Graves gasped as he bolted upright, hand jerking towards his chest where the cursed bolt had struck him. Nothing. Pulling out his shirt and peering down, Graves gave his torso a quick and thorough search.
“... It’s not there,” he muttered, checking once more to make sure he hadn’t missed it, but the fact remained. Of the many scars that served as memorabilia of his battles, no circular wound from the quarrel could be found.
“Really?” D asked in a voice that held no trace of curiosity. “Well isn’t that odd.”
“Indeed,” the grey-eyed soldier nodded as he looked back up, eyes hard and focused. “So why do I get the feeling you still know more than you’re telling me?”
“Why, whatever do you mean?” the strange man gaped, his open expression that seemed an attempt at innocence only succeeding in conveying mockery. “I merely helped you remember what happened, just like I said I would.”
“Remembering’s one thing,” the marshal began. “But that... that wasn’t a memory. It was too vivid, too real.” Indeed even now, his heart pounded as if in the heat of battle and the sensation of seeping cold in his bones was still so fresh in his mind, he couldn’t be sure whether he was remembering the feeling or actually experiencing it even now.
“What,” D smiled as he sipped at a cup of tea. “Are you suggesting I did something to your head? Made you see things that weren’t there? Feel things that didn’t happen?”
“Would it be so hard?” the marshal laconically replied. “I don’t know who you are, and frankly, I really don’t care. What I do know, is that whatever’s going on, you’ve got control. You could make it happen.” The older man’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Wait, you... you think that I...” D couldn’t finish because he immediately began to laugh, a completely undignified, snorting guffaw of delighted, and possibly maniacal, amusement.
“Oh Graves,” he snickered, wiping a tear from his eye. “You’ve got it all wrong. I don’t have... control, as you so put it. I just happen to be a very good navigator.”
“Navigator?” the marshal repeated in confusion. “What does that mean?”
“In a moment, in a moment,” D replied with a wave of the hand. “For now, let’s just start at the beginning. Wouldn’t want to go missing any important details, now would we?”
“This is the beginning,” Graves asserted. “You said so yourself, this was where it all started.”
“Yes, but what is it?” the strange man continued with an enthused smile. “If this is the beginning, then what is it that began? What is it that had to start here?”
“The problems. My memory, my... carelessness,” the marshal admitted through gritted teeth. “I wanted to figure out what was going on with my head. But it doesn’t make sense.”
“Oh? And why not?”
“Because that memory, that vision, whatever it was, took place at the Gala. But that was years ago, before I came to Canterlot, before I married Rarity. It was before my entire life changed. If that was the beginning, why would the problems only start now?”
“Why indeed? Why indeed?” D droned on with a lazy smile. “Why would problems start at a completely unrelated date and time? It certainly doesn’t make any sort of sense. After all, it has been as you said, years.”
“... What are you trying to say?” Graves pressed, his eyes boring forward like iron nails. Everything the man was saying had been in agreement, but the way he said it, the way he sounded...
“Tell me about them,” D continued with a broad grin. “What were those years like?”
“The years you mentioned, the ones between then and now. Surely you must have some fond memories of that period.”
“Of course!” the man cackled. “After all, you’re a marshal. There must have been grand adventures during that time. And your move to Canterlot, that must have been an experience. Buying a house with the woman you love would certainly have been fun. Ooh, ooh! And of course, let’s not forget the wedding! You are married after all. Tell, me, what was it all like?”
Somewhere in his mind, Graves was sure he could hear the blood whining in his ears with the high-pitched shriek of some small creature in pain. He ignored it and instead focused every fiber of his being inward, delving into his mind for answers to those questions.
But he couldn’t remember. He knew they’d happened. They must have. He was a marshal, and fighting was what he did. He must have been all across the world during that time to ensure the safety of those at home, especially Rarity. They had begun a courtship. It had ended with him proposing, and they had been married. All their friends would have been there, and she would have looked amazing in her gown. It all must have been perfect.
He knew these things had to be true, so why for the love of his very sanity, couldn’t he remember a single detail about anything that had happened?
“Aw, what’s the matter?” D asked, the mocking pity in his voice cutting like a knife, “you seem to be having some difficulties.”
“You...” Throwing aside the table, Graves lunged at the man and grabbing him by the lapels of his suit, lifted him straight into the air. “Tell me! What did you do to me?! Why can’t I remember?!”
“I did something to you?” Even choked as he was, the older man didn’t let an ounce of condescension drop out of his voice. “Please, I knew you were thick, but I didn’t think you were downright stupid.”
