The Quest for the Perfect RPG Part 2
"For a wrestler, ye're pretty intelligent."
Greco blushed. He was indeed a wrestler, a huge man with bulging muscles who still wore his bright green and purple costume. His other side- his psychic side- was revealed only by his mane of pure white hair.
When the traveller had recovered sufficiently to talk, Greco had begun questioning teh about the perfect RPG. Teh didn't reveal much at first- it was dangerous to reveal information about such an important quest- but teh sensed something in the man. He was part of it.
"I have dreams about it." Teh said, "I've played it in the dreams. I remember things about what it looked like. I can sense when I'm near it."
"You know... what it is, don't you?"
The Quest, the Plotless Plot, was the most controversial campaign ever to appear in Dungeoneer weekly newspaper for player characters. The Perfect RPG... no ordinary person had any need to even mention it. There was only one rule: wherever you are, whoever you are, by law, you had to either report it to questors or become a questor yourself.
"Nobody, absolutely nobody, has ever seen it." Said Greco.
"How come ye know so much about it yerself?"
That was when Greco told teh of his own gifts. He was psychic, and he was also attuned to the Game Over screen. There was a rift in reality somewhere, accidentally left open, where he could communicate with the Other Side. It was useful, but it was dangerous. He was forever in fear of straying onto the Other Side, or worse, bringing the shadows with him to unknowingly curse others. It was not his place to live with communities of people. His place was with his wife and with the spirits.
"This is what the spirits are so restless about." He told his new friend, "The Perfect RPG. You're going to find it. Right here."
A few blades of grass began to ripple. Greco nodded and continued his meditation. The wind that was stirring was no earthly wind. Its chill touch was the touch of death itself- the first probing of an intelligent spiritual energy, the soul of the Other Side, given a potential pathway to a land that was foreign to it. Greco was summoning spirits from the realm of Game Over.
The wind became stronger. It seemed to slowly condense into shadowy blue mist. Empowered by the psychic touch of the silent wrestler, the mist grew thicker, glowing, and drifted together in a pool of blue light. Where the light collected, the earth gave off psychic resonations that felt like an earthquake to Greco. In his minds eye, the ground solid open, revealing huge single rift, from which a brilliant blue light emanated. A rift between Game Over and the land of the positive. Greco could see the shadowy forms of those on the Other Side trying to climb out.
"No!" Greco commanded psychically, "You will make everything crash!"
"The bright one speaks the truth." Said another voice, a voice that sounded more like a secretary than a spirit, "Why have you summoned me to this world, which is bright and burns me?"
"It concerns that which keeps you busy, dark one." Greco bowed, "The perfect RPG."
As much as it was possible in a void, the spirit looked startled.
"So it is truly happening. I thought I felt it. Is it he?" said another spirit.
"No, it is not me, but the One is very close."
"What are you talking about? Tell me!' demanded Greco.
"As usual for your petty short-lived race, you cannot comprehend the magnitude of what we are discussing." The spirit said rudely, "Mortal creatures are not the only things that die. Suns do too, and stars, and planets, and one day, even the universe. You would do well to remember that."
"As for your quest." Added the second spirit, "It would be wise to visit the city of Terminal."
"Oh. Termina." Greco corrected the spirit, who had difficulty remembering name changes, "You may go now. Avaunt. Aroynt."
The wrestler cut off psychic contact. Abruptly, the rift contracted into a white dot and vanished altogether. Greco could now open his eyes. He looked up to see a tall warrior in black armour, teh's sword hosted across teh's shoulder.
"Lots of undead out tonight." Teh reported, "Been usin' them for levellin' up. Hope ye don't mind."
"No. Some of them like a good fight."
Diggory nodded, relieved, and walked off again. There were still a few hours of darkness left.
I saved my game, I got some armour/
And the world looks so great when you're up a level/
The crowd cheered. Nikki's hands moved over the strings of his guitar. There seemed to be no progression in time- it was fluid. There was such perfection in the song that, for a few moments, the audience felt themselves being taken there, to some other place.
"A wandering exile taught me that song" said Nikki dreamily, "I wish I could go into exile, you know, so I could learn some new songs."
"Yeah, but people would miss you, man." Someone corrected him, "And anyway, you would make a crap exile. No outward movement, man. You have to be reborn at every exit."
Nikki nodded and finished his drink, and expensive pink one with fruit in it. He had felt something especially profound while playing the music, and even while hearing them sung. It was as if a part of him had been unlocked, a missing piece of him being found. He had never heard the song before, but he felt s though it was his own theme tune.
