Questball - Chapter VI
If you’re just getting caught up, you can read the previous chapters here:
In Chapter V you chose to have Vlarax challenge some locals to a game of Questball and, King willing, take their money. Let us now see if their plan bears fruit.
With luck, another decision will await thee at the end…
“All right,” says Jimmy, “Questball it is. Wizard, I hope you’re as good as you say. If these guys win and we don’t pay up, we’re in for a whole lot of trouble.”
Vlarax closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. It has only been a few days since he last played Questball, but it feels like an eternity. While he unquestionably has been the most incompetent member of the fellowship up until this point, now, with the game before him, his demeanor changes. He puffs up his chest, breathes out, and approaches the table with cool confidence.
“Any of you fellows up for a challenge?” he says to the grungy louts gathered around the table. Its surface is riddled with coins and half-empty pints of ale. The air is filled with a dense haze of merryberry smoke from their pipes. And in the center of the table sits Questball, an orb glowing in all its crystalline brilliance.
Most of the men ignore him. They’re too enthralled with the game. But one particularly murky character squints an eye at him and blows a puff of smoke in his face.
“What’ll ye wager, then?” the man says.
“I’ll wager I can beat anyone in here in a deathmatch,” he says. The man laughs and takes another pull of his pipe.
“Ay, Lerry, this chubby wizard fella says ‘e can beat ye in a deathmatch.”
“He got money?” says Lerry.
“Ye got money?” the man says to Vlarax.
Vlarax hesitates for a moment. He looks at Jimmy, and Jimmy nods.
“Money? Money. Oh yes, of course. Money,” Vlarax says. “I have money. Lots of it.”
Vlarax sits at the table with three other gamers. To his left is an obese man in dark glasses whose tunic hangs open loosely at the collar, so that a tuft of sweaty chest hair protrudes forth. He portrays no emotion and doesn’t so much as glance in the direction of the other players. To Vlarax’s right is a short, spindly rat-like man who is constantly fidgeting in his seat and rolling coins between his knuckles. Directly across the table from Vlarax is Lerry, clearly the most accomplished of the Questball players among them. He wears a two piece jumpsuit with stripes down the sleeves and the sides of the legs. Gaudy gold jewelry hangs from every part of his body from which jewelry can conceivably be hung. He stares at Vlarax with eyes like ice. On the rare occasion that he smiles, it is somehow even more sinister than the sinister resting scowl face that is his default expression. If one were to guess which patron of this tavern has most likely murdered someone, Lerry wouldn’t be a bad choice.
Lerry explains the rules.
“It’s a deathmatch, every man for ‘imself,” he says. “Ye get one life. Beyond that, there ain’t no rules. The wager is 500 groats a head, winner take all. Since our wizard friend ‘ere is new to our little party, we’ll choose ‘is character for ‘im.”
While Vlarax had always played Questball as a custom character – a knightly, heroic version of himself – it was possible to play the game as any variety of creatures. The types of characters one could choose were limited only by what the mind could conjure. One merely had to open the character conjuration screen, close one’s eyes, and imagine something. Common throughout the Questball world were giants, elves, and very busty women in two-piece armor bikinis. Matter of fact, most of the giants and elves were scantily clad females, too. But the serious players tended to opt for something heroic rather than sexy. For the less imaginative, there was, of course, always the default character: Richard. The lowliest of the low in the Questball universe, if one saw a Richard walking around it could be assumed the player was new to the game, or was otherwise an idiot. Richards had no skills, no weapons, and were commonly used for target practice. Killing them was seen as a fun, low-effort diversion from more challenging quests.
“You’ll be a Richard,” says Lerry. “Congratulations.” The others laugh, but it is an unsurprised laugh, indicating they knew this was part of the plan all along, perhaps a regular prank they pull on overzealous outsiders. Even chest hair guy gives a smirk.
“A Richard? That’s not fair!” Vlarax says. “How am I supposed to fight in a deathmatch as a Richard?”
“Oh I’m sorry, m’lord, I didn’t realize this group of cutthroat tavern ruffians was beholden to yer strict ethical standards on fairness,” Lerry says. His scowl briefly turns into a sinister smile. He looks Vlarax directly in the eye as he says this, then he hocks something up from deep in his chest and spits on the ground.
