• 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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Christening

“Bramble?! But--but that means he’s Grey Thorn! I’ve read Twilight and Celestia’s notes!”

Gil smiled: “You are correct. He is, indeed, Grey Thorn--in a way.”

Zecora raised an eyebrow as she eyed Bramble warily: “What do you mean, ‘in a way?’”

Gil closed his eyes and sucked against his teeth: “This place is sustained and powered by the life essences of its victims, yes?”

Zecora nodded.

“Well, like many an old wizard or alchemist, Grey Thorn was a firm believer in using himself as a test subject.”

“So he used his own essence to create this thing?”

“Again: in a way. Let me take you back to the final creation of the Vacuum; make yourself comfortable.”

Gil nodded at the glowing orb, which dimmed to a pale, reddish, ember-like glow. He sat on a cushion adjacent to Zecora and tipped his horn up above their line-of-site; an image flickered into view.

A thirtysomething grey unicorn with a twisted brier cutie mark stepped into the scene, joined by a somewhat-younger Gil. They stood in Starswirl’s hidden library before a table made of a translucent, shimmering greenish stone.

Gil pointed at the unicorns: “That one on the left is Grey Thorn; the other one is obviously me.”

Zecora furrowed her brow and opened her mouth to speak; Gil cut her off: “I know, how can this scene be? Shouldn’t this be from my perspective?”

“Yes.”

Gil smiled: “Have you experienced dreams where you’re outside yourself?”

“Of course.”

“Think of this like that. This place shares many features with the dreamscape, and over the centuries I have re-imagined my entire store of memories in third-pony perspective.”

“Why?”

Gil shrugged: “To see things from a different angle--both literal and metaphorical, to challenge my own memory and interpretation of those recollections, and sometimes, just due to plain old boredom.”

Zecora smiled: “I can understand that. If I were trapped in a library for centuries I would grow weary of rereading the same books over and over. I might wish to retell or recast the stories.”

“Exactly! Now back to our particular tale…”

The scene resumed with Grey Thorn tapping at a set of plans: “So you can get the others to help? Especially Dark Iron?”

Young Gil nodded: “Yes--he needs to disappear for a bit, anyway, and I know whatever Iron does Hotspark’s going to want in on.”

Zecora furrowed her brow: “Dark Iron?”

Gil sighed: “Do you know your pre-Canterlot unicorn history?”

“I know there were clan wars. Again, I’ve read Twilight’s notes and spoken some with Celestia.”

“Right, well a bit over a thousand years ago, those had largely ended, and Celestia was intent on building her new city in the heart of the contested area, in an effort to quell further troubles--though jealousies and tensions remained.”

“Canterlot.”

“Correct. And many disaffected unicorns or those whose families had fallen low were attracted to the promise of a new start in an unaligned place.”

“But it didn’t quite work that way.”

“It never does. In any event, there was a group of us in our twenties who were on the margins, and Grey Thorn eventually, how do I put this, made himself known to us over the course of several months.”

“Meaning?”

“He had gone ‘quiet’ years before, hiding in Starswirl’s shadow, avoiding public places. So he put out feelers through some of the less-reputable members of society that he was looking for assistants, workers, boon companions--it was never made entirely clear.”

“Why?”

“Well, company, to be sure, but he was also looking for assistance in completing some of his projects.”

“His lair.”

“Right again. By this point he was doing a good job sidestepping Starswirl, who had gone very quiet a few years earlier, almost like he’d been spooked.”

Zecora smiled: “He had been--he’d been visited by the Harbinger.”

Gil raised an eyebrow: “‘Visited?’ That’s usually a one-time occurrence!”

Zecora nodded: “I’ve heard the tale from Twilight. Starswirl tricked Reaper with a spell and powerful glyphs. Reaper said he’d return in two days. It turned into twenty years.”

Gil looked up at the ceiling: “That explains a lot, actually! His wards became increasingly strong, and he literally went ‘underground’ in his final years.”

He tapped his chin: “And that all played perfectly into Grey Thorn’s plans: he could avoid being detected, too, just by staying close to his mentor, while feeding the old wizard’s paranoia, keeping him off-balance while we built the lair.”

“But Starswirl did find it.”

“Too late. Yes, he melted-in the main passage, cast a series of strong wards, and scrubbed his secret library, but we had already worked out a new entry and duplicated the books and scrolls anyway, so we merely had to wait for him to finally die.”

“So what went wrong?”

Gil smiled wanly: “Yes, good question. Obviously I wouldn't be here if everything had gone smoothly. Nor would my four cohorts.”

“All five of you are here?”

Gil closed his eyes and let his head drop: “Were. Dark Iron was the last of my friends to drift into a shade. He faded some hundred years ago.”

“So how did Grey Thorn get you?”

“Dark Iron had a violent streak and I was a drunk.”

Zecora furrowed her brow: “I don’t understand.”

