Like a puppet with severed strings, Graves fell limply into the seat, grey eyes fixed on the tent flap that fluttered to stillness.
She was gone. She was really gone.
That meant… that meant that it was over. There was no need for him to return to Ponyville anymore, no need to concern himself with its citizens. He could go back to his old life, focus on the work he knew he had to do with nothing to hold him back. He didn’t have to worry anymore either. After all, what was there to worry about? He was beholden to none with no weaknesses to exploit. No longer would he have to concern himself with attachments and relationship. No longer would he have to fear the loss and grief and pain that seemed to have cursed him all his life. He was free.
Freedom. It should have brought with it feelings of relief, a sensation of lightness as the burden of fear was lifted from his shoulders. But it didn’t. Instead, he just felt… empty. Hollow, like the remnants of a decaying house long since abandoned.
He didn’t understand. This is what he wanted. Wasn’t it?
Weary and confused, Graves leaned back and closed his eyes, pressing his palms against them as he tried to make sense of the ringing void in his chest.
“Tut tut,” a smooth, silky voice crooned from behind. “If this is what the mighty Graves has been reduced to, perhaps I shouldn’t have gotten involved at all.”
“… If this turns out to be another dream,” the marshal mumbled, “I swear, there’s going to be hell to pay.”
Laughter rang out, sweet as warm honey and rich as well aged wine.
“Blaming the messenger, as always,” D chortled as he strolled forth to stand before the marshal. Lifting one hand up, Graves laid eyes on the strange man once more, wings of white in his otherwise jet black hair and pointed beard. Today, he wore a navy blue pea coat, which might have looked quite striking if it weren't for the hot pink paisley designs strewn all across. It seemed less of a pattern and more a snowstorm of garish, eye-searing color.
“What are you doing here?” Graves muttered, returning hands to face as if attempting to shut out sight of the strange character and with him, the rest of the world.
“Oh, I happened to be in the neighborhood,” D replied in all too innocent tones as he twirled a walking stick painted to resemble a large candy cane. Actually, it might not have just been paint. “Thought you might need a shoulder to cry on, possibly a box of tissues and a tam-”
“Were you watching?” the marshal called out, jolting upright and fixing the man with a steely stare that could have skewered an ox. The elderly youngster instantly threw up hands in a gesture of peace.
“Calm your horses, boy,” the man said in soothing tones, though the effect was somewhat spoiled by his sardonic grin. “Even I wouldn’t intrude on a private moment like that. But you must admit, when you've got a teary-eyed girl and a man looking like death warmed over, it doesn't take a genius to put two and two together, no?”
“She was crying?”
“Less than a lot, more than a little I suppose,” D shrugged. “Why, does it bother you?”
“… Doesn’t matter,” Graves sighed as he sagged into his seat once more.
“It doesn’t?” the odd one asked with eyebrow arched. “But don’t you want to make kissy faces with her like the characters in those bad novels you’re always reading?”
“I know the difference between books and life,” the marshal replied flatly. “Besides, this is for the best.”
“For the best, huh?” D repeated with a rich chuckle. “You certainly don’t sound like you believe that.”
“I’ll get over it,” Graves shrugged, even that small movement seeming to sap his strength. “Better to get it over with now than when it’s too late to turn back.”
The strange man looked the young soldier over with his bright topaz eyes, their golden depths for once not shining with maniacal mirth. They seemed considerate, daresay even lucid in their measuring of the man. His fingers came to his pointed beard as he stroked it in thoughtful contemplation.
“You know something Graves?” he finally said. “You’re a very odd man.”
Even as worn out as he was, the irony of the statement brought a faint, wheezing laugh to the marshal’s lips.
“Really. Like you’re one to talk.”
“Of course I am,” D smiled jovially. “As an expert on the absurd and the outrageous, I take great pride in my ability to spot strangities from a mile away.”
“Alright, I’ll bite,” Graves answered as he sat upright. “What’s so odd about me?”
“Simply put, never have I met a person who was so averse to being happy. It’s like you’re allergic to anything that might bring pleasure to your dismal and dreary days.”
“I don’t hate being happy.”
“Please,” the strange man chortled, “I’d take my life over yours any day, and I’m spending my days doing impersonations of the Venus de Milo.”
