Twilight didn’t know where she was running or why she was running in the first place. All she knew was that she needed to be somewhere, do something, to deal with the thoughts rampaging away in her head.
All the bearers of that medal were dead. Dead.
How was it possible?
Her first instinct had been she’d been mistaken, that she’d seen something that looked remarkably similar to the medal but in fact was something quite different all together. However, upon examining the replica more closely, a heavy, leaden certainty filled her stomach. There'd been no mistake; the medals were one and the same.
Her next thought had been to suspect a forgery. Why Graves or anyone else would forge such an obscure medal had no logical explanation, but for the time being she set that aside; the important question was whether that medal had somehow been copied. Professor Dewey had shot down that hypothesis like a poorly written thesis. To get the current replica made, the aged scholar had to go petition Princess Celestia herself because only she could open the vault where the originals were held. Even then, he’d had to go with an armed escort to ensure he did nothing suspicious within despite having been a prominent figure in the palace for well over half a century.
That’s when Twilight had left, hoping the cool night air would calm her and help her reach a plausible explanation. The cool breeze did help calm her, but that only made it easier for her mind to posit new theories, each worse than the next.
If the one she’d seen in Ponyville couldn’t be a forgery, then that meant that Graves had somehow gotten his hands on the original. All five were supposed to be locked away, which meant that if he had one, it could only have been obtained through duplicity. The question still remained: how? Aside from Princess Celestia, the only other entity in history who’d ever opened that vault had been the Spirit of Chaos himself.
Was this his work? Had he returned? No, it couldn’t be. Though Twilight had only run into him once, it had been a memorable experience: flashy, gaudy, and showy, he'd behaved nothing like the Graves she knew. Or at least, thought she knew. More likely than not, the two were separate entities, though that was hardly reassuring. If they were in fact two different people, then it would mean that whoever Graves was, he had strength enough in the chaos magicks to rival the Trickster himself. Two beings out there with the power to tear reality asunder? Her blood ran cold at the very thought.
Or… maybe it wasn’t chaos magic. Could he have somehow gotten Princess Celestia to open the vault herself? No, she would never do that; the Princess would never give such a special item to anyone other than the recipient. If so, could he have somehow forced her to give it to him? Had she been brainwashed? Could Graves somehow have actually gained mind control over the Princess? If so, who’s to say he had ever let that control go? Who’s to say that she wasn’t under his control even now?
The sound of music and lively conversation brought Twilight out of her thoughts as she found herself standing outside the grand hall. From her vantage point in the surrounding gardens, she could clearly see the crowds milling about in their revelry through the illuminated windows. And there, making his way between the party goers towards the refreshments table, was the grey-eyed marshal.
Even now, she couldn't believe it. He seemed so... normal. Pouring two perfectly normal glasses of punch, he turned to scan his steely eyes over the direction he’d just come, evidently searching for someone in a perfectly normal manner. So how was it that he was the center of such a maddeningly frightful conundrum? How–
“Penny for your thoughts?” a voice boomed from behind. Jumping with a start, Twilight turned and found herself looking up at the kindly, if still imposing, face of the army’s supreme commander.
“General Ironside, what are you doing here?” she breathed, pressing a hand to settle the thumping heart in her chest. For such a big man, he moved remarkably quietly.
“Oh, I just happened to be in the neighborhood,” he said innocently, his voice a thundering rumble in the evening air. “Thought I’d stop in and see how things were going. You know, make sure that boy’s not causing any trouble.”
“Boy?” she asked uncertainly.
“Graves. The marshal,” Ironside nodded towards the window. “You’re Miss Twilight Sparkle of Ponyville, correct? I think you might know him–”
“Of course!” the young lady gasped, now making it the old soldier’s turn to jump. “General, you have to listen to me! Graves, I don’t think he’s who he says he is!”
“... He’s not?” the big man repeated in confusion. “What do you mean?”
With as much alacrity and urgency as physically possible, Twilight told him about everything she’d learned, a torrential outpouring of everything from her first discovery of the medal to this evening's startling revelations.
