Questball - Chapter III
The Beast in the Woods
In Chapter II, you, the reader, chose to have Vlarax stand and fight the beast that confronted him in the forest. Let us now put his mettle to the test.
At the end of this chapter yet another choice will await thee…if Vlarax makes it that far.
The beast approaches now. In the darkness Vlarax can see only the glow of its yellow eyes, and smell its hot breath.
So much for going on a quest, he thinks to himself.
But something inside him stirs. Something he has never felt before. At first he thinks it might be indigestion, but then it tells him to stand. He does so. Despite his mind telling him that it’s over, that he’s done for, this mysterious force urges him on.
He stands before the creature, not more than an arm's length away. And with his last ounce of courage, drawn from somewhere deep in his soul, the mysterious force inside him tells him to…
Eye to eye with the beast, Vlarax’s courage remains stout. He conjures a spell in the ancient Tongue of Magick, and a wind begins swirling around him, raising the leaves into a vortex with he and the beast at its center. He lifts his arms to the sky and his hands begin to glow in a fiery hue of purple.
“Gal-san korafus a ni o baad sax mu…” Or something like that. Don’t try it at home.
But the beast is not deterred. Its yellow eyes are still locked on Vlarax, face to face with him in the night.
With a mighty yell Vlarax brings his hands to his chest and thrusts them at the beast. “Níafaran!” This is a great smiting spell Vlarax learned in school but has never cast before, for smiting spells are illegal except in self-defense, and even then you need a permit. The swirling vortex spins faster. Out of his glowing hands, aimed directly at the creature’s skull, comes…
Not an all-powerful, magickal smiting butterfly. Just a butterfly. Slowly and clumsily it flaps its delicate wings through the air. It alights on the creature’s horns for a moment before taking off once again and disappearing into the night.
Shit, he thinks. Was it “Gal-san korafus” or “Gal-san korafis”? He wishes he’d spent more time in school studying spells and less time smoking his pipe. But such is life. It was a good try at least.
His efforts at magick exhausted, he has no choice but to stand his ground and accept his fate. He looks the creature in the face. He can now make out its features in the dark. Somewhat wolf-like, with an elongated snout, razor sharp teeth, and horns like a bull. Its head is at the height of a man’s when standing on all fours. Perfect for staring into one’s soul with those haunting yellow eyes.
As he takes in the countenance of his eventual ruin, he notices a few things amiss with this whole situation:
It has been quite a few seconds, but he hasn’t been eaten yet.
The creature is holding a stick in its mouth. As a matter of fact, the stick bears a striking resemblance to the one he threw at it when their encounter began back at camp.
As it stares him in the face, stick in mouth, its tail — which is barbed with spikes — wags a little.
Vlarax reaches his hand forward. The creature drops the stick at his feet and lays in the dirt in front of him, tail wagging wildly.
Vlarax slowly — very, very slowly — bends over, picks up the stick, and throws it.
And off the creature goes.
“I see you’ve met Cynthia,” says Granwell. Vlarax enters the camp, having walked back the whole way playing fetch with this creature in the dark.
“Yes,” says Granwell. “My dog.”
Vlarax has never been much of an animal person, but he has seen a dog before. This thing most definitely does not fit the description.
“A little warning would’ve been nice,” Vlarax says. He sits down on the ground and leans against his pack. Cynthia trots over to Granwell and licks his face.
“Sorry about that,” Granwell says. “She was supposed to stand guard in the woods until I got back, but she just loves to play. Seems to really like you, too.”
They get the fire going and roast some snake skewers that Vlarax’s mom packed before they left. To Vlarax, after the day he’s had, this just might be the best meal he’s ever eaten. To Granwell, more accustomed to quests and less accustomed to eating snake, it’s about average.
When they’ve finished eating, Granwell puts out the fire and prepares his bed.
“You want first watch or second?” he asks Vlarax.
“Watch? What do you mean watch?”
“You didn’t think you were going to sleep all night, did you?” Granwell says.
“Well,” says Vlarax, “I kind of assumed we’d be sleeping at some point.”
“Prepare thyself, Vlarax. You’re on a quest now,” Granwell says. “I tell first-time questors the same thing I tell first-time parents: Your days of sleeping through the night are over.”
At that, Granwell rolls over and goes to sleep, with Cynthia beside him. Looks like Vlarax has first watch.
Vlarax wakes with a start. He’s lying face down and has to wipe a few leaves from his cheek as he rises. I must have nodded off, he thinks. He looks around and sees Granwell and Cynthia, still fast asleep. He heaves a sigh of relief. On a quest, the only crime graver than falling asleep on watch is falling asleep on watch and getting caught.
He stretches and takes a swig of water to wake himself up. Then nature calls. Quietly, he steps off into the woods to take a piss.