Though the grey-eyed soldier returned a quizzical stare, he refrained from asking what such a peculiar turn of phrase meant. Something told him he wasn’t likely to get an answer anyway.
“I don’t hate being happy,” Graves repeated, if only to search for the reason why he denied it. “I just… don’t want to pay the price of being happy.”
“Namely the cost of losing that happiness, correct?” the elderly man offered.
“Are you afraid?”
“… I guess I am.”
“Well then,” D continued, his golden eyes lighting up as a devilish smile split his face, “what if I told you I could take the price away?”
Before the marshal could blink, D thrust the cane out, striking with young man squarely between the eyes with the deadly precision of a champion fencer.
The sounds of maniacal cackling quickly faded away as everything fell to black.
Graves blinked in the inky blackness that surrounded him. Or at least, he thought he blinked.
For one thing, it was so completely dark, that it made no difference whether his eyes were open or not. For another, though he got the impression of making the motions, there was no sensation of the physical, no feelings to serve as evidence that anything had happened at all. It was a strange feeling, yet one that seemed somehow familiar.
“What’s going on, D?” he called, or thought aloud. He knew he had no throat to speak from, but he was still somehow sure the query had gone forth. In response, the rich, echoing laughter of the strange man rang out through the inky blackness.
“Merely started you out on a little journey,” he chortled, drifting into view with a clarity that contradicted the surrounding darkness.
“What do you mean?” the marshal asked again. “Where are we?”
“Why, we’re in you, of course. Surely, you haven’t forgotten your last visit to the world that lies inside?”
Ah, so that’s what it was. This disembodied sensation. This lack of light that was darker than dark and still somehow not. It was the feeling of that strange realm between dreaming and waking, the place where he’d relived the memories necessary to return to the world of the living.
“Why’d you bring me here?”
Raising a sequined glove clad hand, D snapped his fingers and instantly, the blackness was lit up by thousands upon thousands of glowing orbs of light, each one twinkling to life like a newborn firefly. As numerous as the stars in the night sky, each glittering sphere flickered with images and motion, tiny movies drifting in glass globes through the emptiness of space.
“What is it you’re really afraid of?”
“Aw, don’t play coy with me, marshal,” D pressed, his liquid golden eyes fixed intently on iron grey. “You said it yourself, you’d like to be happy. And yet I find you here, throwing away an opportunity that most men would give their right hand for. You give it up because you’re afraid, but what is it that scares you so?”
“… Pain,” Graves admitted, the word springing to his lips from somewhere not quite in conscious thought. “Being with people really does make you happy. But if you lose those people it… hurts. Feels like someone carved a hole in your chest that never heals.”
“The pain of loss,” D nodded in something one might even believe was understanding. “Some think that the worst pains are the physical ones of the flesh and body. But you’ve been there. You’ve seen pain in all its forms, and you know that the worst ones, the worst by far, are pains of the heart.”
Graves fell into still, mute astonishment. This was more than simple understanding. From the way D spoke it almost sounded like-
“But at the very core,” the elderly youngster continued, interrupting the thought, “at the core of all kinds of suffering, do you know what they all share in common?”
“What is it?” Graves asked, to which D simply tapped the side of his head.
“Thought. Pain exists in the mind and cannot exist without being known. To think is to give pain form. To feel is to give pain life. It’s thought that makes pain real. Wouldn't you agree?”
Slowly, the marshal nodded. Countless times, he’d walked off the battle field covered with wounds and no idea where they’d come from. By all accounts, the afflictions should have been agonizing, yet he’d paid them as much notice in the heat of combat as he might the weather. Probably less, on account of the weather having its uses. It was only when you thought about the injuries and accepted the idea that it really should hurt that pain appeared.
“That’s all well and good,” Graves cautiously continued. “But what’s that got to do with why we’re here?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” the bearded man chortled, drifting along as freely as a fish in the ocean. “I’m here to help you get rid of the pain.”
Raising his cane, D gave it a grand flourish and with it, began to move the stars. Following his motions, hundreds of the flickering lights spiraled inward, drawing close enough so that the pair were surrounded by a slowly swirling curtain of shimmering orbs. As close as they were, Graves was finally able to start making out the images they contained. What he saw nearly stopped his heart.
“Is… Is that…?” he gaped, reaching a trembling, non-existent hand forward towards one of the glittering scenes. The strange man nodded in affirmation.
