• 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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Palimpsest

Reaper squinted and gazed at the various blurred images, glyphs, creatures and ponies swirling around him like a glowing, cloudy, glitter-streaked whirlwind. He looked for Twilight, but couldn't make out any shape that matched her form.

“Twilight! Where are you? Can you see me? Can you make anything of this muddle?”

A bright, violet beam cut through the haze to his right and settled on his shoulder. Twilight’s voice drifted in on the gale: “I can see you. Try to stay still for a second and I’ll come to you.”

Reaper rolled his eyes: “I’ll stay as still as this maelstrom will let me!”

Twilight emerged in front of and to his right, her horn glowing, her wings fanned and angling back and forth: “I can’t make out anything here, either, but I detect a more-stable area below us.”

She settled in next to Reaper and draped a wing over his back, guiding them both down to a darker, less-turbulent layer. She halted their descent and brightened her horn, throwing various faces, skeletons, odd geometric figures, and words into sharp relief.

Reaper closed his eyes and shook his head vigorously: “I’ve spent millennia phasing through things and traversing Tartarus, and this place beats all that for sheer incomprehensibility!”

Twilight narrowed her eyes as she tentatively touched-down on a gunmetal-gray surface: “I know. I can hardly keep track of my homing line. It’s taking a fair bit of my concentration just to stay tethered.”

Reaper slowly opened his eyes and peered around: “The closest I can come is the disorienting rush I felt traversing realities on my way to this world after I died.”

Twilight took a step away from Reaper and folded in her wings: “Not a bad comparison, actually.”

She tipped her head down and inscribed a pair of glowing gold glyphs on the ground with her horn: “This place is like a slice of Cosmos cake: hundreds of times and places compressed down, layered and interwoven in a small space.”

Reaper gestured at the glyphs: “Markers?”

“Yeah--now I can fix my homing through-line to this point, and we can return upward--or out or however you want to think about it--with a high degree of confidence.”

Reaper nodded and raised an eyebrow: “I see the glyphs are gold. I’ve noticed more of your magic shifting colors; that’s highly unusual, yes?”

Twilight chewed her lip: “Um, yes. I’m emulating Grey Thorn’s, well, frequency, if you will. It gets kind of technical, and--”

“And kind of frowned-upon, if I recall correctly.”

“Yeah. It’s generally considered a crime, though I strongly doubt Grey Thorn’ll be pressing any charges.”

“No, but I’m sure Celestia would be interested to know--”

Twilight shook her head: “No--don’t tell her! I have to do this. These spells and runes are so specific to Grey Thorn and his essence, that I have to mimic his magic.”

Reaper pointed at the blood still trickling down Twilight’s left hoof: “To say nothing of his techniques.”

Twilight sighed and turned away, heading toward a rotating, exploded diagram of Kla’atra’s zero-point engine hovering a few yards away: “I don’t have a choice, Reaper. Let me show you something.”

He stepped up beside the alicorn and squinted at the blurry, multi-faceted figure: “Not really sure what I’m seeing, here…”

Twilight nodded and brought up a hoof, wiping away several layers, leaving a single, clear schematic with associated notes: “Better?”

“Yes. How did you do that?”

“Everything down here is layer after layer, one laid on top of the last. The trick is to perceive where one layer starts and the previous ends.”

Reaper nodded: “Great. I still don’t know what I’m seeing, though at least it’s easier to focus on, now.”

Twilight frowned and highlighted a series of equations and components: “This is why I’ll to do anything I have to to figure this out and free Zecora. The nature of this device is to absorb the latent energy around it. Grey Thorn rigged it to keep the creature at the Void’s heart inside in a sort of equilibrium.”

Reaper rubbed his chin: “And I assume it absorbs lifeforce regardless of the creature or entity involved.”

“That’s my belief, yes. So anything trapped in there will be bled slowly of its essence or energy or lifeforce or whatever. Knowing what I do about ponies’ life energies, thanks to having been on both sides of your job, I estimate Zecora probably has fewer than three days left--tops.”