Music is my way of acting in the world, he thought. The songs I play, one after the other, are my life's quest. I never know where to go next, until some customer makes the next request. That song I just heard was the completion of my quest. Not yet... but so very close. I finally understand the plot... I know where I must go.
"Hey, Miki." He called to his lead singer, "Did you notice where that exile, you know, went?"
"They're off to Termina, remember?"
"That's cool. Let's, you know, follow them."
Happily disassociating tehself from everyone on the room with teh's exilic aura, Diggory relaxed at the bar. Teh didn't drink- you can't drink and level up- so teh watched Greco finish his ale.
"So, this place used to be called terminal."
Greco nodded. "The town was built on an ancient burial ground. It was known as the terminus of the journey of life. It was the only place you could reach the afterlife."
"I wonder if it's related to the Perfect RPG..." Diggory mused, "It's not the Game Over Screen. I'd recognise a Game Over Screen."
"You don't look like the sort that goes there very often."
"In some parts of the world, ye heal yer wounds in an inn. The inns are all closed by the time I call it a day.... a night... er..."
Greco put a finger to teh's lips. The door of the tavern opened, and the drunker patrons of the bar hushed to a whisper. Two people entered the room. One was a young woman, slender and graceful, dressed in a long emerald gown that reached her shoes. Her hair was purple. Her companion was a tall male cat-person, who walked purposefully towards a table, acknowledging nobody.
"Thank you for healing my wounds." He said to the woman in a soft, purr-like voice, "I would not have lived."
"I help all. I am the White Cobra's child." She assured him in a confident voice. Diggory sprung instinctively upwards, senses instantly attentive. A good player character could spot a good healer from a mile off. Aware of teh's gaze, the woman smiled.
"Lady Riddel welcomes you to Termina." She said, and quietly left the tavern. Diggory sat down again. Teh was aware of the other man's yellow feline eyes burning into teh's back. The warrior scowled and laid a hand on teh's sword. Teh smelled level guardian. Making no threatening move towards teh, the man continued to watch teh as teh discussed teh's quest. Finally, he walked up to them and seated himself in an empty chair.
"I overheard you inquiring about a room for the night," he said.
"The fee is a little steep." Diggory replied.
"There is... an order of priests in Termina who concern themselves with the exiled and unwanted..." he told teh, "Many, such as myself, are demi-humans. We do not feel welcome in human society."
"Ye're offering me cheap accommodation?'
Diggory examined the priest suspiciously. He wore a traditional priests' robe, but it was black, lined with gold- the favoured colours of a priest of death. His gaze was one of purpose, and it wasn't a mission to help the poor and bring happiness to the world. The man wanted something from teh, and Diggory didn't want to give it to him- teh believed in a free lunch. But, teh argued, the priest might be able to aid teh's quest. Teh decided to give fate the benefit of the doubt and accept the man's offer.
"As long as ye're sure it's free." Teh growled.
Fine black mist billowed out from the rune-inscribed bowls on either side of the priest. He sat cross-legged on his mat, mind attuned to a dark plane of reality where shadows drifted across and ebony field. Technique energy floated around him in a dark wind. As he psionically moved across the place, the mist reacted to the build-up of power, becoming solid, forming definite lines.
Shapes formed in the mist: tall, elegant, sinuous shapes like the shadows of cats but more alien. They were clearly spirit beings- they rippled as they moved, in touch with two realities at once, and their ears were tipped by flames, where such a build-up of element-colour magic had occurred that the element had combusted, leaving a non-element fire that, if pushed, would become an anti-element black hole.
The creatures left their summoning place and stood before their summoner. A voice began to speak through them to the priest, a powerful voice that filled all of its senses.
"I await your explanation for this interruption."
"I have located another Perfect RPG Hunter, oh dark lord." Replied the priest.
"All seek the Perfect RPG, fool. Do you intend to kill everyone? Don't waste my time until you find the right one."
"Dark lord, this one can find it."
"I am interested. What is its name?"
"Teh's name is Diggory Dorager."
A subtle change in the atmosphere of the temple indicated that the sinister presence was startled. The priest flinched. What could startle the cat-god of death?
"The black-dragon-born." Said the god, "You must not kill this one. It must reach the perfect RPG. Otherwise, the very purpose of the Universes' existence is no more...'
"When it does reach its goal, however, it must die. Game Over must be the outcome of the perfect RPG. It may not be completed. Do you understand?" Lynx nodded, "To the people of the world, completion is equated with happiness and success. That is not so. Game Over was the first. It was the reason for creation. It will be the final shutdown. Do you understand?"
