Starlight in a Broken Vessel

by the-pieman

Chapter 209

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Chapter 209

Six of the best songs I could think of, each matched by the demon, who even duetted me in one of them, louder but better than my ‘mere repetition’ method.

“Well, you’re good, I’ll give you that... but I have one that you might not be able to keep up with.”

I begin on Waiting for the End, by Linkin Park, and he soon begins singing along, then takes over, guiding the song and putting it through its paces to keep up with his own ability.

Bah, once again, you have shown you have a great wealth of music, yet your spring runs dry of talent! Why is there no heart to your music? Why is there no power in your voice? Why do you only hum echoes of the past?”

“Simple. If I sang for myself you’d get garbage. I can’t sing worth crap. Besides, even if it isn’t your music, isn’t remembering music so you can enjoy it again and again special as well? Creation is good, but only if it gets remembered long after the creator has passed on. I may not be a composer, but I certainly could not live my life at all without the joy and sadness music can provide. And if we could all be masters, we’d have no need for other creators and we’d treat music as mundane and unimportant as some Equestrians do, a truly horrible crime if you ask my personal opinion.”

Your mind is addled if you think music so simple. It is the fount from which magic flows, and I am glutted with power from it! As such, I cannot be beaten, not by your pitiful voice!”

“If you truly cannot be beaten... may I offer another challenge?”

Hmmph, as if. None can tame me, nor beat me, but I will not give you the advantage even then. I am no fool.”

“Exactly, that’s why the challenge is Gryphon Chess. If you are a fool, you’d lose to me in minutes.”

Hmm... fine. But only because I am bored, and do not get many chances to play. There is no gamble on this, else you would be lost even more.”

A brisk game of molten pieces and having to ask him to move my pieces for me -I may be immune to the heat, but I’m pretty sure the quicksand-like rock would suck me under if I tried going out to the middle- and I’ve won by a fair degree.

That was a good game. However, you still have not beat me, for I still hold all the power here. You cannot escape until you beat me, or the mistress takes you.”

“Incorrect.” I say simply. “When I entered, you said the challenge was to defend myself. Not beat you. You are changing the rules in the middle of a challenge? I take you for a demon and therefore not totally trustworthy, but I wouldn’t take you for a cheater.”

I said no such thing. The door said that, but I now sit in the doorway. The door stands open, but there was no contract of freedom with me.”

“So if whatever game I choose won’t let me win, what game would let me past if I won?”

There isn’t, for I am not so easy to beat. As I have stated, no-one can beat nor bind me.”

“And yet... you stay here? Why?”

... because contracts are binding, until they state they are completed.” the demon says, grudgingly.

“But you said none can bind you, and yet you have been so by this contract. So you can be bound.”

The demon says nothing, but shifts in place a little.

“Your pride and power may be unmatched, but you lack in some area, else you wouldn’t be here, a guardian to your mistress, something a truly unstoppable demon would not be. You are flawed simply from the fact of where you sit.”

I AM POWERFUL BEYOND YOUR KNOWING! I HAVE NEVER BEEN BEAT IN ANY FAIR FIGHT!” The magma monster screams, rising up angrily.

“Oh? Then how did your mistress cheat you into being here? If none can beat you fairly, what manner of trickery did she exploit to bind one who cannot be bound?”

She- she challenged me to a battle, and I would have won had she not changed what type! Battle is what my kind excels at, but she made it a battle of wits and wordplay rather than true might, and came after me with damned puns! PUNS!! Not even true witticisms and intelligent debate such as I might have enjoyed, but a battle of foul, disgusting PUNS!!!”

I glower at his insult. “You are sorely mistaken, as the power of a bard does not stop at music, but encompasses all vocal talents. If you are not sharp-witted enough to be successful in jest, you cannot truly comprehend the power of words and therefore, music by extent, for what is music but the speech of strings being plucked and wind rushing through holes?”

