• 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.

  • ...

The Swamp

Gil drifted up a narrow passage, paused at the threshold of a low, sagging opening, and gestured for Zecora to join him: “This is the end of the shielded tunnel; we have to step out into the Swamp itself, at this point.”

Zecora stepped beside the ghostly unicorn and peered out through the gap. The terrain sloped sharply upward at an odd cant, as though a dim, otherworldly, grey bog had been tipped skyward at a 30-degree angle. The entire area was dotted with shades, embedded in the ground like animated corpses, arrested in the act of breaking through the surface.

She leaned back into the cave: “It seems quite steep. I don’t know if I’ll be able to crawl up that, let alone walk or run!”

Gil smiled: “The angle is deceptive. In many ways this place orients itself to the Sentinel, not the other way around. So as we work our way up the Swamp toward its pinnacle--the point at which it finally makes contact with the Vacuum itself, you’ll be able to look back at the world below, and see it rising up and away at a sharp angle.”

Bramble nodded: “And as we work our way around the backside, you’ll see the stream appear to flow upward along the Swamp, then back down as it comes around the front.”

Zecora furrowed her brow: “So the stream is a continuous loop?”


“How disorienting! So this will all seem like a flat bog?”

“Not quite. It’s crudely terraced, and there is some slope to it. Since you’re a true, physical being, you’re likely to have some issues with traction, occasionally.”

Zecora furrowed her brow: “I’m sure that’s going to make evading the Sentinel all the more difficult!”

Gil frowned: “This close-in that’s not really possible in any event. Which reminds me--I think it’s time you broke out your powder, the one you said can be used to mask us.”

Zecora nodded and pulled a pouch out of her bag: “Solar and Noble would generate a shield as I threw up a hoofful of this powder. It gets caught in the field and blocks out our presence.”

Gil raised an eyebrow: “Let me see a bit of that.”

Zecora tapped a small amount of bright-yellow dust onto the cave floor and stepped back as Gil leaned down. A thin beam of shifting energy emanated from his horn and bathed the powder in a pale blue glow.

Gil bit his lip and shifted his magic through a variety of colors and intensities, until the dust began to sparkle and fade.

Bramble tipped his head down and sent out a matching beam; the dust faded entirely from view: “That’s the right frequency. I just hope we can keep this up!”

Zecora furrowed her brow: “Solar Gleam thought he could maintain the screen for up to six hours. How long can you hold out?”

Gil glanced at Bramble and shrugged: “Between the two of us? Maybe as long as six? I don’t really know…”

Green Streak frowned: “I know I’m not a unicorn, but is there any way I can help with this?” She tipped her head toward Kla’atra: “Or her?”

Kla’atra’s eye flashed pale violet for a moment: “It shall have been not possible for me to have assisted with this process--my psionic abilities could have emulated certain magics, but are not to have been additive.”

Green Streak raised an eyebrow: “Umm…”

Gil smiled: “I understand your confusion, Lieutenant. Kla’atra’s powers and abilities act somewhat like magic, but are not actually magic, so they’ll be of no use in a case like this.”

He pointed to the pegasus’ wings: “It would be akin to a unicorn crafting some type of flying device--I could remain aloft and glide, but I wouldn’t really be flying, and I couldn’t maintain any sort of formation with true flyers like yourself.”

Green Streak’s shoulders slumped: “I just wish there was something I could do. I didn’t think anything could be as bad as being dead, but it turns out that dead and useless is even worse!”

“Fear not, Lieutenant--I suspect there will be more than enough for all of us to do as we near the summit!”

Bramble stepped out of the cave and peered into the distance for a few moments. He looked back over his shoulder with a confused frown: “I’m sure you’re right! This whole area has been altered. I hardly recognize any of it, now!”

Gil’s eyebrows rose: “I hope the Last Waypoint is still there, or this will all be for nothing!”

Zecora tipped her head as she watched Bramble tentatively walk a few steps further out: “‘Last Waypoint?’”

“The last place to see one of Grey Thorn’s shades. It’s as close as one can get to the final pinnacle of the Swamp without actually making direct contact with the Sentinel.”

“So it’s another one of these shielded places?”

