• Published 21st Nov 2016
  • 413 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.

  • ...

Delirium Tremens

Dusk settled across Canterlot, throwing multi-hued bands of color across the white marble table in Celestia’s dimly-lit solarium. Twilight sat with her back to the windows, a hood pulled over her head and a plug of bloody gauze in her left nostril. Celestia sat across the table, flanked by Luna and Reaper; Noble paced nervously by the door leading out to the garden.

Celestia tentatively lifted a cup of tea to her lips and took a sip before clearing her throat: “Are you sure you want to meet now, Twilight? The Royal Surgeon is quite concerned by your condition, and doesn’t want you out of bed until at least tomorrow morning.”

Twilight twitched as she pulled a half-full chalice toward her with trembling hooves. She leaned forward to slurp at the wine noisily: “N-no...I-I-I have to do this n-now. I-I know wh-what I have to d-do, and-and you need t-to know, too.”

She turned toward Luna and Reaper and squinted at them as her hind legs suddenly twitched: “And I-I’m s-sorry about the blocking gl-glyphs, but I had to had to be alone f-for a while. I had to know had to--”

She stopped, tipped her head sideways and tapped her right ear: “Does ev-everypony else hear that?”

Celestia glanced at the other ponies around the room and shook her head: “No, Twilight--none of us hear anything.”

Twilight furrowed her brow and tapped her ear again: “I-I’m having trouble with my l-left ear…”

“That’s your right ear, Twilight.”

Twilight closed her eyes and chuckled: “Of course it-it is…”

Reaper leaned forward: “What is it you know now, Twilight? Why did you block Luna?”

Twilight’s eyes fluttered open, though her right lid drooped: “I-I can’t explain it. And-and nopony here but y-you two would understand it. C-can I share the memory? It will will all make m-more sense.”

Luna and Reaper exchanged worried glances, stood and walked around the table, flanked Twilight, leaned down and touched their horns to hers. Reaper faded slightly, while Luna’s eyes went blank, then slowly closed.

Two minutes later Reaper straightened up and took a step back, but Luna stayed in place, stock-still with tears leaking from beneath her eyelids. Reaper stepped behind Twilight and gently shook Luna’s shoulder.

Luna’s eyes snapped open and she swallowed heavily: “Thank you--I was having difficulty disentangling myself from her memory.”

Twilight tipped forward suddenly, nearly hitting her head on the table before lurching back upright. She tried to focus on Luna and Reaper as they moved back to the other side of the table: “So, you-you saw, right?”

Reaper nodded: “Your death visions, yes.”

Twilight nodded and pulled her wine cup back toward her, nearly spilling it: “Right, but-but not the same way. I had to see inside this time, in a w-way you two can’t.”

Luna raised an eyebrow: “What do you mean?”

“Luna--Death’s power nev-never really manifested in you, not like it did in m-me, right?”

Luna nodded: “It blossomed fully at the very end of our time on Kur, but I was not really in touch with anything by that point.”

“Sure, and you, Reaper--you and I shared Death’s power as Har-Harb-Harbinger, but you’re not a real unicorn, so you don’t understand how m-magic works and flows.”

She stuck her muzzle into the cup and took a long, noisy drink: “I’m the only pony who’s seen death and and dark magic combined and manipulated--the only pony who-who’s done it since Grey Thorn.”

She leaned back and took a deep breath: “I had to watch my life essence be-being pulled away, feel the darkness closing in, this time being f-fully conscious of it, knowing it was hap-happening, so I could look for de-details.”

Reaper chewed his lip for a moment: “Alright, so I understand your tactics, but not your strategy. Why do you need to know the intimate details of how your essence was stripped away?”

“Because it’s-it’s what Grey Thorn kept doing, it’s what the Void does, and I have to to under-understand it all before I can finish it.”

Celestia furrowed her brow: “‘Finish?’ Finish what, Twilight?”

Twilight’s eyes lost focus as she stared past Celestia at the wall behind her. An uncomfortable silence settled on the room.

Luna cleared her throat: “Finish what, Twilight?”

