into her rune wings as she could muster. The effort did lift her a few inches higher out of the water, but it was nowhere near enough to escape the hold of the cursed tendrils.

“You call that flapping?” Rainbow Dash yelled as she seized Twilight and strained till her wings were little more than a translucent blue blur. “I wanna see you put some horse power into those wings and fast!” Brave as her words though, even Rainbow Dash’s best efforts weren’t enough to free her friend as water crept a little higher.

“I don’t suppose… oof!” Rarity grunted, “that you have a spell that would get us out of this mess, would you, Twilight?”

“Um let’s see. Conjuring wouldn’t help, that’d just move any trees or handholds toward us as the fixed points. Levitation might help, but then I’d have to exert an exponential amount of inverse force to break the current bonds, which would probably take too long. Transfiguration probably wouldn’t help either because–”

“Twi, it’s great that you’re figurin’ all these things that don’t work,” Applejack interjected with a strained smile, “but maybe a little less on the can’ts and a little more on the what’s gonna be savin’ our skins?!”

As the girls worked on their end, Graves did his part as well. In the brief interlude where reptile and avians stared each other down, the marshal ran the few scenarios available. Cutting their way out was already a bust; when the first few hacks from his silver service knife had hardly knicked the rubbery tendrils, back into the sheath it’d gone. The spell charging in his rifle had continued unabated, however slow it was, but that one shot he’d scraped together wouldn’t do much against a baker’s dozen of savage creatures. Not unless…

The large creature had lumbered to a halt and currently, its massive bulk lay stone-still as it surveyed the griffons who’d wandered into its territory. Griffons were a rare sight in that swamp, and the massive beast’s undersized brain sluggishly churned to determine its next course of action. As the crockodile stood still, however, silver eyes darted towards the crystal outcroppings on its back as Graves furiously ran the numbers. The chance of it working was small – and by small he meant half-sized to a church mouse’s thimble tiny – but if he had the calculations right, then maybe, just maybe, he might have an idea.

“Applejack,” he called as softly as his gravelly voice could go. “You still have that rope?”

“Right here,” the farm girl replied as she pulled a lasso from the pack now soaking with water. They were now near waist deep in the swamp with it creeping higher by the second. “Why, you thinkin’ of pullin’ our way out?”

“Something like that,” Graves nodded as he turned to the next stage of his plan. “Twilight, can you set your conjuring spell to an object?”

“Uh, sure,” she shrugged. “Why?”

“Because on my signal, I need you to latch us all to that lasso, and that lasso needs to end up on the crockodile over there.”

The girls blinked.

“Marshal,” Applejack asked with very narrow eyes of suspicious hue, “are you suggestin’ that we go ridin’ that gator right on outta this fine mess we’re in?”

“That’s the plan.”

For a moment, the cow girl just stared at the marshal as if he’d declared war on the moon. But the moment passed and she simply nodded.

“Well then, let’s get goin’.”

In the few crucial seconds that it took them to coordinate their plans, time had continued its resolute march forward. The griffons, still antsy after the assault on their nests, were preparing to continue their hunt. The crockodile, irritated at the interruption to its meal, cast a baleful eye on the interlopers who it now considered as additions to the menu. And the Devil’s Snare, already with meal in hand, dragged the party still deeper into the mire. If they were going to get out of here in one piece, it would have to be now or never.

With slow, smooth motion, Graves raised his rifle and pointed the glowing barrel at the crockodile’s back. The mana sickness was still present and his insides still felt more knotted than a post-kitten skein of yarn, but it had at least abated enough to allow him a single, solid shot. One shot wouldn’t do much against any of the griffons, and it would do even less to the thick hide of the stony monster before him.

And that’s exactly what he was counting on.

Graves fired and loosed his arcane lightning not to strike down the crockodile, but to strike the crystal growth upon its back. Spell struck quartz, air crackled with electricity and fresh ozone, and like an errant ray of sunshine, the spell rebounded. Instead of blasting stone apart, the crystal caught and reflected the arcane bolt and sent it careening of its angled facet, away from the crockodile and straight towards the line of griffons.

The bolt of lightning arced past and clipped a single griffon on its eagle wing. It didn’t do much, hardly more than singing a few wayward pinions, but that was all Graves really needed. Focused as they were on the crockodile, the griffons hadn’t seen the marshal as the source of the blast. To their tawny eyes, the crockodile had been the one who interfered with the hunt by attacking the convocation. This made the crockodile the foremost threat, and with screeches that resounded to the heavens, the griffon’s tucked in their wings and charged head on towards the mighty earthen beast.

That’s when the girls acted. Just before the two sides clashed, Applejack twirled the lasso overhead with a practiced hand and let loose to snag a limestone outgrowth on the crockodile’s tail. Even as the lariat sailed through the air, Twilight chanted. Dozens of minute calculations and equations flashed through her head as she set the conjuring location not to the most familiar reference of her own person, but to the dynamically changing coordinates of the flying rope, all the while manipulating the strands of magic so that they extended to evenly cover the seven Equestrians who now stood chest deep as the Devil’s Snare continued its work.

The task of balancing so many complex calculations with such delicate spellwork was like trying to weave lace on the back of a bucking bronco, only with much more dire consequences. Mess up the lace, and you merely had to begin anew. Mess up here, and the mistake could mean the difference between a person being pulled out or not. Or even worse, only part of them.

Splashing like a landed marlin, the griffons entered the swamp and charged the crockodile. Unaccustomed as the beast was to being aggressed upon, the crockodile made its lumbering retreat deeper into the swamp and further away from the marauding griffons. Lasso snapped taught and with a wet, pulpy tear, seven Ponyville residents pulled free of their ensnarement and splashed into the swamp, soiled and filthy and aching from deep welts left by tearing vines, but free. Mercifully free once more.

“Time to move, girls!” Graves called over the din of battle. “Get going!”

“But what about the supplies?” Twilight called. Despite her best efforts, she hadn’t been able to layer the spell properly over everything and right now, Fluttershy and Rarity’s packs lay soaking in the swamp. A good third of their supplies just sat there, slowly sinking into the muck, and even a girl like Twilight could see the disaster in that.

“Forget the supplies!” Graves roared, pressure adding a sharp edge to his voice. “Skies and spells and get a move on it!”

“But –”


Stinging like a slap to the face, the marshal’s cry snapped the six to attention and they made their move. Rainbow Dash went to Applejack, Fluttershy grabbed onto Pinkie Pie, and with deep breaths from the fliers, spell wings roared to life as they each took to the air. Partially, at least. There was no way either girl could carry a person all on their own, but the boost of their wings made running that much easier. With flyers pulling from above and runners pushing from below, the girls managed to bound across the swamp far faster than any could ever have hoped on foot.

Twilight, in the meanwhile, latched onto Rarity and in an amethyst flash of light, vanished, only to reappear twenty feet away. Again and again Twilight teleported, blinking short distances repeatedly fast as a step could land to quickly gain ground and separate them from the frenzied brawl that raged behind. Beaks pecked, talons slashed, and great, gaping maw snapped at far faster wings. It was a furious battle of beast and bird, but one that had broken out over prey that was now no longer there.

Graves should have been able to smile. They got out safely, and that was a victory, right? But as gunmetal grey eyes surveyed the field, saw the girls in hard retreat as their provisions disappeared beneath dank waters, he had to wonder. They could have avoided all of this had they just kept moving along. Could you really call it a victory, knowing that?

One of the griffons fixed a tawny eye on the marshal and raised its head, but Graves was already on the move. Raising his rifle once more, the marshal opened fire with what dregs of magic remained in his exhausted body. A silvery spike and spell chain fired out and rooted into a gnarled trunk. With a second pull, the chain rapidly retracted and Graves pulled himself away, swinging as the chain disappeared to fling himself into an long, loping run.

By the time the griffon sounded the alarm, Graves was already gone, vanished like smoke in the breeze.


The sun was still up. They should have continued and pressed on further through the Savage Lands as the hours of daylight would allow. But they couldn’t. Bruised, battered, and caked in enough mud to build a hut, the Equestrian squad was well past the point endurance could bear, and pressing on further in their shape would only have ended in still further disaster. Graves knew this. He didn’t like it, but he knew this, and so when they discovered a quiet, secluded hollow at the rooted base of a giant tree, he called a halt.

“Sweet macaroon of Cancun, I’m tired,” Pinkie Pie groaned as she wearily worked to dig a fire pit for the evening. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this tired in my whole life, not even that time Pa made me rotate the entire marble crop for setting the kitchen on fire.”

“I hear yah,” Applejack mumbled. “Feel’s like zap apple season all over again. ‘Cept worse.”

As the two continued comparing their aches and pains to various unpleasant situations, Fluttershy cast a nervous eye towards the silent marshal.

“Um… Twilight?” she whispered, her complexion pale and drawn after the day’s affairs. “Could I have a word?”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Well…” Once again, she glanced towards Graves. He was seated on a gnarled root, coat laid out on the ground and spell gun disassembled atop it as he cleaned each of the mud-caked parts.

“Do you… do you think Graves is mad at me?” Fluttershy whispered, her voice so soft that Twilight actually didn’t hear. When she repeated however, the lady mage’s eyes did a fair impression of the evening’s full moon.

“Mad? Why would he be mad?” Twilight she gaped, making sure to put extra emphasis into the words to emphasize the absurdity. Fluttershy’s gaze dropped to her feet.

“Because… if it weren’t for me… we wouldn’t have gone through this… this mess.” Though she’d managed to keep it in for the hike, the delicate girl could no longer take it and big, wet tears began to flow from her aquamarine eyes.

“Fluttershy, it wasn’t your fault,” Twilight said as she jumped up to pull her friend into a warm, soothing hug. “If anything, it was mine. Princess Celestia put me in charge, and I made the marshal help us out.”

“But… but if I hadn’t…”

“Your heart was in the right place and that’s that.” Twilight cut off with kind eyes that would clearly brook no argument. “But if you’re really worried, I’ll go have a word with the marshal. Let him know that we’ll be a lot more careful now on. Okay?”

Fluttershy couldn’t really speak, so she settled for replying with a small sniff and a nod.

“Good,” Twilight smiled. “Now, why don’t you go help Applejack fix up dinner?”

As the girl with cherry blossom hair made her way to the camp proper, Twilight turned to look at the marshal herself and started wishing she’d really felt as confident as she’d sounded moments ago. While Graves was an imposing figure at the best of times, right now, his stony frown and dark, brooding eyes made him almost frightening. Maybe it was because he was twice as tired as the rest of them, but Twilight doubted that was the case. Thus, it was with a gulp and giant, flapping bats in her belly that she went over to speak to the marshal.

“Hey, Graves?” she said softly as she approached. “You got a minute?”

“Shoot,” he replied. Graves didn’t look up from his gun. He just kept on working, rough horsehair brush scrubbing in and out of the long, steely barrel.

“So… it’s about today,” Twilight began hesitantly. “I uh… wanted to talk to you about what happened today, and to let you know… I’m sorry.”

The marshal stopped, brush in hand pausing upon hearing her words.

“Don’t apologize,” Graves replied as his hands resumed their work.

“It’s very nice of you to say that,” Twilight smiled, “but I really–”

“No. I mean don’t apologize. At all.”

The young scholar blinked.

“Why not?” she asked, now just a bit on the confused side. Here, Graves set down his work and turned to her, his gunmetal grey eyes cooler than a winter night’s breeze.

“You’re the leader. Whatever decisions you make, you stick by them. If you start second guessing yourself, people lose faith, and if that happens, the team falls apart.”

“But… I screwed up,” Twilight protested. “Shouldn’t I say sorry for that?”

“Do you honestly think you screwed up?” Graves asked. Twilight moved to speak, but as soon as her amethyst eyes met his gunmetal greys, she paused.

All through the walk over, she’d thought about what had happened, where everything had gone wrong. At first she’d figured that trying to help the griffons had been a mistake and that even entertaining the idea had been nothing more than foolhardy bravado. But a part of her, one still with stars in her eyes and limitless skies in mind just couldn’t agree. Despite everything they’d gone through, part of her still thought that what they’d done had been the right thing. Of course, if it was so right, why had everything gone so wrong? Here they were, helping out those afflicted by Nul’s corruption, and they’d ended up beaten up, exhausted, and pulling muck out of every nook and cranny. Results were everything, but they did matter, and the results of today painted her choice as a mistake in bold, neon letters the size of a Las Pegasus billboard.

Feelings on one hand, results on the other. In the hour or so they’d marched since escaping the swamp, after the countless times Twilight had asked herself if she’d do things differently, she finally said,

“… I don’t know.”

Amethyst eyes looked away, no longer able to meet that iron stare.

“Then think it over,” Graves replied flatly. “But keep it quiet. Learn, but never let people see you worry.”

“You do realize who you’re talking to, right?” Twilight retorted with a wry grin that hopefully would lighten the mood. Graves tried to respond in kind.

“Never said it would be easy.”

“I figured as much,” Twilight sighed. “Well, anyway, dinner’s going to be ready soon. It’s not much after today, but at least it’s something. You coming?”

“In a minute,” Graves nodded. “Need to finish cleaning.”

“Okay. Join us when you’re ready.

As Twilight walked back towards the camp where Rarity worked a makeshift comb of twigs through her tangled hair, the marshal’s hard stare followed her every step with breath seized up within his chest. Only when he was sure that she was back and every girl well occupied, no longer free to pay him any mind… only then did he move.

Grave coughed as quietly as he could, keeping a hand to his mouth in order to catch the flecks of blood that escaped from his lips with each ragged hack. Ah yes, the wonderful after effects of a particularly nasty bout of mana sickness. Running and straining himself as he had that day, Graves had never gotten a chance to properly expunge the magic from his system. Raw magic was never good for the body, but when that magic happened to be lightning, the elemental force renowned for its destructive powers, well… I’m sure you can imagine what that does to flesh and bone.

Reaching into a small, almost invisible side compartment of his bag, Graves withdrew a thumb-sized crystal phial of roiling green liquid that seemed to thrash around in a violent fit. Popping the cap off, the raven-haired soldier only paused for a moment before he upended the vial and downed its contents.

It hurt. By the twin crowns, it hurt so bad. Not even drinking pure, boiling-hot grain alcohol could have been as bad going down, and the gut-wrenching pain from the mana sickness were kitten kisses compared to what he felt now. Made sense really. Potions from the Lazarus Pit were not meant to be consumed. But out in the field, where medical supplies needed to be both fast and potent, it was the only thing he could think of that could patch up his insides and keep him going.

When the pain finally subsided, mere moments that had felt a thousand times longer later, Graves finally opened his eyes and let out a low, shuddering breath. That’s when he almost smiled.

It’s funny. Lazarus Pits were designed to teach cadets not to take stupid risks in the field. He’d never actually felt the need to learn that lesson himself and here he was, taking it all in like he was a green-horned rookie once more. Fluttershy wanted to help animals? Fine. Twilight wanted to save the world? Great. Those were wonderful, heart-warming sentiments that made those girls the kind-hearted people they were, the sort of people that gave Ponyville its life and spirit. He still should have taken those sentiments, tossed them in a sack, and hurled that sack into the nearest furnace he could find. Barring a lack of furnaces, a nice ravine would have done just as well.

Why on earth had he let himself go along with their stupid. ideological babble? This wasn’t some backyard camping trip. This was war. You didn’t go sticking your neck out for random people, let alone random animals. You stuck to the plan, kept your head low, and did your job. He knew that. Hay, he’d always known that. And yet for some reason, he’d found himself wanting to go along with their naïve ideals and even… ugh… play the hero.

Well, they were definitely paying for it right now. Right now, they were half a day behind schedule, twice as worn out as they needed to be, and demoralized from having those morals explode right in their naïve little faces. In truth, it was nobody’s fault but his own, and the thought curled his insides almost as bad as the Lazarus potions had.

No. More.

Like freshly forged blades emerging from the flames, the marshal’s gunmetal eyes glinted with a new edge in the light of the setting sun. Ponyville had been good to him. Those girls had been great to him. But he didn’t need soft right now. He didn’t need nice. What he needed was to be strong, to do what it took to cut through these wilds and get the girls to where they needed to be. That meant getting rid of weak ideals like saving random passerbys and focusing on the mission.

With his in mind, Graves passed under the tree’s stretching shadow and joined the girls by the fire, a little late, a little changed.


Dinner was a somber affair, one strangely at odds will the still, somewhat light of the forests around them. Filthy and exhausted as they were after the day’s ordeal, none could muster up much energy for conversation or laughter. Indeed, even Pinkie Pie’s usually unbounded energy seemed drained from such a wearying day.

Making do with a quick meal of the rations that remained unspoiled my muddy swamp water, the girls cleaned themselves off as best they could in a small spring at the base of the tree’s tangled roots. Once refreshed, or as near refreshed as they could manage in the situation, it was off to their tents to collapse for some well needed rest. The sun was still up, but not even a minute had passed before Rainbow Dash’s sawing snores could be heard through the quiet camp.

One lady, however, wasn’t quite so ready to bed down just yet.

“You should get some rest,” Graves said as he banked down the fire to a smoldering bed of coals. “Today was rough.”

“Yes, yes it was,” Rarity idly remarked as she sat down beside the marshal, knees hugged close to her chest as she eyed the warm embers. “And that’s why I wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“As you can see, I’m fine,” the marshal replied as he tried to put one of those odd, lopsided grins to his face. But his heart simply wasn’t into it and the smile died before it could even start, a fact that Rarity’s pursed lips made clear she had noticed.

“Well, you’re certainly about on your feet,” she nodded in partial satisfaction, “but I’d hardly mark that down as the only area of concern.” An eyebrow arched in curiosity.

“Oh? And what else would there be?”

“Why, your feelings of course,” Rarity laughed. “After all, even big, strong soldiers might need a shoulder to cry on every now and then.”

“If I ever need that, you’ll be the first to know,” Graves chuckled, the first break in the gloom he’d felt all day. That felt nice. A little laughter could make any day seem brighter, even one as dismal as this. However, laughter faded all too quickly and soon, the two were back to gazing at embers as something else danced in the Rarity’s glittering, sapphire orbs.

“You mean that, right?” she finally asked, a touch of hesitation coming into her words. “If something is in fact wrong you’ll really let me know?”

Slowly, Graves turned from the fire to the lovely lady at his side. Even after everything that had happened, she still looked beautiful enough to take his breath away, beautiful even as worry tightened her lips and brought a wrinkle to her eyes.

“Yeah,” he nodded. “Sure.”

Rarity paused a moment more as she peered into his gunmetal grey eyes, almost like she was looking for something in those tired, foggy depths. Whatever it was, she ended the search with a small nod and a gentle kiss on his stony cheek.

“Don’t be up too long,” she smiled as she gracefully rose. “Even marshals need to sleep.”

Graves watched Rarity depart and join Fluttershy in their tent, but he remained by the fire for a moment more. As always, her keen eye and uncanny perception saw more than he’d hoped. Not that it mattered. He had no need to speak of things that could not change.

Once he was satisfied that the camp was in relative order, Graves wearily stood and went back to work. Walking till the glow of the fire was hardly a speck to even his keen eyes, the raven-haired soldier began the task of carving in the protective runes. It was as he walked along, having just finished the third sigil, that the familiar chortle sounded beside him.

“You look like you could use a shower,” Discord laughed as he loofaed himself from a curtained bathtub. “All that rolling about in the mud has got you stinking up to high heaven, I tell you what.”

“Not now, D,” Graves groaned as he pulled his hat lower down. “Can’t you just let me have some peace?”

“Not on your life,” the trickster giggled as he stepped out fully dressed in a resplendent mauve overcoat. “You see, I’ve actually got something important to tell you tonight.”

“Let me guess, this is all a dream and I’m about to wake up soon?” the marshal snarked. Discord’s smile was equal parts smarmy pity and dripping condescension.

“You wish that were true, don’t you? Well sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s actually a good bit more than that. See, I’ve been poking around in the outer worlds, and I–”

Discord paused. Or rather, he froze, eyes bulging as hands jumped to his throat as if it he’d choked on his own words. Before Graves could even blink, let alone move, the elderly youngster’s face contorted into a silent scream as he shattered like cracked glass and disappeared into the breeze.

The marshal needed no further warning as every fiber in his body awoke and stood at full alert. Discord hadn’t wanted to leave, that much was certain. Something had forced him to do so, a something that accomplished a feat requiring enough magical force to move mountains without even alerting him of his presence. Few things could muster that much power so discreetly, and of the many likely scenarios, tangling with an elevated shade was not high on the marshal’s list of wants for the moment. Thus, steely eyes gazed and ears pricked up, the senses strained to their utmost for the source of the threat. He needn’t have bothered.

A footstep sounded, a solid sound, too light for any sort of beast of note, but too heavy for any of the girls wandering the night. It sounded again, and then again, slowly approaching him at the leisurely pace of a Sunday stroll. Graves heard the sound but for some strange reason, had no idea where it came from. It seemed to come from all around him, one moment sounding right behind him then echoing from a hundred paces off, yet always seeming to draw closer.

But the strangest part by far? Despite the unnatural sound and the knowledge of the entity’s proven might, Graves just… wasn’t worried. No chills, no hairs on end, nothing all even hinted that any sort of danger approached.

The footsteps stopped somewhere close by. Or far away. He couldn’t tell, until…

“Hello, Graves.”

Spinning around, his long leather coat a whirling fan behind him, the marshal raised a glowing spell gun to face the source of the sound.

“What do you want? Who are you?” he demanded, lightning charged and finger pulled so tight on the trigger a mosquito’s breath would have unleashed the blast. The man – indeed, that was what he was –smiled as one would upon meeting a pen pal for the very first time.

“I just want to talk, Graves,” the man replied. “Oh, and I’m Nul.”


Chapter 17

Chapter 17

“You’re… Nul,” Graves repeated, the word sounding oddly dull from the confusion thick in his voice. The man smiled, the very picture of gracious ease.

“That’s right. I’m Nul.”

“As in The End.”


“The one we’re here to seal?”


“And the one it took Celestia, Luna, and Discord together to stop before?”

"The very same.”

Now Graves thought he knew absurdity. He’d seen a man light himself on fire because he thought doing so would keep summer from ending. He’d seen two warring tribes wipe each other out because a man had touched another’s drinking gourd without apology. He’d seen Pinkie Pie finish two dozen donuts, a quart of fudge-ripple ice cream, half a gallon of sarsaparilla, and still have room for a whole apple pie not fifteen minutes later. But this series of statements was so absurd, so beyond the realm of possibility that whoever made it must either be a stark, raving lunatic, the greatest liar to ever spin a tale, or both.

Well, the man certainly didn’t look mad. With a casual stance and an easy smile on his handsome face, one probably a few years the marshal’s senior, the stranger had the air of a true aristocrat in complete control of considerable faculties. His clothes, all of which glittered a pristine, glacial white, only served to enhance that effect. From the snowy cashmere of his paletot coat to the marble sheen of his spotless loafers, the clothes he wore were cut to grace the high boulevards of Manehatten at the very least. Even the silken scarf bound around his eyes seemed to be nothing more than an exotic accessory of the latest haute couture.

Whether it was in poise or dress, manner or clothing, there was simply nothing, nothing from the ebony gloss of his neatly trimmed locks to the soles of his spotless shoes that didn’t seem absolutely perfect. And he was supposed to be destruction itself.

“You don’t look convinced” said the man claiming to be Nul, a little more amusement coming to a voice both vibrant and cool.

“Honestly, I’m not.” Graves frowned.

“Any particular reason why?”

“You’re…” The marshal paused, trying to his sentiments to words. “… not exactly what I expected.” An immaculate eyebrow arched over the silken scarf.

“Oh? In that case, what did you expect?”

“Something… demonic. Hellfire and brimstone at least,” Graves shrugged. “I mean, Nul’s gonna destroy the world, right?”

“Well, that doesn’t mean I can’t look good doing it, does it?” The man broke out into ringing peals of honest laughter, a sound that sang of the purest amusement and greatest mirth.

Was it a bad thing that Graves felt like laughing along? Because if it was, then the twitch at the corner of his lips was a sign of things starting to go very wrong indeed.

“But in any case, that’s not important,” the man in white chuckled. Now it was the marshal’s turn to arch an eyebrow.

“End of the word isn’t important?”

“Relatively speaking,” the man nodded.

“Relative?” Graves repeated. “Relative to what?

The man didn’t answer. Instead, he raised a hand, a clear and elegant for the marshal to join him for a little stroll.

Normally, the marshal would never have even considered an offer like that. After all, a clearly crazy man inviting you to wander off into dangerous woods on your lonesome? That was shoot first, questions never territory if he ever did see one. But despite knowing all of this and noting the clearly suspicious circumstances with complete and unyielding precision, Graves could simply not find a reason to refuse.

The man just wasn’t a threat. Of course, he clearly had some amazing powers – nobody, not even Rarity, could keep clothes that fresh and clean so far out in the wilderness. But whatever powers he held, Graves somehow knew that they were not and would not be directed at him. It was honestly hard to say why. Maybe it was something about the man’s posture. Maybe it was the openness of his expressions, or the ease of his smile. Or maybe it was that something about the man seemed almost familiar. Graves had certainly never met the man before – he doubt anyone could forget such a unique individual – but that didn’t stop the feeling from forming all the same. In fact, it was almost as if Graves had met him before, time after time in fact, but simply never realized the two were one and the same.

Whatever it was, Graves knew, deep in his gut, that the man walking beside him was as harmless a newborn lamb. And so, in possibly the most absurd moment in a long string of absurdities, Graves lowered his rifle and walked.


Quietly, the two strolled further and further away from the camp as the strange sense of wellbeing extended over the sleeping girls as well: whatever happened next, he somehow knew that they’d be safe until it was all well and over. That left him free reign to silently observe the man beside him.

Despite the wrappings around his eyes, the man clearly had no trouble navigating the rough terrain in the setting sun’s fading light. If anything, he moved with greater ease than Graves. The spring in his step, as if he’d smuggled childhood joy into the graceful stride of a gentleman, propelled him over stone and gravel with uncanny ease.

“So…” the marshal rumbled.

“So…” the man replied.

“If you’re Nul, how are you here?”

Technical question. Should be a safe start.

“Astral projection,” the man answered. “My mind comes and goes as I please.”

“So what, you’ve just been watching the world go by?” the marshal asked incredulously.

“For the most part,” the man nodded. “Of course, every now and again, I have to answer the call of some fellow or another looking for my gift. Rather tedious, really.”

The image of a little girl and pale blue flame came to mind, but Graves quickly clamped down on the rising heat in his belly. Whoever this man was, he had information that the marshal needed. Graves needed to keep his cool.

“You could always ignore them,” he offered through a stiff jaw.

“And why would I do that?” the man asked, puzzled like someone had asked Pinkie Pie if there were a reason to eat a slice of chocolate cake. “I’m all about destruction. Why would I deny help to people who want to see the same results?”

Made sense, Graves had to admit. Not sane sense, but sense nonetheless.

“Then again,” the man continued, “I suppose the end of the world can wait. Have to prioritize my activities, don’t you know.”

There it was, the real question.

“Yeah, about that,” Graves intoned. His words sounded almost casual, but one look at those piercing eyes and too perfectly measured steps revealed him to be anything but. “You said there was something more important. Care to explain?”

“Of course,” the stranger laughed. “Before I end reality as we know it, I knew that I simply had to come out and meet you.”

Graves paused.

Silver eyes blinked.


Okay, clothes or not, demeanor or no, this guy was more cuckoo than a clockmaker’s workshop.

“Really,” Graves stated flatly, skepticism positively dripping as he resumed his walk once more. “Meeting me is just that important.”

“Indeed it is,” the man beamed, his expression the bright, open joy of a boy at the first sight of the tree on Hearth’s Warming Day. “After all, you’re special. You, my friend, are Gunmetal Graves.”

Shoes softly crunch on loose gravel.

“That’s not saying much,” the marshal frowned. The man in white merely laughed.

“It says a lot more than you might imagine. Gunmetal Graves, lone survivor of the Special Twenty Sixth. Notable exploits include exterminating the archlich of the Shadow Swamps, the dread knight of Iron Heights, and the dismantling of the Stygian Cabal. Of course, your crowning achievement was and may always be slaying Typhon, Firstborn of the Dusk, with a single shot.”

“So you know my record,” Graves nodded. “What, you break into archives on a lark?”

“Nothing so passé,” the man laughed. “I had front row seats.”

“As in you were there.”

“That’s right.”

“Sure you were,” Graves intoned.

“It’s true,” the stranger smiled. “I could even describe the wound from Nito’s Rekyem, if you’d like.”

It was a testament to the marshal’s skill that he didn’t stumble there and then.

Liches didn’t use weapons. There was no need as their arsenal of spells and curses that forged an unstoppable tide of living dead was more potent than any blade. Yet after infiltrating archlich Nito’s citadel, Graves found that the grave lord, a once proud hero of a bygone tribe, was one exception to the rule. Still wielding a great lance as he had centuries ago, that deathmarked steel had almost been enough to send Graves to a grisly fate. The existence of the spear had gone into the report, but the name, carved into that rust-colored blade, had not. That name was only known by the two who’d fought, and one of them hadn’t walked away from that fight.

“So you saw that one,” Graves asked, his voice surprisingly quiet and calm as he tucked a thumb into his belt. “Any others?”

“All the ones of note,” the man in white nodded. “All the ones I said and more.”

“… I see.”

In the blink of an eye, the man in white was pressed against a nearby tree trunk, silver spell blade pressed against a throat half crushed in the marshal’s vice-like grip.

“Why did you do it?” Graves asked, his voice surprisingly quiet and calm as the blade came a hair’s breadth away from drawing blood. “We both know that it was your corruption that drove Typhon mad. Why?”

“I didn’t–”

“Don’t lie to me,” Graves cut in, his grip tightening with the groan of strained cartilage beneath his iron-banded fingers. “I just want to know why you did it.”

“I didn’t,” the man in white repeated, just as calm, if not more so than the marshal despite the death grip around his windpipe. “I am awake, but cut off from my strength, and the miasma that changed Typhon was bleed off from power that I no longer control. I had no choice in the matter, Graves. It was not my design.”

Glinting grey eyes peered up at the bandaged face and slowly, the grip loosed.

Graves believed him. He had no idea why, but something in the man’s words made it the only real choice. It wasn’t magic, nor was it trickery, nothing that suggested any hint of devious, underhanded play. Instead, it was compelling simply for the honest, heartfelt sincerity lacing every utterance. Whether right or wrong, the man clearly believed every word and wanted to make sure Graves knew it.

“Impressive,” the man in white nodded, his voice as smooth and sincere as ever. Not even a hint of a bruise remained to mar his skin. “You could easily snap a man’s neck with a grip like that.”

“Maybe I should’ve,” Graves answered as he turned and resheathed his knife. “Maybe you’re telling the truth about not having a choice, but it was still your power that made everything possible.”

“Very true, my powers are the cause,” the stranger nodded. “But they can also be the solution. That’s why I’m here today.”

Graves stopped.

“The thing that’s more important than the end of the world?”

“Precisely,” the man in white nodded. “The reason, in fact, the only reason I appeared before you is so that I could give you a gift.”

“And just… what kind of gift would that be?” The marshal wasn’t sure he wanted to know, but he was sure that he had to.

With a smile, the man reached out, palm to the sky as he raised a single finger and summoned forth upon its tip, a small, black flame. Though it flickered and danced, no bigger than the light of a household candle, there was no mistaking that all-devouring darkness, the one that melted even the evening’s breeze as it consumed the very light around it. It was the flame of pure destruction, the fires of entropy itself.

“Power,” the man in white smiled. “I am The End, and really, what is power except the ability to control of the end? Every authority in the universe derives its right from the strength to bring about an ending, the ability to give form to that frightful absolute. I am power itself, Graves, and that power, I offer to you.”

Gunmetal grey eyes flickered from the inky, black flame to the handsome face, smiling like a father who’d bought a new toy for his son. The son, however, was not convinced.

“How can you give me anything?” Graves challenged as eyes narrowed and his hand strayed towards his belt knife once more. I thought you were split from your strength.”

“And that I am,” the man amicably agreed. “I no longer control the entire river as I once did, but that doesn’t mean I can’t offer you a glass. Surely, Discord has demonstrated that even our shadows carry some weight.”

“But why would you?” the marshal continued, still not convinced. “You help those who match your ends, but I’m not one of them. Why would you give me something I’d just use to stop you?”

“Because you can’t stop me,” the man in white simply stated. “You may stop me now, but that only delays the inevitable. Everything has an end, and I’m willing to wait if it means I get to spend some time with you.”

“… Sorry, not interested,” Graves grunted and strode forward as if to leave the man in white behind.

“Aw, why not?” the stranger called out. Though it was probably a faulty comparison, Graves couldn’t help but think he sounded like Fluttershy anytime someone couldn’t make it over for tea. How was that even possible?

“Same reason I don’t take shots of crystal viper venom,” Graves answered with as much blasé as if he’d announced the weather. “Everything you touch rots. I’ve seen it myself, and I’d sooner stick my hand in a tiger’s jaw than take the curse you offer.”

Silence greeted the marshal, and as he turned, he found the stranger looking at him in stunned disbelief, the flickering flame forgotten as bandaged visage openly gaped. For a moment, Graves worried, not for his safety, but because he was almost afraid that he’d really hurt the man’s feelings.

And then the man laughed.

“Oh, Graves,” the man laughed, chuckling deep from his chest as if he’d heard a wonderful joke. “Of course it’s a curse. Why do you think I came to specially offer it to you?”


The black flame descended and touched down onto the man’s palm where it instantly began to blaze and burn. Skin crackled and split as the flesh underneath blackened and charred, crumbling to dust that vanished in the wind. In moments, there was naught left but pale bone that gleamed bleach white in the gloom of a set sun.

“Power is a two-edged sword,” the man explained as he examined his own skeletal remains. “Though you can turn it on those you choose, it is never one slip away from biting you as well. The greater the power, the greater the risk and the greater the price of every mistake you make.”

Graves said nothing. The lingering pains of a stomach not fully healed filled the silence for him.

“Yet despite that,” he continued, the flame reappearing as he passed it from fingertip to fingertip, a trail of faded dimness following in its wake, “people still crave power. They long for it, lust after it, sacrifice everything they once held dear to get just a little taste. It’s that desire that drove them all – Tirek the Devourer, Webweaver Aagh, Coronus of Light, Heavenly Lily Crystallia, even the pup Discord – drove them all and countless more to seek me for my gift. Everyone seeks power, dear Graves. But few understand it. So very precious few.”

“And you think I do?” Graves muttered, almost amused by the thought. “What, you think that I have some special, deep-seated connection with the soul of destruction?”

“Don’t you?” the man smiled, the black flame disappearing as he clapped hands whole and fresh once more upon the marshals’ shoulders. “Never in all my years have I ever seen someone so remarkable as you. Your own power was as insignificant as a thimble of water next to the ocean, but you sacrificed your blood, sweat, and tears to gain more. You didn’t look for handouts or shortcuts like so many others, but sacrificed life and limb to pursue strength with a passion fit to make any woman jealous.”

“And yet I’m not the only one,” Graves rejoined. “Wanting strength doesn’t make me special.”

“It most certainly does,” the man in white beamed. “Few could make the choices you did for as long as you have.”

“Few,” Graves agreed. “But some, and that means there must be something else that makes me oh, so attractive.”

“Right you are,” the man nodded, proud as if his son had just solved a difficult equation. “Some have climbed the same heights you did, but simply reaching the summit does not equal understanding. Others saw what you saw, but only you have understood the bigger picture.”

“Oh really?” Graves smirked. “And just what ‘bigger picture’ am I seeing?”

With a fond smile, the man reached his face to remove his bandage. What the marshal then saw turned his flesh to ice and blood to frost with terror greater than he’d ever felt before.

There was nothing.

The man had no eyes, but there were no mere cavities in the skull, oh no. All around those holes, bits of flesh and skin broke off and drifted into yawning chasms of pure nothingness, an infinitely decaying ring that framed portals to the abyss itself. He’d thought the black flames had been dark? He’d been a fool. Compared to those pits, the dark fires were brighter than the noonday sun. Compared to that absolute emptiness, the flames were light and warmth. Those holes were oblivion, absolute nothingness so complete and total that the mind threatened to tear itself asunder trying to comprehend it.

But it was in that insanity of incomprehension that Graves realized something; the man was familiar because Graves had seen the man before. He’d seen the man when his body had lain broken and beaten, when death was but a shuddering breath away from claiming its prize. He’d seen him in quiet moments of peace, when all was silent and the world was still. In those moments, the abyss stared at him, vast enough to swallow creation whole as it silently mocked him and revealed terrible truths to his captive mind.

The end comes, marshal. For you, for your home, and for everyone you love. The end claims all as it always has. As it always will. What, you think to defy fate? To save your precious ones by the strength of your puny hand? You are a fool. The fate of all is to end in nothing, and you, dear marshal, will never make a difference. You are nothing, and you can do nothing.

Graves had thought himself over those fears, perhaps not completely, but at least stronger as he stood alongside one he cherished more than life itself. But that was fool’s talk. He wasn’t stronger. He’d only deluded himself into forgetting the truth he’d known since boyhood. It had taken only one look, one moment of meeting the stare of the abyss, to remind his frozen flesh and trembling bones of what they’d known all along.


Nul smiled, a pure satisfaction ringing in his voice as he breathed out the word with almost a caress of delight.

“There’s fear in you Graves,” he continued, smoothly rewinding the bandage over his eyeless gaze once more. “Fear so deep and vast to rival the empty night itself. You’re terrified of going back to the helplessness you knew before. You fear not being able to protect those girls. You’re afraid that you’ll be too weak to change the fate you see hanging over them each and every moment. You fear, dear marshal, so you struggle for power, not because you want it, but because you need it. More than the air you breath, you need power, and you will move heaven and earth itself to seize it.”

The man clapped a hand to the marshal’s shoulder as a warm smile came to his handsome face once more.

That’s why I come to you, Graves. That’s why I didn’t just wait for you to seek me out as so many have done before. I want you to share in my power, Graves, because you understand the most important truth of all: The End is all that matters.”

Graves said nothing. He simply stared at the man, a rabbit in the face of a smiling cobra as a thousand and one different thoughts flashed through gunmetal grey eyes in an instant. Nul saw this and he quietly nodded.

“I know, it’s a lot to take in. That’s why I won’t look for an answer now. But I should warn you, I wouldn’t dilly dally too long.”

“Is that a threat?” Graves replied, almost out of instinct as the ominous words snapped him back to a semblance of attention.

“No no, nothing like that,” Nul assured him. “It’s merely a precaution. I mean, you are in the Savage Lands, after all. How long do you honestly expect you’ll be able to keep those girls safe? Today was a close call, and I doubt that it was half as bad as what’s coming next.”

And for the first time that evening, as the darkness of night finally unfurled, that creeping, foreboding chill trickled its icy way down the marshal’s back once more.

“What’s going on, Nul?” Graves called to the now empty night. “Answer me!” A voice did reply, a soft echo in the evening breeze.

“Beware the frightful beast, my friend, the jaws that bite and chew. Let your vorpal blade sing true, lest it be the end of you.”

Then the ground began to rumble.


Chapter 18

Chapter 18

“Everybody on your feet! Now!”

Bleary-eyed and still half asleep, the girls peeked out of their tents as Graves stormed back into camp, his heavy, leather coat billowing behind with the hurricane force of his entrance. Even before they had a chance to blink, his rapid-fire orders continued.

“Packs on now. We don’t have time and I want a clean getaway should the need arise. Twilight and Rarity, get this place cleaned up: do whatever it takes to get rid of our scent. The rest of you, sleeping bags first then break down the tents. You’ve got three minutes before we’re on our feet.”

Eyes bleary and minds fogged, the girls just stared.

“What are you waiting for?!” Graves snapped. “MOVE!”

Jolted to alertness by the harsh crack of his words, all the girls jumped up and got to work. Wands came out as cleansing light washed over the camp, removing residue of their presence as quickly as the crackling backfeed of excess mana would allow. Meanwhile, the others manhandled sleeping bags into more manageable bundles amidst the hasty rearrangement of other supplies.

As they worked, Twilight Sparkle turned a worried eye toward the marshal.

“Graves, what’s going on?” she asked, mouth moving but magic never ceasing even as she spoke.

“You don’t feel that?” the marshal muttered. “You really don’t feel it?”

Twilight frowned in confusion just before her eyes widened in surprise. In the surprise of the sudden rousing, she’d been too busy to pay much attention to anything but the angry soldier and her rapidly assigned duties. But now that she paused to think, she could clearly feel heavy, rumbling tremors shaking the ground beneath them.

“Um, Graves?” Twilight smiled weakly, “what exactly is that?”

“It’d tell you if it’d do any good,” Graves muttered. “But really–”

All throughout the camp, the cry of a canary sounded.

Several choice expletives flew from the marshal’s mouth as Twilight gasped, not from the nature of the vocabulary, but at the sound of the bird’s call. There were no canaries in the Savage Lands, nothing even close given the harsh landscape and ferocious creatures that lived here. That’s what made it the perfect signal for anything that breached their protective barrier with the intent to do them harm.

“Time’s up,” Graves called as he shouldered up his packs. “We’re leaving.”

“What?” Applejack called out. “But we ain’t even finished–”

“Don’t argue with me and just do what I said!”

It was only an instant, but a flash of indignant rage flared up in the farm girl’s apple green eyes as she stared back into the marshal’s gunmetal greys. But she said nothing, choosing instead to reply with a curt nod as she hurriedly picked up her things.

The group moved, leaving half of their shelter behind as they took off in as hurried a jog as they could manage. It was just as well too, because less than a minute after they’d left the camp site, the earth trembled as an unholy shriek sounding of rusted nails dragged across hard slate pierced the pitch-black night.

“Aw geez, what the hay is that?!” Rainbow Dash wheezed as the fetid smell of rotting meat wafted over the group.

“I don’t know, but I’m sure glad we made it out of there in a jiffy,” Pinkie Pie beamed. “Good thing Graves got the jump on whatever it was before it squashed us like pancakes.”

Though Pinkie Pie was being as optimistic as ever, the rest of her friends didn’t share in her positivity. True, Graves had gotten them out early, but he didn’t have to be such a jerk about it, did he? The way he barked and snapped at them like a rabid Doberman, it was like he’d forgotten they were supposed to be friends. Of course, they understood he must be under a lot of pressure, but still didn’t give him a blank check to act like that, right?

But then again, only one of them had ever seen him in the field and she was preoccupied with other thoughts.

“Um… Graves?” Rarity huffed as she continued trotting along as fast as she could, “a moment?”

“What is it?” he replied absentmindedly. Even keeping the rapid pace through the moonless night, the marshal still turned back every hundred paces to cast a hard eye back towards camp.

“When you asked us to… clear out the camp,” she puffed, “was there a particular reason for it?”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “If it’s what I think it is, we can’t let it catch our scent. If that thing starts on our trail, we’re humped.”

Distracted as he was, Graves couldn’t see Rarity’s fair skin grow even paler. He did however, hear that keening shriek as it sounded again. Directly behind them.

“No,” he muttered. “No no no no no! How could it find us?! HOW!”

“I’m sorry, Graves,” Rarity apologized, the bitter tang in the marshal’s words drawing a glisten to her eye. “We were in such a hurry, we didn’t have time to go as thoroughly as we’d hoped.”

Somewhere, Graves must have heard the apology, but it didn’t register. His mind was too busy running the numbers.

The creature wasn’t fast, but it was relentless. They could keep moving from now right up till the gates of Tartarus and it’d still be on their trail. Of course, that wouldn’t even be an option. Tired as the girls were from the long day, with less than an hour’s sleep for recovery, they’d never be able to last that long. Even now, he could see the grim set to Applejack’s face like she always had near the end of harvest, and Fluttershy’s pallor had taken on a sickly hue as she nearly tripped over root hidden in the near total gloom. They could keep running, but that meant they’d only die tired.

That piercing shriek sounded again along with a fresh wave of fetid stench.

“Graves, what do we do?” Twilight called from the front.

The marshal considered his options – there were so blasted few – and chose the only one that even offered a chance of survival. Tugging his hat a little tighter and loosening the strap of his spell gun, Graves spoke.

“Stay safe. I’ll find you when this is over.”

Amethyst eyes widened as Twilight caught those words, and more importantly, the tone they carried. But by the time she’d turned around, the marshal was already gone.


Shaking off his travel pack, Graves tucked it into the hollow of a nearby gathering of roots and scored the trunk with his knife. Channeling a trickle of electricity into the blade, sap crackled and bark charred as the heated blade marked the tree. He wouldn’t be able to fight with the pack on, but he wouldn’t be able to travel without his supplies. Graves had to find that pack again or else… no, he’d worry about that later. First, he had to survive long enough to worry about a return.

The crackling thunder of an overturned tree crashing to the ground roused the marshal. Even before he’d started running again, his spell gun was already drawn and charging, but not without price. Unconsciously, Graves winced as a sharp stab of pain pierced his gut before it subsided into the normal flow of channeled energies. It seems that as effective as the Lazarus potion was, it hadn’t done as good a repair job as he’d hoped.

Back on the trail the girls had left, Graves crouched low in the hollow of twisted trunk, dark leather blending into bark and soil as he faded into the shadows. Breath deep and steady, Graves waited as each trembling step brought the stench of rotted meet just a little bit closer. Finally, smashing its way through yet another great tree as if it were a splinter, the monstrosity hounding their steps lumbered forth.

The Jabberwock. Immortalized in children’s tales and nursery rhymes, generations had passed with no one ever having met the fable creature. Nobody that is, except for those who ventured into these violent wilds. It was a good thing, too, because according to the testimony of the few terror-stricken souls who’d seen it, the creature was one that gave even grown men nightmares. Graves had to disagree. From what he could see, it was a whole lot worse.

Whatever it was, it was a truly hideous abomination. Larger than even the biggest of kaiser dragons, the creature’s fat, bloated body stretched out long behind it, dragged along by dozens of legs like some gargantuan millipede. With each stomp of those swollen limbs, noxious sludge – courtesy of the fetid swamp depths mixed with rank pus that oozed from its blubbery hide – sloughed off to form a sickly trail that withered every living thing in its wake.

Not that the beast cared. With eyes too dull for any sort of intelligence, the Jabberwock continued its mindless hunt, the spindly shape of vestigial wings undulating on its back as it continued its lumbering pace forward. But it didn’t hunt with its eyes. Oh no, that would be too easy. Instead, that task went to the wreath of tentacles that writhed all around its too-wide mouth of rotted fangs. Those tentacles, sensitive enough to pick the smell of fresh prey out from amidst the swamp’s decaying odors, had locked onto the smell of succulent flesh. It was those tentacles that prompted the creature to pull back thick, blubbery lips into a demented rictus of delight.

It was on those tentacles that Graves opened fire.

Spacing his charge into several shorter pulses, the raven-haired soldier tagged as many of those wormy appendages as he could with magic lighting. As the creature roared in pain, Graves quickly slung up his rifle, pulled out his field knife, and made a quick gash on his arm. Blood flowed and Graves quickly palmed up as much as he could, brought hand to mouth, and blew the liquid out into a fine, red mist.

“Alright you sack of piss-poor excuse for ugly! Over here!” Yelling at the top of his lungs, Graves gathered more blood as he repeated the gory process. Though stories varied on description, one consistent fact was the Jabberwock’s unrelenting, unstoppable pursuit. Once fixated, the bloated beast would pursue the prey for days, even weeks on end, never stopping and never ceasing until it had chased down its prey and consumed it whole. Short of slaying it, which Graves simply did not have the strength for, there was nothing that could stop the Jabberwock. No, the only choice he has was distracting it with prospects of fresher game.

Turning its beady red eyes towards the marshal, the Jabberwock let loose its grating shriek once more and plunged after him, dozens of clawed feet churning to pull its bloated body forward. Smiling with grim satisfaction, Graves turned and ran.


The haze of darkness tinted red in hue as the sun began its ascent into morning. And still the marshal ran. His body ached and dripped with sweat after long hours of continuous exertion, but still he ran because he had to.

The Jabberwock’s greatest strength was that those writhing tentacles would never release your scent till its dying breath, or yours. Considering the entirety of its massive bulk was little more than a warehouse of stored consumption, that wouldn’t be any time soon.

However, that great strength was what the marshal now counted on. By tagging the Jabberwock with a blast of lightning, Graves had managed to shift its focus from the girls onto himself. Of course, he had no desire to end up as another meal for the monster, so he did the only thing he could do: he ran.

All through the night, Graves had led the jabberwock further and further away from the scent trail of the Ponyville troop. As he did, however, he kept those gunmetal grey eyes of his peeled, constantly watching for the components necessary for him to enact his admittedly improvised plan. It took a while in the unforgiving terrain, but just before sunrise, he found it: a long, fast flowing river that wound its way through steep embankments of shale and slate. Though he couldn’t stop running, Graves could spare a moment for a smile.

Loping along the river bank for a bit, Graves looped around and began to circle back to the path he’d run before. That was easy; the Jabberwock’s massive bulk had torn up trees and undergrowth while leaving a fresh trail of fetid slime in its wake like some titanic slug. Graves ran, bounding across gullies and leaping ravines as the Jabberwock continued its pursuit.

The marshal made it back to the river and took a quick knee, splashing his face will cold, clear water as he took a few precious moments to catch his breath. He knew he didn’t have much time before the Jabberwock cleared the tree line, but steadying his pounding heart was absolutely crucial for the gambit to work. Waiting until the very last moment, until a single thundering step would reveal the abomination’s horrid form, Graves took a full breath and rolled into the river.

Instantly, a school of flesh-rending needlefish swarmed the marshal, but a quick pulse of lightning easily deterred them from pursuing him as a snack. As the static charge danced across his skin before being washed away by the rushing water, Graves sank to the river’s bottom, took hold of a rock, and settled in to wait.

Through the muffled barrier of rushing water, Graves managed to catch the rumbling, shuffling entrance of the Jabberwock just before it approached the river’s edge. Lumbering footsteps paused as the beast stood fast, tasting the air with that mass of writhing feelers as it searched once more for the marshal’s scent.

It was confused. The Jabberwock knew that the scent had led it here, but where it went next seemed… odd. The smell was faded and dull, as if its prey’s presence had somehow grown weaker upon reaching the riverbank. In its many years of hunting, it had never come across such a strange occurrence, and thus the beast stood, confused.

This was the marshal’s plan. By hiding underwater, the rushing flow would disperse his scent, leaving only the trail he’d laid earlier. With nothing else to go on, the Jabberwock would hopefully follow the scent back down river, around to its old path, and back in a continuous loop with no end. Of course, by the time it came back around, Graves would be far upstream, no new trail laid and off on his merry way to meet back up with the girls.

The Jabberwock stood still, tentacles dancing around in increasing agitation. The marshal’s heart pounded and the burn in his lungs grew hotter, but he remained as still as the river stones in his patient wait. Soon, the creature would have no choice to move on. Soon…

By some cruel happenstance of chance, the rock Graves clung onto suddenly shifted, shaking his grip and jarring him from his perch. The marshal’s other hand instantly shot out to catch a new handhold, but by now, the damage had been done. Normally, it would have been nothing, but between the mana sickness, the long run, and the lack of sleep, that small, unexpected jar shook the marshal just enough to loosen his lips. From those lips, a small, silvery bubble of air, no bigger than the head of a pin, drifted forth.

Graves reached out to stop it, but whipped the bubble away and slipped it right through the marshal’s outstretched hand. Lazily, the bubble drifted upwards and before horrified iron eyes, reached the surface where it quietly, gently popped.

That was enough. Tentacles flaring in delight, the Jabberwock shrieked to the heavens as that tiniest puff of breath was enough to help it find its prey. Hunching over, the best opened up the vestigial wings on his back to their fullest, and then a little farther. Rotten membrane tore as the bony framework separated into a nest of long, prehensile spines, spines which the Jabberwock sent flying into the river with the most disgusting smile.

Trapped underwater as he was, Graves had little in the way of escaping those deadly skewers. Water churned as the bony barbs pierced the river, those knobbed spears lancing for where the marshal lay. Fortunately, the waters flowed in his favor as the distortion of light threw off the Jabberwock’s aim even as the fast current carried him further downstream with a quick release of his handhold. Unfortunately, it still wasn’t enough to escape unscathed as one of the spines gashed him deeply across his thigh and brought a crimson bloom to the rushing waters.

Graves surfaced with a gasp as he twisted aside to narrowly dodge another stab. Realizing that floating in the river made him a sitting duck, the marshal pulled up his spell gun, loosed a silvery bolt into the rocky embankments around the river, and pulled himself not away, but towards the Jabberwock who sat ashore.

He couldn’t run. Running would only have him end up dying tired, and he doubted that he’d have the energy to last long enough to pull another stunt like he had. The only option left to him was taking down the Jabberwock before he ended up on the menu, however low the odds might be.

Clambering onto shore, Graves jumped aside as three spiny barbs crushed the stone where he’d stood just moments before. The lancing strikes continued to rain down, a lethal rain of bony spears falling faster than the hoof beats of a galloping horse. But now? Now the raven-haired soldier was fighting on solid ground once more.

The abomination’s hide seemed to boil as the Jabberwock continued its relentless assault, but silver eyes remain clear as his rifle slowly began to glow. Graves was no fool. Despite the power of lighting, he knew that the sludge coating the Jabberwock was a problem almost as great as the monster’s thick hide. It’d take too much time and energy to charge a shot that could pierce both, but a well-placed bolt to pierce the monster’s eye should bring it down like a house full of cards.

Of course, a shot that strong would still need time, and so, Graves danced. Ignoring the blood that flowed from his overburdened leg, grey eyes flashed like polished spear points as Graves dodged back and forth between the Jabbberwock's strikes with the deadly poise of a stalking panther. He never moved more than necessary, never more than a hand’s breath from impalement and certain death. Every spare ounce of energy went to his spell gun as he desperately fought to buy himself more time.

Brighter and brighter the rifle glowed, louder and louder the familiar hum grew till at last, satisfied with the charge, Graves raised up the spell gun with a single fluid stroke, drew sight on the Jabberwock’s dull, beady eye, and–

A blur.

Graves tried to halt the motion, but it was too late. His finger tightened on the trigger and electric loosed. But it never struck the target.

Gaping at luck bad enough to turn gold to lead, Graves was nearly impaled by the continued rain of spines as his leather coat was caught and tore with a loud, wet rip. There, lying on the ground, lay the charred husk of some spidery creature, a flattened disk of mottled chitin with spindly legs curled up in the throes of death. Whatever it was, it had thrown itself in front of the Jabberwock’s back to take the blow meant for the beast itself.

Only now did Graves turn his eyes towards the monster’s back, and just in time. That thick layer of sludge which he’d thought only roiled from the Jabberwock’s movement? It literally came alive. Popping like a series of pus-filled boils, the slime burst open as dozens of those same, spidery creatures skittered forth and came towards the marshal.