“Team twenty six. Exactly as you remember them.”
It was amazing. In each and every one of the glittering spheres played a different scene, a different memory from those years he’d spent with his squad. In one, he saw the first mission they’d ever been on, a werewolf hunt that’d sown the seeds of camaraderie amongst them. In another, a harrowing escape from collapsing ruins, the point where he’d begun trusting another person to watch his back. Countless memories swirled around him, some fond and close and others so long buried they’d nearly been forgotten. Of course, it’s one thing to remember, but here, in this space with the twinkling orb before him, he could truly see them as clear as the day it had happened. He could see them, his comrades so vivid and real and lifelike, you could hardly believe that they were already gone.
At that instant, a sharp spike of agony lanced through the marshal’s heart.
“Thought is pain,” D repeated, returning the cane to his side as he drifted along in the same invisible current. “And memory is thought. You think because you remember, and you hurt because you think. In that sense, you can say that the cause of all your pain is memory.”
“… What are you getting at?” Graves asked suspiciously. Had he been in his body, this would be where that familiar shiver would creep down his spine, raising his hackles at soon to come danger. D did not disappoint.
“What if,” the bearded man began, a languid smile playing across his lips, “instead of carrying those burdens with you wherever you go, you just… let them go?” He reached his hand out toward the glowing light and gently took hold. “What if you simply forgot about them and freed yourself from the pain once and for all?” D began to squeeze, the glittering sphere slowly bulging out like a water-filled balloon. The image distorted, warping as the growing pressure distended the surface further and further.
“Stop it,” Graves said and instantly, D released.
“If you insist, but why?” the topaz-eyed man asked with keen interest. “What good could you possibly have of dragging those four with you wherever you go?”
“Those four,” the young soldier replied with enough edge in his words to shave with, “are the reason I’m here today. They’re the ones who taught me what it means to be a marshal, what it means to fight for the sake of others. They’re the ones who gave their lives and let me live. I will not disrespect them by treating them as burdens.”
“You’re absolutely right,” D agreed, surprisingly with no detectable sarcasm in his voice. “These four crafted you into the hero everyone knows. Not that you care about being a hero or anything as simple as that. No, what you care about is your mission. You need to keep on fighting for Equestria, and to forget these four would cut out such a big piece of you, the whole person would come falling down like a house of cards. Am I right?”
Graves blinked in surprise. Once again, D provided surprisingly clear insight.
“No,” the young elder intoned as he stroked his beard. “Even if it hurts, the memories of these four have to stay, if not even for the sake of Equestria, but simply to keep you as who you are. That makes certainly makes sense, but… what about her?”
Flicking his cane, the curtain of glittering orbs flitted off into the dark as others flowed into their place. Only, instead of the images of his fallen comrades, these spheres were all centered on a single, beautiful, violet-haired girl.
“The life of the marshal isn’t easy, less so with excess baggage and useless emotions,” D continued on in his lucid, logical monologue. “The memory of your team isn’t baggage; it’s fuel for the fire that keeps you running. The memories of your hometown aren’t either. If not so clear, they still provided the foundation for your drive, the desire to prevent others from suffering the same fate as you. In a way, they’re just as important as your comrades."
"But what about her?” he asked once more, plucking an orb from the current, letting it gently float over the palm of his hand. In its shimmering depths, the marshal could make out their first lunch together, that first eye-opening conversation where he’d begun to discover the fabulous depths of a remarkable young lady.
“What does remembering her do for you? For your work?” It neither confirms your intent, nor strengthens your resolve. It just… hurts you. Saps away at your will and undercuts the drive with painful longings you know you can’t fulfill. What good is there in holding on?”
Graves opened his mouth to speak, to challenge the words with sound reason and rational. But nothing came forth from his mind’s blank slate.
“All she does is make you weak,” the elderly man said softly, a strange melancholy in his topaz eyes. “All she does is open you to pain once again. So instead of dragging on the suffering, instead of waiting for time to run its course, why don’t you just... let it go?”
The young soldier moved to protest, to protect the memory. But with a quick, almost merciful gesture, D clenched his fist and the sphere burst into a million motes of light, shimmering like golden sparks for one brief instant before fading into nothingness.