“A person doesn’t just forget a chunk of his life,” the marshal snapped as he gave the man a rough shake. “I wouldn’t just forget those times, not for the world.”
“Of course not,” D answered with a wheezing laugh. “After all, it’s hard to lose what you never had to begin with.”
“... What?” he asked, his voice little more than a hoarse, rough whisper.
“You heard me,” the man smirked. “If you lost something that can’t be lost, the only logical conclusion is that you never had it to begin with. If that’s the case, then where does that leave us?”
Suddenly, everything clicked. The sense of wrongness, the haziness, the constant changes, the unquestioning acceptance, the gaps, the questions, everything. It all made sense. It all fell into place.
Graves felt his heart plunge into his stomach.
“... I’m... dreaming?”
D’s smile could have chilled the heart of a volcano.
“Your words,” he chortled. “Not mine.”
"But... that's impossible..." Graves muttered, trying to wrap his head around that one near incomprehensible fact. "How can this be a dream? It's so... so real..."
"To be fair, you are very deeply asleep," the man smirked. "Daresay even catatonic."
“Then this... all this,” the marshal continued, panning his eyes around the courtyard, passed the walls to the gleaming spires of Canterlot, “is just in my head?”
“Convenient, isn’t it?” D laughed as he straightened his suit. Graves hadn’t realized he’d let him go. “Memories just a scene change away, relivable at a moment's whim while an idyllic malaise keeps you content and at ease, never looking too close, never questioning too much. Everything you could ever hope for, everything you could possibly want, all available through the simple act of willing it to be so.”
“But it’s not really there,” the marshal murmured, his mind not quite able to comprehend what was going on. “None of it’s real.”
“Bah, real is such a strong word,” the older man said with a grimace of distaste. “In the end, what is reality anyway? After all, it’s not really so much what’s there as what you perceive it to be that matters, isn’t it?”
“But it isn’t,” Graves said softly. “It doesn’t work, because I know it’s not really there.”
“Yes, yes you do,” D smiled. “But I can fix that.”
Raising a hand, the strange man snapped his fingers and two freestanding doors appeared in the courtyard. Graves could see that there was nothing but open space behind either of them but somehow, he could hear things. Behind the first door, a light blue wooden panel the color of a morning sky, he could hear the faint sounds of revelry, like a party in full swing off in the far distance and muffled by boards. The other, however, a heavy metal slab marred and battered and stained with rust, stood completely silent.
“As I’ve said before, I’m not in charge here,” D chuckled as he idly slid a hand over each frame. “But I can guide you. Just like I took you to a memory even you’d forgotten, I can lead you someplace else.”
“Really,” the marshal asked, his voice dripping with skepticism. “And where would you lead me?”
“Why, wherever you wanted, of course!” the stranger chortled in glee. “You’re a soldier, a straight arrow, an honest-to-a-fault simpleton who thinks he’s got to save the world. If you want to go back to that, to the endless fighting, then take this door.” He gave the metal panel a hearty slap. The cold, distant echo that sounded was quickly swallowed by whatever emptiness lay beyond the impassive, steely slab.
“I see,” Graves nodded. “And what’s the other choice?”
“This?” D intoned as he gently traced a hand over the beautifully simple carvings that decorated the wood. “This is what men strive their whole lives to find, what you yearned for long before you even knew what it was. Happiness.”
“Happiness.” The marshal’s voice was flat and hard. “How can you make me happy?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be doing it,” D laughed. “You would. Choose this door, and you’ll forget we've ever had this talk and it’s back to the perfect little life you have right now.”
“So I’ll be happy for what, a few days?” Graves snorted. “I’ll just start noticing the same things and it’ll be the same deal all over again.”
“You’d think, that wouldn’t you?” the strange man chuckled. “But fortunately, you’d be wrong. Your mind’s in a state of flux, trying to work out the kinks as it gets everything set up nice and neat, like props and background on stage before the start of a play. But if you let me take you curtain call, to when the performance really begins, you’ll be fully immersed. Everything will get sorted out and never, ever again will you have to know the difference.”
“... You mean,” the marshal began slowly, “that if I choose to stay, I’ll never know that it’s not real? That it's just in my head?”
“Like I said, reality is what you make of it,” D shrugged. “But to answer your question, no. This will be your world. This will be your life.”
Graves looked from the blue, wooden door to the rust-stained slab, then back. Maybe it was his mind playing tricks on him, but he could have sworn the blue was the same shade as the one on their front door. In fact, he could almost swear that it was his front door.