"Not fully. I am not a god."
"You are honest. Good. You are not a god. Your task is to follow the exile into the Perfect RPG, where you will kill it. Is that understood?"
"One thing more. The man who travels with the exile can sense us. Do not directly approach him!"
The cat meowed. The session ended.
Viper churro in hand, Diggory walked along the rows of market stalls, searching for bargains. They weren't as impressive as teh's homeland, but the atmosphere was still exciting, with loud haggling and children and cats running wild in-between the crowds. An old woman selling second-hand green elements yelled her disapproval of a yellow-element merchant in what was rapidly becoming a theological debate. Boats sailed lazily along the canal, while a boy drew pictures of them. Termina was a very relaxed place, compared to many towns Diggory had briefly been in before being thrown out. It was a bright, sunny place, where the sea washed away all ills. The exile yawned, stretched and sat on a box, counting teh's purchases.
Teh now owned eight nostrum capsules, three aero-blasters and four fireballs. These were for experimentation-teh had yet to learn the bizarre statistical system. There was no experience point system, or even a viable equivalent. There were no random encounters. There was something called a 'growth rate' that made it impossible to level up if you had filled it. Scratching teh's head, teh picked up a pencil and did some quick equations.
The lunch whistle sounded in the nearby harbour. Teh jumped down off teh's box and went to look for some food. Teh walked past a series of brightly coloured tents containing some of the town's more extravagant merchants. One was a man in velvet purple robes pointing to a glass tank in which the merchant insisted was a mermaid. Next to him was a smaller tent, from which a mysterious pair of eyes poked out. Diggory thought teh could hear Greco's voice inside, and went to investigate.
"Thank you for your help, ma'am." Greco emerged from the tent helping an old woman in pink robes, bent over a walking stick, "It always makes me more secure to know my future."
"Aye, but remember, lad, yer destiny don't rule ye." She waved him away impatiently. As she was walking back inside the tent, she caught sight of the exile and gestured to teh, "hey, funny-lookin' fella, want to know yer fortune?"
"How much?" Teh had spent a lot on elements, and exiles weren't known for their fantastic wages.
"I'll pay." Offered Greco, "You should tell Madam Cron about your dream."
"Dream?" asked Madam Cron.
Sighing, Diggory told the wrinkled old crone about teh's recurring dream. Teh died and went to an office. It was a big office, and there didn't seem to be an Outside, even though there were doors. None of the laws of physics were there. There wasn't even time, not really. Teh was working with a computer in the office, and slept in it, and then teh opened the window to look out over a huge city with nobody in it.
"Tell me, funny-face, was ye wearin' a brown suit?"
"Well... yes... how do ye know?'
"I see where yer leadin' to." The woman tapped her crystal ball, "Ye'll be travellin' a forbidden path and crossin' an eternal barrier. Ye'll see what no man alive has seen. It'll be a gift and a curse.'
"What d'ye suggest I do?"
"A great fortress... a dream in ruins... Fort Dragonia! I see Fort Dragonia!"
Naod De chuckled as the exile left. Like shootin' fish in a barrel.
The atmosphere was blue liquid as a myriad of sounds rang in the electric air of the sound test parlour. Porre executives in black suits played solitaire to Enhasa themes in their solitary booths, pretending to do some work. A gang of lads from the Divine Dragon falls were enthusiastically retro gaming, while a lone Hydlide addict was asleep under his console. Speakers hung from the ceiling, and an administrator sat behind his desk, recording the goings-on.
The door swung open.
'Wavd Shack' fell silent to a man. Here was an expert- he knew what he was doing. Maybe he would play some customised music. Maybe he would dance and sing. He walked straight up to the dusty stage in the middle of the room and retrieved a disk from behind one ear. The audience crowded around him as he swung a guitar from his shoulder and turned to face them.
"Nikki of the Dreamers." He introduced himself.
I'm walkin' around tryin' to attract random encounters/
And I've heard of the glitch at the big one hundred/
Cheering filled the studio. The administrator dragged the now-comatose Hydlide addict away. Putting his guitar away, Nikki bowed and left the stage.
"Listen up, mate!"
Someone was nudging him. He shook off the last panellised effects of his sound test and looked over his shoulder. A young woman with a cheeky smile on her face leaned on his chair.
"You know yer stuff! That wasn't even released on Hydlide!"
