Starlight in a Broken Vessel

by the-pieman

Chapter 79

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Chapter 79

I figured our next goal should be to find Pinkie and Cadence. With no word from them for so long, I’m getting worried. I figured I could at least ask the Red Queen about it. Who knows what information anyone has here in Wunderland? So Anne, Twi and I have left the strangely-altered room and I’m looking for another broom or something I can ask about the queen.

However, it looks like my room wasn’t the only thing changed. The hall is now plain, gray stone, very orderly but it doesn’t look very much like it’s been used in a while. It’s also a bit smaller, as I would no longer have much room if I wanted to grow. The plain, simple window at the end of the hall shows that the sun is up, but isn’t doing much beyond hovering right above the horizon.

Somewhat confused by the change, I continue the search. There’s no indication of anyone having been here, but if it was just a group hallucination, that wouldn’t explain Anne...

Anne, who is now rather distractingly in the edge of my vision doesn’t seem phased by the lack of... everything. I guess two months in Wunderland just kinda makes things like this seem normal.

Anne looks at me. “Can we go soon? I doubt it’ll be long before one of the... q- q- Queens gets the upper hand. Then this place’ll be theirs again.”

“Upper hand... Wait, this castle... it’s connected somehow to their chess playing?”

Anne looks at me. “Well... yeah. Whoever wins controls the castle, and is the Queen of the board until the next game. They usually play three or four games a day, and only things that aren’t from the castle itself stay. L-like my c-cage...”

“And by control... do you mean temporary ownership of the property, or actual omnipotent control?”

“As near as I can tell, as long as one of the Queens has won, they’re gods here. Or, rather, whichever one won, is.”

“So that’s why they wanted a winner chosen so badly. It’s a war, fighting for power, but the war is chess... with real players dying... jeez. Kinda glad I’m good at the game. Anyway, all we have to do now is just... leave the Board?”

Anne nods. “There’s a wall in the garden that the Queens won’t go through, I’m guessing it’s the edge of their territory. They used to have me play this weird version of golf with them, until the red one had me start posing as a statue instead.” Anne shudders again, pressing against me. She’s not even up to my shoulder, but it’s still nice.

Suddenly, a thought hits me, and a grin appears on my face unbidden. “Or... I could become a god... All I’d have to do is win a game of Chess and I’m the most powerful being around.”

Anne looks at me, and it takes me a moment to recognize the look on her face. While she had looked at Twilight with fear for resembling the queens, all I can see in her eyes now is resignation.

I start planning how to manage a coup against both Queens, when I hear Twilight. “But what about our friends, Anthony?”

“I’d have omni-power, apparently. I could get the entire service force of the castle to search for them, and they’d have to! I could even give you your magic back!”

“But you’d never leave.” Anne says. She’s looking down at the ground.

“What? Why not?”

“One... power corrupts, and you’d have absolute power.” I think that over for a moment, and Anne continues. “Two... those aren’t the original two Queens, and they didn’t look like that before.”

“Well, if the power is as limitless as you say, why not I use the power to change the rules? Why can’t I just say that once our friends are found,  no more matches can start, and once we are done here, I just ban any further chess games. I might lose my powers, but we’d have Pinkie, Cadence, and Twilight with her magic back.”

Anne shakes her head. “It doesn’t work like that. If you become a Queen... then you’re just a Queen. The mantles are in charge, not the pe- uh, ponies.”

“Wait... you imply that I’d turn into a pony? Again, why can’t I just use omni powers to alter the rules, make up my own? If I can’t, then that’s hardly an omni-power, which would mean the power isn’t infinite... What can’t the queens do if they win?”

“That’s not the problem though! The Queens don’t play the game!” Anne looks at me, her eyes frantic. “The game plays the pieces.”

It hits me. The Queens aren’t anything but puppets. It’s the Board itself playing the game. I ponder this for five minutes, shushing any interruptions. After a while, I finally decide there’s no way to take advantage of this new information. I give a resigned sigh.

“Fine, let’s just find Pinkie and Cadence... Where’s the exit again?”

Anne starts leading us, and we wander through some very simple, utilitarian halls until we reach the exit into the garden. As we do, a ripple passes through the castle once more, and everything goes white.

Not from a flash of light, or us being teleported though. Rather the walls, ceilings, and floors are pure white. Slabs of carefully interlocked marble made up the floor, and I can’t even begin to identify the walls. Everything is tall, slender, and graceful. It’s also terrifyingly pointy, everything coming to sharp tips jutting artistically in every direction. It’s like being in an inverted snowflake designed by either a sadist or a masochist, depending on if they planned on living here or not.

“Ooooookay. I think now would be a good time to implement the ‘touch nothing’ rule...”

Anne and Twilight nod, and I can see the metallic color begin to coat Anne again. However, I have no idea how sharp or strong any of this is. Guess that can be discovered later.