Twilight shook her head as her eyes found Luna’s face: “Finish what? Oh, right--sorry. I have to finish the Void.”

Celestia’s eyes went wide: “What? Finish it? We have to open it, then destroy it!”

Twilight nodded: “S-sure, but we can’t j-just tear it open. We-we’ve already seen a taste of what that that would l-look like. Remember Whinneapolis?”

She turned toward Luna: “You know that thi-thing inside the Void? Can you imagine what would happen if it g-got out because the Void totally ruptured?”

Luna chewed her lip: “It would be a catastrophe.”

“Right. And tha-that’s to say no-nothing of the collapse of the containment vessel it-itself. I have only the v-v-vaguest sense of how it works, but I’m terrified of what I d-do know.”

Celestia furrowed her brow: “How can you complete it? I assume Grey Thorn did as much as is possible to finish his creation before unleashing it.”

Twilight sniffed at the bloody plug in her nose and took another sloppy drink of wine: “O-OK, so Grey Thorn’s really smart, right? And-and he’s powerful and spent dec-dec...years studying with Starswirl, yes?”

Reaper nodded: “That appears to be the story.”

“But for all that, he-he’s lazy. Oh, I don’t mean he-he’s lazy in the 'not a hard worker' sense. He clearly trans-transcribed hundreds of pages of notes and spell scrolls, for S-Starswirl alone.”

She turned her head, coughed and spat into a bucket on the floor next to her. She dragged the back of a shaky hoof across her mouth: “No, he he was intellectually lazy. He suffers from the ‘Smartest-Kid-in-Class’ syndrome.”

Celestia nodded: “Does just enough to get by based on superior talent.”

“Right, and his talent was enough to take him a l-long way, get him into a b-bunch of trouble.”

“So he was shortcutting?”

Twilight squinted as her horn started to flicker violet then gold then sputter with dark magic: “Damn! Give me a minute…”

She rubbed her temples and jerked her head upward. Her hood fell back and a pair of glyph-filled circles materialized in the air over the table. Celestia peered at them intently: “What are these?”

Twilight took another swig of wine: “The one on the left is the cir-circle that Luna brought back, that somehow Zecora must have seen. The one on the right is the one Gr-Grey Thorn showed me. Do you see how the circle and it-its glyphs changed and evolved?”

Luna furrowed her brow and pointed at a pair of glittering golden symbols: “These are power symbols, yes?”

Twilight nodded and shuddered: “Right. He probably went through a dozen iterations before just giv-giving up and forcing in as much raw magic as his lifeforce could channel.”

She highlighted the symbols so all could see them clearly: “It’s like a f-foal with a puzzle--he gets frustrated and smooshes in a piece just to finish the puzzle, even though it d-doesn’t really fit.”

Celestia leaned forward and wrinkled her nose in disgust at the sacrifice circles: “Why? What drove him?”

“At the end? He had already poured so m-much of himself into his creation he couldn’t stop--he had to finish it s-so he could recoup energy from it.”

Reaper nodded: “Alright, but before that, why? What drove him to shortcuts to begin with? Surely this is the end of a flawed process years in the making.”

Twilight turned to Reaper: “You.”

Reaper’s eyebrows jumped: “Me?”

Twilight packed a fresh plug of gauze into her nostril and spat again: “OK, so not exactly you. But I’m sure now that Grey Th-Thorn knew you’d visited Starswirl, and I think he began to rush his own research, as well as step-up his pl-plans to duplicate and secure his mentor’s research. He knew Starswirl didn’t have long, and I sus-suspect he was beginning to feel his own mortality creeping up on him, too.”

Celestia took a sip of tea: “And so he started cutting corners.”

“Not just started, I think it’s the-the way he works: he does things eighty-five percent of the way, then moves on. I think he gets impatient to solve the B-Big Problems without wrapping-up-up the small ones, too.”

“And it caught up with him.”

“Yeah, long ago, and he just kept compounding th-the problem.”

Luna tapped the table: “This is all well-and-good, but how do you propose to complete what the master of these things himself could not, given decades of work?”

