Starlight in a Broken Vessel

by the-pieman

Chapter 208

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Chapter 208

It’s been two days in total now. If we take much longer, we won’t be back in time to get on the boat before it’s sunk. The hot, burning plains have been tortuous, but we broke through the mirage concealing the mountain from ground view. That said, I’ve never done any mountain climbing without chalk, and we don’t have any packed so I have to avoid the steeper parts of the climb.

Deciding to go up and take a look, just in case this one has a ‘no flying’ trap like that cave the hag was in, we’ve begun climbing towards the odd, exploded-out mountaintop. It looks kind of like the barrel of a gun that banana peeled after a cartoon character put a finger in it. How the rock stays like that, I have no idea.

“Come on, man! It’s taken us two whole hours to get this far up!”

“Shut it Dash.” I search around for a foothold and find one but testing it knocks it free. “You think this is easy for an acrophobic?”

“Wait, you’re... scared of heights?”

“Scared? Is that what that sweaty, dizzy feeling is whenever I imagine falling? Gee, never would have figured that out, smartass.”

“F- for real?” Anne asks, slowing her ascension. “How bad is it?”

“I’ve had trouble with bridges not made with supports since I was six. Even those skybridges in airports freak me out to this day.”

“And... you learned basic mountain climbing anyways...” Myrna asks, slithering-slash-swimming through the mountainside.

“That’s correct, lizard-face, congratulations. As your prize, you win all the fucks I give. Put a sock in it and let me concentrate.” I manage to get a foot into a small crack and hoist myself up further, having a bit of trouble finding a good handhold.

Myrna sighs. “Why are you so... Oh forget it, here.” With a bit of molding, Myrna makes what amounts to a ladder shape on the mountainside for me to climb up. “Better?”

I glare at Myrna, grabbing the ladder’s rungs and climbing up them at a faster rate than my free-climbing allowed. “I’ll be ‘better’ once I’m at the top and am standing two meters away from any edge.”

“If I didn’t see it for myself... I’d doubt you’d ever done any rock climbing in your life.” Myrna comments.

“Listen, I’ve done more things to make myself nearly piss myself than anything else. Zip-lining, craziest roller coasters I could find, even going up in a biplane. I’m not going to give anyone the pleasure of being able to say they can scare me shitless more ways than I already have myself.”

“You are really weird.” Rainbow says. “But I guess that kinda makes sense...”

Anne shakes her head. “I could’ve just carried you up, y’know. Or Myrna could’ve. We’re both strong enough to.”

“The ladder is enough, thanks.”

“Whatever.” Myrna says, her snake body fully embedded into the rocky scree. The air is surprisingly warm, in spite of the significant vertical distance we’ve traveled. From everything I know of physics, it should be getting colder and colder, but... well, crap, I just looked down to see how far up I’d gone.

Annnnnnd this is where I freeze up, imagining any motion at all will end with me plummeting to my death and any errant breeze signals imminent demise. “Goddamnit... Carry me...”

Myrna, rolling her eyes, slithers back around and grabs me, acting as a horizontal surface I can lay on as she ‘elevators’ me to the top. I hate being babied...

A flash from a camera later, and I see a snickering Rainbow Dash fly out of my range. Damnit, now I’m going to be a laughingstock. Well, more than usual, anyways.

“I’ll get you for this, Rainbow Dash...”

“Pffft, like I haven’t heard that before.”

“Just shut up. If I can’t get the negatives, I’ll find your darkroom.”

“Yeah yeah, whatever. But seriously... you’re afraid of heights?”

“Fuck off.”

Rainbow just laughs. “Wow, I mean wow... aren’t stars supposed to be like... above everything? Like, as high as anypony can even go?”

“Wasn’t always a star. Now shut up before I pluck your feathers.”

“I’d like to see you try.” Dash mocks.

I look up at Myrna and put on the sweetest, most innocent face I can muster. “Hey, could you get me closer to Rainbow for a sec?”

“Ha ha ha, no. I don’t wanna have to carry her all the way home through that freezing swamp.”

“Fine... how much further to the top?”

“We’re almost there, just hold your horses.”

“Wait... what?”

I at least manage to get a laugh from Dash’s very confused face.

