The Quest For The Perfect RPG
by teh Exile
Cyan moonlight shone on teh's blade as it flashed smoothly through the air. Nocturnal songbirds, frogs dancing in ponds and unseen lizards fled from the disturbance. The valley seemed to light up, focus upon the graceful warrior who never broke a stride as the turned from one position to the other, silently practising teh's combat routine. After a few moments, teh slowed to a halt and stood still, teh's arms folded in waiting.
Chaclon drew a sharp breath and almost leapt from his hiding place. He had heard a roar. A monster was approaching! Soon he would see the Midnight Levelwalker in a real battle! When he returned to spying on his hero, teh was no longer visible- teh had melted into the shadows in teh's black plate armour.
Suddenly, it was there. Thumping across the valley on tough, writhing leg-roots, the plant monster was easily big enough to swallow Chaclon whole. Not that Chaclon was very big; he was far smaller than most boys of his age. The monster paused for a moment, perhaps sensing the warrior's presence. Too late.
The blade arced down, a jagged green lightning bolt. Corrosive ichor sprayed everywhere, but it did not harm the warrior. Chaclon knew that the Midnight Levelwalker wore magic armour. Only a direct blow could penetrate it. Enraged, the monster turned around and thrashed teh with a leafy tendril. Teh grunted at hacked at it, almost cleaving it in two. It was dead. In answer to its death screech, the valley seemed to erupt, leaves tossed madly into the air as at least a dozen of the creatures emerged form the undergrowth.
The warrior threw tehself under a boulder, out of sight. From the faint blue light, Chaclon knew that teh was healing tehself, preparing tehself for the challenge. Chaclon edged closer, riveted. The Midnight Levelwalker would stay here for hours now, bettering tehself and learning new skills to surprise and impress teh's companions at the mercenary inn the following morning. It was teh's way. Nobody knew how teh could physically manage to pack so many levels into such a small space of time, at such a late hour. Maybe the laws of physics went to sleep at midnight. One day, Chaclon vowed, he would find out. He had to know teh's secret.
Chaclon was gifted, or so people told him. But he could never be as good as the Midnight Levelwalker. Teh had... something. Another level of presence, as if teh was playing the whole game and other people were only playing the Throw The Chicken mini-game. The most annoying thing about the Midnight Levelwalker was that teh didn't show off and perform miracles for people to see- teh did it in the middle of the night when nobody was looking! Chaclon yawned and fell asleep.
* * *
"Wake up, Crono."
A hand shook him awake roughly. He yawned and opened one eye. His best friends, Chaoti and Chasupi, sat on the side of the village fountain, watching him with amused grins.
"Crono, Crono, wake up Crono, get it?" the boy laughed, "Yer've been in yer time machine and yer've come 'ome LATE!"
"We found yer asleep down at Hydra Valley." Explained the other boy, "Spyin' on that Levelwalker feller, no doubt. Wait till yer ma finds out!"
"Yer right, I better not go 'ome fer a while." Agreed Chaclon, hopping off the bench, "'Ow about startin' up the club?'
The boys cheered and ran off down a street. Chaclon shouldered his bag and leapt over a wall, crawling down a back alley that served as his short cut. He liked to be there before all the other boys so he could set up the equipment. He jumped down from the wall and landed on the old stage. It hadn't been used since the last Millennial Tour of the Radical Dreamers, Chaclon's favourite band. Fumbling on the ground, he found the television and plugged it into the concealed socket. From his bag he procured an old Mega Drive. He had only just set it up when the other boys came running around the corner with some more friends.
"Retro gaming today." He announced, lifting his control pad theatrically, "How to win at Columns."
The boys cheered and gathered around him. He switched the console on and began a flawless round of Columns, his friends cheering him on. After an hour, his fingers were tired, so he paused and turned to chat to Chaoti. The boy wasn't there; none of them were. They had moved off and were gathered around an old woman. Chaclon went to see what all the commotion was about.
"They tell me yer the best gamer 'ere, Chaclon Almaty." The old woman said in a thick Dragon Falls accent, 'care to match yer skills against me?"
Chaclon examined the old woman, his head to one side, his hands on his hips. The other boys awaited his reaction. The odl woman just gave him a cynical leer and stod there.
"What's wrong eh? Too scared?" she cackled, "maybe yer've played me before. Me memory's goin'!"
Impatiently, she pushed past him and sat on a wooden crate in front of the television. In one moment, she entered the options screen.
