• Published 21st Nov 2016
  • 412 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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“Zecora! This is Luna! If you can hear me in your mind or your dreams, know we are making every attempt to free you! Hang on as best as you can!”

Zecora looked up and squinted into the hazy, leaden sky: “Did anypony else hear that?”

Bramble shook his head, and Gil stopped and glanced back: “No--what did you hear?”

“It-it sounded like Luna…”

Gil furrowed his brow: “No, I didn’t hear anything, but I felt the shadow of the Sentinel pass overhead. Can you confirm that, Bramble?”

The colt nodded: “It was moving fast.”

“What could it mean?”

Gil shrugged: “It may not be connected at all, but I’m not a big believer in coincidence. I’ll ponder it for a bit, but first we need to chat with Radiant Dawn.”

He drifted forward and touched his horn to a piece of warped metal plate embedded in a low, sod berm: “Are you in there, Dawn? There’s somepony here I’d very much like you to meet.”

Zecora strained to hear a faint moan coming from beyond the door: “Yes...please come in…”

Gil’s horn glowed for a moment, and the battered metal slid aside, revealing a low, dimly-lit, sunken enclosure, similar to a kiva. Gil gestured for Zecora and Green Streak to enter; they ducked through the entryway and stepped down into the single-room dwelling.

Zecora furrowed her brow as she struggled to locate the source of the thin, raspy voice: “I’m sorry--I can’t see you.”

Gil moved down beside Zecora and pointed with his horn to a faint patch of pale-violet fog or mist: “There’s almost nothing left of the old girl. She’s fought the good fight for some four-hundred years, but it’s just a matter of time before she fades away entirely.”

Radiant Dawn’s voice rose from the vaguely unicorn-shaped mist: “My apologies...I can’t even pull myself together enough to take a proper shape and stand anymore.”

Gil smiled sadly and gestured toward Zecora and Green Streak: “First I’d like you to meet Zecora. There was a great deal of action and turmoil a bit over a day ago, during which our zebra friend here was pulled in through a rift, alive and intact.”

“I--I don’t believe we’ve ever seen anything bigger than some rodents or birds pulled in whole in, well, forever…”

“Correct. And it is my intent--mine and Kla’atra’s--to do our best to get her out of here before she dies of thirst or the Sentinel gets her.”

“I can’t speak to the first...I know the second is awful…”

“Exactly, which is why I’d be very interested in having you talk to our other recent arrival, Green Streak. She was killed and pulled in a few weeks back, and seemed destined to be destroyed in the Swamp.”

Green Streak stepped forward and knelt down beside Radiant’s flickering form: “Yes, ma’am. Then the Sentinel lost its grasp on me, and I slipped to the edge of the Swamp, where--what’s his name?”

The pegasus gestured toward Bramble, who smiled and nodded: “Bramble.”

“Right--Bramble. Sorry. Anyway, he found me and saved me from fading away completely, then brought me back here several hours ago.”

“That-that was very risky…”

“That’s what I was told, and I’m grateful. I mean, I know I’m dead, but at least I’m not gone, and I can still help--if there’s anything I can do.”

Gil nodded: “What you can do is compare notes with Dawn. She’s the only pony left with any experience being drained by the Sentinel in the Swamp. Why don’t you tell her what happened to you, Green Streak?”

The pegasus closed her eyes and furrowed her brow: “I really don’t remember much of anything after I was killed. But eventually, I became aware of an intense cold, like I was submerged in ice water. I was totally alone, and all I knew was that horrible cold.”

Dawn’s form shifted, and appeared to nod weakly: “Yes. The cold. The emptiness. I was alone, and it was as if loneliness had taken on a physical form that was eating me away.”

Green Streak chewed her lip for a moment: “Then I began to see things, like I was looking through a tube.”

Gil raised an eyebrow: “‘Things?’ Like what?”

“I-I would see tunnels and caves and roots, like I was down in the earth.”

“Hmm. Sounds like some sort of memory or dream vision.”

Green Streak shook her head vigorously: “No--I’ve never been underground! Pegasi hate going below ground into mines or caves or whatnot!”

Zecora nodded: “Yes, and you’ve just described several things I myself saw while Twilight and I tried to hunt down the source of various odd attacks.”