Reaper turned away from the diagram and peered around the grey expanse: “Are these all his notes?”

Twilight shook her head and walked toward another set of drawings: “No. This zone seems to hold most of his technical notes. The one above us contained much of his research on that sacrifice circle of his.”

Reaper nodded: “Then back to my initial question--where is my sword?”

Twilight swallowed and pointed to the floor beneath their hooves: “It must be further down. I’ve extracted some of his spells through these layers, so I assume his darkest magics are below us.”

Reaper stepped alongside Twilight: “Let’s do it, then.”

Twilight shied away slightly: “It--it’s likely pretty bad down there…”

Reaper raised an eyebrow: “And? We have to retrieve Death’s Token regardless. I assume we just phase and drop through, yes?”

Twilight sighed and gritted her teeth: “Yes. Alright, I’ll stay close since I don’t really know if we’re going to hit more turbulence like we did above.”

Reaper nodded and moved close, again: “Agreed. Here we go…”

The two ponies faded and slipped through the grey surface, leaving behind a faint ripple.

After what felt like a minute Reaper phased in and came to a slow stop on a spongy, cold surface, in a space utterly devoid of light and sound. He stood still and listened intently.

He tipped his head to one side as a faint voice came to him: “Reaper…”

“Is that you Twilight? I can’t see anything here.”

His horn flared for a moment then flickered and fell dark again: “I can’t generate any light, and I don’t want to start just walking blindly. Can you illuminate your horn?”

“I-I don’t want to…”

“What?”

“I can feel the sac-sacrifices all around me, Reaper. I know what I’ll see if I generate any light.”

Reaper began slowly moving toward Twilight’s voice: “You’ve done my job, if only for a short time. You know these spirits or shades or afterimages or whatever they are can’t hurt you.”

“That’s not-not it, Reaper. Even when I had your power, I was just barely holding it together.”

“I know--I talked to Celestia. You were hitting the bottle pretty hard.”

“I’m not ready for this. This is where he entombed the spells so toxic they couldn't be committed even to orbs of enchanted diamond.”

Reaper moved forward slowly and to his left as a cold liquid rose up his legs: “What’s the worst you’re going to see, Princess? Realistically? You’ve battled his creation and its animated byproducts. You’ve memorized and transcribed the most horrible nightmare-death-visions Nightmare Moon and Grey Thorn had to offer.”

He stopped and tried to illuminate the area again, to no avail: “You’ve relived your own death visions--twice! What more can you see that you haven’t already seen?”

He heard a squelching sound of hooves stepping in thick, congealed liquid. A horn brightened in front of him, flickering violet and gold, bathing an area roughly ten yards across in an eerie, haunted glow.

“That…”

Reaper turned and glanced to his left as he heard Twilight retch. He saw a dead mare half-submerged in knee-deep muck. Her belly had been ripped open, and an umbilical cord trailed away into the dark.

Reaper furrowed his brow and turned to face Twilight: “What…?”

She shuddered violently and pointed at several lines of blurred runes suspended drunkenly in the air above the corpse: “This is-is his master control spell. It’s what he used to interface through the containment vessel t-to the creature.”

She stared down at the bloated carcass, saliva hanging from her lips; her voice dropped to a whisper: “It’s what I came to find.”

Reaper peered at the spell, then back at the mutilated body: “Where’s the foal?”

“I...d-don’t…”

Reaper bent down and followed the shredded cord to its end. He tipped his head to one side and squinted into the dark.

He turned back to the corpse, leaned forward and prodded it with a hoof. Twilight coughed loudly and retched again: “I--I don’t know where the sword is! I can’t…”

Reaper glared up at Twilight: “Yes, you can. Now focus. None of this is truly real--”

“It is down here!”

“It was real, a thousand years ago. Now it’s just afterimages and--”

“No! Their essences--or what’s left of them--are still here, fes-festering, tied to the spells themselves!”

Reaper narrowed his eyes and glanced between Twilight and the spell: “Wait--you’re telling me they weren’t consumed?”