"If yer don't play me I'll delete yer high score!" she threatened. Groaning, Chaclon consented and sat down beside the old woman. He noticed that she was almost as small as him. She was by no means frail, though- her eyes were filled with an inner strength that made her dark blue skin appear even more like an unshatterable stone statue. She carried her walking stick like a knight carries a sword.
Before he could grab his control pad, she began the game. He poured every ounce of concentration into his game form the moment he began, put it still felt as though it was slipping through his fingers. Button following button, he was barely fast enough to keep up. On the fortieth level, when he had left his trademark relaxed position and sat on the edge of his chair, she swore. Her control pad slipped. As she bent down to pick it up, he pressed his advantage. Victory was in sight!
Suddenly, he felt himself drop downwards as the old witch kicked his chair out from under him. Yelling, he lunged at her and knocked her off her box. The odl woman threw him over her shoulder and pointed her walking stick at his throat.
"Nope, it aint you." she replied cryptically, standing up.
"What aint me?"
"Who I'm lookin' fer. Ye couldn't do it.'
"Find the Perfect RPG."
Chaclon brushed the sand off his clothes and turned to face his confused-looking friends. He closed his eyes and thought for a long time.
"I hate him!"
The ale mug smashed against the wall opposite, shattering into several ceramic pieces. The hand that had thrown it was not drunk. Teh hadn't drunk any ale whatsoever; teh's fury was cold, calculating and deadly, like a carefully aimed nuclear missile.
"Hey, what wrong, man?" asked the bartender, used to such scenarios, "You miss your home?'
The exile ran a hand through teh's short brown hair, wincing in mental pain.
"It's that kid! He's so... so froggin' happy!"
"He a Divine Dragon clansman, friend. They always happy."
"Ye don't understand, do ye? He's... one o' them. Like me." Teh shook teh's head, "No way one o' us can be happy, less..."
The bartender dodged out of the way of another ale mug, snatched from the nearest table and hurled against a wall. His not-yet-customer slammed both fists onto the bar.
"All his froggin' equipment works! Can ye imagine it? Here's me, workin' night an' day..."
"You sleep all day, friend." The bartender reminded him.
"Here I am, workin' nights, and he's just happy without liftin' a spanner!" teh growled, "I tell ye, that kid, he's probably seen the Perfect RPG!"
"An' what would yer know about that, eh?"
The exile spun around. Behind teh was a resilient-looking old woman wearing some kind of religious shawl, yellow cloth covered in runes. Around her, teh could feel a dark aura. Not dark as in evil... dark as in night. Eternal, immortal night.
Gongs sounded in the distance. Nervously, Chaclon crept past the solitary stall on the outskirts of the marketplace and underneath the hedge into the temple. The garden was beautiful, full of topiaries of exotic fish. Water trickled from the marble fountain. Chaclon could hear the slow chant of the midday prayer. He bowed respectfully to the dragon idols and waited at the door. After a few seconds, it opened. A hooded monk led him in silently, pushing him gently out of troubles' way.
"I seek Grand Shaman Macro." He told the monk, who nodded and pointed to an arched doorway covered in carvings of dragons. Chaclon thanked the monk and pushed open the door.
The Grand Shaman, religious leader of the divine Dragon Clan, sat in the lotus position on a prayer mat, head bowed and eyes closed, He was ancient; his frayed prayer shawl ad hat were relics of countless generations of Grand Shamans.
"Ye're preparing for a long and arduous task." Said the grand Shaman without opening his eyes. Chaclon was indeed equipped for travel; he wore leather armour and carried a deadly glaive. In his bag were a Game gear and a weeks' supply of batteries, and he wore the traditional face paint of a Divine Dragon Clansman.
"I'm going to find the Perfect RPG." He told the old man.
What do ye know of that?" came the suspicious answer. Chaclon told the Shaman of his encounter with the old woman, and he smiled.
"Dame Naod De. An odd one." He paused thoughtfully, "So that's what she's after."
Carefully, he stood up and walked towards the window.
"Nobody hears about the Perfect RPG by chance, lad. Ye've an interesting future ahead of ye. Ye can handle it, I guess, what with yer talent an' all."
He paused to open the shutters, revealing a bright sky and an impressive view of a vast mountain range that seemed to shine white, even with no snow.
"That there is the Singin' Mountains, son. Our spiritual 'ome. The Lost Dragon lives up there, 'e does, and 'e sings a song to keep us all 'appy. Ye should go up there and tell our ancestors what ye're up to."
"Yes, wise one."
