When Graves awoke the next morning, he had no idea where he was. Bleary-eyed and head throbbing, the marshal heaved himself up from the unfamiliar bed and looked over his surroundings: polished, white furniture, walls painted a light orchid, and an open closet where he could see a selection of men’s coats peaking out amidst a sea of dresses and lady’s garments, none of which he could ever recall seeing before.
His head snapped around as the door opened.
“Oh good, you’re up!” Rarity beamed with a whisk in hand. “Hurry up and get dressed; breakfast is almost ready.” Turning around and happily humming away, Rarity walked out of their bedroom and headed back downstairs.
Of course. This was his room. Their room. The room he’d shared with Rarity for over a year now, ever since they'd come to Canterlot. Certainly he should know that.
But right now, he couldn’t be sure. Despite feeling as if a bucket of sand had been poured into the space between his ears, the strange conversation from the night before stood out clearly in the marshal’s mind. Seeing. Complacency. Details. All these words burned in his consciousness like hot coals, fending off the mistiness that threatened to coax him back into blissful ignorance.
So as he threw on a clean shirt and slacks, Graves continued to look, his hardened eyes scanned his surroundings for perhaps the very first time. Information was power. Details were weapons. A single overlooked fact, a single scrap of information missed during a mission could spell the difference between success and disaster. And so he looked, scrutinizing everything within eyesight as if his own bedroom were a battlefield.
Making his way down the stairs, he was greeted by familiar sights and sounds: light streaming through jade green curtains, the sound of eggs sizzling in a pan, and at the center of it all, Rarity.
“Well, it looks like you were more tired than you thought,” she laughed as she threw a cheery smile over her shoulder. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten up earlier than you before, and yet here we are.”
“So it would seem,” he agreed, his voice light, but his eyes as hard and sharp as flecks of flint. The curtains... had they always been green?
“Any big plans for the day?” Graves idly commented, his eyes still scanning the environment for more clues.
“Just finishing up a few details with the boutique,” the pretty seamstress said as she brought over two plates with fresh omelettes. “Oh, and I’ll be paying a visit to the doctor’s today.” Immediately, the marshal’s attentions were drawn to her like lightning to a rod.
“Doctor?” he asked, his apprehension now shifting focus. “Why, are you sick?”
“No, nothing like that,” she laughed. “I’ve just been feeling a little green recently, and since it’s almost time for my physical, I figured I’d get two birds with one stone, as it were.”
“Ah,” he breathed, relief easing the furious beating of his heart. “I see.”
The two settled down to another one of Rarity’s delicious meals, during which they chatted away as easily as they ever had. The marshal’s keen, grey eyes never stopped roving, but... there was nothing. The kitchen looked as spotless as it ever did, Rarity was as beautiful as ever, and life was exactly how it should be. Despite all efforts to the contrary, the anxiety and suspicions from earlier slowly faded like fog under a strong sun as the marshal began to wonder.
Had he simply been mistaken? Had all this just been nerves and stress finally boiled over?
“Well then, it’s time I headed off,” the violet-haired seamstress said as she stood and began clearing the table. “Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: I wrote to the Princess telling her you weren’t feeling well. She said that you should take the day off and get some more rest.”
“Bah, there’s no need for that,” he snorted derisively, the comforting sense of contentment beginning to return. "I've never taken a sick day before, and I don't intend to now."
"I suppose it's true what they say about fools never catching cold," Rarity replied with an all too innocent smile.
"So that's how it, huh?" Graves chuckled. "In that case, I guess...”
His words faded away as his eyes fell upon her left hand, the hand where her golden wedding ring glittered in the sunlight.
“Something wrong?” Rarity asked curiously as she spotted the oddly intent look on her husband’s face.
“... No, it’s nothing,” Graves said, giving her an apologetic smile. “Must’ve zoned out. Guess I’m more tired than I thought.”
“There, you see?” she giggled triumphantly. “You just stay at home and make sure you’re feeling better. Don’t think you’ve gotten out of taking me dancing that easily.” The young man replied with a wry grin.
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
With one last kiss and a final admonishment for him to take it easy, Rarity was off to seize the day with Graves smiling her farewell. Once the door closed, however, the smile disappeared like stars behind a cloudy sky.
Heading upstairs, the marshal went into the closet and pulled out the simple brown jacket and a matching cabby hat Rarity had made for him but he’d never worn. It had always seemed a silly looking thing to him, but today, that suited his purposes just fine.
The devil had appeared. Though he couldn’t say what, something about the wedding ring had bothered him. It was faint, like the barest echo of a memory long forgotten, yet it was certainly, definitely, most undeniably still there. He wasn’t imagining it and he wasn’t being paranoid. Something was amiss.
Making a slow count to a hundred to ensure that his wife would be well out of sight, Graves slipped out of the house, slumping his shoulders and shortening his usual gliding strides into shuffling steps. Few would give him a second look now, and none would associate the shambling figure in the silly clothes with the hero marshal of Canterlot.
Thus, with the flexibility afforded by his simple disguise, the young man set off for the city as the stranger’s parting words rang through his head like brass gongs:
“Just head back to where it all began.”
There was just one problem: what the hay did that mean? Graves had no idea where it had begun. In fact, he had no idea what ‘it’ even was. How do are you suppose to find the beginning when you don't even know what you're looking for? The marshal had no idea. In fact, all he had was a feeling, just a faint tugging in his gut that seemed less thought than instinct. It certainly wasn't much, but he’d worked with less before. For now, it would have to be enough.