“N-no. He didn’t have that kind of power--that’s why he needed that creature and the sacrifice circle. The beings he slaughtered on the table left much of their lifeforce buried d-down here.”

Reaper furrowed his brow: “Then we have to recover that life energy. We can’t leave it rotting down in this Limbo!”

Twilight stared at Reaper and shook her head vigorously as she staggered backwards: “I-I can’t! All the death I’ve experienced these last few months...and-and you come back and strip me of my essence, and I can’t recover...and-and I can’t sleep without wine or Luna, and--”

Reaper advanced slowly, keeping pace with the lurching alicorn, but not advancing. Suddenly something caught his eye and he stopped, pointing off to Twilight’s right side.

“Stop--point your horn over there; something’s glittering, something blue.”

Twilight swung her head around, panicked, then froze, wide-eyed: “It-it looks like a cloak.”

Reaper walked to the half-submerged figure and rolled it over with a hoof, revealing a shrunken stallion, wrapped in tattered, bright-blue fabric, still bearing patches of muck-encrusted beard.

Twilight furrowed her brow: “Th-that looks like Starswirl…”

Reaper bent down: “Yes, yes it does.”

“But that’s im-impossible. I’ve seen his tomb.”

“Yeah, so have I--I was there when they put him in it. Plus, I sent him on beyond after reaping him, so there’s absolutely no way that’s Starswirl.”

He stood up and looked back over his shoulder at the mutilated corpse a few yards away: “What’s going on here?”

Twilight slowly licked her lips and gazed at the faux Starswirl: “This must be some kind of construct, generated when Grey Thorn used the sacrifice circle to strip essences and seal away spells. See how the runes hover over the bodies?”

Reaper looked at the blurred figures suspended above Starswirl’s doppelganger: “Yes, though again, I can’t really see them clearly…”

Twilight nodded and raised a hoof into the air, summoning thin, black ribbons to her bloody wrist. Grey Thorn’s golden sacrifice circle formed above her head, and she tipped her horn down toward the withered body.

“I’m going to strip back the layers binding this spell. If this works you should see the runes and words come into focus.”

A beam of blended gold and violet magic pierced the body, joined by tendrils of death energy winding down Twilight’s leg. Like a beam of focused sunlight on wax, Twilight's power flowed over the body, causing it to shimmer and warp. The cloak disintegrated and the hide split, exposing rotting muscles and tendons.

Twilight narrowed her eyes and the beam intensified, stripping away layers of tissue. She bit her lip and leaned forward.

Suddenly the corpse’s eyes flew open and flared with a ghostly white flame. The body lurched up with a howl and lunged at Twilight. She shrieked and staggered backwards, wings flared.

Reaper sprang forward, blocking Twilight at the last moment: “Shit! What's going on?”

Twilight swallowed hard: “De-defense mechanism. He must have put locks on the spells to prevent tampering!”

Reaper jammed his horn through the corpse’s neck and wrapped his forelegs around its shoulders, pulling it aside: “Can you break the spell?”

Twilight stepped to one side to avoid being trampled, and increased the power from her horn: “Yes--just keep him occupied for a few more seconds.”

Reaper swung around beside the carcass and jumped on its back, driving it down into the clotted mess beneath them: “I’ll do what I can, but he seems real eager to get to you!”

Twilight nodded as the sacrifice circle expanded and rotated: “I know, but I think this should do it...”

Starswirl’s decaying duplicate suddenly shuddered and collapsed on its side. Twilight’s entwined streams of power and magic poured down on the body, dissolving it away, layer by layer, bone by bone, until nothing remained but a faint shimmer, rising slowly from the muck.

Reaper stepped forward to touch his horn to the glowing haze as the runes and words above him snapped into sharp focus.

Twilight pointed to the words as Reaper stood up: “There’s the spell that was connected with this shade or vessel or whatever.”

Reaper furrowed his brow: “This looks familiar.”

“It should--it’s a version of the spell Starswirl used to fend you off.”

“Right, but different…”

Twilight highlighted segments of the spell: “He enhanced it greatly. It’s how he was able to evade you for all these centuries.”

