• Published 21st Nov 2016
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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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Noble Steel could see the fractured rock above him, sliding, cracking, crumbling, dust filling his nostrils, eyes frozen open staring at grey death plummeting toward his face. There was a sudden, sickening crunch and a flash of red…

He sat up in his bed, panting, sweating, trembling. He reached out with his magic and summoned a cup of cider from a side table underneath the room’s shuttered window.

He put the cup to his quivering lip, steadied his breathing, and pulled a sip of cider into his dry mouth as his heartbeat slowed. He closed his eyes and drank deeply.

He sighed as the cup drifted back from his muzzle: “At least I didn’t piss the bed this time…”

“Which my staff appreciates, Lieutenant.”

Noble started, dropping the cup as he whipped his head around and noticed Luna sitting on a cushion in the far corner. He stopped the cup and its contents mid-fall, inches before it hit the floor: “Princess! How long have you been there?”

“Long enough to note the replay of this particular dream for, what–the fifteenth time?”

Noble set the cup down on the floor beside the bed: “Yeah, that sounds about right. Rare is the night I don’t wake up in a cold sweat or worse.”

Luna rose and stepped toward the bed: “Yes. Captain Shatter has been suffering similarly.”

Noble nodded: “I know–we’ve talked a fair amount since our return from the mission. That was rough on all of us...”

He furrowed his brow and glanced at the window, magically cracking the shutters open an inch: “Especially Smudge and Solar.”

Luna lifted Noble’s drink from the floor, placed it on the side table and poured herself a cup: “True, though there is, perhaps, still hope for Zecora. In your opinion, is Twilight having success extracting useful information from Grey Thorn, or is he merely stringing her along?”

Noble sighed and rubbed his muzzle: “It’s a little hard for me to tell–I can’t hear them clearly, sometimes. I’m sure he’s giving her solid intel, based on the visions, but I’m afraid he’s also getting back more than she’s bargained for.”

“What do you mean?”

“The visions he shows are–how do I put this–historical in nature.”

“Historical?”

“Yeah, they’re visions of the past meant to illustrate some key aspect of the Void.”

“Which is what Twilight seeks, after all.”

“True, but then he asks deeply-personal stuff, and I can’t figure out his angle.”

Luna grinned knowingly: “To be sure, a villain’s motivations can be difficult to discern--sometimes even to themselves!”

Noble smiled weakly: “I’m just worried.”

“And my sister and I appreciate that, Noble. Please continue to be vigilant, and I will talk to Twilight to see if I can glean something from Grey Thorn’s actions.”

She stood as Noble slid off the edge of the bed and stretched: “Thank you, Princess. Have you and Reaper been able to figure out anything more?”

Luna walked through the door into an adjoining passage leading to her main chambers: “We were actually about to make another attempt, if you would like to accompany us.”

“Will Twilight be there?”

“That is the plan; Reaper and I may have real-time questions for her as we probe the Void.”

Noble nodded as they rounded a corner and entered Luna’s Audience Room. Reaper stood at the bottom of the dais, faded-out and still; Noble shuddered.

Luna stepped up to Reaper’s form and reached out with a thin tendril of silvery-white magic; it touched his horn.

Reaper’s eyes opened as he re-solidified: “Sorry--taking care of a little business while waiting. Are we all ready to go?”

Luna nodded: “Twilight will meet us there.”

“Alright, then--let’s join her now, and see if we can fit another piece of this puzzle in place.”

Luna disappeared in a bluish flash as Reaper faded away. Noble stood for a moment, chewing his lip: “Which puzzle…?”

He teleported away with a ‘bang.’


Noble Steel, Reaper and Luna appeared in Grey Thorn’s creation chamber a few moments later, and found Twilight sitting in front of the Void, brow furrowed, poring over a small notebook.

Noble leaned down over her shoulder: “Anything useful?”

Twilight started and stumbled to her hooves: “S-sorry--you startled me! No, I’m just going over my notes from our last trip to Tartarus, seeing if anything from G.T.’s past correlates to this thing’s current state.”

Reaper stepped up to the Void: “And?”

Twilight yawned, reached up and scratched her ear: “Not really. I did too good a job binding it, and I’m going to need to learn more about how he integrated the alien technology with the containment shell before I try anything.”