Mud driders. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Graves surmised that the scavengers of the swamps had formed a symbiotic relationship with the bloated beast. The Jabberwock would hunt and feed, and the driders would get to pick the scraps. Ecological interest would have to wait, however, as Graves now found himself in a frantic fight for his life.

The driders weren’t too dangerous on their own, but they were numerous, and each one required a swift kick or blow from a whirling rifle’s butt lest they ever get a claw-hold on his person. Being held down would mean certain death, but the efforts taken to avoid it had their toll too. Between dodging the spines and warding off the driders, Graves couldn’t even find time to catch his breath, let alone charge another shot. As the marshal fought, his breath grew ragged. Lungs burned as the never-ending shower of spiny strikes and never-ending wave of skittering insects drained his strength, turned his scored and slashed limbs to sand and stone. It took all his efforts to stay alive, to hold his ground on that gravelly beach, which is probably why Graves didn’t see it till it was too late.

The Jabberwock turned, spinning its massive bulk around with a speed that belittled its size and brought its hefty tail around in a devastating swing.

Unable to dodge out of the giant bludgeon’s radius, the marshal had no choice but to leap in the same direction of the swing and try to reduce the blow. It worked, but only in the sense that ingesting brown recluse venom doesn’t outright kill you. Graves remained conscious, thank the light, but the swing was so heavy it still sent him flying clear across the river to its far bank in a tumbling, mangled heap.

Body wracked by a thousand aching pains, Graves coughed with what little breath was left in his lungs as he brought a shaking hand to his lips. No blood. Good. He’d cracked some ribs, at least four by lancing pain on his right side, but at least they hadn’t punctured his lungs. That was something at least.

Using his rifle as a crutch, Graves forced himself back onto his feet and raised a leaden head to look back across the river. The Jabberwock lumbered forward as the mud driders tossed themselves into the fast-flowing stream, struggling to find claw hold so they could skitter up to the opposite bank and continue the hunt. In a few moments, they’d be on him, and in the shape he was in, once they got there, that’d be it. He’d be done.

Well, no time to dwell on that now. Shoving down the fear that bubbled up from his gut and threatened to boil into full-blown panic, Graves calmed his nerves as he had so many times before and thought. He had to win. A marshal always carried out his mission, and his was to protect the girls. He couldn’t protect anyone if he was dead, so obviously, he had to live on. But how? How could he possibly win against such impossible odds?

That’s when it came to him, an idea so crazy, so absolutely, utterly, and inexplicably insane, that Graves couldn’t help but chuckle through the lancing pain of shattered bone. Well, not like he had anything to lose, right? So as he gripped his spell gun with right hand and drew his silver field knife with left, the marshal took a shallow, shuddering breath and got ready to roll the dice.

Right arm swung around as Graves fired not a lightning bolt, but the silver spike and ethereal spell chain. Arcing with the momentum of the swing, the weighted head swung around and looped itself around the Jabberwock’s neck. It wasn’t much, hardly a thread on the monster’s bloated neck, but the Jabberwock shrieked and drew back in confusion as it tried to pull away and figure out what was going on. But Graves would have none of that. Using both the creature’s pull and the spell chain’s draw, the marshal shot off like a loosed quarrel and sailed through the air.

Straight into the Jabberwock’s mouth.

Shriek arrested in throat as the beast choked. So fast had the morsel flown in that the beast hadn’t even had time to properly chew. Flailing about in mindless panic, the Jabberwock tried again and again to swallow, the large muscles in its neck working to dislodge the lump caught therein.

It froze.

The Jabberwock tried to shriek, but it couldn’t. Even as the crackling length of electric wrath pierced its throat, it couldn’t shriek. It continued to flail about, but nothing could be done. With the hiss of searing meat and the stink of burning mud, a blade of pure lightning stabbed its way out from that blubbery neck, carved its way through the monster’s gullet, and finally, came full round to end it at the start.

Bursting forth like a moth from its cocoon, Graves took a deep, shuddering breath of air as he emerged from the gory folds of the Jabberwock’s neck, silver knife still clutched tightly in hand even as the crackling blade of magical lightning hissed and faded away.

Toppling from the bloody stump that oozed with pitch-black blood and rancid fluids, the Jabberwock’s still twitching head fell to the ground as the mud driders fell to it. Symbiotic or not, they recognized a fresh kill when they found one and instantly worked themselves into a feeding frenzy. The foul insects gorged themselves on the kill, none paying any mind to the gore-covered man that fell from the Jabberwock’s neck and to the stony soil below. They were far too busy eating to pay it any mind as it clutched its side and crawled for the river.

By the time any of the driders thought to expand their feast by confirming a new kill, the marshal was gone, long since swept off by the river’s rushing stream.


Chapter 19

Chapter 19

Celestia hated paperwork, hated it with a powerfully pulsing passion. Her secretary had long known this and even managed to devise a barometer for the Solar Sovereign’s moods based on her reactions to a stack of documents. A weary sigh meant a pleasant mood, a muttered grumbled meant a foul temper, and a series of choice expletives that one would never expect to hear from a princess’s mouth signaled a retreat to the hills.

But when Celestia stopped complaining altogether? That was when you really had to worry.

“Um… Princess?” Day Planner called as she peaked a nervous head in. “A moment?”

From her overflowing desk, Celestia raised her head and fixed her assistant with a bleary eye.

“… Day,” she blinked, as if waking from a dream. “How are the Crystal Empire refugees?”

“Ah, still coming in,” the assistant replied, straightening her thick framed glasses as she glanced over her clipboard. “However, there is a significant backlog at the station. It seems there just aren’t enough trains to deal with the numbers.”

“Buck, of course there aren’t,” the princess muttered darkly. Raising her ivory wand, Celestia gave it an irritable flick to summon a specific document from the sea of papers before her. “In that case, have this order posted to all the transit workers in Canterlot. I want every bus, taxi cab, and courier service to head for the Crystal Empire within the hour.”

“But ma’am, what about the energy shortages?" Day Planner blinked. “Outfitting so many vehicles for the long drive will be a huge strain, and we barely have enough to keep the power on as it is.”

“Then turn some more lights off,” the princess replied with mounting exasperation. “I don’t care if we have to put Canterlot under rolling blackouts, I want those drivers on their way and fast or so help me, somebody’s going to the moon.”

Celestia probably hadn’t even realized she’d slipped into the Royal Canterlot voice and classical threats, but the stunned expression on her faithful assistance face made it abundantly clear. Immediately, her tone softened as she wearily closed her eyes.

“I’m sorry, Day, you didn’t deserve that. I’m just… a little stressed out at the moment. Stressed and tired.”

“Please don’t worry about me, princess!” Day Planner cried out, far more concerned for Celestia than a few harsh words. “Everyone in the palace – no, in the entire city, no, the entire country! – understands you’re doing your best. That’s why you can count on us one hundred and ten percent!”

Even worn out as she was, Celestia’s smile still shined with that same, radiant warmth.

“I know, and thank you,” she said in the gently regal tones her subjects all knew and loved. Rallying her strength once more, the princess sat up and rested a chin on folded hands. “Now, I know you didn’t come in to just let me vent. I take it you bring news?”

“Yes, princess,” Day Planner nodded as she quickly flipped through the clipboard. “The newest supply of gemstones and mythril came in. When Princess Zul’ hara and Security Director Roamanov heard our request, they emptied the storehouses and had them on the first transports en route for the pass.”

“Finally, some good news,” the princess said with a happy sigh.

“Indeed. Unfortunately, both apologize as neither are able to send military support. The ifrits suddenly began a new rampage against Saddle Arabia's borders and a new nether rift is keeping Stalliongrad's hands completely full. It seems that the source of our conflict is breaking out the world over.”

“Make sure to send them our sincerest thanks and tell them we understand completely.” Even as Celestia spoke, Day Planner’s enchanted quill was scribbling away. “Our job is to save the world, and we wouldn’t want to stop one threat merely to fall victim to another. The people and their safety must always come first.”

“Understood,” the attaché confirmed. “Also, we’ve gotten requests from the Tower mages to borrow some of the exhibits from the military history exhibit. Turns out, a few of the pieces have unique properties that will aid in the upcoming battle.”

“Have Professor Dewey give them full access to whatever they need,” the princess ordered. “But make sure they keep a careful log of everything. Honestly, if even a single piece is out of place when this is over, Dewey will never let me hear the end of it.”

Even in times of trial, there was always time for a quick giggle.

“Anything else?” Celestia inquired, a faint grin on her face as her mood improved considerably. In light of that mood, Day Planner was almost reluctant to continue. She would of course – it was her job to bear all news, both good and bad – but she didn’t have to like it.

“One last thing,” she nodded with a pensive nibble at her lip. “I’ve arranged everything for tea this afternoon. Your, um… guest…. will be waiting in the north parlor.”

And just as quickly as the mood had improved, it soured into old vinegar.

“Ah, yes,” Celestia grimaced. “I’d almost forgotten about that.”

Day Planner highly doubted that, but she knew a rhetorical statement when she saw one.

“I know you’re not particularly looking forward to it,” Day Planner offered gently. “But look on the bright side. While you’re having tea, I’ll be here dealing with your paperwork. Surely, that’s something to remember, right?”

“Danishes over documents?” Celestia sighed wistfully. “If only I could do that every day.”

“Hardly,” her assistant sniffed in the very terse manner she’d seen old Feather Duster sniff. “It’d hardly become a princess to lollygag about while the country ran itself.”

“You have a point there, Day,” the princess laughed, a rich, singing sound that seemed equal parts sunshine and song. “Well, I suppose I might as well get on with it then.”

“Take your time,” Day Planner smiled. “Just… not too much time, okay?”

With a decidedly roguish and un-princess-like wink, Celestia got up from her desk and went to meet her delightful guest for tea.


The walk through the castle was a rather dreary affair. The halls that should have been a bustle of friendly faces and busy bodies now echoed with the footsteps of the lonely monarch. She’d known this of course. Hay, she’d ordered it, telling every liveried servant not tasked with crucial work to head on over to the amphitheater and help with the temporary shelter. It was a necessity of course, but that didn’t make the solitude a whit more pleasant.

Eventually, her graceful strides brought her to the parlor, an elegant room painted with pale rose and furnishings of a light golden wood and spring-hued fabrics. None of the lamps were lit, of course – the castle had been the first to cut back in these troubled times – but the strong afternoon sun that shined through tall, arched windows more than made up for the lack.

Not that Celestia really noticed any of this. Instead, all of her attentions were focused on her delightful guest sitting at the table with the poise of a queen on her throne. From the way she smiled over her porcelain cup, all cool amusement and haughty stares, you’d have thought Celestia were the prisoner and not the other way around.

“Well well well, look what the cat dragged in,” Chrysalis smirked as she set her china down with a delicate clink. “Now I know you’re busy, what with Armageddon looming and what not, but you could at least take the time to do up your hair, could you not?”

Celestia’s smile was a picture of perfect serenity only slightly marred by the faint tightness of her lips. Her hair was perfect and Chrysalis knew it. After all, how do you mess up hair that shined and shimmered like the aurora on a clear winter night? But the goad was obvious, and so, the princess held her tongue.

“Chrysalis, so nice of you to join me,” the solar sovereign graciously replied as she took a seat opposite the Changeling queen, as if the meeting hadn’t been meticulously arranged beforehand. “It’s not often I get to have tea with those who tried to have me killed.”

“Ever with the melodrama,” Chrysalis chuckled as she pulled a small petit four onto her plate. “All I wanted was to share a bit in Equestria’s love. Surely, you have enough to spare?”

“Perhaps,” Celestia primly nodded as she poured herself a cup of Earl Grey. “Although, launching an invasion is a rather peculiar way to go about asking.”

“Details, details,” the Changeling dismissed with an airy wave of her fork. “But I’m sure you didn’t come just to reminisce, did you?”

“Not at all,” the princess replied with a small shake of the head. “Rather than focusing on the past, I was thinking that we might look towards the future.”

There was almost no change in the queen’s beautifully haughty face, but the slight flicker in emerald green eyes and faintest of catches in her breath gave clear indication of her notice.

“Why, what ever could you mean?” Chrysalis rejoined with wide-eyed innocence as she took a dainty bite of cake. “You know as well as I that the Changelings are under Equestrian control. We have no future except what our gracious overlords provide.”

“And if you could change that?” Celestia continued, pointedly ignoring the biting mockery in those cold words. “If you had a chance to regain your kingdom and throne, would you?”

A flawless mask of marble stillness met the solar sovereign’s gaze. From the way Chrysalis sat, as cool and still as the glossy chitin on her limbs, it seemed that not even butter would have melted in her mouth. But in her eyes, a faint spark ignited.

“That depends,” Chrysalis drawled out with languishing ease, “on what the mighty Celestia would require of me.”

Fine porcelain clinked onto its saucer.

“The Changelings. All of them. Every last warrior drone and spell caster you have fighting with us in the battle against Nul.”

“You ask for our extinction.”

“I ask for our survival.”

“It would never work,” Chrysalis dismissed. “Were we to marshal all our forces as you wish, who would be left to gather food for the hive? We might survive the battle, but our powers would be drained in total. We waste enough away as it is and this would be thehair that shattered our backs.”

Celestia didn’t say a word. She didn’t have to, because she could hear the truth in everything she heard. Though Chrysalis sat tall, all cool pride and imperial regality, there was still a thin frailty about her slender form. Her time in Equestria had helped her recover, but not even the months of rest and care could fully remove the shadows beneath her eyes or the shallowness of her pale cheeks. Perhaps she exaggerated the direness of their straights for the sake of negotiation, but it hadn’t been by much, if any at all.

“I thought as much,” Celestia slowly nodded as she selected a small, strawberry cake. “And that is why I am prepared to help.”

A slender eyebrow arched in question.

“The Changelings may feed on the gathered armies. With thoughts of protecting their homes and loved ones foremost in every mind, your soldiers should be able to fill themselves with moral left to spare.”

“An interesting proposal,” Chrysalis nodded, no longer able to hide the gleam in her eyes. “And what of afterwards?”

“When the battle is won, you may refill yourself on the victory celebrations. Once fully replenished, you may take the Changelings back home if you swear to abide by our treaties once more. This includes keeping rogue agents from their more… colorful activities.”

Chrysalis smiled. No longer trying to hide her interest, that smile was one of a stalking predator, all fangs and hunger and delight over fresh prey. Celestia thought she might pounce on the offer there and then like a viper onto a chubby mouse.

But who was Chrysalis if not one for surprises?

“You offer good terms,” the Changeling queen smiled sweetly as she sipped her tea once more. “Ideal terms in fact, if not for one small detail.”

“Oh?” Celestia intoned. “And what might that be?”

“Me. Everything you’ve offered is for the good of my people, but I’ve yet to hear any offers to interest myself in particular.”

Teacup clinked against its saucer a little more loudly.

“I have already offered you your freedom,” Celestia replied, her words far too level and composed for anything but intentional control. “And you still say that does not interest you?”

“Oh, it certainly does,” Chrysalis smiled. “But then again, you’re the one who imprisoned me in the first place.”

The princess was tempted to meticulously explain that the imprisonment had resulted from an assassination attempt on her own life. However, considering that doing so would likely end with her taking swings at the Changeling monarch, it was probably not the most diplomatic of options.

“Well then,” Celestia sniffed. “What do you want?”

“Not a what,” Chrysalis smiled, all predator once more. “A who.”

Celestia’s hard gaze was definitely not amused. But then again, neither was the Changeling’s.

“… You may feed on me as you wish,” the princess finally acknowledged through gritted teeth, “but only so long as it doesn’t interfere with my duties.”

The laughter that arose from the Changeling was as grating as it was surprising.

“Oh my dear, sweet Celestia,” Chrysalis chuckled, “I don’t want you.”

“You… don’t?” Celestia blinked.

“My word, no. I got a taste of it during my last visit. Potent, yes, but terribly bland.”

“The love I have for my people has never wavered,” the princess answered as a subtle glow began to suffuse her skin. “If you’re suggesting–”

“Nothing of the sort,” Chrysalis smiled. “Your love as a ruler is admirable, and your affections as a mentor are simply luscious. But the taste of Celestia herself is, oh, what’s the word… stale? Yes, that’s it. You’ve let yourself go far too long without a little spice in your life.”

“My apologies for not suiting your tastes.” The frostiness in Celestia’s words could have frozen the teapot solid.

“All is forgiven,” Chrysalis laughed with her familiar, haughty chortle before she settled into a devious grin. “No, Celestia, I’m looking for a very particular taste, one I grew quite fond of in our tender month together. I’m sure you know the one.”


Lavender eyes went saucer-wide.

“Surely you jest.”

“Surely I don’t,” the Changeling smirked.

“You’re asking for a married man.”

“As if it matters.”

“Who also happens to captain my royal guards.”

“Then replace him,” Chrysalis grinned, her fangs flashing almost as brightly as her viridian gaze. “Surely you have those who could take his place? What about the one with grey eyes, the scary one? Why, with him around, you’d hardly need a guard at all.”

“Cadance would never–”

“Cadance can take her objections and stuff them up her prissy little behind!” Chrysalis snapped with explosive force. Then, just as suddenly, she cooled, and a chill smile returned to its usual place. “You let me have my ex-fiance, and you get the might of the Changelings alongside you. You have to admit, it’s a very generous offer.”

“If we fall, you fall too,” Celestia breathed, scarcely believing what she heard. “Not helping us is as good as signing your own death warrant.”

“Only if you fail,” the queen smiled. “And judging by how hard you Equestrians are scurrying about, I’m willing to bet on the underdog in this fight.”

“You’d gamble the lives of your entire people for the sake of one man?” the princess gaped. Once more, Chrysalis bared a mouthful of fangs.

“I would,” she smiled, the expression as cold and hard as frozen chitin. “And that’s why you have no choice but to give me what I want.”

Visibly unsteady hands raised a tea cup to her lips as the princess of the day tried to think. It was madness. Utter madness. She couldn’t just... just give someone away like a stuffed bear at the carnival, especially not someone as crucial to their battle plans as he. It was an utterly preposterous proposal that sent Celestia reeling from the pure audacity of the demand.

Or was it?

“Why him?”

“Pardon?” Chrysalis blinked.

“Why Shining Armor?” Celestia asked, her lavender eyes focused once more as she fixed the xenomorph with a considering look. “I understand you’re familiar with him, but to go for such lengths to secure him is peculiar, wouldn’t you say?”

“I told you, I liked his taste,” Chrysalis replied, all cool and airy dismissal. “It’s not like I have a particular fondness for him, after all.”

“In that case, why not take Live Stone? He’s newly married, just like Shining Armor, but also dying to conduct an anthropological tour of the Changeling Hive. I’m sure he’d prove much tastier than a man forced to leave, would he not?”

“Well, true…” Chrysalis admitted, visibly surprised by Celestia’s sudden cooperation. “But that’s hardly all that matters. After all, Shining Armor is also an exemplar of military discip–”

“Then I’ll throw in Major Simo Hay as well. He’s a big fan of cold weather and the garrison we have would certainly suit his tastes.”

“Perhaps,” Chrysalis retreated, “but still, Shining Armor has a…”

“Great personality?” Celestia pressed. “Of course. In that case, how about we add on Fighting Sainthill? He’s a bit wilder, but there isn’t a soldier in Equestria who laughs nearly as much as him.”

“Maybe so, but...”

“And if you’re worried about the magical ability, don’t worry. Between the three of them, there should be more than enough to make up for Shining Armor’s talent.”


“And this way, you’ll be getting four people to feed on instead of one, which means you can stuff yourself silly whenever you’d like.”


“And if even they’re not enough, I’m sure we can find at least two or three more to round out the number. Why, I’m sure that after all of this, you’ll be–”

“But I don’t want them!” Chrysalis screamed, her gracious veneer snapping as she finally jumped to her feet in frustrated protest. “I don’t want Churchill or Simon or… or whoever those people are! I don’t care if you offered me a hundred others each more talented than the last, the only one I want is Shining Armor!”

Emerald eyes flashed. Breasts heaved with shortness of breath as the Changeling Queen’s tirade drew to a close. A stray wisp of verdant hair fell across her face, giving the usually graceful monarch a somewhat wild look, one that Celestia had not seen in many, many years.

“Why?” she repeated. “Why are you so insistent on Shining Armor?”

Chrysalis said nothing, perhaps because she had nothing to say or perhaps she didn’t trust herself to speak. But as she worked to regain her composure, a touch of color rose in her face. Understandable, really, considering her momentary exertion. It wasn’t surprising at all to see a rich hue come to those pale cheeks. Pale cheeks that steadily grew brighter and brighter even after she’d calmed down. Cheeks that…

And suddenly, Celestia understood.

“Chrysalis,” she gaped, glad she’d stayed seated or else she’d surely have fallen over. “Did you… Are you…”

It was strange to say, but the look on the Changeling’s face could only be described as sulking. Sulking and embarrassed as cheeks heated to points fit to shame the sun.

“Is it so surprising?” she shot back, though with borderline petulance replacing her usual barb. “I’m not so far gone as to have forgotten who I was. I still remember how it feels to be… well, you know…”

Celestia did, or at least she think she did. It’d been so long since she’d thought Chrysalis capable of such an emotion, so long since she’d last felt it herself. But she did understand, and to a point that surprised even her. Absentmindedly, she flicked her wand to restore the Changeling’s seat upright. Chrysalis looked like the last thing she wanted was to continue the conversation, but sit down she did, pouting lower lip stuck out and all.

Once more, Celestia refilled their tea. They sipped. The clock on the mantelpiece slowly ticked on.

“So… how did it happen?” Celestia asked delicately. Chrysalis mumbled something into her cup response.



“Could you repeat that?”


“I’m sorry, I still can’t…”

“Chocolates, okay? It was chocolates!” Chrysalis snapped as a fresh bloom of color rose in her face.

“… Chocolates,” Celestia repeated, unsure of what else to say.

“I know, silly isn’t it?” Chrysalis mumbled on through the flush. “They weren’t even particularly special chocolates, just something I’d nibbled on in one of the bridal shops. Well, you can imagine my surprise when a couple of days later, he just… waltzes on and drops a bag in my lap, grinning like a fool with magic beans.”

“That hardly sounds like much to me,” Celestia remarked. Chrysalis laughed.

“It wasn’t. But then I asked him why he did it. Do you know what he said?”

Celestia shook her head.

“He said, ‘What, I have to have a reason to see you smile?’”

Cheeks darkened till Chrysalis looked a week out under a blazing sun.

“Now I know what you’re thinking,” she continued, her words steadily picking up steam as she spoke. “You’re probably thinking, ‘gee, that’s nothing special, especially when you’ve got a man under mind control.’ Well, I hadn’t, alright? I only used mind control when it came to the shield he was holding up. Besides, it’s not like I could have even done it anyways. I didn’t know people could say such corny stuff, not even under a thrall. No, that was just him, being his usual, stupid, fool of a goof self. I mean, seriously, why was he even so happy that he’d gotten me a bag of stupid chocolates? Anybody could do that, you know? It’s not like he did anything special like… like–”

Realizing she was rambling, Chrysalis picked up her cup and downed the piping hot contents like she was dying of thirst. Only when she’d refilled her cup and repeated the process did she finally settled down to some semblance of normal control.

“So… there you have it,” she sniffed, a thin veneer of her usual haughty pride doing little to hide her colored face. “My stupid, silly reasons for insisting on an equally stupid and silly man.”

“I don’t think it’s stupid at all. Or silly,” Celestia replied. For a moment, it looked as if Chrysalis might actually believe her, which is what made the following so much harder to say. “But it would never work. You realize that, don’t you?”

“Don’t be so sure,” Chrysalis retorted with just a shade too much confidence. “I’m a Changeling, remember? The queen of a race who can take any form or figure she chooses. Why, with a mere though, I can make myself anything his little heart desires.”

“Everything but the one he really wants,” Celestia softly corrected. Those words brought a completely different sort of flush to Chrysalis’s cheeks.

“You don’t know that!” she snapped as spots of color marred her pale beauty. “You don’t know the sorts of things he told me, the promises he made.”

“The things he said to her, Chrysalis, not you!” Celestia shot back with just as much volume, if of a different sort. “You know that he never really saw you, so why chase after an illusion when you know it’s not real?”

Chrysalis’s laughter was seven shades of frost.

“Easy for you to say,” she smirked. “After all, it’s easy to criticize table manners when you’re not the one who’s starving.”

“You’re nowhere near that and you know it,” Celestia replied. “You have an entire people, a whole nation that adores you. How can you say you have nothing?”

“The Changeling’s worship me,” Chrysalis smirked, a look all dry mockery coming to her painted lips. “They idolize me and bask in my radiance because they have no choice. They pledge their allegiance and serve me to their dying day because that is all they could ever do. But let me ask you this. Which one of them actually cares about me? Which one of them would buy me trinkets on a whim or take me out for a stroll or… or just sit with me and cuddle because he wanted to be close? I have their loyalty, Celestia, and their undying admiration. I could use that to command them for anything my heart desired. But how is that any more real than the illusions I chase?”

Celestia wanted to reply. Somewhere through her long life, she must have heard something, some nugget of wisdom that would help Chrysalis understand. But as the Changeling spoke, something about her expression changed. The mockery faded and the barbs dulled till at last, there was only dim bitterness remaining in her smile. It was the same bitterness that had flickered behind the eyes of the Heavenly Lily, the one that had only grown as thousands upon thousands of admirers basked in the radiance of her beauty, basked before content to leave her all alone. It was the same bitterness she’d seen that final night before the rise of a baleful queen wreathed in viridian fire.

“Your brother wouldn’t want this for you,” Celestia finally said, the only words she could find. Chrysalis chuckled.

“My brother doesn’t want much besides crystals these days. But then again, we both know that, don’t we?”

Silence fell once more between the two as the tick of the clock slowly marked the passage of time. Celestia wanted to speak, but had nothing to say. Chrysalis had a thousand things to say, but couldn’t speak.

Slowly, the sunk sank towards the horizon.

“I will speak to Shining Armor,” Celestia finally said as she wearily rose to her feet.

“You… will?” Chrysalis blinked.

“It won’t make a difference,” the princess replied bluntly. “But the least I could do is pass on the message.”

What Chrysalis thought of the idea, she didn’t say. But the look in her eyes was not an angry one. At least that was something.

With a few final pleasantries and some obligatory formalities, Celestia left the queen in the parlor. For once, she was grateful for those empty halls. It was a long walk back to her room in the tower, and she wasn’t sure what she’d have said if she’d been forced to speak.

Finally within the sanctuary of her own room, Celestia sank into her chair even as the sun sank below the mountains. She almost didn’t realize she was moving, but a few flicks of her ivory wand opened a small cache beneath the richly embroidered carpet and the smooth marble tiles. She levitated a small wooden box towards her and in the fresh dark of night, opened its lid to sift through the contents as a thousand emotions and memories washed over her.

A small geode glowed as the amethysts within gave off a soft, warm light. The little boy who’d found it had loved shiny things more than any magpie, yet when he’d handed it over, all dusty and dirty and beaming with pride over his simple enchantments, he could have outshone the sun itself. Fresh as the day it was plucked, a pure white lily with the dew still fresh on its petals gave off a soft fragrance sweet as honeyed wind. She’d been older than he by then, but still just a timid little creature who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. Yet when she’d given Celestia that flower, all flushes and shy glances away, the smile she’d flashed had been more beautiful than any bloom in creation.

Trinkets that they were, these were two of the treasures that Celestia had guarded through the ages, precious mementos of days long over. Perhaps it was because of their value that she never noticed the intruder until he spoke.

“You know, the whole brooding in the dark doesn’t exactly fit your sun princess persona.”

She didn’t need to look up to know that the voice was matched by glowing topaz eyes.

“Not now, Discord,” she replied, her words halfway between a groan and a growl. “I’m not in the mood.”

“Yes, I noticed that,” the trickster murmured as he took a measured step forward. “That’s why I thought I’d come and bring you a little–”


Footsteps ceased.

“I beg your pardon?” he smiled, lips curved up but voice unsure. “I must have misheard, because I could have sworn that you–”

Celestia stood and rounded on the man, the aurora of her hair whipping about in an invisible gale as golden sunshine poured from her eyes.

You will go,” she ordered, her voice as sonorous as it was great and terrible. “And know this, traitor. If I ever you in my presence again, I will be the last thing you ever see.

Discord stood, topaz eyes wide as a mouth searched for words that would not come. So it was without a word that the man bowed, a graceful step as if to begin a dance before he vanished without a trace.

Slowly, the glow faded from Celestia’s eyes and her hair fell back to its usual, gentle billows. In the darkness of night that seemed twice as dim for the light before, Celestia once more sank into her chair, pressing palms to her eyes as the princess tried to ignore the return of an ache she’d thought long since forgotten.

At the very bottom of that chest, wrapped in cloth so that she might not have to look on it, lay the very first gift she’d ever received, a small, thin ring where gold and silver swirled about as freely as the clouds in the sky. It had been her favorite, once upon a time, and even without looking on it, she could have traced the infinite patterns she’d once held so fondly.

What was that Chrysalis had called her? Stale? Maybe she was right.

After all, what do you call a person who’d rather forget than regret?


Chapter 20

Chapter 20

His body was heavy. Limbs of lead, torso of iron, Graves was amazed that he could even float at all. But float he did, drifting through the river’s speeding current till it finally tossed him onto the banks somewhere far downstream.

Pulling himself up the sandy shores, inch by wearily clawed inch, the marshal hadn’t even made it halfway from the water before his arms gave out. Using the last dregs of his strength, Graves roll himself over and lay there, staring up at that featureless, slate-grey sky as the river continued to lap around his legs.

He couldn’t move well, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t evaluate his condition. The myriad of lesser slashes and cuts went ignored as the marshal focused on the truly serious wounds. A gash deep enough to lacerate the muscle of his left thigh, a souvenir from one of the Jabberwock’s razor spines. Four cracked ribs on the right from when that bloated tree trunk of a tail had sent him flying like a child’s ragdoll. Three lengths of barbed claws, torn from various driders, now lodged in a shoulder, forearm, and clavicle. His left hand devoid of skin and movement as the underlying flesh gaped cracked and charred. The knife’s handle, insulated though it was, had seared the flesh of his hand as the conducted lightning transformed the blade into a superheated brand.

All in all, it wasn’t the worst shape he’d ever found himself in, but it certainly wasn’t the best. Not by a longshot.

“Should wrap the leg first,” Grave muttered as he pushed himself to his feet. Or at least tried to. He was so tired, it took him a good three attempts before he could even get off his back. Even sitting up felt like trying to uproot a great oak with his bare hands.

But eventually, he did make it, and once he did, Graves took off his hat and gripped onto it tightly with his teeth before drawing his silver knife once more. He channeled in a thin, wavering trickle of electric energy. It was hardly more than static at this point, but eventually, the blade was charged and glowing a dull red as he held it in his unmangled right.

Only when Graves was sure was sure that the leather held well and firm between his teeth, he took a bracing breath and pressed the blade against his wounded leg. The air filled with the crackling hiss of burning flesh, the stink of charred skin and hair as Graves nearly bit his hat in two. Again and again, he repeated the process, first painstakingly removing the serrated blades before burning his flesh once more. Only when the marshal was absolutely sure that he’d cauterized the major wounds did he remove the hissing blade. Unclenching his jaw took far longer, but he slowly worked it loose as he cut the tattered sleeves of his shirt to make some rudimentary bandages.

Field dressing completed, Graves heaved himself to his feet, using his spell gun as a crutch and tentatively tested out his wounded leg. He wouldn’t be running any marathons, any time soon, but he’d be able to walk. It’d have to do until he got his supplies back and could give himself a bit more medical attention.

“Wow, you look like a complete mess.”

Looking up, gunmetal grey eyes fell upon the white-clad figure of Nul as he stood before the marshal, still immaculate, still looking amused as a boy at the fair.

“Well great,” Graves grunted as he hobbled his way forward. Painfully. “Look buddy, in case you haven’t realized, I’m not exactly in the mood to chat right now.”

“I know, I know,” Nul nodded conciliatorily. “I just wanted to let you know: flinging yourself into the Jabberwock’s mouth to kill it from inside out? Genius. Pure genius.”

“Thanks, but autographs are still five bits,” the marshal smirked as he continued moving. “Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got to go.”

“Not in that direction, you don’t,” Nul replied lightly, turning his bandaged eyes away from the raven-haired soldier to walk alongside him. “Trust me, over that hill right there? Not where you want to end up.”

“Why, what’s over there?” Graves asked.

“Thought you weren’t in the mood to talk?”

After sending Nul a withering glare, Graves set off for the hill in question. It could be a trick to set him up, but Nul didn’t seem the kind for such duplicity. Plus, a high vantage ground would help him get his bearings and figure out where he needed to go.

It wasn’t a particularly large hill, nor was it very steep, but it still took Graves the better part of ten minutes to make its crest. His body did loosen up as he walked, giving him some more semblance of normalcy, but the wound on his leg twinged with every step and the bone shards grating against his lung made every breach a stabbing chore. All the while, Nul said nothing, simply choosing to walk alongside the marshal in contented silence. Graves, never one to initiate conversation, focused his efforts on reaching the hill’s peak.

Falling to his stomach and crawling the last ten paces to the top, Graves peered over the grassy ridge to see take a cautious glance to what lay on the other side. Unfortunately, it was that glance that proved Nul was completely and absolutely right.

“Is… is that…?”

The other side of the hill fell sharply off towards a broad basin that connected to a narrow valley pass winding through the northern hills. The space was clear, one of those long, open gashes the Equestrians had seen occupied by the Cyclops yesterday – had it really only been yesterday?

But those thoughts were distant because at that moment, Graves lay on the ground, stunned as if struck by the thunders of heaven itself. It wasn’t the space that caught the marshal’s attention, nor the terrain. No, what drew those gunmetal grey like a lodestone drew iron were the contents of that open ground, a sight that defied even the marshal’s wildest predictions.


The clearing was full of them. Milling about like a stirred up ant’s nest, no less than two hundred of the grey-skinned warriors gathered in the valley below. Born to the frozen wastes far north, orcs were forged by the icy steppes and constant warfare into a warrior culture the likes of which had never been seen before. Had.

“But that’s… that’s impossible,” Graves gaped, the sound coming out a strangled whisper as he continued to stare in disbelief at the camp below then. “Ironside shattered them at the Crystal Scar. After Warblood, there shouldn’t have been a single tribe left!”

“There wasn’t,” Nul nodded as he surveyed the crowds with his sightless eyes. “Ironside did shatter them and harried them all the way to the Northern Tundra. But some didn’t return home. Instead, some of the stragglers made their way west, through the Snowspire mountains to settle in the Savage Lands. Not exactly a pleasant place, but for the orcs seem to have adapted rather well, wouldn’t you say?”

Indeed they had. A passing glance would reveal nothing but the tusks and rough grey hides, hallmarks of the orc race. But a closer inspection would reveal much more. There were no women, no children. Clad in the furs and armors of their ancestors, each orc in that valley stood a full two paces tall, if an inch, striding about with more heavy muscle than even the hardiest of laborers could hope. This wasn’t just a ragtag tribe of refugees. No, this was a fully-fledged raiding party, the likes of which had razed Equestria’s northern borders all those years ago.

Somewhere in his mind, Graves knew this. The soldier remembered his duties and meticulously filed information into archives for later use. But as for the man? For him, facts and figures were the last things on his mind as it sat full of something far more important.


It came out suddenly, an explosive eruption of pure, boiling wrath, hotter than the sun and fierce to make the wildest storms seem a gentle breeze. Never before had Graves felt such anger and all-consuming hatred welling up within and coursing through veins like thundering rivers of magma. These filthy brutes, these… god-forsaken abominations, were the blight that had taken away his family before his very eyes.

Fifteen years had gone by since, but not one day had gone by where the scars they’d left had gone forgotten. Fifteen years had gone by while a boy turned soldier waited for news. Month after month and year after year he waited, waited for some report of an orcen incident to begin him on vengeance long overdue. There would be no justice for the orcs, no laws to protect their kind. To Graves, they were nothing more than vermin, and vermin were exterminated.

But fifteen years of silence had passed, and wounds which never quite healed faded with hopes that looked like they would never pass. The orcs were gone. Why hold out for a dream that would never come true?

And here, in the most unexpected way, that had all changed. They were there, filling the valley as if waiting for him, a present tied up all nice and neat like a Hearth’s Warming Day gift fifteen years in the making. Graves could finally have it, the retribution that had kept him awake for so many nights for so many years. It filled him, seared him, burned and raged until it seemed that it would scour all thought and reason from within his skull.

Unaware of the wounds on his bandaged hand, Graves clenched his fists till burnt flesh cracked and blood flowed. Unaware of the strange light smoldering in iron eyes, Graves watched.

“No way you’re going to get through that rabble,” Nul said with a slow shake of his head. “But it shouldn’t be a problem anyway. A little detour around this valley, and you can pass by without them even catching a whiff of your stinky hide and be back to your Ponyville friends in no time at all.”

The girls.

Of course.

Like the break from a fever dream, those words reached deep enough to snap Graves from his rage-induced fugue. In the searing heat of the passions, he’d completely forgotten about the most important thing of all. Fulfill your mission, marshal. Keep the girls safe.

Gunmetal grey eyes as hard as jagged flint stared down at the canyon below. They were there, so close. Vengeance called out to him, its voice sweeter than honey and more seductive than any whore could be. At that moment, there was nothing he wanted more than to descend upon the orcs like a thunderstorm and wipe them off the face of the earth. Vermin. Extermination.

But slowly, like a glacier grinding down a mountain, gunmetal grey eyes turned away.

“Where are you going?” Nul asked, wonder coloring his words as Graves slid partial ways down the hill.

“Around. Like you said, detour and they’ll never even know I’m here.”

“And that’s what you want? Even after everything they did to you?”

Graves stopped.

“I know about the orcs,” the blind man said as an incomprehensible smile came to his face as he spoke to the marshal’s slumped back. “I know what they mean to you. Are you really just content to leave them be?”

“… No choice,” Graves replied, his voice as still as a winter pond. “I have to protect those girls. Got no time for… personal problems.”

“Don’t you?”

And without warning, black flames leaped up all around the marshal.

“What the hell?” Graves called as the onyx blaze flared up and steadily drew closer, tightening around him like a hangman’s noose about the criminal’s neck. “What do you think you’re doing?!”

“Consider this a freebie,” Nul grinned from beyond the veil of flickering black. “A little taste of what is yet to come.”

With a soundless roar, Graves vanished as the black flames swallowed him whole.


Down in the canyon, the orcs prepared to leave camp. Word from some of their scouts spoke of unusual stirrings to the east, stirrings that some said were due to the arrival of pale ones. The news had rumbled through the camps as tusked mouths began to salivate, and it was with much anticipation that the orcs gathered up their hide tents, strapped on their wicked, scything swords, and made way to set out on the hunt.

That’s when the lightning struck.

Out from a cloudless sky, a piercing bolt of pure, electric wrath struck one of their number, leaving a crackling, fist-sized hole where his heart should have been. Another had followed, not two seconds later and blown the head clean off another’s shoulders in a shower of electrified gore.

Then lightning didn’t just strike. It rained. Bolt of after bolt of lightning struck, never even a breath between any two as the lethal lances fell with devastating accuracy. Piercing eyes, hearts, stomachs, temples, the shots that proved fatal were instantaneously so. But others were far less merciful. Here, an orc would stumble as a foot was blown off from the ankle down. There, another fell to its knees as it clutched the cauterized stump where its hand had been. Too accurate to be anything but deliberate, for every fatal strike, two more horribly maimed and crippled, but left the target completely awake for each, agonizing moment.

In less than a minute, more than a fifth of their number had been struck down with twice that again injured or worse. The raid leader had tried to rally his warriors and storm the hill from where the lightning came, but that had been as fruitful as attacking an ogre with a toothpick; any orc that even set foot to approach that hill had been struck down without remorse. The lightning fell too quickly and too cleanly for even the fastest of his warriors to advance, so it was with gnashing teeth and wordless, howling rage that the raid leader called out for a full retreat.

But then the lightning stopped.

A deafening silence echoed through the valley as the incessant thunder fell still, a silence disturbed only by the cries of the injured and fallen. Peeking up from whatever cover they could find, the remaining orcs looked to the hill to see just why the lethal rain had ceased. That’s when they saw him, a lone pale one descending the hill towards them in a way the crude, orcish language couldn’t describe. After all, what use does an orc have for words like calm or leisure?

Blood boiled. Teeth gnashed. Though they didn’t understand the precise nature of the threat, these orcs knew that the pale one was somehow linked to the slaying of their brethren. Howling in rage and with bloodlust clouding vision, the orcs unsheathed their weapons, axes and swords of iron and bronze and stone. As one, they loosed their thundering war cries to shake the ground and sky before breaking into their murderous charge with but a single thought in their collective minds.

Slowly, the pale one drew a single knife and turned to face the first warrior. The seven foot behemoth, banded with studded leather and with arms thicker than the pale one’s waist, tightened his grip on his massive battle axe, raised it above his head with a bellowing cry and–

–fell as hands and head separated from arms and neck.

The pale one turned, his knife now transformed into a short sword whose faultless, glowing blade hummed with the pure, white light of a burning star. It may well have been a star, because whatever that blade touch disappeared. Flesh vaporized, metal boiled into hardened mist, and everywhere, death followed in its wake. The pale one danced among them, never more than a hair’s breadth from any of their weapons, but as untouchable as the moon above. Everywhere he turned, the stench of burning flesh and ionized metal followed. Some fell as headless corpses. Others fell in pieces, torso from waist or even bisected from head to groin. And still others fell with limbs lopped off, wounds neatly cauterized to prevent death from approaching except at the pale one’s call.

Then the blade vanished and the real carnage began.

When the glowing blade flickered and faded, the orcs believed they had a chance. Bellowing with renewed vigor, they’d charged once more at the pale one as hopes ran high. That hope quickly vanished as the pale one set upon them with the most lethal weapons yet: his own bare hands. They were slashing knives, iron cudgels, and merciless steel claws all rolled into one. The first orc to approach him had his sword arm snapped like a dried twig before being impaled through the liver with his own barbaric weapon. The second fell with his head spun full around as the pale one finished giving it a gentle twist. The third survived, but only because the pale one deigned to leave him screaming after crushing his testicles and, once fallen to his knees, gouging out eyes with fingers sharper than a raven’s beak.

The air now filled not with the smell of burning meat, but of blood, hot and wet and raw. It was a familiar smell, but never of their own and never so much at once. Hardened warriors as they were, even the orcs could only stand so much. It began in the back first, where the most cowardly had dropped weapon and ran. But the dissention had spread, worming its insidious way further and further forward like a contagion. Soon, even the most stalwart of their number turned tail to flee the pale demon before them, eyes for once not wide with rage or thrill, but with stark, unbridled terror.

Even then, there was no relief. No escape.

Grey eyes watched as the orcs retreated into the narrow canyon to the north. They considered the options, calculated the possibilities. Then they chose.

The pale one raised his hands towards the heavens and breathed in deeply. As breath left his body, it formed wind, a swirling gale that gathered dark and heavy clouds into the sky above. The clouds grew larger, heavier, and darker, a veil so thick that it blotted out the sun above.

And it rained.

Ten. A hundred. A thousand. The number of lightning bolts crashing to earth were so many that no one could hope to count their number. But it wasn’t the orcs that they struck, oh no. Each of those crackling bolts found not flesh, but stone and soil of the canyons around. The storm brought the very mountains down around the retreating orcs in a terrible avalanche of burning earth. Between the thunders of heaven and the thunders of rolling land, nobody could hear the screams of the orcs as the fell still living into their graves.

Silence fell once more as the pale one lowered his arms, a complete silence as even the wounded lay interred beneath the shattered hills. Buried, but not crushed, not even close. The storm of thunder had pounded mountains into soft, loose soil, and it was under this blanket of earth that the orcs remained in an almost loving embrace. They would live for, what… a minute? Maybe two? In that time, as they lay trapped, with darkness filling their eyes and dirt slowly replacing the breath in their lungs, they would know fear in its purest form.

They would die, of course, but not before they suffered. Not until they suffered, just as the pale one intended.

Seconds ticked by. Silence fell. And only then, only when the pale one stood alone in that vast expanse, did the slow applause begin.


Graves turned to look at Nul, who beamed back at him even as he continued his applause.

“Brilliant. Absolutely, utterly, perfectly brilliant. I had high hopes for you, but never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined you capable of such… greatness.”

The marshal said nothing. Instead, he looked to his hand, flexing the fingers as he considered it with cool, grey eyes. It was his hand. It looked the same, and it worked the same, but it didn’t… feel the same. It felt different. It felt powerful.

“What did you do to me?” Graves asked in tones as smooth as river stones, the lack of apprehension surprising even him. “I thought your power was to destroy.”

“It is,” Nul nodded. “I have the power to end to anything I desire. Most use the crude form to simply cease things like objects and peoples. Others, like yourself, refine the use and end the existence of things far more esoteric. Things like, say… limitations, perhaps?”

Ah, so that was it. That was what the marshal currently felt. It wasn’t that Nul had given him anything per se, but in a way, the man had given Graves the one thing that truly mattered.


All his life, Graves had been subject to the shackles of his own inadequacies. But those confines were gone. For the first time in his life, Graves was free to do as he pleased. Unlimited by his clumsiness with magic, he’d been able to use spells in ways he’d never even thought possible. It came naturally to him, as easy as breathing where he need only form the idea in his head for it to take perfect form beneath his fingertips.

And it didn’t stop there. His body, broken and battered as it was, felt better than it ever had before. His feet were light, his hands were quick, and all the aches and pains he’d accumulated vanished as if they’d never been; hay, he couldn’t even feel the gash on his leg or the broken ribs in his chest. And he’d fought how many orcs? How many muscle-bound warriors had he fended off with fists alone on pure marshal prowess? He didn’t know, but he did know he should have been aching and heaving from exertion, tired as he’d never been from such a hard fought battle. But he didn’t. He simply felt wonderful. Alive.

But even more than that, even more than all of that–

“Well, time’s up,” Nul frowned. And suddenly, Graves dropped to his knees as pain erupted from every fiber of his being, a pain so intense that it clouded his vision and threatened to drown him under a flood of agony.

“It’s over,” the man in white sighed. “Like I said, this was just a small sample with no strings attached. I didn’t want to impose, so I could only give you the tiniest taste, one that will disappear very soon.”

“You mean I’m going back to normal?” Graves gasped as suddenly it became very hard to breath. Nul nodded sadly.

“That’s just the way it is. But don’t worry,” he suddenly smiled brightly. “My power may be gone, but the seed will remain. If you ever feel like you’re in a pinch and need a little extra help, just let me know. I’m never far from one who knows me well.”

And with one last, elegant wave, Nul vanished, taking with him the all the gifts he’d bestowed. All at once, everything came back; the aches, the pains, and exhaustion, all made infinitely worse in contrast to the glorious heights from whence the marshal had just fallen. And as Graves knelt there, clutching his burning sides as each fractured bone grated against his gasping lungs, he groaned.

But nobody came to his aid. Nobody came to help. So, wearily, with a heavy body, with limbs of lead and torso of iron, Graves pushed himself back to his feet and began his lonely trip back.


Chapter 21

Chapter 21

“Yah wanna run that by me again, sugarcube?”

“Girls, please!”

Daylight was running short and so was patience. Once again, the Equestrian girls found themselves setting up camp after another harrowing day of surviving these accursed lands. Right now, though, things were going about as well as a lead zeppelin.

Roused with little more than an hour of sleep, the girls had watched as Graves disappeared into the night to keep whatever that… that thing was from chasing them. They’d stumbled their way forward through those pitch-black woods before a mixture of exhaustion and a desire not to snap their fool necks in the dark forced them to set up camp once more. That had been easy. With only one tent between the lot, the girls had nothing to set up beyond their own sleeping rolls. Battered, filthy and weary, the girls had crawled into a small gully and fallen asleep before they hit the ground.

Daylight dawned, the girls woke, and their journey began anew. Only now, running with neither a good night’s sleep nor marshal’s experienced guidance, their day’s travel had been one unhappy mishap followed by another, and the effects were beginning to take their toll.

“No, I wanna hear it,” Applejack continued, the poles to their lone salvaged tent forgotten in her hands. “What exactly does the little miss high-an’-mighty ‘squito over there wanna say tah me?”

“Not much,” Rainbow Dash snorted as she kicked her sleeping bag open. “Only that it’s your fault things turned out so cruddy today.”

Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” the colorful flyer snapped as she rounded to face the bristling cowgirl. “If you hadn’t wasted our time plucking up those few measly carrots, we wouldn’t have had such a hard time getting away from that basilisk.”

“Come on,” Twilight Sparkle interjected, “you know that’s not–”

“And if I hadn’t plucked up them carrots,” Applejack press on, completely steamrolling her friend’s attempt at reason, “along with that burdock, those wild mushrooms, and who knows what else, we’d hardly have anythin’ fer supper tonight. Our stuff’s gone, in case you forgot.”

“Oh, I forgot,” Rainbow Dash smirked. “Even in life or death situations, Applejack always has to think with her stomach.”

The snap of splintered wood cracked through the air like a gunshot.

“That. Is. IT!” Applejack cried, her breath darkening the air as she tossed aside the now thoroughly useless tent pole. “I am sick an’ tired of putting up with the sass an’ nonsense of a parasite who’s only job is wastin’ supplies while she just flits around like a useless gnat!”

“Useless? Useless?!” Rainbow Dash snapped with violet eyes positively livid. “I stopped us from running into that ghouls nest and steered us clear of the catterpebble’s cave!”

“Actually, it was a catopeblas,” Fluttershy softly interjected, “but I really think that–”

“If anyone’s useless around here, it’s you!” Rainbow Dash huffed as a flash of black danced across her heated gaze. “Absolutely and completely useless with a capital Y.”

“You care tah back that smart mouth up?” Applejack snorted, taking a threatening step forwards as the air between them grew steadily heavier and dimmer.

“What, you wanna throw down?” Rainbow Dash growled as she stepped in closer too, now nose to nose with the freckled farm girl. “You really wanna take me on?”

“Jess name the time an’ place.”

“Right here. Right now.”

“Girls, please!” Twilight cried with a final, desperate plea to her friends. “You can’t do this! Not now!”

“Of course you can’t, silly! Not without… these!”

“Uh, Pinkie?” Rainbow Dash blinked. “This is a rubber chicken.”

Indeed it was. While the two would-be combatants faced off, Pinkie Pie had jumped over and slipped, not one, but two genuine, joke-shop-approved rubber chickens between them, one in the hand of each girl. Obviously, one does not expect to be presented with vulcanized poultry on the best of days, and especially not out in the middle of a monster infested wilderness. Hence, the very, very, very long silence.

“Yes, yes it is,” the Pinkie Pie nodded with a face-splitting grin of satisfaction. “I figured if we were about to have an epic rumble in the jungle, we might as well get out the big guns and do it right, you know? Of course, pies would have been nice too, but–”

“Pinkie Pie. Sugarcube?” Applejack interrupted gently. “This is a rubber chicken.”

“Yeah, so?” Pinkie blinked, obviously not understanding the issue.

“So where did they come from?” Rainbow Dash interjected as she brandished her own flexible fowl with equal confusion.

“Uh, from me? Who else?” Pinkie Pie giggled.

“But where did you get them from?” Applejack asked.

“From my bag,” Pinkie smiled.

“Why were they in your bag?” Rainbow blinked.

“Because I packed them.” Pinkie beamed.

“And why did you pack them?” the two asked together, their previous conflict forgotten in light of this most pressing question. And to this, Pinkie just smiled a little brighter.

“Because, we might need them, duh. And guess what? I was totally right!”

Rainbow Dash looked to Applejack. Applejack looked to Rainbow Dash. Both looked to Pinkie Pie. Pinkie Pie looked up as she idly wondered whether a bunny would be more adorable with a top hat or an English bowler. And what started as a slight curve of the mouth and a trembling of lips broke out into the biggest, side-clutching, gut-busting fits of laughter this side of a Ponyacci performance.

“You’re… you’re kidding me!” Rainbow Dash wheezed from where she rolled on the ground, doubled over in laughter. “So you’ve been lugging a pair of rubber chickens in your luggage through mountains, swamps, and monster chases, ever since we left Equestria?”

“Of course,” Pinkie Pie smiled, now just a bit smugly. “It’s not like rubber chickens grow on trees you know.”

“Good grief, can you believe this girl?” Rainbow grinned as she turned to Applejack with a fresh peal of laughter. “Rubber chickens. Actual rubber chickens.”

“Makes about as much sense tah me as galoshes in a dust storm,” Applejack hooted right back. “But then again, I’m not the one who’d take the time to pack a pair of… rubber… chickens…”

It wasn’t the funniest of comments by far, but Applejack couldn’t contain herself any more and burst into a fresh round of laughter, which prompted Rainbow Dash to do the same. Maybe it was the sheer absurdity of the situation, or possibly the fact that laughs seemed to have been in such short supply of late, but those girls kept on laughing till tears streamed from their eyes and breath ran short into shallow, wheezing smiles.

Of course, even the most absurd of situations can only continue for so long, and eventually, the laughter faded away as the two friends were left to deal with a yet unfinished topic.

“So, um… about earlier,” Rainbow Dash began, some of the rosier shades in her hair now appearing in her cheeks.

“Yeah,” Applejack nodded softly. “Listen, I’m real sorry about all that stuff I said. I didn’t mean any of it, honest.”

“Nah, I’m the one who should be sorry,” Rainbow Dash snorted with a dismissive, but still embarrassed wave of the hand. “All that flying works up a mean appetite, and making sure there’s grub is most definitely not useless. At all.”

“So… friends?” Applejack smiled sheepishly.

“Psh, the best!”

The two moved in for a make-up hug, but were blindsided by a third and fourth party as Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy tackled the pair to join in. Twilight took a moment to roll her eyes, more out of relief than anything else. Whatever dark fog that had hung over the lot of them had been cleanly blown away by some much needed laughter, courtesy of the ever reliable Pinkie. Thus, it was with much lighter heart and steps that Twilight also jumped up to dive bomb her giggling comrades.

“Er… did I miss something?” Rarity called out as she returned. Given the marshal’s absence, she had taken over and now adorned the camp with protective runes.

“Hug party,” Pinkie Pie called from somewhere in the mix. “Attendance mandatory, so hop on in!”

Rarity took a look at her friends, pursed her lips in thought for a second, then shrugged and joined in. After all, bad moods could be as infectious as a virus, but smiles could spread just as quickly.

Once the epic cuddle fest was over with, the girls set about getting prepared for dinner. It wasn’t a very generous affair, merely a simple vegetable soup supplemented with what few rations they’d managed to keep thus far, but it didn’t seem nearly so bad. After all, even a scant meal seems filling when eaten with good company, and you could hardly ask for better friends than these. They laughed, they ate, they joked, and tired though they were, smiles still easily came to their faces.

Well, all except for one.