As we step towards the garden, we look out to see that it’s both beautiful... and horrible. Every single plant appears carefully trimmed of any sign of non-conforming foliage. Each tree is precisely the same as the ones nearby it, and the flowers are all facing in the same direction. It’s perfect. Way too perfect. Oh well, if more flowers attack, I can just burn them down. As long as we don’t wind up fighting the morbuzakh.

Anne waves us through the garden, but we run into a problem very quickly: every part of the garden is not only perfectly identical to the rest, but it’s also perfectly rigid. After pulling my foot off the knife-point blades of grass, we sit on the steps to let me recover and figure out how to proceed.

“Well, it’s not like we need to preserve this place, and it can just be fixed by the mantles or whatever after the next game.” I say, my hand lighting up, my inner pyromaniac coming to the surface and making me grin maniacally. I look at Twilight, praying for some form of agreement.

Twilight makes a ‘go ahead’ motion with her hoof towards the murderously beautiful greenery.

I then proceed to ignite my entire body, and run around touching whatever I can. After a few moments my sensibilities give up and I just start running around randomly, flailing my blazing arms in the air. The now-brittle grass and flowers crumble as I crash through them.


After a while, I’ve extinguished myself, everything around me black and powdery. I fall over and start making ash-angels, still giggling like crazy. Oh gods this is awesome!

I look around, still slightly dazed, and realize that the garden reverted to its ‘neutral’ configuration while I had been burning it. A minor waste at worst, because that was fun.

I walk over to Twilight and Anne, my movements a little shaky. I was still coming down off my little euphoric experience. I give a rather slurred statement.

“Fire... issho byootifuuuuul. Heheh. Hahaha... haaaaaaa...” Twilight and Anne look up from the game of tic-tac-toe they’d been playing on the steps.

“Sorry, wasn’t paying attention. What did you say, Anthony?” Twilight asked, looking completely innocent.

“I like burning things....” I just say lamely, my sensibilities slowly coming back. I sit down and take a few deep breaths, though they were interlaced with weak chuckles.

After a little while to rest, we got ready to leave... right as the castle and garden rippled, and the White Garden returned.

“Burny time! Burny time again!!”

Twilight face-hoofed, as my once-more ignited body leaps into the foliage. God bless Burnination!

After torching the entire garden again, I had Twilight simply carry me to the place that Anne indicated, and roll me under the gap in the hedge, my hand holding her hoof so we don’t get separated.

After getting through, the three of us took stock of the place outside the Board. An expanse of forest, much less jungle-like than where Twilight and I came into Wunderland surrounded us. With a shrug, as none of us had been this way before, we began to venture into the woods.

Half an hour into the journey, I hear a stomach growl. I turn to see whose it was, and I hear another stomach growl. Anne and Twilight both look embarrassed and hold their stomachs. I’d totally forgotten they’d need to eat, too.

“At least one of us doesn’t need anything more than cosmic stardust farts or whatever I live off of.” I sigh. “Fine, I suppose I can find something to kill and cook... Twilight, you can just look for plants that seem edible.”

Looking around, I peek around a tree, and see a white rabbit in a suitcoat asleep against a tree, a pocketwatch closed on the ground next to it. Well, I suppose the white rabbit would have to make an appearance sooner or later. And I can roast this one, as the other white bunny I know of is currently under pegasus-protection. He’ll have to do.

I creep up behind the tree as quietly as I can and I start charging some electricity through my hands. Just one touch and the bastard is fricasseed.

The rabbit rolled over a little, one ear twitching each time my pent-up electrical charge sparked or jumped between fingers. I decide to just make a brief, lightspeed movement and get it over with but before I can, the watch begins ringing, startling both me and the rabbit alike. The rabbit jerks its head towards the watch, flipping it open and gasping.

“Oh no, oh my, I’m only barely on schedule! I must’ve missed my first alarm!” Goddamnit, there goes lunch. The rabbit bounces to his feet, and darts off, moving so fast there’s nothing but a puff of dust and some skittering leaves. Holy crap, I think the furry little bastard just went faster than I can, from a standing start, without any kind of sonic boom or anything.

“And I was so close to finally killing a Disney character...” I sigh in disappointment and walk back to Anne to give her the bad news.

The way I word it makes it sound more like I’d been stalking a normal rabbit, and that it got away through no fault of my own, but only because mentioning that I’d been outwitted by a pocketwatch seems a little too degrading. Even for me.

Still, Twilight shows that she’s found some perfectly cubed potatoes and some rectangular carrots. She assures me and Anne alike that they’re perfectly fine, and that the only reason Equestria doesn’t grow them, ever, is because only scholars like Cubed Roots for some reason. I wish I was joking about that.

Anyhow, I suggest we get some sort of container or something to hold water in. Anne can chop the veggies up and I can boil water to make stew. After I dictate my plan, I feel pretty smart.

“See Twilight, this is how people get around without magic. Fascinating, isn’t it.” Adaptability, bitches! Anne and Twilight look up at me, and my smile fades as I see them simply eating the carrots raw.