Luna moved beside Reaper and looked back at Twilight: “Is there anything I might learn as my astral form passes through that would be of use to you?”

“Maybe. If you can try to get a definitive sense of which way is ‘up’ in there, that might help me align myself when I begin my own probing.”

Noble’s eyebrows jumped in alarm: “Your probing? You mean to interact with this thing? I thought we were leaving the probing to Reaper and Luna!”

Twilight shook her head: “I’m going to have to try to open it at some point--there’s no other way to get Zecora out. She’s physically trapped behind an actual barrier, and I have to figure out how to get Grey Thorn’s original access port open.”

She frowned and absently ran her tongue over her teeth: “If it can be opened…”

Reaper nodded: “I don’t like it any more than you, Lieutenant, but I’m afraid Twilight’s right, and she’s the only one with any experience controlling this thing. She has a connection to it that neither Luna nor I do.”

Noble bit his lip and glanced from Twilight to the Void: “OK, but what if he’s not giving us the whole story? What if he’s misleading her into danger?”

Twilight sighed as she set her notebook off to one side and stepped up beside Luna: “I already assume that. I don’t know what he thinks he has planned, but as long as he’s giving me real information I’ll let him nurse whatever plot he thinks he has. He’s made a career out of underestimating and miscalculating. I doubt there’s any risk here I can’t handle.”

Noble furrowed his brow and glanced at Luna. She shook her head: “Later, Lieutenant. I promise I have not forgotten our conversation.”

Noble sighed and sat down as Luna snaked a ribbon of magic along Reaper’s back; he stepped forward and made contact with the Void.

The other three watched as Reaper pressed his head forward into and through the surface of the Void. He stopped, and Luna’s eyes went blank before slowly closing.


Zecora followed Gil the final yards up a steep slope to what appeared to be some sort of ruined basilica or temple. The foundation stones and part of the lower walls were intact, but the majority of the tall, hulking, domed structure seemed to flicker in and out of existence. Zecora had to glance at it out of her peripheral vision in order to take it in.

As she approached the top of the hill and crossed the threshold, she was overcome by a wave of vertigo. She stopped and leaned against the entryway arch.

Gil drifted beside her: “What’s wrong?”

Zecora shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut: “I don’t know. I suddenly feel dizzy. I also believe I recognize this place.”

Gil raised an eyebrow: “Howso? These ruins were brought here from another world!”

“Yes, I guessed that. My team passed through a section of passages in the chasm that were being warped by the Void in order to throw us off. One of the illusions looked like this structure; Solar Gleam and I shared that particular vision.”

“Interesting. Clearly the Sentinel was externalizing places from within its realm as a defense. How realistic were the illusions?”

“I could smell the dust, feel the marble beneath my hooves, hear the ring of Solar’s hoof-falls on the floor. We had to cast a combination spell-and-compound shield in order to see the passages correctly again, or we likely would have walked off a cliff.”

“Fascinating. Well, you shouldn't run that risk here, though I assume the fact you have real flesh-and-blood eyes and brain is causing you problems the rest of us don’t suffer.”

“Is that why everything seems distorted and out-of-focus?”

“Yes. Your real eyes and brain are not equipped to resolve most of the structure around you. We spirits don’t have that problem, and perceive this place as it must have looked on its own world, but you can only correctly resolve the bits and pieces of actual stonework.”

“Why is it here?”

“This was one of Grey Thorn’s last acquisitions. It’s the ruins of some ancient research library-temple from another alien realm. He felt the stones themselves and attendant runes would give him better control of the Sentinel.”

Zecora made her way slowly across the cracked floor and sat down, slipping off Solar’s saddlebag as she settled to the floor. She opened the bag and removed a hunk of bread.

She slowly chewed a bite as she squinted and peered at the ghostly, distorted space around her: “So if he extracted these ruins as a trap, or whatever, does that mean we’re close?”

“No. this was a failed experiment that cost him another significant piece of his life force to wrest into position, then empower.”

Kla’atra gazed up at the riven dome; her eyes flashed gold for a moment: “Yet again he was to have miscalculated the effects of my engine, misinterpreting zero-point fluctuations for magic.”

