• Published 21st Nov 2016
  • 410 Views, 57 Comments

Because I Could not Stop for Death - ShinigamiDad



Zecora tries to get home with Reaper and Luna's help, while Twilight seeks answers from a dark past.

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The Vacuum

"Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity"--Emily Dickinson


Zecora had only walked a few paces when she stumbled over a saddle bag bearing Solar Gleam’s cutie mark. She peered at the ground, bent down and slipped her head and neck through the strap.

The small grey unicorn guiding her into the dark stopped and turned around, the bluish-white glow from his horn casting sharp shadows around Zecora’s feet. He stared intently at the shadows for a moment, then pointed to the bag.

“Ooh--something new! We mostly just get bits and pieces of rock and bone and whatnot pulled through the Rift; don’t see a whole thing make it through in one piece! Is it yours?”

Zecora furrowed her brow and cleared her throat, but no sound escaped. She shook her head.

The colt smiled: “Well I guess it’s yours now! When we make it back to the the Compound you’ll have better light than just my poor horn, and a place to set your things down. You look tired.”

Zecora sighed and nodded and thumped her chest with a hoof. She coughed a bit and tried again to speak, but to no avail. She frowned and shrugged at the colt.

The young unicorn smiled again: “Not to worry, talk when you can. I have forever and a day--I’m patient!”

Zecora and her guide walked along for several minutes, passing the dark outlines of unseen objects and structures, just beyond the range of the unicorn’s illumination.

After several minutes Zecora began to make out the outlines of a walled compound, lying next to a wide, reed-lined stream. A narrow bridge spanned the stream, and between the far bank and the compound wall, she could just make out jumbled, uneven rows of grave stones and markers.

She raised an eyebrow and pointed at the graves.

The colt looked at the stones and markers and shrugged: “Most of the creatures who dwell here feel some need to mark their passing. Nopony here has a body, so the graves are just for show.”

Zecora furrowed her brow and thumped her chest again.

The colt nodded: “Yeah, I see it, but I’ve seen other ponies and whatnot come through the rift lookin’ like they had a proper body, too. We’ll ask old Gil when we get inside--he has the best sense of these things.”

Zecora glared, but followed her escort over the bridge, pausing to look down into the swirling, indigo-tinted waters. She turned back toward the stream after crossing, and walked to the water’s edge, reaching out with a hoof.

The colt cut in front of her: “Oh, I wouldn’t do that just yet! You might want to keep your wits about you for a time!”

Zecora furrowed her brow and backed away from the stream, turning away as the colt trotted toward the compound’s gate: “Come on--Gil will be very interested to meet you!”

The two approached the compound wall, and Zecora was finally able to get a good look at it in the gloom. It was roughly five yards tall, and seemed to have been cobbled together from a variety of giant bones, scraps of metal, and slabs of stone.

The unicorn colt stepped up to a low entryway and tipped his head down as his horn glowed a pale green. The weathered piece of ship’s decking blocking the entrance slid upward, allowing Zecora to duck underneath and pass inside. Her eyes adjusted quickly to the brighter conditions within, and she looked about in wonder.

Spread across a blue-green sward was a hodgepodge of lean-tos, tents, shacks and cabins, constructed of everything from more driftwood to animal hides to unidentifiable metal fragments, to fractured panels of what appeared to be iridescent glass. A variety of trees and tall plants dotted the compound; many were familiar to Zecora, but some were clearly otherworldly.

The colt guided Zecora to the door of a hut, crafted of some kind of reptilian hide stretched over a framework of bones and metal struts. He rapped his hoof against the entrance and stuck his muzzle inside a bit: “Are you here, Gil?”

There was a scraping sound and the door swung inward on crude hinges. A decrepit, semi-translucent rust-colored unicorn with a tattered white mane and mountain peak cutie mark shuffled aside and bowed: “Please enter my humble abode.”

Zecora followed her guide inside and looked around at the collection of strange metal scraps, books, parchment fragments and unidentifiable knick-knacks arranged along various shelves and tables.

The colt pointed to Zecora: “I just found her now as the Rift was closing. Pulled that saddlebag in, too.”