“Fair question. He never really had anypony to check his math, as it w-were. He had s-some cohorts, but I think he kept most of the darkest, most-s-secret stuff to himself.”

She glanced back up at the images of the sacrifice circles, still hanging in the air: “I’m going to do the one thing I hate--finish somepony else’s ho-homework.”

“How? All his notes were undoubtedly destroyed, to say nothing of the impossibility of triggering a sacrifice circle!”

Twilight bit her lip: “I can solve b-both those things.”

Celestia tipped her head sideways and raised an eyebrow.

Twilight smiled wanly: “First things f-first. Do you all re-remember the table down in Grey Th-Thorn’s lair?”

Luna nodded: “Yes. You and I used it to solve the riddle of the mirror.”

“Right. And I didn’t know this until Grey Thorn told me, b-but the oldest and m-most powerful of dark spells couldn’t be committed to parchment or even g-gold foil.”

Celestia furrowed her brow: “Correct--they would consume the materials--even crystal. It's why all those ancient, evil spells were eventually lost.”

Twilight shook her head: “N-not all. Grey Thorn discovered th-that table on a long-dead world that had been sc-scorched bare by its s-sun. He figured it could withstand the most powerful spells.”

Reaper shrugged and turned toward Celestia: “Based on what you did to the rest of that library, it seems he may have been right.”

Luna chewed her lip for a moment: “But I recall no marks or writing of any sort.”

“True. Th-that’s because he used dark magic to implant his spells and equations and notes deep within th-the material itself, trap-trapping it interdimensionally.”

Celestia tapped on the table before her: “But how can you get it back out?”

Noble Steel leaned forward, eyes locked onto Twilight’s: “Yes, Twilight--how do you plan to unwind his darkest spells?”

Twilight’s eyes flicked for a moment from Noble’s to the sacrifice circle hovering above, then back down at her wine cup.

Luna’s eyes widened and her nostrils flared: “You cannot! None here would allow you to sacrifice another in order to activate that accursed circle!”

Twilight rolled her goblet nervously between her hooves: “Don’t have to--I figured it out.”

Celestia shook her head: “How? This requires the destruction of a life, and I will not allow even a lowly beast to be--”

“No. Th-there’s another way.”

The images of the sacrifice circles faded, and a new scene flickered into view: Twilight standing over a pinkish, vaguely-pony-shaped object next to a pond.

Celestia tipped her head sideways and squinted: “This is from your last trip to Phillydelphia--with Zecora, yes?”

“Yes, and we brought ba-back an animated corpse--well, maybe ‘animated’ isn’t quite the r-right word. Maybe more like ‘haunted,’ in a way.”

Reaper nodded: “I’ve meant to ask you about that thing. I’d like to take a look at it. You claim it was functioning independent of the Void’s tendrils.”

“Right. Sometimes certain elements would break off and act on their own. They were still clearly be-being guided, but had some freedom.”

Luna furrowed her brow and pointed at the image: “And you believe this thing is still in that state? Even after the fall of the Void?”

“I do. That pink stuff of Zecora’s is fan-fantastic stuff. I believe that haunted corpse is still haunted.”

Noble drained a mug of cider: “So? How does that help?”

“It’s my sacrifice.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow: “How can you sacrifice something that’s already dead?”

“The Vo-Void did it for weeks. I can tap Death’s energy and adapt Gr-Grey Thorn’s sacrifice circle to accommodate it.”

She looked around the table at the worried, skeptical faces and shuddered before swallowing a mouthful of wine and clearing her throat: “Only I can do this. Only I have all the experiences and power needed. I’ve channeled power directly to the Void, I’ve wielded D-Death’s power, I can use dark magic, I understand Grey Thorn’s sa-sacrifice circles.”

Celestia chewed her lip: “Even if I understand this correctly, and no living thing will be compromised, doesn’t it still put you at grave risk? Isn’t this just the sort of thing that ate away at Grey Thorn?”

Twilight took a deep breath and closed her eyes: “Yes, but I don’t need to empty my-myself for this, just use the power I already have.”

