Chapter I - Vlarax the Grey
This is a new experiment whereupon thou shall choose our hero’s fate. Shall he become the greatest warrior the Realm hath e’er seen? Or shall he continue playing games with his crystal ball in the basement of his mother’s lair for eternity?
At the end of this story is a poll which will ask thee to choose what our hero does next. The next chapter of the story shall be written in accordance with thy wishes. Dwell not lightly upon thy decision, for our hero’s fate — and the fate of all the Realm — is in thy hands…
In the clear glass of the crystal ball a battle rages. Knight against knight, their swords clash in the deadly dance of single combat. Strewn about the ruins of the old castle lie the bones and rusted armor of a hundred fallen warriors, heroes one and all, each of them cut down in some long-forgotten battle whose history is lost to us but for the verses of the bards.
There’s also the bones of a bunch of fallen non-warrior guys who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The bards don’t sing about them as much.
With two hands, the green knight heaves his sword at the throat of his grey-clad opponent. But the enemy ducks the thrust and counter-attacks with a blow of his fist.
“Too slow, Everdale!” the grey knight boasts.
“Thy mother is too slow!” the green knight retorts. “I shall smite thee yet, Vlarax the Grey!”
The green knight is back on the offensive. Seemingly from nowhere Everdale pulls a crossbow and aims it at his foe.
“Hey, I thought we said no ranged weapons?” Vlarax the Grey complains.
“I agreed to no such rule,” says Everdale the Green. “In war, there are no rules.” He lets loose the bolt and it strikes Vlarax in the chest, knocking him to the ground. In an instant Everdale is standing over his opponent, sword beneath his chin, ready to deal the final blow.
“Any last words?” asks Everdale the Green. Vlarax sneers and spits blood onto the ground at his opponent’s feet.
“Yea. Suck my…” The sword comes down and the words flash across the crystal ball:
Sitting in his lair — well, technically the basement of his mom’s lair — Vlarax slams his fist on the table. That’s twelve games in a row he’s lost to Everdale, and it’s hurting his ranking. The words on the crystal ball fade into mist and new ones appear.
WOULDST THOU LIKE TO PLAY AGAIN?
Vlarax takes a puff of his pipe, grabs a handful of crunchy turnip chips, and selects “YEA.”
A knight emerges from amid the ruins and walks up behind Everdale the Green, who is standing at the edge of a cliff, gazing off into the distance at the sunset. Beyond the deep orange glow of the horizon lies an evil they must all one day confront.
Everdale removes her helmet to reveal a mane of wavy red hair down past her shoulders. The knight wonders how she keeps her hair so smooth under that helmet all day. Then he remembers she told him once: conditioner.
“He’s not ready,” the knight says.
Everdale sheaths her sword, still staring off over the horizon, then turns to face the knight. “Are any of us?”
Vlarax respawns in a dark forest. It’s almost lunchtime, but he figures he can get in a minor side-quest or two before his mother — Helryna the Grey (wizards and witches in his particular line adopt the matriarchal robe color epithet; on his father’s side he is actually the Burnt Sienna) — summons him to the kitchen. He’s in a part of the map he’s never seen before, yet it seems vaguely familiar. He wanders around for some time, looking for a weak opponent he might defeat to get his ranking back up. But the forest is silent. Not even the animals are stirring.
In the distance he spies a dark tower looming over the trees. Could be a wizard that lives there, he thinks. Or better yet, orcs. He trudges through the forest in the direction of the tower. He has no weapon at first, but he finds a Standard Broadsword lying next to a dead guy and picks it up. It’s not the best weapon for single combat against a wizard, but it’ll do the trick against an orc. Lunch is almost ready, so he’ll have to take his chances.
Outside the tower’s gates he hides in the bushes for a while, taking in the environment and scanning for traps. When all looks clear, he approaches the gates. He knocks.
“Vlarax!” Vlarax’s mother calls down to him. Annoyed, Vlarax pauses the game.
“Ugh, what mother?”
“Stop staring at that crystal ball. It’ll hurt thine eyes,” his mother says. “I heard of one diviner over in Gældorville who stared at his crystal ball so long he lost his ability to see the future.”