“Well, fine then. If you ever feel like having vegetable soup, don’t come crying to me.”

The two shrug and go back to eating, seeming to enjoy the food fine enough. Anne seems to be enjoying it more than Twilight. “It’s so good to eat again.”

“What do you mean?” Twilight asked her.

I shake my head. “Well, they treated her like an inanimate object. I’m willing to bet they didn’t feed her at all.” I pause. “When was the last time you ate, Anne?”

“I’ll... just put it this way: I’m very thankful you can only die from being taken as a piece or if the Queen wants you dead while on the Board.” Twilight and I both grimace at the implication. Anne shakes her head and says, “But I don’t think it was intentional. Any piece on the board doesn’t need food to keep going, so long as they play. And I don’t think any Queen has even thought of eating in a long time.”

“Strange. Anyway, we should probably get to looking for our friends. If we were them, and you woke up somewhere random, what would we do?”

Twilight puts her hoof to her chin and thinks, while Anne scooches closer to me. After a minute or two of thinking, Twilight speaks up. “Well, Cadence will probably try to find the portal camp. The Gate is open all the time from this side, so as long as she can find the way home, we can get home. I... don’t really know what Pinkie Pie is doing right now.”

“So we look for the portal. Easier said than done on our own... Our best bet is to look around and hope something sentient knows where it is and doesn’t want to mess with us.”

“Well, I suppose I can fit at least part of that description.” The voice comes from above and behind me, and I whirl around to see that there’s a Cheshire cat laying across a couple of tree branches. Or maybe it’s the same one as before. It has the same matronly voice.

“And exactly which part do you fit, then?” I inquire, preparing for some kind of prank.

“Well... I’m sapient, and sentient, I certainly know where the Lookinglass Gate is, but I really want to, as you say, ‘mess with you’.” The cat grins widely, though not as wide as I’ve seen it go before.

“And what would your plan entail... wait, dumb question. If you tell me, it won’t be as entertaining.” I still want to know what it plans to do, then I get an idea. “How about a deal?” I ask, grinning back at the cat on the tree.

“Hmm... not many people, ponies, or other things have offered me deals... other than the aislinn mice, but that’s another story entirely.” the cat put a paw to her chin, a perfect mimicry of Twilight’s pose not two minutes before. “I suppose I could be amenable to a deal, provided it’s a good one.”

“Well, it’s more of a game, really. You give us a riddle to what you’d do to us. If we can’t guess it, you get to have your fun. On the other hand, if we do guess, you have to show us where the Gate is. How’s that?” I am about to try matching wits with a Cheshire cat. My brain wants to slap me. But if I can win...

The cat grins wider, and her eyes flash, turning from silvery to a sky-blue that matches my jacket. “It’s a deal. Shake on it?” The cat holds out a paw and I grasp it with my hand and we shake.

“Now what’s the riddle?”

“Hmm... Ah! Here’s one you’d at least be able to understand:

You cannot reach me, yet are already here

I’ve burnt in fire beyond any other, yet that was my genesis

You cannot escape my grasp without my permission or anger

Philosophers cannot understand me, and scientists can only describe me.

What am I?”

I think hard, but I know I said ‘we’ so that means Twilight and Anne can help. Can’t escape its grasp, and philosophers not understanding, but scientists only describing... It sounds like Hell, the place... but we aren’t already there... I share this opinion with the girls.

Twilight shrugs. “I was thinking Equestria, but then the whole ‘can’t escape without my permission or anger’... Well, I guess we need to figure out things that scientists can only describe.” Anne nods in agreement.

“Wait, your scientists or mine? We have completely different technological backgrounds...” I turn to the cat. “Hey, when you say ‘scientists’ which ones are you talking about?”

“The ones with an ‘s’ in the title of their professions.” That was either really pointless, or incredibly helpful... I’m not sure. I keep thinking on it. It’s certainly strange enough for Wunderland to be the answer, but we have reached it. Wait.

“What if it’s not a place but an object or something?” I ask Twilight. “Can you think of anything that might fit that?”

Twilight thought again. Even Anne was trying to think, but it looked like she didn’t have all that much knowledge or a good mind for riddles. Hmmm... it was created by being burnt in fire, that’s hard. I try ruling that out and thinking of what could fit the other criteria. I thought it could be magic in general... but scientists can’t describe it... Damnit, I’m not going to let myself get stumped by a cat!

Anne looks up. “M- maybe it’s something spiritual?” Twilight and I look at her, and she ducks her head. I shake my head.

“Anne, that’s genius! Aside from the first one, ‘religion’ fits the description... maybe...” I stand up and turn to the cat. Bracing myself. “Is the answer heaven or religion?”

The cat stops grinning. “No.”

“Oh fuck.” Next Chapter: Chapter 80 Estimated time remaining: 23 Hours, 51 Minutes

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