Vlarax closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and places his hands on the table. When he opens them he’s standing in the ruins of an ancient desert temple. The sun is high in the sky above, its afternoon rays scorching the ochre earth. He steps into the shade, where it’s a little more comfortable and the light is less blinding. A hot breeze blows sand into his eyes and nostrils, and when he moves his tongue around in his mouth he can feel it encrusted to his teeth in hard, wet clumps.
One of the draws of Questball, why it had so many fans who were addicted to it, was its realism. All of your senses were engaged, every detail of the environment felt real. For Vlarax, if anything, it felt more real than reality. That is, until he embarked on a real quest with Granwell, and he discovered what reality really felt like. Namely, it hurt.
That was another thing about Questball: no matter how badly you got injured, no matter how much you were stabbed, slashed, smashed, slapped, or disemboweled, it didn’t hurt that bad. You didn’t have to get chafed, or hungry, or dehydrated, or tired. It had all the good feelings of reality and only a hint of the bad. This was in stark contrast to what it felt like to go on a real quest, the vast majority of which consisted of a constant feeling of all the above. Of course, there were some players who enjoyed pain and would turn their Agony Meter all the way up to 100. But that was more of a niche thing that Vlarax never got into.
Vlarax mutters “display Settings” and multiple bars and numbers appear in the corner of his vision. He sees that his Agony Meter is set to 50. So this deathmatch will hurt a little, but nothing he can’t handle.
He looks down at himself. He’s a scrawny man in a plain brown tunic. No weapons or armor. He runs a bit then jumps to test out his character’s abilities. He is grossly underwhelmed. Yep, he’s a Richard all right.
The part of the ruins he’s in forms an arena of sorts, an open space in the center surrounded by fallen towers and windblow statues of forgotten gods. From the other corners of the arena, three figures step out from behind the ruins. To his left is a massive troll. Its belly, big enough to fit a band of horses inside, protrudes from its undersized jerkin. In its hand it carries a club which might as well have been a fully grown oak ripped directly from the ground, for it is larger than Vlarax’s body. This must be chest hair guy. Vlarax sizes him up. Strong and durable, but slow and stupid. He’ll have to beat him with speed and cunning.
To his right is a sort of rat-faced winged goblin. It darts back and forth nervously, flying low to the ground, spitting venom and flashing its claws. This must be the little guy. His character is much faster than Vlarax’s Richard. To defeat him, he’ll have to find a way to negate this advantage, possibly by channeling him into a confined area where movement is limited.
Finally, directly across the arena from Vlarax, is Lerry. His character is a seven-foot-tall Viking in a horned helmet and vest of mail. His muscles bulge as he grips a two-headed battle axe in one hand, and a spear in the other. His character doesn’t appear to have any physical weaknesses that Vlarax can exploit, but he gets a feeling Lerry is overconfident and prone to anger. If Vlarax can do something to make him mad, to really piss him off, he might stop thinking clearly and make a mistake.
As long as Vlarax can fight them each one-on-one, he’s confident he can defeat them, even as a Richard.
“All right, boys. You know the drill,” says Lerry. “Team up and kill the Richard, then we split his money three ways.”
So much for one-on-one. Vlarax quickly devises a new plan: run away.
He bolts backwards towards a wall about ten feet high. The other three follow in unison. If he gets to the other side, it’s a maze of ruins through the desert. That should give him enough time to think, and to channelize them into terrain that negates their advantage in numbers.
He jumps and grabs for the top of the wall. His hand comes up about a foot and a half short. His Richard’s knees give way when he lands, and he falls backwards into a plume of dust.
The other three laugh as he gets up and dusts himself off. Time to think quick. He does the first thing that comes to his mind.
“Hey, big fella, what was that you said about Lerry’s mom?” he says.
“What? You was talkin’ about me mum?” Lerry says, angrily turning towards the troll. “Nobody talks about me mum!”
“No Lerry, I swear, I didn’t say nothin’,” says the troll.
“Not cool,” the goblin chimes in.
The three of them begin a heated argument. Vlarax uses the opportunity to find a weapon. He sees a bronze statue of some hero of yore on horseback, scimitar raised in the air in glory. Or maybe just airing out his pits. That’ll do.