“And that’s all I know,” she panted, the frentic recitation having left her breathless and frazzled. “I’m not sure what he is, or what his motives are, but we have to look into this before it’s too late!”
That was all Ironside said. The frown that came to his face turned his entire visage into a thunderhead of dark thoughts as he stroked his steely beard in quiet contemplation. But as to what it was he contemplated, the officer said not a word. A minute passed. Then a second. Then, just when the young scholar felt her nerves were frayed to the point of snapping, he finally spoke.
“I’m feeling a bit peckish,” the general said lightly, casually. “Thought I’d stop in at Joe’s and have myself a bear claw. Care to join me?”
“General Ironside,” the indigo-clad girl began, sounding as scandalized as Rarity at a hoedown, “is this really the time to be–”
“If we’re going to talk about this,” he interjected, his voice gentle but laced with clear resolution, “I’d much rather continue where we won’t be overheard. This is... a delicate subject to say the least.”
The worried scholar wavered on the brink of decision. Part of her wanted to act right now, to rush in there and confront Graves regardless of consequences and bring some sort of resolution to the matter. But the other part of her – the academic part – wanted answers, and she had a feeling that there was only one person at the moment who could provide.
“... Fine,” she sighed, as cooler sentiments prevailed. “Luna knows I could sure use a good donut.”
If Joe found it odd that the hulking general came into his shop with the petite and finely-garbed Twilight Sparkle, he gave no sign. As a regular hangout for the Equestrian army, enough weird things happened here that he didn’t ask too many questions anymore.
Joe quickly got the two of them settled it, the older man with his bear claw, Twilight with her jelly-filled, and a fresh cup of coffee for both before disappearing into the back: he could tell when privacy was needed and had long since learned to accommodate his customers’ needs. Food, however, was very low on the young lady’s list of priorities as the need for enlightenment quickly came to a boil.
“So?” the young lady pressed, completely oblivious to the donut before her, “what exactly did you want to tell me about Graves? Did you know about this medal thing? Is he a threat to Equestria? Is Princess Celestia in danger?”
Ironside didn’t answer, instead opting to sprinkle some powdered sugar over his pastry, almost as if trying to buy time to gather his thoughts. This continued as he took a bite, chewing slowly and thoroughly before finally setting down the dessert.
“Before I answer any of those, let me ask you this,” he said as he met the girl’s amethyst gaze. His blue eyes were firm, like twin icicles in their focused intent. “You’ve spent the last few months with that boy, yes?”
“Er... he’s been in Ponyville, and I’ve gotten to know him, so... yeah. I guess.”
“What do you think of him?”
“Well...” she paused a moment, a bit thrown off by the question, but doing her best to answer it regardless. “He... seems like a good guy. He takes his work really seriously and does his best to keep the town safe. He seems to get along with everybody, especially Rarity, and it looks to me like he’s enjoying himself. He definitely laughs a lot more than when he first got here, that’s for sure.”
“Mm, I see.” Though he lifted the cup and took a sip, Twilight thought she saw a flash of a smile cross his face.
“I don’t get it,” she continued as mild irritation began creeping into her voice. “Why are you asking me for my opinion when Graves, or whoever he is, could be an unprecedented threat to national security? What’s the point?”
“My point,” the general answered, “is that I need you to keep everything you said in mind before we continue. Graves is a pretty complicated person, and this is a complicated situation.”
“I assume you’re referring to that weird, dragon-shaped medal,” Twilight finished, more statement than question. The general simply nodded.
“Alright then,” she continued, taking a deep breath to prepare herself. “Let’s start at the beginning. What exactly is that medal? What was Operation Elder?”
“Operation Elder,” Ironside repeated, his mouth twisting as if saying it left a bitter taste. “In all honesty, that’s classified information. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes we don’t tell people about. Don’t want to cause a panic unnecessarily, you know.”
“Great,” Twilight scoffed. “That really helps.”