She pointed at Green Streak: “We found that the Void’s tendrils were working their way through passages and fissures in the earth, just as you described.”

Gil tapped his chin: “You’re saying she was seeing through the Sentinel?”

“That’s what it sounds like. What else did you see, Green Streak?”

Green Streak took a deep breath: “Bones. The vision would move from place to place, but it usually stopped among bones or other remains.”

Zecora nodded again: “Exactly. Twilight and I encountered ribbons of the Void penetrating bone piles and graves and cemeteries.”

Gil furrowed his brow: “Did you perceive anything else when this happened?”

Green Streak tipped her head to one side and pondered the question for a moment: “It seemed colder, somehow. And it felt like I was being--I don’t really know how to describe it--squeezed or stretched. I felt sick, almost like I’d been poisoned.”

Gil looked down at Dawn’s shade: “None of that sounds familiar.”

Dawn’s thin voice wafted into the air: “No. I rarely felt anything at all, except for a sudden surge of life energy passing, well not exactly through me, but by me. It's how I was finally able to escape--by stealing a bit of that energy as it coursed by, and pushing my way free.”

“Right. That’s in keeping with the way the Sentinel works, as best as we’ve ever been able to determine: it extends itself briefly through the surface of the Vacuum, extracts life energy and filters it through the Swamp for processing.”

Zecora nodded: “But what if it was isolated, trapped, kept from its usual energy source?”

“Then it would have been likely to have been seeking out death’s energy for its sustenance.”

Gil and Zecora turned to see Kla’atra duck beneath the hut’s entrance and step down into the shallow depression.

Gil nodded: “That must be it.”

Zecora furrowed her brow: “I don’t understand. How can something live off death? Isn’t that the opposite of life?”

“Not exactly. Life and death are more like counterparts, each completing the other, each carrying a distant echo of the other at its root.”

Zecora chewed her lip for a moment: “Like new growth springing out of decaying undergrowth.”

Gil smiled: “Something like that, but even more fundamental. That decaying material you mentioned is teeming with life in and of itself. The energies of life and death themselves complete a kind of circuit that will cycle again and again until the Cosmos goes dark.”

Kla’atra’s eyes flashed pale blue for a moment: “Unless there is to be interference from a thing like should be the Vacuum.”

Gil frowned: “Yes, the Vacuum interferes with that, absorbing energy, returning nothing. All it touches is ultimately lost.”

Zecora raised an eyebrow: “Then what is the Vacuum? Isn’t it part of the Sentinel?”

Gil nodded towards Kla’atra: “No. I’ll let Kla’atra help explain the Vacuum--it sort of belonged to her to begin with, after all.”

Kla’atra’s eyes flashed silver as she settled down on two pair of crossed legs: “Yes--the Vacuum was once to have been the core of my ship’s engine.”

“Engine? Didn’t you say your craft moved between the stars? What sort of fuel can be found there?”

“It shall have been a type of device called a Zero-Point Reactor. It could be converting the underlying fluctuations in the Cosmos’ quantum vacuum state into tappable energy.”

Zecora blinked slowly: “I-I don’t really understand…”

Gil chuckled: “Don’t feel bad--It took her decades of teaching me math and physics far beyond anything we know on our world before I could grasp any of this. The long-and-short of it is, there exists in the Cosmos a base energy state of near-but-not-quite zero.”

Gil tipped his head up and a waveform coalesced in the air. The image zoomed in step by step: “And as you approach zero, where the waveform almost ceases, there is both an infinitesimal and nearly-infinite energy potential.”

Kla’atra gestured at the image: “And it was to have been this potential which may have powered my ship. It could also have allowed for me to transcend the dimensional barriers which are to have separated realities.”

“Like Grey Thorn and Starswirl’s mirrors.”

Gil nodded: “Yes, though those are, of course, powered by magic.”

“Is there a difference?”

“Ha! That’s a very perceptive question! In many ways, no--the Yönti manipulate the matter and energy of the Cosmos through sophisticated science that took eons to develop, while the species on our world, born as we were into a veritable bath of magical forces, adapted and learned to manipulate the energy fields around us, naturally.”

Kla’atra leaned forward, eyes flickering pale gold: “We were to have believed long ago that our world, too, would have been bathed in magic. But none of the races of our world ever might have harnessed it at a biological level.”