Moonlight struggles to penetrate the canopy, and only a faint glow reaches the ground. Vlarax doesn’t want to piss in the campsite, but he’s too scared to wander far in the dark. He settles for pissing about ten paces from where he was lying, facing outboard. Unable to see the ground, he adjusts his stream until it impacts a quiet patch of dirt. A long-awaited piss onto a pile of dry leaves on a quiet night would be enough to wake an army.
This piss feels great, and Vlarax counts it as the high point of the quest thus far, with the possible exception of the snake skewers. He closes his eyes and soaks in the moment. He remembers how cozy and carefree he was sitting in his basement smoking his pipe and playing Questball. Already those days seem a long way off.
When he opens his eyes, the darkness in front of him has somehow grown darker. The trees, which he previously could just make out, are now shrouded in a black haze that drifts slowly in many directions like a fog.
Vlarax is struck with a dull terror and wants nothing more than to stop pissing and get back to camp. But he hasn’t peed all day and it keeps flowing. He turns around to signal Granwell and Cynthia, but they are invisible behind the black fog. When he finally finishes his business he becomes disoriented. He tries walking back to camp but doesn’t know which way to turn. He moves a few paces backwards, then left, then frantically in all directions, but even the ground is too dark to see.
A deep, menacing whisper emanates from all around him. He tries telling himself that that’s just what forests sound like at night, but is unable to convince himself of this after the voice very clearly says his name.
Vlarax stands there in a cold sweat, looking now left, now right, but still seeing nothing. Then, from the blackness, comes an arm.
It grabs him by the throat and lifts him into the air. It seems to be made of the same stuff as the fog but is unquestionably an arm.
The voice comes from all directions louder now, in that same haunting whisper. He has no idea what it’s saying, but given the circumstances he gets the impression it’s not good. It squeezes tighter around his throat until he’s gasping for air. He fights, thrashing at the arm to knock himself loose, but the arm is not of the physical world, and his hands pass right through it.
As he struggles for breath, a terrible face appears from the darkness. It’s blurry and distant at first, but as he looks into what he assumes are its eyes it begins to take form. It opens its mouth to speak.
It vomits a stream of ice cold bodily fluids directly into Vlarax’s face.
“Vlarax! Vlarax! Wake up, lad.” The cold water hits him and he shoots up with a violent gasp for air. Granwell is standing over him with a bucket. Cynthia licks his ear. “You fell asleep on watch. Not cool.”
Granwell wants to chastise him for this, but there’s no time for that now.
“You were yelling something in your sleep. It sounded like Evilish, the language of Evil. Tell me what you saw.”
When Vlarax regains his senses the first thing he realizes is that he has peed himself. That part of the nightmare, at least, was real. Luckily, the bucket of water has soaked most of his body and Granwell is unlikely to notice. He describes to Granwell what he saw.
“Then the Evil Brewing in the North knows we are here,” he says. “It knows we are coming for it.”
Granwell rises and starts gathering his gear.
“Pack your things,” he says. “Time to move.”
“So where exactly are we going?” Vlarax asks. They’ve walked for hours through the night, and the sun is just now beginning to dawn. Granwell has been silent the whole time.
“Side quest,” he says.
“Side quest? As in, we’re not going to fight the Evil Brewing in the North just yet?” Vlarax is entirely okay with this idea.
“Precisely,” Granwell says. They reach a clearing in the forest, where the path forks in two directions. Granwell pauses and scans the surroundings, trying to gather his bearings. “It’s a seven week journey to reach our hideout, where you will meet Everdale in the flesh and begin the next phase of your training. Until then, we’ll need some money.”
Granwell pulls a map from his pouch and takes a knee to study it.
“Money?” Vlarax asks.
“Yes. Money,” says Granwell. “How else do you think we buy shit?” He doesn’t look up at Vlarax while he speaks, but continues tracing his finger along the map.
“I don’t know. I assumed you guys got funding from, like, the Forces of Good, or whatever,” Vlarax says.
Granwell continues studying his map, and the group is silent for a minute or two, aside from Cynthia’s panting and occasionally scratching her ear. Granwell rises and returns the map to his pouch. Then he turns to face Vlarax.
“The Forces of Good are all dead,” he says. “And when they were alive they were dead broke. Turns out peace and harmony and all that is not the best business model.
“And anyway, we need to get you out of the Evil’s sights. It found you, somehow. The best way to get you out of its head is to get it out of yours, to turn your mind to something else.”
Granwell points to the path on the left.
“That way lies battle. The city there has been under siege for years, with neither side able to gain an advantage,” Granwell says. “Perhaps if we could help one side or the other prevail, there would be a hefty reward in it.”
How Granwell determined this from looking at a map we’ll never know. He points to the path on the right.
“That way the map has a bunch of little drawings of rabbits with swords,” says Granwell. “There’s also a tavern. I have no idea what the rabbit drawings mean. Perhaps they’re just a bit of artistic flourish. But a pint would be nice.
“Anyway, you’re the hero on this quest, so I’ll let you decide which way to go. Now quit looking so indecisive twiddling your thumbs over there and take your pick.”
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