"Uh? Hydlide?" he asked drowsily. He had never played Hydlide in his life, "An exile taught it me."
"I saw an exile. He was tryin' to get to Fort Dragonia. He got kicked out, so I told 'im about Korcha. Korcha'll ferry anyone across."
"Can you show me where the exile went?"
"Oh, sure thing. Midnight at Termina Harbour, don't be late or I'll throw yer in the sea!"
Korcha the Ferryman was glad he'd volunteered for the job. It was a familiar route, the people seemed honest and, most importantly, he was being promised large amounts of money. The adventurers had promised him ten percent of the treasure they found! Even if they were inept adventurers that would amount to more than he usually got for this journey.
Smiling optimistically, he watched his customers as they loaded their baggage onto Korcha's small boat. The huge, powerful man in the ridiculous costume was first, helping the tough-looking girl with her own luggage. While he did that, she picked his pockets. I'll have to watch my own money closely , Korcha noted. A more skilful thief I haven't met. The man with the guitar followed him, humming a tune under his breath. Wow, thought Korcha, that fella can almost sing as well as me mam.
Lastly, the tall, foreign warrior boarded the boat. In contrast to most tall, foreign warriors (i.e. from Porre) teh had no hint of malice in teh's eyes, or even mercenary greed, only homesickness. Teh fell asleep leaning on teh's luggage.
"It's the middle of the day." explained Greco, "Diggory only comes out at night."
The others nodded, and soon forgot about the strange exile as they chatted about their own adventures.
"I didn't, you know, expect to see you guys again." Commented Nikki, "have you, you know, got any more cool music for me?"
Greco shook his head.
"I know a few Game Over tunes."
"Hey, don't 'cha mention that word on my boat, 'cha hear?" warned Korcha, "I don't want evil spirits here!"
"Spirits don't come out if ye say 'Game Over'. " corrected Greco harshly, "They don't even like this world."
"Yer reckon?" Korcha shook his head, "Well, I won't offend 'em, but I don't like the words meself. Gives me the creeps. Can't concentrate on me steerin'."
"Okay, laddie, don't sink us." Greco laughed.
Korcha shook his head and returned to steering the boat. It was a skill that people praised him for, even though he himself was an outcast. That was what he was, and those were his people. He defended him when they were in danger. Diggory was an outcast too; Korcha had caught some sailors trying to pick a fight with teh. The boy understood why Diggory only came out at night. Some days, Korcha felt the same way himself.
Yawning, Diggory woke up.
The gentle swish of the waves was calming, but it also reminded teh of how far teh was from home. There was nothing around teh but water, immeasurably deep water. Teh could dive in and never reach the end, never be home. It was hard to tell which direction home was in, it seemed so far away, so long ago. Many people, banished from their land, left by boat. Diggory hadn't; teh had left by teleportation spell, and the damn thing had sent her to the wrong place.
Diggory looked forward, into the distance, leaning on the rail. Were there any good levelling-up opportunities on boats? Sea-monsters, perhaps? As teh was planning how to kill one without sinking the boat, teh noticed a faint pink light far away. It was relaxing to watch, and teh felt far removed from teh's usual dark brooding.
An ear-splitting glitch chime almost knocked Diggory over. In teh's dizzy state, teh had time to notice that nobody else had heard it before the pink light shot straight at teh. Teh collapsed to the deck with a thud.
Life in here had a black-and-white tinge, like a playback of something that had never happened, or should not ever happen. Flying over the water, teh was distantly aware of a ship, a ship that was not where it was supposed to be. A ship that was late. Diggory drifted over it and met land.
The world was ruined. Not physically ruined, like after an apocalypse (Diggory had been to quite a few places like that, they were fun). It was far subtler, but to Diggory it stood out like a particularly large nuclear explosion. Nothing moved in the programming as a wind of glitch swept away dead leaves and broken links, howling mournfully over a silent world. There was no cause or effect, no random encounters, no start, middle or end. Eventually, the glitches that wore away the save the data would corrode the infrastructure, causing everything to be deleted. This was a plotless world.
Following the wind, Diggory was swept upwards, high into the sky. Stars whirled past teh's head like forgotten pixels on the screen's extremities. Teh saw jellyfish of many colours, dancing in screensaver patterns, and knew that teh was now beyond the world, at admin level. Teh was hurtling towards the Game Over screen! Panicking, teh grabbed the first thing teh could find. It was white, metal and curved- the rim of a recycle bin. Forcing teh's body to act against the wind, teh climbed in and slid down to the cold circular floor.