Reaper rubbed his chin: “And the residual power of death entombed in that corpse.”

Twilight nodded and wobbled slightly: “Right. I can u-use that in place of a living creature, and summon up Gr-Grey Thorn’s notes and gl-glyphs and whatnot.”

Celestia swirled the lees in her cup and stared at the image of the magenta-bound corpse: “I don’t know, Twilight…”

Twilight opened her mouth to speak then suddenly sneezed, spattering the table in front of her with bloody snot: “Eww! S-sorry! Look, this is the only way. It’ll take me forev-ever to get all I need out of Grey Thorn, if I even can. I really d-don’t think he remembers everything anymore.”

Celestia closed her eyes and sighed: “Fine. But not alone. Somepony has to be with you. I don’t trust any of this not to go terribly wrong!”

Twilight rubbed the back of a hoof across her nose: “I ag-agree. It’ll have to be R-Reaper.”

Noble raised an eyebrow: “Why?”

Reaper steepled his hooves: “Because I’m unaffected by this kind of thing. Death’s energy, by definition, simply flows around me, and should anything go wrong, I can’t possibly be harmed or sacrificed, since I’m neither alive nor dead.”

“Then what can you do?”

“I can pull Twilight back from the brink if I detect her essence is beginning to drain. I can phase the both of us and remove her, if needs be.”

Noble chewed the inside of his mouth for a moment: “Then why can't you simply phase into the table itself and extract the information?”

Twilight smiled wanly: “Good thinking, N-Noble, but no. It would be like sending somepony in-into a mine without illumination: they could get into the m-mine, but would have no way of f-finding anything.”

Luna nodded: “So the sacrifice circle and its attendant spells act like a light source.”

“Right, and since Reaper doesn’t have nearly the skill or raw m-magical power--no offense…”

Reaper shook his head: “None taken!”

“He can’t cast the sp-spells.”

Reaper shrugged: “Or interpret anything even if I did manage to find relevant information.”

Celestia sat down her cup: “Then it appears we have no choice but to go through with this, dangerous though it clearly is. I’ll go to the secured chamber containing the bound corpse and take it down to Grey Thorn’s old library when the time comes.”

She furrowed her brow as she watched Twilight wobble as she stood: “But I hope it can wait for a bit--you’re clearly in no shape to be attempting strong magic!”

Twilight drifted toward the door, then stopped and looked over her shoulder: “Oh, no--not at all! No, I’m leaving to go to the bathroom so I don’t pu-puke all over your table!”

She leaned against the entryway and looked at Luna: “Could y-you come to my room in a bit, Luna? I really need to spend a bit of time in Dux’a’s baths. That’ll help me cl-clear my mind and decompress. I have to get this ringing out of my...out of my head, or I’ll never be able to focus.”

Luna stood and joined Twilight in the doorway, helping the young alicorn out of the solarium: “Of course! I shall await you there.”

Celestia watched her protégé and sister leave, then turned to Reaper: “Can you really protect her if this goes badly?”

Reaper shrugged: “I can’t answer with absolute certainty, but I think so.”

Noble raised an eyebrow: “You think so?”

“We’re dealing with a twisting of the fundamental powers of life and death, here. Things are being done, and have been done, that should never have been in the first place. I can’t answer with absolute precision.”

Celestia smiled sadly: “Another ‘leap of faith?’”

Reaper grinned: “We have been doing rather a lot of that lately, haven’t we?”

Noble persisted: “OK, but what if it does go wrong? What then?”

Reaper stood and adjusted his cloak and sword. He glanced from Celestia back to Noble: “If it looks like she’s about to lose her very essence--to have her lifeforce stripped away, I’ll put an end to it cleanly.”

He nodded to Celestia and faded out.

Noble furrowed his brow and turned to Celestia: “Did he mean…?”

Celestia stood and closed her eyes: “Yes, Lieutenant--if Reaper deems it necessary to prevent Twilight from destroying her own spirit, he will kill her.”

She turned and briskly walked from the room, leaving Noble alone.