• 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.

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Zecora trotted briskly behind Bramble as Green Streak, Kla’atra and Gil swept past, heading further up the long slope beyond the temple-library. The light was fading, making it difficult for Zecora to discern distance.

“Where are we going?”

Gil glanced back over his shoulder: “There's another sheltered location beyond this ridge. It lies alongside the stream that comes down from the Swamp, and marks the lowest reaches of the Swamp itself.”

He turned forward: “At least it did the last time I was this way. There’s been so much upheaval lately, it’s hard to tell what may have changed.”

Bramble nodded: ”Some things have changed, but the outlines of the Swamp are pretty much where they were--at least they were when I found Green Streak.”

“Is the entrance still in the same place?”

“Pretty much.”

Zecora furrowed her brow: “Entrance? Is this another building?”

Gil shook his head: “Building, no--construct, yes. This particular shelter lies beneath the surface, like a barrow.”

“How is it sheltered?”

“It’s propped-up and reinforced with more of the alien metal you saw back at the Compound. These particular pieces were cut down deeply into the ground, bent and buried, making it impossible to remove them.”

Kla’ata’s eyes flashed silvery-blue: “It should have been most useful to extract more of this particular hoard in order to being strengthening the Compound, but it could not have been.”

Gil nodded: “Again, the chunks are simply too big and dense for the two of us to dislodge. It was frustrating.”

“I can imagine.”

“We did manage to excavate a kind of cave, with a protected tunnel that exits right at the base of the Swamp. That’ll give us some cover, for a time.”

“Which could have been useful, given it may well have become dark, soon.”

Zecora furrowed her brow and shifted the saddlebag as she trotted: “I noticed it getting dark again, but I’m sure I’ve been here more than just one day.”

Gil nodded: “Yes--you’ve been here just shy of three days, as the outside world would have experienced it.”

“Three? It’s so hard for me to tell.”

“I understand, and the change of light has nothing to do with the passage of time, in the normal sense.”

“Then what--”

“The Sentinel: its energy ebbs and flows according to a relatively-predictable pattern.”

Bramble shrugged: “Well, it was predictable!”

“True--the events of the last few months have thrown the Sentinel’s behavior completely off-model. But I suspect that one thing hasn’t changed: it’s most dangerous when it goes dark.”

Kla’atra’s eyes flashed then glowed a pale green: “It would have been best for us to hurry. The Sentinel will have been stirring!”

Zecora sped up to keep pace, when she suddenly stumbled and groaned.

Gil turned back: “Are you hurt? What’s wrong?”

“It--it’s my stomach! I was just hit with cramps! I have to stop for a minute…”

Gil shook his head: “We don’t have a minute--you just have to make it past this ridge, and down into the defile beyond, then you can stop.”

Zecora grimaced and lurched forward, following close behind Gil as the light faded, throwing the approaching hollow into deep shadow. Kla’atra gave out a sharp click and hiss as a band of darkness swept overhead.

“We shall have been making haste! Please to have hurried!”

The air throbbed with a deep hum, and the hair along Zecora’s spine rose. Green Streak and Kla’atra dove through a dark crevice gouged into a low bank, as Gil and Bramble fell back to flank the stumbling, panting zebra.

Bramble dashed in front of Zecora, waving Gil off: “Go! I’ll buy her a few more seconds!”

Gil nodded and surged toward the opening: “Hurry! Your bluff won’t last long!”

Bramble’s horn glowed a bright gold as a cloud of impenetrable blackness began to coalesce around him and Zecora.

He tossed his head back: “When you see a burst of light, run as fast as you can--don’t look back!”


Bramble’s horn turned blinding white: “Go! Don’t waste this!”

Zecora squinted and turned away as the defile was filled with a blinding light, and a high-pitched whistle. She staggered forward in fear and pain, focused on Kla’atra’s pale blue eyes glowing out from the cave’s entrance.

She cleared the last few feet and lunged inside the cave as the light behind her was suddenly extinguished under a bitterly-cold, black wave. She rolled on her side and groaned as her bowels spasmed and emptied, and consciousness slipped away.

“Zecora--can you hear me?”

“Is she still alive?”

“Yes. Zecora! Wake up!”

Zecora’s eyes opened a slit and she struggled to focus on the indistinct blob hovering in front of her face: “Wh-who is this who disturbs my sleep / are you in my dream or do you vigil keep?”

Gil drifted back from the zebra’s face: “You’re not dreaming--you passed out.”

Zecora sighed heavily, shook her head and rose unsteadily to her hooves. She looked back over her shoulder at the mess on the cave floor and her right flank: “Oh, I wish I’d had a few extra moments to take care of business, first!”

Her eyebrows jumped: “Was I rhyming just then?”

Gil nodded: “Yes, which is very odd. You said when we first met that you always speak in rhyme, but this was the first time I’ve heard you do it spontaneously.”

Zecora furrowed her brow and stumbled against the cave wall: “Actually, when I encountered Luna I communicated in rhyme as well. I wonder why?”