Inside the bin was a man wearing a brown suit at a desk, his head leaned on a notepad next to a computer. Diggory walked over to him in the hope of waking him up, but he made no sound. He was dead. Teh lifted the man's head up and saw...
... teh's own face, staring back at teh like a mirror. Shivering, teh looked at the notepad instead. The last entry, in teh's own handwriting, said:
And therefore, I can only conclude that I am the last person alive in the world.
Lights appeared in the unplugged darkness of teh's brain, faint sounds of wind, screen-tappings. Teh mumbled something teh couldn't hear. A spray of salty water hit teh on the face, and then teh realised teh was in the correct world again. Information flooded teh's brain, pulled the upwards into reality like a spirit resurrected. Teh blinked once and sat up.
"Thank the dragons ye're alive!" exclaimed Korcha, "I saw ye fall on the floor, and I thought a ghost had got ye!"
"I saw the end of the world." Teh told the boy, climbing down from the wooden plank upon which teh had rested while Greco had tried to heal teh.
"Uh... yeah..." Nikki scratched his head, "You should, you know, try sleeping at night."
"Why should I sleep at night? I sleep in the day!" argued Diggory automatically.
"Shut up!" yelled the thief girl, "Hey, chuckout, tell me about the end o' the world, NOW!"
"It was... the end." Diggory shrugged. After a moments thought, teh added "Of the world."
"Oh yeah, VERY helpful!" she yelled, "Ye probably got knocked on the head by a squid while ye was levellin' up!"
"Land ahoy!" announced Korcha happily. The others cheered. High above a rocky coastline, framed against a seething, semi-active volcano, a great castle stood. It was made of invincible-looking green marble. Dragon statues loomed, each as big as a real dragon, intertwining so that every part of the structure was one part or another of a dragon. You could almost hear it roar. Diggory shivered, chilled by the translucent power, the world-shattering significance of what stood before teh. There was something here that had existed before time, that must exist for anything to exist, something beyond mortal comprehension. Something, thought Diggory, that ordinary people strove for in the very fabric of their being without even realising it, never achieving their goal.
"The spirit of RPGs." Teh whispered, "It's beautiful."
"Ye what?" demanded the thief.
Impassively, Lynx watched the questors struggle through the volcanic cave, jumping onto drifts of rock in seas of lava. He had considered helping them, but they seemed to be doing quite well on their own, Floating in the unnatural shadows created by his magic, he toyed with the idea of leaving. His only real concern was for the exile, whose agility was virtually zero, but teh had found teh's own way of getting across. Lynx laughed; the wyvern wasn't taking too kindly to having a stubborn human sitting on its back. No, he could safely leave them be. With a sweep of his arm, he disappeared in a miasma of dark energy. He reappeared several feet in the air above the mountain.
He sneezed. An energy was probing him, an energy that contradicted his own. A hostile entity, with powers equal to the Priest of Game Over. A feline growl escaped from Lynx's throat.
"There's no use threatening ME!" spat a voice full of acidic hatred. Calmly, Lynx turned around and faced his assailant, who was floating in the air.
"Ah, Miguel, what a coincidence to see you here." Purred Lynx.
"No coincidence!" corrected Miguel, "I am here to save the world from ruin, and YOU..."
"Ah, same story as usual." The priest mocked him, "And how do you plan to save the world today?"
"I am going to stop that EVIL VILLAIN..." Miguel hissed and sent a bolt of pure light energy shooting at Lynx, who quickly erected a barrier of dark matter, "From finding the Frozen Flame!"
"Hmm." Purred Lynx, "I'm afraid I can't help you there. The only people I've seen around here are adventurers, and they aren't a high enough level to consider a career in world-ending."
"Diggory, the Futureless One, often travels in the guise of an ordinary..."
Without warning, a super-compressed bolt of gravity arced from Lynx's hands and struck the man, sending him flailing to the ground. Watching the pathetic fool correct his balance, Lynx felt further power well up inside his mind. Clenching his fists, he willed it to pour out of him. Just as Miguel was flying towards him, he let go. Millions of shards of dark matter were flung at Miguel, causing a blinding white explosion as they shattered the man's defences. Lynx was blinded. Hissing he tried to feel where he was, but his limbs seemed to take an eternity to move.
"It's only a temporary Slow spell, but it'll stop you from interfering, vermin." Miguel's voice hissed at him, voice full of irritating self-righteousness, "Diggory, if you won't listen to my warning, I'm going to have to show you more clearly. I will let you experience the ruin you're about to bring upon us all."