“I can tell you this,” the older man said with a chuckle for her sarcasm. “Operation Elder was a big, and I do mean big problem. We managed to solve it, but it cost us the lives of several very fine soldiers.”
“The five people who received the medals,” the young lady said softly. Ironside nodded.
“We sent five marshals out on Operation Elder, but... none of them came back,” the general sighed, his voice growing as rough and heavy as the mountains. "What was worse, these brave soldier gave their lives to protect Equestria from almost certain destruction, and we couldn’t even let anyone know about what they'd done. We didn’t want their sacrifice to be forgotten, but the only thing we could do was have those medals made in honor of their memory. Since none of them could receive it, we presented it at their memorial service before being placed in the vault for safekeeping.”
“Then Graves did steal it?” Twilight asked in dismay. “He actually broke into the vault and took something that belonged to a dead person?”
“He took the medal, that’s true,” Ironside nodded, “but he didn’t break into the vault; we opened that up and gave it to him.”
“But... why?” the young lady asked, completely lost. “Why would they give him a medal that belonged to someone else?” Here, the older man finally cracked a smile.
“When did I say it belonged to someone else?”
“Hold on,” she called, raising a hand for pause. “You’re telling me that the medal... belongs to Graves.”
“Which means that he was one of the five marshals who went out on Operation Elder.”
“The same five marshals who all... who all died out in the field.”
“But... but that’s impossible!” Twilight burst out again in all the righteous indignation at obviously erroneous logic. “I’m sorry, but it’s just not scientifically possible. I mean, sure, there’s necromancy and what not, but that’s just a combination of summoning and animation magic that uses bodies as the medium. Graves is most definitely a sentient creature capable of high level cognition, not some brain-dead shambling zombie. It’s. Just. Not. Possible!”
“You're completely right,” Ironside nodded in honest agreement. "It is impossibly; purely, unarguably, and completely impossible. Except... the impossible is exactly what Graves likes to do.”
“... You should probably start explaining,” Twilight stated flatly, her tone level despite her eyes that burned with ferocious curiosity. “And I mean, like, right now.” Once gain, the burly man smiled.
“It all begins begins with this.” Reaching into his coat pocket, the general withdrew a marshal’s badge, very much like the one Graves wore, except that his was far more worn and the metal had lost its luster long ago.
“Okay...” the young lady nodded hesitantly, “What’s this got to do with anything?”
“I’m sure you realize this badge isn’t just a piece of silver,” Ironside began. “It’s been laced with enchantments that give it several functions, such as a receiver so they can get orders while out in the field.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Twilight nodded, having seen the marshal pulling it out to find new information before. “But once again, what’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well, there's one function that most people don’t know about,” the blue-eyed officer continued, "and that's badge also serves as a life monitor.”
“A life monitor? You mean, like in a hospital?”
“Right,” he nodded. “The badge provides general information back to our headquarters on how the marshal’s doing. It’s not as detailed, but it does enough so that we can tell the general state of their health and whether they’re in trouble or not, certainly if their life’s in danger.”
“So...” the young lady began, the pieces slowly coming together in her head, “when you sent those marshals out on Operation Elder...”
“The magic field of the location prevented us from scrying with any detail. Fortunately, the magical signature of their target was strong enough to detect anyway and the badges are designed to broadcast pretty much anywhere. That's how we knew everything was fine right up until they met the target and the fighting began.”
“What happened next?”
“Pretty much what you’d expect. When the marshals entered combat, the signals flared up like fireworks on a summer night. They lit up and kept right on burning as those five soldiers fought like the knight Hawkwing against the Hundred Foes. After a while, though, they started going out. One after another, they started going out till there was only the target and one marshal left. But this last person did the job, because that big light burned for just a bit before fizzling out. Then... the last light went dark as well.”
“... Are you sure it wasn't a malfunction?” the young scholar asked, trying to puzzle out some rational explanation. “What if the badge was just lost, or damaged?”