Gil rubbed his tongue along his teeth and nodded: “So my sense was right--the Vacuum pulled in another poor spirit. It’s been a busy few weeks…”

He pointed to a large cushion next to a hovering, glowing orb: “Please, take a seat. Let’s get to know each other a little better before you’re found out. What’s your name?”

Zecora furrowed her brow and cleared her throat as she tapped the top of her breastbone lightly with a hoof: “My friends call me Zecora / and I live in Everfree / I’ve skills with beasts and flora / and...and…”

Gil tipped his head and raised an eyebrow as the zebra’s voice tailed off, and she sat in confused silence: “Zecora, is it? I think I’ve only ever seen one other zebra here in the Vacuum.”

Zecora began breathing heavily and licking her lips: “I--I don’t know what’s happened to my voice…”

“Your voice? I don’t understand--your voice sounds perfectly pleasant to me, although that little rhyming couplet was a bit odd.”

Zecora closed her eyes tight and took a deep breath: “That’s the way I always talk!”

“Really? Always?”

“Yes--ever since I was a little filly. I don’t think I can even remember a time I didn’t speak in verse and rhyme!”

“Well, that was close just then.”

Zecora bit her lip: “I can’t recall a single time / I didn’t speak in verse and rhyme!”

Gil nodded: “There you go!”

“Yes, but--but I had to think about it, I had to run the words through my head and force then into the proper pattern. What’s wrong with me?”

“Well, you are dead, that tends to change a pony.”

“I am not dead! I can feel my heart beating!”

Gil smiled indulgently: “I, too could feel my heart’s phantom rhythm for quite some time--years, really. I finally accepted my death about the same time I accepted my unreality.”

Zecora stood, agitated: “No! It’s not a phantom heartbeat! I can--”

The colt pointed to the floor beside her: “She does cast a shadow, Gil.”

Gil furrowed his brow and walked up close to Zecora. He swept his eyes across her form from muzzle to flank, and down to the floor. He stepped back and rubbed his chin for a moment.

“She does indeed appear to cast a true shadow. I’ve never seen a being here in the Vacuum cast a shadow.”

Zecora sat back down with a sour expression: “I told you!”

The ragged, translucent unicorn stepped closer again and peered at her face and chest: “Are you injured? Perhaps you’re dying, and are in a transitional state. I have seen that a time or two…”

Zecora looked down: “This? No, this is not my blood. It belongs to my friend. She was using powerful dark magic in an attempt to seal and contain the Void after I was pulled inside.”

“The Void?”

“That is what we call this creation you seem to refer to as the Vacuum.”

“Ah, not a bad name for it. As for this friend of yours--I assume she is a powerful wizard.”

“She’s actually quite young. She became an alicorn Princess only two years ago, and has gained some skill in dark magic in recent years.”

“‘Some skill?’ It must be more than that! This Void, as you call it, has required all of Grey Thorn’s power and cunning for centuries!”

“Well, she is also imbued with Death’s power, and has been wielding it as well, in the role of Harbinger.”

Gil’s eyebrows shot up: “Wait, what? She is a living being, wielding Death’s power?”

“Yes, and that, in combination with her dark, blood magic was enough to finally seal off the Void.”

Gil sat down: “Interesting. Another tried something similar, based on my young friend’s report. A unicorn preceded you by only a few minutes.”

Zecora nodded sadly: “Yes. Solar Gleam and I were working in unison, trying to seal the breach and constrain the Void. He tapped directly into it and was drained from his body.”

“And was immediately seized by the Sentinel; I am sure he’s already in the Swamp. Many who are drawn in may linger and evade for a time, but in this case, your friend must have made direct contact with the Sentinel.”

“The Swamp?”

“That is what we call the heart of this place where the Sentinel makes its home. It's where it consumes a being’s essence.”

Zecora furrowed her brow: “Well then, who dwells here?”

“The vast majority of those here are mere shades, devoid of any essence or spirit. Think of them as animated images; most do not even have a true consciousness anymore.”

“How awful!”

Gil nodded: “Yes--I rather imagine this is what Tartarus is like.”

Zecora looked pointedly at her host: “You seem to have an engaging consciousness--how can this be?”

The haggard pony leaned back: “I believe I have the honor of having been this place’s first fully-aware, living pony victim. I was pulled in before Grey Thorn had completed and matured it.”