Bramble stepped back into the cave and shook his head: “I wish. It is sheltered, but just barely.”

Gil bit his lip: “And that’s going to be a problem in any event, even if it’s still there. There’s no way it can protect all five of us at once. We’re just going to have to hope your powder and our feeble magic are enough to keep us screened; the Last Waypoint won’t offer much assistance.”

Bramble’s eyes hardened: “No, but it’ll help. We’d better get going; I sense the Sentinel shifting.”

Kla’atra’s eyes flashed silver: “Hunting?”

Bramble’s brow furrowed: “Not exactly. I can’t put my hoof on it--it’s almost like it’s waiting? Uncertain? Confused? Preparing? I can’t tell. All I know is it’s giving us a chance to make some headway before it recovers.”

Gil nodded and drifted through the entrance, gesturing to Zecora as he went: “Come--Bramble and I will set the web for your powder, but we have to be quick!”

Zecora ducked and stepped through the low opening as a shimmering film appeared above her and Gil. She centered herself under the field and tossed a walnut-sized pile of bright-yellow dust straight up. The powder caught in the magical matrix and flowed like water, swirling and cascading down to the ground like rain sheeting off an umbrella. Zecora and Gil disappeared from the others’ sight.

Green Streak’s eyebrows jumped: “Well that worked! Now what?”

Bramble held out a hoof and guided the nervous pegasus out of the passage: “Right this way. The barrier won’t stop anything from passing through--just walk another yard or so, and…”

Green Streak vanished.

Bramble smiled and turned toward Kla’atra: “Your turn.”

Kla’atra paused: “Would you think that this might have been successful?”

“What? This whole venture?”

Kla’atra nodded.

Bramble closed his eyes and shrugged: “It doesn’t matter. I hope it is, but after a thousand years, I’m tired of this--” He swept a hoof wide: “All of this--this place, the Sentinel, my part in all of it. One way or another, it ends here.”

Kla’atra’s eyes flashed gold and dull red for a moment, then she stepped out of the cave and disappeared under the cloaking field.

Bramble sighed as he looked back into the gloom of the cave one last time before turning and stepping beneath the cloak, his horn glowing a pale gold.

A few moments later a shape crept around a corner, moved through the entrance, and disappeared into the grey bog, slipping from hole to hole.

“And you’re sure there’s no other way?”

Reaper shook his head as Celestia paced nervously in front of a low couch in her private quarters: “I know it seems cruel to end things this way, to abandon her body without a proper funeral, but this is the lowest-risk route available.”

“Will Zecora even be aware of what’s happening?”

Reaper shrugged: “Hard to say. I suppose it depends on how we find her. If Luna’s able to reach out to her for a moment we can make her aware, otherwise I’ll simply explain it when I get her to the Waiting Room.”

“And the risk to Luna?”

“Minimal. Since our last trip in I figured out the trick to maneuvering inside the Void. I would only need Luna to provide a momentary connection to Zecora, then she could shrink back and hold on for the few seconds it’ll take me to close the gap and reap.”

“Is there any chance you might become trapped?”

Reaper smiled: “No, though thanks for asking!”

Celestia sank wearily onto the couch, rubbed her eyes and picked up a small, gilt-edge wine flute. She took a long sip of liqueur: “How did it come to this?”

“What? Zecora?”

“No, yes--no, I mean all of it. All of this! What possessed him?”

“You mean them.”


Reaper sat down on an ottoman across from Celestia: “Grey Thorn wasn’t the first--”


“Right. And he’s not the last.”

Celestia furrowed her brow and drained her glass: “Twilight.”

She turned away from Reaper and stared at Philomena, resting in her ornate cage: “I don’t understand any of it.”

“They hate--or hated, in Starswirl’s case--unanswerable questions and impenetrable mysteries.”

Celestia nodded slowly: “Yes. It’s part of what made Starswirl such an outstanding wizard. He was more than just a keen mind and powerful spirit--he was driven by a thirst for knowledge.”

“And clearly Grey Thorn picked that up.”

“And let it lead him astray.”

Reaper smiled sadly: “To be honest there’s barely a knife’s-edge of difference between the two. Starswirl could just have easily taken the turn Grey Thorn did--in fact he did! He just pulled back at the last moment.”