“Perhaps the inversion of this place as an analog for the dreamscape has caused your own dreams to invert as well, returning you to normal.”

“I’m actually more concerned about the cramping and the unfortunate--mess. I’ve had little to eat or drink, but aside from the effects of hunger and thirst, I can’t see why I should be sick.”

Gil frowned: “You’re dying.”


“Well, to be more accurate, parts of you are dying. Your life force and immune system are enough to keep you going for some time, but there’s more alive in this place than just one zebra.”

He pointed at her abdomen.

Zecora chewed her lip for a moment: “My gut.”

“Exactly. The bacteria in your gut are dying. If you feel like walking I can show you something.”

Zecora leaned away from the wall and turned toward the entrance as Gil glided past: “Are we going back out there? Is it safe?”

“Just a little, and no. But we only need stick our heads out a bit and I’ll throw a little light on the subject.”

Zecora stopped cold: “‘A little light!’ Bramble! What--”

Gil smiled and waved a hoof dismissively: “He’s fine. He came in just as his light show faded and made sure you were OK before heading down into the cave. We’ll reconnect with him shortly.”

Zecora breathed a sigh of relief and tentatively stuck her head out the cave’s entrance. Gil floated beside her and brightened his horn.

He tipped his head down and to the left, illuminating a dessicated unicorn carcass lying two yards from the cave’s mouth: “This was one of the few bodies pulled in largely intact over the centuries. It belonged to Sweet Spring.”

Zecora looked puzzled: “Somepony else was pulled in alive?”

“Oh, I didn’t say ‘alive,’ just ‘intact.’ No she was slain not long after I was, and in a similar fashion, though she was, sadly, quite aware something dire was happening to her at the time.”

“Then how--”

“Grey Thorn dumped her body in as a test. He was still experimenting, even at that late stage.”

Gil pointed at the remains: “Notice how it’s only partly decomposed?”

“Yes--it almost looks mummified.”

“Pretty close to that, actually. The bacteria and whatnot died after a few days--drained of their life force, leaving the body sterilized. It slowly dried out, and has remained untouched for nearly a thousand years, now.”

Zecora shuddered as another wave of cramps passed through her bowels. She stepped back inside the cave and pulled out her water bottle.

Green Streak stepped beside Gil as he drifted back from the opening: “What happened to my body?”

Gil furrowed his brow: “Based on what Bramble said, your body was largely shredded and dumped on the far side, beyond the Swamp.”

Green Streak chewed her lip: “That must be where Top Cover ended up, too…”

“Most likely--why?”

“Will the same thing happen to our bodies?”

“I would assume so.”

“How awful…”

Gil nodded: “There is little about this place this isn’t awful, I’m sad to say.”

He turned away from the cave entrance and began to move down a shallow slope toward Kla’atra who was waiting with limbs folded and eyes dimmed.

He glanced over his shoulder at Zecora: “Speaking of awful, we need to keep moving, and I’ll warn you now: it’s going to get pretty bad for a bit.”

Zecora capped her water bottle and fell in behind Gil’s flickering form: “Why? What happened down there?”

Gil shook his head: “It’s not what happened down here: it’s what happened long ago in Grey Thorn’s chambers, and the echoes it left behind.”

Kla’atra rose to her feet as Gil passed, and Zecora slowly followed behind the phantom unicorn, pegasus and Yönti as they wound their way into the deepening gloom.

Twilight emerged from the shadows and walked briskly up to Grey Thorn’s enclosure: “Alright, G.T., let’s do this! You wanted to watch Reaper strip me of Death’s power and most of my life force? Here we go!”

Grey Thorn peered into the adjacent alcove and raised an eyebrow: “Where is your foalsitter?”

“I ditched him. You know as well as I do the intensifying and disorienting nature of this place. If he were here as I replay this experience, it would tear him apart.”

Grey Thorn smiled coldly: “It’s likely to do that to you, you know.”

“Not this time.”

Grey Thorn furrowed his brow: “What do you mean?”

“Not important. But you’re going to owe me big when this is done, and I expect immediate repayment!”

“In the form of…?”

“I need to know how you integrated that alien’s technology into your containment vessel.”

“I see. Very well. Show me what you came to show me, then.”

Twilight took a deep breath, sat down and closed her eyes. Her horn glowed a pale violet, and an image coalesced above her head.

Grey Thorn watched silently as the dream-trap scene played out, his attention shifting back and forth between the vision and Twilight’s closed eyes and clenched, trembling jaw.

He stared intently as Reaper pulled vision Twilight in tight and crushed his mouth against hers, then the shade suddenly snapped his head down as he heard Twilight struggling for breath, her chest heaving, tears leaking from beneath her eyelids.

Grey Thorn glanced back and forth from Twilight to her dying dream double, and chewed his lip as Reaper laid Twilight’s limp, twitching body on the floor. The scene dissolved.


“Not done.”