I- argh! They are nothing but trickery of words, twisting them like arms turned back by force!”

“And twisting words is something a master artist does, twisting how the string is plucked and how the wind travels through the holes. Words are meant to be twisted, and you cannot possibly beat me in that regard. Unless the bound and therefore defeated demon thinks he has no chance against my own razor tongue?”

You cannot defeat me, mortal, it took a god to bind me once, even your silly, sloppy mutterings of garbled contexts and meanings will not help you! Even if you beat me, which you can’t, you would not be free, for you cannot harm me!”

I smirk and step forward, my smirk becoming a smile as the demon retreats, though only a fraction of an inch. “You think you're RED-y for my rhymes? You'll soon be green as envious limes! I see you're not yellow, fellow, but I don't want to make you blue so get a clue. Then pur-pull the plug before you're played. Or I'll ‘orange’ a rain...bow on your parade.” The demon flinches from each pun, and they are pretty rough around the edges, but not that bad.

The rhymes are fine, but the puns ruin it all!” the demon roars, and raises a fiery fist.

“Well then, how about a sandwich?” I await the demon’s response with a giddy feeling inside.

The demon pauses, arm still in the air, shedding molten globules. “A... what?”

“A sandwich. Haven’t heard of it? Not surprised, they don’t make much noise.”

... I don’t like where this is going.”

“Fear not my flaming friend, it is nothing more than food, put between two pieces of bread. Now, would you like that on punpernickle or rhyme?”

Aaaurgh! I’ll flatten you, you disgusting punster!”

Folding my hands behind my back, I grin. “Lettuce review olive the facts: You’ve mustard up the worse-stershire skills I’ve seen, yet you relish yourself a master. Truth is, you’re full of baloney, and I’m the real gyro here. You’ll never ketchup to me; I’m the big cheese, see? So beet it. You’re getting served...”

The demon puts its hands to its head, and begins chanting, “La-la-la-la-la! I can’t hear you!”

“You think it’s hot down here? Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for you temper-ature. I’m hot stuff who keeps the fire going. My victory is already set in stone, I mean, I’m already kicking your ash all over the place. By the time I’m done they’ll put me in a magmazine. Maybe even Rolling Stone. You think my wit is real rocky, but I’m sharper than steel, you don’t realize my tactile-onic genius. Carve this into your tablet: I’m gonna win in a landslide so give up and just start gravelling .”

Just shut up and go away!” the demon yells, covering his head and sinking into the pool of magma, uncovering the door and groaning piteously.

I shrug and head for the other door. “Call me when the ‘master’ is ready to learn how to use words right. Otherwise... you’ll be left in the dust with no direction. Or you can just give up. I won’t feel too let-down.”

A few bubbles arise in the boiling stone, and there are no more responses from the defeated lava-lord.

Like a boss! Grinning, I continue onto the door. I feel pretty confident I can handle whatever ‘peril’ is next. Seriously though, did he really never expect comedy to be a weapon? Heh, it’s the best one I have.

Stepping through the doorway, I find myself in a short hall, terminating a spiral staircase heading upwards. The stone is now far better worked, and the designs on it are no longer painted, but tiled on. Thinking back, I could see similar designs in the previous chamber, they just hadn’t been so important at the time. They must be what’s been keeping Myrna from stonemelding and- Myrna! I’d left her behind! I turn to head back and a stone wall greets me where the archway to the lava room was. I try phasing through, to no avail, and find myself unable to disbelieve it into not being there.

Yeah, figures... guess I’m doing this alone. I move back to the fancy tiled area and take a further look around. Near as I can tell, it’s just a spiral staircase, with a golden symbol next to it. I can’t quite see it in the dim light, but the staircase can’t go too much further. Figuring the staircase is afflicted with magical bullshit like everything else, I light up and take a closer look at the gold symbol.