Celestia refilled her flute: “But by then…”

“By then Grey Thorn had taken up the mantle. We know he’d been helping the old sorcerer for some time. Clearly he thought he could finish what his old mentor had started.”

Celestia shook her head: “Surely that, that thing can’t be what Starswirl envisioned!”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s not. But Twilight’s right: Grey Thorn is obviously given to shortcuts and 80-percent solutions and brute-force fixes. He’s smart--smart enough to cobble together a damned-impressive device and capture, frankly, the most-dangerous creature I’ve ever imagined!”

He stood and walked over to the phoenix: “But he was never smart--or disciplined--enough to clean-up all the loose ends. And nopony can overcome Entropy, no matter how clever or driven.”

He smiled and tipped his horn down toward the gold-and-red bird: “Only your little friend here has figured out that trick. And even she won’t be able to do it forever.”

Celestia closed her eyes and let her glass drift to the floor: “And Twilight…”

“Yeah. Third time’s the charm, huh? She may be the brightest of them all. But even she can’t outwit Entropy.”

“But might she be right--even somewhat? Maybe she can contain that creature and free Zecora.”

“No. You don’t even want to think about the possibility of that thing getting out. It appears to have a phasing ability that would render it nearly immune to reaping, and you wouldn’t dare attack it--it would suck you dry!”

“Then we had best make haste while Twilight is otherwise occupied.”

Reaper and Celestia turned to see Luna entering the room.

Celestia rose from her couch: “Where is she?”

“Back in Dux’a’s baths--her last trip to see Grey Thorn left her particularly drained. Even Noble nearly collapsed from nervous exhaustion upon his return.”

Reaper sighed and adjusted his sword and cloak: “Then let’s get this done. It’s going to be rough on her in any event, so the sooner we’re finished, the better.”

He faded out as the Sisters traded worried glances and teleported away in twin flashes. One of Philomena’s feathers drifted to the bottom of her cage.

Reaper and the two alicorns appeared near the Void moments later; Luna paused to light a pair of lamps, then stepped up beside her sister, roughly three yards from the Void: “It is a shame there was no other way. Zecora was brave and resourceful; I will be sad to know she is gone.”

Reaper nodded as he stepped toward the dull, black sphere: “It can’t be helped--at least she’ll have a clean death, and can go beyond this world intact.”

Luna took a deep breath and stepped up and to Reaper’s left as Celestia fell back a yard and chewed her lip. Reaper closed the final few inches and leaned forward. His horn contacted the surface of the Void with a leaden ‘thud.’

He stepped back, confused: “What the...?”

Luna furrowed her brow and tipped her head sideways: “Trouble?”

“I’m blocked.”

Luna tapped her chin for a moment, then swept the Void with a wide beam of dark magic. Celestia shuddered as a glyph-filled, golden circle flickered on the Void's featureless surface.

Reaper gritted his teeth: “Oh, shit.”

Twilight’s eyes snapped open, and she looked around the baths, finally focusing on the coals beneath the hot water cauldron. The charcoal flared with violet and gold flames for a few moments, before fading back to cherry-red. She smiled grimly and stood, warm, scented water sheeting from her skin, dripping from her bangs and breasts.

She turned to Nahko and Eska: “Girls, I need to go.”

Eska rose and pulled herself out of the pool; she picked up a towel from a low bench and turned to Twilight: “Is everything a-right, Princess?”

Twilight took a deep breath as the parzaile wrapped the towel around her: “No, but this was inevitable, I suppose.”

She stepped into a pair of slippers and headed toward the exit, pausing a moment to look over her shoulder at the two concerned faces peering at her through the dim, perfumed haze: “If I never see you again, thank you for all you’ve done.”

She smiled wistfully as she turned away: “I’ll remember you in my dreams.”

Luna shook her head: “I do not recognize some of these symbols. I do not know how long it will take to decipher and undo this!”

“No need--I’ll take care of it.”

Three heads turned as one as Twilight stepped out from behind the Void, wreathed in dark magic. She reached out with a bloody hoof and touched its inky surface as a triple sacrifice circle blazed into being above the sphere like a gaudy halo.

“Let’s do this.”