• Published 21st Nov 2016
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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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Heart of Darkness

Zecora sat up in a dimly-lit, blank space and peered through the gloom, shuddering as a shadow swept overhead: “Luna! Are you here with me now / Or sadly did I miss you somehow?”

“No, I am still here--Twilight is able to penetrate the Void in a fashion akin to Reaper, and tasked me with letting you know that she is going to attempt to break the seals shortly.”

Zecora squinted and leaned forward, attempting to locate Luna: “For me that is most excellent news / for I now have no time left to lose!”

“Do you have a sense of where you are in here? Do you know where the ‘exit’ is, so to speak?”

“Indeed, that is where we five are bound / it lies--”

Zecora was startled by a sudden silvery glint in the distance; she strained her eyes in an attempt to make out its source.

“I am sorry--I did not hear the last of that...”

Zecora furrowed her brow and rubbed the back of a hoof across her face: “It lies at the top of this curs-ed mound.”

A low rumble shook the space, and a dark mist began to rise from the floor. Zecora stood and looked around in alarm: “Luna--do you yet remain? / There is more I should explain!”

The mist thickened and the air grew deathly cold. A shape loomed just beyond Zecora’s view: “L-Luna? Is-is that…”

She collapsed.

Zecora? Can you hear me? We are coming--be brave!”

The now-impenetrable mist flickered bluish-white for a moment, then went dark.

Gil furrowed his brow and watched pensively as Zecora’s body shuddered and spasmed. He looked between Bramble and Kla’atra: “I think we should wake her--something seems wrong!”

Bramble leaned down and focused on the zebra’s half-lidded eyes and heaving chest: “I agree--I don’t think she’s asleep at this point. It’s been almost five minutes, and she’s now struggling to breathe!”

Gil nodded and turned toward Kla’atra: “Alright, it’s up to you, again--please see if you can rouse her.”

Kla’atra’s eyes flashed silver for a moment as she folded in her limbs and tipped her head toward Zecora’s: “I will have made another attempt.”

Gil and Bramble watched intently as Kla’atra’s form faded in and out briefly while Zecora’s mouth moved soundlessly. Green Streak chewed her lip for a moment, then glanced up at the flickering shield. A dark shadow passed overhead, and a shape caught her eye as it scurried around the edge of the buried metal close by the pegasus.

She squinted at the blackened turf near her hooves and shrieked: “What the fuck?!”

Gil and Bramble’s heads snapped around in unison as Green Streak backed away from the shape. Gil glanced from her face to the ground and furrowed his brow: “What's Squish doing here?”

Kla’atra’s eyes flickered pale violet for a moment as she adjusted to her surroundings and focused on Zecora’s prostrate form, lying in the dark mist. She worked her mandibles for a moment and crouched next to the unconscious zebra. Her eyes glowed gold briefly, and a rough-hewn wooden door appeared off to one side.

Kla’atra rose and walked to the door, pushed it open and stepped into the hut beyond, glancing over her shoulder at Zecora as she passed through the threshold.

She surveyed the space, walked to a shelf lined with jars and baskets, and opened several of the jars, peering inside, replacing the lids, and moving to the next. Finally she reached up beneath a chink in the chitinous material covering her throat and pulled out a small, glittering scale, which she placed beneath a jar. She took one last look around the hut and passed through the doorway, returning to Zecora’s side.

Kla’atra’s eyes flashed pale blue and violet as she bent down: “Zecora! You may now have to awaken! We should all be in grave danger and might have had to move out!”

Zecora’s eyes fluttered open and focused unsteadily on the large, insect-like shape looming over her. She tried to sit up but fell back on her side: “Ooh--I am very dizzy! Did I fall asleep and not wake up?”

Kla’atra nodded: “Yes--I might have had to enter your mind again to arouse you. Gil and Bramble will think that they shall not be capable of maintaining the cloak for much longer.”

Zecora clenched her teeth as her stomach lurched: “I understand. Please help me awaken and we can continue our journey.”

Kla’atra‘s eyes glittered and flashed gold for a moment; the space became suffused with a bright light, as she and Zecora began to fade away.

Zecora smiled weakly: “Thank you! I know I’ve been a bother. I hope this will be the last time.”

“It shall have been no trouble…”

The space fell dark save for a silver glint in the distance.

Green Streak eyed Squish nervously and drifted back beside Kla’atra as the alien’s head suddenly snapped upward. Bramble looked down at Zecora as Gil furrowed his brow and squinted at Squish, who was now skirting along the edge of the rock-metal outcropping: “Has it been following us? Even up here?”

Bramble glanced up at Gil as Zecora’s eyes slowly opened: “I guess so. It almost never follows me beyond the stream, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it beyond the cave!”

“Why is it here, though? Can it perceive us behind this cloak?”