“Oh, let it go, mother. It’s just a game.” Vlarax has read the studies from WAND Corp — a leading research institution for the dark arts — and none of them has linked Questball to reduced divination.
“Well, come upstairs,” his mother calls again. “You have a visitor.”
“A visitor? What do you mean I have a visitor?”
“I mean there’s a person here to see you,” his mother says. “That’s what a visitor is.”
Vlarax sighs and gets up from the table. He throws the Cloak of Pausation over the crystal ball so none of his younger siblings will mess with the game he has in progress, then he walks up the winding stone staircase to where his mother, and this mysterious visitor, await.
When he arrives in the kitchen he is breathing heavily and his legs are burning. We really need to do something about all those stairs, he thinks. In the kitchen his mother is brewing a cauldron of lizards and elf bones, or one of her other famous witch’s brews. He takes a deep whiff in through his nostrils. Mmm. Snake and eyeball stew. His favorite.
A knight is sitting quietly at the table, drinking a cup of tea. He rises to his feet when Vlarax enters and takes a bow.
“Vlarax the Grey?” the knight says in a booming baritone. He eyes Vlarax up and down in a judgemental squint that says “you’re not quite what I was expecting, in a disappointing way.” “Vlarax who smote the Great Dragon of Ynwynndale in a record three hours and forty seven minutes? Vlarax who collected all seven Seeing Stones of the Vosgars not once, not twice, but three times? Vlarax who has lost twelve battles straight to Everdale the Green yet has come closer than all challengers to smiting her in single combat?”
Her? Vlarax wonders. There’s no way Everdale is a her. Vlarax looks hesitantly at his mother, then back at the knight, and nods.
“But…” the knight hesitates, “you’re fat.”
Vlarax’s initial inclination is to take offense to this. Then he looks down at the belly bulging out of his grey robe, which on him gives the impression more of a bathrobe than a wizard’s robe, and remembers the knight is correct.
Undeterred by his voluminous host, the knight continues. “I am Granwell Beaulcrest. There is much we need to speak of.”
“Perhaps I should give you two some privacy,” Vlarax’s mother says. “And by that I mean get out of my kitchen or a curse be upon thee.”
“Questball is not what you think,” the knight tells Vlarax, after a long silence. They’re back in the dungeon sitting around the Questball table. It has taken Vlarax a few minutes to catch his breath after transiting the stairs twice in quick succession. Tthe knight has waited patiently for him to regain his composure.
“What do I think it is?” Vlarax asks.
“It is not a game,” Granwell says. “Not just a game, anyway.”
By this point, Vlarax is annoyed with the knight’s presence. All he wants to do is get back to playing Questball. His eyes dart briefly to the game, which is still covered by the Cloak of Pausation.
“Maybe it’s best if I show you,” Granwell says. Before Vlarax can respond, the knight snatches the Cloak of Pausation off the game.
It takes Vlarax a couple minutes to comprehend what he’s seeing. He taps on the side of the crystal ball a couple times, thinking it’s a glitch. Then he tries blowing on it. Nothing happens. What he sees there, in the middle of the crystal ball, is the knight sitting in Vlarax’s basement, talking to Vlarax. But the Vlarax he sees is not Vlarax the fat wizard who sits in the basement of his mom’s lair all day in his bathrobe. It’s Vlarax the Grey, knight of a thousand conquests, and perpetual #2 on the Questball leaderboard.
“You see,” says Granwell, “Questball is not what you think.”
Vlarax starts thinking there’s a scrying device planted somewhere in the room, and that one of his friends, or perhaps one of his enemies like Everdale the Green, is playing a prank on him. He scours the room looking for some proof that what he’s seeing in his crystal ball is just a joke. The knight sits patiently, watching him.
“I have come here because I need your help,” the knight says. “On a quest. A real quest.”
But Vlarax is not listening to the knight, because a thought has just struck him. He remembers he still has one option. It’s an act of desperation that may overwrite his Questball progress up to this point. But desperate times call for desperate acts. In a rare feat of athleticism he springs towards the table, reaches for the crystal ball, and presses RESET.
The crystal ball goes blank.
The knight is gone, too.