Gil nodded: “Yes--another case of not working out all the kinks between the Sentinel, the Vacuum and his own trans-dimensional magic.”

Zecora swallowed a sip of water and put bread and bottle back in the saddlebag: “Could he have ever done it?”

Kla’atra shook her head and Gil shrugged: “Unlikely. The Sentinel, as a living creature, introduced too much variability. It’s why he kept short-cutting with magic.”

He pointed across the temple floor toward a fluted column: “In fact, if you’ll join me, you’ll see the first remnant of Grey Thorn to grace this place.”

Zecora stood and followed Gil as he drifted around the column, revealing a drunk, spectral unicorn, slouched across a tattered, stained chaise lounge. Empty tankards and chalices littered the floor.

Zecora raised an eyebrow: “Was he drunk all the time?”

“Not quite, but this was fairly late in the game, and by this time he was simply tired and frustrated and rushing to get it done.”

He pointed to the shade as it sat up and summoned a tankard of ale: “He stripped away a fair amount of himself in rapid succession; this is the first, and most-substantial fragment.”

The shade glanced up: “Back again, Gil?”

Zecora started: “I thought this was just a specter--an after-image! How can it know you’re here?”

Gil smiled: “Do you recall that I said Grey Thorn’s essences were undisturbed by the Sentinel?”

“Yes.”

“As a result, they had a chance over the long years to imprint themselves more fully on this place. He is--well, was--the creator and crafter of this domain, and this fragment contained more of his essence than any other.”

Gil settled to the floor in front of the lounge chair: “I interacted with and spoke to this version of Grey Thorn hundreds of times over the centuries until one day he finally faded.”

Zecora stepped behind Gil and peered down at Grey Thorn’s image: “Then what’s this?”

Gli sighed: “This is like a recording. I can interact with it, but only to get it to replay old interactions. It’s almost like a visible memory.”

He faced Grey Thorn’s image: “How did you manage to strip away only a part of yourself for the creature to absorb?”

Grey Thorn’s spectral eyes focused on Gil: “The sacrifice circle and glyphs, of course. Starswirl figured out how to calibrate that spell years ago. I have his notes.”

An image of circles and runes and symbols flickered dimly in the air. Zecora stared intently.

Gil nodded: “Have you sacrificed others?”

“Not ponies, if that’s what you mean.”

Gil turned toward Zecora: “See? These are all things I discussed with him over the years.”

“Does this version know why the integration never fully succeeded?”

Gil shook his head: “No. Grey Thorn at this point had been balancing the equations in earnest for a while, but realized he had to either invest a huge amount of power, or lose the whole experiment.”

“So this was where he made his fateful decision. Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why did he create this monstrous thing?”

A cold smile spread across Gil’s face as he turned again toward Grey Thorn’s image: “Why’d you do it? What possessed you to create this place at such a terrible cost?”

The shade flickered and wavered, but sat silent. Zecora opened her mouth to speak, but Gil held up a hoof: “Hold on…”

The specter’s eyes opened: “Where do we go when we die, Gil?”

“Nopony knows.”

“We have magic, power, intelligence, the ability to travel between realities. Why don’t we know?”

“It must be fundamentally unknowable.”

“Celestia and Luna will likely never die. Why not?”

“Same answer.”

Grey Thorn’s shade licked its lips: “Starswirl doesn’t believe that. He believes there’s an answer beyond The Veil--that if we literally master death, we could wrest the answers from it.”

“And this is your attempt to pierce that Veil?”

“If I can extract Death on a small-scale, something contained and observable, I can master it. This creation will give me that power.”

Zecora shuddered and sat down: “How awful! He sought to become Death!”

Gil tipped his head sideways and furrowed his brow: “Not entirely, not at first, anyway. He was looking for some sort of device or spell that would allow him to bottle-up death, if you will, corner it.”

“But then, as with a beast, he had to feed it.”

“Exactly.”

“But why--”

Zecora’s ears pricked up and she glanced around the temple.

Zecora! This is Luna! I have entered the Void again, and will try to reach out to you as long as I can. There is an entity in this place that seeks me out. I cannot remain long.

Zecora glanced at Gil: “That’s Luna trying to reach me, again! You can’t hear her?”