He scurries over to the statue, climbs the horse, and pries the scimitar from the hero’s grasp. Then, while the three others are preoccupied with their argument, he runs up behind the troll and slices both of his achilles tendons with the sword. The troll lets out a cry and swings his club wildly. Vlarax somersaults out of the way, and Lerry manages to duck it. The goblin is not so lucky. The club lands on him with a direct hit and he explodes into pink mist.
At the bottom of Vlarax’s screen a health bar drains to zero and turns gray. One down, two to go.
Lerry’s eyes are on him now. The troll is still standing, but is in pain and still swinging randomly. Vlarax sees his opportunity.
“Hey Lerry, thy mother is so fat she, um…” Vlarax thinks for a second, “she doesn’t have to pay the toll at bridges because, uhh… because the trolls guarding the bridges think she’s also a troll, and they don’t tax their own kind. But it doesn’t matter, seeing as she can’t get across a bridge in the first place because she’s so fat!”
Lerry growls and raises his weapons in a rage. “Nobody talks about me mum!”
He charges toward Vlarax, who runs behind the troll again. Once more, he slices at the giant’s heels, then darts away. This time the cuts are deep enough to bring him down. Vlarax watches as the troll falls backwards in seeming slow motion. Lerry, caught in his massive shadow, looks up and screams as four thousand pounds of troll meat come tumbling down on top of him with the force of a minor earthquake.
A cloud of sand kicks up and fills the arena, so that Vlarax can hardly see an arm’s length in front of him. Another health bar turns gray. The third health bar drains almost to zero, but is not quite grayed out. Someone is still alive.
When the dust settles, Vlarax steps cautiously up to the troll. Lying dead on its back, a spear pierces upwards from the ground underneath it, straight through its chest. He comes around to the other side of the fallen giant, and there is Lerry, trapped from the chest down under its great weight, unable to move, but still alive. Vlarax’s Richard stands over his foe like a scrawny, awkward lion over a kill.
“You won’t get away with this, wizard!” Lerry says, with that ever-present scowl on his face.
“I think I just did.” Vlarax brings the sword down on Lerry’s neck. The sword is dull from slicing the troll’s ankles, and the Richard is weak, so it only cuts about halfway through. Lerry’s character writhes there in the dirt, half-beheaded, gurgling blood and cursing unintelligibly at his enemy.
Vlarax takes another swing. This one does the job, and Lerry’s head tumbles away into the dust.
The words flash above Vlarax’s head:
Back in the bar, he opens his eyes.
About a mile from His Majesty’s Cockatrice tavern is a cave. From the cave emanates a putrid smell, like if a sweaty orc were to roll around in a pile of rotting flesh, belch a squall of morning breath, then spritz himself with a bit of agarwood in a vain attempt to cover it all up. In fact, there are four orcs in there, and the death-belch-agarwood fragrance is just how they smell on a day-to-day basis.
As a general rule, orcs don’t care about one another almost as much as they don’t care about everyone else. If one were seeking to inspire an orc with overtures of honor, or vengeance, or any other sort of abstract principle, one would find oneself entirely unsuccessful. On the other hand, if one were to present to them an opportunity to commit a random act of violence from which a monetary reward may or may not ensue, one might find them rather more keen.
Thus, when Kronk enters the cave after an indignant romp back from being embarrassed by Jimmy Foofkins at the tavern, he says simply: “Who wants to smash some skulls?”
“Victory!” shouts Vlarax, as his eyes readjust to the dim light of the tavern. His friends don’t seem to share in his enthusiasm.
“Don’t celebrate just yet,” Jimmy says. “We got a coupla sore losers.”
He motions to the back door of the bar, then to the front. At the back, Lerry and his other gamblers block the way, knives drawn. At the front, Kronk stands in the doorway with his fellow orcs. He taps a club in the palm of his hand, staring Jimmy in the eye. The other orcs might be there because smashing people’s skulls is a fun way to pass the time, but he’s there for revenge.
Cynthia takes a break from chewing her unicorn horn and assumes a fighting stance.
“I believe this is the point where we make a decision,” says Granwell.
If thou dost enjoy
This jocular scroll,
Mayhaps share it with
A friend, or a troll!