Finally, we reach the top of the mountain. Or, rather, a ledge circling the top about fifty feet below the blown-out top. Not ten feet away, slightly around the curve of the mountain, is a cave entrance, the exterior decorated with sigils and shapes in royal purple and dark teal, the occasional streak of charcoal black separating them.

“So I guess we knock and see who’s home.”

“Uh... why? It’s a creepy cave, bad things live in creepy caves, dude.” Rainbow says, gesturing at said cave.

“Yeah, and if I didn’t go into a ‘creepy cave’ after finding a way through an invisible wall that makes you sick, I’d never have gotten you from that hag who thought Anne was fugly and you were a pet.”

Dash is about to object but then seems to think better of it. “So... who do you think lives here then?”

“Only one way to find out.” I walk to the mouth of the cave and knock on the inside, trying to make an echo loud enough that whoever is there can hear it. “Anybody home?”

Looking into the cave, I can see it’s decorated with hanging herbs, the floor is smooth, but with a slight texture, likely for grip. The walls have intricate designs in colored paints, depicting symbols, sigils, glyphs, animals and humanoids, the sun, moon, and stars, and many more things besides. Some of the symbols glow faintly, illuminating the tunnel. A few feet further into the cave entrance is a solid, heavy wooden door, with a jack-o-lantern face painted on it in brightly glowing orange paint.

“Looks like we got ourselves an artist here.” I walk to the door to knock again, figuring just walking inside would be rude and the residents of this continent are at the very least civil and intelligent. However, before my hand touches the painted wood, the glowing face shifts as if watching my fist. I freeze, no longer sure if knocking would be a good idea. I recall the villa ‘door’ from Wind Waker and, a chuckle later, try talking to it like that one. “Hello?”

“Greetings, Traveller.” The face says, painted mouth moving to match the words. “What business have you here?” The voice isn’t very intimidating, but sounds vaguely disgruntled.

“Well, my group and I came because of a report of an... unexpected arrival on this continent that may be a serious problem, but we’re rather lost as our map is... negligible in it’s design. Not to mention apparently several years out of date.”

“And thou wishest what, Warlock? To seek my mistress’s aid and favor in repairing thy map? Bah, what a waste of time!” The door answers grumpily. “Thou have no luck at all, for you have come to the wrong place. My mistress bears not fools nor their followers.”

I’m getting tired of debating with a sentient glassless window and Spark up. “Make no mistake, door. I’m no Warlock, I am Starborne and am far from a fool.”

“A fool you are, and a Fool you’ll be, if thou give away thy secrets so. To seek my mistress is folly, fool, and you cannot even think to harm me; I am much too powerful for such minor threats as mere stars.” The face seems to tilt up, and I get the feeling the door would be crossing its arms and putting its nose in the air if it had either of those things.

“You call me fool, and yet you are the one who is making assumptions. I issued no threat and revealed no secret, merely corrected you on my identity. If you are so sure of your mistress not wanting to meet with me or my friends, I’d like to know how, as I’m not a fan of dealing with middlemen.”

“Because I’m the door, of course! A door keeps out all who seek to enter, regardless of intent, unless they be invited! It’s been over four hundred years since I’ve gotten to do my damned job, and damned will I be if I do not!”

“If she wants us off this mountain she must merely say so herself and we will leave, bearing no hostilities or ill will. Is that a satisfactory request?”

The door thinks for a moment. “Thou would have to ask my mistress, and she is not here now, is she? Otherwise, ye would receive thy answer and be off already; I do my job quite well.”

“Alright, well if you are of no use to us and there is nobody else who can, we shall make our leave, door, as I said we would.”

“W-wait, leave? No! You can’t do that, you have only been here for a few minutes! And I didn’t say the mistress was gone, only not here, you see. Uh, so... erm...” The door makes a swallowing sound, its face desperate, “Please do not leave?”

“What for? You said you did not want our presence, and there is a pressing matter that may be catastrophic to this planet as a whole I must attend to. If I can find no help here, we may as well return to our mission.”

“Wait... ‘catastrophic to the planet?’ Art thou... a hero?” The door asks, sounding a little wary.

“Some call me such, though I disagree. The path I walk is not one bathed in holy light, but I do fight to protect those who can’t help themselves.” I’m getting used to the pseudo-medieval speech pattern they have here.