“I’m sure he’s gonna be fine, Rarity,” Twilight said as she gave her friend’s knee a reassuring squeeze. “You know how he is. Probably just got a little caught up being extra careful not to track another monster back to us.”

“Of course he’ll be fine,” Rarity grinned in admirable confidence. “I’m just concerned that his dinner will get cold before he does.”

Twilight didn’t comment any further. They’d parted ways with Graves early last night. Daylight was fading and that meant that soon, a full day would have passed since they’d last seen the marshal. To be so long gone was a worrying sign, and when the night fell and travel became even more harrowing? It didn’t take a genius to see that Rarity was positively beside herself with concern at the moment, but saying anything else would probably be as useful as adding windows to a safe. So despite her love of words, the purple-haired mage contented herself with another comforting smile.

Dinner came to an end and as the girls prepared to douse the campfire for another early night, the shrill cry of a cardinal sounded in the camp. Rarity jumped up instantly, not out of fright, but of excitement. The cardinal sounded only when one of their number crossed the camp’s perimeter. Graves was back.

“Well it’s about time,” she huffed, relief written clear on a face that attempted to look nonplussed and failed miserably. “Celestia knows what sort of state he’ll be in after running around the woods all day.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Applejack chuckled as she prepared a plate. “Just don’t talk his ear off, alright? He’s probably plumb tuckered out an’ probably looking fer a little peace and quiet.”

“I… I know that,” Rarity sputtered indignantly. “I was just saying that–”

In a soft rustle of leaves, Graves stepped out of the underbrush and entered the camp.

“There you are, dear!” Rarity smiled as she approached. “We were just–”

Sapphire eyes widened as the words died on her lips.

“Hey,” came the marshal’s soft response, his voice aged a hundred years in a day. “You girls doing alright?”

“We’re… we’re fine, Graves,” Twilight replied with a faint smile. She noticed his long, leather coat was buttoned up for once. “We’ve got dinner ready. Why don’t you pull up a seat and–”

“Thanks,” he said, raising his right hand for silence as his left remained unnaturally still at his side. “But I’m really not hungry. Think I’ll go settle in.”

“A-are you sure?” Fluttershy asked, color fading from her face as it was quickly replaced by concern. “Maybe I could help you wash up and get you feeling… better…” Her voice trailed off as she met the marshal’s dead grey eyes, dull and listless beyond anything fatigue could create.

“I’ll manage,” he assured them once more. "Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to be alone.”


Graves managed to walk away from camp upright and with hardly a limp. It was certainly made easier by the fact that he had nothing more to carry than his side satchel, what with his supplies having been scoured clean hours before by various scavengers. All rations were gone and most of his medical supplies scattered about as devastating collateral damage.

He’d recovered what he could, but it hadn’t been nearly enough. The few clean bandages not torn to shreds went on the most severe injuries and the single bottle of Lazarus potion was likewise equally rationed. It had been enough to keep him going and allowed him to find Rarity’s markers back to camp. However, with strength fast approaching depletion, he only had enough energy left to mutter his few words and get out of sight once more.

Then he collapsed.

As if breaking forth from a dam, sweat instantly beaded up on the marshal’s forehead as his broken body slumped against the first tree trunk he could duck behind. Everything hurt, and he did mean everything.

The gash on his leg was opened once more from the strain of the day’s journey despite the cauterizing burns and linen threads crudely stitching the wound together. Internal injuries from the Cyclops battle returned with a vengeance in the wake of combat with both jabberwock and driders. And of course, there were his ribs.

Eyes closed, Graves could do nothing but sit there, trying to keep each ragged breath as shallow as possible to prevent his lungs from caressing the razor edges of the shattered bones. He’d attempted to repair them by cutting open the covering skin and manually forcing the fragments back into place, but with at least two of four bones broken apart like fine china, there were simply too many floating fragments to handle. Add that to the myriad of cuts, bashes, punctures, piercings, and the general, mind-numbing exhaustion of running all day with no sleep, and Graves was about as fit for action as a half-rotten hauberk.

Maybe a little rest would help. Not that he could rest long of course. Every camp needed a sentry, and his practiced method of five minutes sleep for every fifteen of waking would work far better than anything the girls could manage. Normally, he’d wait till they were safely bunked down for a bit before catching his own rest, but he could get started a little early right now, right? He could manage that much. Just close his eyes, rest for a minute…


Graves floated in infinite darkness, eyes open with nothing to see save the emptiness of a starless sky. Well, almost empty.

“So good of you to join me,” Discord laughed from his cushy chintz armchair, his taupe and canary yellow striped tuxedo clashing brilliantly with the darkness around.

“What do you want?” Graves asked, mildly surprised to find he had a voice. For the first time in memory of being in memory, he found himself with form and body.

“Oh, not much,” the elderly youngster smiled. “Just thought you’d like to join me for some tea and idle chit chat.” A sweeping arm revealed a lovely little table set out for afternoon tea, white table cloth and dainty cucumber sandwiches included. “What do you say?”

Graves considered the offering and the offeror for a moment, then slowly glided over and took a seat at the table. As gracious a host as ever hosted a Maresian salon, Discord poured the marshal a steaming cup of tea, which Graves received with a grateful nod. In the dream world, matter was irresolute and ephemeral. The tea in the cup was no more real than the air he breathed, even less so in fact, but the memories they conjured of bittersweet warmth and comfortable days beside a crackling fire were real enough.

For a minute, the two contently sipped their tea in silence.

“So…” Discord mused slowly as he set his cup aside. “You met him. Nul.”

“I did.”

“And?” The question was asked with the most casual of tones, but one look at those smoldering golden eyes could see it was anything but. Graves too, set aside his cup.

“I’m thinking of taking the deal.”

To Graves’s eternal surprise, Discord responded not with a smile, not with a smirk, and not with a pithy, snarky remark, but with genuine, unbridled anger.

“Are you mad?!” he cried, leaping to his feet and upending the table as it scattered it into a billion motes of dust. “Wait, scratch that. Of course you’re mad. Absolutely cuckoo, madder than a hatter, stick a fork in it well-done mad. Trust me, I’d know.”

“I fail to see how,” Graves coolly replied from where he remained in his seat, unruffled and immovable like a boulder in a gale. Discord was not so still.

“Of course you don’t. Madmen never do,” Discord fumed, beginning a frantic pacing as he continued to lambast the seated man. “In that case, allow me to explain it to you. This is exactly, exactly what Nul wants. He entices you with sweet words and seductive promises that make the world seem your oyster. Then, when you’re wound so tight that you can’t tell heads from tails, he collects. He charges so much for those hollow promises that you’ll end up with nothing more than wind and sound to keep you together. Please tell me you can at least see that?”

“I’d hardly call them hollow,” Graves remarked as he munched on a sandwich. “They felt pretty real to me.”

Discord blanched.

“You… you didn’t,” he gaped as disbelief crisscrossed his face like lightning bolts in a thunder storm. “You already accepted?!”

“A free sample,” Graves shrugged. “Didn’t require anything in return.”

“Of course he wouldn’t!” the chaos spirit cried in quite literal hair-tugging frustration. “Why would he? He doesn’t need stuff; he’s the bloody bucking End! All Nul wants is destruction and he doesn’t care whether it’s by his own hand or stone-blind servant. Take that offer, boy, and you give him the one thing he truly wants!”

Grey eyes focused into the razor points of spears.

“In that case, why not let him have it?”

Discord stood still, amazed and silent as none had ever seen him before.

“Why… why not?” Discord sputtered. “Why not?! Graves, has nothing I told you sunk in yet? Has absolutely nothing said penetrated that incredibly dense skull of yours?!”

“Enough,” Graves retorted, his voice dispassionate and devoid of heat. “Enough to know that you sold out the world for power. Enough to understand that you’re the greatest traitor in the history of the world. Enough to know that I’m not like you.” Discord looked stunned, disoriented as if the words had caught him a rabbit punch to the back of his head. Graves pressed on, implacable as an avalanche of steel, his ire fueling the onslaught.

“I don’t want to rule the world, okay? Never have, never will. But I do want things, and you know what the number one on that list is right now? Seeing those girls home safe and sound.”


“But I can’t do that right, now, can I?” he snapped, the word cutting off protest as definitely as a sword. “You’re floating in my head, so you ought to know. I’m a mess. One strong breeze, and I’ll fall apart like a deck of cards. But I can’t fall apart. I fall, and those girls are left all alone.”

Calloused hands clenched tight

“I need power, Discord. Power I don’t have that Nul’s offering on everything but a silver platter. I’ve seen what it can do, and I don’t even need that much. One drop, just a single drop, and I could have them in and out before sundown tomorrow. Nul wants someone to destroy stuff and I’ve got more than enough targets to choose from. So tell me this, Discord; why shouldn’t I take it? Why the bloody hell should I not?”

The words were not spoken as a plea, not a cry for understanding as the marshal justified his actions. They were a bold-faced challenge as Graves laid out the bare facts and invited - no - dared Discord to respond. Discord understood this, and perhaps it was the understanding that prompted his slow, weary nod.

“You want to know why not?” Discord smiled, suddenly looking as ancient as he truly was. “Alright then, I’ll tell you. You can’t take his offer because if you do, you’ll end up exactly like me.”

Graves said nothing as iron eyes met weather-worn gold.

“… Explain,” he ordered, his voice cool to the border of frost.

“Celestia and Luna told you I betrayed them,” Discord sighed as he brought forth a comfy leather recliner and settled in. No longer did he look like the enigma of a youthful elder. Right now, he just looked old, worn, and very, very tired.

“They’re right, you know. In the weaving of the cage, I’m the one who left a small crack open and allowed Nul back into the world. Because of my choice, you face the impossible task before you today. All this is true and I deny not one word. But…” And here, a faded shadow of his former mirth returned, “Haven't you ever wondered why?”

“You wanted power,” Graves shrugged. “Probably took more juice than you had to take the two of them… on…” The marshal stopped, but only because Discord had broken out into a full, throaty chuckle, the familiar, ringing laugh that was as much his signature as his roiling golden eyes.

“Dear me, I was never nearly so melodramatic as that,” Discord answered as he wiped a tear from his eye. “Ruling the universe? Please, I’d as soon take up a desk job as assume that much responsibility. From the amount of paperwork Celestia gets, I somehow doubt there’s a difference.”

“Then… why’d you do it?” Graves asked.

“Simple. I wanted attention.”

The marshal blinked.

“… You’re kidding.”

“Not at all,” Discord said with a wry grin that masked a bitterness stronger than wormwood. “In fact, I didn’t even start with the intent of asking for his power. I just wanted someone to talk to.”

“Okay, now I know you’re messing with me.”

“Am I?” the elderly youngster asked, a strange emptiness coming to his topaz eyes. “After we sealed up Nul, Celestia and Luna were both quite busy settling this little planet and all the little people scurrying about. I never could really understand that. I mean, really, what’s so fascinating about a bunch of monkeys scampering about in the mud? Naturally, as our interests diverged, I found myself spending more and more time alone. Is it really so surprising that I’d want some company of my own?”

“But… Nul?” Graves frowned. “Really?”

“And why not?” Discord shrugged in an eerily similar manner as Graves. “You’ve met him before. Charming fellow, what with the way he was so passionately simple and honest in his goals. Even as we battled him, that part stood out and daresay even spoke to me. Yes, we sealed him away, but how could you completely cut off a person who despite everything, you’ve grown to almost like? I couldn’t, so when we formed the cage, I wove in a tiny, insignificant error. Nothing much, I thought, just enough to let his consciousness wake, his voice out. You never know when you need someone to talk to, right?”

“But it didn’t end there, did it?” Graves asked with very little question in his voice.

“It never does,” Discord chuckled. “Nul approached me the same way he probably did you. A small sample, a simple offer, you know the drill. Said that if I was feeling lonely, I should get their attention. After all, everybody loves a good show, and who’s a better performer than the one who controls impossibility itself?”

“… What happened?”

“It worked. I came back and wowed them, Luna, Celestia, even all the little people too. For a while, things were back to normal and we were back to our merry little games like we’d once had. But as I’m sure you understand, the needs of the many outweigh the wants of the few, and it was back to the daily grind for dear old Celestia once more.

“When that happened, Nul offered me a little power, just a touch to help me up my game. Of course, I had to widen the breach a little more, but it was harmless – he was still sealed, right? In any case, I went back, got the spotlight back, and lost it once more, but I wasn’t worried. I already knew what worked, so I went back to Nul, got just a shade more power, and came back with bigger tricks and flashier games. She loved those, of course, but I could never hold her attention as long as I wished. The cycle repeated, my tricks grew crazier, and it wasn’t long before I became quite… distasteful to some. By the time they all turned away, I'd spent so long doing the same thing, I didn't know of any other way to get them back. I went to Nul, I asked for more–”

“–and you became the Discord we all know and love today,” Graves finished as understanding finally dawned. “And you think the same will happen to me.”

“Can you say it won’t?” Discord smirked. “You use his power to save these girls today. The next mission, you want to save one more person, stop one more disaster. Can you really say you’ll be able to stop before then?”

“I won’t have to, will I?” the marshal said with the faintest of bland smiles in return. “We succeed today, and Nul’s locked up nice and tight till kingdom comes.”

“Will he really?” the spirit asked, eyes shining with molten light. “Celestia thought it was over when we locked him up, but that’s when my betrayal began. Who’s to say it won’t happen with you?”

Graves didn’t answer that question. There really wasn’t any need to when both know what he would have to say. But he did say something else.

“I need power,” Graves sighed, the sound reminiscent of wind whistling through a barren valley. “Nul showed me a world without limits, and that’s when I learned just how small I really am. I can’t do it, Discord. I have to find some way to get these girls home safely, or else…”

The old man sat there silently, fingers tapping together lightly as he considered the marshal’s words and the words still left unspoken. He didn’t have to hear them to feel the weight in every, single one.

“This power…” he murmured. “Does it have to be from Nul?”

Graves looked up, confusion written clear across his face. This confusion flashed into alarm as without warning, Discord materialized a pair of pliers, took hold of his single remaining fang, and with a cry of anguish, pulled it clean from his mouth.

“What the hell?!” Graves cried as he leaped to his feet. But Discord would have none of that, for even as he held his mouth in one hand, his other motioned for stillness.

“Don’… jussh, don’,” he mumbled through a hand covering a mouth steadily filling with blood. “You jussh shid righd there. Gib me a momend.”

Graves did as he was bidden, staring numbly at the startling display of self-mutilation. Once Discord was sure that the marshal would stay in place, he swallowed heavily, took the still bloodied fang in hand, and pressed it tight between his palms.

Out from between his fingers, a warm light and a pulsing hum flowed. A hundred thousand colors of every shade and hue imaginable poured forth with a hundred thousand different sounds chasing in their wake. The two somehow filled the air and driving back the darkness that knew no shape or form, growing brighter and louder till it seemed that Discord held the sun and thunder bottled up between his palms. Then, in one explosive moment, a brilliant, deafening supernova rang forth like the birth of creation itself.

And then it was still.

“T-there. It’s… done.”

Slowly lowering the hand that shielded his eyes, Graves looked to what Discord held out before him. Where the fang should have been now sat a ring, a simple, heavy band of gold inlaid with silver. Or was it the other way around? Upon closer inspection, Graves was surprised to find that it was actually both. There, though wrought of solid metal, the patterns of the ring danced and changed as freely as gale blown clouds in the sky.

“What is this?” Graves asked, genuinely confused by the strange object.

“Power. Not what Nul could offer, but I never met a man who’d say no to a little extra luck, right?”

“Luck?” Graves repeated, his brain processing the concept. And then it clicked. “Discord, you didn’t…”

“Straight from the source itself,” the old man chuckled as he pressed the ring into the marshal’s palm. “Make sure you take good care of it.”

With a dull nod, Graves slipped the ring onto his right hand, the cool metal feeling far too heavy and solid for the dreamscape. Only then did he look up to meet those golden eyes that now stood dull and sunken beneath hair with much too much white and a face with far more wrinkles than he’d ever seen before.


“Who knows,” Discord smiled, that simple act taking far too much effort and showing the space where the fang had been. “Maybe ‘cause I liked you. There’s something fascinating about a man who always makes his own luck, don’t you know? Of course, knowing that Cessy’d have my head if anything happened to you lot doesn’t hurt either, don’t you know.”


“Now just let me ramble on for a bit,” the spirit continued, the amusement of his words dulled by the thick slur of his tired voice. “The ring can’t do all that much. I’m less than vapor in the real world, especially so close to Nul’s center. What it can do, though, is tip the scales. Heads will pop up a little more than tails, aces show up just a bit more often, so on and so forth. It’s not much, but for a man who walks the knife edge, it might just be enough.”

Graves clenched his hand and felt the metal band press into his flesh.

“What about you? Will you be okay?”

“Bah, you have more important things to worry about than me,” Discord smirked as he waved a tired hand at the marshal. A tired hand that suddenly faded like mist in the morning sun. “Just remember this, Graves,” the old man continue as more of his body continued to fade and his voice dispersed like the last echoes in a canyon’s fade. “Nul offers power, but it’s an empty trade at best. Don’t be pulled in like I was. You have to… find… an… other… w–”

Graves blinked as he looked up into the starry night sky, the feel of rough bark against his back and the cool breeze brushing his sweated brow.

“Find another way, huh?” he grimaced as he looked down at the heavy gold and silver band that rested on his finger. In this blighted land, there were few roads that lead to survival and each was paved with daggers for stones.

He might be able to find a way. The real question was whether he’d be able to pay the price to cross.


Chapter 22

Chapter 22

Rainbow Dash was not a morning person at the best of times. At the best of times, she liked mornings about as much as Diamond Tiara liked going outside and mingling with the peasants. Today was not one of those best of times. Today, the morning felt like triple homicide with a rusty spoon.

“Blaargh…” Rainbow Dash moaned as she cracked a bleary eye open.

“Mornin’ there, sunshine,” came Applejack’s familiar drawl as her familiar, freckled face appeared above the prone flyer. “How yah feelin’?”

Like aching, throbbing death, actually. After six days of constant flying, Rainbow Dash’s body was showing her a whole new world. Of pain. The muscles of her back weren’t just knotted with tension, they were braided, right from the sides of her neck to the top of her tailbone in one continuous strand of cramping agony. Then there was her head.

Never even in the longest training camps had she spent quite so many hours in the air under such draining conditions. The prolonged mana burn plus intense mental focus had started taking a toll on her body, the most notable symptom being a noggin that vacillated from dull, throbbing pain to something akin to gremlins stabbing at her brain with evil little pitchforks.

A combination of Fluttershy’s herbal teas and good rest were usually enough to clear up the symptoms, but it looked like that was no longer the case. After the last two days, Rainbow Dash was starting to seriously consider whether trepanning might be a viable cure for her pounding gourd.

In other words, she didn’t feel very good at all.

“Blaargh,” Rainbow Dash eloquently repeated as she rolled back over and ducked back into her sleeping bag like the world’s angriest burrito.

“Well, you can blaargh all yeh want there, missie,” Applejack shrugged. “I’m jess sayin’ that you’d better get yer rear in gear if yah want any breakfast. Pickins're scarce enough as it is and I ain’t about tah let what we got go tah waste.”

Tough choice. On one hand, Rainbow Dash’s love of sleeping was a very close second to her love of flying. On the other hand, she needed food to continue both her love of flying and sleeping. Only a few minutes up, and her stomach was already rumbling fit enough to wake the dead. So with a few choice grumbles under her stinky morning breath, Rainbow Dash clambered from her bed and stumbled over towards the campfire.

“Morning, Rainbow Dash,” Fluttershy smile, quickly rising from where she sat with the others and handing her friend a tin cup of hot tea. “Here you go. A little moongrass should help with your headache.”

With a nod that managed to be both surly and grateful at the same time, Rainbow Dash took the proffered cup and sipped. Then blinked. It almost tasted like tea, but the mix was so light, it was really hard to taste anything beyond hot water. Fluttershy noticed the flash of surprise and flushed.

“Sorry it’s not much,” she murmured from behind her veil of cherry blossom hair. “We lost more than I realized in the last few days, so I, um…”

“Was thinking like a cold-blooded business shark, yessiree bob!” Pinkie Pie beamed as she threw an arm around the shy one’s shoulders. “That’s what we call budgeting and fiscal responsibility and synergy, I tell you. Why, she’s a regular old tycoon in the making.”

“I hardly think she’s gone that far,” Rarity enjoined with a fond roll of the eyes. “Nevertheless, Pinkie does have a point. Given our present circumstances, it seems that a little belt tightening is just the solution. Plus, it does wonders for you figure.”

“Blaargh,” Rainbow Dash grumbled.

“Blaargh?” Pinkie repeated. The flyer nodded.


Finishing off the weak tea, Rainbow Dash filled up her tin cup with similarly weak soup, dropped in a single stale biscuit, and downed the contents in one, horrifyingly efficient gulp. Far from full – flying like this usually required a half-stack of pancakes dripping with syrup – the cyan-clad athlete nevertheless kept silent and uttered not a word of complaint. After all, it’s not like complaining would help when things were actually starting to look a bit grim, right?

Instead, Rainbow Dash took a seat beside the small fire and turned her attentions to the rest of camp, eyes narrowed as she worked to figure out what was naggling her noodle.

Soon as she’d woken up, Rainbow Dash felt that something was different. It wasn’t anything major like a bloated demon-beast trying to eat them in the dead of night, but even small details could mean the difference between headwind or tailspin. Problem was, everything looked just about the same as always.

Flutters was demurely sipping her hot tea water while watching Egghead Sparkle fiddle with her wand just like an egghead would. The Pinkster was pestering Marshmallows as AJ watched on with open amusement, so that was normal too. The campfire was set up as it always was, their bedrolls formed a small circle a few paces off, and the small stack of supplies they’d salvaged stood in the center, all as per the norm. Everything looked the same, from the logs they used for seats to the lone pot that hung dully gleaming in the faint morning–

Ah, that was it.

“Eeey…” Rainbow Dash coughed, cleared her throat, and traded off caveman grunts for grownup words. “Hey girls, what time is it?”

“Later ‘n usual,” Applejack shrugged. “By the time any of us woke up, sun was already up. That was probably half an hour back afore I went to get you.”

The sun was already up? Now that was odd. Ever since they’d started traveling, they’d never slept a whisker later than the crack of dawn when the marshal had been around. He’d never let them. Like the world’s most unforgiving alarm clock, soon as the first hint of color tinted the horizon, Graves made his rounds, stomping around in those big old boots of his like some drill sergeant with a grudge against beauty rest as he poked and prodded everyone awake and–

“Hold up a sec,” Rainbow Dash frowned as the first oddity gave way to a second. “Where’s Big G?”

From the looks on her friends’ faces, she could see that nobody knew. That’s probably why every face turned to the violet-haired beauty who sat quietly sipping her soup.

“… What?” she blinked. “It’s not like I’ve got him on a leash.”

“Really? Could’ve fooled me,” Applejack grinned.

“Dearest Applejack,” Rarity intoned with a much-too-sweet smile. “I have never been anything if not accommodating of the man’s freedoms. Surely you should give me a little credit in that regards.”

“So, you really have no idea where he is?” Fluttershy asked. Rarity’s violet tresses gently tussled as she gave her head a shake.

“You know how Graves is, disappearing like designer names off a clearance rack and what not. I’m sure that once he’s got his thoughts well and properly sorted, he’ll return before we even know it.”

The smiles from the girls were somewhat on the hopeful side, but still confident overall. True, his return to camp last night had been abrupt to say the least. Even for a man as pithy in words as he, returning after a night and a day with hardly enough words to fill a greeting card was certainly unexpected.

Then again, was there really a need to worry even then? After all, Graves had apparently come back from the dead so many times, he probably had frequent flyer status along the River Styx. It was a probably just a rough patch that would be ironed out after a good night’s sleep.

A cardinal’s chirp rang through the camp.

“It’s about time,” Rainbow Dash grumbled. Standing up, and cracking her thrice twisted spine, she began limbering up for another day of flying. “Don’t know what’s taking him so long, but we’ve got ground to cover.”

“Says the one who snoozed half the day away,” Rarity smiled.

“For your information, that wasn’t snoozing. That was power conservation.”

“Ah, I see,” the fashionista nodded. “And I assume the loud snoring-like noises were merely a deep breathing routine?”

“You got it.”

Like a shadow through fog, Graves suddenly melted from the surrounding landscape and gave the Ponyville girls a start. The underbrush around their camp was hardly waist high at best, so how he’d managed to approach without being spotted was beyond them. And how the hay did he move about so quietly? Seriously, it was like he’d pressed the mute button on his movements or something. People just weren’t supposed to be that quiet.

“Golly, you must be great at Nightmare Night parties,” Pinkie Pie beamed as she turned to face the marshal. “Ever though to trying your and… at…”

In a very rare occurrence, Pinkie actually found herself at a loss for words, as did all the other girls upon actually catching sight of the marshal.

He did not look good. Buttoned up as it had been last night, the morning light revealed that the marshal’s coat was far more ragged and torn than they’d previously thought, no doubt evidence of hard fought battles that had occurred during his absence. Of course, his clothes weren’t the only ones to show wear and tear. Several small cuts already beginning to clot and scar marred cheeks with a complexion more suited to a mortician’s canvas than a living person. It was this pallor that provided such a stark contrast to dark-rings under his eyes, and it was these dark rings that emphasized the most shocking feature of all.

They’d seen hard looks before. They’d seen eyes fit to cleave through stone and bore holes in steel. What they’d never seen before were eyes so devoid of feeling as to look completely and utterly inhuman. That’s what the girls saw. Beyond the appearance of a tatterdemalion shambling from the crypt, they saw a stone-carved death mask set with flat, iron disks, disks that surveyed the group with cold, reptilian intent.

“… Good, you’re up. Pack and on the road in five.”

Eyebrows arched at the statement. It was certainly a very Graves-ish statement, all to the point in its gravelly, baritone rumbles, but the tone was sharper than what they were used to. Much sharper and much harsher as well.

“Morning, dear,” Rarity smiled as she stepped over and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” he nodded. “Twilight Sparkle, how’s the spell map going?”

Now, if eyebrows had arched before, they absolutely shot to the stratosphere with that. Had Graves just… blown Rarity off?

“Twilight Sparkle,” Graves repeated as his voice grew harder, if that was even possible. It was like saying that steel was suddenly sturdier. “I asked you a question.”

“Um… not good,” she started as the cold iron of his voice shocked her back to attention. “Getting a lot of interference – mana resonance seems to be getting worse the farther we progress – so the image is blurry beyond fifty paces.”

Okay, it was official. Graves had definitely blown Rarity off. But before anyone could so much as blink, let alone react with the indignation the situation deserved, Graves had taken off once more and began delivering a litany of orders with the same drive and cadence of a belt-fed chain gun.

“We’re changing formation. Twilight, you take rear and clear tracks as we go. Rarity, you’re point. I’ll leave a trail, you find it and follow. Rainbow Dash, I’m grounding you till you’re needed. Applejack, Fluttershy? Don’t worry about foraging anymore. Not much left to find, so focus on watching our sides. Now hurry up and pack. I want us on the move ten minutes ago.”

Six pairs of very stunned eyes stared at Graves. At least they thought it was Graves. The man certainly looked a great deal like the marshal they all knew, but he’d never been such a cold, relentless person before, had he? Fluttershy, for one, didn’t think so and couldn’t help but recall an entry she’d read on skin walkers. A shape shifter taking his appearance would certainly explain the almost psychotic shift in temperament.

Well, whatever this Graves was, it definitely noticed the lack of response and decided to change that.

“Did I stutter?” he barked. “Move!”

Booming like thunder and snapping like a bullwhip, the marshal’s command produced an almost physiological reaction in all who heard. Before the Ponyville girls realized what had happened, they found themselves jumping to attention and scrambling to clear up the camp like mama was coming in to visit.

Then they paused a moment and realization came.

“Now wait, just a minute, buster!” Pinkie Pie snorted as she rounded on the Graves with soup ladle brandished at the ready. “Just because you’ve got a bajillion years’ more experience at this stuff than us doesn’t mean you get to be so–”

He wasn’t there. Not a leaf rustled to mark the marshal’s silent departure.

“Did– did you see that?” Rarity sputtered, her sapphire eyes wide with shock and disbelief. “He completely ignored me! Me! Now I can understand a curt attitude given the circumstances, but that was just being rude.”

“I hear yah,” Applejack frown as green eyes flashed hotter than raging brushfire. “I get that he’s feelin’ the pressure on account ah things ain’t been so jim dandy recently, but somebody needs to remind him to mind his manners.”

This proposition received much head nodding all around, even from the usually unflappable Fluttershy. See, while folks from Ponyville were the kindest sort you could find and ready to give you the shirts off their back, that didn’t mean they were soft, oh no. Tough as nails with a stubborn streak a country-mile wide, nobody, but nobody pushed Ponyville folk around and got away with it.

Unless the person could disappear like a shade of course. Then, technically, I guess one could push Ponyville folk around and get away with it. I mean, that’s literally what it was, right? But that’s not the point. The point was that as soon as he showed back up, then there wouldn’t be any getting away with anything, of that you could be sure.

So biding time and tempers till the marshal appeared once more, each girl did her part and settled camp as the marshal had ordered. Asked. It was honestly sort of hard to tell.


Chapter 23

Chapter 23

“Alright girls, we’re stopping here for the night.”

“How can you tell?”

At the head of the line, Rarity turned back to Twilight and pointed to three, small pebbles nestled in the branch of a stunted tree, small enough to easily go unnoticed, but too securely fashioned to be anything but intentional.

“That’s the trail sign for marking camp,” she explained, more for the scholar’s curiosity than anything else. “We’ve been following the same signs I marked out before and this one means that it’s a good place to stop for the night.”

“Meh, don’t have to tell me twice,” Rainbow Dash grunted as she tossed off her pack. “My feet are killing me!”

“Aw, are yer little piggies cryin’ wee wee after a little day’s walk?” Applejack cooed.

“Oh my, does it hurt really bad?” Fluttershy murmured as she danced about in a nervous tizzy. “I know you’re more used to flying, Rainbow Dash. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Chill out, Flutters,” Rainbow Dash said as she popped off a boot and wiggled her toes about. “Just need to let them air out for a bit.”

“Uh, you might want to hold off till after we’ve got everything set up,” Twilight Sparkle frowned, less from concern and more from her friend’s lack of decorum. “The last thing you want is to stub a toe in the dark.”

“Sure thing, mom,” Rainbow Dash grinned. “Should I wash my hands before dinner, too?”

“Yes, yes you should,” Twilight sniffed. “And do it well, or no dessert for you.”

The jokes came from spirits considerably raised after a long, but uneventful day’s travel. With a quarter of their supplies remaining and an extra back to carry them, the burdens each girl bore were considerably lighter and made for better progress. Though fatigue steadily mounted as the days began ringing their toll, having all their friends together makes even the toughest roads more bearable. In fact, with Rarity at the head and reading the trail – a knotted blade of grass here, a broken twig that formed a surreptitious arrow there – the day’s trip had been almost easy.

Thus, the evening sun set on a camp that, while low on food and shelter, was abundantly supplied with good humor and cheer. Not that they forgot about the food of course.

“Hey Applejack,” Pinkie Pie called from over the fire pit. “Did you and Flutters manage to pick up anything for dinner tonight?”

“Not much tah speak of,” Applejack grimaced. Tugging off a side satchel and turning it over, a small handful of stringy beans and some nuts tumbled out. “Much as I hate tah admit it, the marshal was right. There didn’t seem tah be much growin’ in these woods. Nothin’ worth makin’ grub of, anyway.”

You can’t get water from a stone, and that’s about all they could hope for as the lands grew increasingly barren around them. While the same monolithic trees surrounded them at every step, the gravelly soil steadily choked off the underlying greenery till shrubs and grass gave way to boulders and stone.

Twilight had said something about mana toxicity from increasing ambient energy in the air, but nobody had understood much of the explanation. Rainbow Dash thought it was due to increased elevation. Though their journey thus far had involved numerous ups and downs from traversing the broken landscape, this day’s trail had steadily trended towards the upward. Every time they’d crested one of those stony hills, it seemed that it was only to discover an even bigger one behind it.

Whatever the cause, vegetation had slowly dwindled out as boulders and gravel grew up in their place. Applejack had kept at her foraging efforts, trying to find some things to fill their bellies, but her rewards had been scant. In truth, the only reason she’d kept as long as she did was an unwillingness to admit that Graves was right. Not that’d she’d tell anyone, of course, but still.

“Now I’m all for modest meals,” Rarity said with pursed lips, “but even I must admit that these are rather on the scant side.”

“I know, right?” Applejack frowned. “I guess we could sort a stew it all together with some of them staler biscuits we’ve got, but it ain’t exactly gonna fill us up all the way, not after all that hoofin’ we’ve been doin’.”

“Then use this.”

Applejack yelped and nearly popped out of her boots.

“Land sakes, don’t do that!” she huffed, rounding on the suddenly present marshal full of righteous indignation. “You can’t jess go poppin’ up like a prairie gopher behind people’s backs, marshal. Done near gave me a heart attack.”

From the way Graves pulled off a satchel of his own, it didn’t seem like he’d heard a word she said.

“Hunted some stuff for dinner. It doesn’t taste that good, but it’ll keep you moving. Once you finish, lights out and rest. I’ll return at dawn, then it’s back on our feet.”


“Oh, and Rainbow Dash,” he continued, completely steamrolling Applejack with his unrelenting pace. “Prep your wings. You fly when I give the signal.”


Graves paused as eyelids blinked over flat, iron disks.

“No?” he repeated, his voice dangerously calm as he turned to face the flyer.

“You heard me,” Rainbow Dash frowned, an expression that she told herself was due to indignation and not a mask for apprehension. Honestly, how could anyone’s eyes be so freaking cold? “I’m all for helping out and what not, but there’s no need to be a jerk about asking, you know.”

Cogs slowly clicked their way into place.

“You seem to be confused, Miss Rainbow Dash,” Graves pronounced as he seemed to loom larger with every clipped word. “I wasn’t asking. I was ordering. And when I give you an order. You. Listen. Got it?”

“Now hold on there jess a second,” Applejack interjected as she jumped to her friend’s aid. “Last time I checked, the Princess and ol’ Ironside put Twilight in charge, not you. If anyone’s gonna be a bossy pants around here, it’s gonna be the expert over here. No offense, Twilight.”

“None… taken?” Twilight blinked. However, before she had enough time to decide whether to be indignant or not, the marshal turned his unyielding gaze onto her. Even as she swallowed her apprehension, some part of her marveled at the almost physical feel of increased gravity produced solely from psychological pressure.

“Twilight is in charge,” he nodded, eyes never wavering from the girl in question. “And if she’s got any sense about her, she’ll let me do my job without wasting time with backtalk. Nobody wants another fiasco like before. Right?”

The young mage swallowed the lump in her throat as she stared up at the imposing figure. You could have honed a knife’s blade against the planes of his face.

“R-right. Whatever you say.”

“What?!” Though Rainbow Dash and Applejack vocalized the concerns of the rest, Graves stamped down on dissent as he would on a struggling grub.

“Wings prepped, Rainbow Dash. The rest of you, same orders. Any questions?”

Oh, there were questions alright, but not for Graves. All eyes turned to Twilight as they asked the same question. But Twilight said nothing else and merely returned a small nod. Without a moment’s pause, Graves turned and vanished into the evening shadows.

“Okay, sparkle butt, what the buck was that all about?!” Rainbow Dash asked anew once the marshal’s departure made breathing about ten thousand feet of elevation easier. “You’re just gonna let him walk all over you like that?”

“Well, he does sort of have a point, you know?”

All eyes turned to Twilight Sparkle like she’d just declared books to be too old-fashioned for use.

“Okay, is everythin’ all right in that gourd of yours?” Applejack asked with more than a little look of concern for her friend’s possibly fever ridden brain. “You’re saying you actually think it’s okay for Graves to act like that?”

“I’ll admit, his approach was certainly rough,” Twilight conceded with a wince, “but I also think that maybe we need to change up how we do things. We hit a rough patch recently, and who would know better about getting out of rough spots than Graves?”

“That’s… true,” Applejack grudgingly grumbled. “Still, I don’t much like the way he came about it, all high ‘n mighty an orderin’ us around like we’re his henchmen, yah know?”

“I know, I know,” Twilight wholeheartedly agreed. “But we have to remember that Graves is a soldier. That’s probably how all of them talk in the field so maybe he’s just slipping back into old habits? The point is, he’s probably just thinking in terms of following orders and working fast. Those aren’t exactly bad, right?”

The girls didn’t want to admit it, but Twilight did make a sort of unpleasant sense.

“I get that it’s not the most comfortable,” she continued, clearly recognizing the discomfort of her friends, “but I’ll be bet he really does know what he’s doing, a lot more than any of us, anyway. That’s why – now this is just my opinion – but maybe… maybe we should just follow his lead, you know? Just let him do what he thinks he has to.”

“… Alright, I can live with that,” Applejack grudgingly nodded as she stared green-eyed disapproval at the space Graves had just vacated. “But what I can’t abide is his manners. Hay, I was raised in a barn and even I don’t act like that.”

“I agree!” Rainbow Dash snorted. “I mean, just where does he get off with that sort of high flying sass?”

Though there was a veritable mine of comedy gold in that statement, Twilight Sparkle thought it best to avoid digging given her friend’s already incensed attitude.

“He’s probably got a lot on his mind,” Twilight Sparkle answered, her soothing smile a poor salve for her friend’s wounded pride. “It can’t have been easy staying ahead of us and marking our trail all while hunting and not being hunted by other predators, right?”

“Tch, can’t be that hard,” Rainbow Dash snorted. “If it were, he’d be asking us for help. I mean, there are seven of us, right? Only reason he’s doing it all on his lonesome’s ‘cause he just likes it that way.”

“Now that’s not fair and you know it,” Twilight Sparkle admonished. “Graves has been doing everything he can to keep us safe and it’s not right for us to criticize his methods.”

“I don’t know,” Pinkie Pie intoned. “I like to think that I know some really good jokes–”

“You certainly do,” Fluttershy agreed, all earnest encouragement.

“–but if I mix up the punchline or kerfluffle the delivery, it ends up being about as funny as soggy toast, which let me tell you, isn’t funny at all. You feels me, Twilight? You feels me?”

“Um… no?”

“I… think what the Pinkster’s saying,” Rainbow Dash hesitantly proffered, “is that it doesn’t matter how good you know something if you don’t do it well.”

“And how,” Applejack heartily agreed as she turned to face Twilight Sparkle. “Now don’t get me wrong, I reckon that Graves knows heaps about bein’ a soldier an’ all, but that don’t mean he knows how to be a good leader. I mean, talkin’ like yer the biggest bull in the pen don’t motivate folks; it jess makes ‘em madder than the biggest bull in the pen. Graves don’t seem to know how to do otherwise, so maybe… maybe that’s why Celestia put you in charge instead of him.”

“She did say that! She totally said that!” Pinkie Pie eagerly agreed.


“All we’re saying is that somebody’s got to be in charge and we don’t think it should be Graves,” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “What do you think, Sparkles? Yes or no?”

Twilight looked to each of the girls in question, the expression on her face reminiscent of the time she’d gotten a multiple choice questions to a precisely fifty-fifty chance. Amethyst eyes flashed with uncertainty as she pensively bit her lower lip.

“I think…” Twilight Sparkle swallowed and continued, hoping the pause made her sound surer than she felt. “I think we should bear with Graves for now. He may be rough, but he still knows what needs to be done.”

The reactions from the girls were as varied as they were unreadable. Applejack looked over to Rainbow Dash and shared a brief, wordless conversation. In the end, she sighed, straightened her Stetson, and gave her friend the best encouraging grin she could muster.

“If that’s what you figure.”


Dinner that night was a quiet affair as all good humor seemed to have disappeared with the sun. True to his word, the long, pale fillets Graves provided tasted fairly awful; astringent and acrid, the meat had a faint taste of bile that wouldn’t go away no matter how long it stewed. However, it was enough to fill their stomachs at least, so it was with a bitter sort of satisfaction that the girls went to bed.

Coals banked and camp secured, the darkness of a starless sky settled as weariness quickly pulled the girls into dreamless sleep. For some, however, sleep did not come quite so easily.

“Twilight,” a soft, melodious voice called. “Are you awake?”

“What is it, Rarity?”

“I just wanted to know if you were feeling alright.”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

With the darkness around them, the reply would have been completely convincing if not for the slight pause that came before.

“It’s just… you seemed a little out of sorts in your response,” Rarity quietly said. “Usually, I would never have expected you to take such a passive course of action.”

“Rarity, going along with Graves is anything but passive,” Twilight giggled.

“I agree,” the seamstress smiled. “But the going along part is, wouldn’t you agree?”

“He knows what he’s doing. Why shouldn’t I take his advice?”

“Oh, you certainly should,” Rarity quickly agreed. “But there’s a big difference in accounting for a customer’s requests and giving them run of the shop. You should be quite familiar with the concept.”

“Please, don’t remind me,” Twilight groaned.

“I see the statement stands," Rarity giggled before her voice fell to more somber tones. “My point being, Twilight Sparkle, is that you’ve always been a girl of action. When you saw problems, you went out there, did your homework, and came up with a solution to see that problem resolved. Of course, you always considered the advice of friends and confidants, but you never relied on them to act for you. When did that change?”

Rarity waited for a response. In fact, she waited so long that she started to wonder whether Twilight Sparkle had accidentally fallen asleep.

The almost whispered reply proved that she hadn’t.

“Let’s say you… made a dress for a customer, and you put on a long, flowing train because you thought it’d look nice,” Twilight began as her voice quietly drifted through the dark. “The customer wasn’t sure she wanted it and actually thought it might be best to take it off. But you told the customer that the dress simply had to have it and they leave it on. Then one day, the customer wears your dress, trips on the train, falls, and breaks her arm. How would you feel about trains from then on out?”

Now it was the scholar’s turn to wait for a response.

“… Twilight, darling,” Rarity began, concern obvious in her voice. “You can’t blame yourself if you– your customer trips on the dress you made. Why, if might have happened whether or not you added the train at all.”

“But we don’t know that,” Twilight countered. “All we know for certain is that we wanted to put a train on the dress, the customer didn’t, and that our decision to include it anyway resulted in someone to get hurt. Am I still supposed to insist on adding them on for my own stupid ideals even when they might hurt my customers more?”


“If you believe that your final vision requires it, then yes. Even if your customer disagrees, you can’t just leave your creation unfinished. I mean, if you didn’t care to see it done right, why did you even start it in the first place?”

“Maybe you didn’t have a choice,” Twilight chuckled dryly. “Maybe the customer was a client you just couldn’t refuse.”

“We always have a choice,” Rarity said, her words soft and sad. “That’s why we have to choose to believe in our vision.”


Rarity heard her friend swallow. When Twilight spoke once more, her voice was so fragile, it could have shattered under a spider’s breath.

“Then… what happens when you don’t believe anymore? What if you don’t even know whether your vision is right?”

Rarity wanted to give an answer. She really did. But silence fell and kept its reign till the sun rose again.


Chapter 24

Chapter 24

“Get up. It’s time to move.”

True to his words, Graves returned with the first rays of dawn. A few nudges of his boots, a few curt instructions, and he was gone before the first girl got out of the covers.

Words were sparing that morning. Though nobody outright disagreed with Twilight’s decision from the night before, it was clear that nobody was actually happy with the solution. Regardless of how good Graves may have been at this soldiering business, giving him a free pass on simply appalling behavior rankled everyone a something fierce. For Ponyville folk, right results with wrong means was still wrong.

Breakfast didn’t help much either. Upon finding the pot bubbling over a fresh fire, Applejack had been the first to discover that much like yesterday, the contents edible in a much more technical sense of the word. They managed to identify some sort of… fish?... along with various plants that looked more suited for a fantasy game manual than a meal. Beyond that, it was probably best that their questions went unanswered.

Once everything had been consumed – yet another of the marshal’s orders – the girls cleared camp and set off once more. Rarity led the way and read their trail as Twilight cleared the tracks from behind. Through the morning, they traveled along the increasingly steep slopes. What little vegetation that remained soon disappeared entirely to leaven nothing but the massive trunks of twisted trees. Then those disappeared as well.

One moment, they were under the dark green canopies as usual and the next, it was open, slate grey sky as trees abruptly ended behind a razor-drawn line. The girls had been so focused on their footing over the rough terrain that they never even realized they’d finally, after a week’s arduous travel, finally made it through the Savage Land’s forests.

“Well butter my buns and call me a biscuit, we actually made it!” From a gape of disbelief, Applejack’s smile burst forth like the first apple blossom of summer. “Darn near wet mahself more times ‘n I can count in them woods, but we actually made it out!”

“Best. Day. Ever!” Pinkie Pie squealed as she leaped about on a serial hugging spree. “And you know what the best day ever needs?”

“Um… a party?” Fluttershy offered. The bubbly baker’s eyebrows disappeared behind her curly bangs.

“Flutters! You can read minds?!”

“Yeah, hate to be the one who rains all over this parade,” Rainbow Dash interjected, “but you might not wanna pop out the confetti just yet. You… don’t actually have confetti… do you?”

“It’s a secret,” Pinkie Pie answered smugly before she crossed her arms in challenge. “And give me one reason why I shouldn’t start a party right here and now.”

Following the flyer’s finger, Pinkie, Fluttershy, and Applejack turned around to look at where it pointed.

“Hoowee,” Applejack whistled as she craned her neck upwards. And upwards. And upwards. “This ain’t gonna be no walk in the orchard, I can tell you that.”

Mountain. Lots of them, if the wall they faced could even be called that. Instead of the gentle slopes of the Crystal Mountains or even the steeper inclines of the Snowspires, the girls now faced a solid wall of sheer, stony spikes. Each peak stabbed from the ground like a great, earthen fang as dozens, if not hundreds overlapped to form a titanic maw that sought to devour the skies themselves.

The girls may have made it through the forests, but that was only to reach the very heart of the Savage Lands itself.

“Oh my,” Fluttershy gaped as she stared up at the imposing sierra before them. “I uh, don’t suppose there’s a nice, safe, in-no-ways-having-to-go-over-those-incredibly-scary-mountains path we could take?”

“You know, I still don’t get that,” Rainbow Dash frowned. “You’ve got wings. You were born in Cloudsdale. How the hay can you still be afraid of heights?”

“That’s actually not a bad question,” Twilight said, finger tapping against her chin before turning to the marshal. “I meant Fluttershy’s, not Rainbow’s. What would be the best way to get through?”

“Nonstop and straight ahead.”

Everyone jumped as the voice suddenly popped up from thin air before Graves materialized a moment later. Tattered as his long, leather coat was, it blended seamlessly with the rough ground around them as he seemed to melt out from the very earth itself. It was somehow even more disconcerting of an entrance than simply appearing from thin air.

“Rainbow Dash, you’re flying.” he began, instantly jumping into the rapid fire orders he’d delivered in days prior. “I want high level aerial recon of the upcoming terrain. Report back every twenty minutes on the dot, got it?”

Rainbow muttered something under her breath. It was quiet, but not to avoid detection by the marshal’s keep ears.

“You have something to say?” the marshal asked, eyes as flat and dead as ever.

“Yeah, yeah I do,” Rainbow Dash snorted as she crossed her arms and planted feet in defiance. “You wanna give orders? Fine. Sparkle Butt wants to give you first flier spot? Whatever. But how’s about not barking at me like I’m some sort of scrub? The least you could do is say please or something, you know?”

Gunmetal grey eyes grew darker as something new entered their steely depths.

“You will start flying now and stop wasting my time. Is that clear?”

Crystal couldn’t have been clearer nor colder, but Rainbow Dash wasn’t finish yet. At least, that’s what she tried to tell herself. In the air as much as on foot, it was easy for her to forget she only came chest-high to the marshal. But standing before him now, with the weight of those eyes crushing down on her, it was easy to imagine his height being twice what it was. She stood her ground and stared back, but couldn’t hide the nervous gulp that came from the effort. Honestly, it was like flying with a training vest in a hurricane.

“I think what she means, Graves,” Twilight jumped in hastily, “is that instead of just telling us what to do, maybe you could share a little with us? Help us understand what’s going on?”

Surely, that was a reasonable request, right? They were just asking for a little information, a sort of balance between the marshal’s absolute instructions and their Ponyville sensibilities. Surely, Graves couldn’t possibly deny them that, right?

Already dim eyes grew just a little darker.

“You want reasons? Fine.”

Spinning on his heels, Graves set out and began to pace the stony slope.

“Ever wondered why Nul’s presence has been so light?” he asked, at ease only in the way a hunting lion was at ease while it stalked some unseen prey. “Funny how it works, right? We’re here to fix a broken seal, but nothing’s been coming out to speak of. Why do you think that is?”

“Er… lucky draw?” Applejack offered. The marshal’s chuckle could have been crumbling rock for how human it sounded.

“Luck had nothing to do with those,” he rumbled as a ragged sleeve rose towards the mountains. “Wasn’t till I poked around that I realized something. Those mountains? They’ve been keeping back Nul’s miasma from the very start.”

“But… that’s a good thing, right?” Fluttershy squeaked, visibly trembling as she sought to placate the marshal. Though the marshal looked calm and composed, a sixth sense of hers told Fluttershy that danger was looming as surely as when signaled by a bull stamping its hooves. “I mean, if all the poison’s locked away, then there’s no problem for us, right?”

“Not till now, it wasn’t,” Graves intoned as dull grey eyes continued to pan over the rocky slopes. “But the seal’s smack in the middle of those mountains. Now think for a minute. If the mountains are holding back the tides, then what are we gonna be wading through as soon as we set foot in those crags?”

Eyes slowly began to widen as realization dawned.

“Exactly,” Graves chuckled as his stalking search continued. “Every lowland, valley, and impasse could very well be flooded with the stuff by now. So if it’s not too much trouble for Rainbow Dash here, I’d really appreciate a little intel for once.”

His words should have been dripping with caustic sarcasm. Were he actually the panther that he looked to be, his tail should have been bristling to match a rising fire in his iron eyes. But there was nothing, and it was that unnatural, inhuman stillness that had the girls wondering whether the marshal had snapped.

“I see,” Twilight answered with a nervous smile. “Well, thank you very much for that explanation, Graves. It was… very helpful.”

“Yeah, works for me,” Rainbow Dash replied as she quickly worked to get her flying rig on. “You want eyes in the sky, you got it. Just give me a second and–”

“I’m not finished.”

Those words, spoken with deathly calm, rooted the young athlete in place like rusted manacles.

“There’s pooling alright,” Graves continued as eyes glinted a little more sharply. “But that’s not all. See, Nul’s miasma doesn’t just sit. It corrodes, eating away at things like a powerful acid. It pools at first, of course, but when it does, it starts carving its own paths. Nasty little channels, all through the mountains.”

“Nasty, gotcha,” Applejack hastily nodded, almost knocking off her Stetson in the process. “Don’t worry, we’ll–”

“Don’t worry? If you’re not worrying, you’re a fool. If you’re not worrying, it’s only because you don’t realize you’re standing on eggshells.”

The prey was found.

Unslinging his rifle, Graves raised the gun and fired a thin, crackling blast of lightning towards a random plot of ground. Of course, it only looked random to all eyes but those of the hunter who sought it. The magical bolt struck earth, melted stone to slag, and then…

Darkness erupted. From the neatly punctured hole, a geyser of darker-than-night mist sprung forth not ten paces from where the Ponyville troop stood.

Up till now, the miasma had been more of an idea to the girls, a sort of conceptual symbol of what it was they fought against. None of them had ever encountered it before, so none had ever seen the pitch black depths that seemed to devour the ambient light nor smelled the prickling, burning scent of madness and decay that wafted from its midst. The first impression was such a striking one that none of them thought to move even as the mist settled into streams of dense fog and began to trickle towards them.

“It’s already below us,” Graves continued, eyes locked on the streams of darkness before them. “For years now, it’s been eating its way through those mountains, worrying out the insides like termites through wood. Of course, we’ve got to worry about the obvious sources, but it’s the unseen threats that get you ever time. One little misstep, and boom. Into the drink before you can say cannonball.”

At this, the marshal twitched as a new thought arose.

“That’s right. You all don’t know what happens with miasma, do you?”


Twilight’s nervous call fell on deaf ears as Graves kicked over a stone. Kneeling down, the marshal’s blistered hands snatched up a small beetle before it could skitter back to safety. One quick look over, and he tossed it into the black.

“Graves! What are you doing?!” Fluttershy shrieked in dismay.

“Answering your questions,” he replied, absolutely no inflection to his words. “You all wanted to know why I needed a little cooperation so badly? There it is.”

Out from the miasma’s current, the beetle emerged. Only, it wasn’t a beetle any longer. Right before their very eyes, an insect once no bigger than a thumbnail quickly swelled till it was well over a foot in length. As it grew, the bug’s body distorted. Knotty spikes and growths exploded from its carapace like angry tumors as extra limbs sprouted out at grotesque new angles. Mandibles, far outpacing the growth of the body, expanded till its chittering mouth was flanked by twin, serrated knives. And all over, colors darkened and faded till the creature was black as the miasma.

Inky mist pulsing out with every breath, the giant insect now rounded on the girls, the stink of madness wafting from its pores as it fixed deranged, compound eyes on all of them at once. With minds reeling from the impossible scene they’d just witnessed, none of the girls were prepared for what happened next.

Chitin cracked with a sickening crunch as the beetle ripped open its own carapace to extend pace long, bloated wings. Snapping the slime from their spans, the distorted insect almost seemed to be grinning as it opened its razor maws wide and launched itself at the girls. With little more than hunger on its mind, the beetle closed the ten paced faster than a blink and prepared for its meal.

A blink was more than enough time. Flowing like water over river stones, Graves whipped forth his silver knife and thrust upwards to impale the beetle through its abdomen with a single, neat strike. Shrieking as certainly no earthly creature ever had, the beetle screeched its death rattle as Graves planted boot to it and pulled his blade out with a wet slick. Inky ichor leaked out and with a final twitch of its dozen of legs, the beetle lay still.

“Any questions?” Graves asked as he calmly pulled out a dirty bandage and wiped his blade clean. “No? Then move.”

Without another word, without a moment’s hesitation, the marshal turned and melted into the landscape to disappear from view. Unlike the times before, however, his departure left the girls in a decidedly different mood than before.

They’d been angry with Graves before. They’d been confused by his actions, hurt by his attitude, and had considered feeding him his own hat on more than one occasion. But even through all of that, they’d held on to the belief that whatever it was he did, it was for the sake of his mission, for the sake of keeping them safe.

But what were you supposed to think of a man who’d nearly loosed a bloodthirsty monster on you just to make a point? True, they had asked for answers, but that response had been colder and harder than permafrost from the deepest north. With a reaction so completely devoid of human warmth and empathy, the girls silently wondered whether the threat of madness came only from outside.