Zecora sat up wiped a trickle of bile from her mouth while Bramble chewed his lip: “I can’t tell--it seems to be interested in Grey Thorn, not us, and--”

Suddenly the small creature scuttled up to the ledge on which Grey Thorn’s shade was slouched and reached out a limb. As its dark-brown appendage passed through the unicorn’s translucent image, the shade brightened, then distorted and collapsed in on itself, disappearing a few moments later with a pale flash.

Bramble’s eyes went wide and Gil rocked back in alarm: “It-it absorbed the shade!”

Bramble stared at Squish: “That’s exactly what it looked like to me! That must be what happened to the others!"

Zecora took a deep, ragged breath: “What does that mean?”

Bramble kept his eyes locked onto Squish as he shook his head weakly: “I don’t know! We always assumed Squish was just another disembodied spirit, or semi-sentient fragment. We had no idea it could actually interact like that!”

Zecora nodded: “But then you saw me prod it with my hoof…”

Gil chewed his lip: “Yes. And now we may have another thing to worry about, beyond the Sentinel.”

He turned to face Zecora: “Did you contact Luna? Any news?”

“Yes--she said Twilight is ready to break the seals and open the Void, and that we should be ready.”

Green Streak eyed Squish warily then glanced up at the flickering cloak: “I think we’re about out of time in any event.”

Gil sighed: “Yes, I’m afraid you’re right. We have little choice at this point but to break for the highpoint of the Swamp, and try to distract the Sentinel as best as we can, and hope Zecora’s friend is truly able to break the seals.”

Bramble nodded: “And to make matters worse, I don’t think we can maintain this cloak at its current size once we get moving. It’s all I can do to hold it now while still!”

Green Streak shuffled her hooves nervously for a moment: “I can ‘fly,’ can’t I? I mean in a ghostly sort of way, yes?”

Gil shrugged: “I presume so. I’ve seen a few pegasi over the centuries take flight down in the Compound, so…”

The pegasus stood tall and threw back her head: “Then I’ll fly cover and act as a distraction as long as I can.”

Zecora struggled to her hooves and furrowed her brow: “That’s a terrible risk, and--”

“I know, but it’s the only thing I can do to help, and this whole thing has the feel of a suicide mission as it is.”

Zecora shuddered and retched: “Believe me, I know!”

Gil glanced at her with concern and caught a brief glint of silver in her eyes before she squeezed them shut for a moment. He raised an eyebrow and drifted around the side of the outcropping: “In any event, we should be able to hold this cloak together for a few more minutes. Let's make the best of it while we can.”

The others trailed behind Gil as Zecora tossed another hoofful of yellow powder up into the shield; Bramble rounded the outcropping last and glanced over his shoulder at Squish perched on the shelf where Grey Thorn’s shade had been. He chewed his lip for a moment, then fell in behind Zecora.

The party made its way across the pockmarked surface, ducking instinctively each time a band of shadow swept overhead, making their way slowly up the oddly-angled slope toward a bank of dark-gray haze.

Zecora stumbled and fell forward onto her her knees: “I-I’m having a hard time breathing.”

Gil frowned and watched as the zebra struggled to her hooves: “I’m not surprised. We’re almost as close as one can get to the Sentinel, and its connection point to the Vacuum. The draining effects are redoubled here, and it’s literally killing you. I know it’s difficult, but we have to go on as fast as possible!”

Zecora rubbed the back of a hoof across her eyes and stumbled forward, peering into the dark fog ahead: “What is that shape ahead?”

Bramble stepped beside her as the cloak flickered and nearly failed: “That’s the Sentinel itself. We rarely see its actual physical manifestation like this. I almost forgot how gnarled and vine-like it is.”

Zecora pressed forward another few yards, almost stumbling into a pit. She stopped and squinted: “It looks like some sort of tree crossed with a sea creature…”

She glanced back over her shoulder.

Gil tipped his head sideways: “What are you looking for?”

“Squish. Haven’t you noticed that it looks a little like the Sentinel?”

Bramble chewed his lip for a moment: “Maybe--a little? I don’t know…”

“Think back--as Grey Thorn. You must recall what it looked like when you found it on its world.”

“That-that was so, so long ago. Maybe.”

Gil drifted forward another yard; the shadows and fog deepened: “What’s your point?”

Zecora clenched her teeth and moaned in pain as what little was left in her bowels emptied out on the ground: “None-none of you knows much about animals, do you?”

The others glanced among themselves; Gil furrowed his brow: “No? And?”

“Squish and the Sentinel--there must be some connection--like a it’s piece or a larval form or a parasite or something. They’re related.”

Bramble stared back down the slope from which they had come, and caught a glimpse of a shape darting into a hole: “Could that be? I-I don’t know. I always assumed it came along with the turf and bog material, but I just figured it was caught-up in it, like accidentally catching a fish while taking lake water.”

Gil nodded: “I think you may well be right, Zecora--there may be a connection, especially since we now know Squish has a physical component as well.”

He pointed to the bag hanging around Zecora’s neck: “And I think you may be able to buy at least yourself a little more time--the cloak will collapse to just myself and Bramble moments from now.”