With no clear direction and no goal in mind, Graves set about wandering through the streets of Canterlot, senses strained to catch a hint, a glimpse, anything that would serve as a clue. In this way, he found that at the edge of his vision, from the corners of his eyes, there was always some sort of... flux. An item in one place would seem to be somewhere else, a color of one hue would appear as a different shade. Whenever he looked right at them, however, the differences would vanish and he could never be sure that anything had been wrong to begin with. It was like looking at the world through a lens with faintly warped sides, where flaws could only be indirectly perceived.
“At least I know somethings wrong,” the marshal muttered as he took another turn. “But that still doesn’t tell me anything. What’s the beginning I’m supposed to be looking for?”
He craned his head and looked up at the sun that was already approaching its noontime peak. A morning gone, and nothing to show for it.
Sighing, Graves let his head drop and went to continue on his way. Or, he would have, if he hadn’t frozen in place.
He was back at the royal palace. How he'd gotten here, he had no idea since he could not recall having passed any gates or checkpoints. But here he was, in a large, empty courtyard of flat, stone tiles and neatly trimmed hedges around its four, even sides. It wasn’t a place he typically frequented, nor was it a place en route to any place he had reason to visit. In fact, there was absolutely nothing significant about this courtyard that would draw him here.
And yet, something felt oddly important about this place, like something big was about to happen. No, that wasn't right. It was somehow already important, though for the life of him he couldn't say why.
“Sure wish that crazy guy was here,” Graves muttered, taking his hat off and running a hand wearily through his jet black hair. “Then maybe things would start making sense.”
“Now now,” a deep, mellow voice called out, “don’t you think ‘crazy’ might be a bit strong?”
Turning around, Graves found himself face to face with the strange man from the night before. Only now, the courtyard was no longer empty, as the ‘eldery’ man, today in a decidedly odd suit of yellow and purple stripes, sat at a long table fully furnished for afternoon tea.
“Well, speak of the devil,” the marshal intoned as he took a seat, hardly batting an eye at the sudden appearance of the furniture. Right now, it wasn’t what he could plainly see that had him worried.
“There you go again, using such painful language,” the man replied with a grandiose sweep of his hand. “Really, it’s almost enough to make me weep.”
“Then what should I call you?”
“Well, now isn’t that an interesting question?” the stranger remarked as he stroked his beard. “I suppose given my reputation, you could call me a lot of things. But for the moment, let’s just go with... D.”
“Alright... D. Can you tell me what’s going on?”
“Why, whatever do you mean?” the stranger repeated with an incredibly innocent expression completely ruined by his burning, topaz eyes.
“How about my head?” the marshal began. “My mind’s been really cloudy lately. I don’t seem to remember things I should, and some things I do remember seem to be off.”
“Hmm, very interesting,” D said as he peered through his spectacles and scribbled onto a notepad. “And why do you think this has been happening?”
“I thought I was just tired,” Graves frowned, “but that doesn’t make sense. I’ve been tired before, and I’ve never felt like this. I’m seeing things that shouldn’t be there, forgetting things I should remember, and just...” he took a breath to compose himself. “ It’s almost like... like something’s blocking my thoughts.”
“A very peculiar theory indeed,” the stranger said as he stood up and tossed away the notepad. “And one I’m very glad to say is jolly on the spot. Well done!”
“Wait, what?” Graves gaped in disbelief. “Are you serious?”
“Not in the slightest!” D chortled. “But it doesn’t stop you from being right.”
“Okay, now you’re not making any sense,” the marshal frowned, his grey eyes growing heavy with storm clouds of irritation. “What’s going on?”
“My dear marshal,” the stranger laughed as he straightened his forest green waistcoat, “there’s no need for me to tell you what you already know.”
“If I already know it, then why would I be asking... you...” the marshal stopped speaking a flicker of realization flashed in his grey eyes.
"Yes?" D prompted with a slow, malevolent smile.
“Something... happened to me," Graves muttered, more question than thought happened as he attempted to force the thoughts together through the sudden fog of oblivion. "I know what happened, but I just... can’t remember what it was.”
The 'elderly' man simply grinned as his topaz eyes burned away.
“You know what happened,” Graves continued, the conviction in his voice growing with every word. “I don’t know how, and frankly, I don’t really care. But you have the answers that I’m looking for. So please, tell me. What happened?”
The strange man sat there, lightly tapping his fingers together as he appraised the marshals. His eyes no longer burned. They simply smoldered, two golden beds of coals that only need a good poke to blaze back to life.
“I suppose I could tell you,” he finally said with a languid, almost lazy drawl. “But are you sure you really want to know? The truth can sometimes be quite painful, you know.”
“Perhaps,” Graves nodded, “But I’d prefer to know than not to.”
“Paying the price without checking the tag,” D chuckled richly. “I suppose that's the privilege of youth, to rush along head first without paying any heed.”
With a snap of his fingers, a porcelain teapot floated up and poured its contents into the marshal’s cup. However, the pitch black liquid that roiled and bubbled as if being boiled over a furnace was most certainly not tea.
“What’s this?” Graves asked, eyeing the cup of... stuff before him.
“You said you were having trouble remembering,” D offered glibly. “Just think of it as medicine to help jog your memories.”
“So, you’re saying this will help me figure out what’s going on?” the marshal asked, to which D simply smiled.
“Only one way to find out.”
Graves looked at the grinning stranger, then back to the cup. He relished the idea of drinking it as much as a cup of fetid swamp water, maybe less. And this stranger. He certainly knew what was going on, but how far could he be trusted? Even now, those golden eyes of his twinkled with an almost maniacal light. But right now, he was running out of options, and if it was the only way to find out what was going on...
In one swift motion, Graves picked up the cup and drained its contents.
He was out before he hit the table.