“Grey Thorn had already started to work on his creation before Starswirl was dead and the lair was finished. I don’t really know where he was doing this, but he put in at least two years before Starswirl passed, and two afterwards.”

“He was down where the Void is now, deep in a chasm beneath the old foundations of the castle. It’s accessed through a secret passage beneath the bone pit in the creation chamber.”

Gil nodded slowly: “Yes--that follows.”

He stood and walked to the shelves of knick-knacks: “The five of us were left to our own devices more and more as we saw less and less of Grey Thorn.”

He looked down at Bramble: “I started drinking and turning up drunk and chatty in public places. Dark Iron took his sexual frustration--among other frustrations--out on the local mares, and it was coming to the attention of the authorities more and more.”

“And Grey Thorn feared it would get back to him.”

“Yes. So one evening he had me join him in his newly-finished lair. He showed me what he was working on, explained the basic premise of the Vacuum, showed me the mirror he had crafted in imitation of Starswirl’s.”

“With or without Starswirl’s help?”

“Unsure. He was vague about its origins and its ultimate use. He made it clear he had been using it to travel to other worlds, other realities, in an effort to gain knowledge and materials.”

“Why did he show you? He had been so secretive to that point, yes?”

“Well, yes, though the five of us knew of his lair, of course, and had begun to help round up old tomes and spell books to stock it--especially Hotspark and her ‘sticky hooves.’ But none of us knew about his ‘special project’ until that evening.”

“Why you?”

“I don’t like to brag, but aside from Starswirl, I may well have been the most powerful unicorn in Equestria. I was certainly the best spellcaster.”

“And he needed your help?”

Gil smiled grimly and returned to his cushion: “That was my assumption that evening. And to be sure, he showed me the basic workings, and much of the otherworldly technology and magic he had acquired. He asked for some advice and let me probe the inner workings with my magic.”

“But you assumed wrong, I take it.”

Gil nodded slowly: “Yes. He played to my ego, and made me feel so clever. And he did ask for my help, though he was vague, and I was half drunk.”

“Help how?”

“He was having trouble getting what we now call the Sentinel to fully awaken and integrate with the Vacuum. He wanted to know if I had any thoughts after I had my chance to probe.”

“Did you?”

Gil chuckled: “Oh, yes. Let me take you forward to this scene’s conclusion, two evenings later.”

The projection reformed in the air, this time showing the floor of the creation chamber. Grey Thorn and Gil stood in front of the shimmering table, and hovering above the bone pit was an undulating, black sphere roughly the size of a carriage.

Past Gil squinted at the Void then down at a series of glyphs drawn on the tabletop: “Well, it’s pretty clear you haven’t applied enough power to this thing to bind it. You’re pouring your own power into it to keep it stable, aren’t you?”

Grey Thorn nodded: “Yes--and my blood.”

Gil raised an eyebrow and wobbled unsteadily around the table toward the Void; Grey Thorn paused at the table then trailed him by a couple of paces. The rusty-red unicorn stopped in front of the Void and sent out a pulse of bright gold magic.

He rubbed the back of a hoof across his eyes and peered into the platter-sized gap that opened in the quivering black surface before him.
Grey Thorn drifted up to Gil, hovering just behind his left shoulder: “Do you see how the implant has finally latched on to that central region, almost like an umbilicus?”

Gil strained his magic and his eyes to expand the image in the perceived distance: “Yes, I see...it’s bathed in blood. So you’re using your own blood for this? This degree of dark magic will ruin you!”

“Not once I control it--then I can draw power from it.”

Gil expanded the gap and examined the various bones and bits of wreckage strewn across the interior of the Void: “Is that what all that is down in there? Where have you been?”

“Other worlds, other realities, other powers.”

He glanced over his shoulder: “And other creatures, it appears. Is this what litters your pit?”

Grey Thorn chewed his lip for a moment: “Yes...”

Gil raised an eyebrow and turned his face back to the opening: “I see. That certainly explains the strange magical signature of this barrier wall. But it also reinforces my perception that this is a net-negative system--a sort of vacuum.”

Zecora nodded: “Your name for this place…”

“Exactly. And he knew it, I was just confirming what he already suspected.”

Grey Thorn added a reddish beam of magic, causing the Void to contract slightly and form a hazy nimbus: “But I have bonded with that umbilicus and can make it express itself externally. I can draw from it!”

Gil furrowed his brow and tipped forward, pulling the black tendril deep in the Void’s perceived background into sharper focus: “But at what cost, Thorn? This thing is pulling energy from everywhere! It’s a mess! You’d never live long enough to master it!”

“As long as I can keep it charged…”

Fed you mean! That thing in there is alive--at least, it acts like it is! It’s going to take all you can give it just to keep this thing from rupturing!”

“That is my intent. I can travel through the mirror to other places and times to keep it sated. Then I can draw off its power to replenish and restore myself.”