He stared up at the ceiling: “It was still quite powerful, but raw and not-entirely tested. I was able to shield a part of myself, a piece of my spirit. I hastily cobbled together a defensible ‘blind spot’ and took shelter.”

“This compound.”

Gil nodded: “Though of course, at first it was merely a shack. I discovered that certain materials of an alien nature had the ability to shield or screen--at least a little.”

He stood and walked to a shelf of metallic and glassy bits: “I was able to use this material in conjunction with what little essence and magic I had left to create a defensible space.”

The unicorn colt pointed out a small window: “And the Swamp wasn’t complete yet!”

“That too. The Sentinel hadn’t truly taken root yet, and what we now call the Swamp, where it does its work, had yet to take shape. I was able to settle-in before the Vacuum and Sentinel were perfected and fully-harnessed by Grey Thorn.”

“And others have joined you?”

“Yes. Over the centuries this compound has grown, little-by-little, as other beings--unicorns, mostly--have eluded the worst of the Sentinel’s depredations.”

“Could you fight the Sentinel? I mean as a collective?”

Gil shook his head sadly: “No. We do not have that much power; it takes everything we have just to stay hidden. And even then, eventually we all succumb and simply fade away, becoming yet another empty shade.”

“Why?”

“Even without the direct action of the Sentinel, the very nature of the Vacuum is draining. It’s just that the Sentinel and Swamp are far more rapid and efficient.”

“How have you lasted, then?”

Gil sighed heavily: “I don’t really know. I suppose I simply have more natural tenacity than most. Everypony else eventually fatigues and falters and fades. Maybe it has to do with me being first--perhaps I have an unknown connection.”

Zecora nodded: “And perhaps you’ve stayed intact this long in order to help me!”

Gil smiled: “I am no believer in fate, but I believe even less in coincidence. You may be onto something. Unfortunately, I’m not really sure how I can help you.”

Zecora smiled back: “You can help me find a way out of here, back to the outside world.”

Gil’s smile softened and turned into a frown: “There is no way out, Zecora. I fear your days here will be most unpleasant until your mortal body dies from lack of food and water. Then you will join us here in the compound.”

Zecora set her jaw and reached for her bags: “I refuse to accept that! Surely between your knowledge and wisdom, and the materials I have in my and Solar Gleam’s bags, we should be able to devise some plan. I can’t just sit here and wait to die!”

The ghostly unicorn sighed and slumped onto a low bench next to Zecora: “I admire your fire, but I assure you it’s all quite hopeless. Many spirits over the centuries have probed and explored and finally failed.”

Zecora emptied out her bag and Solar’s on the floor in front of her: “Yes, but I am entirely in possession of my spirit, and have supplies as well!”

She began arranging her various powders and vials and compounds as Gil’s companion looked over her shoulder: “Also, your world has been badly weakened and fractured over the last few weeks. It is not the same Vacuum you knew.”

The colt looked up from the floor and nodded: “She’s right! We’ve never seen anything like these last attacks through the Rift!”

Gil licked his lips: “True. If everything you’ve reported to me is correct, then maybe things have changed enough to try again.”

Zecora raised an eyebrow: “Again?”

“I attempted to escape not long after Grey Thorn completed the Vacuum, and before the Sentinel and Swamp were entirely established.”

“How close did you get?”

“I don’t really know--I didn’t truly understand how this place works, and in the intervening centuries, its layout--its geography, if you will--has changed and shifted.”

He leaned forward and examined Zecora’s supplies, including some food and a pair of water bottles: “In fact, if it weren’t for my little friend, here, I wouldn’t really know much of anything, anymore. I haven't left this compound in at least four centuries. He is my eyes and ears.”

The colt smiled and looked with curiosity at several vials.

Zecora paused in her stock-taking and peered at the colt: “So he’s free to roam?”

Gil nodded: “By and large, yes.”

The zebra raised a blood-matted eyebrow: “How can that be? Why hasn’t he been fully absorbed and reduced to a shade?”

Gil furrowed his brow for a moment, then his expression cleared: “Of course--he’s dwelt with me for so long that I don’t even give it a second thought! Naturally you don’t understand; how rude of me!”

He tipped his horn toward the now-grinning colt: “Zecora, allow me to introduce Bramble!”