"Don't take this Perfect RPG lightly, lad, it's a lot more than a computer game. An' lad..."
"What, wise one?"
"Don't let that Diggory distract ye. He's a lazy sod who sleeps all day. I wish he'd go 'ome. He wouldn't know work if it 'it him on the 'ead."
Diggory Dorager left the village at dawn. Nobody in the small Exile Reservation noticed teh's absence. The exiles were used to people coming and going, and were used to people with no sense of time.
"Do we 'ave to leave in the middle of the bleedin' night?" demanded the old woman, swiping at teh with her walking stick.
"Ye can't go up levels in broad daylight, the monsters'll see ye." Insisted Diggory. The old woman snorted and hit teh on the head.
The waves lapped gently against the shore as the two travellers trod in the soft sand of Opassa Beach. Diggory enjoyed the feel of the cool breeze against teh's face. Teh wore a green tunic with the sleeves rolled up, a dark blue traveller's cloak and a strip of cloth tied around teh's forehead to keep teh's wild brown hair out of teh's eyes. Teh looked every inch the nameless wandering exile.
"What's yer name, then?" demanded the old woman. Diggory told her.
"Never 'eard of a 'uman called that."
"I'm half Black Dragon."
"No wonder ye like the dark. Vampire."
Diggory sat on a rock to rest, looking out at the endless waves. Teh's eyes had a far-off gaze, as though thinking of home.
"I told ye, all the biggest monsters come out at night!" teh insisted. She looked at teh sceptically."
"Ye're lying." She said finally, "Nobody lies to Naod De! Tell me or I'll 'it yer!"
"Oh, okay!" teh slumped teh's head into teh's arms and sobbed, "I can only see in black and white! If I only come out at night, I don't notice the difference..."
"Oh, I see!" she cackled, "Ye should have told me! Only 'appens 'ere, right?"
"A common condition fer a Fuyodol Riy. Yer language implant aint workin'."
Diggory was amazed that the old woman had recognised teh for what teh was- a Fuyodol Riy, one who belonged to no country, one who must keep wandering until they can go home again at the end of the world. Someone on the black market had sold teh a cortical implant that translated foreign languages for teh.
"It's getting early." Diggory yawned, "I'm going to sleep."
Exhausted from their non-stop argument, the exiled warrior fell asleep under the rising sun. As soon as Naod was certain teh wasn't going to wake up again, she wound the alarm clock forward.
* * *
Chaclon was glad that the sun was out again. The nights were cold. He packed his bag again and resumed his long trek across the mountains. The path he followed was seemingly endless, winding around the craggy cliffs. He hadn't yet caught sight of the Singing Mountains, although he could faintly hear the eternal song of the wind that blew there. It was weird and alien, unlike any music he ever heard a musician play. Undaunted, he carried on, watching the bluebirds as they fluttered in the sky, chirping melodiously.
A sharp crack made him jump and look directly in front of him. Fragments of rock and dust were cascading down the mountainside. He was doomed! Yelling, he turned to run and caught something in the corner of his eye. A round shape was rising from a crack in the rock face. He watched it, fascinated. It was the size of a horse and looked like a small boulder with two large round eyes and four stumpy feet. When it saw Chaclon, it bellowed, gave him a you're-food look and jumped on top of him.
The boy dived out of the way just in time as the creature smashed down where he was standing. Chaclon hurled his glaive at it. Surprisingly, its body was quite soft and crumbly, like clay, and his weapon inflicted a deep wound. The creature roared in pain and rose on its hind legs. With an earth-shattering rumble, it charged.
Chaclon fled for his life. He didn't look back; he just concentrated on putting one foot after the other as fast as possible. Eventually he heard a deafening crash. The stupid thing had fallen off a cliff! He shrugged- maybe it was a young... big monster thing. He hoped an adult wasn't around. Now he could see further- it had dislodged a large amount of rock. He was suddenly enveloped in a heavenly white light....
At the same moment, Diggory's senses were invaded by an impossibly bright monochrome glare. A black-and-white background spun past teh as teh tried to shake the pixels out of teh's eyes. Teh spluttered as if someone had thrown a bucket of cold water at teh.
"AAAAAARGH! Just wait 'til I catch ye, ye old..." the exile swore, waving teh's fist futilely at a 1-bit landscape. Naod was nowhere. Packing teh's belongings hastily, teh drew teh's sword and ran after her.