Grey Thorn raised an eyebrow and watched as the vision reformed above Twilight, showing her in the collapsing classroom, staggering in terror for the door as the scene tore itself apart.

Oh, Reaper! Was it too much?

Grey Thorn held up a hoof: “Wait--was that Luna’s voice?”

Twilight retched into her mouth and spat: “Not now--ask at the end!”

Grey Thorn put his hoof back down and watched the blackness pour in through the broken classroom door. It filled the alcove, swept past him and blotted out all but a tiny flicker of light from the tip of Twilight’s horn.

Silence fell like a cold shroud, and Grey Thorn could make out the weak, irregular beat of Twilight’s heart for a few seconds, echoing in the silence. The blackness lifted as Twilight coughed and lurched to her hooves.

She staggered to one side of the alcove, around a bit of a corner, and emptied her bladder. She leaned against the passage wall, steadied her breathing, and returned to Grey Thorn’s cell a minute later.

“D-Did you finally see what you wanted to see?”

Grey Thorn regarded the trembling, defiant alicorn for a few moments: “Yes. You truly did have nearly everything stripped away. I didn’t believe you--I thought you were exaggerating for effect.”

Twilight glared: “You clearly don’t know me--I would never exaggerate something this horrible and profound!”

“Be that as it may, I know you better, now. We’ve shared an experience I doubt any other ponies ever have before.”

Twilight furrowed her brow: “This was what it was like--”

“When I sacrificed my own essence? Yes, though worse, in its own way. At least you were taken unawares--”

Twilight bit her lip: “The first time--”

Grey Thorn raised an eyebrow: “In any event, you have a good sense for what each of the six times I endured this was like.”

“But why?”

Grey Thorn smiled: “Is that your question, now?”

Twilight snorted: “Dammit, not again! No--I need to know how you integrated the alien’s technology.”

Grey Thorn tipped his horn up: “Very well. I will show you what I can, though again, the majority of my notes and equations are lost now.”

“Or inside that table.”

Grey Thorn shrugged as an image formed above his head: “That’s as good as lost, since I’m sure you could never bring yourself to utilize my sacrifice circle.”

Twilight scowled: “Get on with it!”

The scene resolved, filling much of the alcove, and Twilight found herself standing next to a translucent, middle-aged Grey Thorn, in front of a matte-black, carriage-sized sphere.

Past Grey Thorn leaned forward on a step stool and slid aside a panel, revealing a space beyond, many times larger than the opening suggested. The opening was filled with shimmering wires, metallic ribbon and crystalline constructs that appeared to flicker in and out of existence.

“What am I seeing here?”

“This is the heart of the creature’s engine, as best as I could determine it. It operates by harvesting the infinitesimal latent energy that resides between realities--that resides, actually, within the very spaces between the warp and woof of the world around us.”

The scene paused and a series of diagrams, equations and glyphs appeared, overlaid across the various circuits and pathways.

Twilight squinted: “Some of this I recognize--I’ve seen Starswirl’s research on dimensional boundaries, for instance--but I don’t know that block up and to the left.”

She illuminated her horn and put a red dot on a series of intermixed glyphs and equations.

Grey Thorn nodded: “That was based on what was inscribed on the components themselves, arranged and decoded according to my own space-compressing spells. It’s clear the alien’s ship had the ability to compress space even as it manipulated the energies contained within. I used that to greatly expand the apparent volume within my creation, while also tying it to the creature rooted at its heart.”

“Tying it?”

The glyphs and equations danced and reordered; an image of the Sentinel now hovered above it all: “Yes--recall my comment about taming the creature? I was able to calibrate the machinery so that it applies a steady drain. I could tap that drain, thus harvesting energy without having to make direct contact with the creature.”

Twilight stared at the interlaced ribbons and crystals and glyphs for a minute. She then formed Grey Thorn’s final sacrifice circle and placed it alongside the image of the Sentinel, tying several lines of numbers and symbols together: “So how did you ultimately tie the two together? I’ve seen a piece of your sacrifice to harness the creature, and I’m getting an idea as to how the device works, but how did you connect them at last so you could pull victims in through the shell, yet keep the creature at bay and fed?”

A thin smile spread across Grey Thorn’s face.

Twilight rolled her eyes: “Nevermind. I know--next time.”

She turned to leave and paused, looking back over her shoulder. The sacrifice circle grew large and bright: “Is this the final form?”

Grey Thorn scowled: “I believe we had a--”

“Is. It. The. Final. Form?”


“And is it correct?”

Grey Thorn ground his teeth.

“Answer the fucking question!”


“Good. And just so you don’t think you’ve been cheated, I’ll throw a little payment in-kind your way before I go.”

She rounded the corner heading from the alcove to the outer passage and slowed moments before teleporting away: “I know how to get your notes out of that table.”

Grey Thorn watched the purple-white flash fade as his angry grimace turned into a satisfied grin: “I know you do, Princess…”

He tipped his horn up, clearing the images, save one: the glowing golden sacrifice circle.

“Now do it.”