“Hmmm... Mistress did say to... but then I’d have to... Bah! Fine, thou may pass, but one of your troupe must stay here to be of company with myself. Do thou take the deal as contract?”

“I have no troops with me, only friends. It is up to them to decide.” I turn to the girls. “So, who’s gonna stay and keep Mr. Door happy?”

“A troupe is a group! And thou say thou art not a fool...” the door grumbles.

I ignore the insult. “Rainbow, you up for having a chat with a talking door while we see this mistress of his? Or is someone else gonna volunteer to be the door’s ‘keeper’.”

“Eh, I’ll stay. I don’t like being underground, anyways.” Dash says, “I’ll be fine.”

“Okay then. We have met your requirement, door. May we enter?”

“Aye, you may.” The door swings open, revealing a dimly-lit hall heading in. After Myrna, Anne, and I pass through, the door slams shut. The jack-o-lantern face grins malevolently. “Ah, I may have forgotten to mention. Upon passing by my threshold, you have agreed to face the perils three beyond. And I must thank thee, Traveller. I am now free, for I have a contracted minion of my own now.” and the face fades away, leaving a solid slab of painted stone, glowing faintly in the tunnel.

Deciding to keep my Star form up I shrug. “Well, guess we go see whoever lives here, and get Dash back later. Can’t imagine what a door would use her for but she’s tough. Guess we prepare for these ‘perils’?”

“Assuming that was just a door.” Myrna says, sliding along. “Also, Anthony... I can’t merge into the stone here. Can’t shape it or anything.”

I recall the ‘stone wall’ illusion from the other hag. “Hold on, gimme a sec.” I focus on the same tactic of ignoring the stone’s existence but when I open my eyes it still stands. “Okay, nevermind, different trick applied here. You got other skills though. If a peril needs to breathe you can just choke ‘em out, right?”

“I- I suppose. Let’s just keep going. I don’t want to leave Rainbow back there with that creep longer than we have to. That door reminded me of something from Fable.”

“Never played it.” I admit. “If you think she’s in trouble then we should get through those three perils quick, right?” I wave my arm, signalling them to follow as I walk into the cave.

“Yeah.” Myrna turns back towards the depths of the cave, and we continue on.

After less than a minute, we come to another door, this one with a carven face of a one-eyed woman, her other eye socket scarred and empty. The face is carved from wood, but is kinda pretty, but only kinda. As we step closer, it shifts and turns towards us.

“Greetings, Traveller. Bear you gifts to enable your passage?” the door says, voice oddly kindly.

“We may or may not.” I say. “Define gifts. Do you accept money? Rare minerals? Special trinkets? Things from another land?”

“Such petty things will not interest my mistress, who once imprisoned me in stone for I came from a land further away than tomorrow. Now, I guard her home in penance for what I did.”

“Then what sort of gift would she accept? I have few objects of... highly notable value, but they tend to follow me, recalling themselves should they find me too far away.”

“When given in contract, something stays with its owner, regardless of its opinions or preferences.”

“Still, I would like to know what your mistress would like from us? We would like to pass quickly so we may face the three perils the first door mentioned.”

“Perhaps the passing of one such treasure as cannot be remade would suffice. Your companions, sir, are irreplaceable. One of them would be admissible barter.”

“And I would be getting back whatever I trade to you afterwards, right?”

“Passage onwards, yet to see my mistress. Would you give such as payment?” the door asks.

I think this over. I sigh and hold up the Lyre. “This instrument was specially crafted for me by the Constellations themselves. If I had to give up a special object, I’d trade this before my companions.”

The door cocks its head/face. “Yet you have already given one to the slavery of the imp at the entrance.”

“The imp demanded partnership, not trinkets. If the Lyre would have sufficed I would have given it up but the demand was for a living person.” Something clicks in my head. “What do you mean slavery? Talk, portal!”

“The contract was for one of your members to give themselves as companion to the imp. There was no tell of when this servitude would end, and thus the Imp was released from his own servitude, as per his own contract that stated only when he was master of another would he be free.”

“So he made Rainbow the door in his stead...” I leer at the door in front of me. “So, how do we get her back, and the imp back in his place. I would suggest you speak quickly.”