Gil shook his head: “No--again, I suspect we spirits may be unable to perceive her in whatever form she’s using.”

Zecora bit her lip: “How can I contact her back?”

Gil shrugged.

Zecora tapped the floor nervously for a moment, then reached suddenly into her satchel: “Sleep! That’s her domain!”

She pulled out a small vial, popped its stopper and quaffed a sip of its bright green contents. She pressed the stopper back just as her eyes began to lose focus. She slumped forward onto the marble and let out a deep, shuddering sigh.


Luna squinted through the dark haze, trying to discern the ground and her orientation to it, all while keeping an eye out for the dark shape that had assaulted her previously.

She trimmed her wings and banked hard, searching for “down” as she reached out for Zecora: “Zecora! This is Luna! I have entered the Void again, and will try to reach out to you as long as I can. There is an entity in this place that seeks me out. I cannot remain long.”

Luna swooped low and saw again the cluster of shacks and ramshackle wall, bordered by a ghostly, glimmering stream. She flared her wings and achieved stable, level flight, scrubbing off speed and climbing.

Suddenly she sensed an active, living mind dropping into sleep. Zebra stripes flashed before her eyes, and she halted, hovering and closing her eyes, desperately trying to connect.

“I feel you Zecora! Can you hear me? Can you speak to me?”

Luna gazed around at her interior dreamscape, which was a confused jumble of stones and clouds, surmounted by a deep shadow that swept side-to-side, growing closer.

“I cannot see you!”

A set of nested circles resolved in front of her, sparkling with golden glyphs and runes. She furrowed her brow as the circles blew away, and Zecora’s voice came to her as though from a great distance.

He seeks to trap and study death / e’en at the cost of mortal breath / Starswirl sought the reasons why / some ponies live while others die.”

Luna furrowed her brow: “Are you saying Starswirl is the author of this place? What was his part in it?”

Starswirl laid the seeds of doubt / which--”

Luna’s revery was shattered by an intense wave of cold which buffeted her backwards, driving her toward the ground, disorienting and blinding her. She wrapped herself in a protective bubble and dissolved her astral self.

“I must leave again, Zecora, but I will return as soon as I can! Courage!”

Luna staggered backwards and toppled sideways as she broke her link with Reaper. Twilight generated a magical buffer moments before the indigo alicorn hit the floor, and Reaper disengaged with the Void and knelt beside the dazed Princess.

Twilight gestured to Noble Steel: “Do you have a flask of cider with you?”

The unicorn nodded and pulled a container from his bag, passing it to Twilight, who held it to Luna’s lips. Luna took a long, unsteady drink.

Reaper furrowed his brow: “Were you attacked again?”

Luna swallowed and nodded weakly: “I-I made contact with Zecora for a moment.”

Twilight’s eyebrows jumped: “Is she OK? Were you able to communicate?”

“She was clearly asleep, and I encountered her sleeping mind. I am not clear what I was seeing, but I will transcribe the symbols I saw.”

“Symbols?”

“Yes, as I said I will collect my thoughts and copy them down. Of more concern, however, is the fact that Starswirl’s name has again arisen, and I had to break off before I could get more details.”

Reaper shook his head: “That damned old warlock…”

Luna nodded: “I am sure it is important, Twilight, that you get to the root of their relationship.”

Twilight took a long drink from Noble’s flask, then passed it back to him: “It’s on the list; now it’s moved up. Noble and I will head back down as soon as you’ve had a chance to rest and jot down those symbols.”

Luna rose unsteadily to her hooves: “I understand. I will meet you in my chamber shortly--I only need an hour or so to recover my strength.”

Twilight nodded and disappeared in a flash along with Noble.

Reaper raised an eyebrow as he watched Luna for a moment: “You sure you’re OK? It would be bad for all concerned if you end up injured or, well, damaged from all this.”

Luna smiled: “I appreciate your concern, however my power is sufficient to prevent any lasting harm. I am merely fatigued.”

Reaper furrowed his brow, but nodded and faded out.

Luna turned back toward the Void for a moment and stared intently at its matte-black surface before teleporting away with a ‘pop.’

***

Where do we go when we die, Gil?