Vlarax heaves a sigh of relief as the game starts back up. He takes a puff of his pipe and blows a smoke ring that transforms into a dragon. The smoke dragon slithers into one nostril then out his ear, before exploding into a display of faux fireworks directly over the swirling mist in the crystal ball. This is about the extent to which he uses his magick these days.
Finally alone and at peace, he dives into another quest.
“Vlarax, you have a visitor,” his mother calls down. Not two minutes later Granwell Beaulcrest is once again sitting across the table from Vlarax, staring into his eyes. His composure is calm and collected, yet understandably more intense and impatient than in their previous meeting.
“Not cool, dude,” the knight says. “Do you even know how bad respawning sucks?”
Vlarax shakes his head.
“One second I’m sitting here, talking to you. The next second I’m falling flat on my back somewhere in the middle of a forest,” the knight says. “All my weapons are gone, I have no idea where I am, it takes me a few minutes just to get my mind right. You would think I’d be used to it by this point, but respawning just never quite grows on you. It’s like dying, being sucked through a spacetime vortex, and being born again all wrapped into one.”
Vlarax glances towards the RESET button, but the knight cautions him with a stern look. “I just don’t see how I can help you on this…this… what was it you wanted my help with again?”
“A quest,” the knight says. “A real quest. Like what you do when you’re playing Questball, but in real life.”
“I know what a quest is,” Vlarax says. “But, you see, doing things in real life has never been one of my strengths. Maybe there’s a way I can help you by playing Questball.”
“No,” the knight says. “That’s not how it works. The evil is real, the quest must be real to defeat it.
“Questball is intertwined with our world, yes. But it is more a training ground, a test. It was created to find warriors with the mettle to face the Evil Brewing in the North. A warrior may hone his skills playing Questball, but to heed the call, to defeat the Evil Brewing in the North, you have to go out into the world and do it for real.”
“Oh yeah, I’ve heard about that Evil Brewing in the North,” Vlarax says. “Everdale the Green, that bastard, won’t shut up about it. So, why me, anyway. You think I’m the Chosen One?”
“Oh, no. Definitely not,” says Granwell. “Far from it. We’ve pretty much given up on Chosen Ones at this point. They’re so dour all the time, no fun to work with. And they’re always a let down in the end. I can’t even tell you how many Chosen Ones we’ve had who’ve run off with the first princess they rescue from a tower. They think they can do one quest and all of a sudden everyone will honour them as the greatest hero that ever lived, and then retire to peace in some fantasy kingdom far away. But a real hero knows that the quest never ends.
“No. These days we try to keep our expectations low. You’re not the Chosen One. But you’re pretty good. And you’re a wizard. A quest can always use a wizard, even a fat one. With your magick, Everdale’s sword and cunning, and my ability to respawn infinitely, we just might stand a chance at defeating the Evil Brewing in the North.”
Vlarax tries to blow another smoke dragon, but there’s too much on his mind for him to focus the magick, and it dissipates into more of a flaccid worm.
“I’m not even that good at magick,” says Vlarax. “I only know a few spells, and even those I’ve barely practiced since graduating from wizard school.”
“But the magick is inside of you, Vlarax the Grey,” the knight says. “Bringing it out simply takes practice, and the willingness to go out into the world and try. You might be our only hope. No others — be they mages, knights, Elves, or otherwise — have shown the potential that you have in Questball. The Evil Brewing in the North may seem like it’s merely part of a game. But I assure you, if we do nothing, it will consume your world. It will consume us all.”
Vlarax thinks for a moment, chewing on his pipe. This quest to defeat the Evil Brewing in the North sounds very heroic and all, but sitting here and playing Questball sounds fun, too.
“I don’t know,” Vlarax says. “I’ll have to think about it.”
The smell of mother’s famous snake and eyeball stew wafts down from the kitchen. She must have gone heavy on the eyeballs just like he likes it, because his mouth is beginning to water. Granwell rises from his seat and adjusts his sword: a Ghontish Clamourer, Vlarax recognizes, far superior to the Standard Broadsword. He wonders how Granwell had the time to acquire one. Not thirty minutes could have passed between the time Vlarax pressed RESET and the time he showed back up at the door.
“Tarry not too long with your thinking, Vlarax the Grey,” the knight says. “For the time of doing is close at hand.”
This is the part where you choose:
This story will also appear on Royal Road.
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