Suddenly, the world just seemed to tip itself in a huge tidal wave over teh. Teh felt a shift in the rhythm of the sand and the air and the sea, which suddenly rose and sent teh flying into another sensory dimension. Music was playing, the music of the earth, the music that every force of nature danced to, music that was so perfectly tuned it sounded like God playing on a harp, or if God had someone else to do that for him, Nobou Uematsu on a harp. Teh saw images: boats sailing, dragons on the wing, a fortress that hummed with power beyond human imagining, a blue flame frozen in time, the image of tehself reflected in it; the Universes' history, events both wonderful and subtly significant, both past and future, partners in an eternal dance. Just as teh's mind and soul were moving to the dance, twirling and leaping, unbelievably radiant, even in...
Black and white?
Diggory had forgotten, for an instant, that the colours weren't there.
"Aye, that's because they were." Said a mellow, friendly voice. Diggory spun around, hand on sword hilt in case it was Naod, "Those were the true colours, the colours of your soul."
"Eh? Standard questin' talk, that. Ye better be meanin' somethin', lass..."
"What I mean is it's a test." She smiled, "A test of how much ye want to know what this place can tell ye. Now ye've seen what this place can do, are ye willin' to give up yer colour vision to carry on yer quest?"
"After that?" Diggory scratched teh's head, "Aye, it was beautiful. The music. I'd carry on just fer the music. Back when I had a black an' white telly, I didn't care, ye know? Cause that's all I had."
The girl smiled. Suddenly, Diggory realised that her smile was one of genuine happiness. She reached out her arm. Diggory took her hand. It felt cool, like a new control pad. She pulled teh into the water, into...
* * *
Pixel-snow covered the Peak of Singing Mountain in a shroud that made it seem translucent, otherworldly, like a waking dream. The air was icy clear, filling hi lungs with a heavy freshness. Chaclon gasped in wonder. Clouds of snow swept upwards like wraiths of white energy. Most amazing of all, the music did not grow louder as he walked closer. It remained distant, crackling. Wherever it came from, it must be a long way away.
Standing before a massive outcrop of white crystals was a man. He was small and puny, and was not dressed for adventuring. He wore white trousers and a white shirt, and a large brimmed hat. He held a cane in one hand. He seemed intent on what he was doing.
"Are ye talking to the Lost Dragon?" asked Chaclon. The man turned around to look at him. His eyes were strange. Chaclon wasn't so sure about his sanity.
"No, I'm afraid I haven't seen him, lad." He shook his head sadly, "That would be useful."
"Useful fer what?"
"To keep away my enemy."
"Ye shouldn't bring violence here." Warned Chaclon, "This place is sacred."
"My enemy is evil incarnate. Diggory wishes to destroy this world. He lives off ruin and despair." The man had a scary accent.
"Ye don't mean our Diggory, surely? His poems don't even rhyme."
"Bad poetry is programming in disguise, lad. I cannot create a path for man, but..." he spun on his heels and headed off down a mountain path, "Don't blame me if you wake up one morning and your world is reduced to ashes."
* * *
The spirits were awakening.
Greco could hear them. In the breeze, they whispered. In the tide, they sang. When he cooked the fish he caught for his dinner, he heard faint voices crackling in the flames. He listened silently, patiently.
It was difficult to understand the words of the spirits. They spoke a language unlike any human language- full of concepts, feelings, and vague, long-term, large-scale ideas. The spirits were the life of the world, and as such, they knew the implications of every event for the entire world. Tonight, they were restless, busy, preparing for a long journey like the refugees Greco could also hear trying to sneak across the El Nido border. The chimes were very loud, which meant that it was a very important event, of significance to the very fabric of the Universe. The man shuddered, a chill of presentiment running down his spine.
"What's wrong, Greco?"
"The spirits..." he explained to his wife what he had experienced.
"A journey? But spirits are everywhere! What one sees, they all see! Why would they want to travel?"
"I don't know.' Greco placed his head in his hands, "Maybe they all want to be in the same place at once."
"They're gathering?" she gasped, "But that only happens in times of great emergency! Is... Is the world ending?"
Seeing his wife shivering, Greco stood up and put some more wood on the fire. He waved at the old woman who was chasing the other refugee with a walking stick in the distance. He was still receiving visions. With his level of ability, the visions were particularly vivid. They weren't good or bad in their omens, simply significant. Uncertain, perhaps. He bowed his head in concentration
Suddenly, the door opened without a knock. A wet, bedraggled traveller stood there, leaning on the door for support. It was one of the refugees.
"Has she gone yet?' teh asked, and collapsed from exhaustion.
* * *
"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."
* * *