They began their travels once more, now with dazed expressions and shaken steps. One girl, however, noted all of these things: every glance, every gesture, and every expression. With sapphire eyes clear as a summer sky, it was with the heaviest steps of all that she walked on as well.


All was pitch black when Graves returned to camp that evening, quiet as moon shadow in the dead of night. Silver eyes glinted in the dark as the marshal cast sight around. The fire was properly banked, their meager supplies stood protected, and six girls peacefully slept after yet another arduous day’s work. Or so he thought.

“Welcome back, dear.”

Even in the darkness, Rarity caught the faint twitch of surprise that seized his body. Despite the light colored linens she wore, he hadn’t noticed her as she’d quietly sat on the edge of camp. That was worth noting.

“How’d you know?”

“That you’d arrived?” she asked. “Personal warding spell. Prepared one that would wake me upon your return.”


“Because I missed you.”

Graves paused for a moment. When he spoke, the words came out harshly soft, like rough gravel stirred up by a dry and dusty wind.

“Just checking on things. Won’t stay long.”

“In that case, you can sit down and have a bite to eat,” Rarity nodded as she swept up and took him by the arm. “Even a marshal can’t run on bluster and bravado alone.”

Though the lady’s arms were far more slender than his, they brooked no question and easily tugged Graves along to take a seat by the campfire. Stirring up the few coals that remained, Rarity added a faint trickle of magic – very carefully lest the ambient mana explode in her face – and warmed up the remnants of the kettle. There wasn’t very much as even the marshal’s hunting had yielded little from the barren crags, but it was enough for at least one warm tin at least. This, she handed to Graves who received it with a wordless nod.

As he ate, Rarity sat down next to him and quietly watched as he meticulously spooned up the meal and consumed it with slow, mechanical bites. Perhaps unconsciously, Graves straightened up where he sat, doing his best to give off the sense of immovable strength he always had. However, it simply wasn’t enough to escape those searching sapphire eyes.

He was tired. She could see it in the subtle sag of his broad shoulders and the weary droop of his raven-haired head. She could hear it in the shallow breaths he took that hardly distended his chest. She could feel it in the lean stare of dull eyes that peered out from hard-hewn planes of a grimly set face. Hard as his gaze was and cold as his words were, he was still a being of flesh and blood, one that was coming to the end of its rope.

“How are the girls?” Graves asked quietly as he took another careful bite. “They still holding up?”

“For the most part,” Rarity nodded. “The break from flying seems to have helped Rainbow Dash recover, and having her share the supply load has helped Fluttershy as well. We’re holding on.”

Silently, Graves nodded as he continued his meal. Rarity noted the silence and a tender look came to her eyes.

“I know why you’re doing it,” she said softly.

“It’s my job,” he grunted. “Course you know.” But his response drew a shake of violet tresses.

“Not that part. I mean, I understand that too, but I was talking about your display.”

There was no halt in the marshal’s movements.

“I understand why you did it,” Rarity resumed as she gently placed a hand on his knee. “You wanted to shock them, get them to obey you like good little soldiers. Isn’t that right?”

Graves set the empty tin aside.

“You disagree?” he asked, turning to face the young lady. She shook her head.

“I understand, but I don’t agree,” Rarity quietly confirmed. “You can’t force them into obedience by turning yourself into the enemy.”

“It worked,” Graves stated. “They’re listening. That means they’ll live.”

“But for how long?” Rarity challenged as concern laced into her words. “Your methods may work for military men, but I somehow doubt that, and we are far from military men. If you keep up this heavy-handed approach, sooner or later it’s going to come back to bite you.”

“Wouldn’t be the first thing,” Graves chuckled, sounding very pleased with his own little joke. “But as long as we make it, that’s fine by me.”

“Even if it means losing them in the process?”

Rarity knew that Graves wasn’t a stupid man. He had to have seen how they looked at him now, how those gazes grew resentful, even fearful of his presence as his own actions pushed them further and further away. She knew that those looks must have cut deeper than any wound to his body; after all, how many families could a man bear to lose in a single lifetime?

“If they’re still around to hate me,” Graves shrugged, “then it’s a fair trade. Long as they’re still around.”

At that moment, the first sign of the marshal’s humanity returned, but only in the form of exhaustion. His words sounded so worn and bone wearily tired, that Rarity almost burst into tears upon hearing them, even more so because she knew that he meant them. As much as it hurt, Graves would do it anyway. He would do anything he had to, anything he could to make sure they stayed alive, and it was that absolute willingness to act that frightened Rarity the most.

“Time for me to head out,” Graves grunted as he forced himself to his feet, all stone masks and iron eyes once more. Settling his broad, flat-brimmed hat around his head, the marshal shouldered up his spell gun and set out towards the edge of camp, but not before Rarity called out once more.

“You’re not alone, Graves,” she said, whether to convince him or herself, she couldn’t really say. Nevertheless, it had to be said. “You don’t have to do this all on your own.”

The soldier paused on the edge of the fire light and heaved a long, weary sigh.

“Sometimes, I wish I could."

“You can’t possibly mean that,” Rarity replied as she did her best to hide the horrified shock from her face. “We’re your friends. We–”

“I don’t need friends,” the marshal snapped, his voice hardly rising, but the venomous bite in his tone enough to kill the lady’s protests dead. “What I need are people that can fight and carry their weight in this god-forsaken land.”

“W-well, we can–”

“What, what exactly can you all do?” Graves pressed on with eyes flashing molten steel in the ember’s glow. “Make me laugh while a rakshasa pulls the heart from my chest? Maybe give a nice lecture to the mara as it tears the flesh from our bones? Kindly ask a shade to not to rot your soul with its touch? I could go on and on about what’s living in these mountains alone, so tell me, Rarity, what exactly can my friends do?”

She wanted to answer. She needed to answer. But as eloquent as she prided herself on being, the force of the marshal’s question made this moment where Rarity was left woefully and painfully speechless. After all, what could she really say? What theoretical solutions could she offer to combat the horrors Graves had actually seen? Rarity honestly didn’t know and it was with stricken eyes that she returned the marshal’s unblinking gaze.

“… You pay one price to avoid the other,” Graves said softy, almost murmuring in thought to himself as he fingered the heavy ring he wore on his right hand. “And since no one else can ante up, guess that means I’m stuck with the bill.”

Giving himself a little shake, Graves turned around, stepped from the circle of light, and disappeared into the night once more.


Chapter 25

Chapter 25

Picking carefully across rough stone and cavernous crags, the Ponyville troop slowly snaked its way up the mountains. Progress was made, but only at a painfully sluggish pace, with much faltering and backtracking as they clambered along the murderously steep slope. Each step was often checked twice, if not three times apiece because par for the marshal’s predictions, the terrain proved far more treacherous than even its imposing vista would lead you to believe.

There was never any warning for when the ground would often simply crumble away. One misplaced footstep could trigger sudden landslides that sealed off their advance and force yet another scrambling detour to find an unimpeded path. And those were only the inconveniences. More often than they cared to think of, unstable soil gave way to sinkholes full of roiling black mist, and it was only with quick lunges and a strained grasps had kept the girls from taking a fatal plunge.

By midday, with their advance as meager as ever, it was a disheartened group of five that took rest in a narrow crevasse, heads drooped low and tongues stilled from more than the marshal’s order of silence. Climbing the mountain would have been difficult enough, but it was the mental strain of constant worry and vigilance that weighed heaviest of all. In between mechanical bites of their final scraps of bread and cheese, the girls let their minds wander for what little reprieve it would bring.

Melting forth from stone, Graves took a seat apart from the girls and disassembled his spell gun.

“How’s it going?” he asked as he pulled a small twig forth and scrapped dried gore from his gun chassis.

“We allowed to talk now?” Applejack asked with a faint flash of defiance. Rarity pursed her lips in distaste.

“Applejack, please,” she sighed. “We’re all tired here. No need to make things worse.”

“I’m not the one who made it worse,” the freckled farm girl replied sullenly. Nevertheless, she took her friend’s words to heart and settled back into resolute silence. Rarity shot Graves a pointed look, half concern, half admonishment for him to say something. He didn’t respond and instead continued to clean his gun.

Though Applejack was showing the first signs of resistance, the others had not followed suit. Twilight considered the situation with a frown, but said nothing and Pinkie Pie had ballooned her cheeks with similar silence. Fluttershy, of course, had hidden behind her veil of cherry blossom hair. For now, they listened, and that was key. Soften his stance now, and who knows what could happen. It was a precarious balance and would probably last a few more days at most, but that was all he needed.

By now, they were probably a quarter, maybe a third of the way through the mountains. In a few more days, they’d be through those forsaken crags and there’d no need for obedience. They could hate on him all they wanted because his role would be finished. All he needed was a few more–

It wasn’t until he heard the rhythmic humming of spell wings announce Rainbow Dash’s return that Graves realized his mind had been wandering, as it had been doing far too often of late. Giving his head a quick shake, the marshal redoubled his efforts on cleaning his weapon. Had to stay focused.

“How does it look?” Twilight asked as she handed one of their few canteens of water to the cyan clad flyer. Rainbow Dash took a grateful gulp, but stopped well short of emptying it. Despite the strains of constant mana burn from flying, she still couldn’t bring herself to put personal needs before friends.

“So we’ve got a choice,” she said as she fell heavily to a nearby stone to rest. As she sat, though, she extended a finger to draw a crude map in the mountain dust. “Follow this trail up further and we’ll hit a fork. Left takes us towards a winding climb, nothing special and relatively clear. Right pulls us up against a river canyon. It’s pretty narrow, and the fall’s a doozy, but it’s a much straighter shot to the top if we can get across.”

Twilight nodded as she considered the map. Obviously, the winding path was the safer choice, but it was also the more time consuming one. Still, it was better to err on the side of caution, right? But what if the cautious action was to pick up the pace and get to the end as fast as possible? In that case, caution would be dangerous as well.

The girls turned to Twilight Sparkle, waiting for her decision. For a moment, she hesitated, torn by indecision. It was during that hesitation that Graves spoke.

“Rainbow Dash, stay with the group. We’re going right.”

For him, the choice was easy as even a casual glance showed that time was not on their side. Rarity’s usually fair skin had gone pale much in the same way as Fluttershy’s. The grim set to Applejack’s mouth clearly belied efforts to keep weariness from showing. Even Pinkie Pie, usually so jubilant and full of life, could only muster a slight smile at the best of times, one that hung under pink curls no longer quite so perky or bright.

Graves saw these signs, and perhaps the girls saw it too. But what stood out most was the harshness of his orders as they fell on their ears.

“Welp, y’all heard him,” Applejack called out as she sent the marshal an unusually calm and level look. “Let’s hop to it and shake up a little dust.”

Without words, but with a few similar glances back at the marshal, the girls rose to move out again. Rarity gave him a wordless plea, practically begging him to change his mind, but the hard set of his gunmetal grey eyes never faltered as he reassembled his weapon and stood. When you only had one path to take, you stuck with it even if it was paved with daggers.

All he had to do was last the next few days.


They followed the trail, pausing when necessary to check for disturbed stone as they wound their way through the crevasse that grew steadily deeper. It took a good hour of careful trekking before they found the fork and several more hours of walking before they came to the pass Rainbow had mentioned. However, as the sun began to sink and painted the mountains with blazing, burnished bronze, they finally escaped the crevasse and found the canyon they sought.

As if cleaved off by the axe of a giant, the stony wall to their right simply vanished, plummeting a good forty paces straight down to rushing, whitewater rapids below. Funneled between their path and the steep face of another mountain over, the surging currents surged between their stone boundaries before roaring underground into whatever stygian caverns lay below. In comparison, the scant, pace-wide path that wound along the cliff before them seemed a decidedly unreliable path above such watery force.

“Oh boy,” Twilight murmured as she peered over the edge towards the river below. “Wished you’d been just a teeny bit more descriptive when you mentioned this earlier, Dash.”

“Eh, words are for squares,” Rainbow Dash shrugged from where she walked behind. “Come on, you just need to follow this path till it the walls come together and hop over.”

“Um… hop over?” Fluttershy squeaked.

“Oh yeah, I guess I forgot to mention,” the colorful flyer winced. “If we wanna keep going, we’re gonna have to make it to the other side.”

Several eyes turned to Rainbow Dash with mixed expressions ranging from puzzlement to furious indignation. That might have been an important detail that she could have mentioned before they’d come all the way out here.

“Keep going,” Graves said as he appeared once more. “We’re getting across.”

The looks given the marshal were not very trusting by any stretch of the word. Nevertheless, between the prospect of spending hours backtracking and moving on, Twilight lead the way as the group traversed the narrow cliff side path. More than once, a step would loosen a rock and send it tumbling into the raging river below, usually with some startled squeak for accompaniment. However, the marshal’s unyielding gaze steadily urged the girls to kept moving forward.

After winding around the canyon for much longer than they’d wanted, the two walls suddenly converged at a pinch where perhaps only ten paces separated their path and another steeper, but straighter path leading further up the mountain.

“Okay, so we’re here,” Pinkie Pie wondered as she looked about. “But how do we get from here to there?”

Graves considered the gap. The girls considered Graves. He seemed to be taking an awfully long time to think. In fact, his eyes seemed a bit glazed, a bit out of focus.

Giving himself a quick shake, Graves turned back to the girls.

“Applejack, you still have your rope?”

With a wordless nod, Applejack dropped the small pack from her back, rummaged about, and pulled out a long length of rope that she quickly knotted into a lasso. Once in hand, she looked back to the marshal with a faint spark in her eyes.

“What do you want now?” she asked, resistance coloring her words once more. Graves heard it of course, but chose to ignore it. Right now, the key was getting out of that canyon; he didn’t like the feel of the place.

“Get it across and make a tightrope,” he said even as he unslung his rifle. “We’ll walk over.”

Applejack gave Graves a funny look at the sight of his spell gun being drawn, but she did as he said. With a practiced hand, the freckled farm girl brought the lariat overhead, gave it a few swings, and tossed it across the gap towards a sharp, stony outcrop where it firmly snagged. A few tugs to make sure it was secure, and she knelt down to fasten the rope to a similar protrusion underfoot. Thus, with a makeshift tightrope leading from one side to the other she stood up with a hint of a triumphant smirk.

“Here yah go boss. Just like yah ordered.”

“Graves, dear,” Rarity hastily began with as she shot Applejack a quick warning look, “I love what you’ve done with the supplies and all, but it’s not like we’re a group of trapeze artists, now are we? Frankly, I don’t think anyone but Pinkie could make it across.”

“Psh, don’t look at me,” the curly haired baker shrugged. “Bouncing around on the ground’s one thing, but doing it over a swirling river of head-pounding fury’s a whole other ball game.”

“I w-w-wish you hadn’t s-s-s-said that,” Fluttershy whimpered. Terrified of heights as she was, the stark reminder of very likely demise at the hands of a watery tomb was really the last thing she needed right then.

“Don’t worry about it,” Rainbow Dash said, giving her fearful friend a reassuring pat to the back as she fired up her spell wings once more. They sputtered and flickered the first few seconds, but eventually took up their familiar azure glow. “I’ll hold your hand across the way, help you keep your balance and what not. You just focus on putting one foot in front of the other and you’ll be across the ways in ten seconds flat.”

“Easier said than done,” Twilight muttered. Honestly, why couldn’t they just run into a sphinx with some nice riddles or something? Why did it always have to be about running around and adventuring or other such foolishness? “Oh well, guess I’ll go first. Rainbow Dash, you ready?”

“Got your back, egghead.”

Taking her flying friend’s hand, Twilight took a deep breath, floated her foot above the taut rope, said a quick prayer to the sun and moon, and took a step.

“See? What’d I tell yah?” Rainbow Dash grinned. “Easy peasy.”

The girls watched as step by step, the prismatic flyer led Twilight across the rope till with a sigh of relief fit for a doctoral thesis defense, she stepped onto the good old terra firma on the canyon’s other side. Despite their weariness, the Ponyville girls couldn’t help but send up a rousing cheer for a possibly small, but undeniable victory.

Graves noted the crossing for a moment before he shifted his attentions back to the ever present duty of keeping watch. Turning about back towards the way they came, the marshal began to cast his gunmetal grey eyes about before they blinked in surprise.

“What the…?”

Graves was so used to keeping his eye out for the hidden threats that he never expected something to be staring him right in the face, quite literally as the marshal found a pair of eyes looking right back at him.

“Gremlins?” Graves frowned. “In the open?”

His surprise was well founded. Hunched over on long but bluntly clawed knuckles, the creature was probably only a foot long from its squashed, pug face to the end of its short, stubby tail and by far one of the smaller inhabitants of the Savage Lands. With weak constitutions and cowardly natures to match, the diminutive creatures preferred to spend the days hiding in the mountain crags, only venturing out on their spindly limbs to scavenge for scraps in the deadest parts of night.

The sun was still up, yet here it was. Crouching before Graves, the gremlin blinked up towards the marshal with twin pairs of beady peepers, bold as you please and plain as the mangy fur on its–

No, wait. Their. There were two crouching before him. As he’d stood wondering, another gremlin had crawled out from around the bend to join his first compatriot. Together the two continued to stare at the marshal, dull read eyes blinking as a third crept up and joined them.

And a fourth.

And a fifth.

“Girls, get going. Now.”

The marshal’s flint-like tones came out razor honed as his vision slowly filled with more and more of the gremlin hoard. No longer limiting themselves to the path, several more clambered above and below to hang from rocky crevasses with their sturdy hooked claws. In less time than it would take a man to shave, their back road had filled with no less than a two dozen scurrying figures with more joining at every moment.

The girls were not impressed.

“Uh, seriously?” Rainbow Dash snorted from where she hovered close by. “Those little fur balls are what got you worried?”

“I think they’re actually kind of cute,” Fluttershy smiled. “You really can’t expect us to be afraid of them, can you?”

Them? No, not them by themselves. Gremlins were bone pickers, not hunters. But they were also clever enough to survive in the Savage Lands, where weakness meant death. So if they were brazen enough to wander out into the open, it was only because they had something that could tip the scales in their favor.

But what was that? Perhaps it was the surprise of the situation, or maybe it was simply his own limitations finally catching up, but Graves suddenly found it very hard to pull together a coherent thought.

“Girls, I told you to get moving,” Graves repeated, his tones growing even harsher as he tried to shake his head clear. “There’s a good chance that they’ll…” They’ll what? Cobwebs filled his brain as the weariness of the journey suddenly coalesced to cloud his mind and snared thought as deftly as any spider. There was something obvious he was missing, but for the life of him, he couldn’t think of what it was. What was he forgetting?

“What, give us allergies?” Applejack chuckled. “Honestly, if you’re jumpin’ at the sight of these little critters, your hat might be on too tight.”

Wait, were the girls actually giving him sass? Now? Turning around with wide-eyed amazement, Graves fell thunderstruck as he realized that five of the girls were still on this side of the canyon.

“Girls, maybe we really should–”

“Nah, I’m with Applejack on this one,” Rainbow Dash said as she cut Rarity off. “Look, those little guys aren’t even giving us any trouble. They’re just bouncing around like a whole buncha herp a derps.”

It was true. The gremlins had made no attempt to advance and instead were more concerned with clambering about on the mountainside. Graves didn’t see any of this as his attentions were rather preoccupied.

“Why aren’t you moving?!” Graves snapped as open rage heated his voice. “We don’t have time to be playing around!”

“Apparently, we do because you’ve got enough time to be a great, big, jerky pants,” Pinkie Pie frowned as she blew a loud raspberry at the marshal. “Yeah, that’s right. Don’t you think that we forgot what a big, poopy headed, jerk face jerk butt you were to Mister Skitters.”

“Mister Skitters?” Fluttershy blinked.

“That big old bug Graves that Graves gave what for,” Pinkie Pie nodded sadly. “May he find happiness under the big rock in the sky.”

… That’s what they had taken away from that? That he was a jerk? After a clear demonstration of the dangers of the darkness they faced, that was what they walked away with? Did they forgot what Nul’s corruption could do to even the most harmless creatures? Did they not realize that the miasma sitting all around them could–

Oh…. that’s what he’d forgotten.

Turning around, Graves felt an all too familiar chill ran down his spine as gunmetal grey eyes fell upon the gremlins once more. He’d moved just in time to spot several creature hanging from a higher perch begin to worry away at one particular patch of cliff-side dirt. Hooking claws scratched furiously, releasing a steady shower of grit and gravel on the chittering mass of creatures below. Scratch, scratch, scratch, went the digging claws until–

With one last strike, darkness burst forth as the final blow brought forth not liquid gold, but vaporous death. The black miasma billowed forth in roiling plumes, cascaded down the cliff in an avalanche of inky mist, and swept over the creatures dancing in maniacal delight below. With one mind, the mass of creatures let loose piercing shrieks of savage delight as the corrupting mist went to work.

They grew larger. Destroying the bounds of logic and reason, each of the once small vermin tripled in size, maybe more as they were blessed by unholy powers to become avatars of desolation and destruction. Thin limbs thickened into hulking trunks of muscles. Claws used for scraping grubs and gristle transformed into giant, flesh-rending scythes. Fur bristled and toughened till a once matted hide morphed into a thick carapace of armor-hardened quills.

And mouths. Thin and wide and already too full of needle-like teeth, their mouths positively exploded into maws too full of drooling, distended fangs to ever fully close again. Maws that roared and howled and gnashed as the corrupted beasts worked themselves into a violent feeding frenzy.

“Graves! What the hay’s goin’ on?!” Applejack cried out.


Perhaps triggered by the sound of its prey, the foremost monster snarled an end to its frenzied howls and leaped at the marshal. Reacting on instinct alone, Graves spun his rifle butt around like a halberd and caught flying beast a hard blow across the skull. One last, maddened howl erupted from its distorted throat before it was sent careening into the waters below.

Another beast from the path hurled itself forward and it too, met the same fate albeit, from a jabbing thrust and toss on the rifle’s spell-hardened barrel. One by one, they leaped at the marshal, each one eager to sate its bloodlust by latching fangs around the soldier’s throat. Against the nightmarish creatures, Graves held his ground, his rifle a whirling club that crushed all comers and hurled them from the path as his silver blade cut bloody swaths through their ranks.

But then two started coming at once, and then three clambered for attention, even as more climbed over the cliffs in an attempt to flank and surround the sentry’s stand. Graves held, but the demonic horde slowly advanced and their ranks pushed farther ahead and threatened to encircle the marshal. If they were to succeed in surrounding him and began to attack from all sides…

Faced with no other choice, Graves reached into his coat pocket and removed two small strips of parchment. In between crushing the windpipe of one gremlin with a thrust of his rifle and disemboweling another with a precise slash, the marshal took one sheaf in each hand, the last two of the carefully rationed treasures he had left, and pressed thumbs to the arcane runes at their base. A few muttered incantations, twin tosses, and…


Arcing above and below like darting swallows, the spell tags adhered to the mountain side and erupted with fiery wrath. Out of their inscribed surfaces came twin walls of flame, each flaring a full three paces from the stony surface and hot enough to vaporize flesh from bone. Shooting forth to connect on the mountain path, three fel beasts roasted alive as the others shied back, separated from the Equestrians by a now impenetrable barrier of searing heat.

Graves gasped. His lungs burned hotter than the flames and his stomach knotted into a solid ball of pain. Old wounds had reopen to mingle trickling crimson with the flows stemming from fresh gashes. He couldn’t keep fighting for long. They had to run.

“How we doing?” Graves called out, barely pausing to cover the bloody coughs as he turned to examine their progress for the first time. On the other side, he could make out the forms of Pinkie Pie, Twilight, and Applejack, all safely transferred out of harm’s way. Out on the rope, Rainbow Dash was hurrying along with Fluttershy who, despite her terror-stricken visage, was moving as fast as she could. But that meant Rarity still waited alongside him as the beasts continued their prowl. They needed more time.

“Graves?” Rarity breathed, unable to tear her gaze away from the howling mob wreathed in flame like demons from the pit of hell. “Graves, what do we do?”

The marshal’s words were harder than flint, colder than ice as he turned and locked gunmetal grey eyes on sapphire blues.

“Rarity, I need you to start out on your own. Crawl, shimmy, do whatever you need to, but get on that rope and get to safety. Now.”

She didn’t even hesitate. Without even pausing to nod, Rarity knelt beside the rope and began to cross on her own. Hooking with arms and legs and dangling with back about the raging rapids, the violet-haired beauty steadily crossed the gap.

Graves couldn’t help but smile. Was she amazing, or was she amazing? But smiles quickly faded as he turned to face the howling hordes once more. Even now, the mana stored in those seals was running out and the flames had lost a good foot of height already. In less than thirty seconds, they would be too weak to deter the mist-maddened gremlins, and the attack would begin again. By then, he had to make sure–

Jerking aside, Graves narrowly avoided being struck by a black mass of something that shot past his face. Following through, the marshal saw that the mass was in fact an inky blob of spittle, no doubt hurled from the gullet of one of those disgusting creatures. Spittle that – he noticed with a distinct, sinking in the pit of his mangled stomach – began to melt the stones it landed on like molten lead through ice.

Catching sight of another gremlin swelling its chest in preparation, Graves whipped up his spell gun and fired a bolt of arcane lighting through the veil of flames. It wasn’t a strong shot by far, hardly more than a static pulse, but it was at least enough to disrupt the gremlin’s breath and reduce the bio-artillery to a bubbling, black froth around the creature’s fangs.

Graves continued firing, working desperately to ration his nonexistent strength as he tagged as many of the infected vermin as possible. For once, the mana rich in the air actually helped the marshal as he no longer had the means to fuel the assault on his own. But even so, there were easily dozens of gremlins and only one of him. For every shot he stopped, ten more would sail through the air. Some were aimed at him and required twists and turns, leaps and dives to avoid. However, it wasn’t those shots that worried him.

On the opposite cliff, Twilight pulled out her wand and raised it high overhead, summoning up an ethereal barrier to shield her friends on the ledge as well as the two still crossing, Fluttershy hand-in-hand with Rainbow Dash as Rarity did her best to make do on her own. For a moment, the shield held on and provided a protective canopy against the acidic barrage. But it was only for a moment.

Though nowhere near as caustic as the pure flames of Nul, the gremlins’ spittle was still laced with the powers of pure entropy. As large as the shield that Twilight maintained was, she simply could not make it strong enough to withstand such a steady barrage from so many attackers. Slowly, the spittle began to eat through the mystic barrier, punctured holes in its bulwark before it began to drip on through like an all-devouring rain.

Twilight redoubled her efforts and summoned multitudes of thinner barriers to shore up the holes. These would shatter in moments, but two more would leap up in its stead as the young mage wove spells and wards faster than the eye could follow. With her protection, Fluttershy finally made it to the edge just as Rainbow Dash’s wings flickered and failed.

This was all the opening Twilight needed. With only Rarity out on the rope, the amethyst-eyed mage could focus all of her efforts on shielding her lone friend as Rainbow Dash worked to get her wings back on line. Layers upon layers of arcane barriers surrounded Rarity as she continued her precipitous advance, buying time as translucent spell wings began to flicker back to life. In just a few moments, Rainbow Dash would be ready to take off and help Rarity along. In mere moments, they’d be safe and the marshal could make his escape.

Then it happened.

In the briefest moments, in that half instant between one spell shattering and another takings its place, a single glob of spittle shot up, sailed through a fist-sized hole in the greater mystic wall, and landed.

Right on the rope.

It took only a moment for the sturdy hemp to snap like thread held too close to a candle as the whip crack snap struck the marshal’s ears. One moment for him to turn about and see their road to safety suddenly fall limp. One moment, one moment that seemed to stretch into infinity, for Graves to lay eyes on Rarity as she gazed back with a look of mild, wordless surprise.

She fell.

The world crumbled.

Somewhere, distantly, like the voice that pierces the dreaming brain, Graves knew his surroundings. He knew the gremlins had begun to force their way through the fiery wall; the smell of charred flesh and fur confirmed that. He knew that his friends were screaming, Rarity was screaming, everybody was screaming as the wind whipped passed his face and the cascading rapids grew larger in his sights.

He knew that the spell chain fired from his spell rifle had shattered as a rain of a million motes of ethereal silver joining him in his downward descent. He knew his body was drained, with not even a scrap of magic left in him even as those all-too-familiar pains began to wrack his body. All these, he somehow knew, but what he didn’t know, in fact the only thing he needed to know, was whether he would reach Rarity in time.

That was when Graves realized he just couldn’t take that chance.

Even as his hand reached, stretched out to the limits of sinew and bone and beyond, he reached deep into the recesses of his mind for that little well of darkness he’d come to know so well. He reached out for it, to ask for help from that tiny voice that had called him with such sweet words through his days of pain and agony and waking nightmares. Future be damned and world be damned, if he could make sure that Rarity was safe, then everything else could burn.

But as luck would have it, a single drop of frothing spray flew up and struck the marshal in one panicked, silver eye. That single drop disrupted thought for a split second, and in that split second, time ran out.

Graves met rushing ice and rage as everything went dark.


Chapter 26

Chapter 26


It was the first thing that returned. Not loud, not grand, just a soft, plinking drop that rang through echoing stillness. Time and time again it came, that soft, plinking drop. Perhaps that’s what called him back to the realm of the waking. Or perhaps not. It was hard to say. It was hard to tell whether he was even awake at all.

Perhaps he could have moved. He seemed to recall something that needed doing, a mission left to complete. If that were true, then he’d have get up and continue. All he had to do was delve deep into the wells of his soul and draw on those inexhaustible stores of drive and determination that had carried him through for all those years. If he could do that, then perhaps he could rouse himself once more and rise to fight again.

But his well had run dry.

Weariness wore its way into the core of his bones, exhaustion into the flesh and muscles that weighed of lead and stone. The man was done. Spent. Dried up like the last, withered leaf on autumn’s final tree. He’d done what he could and given everything he had, but it still hadn’t been enough. At the very end, when it had really counted, he’d come up short and failed. Or maybe he hadn’t. He honestly didn’t know. He honestly couldn’t seem to care.

All he knew was that he had nothing left to give and that right now, he was tired. So very, very tired.

Then touch returned as well.

A faint trace of cool softness crossed his brow, then faded, then returned once more. As if guided by the rhythm of the soft, plinking drop, that cool softness glided across his skin, never lingering, but never leaving long enough to really fade. Even though he was tired, this gentle touch brought just enough life back to those weary bones that slowly, with the speed of lifting limbs through thick, muddy tar, Graves finally opened his eyes.

Vision brought with it a pair of sapphire stars that twinkled and danced in the near darkness as they lit up the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen in his life.

“Hey. How you doing?”

“Just fine,” Rarity laughed. The sound was soft, but it echoed through the air with the shimmering beauty of moonlight on crystal. “And how are you today?”

“Little worn out,” he murmured. “Little tired.”

The beautiful woman nodded.

“Why don’t you rest then, dear? Sleep for a little while.”

“Sleep?” he murmured as eyelids slid down. “Yeah. Think I’d like that.”

Graves let his eyes drift shut once more and simply lay there, his head resting in Rarity’s lap as she gently drew her fingers across his brow. There the two stayed, neither doing a thing to disturb the soft, plinking drop that echoed in the darkness.


When Graves awoke once more, so too did a small portion of his spirit. It wasn’t much, hardly a thimbleful in the ocean it had once been, but it was enough.

“Rarity?” he murmured softly.

“I’m right here,” came her gentle reply. Slowly opening his eyes, Graves once again caught sight of her lovely face. The next breath came just a bit easier and so too did the two words he needed to speak.

“You okay?”

The statement drew a soft giggle from her rosy lips.

“I should be the one asking you,” the young lady smiled. “After all, I had you to protect me, didn’t I?”

Protect her? Him?

Slowly, the tides of memory returned to the shores of consciousness, albeit broken and fragmented like select shards from a shattered mirror. He remembered falling into the river where the churning currents had threatened to tear them apart. He recalled careening against stones, each painful impact slowing him just enough so he could reach out and take her hand. He remembered being pulled underground where he’d desperately slashed and hacked and bit at the eyeless monstrosities that had sought to drag them into the inky depths and then… just blurs.

Oh yeah, he’d done a real good job protecting her. Why, between the passing out and letting her fall in the first place, this was a regular textbook performance. Real good job there. And that wasn’t even counting the five he’d left behind to do even that. Just bloody bucking brilliant.

Graves was almost tired enough to not bother adding bitter tangs to those thoughts. Almost.

“So, where are we anyhow?” he asked, more out of habit than anything else. Rarity just shrugged.

“I’m really not quite sure. The river seems to have washed us down into an underground chasm. Beyond that, we could be halfway to Sibearia for all I know.”

Graves nodded slightly as grey eyes panned around to confirm the young lady’s words. Stony walls faded into the gloom above where clusters of stalactites hung. Every now and then, a single, solitary drop of water would sail down to land in the now tranquil stream on whose banks they rested. Beyond all that, there was little else, save clumps of iridescent moss that provided the soft glow staving off total darkness.

As the marshal surveyed his surroundings, Rarity stayed silent. She stopped stroking his forehead, a courtesy of removing distraction as he indulged his warrior’s instinct. Once he finished, however, it was right back to the same, gentle touch as her cool fingers softly traced across his brow. Graves didn’t say anything. He didn’t seem to mind, so Rarity didn’t stop.

For a while, the two remained as they were, the lady’s slender fingers trailing across the man’s skin as rippling drops marked the passage of time.

“You know what, Graves?” Rarity suddenly said. “I’m really quite fond of you.”

“You are?” Graves blinked, to which the violet-haired beauty nodded in happy satisfaction.

“Yes, yes I am,” she smiled. “And do you know how I know?”

“Er… no?”

“It’s actually quite simple, really,” Rarity explained as her fingers shifted to playing with his hair, twirling and untwirling the raven locks like a cat toying with string. “We’re stuck in a cave. Again. My clothes are a mess. Again. I don’t have any make-up on, it’s been positively ages since I’ve had a proper bath, and I’m pretty sure I’ll need the mother of all pedicures to ever get the swelling in my aching feet to go away. Again.”

Graves merely nodded. Personally, he thought she looked as breath-takingly beautiful as ever. Of course, she would disagree, so he kept his mouth shut. Even when he was right, he was wrong, at least when Rarity had anything to say about it. Or was that all women? Hmm…

“And despite my positively atrocious state,” Rarity continued, leaning over so he could see her full, radiant smile, “I’m still as happy as white before Labor Day because you’re right here beside me, no doubt thinking I look just fine despite my excellent reasons to the contrary.”

And a telepath to boot. Who knew?

“Yes, quite happy indeed,” she warmly sighed as she settled back in place. “I like fine clothes with jewelry, civil company, and little quiches served on dainty plates for brunch, but I’d give up all of those in a heartbeat in exchange for my lovely little marshal.”

“I am neither lovely nor little,” Graves muttered.

“You are to me,” she smiled as she leaned over once more, hand pushing violet locks back so she could plant a sweet kiss on the soldier’s lips. “Like I said, quite fond indeed.”

Tired though he was, Graves couldn’t help himself. Lifting his head up from the world’s most luxurious pillow, the marshal grinned for a split second before he returned the favor. His broken ribs cried out in protest, but he kindly told them to take a very long walk off a very short pier. A man had his priorities, after all.

When they finally pulled apart, or more accurately, when Graves fell back down, he was pleased to see that Rarity left with a noticeable flush in her cheeks. He was much less pleased, though, to see how the giddy smile on her lips quickly faded into a pensive frown.

“Really,” she sighed, “it’s just not fair.”

“Not fair?” Graves repeated.

“Not at all,” Rarity replied with a shake of her head and a petulant pout. “I like you so very, very much, but it’s clear you don’t feel the same way about me.”

… Hah?

“Rarity,” Graves said slowly, his eyes with all the deadly seriousness of a judge passing sentence, “I just jumped off a cliff for you. That has to count for something.”

“Well of course it does,” the young lady agreed with a vexed huff, displeased at having to review such simple ideas. “But you can’t base a relationship off the easy stuff, now can you?”

… Easy?

“Cliff jumping is… easy,” Graves intoned, his voice flat with disbelief as his mind worked to wrap itself on a Pinkie-sized mound of absurdity.

“Obviously. After all, you’re a marshal.”

Ah, obviously.

“I see,” Graves nodded. “In that case, what counts as… not easy?”

“The one thing you men are always so terrible at doing. Talking.”

“… This isn’t going to be one of those, ‘we don’t communicate’ conversations, is it?”

“Oh dear, don’t be silly,” Rarity laughed. “You’re nowhere even close to actual communication.”

“Of course not,” he said with a grand roll of his gunmetal grey eyes. Rarity laughed once more.

“No,” she smiled, once again taking to playing with his hair, “I don’t need anything like that. You’re a stoic man and I respect that. After all, it’s one of the many, many reasons I became so fond of you to begin with. But, sometimes I wish you would just… talk to me. Just a little.”

The smile on her lips remained where it was, but the light behind it faded. What had once shone with mirth and amusement now glimmered with a shade of hurt as well. The love in her sapphire eyes was as radiant as ever, but now, it was the sort of love that only arises when in the presence of concern. The more she cared, the more she worried. The more she worried, the more it hurt.

“What can I say?” Graves asked softly as he reached a leaden arm up to stroke her cheek. “I was supposed to keep you girls safe. That was my job and I blew it.”

“You most certainly did not blow anything,” the young lady firmly retorted. “I’m still alive thanks to you and the other five are certainly far better off than we.”

“You sure?” Graves challenged, more out of reflex than actual care. “We left them on a cliff with dozens of Nul-corrupted beasts at their heels.”

“The far side, with no way across,” Rarity countered.

“Where who knows what else is waiting,” Graves rejoined.

“Which they’ll handle just as well as they’ve handled everything else that’s come their way,” Rarity concluded with a triumphant smile. “Why, between the five of them, I’d be more worried for anything they came across.”

The young lady spoke these words with such absolute confidence, that Graves was almost tempted to believe them for a moment. Not that it would ever happen, of course.

“They’re just kids,” Graves sighed, weariness creeping back into his voice as his arm fell heavily once more. Even that brief exchange left him drained. “Kids who don’t know what these lands are hiding. Trust me, Rarity, there are things out there that’d make our travels thus far seem a summer picnic.”

There was no pride in his words or the condescension one might expect of an adult who winked and smiled at children and expected them to ‘understand when they were older.’ No, they were pure, simple, facts as spoken by a man who’d seen proof and returned to report with the dispassion of a clerk reciting lists of dry goods. He was too tired for passion, and it was that empty truth that gave those words such weight. Of course, weight only matters to those too weak to carry it.

“Then don’t face it alone,” Rarity murmured, the words as gentle as the stroke of his cheek, yet strong enough to force mountains to yield. “You are an absolutely remarkable man who does remarkable things, but you’re still just. One. Man. Nobody can carry the weight of the world by themselves, Graves. Not even you.”

Wearily, the marshal sighed.

“Actually, I could. Still can, if I want to.”

Confusion. Question. Then understanding. It came slow, halting and hesitant, as if Rarity fought to keep the idea from dawning, but once it arrived, there was no doubt that she understood his meaning with perfect, crystal clarity.

“When did it happen?” she softly asked.

“Few days ago?” Graves shrugged. “Just before the Jabberwock, then a bit after as well. Gave me a glimpse and made me a standing offer. All I have to do is ask.”

“Well, why on earth would you?” Rarity asked, her voice surprisingly composed given their conversation’s subject. “You’ve heard what the princesses said. You just saw what his influence did to those creatures in the canyon. Why would you even consider taking up such a poisonous bargain?”

Grey eyes went to the stony sky above. Part of him advised against further sharing. Some things could be spoken, but others… others were the kind of thoughts that should never see the light of day. But he was tired, too tired to fight and resist and keep it contained any longer. If Rarity really wanted to know, he didn’t have it in him to stem the tides any longer.

“Because… I liked it.”

At once, the feeling of moving fingers ceased against his scalp.

“You… liked it,” Rarity repeated blankly. Graves nodded.

“Took that power and wiped out a whole mess of orcs. Must’ve been, oh… two hundred? Maybe three? I don’t know. What I do know is that when Nul gave me his power, I went out and killed every last one of them just because I could.”

“That doesn’t sound like you at all,” the young lady replied as something began to creep into her voice. Something frightened.

“Doesn’t it? If anybody’s got a reason to hate them, it’s me,” Graves challenged with a grim smile on his face. Then that smile faded to give way to weariness once more. “But that wasn’t it. Sure, I hated them, but that wasn’t all. Being out there, out in the battlefield like that, I just… I just felt…”

“What, Graves?”

“…Free.” The word came to speech almost as soon as it came to mind, but even as it was uttered, Graves knew it was true.

“But what freedom could Nul possibly provide?” Rarity asked, her face a mask of pensive worry. “He is here to destroy everything we hold dear. That’s oppressive in every sense of the word.”

“But not for him,” Graves sighed. “For him, he just gets to do what he wants because he can. That’s what he gave me, Rarity, a chance to cut loose.”

“And that’s what you wanted?” she said, her expression now unreadable. “You want to be like Nul?”

“I want to stop being weak. Maybe then I can stop being so... afraid.”



“… Oh.”

At once, the clouds of confusion in her sapphire eyes parted. Of course. Always so strong and reliable, it was all too easy to forget that Graves was just a man with a long and ugly past he'd been unable to prevent. Rarity knew this. In fact, she was the only one who knew this, as each and every confession he’d given her was guarded like the rarest of jewels. But even she could forget that the one who spent time protecting others needed to be protected himself.

“Graves,” Rarity said softly, her eyes glowing softly in the dim light. “I understand. Really, I do.”

“Do you?” the marshal frowned. “I told you this before, Rarity. I’ve given up too much already, and I’m not ready to lose you too. I can’t. But that’s just what’s going to happen. Every mile farther we go into this hellscape, that fact just comes up clearer and clearer. I need to keep you safe, but I can’t. I’m not strong enough.”

“But going to Nul isn’t the answer,” the young lady protested. “You know what happens if you rely on him. He’s going to eat away at you from the inside. Do you want to end up like that? Like those foul beasts, hollowed out of all but rage and hunger?”

“If that’s what it takes,” he shrugged. “Seems like a better deal anyhow.”

“… Then what about me?”

Graves blinked.

“… Huh?”

“Let’s say you do go and make a deal with Nul,” Rarity began, her words level, but clearly in no way pleasant. “Let’s say he gives you everything he promises and a twenty percent discount at that. Let’s say we finish everything and lock him up tighter than a size six girdle on a size twelve waist. What happens next?”


“So you start going crazy like we know you’re going to, because that’s the deal with Nul, correct? He gives you power and you turn into a one-man demolition crew. Well, what exactly am I supposed to do when that happens? Have you thought of that?”

“I… uh…”

“And what exactly do I tell Sweetie Belle? ‘Oh dear, I’m sorry little sister, but the big brother you’ve recently found has become the next abomination waging war on Equestria’? Is that what you want me to say? Hmm?”

“Of course not!” Graves replied with genuine shock.

“And once again, I ask you. What about me?”

Up till now, Rarity had been giving Graves a thorough tongue lashing as her eyes flashed like cobalt flames. But when she asked this question once more, those disappeared. Instead, what he saw were eyes so full of hurt that his broken bones may as well have been butterfly kisses.

“You once told my father that you’d do what you could to live for me,” she said softly, the composure on her words strained as a storm of emotions welled just underneath her icy calm. “But here you are, willing to throw away everything and sell your soul to the devil. And worst of all, you want me to just stand by and watch.”


“No, you listen to me,” she commanded, eyes resolute with gemstone firmness. “You’re afraid of losing me. I understand that because I am every bit as afraid of losing you. I know I haven’t gone through anything like you, and by Luna’s mercy, I never will, but I’m not as strong as you either. I can’t watch you make that sacrifice then spend our remaining days just waiting for you to lose your mind. So don’t you ever, EVER say that trading yourself for us is worth it, because let me tell you something, Mister Marshal. It. Is. Not.”

Graves didn’t move when he felt the first hot teardrop fall on his face. Rarity wasn’t sobbing. Somehow, she kept her composure, her breath in check and her face the picture of calm and control. But nothing in her power could keep those burning tears from trickling down her fair cheeks.

“… I can’t lose you,” the marshal said softly as he reached up to trace a rough finger against that tear-stained cheek. “You can’t lose me. But we’re at a point where we have to choose, and the one we’re gonna have to choose is me.”

“Why?” she snapped, her rage directed outwards, but at no one in particular. “Who says we have to make that choice? What rule says that’s the only way to do it?”

“It’s life,” Graves frowned, the words coming out rougher than expected. “Sometimes life doesn’t work out like we want it to. Sometimes you’ve got to give things up.”

“Then why does it have to be you?” Rarity snapped. “If you go out in a blaze of glory, that’s all easy for you. But why can’t I do it instead? Why can’t I be the selfish one and take the fast way out?”

“Because you have a job to do.” Those words came out smooth, like the steel on a freshly polished executioner’s axe. “You’re an Element Bearer. We lose you, and it’s over. Everyone dies. The only one who can give up more is me. That’s why I’m here.”

“And you expect me to just accept this?” the young lady fumed. Despite the ugliness of the truth, or maybe because of its ugliness, Graves couldn’t help but laugh.

“You are Generosity, aren’t you? Guess you have to be generous and let me go.”

When he looked up at Rarity, with her eyes turbulent seas of roiling emotions, Graves couldn’t be sure whether she wanted to hug him or slap him. Fortunately, that question was quickly answered as with a deep breath, the young lady raised her hands, spread them wide like an eagle’s wings, and brought palms crashing together against the marshal’s cheeks.

“… Ow?” he winced.

“Let’s try this another way,” Rarity said, taking another deep breath, this one no doubt used to keep her considerable emotions in check. “Close your eyes.”


“Close. Your. Eyes.”

Graves did as he was told, well familiar with the tone that promised a thousand unpleasantries should he refuse.

“Now Graves,” Rarity began again, her voice growing calm and serene. “What I want you to do right now is imagine. Let’s say it’s, oh… one year from today. What would that day look like if you could choose? What would the absolute, perfect day look like?”

“Rarity, I really don’t see–”

“Would you stop trying to reason your way out of this for once and just do what I say?!”

Graves nearly popped his eyes open on this one, not for offense or irritation, but in genuine surprise. Rarity’s words had come out more hiss than speech, no doubt a venting of long pent up frustration. In truth, he hadn’t even been aware she’d been holding back so much, yet there it was. And once again, it was apparently because of him.

“So… just any old day?” he asked hesitantly.

“An ideal one,” Rarity clarified with emotions now under graceful order once more. “I want you to picture an absolutely flawless day, one that would come true exactly as you planned it.”

The marshal said nothing. It had only been a few weeks since Discord’s visit to Ponyville, yet life before that seemed like a whole other world. For what felt like a lifetime, he’d been thinking of nothing but the mission, his objectives, and pure, simple, survival. Returning his mind to what should be the normal world from just a month ago was a chore in itself.

Then he had to take those thoughts and extend them a full year into the future? Hay, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d done that, period. When your job goes out of its way to remind you of your own, finite mortality, one doesn’t tend to make plans for too long after. Even his current relationship with Rarity was one more done on whim and emotion than any careful planning. In the time they’d been together, there had been moments, brief instances when he’d pushed out and begun to imagine what the future might hold in store for them. Those were always short lived like sparks from a fire. To dream out that far when the future was so uncertain would be… unwise to say the least.

Still, Rarity had asked him to try…

“Let’s see…” he mumbled, his voice rumbling like dry gravel in his chest. “I’d wake up like normal, I suppose. Run through my drills, clean up my gun… that sort of stuff.”

“And then?” Rarity softly asked.

“Then? I’d, uh… join you for breakfast. If you had time, of course.”

“I’m sure I would,” the young lady laughed, thoroughly amused that he’d have to justify such a simple request. “But remember, Graves, this isn’t about what will or is likely to happen. This is what you want.”

Want, eh? That… opened things up a bit.

“So where would we have breakfast?” she continued, the smile clear in her voice even if he still couldn’t see.

“Sweetwater Café,” Graves answered. “I like their omelets. Good stuff.”

“Indeed they are,” Rarity giggled. “What next?”

“Then? Ah… Sweetie Belle would pop on over. Probably drag her friends along too. They’d make some noise about wanting to go on another adventure. Somewhere fun.”

“That sounds exciting,” came the lady’s amused reply. “Where would we take them?”

“… The beach?”

“Really? The beach?” Rarity repeated in the slightest of chuckles. “Of all the adventures you could choose, that’s what you pick?”

“Hey, it’s an adventure for me,” Graves huffed. “S’not like I’ve ever gone before.”


“You haven’t?”

“Grew up in the north,” the marshal replied, now quietly hoping his cheeks weren’t as red as the heat he felt would indicate. “After that, never really had reason to go. Between work and training, playing around in the sand didn’t seem like a good investment, and I’m not exactly presentable in public, what with my, ah–”

A soft touch to his lips cut off his increasingly frantic response.

“What you want, remember?” Rarity said gently. “We can worry about the details later.”

“… So, we got to the beach,” the marshal continued as the young lady’s words settled his nerves and restored order to his thoughts. “We’d also run into our friends there. No idea what would be going on, but you can bet it’d be a heap of laughs.”

“At the very least,” Rarity smiled. “How long would we stay there?”

“Good while,” Graves murmured. “Probably have a barbeque, then head out when it started getting too hot.”

“Sensible, as usual,” came the primly musical reply. “So what would we do during the heat of the day?”

Even before he spoke, the flush came to his face, fierce and strong.

“I’ve, ah… always thought a… a hammock would be nice, you know? So… I’d probably climb in for a quick nap. Not much else to do, right? And, ah… you could, uh… join me?”

Silence once again. Silence while Graves felt his cheeks sear to the blazing heights of the sun itself.

“Graves,” Rarity slowly began, “are you honestly saying that if you could have anything in the whole wide world in your perfect day, you would choose some cuddling and a nap?”

“You said anything I wanted…” he sullenly muttered in abject mortification. “I thought it sounded nice.”

Despite really not wanted to meet her gaze right then, a delicate touch on his eyelids prompted them to open. There, looking down on him with the most embarrassingly loving smile ever, was Rarity, blushing to high heaven and grinning away like a cat with keys to the creamery.

“Just when I think I know him,” Rarity giggled, bending over so she could plant another kiss on his lips, “he goes and surprises me yet again.”

“Just layered like an onion,” Graves muttered once more through an odd mix of elations and embarrassment. “Now would you please explain to me what this fool game is all about?”

“Context, my dear,” the young lady laughed as she resumed playing with his hair. “All for a little context.”

“Yeah… that makes no sense,” he intoned. To this, Rarity smiled, a sort of half warm, half sad smile.

“Do you know what the key to a good story is?” she began as sapphire eyes faded to the unfathomable shades of the ocean deep. “It’s the ending. No matter how good the plot, or how wonderful the hero, every story is only as good as the way it ends. Of course, the ending can’t really come at the end, can it? It has to come from the beginning.”

“… What?”

“Oh, don’t play coy with me, Graves,” Rarity laughed. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. Of all the novels we’ve shared and discussed, we both know that the best ones always had the ending in mind from the very start. Every scene that played was a piece of the puzzle, every moment an integral thread that led to that final, wonderful resolution we both came to know and love.”

“Alright,” Graves nodded. “So endings are important. Why bring that up now?”

The gentle flick to his forehead and the exasperated sigh were the first answers he got. They told him enough, that he was being thickheaded as usual, but it was the second answer that he really needed.

“You, sir, have just written your own ending,” Rarity smiled. “Your omelet breakfast, your little sister’s adventures, and certainly your afternoon cuddles with… well, me…” Rarity coughed and paused to compose herself before resuming. “All of these were the final chapter of your story.”


“Uh uh,” she tutted, a slender finger touching his lips once more. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re about to say that dreams are different from reality, that one is a nice fantasy to indulge in, but the sheer facts will never let the story flow in that direction. Am I right?”

His silence was all the confirmation she needed.

“You don’t like thinking about endings,” Rarity said as that sad, understanding smile coming back once more. “I can hardly blame you, what with every ending you’ve had being a sad goodbye or a tearful farewell. But now,” she continued as a new light came to those sapphire eyes, “now, you have a chance to change that. You already have the last pages written out. You know where the ending you want is, so all you have to do is fill in the chapters until then.”

“And how do I do that?” Graves asked, the laughter bursting from his lips a harsh bark of mirthless noise. “I’m not an author. I can’t just make the universe work around me like pen to paper. I did everything in my power to see this god forsaken mission through, but in the end, what good was it? Even when I gave it everything I had, it still wasn’t enough.”

“Well, of course it wasn’t enough,” Rarity added with a sad smile for her ragged marshal. “Alone, you’d have as much chance of keeping us safe as I would of slaying Typhon. But you’re not alone, Graves. I’m here. Your friends are out there. We’re all here for you, if you’d just reach out and ask for our help.”

“I did that already, and look where–”

“No, you used us,” Rarity firmly corrected, “like a clean set of tools that you could maneuver as you pleased. Certainly, your knowledge and skill could make good use of our strengths; you are a soldier, after all. But when things when sour, when you were hurt and tired and worn down, you cast us aside. You tried to rally your strength by dropping the tools that no longer worked. You tried to carry all the weight on your shoulders alone because you didn’t trust us to help.”

Unshed tears glistened in the corners of their eyes, but they didn’t fall. Rarity wouldn’t let them.

“Nobody is strong on their own,” she sniffed, dabbing a sleeve to her eyes as she spoke through strained composure. “Apart, we’re weak and helpless and vulnerable to the darkness, just like Nul wants. But we don’t have to be. Your team saved the world because it was more than just five people. You carried your comrades when they fell and let them carry you when you couldn’t continue any longer. You relied on the strength of others and in turn, made their strength your own to carry them a little farther.”

Grey eyes grew turbulent like arctic seas in a frozen gale. But Rarity would not relent, not right now.

“We don’t want you to be the sacrificial lamb, Graves. For the girls, you’re a friend that’s often infuriating and dense, but irreplaceable in every way. For me, well… you know how I feel,” she murmured with a heated blush. “We may not be your comrades in arms and we may just be some silly girls from Ponyville, but I guarantee that no one wants you to be happy as much as we do. I know it’s scary, putting your faith in a new family. Celestia knows you’ve been twice burned and thrice shy to do so, but just… please trust in us a little. Let us help you write a happy ending.”

Grey eyes looked up. They were hard, brittle, stone shaken and battered till a touch of fog could have shattered it altogether. Graves wanted to believe, but it was hard. So very, very hard.

“Will it be enough?” he softly asked, unable to do more. Rarity nodded.

“It will.”

“How do you know?” he challenged. “How can you tell?”

“I can’t. I just trust that when I’m with my friends? When I’m with you? I know that all will be well in the very end.”

Here, her sapphire eyes shined with such bright, glowing warmth, not even Nul’s darkness could have worn them away.

Throughout the cavern’s gloom, the only sound to be heard was the quiet, steady drip of water from stone as the lady leaned in to kiss the soldier one more time. For the moment, the brittle form of stone so close to breaking stood held together by threads at once more ephemeral than mist, yet more real than the stone itself.