“If it were lost, the signal would go on standby," Ironside replied with a solemn shake of head, "and the magical signal's so simple and sturdy, I doubt anything short of a volcano could break it. No, the only way the signal dies off completely is when there’s nothing left to send.”
“Which, is why,” the big man grunted as he leaned back in his seat, “you can imagine we were all a good bit surprised when a month after his funeral, we get a call from one of our outposts saying that Graves had just walked in carrying the biggest piece of dragon heartstone you ever did see. Needless to say, I took the first airship available and went out to see for myself and sure enough, there he was, battered and beaten eight ways till Sunday, but somehow still alive.”
“So... what your saying is...” Twilight began with a blank stare, her brain still struggling to process the horrendously implausible scenario she’d just heard. “The man who we know as Graves – the one I met in Ponyville who’s at the Gala right now – went out on a very dangerous mission, was confirmed to have passed away while on that mission, only to turn up a month later still alive and well? Seriously?!”
“Mm, I definitely wouldn’t say well,” the general corrected as he stroked his beard. “What with the number of gashes, burns and broken bones on him, it’s a miracle he made it to the outpost at all. But about all the other stuff you said? That's... pretty much what happened, yes. Even made a three month recovery in a couple of weeks, don't you know?”
The indigo-clad girl simply stared at the general for a moment before asking a single, very pressing question:
“... Is he immortal?”
From the way Ironside burst out into bellowed laughter hooting and hollering and slapping the table, you'd think he'd just been told the best punchline to pass through the Appaloosa comedy club. Even Twilight had to admit it sounded patently ridiculous, but there it was. After all, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever else, however improbable, must be the truth.
“That would actually explain a lot, considering what that boy's done over the years," he big man wheezed as he wiped a tear from his twinkling, blue eyes. "But no, he’s not immortal. Hard as it is to believe, despite his ability to turn the odds flat on their heads, Graves is, and always has been, an ordinary man.”
Slowly, like syrup spilled on a cold morning, Twilight quietly slumped in her seat as the tension visibly drained from her body like water down a sink. Mechanically, she picked up the donut and began chewing away as the hole in her stomach quickly filled with both jelly goodness and soul-soothing relief.
Graves was Graves. Despite the improbability of the entire scenario, he wasn't some crazy villain or some portent of doom and demise that had wormed its way into their lives. However crazy, unbelievable, or completely mind blowing his history was, the fact remained that Graves was exactly the same awkwardly goofy, amazingly stable, kind, normal man he'd shown himself to be.
Well, maybe not normal, but you get the idea.
“I take it I answered all your questions?” Ironside inquired as he picked up his coffee again.
“Yes, thank you very much," she replied with a weary, but grateful and crumb-dusted smile. "I really can't tell you how good it is to know that one of my best friends isn't on a date with the next avatar of destruction."
The sudden snort into his cup of coffee prompted the young lady to arch a quizzical eyebrow.
"Date?" the big man sputtered, eyes growing wide with sudden interest. "What do you mean, 'date?'"
"Wait, you didn't know?" Twilight asked in genuine surprise. "I thought you're the one who tricked him into going to the Gala in the first place."
"I most certainly did," he admitted without the faintest shred of remorse. "And I also asked the princess to invite you six along to keep him out of trouble. So where'd all this talk of a date come from?"
Realizing that the general hadn't been availed to the latest developments, Twilight leaned in and eagerly explained how what should have been a large party of Ponyville residents had suddenly dwindled to one. One who, the young lady added with great relish, had expressed some very particular interest in spending more time with a certain grey-eyed soldier.
“Is that right?” Ironside said as he stroked his beard, his wide-eyed surprise having long since been replaced by a face-splitting grin of the most malevolent sort. “So this friend of yours... Rarity.... you think she can make something happen tonight?”
“Oh, most definitely,” Twilight giggled with purely wicked delight. “In fact, I have a strong hunch that by the end of tonight, all that stuff about guns and monsters is going to be the last thing on the good marshal's mind.”