Reaper opened his mouth then stopped as the spell evaporated into a golden mist that drifted to the ground. He raised an eyebrow: “What does that mean?”

Twilight shuddered and closed her eyes: “The spell is gone--it’s no longer trapped in this space. I memorized it before it decayed.”

Reaper nodded: “Just like I collected the spirit fragment.”

He tipped his head to one side and regarded Twilight: “Will you be able to recall the spell sufficiently later?”

Twilight’s eyes fluttered open: “I’ll never forget it.”

Reaper sucked at his teeth for a moment then turned back toward the gutted mare behind him: “So what of that? I assume it’s also just a construct.”

Twilight walked toward the body: “Yes. I don’t think she was real. He imbued this simulacrum with a dose of somepony’s essence, but this mare--and likely her foal--never really existed.”

Reaper stepped up beside Twilight and tipped his horn down toward the corpse: “Then let’s get it. We probably have a lot of these to clear.”

Twilight shook her head and bit her lip: “We-we don’t have time--”

“Not if you keep stalling, we don’t!”

Twilight furrowed her brow: “Stalling...”

“What?”

Twilight lifted her hoof in the air as bands of violet and black energy began to swirl around her horn: “Stand back--I’m going to try something.”

The sacrifice circle reformed over her head as a ring of magic burst from her horn, radiating outward rapidly, illuminating everything as far as the eye could see.

Reaper turned to watch the band of energy rush away, making note of scores of corpses and body parts, then he froze, unable to move or speak. His eyes slowly went wide.

Twilight slumped forward and dropped her hoof heavily back to the wet, congealed ground. She lifted her head wearily and sent a pulse of violet magic at Reaper.

He snapped his head around: “What did you do?”

She took a deep breath: “I have enough control of this space to slow time locally. I can’t stop it, but I can bring it down to a crawl. Hopefully it’ll hold long enough for us to clear out these trapped spells and spirits.”

Reaper nodded: “And find the sword.”

Twilight sighed: “Hold on…”

She lifted her wrist up and reopened the cut, bringing a bead of fresh blood to the surface as dark ribbons began to converge on the wound. She fanned her wings and rose into the air, eyes blank.

Reaper furrowed his brow as streaks and bolts of dark energy jumped from Twilight’s body, arcing through the area like static discharge. She twitched and moaned, occasionally murmuring arcane words as the the dark, clotted muck surrounding them slowly drained away revealing thousands of once-buried skeletons of lesser creatures scattered across a slate-gray floor.

Twilight’s eyes flickered, went dark and closed as she drifted back down to the ground and stood, legs trembling while her wings slowly folded in.

She took a deep breath and sat down: “Give me a minute; that really took a lot out of me.”

Reaper walked around, peering into the distance, poking at bones: “What did you do?”

“I opened a dimensional rift to another place within the table, and sent away all the muck and pseudo-blood and magical residue that’s keeping us from seeing or sensing anything.”

“I take it you’re gaining some mastery down here.”

“Yes--it just takes a lot of concentration and power. You can summon your sword now, yes?”

Reaper nodded and furrowed his brow: “As you said, give me a minute.”

He closed his eyes and turned a slow circle, stopping suddenly and pivoting back to his left: “There it is.”

There was a flash of silver and red in the distance, and Death’s Token appeared in front of Reaper moments later. He sheathed it and turned back to Twilight: “Alright, so that’s done. Let’s round-up all the spirits we can so we can get out of here.”

Twilight stood unsteadily and stretched: “OK, so with time nearly stopped except for us, you shouldn’t have to fight off any more corpses while I peel back their binding spells.”

Reaper nodded and walked to the rent corpse of the pregnant mare, now sprawled awkwardly on the grey ground: “Let’s get this one out of the way first.”

Twilight stepped up beside Reaper and chewed her lip as the sacrifice circle flickered and resolved above her head: “OK, I-I just hope we’re right about this being a construct, too. I don’t know how much more authentic horror I can handle right now.”