“She is not bound where he was; she is now his property. I have no doubt he has fled as far and fast as he may, to make as fine of use of his new prize as he is able.” the door pauses for a moment, “The Embodiment of Loyalty is a prize that may bring him princehood among the fel masters of his kind. However, that is no longer your concern. You traded her away, and that is done now. You must trade something that cannot be replaced to bear passage by me, and a mere star-forged instrument will not do.”

“And what will you do with my friends?” I seethe. “Tell the truth, and make it good.”

“Once given, they take my place until another trades with them. I will then be freed to my own homeworld, and be able to slay whomever has taken seat upon my throne and return it to my control.”

“Fuck off. I’m going to get Rainbow back and you aren’t getting anyone from me. Stay there and get woodrot.” I turn back and gesture for Myrna and Anne to follow back out the cave. “Let’s go get her back girls. Should’ve known not to trust a talking inanimate object.”

We get back to the closed door, only to find it nothing more than painted stone, which Myrna again cannot alter or pass through.

Sighing I walk back to the pretty/not pretty door-woman. “Let us out of here. And don’t try being funny.”

“I have no power over the entrance. By passing that threshold, you bound yourself to overcome the trials within or die trying.”

“So you want something special, but a creation of the constellations is not worthy? I find you greedier than the hand of Larfleeze himself, door.” I dump out all the stuff from my backpack to display for the door.  “I’m not going to give up any more of my friends, what else would you take?”

“You bear no trinkets my mistress may yet be confounded by. I was taken for the uniqueness of my position and cruelty. It is only fitting another of equal yet different standing be taken in my stead.”

“And you must be the one who decides what is equal in value to yourself? It must be since I doubt your mistress would pass up what I’ve already offered. If my assumption is false, she herself must tell me otherwise. If you truly think yourself above the stars... I’d like to see you prove it.”

“I once commanded a nation amongst the stars, and thousands died by my command each morn; merely forged by stars is no great feat.”

“Your greed truly knows no bounds, nor does your ego it seems. If a starforged artifact is not enough, I fail to see how I’d have anything ‘worthy’ of you... other than the dirt under my feet.”

“One of your companions would suffice. I have never seen beings of their kind before; they would stand well for me in this position.”

“I’d rather fight a thousand of you than-” a ‘hand’ of bronze feathers settle themselves on my shoulder.

“Anthony, if it means you can continue on, I’ll do it.” The bronze harpy-girl sighs quietly. “You have to rescue Rainbow Dash; she’s our friend.”

“Alright, fine... but I’m coming back for you after.” She smiles and nods in understanding, before pulling me into a tight hug.

After she lets me go, she walks over to the door. “I- I will stay, so they may go.” The door nods to her, and strands of stone and wood reach for Anne. I can only watch as they drag her into the door, the face morphing into Anne’s. The door, now bronze in place of stone, gleams in the dim light, then opens. Parallel trails of moisture leak from her closed eyes.

“She was an owned object before, I’ll get her out of it again. Come on Myrna, hopefully the trials we face involve punching something’s face into jelly.” Angry at having to temporarily sacrifice Anne I continue through the door.

The metal door slams shut behind us, the edges fusing into place. Ahead, though, is a tunnel that slopes sharply down, and the air feels a little warmer. Deciding just standing around isn’t going to find Rainbow or rescue Anne, I continue along, half noticing my core has decided I am angry enough to have my Heat Form triggered, though I’m not producing flames, so it’s definitely not the cause of the rise in temperature.

A hundred feet down the tunnel or so, the floor is so sharply angled that I slip, and begin sliding down the tunnel, only stopping short when Myrna snags me by my backpack, pulling me to safety. “You had better be glad I have good traction with all this surface area, Anthony. And by the way, it’s getting really hot down here, and so dry.”

“We press on anyway. Besides, I give it a twenty-to-one that the next door we find is gonna want you.”

“Let’s hope not.” Myrna says, before gripping me under the armpits and beginning to slowly take us down the slope. Thankfully, after it’s been mostly vertical for about ten feet, it levels back out. Myrna sets me down, and wipes a sheen of sweat from her head. She also takes off her shirt, leaving just her bra on. Any part of her that isn’t scaled is sweating profusely.