Zecora’s eyes went wide: “What can I do? I’m too weak to run, and I can’t fight without my pink compound!”

“The blue powder. Recall how Squish avoided it?”

Zecora fumbled in her bag for the relevant vial: “Yes--I remember! Do you think it will be enough?”

“Toss some on yourself and see! The cloak’s failing!”

Green Streak gritted her teeth: “Then it’s time to fly!”

Zecora tossed a dose of bright-blue dust over her shoulders and looked at Kla’atra: “What about you? You won’t be protected! Maybe there will still be enough space inside the cloak!”

Kla’atra’s eyes flashed pale green and magenta as she tucked in her forelimbs and bowed: “That would not to have become your concern. I might have yet enough psionic energy to have evaded the Sentinel one last time.”

She streched her long, spiny rear legs and kicked free of the cloak as Green Streak jumped into the air and spread her wings.

The cloak collapsed, and Zecora looked up in horror at the dark, naked shape writhing above her as Bramble and Gil vanished.

She began to stagger forward, fighting weariness and vertigo, keeping pace with Kla’atra as bands of shadow swept down from the sky, and the dark, twisted shape bent toward her.

Zecora stepped blindly into a hole and cried out in pain and fear as a tendril darted out of the fog. As it closed in, a light-green shape swept past, blocking the black ribbon: “Hey, ugly! You fucked-up once--care to try me again?”

A beam of pale silver light stabbed out from Kla’atra, driving back another tendril as Zecora lurched to her hooves and stumbled on, shaking a cloud of bright blue dust free that hung in the air around her like a sparkling nimbus. The dark ribbons recoiled, and a thin screech echoed in the distance.

She drove forward into the fog, which peeled back, repelled by the blue haze hovering around her body, with Kla’atra and Green Streak close on her heels.

The pegasus swooped low and touched down next to Zecora for a moment: “That thing sure doesn’t like your blue stuff!”

Zecora stopped to pant and spit out a mouthful of bloody bile: “No, it d-doesn’t. But I don’t know if that’s just shock and surprise or if it will hold up.”

Green Streak smiled and took off again: “Whatever--let’s ride it for all it’s worth!”

Zecora stumbled forward as the fog continued to part for her. Kla’atra moved alongside: “Shall you be unwell? Might you have yet made it?”

“I-I feel awful, but I have to keep going! If I stop now, I don’t think I’ll ever get back up!”

Kla’atra nodded and wrapped herself in a pale golden bubble for an instant, deflecting a tendril. A silver beam sprang out from her forehead and disappeared into the fog, eliciting another distant howl.

Kla’atra, Zecora and Green Streak picked their way through the fog as quickly as Zecora’s wobbling legs could carry her. She paused for a moment to re-apply her powder and squint through the nearly pitch-black haze: “Where are Gil and Bramble? Did the Sentinel get them? Where are we supposed to go?”

She was struck by a sudden wave of intense cold and dropped to her knees. Her eyesight failed momentarily, and when she regained its use she realized she was alone, surrounded by impenetrable darkness, illuminated only by her blue nimbus. She heard a dry, slithering sound and felt her heart skip a beat.

“H-help! Is anypony else here? Kla’atra? Gil?”

She heard a swish overhead and saw a distant flash of silver and gold, and struggled to rise. She stood and took a tentative step forward just as a gnarled, dark-gray shape, like a long, twisting tree branch, whipped out of the fog, sweeping aside her protective blue cloud.

Zecora cried out in terror and pitched forward to the spongy turf as the air was rent by a shriek, then a crackle of golden energy, then a burst of silver that stopped the Sentinel’s advance just long enough for a shape to block Zecora’s view.

Gil’s voice came to Zecora as though through a thick blanket: “Kla’atra! What are you doing?”

“I would have spent my last energy to defend Zecora! The end shall have come!”

She pointed up at a flickering three-ringed circle that had suddenly appeared above them, rotating and glowing violet and gold. Gil and Bramble burst into view as their cloak dissolved and the Sentinel lashed out at all five figures scattered across the turf at its base.

Kla’atra stood on her hind limbs, eyes glowing silver, and spread her other four limbs wide, generating a pale blue bubble which deflected the Sentinel’s strike. It burst on impact, throwing the alien backwards with a silver flash, stunning Zecora and tearing the alien asunder.

Gil and Bramble dashed forward, horns ablaze, to protect the unconscious zebra as Green Streak swept down in a last attempt to divert the Sentinel’s final strike.

All three converged as four dense, twisting bands of solid blackness crashed down on them through the fog with a whistling shriek.

But the fog was suddenly swept away by a withering blast of violet light that turned the Sentinel’s tendrils aside and lit the summit of the Swamp with the brilliance of a noonday sun.

Gil, Bramble and Green Streak froze and gazed up at the blazing circles and the dark, terrible, indefinite form that hovered above them, bathed in golden light, streaked with black, crackling with energy, stretching away into infinity.

I’m here, Zecora!