Gil nodded again: “And so it decayed away, leaving only faint vibrations detectable to their sophisticated science, millennia later.”

Zecora furrowed her brow: “And you said that Grey Thorn found this to be true everywhere he traveled?”

“Correct. He believed our world to be, if not unique, at least incredibly rare.”

Kla’atra gestured toward Gil: “That too, would have been my experience through several centuries of travel. Nowhere would I have encountered anything like the magic this world is to have possessed.”

Gil frowned: “Which made Grey Thorn incredibly dangerous. He could travel to other worlds, other realities, bringing with him a great and unknowable power.”

Kla’atra made a kind of hissing noise: “And then may have ambushed with it…”

Gil smiled sadly: “Yes, I know how that goes, but back to energies of life and death. Even death has a signature--if incredibly faint--and it seems the Sentinel, in its desperation has taken to harvesting it in life’s absence.”

Zecora raised an eyebrow: “Can it subsist off that?”

Gil shrugged: “Apparently, but poorly, I assume. And Green Streak’s experience shows the Sentinel’s been reaching far and wide in an attempt to pull in any energy source it can, no matter how thin or debased.”

Kla’atra nodded: “The Swamp itself were to have contained a fair amount of death--it might be the byproduct of its filtering action, so the Sentinel should not be unused to tapping death’s energy as a last resort.”

Gil continued: “But you’re correct--that’s not nearly enough, and it’s not really properly-attuned to the Sentinel’s needs. And, in the absence of Grey Thorn’s control, it clearly began to break free of not only the Harbinger’s restraints, but its original boundaries.”

Kla’atra tapped her forelimbs together for a moment: “Bramble, how would you have found Green Streak? Would she have struggled free like Dawn, or shall she have been dropped?”

Bramble furrowed his brow for a moment: “Dropped. It almost looked like she’d been shed, though I’ve never seen a spirit shed that far down the Swamp.”

Zecora raised an eyebrow: “Shed?”

Gil nodded: “Occasionally the Sentinel will shed off a bit of its outer layer in response to some growth mechanism. It’s also how depleted spirits are released.”

Zecora chewed her lip: “Perhaps it’s sick. I’ve dealt with many plants and creatures over the years that lose leaves or bark or scales when stressed or ill or poisoned.”

Gil rubbed his chin: “Because of the attacks...because of having to use death energy…”

He turned to Green Streak: “Do you remember being dropped?”

The pegasus closed her eyes and shuddered: “The pressure became unbearable and the things I was seeing suddenly became dim, then went dark. Then I-I don’t know how to describe it.”

She stood and paced nervously: “I became aware of myself again, you know? All the time before I felt like a puppet--I could perceive things, but they weren’t mine to understand or control. Then I heard--is that the right word? Heard a ripping sound, and I became aware of myself again. I was Green Streak, not that puppet-thing, but it was still like a terrible dream. Then Bramble touched me and I woke up.”

Gil nodded: “Yes, in the wrong place, far down the Swamp.”

He stood: “It’s clear that Zecora’s right--the Sentinel is sick, or whatever word you want to use. It’s weakened and acting erratically for the first time in, well, forever and we have an opportunity to move across the fields to the Swamp, I think.”

Kla’atra unfolded her legs and rose, eyes flashing green and gestured toward Zecora, Bramble and Gil: “Yes--there might now be a chance to be taking the fight to the Sentinel. Between the four of us we could be having enough power to overcome it, if briefly.”

Gil chewed his lip: “It’s risky, but if you’re right, Zecora, and Luna has figured a way to contact you, we might just have a chance to coordinate and get you out of here.”

Zecora shouldered her bag, bent down and smiled at Dawn: “Thank you for your help, Dawn. I know there is nothing anypony can do for you, but I wish you well in your final days.”

Dawn’s thin voice floated up from the floor: “I’m just happy somepony has a chance to escape this terrible place…”

Gil stepped up and slid the door aside: “We’ll do our best, Dawn. Hopefully there’ll be enough of us left to return and tell you how it went!”

The five visitors ducked under the entrance and stepped out onto the short, blue-green turf. Gil paused briefly to slide the door shut again.

He didn’t notice Dawn’s final fading.