“Stay here, I’ll keep going. You should be fine, just get cooler, head back a bit, you don’t look so good.”

“We don’t know what’s ahead, Anthony. If it’s something we have to do together, I can’t simply leave you because I’m a little heated, alright? I’m a snake, I’ll be fine.”

“Alright, but if you pass out from heatstroke I’m dropping everything and getting you out of here ASAP, got it? The only body I’d leave here is mine if it comes to it.”

“Sure. Let’s just get this over and done with. And damn, where is this heat coming from?” She asks as we walk along. “This is just a mountain; if it was a volcano, there would’ve been smoke above it, and there wasn’t.”

“We walked down kinda far. Maybe some sort of magical bullshit put us closer to the planet’s core. And don’t say that’s impossible, I’ve seen what some of these hag-things can do and I wouldn’t put that past them.”

“Yeah, I guess...”

“Just... lean on me if you need to.” And don’t worry that you going limp on me for real might crush my spine, I silently add. If I had to get her out of here, I’d probably turn us intangible and get us out of the mountain that way, and hope we walk out onto a ledge. Shaking the thoughts away, I keep going until I find a cavernous room, lit by fiery orange-red light filtering from a wide hole in the center, leaving only a person-wide ring of a ledge around the edge. Inside the hole is a lake of lava, and even I can feel the heat and painful dryness of the air from the entrance to the room. Myrna has ditched her backpack, bra, everything at this point, just to be able to keep going, and she looks utterly taxed.

Across the room, I can barely see another door through the shimmering heat haze, the powerful smell of sulfur tainting the air like a carton of rotten eggs that’ve been smashed. Occasional plumes of smoke rise from the magma more than a hundred feet below, the cloud of dirty ash slowly rising and being sucked through a hole in the roof of the room. I should probably try to find a way to cool it down, or else Myrna won’t live through actually entering the room; we’re still a few feet into the entrance tunnel.

Hmmm... Cooling lava is not one of my powers but though I can tell it’s hot it’s not debilitating at all through my heat form at least.

“Stay here. I’m gonna see what I can do about the heat.” Walking into the room, I hear a loud crashing ‘wham’ noise and see a door has separated Myrna from me. Well... it’ll at least keep some heat in here so she should be fine if she hightails it back up the slope.

Defend yourself, and you may pass!” a voice booms from the opposite side of the room, accompanied by a rumble that shakes the entire room.

“Nice pipes, buddy. Heard better. Show me what you got.”

A flaming hand, as wide as I am tall, rises from the magma, and I can feel the heat triple in response. Never before have I been more glad of my heat-proofing. Another rises, followed by an immense central lump, which sheds unconscionable amounts of molten rock and waves of heat.

“Yellow Devil meets Heatblast? Really? That’s it? Bring it on.”

A wide, fiery maw opens, a series of pristine crystalline teeth baring themselves as the creature clears its likely metaphorical throat.

Ahem. I am the magma demon Arian Pinafore Megadenza Extremus. And I am going to throw some rocks at you now.” And sure enough, he throws a glob of flaming rock at me.

“Buddy, if you happen to have a chain nearby I can yank to ‘flush’ you, I am going to facepalm then laugh my head off.” I inform the monster with a long name as I go intangible and let the rock sail through me. The semi-liquid material splatters the wall behind me and begins oozing towards me, nearly sweeping me off before I notice it.

“So your plan is to, what? Drag me into the lava? Newsflash, that ain’t gonna do shit.”

That is not all I can yet do.” The demon informs me, before clearing his throat again. “Mee-mee-mee-MEEEEEEEEEEE

I fall to the ground clutching my head. Man, that note hit me like a hangover... Like everything was trying to boil out of my head at once. The pain is increased in a metaphorical manner now that I realize that my joke earlier about TGMP wasn’t actually too far off. “So... do I sing the first verse, or take the second?”

None can usurp my singing prowess, nor can any upstage me.” Now that sounds like a challenge to me.

“Yeah well... my singing prowess has special effects of it’s own. Would you like to hear?”

Nay, for there is no voice to match or beat my own, in beauty nor intensity.”

Prove it.” I take out the lyre.

Next Chapter: Chapter 209 Estimated time remaining: 1 Hour, 19 Minutes

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