For the moment, that would be enough.


Chapter 27

Chapter 27

Step by step, pace by pace, soldier and the lady continued through the darkness. They had no idea how long they walked, or how far. Time had no meaning in those abyssal depths, and any attempts to count paces were quickly forgotten amidst the thousands of steps they took. It didn’t really matter, of course. All that that really mattered was that they kept moving forward.

When they were tired, they rested, and they were often tired. When they were hungry, they ate. The fish Rarity neatly lassoed from underground rivers and streams were by and large tasteless, but a little touch of aquamarine fire from her wand made them a pleasantly hot meal at least. And honestly, it wasn’t all that bad. Between the bitter and acrid, the pungent and putrid, bland actually seemed to be an improvement. Who knew that being underground could be so rewarding?

Not to say that their journey was easy by any means. Sure, the caverns were mercifully quiet compared to the Savage Lands above, but progress was still slow, painfully so at times, as injury had clearly taken its toll on the soldier’s body. The tunneling path was never straightforward and often brought unexpected hazards to their journey. Sometimes, it would narrow into crawling spaces barely large enough to wriggle through. Other times, it would bank up so steeply that it became more climb than walk.

The road was not easy and battered as he was, Graves struggled to proceed. But whether for lack of energy or lack of something else, this was the first time when he didn’t try to hide it. He simply focused all his efforts on putting one foot in front of the other, with spell gun serving as a crude crutch on one side and Rarity providing strength on the other.

In truth, it was the young lady who made it all possible. With an arm pulled over her slender shoulders, Rarity supported the marshal with every step he took. It wasn’t easy of course. Graves looked to be carved of steel and probably weighed as much as well in lean, hardened muscle. Yet despite the unseemly burden and despite the sweat that beaded on her brow, the stalwart young woman pressed on with resolution in her step and, most remarkably of all, a twinkle of delight in her eyes.

Though Graves said little – every breath was reserved for yet another pace forward – it would have taken a half-blind, fully dumb cave grub to miss the wonder that set in his gunmetal grey eyes. Here she was, trapped underground with little to no hope of escape, lugging around a half dead lump of full dead weight, and there was hardly a moment where he couldn’t find a smile on her face.

When she washed and rebandaged his wounds with the remnants of their sleeves, it was with the soft, serene smile of a gentle nurse. When she gathered luminescent moss to fashion the glowing garlands that lit their way, it was the contented look of a housewife tending to a happy home. And when she draped those garlands around Graves, fashioning especially pretty ones for his neck and broad, flat-brimmed hat, it was the playful, giggling delight of young woman who had all she wanted and simply couldn’t wish for anything more.

It was at one such stop, a large cave where a subterranean stream gently flowed on through, that Graves knew the silence couldn’t continue any longer.

“… Anyone ever tell you you’re amazing?”

“A few,” Rarity smiled coyly. “But I could always do with once more.”

“It’s true,” Graves murmured as she brought a handful of cool water to his lips. “How you’re still smiling is just beyond me.”

To smile in happy times was a normal reaction. To smile in trying times was a mark of fortitude. To smile in the fubared straits of their dire predicament? Hay, that kind of resolve could command coals to tighten up and get diamonds in return. The marshal had known a few who could accomplish such feats, but the number wouldn’t have outlasted the fingers on a single hand.

“Aw, it’s not so much,” Rarity laughed as she playfully flicked his nose. “After all, everything’s always easier when you’ve got a goal in mind.”

“Your goal is to smile?” Graves intone, eyebrow arched in question. “Didn’t know I was walking with Pinkie Pie.”

“Maybe you are,” the young lady giggled, “because my goal is to get you to smile. It’d make things so much easier for you if you’d just crack a little grin. Really changes your entire mood, you know?”

At the request she so obviously hinted at, Graves gave his best attempt at a merry smile. It certainly had a pleasant effect, but only in the sense that Rarity got a grand kick out of a decidedly awkward look.

“Er… maybe you should hold off for a bit,” she chuckled while wiping a tear from her eye. “I suppose in the meantime, I’ll just have to smile enough for the both of us.”

Once she’d made sure that Graves was properly propped up against one stone wall, the young lady took up several garlands of glowing moss and proceeded further into the cave. They’d stopped to rest, it was true, but also because they now faced a rather new conundrum.

Which way were they to go next?

Up till now, the trail they’d walked had been a winding, but continuous road. With no branches or forks to speak of, they’d had no choice but to move forever forward. But now, now they faced a choice of not one, not two, but four branching paths, each of which could take then further deeper into endless tunnels beneath. It was these various roads that Rarity now considered with pursed lips and keen eyes.

“I don’t suppose you have any idea of where we should go?” Rarity called.

“Beats me,” he shrugged. Navigating caverns were notoriously tricky, and only a few teams had ever spent the countless hours mastering the specialized art of traversing subterranean trails. Even then, it was usually from the stance of going in one way and coming back out, not finding an exit after a rollercoaster waterslide of probably impending doom. Right now, the marshal’s knowhow was about as useful as knife at an all you can eat soup buffet.

“In that case, we go… that way,” Rarity beamed as she confidently pointed to the second path from the right.

“Why there?”

“Because it’s right.”

“How do you know?”

“Obviously, it’s right if it’s not left.

“So’s that one,” Graves pointed out as he gestured to the furthest tunnel.

“True, but it’s better to be right and not too right,” Rarity rejoined. “Never could trust something that sounded too right, you know?”

Honestly, he didn’t, which made sense considering her rational had no sense at all. But then again, it’s not like he knew what to do, right?

“Well then,” Graves grunted as Rarity helped him to his feet once more, “right it is.

More walking, more resting, more walking still. Whenever they came across another fork, they came up with another choice. Maybe left because nobody liked being left out. Maybe the middle because of moderation in all things. The reasons didn’t matter. All that mattered was that they kept moving forward.

Then at some point, after untold miles, a very subtle shift occurred as the luminescence of the moss began to fade. A flash of concern crossed their faces. After all, if their only source of consistent light was beginning to disappear, what would happen when they were left with nothing but total darkness? Yet after a little checking, a bit of closing of eyes and cupping of hands, it was Rarity’s keen eye that discovered the fading was not because of organic death, but from greater ambient light. But how? That wouldn’t be possible, unless…

Pace quickened imperceptibly as the two continued forward. The tunnel they walked slowly grew wider, the walls further and the ceiling higher. Then suddenly, before either of them quite realized what had happened, Rarity and Graves found themselves standing at the mouth of a large cave that opened out to a deep valley below and the open air of the night sky above.

“… We’re out,” Graves intoned even as disbelief tangled his thoughts. “We actually made it out.”

“But of course,” Rarity smiled as she pinched the marshal’s cheek. “And I must, say this scenery is certainly a nice change of pace.”

She was definitely right about that. Sunken deep between the crags of various stony mountains, the small valley they overlooked was a surprising oasis of soft, green life. The fact that anything green grew in these mountains was a shock, and the fact that the life and vegetation remained untouched by Nul’s corroding miasma was simply a factor of two above.

Graves wasn’t sure how either was possible – perhaps the sheer cliffs, over two hundred paces high, if an inch, that bowed inwards formed a sheltering wall against the dangers outside? Whatever it was, the two of them had stumbled upon perhaps the only safe haven left in these darkness blighted mountains. All because Rarity had decided that being right was better than being too right.

“Well I don’t know about you,” the young lady beamed, “but I, for one, am famished. What say you we go out into those trees and see if we can’t find ourselves something tasty for a change?”

“Good idea,” Graves nodded. “Only one problem.”

“Oh? And what’s that?”

“How do we get down?”

Rarity looked to the marshal, then to the path.

“Ah. I see.”

There was no path. The cave they’d exited extended perhaps ten paces further onto a protruding ledge, then simply dropped off. Much like the rest of the valley, the point they had escaped from was but one spot on those impregnable, stony cliffs that surrounded. From where they stood, it was a good hundred feet of straight drop before anything resembling solid ground appeared.

“Well, what now?” Rarity asked.

“We wait,” Graves grunted as he wearily took a seat against the cavern wall. “Figure out a plan.”

“Great idea,” Rarity nodded as she cozied up to him like always. “Anything to start?”

“Not yet. You?”

“Work in progress.”

“I see.”

“Keep me posted, will you?”

“ ‘Course. And you?”

“Anything for you,” she smiled with a quick peck on the cheek.

Brief exchange concluded, the two lapsed into silence once more. For a moment, the two lost themselves to the tasks at hand, safely stowing the garlands of glowing moss in case they should have use in the future even as they worked to escape from their figurative prison on high. Then, thought slowly drifted away as the evening breeze provided a delicious change of pace from musty cavern air below. They’d just escaped the equivalence of being buried alive. They had time for a little break, right?

Of course they did. For about ten seconds at least, because all thoughts of rest were quickly interrupted by an all-too familiar, piercing cry from above.

“You gotta be kidding me…”

Pushing up from his wall-side leaning, Graves trained his gunmetal gaze to the sky above. It was difficult to make out in the darkness, but sharp eyes did spot seven blurs racing straight towards them behind the wake of yet another keening cry.

“Looks like I’m up,” the marshal grimaced as he raised his rifle once more. “Rarity, might wanna step back a bit.”

“Me? I’m not going anywhere,” the young lady protested. “You can hardly sit up as it is, let alone shoot.”

It was true. Though a little strength had returned over the course of their journey, even lifting the spell gun was a chore in itself. Whatever power he had left was nowhere near enough to do battle with the seven apex predators streaking their way. Well, not alone at least.

“Don’t let me slip,” he nodded. Rarity smiled.

“I never do.”

With slender arms wrapped around his broad shoulders, Graves let his body relax into hers as he focused solely on the rifle in hand. Given the rapidly increasing size of the dots heading their way, it would be a minute, maybe fifty seconds before they arrived, not nearly enough time to even charge a single, proper bolt, let alone seven. At this point, their only hope was to tag enough weaker shots to deter them from pursuing as they retreated back into the caves. Of course, the fact that they were flying forward with the intent of arrows loosed from the bow diminished the chances of that happening even more quickly than the diminishing distance, but hey, maybe they’d get lucky, right?

Steel glowed with a faltering silver-white as the spell charge slowly built from the brace on his knee. Perspiration sprang out on the marshal’s brow and for a moment, his head swam and the lightning threatened to run wild. In that instant, Rarity was there, bracing up the marshal and buying him the few seconds of undisturbed focus he needed to gain control of magic once more.

As the keening cry came once more, the marshal settled back into form and took aim with glinting silver eyes locked onto his targets. Breath flowed out as the meager stores of lightning he’d collected partitioned into three, small shots. A calloused finger tightened on the trigger, hovering a hair’s breadth from the moment of release, and–”

“Wait! Do you hear that?”

Graves froze, instinct interrupted by Rarity’s sudden cry. Hear? Of course he heard. A griffon’s cry was designed to coordinate aerial dives from miles across. There was no way he hadn’t heard–

“Hey! Up here!”

… Okay, that was something new. Adjusting the angle of his rifle, Graves turned sights toward the source of the third voice, a source that seemed remarkably close to the targets he’d been aiming for.

“There they are! See? I told you my spell would work!”

It was Twilight Sparkle. And Pinkie Pie, and Applejack, and Fluttershy, and Rainbow Dash, all riding atop the backs of griffons like a winged, Valkyrie cavalry. Jaw hanging slack in utter astonishment, the spell charge vanished with a faint puff of smoke as Graves gaped at the sight of seven griffons winging their way into the cave’s mouth to deposite five positively giddy girls not ten feet from where they stood.

“Oh my goodness oh my goodness oh my goodness!” a tearful Fluttershy squeaked as she dove headfirst into the pair for a positively monumental hug. “Thank goodness you two are all right! We’ve been worried absolutely sick about you!”

“Yeah, I’ll say,” Rainbow Dash laughed as she joined in on the hug. “When you two decided to take a premature sky diving lesson, I almost had a heart attack. Nearly went in after you myself.”

“Good thing I lassoed you back in when I did, huh, feisty pants?” Applejack beamed as she added her farm-toned arms to the epic hugfest as well. “Messy a shape as you were, we’da probably ended up trackin’ down three runaways instead ah two.”

It was outlandish. It was impossible. Miracles like this didn’t happen in real life, not like this. But no matter how surreal it seemed, Graves couldn’t deny what his eyes told him to be true. After being attacked, separated, and cast into the abyss, they were once again standing together with the girls laughing and crying like… well, like a bunch of girls, actually, and ones at the end of a particularly sappy film about romance and puppies, to boot.

“You know,” Twilight giggled as she wiped happy tears from her eyes, “usually people say something after seeing their friends again. Or is the marshal too cool for stuff like that?”

“… How?” Graves gaped, and meaning the question in more ways than one.

“Told ya that’s what he’d ask,” Rainbow Dash grinned as she held out an open hand. “Always about business, just like I said.”

“Yeah, yeah," Applejack grumbled as she handed over a shiny, red apple. “Guess a rock don’t change its spots so easy.”

“I didn’t know rocks had spots,” Fluttershy blinked in surprise.

“Various sorts of lichens,” Pinkie Pie smiled. “You’ve got your common caloplaca flavovirescens that produce distinct firedot patterns, the physcia adscendens for a more even silver, white coat, and… What?” she blinked as everyone turned to stare. “I grew up on a rock farm, remember?”

“… In any case, the how was actually quite easy,” the young mage beamed as she deftly ignored the odd babble of chatter behind her. Stepping forward, Twilight instead chose to lightly tapped at the marshal’s chest, finger striking right where his worn, silver badge hung still pinned inside. “The general once told me before about how these are small transmitters for basic information on the marshal wearing it. Naturally, I figured it’d behoove me to learn a little more about it before we came here. A touch of translocation magic here, a bit of dissonance smoothing there, and it was pretty much as easy to find you as a textbook stacked in the comics section.

“I see,” Graves nodded dumbly despite not seeing at all. There was a reason they had whole monitor arrays set up to track the marshals, but he could worry about that point later. “And… the griffons?”

“Ooh, ooh! Pick me!” Pinkie Pie called out as she bounded over, hand’s waiving in air like a certain bookworm in just about any class. “I know this one! Pick me! Pretty please with sugar sprinkles on top!”

“Okay,” Twilight laughed. “Pinkie?”

A deep, deep breath.

“Weeellllllll… after you and Rarity took a nosedive, Twilight hit the limit, and like a Twilight who hits the limit do, got all super teacher mode and got the rest of moving on because we’d have to get our butts away from those nasty loogie monsters chasing us before we could help you guys out, so we did, only that’s when we ran headlong into one of those super big cravat worms–”

“Crevasse wyrms,” the scholar corrected.

“ –right, Crenshaw wurms,” Pinkie nodded, "which would totally have been a bad thing since they were all hopped up on black gas, don’t you know, but it was picking on this poor little griffon like earlier, so naturally, Fluttershy said we had to help it – again – and me and Rainbow Dash were like, ‘Are you crazy?!” but Twilight was all like, “uh uh, no way we’re not letting Nul getting away with any more of this poopy-headed meany, jerk-face stuff, not any more," so we jumped in and knocked the big guy off a cliff, or something, which got a whole bunch of griffons to turn up, which got Applejack to saying all her prayers like a big Sunday dinner cause they’re about to charge us, but Twilight’s all kinds of miffed at this point, so she goes all super saying–

“Super saiyan,” Rainbow Dash amended.

“ –right, super sapien,” Pinkie nodded, “and lassoes them all down with a huge bunch of spells and starts lecturing them about the difference between protecting themselves and just being mean, though I’m pretty sure the griffons didn’t learn much because they were too confused on how a little girl with hair on fire managed to do that, but then the one griffon we saved came over and started sniffing us up a bit – which is weird, because I didn’t think griffons even had noses – which is great, because apparently, it liked what he smelled and started chirping at the others, which got a few more chirping because some of them were the same ones we’d helped with the cyclone earlier–

“Cyclops,” Applejack suggested.

“–right, Cylon,” Pinkie Pie nodded, “and they all started chirping that since we’d been so nice as to help them out not once, but twice, they should do the same, which is when all the griffons got all super nice and said that they’d not only help us get through the mountains like a great big bunch of feathery taxi cabs, but they’d also help us find you and Rarity to boot, which is how we started riding around while Twilight tracked you with one of her super fancy magicky things all the way here where you almost blew us out of the sky but didn’t because Rarity told you not too, and so here we are!”

Graves looked to Rarity, pretty sure the blank expression on her face was properly mirrored in his own. Then, he turned back to the beaming, bubbly baker, a strange sort of expression on his usually stony face.

“… You speak griffon?” he asked.

“Ch, duh!” she grinned. “Doesn’t everyone?”

Many limits had been reached on this trip. Many limits had been surpassed. But for the first time, Graves found his capacity for absurdity filled to the brim, overflowed, and then completely burst apart at each and every seam.

And so he laughed. Despite the stabs of pain from his shattered ribs, his injured stomach, his lacerated leg, and the dozens of other cuts, gashes, bruises, breaks, and wounds marring his body, he laughed. Tears streamed down his face as he doubled over in complete and uncontrollable mirth, laughing from the very core of his soul with whoops and snorts and breathless gasps than he’d ever had in his entire, turbulent life.

The girls didn’t know what to make of it, but hey, when did Ponyville folk ever need a reason to smile? Needing no invitation, the girls joined in as the marshal’s good humor infected them like some kind of giggling epidemic. Six girls laughed and cried and hugged and did a whole lot more of all three before they were done, yet through it all, one violet-haired beauty laughed far harder and cried far longer than most.

Made sense, really. After all, a lady can only hold in so much.


Chapter 28

Chapter 28

Of course, even the happiest of reunions can only last so long, and of course, it was sensible Twilight Sparkle who broke up the hug fest first.

“Alright girls,” she called out, clapping her hands just like a schoolteacher would for wayward children, “I know we’re all excited to see them back safe and sound, but I’m sure Rarity and Graves would appreciate a chance to rest, don’t you think?”

“Oh my goodness, you’re right!” Fluttershy gasped. “I’m so sorry you two. I got so caught up in the moment, that I didn’t even think abo–”

“It’s quite alright darling,” Rarity laughed as she wiped a final tear from her eye. “Though I do agree that it’s best we see to Graves post haste.”

“Why, something happen?” Applejack asked.

“Nothing worth–”


Before the marshal could get a third word in edgewise, a delicate cough from the pretty seamstress brought a halt to his reply. At first, he thought it might have just been a parched throat from all the excitement, but the very pointed look she sent afterwards assured him it was not. Now the question just became why. For a moment, Graves was having a decidedly difficult time imagining what could be on Rarity’s mind until he finally summoned up the modicum of sense he was born with and put it to good use.

Of course.

Completely by instinct, Graves had reverted back to his old habits of operating on a need to know basis where nothing need ever be known. In fact, he’d gone so far as to surreptitiously rebutton up his coat – quite unconsciously, honestly – in order to put a deeper freeze on the dissemination of any wayward facts, which in this case, meant the sorry state of his own person.

No, they’d just talked about this, and there was no time like the present to put some of Rarity’s uncommonly good sense to work.

“Ah, actually…” Graves coughed, much like Rarity had except that where hers had been modest and tasteful, his erupted in an awkward and painful hack stemming from both internal injury and internal turmoil as he went full bore against his very nature. “Actually,” he began once more, “I’m not, er… feeling… that good.”

“… Ah, beg yer pardon, marshal,” Applejack apologetically smiled, “but could yah run that by me again?”

Graves repeated himself.

“… Yah, still not getting it,” Rainbow Dash frowned in confusion. “What are you trying to say?”

Graves repeated himself once more.

“I… think I’m hearing it right,” Twilight murmured, “but… no, it couldn’t be. Graves, you didn’t say what I think you did, did you?”

Good gods, if the girls were going to make it this hard to share so simple a statement, then the marshal was more than half inclined to wash his hands of the whole affair. But a firm glance from a pair of stern sapphire eyes showed how displeased a certain lady would be should he chart that course of action. So, taking a deep, steadying breath, the marshal repeated himself for a third time.

At this point, even Pinkie Pie was ready to cry foul on shenanigans, and she regularly breached inter-dimensional boundaries just for the sake of a joke. Graves never felt not good. Or, he was always not not good. Or… whatever, you get the idea. The point was, nothing got to Graves. Ever. He just plugged on ahead, headbutting whatever brick wall lay before him till it eventually succumbed to the indomitable force of his harder-than-just-about-anything skull with nary a scratch and no more inconvenience than the time it took to brush the dust from his coat. To hear him say that he was… not feeling that good, was it?... was like, well…

Honestly, they had no idea what it was like. How do you even use something from reality to analogize an absolute impossibility?

“Graves? Dear?” Rarity interjected upon seeing the abject confusion painted on the faces of her friends. “Mayhaps they’d understand if you added more… tangibility to your statement.”


“Open your coat?”

Though the brief exchange sparked more than its fair share of questions, nobody, not even Pinkie Pie, actually gave them voice. Perhaps it was because of the look that crossed the marshal’s face, because it was something like a cross between being shoved out a fifth story window with a child taking its medicine: shocked, scandalized, disbelieving, and none too happy to say the least. Whatever was going on between Rarity and Graves, it was something important enough that the Ponyville girls felt it best to leave it be and grow as it pleased.

Had Graves known this, he would have been very grateful indeed, because right then, he was facing the suggestion with as much cheer as the impending visit of a reaver tribe that one time he’d broken both legs. Words were one thing, but visuals had a tendency to send civvies into a bit of a fit. And by a fit, Graves meant that he’d seen them freak out, wig out, bug out, and pass out at half the things he had hiding under his coat at the moment.

Gunmetal grey eyes looked up at Rarity, and though they were still as unrelenting as ever, they held a softer sheen as well. With that look, her slender hand came to gently rest on his shoulder.

“They can handle, it Graves,” she smiled. “We’re tougher than you think.”

A moment longer as the marshal frowned, then very slowly, and very, very reluctantly, Graves pulled open his coat.

Silence. Then…

“Oh my goodness!”

“Celestia on high!”

“Holy Cheezus!”

“Sweet land o’ Goshen!”


“Look, it’s not that–

“Fluttershy, do we have any more bandages left?”

… Hah?

“Not on us, but there should still be some left back at camp.”

“I might have something! Jellybeans? Nope. Old sasparilla cap? Nope. Gummy’s toothbrush? No– wait, why do I even have that?”

“Great. Take Rainbow Dash and head down there. Boil as much water as you can and fish out every last bit of medicine we have, on the double!”

“You got it, boss!” And with a crisp salute and not a single backwards glance, the two rune flyers – yes, that included the perpetually terrified Fluttershy – leaped off the cliff side ledge and took off at breakneck speed.

“Applejack, how are we on supplies?”

“Got heaps o’ hearty vittles, but we’re lackin’ on the lighter side. Pretty sure I saw some good pickin's over on the valley’s other side.”

“Pinkie, can you help Applejack rustle some up?”

“Can I?! You bet your sweet tootie patootie I can!”

“Excellent. Grab some of the griffons help you out, but leave two of them for us?”

“Just two? But–”

“Trust me. I got this covered.”

“Okie dokie lokie!” And with that, those two vaulted atop the backs of two more griffons and made with the yippie kay yays as they took off for the skies.

That just left Twilight to briskly turn back to Rarity and a very stunned Graves.

“How is he?” the young mage asked as she knelt down beside the seated pair.

“Held together by the threads of his clothes,” Rarity replied with a wry grin.

“Can we move him?”

“I believe so. Are you fine with that, sweetie?”

“Uh… sure?”

Graves was confused. Where were the screams? The panic? Sure, they’d bounced around like popcorn in a hot skillet at first, but within moments, Twilight had rounded them up and sent them on their ways like a well-ordered militia. They weren’t behaving like normal civvies at all. They were actually operating like... well... a team.

With his slightly bemused confirmation being all that she needed, Twilight instantly stood back up and returned to the remaining two griffons. After some quick but calm explanations, the two winged beasts eyed each other curiously, but simply nodded their plumed heads as Twilight pulled out her wand and began her spell.

Bands of amethyst light flowed out and coalesced into forms around the griffons. Like clay being shaped before their very eyes, harnesses and snaps appeared before extending out to materialize into an elegant chariot, one big enough to comfortably seat three as it stood ready to be pulled by two leonine steeds.

Graves stared, eyes the size of silver dollars as Rarity and Twilight helped him into the vehicle. Only when foot made contact with light as solid as stone to create soft, shimmering ripples, did he finally manage to gather his wits and speak.

“You can… make stuff?” he gaped. “Since when?”

“Since… always?” Twilight smiled with an embarrassed flush. “I only really put it to practice after our, um… canyon incident, what with having to make so many shields and what not, but basically, all I had to do was create those same shielding spells in different configurations and leave out the anchoring point. Simple stuff, really.”

Simple stuff? This wasn’t just simple stuff. This was game changing. Why, with this sort of infinitely variable ability, traversing difficult terrain could become exponentially easier. They might have saved hours, if not days off of backtracking through the miasma-strewn mountains. They could have bypassed gullies and ravines with ease. They could have-

They could have, Graves realized with a sudden, sinking certainty, avoided falling altogether. He could have avoided putting Rarity and the rest in danger not once, but countless other times had he only thought to put that sort of magic into practice.

No, that wasn’t right either. He was creative in the field, yes, but this sort of magic theory was well beyond him. There was no way he’d have ever been able to come up with that sort of idea on his own. He couldn’t have, but Twilight could. She could have kept them all safe if only he’d thought to ask for her help.

As the griffons took off and soared beneath the darkened sky with Twilight at the helm to keep the construct stable, Graves slumped against the chariot’s side. Rarity, ever beside the marshal, noticed the sudden sag of his broad shoulders and turned to him in worry.

“Graves, are you alright?”

“No I’m not,” he freely muttered. “I’m the biggest fool this side of the– no, I’m just the biggest fool, period.”

“Graves, you are not a fool,” Rarity insisted. “Occasionally silly and often mulishly stubborn, but not a fool.”

“What’s this about fools?” Twilight asked.

“I nearly got us all killed,” Graves answered with unabashed bitterness. “If I’d just asked for help earlier instead of trying to be a goddamn hero like some greener than green raw recruit, we would never have gotten into that mess in the first place. Marshal. Psh. More like a court marshal, if you ask me.”

Turning with eye wide in alarm, Twilight looked Rarity, then to Graves as his face darkened into a brooding thundercloud. Between the two of them, they knew that if there was one thing the marshal hated more than seeing people he liked in danger, it was screwing up his job, and it seemed like in this case, he felt that he'd gotten a liberal helping of both.

“Graves, it’s not your fault, really,” the young mage insisted. “You couldn’t possibly have known that sort of magic was an option. Hay, I didn’t even realize it was until just recently too, remember?”

“But if I’d just asked–”

“For what, an answer to a question that you didn’t even know existed?” Twilight interrupted. “Graves, I’m as good as it gets at taking tests, but even I’m not that good.”

Thought he marshal let loose a small chuckle, the sound quickly gave way to resignation once more.

“I should’ve left it to you. I should’ve gotten your input – hell, everyone’s – before we’d even touched down. Could’ve saved us from nearly falling to our deaths.”

“Maybe,” Twilight nodded. “And maybe you should’ve grown a pair of wings and just flown us here yourselves, hm?”


“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought we were wishing for things from the realm of absolute improbability,” Twilight replied all too sweetly.

“It wasn't improssi– improbable. I-”

“Am absolutely terrible about asking for help," she interjected firmly once more, “just like how Applejack’s bad at math, Rainbow’s bad at studying, and yours truly is bad about keeping an even temper.”

“You? Really? No,” Rarity will all earnest sincerity.

“The point being, marshal,” Twilight continued with a good-humored roll of the eyes, “is that you’re nowhere near perfect, but nobody expects you to be. You did everything you could to protect us using what you had available, and it’s only through hind sight and learning that you found ways to do it better. How could we possibly resent you for that?”

“I could’ve learned it a lot sooner,” Graves muttered as a dim memory of a duel with Shining Armor drifted forth. "Hay, I've been on a team before, haven't I? I should've known better."

“People forget," Twilight answered as she knelt to lay a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "When that happens, sometimes, the only choice we have is to learn it again, if you can at all. I mean, hay, with everything you’ve been through, learning to rely on others is probably the toughest thing for you to get of all.

"Which,” she continued as her assuring smile melted into a concerned frown, “is probably why I, on behalf of all of us, should really be apologizing to you.”

Graves blinked.



“Well, if anyone here had lessons that should have been learned sooner, it’d be us,” Twilight explained, her usually cool lecture tones marred by a touch of breathless rushing. “I mean, we all know that you’ve lost a lot of important things in your life, and we should have given that the weight it deserved when we considered our interactions with you. We didn’t, probably because even though we thought we knew what it meant, none of us really knew. You know?”

At the marshal’s surprised look, which clearly indicated that no, he did in fact not know, Twilight replied with a small, wry smile.

“You see, not many of us have... gone through what you did, Graves. We can imagine it's pretty bad, but not that's like saying you know how to operate a Celestron C9 telescope just by reading the manual. None of us actually had practical experience, so to speak."

"I... see...?" Graves slowly nodded.

"But when you and Rarity fell, having to watch you two disappear, not knowing whether you were alive or dead, and feeling so completely powerless to do anything? That was pretty much the worst feeling any of us ever went through, and let me tell you, it was bad, like... like looking in Sombra's cursed mirror, only worse. And we didn’t even have to put up with it for that long. We managed to track your badge, you see, so we knew you were alive at least, and if you were still kicking, then there’s no way that Rarity wouldn’t have been fine, which was really nice to know because–”

Upon realizing that she’d begun babbling and resorting to the use of double negatives, Twilight took a deep breath to steady herself and resumed once more.

“My point is, Graves, is that we knew you’d gone through that before. You’ve lost more than your fair share of friends, and you were fighting tooth and nail this entire time to make sure that didn’t happen again because you knew just how terrible it really was. But when you got tired and hurt, we didn’t support you. We just gave you a hard time for being so–

“Jack-assed?” Graves offered.

“Intent,” Twilight firmly corrected, “about doing what you were brought here to do. You needed your friends to be there for you and we weren’t. So we talked about it, and we all agreed that i- when we found you two again, we should let you know that we’re all really, really, really sorry.”

Graves just looked over at Twilight for a spell, gunmetal greys scrutinizing her amethyst eyes a bit.

His job was to keep them safe. To do that, he should have shared the intel that would have allowed them to cooperate and keep things running smooth. Instead, he’d treated them like children, withheld valuable information, royally mucked up the esprit de corp he knew was crucial to mission success with a terribly pissy mood, and generally put their lives in jeopardy because he didn’t trust in his team. And Twilight felt the need to apologize to him?

He kept waiting for her to break out into laughter, but she didn’t. Nothing remained in those eyes, so bright now despite being clouded by self-doubt and insecurity just a single day ago, except earnest sincerity and just a bit of pensive worry.

“I think by his somewhat perplexed stare,” Rarity began with a smile, “that our dear marshal really doesn’t see the need for you to apologize. In fact, I’ll bet he’s thinking this is still all his fault and would insist that the blame rests squarely on his shoulders, am I right?”

“Aye,” Graves firmly nodded.

“Ah, I see,” Twilight giggled as her tension visibly drained from her now much happier face. “Then how about this? I accept your apology, and you accept mine. We both shoulder part of the blame because that’s what friends do, right? Share the load. And then, we can both promise to do better in the future because the best part of all is that friends stick together till the very end. Deal?”

And despite the wear and tear of combat, when Graves saw Twilight smile bright and extend out a hand, he couldn’t help but grin a small, slightly goofy, and very lopsided grin as he reached out and took it in his own.



Chapter 29

Chapter 29

Wheeling their way over a small clearing, the griffons landed and deposited the injured marshal and his two guardians into the open space below. Once dismounted with a little extra aid, Graves looked about and let out a low, whistle of awe.

“Now this… this is a nice camp.”

It certainly was. Compared to the rest of the barren wilds around them, this land was positively lush with vegetation, which the girls had used to their full advantage. Sparsely leafed boughs stood lashed together to form solid shelters for their sleeping rolls, gathered piles of tough mountain grass served as additional bedding, and a small stream that gurgled nearby provided a ready source of water. But the most amazing treasure of all by far was the existence of a real, honest-to-Celestia apple tree. Granted, the trunk was tough and gnarled, and the bark had the unhealthy coloring of a swamp plant, but its resilient boughs hung with a choice selection of hearty, well-ripened fruit. Nothing on the perfection of a Sweet Apple Acre’s crop, but out here? A literal treasure.

And that wasn’t even accounting for the company.

“Like what we’ve done with the place?” Rainbow Dash called as she flitted over to where Rarity was helping the marshal down. “Beats sleeping out on a rock, doesn’t it.

“I’ll say,” Graves breathed. “This is… amazing.”

“And it’s all thanks to the griffons!” Fluttershy beamed as she scratched one through the soft, downy feathers around its neck. “After they lifted us out from the mountains, they flew us here so we could rest while Twilight worked on the spells. They’re such wonderful creatures, isn’t that right? Isn’t that right?”

From the way it chirped and purred, the little lady wasn’t the only one enjoying the process.

“But that’s not all,” Rainbow Dash sniggered as she threw an arm around Rarity’s slender shoulders. “See, we figured we’d be seeing the two of you again and you’d probably be stinking to high heaven when you did–”

“Well, you’re certainly no rosebud yourself…” Rarity began to retort before she paused. Actually, Rainbow Dash didn’t smell that bad. In fact, she smelled rather… nice.

“And of course,” the cyan flyer continued as she guided the pretty seamstress beneath tree bough near the water’s edge, “Rarity’s never happy unless she can shower, like, five times a day, so we decided to whip up a little something just for you.”

Slowly, sapphire eyes widened. No. It wasn’t possible. They couldn’t have. But when Rainbow Dash tugged a nearby vine to tip a woven nest of leaves over, she watched in rapture as the cascading stream of water broke up through a lattice of bound twigs to produce a million glittering droplets of liquid delight.

Yes, the girls had actually managed to build a working shower.

“It’s… it’s beautiful….” Rarity sniffed as tears once more came to her eyes. “I think I might just cry. Again.”

“Aw, don’t do that just yet,” Twilight beamed as she walked over with a levitating collection of smooth river stones. “After all, once we heat these up and plop them in, you can do it in a steamy bath and nobody will ever know.”

It was a nice thought. Too nice, because Rarity hadn’t even managed to touch the shower before the waterworks began. Fortunately, a sensible scholar was able to provide a necessary shoulder even as she refocused attention to more pressing matters.

“Anyway, how are we looking on medicine?” Twilight called out.

“Oh, right!” Fluttershy started. Darting back to the pile of supplies, she ran back with a handful of supplies and a pensive frown on her demure face.

“Well Twilight, Mister Graves,” she murmured, “the good news is that Rainbow Dash and the griffons managed to find some king’s grass and sage root. The not so good news is that it seems like you might, um… need more than we have.”

"You two have anything that might help?" Twilight asked? "Maybe something you picked up along the way?"

“Can't imagine what, but you're free to take a look,” Graves shrugged as held up his small side satchel that held all the meager supplies he and Rarity had to their names. Fluttershy gave a small, not particularly hopeful nod as she opened up the sack. That’s when her eyes went wider than they had upon meeting her first baby dragon.

“Oh my!” she gasped. “Is this what I think it is?”


Reaching in, the pink-haired girl pulled out one of the garlands of glowing moss that had lit their way just a few hours ago. Even now, it continued to glow with its soft, subterranean light.

“That?” Graves shrugged. “Just some lighting from the caves. Why, is it important?”

“Is it important?!” Fluttershy gaped. “Mister Graves, this is genuine Royal Nightbloom!”

“Eh, looks kinda like a glowing afro to me,” Rainbow Dash remarked as she squinted at the moss. “Seems like an awfully fancy name for such a poofy little thing.”

“Oh, but it deserves it!” Fluttershy earnestly nodded. “Royal Nightbloom is an incredibly rare plant that distills magic from the soil and stores it, making it incredibly revitalizing when consumed. Of course, it can only grow with the purest water, which is why it’s usually only found in very deep caves undisturbed by any sort of wildlife. But that's not important. What's important is that this little darling is actually one of the best herbal remedies we know of!”

“… You’re kidding,” Graves gaped as well. “How do you even know all this?”

“Well, I read it,” Fluttershy blinked in surprise. “It was in the file you gave me, remember?”

Remember? Of course he didn’t remember. The information he’d given her had consisted of literally hundreds of different plants and herbs. And she’d actually remembered the bit on incredibly rare and thus, impractical to rely upon shrubbery? Seriously, what were the odds of that? And what were the odds that their crazy rush through the rapids and who knows how many twisting turns and offshoots would actually toss them into the exact place where that knowledge could be put to use without them even–

Silver eyes lighting up with wonder, Graves glanced down at the heavy ring of swirling gold and silver on his right hand.

“Anyways,” Fluttershy continued, now with an excited smile rapidly growing on her glowing face, “if we just brew this up into a nice tea, then Graves should be feeling much better very soon!”

"Did somebody mention tea?"

Directing their attention upwards, the party found themselves looking at a flock of griffons as Pinkie Pie and Applejack made their grinning descent. Not even waiting for their aerial escorts to touch down, the two Ponyville girls bounded from their backs and dashed over with bulging bags held out with eager grins.

"Got a whole mess 'a quality stuff right here," Applejack smiled as she quickly upended the sack onto a clean, flat stone lying beside the fireplace. "We got some of yer basic vegetals, some nice turnips, button mushrooms, and an odd potato or two, but the real beauties are right here. A little rosemary fer her noggin, some ginger fer yer what's most definitely an upset stomach if I ever did hear one, a few clusters of nutmeg, an' even a bunch o' random berries!"

"A truly glorious supply of anthocyanins, catechins, and all sort of other wonderful ins to get you back on your feet!" Pinkie Pie beamed.

“Then I guess it's time I put my Saturday morning cultural studies to good use!" Twilight Sparkle beamed. Taking a generous clump of moss from Fluttershy, the lady scholar expertly plucked the glowing green clumps from roots and soil before tossing them into one of the few remaining tin cups that sat heating above the fire along with generous dashes and pinches of the other ingredients at precisely calculated intervals. In a matter of minutes, the process was done, and with a flick of her wand, she whisked away the excess heat from the metal, floated the cup over, and gave it to Graves.

“Bottoms up!” she grinned.

The marshal gave the drink a quick look. Smelling faintly of spiced berry tea, the cup now glowed with the same iridescence as the moss it came from. Turning grey eyes to Fluttershy, then Twilight, and back, he lifted the cup to his lips and in one gulp, drained its contents.

His breath hitched. What had simply tasted like a slightly sweet tea suddenly burst forth with radiant power. He could feel the magic, gentle as the palest moonlight, yet so potent as if distilled and focused a thousand-fold. The magic coursed through him as it flowed through the damaged linings of his stomach to suffuse his whole body with a sudden, soft glow. In a few moments, both the light and the sensation faded away, but not without leaving behind some definite and noticed change.

“Well?” Fluttershy smiled. “How do you feel?”

“... Better,” Graves blinked in surprise. "Lots better."

"In that case, drink up," Twilight laughed as she began the process once more. "Rainbow, mind grabbing the kettle from Rarity's bag? Might as well make enough for everyone, right?"

"Aw, yiss!" Rainbow grinned. But even as everyone leaped up to retrieve the supplies, Rarity paused, a little confused.

“My bag?” she frowned. “Twilight, I lost my bag back in those icky, icky swamps. Surely you remember that.”

A sudden flash of understanding passed through the other girls a flash that came with an embarrassed giggle as well.

“Yeah, about that,” Twilight Sparkle grinned. “So, in light of everything else that’s been happening, we sort of forgot to mention that one of the first things the griffons did was help us get back some of our stuff. Sort of a little apology, don’t you know? Anyway, some of them flew back to the swamp, and one of the things we managed to get back was your bag, along with all the–”

In a violet flash that impressed even the griffons with its alacrity, Rarity dove headfirst into the pile of supplies and began rummaging around like it was a half off sale on Canterlot's entire Diamond District. After a surprising number of extra blouses and slacks went flying through the air, Rarity finally emerged.

“Aha!” she called out as she triumphantly held up a small, silver-worked box overhead . “Oh my stars, darling! Of all the things you could have salvaged, this is by far the best. Possible. Thing!”

“Uh, Rarity?” Applejack frowned. “I know yer big intah the whole prissy pretty frou-frou nonsense, but… did yeh actually go about luggin’ around yer makeup all the way through these here woods?”

“Jewelry, dear Applejack, not makeup,” the pretty dressmaker corrected. “And if Pinkie Pie can carry around a pair of rubber chickens, I think a small box of baubles should be no problem.”

“It’s true,” Pinkie Pie readily grinned. “Chickens take up a whole lot more room than a bunch of rocks, don’t you know.”

“In any case, we haven’t a moment to lose,” Rarity gushed with delight just before she grabbed the marshal’s arm. “Come along Graves. We have work to do!” And before the marshal could protest, let alone finish his third cup of that wondrous tea, he found himself being forcibly lead away by Rarity towards the a smaller, more secluded clearing just off the camp proper. Once distanced from the rest of the group, the violet-haired beauty turned, gave the marshal a quick look over, and happily nodded.

“Very well then,” she smiled. “Off with your clothes.”

“… Hah?”

Before he could form a coherent statement, Rarity spun him around and neatly stripped off his coat like a particularly cooperative tangerine peel.

“Okay, what’s this about?” he frowned as he clutched onto the tattered rags of his shirt with a sudden, new-found attachment.

“Obviously, I need to get a good look at you,” Rarity continued even as dexterous fingers darted for the buttons on his shirt. “You clearly haven’t been feeling well, and I need to do something about it.”

“Appreciate the concern,” Graves replied as he quickly parried her nimble hands, “but I don’t see why you need to see.”

“It’s certainly much easier to work when you’ve got eyes on the project,” Rarity rejoined as she continued the relentless assault. Whether by virtue of her tenacity or a failing on the marshal’s usual prowess, the young lady quickly scored a victory as one button came undone.

“Not sure what you intend to do,” the marshal frowned. “You’re not exactly a healer.”

“No, but I have… plans…” Rarity huffed from exertion as she score yet another point.

“Care to let me know?” Graves grunted.

“I could show you if you’d quit being so stubborn.”

“Tell me first."


"Why not?"


"In that case–”

“Oh my…”

Graves turned around at the sudden onset of a third voice and caught sight of five girls peeking out from behind a tree, a true cornucopia of expressions painted across their faces.

“So this is what you two do when nobody’s watching,” Rainbow Dash sniggered.

“Told yah, Dashie,” Pinkie Pie grinned. “Bow chika wow wow!”

“Honestly,” Twilight sighed, “couldn’t you two wait till after we got back to Ponyville? Or at least out of mortal peril?”

Graves had no idea what they were talking about until he turned around. That’s when he realized that after their brief struggle, the two were now standing awfully close together, Rarity’s hands on the two sides of a shirt that now hung unbuttoned down to his waist. Ah. That would explain Fluttershy’s wide-eyed stare of perplexed fascination.

“Um, do you mind?” Rarity sniffed, cool as a cucumber. “A little privacy now and again would certainly be appreciated.”

“Alright, alright,” Applejack laughed as she herded the others off, “We’ll be outta yer hair in a jiffy. Jess’… don’t stay up too late now, yah hear?” So it was with a good bit of headshaking, catcalling, and embarrassed blushing that the five left and gave the two the quiet they wished.

“… Huh,” Graves intoned. “That was–”

Shouldn’t have let his guard down. The instant after their friends departed, Rarity’s eyes flashed like blue lightning as she struck with equal ferocity. Without sign or warning, slender, serpentine hands snapped apart the last few buttons and the marshal’s shirt was stripped clean off.

“I knew it,” she tutted. “I just knew it.”

It was a bit difficult to see amidst all the old scars crisscrossing his chiseled form, but Graves had definitely made some new additions in recent days. Fresh gashes and lacerations stood out red and raw where skin hadn’t blackened with bruised and battered skin. It was to one of these that the young lady looked, a long, ugly welt of mangled flesh the color of rotten fruit that wound its way across his ribs.

“When did that happen?” Rarity asked as she gingerly touched the spot above the marshal’s third shattered rib.

“Jabberwock,” he winced. “After the late night run.”

“I see,” Rarity nodded. “Certainly were favoring that side of yours when we walked those caves. Now I can see why.”

“Wish you hadn’t,” Graves grimaced. “Not like you knowing will change anyth–” Words cut off with a sharp intake of breath as the violet-haired beauty examined his side with a good deal more force than she had to.

“I know it’s a tough habit to break, but do try and stop with your chest-hair bravado, if you can,” she continued, her admonishing tones accompanied by a truly dangerous glint in the eye. “Now, it seems that I have a good deal of work to do, so here’s what we’ll do. You will be so kind as to lie down and behave or so help me, I will take Applejack’s lasso and tie you to that tree over yonder and give you a much more thorough work over. Are we clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Graves saluted with as much respect as he’d ever given the general. When Rarity took that tone, she commanded respect and people gave it.

“Good,” the young lady huffed. “Now lie down. I need to get started right away.”

Really not understanding what she intended, Graves did as bidden and lowered himself to the soft grass below. He turned his head and watched Rarity prepare, first pulling out the small wand she kept in her wristband before opening the jewelry box and emptying it out. Eyebrows arched in surprise.

“Gems?” he blinked.

“Indeed,” Rarity smiled proudly. “I am going to take these and make you all better.”

“You’re kidding.”

Graves didn’t mean to scoff, but he couldn’t help it. See, lightning magic may have been hard to control, but it was miles simpler than the intricacies of healing magic. To knit back damaged tissue into working order was like sewing lace on a microscopic level with a hundred pound needle. Even a good two years of meticulous study had only ever allowed Graves to remedy minor injuries and refresh fatigue for each costly pull of the trigger, and it seemed that Rarity was proposing to do more than just that.

“I see we have a naysayer in our midst,” the young lady smirked as she began arranging various assortments of colored stones on the marshal’s scarred chest, their smooth facets deliciously cool against his skin. “Well, sir, you just sit there and prepare to be blown away.”

Eyes flashing with amusement, Graves settled back and let the lovely lady get to work. Touching the wand to each stone in turn, Rarity began to speak, a low, sibilant sound of equal parts word and music. Slowly, the stones began to glow as sparks of life stirred inside their crystalline depths. And that’s when the magic began.

He could feel it. Where once the cool sensation of smooth stone had been, Graves now could only feel a soft warmth radiating forth like rays from a fresh summer sun. The warmth permeated his flesh, working its way deep into his bones to wash away fatigue with ripples of cleansing heat. But there was more. As the warmth worked in deeper, it came to his side, where shattered bones lay, and core, where shredded organs sat. The pain didn’t disappear, but it faded. Ever so slowly, the mere sensation of sand grains on a beach washing out with a wave, he could feel the damage fading. He could feel himself heal.

“How… how are you doing that?” Graves gaped with eyes the perfect roundness of silver coins. “How in the name of holy mercy are you doing that?”

“Surprise!” Rarity giggled as a triumphant grin came to her face. “Do you remember our misadventures with the chimera?”

“No, completely forgot that one,” the marshal replied with a slight roll of his eyes.

“Then it’s a good thing I didn’t,” the young lady laughed. “You see, ever since that time, I’ve been wondering just what other properties gems might have in store. They certainly proved useful in that cave, did they not?”

“Indeed,” the marshal intoned.

“Naturally, I began to experiment and came to find that many jewels actually have a natural affinity to the healing arts. Peridots lend themselves to liveliness, garnets for vigor and strength, aquamarines to soothing coolness, and… well, the list goes on, but you get the idea. At first I didn’t put much stock in those findings – I’m a designer, not a doctor after all – but when a certain someone’s health and well-being became a major concern of mine, I decided I might as well apply myself to what might one day be a particularly useful skill set. Just in case.”

Graves looked down to his chest where an intricate pattern of jewels glowed with healing light. Then he looked up to those beautiful sapphire eyes that outshined every one of those rocks like the sun to candles.

“Anyone ever tell you you’re amazing?”

“On occasion,” Rarity beamed. “Now hold still.”

Graves did as he was told and lay down again, content to let the soothing light work through his battered form. Ever so slightly, like watching the sun sink at dusk, he could feel some of the pain and exhaustion seep away. Each passing minute made breathing just a bit easier as bones, while not quite mending, slowly began to connect into something more than a mess of fragmented shards. It would be too much to hope for his injuries to heal so quickly – that would be a stretch for even a whole team of healers. For now, though, the edge of pain was dulled as the process began, and that was well more than enough.

After a few minutes, Rarity stopped and the glittering light from the stones faded away. Graves moved to get up, but a soft touch to his forehead preceded that act.

“Uh uh uh,” the young lady tutted. “Did I give you permission to leave?”

“Aren’t we done?”

“Not in the slightest,” she smiled. “You may feel better, but I can assure you that the stones are accent pieces at most and their effects are far less extensive than what you may feel. We’ll have to repeat the process several times before the effects even really start to take hold.”

“Well, what’re we waiting for?” Graves grinned. “Let’s get–”

He paused.

“Something wrong?” Rarity asked.

“Yeah. You.”

Just a few minutes. Really, she’d only been at it a few minutes, but already, he could tell that she was tired. Sure, she hid it well – Rarity could keep composure in a conversation with a banshee – but even she couldn’t hide everything from his piercing grey eyes. Her posture dipped, her head drooped, and that fiery glint in her sapphire eyes had faded to an ember’s glow. She was healing Graves, this was true, but she was doing it at the expense of her own vitality.

“You’re worried,” Rarity stated, reading the expression on his face like a book.

“Can you blame me?”

“Honestly, no,” she sighed. “Right now, I sort of understand how you feel all the time, putting the needs of others first. It’s exhausting.”

Graves was about to speak, but a slender finger pressed to lips halted the words.

“It’s just like I said earlier,” Rarity laughed as she trailed the finger up the side of his face to entwine it in his jet-black hair. “You can’t fight everything on your own, but can trust others to help.”

“You make it sound so easy,” Graves frowned.

“And yet it isn’t,” Rarity smiled softly, “especially for you. I know it's hard for you to watch others struggle on your behalf, but trust me, there are people who can and will if you'd just let them."

“… Not gonna be easy,” Graves muttered.

“Then consider it indulging me,” Rarity laughed. “After all, if you go running off and getting into trouble, who’s going to make me feel like the prettiest woman in the world?”

“Well, we wouldn’t want you to miss out on that,” Graves laughed before his face faded into somber consideration. “So, you really want to do this?”

“I for you, and you for me,” Rarity smiled, more radiant than the shining moon above. “For now and forever more.”

Graves looked up at the woman who took his breath away. He could see the weight of their travels on those slender shoulders, the fatigue and exhaustion of trial after trial hammering her down. She was well past the point anyone could have expected of such a young lady, past anyone really. If he did in fact rely on her, depend on her for strength as she wanted, he very well might end up breaking her.

In the end, it all boiled down to trust. Did he trust Rarity to endure? Did he trust Rarity to be strong enough when he himself was not? A final look into those bright sapphire eyes, so full of pure, unshakable love that it almost hurt to look at, and...

“… In that case, I'll be-"


Graves glanced up at the noise and looked on in surprise as five girls once again came tumbling from behind the tree.

“See, told yah we should’ve spit up,” Applejack huffed. “Didn’t need to cram in so tight right there."

“Come on, that was the best spot and you know it,” Rainbow Dash retorted. This caught Rarity’s attention.

“Best spot for what, may I ask?” she smiled sweetly with a dangerous glint in her eye.

“Oh, not much,” Pinkie Pie replied with an innocent whistle, “and we certainly weren’t peeking from behind the tree in hopes of catching two you mid canoodling. Nope, definitely not that.”

“… How long were you listening?” Rarity sighed.

“Long enough to know that it's not just you two in this,” Twilight giggled. “After all, you’re not the only one worried about Graves here.”

“I’m very worried,” Fluttershy interjected with a shy smile. “You might even say I’m a professional worrier.”

"Yeah, worried and, uh... sorry, too," Applejack grimaced as she pulled off her Stetson. "Twilight said y'all already traded words on it, but I really do wanna 'pologize fer givin' yah hard time when you were in such a start. T'warnt right in the slightest, by my reckonin'."

"Yeah, you were kind of being a-" A quick elbow to the ribs from Pinkie Pie helped the colorful flyer readjust her wording. "I mean, yeah. What she said."

"Anyway, jess wanted you tah know that we've got your back from here on out, marshal," Applejack nodded firmly. "Long as you'll have us, that is."

Looking around to the others, each of whom shared a similar degree of the farm girl's warm, but steely resolve, Graves brought up his hand to cover a rough cough.

"Ah, in that case... I'll be counting on you. All. All of you. I'll be counting on... um... yeah..."

It was a touching moment. It really was. But no matter how poignant it may have been, not even stern, old Feather Duster could have kept a straight face at the marshal's words. So stilted and stiff, yet so heartfelt at once, the sheer adorkability of his statement brought out fresh peals of ringing laughter as the girls rushed in to resume the hugging that they did so well.

"Someone please shoot me," Graves muttered as he closed his mortified eyes.

"Now now dear," Rarity smiled. "After being a sour puss, you owe them this much at least this much."

"Yeah, you were kind of being a-" Rainbow Dash began once more, only to get a timely interruption from Fluttershy. Time and place, you know? Time and place.

“Alright, alright,” Twilight clucked as once more she was called to the role of sensibility. "Pinkie Pie? You and Flutters go and get started on dinner, if you please. Rainbow and Applejack? See if you can scrounge up some more of those herbs and what not. I want to pump so much tea into the marshal that it starts coming out of his ears.

"You got it, boss!" Rainbow Dash saluted. In fact, all the girls saluted in what seemed to be an increasingly well-practiced maneuver, which honestly, Graves didn't find all that surprising. Just days before, she’d been nervous and tense, caught in the no man’s land of indecisiveness that had ended more lives than swords and spells combined. Now, her amethyst eyes were clear, happy and bright, but underscored with a serene calm that was distinctly reminiscent of a certain royal monarch.

"In the meantime," Twilight continued, kneeling down beside Rarity once she was sure her wayward flock was well on task, “I was wondering if I might be able to give you a hand here?”

“I’d certainly appreciate it,” Rarity nodded with a relieved smiled as she replaced the gemstones that had tumbled off in their impromptu hugfest. “Do you think you’ll be able to get the hang of it soon?”

“Oh, I’m a fast learner,” the young mage giggled. “If you do it one more time, I think I’ll be able to get the gist of it. We can alternate after that and hopefully, share the load.” The happy squeeze Rarity gave her was all the response she needed.

"Also, there's one more thing I'd like to recommend," Twilight began, this time, turning directly to Graves with the question. "Call it a hunch, but I’ll be you haven’t been sleeping very well this trip, have you Graves?”.