She tipped her head down as the sacrifice circle rotated and sparkled; a band of gold magic pierced the pale orange hide, which shriveled away.

Twilight passed several sweeps of magic across the body, eroding it away, looking warily as the internal organs reassembled briefly, then disappeared. She glanced back and forth between that macabre scene and the spell hovering above her as it shifted, changed and sharpened.

Reaper watched intently as Twilight finished her deconstruction, then he dropped to one knee as the final traces of flesh and bone evaporated, leaving a faint, shimmering mist.

He touched the mist with his horn and stood: “I’m confident that pony was not real. There are traces of three distinct essences involved, and none of them was a pregnant mare.”

Twilight looked down from the fading spell and smiled weakly: “Good. I mean, it’s terrible that anypony died for this, but knowing that much of this is invented, helps a little.”

Reaper nodded: “Keep at it, and I’ll clean up behind you as you liberate these spirit fragments.”

Twilight took a deep breath, nodded and walked away toward the crumpled form of a mutilated, pink pegasus. A cluster of disjointed glyphs floated a few inches above.


“One-hundred-and-six.”

Reaper walked back toward Twilight, now sitting, slumped forward on her haunches. He prodded at piles of alien fragments and animal bones with his sword as he closed in on the final essence which was clinging to the dull-grey ground like fog.

Reaper gathered in the spirit and sat down next to Twilight, enrobed in a faintly-glowing cloud: “So you cleared-out a hundred-and-six corpse things…”

He tapped his chin for a moment and nodded slowly: “That sounds about right, given the amount of life energy I collected. I sense twelve distinct essences--eleven ponies and one griffon.”

Twilight turned wearily toward Reaper and furrowed her brow: “So that griffon was real. I wondered…”

Reaper looked around at the cloud surrounding him: “Now we just need to figure out how to get these spirits out of here so I can take them to the Waiting Room and let them go on their way.”

Twilight rose stiffly to her hooves and summoned the sacrifice circle: “Give me a minute.”

Beams of gold and violet magic lanced down from the circle and Twilight’s horn, and scored a yard-wide patch of the grey surface beneath her. Beads of sweat formed on her brow as a thin sheet of grey material, no thicker than the skin of an onion, peeled free with a crystalline tinkling sound and floated into the air.

Two additional rune-filled circles, one black, one violet, formed beside the sacrifice circle as the grey sheet twisted in on itself, then snapped into a perfect, cantaloupe-sized sphere.

Twilight turned toward Reaper and sent a band of black energy into the spirit mist, siphoning it off and funneling it through a small aperture on the sphere. After a minute the mist was gone, and the aperture closed noiselessly. She sat down with a thud and placed the sphere between her hooves.

“There. We-we can get the essences out of here, now. I’ll have to come with you to the Waiting Room to open it.”

Reaper raised an eyebrow: “How--”

“Spells thirty-one, seventy-two and one-oh-three.”

“You really have memorized everything!”

Twilight yawned and shook her head wearily: “So much redundancy, so much re-work; he just kept redoing and brute-forcing. I was able to consolidate pages of information down to twenty-eight core spells. That’s what I memorized.”

Reaper pointed to the sphere: “Including that?”

Twilight stared blankly between her hooves: “That’s my own addition. I mean, the essential containment concepts are his, but unicorns have made huge strides in material magic and crystallography in the last hundred years. I was able to peel off a molecule-thick sheet of this material and craft it into a simple holding device.”

Reaper chewed his lip: “With no loss of your own--”

“Essence? No, just a lot of power and magic--this is really tough stuff! I’m exhausted, and really need a drink.”

Reaper nodded and held out a hoof: “We should be able to get back topside quickly, I assume?”

Twilight took Reaper’s hoof and climbed to her hooves: “Yeah. This area’s cleared of all interference, and we can pick up my homing line in the zone above. We should be out of here in about two minutes.”

“Great. We can go straight to the Waiting Room so I can reintegrate these spirits and send them onward.”

Twilight lifted the sphere with her magic and stared at it: “But onward to what?”

They phased together and disappeared as darkness descended on the lonely field of bones.