Gil shook his head as he leaned in further, cycling the magic emanating from his horn through a rainbow of colors: “No--you’re back to a net-negative, again! You can’t stay ahead if you’re constantly hauling this thing back and forth through realities. It has to be stable. It has to stay close to its base. Your only choice would be--”

He rolled his eyes upward toward the chamber’s ceiling and froze: “You don’t mean to take it, just to bring victims back here…”

Zecora gasped as the heavy cleaver Grey Thorn had been hovering behind his left hip slashed into view and decapitated Gil. The headless body lurched forward and gushed blood into and across the surface of the Void as its legs twitched and bladder emptied.

The scene froze as Gil tipped his head back and forth: “Of course I don’t know exactly what happened. I do know that chopping blade was one of several implements on the table, and I have no memory of the kind of burst of light and sound that typically accompany blunt force trauma to the head.”

“As for the rest, as my essence was being pulled through the opening--what I would later call the Rift--I sensed a rush of blood passing through with me moments before my consciousness faded.”

He glanced at Zecora’s furrowed brow: “The rest is a bit of embellishment. I had been drinking most of the afternoon, so I assume I pissed myself at the moment of death. And I can’t be sure I was beheaded entirely--it’s just more dramatic that way!”

“And then what?”

“Then I hit the ground, such as it is, with the majority of my spirit and life force already stripped away. But because the Sentinel wasn’t really the Sentinel just yet, I had a chance to find what seemed to be the closest thing to cover around.”

The scene reformed and showed Gil, now semi-translucent and ragged stumbling across a close-cropped field of orange-red turf toward some sort of metallic wreckage. He collapsed across the threshold and looked around at the dim, puzzling interior.

The scene winked-out: “A bit of luck, as it would turn out. The metal that wreck and several other artifacts are made of, is resistant to the Vacuum’s effect. It doesn’t entirely negate it, but it blocks it fairly well.”

“Then you founded this refuge.”

“Well, not immediately, but ultimately, yes. I scavenged bits and pieces of material and wreckage. It was very tricky, relearning how to manipulate things using severely-weakened magic. Then not long after I was pulled in, Grey Thorn finally managed to integrate with the Sentinel as the Swamp began to form.”

“And you’ve been hiding and evading ever since.”

“And fading away, little by little. In fact, if not for my young companion, here, I’d have lost the last shred of my essence long ago. Because he gathers intelligence for me, I don’t have to exert myself, and the Vacuum takes less of a toll.”

Zecora squinted at Bramble: “Yes, back to your ‘young companion’--how has he survived all these centuries? In fact, how does he exist at all?”

“Recall I said Grey Thorn was using himself to sustain this place?”

Zecora nodded.

“Well, I was being literal. He ‘primed the pump,’ as it were, with not just his power, dark magic and blood, but with his own essence. It’s how he ultimately bonded to the Sentinel and, by extension, the Vacuum.”

“Is there more of him here? Why him as a colt?”

“You’ve heard the old concept of one’s life flashing before their eyes as they die?”

“Yes.”

“Well, it’s true. Images of my life flickered through my brain in the last moments of consciousness--and they ran in reverse. The same was clearly true for Grey Thorn.”

He stood and wandered over to a window overlooking the Compound’s central courtyard: “His spirit was stripped away, layer by layer in reverse. All that remains now is Bramble, and that largely because he gravitated to this place right after he was extracted.”

“How many other Grey Thorns are there?”

Were there. Six; Bramble is the last. The others were never bothered by the Sentinel, to the best of my knowledge, but even they eventually succumbed to the Vacuum’s drain.”

Zecora furrowed her brow: “So, what was left of Grey Thorn?”

“A hollowed-out shell of a pony. He’d have still retained his memories and much of his power, but more and more he’d have been dependent on his creation for his very existence. They eventually became completely, symbiotically entangled.”

“So, when the Harbinger reaped him, what became of him? I mean, that happened here, yes? Shouldn’t the final bits of him have ended up here as well?”

“A lot happened during the great cataclysm a few months back, and much is still unclear. There was a huge gold-and-red flash that filled the air, and a peal of deafening thunder, then everything just froze. Nopony really knows what happened for those few moments, or even how long it lasted, but suddenly the space within the Vacuum contracted violently to a fraction of its usual perceived volume.”

“That was when Grey Thorn was slain, and Reaper bound the Void, collapsing it down to the size of a large ball.”

Gil nodded slowly as he looked up at the ceiling: “‘A large ball.’ Compared to its original dimensions, that sounds about right. In any event as quickly as it started, it was over. Grey Thorn himself may have been destroyed, or ejected out of the Vacuum through the momentary breach. Only one entity could really answer your question.”

He grinned wryly: “Maybe you should ask the Harbinger.”

Zecora sighed as her ears drooped: “Believe me, I wish I could!”