It’s shaped like a sideways eight, the symbol for infinity. Which could mean the stairs are infinite, I’m infinite number of steps away, I’m on floor infinity, right above coats and powdered wigs, anything.

Eh, whatever, just gotta figure something out. Maybe... I try sliding the symbol onto it’s side to make it read ‘8’ but it’s firmly set into the wall.

Well... I use my fire powers to heat up my hand to the point where I can ‘draw’ into the stone, but it’s absolutely heat resistant, which makes sense given the last room’s theme of lava. Scorch marks appear however and that works with what I need. Next to the golden infinity, I add some bits to the ‘equation’ so it reads

∞ - ∞ + 10

If that works it means I only need to go up ten stairs. Might as well try. I take the ten steps and, with no result, go up five more just in case, but give up and head back down to the symbol.

Well, I’m not entirely done with the equation deal, but it seems I can’t fix it myself. This is obviously utilizing altered physics... so I have to think differently. Maybe it treats the symbols I wrote differently. But I’ll need to rewrite what I have. The stone is smooth... I won’t be able to remove the scorch marks, but at least it’ll smudge over so it’s not in the way.

Scrubbing the wall down with my sleeve, I think I see something shiny underneath the scorch mark. Something that wasn’t there before. It’s... a minus sign? Right where I put mine? Well, more or less, at least... it’s a lot more polished than mine, with flecks of charred, blue-and-purple material in the corners, like a coating of paint...

I rub off the rest of the scorch marks thinking I can uncover more but there aren’t any. Just the “∞ -” deal, set in gold. Infinity minus what though? That’s an incomplete equation, you can’t just do that, it’s bad mathematics! Okay... new plan. What does this mean? Well, infinity obviously, but the minus sign indicates negativity, reversal, going backwards... going backwards... Hmmm... I get on the stairs and for my first attempt, start walking up them with my back faced towards the climb, as if I’m walking backwards... It takes a bit of time and I’m about to start heading back down the steps, facing backwards to my descent in case that helps, but when I turn I see that I’m in some sort of workshop, a large hole occasionally jetting smoke and ash into some sort of brass contraption in the center of the room.

Widgets, geegaws, doodads, and all manner of pots, pans, and flasks sit around the room, boiling things, frying things, sauteing things, and generally leaving a combination of scents both good and bad.

“I’m no moron, I know an alchemists’ lab when I see one. Question is...” I walk up to one of the better-smelling flasks and carefully pick it up for examination. “Whose is this and what are they making...”

“‘Tis a tincture of unending lust. I’d be very careful about sniffing too deeply starborne.” An aged, whispery voice says from behind me. “I brew many things, most simply because they are something I have not made in a long time.”

I turn, and see a shadowy figure of nearly fourteen feet in height, with wrinkles in its wrinkles and what looks like shadows boiling from its eye sockets, like flames lit in reverse. The figure seems to waver in the inconsistent light of the room, but the scale of the objects in the room make more sense now.

“I scarcely see many visitors anymore, Traveller. Why have you come here?” The shape finally resolves itself into the hunched shape of a hag, teeth rotten into a shiny beetle black in her grinning mouth, and purple and blue rags wrapped about her.

“I assume you are the mistress the doors and demon king mentioned. Also, if color means the same to hags, you wrapping yourself in purple implies royalty or importance...”

“You have it backwards, starborne. Purple decries a linkage to me, and thus is royal for its nearness.”

“So you are an important person then. Well, I came here with a problem and now that I’m here I have even more. Your trials have caused me the loss of my three friends to your servants, and I would like to ask for assistance in the locations of the four I’m looking for.”

“You would speak thus to me? As if we stood on equal ground?” The figure bristles slightly, standing a little straighter and bringing her height closer to sixteen feet. “And do you know to whom you speak?”

“No I do not. But yes, I do believe that all should be treated with equal amounts of respect unless they prove themselves unworthy of respect. I assume you are powerful and I do not say I think you are weak, I merely assume you have knowledge of this continent that exceeds my own and would ask a more-informed person for assistance.”