“I’ve had better,” he shrugged. "Why?"

“Well, a sleeping spell's pretty easy to conjure up," Twilight shrugged. "I could whip up one and make sure you have a nice night's sleep. But..."

“But?” Graves inquired.

“But I could also do more. If I tweak it up a bit, I could put you into a super deep sleep, almost like a healing trance. You’d definitely recover much faster than normal, but the catch is that you won’t come back up till the spell's over.”

“I see,” the marshal nodded. “And how long would the spell last?”

“If we want to do it safely, and Celestia knows we do," Twilight frowned as she ran various calculations through her mind, "then the narrowest immersion and reclaiming cycle would require… three days. Two at the earliest.”

“So I’ll be out till the solstice,” Graves murmured. Of the many things he may have neglected, the mission clock had not been one of them.

“I know it’s a pretty big risk,” Twilight began explaining as she saw the dark cloud cross over the marshal’s face, “but you really need the rest. If you take it, then it’ll make Rarity’s healing gems work a lot more efficiently, I’m sure of it. Plus, not moving around will make your wounds heal a lot faster, especially if we take some Royal Nightbloom and wrap them over the bigger ones. There’s a lot of benefit from it if–”

“–if I just trust you all to take care of business while I’m out colder than a frozen corpse.”

Graves didn't mean to be rude. Far from it, He just needed to voice the idea so he could fully grasp its implications. Two to three days was a lot of time to be unconscious, especially so close to the deadline. If he went down now, then there’d be no more time to plan and no more opportunities to prepare for the upcoming battle. If he took this deal, then he'd be doing nothing till Armageddon came, which sounded an awful lot like abandoning his duties in protecting them like he'd promised.

But the goal wasn’t just to protect, was it? It was to make sure they got home. Maybe this actually would increase the odds, but he’d have no way of knowing till the morning of. By then, he might be waking up to a charred wasteland after a chimera finished its rampage. Even worse, he might not wake up at all.

All this rested on him trusting others to carry on when he could not.

“… You sure we can make it to the Gate the day of?” Graves asked.

“The griffons have promised to give us a lift,” Twilight nodded.

“Is the camp secure?”

“We put up some warding around already, but we’ll make sure the valley’s covered before we sleep for the evening.”

“And what if we’re attacked again? What then?”

“Then we’ll just find a way to beat them back,” Twilight smiled. “Between the six of us and our new allies, it’ll take Nul himself to make us back off an inch.”

For a moment, as Twilight Sparkle looked down on Graves in expectation. Caught in a moment of uncertainty, it was the gentle touch of a violet-haired beauty and a simple, reassuring smile that finally tipped the scales. Taking a last, deep breath, Graves sighed out and looked to Twilight once more. Glancing once more to the swirling sands, Graves finally turned his gaze up to Rarity’s waiting sapphire eyes.

“Alright. Let's do it.”

Replying with a resolute nod, Twilight pulled out her wand and began a litany of gentle, whispering spells. Slowly, a fine measure of golden sand poured out into her waiting hand, lighter than faerie dust and glittering with a hazy, dream like light. When the measure was full, Twilight lifted the sand to the marshal's face and softly blew forth a cloud of ephemeral, shimmering light. Instantly, he could feel his eyes grow heavy as the comforting lull of slumber overtook him, but it did not take him. For a moment, panic came back, welling up in his chest as he desperately fought to stay awake. There was danger around; he couldn’t afford to sleep just yet.

But then slender fingers touched his hand.

And slowly, the marshal gave in and led the dark tides take him.


Chapter 30

Chapter 30


Turning over in a moment of half slumber, Princess Cadance opened one heavy eye when her arm fell upon open bed. Her husband should have been there with her, but cool covers and an undented pillow showed that it’d been quite some time since he’d laid down, if he even had at all.


“I’m here.”

Pushing herself from the bed, Cadance rubbed the sleep from her eyes as she turned towards the voice she knew so well. The window was open, allowing in a refreshing evening breeze as pale moonlight filled the room. There, arm resting against an upraised knee as he lounged on the open sill, sat her beloved Shining Armor.

For a little while, the princess just sat there, a faint smile crossing her lips as she simply enjoyed the sight of her husband. Though she rarely voiced the thought, Cadance believed that Shining Armor was a truly beautiful man, from the tops of those shimmering waves of azure hair to the soles of his perfectly sculpted form. Yes, he was absolutely gorgeous, and the fact that she was married to him just made that thought all the sweeter.

The thought ended, though the smile still lingered as Cadance rose from the bed and walked over to join her husband. Slipping her fingers between his, the crystal princess leaned against him, savoring the warmth of his touch.

“Having trouble sleeping?” she murmured.

“Battle starts soon,” Shining Armor nodded, his ocean blue eyes staring out towards the north. “When it does, people are gonna die, Cadance. Hundreds, maybe even thousands are going to die, and I’m gonna be the one to do it.”

Cadance couldn’t help but wince when she’d heard those words.

Shining Armor was a kind man, one who cared deeply for those around him, including the soldiers under his command. This made him a fantastic officer as his unwavering dedication to his troops was answered with unwavering loyalty. This also made his burden impossibly heavy as he was forced to order those he considered friends to shed their blood in battle. Yes, they’d been given leave to rest in Canterlot before the solstice arrived, but no number of miles could distance the battlefield from the young captain’s mind. For him, that battlefield meant men would die and do so on his orders. For the captain, the act was tantamount to if he’d slit their throats himself.

“Now you know that’s not true,” Cadance softly protested, the quiet of her voice in no ways reflecting the crystal firmness of her conviction. “What you’re going to do is save as many of them as you can. Nul’s attempting to wipe us all out, but you’re not going to let him. For every person he tries to wipe out, you, Shining Armor, are going to save a hundred more, and those hundreds are going to save the thousands back home. You’re going to protect them. As many as you can.”

“Is that enough?” Shining Armor asked as he turned his heavy gaze towards his wife. “Do those I save outweigh the ones I don’t?”

“They do,” she nodded as her hand squeezed a little tighter. “They absolutely do.”

Shining Armor didn’t wholly believe those words, but he took comfort in them nonetheless. Even when you don’t believe in yourself, having someone believe in you can be a powerful source of strength. That’s why the young captain could smile that gorgeous smile that had stolen her breath so many times as he leaned in to kiss his beloved bride.

“How’d I end up with such a wonderful woman?” he asked as those mirthful tones, as much a sign of him as the burnished shield emblazoned on his back, quickly returned to his voice.

“That’d be Twilight,” Cadance giggled, glad that the moonlight would help mask the flush in her cheeks. Honestly, still blushing like a school girl at her first dance. “She told me everything I needed to know to get your attention while you were at Academy.”

“Really?” Shining Armor blinked. “ I thought it was because she told me all your likes and stuff every time I went back to visit.”

For a moment, the couple gaped in astonishment as they realized that the luck and fate in their meeting might just have had the appearance of a little bookworm clutching a stuffed, rag-doll pony.

“… Clever girl,” Shining Armor nodded with no small amount of approval.

“She really is,” Cadance laughed. The sound, however, was short lived as a worried frown no came to her face instead. “Do you think she’s still okay?”

“Of course,” Shining Armor grinned. “Anything tries to hurt her, and she’d probably lecture them on bad manner beforehand, and that’s only after they get through old Demon Eyes Graves, to boot.”

“That’s a new one,” the princess giggled. “Did you come up with it yourself?”

“I sure did,” the guard captain proudly beamed. “In fact, I even came up with the glare you’re supposed to do every time you say it. It goes a little something like, this…”

The room rang with musical laughter as Cadance caught sight of her husband’s face. The sight of the marshal’s stony stare so perfectly mirrored on his happy-go-lucky visage was just too much for any appreciative audience to handle quietly.

“That… that looks exactly like him,” she gasped between teary giggles, much to the young captain’s delight.

“Well, I’d hope so,” he sniffed, doing a remarkable impression of a Prince Blueblood as well. “I think I’ve spent enough time around the bugger to pick up a few of his bad habits.”

“That, I still don’t understand,” Cadance grinned as she finally got her breath back under control. “I mean, you two are about as different as night and day. I still don’t get how two polar opposites became such good friends.”

Shining Armor still smiled, but something in it changed. Instead of open mirth as was so often the case, the expression grew somehow softer, even sadder as well.

“You know, lot of people think that, myself included,” Shining Armor murmured as his mind slowly wandered through the night sky. “But then again… maybe we’re really not all that different.”

“You’re not?”

“Who knows,” the guard captain shrugged. “We’re both soldiers, we both fight for the ones we care about, and we’d both rather attend a Garden Society brunch than see that evil imposed on anyone else.”

“Oh stop it,” Cadance laughed as she swatted her husband’s shoulder. “You know that they’re nowhere near that bad.”

“You’re right, they’re worse,” Shining Armor rejoined, which got him another little pop for his troubles before laughter faded into quiet once more.

“But in the end, the only real difference is who we had,” he continued in quiet thought. “I got to keep my loved ones while Graves had his ripped away when he probably needed them most. If not for that, how different would we really be?”

Cadance didn’t know how to answer. Honestly, she didn’t know the marshal near as well as her husband, but she could see the truth in what he said. Graves was stern and brooding, but the depth of his commitment to his duties was one she’d only seen in one other man before. Perhaps their personalities were different, but their values, those core aspects that made them who they really were, seemed to be merely two sides of the same coin. Cut down evil for those you love. Fend off danger for those you love. Shield and sword, offense and defense, both parts of the task of protecting those they could.

Of course, neither would ever admit it as both would simply chalk it up to being the least anyone could expect of a good soldier. The fact that one hid behind jokes while the other used brooding silence just served to emphasize the similarities.

“You know, you may have a point,” Cadance remarked as the pieces came together. “Imagine that, Shining Armor isn’t just a pretty face after all.”

“Yeah, I was ejumacated but good,” the man laughed as pressed an affectionate kiss to his wife’s cheeks. “But we should probably get to sleep. Got to keep this face pretty, don’t you know.”

“Of course,” Cadance smiled as pulled him over to the bed. “Come along, pretty boy. Your beauty rest awaits."

As she led her husband back to bed, however, her steps were halted as she felt his hand slip from hers, only to come around as he held her close in a warm embrace from behind.

“Oh, and Cadance?” Shining Armor began, his voice unusually soft and timid. “I, uh… I just wanted to say… thanks, for… you know… being so wonderful.”

The princess didn’t need any light or even any sight to know that his cheeks were a brighter crimson than his officer’s coat. As a bright thrill of delight rushed through her heart, Cadance turned to show her husband how much. However, it seemed that he had different ideas because as soon as she moved, his embraced tightened to keep her from turning around.

“There’s also one more thing,” he added, his words now hasty as he rushed to finish before nerves failed him. “I, ah, just want you to know that… I love you. I love you so much.”

Honestly, could the man be any more adorable?


Out under the starry sky, the man stood in silence, glass in hand as his ice-blue eyes gazed out towards unseen lands to the north. When he heard the hum of spell wings and saw the faint golden glow they cast, he didn’t turn. But he did raise his glass in greeting.

“Evening, princess. Join me for a drink?”

“I suppose I could,” Celestia smiled as she joined Ironside up on the top of the tower. Reaching towards the tray, the Equestrian general raised the hammered silver pitcher and poured its rich, ruby liquid into a second glass. This, Celestia took with a grateful nod as she brought the cup to her lips.

“… Juice?” she blinked in surprise upon tasting nothing more than a fresh berry medley. “I always thought you preferred the stronger stuff.”

“Oh, I do, I do,” Ironside chuckled, the booming sound like artillery on a distant field. “But I never drink in the days leading up to battle. Got to keep my wits, don’t you know.”


“As the first day I picked up a spear,” he grimaced, draining the contents in one gulp as he helped himself to a refill. “Everyone always told me it’d be easier as time went on. Bunch of bloody liars, the lot of them.”

Celestia couldn’t help but laugh. Bluntly honest, crude of tongue, and rougher than sand paper strapped to a porcupine, he was definitely the same old Ironside. No amount of extra drills or kitchen duty had managed to file down his rough edges as a cadet, and it seemed that near forty years of service hadn’t done the job any better. In a way, it was a comfort. Regardless of how times changed, some things would still stay the same.

“You’ll be fine,” the princess smiled as she took another sip. “You haven’t let me down yet, have you?”

“There’s a first time for everything,” Ironside replied with a wry smile. “And let’s be honest, if there was ever a time for someone to screw the pooch, it’d be at a grand old moment like this one.”

“Mm, I doubt it,” Celestia shrugged. “You obviously care too much to… screw the pooch, was it?”

“Damn straight I care,” the general laughed upon hearing his decidedly uncouth words echoed by the princess. “It’s my neck on the chopping block, after all. There’s no way I wouldn’t be worried about keeping my hide intact.”

“Oh, psh,” Celestia snorted with a loudly blown raspberry for good measure. “We both know that you’re far more worried about your soldiers than yourself.”

“Can you blame me?” Ironside grunted. “Bunch of wet behind the ear scrubs like them don’t have the first clue of what they’re walking into, I can hardly trust them to stick the enemy with the pointy ends of their spears. 'Course I’m worried.”

More like worried for them, Celestia thought with smile. She’d love to point out how his words sounded much more in line with a concerned father than a general, but he probably wouldn’t appreciate that too much. Then again, she didn’t have to let him off the hook completely, did she?

“Well, there’s got be at least some people you can trust to do the job right, aren’t there?” the princess innocently asked as she swirled the contents of her glass. “What about the marshal? Gunmetal Graves?”

“Are you kidding?” Ironside scoffed. “That one causes me more worry than the rest. Don’t get me wrong, boy’s got a decent enough head on his shoulders, but he prefers using it to bust through brick walls over any kind of thinking. Fool’s liable to get himself killed.”

“Fortunately, Twilight’s got sense enough for the both of them,” Celestia laughed. “You’ll just have to trust my student to take care of your little boy till he comes marching home.”

Ironside coughed as his drink decided to take a slight detour.

“Has the stress gotten to you?” he asked with ice-blue eyes narrowed in suspicion. “You make me sound like a blasted parental waiting for his brat to come back from summer camp.”

“You mean we’re not?" the princess blinked with affected surprise. “I was sure that you were as much a father figure to Graves as he was a son to you.”

“Hardly,” Ironside snorted. “The fact that I made sure a young soldier was taken care of hardly makes us a family. It was my job.”

“I see,” Celestia nodded. “So… leaving anonymous presents on birthdays and Hearth’s Warming Day were part of the job as well”

Ironside openly hacked as his drink screwed all sense of propriety and flew down his windpipe.

“How… how do you know that?” Ironside gaped.

“It’s amazing how many people fail to notice the maids and servants in this place,” Celestia smiled serenely, “or how conspicuous a man of your size and stature trying to sneak around with box-shaped bundles can be.”

The look of dumbfounded surprise on Ironside’s face was far sweeter than the juice she slowly sipped.

“Yes, well, uh… no crime in being nice, is there?” the general gruffly said as he irritably scratched his beard. “Just because a boy don’t have family don’t mean he should be treated as such, you know?”

“The only criminal element is you hiding it like it’s something to be ashamed of,” Celestia sighed. “Honestly, why didn’t you just tell him?”

“What, so we can get all sentimental, what with the hugging and crying nonsense?” Ironside grunted. “There’s no need for that. I was just watching out for him till he could find a place of his own. Nothing more.”

“That’s what we call being a parent,” the princess smiled. “We raise them up and send them out when they’re good and ready.”

“Well what if they’re not?” Ironside sighed. “What if you didn’t train ‘em up enough and you actually sent them to an early grave?”

“If we didn’t, then we just have to believe they’ll be able to take care of things themselves,” Celestia smiled. “You did a wonderful job caring for Graves. Trust now that he’ll be ready to take care of himself.”

“… You know, you say some pretty good stuff every now and then,” Ironside chuckled as he drained his glass for the final time. “Almost like you’ve done this stuff before.”

“Oh, I’ve been around the block a few times,” the princess laugh. “But if you tell anyone I admitted that, I’ll be sure Graves knows where his first pair of combat boots came from.”

“… My lips are sealed.”


Chapter 31

Chapter 31

A radiant sunbeam struck the soldier’s face, and he slowly opened his eyes.

It was late. Well, later at least. The light that shone wasn’t the soft paleness of a dawn just arrived, but the full, blazing brightness of a day long since on its way. Usually, that would have bothered him. Usually, but not today, because for the first time in many mornings, Graves felt not completely horrible. He was tired, yes, but in the way you feel after a really bad fever breaks in the middle of the night. From where he lay on the grass, the marshal slowly tested his body, flexing muscles and bending joints to make sure everything was in working order.

His limbs felt heavy, but a little movement would bring the life back in, no problem. A deep breath brought a strong ache to his side, but it was a far cry from the sharp stabs of agony that had hit him before; he could manage. He couldn’t tell about his insides, that would be a bit much, but with his waking had come the first rumbles of hunger from an appropriately empty belly.

He smiled. He really couldn’t help it. After all, when you wake up in the harshest climes on the planet feeling not that miserable, you just had to smile. So sitting up, Graves tossed aside the blanket covering him and–

He paused, motion falling to stillness as grey eyes alighted on his companion. There, curled up in a slumbering ball beside him lay Rarity, violet tresses forming a soft curtain over a face still caught in the throes of slumber. Graves smiled once more, only this one was colored with the gentle hues of heart-found gratitude. Even when she could labor no more, she’d remained by his side, a comforting presence and silent guard to ensure he rested well through the night.

Softly, Rarity snuffled in her sleep as the departure of the marshal’s body warmth caused her some discomfort. It was with a quiet chuckle and a kiss to her sleeping cheek that Graves settled his blanket over her and got up.

Grey eyes sparkling like quartz-flecked granite in the sun, Graves made his ghost-silent walk to the camp proper. Honestly, after he got a look, it was pretty hard to keep from bursting out in laughter. Even now, the girls lay in various states of repose, tucked in tight right alongside their new griffon guardians. Fluttershy lay curled up to one protective flank, Applejack reclined against the side of another, and the duo of Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash lay sprawled out in the most peculiarly precarious positions over the back of a third. Really, how they managed to snore up a thunderstorm when it looked like a soft breeze could dislodge them was well beyond him.

Predatory senses awakened, one of the sleeping griffons stirred. Blinking a tawny eye, the winged raptor fixed Graves with a piercing gaze, as if to question who would dare disturb its nest and its new, featherless chicks.

“Morning,” Graves nodded, reaching up to tip his hat before realizing he hadn’t put it on. Or his shirt, for that matter. Huh. That wouldn’t do.

The griffon cocked its head slightly, a trace of recognition coming in upon hearing the creature’s gravelly voice. A questioning light appeared in those large, unblinking eyes.

“Yeah, that was me,” Graves nodded again. “The yellow one thought you needed help. I just pulled the trigger.” At this, the marshal pointed to where Fluttershy lay, her stained and scuffed, but still serviceable traveling dress drawing the griffon’s eye. After a moment of consideration, the great beast turned back to Graves and softly trilled in reply.

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” he chuckled. “Probably would’ve done the same.”

“Now I didn't know you spoke griffon.”

Looking up, the marshal spotted a smiling Twilight Sparkle looking down from her perch atop the griffon’s head, her usually neat purple hair all tangled up in a frizzy mass.

“Not that hard,” he shrugged. “They’re smart creatures. Can tell an awful lot if you pay attention.”

The griffon twittered as its chest feathers puffed out with pride.

“I see what you’re saying,” Twilight laughed as she slid down the silky feathers to land next to the marshal. “And I take it by your wanderings that you’re feeling better?”

“Much. Whatever you and Rarity did was perfect.”

“It was Rarity mostly,” Twilight giggled. “I tried to help, but she really has a gift with those gems, so I did what I could with a rigged up mana transference matrix and tried to lighten the load.” Graves nodded. He was starting to get accustomed to the fact that Twilight had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of high level magic up her sleeves. Starting to, being the key.

“So anyway, what are our plans for today?” Graves asked as he began some mild stretching to loosen up stiffened limbs.

“We wait," Twilight shrugged. "We touched base with Celestia last night, and she let us know the plan. They open up the gate today, we sit tight until the miasma clears, then make our way in like previously discussed.

“I see,” Graves nodded. “And when do they open the gate?”

“Four hours ago.”

The marshal froze. Four hours... no, how could that be?

“They needed to work at dawn, when the night and day are in balance," Twilight explained upon seeing the confusion on his face. “And since they’re due east of us, that meant that dawn for them was still night for us.”

Time difference. Of course. It was a simple matter, so simple, that it had completely slipped his mind. In doing so, he’d let the dawn of the greatest battle in history, the one where countless numbers of his fellow servicemen would give their lives, pass by while he blissfully slumbered away.

“There’s nothing you could have done, Graves,” Twilight firmly declared as she reached up to press a reassuring hand to his shoulder. “Getting rest and recovering was your job. Trust the princesses and General Ironside to do theirs.”

“Yeah… you’re right,” the marshal sighed as he took a deep breath to steady himself. Really, all of this trusting others business was exhausting, but a sleepy snort from Rainbow Dash, who rolled into an even more precarious position, brought a slight smile to his face and a lift to his spirits.

“So, what do we do now?”

“Best let everyone sleep in,” Twilight giggled as she watched a still comatose Pinkie Pie neatly somersault on top of Rainbow Dash with limbs all akimbo. “We still have a few hours before the gate’s even fully cleared, so we rest as we can, get a good meal in, and then…” Amethyst eyes firmed up into resolute gems. “Then we finish this.”

Twilight’s face grew somber as well and even their sleeping comrades seemed to fall into muted stillness. As wonderfully as everything had gone days before, it was easy to forget that any and every struggle they’d encountered up till this point had been nothing more than the introduction. The real challenge was still yet to come.

However, the moment passed, and Twilight’s bright smile came back once more.

“In any case,” Twilight beamed, “I guess I’ll get breakfast started or something.” Graves blinked.

“You can cook?”

“Um, yes?” the young mage replied, sounding just slightly off put. “Just because I don’t do it very often doesn’t mean I can’t.”

“I see…” Graves intoned slowly. “Tell me something. Since Spike started, just how many times have you made breakfast?” Once more, the color crimson returned to Twilight’s face.

“Um… twice?”

Graves knew he totally deserved every kick to the shin he got, but the smirk he threw Twilight was just so worth it. For a good while, the two danced about as Twilight worked to cause as much blunt force trauma to the marshal’s shins and toes as possible while the griffon merely watched with a weary roll of its tawny eyes. Chicks would be chicks, after all.

Finally, when Twilight realized that she had no honest chance of forcing Graves to succumb, she finally brought her fearsome tirade to a standstill.

I… am going to get breakfast ready,” she huffed, daring, just daring the marshal to say anything; he was wise enough to keep all comments and expressions to himself. “In the meantime, you will go off and do... whatever it is you marshals do in your free time. Just don’t go getting in my way, alright?”

“Yes ma’am,” Graves answered as he reached up to tug his hat and only then realizing it wasn’t there. Seeing the motion, Twilight couldn’t help but smile as she ran to their small pile of supplies.

“Here,” she grinned, returning with the soldier’s broad, flat-brimmed hat. “Wouldn’t be you without it, right?” Graves grinned as he took it.

“Not at all.”

“Alright, now off with you,” Twilight laughed as she shooed the marshal away like an errant child. “Time to work off those cobwebs and get the blood flowing.”

So Graves set the hat over his raven-hued locks, gave it a little tug, and with an all too cheeky grin, waved a quick farewell and ran.

It began slowly at first, little more than a slight jog to warm his body and waken his heart. But soon, steadily faster and faster, he poured on more speed as long legs began to devour distance in long, sailing strides. His wounds still hurt, and pretty badly, he had to admit. His sides blossomed with aches lanced through with searing pain as tenuously knitted sides strained from the exertion, and his various other wounds made his body feel like the leftover husks of a well-pressed vineyard.

But it was a good pain. The exertion was a tuning fork that provided careful calibration of his physical capabilities after their long state of disrepair. He could feel his body coming back to life as blood flowed through his veins and the sensation of strength began coursing back through his limbs. He knew he wasn’t perfect, but even with the pain, he knew he could continue.

He could fight once more.

Graves wasn’t sure how long he ran, but by the time he stopped, the sun was well over the mountain range and filling the valley with warm, radiant light. Chest heaving and body slicked with sweat, the marshal made his way back to camp, detouring towards the small creek they’d found the night before and giving himself a quick rinse. After gulping down several mouthfuls of clear, refreshing water, Graves took the now discarded blanket to towel off and went to get dressed. It wasn’t till he put his sturdy leather coat over a newly recovered shirt that he realized the holes had been neatly mended to the point of never having existed at all. With a chuckle, Graves made a mental note to thank the pretty seamstress as he headed towards the camp proper.

By now, the girls were up and about, the camp for once a bustling mass of cheery noise the likes of which hadn’t been seen in far too long. Applejack repeatedly swatted away Pinkie Pie’s attempts to pilfer an early breakfast while Fluttershy helped a griffon with its preening as Rainbow Dash strutted about and compared wings with their new avian friends. Twilight and Rarity sat to the side, numerous glittering jewels spread before them as the purple-haired librarian no doubt continued to pick away at the seamstress’s newfound skills.

“Well hey there, marshal,” Applejack grinned as she brought the soup ladle cracking down hard over Pinkie’s knuckles once more. “Yer lookin’ fit as a fiddle this mornin’. Sleep well?”

“Like a rock,” Graves grinned as he took a deep breath. “What’s that you got there?”

“Fresh applesauce seasoned with wild granola, wild cinnamon, and wild, passionate love!” Pinkie Pie groaned as her mouth dribbled like cascading waterfall. “Come on, can we get started already? I’m starving!”

“If you’d hold yer horses an’ let me finished, we’da started ten minutes ago,” the freckled farm girl huffed before turning back to the marshal. “But we’ll get started in a bit. Hope you’re hungry, Graves. There’s plenty to go around.”

“Don’t worry about him,” a melodious voice called out from behind. “I’ll make sure he eats everything. After all, a growing boy needs his strength.” Graves didn’t need to turn around to see who spoke. The voice was obvious enough, and the slender arms wrapping around his waist just made an easy question easier.

“You certainly seem to be feeling better,” Rarity said, her obviously cheery voice muffled as she spoke into the marshal’s broad back. “I wonder why that is?”

“No clue,” Graves shrugged as he turned around to meet her smiling face. “Strangest thing, too. Turns out my coat’s looking like it came fresh off the rack. Any idea how that happened?”

“None whatsoever,” Rarity replied with perfectly demure innocence. “But I’m sure that whoever it is would appreciate a token of appreciation.”

“Oh, get a room you two!”

Turning about, the young couple spotted Rainbow Dash riding over on the head of a griffon who walked along with a look of transcendent patience. Having small creatures perched atop its crown was not the norm, but sometimes, sacrifices had to be made for the hatchlings' good.

“I thinks it’s kind of sweet,” Fluttershy smiled as she came over with three other griffons trotting along like star struck puppies. “I mean, it’s good to see that Mister Graves is feeling better, right?”

“Sure am,” Graves nodded with a tip of his hat. “Thank you. All of you,”

“Bah, don’t worry about it,” Rainbow grinned. “Let’s just skip all the stuffy nonsense and get to the grub!”

“Go ahead and knock yerselves out,” Applejack laughed. “Soup’s on, everybody!”

With that, breakfast began. There was applesauce, hot and sweet, thick with wholesome cereal, and fragrant with fresh spices, just as Pinkie Pie promised. Oddly, the taste seemed familiar, but faintly, as if from a now remembered dream Graves had where Rarity had been spoon feeding him even during his catatonic state. But that would be preposterous. There was no way even she would do something so gut-wrenchingly embarrassing, right? Anyhow, to round out the sweet, which also consisted of more fresh berries and apples, came a hearty stew and even several thick steaks searing away on a flat, heated stone, courtesy of the griffons, no doubt. After so many days of rationing out steadily staler bread and dry cheese, the assortment of fresh goods before them was as good as any feast they could’ve wanted.

The girls laughed and ate, joking about like they were on a picnic as Graves focused on getting as much food into him as possible. Whatever healing they’d done to him had worked, but it had left him with a ravenous appetite. And so it was that he devoured a couple of wild game steaks, numerous bowls of the thick, rich applesauce, and polished off an orchards worth of fresh fruit on the side. By the time he was working on the last serving, the girls had long since stopped and were simply watching along in something akin to awe.

“Where does he put it all?” Rainbow Dash gaped as the marshal scraped the last bits of applesauce into his bowl. “It’s like he’s got a bottomless pit in there.”

“Oh Rainbow Dash, don’t be silly,” Twilight laughed. “It’s much more likely that there’s a temporal rift transporting the contents to a pocket dimension. That’s the only logical explanation.”

“Hey, as long as he’s happy,” Applejack shrugged. “With as little as he’s been eatin’, it’s a good thing he’s able to make up for lost time now.”

At this, Graves let out a loud, satisfied burp.


Rarity said nothing. Rainbow Dash just snickered as she helped Applejack with another round of grilling for the griffons. While Graves had made a good showing, the majority of the meat had actually been consumed by the griffons who seemed to have developed a taste for the culinary arts.

“So now that we’re all back and ready for action,” Twilight said as the group gathered around the campfire, “I’d like to know what’s happening next. Pinkie, are the griffons still up for giving us a ride?”

“Yup yup!” the curly-haired one smiled. “Just as soon as they finish eating, of course. After that, it’s a straight shot wherever we want to go!”

“In that case, we might as well set off now; we’ve probably got time, but I'd prefer to err on the side of early, before late. But before even that,” Twilight nodded she turned to the marshal. “Graves, you have any last words of encouragement for us before we head out into the bowels of the earth to confront the manifestation of darkness and destruction itself?”

For a moment, the marshal’s gunmetal grey eyes dimmed as he stroked his chin in thought.

“You make the magic, I shoot the monsters, and we’re all back home in time for cupcakes at the Corner.”

“Best. Idea. Ever!” Pinkie Pie beamed.

“Alright, everyone,” Twilight smiled as she climbed to her feet. “Let’s go save the world.”


The air so high above the snow-capped mountains was frigidly cold and bit at the skin like the snipping jaws of a thousand biting ants. The griffons soared, powerful wings beating as they took the straightest path over those treacherous mountains with the Equestrians huddled against their broad backs to take advantage of the warmth held by their sturdy feathers.

The flight was not exactly a comfortable one, but far better than the marshal could have ever hoped for. Few creatures in even the Savage Lands would dare challenge a full flock of griffons in flight, and the only one who did, a serpentine Titan Drake that undulated through the skies like an airborne sea snake, was quickly dissuaded by a crackling bolt of lightning from a hard-eyed soldier.

Yet even more vital than the safety from creatures was the speed over traversed terrain. Even so high up, Graves could see dozens, maybe even hundreds of jet-black streams crisscrossing the treacherous mountains as remnants of miasma still coursed through the stony crags. Thanks to the griffons, the Equestrians managed to cover in just a few hours what might have been impossible to cover on foot. Really, who would have thought that tactically unsound intervention could be exactly what saved their lives in the end?

As the noonday sun crested to its zenith, the griffons dipped through the clouds and eyes fell upon it their goal.

“Oh my,” Fluttershy murmured as wide, green eyes surveyed the darkness. “I didn’t think it’d be so… bad.”

“Yeah,” Rainbow Dash nodded. “That just ain’t right.”

There was no sound. It seemed like there should have been some sort of noise, but all remained silent. After all, the sea of black mist had no solid form. Nestled at the heart of the stony crags was a roiling mass of pure black pitch. It looked a sea with lapping waves and cresting breakers, but no water could ever reach the inky darkness of those onyx hues. High up above as they were, the girls could only gaze in terrified wonder as the blackness seemed to gaze back, a giant, blighted eye leading to the abyss of the great beyond.

“We ready?” Graves called out. With a hard swallow to clear the lump in her throat, Twilight nodded in reply.

The griffons approached very carefully and very, very slowly, descended towards the pupil, a lonely island in the middle of the black ocean that somehow or another had escaped the consuming mist. Only when thrice sure that they were as far away from the lapping banks as possible did the griffons alight and aid the Equestrians, with legs unsteady after so many hours of riding, down to the large stone dais that sat in the island’s center.

“So… I reckon this is it?” Applejack as she cast a curious eye downward.

“Guess so.

At the center of the plinth lay yet another circle, one probably no more than five paces across and composed of twin teardrops of what must have once been brilliant gold and silver. The line at their intersection seemed to be composed of innumerable prismatic hues, but like the rest, the colors were faded and dim. Whatever powers that may once have sat here had long since faded to shades and memories.

There was no talking. As the Equestrians dismounted, each bade a silent farewell to their griffon comrades. The lords of the sky made no reply save for a slight dip of their regal heads as they took to the air once more. Human eyes watched as leonine figures slowly grew smaller before disappearing into the vast blue skies above.

Odd. One would have expected storm clouds and thunder on such a somber occasion, yet the skies remained as bright and blue as ever.

“Ready?” Graves called.

“As we’ll ever be,” Twilight gulped.

With a nod to her friends, each of the six girls rolled up their right sleeve and pressed thumb to the ornate marks on their wrists, ones painted on to match the crests on their back. Magic awoke and the tattoos came to life and lifted from the skin in glowing skeins of light. As one, the marks on the backs of the girls began to resonate, calling forth the ancient relics sealed within those spells. And slowly, as if drawn from those lines of enchanted ink, they appeared.

The Elements of Harmony.

“Damn,” Graves said with a low whistle. “That’s mighty fine.”

“Just wait till you see them in action,” Rainbow Dash grinned as she affixed the golden necklace around her neck, the brilliant crimson lightning bolt at its center blazing with passionate life.

“Which is going to be right around now,” Twilight commented after the last minute adjustment to her glittering tiara. “Alright, girls, let’s get this door open.”

Gathering together around the dais, the girls extended hands to one another, eyes closing as their breathing came quietly together. Almost immediately, the aurora appeared, a sinuous line of rainbow light emanating from the rose-hued crystal at Twilight’s brow that gently wound around girls before returning to its source. Twilight opened her eyes, two shining gates that revealed the way to brilliant light beyond and channeled.

The prismatic line on the dais vanished. The twin teardrops parted ways like the petals of a morning glory. All that remained was the pit, a deep, wounding gash that lead straight to the heart of the earth and the greatest prison in all of history.

Twilight’s eyes closed and as one, six pairs opened. Blinking away the dizziness, the girls took a moment to regain their bearings.

“My word, I don’t think I’ll ever quite get used to that,” Rarity murmured as she unconsciously checked the amethyst at her neck. “It’s almost like a double serving of Pinkie’s special punch.” Pinkie just beamed.

“The secret ingredient is hot sauce. Always is.”

“Now as great as yer mutual appreciation for funny drinks is,” Applejack called out, “anyone have any idea on how we’re supposed tah get down there?”

That was actually a good question. The pit had certainly appeared, but nothing else. There were no stairs, no ladders, and certainly nothing that would indicate that magic spells would arrest a fall. Curious, Graves picked up a nearby stone and threw it down the middle. Everyone peered over the edge, waiting for the sound of the stone to come.

It never came.

“Er, Twilight,” Rarity hesitantly began. “Refresh my memory. Where exactly did Celestia and Luna say this sealed creature was?”

“In the heart of the earth,” the young mage replied. “Why?”

“Well…” Rarity paused. “Do you think she meant that figuratively, or literally?”

Five pairs of eyes went very wide at the thought. One silvery grey grew slightly with a small arch of the brow, but the amount of shock was very much the same.

“So, um… how are we supposed to get down?” Fluttershy squeaked. Graves turned to Twilight.

“Don’t suppose you have a spell that could do the trick?”

“Not off the top of my head, no,” she grimaced. “Not even sure what kind of spell you’d be looking for. I mean, traveling to the center of the world wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

The group fell silent for a moment. Perfect opportunity for a certain athletic tomboy to break said silence.

“Okay, I don’t know about you, but I wanna get this done and over with,” Rainbow Dash announced as she approached the hole. “So I say we just hop in and see what happens.” Applejack blinked.

“That has got tah be one of the most hair-brained schemes I ever did hear. What happens if yeh jess fall flat on yer face and go kablooey?”

“Uh, wings?” Rainbow frowned, pointing at her back. “Duh.”

“Oh. Right.”

“But what about the rest of us?” Twilight joined in. “You and Fluttershy are good, but there’s no way you can airlift the rest of us.”

“What about an anti-gravity spell?” Graves suggested. “Don’t need to fly down; just slow before you go… kablooey.”

“Huh. Guess I could,” Twilight nodded, hand coming to chin as her mind began running the calculations. “If you take the sum of the individual weighty masses–”

“Now I resent that!” Rarity called.

“– factored by terminal velocity, along with the distortion effect of the Elements, I should be able to safely land four people. Five at a stretch.”

“Alright then, here’s the plan,” Graves nodded. “I’ll head down first and make sure nothing nasty’s waiting for us below. After that, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy come down on wings to help me set up a landing zone for Twilight and co to come in afterwards. First party comes thirty minutes after I drop, the rest ten after, got it?”

Six pairs of eyes locked onto the marshal in unison.

“Um… I mean…”

“No, no offense taken dear,” Rarity smiled. “I just do so love seeing you in form.”

“Like a perfectly puffed pastry,” Pinkie Pie beamed proudly. “Good to have you back and not mister grumpy pants. Never liked him much, and trust me, I like just about everyone.”

“And how,” Applejack nodded.

Lord have mercy, they were about to drop into the abyss and the girls were commenting on his mood? They were just… impossible. But with a roll of the eyes, Graves smiled and turned to Twilight.

“I trust my plan of action is acceptable, ma’am?”

“That it is, soldier,” Twilight giggled. “We’ll be counting on you to do what you do best.”

“Kick butt and take names,” Rainbow Dash chuckled. “And don’t bother with the names.” Graves chuckled.

“You got it.”

“Um… just one question, Mister Graves,” Fluttershy intoned. “You don’t have magic or spell wings. How are you going to get down?”

They all turned to look at the pit. The girls turned to look at Graves. Graves looked up and returned the look.

“Eh, probably like this.”

And before anyone could say a word, the marshal leaned right over the edge and tumbled off into the darkness below.






Rainbow Dash blinked.

“… Gosh darn it, that was cool.”


Chapter 32

Chapter 32

Ten minutes after the flyers departed, Twilight gathered the last of their group and with nervous smiles all around, jumped.

They fell. At first, it was a familiar sensation. The rush of wind. The upturn of a weightless stomach. The intense, terrifying rush of free fall. But somehow, somewhere along the way, everything changed. She knew they were still going downwards, as indicated by the strange glowing lights continuously rushing by. Some seemed distant and some seemed far, though how that could be possible in such a narrow corridor, she couldn’t be sure, but all Twilight knew was that those lights, all of which contained the silhouette of something or another, flew upwards as they fell downwards.

Twilight felt herself stretch and compress, drift off toward hazy dreams despite being wide awake. Twisted and turned inside and out, the young mage felt the very universe dilate around her-

And then it was over. The sensation of gravity returned, darkness broke, and somewhere below, the faintest pinprick of something appear. It was faint at first, but the pinprick became a speck, the speck a dot, and that dot grew until they realized what it was.

The exit.

Quickly, Twilight pulled out her wand and began the incantations as a glowing, amethyst aura surrounded her and her four friends. The slightest of tugs indicated that they were slowing, bringing their velocity to a safer level till they came upon the portal. With a rushing woosh, they fell through and Twilight brought them safely down on a patch of reddish soil beneath. Softly, the girls groaned as the strange sense of vertigo slowly dissipated from their bodies and minds.

“Land sakes,” Applejack muttered, “that’s the last–”


Words fell silent on her lips as Graves instantly appeared, a wraith in that long brown coat that blended with the soil around as he held a hand to her mouth.

“Quiet,” he said softly, his words barely a dull rumble. “Might not be safe.”

Only after Applejack gave a silent nod of understanding did Graves remove the hand and beckon them towards a patch of stone where Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy waited. Once congregated, Graves peaked around their cover before turning to the group.

“Okay, not exactly sure what’s going on, but I don’t think we’re on Earth any more.”

“And what makes you say that?” Twilight asked. Graves pointed up.

They looked up. Of course they hadn’t before. Who needed to see a bunch of rocks? But that’s not what they saw.

“But… how?” Rarity gasped. “How is that possible?”

Good question. How exactly was it possible that they saw the sky? A blood-red one in fact with jet black clouds whipping about by invisible, gale-force winds? Surely, no sky like that had ever existed in their own world. It just wasn’t possible, especially not with a single, gaping hole floating in midair through which they had so recently fell.

“That’s not all,” Graves muttered. “Look.”

Following his pointing finger around the rocky patch, the girls looked and saw nothing. They turned around and saw nothing. It was then that they realized that save for the little patch of soil they’d landed on, no ground existed at all. After the sky, they should’ve expected more oddities, but how exactly is one supposed to predict that the land they stand upon is a piece of stone floating in the sky? It was only a single stone, just one of many that floated around like comets in the evening sky, some no bigger than a small boulder while others could have been mountains in their own right. And beyond those stones, in all directions, that blood-red sky and those swirling, black clouds.

“Okay, this is weird, even for me,” Pinkie Pie frowned as she looked about as her cerulean eyes began to swirl with dizziness. “What kinda crazy, topsy-turvy place is this?”

“No idea,” Graves shrugged. “But it gets weirder. Watch.

Before the girls could gasp, Graves stepped right over the edge of their floating plot of land and… just… kept walking? Gears ground to a halt as the girls looked over and saw the marshal standing perpendicular to them, his feet firmly planted on what should have been a vertical cliff but clearly wasn’t.

“Okay, I’d officially like to go home now, please,” Fluttershy squeaked.

“It seems like the laws of physics don't operate normally here," Twilight mused as she picked up a stone, released it, and simply watched it float in place. “There’s no real up or down here. It’s sort of just what you make of it.”

“Sounds like Discord would love it,” Rarity murmured.

"Yeah, about that," Rainbow Dash chimed in with a hand hesitantly raised. "That kinda freaky deaky stuff wouldn't happen to mess with anything like, oh, I don't know... the very fabric of space and time, now would it?"

"Uh... why?"

Rainbow Dash looked back to Graves, then rounded back towards the confused scholar.

"You followed after us, right? Ten minutes on the dot, exactly?"

"Um... yeah?"

"Told you," Rainbow Dash snorted snorted.

"Well pardon my well-placed skepticism," Graves retorted. "I tend to go with the less impossible explanation."

"Why, what's going on?" Twilight asked as the constant questions spurred on her curiosity. "What happened?"

"Okay, so it goes like this," Rainbow Dash explained. "We drop down half an hour later, just like the marshal says, go through that... whatever it was, and make a clean landing. Only, Big G here ain't too pleased to see us, saying something about us jumping the gun. What he doesn't realize is that I'm a flyer, and I've got timing down like nobody's business, so there ain't no way I would've missed a signal like that. So I'm having a hard time believing it, but then you girls come through, and it's all sort of actually making sense.

"Um... what?" Twilight blinked.

"Rainbow Dash left half an hour after me, but arrived not five minutes later. You girls left ten after and got here in one.

Now it was everyone's turn to blink.

"Couldn't it simply be the difference in aerodynamics? Twilight postulated. "Maybe different amounts of wind resistance would have-"

"Thought about it, wouldn't work," Rainbow Dash shrugged. "Big G described his posture, and there's no accounting for that much difference between us, and there's no way you guys would have caught up to me like that."

"So, what yer sayin' is that... time's workin' wonky up in here?" Applejack chimed in.

"Think so," Graves nodded. "And worst part is that it seems to be going faster. So however long we spend in here, more time passes back up top."

It didn't take long for the full implication of that statement to sink in. The armies of the allied forces would soon begin fighting whatever dark spawn Nul's miasma had birthed. The very purpose was to buy those girls time to do their job. But if time truly was passing more quickly for those on the surface, then more than ever, time was of the essence.

"Okay, so clearly nothing's working like we expecting it to," Twilight said, having to shake her head hard to clear away the thousands of questions bubbling up around her. "Nevertheless, our priority is still locating and taking care of Nul as soon as possible. How do we do that?”

“Probably head that way,” Graves nodded, raising his spell gun and pointing it towards a glowing ball of light far off in the distance. Twilight couldn’t be sure, but if her astronomy intuition was correct, all the flying piece of land seemed to be orbiting around that spot.

“Alright then, so we gotta hightail it over to that glowey thingamabob and give Nul the ol’ what for,” Pinkie Pie grinned before a sudden pause. “Any idea how?”

“You move. Like this.”

Graves leaped, but instead of coming back, he simply flew away, sailing effortlessly through the air towards another floating land mass above. Hands made contact, feet came next, and before you knew it, he was standing back up from and looking right back, albeit whilst hanging like a bat clean above their heads.

“Okay, that’s just weird,” Rainbow Dash grimaced. Flying was one thing, but all this topsy turvy stuff was something else entirely.

“Try it one at a time,” Graves called out as silver eyes darted about. “Rainbow Dash can grab you if you miss, so don’t worry about that. And whatever you do, keep quiet.”

One by one, the girls launched, some more gracefully than others and with a good deal less nervous flailing around. But no one, not even the usually uncontainable Pinkie Pie, said a word. Even she recognized that some places just weren’t appropriate for fun.

As they practiced, Graves waited, keeping his growing apprehension carefully bottled up inside. He knew they were on the clock; battles could be lost in a single instant and every second here equated to who knows how many seconds elsewhere. But he also knew that rushing in unprepared would bring about those instances all the quicker. So he waited for the girls to acclimate themselves and hoped that those who were buying this opportunity could afford to pay.

Fortunately, the girls were fast learners. As Rainbow Dash zipped around, whispering hints and tips on keeping bearings, the Ponyville troop improved at a rapid pace. Hands out, eyes on the prize, it wasn’t but a few minutes before the collective lot was bouncing from one floating rock to another like a bunch of pretty pinballs. Graves smiled.

“Alright. Let’s go.”


Falling into line once more, the Equestrians set out, one carefully trailing behind another in single file as Graves lead the way. There was no need for a map any longer since the glowing orb drew them in like flies to a candle. But there was a need to watch out for danger. What that danger would look like, none could say. After all, no human had stepped foot here for, well... probably ever.

Suddenly, grey eyes flashed in alarm and Graves shot a fist into the air. Instantly, the girls froze, each crouching down low towards whatever land mass they stood upon. Nobody saw what had set the marshal off. Not yet at least. But slowly, by watching the direction of his gaze and tracing it with their own, the six girls found themselves looking at the same piece of floating debris.

They spotted it.

Walking around from the far side came a… a thing. What it was, they couldn’t say, but from the darker than pitch color of its skin, they could easily tell where it came from. Shambling on short, spindly legs, the creature was little more than a large blob dragging about unnaturally thick arms, knuckles dragging along with a dull scrape in the stony soil behind it. If that were enough, it would have been fine. But right in the middle of its dense black torso was a massive, leering grin full of giant, bone-white teeth. Wide enough to nearly split its body in two, the creature needed nothing more than that maniacal smirk to let everyone in eyeshot know what it was thinking.

Eat. Devour the flesh and bone, the sinew and marrow. Consume and feast down to the last delicious morsel and drop of sweet, succulent blood. Then continue to eat. Devour it all till nothing remained, and then devour more. Consume it all.

Whisper silent, Graves drew his spell gun and charged. The creature stopped, sniffing around as the leering grin curved downwards in confusion. It smelled something. Something new. But before it could say what or where, a piercing bolt of lightning lanced right through its center and burst the little imp into a cloud of black mist that faded into the ether.

Only after several more moments of quiet observation did Graves finally signal for them to gather.

“Okay, now what in the name o’ Granny’s sweet apple custard was that?!” Applejack hissed as softly as her vehemence would allow. “That thing weren’t natural; I’d bet my hat on it!”

“Probably one of Nul’s pets,” Graves frowned as his gunmetal grey eyes continued to dart about. “Spread out, his power can only affect the world through others. Here, where it’s nice and thick… guess he gets to be a bit more direct.”

“But that shouldn’t be a problem, right?” Twilight asked. “It looks like your lightning can disrupt their corporeal form and once dissonance sets in, the magic dissipates into back into an inert form, right?”

“So basically, boom stick make them go bye bye?” Rainbow Dash grinned. The young mage just sighed.

“I can handle them,” the marshal nodded in reply. “Question is how many and for how long. Any idea how long patching that hole’ll take?”

“Depends,” Twilight frowned. “Honestly, I won’t be able to say until we get closer. I know it’s risky, but it’s also our best chance of making sure it’s done right.”

Not the best scenario. With so many floating rocks around, those creatures could be lurking in dozens, maybe even hundreds of ambushes. Graves looked up towards the glowing sphere: it still floated far away, only about the size of a baseball from where they stood. Not the best scenario, but still the only one they had.

“Alright then,” he shrugged. “We keep moving.”


Chapter 33

Chapter 33

The rumble came first.

Down on the windswept ground of the frozen Jotun Pass, the vast throngs gathered there could feel it. There was no rhythmic thumping, no steady beat to mark the sound of marching feet. It was simply vibration, raw sound and motion that steadily grew till it filled the entire valley. With dry mouths and hands tightly gripped on polished spears, the allied forces waited in grim silence as the rumble approached.

Then darkness appeared.

Cresting the final slope, a tide of black lumbered forth as the nightmare armies of Nul approached. Writhing tentacles and distorted limbs, shambling masses of bloated bodies with much too large mouths full of bone white teeth and tombstone, crushing molars, there was no words that could do these advancing terrors justice. Each and every creature was something that crawled forth from the darkest recesses of a madman’s mind, a being designed to rend apart the soul even as it rent apart the flesh. And there were so many of them. Even as the foremost ranks began their descent, more streamed in to fall in behind. The creatures were a living flood, more force of nature than army as the first thousand came into sight with ten thousand more waiting to follow suit.

The soldiers were brave. They hardened veterans, men and women who’d seen the heat of combat more times than many had seen the sunrise. But even they had never seen beings quite like these beasts, nor ever in such large numbers. These weren’t armies of this earth, so how on earth could anyone ever hope to–


All across the valley, the voice of General Ironside boomed, firm and resolute as a mountain of steel forged in the heart of a blazing star. With that one command, the front lines who’d found themselves inching back returned to their posts as their commander’s words gave new resolve to their quavering hearts. Whatever it was they faced, they would hold. Such was the duty of a soldier and such was the task that they held.

Perhaps it was the command that spurned it. Perhaps it was the sight of lines refortifying their ranks. Whatever it was, in one instant, the black tides raised their grotesque heads and howled a cry of screeching nails, bones grating, and bubbling, putrefying flesh. It was a maddening howl that sounded from a hundred thousand distorted throats as with one, very simple goal, the tides began their charge.


Even from up high in the command post, Ironside could feel the ground shake as Nul’s corrupt thundered down the pass’ narrow slope. Whatever he thought, his visage did not change as he turned to the young lieutenants at the signal array to his side.

“Signal the artillery,” he said, his voice as still as a winter pond. “They may fire at will.”

Rapid relays broadcast out, sent along spells and weavings to various outpost spread across the valley and the mountains around. In less time than it took a man to say his prayers, the orders were out and the fires of heaven rained down.

Two dozen cannons roared to life and blasted out great balls of flame, each the size of a family barn. Hot enough to slag stone, these burning stars sailed across the valley and crashed into the black tides like meteors from the sky, exploding upon impact to tear the land itself into showers of razor shrapnel even as waves of liquid fire burst forth to consume everything that lay in their molten paths.

Thousands of creatures perished with the first volley alone, blasted apart in chunks of charred ichor or vaporized back to the black mists from whence they came. Thousands more died in the second wave, and the third, and the fourth. But for every one that fell, another swooped in to take its place as grotesque demons clambered over the seared corpses of their brethren to continue the assault.

The artillery had slowed the charge, but the charge had not stopped. The darkness advanced.

“HEAVY ARMOR!” Ironside roared, spells carrying his voice to every soldier present. “POWER UP AND HUNKER DOWN!”

In rippling waves of glittering plates and glowing runes, the vanguard of the allied forces, the fully armored aura mages readied for combat. Enchanted strength brought forth massive shields of reinforced steel, each one as tall as a man and wider than two with spiked hooks firmly trust into the ground to add even more stability to its already impressive weight. From behind these shields, the aura mages channeled, bringing their resonant magick to the utmost as she planted feet into the ground and pressed shoulders into the shields.

“KEEP THEM STEADY!” Ironside called as ice blue eyes locked on the charging tides, still rent by the relentless barrage of flames, but always clambering closer. “YOU’VE GOT A HUNDRED PACES LEFT! EIGHTY! SIXTY! FORTY! TWENTY, AND–”

It was like stopping an avalanche with bare hands. Even with their heavy armor and enchanted strength, the vanguard shuddered as they were bodily pushed back for a good several paces. The weight was immense as thousands of creatures clambering for blood and meat hurled themselves against the shields’ spikes in a mindless attempt to breach their cover. For a moment, several spots along the line shuddered as the demons almost broke through.


Planting feet firmly once more, runes glowed bright as the vanguard redoubled their efforts and held their ground.


Glittering silver tips lowered and thrust, sliding between the gaps of the shields to impale whatever corrupted flesh they could find. Creatures howled and died as the Equestrian blades stabbed into the ranks over and over again, ripping down the first wave of creatures before reaching out to those behind.

But even so, the darkness pressed forwards and the allies fell back.

“Lieutenant,” Ironside called. “Is the Triad ready?”

“Warming up as we speak, sir,” the soldier answered. “They should be ready in about… ninety seconds.”

“Sounds good,” the general nodded. “Then send the word out to the Third, Fifth, and Seventh. Tell them to open the gates.”

Hesitating for only a moment, the lieutenant dispatched the orders. With a glow of broadcasting runes in their spell arrays, the command went out, and the soldiers moved.

The line gave way. Bulging inwards from the pressure, three points in the line broke apart and allowed Nul’s armies to flood through. Surging on ahead, the fel beasts attempted to turn and tear at the exposed flanks of the soldiers behind the wall. Only, there were no exposed sides to be had.

At each of the fractures, full columns of heavy armor aura mages stood ready with massive shields set up all the way down the valley’s length. Though the demons hacked and clawed, they could land no more than a few passing swipes as the press of the throngs from behind pushed them further down the steel-clad channel. The darkness pressed a thousand paces inwards, two thousand, as three passes a hundred paces wide apiece filled to the brim with the abominable hordes.

All as the generals intended.

Three great cannons, each the size of a barnyard silo, lay directly in the line of those surging breeches as they charged their massive payloads, Though lying dormant since Morghulis and the Days of Darkness, mana conduits as thick as a man's limbs now glowed with brilliant, silver light as the Triad roared to life.

Solid lightning, dense as stone and heavy as lead blasted forth in a condensed, paper thin wave along those channels. Where the lightning met beast, beast disappeared. Ten thousand demons instantly vanished along those columns and well beyond, reduced to little more than crackling mist as the gale force how of thunder trailing along that slicing blade of electric dispersed them to the four winds.