And as the lights disappeared, Graves forgot what it was he could no longer remember.
“Just let it go, boy,” D called out, his words rich and sweet and almost kind in their urging. “Let yourself forget. Release those memories into oblivion and set yourself free.”
One by one, the orbs of memory all around him began to burst. To his left, the memory of that first dinner after bringing back Sweetie Belle from an impromptu troll hunt. To his right, a lively debate over one of their shared novels. There went a scene from the Gala. A day in Ponyville. Their conversation in the canyon cave. One by one, with rapidly rising tempo and energy, the orbs and their contents continued to disappear.
And as Graves watched and felt the memories fade, he felt… better.
At first, the shock of loss had been palpable, a strong right hook that came from nowhere that would have floored him had he been in corporeal form. But the more memories that disappeared, the less it hurt. With each memory that vanished, a portion of the longing in his heart, a portion of the emptiness vanished as well. He could feel himself growing calmer and freer, as if each disappearing bubble was a chunk of stone lifted from his shoulders. After all, a man couldn’t long for what he didn’t know, could he? And so Graves watched as one by one, the memories faded and a calm spread over his mind.
Soon, there was only one orb left. Drifting forwards, the elderly man placed it into the marshal’s hand, the final memory that glittered with the faint light of a dying star. In its shimmering depths, he saw a young woman, standing in the sunlight of a Ponyville street, violet tresses encircling a beautiful, almost familiar face. She was smiling.
“The last step is up to you.”
Just a touch. Graves knew that if he moved, if he put even the faintest pressure on that glowing sphere of light, then it would burst. Once it did, then the growing sense of well being in his heart would be complete and he would finally be at peace. All he had to do was move, to throw away that solitary image of a young woman he no longer even knew, and he would be truly and completely free.
So why was it that, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t bring himself to do it?
At first, it was hardly more than a shudder of the darkness, a spot where black became infinitesimally less so. But it happened again. And again. And again, growing stronger and stronger each time. The pulsing quickened till it resembled a beating heart, one that began beating faster and faster, pounding louder and stronger. And from this pulsing, from this beating, a single, tiny mote of light flickered to life. Less than a firefly’s tail, the tiny speck drifted forward and alighted onto the orb in hand, bringing with it the memory of a single word.
All at once, with the brilliance of a thousand of supernovas, the memories returned, exploding forth in radiant bursts of light of every color and hue imaginable. In an instant, the blank void was filled once more with a starry host, each glittering point bringing back some portion of the marshal’s lost memory.
And with the memories came emptiness as well. Graves gasped, unable to even cry out as if a ragged hole had been punched through his very soul. To go from peaceful contentment back to complete awareness of what he’d gone through and what he’d given up… some part of him had known it would hurt, but no part of him had realized quite how much.
“What… what happened?” he grunted, fighting to maintain his mental posture despite wanting to do nothing more than curl up and forget once more. “I thought you got rid of them.”
“I’ve told you before, I’m merely a guide,” D replied smoothly, sardonic smile on his lips once more. “I couldn’t really destroy any of your memories; that’d be outside of my jurisdiction. No, I merely showed you what it’d feel like if you’d gone through and forgotten everything, leaving the final choice to you.”
“And I chose… not to.” the raven-haired soldier said, almost not believing it himself. “Why?”
“Why indeed, why indeed,” the elderly youngster repeated in impish delight. “You know the reasoning. You know the rationale. A woman like Rarity could only serve to get in the way of your work. As long as thoughts of her remain, you expose yourself to the pain of loss once more. If that happens again, even your mind may break, and your life as a marshal would be over. Your journey would end. And yet you hold on. Why?"
Why? Why had he stopped? Everything D had said was true. He knew exactly what being around Rarity meant, which is why he'd run away. He’d eviscerated her from his life, cutting her out like he would a piece of shrapnel in his flesh so that he would never again have to undergo that kind of hurt. And yet, when it finally came to be rid of her once and for all, he still couldn't let her go. It served no purpose and yet he held on. He knew the absurdity of the situation, so why did he choose to remember? Just what was it that made him cling on?
"Tell me Graves,” the strange man grinned, leaning in with eyes roiling like cauldrons of melted gold. "What is it that you want? What is it that you really, truly desire?”
The marshal opened his mouth to speak, to try and put words to his thoughts.