The grin on the hag widens further, and with a crackling of bones, the hag suddenly compacting into the size of an ordinary human and standing a little straighter. “So you come seeking knowledge? Of a wayward companion or a fleeing enemy?”

“That and the location of my other friends I’ve given up to make it to you. As powerful as you may be, I don’t think my friends are worth whatever your servants amount to and would like them back.”

“Hmm... well, technically, only one is in my service now. The harpy woman, with bronze skin.”

“And I assume you aren’t going to just let her go, or help me at all in getting my other friends back either...”

“Hmm... Well, I believe I may, actually. Here, in return for visiting me, something which nobody has even attempted in far too long, I give you these.” She pulls a pair of metallic orbs, each covered in an incredibly complex series of details. “They are favors, and I will owe you two. Use them whenever, and I will aid you thusly.”

“And exactly who are you?” I ask reaching for the orbs cautiously. I’m familiar with ‘favors’ being requested from powerful magic users is not always a brilliant idea.

The hag grins further. “Be warned, as you take these as payment for the entertainment you have given me, that I do not suffer fools gladly... for my name is Black Annis, and it is I who gave the gift of Magic to ponykind.”

“...and the alicorns?”

“Constructs from a very long time later, yet still quite long ago. And once, far more numerous than now. Now, I will answer no further questions of great import unless you wish to make use of a favor to ask them, and I believe you have more important things to request.”

“Would asking how the orbs are used when not in your presence be a question of great importance?”

“No, merely prudent. Simply crush one, and I shall take some time to find what you wish for. Do not worry, if you do not intend to break them, they won’t.”

“I see... and if I were to use one of these favors to request my friends and myself safely in a location nearby the one we came here to find... would you grant that even though Anne is still in your servitude, or must I free her another way first?”

“Heh, I would not be able to transport them on a single favor, but I could return your... friends. I will also grant you passage from the Ettermount as a boon, and one which I request no repayment of.”

“Thank you. Also, if it would not require a favor, could you tell me exactly what has happened to Rainbow Dash as an imp’s slave?”

“It will be wiped from her mind upon her return. It is for the best; do not argue this with me.” the hag says, and snaps her fingers. Instantly, Dash, Anne, and Myrna are inside the workshop, with plenty of space for all. Dash looks a little dazed, singed, and confused, but not too injured. “Now, you must go if you are to return to Black Port in time to catch your boat, Anthony.”

I shrug, figuring it’s no surprise that someone who basically explained that she gave ponies their magic and pulled off something I’d only expect Discord to accomplish... yeah, I wouldn’t put it past her to know my name. Probably even my real name. But no matter. I pocket the remaining orb, the other one had disappeared, likely having been crushed to use the favor.

“Now, before you leave, I have one gift for the rest of you as well. You gave your all, each of you, to aid your friend in reaching me, so I give you a favor, to use as you will.” the hag says, handing each of them an orb as well. They each look at it in confusion, still having not been told what the heck is going on. “And now, you must leave,” she continues, “may you fare well on your travels.” and suddenly, no snapping or clicking or anything else, we’re on the plains, maybe a half a mile from the forest.

Well, guess there’s only one thing to do. Our original mission.

Dash speaks up. “Uh, guys? I have three questions. Why am I crispy, what happened back there, and why is my rear all sore?”

I shrug. “Well, you uh... stayed back to fight off a bunch of demons while the rest of us kept going. The burns might be from that. As for your rear... well I guess it depends on the type of ‘sore’.”

“Idunno. Probably nothin’, it’s just real weird. Anyways, I stopped to fight demons for you guys? Man, I musta kicked their butts!”

“Sure ya did. We’ll have a big party for you later. For now, I have a quick job for you.”

Next Chapter: Chapter 210 Estimated time remaining: 1 Hour, 5 Minutes

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