“CLOSE RANK,” Ironside called, his voice echoing dully in the Triad’s aftermath. “CLEAN IT UP AND RESUME POSTS.”

With no demons left to contend with, the vanguard resealed the breach and surged forward, gaining back each and every pace they’d given as the lines of spears cut ichor-stained swaths through the dark tides. Behind those ranks, the aura mages closed rank as well, not facing the oncoming armies, but on the ones still trapped inside. Hundreds and thousands of demons, those closest to the impregnable walls, had survived the blast, and there was no way they would be left amidst the allied armies. With weapons set to the grim work, it took mere moments for the steadily closing ring to wipe their stain from the face of the earth.

“Breaches sealed, sir,” the lieutenant dutifully reported as the field responses came in. “The push has brought us back to the starting position.”

“Very good,” Ironside grunted. “How long till the Triad can fire again?”

“Cool down and recalibration will take approximately an hour. We can charge another shot thirty minutes after that, or we can use our reserves to fire within five.”

“No, tell them to hold on to the stores,” the general commanded as he continued to survey the field. Even with their maneuvers and the countless already blasted back to the infernal pits, the black tides looked not a shade lighter. Nul’s armies continued to pour through the pass to refill the crackling furloughs carved by the arcane blasts. In a matter of minutes, it’d be like nothing had happened at all.

“How are the gunnery crews doing?” Ironside asked as he turned his attention now to the rain of fire that had continued unabated since the start.

“Still within operational bounds,” the lieutenant reported, “but overheating’s starting to take a bigger mana drain. Estimates have output efficiency at approximately seventy percent.”

“Not good enough,” the general frowned. “Tell them to lower the angles fifteen degrees and hold fire till my mark. It’s time for Lacero to do his thing.”

Though the howls of the demons had not changed, they seemed for a moment to grow louder as the sound of thaumaturgical artillery fell silent across the battlefield. However, it was only for a moment, because a new sound quickly rose to take their place.

Launching from various airports constructed throughout the mountains, the unparalleled aerial might of the Griffon Imperium armada took flight. Dozens of bombers the size of Stallion class transports, each with its own cadre of sleek, deadly fighters, winged their ways to their positions over the battlefield with synchronized precision as they began to lay down their payloads.

From wide berths, winged Griffon legionnaires tossed large casks onto the crowds below, the crushing weight that smashed monsters underneath merely a small bonus to the actual purpose of the drops. As the casks shattered, they did so with explosions of not fire or thunder, as one would expect, but of super fine powder that hung thick in the air. Though a breeze should have dispersed the payload, spellcraft enchanting the dust held in suspended in place as blooms of fog-like shrouds appeared all over the battlefield.

“Lacero sends his regards,” the lieutenant called. “Ready when you are.” At the news, Ironside allowed himself a small smile of pleasure.

“Open fire.”

High up in well constructed towers, Equestria's elite marksmen opened fire and sent powerful lances of flame shooting out towards the dark masses that continued to press below. As always, those searing bolts cut through targets like a hot knife through butter, but that was once again, just a bonus. The real treat was when the flames encountered one of those blooms of dust. Just one touch, just the faintest brush of enchanted fire, and…


The air itself ignited as the dust combusted with enough force to shame whole factories of fireworks. Suspended in the most lethal range possible, each explosion focused its deadly force to tear apart demons in gouts of black mist and inky blood. Fire rained, air burned, and the armies of Nul were cut to charred ribbons time and time again.

Yet no matter how much they burned, no matter how many countless died, the darkness did not recede. Every gap in their ranks were quickly filled with more grotesque beasts as the pressure of their ranks on the vanguard continued ever forward.

“Lieutenant,” Ironside called as the smile faded into its natural, stony planes once more. “Tell the artillery to run at three quarters speed in alternating rhythm with the Griffon dust drops. I want those guns running at optimal efficiency to get as many shots as possible, got it?”

“Sir, yes sir!”

As the sound board worked to relay the orders, Ironside’s visage darkened into a thunderhead of grim determination. If it had only been a theory before, it was certainly a very clear reality by now.

There was no way to win.

No matter what they threw at the dark tides, there would always be more to come in their place. Their numbers were quite literally infinite, and nothing could outlast eternity.

Fortunately, they didn’t have to. They just had to last long enough, to keep these eldritch abominations contained long enough for those seven youngsters to do their job. All they had to do was hold on and drag out this war of attrition until victory came from a different front. They didn’t have to win. They just had to survive.

Of course, surviving against these sort of odds was about as easy as outlasting a seven day hurricane on a driftwood raft. Not odds he relished, but one played with the hand he was dealt, did he not?

And so, with ice blue eyes harder than the permafrost they fought on, Ironside settled in for the longest battle of his life.


Chapter 34

Chapter 34

“Heavy attacks coming in on West Wall Three!”

“Call in Storm Shadow and his regiment!”

“We can’t! He’s pinned down under suppressive fire two units behind East Six!”

“Then get the mages to–”

“No need! I’m on it!”

Channeling into the rune-carved pylons beneath each hand, Shining Armor’s eyes blazed with pure white light as sturdy walls of azure light sprang up around the regiment in question. With the aid of their newly provided cover, Captain Storm Shadow rallied his troops as they charged towards the trenches to bolster the lines on the Western Front.

“Good work, soldier,” Ironside grunted, ice blue eyes flickering to the guard captain for only an instant before returning to the battlefield. That was one fire they’d put out, but only one of the dozens of conflagrations that continued to rage.

The sun had almost finished its descent behind the veil of mountains, and though the evening rays painted the battlefield in bloodied hues, not all of the color came from the light. The fighting had continued for a full day and had shown no signs of stopping. If anything, the evidence was that it would only grow steadily greater and steadily worse.

The first few hours had held over well. Between the steely bulwark of aura mages and the heavy fire of spell cannons, the allied forces had managed to keep Nul’s armies at bay. After all, even great numbers could only do so much against the focused fire and disciplined ranks of well-trained armies, and wave after wave of demonic beasts had smashed themselves against the Equestrian front lines.

Then it changed. The change had come slowly, but it had been as sure and as deadly as the tides of darkness themselves. Beasts that had once charged ahead with reckless abandon began to coordinate their efforts. Instead of headlong rushes to break against the shields, the demons banded together to bring the full force of their numbers against focal points. Exploiting seams in the ranks and weaknesses that should have been invisible to the outward eye, Nul’s armies began to batter and bash their way through.

Ironside had signaled the front ranks to fall back and take shelter in the first line of defenses that lay strewn throughout the valley floor. Icy stone walls intermixed with frozen trenches behind rows of gleaming pikes. Though the dark hordes charged forth in their marauding bands, the multi-layered maze of defenses channeled these groups into orchestrated kill zones where burst mages armed with spell rifles and cannons made short work of them.

Then it had changed again. So long as the darkness was forced to approach, the allies held their ground. But the monstrous forms themselves changed and their onslaught evolved.

Ripping a glistening spine from its back, one demonic being had hurled the appendage like a pitch-black javelin towards the forward ranks. From there, more and more beasts began their barrage, whether it was by more lances ripped straight from their bodies or with oozing black bile that corroded and burned as surely as magma consumed ice. By late afternoon, what had started as lethal, but random rain had quickly focused itself into concentrated deluges of death, death aimed at the ones lying behind the protective ranks of shield and stone.

Flame cannons had attempted to target them, but with a steady torrent of black still pouring through the Jotun Pass, it was all they could do to thin the tides before they reached. Imperium fighters had strafed across their ranks with hails of explosive rounds time and time again, but once more, the blackness responded. Dozens, if not hundreds of grotesque forms took to the sky with fetid wings and bodies too distorted to ever take flight according to natures laws. Within the hour, it was all the fighters could do to keep their airships afloat to continue the aerial barrage so crucial to the ground troops below. The flame cannons took out hundreds with each blast, but that still left thousands more to stream into the valley below.

And this is where Ironside found himself, caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Entrenched as they were, there was no immediate threat of being dislodged by the rampant hoards of eldritch abominations. However, entrenched as they were, there was also little they could do to take on the increasingly heavy barrage of black destruction that rained down from above. While the demons were free to launch themselves forward with suicidal abandon, the allied forces had to worry as much about surviving each new onslaught as they were about attacking. It was a precarious that would have been nearly impossible to balance had it not been for one man and his mystic arts.

With unparalleled mastery of protective shields and runic bulwarks, Shining Armor single-handedly helped the allies keep their foothold strong. Using the complex broadcasting array the Tower mages had set up, the guard captain was able to bring his magic to any point on the battlefield and literally reshape it in defense of his comrades.

“Sir,” the communications lieutenant called, “Colonel White Run is requesting relief for Western Six. They can hold on if needed, but they’re running close to the red zone and could really use the swap.”

“Shining Armor,” Ironside called. “Can you handle that?”

“Sir, yes sir!”

Channeling into the pylons once more, Shining Armor sent spells into amplifying circles forged of the purest mythril, racing through buried conduits that laced the valley floor, and bursting forth from the broadcast totems. The darkness brought forth by the setting sun was momentarily shattered as a solid shield wall, a hundred paces wide and twenty paces high, sprang from the ground right before the allied lines.

The dark hordes continued to pound away at the barrier with bloated hands and scything claws, but the captain’s spells held true as it bought the beleaguered soldiers the few precious minutes they needed to retreat and for fresh soldiers to fill the ranks. Only when Major Striker had his troops fully arrayed, fresh spears glinting forward with spell guns running hot, did Shining Armor release the shield–

–and slump at his post the very instant he did.

“Lieutenant!” Ironside barked. “Hurry up and call–”

“No need, General, I’m already here!”

With more grace and speed than a woman so pregnant should have, Princess Cadance swept into central command, shimmering cloak billowing in the chill breeze as two stretcher-pushing assistants trailed in behind. Sparing neither pause nor hesitation, the crystal princess knelt down beside her husband and immediately began the review.

“Fever’s already spiking,” she announced, her hands quick and methodical as she checked his forehead, eyes, and racing pulse. “Ivy, hurry up and get some augury catalyzers in to stabilize the backlash. Tranq, prep up a three hour coma spell. I want his lights out thirty seconds ago.”

“Three hours?” Shining Armor gaped. “Cadance–”

“Just gave you an order, soldier,” Ironside interjected with the finality of an executioner’s axe. “You’re too valuable to burn out just yet, so if she says rest, you better bloody well rest.”

Whether the guard captain would have protested like a hothead or agreed like a good little soldier, we’ll never know, because before he had a chance to speak, Tranq finished the sleep spell. Eyes rolling into the back of his head, Shining Armor was out faster than a blown bulb and tumbled right onto the open stretcher.

“Get him into Luna’s ward as fast as possible,” Cadance ordered as she laid a few final charms over her sleeping husband. “Every second wasted could be life lost.”

Needing no further encouragement, Ivy and Tranq hoisted the comatose captain up and dashed out the door where an express cart awaited to take them down the slope. Though it took them several moments to fall from sight, the crystal princess couldn’t bring herself to tear that worried gaze away from her exhausted love till he was well and fully gone.

Ironside allowed her those few moments before duty returned.

“How go things at base camp?” he called.

“We’re holding,” Cadance answered, eyes clear as polished quartz as she rose to face the general. “Celestia’s holding the restoration field, Luna maintains the rejuvenation field, and the emotional augments I laid down help reduce the load.”

“Good. And what’s the time frame for a standard soldier to get back on his feet?”

Cadance only hesitated for a moment before responding.

“Five hours.”

Ironside spoke no words because his grim, icy stare said it all.

Five hours. Five whole hours.

Despite the odds they faced, it wasn’t the demons or their relentless attacks that posted the greatest problems: it was exhaustion. An aura mage running full tilt at the front lines could burn through a day’s worth of energy in a matter of hours with a burst mage only taking half as long. Faced with suicidal charges and unceasing barrages, a well-trained soldier could ration out mana to last through a good day’s worth of fighting, maybe more. But these weren’t straits where one could afford to be frugal. These were waters where you swam your heart out or the leviathan got its dinner.

Once a soldier was spent, the soldier was spent, magically, mentally, and physically as the discipline of spellcraft took a costly toll. In most cases, a fully spent soldier would need a full twenty-four hours to recover from the effects lest they start risking the onset of mana sickness that only made the situation doubly worse. With Luna’s rejuvenation field as well as the cocktail of mana supplements and concentrated rations pumped into each exhausted figure, the medical corp had managed a miracle in shortening a full day’s rest into five hours’ time. In normal circumstances, it would be a medical triumph.

But five hours was still longer than it took a mage to burn out. Factor in travel time to and from the field and that was more time spent outside the field than in. Factor in time in the restoration ward to heal up injuries keeping a soldier out of combat, and the delay only increased. Factor in the inevitable halt when Celestia and Luna needed relief themselves, well…

Debt would only continue to pile up. How long before their credit ran out?

“… How are the princesses doing?” Ironside finally rumbled as he returned eyes to the battlefield.

“They’re holding on,” Cadance serenely nodded. “Apocrypha oversees the Triad and the spell cannons, so they can focus on keeping our soldiers back in the fight. Also…”


“Also… they sent me up to have a word with our… guest.”

If you could imagine a stone growing steadily harder, it would be a good comparison for Ironside’s face.

“I don’t like it,” he growled. “Trusting her, especially at a time like this–”

“–is something we’ll have to do sooner or later,” Cadance cut in. “We need to do this. You know that.”

“Doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Ironside grumbled, and the princess couldn’t help but laugh.

“I doubt anybody likes it very much, but when life gives you lemons–”

“You send them back and call for a double of good brandy.” With this, the general finally chuckled. “Alright then, hurry on up. Just don’t expect me to hold my breath.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”

With a final smart salute, Cadance took to the spiraling staircase that led to the top of the headquarters. Exposed as it was to the frosty air that only seemed to grow harsher in bite with the darkness of night, it was foolish to be out here. Unless, of course, you weren’t wholly human. That worked too.

“Evening, Chrysalis,” Cadance called as she pulled her shimmering cloak a little more tightly around her shoulders. The lone figure on the roof, draped in viridian silks and clad in glistening black, chitin, did not respond.

“So, have you finally decided to cooperate?”

"And why should I do that?” Chrysalis remarked, finally deigning to turn around and fix Cadance with fang-filled smiled. “You have not agreed to my one, simple request.”

Cadance could have responded, but she did not. Considering the numerous times they’d had this conversation before, it was unlikely to do any good.

As she’d stated in her colorful tea party with Celestia, Chrysalis still wanted Shining Armor. She also wanted to negotiate new terms between Equestria and the Changelings, a thoughtfully penned apology from Celestia for her “unlawful imprisonment,” and several dresses custom designed by Rarity for a sending away present, along with a dozen other ridiculous demands. All those could be grudgingly accepted as little more than pricks to their pride, but the one issue had always remained tabled, and that? That was the issue of trading a certain guard captain for aid by the Changeling forces.

Cadance had refused of course, and initially in terms colorful enough to make even the most rough-tongued drill sergeant look on with interest. However, diplomacy prevented her from using such language with Chrysalis, and so after some properly appropriated Lamaze breathing exercises, Cadance had settled down to the difficult task of negotiating the terms between nations which, as it turned out, was not quite as difficult as she thought they’d be. Or maybe it was. Honestly, it was sort of hard to tell.

Chrysalis had in fact cooperated. When asked to mobilize, she’d gathered every last warrior drones and mage her kingdom had to its name. When asked for input in the war room, she’d provided insightful comments on how to best utilize the Hive’s many curious strengths. All through planning and deployment, the larger issues of national treaties and amnesty for actions had been duly hammered out as the Changeling queen followed along as readily as the Tower or Imperium. However, never once had she promised to actually bring her troops into action. Never once had she formally joined the alliance all because one, crucial promise still lay unresolved.

Well, it was time for Cadance to settle it once and for all.

“Honestly,” the crystal princess sighed as she leaned against the railing, “if you’d stop behaving like a child for two minutes, you’d see you didn’t even want Shining Armor in the first place.”

“Excuse me?” Chrysalis gaped as she rounded on Cadance with a very surprised look. “First off, going around calling people children is a very childish thing to do. And second, the fact that I’ve maintained my demands shows that I am in fact quite serious about your soon-to-be ex-husband.”

Though the words rankled her to no end, Cadance let them wash over the polished sheen of her unruffled demeanor.

“Yes, you’ve been insisting after it like a little girl denied a lollipop,” she replied with the slightest of smiles. Okay, maybe she hadn’t let all of it wash over, but enough for it to count, right? “Only, neither you nor the little girl realizes she doesn’t want the lollipop at all.”

“Are you suggesting I’m only going after Shining Armor because I can’t have him?” Chrysalis challenged. “Of call the preposterous–”

“–Of course it’s not the only reason,” Cadance interjected her smile a little wider now, “or even really big part of it. Still, I figured opening up like this would be better than calling you out on a silly little crush, right?”

“Silly little–”

“– Crush, yes,” Cadance cut in once more as she took more than just a little pleasure in the Changeling Queen’s startled reactions. “You don’t really love Shining Armor. I’m sure that you like him well enough, but it’s really little more than your idolized image of him than anything of substance.”

“I certainly have not idolized him,” Chrysalis intoned, now positively bristling with indignation. “I spent more than a month disguised as you, remember?”

“How could I forget?” Cadance responded with the dry tones of burnt toast.

“And in that time, I’ve seen the real side of him as well,” the Changeling insisted.

“Really?” Cadance challenged. “Have you seen the pictures of him in braces?”

“Every time I pass the parlor,” Chrysalis smirked.

“What about his collection of vintage Batmane action figures?”

“Only every chance he could bring them out.”

“His authentic Starfleet uniform?”

“Right next to the Deadpool suit.”

“And what about the pancake dance?”

“… the what?”

“You mean you don’t know?” Cadance gasped in mock surprise. “If you’ve ever made pancakes for him, then surely you know that every time he sees them, he does a little soft shoe shuffle before he sits down to eat, usually in his skivvies.”

“… You’re kidding. You’re kidding, right?”

“Not in the slightest,” Cadance smiled. “But of course, that doesn’t matter because you obviously know that tickling him under the chin makes him giggle like a girl, right?”

“Well, I…”

“Or that his preferred cereal is Commander-O’s because he still loves getting the little prizes inside? Or the fact that his favorite part of being an officer is getting people to do paperwork for him? Or how about he’d rather have a nice milkshake over a glass of hard liquor any day of the week?”

“I, ah… well I don’t care,” Chrysalis sniffed, doing her best to restore the regal aplomb she usually wore. Right now, it looked like drawing it back on was giving her some difficulty. “All these things are minor details that you simply have the advantage of seeing after marriage.”

“Perhaps,” Cadance nodded as the silly smile on her face slowly faded. “But what about the other side of him that he never lets out in the light of day?”

“What other side?” Chrysalis smiled, haughty with triumph. “Shining Armor is as composed of a man as they come. Why, if he’s got so much as an ounce of bitterness in him, I’ll eat my gown.”

“You could’ve fooled me,” Cadance answered as a strange, new look softened her face. “Because I’ve seen parts of him that honestly frighten me.”

“Surely you jest,” the Changeling insisted as her smirk slipped just a wit. Cadance shook her head.

“A cadet once got seriously injured during a training exercise and lost his right leg. When he finally got back to his room, he punched a hole through the wall.”

“That’s not–”

“It was the outer wall of the palace. Six inches of reinforced stone.”

“… Oh.”

“Oh is right,” Cadance nodded. “When the troops under his care get hurt, he wants to hurt others. But the really scary part is that when his soldiers get killed, he wants to hurt himself. After the Changeling invasion, I sat with him from dusk till dawn because I was afraid he might turn to the bottle or something worse. He blamed himself for what happened there. Still does.”

“I… I didn’t know…”

“Not many do,” Cadance said softly. “He keeps it all hidden away because he doesn’t want others to worry, but just because it’s out of sight doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.”

“And you’re fine with this?” Chrysalis blinked in open astonishment.

“Of course I’m not okay with it,” Cadance frowned. “If I had my way, he’d stop feeling like he’s got to save the world by his lonesome self. But,” she sighed with an, if not happy, at least better than resigned smile, “that’s what I signed up for when I married him."

“And that’s what I want to ask you,” she continued as she fixed the Changeling queen with a pointed stare. “Are you ready to deal with all of that? Are you prepared for him to unleash his deepest, darkest secrets on you because you’re the only one he trusts enough to speak to? Are you able to be the avenue he vents all of his worries and concerns on just to make sure he can sleep through the night? Hm?”

“That’s… I mean… That’s not even fair!” Chrysalis cried out as what certainly wasn’t a look of sulky indignation came to her face. “I just wanted someone to cuddle with while he feeds me chocolate and tells me I’m pretty! I didn’t sign up for all this dramatic doom and gloom.”

“And that’s why you’re still a child,” Cadance smiled with a very satisfied nod. “You’re more in love with the idea of being in love, not the man himself, and that’s why I’m not handing him over to you.”

“… How do you know so much about this, anyway?” Chrysalis mumbled through a dejected glower. Cadance just laughed.

“Girl, please, this is Relationships 101. If you don’t even know this much, there’s no way you’ll ever find a man, let alone a good one.”

“Great,” the Changeling muttered. “I guess I’ll just spend the rest of my immortal life collecting cats or something.”

“You could do that,” Cadance giggled. “Or you could let me help you.”

“… Say what now?”

“You obviously have no idea how to handle a decent relationship,” Cadance nodded as she brought hand to chin in consideration and pursed her lips in thought. “What you need is someone to show you the ropes, help you figure out just what you’re looking for in your own little love muffin.”

“Please tell me that’s not a pet name you actually use,” Chrysalis retched.

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Cadance smiled. “But the offer still stands. After all this is over, there’s still going to be a lot of issues we need to settle between the Changelings and Equestrians. If you were willing to visit on such diplomatic missions, I could take you around Canterlot and show you around, if you catch my drift.”

Chrysalis did, which is probably why her emerald eyes were so large with unbridled shock.

“You’d go to such lengths to help me?” Chrysalis gaped. “Why?”

“To keep your mitts off my man, for one,” Cadance smiled in only half jest. A quarter? Maybe not so much in jest at all. “But also because I think everyone deserves a happily ever after, even if that someone happens to be a shape shifting kidnapper who tried to steal my fiancé.”

“… Has anyone ever told you that you’re too generous for your own good?”

“On occasion,” Cadance giggled. “But Shine also tells me that’s what he loves about me."

At this, the Changeling queen fell silent as she considered the truly staggering amount of new material presented. She certainly still desired to keep Shining Armor for her own, but… what Cadance said did seem to ring with a certain amount of sense. And besides, even if things didn’t work out quite like they both intended, the constant visits to Canterlot would provide ample opportunity to snatch the guard captain back up, correct?

“So,” Cadance smiled as she considered the queen in return. “Do we have a deal?"

“Not just yet,” Chrysalis answered, her regal calm slightly marred by the hitch in her voice. “You have promised to assist us in… learning of relationships. However, simple education is not enough.”

“Seriously?” the crystal princess sighed. "Honestly, I've just about bent as far back as my big, pregnant self can bend. What else under Luna's starry sky could you possibly need?”

“A guarantee. A pledge if you will, that such assistance you offer shall continue henceforth and forthwith until such assistance will no longer be required by completion of the purpose of said proposal.”

Cadance blinked once more, now really confused at the queen’s sudden usage of dense legalese that would have even trained barristers twisted up in knots. Fortunately, the chatter of Canterlot nobility could make even lawyers seem pin-straight in compared to their spaghetti tangle of verbiage, so applying a little experience here, a little inference there, and…

“… Chrysalis,” Cadance began, all smiles and giggling grins. “Are you saying you want me to promise to help you actually find a boyfriend?”

The instantly stiffening spine of the Changeling queen was all the answer she needed.

“You don’t have to be so blunt about it,” Chrysalis replied, her voice a good pitch higher from what was probably a near lethal dose of embarrassment. “I just want to make sure that I’m not getting shortchanged in this whole affair.”

“By making me promise to hook you up with your very own snuggle bunny, I know,” Cadance finished with peels of delighted laughter. “Chrysalis, I think there may be hope for you yet.”

“Yes, yes, we’re all very amused,” the Changeling huffed with undoubtedly flushed cheeks. “Now do you promise or not? It’s not like the war's going any better while we stand here.”

“You’re right,” Cadance replied as the sobering words wiped the smile on your face. “If you fight alongside us, then I, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, as regent of the Crystal Empire, do promise to honor your request. You have my word.”

Chrysalis nodded slightly, mostly in her usual, arrogant grace, but also with a bit of bemused surprise as well.

“So, does this make us girlfriends or something?” Chrysalis intoned as she appraised Cadance over with a new look in her eyes.

“Not quite, but it's a start.” Cadance smiled as she considered the queen in return. “Now how about giving our boys a little help?"

With a haughty sniff in reply, the Changeling queen turned away from Cadance and walked towards the far end of the balcony. Shrugging the silk from her shoulders as if the chill wind did not touch her, Chrysalis spread her gossamer wings beneath the darkened night sky. Those wings quickly faded into a pale blur as their rapid beating bore the Changeling aloft.

There were no spells, no incantations, for what does the queen of a hive need of such things? As dark emerald flames wreathed her body and lit the glow behind her eyes, Chrysalis called out to her brood. To the children set out all across the frozen valley, she sent her orders and commanded that they do her bidding.

A thousand bonfires lit in an instant to mark a thousand hardened warriors fueled by the infernal powers that sourced from their beloved queen. With so much burning passion and fervent ardor presented by the soldiers from a full day’s battle, Chrysalis had drawn more than enough to feed her ravenous brood, the brood that as one, leaped into action.

Like burning meteors, each of those thousand warriors soared into the air, born on insectile wings with their bodies wreathed in flames. As one unit, the Changelings wheeled around, shrieked their inhuman battle cries, and crashed headlong into the armies of Nul.

It was beautifully choreographed chaos. With arms transformed into hooking blades and scything swords, each Changeling tore into the grotesque beasts as valor flowed through their veins and burning courage fed their gouts of searing, emerald flame. Yet even as savage as their offense was, it controlled, linked and orchestrated by their queen from on high with the precision of an elite fighting force spread over an entire battlefield.

All across the battlefield they swept, brilliant dots of emerald light that crisscrossed the frozen ground and tore the dark tides apart. Bombardments on the ground forces slowed, then stopped as the abominations turned to deal with the threat in their midst.


Swelling like a tidal wave, the allied forces surged from their protected ranks and stampeded forth to join the Changelings. Spell crafters enchanted feet for speed, shields for strength, and limbs for a burst of renewed strength. Frozen arrows scoured the battlefield, bringing forth blooms of ice to cover their advance, and overhead, the Imperium armada tore through the airborne beasts and joined the charge, strafing the grounds with explosive rounds that tore dark husks apart in bursts of gore and mist.

The Changeling had carved their allies an opening. Now it was up to them to make the most of it.

“Impressive,” Cadance nodded in genuine praise. “I’m glad we’re fighting on the same side for once.”

“Don’t get cozy,” Chrysalis replied through teeth grit with concentration. Coordinating a thousand raging warriors at once was no mean feat, and the fact that she could respond at all was a testament to her superb command of the Changeling nation. “I’m only doing this because you promised to help me find a decent man. One even better than Shining Armor, of course.” Cadance smiled, now somewhat in awe of Chrysalis single-minded stubbornness.

“Once this is all over, we’ll get right on it.”

Neither one acknowledged that specific choice of words. Once, not if. They couldn’t afford to do anything but hold onto the firm belief that victory would one day come. Perhaps that explained the queen’s insistence on promises and guarantees. One only worried about the future when they believed that the future would eventually come.

Chrysalis simply nodded.

“Once this is over."


Chapter 35

Chapter 35

Silently, cautiously, the Equestrians advanced step by painfully hesitant step. Before leaving, Graves had made it abundantly clear that each should keep an eye out. A single shadow, a single shifting spot of darkness, could be a new creature they absolutely had to find before it found them. Fortunately, the Ponyville girls rose to the task admirably. With eyes trained to find a single missing sequin, a single weevil amidst the leaves, or the tiniest of splinters amidst the fur of an animal’s paw, even these shadows couldn’t escape their sight.

Several times they did. The first was some kind of slithering being with a mass of tendrils sprouting from its upraised chest. The next was a skittering creature with far too many legs to ever make sense. The further they went, the more they saw, each growing stranger and more grotesque. But in each of those misshapen forms lay two ever-present constants: the unyielding darkness and that massive, leering grin.

Once seen, the girls would freeze and signal to Twilight who would raise her wand. A simple thought charm, barely a blip on the conscience that inspired Graves on just where he should look. Once locked, a clean pull of the trigger, and the beast was gone.

Thus they advanced. For a while. But soon, there would be more than one. Eventually, two or even three of those shadow forms would appear at once, making their treck increasingly difficult. It reached the point where Graves could no longer rely on his spell gun. Instead, he would have to flit about, becoming more shadow than the shadows themselves. Only when silent as moon fall could he approach the beasts unseen and swiftly plunge in his crackling blade of electric wrath.

“How you holding up, Big G?” Pinkie Pie frowned, handing the marshal the last satchel of Nighbloom tea as he returned from yet another one of these nerve-fraying escapades.

“Little tired,” he admitted as he took a hearty gulp and quickly wiped the sweat from his brow with a quickly dampening sleeve. “Being quiet takes a lot out of you.”

“I hear ya,” Rainbow Dash nodded before Rarity quickly nudged her aside.

“You rest right here,” she ordered as glittering gemstones came out once more. “And if you think you’re going to talk me out of doing this, mister, you’ve got–”

“Wasn’t gonna,” he answered, the faintest of grins on his lips. “Thanks.” Rarity remained stunned for only a moment before she resumed energizing the weary marshal.

“Alright, so I’m thinkin’ it’s time to change the tune o’ this dance,” Applejack frowned. “We’re taking a heap longer tryin’ tah’ git ahead now compared to when we started out. Maybe we should jess make a run fer it and hope fer the best.”

“Wouldn’t work,” Twilight answered with a sad shake of her head. “It’s going to take a lot of concentration to use the Elements. We need to find a place where we can really hunker down, and the middle of a pack of those dark things probably wouldn’t be the best place.”

“Um… do you think that maybe, possibly… we could do it here?”

Eyes turned to Fluttershy, who turned back to them after handing Graves a thermos of still warm tea.

“I mean, we are pretty close as it is,” she murmured softly. “It could work. Right?”

It was only when she spoke that the others looked up for the first time and saw just how far they’d really come.

What once had seemed but a speck of light in the distance now hung a giant, brilliant orb of radiance right before their very eyes. Only, it was not so radiant as they had thought. Though the orb glittered and sparkled enough to put any jewel to shame, deep within those shining depths, the girls could make out the darkness. It seethed and roiled, a mass of utter blackness and hunger so absolute that they were sure madness would set in from merely seeing it unleashed.

But they didn’t, for in between, elegantly simple in its design yet breathtaking in its grandeur, stood before them lay the most beautiful cage in creation. Nothing could contain destruction. It was impossible. And that’s exactly what they used. Shining with the color of a hundred rainbows, prismatic lights flickered and danced in a never ending waltz around the pitch-black core. Change and chance, probability and impossibility. It was barrier of pure maybes that rendered all it touched into what might have been and what still could be.

Of course, even such powers would fade after time, for nothing is eternal. That’s why they created more. Around that brilliant aurora lay the gold and silver seas, two halves that slowly swirled, gentle tides constantly pushed and pulled in the eternal dance of creation. With one shimmering in the soft, silver hues of a midnight moon and the other glowing bright with the gold of the midday sun, these two powers created what darkness destroyed and replenished what the madness devoured. An impossible wall to hold the tides. Creation itself to repair the wall. In such a way, the great darkness had been held back for eons since the birth of time itself.


Everyone saw it. Amidst the perfection of the glowing sphere, there was one flaw. In the divide where silver met gold, at one spot along the glittering rainbow of that sinuous divide was dimness. Not a hole outright, but a fray in the pattern. It was from this small spot of weakness that they saw a perpetual black mist seep forth like steam from a kettle and drift off like the smokey omens of war.

“That’s it?” Rainbow Dash gaped. “Seriously, the entire world’s on the line because of that little speck?”

“Considering that we are talking about the incarnation of absolute despair itself,” Rarity answered through furrowed brow, “yes, that sounds about right.”

“Looks like you got a line of sight,” Graves remarked as he remained where he sat. “You think you could work from here?”

“I guess so,” Twilight frowned as hand came to chin in consideration. “Yeah… actual distance isn’t so important as being able to spot it. This could work.”

“Alright then. In that case,” Graves grunted as he clambered to his feet and tossed back the last dregs of magic brew, “you guys get set up. I’m gonna go and see if I can rustle up a little noise.”

“Um… Isn’t that like, the last thing you want to do with a bunch of creepy gonna-eat-your-face-and-probably-your-babies-too monsters running around?”

“They go for me, they don’t go for you,” the marshal grinned. “It’s what I do, remember?”

Nobody said anything. It was what he did. It was why he’d been sent along, what he’d been doing since they’d arrived, and what they'd spent the last several days returning to him so he could do it once more. It was all the same, but this time, it felt different. Maybe it was nerves, but this didn’t feel the same.

“… Go do what you must, dear,” Rarity smiled as she reached up to fix his coat and hat once more. “We’ll be waiting right here.”

Graves smiled and allowed his silver eyes to linger for a moment on her sapphire blues. Then with a quick leap, he was off to the next landfall.

“Wait for my signal,” he called, before he disappeared into the floating sea of stone.

“… What, no kiss goodbye?” Rainbow Dash asked, unable to bear the awkward silence any longer. “Isn’t that kind of the norm for things like this?”

“Why would I?” Rarity blinked. “He’ll be back before we know it.”

She smiled as she said those words. What that smile meant, nobody could really say.

“Now come on,” the pretty seamstress tutted, hustling them about just like it was fitting day in her workshop, “we’ve got a lot to do, so we might as well be on our way.”

The girls scrambled, getting everything set up so they could free themselves of distractions and fully focus on working the Elements of Harmony as they had to. For Rarity, this meant one last look towards the direction Graves had gone before a quick shake cleared her head as she went to join her friends.


Deep breaths. Deep, steady breaths to clear the mind and calm soul. Twilight channeled, drawing strength not from the air around or the earth below, but from the focal point of that glittering jewel resting on her brow. Like a child pushing at a heavy gate, the young mage had to concentrate, bringing every ounce of her strength of will to bear upon that unyielding door. It fought back and resisted, a stalwart barrier denying any who approached even a glimpse of the treasures within. But inch by grudging inch, Twilight pushed forward, cracking it just a bit…

And then it opened.

Light flooded in. Light and song and joy and logic and reason and secrets and truth and a hundred thousand other things she could never hope to describe poured out and brought her into resonance with the very fabric of the universe itself. Drawing upon the Elements opened the door to truth, and a blinding flood of pure illumination crested forth like a tidal wave into the young woman’s mind. So much knowledge, so much power… It threatened to scour her away like the sands under the pounding surf.

But just like every other time, she was not alone, for in that sea of blinding whiteness came color. Gentle pink, bubbly blue, passionate red, warming orange, and regal purple all gathered around her and shielded her from the roaring tides. Twilight loved those moments. It was there, far removed from mortal bounds and in the realms where minds and souls could mingle that she felt more love and joy from her friends than she ever thought possible. Were it up to her, she would have spent an eternity there, just reveling and communing with those whose ties felt as if they could transcend all of time and space.

She didn’t, though. She had work to do.

Together with her friends, Twilight flew forth to bring herself before the glittering cage. They’d thought it frightening in their world before, but here, they could see the pure depths of its raging depravity. It was a bottomless pit that drew everything in, an all-consuming hunger and appetite for anything and everything in existence. And from somewhere within that infinite depth, a presence stirred.

Soft pink fluttered as the presence cast its baleful attentions towards them, considering them as but morsels in a dish. Fiery red surged, urging them to action, but the warm embrace of orange held it back even as purple’s cool resolve held them firm.

They would act, and very soon. But it was not the time yet. Not quite. They watched the darkness and it watched them, waiting, salivating.

And then it blinked.

Somewhere far from where they were yet close as well came an explosion of a very corporeal sort. Back in the world of men, a piercing blaze of ardent silver lit up the crimson-hued skies of that infernal pit. The shadows turned, casting its attentions towards that light as it pricked him, hardly the sting of a gnat, but a sting nonetheless. It turned away.

Then they struck.

Surging forward as one, they launched themselves at the dimness on the cage where threads hung loose and the veil lay thinnest. The darkness turned towards them, but was driven back by the prismatic powers that confronted him. As they held him at bay, the center moved forward to touch the cage.

Knowledge flooded into her mind and once more, she nearly succumbed to the onslaught. There had been truth before, but this cage… it was creation and reality and all of probability condensed on itself a million, million fold and woven so complexly, so intricately, that to unravel even the smallest fraction would be to unlock the laws of the universe itself. It was an impossible task, one far beyond the comprehension of any mortal being.

Fortunately, Twilight was pretty smart.

So as her friends held strong and held back the tides of darkness seeking to surge from the breach, Twilight set herself to reweaving the frayed strands of the cage. A thousand links were formed in that first instant. Ten thousand in the next. Working at the speed of light and thought, Twilight knitted back the patterns to their original, shining forms.

But still a million links remained, ten million yet untouched. Twilight worked, but there was so much to do, and the darkness… it pressed on so relentlessly, so hungry…

She worked as fast as she could, pushing herself to the brink of her abilities and far beyond. So much work to do. She could only hope that she could finish in time.


Landing on a new stone, the marshal’s head snapped around just in time to spot two shadow creatures in hot pursuit. Graves raised his spell gun and let loose a searing blast of lightning and caught the first clean through the chest. Even at it burst into a cloud of black mist, its companion raised a club-like arm and brought it down right where he was. Fortunately, Graves had rolled as soon as the shot was loosed and only suffered the sting of gravel tossed up by the blow. Before the beast could react, the marshal was on his feet, crackling electric blade following his rise to smoothly cut the creature clean in two.

Panting with exertion, Graves took a knee behind what little cover he could find on the floating rock and looked out. It seemed that of his pursuers, only those two had managed to follow his mad careening to his current location. That was good. He could see them, dozens of those black masses with leering, much-too-large mouths searching for him, hunting as they floated through the sky and bounced about. They’d find him. He’d let them. But right now, he could breath and get a quick minute of much needed rest.

“Impressive as ever, Mr. Marshal. Impressive as ever.”

Graves need only turn his head to catch sight of Nul, white suit as immaculate as ever as he smiled behind those winding bandages.

“You really have time to chat?” the raven-haired soldier idly inquired as he fanned himself with his hat. “Clock’s ticking, don’t you know.”

“I assume you’re referring to those children you brought along with you?” Nul smiled. “A side dish, nothing more. I’m much more interested in the main course.”

“Sorry, you can’t afford me.”

Nul’s laugher was bright and clear, the sound of a man who’d heard a fine joke.

“Oh Graves, you never do cease to amuse me,” the specter laughed as he wiped an invisible tear from his eye. “But really, don’t you think it’s time we brought this charade to an end? You know you can’t possibly win, now without my help as least.”

“You sure about that?” Graves smirked. “Cause I think I’m doing pretty well.”

“And you are,” Nul readily agreed. “… For a start.”

“Now that just sounds like sour grapes.”

It was then that Nul smiled in a very different way.

“Really? In that case, perhaps I should join in.”

It was a simple motion. All the man in white did was clap his hands together, a small gesture designed to produce a small sound. But the effects were anything but small.

The very air seemed to howl as the entire confines of the pit began to tremble. Stones shaken from their orbits careened into one another and it was only a quick duck that saved Graves from having his head removed by wayward debris. All around, the world resonated with that wordless din ringing through the air. But it wasn’t the sound that was the worry. It was what it brought.

Like pus oozing from on open sore, black mist began to pour from the breach in the cage faster than ever before. Thick and oily, the blacker than black smoke formed into countless more shadow beasts, ones of greater size than ever before and with far more twisted forms than words could do justice. Graves felt ice form in his veins. He’d seen more monsters in his years than whole regiments saw in a lifetime, but those abominations could send a chill through even his battle-tested heart. Those things were power and fear given form with only the single command written in the form of those disgusting, leering grins:

Devour. Consume. Destroy.

“You were right about one thing, Graves,” Nul smiled as the newly formed army began to drift out in search of prey. “The clock is ticking, but not for me. Not even close.”

Graves knew he should move. He had to find high ground. He needed to draw them away. But in that instant, the sheer, overwhelming weight of the odds kept him rooted firmly in place. There were just so many of them. He could never hope to stop them all.

But he had to try. And so, forcing himself to his feet, Graves armed his rifle and leaped. The first shadow creature he met instantly vanished as Graves neatly lopped its head off with a swipe of his flashing blade. A nearby beast noticed the commotion and roused itself to attack, but a thrusting kick from the soldier’s booted heel sent it careening into a cluster of other forms. All piled together, it was a simple matter for Graves to line them up and take the lot out with a single, well-placed shot.

He didn’t stop there. Graves fired his silver spell chain and used the pulling force to launch himself towards yet another group of shades. These he didn’t destroy. Instead, he spun his rifle about, using the heavy wooden butt as a bludgeon to knock them about like so many shrieking balloons. This got the attention of their brethren as hundreds and hundreds of demons cast their hungry, eyeless gazes towards the marshal.

“Can you do it, Graves?” a voice whispered from behind his ear. “Can you beat the odds like you have before?”

“… Let’s find out.”


Chapter 36

Chapter 36

Ice blue eyes snapped to full alert.

“Good morning si–”

Not even waiting for the attending to finish the statement, Ironside tossed back the pills and washed them down with the glass of water. Nutrient supplements, various powdered gemstones to absorb residual magic, yadda yadda yadda. He’d been on enough campaigns to learn the drill and stop caring several times over.

Ironside strode forth from Celestia’s ward, the stern nods and salutes he gave to the tired soldiers in no way slowing his pace. As much as boosting morale would help, it was far more important that he return to central command. There was a whole war to conduct, and far too many soldiers to see to make a difference. With that in mind, the Equestrian general stepped onto the express platform and gave his head a rough shake as he sought to clear the final tendrils of sleep charms that remained. Right now, he had a war to fight.

“What’s the update, soldier?” Ironside called out as he strode into the allied headquarters, the rising sun seeming strangely bright amidst the chaos of battle that continued to rage below. “I want to know everything that happened since I was out.”

“The lines hold steady, sir,” communications Lieutenant Sonar replied. “Colonels Shadow Strike and Bastion remain with the East and West Wings. They’ve incorporated the Changelings into their ranks and are currently able to maintain Line Six.”

“Are the Changelings cooperating?”

“For the most part. There are occasionally some, ah… translation issues, but nothing a good old point and shout can’t fix. In any case, the Colonels report that they’re very effective shock troops and their offensive capabilities open up opportunities for an active defense.

“Hmm, not bad,” Ironside nodded. He’d been rather worried about how well Chrysalis would comply with the needs of others, but it seems that whatever Cadance had said had done the trick. That was one victory, at least. “And how are the soldiers doing?”

“Not bad, but not good,” Sonar frowned. “We can’t rotate everyone back to the medical wards in time, so General Lacero had a contingent of his fleets start airdropping supplies to our ground forces. They’re not quite as good, but it’s better than nothing.”

Ironside nodded once more, but this time, it came with grim acceptance. After three days of nonstop and relentless fighting, there was no way they could have continued without accessing their reserves. Flame cannons didn’t run on dreams and wishes, and a soldier needed a sight more than patriotism to keep up the fight. As such, the stores that they’d managed to gather – condensed rations, sleep spell tags, crystal-bound mana, and much more – had long since begun making their way to the front lines. There was plenty to go around, as allies from all over had donated to the war effort, but unlike Nul and his hordes, they were finite. At some point, they would run out and it was only a question of whether the time it took would be enough.

“What news of the outposts?”

“The marshals hold the mountains, sir,” Sonar affirmed as he checked a nearby report. “It seems that the enemy has been attempting to take our guns and airstrips since late yesterday, but none have managed to break through yet.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” Ironside grinned. “Now, what’re those devil bastards up to today?”

“Four major waves in the two hours you were gone. Not much out of the ordinary since.”

And here’s where the general really began to wonder.

Out of the ordinary? Nothing about war was ordinary, and a war with Nul made everything stranger still. Since when had there been anything ordinary to speak of?

“Bring me the consolidated reports for all major activities since the start of the conflict,” Ironside ordered. Jumping beneath those ice blue eyes, the communications officer quickly pulled the documents together and handed them to the grim-faced general who began to peruse them as if he expected an ambush to come from the pages.

Day One had triggered significant major offenses with multiple changes, first in tactics, then in unit composition, and finally in the evolution of armaments into their current ballistics incorporating arsenal. If the first day had been any sort of indication, then ordinary for Nul was constantly destroying old expecations and introducing new ones.

Day Two, however, had been just the opposite. The beasts still advanced and the beasts still died, but that had largely been it. In fact, from the numbers in the report, attacks and actually decreased over the subsequent period. There were still more than enough demons to drown out a country under a wave of black, but nothing new had appeared in over twenty four hours.

A small rush of frost ran down the general’s spine.

“Lieutenant, send word to all officers at once,” Ironside growled as the reports crumpled beneath his balled fist. “Tell them to mobilize and–”

Words cut off as icy eyes snapped to the horizon as central command shook.

Dull thuds, heavy rumblings, rocked through the valley time and time again at irregular yet regular intervals. Though most would never have been able to pick up the pattern, Ironside had had far too many encounters with just these sorts of sounds. The valley rocked from the sound of heavily treading feet and, unless he’d left all sense behind at his desk, several feet at that.

The first source crested into sight over the hills of the valley entrance. Or rather, its head did. Then its torso, then its waist, and finally it’s giant, lumbering feet.

“That’s… that’s impossible,” Sonar gulped as blood leeched out of his pale, sickly face. “That can’t actually be real.”

“Oh, but it is,” Ironside growled. “Seems like Nul just found him some giants.”

And giants they were. Following the first came a second, a third, a fourth, each one a full fifty paces high, if a foot, and clad in all the visceral horror of their tiny brethren. With bodies twisted and distorted by Nul’s corrosive touch, each giant was the same abomination of bloated limbs, blistering sores, and massive, bone-white teeth that sought to consume and crush all within their crasp. Each lumbering footstep brought the first behemoths as a seventh…

And more continued to lumber over the hills, now joined by a fresh, black tide.


Lieutenant Sonar was not a coward. Before earning his post as a command dispatch, he’d served on the front lines in multiple campaigns, running messages and passing on orders through heavy barrage and enemy fire. He’d seen his share of conflict, but nothing, not even the war-torn lines of Belfast has prepared him for this. Unconsciously, he took a step back as thick, primal fear began to bubble up and rot his reason.

And then he felt a hand.

“Back to your post, soldier,” Ironside called, his heavy calloused palm resting on Sonar’s shoulder as his voice came out in calm, even rumbles. “Others are counting on us, so we’re gonna do our part.”

It didn’t wash away the fear. Nothing could do that. But seeing the general standing there, quiet as a mountains that surrounded them and just as immovable, it gave Sonar’s resolve the boost it needed to outweigh the fear. With a shaky, but quick salute, the lieutenant joined the bank of operators under his orders and awaited further instructions.

Ironside didn’t speak. Not yet. Time was of the essence, of course, but a hasty call would be just as bad, if not worse as a delayed order. Instead, he cast those frosty blue eyes over the battlefield and gathered intel as best he could.

By now, there were at least ten giants he could spot and a renewed horde of lesser beasts as well. Pushed halfway into the valley as they were, there was probably a good mile of barren landscape between them and the ridge the darkness now crossed. Given their present speed and location, they had maybe five minutes before the giants reached them. As for the rapidly advancing horde… three? Maybe two? Yeah, probably only two.

And the general leaped into action.

“Contact Lacero and Chrysalis first,” Ironside barked, his words falling fast and precise as battle plans formed in his head. “Wheel the bombers and use them as platforms for the Changelings once they set up a blast field. Half the fighters will keep our heads clear while the others go to buy us as much time as they can.”


“Flame cannons are to hold their fire till Apocrypha gets the Triad ready, but on no account is any cannon to fire unless it can hit multiple targets. Once the big guns are spent, we bring in the flame cannons. Coordinate fire through Majors Howitzer, Barrage, and Metal Storm with priority on the closest targets first. Make every shot count.”

Sonar directed the orders and dispatches flew through the air to all parties in questions.

“Finally, contact Bastion and Shadow Strike. Heavy armors will take care of the charging hordes and Tower mages will maintain air cover. Everyone else is to focus on the giants.”

For a moment the lieutenant paused.

“Everyone, sir?”

“Did I stutter?”

Though questioning a superior officer’s orders was always suspect, in this case, it could well be understood. Up till now, the forward line had only held on with the aid of the lancers and gunners in the back. To tell them to stand against this fresh wave on their own was tantamount to ordering a break through enemy lines armed with nothing but a butter knife and bravado.

And yet, what else could they do? If the hordes broke through, they could be cleaned up with some help from the cadets at reserve. If those giants made it through? The casualties they’d suffered till now would be bumps and bruises in comparison. The heavy armors would have to hold on their own. There just wasn’t any other choice.

To make up for lost time, Sonar personally dispatched the order to the front and Ironside watched as the armies shifted formation.

The skies grew darker as the massive armada pulled back over the front lines of the armies below. Though the aerial beasts attempted to give chase, Imperium fighters clashed in before and sent them flying apart in bursts of black mist and inky gore. Some stayed to continue the defense, but others flew down to strafe the oncoming giants with explosive rounds, dodging and weaving around incoming barrages of chitinous lances and black bile even as they fired.

The raking shots did not stop the advance or even slow it by much. But they did slow it some. Every moment the giants took to raise a hand and swat at the sleek, darting crafts was a moment they did not step forwards, and every occasional falter in their steps were dozens of monstrosities crushed underfoot. These were not opportunities that went unnoticed.

With the added chaos of the harried giants, the Changelings spread gossamer wings and leaped skyward with large packages in tow. Landing hard across the two hundred pace stretch of field before the front lines, flame clad warriors dropped their loads in the fresh craters, scooped over frosty earth with shovel-morphed hands, and took to the skies once more. The oncoming horde launched a black shower of lethal corrosion, but overlapping shields summoned forth by Tower mages protected the Changelings as they boarded Imperium crafts.

And last, but certainly not least, the heavy armors advanced. With kill zones standing useless without the guns and lances, the steel-clad burst mages had no choice but to reform the solid wall from the first day. But today, they no longer carried their heavy shields. In their place, smaller bucklers, rounded disks a foot across soon crackled to life with protective auras cast from their magecraft bodies. Opposite the shields, spell circles glowed as long blades of pure magic burst forth, beams of destruction that sat on the backs of hands well-versed in the art of combat. The armors stood ready, the vanguard against the oncoming armies of Nul. But with ranks only two deep as the line was stretched across the width of the entire valley, it seemed a spider’s silk thread that sought to stop a flood of black.

Onward, the demons came, scrambling and shambling, but in unified ranks and ordered masses. Further refined from the days of fighting, the oncoming beasts now stood just five hundred paces away. Four hundred. Three hundred. Two-

The earth exploded in great, raging geysers as the first ranks of Nul fell upon the Changeling-left surprise. Concentrated packages of exploding stones leaped from their shallow confines before bursting apart to shoot their lethal payloads out in fanning waves. Everywhere a stone struck with bone shattering velocity, it burst apart in showers of shrapnel and fire to shred whatever it was that had the misfortune of being close by.

Nul’s armies charged over the mine field, hundreds falling as the explosives cut bloody swaths through their ranks. But even as thousands fell, their brethren simply trampled over their mangled corpses as the sole desire to rend and consume filled their minds.

Braced with shields forward and spell blades raised, the mana-strengthened Equestrians met the charge like breakers shattering a wave. With brothers and sisters providing support from behind, the front ranks held their ground with shields crackling against slavering maws and slashing claws. Then, when they were sure that their footing was sound, blinding blades flashed and demons fell.

Amazingly, the line held. Softened as they were by the mine field and further slowed by the cratered landscape it left behind, the heavy armors managed to stay strong against the tides. Of course, this had no effect on the oncoming giants, but that was of no concern to the armors, because that duty lay to another.

Howling like a typhoon, the first of the Triad cannons unleashed its fury, a blast of pure, electric wrath that flew thin as a sheet and wider than a carrier’s hull. The blade of lighting flashed out over the ground forces and struck one of the giants clean at waist, slicing it in two before flashing forward to dismember a second and finally decapitate a third. The second and third Triad cannons fired as well and all together, eight of the giants fell in crumpled heaps and storms of black mist.

“Alright,” Ironside nodded. “Fire at will.”

Flame cannons roared as the first volley of liquid fire hurdled forth to strike still more oncoming giants. Exploding like packets of magma, two titans went down and further splashed the molten mass on monsters below. For the others that advanced despite being drenched in burning slag, Changeling fire and Equestrian blasts unleashed hell. Concentrated salvoes of emerald flame and piercing beams of light from silver lance tips lashed out at the oncoming giants from on high and below. Yet another giant went down and as the focused fire slowed the pace of the second, the flame cannons prepared to let loose yet another inferno salvo.

But the salvo never came.

“Sir! Emergency dispatch!” Lieutenant Sonar called. “Our guns are being attacked! All of them!”

Ironside knew the words he’d speak wouldn’t be true, but he couldn’t help but loose them anyway.

“That’s bloody bucking impossible!” he roared as ice blue eyes tore from the battlefield and rounded on the officer. “One or two, I can see, but how are they all under fire at one time?!”

“Dispatch is shaky,” Sonar called as he worked furious to put garbled messages together. “But… it sounds like they came… from… below?”


It was impossible. Never in all his years nor in all the years he’d studied had such a thing been possible. Breach a single point with a tunnel? Of course. Perhaps create a network? Certainly. But to launch simultaneous strikes at two dozen points scattered about miles of mountain range with only days of preparation at best?

This wasn’t just impossible. It was insanity.

“Another dispatch!” Sonar called. “The heavy armors are starting to buckle! They’re requesting immediate reinforcements!”

“Have ranks two through five support them,” Ironside snapped out, orders springing forth less from thought and more from instinct. “Others keep fire on the giants. Supplement with a third of the Tower mages with the rest shifting to pinpoint defense!”

The orders went out and the field shifted. Some of the lancing fire dropped from giant forms and leveled at the oncoming hordes while arcane blasts burst out from further in the backs. The sky bound shields which had covered the steady rain of black death held, but any eye that spared them a glance could see that they stood thinner and frailer than before. In some places, the shield cracked and let through a salvo before it was repaired. In some places, those salvoes found their targets.

Suddenly, a single ball of liquid flame burst from the mountains.