“Come on, it’s not that hard a choice, is it?” D asked, his voice rich and sonorous, like a haze of sweet, dense smoke floating through the air. “A child could tell you what’s right in a heartbeat.”
“I need to go back,” Graves said, though his words came slowly and without any weight. “It’s my job. My duty.”
“Is it?” the voice continued, the words sounding so mysterious yet musical, they hardly seemed words at all. “Is it really? You’ve given your whole life to serving others, and what have you got to show for it? A body full of scars and a head full of bad memories.”
“That’s not the point,” the marshal replied, his voice growing softer as he spoke. “I have to go back. I have to-”
“-Do what?” the strange man interrupted. “Protect the people? There are dozens of marshals to do that. Hundreds of guardsmen. Protect Celestia? You’ve already done that. You completed your final task admirably, and the Princess is now safe.”
“Nobody could ask any more of you,” the sound continued, now barely a sibilant caress in the back of his mind. “You’ve given more than anyone could expect, more than anyone could ever dream. For once in your life, think about yourself. Be happy.”
Graves took a step towards the blue door. Everything that had been said was true. Ever since he could remember, he’d been fighting. He’d shed tears and he’d shed blood, throwing himself out on the front line to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. And he’d succeeded. He’d saved countless lives, won countless battles, and even saved the life of Princess Celestia herself. Who could ask for anymore?
“… I could,” he said, so softly yet so suddenly that it took even him by surprise.
“You could?” D asked, eyebrow piqued with curiosity. “You could what?”
“Maybe there are others who could do my job,” the marshal answered, turning away from the wooden frame. “And maybe I have given enough. But as long as there’s work to be done, I don’t get to call it quits.”
“So... you’re not staying?” the young elder asked.
“No," Graves replied with firm, silver eyes, "I’m not.”
D said nothing, instead peering at the marshal through his burning, topaz gaze.
And he smiled.
“... I was really hoping you’d say that,” he laughed. At that instant, the marshal fell to his knees as thousands of burning needles pierced every part of his body.
“D!” Graves gasped as his skull was filled with molten metal. He struggled to keep his eyes on the man despite every instinct to squeeze them shut and howl in pain. “What are you doing?”
“Me? I’m not doing anything,” he said with a look of complete innocence. “You literally have nobody to blame but yourself.”
“What are you talking about?” the marshal demanded, unable to remain upright and falling to his hands. “What’s going on?" The strange man smiled.
“Oh dear, do I really have to explain everything?” he drawled out with a sardonic smile at the soldier's searing agony. “Very well then. It would seem that a part of you still wants to stay. A large part in fact, and it’s doing everything in its power to make sure you don’t leave.”
“What’s it gonna do, torture me until I give up and stay?” Graves snorted through gritted teeth clenched so tightly he thought they might shatter.
“Maybe that’s what it is,” D laughed, a high-pitched, keening sound that seemed equal parts mirth and madness. “But it’s not going to be your body; you’ve trained yourself too well for that. No, it’s going to be something far, far worse.”
And then the pain was gone.
Blinking in surprise, Graves got up to his feet, a bit unsteadily, but managing to straighten up on muscles made of water. The courtyard was empty. Table, doors, D, everything had disappeared as neatly as if they had never been.
“You can still make it out if you want,” a voice softly crooned, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. “But how easy it will be, I really can’t say.” And with one last, maniacal laugh, the voice too, faded away.
Graves stood alone in the courtyard. There was nothing around save himself and the hedges rustling softly in the breeze. So why was it that despite being alone, every fiber of his body was taut in alert and every hair on end as a monstrous chill surged down his spine?
“I’m not scared,” he called out, his voice harsh with anger and strong with defiance. “You hear me? I can take whatever you throw at me! Come on! Show me what you've got! SHOW ME WHAT YOU'VE GOT!” Graves had no idea who he was screaming at. Perhaps it was D. Perhaps it was himself. Who knows. But whatever it was, whatever it was that the marshal howled and raged against, it answered.
Graves heard it first, coming from behind. Soft steps, so light he almost didn’t hear them. The almost inaudible rustling of fabric, barely whispers as whatever it was his psyche had sent drew steadily closer.
“All right,” he muttered, his eyes as sharp as silver daggers as he spun to face his challenge, “Let’s see what you’ve got up your-”
His body froze. His blood turned to ice.
No, it couldn’t be.
Not this. For the love of light, anything but this.
“Graves? Ah, there you are.”
With a delighted smile on her beautiful face, Rarity glided forth and embraced her husband.