“New dispatch!” Sonar called. “It seems the marshals have stabilized one of the cannons! They’ll be making a sweep and getting the rest back online!”

“That’s what I like to hear!” Ironside fiercely grinned. “Now send word to the reserves and have them–”

Words died on his lips as ice blue eyes became disks of frost.

With the thick haze of smoke from charred husks and black mist from abominable forms, it seemed that the chaos of battle had hidden a very nasty surprise. Emerging forth from the dimness like demon gods of old, two lumbering titans grinned with mouths full of bone white teeth as they stood not one hundred paces from the front lines.

Instantly, the flame cannon fired again, joined by a single other this time as the allied forces concentrated fire. But even all of it together was only enough to slow one of the giants. The other was still free to move and now stood at eighty paces.

“Are the reserves in place yet?” Ironside called.

“Still out of range!”

Sixty paces.

“What about other cannons?”

“Facing heavy resistance!”

Forty paces.

“Time on the Triad?”

“Ten minutes!”

Twenty paces.

And suddenly, a lot of things happened all at once.

Tearing through a flock of screeching, bloated beasts, two Imperium fighters, one with flames trailing from its twin aft engines, careened straight towards the open maw of the oncoming titan. An explosion of glass, a flash of grey and white whipping in the wind, and the pilot ejected from its seat for a neat, aerial pickup by its partner even as the first aircraft crashed home with bright, fiery blast just.

While the giant careened backwards from the several hundred pounds of steel and ammo that smashed into its head at Mach 2, a spell circle suddenly formed as thick, coiling tendrils of pale, translucent gold burst from the ground and lashed its feet. Off balance and tangled, the giant fell to the earth with a thundering crash as two lone figures broke the front lines.

Or one, really, From what Ironside could see with thunderstruck eyes, a suit of non-regulation armor that looked like it had been liberated from a museum was literally carrying another figure in its arms as it raced for the fallen giant. Several demonic beasts broke rank and charged for those figures, but bright streaks of orange flame blew apart the closest before they were close enough to smell. Darting and weaving between the black hordes with footwork that seemed to almost dance about, the armor reached an arm back, glowed bright as runes flared to life, and threw its companion skyward.

For a moment, it was a lone figure sailing through the air. Then suddenly, a brilliant, viridian light flared in hand, light that served as target from the spell circle below. As the airborne figure reached its apex, a pale, yellow beam shot forth to strike the green and suddenly, what was once a small speck magnified a hundredfold into a giant, emerald sword.

Falling from the sky, the lone figure brought the spell blade down and impaled the giant right where he lay. Thrashing and shrieking, the great beast attempted to seize the figure, but it was too late. Leaping from a spell circle summoned in midair, the figure alighted next to the armor and together, the two cut their way back to Equestrian line amidst streaks of orange flame, black mist, and roaring, screaming cheers.

Ironside gaped.

“What the hell just happened?” he wondered aloud, next to stupefied by the impossibility he’d just witnessed. “What the bloody bucking hell just happened?!”

“Major Rampage of the West Two reporting,” Sonar called. “Gilda of House Lacero and Avis of House Aquilam were responsible for the initial crash. As for the follow up, it seems that a group of cadets broke rank from the reserves and… well… you know the rest.”

“Cadets?” Ironside sputtered as one shock woke him from the last. “What cadets were bloody fool enough to pull a stunt like that?”

“Not sure. They’re refusing to identify unless call sign Ghost Legacy is given permission to take the field.”

Refusing to identify? Ghost Legacy? Demanding to fight? It couldn’t be.

Then again, crazier things had happened. Hay, he’d just seen them, hadn’t he?

“Well, Lieutenant,” Ironside chuckled. “You tell those cadets to get ready for the court martial of a lifetime, then get them back out there and in the fight!”

“Sir, yes sir!”

"And then," Ironside growled as the smile faded to a steely grimace with eyes cast at the final lumbering titan, "and then there was-"






Ice blue eyes widened, not from surprise, though it was certainly present, but from horror. For you see, in all the commotion of the last several seconds, General Ironside had made one, crucial error. He'd taken his eyes off the field.

It was understandable. Really. After all, when miracles occur in the midst of battle, human nature itself compels the eyes to watch, because it was in those moments that hope is rekindled, the soul lit aflame, and will to fight begins to burn bright once more. But a general has to be more than a man. A general can't allow human emotions to dictate his actions because he must see the entire battle. Only by seeing everything could his judgment be sound, and it was only through sound judgment that the hope of victory could be more than an illusion.

Ironside had forgotten this, and because of that lapse, he hadn't noticed when fresh giants took the field.

"Sir? Sir?!" Sonar called as no less than fifteen juggernauts now lumbered through the valley along with still more masses of teeming demons below. "General! What are we supposed to do?"

"Tell them..." Ironside paused and swallowed. "Tell them..."

What? What exactly was he supposed to tell them?

The Triad was completely spent, and not even Apocrypha with all his wisdom and still could bring it back so soon. Flame cannons continued to fire, but with three at most online, they had only just now managed to bring down the other single figure that threatened their front lines. The air force was fully engaged with a swarm of fel beasts overhead. Changelings scrambled about without a moment's pause to keep the fragile line from breaking. Ground troops were firing with reckless abandon at anything and everything in range with still more targets than they could handle. And if any of the mages were taken away from their shielding, then the spell shields keeping their soldiers in the fight would crack like a egg. Their armies were stretched to their limit with nothing left to spare, and though they'd witnessed a miracle only moments before, it seems like even miracles could not save them this time.

The world would fall and darkness would consume them all.


And then there was fire.

Lots of fire.

"What the hay?!"

Out of the sky, great pillars of fire rained down, but not the clean, pristine flame of a clearly cast spell. No, this fire was raw and rough, the searing heat of magma laced with the dense smoke of burning trees. The flame was ancient, primal, and in quantities great enough to render the frozen valley floor to a carpet of hot slag, there could only be one source.

Piercing the frigid air with their roaring cries, the skies grew dim as no less than thirty kaiser dragons burst through the canopy of smoke and laid waste to Nul's armies. As some strafed the field with waves of searing heat that consumed the darkness in great swaths, others fell to the lumbering titans with slashing talons and snapping jaws. Great limbs of corrosive force struck dragon hide with enough force to dent mountains, but the dragons did not fall. Trusting in the stalwart magic of steely scales, the dragons roared with savage ferocity as each and every one of the dark titans was torn back to smoke and mist.

"S-s-s-s-sir, new dispatch!" Lieutenant Sonar called out. "We're getting reports that Salamanders are airdropping to the cannon sites! Estimates say that they'll be operational in-"

"Minutes. Our warriors shall rend those ffieiddra limb from limb."

Turning about in surprise, the whole command gaped in surprise as the dragonic morph of a Carregard Salamander landed,furled its charcoal wings, and bowed with upraised palm to General Ironside.

"Battle Leader. I bring word from the Firstborn."

"Well met, Son of the Honored Brood," Ironside replied, smooth in the sense that he bowed in turn without missing a beat, but rough as his mind still remained daze from whirlwind changes. "What word would the Elder speak?"

"Know this. Even now, the heart of Tiamat aches. The cherished brother was slain by one of yours, and there is nothing on this earth that would change this fact."

"I see," the general nodded. "And?" he podded as the unsettled tone of the Carregard indicated words left unsaid. To this, the Salamander paused as a look of wonder seemed to cross his scaly face.

"Nothing on earth could change this fact, but... perhaps something beyond this earth would change his mind."

And slowly, gears began to grind back into motion as a smile broke forth from the stony planes of Ironside's face.

"Well, it's good to have you all aboard," the general grinned as he took the Salamander's clawed hand in his for a firm shake. "With the Dragon Enclave on our side, we might actually have a chance of-"

"Your words honor us too greatly," the Carregard interrupted with a grim frown. "We bring our numbers, yes, but we also bring word of still darker tidings beyond the horizon."

"Darker?" Ironside gaped. "How on earth could things possibly get-"

Once more, the general was interrupted, but not by his guest. This time, a great roar, great enough to dwarf the din of battle had it sounded in their midst, rang out from beyond the veil of mountains. Then, almost as an echo, a cacophony of other cries sounded forth, similar to the first, but so twisted and marred by hunger and insanity that they were something else altogether.

"The darkness blasphemes our brood by taking our form," the Salamander spat with words of pure, undistilled hatred. "The Firstborn goes to face them himself, but even he cannot hold them all. They will come, and we will have to face them along with the untold swarms that continue to darken these grounds."

Slowly, Ironside nodded. It only made sense. Every time they'd managed to stop Nul, his form had merely changed again and come at them stronger than before. The might of the Dragons turned the tides of battle in their favor now, but in due time, that shift would sway once more and once it did, there would be no more miracles to save the day. The Dragons had not won the day. The Dragons had simply bought them a little more time as they clung on desperately for dear life.

"Well, at least we're still in this fight," the general sighed as a small, hard smile settled back onto his rough-hewn face. "Can I count on your lot to stick the course?"

Though he did not smile, the Carregard's grim-set resolution was every bit as strong as Ironside's.

"Our blood is your blood and our fate, your fate, till talon breaks and flames grow cold. We stand until Nul is slain, or till we can stand no more. Whichever comes first."

"Good enough for me," Ironside laughed. "In that case, let's get ready for the final round."


Chapter 37

Chapter 37

Since the time before time, before light and warmth and comfort, there was the dark. The darkness had always been there, lurking in the infinite void, consuming all that there was and leaving nothing but wasting emptiness in its wake. Save for those celestial beings that had imprisoned it, there was no threat to its power, no stopping its rampage. All living things would succumb to sate its hunger, for the dark was absolute, and its power was unquestioned.

So why was it, that despite the strength of the dark, it could now no longer feed?

The shadows searched and prowled about those floating stones and sought out the elusive prey they had seen beneath those black and crimson skies. But instead of tasty morsels rendered down to nothingness, they instead found pain. They hunted for food, but soon found it was they who were hunted instead. Each time they sought to corner the prey, it would disappear, a figment of smoke and illusion with far less form than they. Yet as soon as back was turned, it would strike, searing them with blazing light and rending them with its glittering fang. They would turn to confront, but it would disappear and strike again, a single being that seemed a hundred at once.

The shadows chased but could not catch, reached but could not seize. And this confused them. How was it that a thing of flesh and blood could stand to the dark? How was it that their prey could not be consumed?

The shadows questioned, but did not stop. They would not be deterred, for it was the way of flesh to fail. Time upon time again in the ages since the dark, the darkness had seen such stories play out before. Creatures fought and ran, but no creature could run forever.

In the end, the shadows always fed.


Though the battle continued to rage below, headquarters stood silent. From his vantage point at the front of the command pavilion, Ironside stood quietly as he looked down on the valley below. He stood quietly because at this point, there was nothing left to say. There were no orders were left to give.

The sun was beginning to set on the sixth day of ceaseless combat. Six. It was a miracle they'd lasted through four. It was impossible that they'd reached the fifth. But now, pushed back nearly the entire length of the valley, the allied forces and their dragon companions clung tenaciously to the far side of the Jotun Pass as a sea of black pressed against them. Supplies had run out, mana was long since exhausted, and the only thing keeping them in this fight now was the knowledge that failure meant the death of not only themselves and their comrades, but of everyone they stood to protect back home.

But even such feelings could only last so long, and it was with steadily dwindling hope in a salvation from afar that the soldiers held their ground.

"Any news?" Ironside idly called out as he kept ice blue eyes locked on the battlefield.

"Nothing of note, sir," Sonar replied. "That tower mage... Trixie, was it?... is still leading some of the enemy on a merry chase, but her estimated exhaustion point's still the same. When that happens, the flame cannons will be done for.

"I see," the general nodded. "Well, not much we can do about that. S'not like we have the energy to keep them running, do we?"

"Very true," Sonar nodded just before he let out a long, weary sigh. "Looks like this is the end."

Indeed it was. They'd fought long, and they'd fought well. If Ironside could have given each and every soldier on that field an Equestrian Star, he'd do it by hand if need be. But that would involve surviving, and it didn't look like any of them were going to be doing that. That just left one course of action left.

"Sonar, go full spectrum," Ironside rumbled. "Tell everyone to gather for a charge."

"... Yes sir."

Tweaking the various knobs and dials on the communication array, Lieutenant Sonar aligned the various resonant metals and crystals to the same magical harmonics. With the push of a single button, headquarters would be able to address every officer in tandem for a single, cohesive order.

Suicidal rush. The last hurrah.

Once calibration later, and Sonar swiveled around in his seat to turn attention to the general.

"Shall I make the call?"

"No, let me," Ironside sighed. "If anyone's going to go to the grave with that weight on their mind, it ought to be-"

"Nay! Belay that order!"

Blinking in surprise, Ironside turned towards the sound of the voice and saw Shining Armor climbing the stairs to join them. Well, limping was more like it. Leaning heavily on a makeshift crutch with one arm and doubly so on a young soldier with a shock of blue hair beneath his scarred and battered armor, the handsome captain was a haggard mess. With shadows under his eyes deep enough to join the opposing forces, the gaunt-faced officer only took a moment to hack out a spray of electric blue sparks before speaking once more.

"Now general," he wearily grinned, "I get you're all gung ho about going down in the history books, but let's be reasonable here. We all know that a charge is going to get us wiped out faster than muffins in the mess hall."

"First off, you can't be worried about the books when there's nobody left to write them," Ironside corrected. "Second, we don't have any other options, now do we?"

"Oh, but we do, my most illustrious general," Shining Armor smiled. "We still have the most magnificent of grandiose aces still left up our little sleevies."

Normally, Ironside would have been tempted to court marshal any officer who would dare use the word 'sleevies' in a command center. Uncommonly, he would have just sighed and sent them off to the infirmary where he knew the soldier desperately needed to be. But in this case, the sight of eyes still shining with unyielding spirit, even through the thick fog of exhaustion that clung to every particle of the young man's being, changed the general's course of action.

"You've got a plan, soldier?" Ironside asked. Shining Armor shook his head.

"I don't.

"You don't?"

"Nope. But my darling wife on the other hand? She's got herself a great idea."


Partly propped up by whatever supplies they could scrounge together in the pavilion, Shining Armor slumped over the pylons that allowed his shields access to the valley below. Silent since the fifth evening except for sporadic events as dictated by dire straights and limited by nonexistent strength, those pylons may have been the only real things keeping the guard captain from falling face first to the floor.

Well, almost.

"This is a hair-brained scheme," Ironside called out as he paced back and forth, looking like a cross between an irate bear and a particularly volatile glacier. "If you'd tried to pull this sort of chicanery in my tactics class, I'd have booted you back to basic faster than you could sign your own name."

"Then it's a very good thing we're not in class, isn't it?" Cadance smiled. Worn to the bone and drained from nearly sixteen hours afoot despite her pregnant state, it was the crystal princess who shouldered much of her husband's burden as she held fast to her love. "Now, is everything ready?"

"Oh, it's ready alright," Ironside replied with a bark of laughter. "Celestia take me for a two-bit simpleton, it's all in place."

With a satisfied nod, Cadance turned attention away from the general and towards her husband.

"Are you okay, dear?" she asked, her voice level and calm despite the worry clear in her eyes. "Can you really make this work?"

" 'Course I can, sweetie," Shining Armor grinned. "There's no way I could mess this up."

"Well, you are the amazing-"

"Not me," he interrupted. "I meant that with you by my side, I could take on the universe."

Slurred, tacky, and completely hyperbolic, but the words didn't matter. What really mattered was that in the guard captain's eyes, nothing remained but pure, undying love for the woman who held him close. And even with the war that ranged, a princess spared a moment for a flushed, delighted smile.

"What a silver tongue," Cadance laughed as she lovingly tucked a stray hand of his azure hair back into place. "I just hope our son has a little more sense in using it than his daddy."

"I'm sure he will," Shining Armor grinned, "so let's make sure we've got a chance to find out, eh?"

"By your leave, captain," Cadance giggled.

And reaching up to cup her cheek in the palm of his hand, Shining Armor smiled and kissed his lovely bride.


The mountain erupted, not with fire or magma, but with bright, rose-hued light that flooded the entirety of the valley below with its gentle glow. That was the signal, and the signal was the start.

With a grand roar, the dragons still capable of flight took to the skies and deep breaths to fill strained and heaving chests, breathed out plumes of primal fire. The dark hordes swarmed to stop them, but in a move of almost reckless zeal, the allied forces rallied to their defense. Fighters with wings half clipped warded off winged demons as mages of Equestria and Tower alike launched the last dregs of their magic at the eldritch abominations below. Even as the tides pressed in, Changelings and aura mages fended them off so that the dragons could get the support they needed.

The offensive only lasted a minute, probably less, but it was enough. In that amount of time, the dragons had been able to lace the ground with fire and set light to the hordes below. The numbers were hardly dwindled from the assault, but destroying the enemy had not been the goal. Setting the blazes had been.

Walls erupted from the ground, grand barriers composed of equal parts soft pink and light blue. Separating army from army, the enchanted walls did not merely separate, but surrounded as well. All around the valley, more and more glowing panels leaped forth as it wasn't the allied armies that were surrounded, but Nul's.

"NOW!" Ironside roared. "FULL RETREAT!"

Everyone, airship and armor alike, did just that. Pulling away from the spell-crafted walls, every creature that drew breath made tracks in reverse and quit the field in a rapid, tumultuous stampede. The ever-hungry darkness gave chase, or would have, had two young lovers not held them in their place.

Locked together in their embrace, Shining Armor and Princess Cadance worked in tandem amidst a swirling aura of blinding light to erect a barrier the likes of which had never been seen before. On his own, the guard captain would never have been able to create such a construct, but together, that was a different story. Princess Mi Amore Cadenza was unique in that her power was not something that could stand alone, but always paired with another. Like a well carved lens of the purest crystal, the princess could take the strength of another, catalyze it with the deepest desires of the heart, and magnify that power to heights no one could imagine. It was the feelings that they shared, the desire to protect and to live on, that gave them strength to carry on.

To a point.

Shining Armor could feel it slip. He was tired, and the threads he wove to create the barrier ever threatened to slip from his fingers. Cadance helped him hold on, but the grip was tenuous, and no matter how much power she poured into him, even while holding nothing back, there was no denying the limits of a single, mortal man, and the threads continued to pull away from his control.

Faster and faster they worked. The wall, now fully surrounding the valley, grew upwards and inwards as the couple constructed a vast dome to contain the army. The darkness pounded at the confines and in many moments, nearly broke through, but all across the battlefield, even in the midst of a harried evacuation, every entity with any speck of magic, whether it be mage-crafted spells, emerald-green fire, or even the wells of mana that burned in the chest of a great beast, hurled it forth towards the barrier to hold it steady.

The dome held for some seconds, then some more. The air inside grew thick and dank as fires still burning across the field licked up every speck of breath inside. The armies of Nul didn't notice, but Cadance did. In fact, she was counting on it.

Fire burned. Fire consumed. But in order for it to thrive, it needed air. Give a starved flame air, and it would leap after it like a ravenous wolf after sheep and set it ablaze in a glorious conflagration. Inside their dome, there was an entire battlefield of smoldering embers just waiting for the chance to burst back to life. In that case, what would happen when the barrier finally fell and gave every flame exactly what it sought?

It wouldn't win them the day, of course, but it would buy them time. Maybe it'd be enough. It'd have to be, because once they were through, there would be nothing left, and darkness would take them all. So as the two lovers put every scrap and shred of power left at their disposal into the shield, they prayed that it would hold out out and buy them the time they needed. The barrier held, but it slowly grew thin as weariness took its toll on both the captain and princess. The barrier weakened, but held out just a little bit longer. Just a little bit longer until...


With more crash than roll, Graves collided shoulder first into the stony soil before skidding to a halt. His landing was off, understandable considering the amount of blood oozing over his right eye like a blinding, crimson curtain. Or was it the eye itself? He knew one of the creatures had slashed him from forehead to cheek right across his gunmetal grey, but whether it was injury or blood that obscured his vision, he really couldn’t say. After all, he had other things to worry about, air being the first. Graves knew the telltale signs of hyperventilation and did everything he could to keep his lungs from convulsing into a spasming heap. He had to. With the mana sickness as progressed as it was, if he couldn’t keep his breathing under control, death would set in within minutes, assuming he had that long before the shadows claimed him.

There were so many of them. So many. Graves had fought, using every trick in the book he knew to keep them controlled. Lightning blasts pierced through three or four at a time and countless more fell to the flashes of his electric blade. But no matter how many he felled, there were always more to fill the ranks. It was fruitless as fighting the hydra: for each he killed, two more would rise in its place.

So he ran.

He’d stopped fighting long ago and instead focused on hiding away and striking only when their interests in him began to wane. Even then, he had to fight. Each time he appeared, the shadows would launch a merciless onslaught, wide mouths dripping with pitch-black spittle as they fought to consume him. The marshal ran, and sometimes they caught up to him. But when they did, he fought, lashing out with rifle and fist and blade and foot at anything that came close. He was a whirlwind of death that shredded anything within range of that lethal blade or came within line of his piercing gun. Every inch they chased was an inch paid ten times over in their black, misty blood.

But there were just too many and no matter how many he struck, some managed to reach through. A clubbing fist had clipped his left shoulder and dislocated the joint. Graves managed to set it somewhat, but in the brief pause it took, another shadow lanced out a spiky tendril and pierced his foot. A hasty bandage torn from his shirt stopped the trail of blood, but nothing could save the fact that his movements were slowed. The shadows continued the chase and the marshal began to give ground. A slash across the chest. A gash on the eye. A bite on the leg. Piece by piece, the shadows chipped away at the marshal, stealing his movements, his strength, his sight, everything.

Then the old wounds had opened.

The girls had done so much, more than he could have ever hoped, but nothing save the Lazaral Pits could cure his wounds so quickly. One of the marshal’s rare moments of respite had been interrupted by violent, bloody coughs, courtesy of a fresh course of mana sickness wracking his already battered body. His ribs remained intact, thank the twin crowns for that, but blood had begun to flow once more from the tear in his leg–

… Blood. He could use that.

Ignoring the protests of his pounding hear, Graves held his breath and focused, willing the backed up energies in his body out of the bleeding wounds in his flesh. God, the pain. It was unbearable, like the fires of the sun raging through every cut, every crevice, every nook and cranny and fiber of mind, body and soul. Spots danced in his eyes as he almost passed out from the searing agony. Almost, but not quite.

When he opened his eyes and saw his blood crackling with the light of arcane lightning drained from his body, Graves allowed himself the tiniest of tiny smiles.

“Okay, that? That is by far one of the craziest things I have ever seen! And believe you me, I’ve seen plenty.”

Graves looked up towards Nul, silently wishing it hadn’t taken nearly so long. He felt weak, his head weighed down like a leaden mass, and even that small motion took the force of his will to do. But do it he did.

“See?” Graves smirked through blood-flecked lips. “Doing just fine.”

“I must admit, you’ve surprised me yet again,” Nul grinned. “I thought your work on those orcs was impressive, and yet you’ve managed to smash that record without any help from me. Well done. Well done indeed!”

Graves had to let the coughing fit pass him by before could respond.

“Glad you appreciate it. And since you’re such a big fan, how’s about you call this whole thing off and I’ll treat you to coffee, or something?”

“Ah yes, sparkling wit even in the face of insurmountable odds,” Nul smiled sadly. “I might be tempted to even take you up on that offer. If it were even possible, of course.” Gunmetal grey eyes arched imperceptibly larger at the words.

“What do you mean, possible?” Graves repeated warily. Nul extended arms with palms open in a meek display of humility.

“As I told you before, my conscience and power are separated. The remnants of my power that you see around you, those little pets of mine? Not under my control at all. I could as hardly command them to stop as you could. Maybe less, all things considered.”

“So… you can’t stop them?” the marshal asked. Nul merely shook his head.

“The only one who can, dear Graves, is you.”

The marshal cast his eyes to the skies once more. Even from his hidden spot, he could spot no less than a score of shadow forms searching for him as swollen tongues licked at bone-white teeth in anticipation of the meal. Twenty he could see, with no doubt ten times that many only moments away. Maybe ten times that before they were through.

“Won’t be long now,” Nul mused, a slender finger tapping his chin. “You can hide, of course, but they’ll lose interest in you pretty soon; not that smart, these creatures. But once that happens, your precious friends and their elements become the new prey, and believe you me, six tender chicks will satiate them far more than a tough old bird like you.

Graves heard the truth in those words. He’d known it all along himself. Bringing all the force of his will to bear, Graves fought his own body and ordered it to its feet. A heavy foot planted in the soil to brace an aching hand with pushed with all its might to lift him off the ground–

All to no avail. What little strength he had faded and Graves fell back to the ground in a splash of his own electrified blood. Nul looked down on the man, a soft frown on his face and what would most surely have been pity were not his bandages in place.

“Look, Graves,” he said, kneeling down to address him eye to eyeless. “We both know how this ends. There’s no way for you to do this on your own. You need to rely on the strength of others. You need help.”

Odd, isn’t it? Here, they were fighting to keep the Lord of the Dark in his cage, and yet he was offering the exact same advice as Rarity had not days before.

“I can be that help,” Nul continued, the faintest hint of pleading coming into his voice. For all the world, he sounded like a friend at intervention, hoping that the sincerity of his words could draw a loved fool from the confines of their own error. “You know I can. You’ve seen what you can do with my help. You’ve done it before.”

He was right. With that much power, even ten thousand shadows wouldn’t be enough to stop him. Graves would have the power of a god in his hands.

“… But why?” Graves asked, steely eyes boring back at Nul. “Why would you give me the power to seal you away?”

“Come on, we’ve been through this before,” the specter sighed. “I can afford to wait for the day when that seal really breaks. But you, sir, are a once in an eternity opportunity. I just can’t let this pass me by.”

“Well, what if I off myself?” Graves smiled. “Either you back off, or this golden chance of yours is gone for good.”

“An admirable sentiment,” Nul smiled, “and one believe you would carry out without a moment’s hesitation. But we both know that’s a deal not worth taking.”

Buck. That knowing smirk on the man in white’s face showed he understood. Of course, why would he take that deal? Sealed away, the opportunity was lost anyways. Long shot that he’d fall for it, but it was a shot worth taking, anyway.

“So in the end, you just want me to work with you,” Graves continued on, using the time to rip another strip of fabric from his shirt to rebind the gash on his leg. “But you’re still trying to wipe out the world.”

“Keeping my options open,” Nul shrugged. “Of course, the best would be if you just accepted my help and sealed me away. I get the satisfaction of working with the one person who can appreciate my power, and you save the day. Barring that, if you’re out of the picture, well… no reason for me to hold back anymore, is there?”

Graves didn’t respond, partly from thinking, but mostly from the surge of stabbing pain twisting his gut into knots. He’d vented a lot of magic with his blood. A lot, but not all.

“… What happens?” he finally forced through gritted teeth. “After the offer, I mean.”

Nul’s eyebrows rose ever so slowly.

“What do you mean?” he asked, a flutter in his voice as if he were fighting back something desperate to break free.

“Let’s say that for some reason or another, I’m foolish enough to take your offer. What happens after that?”

“Why, what you expect of course,” Nul grinned. “You get the power, you save the day, I’m locked up tight, and everyone goes back to Ponyville happy that the day is saved.”

“I see,” Graves nodded. “And then?”

The smile on Nul’s face slipped a notch.

“I’m… not sure what you’re asking.”

“Let’s say I do make it back,” the marshal continued. “I’ve got your power inside me, eating away at my mind. How long before I start to go crazy?”

“Graves, really,” Nul laughed. “Why do you think I’m so enthralled with you? It’s because you have the strength to not only use my power, but to control it. You’ll be fine.”

“You sure about that?” the marshal challenged. "Coronus and Crystallia couldn’t hold it, and they were the greatest sages in history. Discord couldn’t contain it, and he was the Spirit of Chaos. What makes you think I’ll be any different?”

“Because you fear it, Graves my boy,” the man in white smiled with the love of a father for his son. “You respect and appreciate it because you know how valuable and precious it is. You weren’t born with the power but earned it by paying the cost in blood and sweat and pain. You won’t be controlled by something you’ve already mastered, Graves. Not you.”

He wanted to believe it. He really did. Even now, as he cast his gaze to the skies above, he could spot the shadows growing restless. They hadn’t move out much, not yet, but it was clear that they were nearing the end of their patience. It wouldn’t be long before the marshal was gone from their minds and they set themselves to pursuing easier meat. Graves knew that he needed to do something before that happened. He needed to change the tides.

“What about Rarity?” Graves asked, turning once more to the kneeling figure. “If something happens to her, I… I really don’t know what I’d do.” At this, Nul’s levity faded as he too, grew somber in recognition of the marshal’s care.

“That’s beyond me,” he admitted. “When I’m sealed away, I’ll be gone from this world, unable to affect it even in the slightest way for eons yet to come, if then. If Rarity gets into trouble, I will be completely powerless to help her.”

“… I see…”

“But I can promise you this,” Nul continued, his words grown strong with the force of absolute conviction. “You take my power, and you won’t need me to. You’ll have the strength to protect Rarity from anything that could harm her. After today, you will be the greatest hero of all ages and nothing, and I do mean nothing, could ever even hope to take her away from you. You need never fear losing her again.”

Graves paused, pain fading to the back of his mind as he mulled over those words. The power to keep her safe, eh? That sounded nice. Who wouldn’t want something like that?

“… Does she have to know?” he asked, his voice growing softer as weariness began to creep in. “About our deal, I mean.”

“Nobody does,” Nul replied with the slightest shake of his head. “I wouldn’t betray a confidence. Who would know depends entirely on you.”

Nul held his breath as Graves fell silent once more. Even the shadows seemed to pause in anticipation. Here, was the man who could save or break the world, a matter that depended entirely on whether he chose to accept the offer before him. Graves needed to fight. There was no avoiding that, no negotiations there. Battle had been engraved into his very being, etched in body and bone and soul since the very start. He needed to fight and to fight, he needed strength.

But sitting on the ground as he, broken and bleeding, that was the one thing that he lacked. You could see it in his eyes, those dull grey disks that grew dimmer with each and every second. He was tired. So tired. He couldn’t no longer fight as he needed or even fight the voices that told him to resist. The offer before him was the best he could ever hope for, a chance to safe the world. His friends. Rarity.

He would never have to fear losing her again.

“… Alright,” Graves nodded as a leaden hand slowly reached forth. “Let’s do this.”

Nul smiled. This was victory. This was triumph. This was the sweetest satisfaction the Lord of Ash could ever hope for. Unable to keep his exultation from spilling out, Nul’s face split into a broad, almost leering grin as he reached out and took the marshal’s hand–

And erupted into light.

Hands met and power flowed out. But not from Nul to Graves.

No, it was the other way around.

As soon as they had met, Graves channeled, pouring every ounce of magic he’d been gathering and refining since the first moment he’d smirked. Pure lightning, raw and uncontrolled and primal, lanced through his arm, splitting skin and searing flesh as it poured out like a raging hurricane into the hand he held.

And Nul howled. Though normally, nothing but the strongest of spells could affect an astral form, Nul had made the crucial, crucial mistake of reaching out to touch the mortal world. He wanted to pass power to a living being, and so he had to tie his person, the core of who he was, to a plane where man could touch. Thus, the King of the Abyss howled as pain quite unlike any other poured directly into his mind. With his very consciousness laid bare to the laws of causality, Nul's very being bore the full weight of the marshal’s electrifying wrath.

“You… you arrogant little insect!” Nul roared, the bandages torn from his face by the buffeting winds to reveal searing darkness in the pits of his eyes. “You would dare strike out at me?!”

“ ‘Course,” Graves smirked as the relentless barrage continued. “Why do you think I got so chatty?”

“Insignificant little–” words faded into a fresh howl of pain as the marshal drew on the power not from only within, but without as well.

Funny thing, blood. It’s so common, most people never give it thought, and yet it is by far one of the most powerful magical mediums known to man. Blood was the currency of life and by that, the conduit of magic as well. So Graves had expunged his blood and excess lightning from his wound just minutes before. His blood had remained there on the ground, pooled in sanguine puddles as he’d discoursed with Nul. But what about the magic? Where had it gone?

Nowhere. It was right were he'd left it and so Graves had reached out, drawing on the lightning that had threatened to kill him mere minutes before so he could add its strength to his own, to increase the strength of his blast beyond what he’d ever done before. To take weakness and convert it to strength, to find flaws and convert them to power… such was the way of the marshal. Such was the way of Graves.

And yet it still wouldn’t be enough.

The second wave had done much to wound Nul as a swift right cross would have unsteadied a fighter on his feet. But even now, The Darkness was regaining his bearings and bringing the full extent of his powers to bear. It was small, hardly a speck in the vastness of his true might, but compared to the strength of a lone man, it was more than enough.

“Your insanity truly knows no bounds,” Nul grinned, a tight expression that came with furrowed and sweating brow, but a grin nonetheless. “To think you’d use my own desires against me.”

“The girls got their elements,” the marshal answered, "Figure I’d add in my element of surprise."

And in the middle of that maelstrom, the two shared a laugh, but it was Nul who laughed harder. The marshal’s strength was waning – the lightning, which could have slain any living creature on this earth, was simply not enough to move the Spirit of Destruction. The dark mists that roiled from Nul's form dissipated the lightning's silver light and ate away at the marshal's strength. Graves wouldn’t last much longer and both of them knew it.

“It really is a shame,” Nul smiled as the swirling darkness grew deeper and the light grew dimmer. “For a single man all alone, you have fought remarkably well. It’s only a pity that I’ll have to wipe you from reality now.”

“Yeah, real shame,” Graves grunted as the lightning began to flicker. “Just… one last question before you do.”

“Oh?” Nul asked, smiling as eyebrow arched over eyeless socket. “And what is that?”

At that, it came, the biggest, snarkiest, son-of-a-gun grin Graves could make.

“… Who said I was alone?”

Light burst forth once more, but not the silver light of arcing lightning. No, this was the pure white light of magic from beyond darkness and destruction, from the very heart of magic itself.

This was the light of Harmony.

At the marshal’s initial attack, the presence at the breach had been distracted. The six there had seen it and realized – no, known – that it was the work of the marshal, an opportunity created specifically to invite their aid. All in all, the presence had been distracted for a few seconds, a minute at most, but it had been enough. The six had rallied their strength and instead of simply holding the darkness at bay, had struck back. Hard. The aurora had burst forth and blasted deep into the heart of the darkness. This is what the presence felt and this is why it howled anew. Lightning from the front to draw it in, and light from the back to strike it, the blackness writhed and boiled as light melted away at the darkness.

And yet it still. Wasn't. Enough.

The light burned away at the dark, but the dark ate away at the light. Graves saw this. Tied now as he was to Nul, he could see the tides battling back and forth, pure white on one side and pure black on the other. But slightly, every so slightly, the darkness was winning. Little by little the darkness grew, beating away at the light. They weren’t strong enough. They were losing.

They needed more power. No, wait. Not just more power. More focus. Graves had faced many great behemoths and monsters in his time, many with more power than he could ever hope to wield. But no matter how big or strong they were, each one had the same weakness of consciousness. With no mind to guide it, no amount of power would matter and all it took to remove the mind was a little power applied at just the right point.

He was that point.

The girls had Nul’s might held in check for now, but Graves, hand in hand with the spirit himself, had a clear line to the link holding it all together. All he needed to do was hit it hard enough to knock it out of place. But no matter how Graves struggle, how he poured every ounce of his strength into the arcane lightning, it was of no use. He no longer had enough power to make the shot.

… Or did he?

He ran the numbers. Checked the odds. Maybe, just maybe, it would work. Honestly, it wasn’t the best of odds, an even split on both ends. But perhaps it was because of those odds that in the middle of the storm, hands locked with the great god of destruction with the fate of the world and reality itself balancing on a knife's edge, Graves couldn't help but smile.

So it all came down to a coin toss, did it? Ah well, he’d always been a lucky sort of guy.

And for the final time, the world erupted in blinding light.




Ears ringing.

Head pounding.

Painful signs. But signs of life.

Groaning like a wounded bull, Ironside pushed himself to his feet and gave his head a slow, deliberate shake to clear the cobwebs sticking to his mind. Soon, clarity of vision returned and looking up, the general saw that the pavilion was in shambles. Dust hung thick in the air, magical instruments sparked and sputtered, and any semblance of order that once filled the space lay as shattered as the various now useless displays. But that was just equipment. It was the people that really mattered.

Peering through the musty haze, Ironside could vaguely make out the form of Lieutenant Sonar clambering to his feet, so the general instead heaved his aching body up so he could turn attentions towards the two who needed it the most. Out cold, but still breathing, Luna be praised, Shining Armor and Princess Cadance lay on the floor, still safely held in each other's embrace as the full magnitude of their efforts rendered them catatonic. Honestly, Ironside had no idea how the two had pulled it off, not even with the help of what the army had remaining, but they'd done it. The barrier had stood right till it needed to fall, and the ensuing vacuum of fresh air to smoldering embers?

Fireworks of the most explosive variety.

"Lieu-" Ironside coughed to clear the dust from his lungs, "Lieutenant, anything still working?"

"Not a blasted thing," he replied. "Whole system's fried beyond repair. We're on basic senses now.

Just as well, Ironside thought to himself. At this point, knowing anything really didn't matter. Their last ace had been played, the entire army was in chaos, and all Nul's abominations had to do was march in to clean up what mess remained.

Unless, of course, they'd delayed for long enough.

So with ears strained and eyes peeled, Ironside stared into the haze of dust and smoke that filled the valley in hopes of determining the nature of the battlefield.


He couldn't see or hear a thing. Not a rumble, not a shake, not a single, solitary screech of those thrice-cursed abominations disturbed the frosty air. All in all, it was a deplorably sorry state of intel to be in during the middle of a war.




The darkness went mad.

The girls didn’t know what happened. One moment, they were struggling tooth and nail with the demon from the pit, and the next moment, they just… weren’t. The beast was still there of course, still the same foreboding specter of destruction as always, but it was… scattered. No longer was that all-devouring power brought to bear against them as the darkness simply writhed and thrashed, flailing about with force and fury, but no focus whatsoever.

In a mad rush, all six pulled back and returned attention to the breach. No longer working to stave off the darkness, they all set out with single mind to work at repairing the weave. A thousand connections were made, then a hundred thousand as they worked faster and faster to reknit the frayed seal piece by minute piece until…

Wearily, Twilight opened her bleary eyes and looked up. And there, shining twice as bright as before like the summer sun in all of its noonday splendor, stood the cage.





They'd... they'd actually had done it.

They'd actually gone and sealed away Nul.

“Best. Day. EVER!!!” Rainbow Dash cried out as she picked up Pinkie Pie in the tightest hug to ever be hugged. Or was it Pinkie who picked her up? There was so much laughing and hugging between the two, it was really hard to say, especially when a squealing Fluttershy threw herself wholeheartedly into the squishy mix.

“I can’t believe it,” Applejack breathed as she looked up in wonder at the glittering orb, her hat held in hand with open reverence. “We did it. We actually did it...”

“Of course,” Twilight grinned as she seized her friend up in a big hug of her own. “Was there ever any doubt?”

Of course not. So with reverence passed, Applejack split into the hugest smile this side of Appleoosa’s Pie Day Festival and returned the hug with a liberal applications of laughing and hair mussing on all sides as the two groups soon melded together into one big, giggle ball of fluffy, hugging goodness. It was like so that five girls rejoiced at what could be considered as a pretty big accomplishment for their young lives.

Five. Not Six.

“Girls?” Rarity called out with nervous smile on her face. “Has anyone seen Graves?”

“Not yet,” Fluttershy replied from the midst of the affectionate muddle, “but I’m sure he’s fine.”

“Of course he is,” Rainbow Dash hooted. “He always is. I don’t think that guy’d die even if you killed him.”

“Not the exact words I would have chosen,” Twilight frowned as she saw Rarity’s face grow a bit paler, “but I share the sentiment. Graves is tough. He’s gonna be okay.”

“I suppose,” the pretty seamstress answered with a small smile. “But really, I can’t help but feel that he might be in trouble.”

“Usually am,” a low, gravelly voice rumbled out. “That’s how I roll.”

Dropping from the sky and landing on one knee like a battered angel from the heavens came the very familiar figure of a man in a long brown coat and a broad, flat-brimmed hat. Rarity didn’t waste time with words. She just ran, colliding headlong into him as she pulled him into a tight, rib creaking embrace. Part of her knew it probably hurt him, but part of her also thought he deserved it. He should get that much at least for making her worry like that.

“Well, it’s about time,” Rarity huffed, quickly dabbing at her eyes as she pulled away to smile up at the marshal. “I was about to think that–”

If she’d been pale before, she was deathly white now.

“So… not in the best of shape,” he grinned. “Guess you can tell.”

She saw it all. The bloody gash across his right eye. The rips and tears and caustic burns across his body from collisions with the destructive mist. The tattered remnants of his shirt, less on his chest than on the various bandages strewn across his ravaged form. The right arm that dangled limply with sleeve completely blown away to reveal bandages from elbow down already stained a deep crimson hue.

It was a sight to make a stone weep, and Rarity was certainly no stone.

“You… you wool-headed, fool of a man!” she cried, tears welling up in earnest as she fumbled for the pouch at her side to remove the healing gems. “I knew you’d go and do something completely bone-headed! You always do! Well, I’ll just have to–”

“Later,” Graves said softly as he pressed a calloused hand over hers. “Right now, we need to move."

Move? Why? Hadn’t they just won? Hadn’t they just sealed away the principal darkness in an unbreakable cage? Why would they… need… too…

That’s when they saw it. The shadows.

Yes, they had sealed Nul away, but only him. Not his pets. Even now, there were still hundreds of those leering beasts still circling about, buds of darkness snipped off from from the vine with any reason shared from their master now gone and reduced to nothing more than slavering hunger shambling about. Hunger that was slowly shambling right their way.

“Everybody, get your boom tubes out,” Graves called with spell rifle charged in left hand. “They take some time to get working and I want us out five minutes ago.”

Instantly, the girls sprang to action. Right thumbs pressed to left wrists, the same magic ink that had housed their Elements came to life and coalesced into thin, glass tubes that contained swirling andromedas inside. Those delicate little tubes held their lifelines, the most powerful teleportation spells known to man and the only sure ways of ever leaving this infernal pit alive.

“Pop and go,” Graves called out. “We’re burning daylight.”

Rainbow Dash and Pinkie smashed theirs with glee and were instantly enveloped in orbs of rippling light. Applejack and Twilight followed suit, albeit with much more level-headed motions and Fluttershy squeaked as she lightly tossed hers to the floor. Rarity was about to follow suit, but paused as she saw the made no motion for his own.

“Graves?” she called. “Hurry up, or you’ll be late.”

“Need to watch the retreat,” he called, back turned towards her as he kept watch out for the oncoming shadows. “Once you're safely started, I’ll come and catch up later.”


“Hey, trust me. I know what I'm doing.”

Rarity nodded. If the marshal was confident in his work, then that was good enough for her. So without further thought, she raised the vial up and hurled it to the floor. There. Just like her friends, Rarity was now safely encased in their cocoons of rippling light, barriers of magic strong enough to take a dragon’s breath full on without…


… pause.

Wait a moment. If the barriers were so strong, then why was Graves concerned? Why did he need to stand guard?

“Um… Big G?” Pinkie Pie grinned, a bit hesitantly as oddness beyond even her ways settled in. “You know you can hurry up and join us, right?”

“Yeah, quit playing around,” Rainbow Dash laughed. “We know you like the dramatic exit and all, but really, now’s not the time.”

They spoke, but Graves said nothing. He simply stood, backs toward them with his eyes watching as the shadows approached.

“Graves, seriously, cut it out,” Applejack began, taking the tone she reserved for when Apple Bloom was being especially silly. “You need to get yer caboose in gear and get yer fancy magic shindig cracking afore I really start to lose my cool.”

“Please, Mr. Graves,” Fluttershy urged with rapidly mounting angst, “can you just, ooh... can you just hurry the buck up so we can all go home now, please?"

“… No. He can't.”

All eyes turned to Twilight, who looked on at Graves with eyes gone wide with a horror to match anything they'd seen today, likely at anything she would would ever see hence. Only at those words did Graves finally turn around, a guilty smile coming to crookedly upturned lips as he lifted up a bloody hand to show them his boom tube.

What was left of it, anyway. All he held now was an empty, shattered vial.

“I… I don’t understand,” Rarity said, a smile playing across her rosy lips. This must be a joke. It had to be. A cruel, completely inappropriate, and ill-timed joke. There couldn’t be any other explanation.

But there was.

“You used it already, didn’t you?” Twilight answered as the pieces of that ugly truth fell into place. “Right at the end, there was a sudden spike in power that disrupted Nul’s mind. You didn’t have enough punch on your own, so you used your tube to make it up.”

“Always were a smart one,” Graves grinned. “Nailed it right on the head.”

“But there’s still some left right? There’s still enough juice left to get you back home, right? Right?” Rainbow Dash smiled, an expression usually so strong and confident now quickly weakening as cancerous worry ate away more of its strength with each passing instant. When the marshal made no reply, she looked around to her friends, desperate to find some word, some look of affirmation to give second wind to her quailing hopes. But everyone, even she herself, could see that the marshal held little more than ordinary glass in hand as every drop of magic had been spent long ago.

“Well, that’s okay,” Pinkie grinned, stepping up to find the bright side where none else could. “We can just… share, right? These little doodads are so explosively amazing, I’m sure one can take on an extra passenger.”

“Wouldn’t work,” Twilight repeated, almost an automoton of cold, relentless truth. “Even if we could undo these barriers to get him inside before they went off, teleportation’s hard enough as it is, and has to be calibrated precisely or else you'd get catastrophic results. Add on the interference from being in what I assume is a partially separate dimension at the center of the earth, and... and..." Words fell off as even Twilight Sparkle, the most brilliant of them all, felt her mind grind to a halt.

“But... but we have to try!” Fluttershy gasped as she fought to keep panic from her voice and failed miserably. “Mr. Graves needs our help! We have to at least give it a–”

“You tricked us,” Rarity gaped. Sapphire eyes met gunmetal grey. “You knew this was how we’d act. You knew we’d try and accommodate you, so you made us activate the tubes and their magical barriers. You weren’t trying to keep the monsters out. You were trying to keep us in.”

“Guilty as charged," Grave replied.

And once more, the marshal grinned.


Okay, that? That just wasn't cool.

Emotions erupted, fully, completely, and without reservation. Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash bounced around in their cages, literally hurling their bodies against the barriers of light in rage and desperation and borderline panic. Applejack pounded away, kicking for all she was worth as muscles trained from years of labor straining to find some breach in the shell. Twilight, despite knowing full well the truth of her own words, flung any and every magical spell in her arsenal forward with blind hopes of proving herself wrong. But the magic held fast, even as it hummed faster and faster and slowly began to lift the girls from the ground.

“You jerk!” Pinkie Pie screeched as her own sphere of light increased in volume. “You big, jerky, jerk-face, jerk-butt… jerk!”

“When I get my hands on you,” Rainbow Dash cried, “I’m gonna kick your ass so hard, you’re gonna kiss the mare in the moon!”

“Looking forward to it,” Graves chuckled. “But I’m gonna have to take a rain check.”

Had he fought back, broken down, lashed out, done something, the girls could have stayed angry. They could have continued raging at him for making such a stupid choice. But the way he stood there, grinning away like a buffoon with a ticket to the county fair, made it absolutely impossible. And so, one by one, they gave up. Legs gave way, tears began to stream, and the girls one by one surrendered to fate as the marshal looked on and smiled.

All save one. All save the violet-haired beauty who still stood tall.

“Graves,” she said softly, her face remarkably calm and smooth as she reached out to touch the shell before her. “You’re not a liar, are you?”

“Never thought I was,” he shrugged. “Why?”

“Because you said…” Rarity paused and swallowed, working to clear the lump in her throat. “You said that you’d… catch up later. Were those words truth? Or lies?”

“Well...” Graves murmured as he reached up to scratch his blood-matted hair, "guess that depends."

“Depends?" she asked. "On what?”

“On what you say next.”

For the first time, the marshal’s smile cracked and the uncertainty beneath came through.

“I once said you made my life worth living,” he began, his words coming out at an awkward stumble as his lack of eloquence collided with mounting urgency. “Problem is, that’s a one way street. I need to know if you're up for the job.”

Eyebrows arched above sapphire eyes in surprise.

“I’ve fought a long time,” Graves pressed on, his mouth probably now moving faster than his mind as feet propelled him forward, almost like they were trying to help propel his thoughts. “Really long. Always had something worth dying for. Never had nothing to live for. ‘Course, you changed it so now I have a reason to come home. I mean, not your home, that’d be weird, but a reason to make it back, you know? Got stuff I’m looking forward to, like talking more about books and playing with Sweetie Belle, and kissing you, and… wait, did I say that? I mean, it’s true, I really do like that, but that’s not the only thing, so, uh… buck it, what was I saying?”

“You’re asking me to wait?” Rarity finished, eyes perfect sapphire disks as she gaped in disbelief. “You’re actually asking me to wait for you to come back home?”

A grin, part relieved, part nervous, and all guilt came to the marshal’s face.

“People need a reason to fight. It ain't fair, I know, but could you... I mean, would you... b–”

The dam finally broke.

“Of course I will, you twice-addled buffoon!” Rarity shrieked as each and every tear she’d been fighting back burst forth all at once. “Why would you even need to ask such a thing? Did you honestly think I’d give up on you so easily after all the work I put in to finally make you mine? Are you really that dense, you rock-headed, brainless, idiotic fool?!”

And despite the savagery of her words, Graves really couldn't help but smile. He’d lost so much. His family, his comrades, his dreams, three times over had the marshal learned that the taste of happiness quickly came followed by bitter gall. Graves knew the pain of loss, and probably better than anyone, but even with all he'd gone through, there was still one pain that not even he could quite yet comprehend.

And that?

That was the pain of waiting.

Everything he'd lost was gone, forever out of reach and with no hopes of gaining it back while he still drew breath. But though it had hurt like having his soul ripped apart piece by piece, at least he had known it was done. With Rarity's help, he'd been able to put his life back together. He'd been able to rebuild because he'd been able to move on.

But what about Rarity? Should Graves fall, his journey would be over, but what about Rarity’s suffering? It would only be the beginning. If he died down here, in this fathomless pit where the light of day would never touch, who would know? Nobody, and because nobody would know, Rarity would have to wait. Until she could lay him to rest herself, the woman he loved more than life itself would be condemned to hope against any and every impossible odd that one day, happiness might somehow return. She would live life with a gaping wound that could never really heal.

And despite the outright selfishness and the obscene cruelty of his request, Graves had asked anyway. Because of the hundreds of millions in the world across all of time and history, Rarity was the only one he could ask. He needed an anchor, and only one woman would ever do.

So, even though her words were some of the harshest she’d ever spoken, they were also the most comforting. Those words let him know that even when he was alone once more, he had somewhere he was expected to be. She gave him a reason to fight, and really, what more could a marshal ever want?

“Oy! Knucklehead!” Rainbow Dash called out through her own veil of tears. “When you get back, you owe me all the cider I can drink, got it?”

“Yeah, and cupcakes!” Pinkie Pie bawled. “At least, like, fifty billion of then because when you’re as big a jerk as–”

Words cut off as with a blinding flash, the orbs imploded and disappeared without a trace.

“Mr. Graves, you have to hurry, alright?” Fluttershy called out in panicked desperation. “Angel gets lonely really easily and he really likes sitting on your hat!”

“And Big Macintosh can’t handle all the heavy liftin’ by himself,” Applejack joined in. “After all, who’s gonna help him blow out more stumps when clearin’ season comes?”

“I know you’ve been teaching Spike how to fight,” Twilight confessed through her own now tear-soaked face. “I personally don’t approve, but since you started, you have to come back and finish the job, you hear?”

“Roger that ma’am,” Graves saluted, even managing a quick smile just before three more spheres of light vanished. That left only two, the soldier and the beauty in the bottom of the pit. Alone. Together.

But not for long.

“You sure you want to do this?” Graves asked as he reached up to touch the barrier of light. “I might be a while.”

“So what else is new,” Rarity sniffed as she furiously scrubbed the tears away from her eyes. “But I suppose I can spare you some time?”

“Some?” Graves grinned. “Don’t sound like much to me.”

“Perhaps,” Rarity smiled, “but one only has so many lifetimes to wait, you know?” And here, she raised her own hand, pressing it to the swirling light where his calloused palm lay. It was thin, the light, so thin that a hair would have seemed a mountain range in comparison. But it was there and that was enough. Enough to keep them apart till the very end.

“I will come back to you, Rarity,” Graves repeated, his voice growing rough as he forced out the words. “I promise. Someday, I will be back.”

“Of course you will, my dear Graves,” the young beauty laughed as tears welled up once more. “After all, you belong to me. Till death do us part and beyond. Now and forever more.”

Graves smiled, not a smile of acceptance or one of defeat, or even one of confidence to soothe the heart of the one who needed it most. No, for the first time, Rarity saw Graves smile in happiness as in that simple, sublime moment, he had everything he could ever want.

“Ah, yeah, one last thing,” he chuckled.

“Oh?” she repeated with eyebrow arched. “What’s that?”

And with that smile, with silver eyes twinkling like the brightest stars with more warmth and joy than Rarity ever thought possible, Graves simply said,

“I love you.”

Then light flashed and she was gone.


For a moment, Graves stood there, the faint impression of the glowing sphere still tingling on his palm. Only a moment though. Only a moment.

Turning around, Graves saw the shadows just as they saw him. As one, hundreds of leering demons converged on his little plot of land, practically scrambling over each other to have a taste of his flesh.

Graves considered the situation. Right hand all but useless, severe internal bleeding, blinded in one eye, crippled and lamed twice over on one leg, an improperly set shoulder dislocation reducing mobility, and a million other injuries he didn’t have time to name. His mana was drained, his strength exhausted, and even standing there took nearly all of his will to accomplish.

It’d be hard. But then again, when was it not?

Slowly, the marshal reached down and tore a final strip of cloth from his shirt as he curled his useless, right-hand fingers around his knife hilt, only pausing to give the glittering ring of swirling gold and silver a last, appreciative smile before binding the grip shut. Then, with task completed, Graves looked back up at the oncoming shadow horde, took a deep breath, and...

“Alright, you pus-sucking maggots, here’s the deal!” he called out, his baritone voice ringing through the depths of the pit with clear, hardened resolve. “I’m tired, I’m cranky, and I’m late for a date with a very pretty lady who doesn’t like to be kept waiting. So right now, I suggest you step off to one side and leave me be before I start explaining just why they call me the Ghost of Thunder. Got it?”

The shadows howled as they poured on speed.

“Okay then,” he smiled as he tugged his broad, flat-brimmed hat low over silver grey eyes. “Let’s do this.”

So with blade in one hand and rifle in the other, with the desire not to fight and die, but to fight and live, the lone marshal with eyes of gunmetal grey leaped from the stone and into battle once more.


The End

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