The Quest For The Perfect RPG Part 4
>World: the 'released' place where things actually happen and are recorded. No beta tests or programmers' editions exist here. The opposite of where we exist.
Diggory stood up and looked out of the window again. Huge office blocks like teh's own lined the empty isometric maps of streets. This place was never finished, teh realised. Never released in reality. And so the Perfect RPG...
"Is this really the Beta version of the world?"
"Of course! Why do you ask?" replied Wicks politely.
"So, if I went into a shop now, and asked for a Beta game..."
"Boss, the Operator's gone funny again!" yelled Veg. Wicks kicked him.
""You have many Beta games on your computer, Operator."
Diggory took a look. There were indeed Beta games on teh's computer, a whole load of them, ranging from the perfectly working to the extremely buggy. It was fun...
Suddenly, teh stopped.
Something was wrong.
Teh could see in colour. Teh didn't have RSI. Teh wasn't desperately clinging to the keyboard for teh's life. It wasn't 3 a.m. Teh wasn't irritated. Teh's neck didn't hurt. Teh wasn't hungry.
Was teh... happy?
Rise, Diggory. Rise, warrior. Something deep in teh's soul was responding to the astral call. Yodu de, a'kredetta var' alys. A cool wind blew in another place, a place within. Teh saw the blue flame that protected teh's soul from viruses, saw teh's body illuminated by its aura. Back in the forest, the wind became stronger, the panther ran through the jungle... the game was beginning... the hunt was back on...
"Ah, ye're alive." Yodu De said approvingly. She was flung aside as two arms were clamped around Chaclon's neck.
"You." promised Diggory coldly, "Have had it."
* * *
"What..." the young tribesman leaned backward, trying to use Diggory's own momentum to pull teh over his head. Diggory roared and grabbed his leg. They both went down and began wrestling in the undergrowth. Startled, Naod De jumped into a tree to escape. Kid laughed.
"Ye wimps, I'll show ye real wrestlin'!" yelled Greco. He put down his backpack and jumped into the fray. Within seconds, he had them both pinned to the floor. He grabbed Diggory by the hair for emphasis.
"Now, why be ye brawlin' like a couple o' drunks in a pub?"
"He ruined my 'appiness!" roared Diggory, "Look at 'im, always 'appy. Don't 'e ever get GDS or RSI? Either 'e never gets technical problems or e's inhuman! I'll sell 'im to a vivisectionist lab, I will!"
"Who in'uman?" cried Chaclon in protest, "Ye go up fifty levels a week! Ye don't sleep at night! Ye can operate a completely obsolete machine!"
"Yer computer always works!"
"That's cause it's a good 'un!"
"But even a good 'un don't work fer me!"
"You two, I think I, you know, understand your problem." said Nikki kindly.
"Ye do?" Diggory relaxed. Greco let the two stand up.
"You're two very different kind of gamers." He told them, leading Diggory away while Chaclon recovered from the shock of being jumped by a high-level swordsman, "You've been brought up in very different environments. Chaclon, you play in a group, and you try and impress your friends. You don't have long-term campaigns because other people are always using the computer. Diggory, you're what's known as a desperation gamer. You play on your own, on the move. You play whenever you can catch a spare ten minutes. "
"That doesn't explain why his computer always works." said Diggory.
"Chaclon's computer hasn't been pushed to its limits. He's an instructions manual reader."
"My computer came without the instructions." admitted Diggory. He walked away from the party and pondered Nikki's words. Teh sat on a tree stump. Did Diggory really want to live Chaclon's life? Would Diggory have been the same person? Teh had lived through so much...
"Hoi! That's my Game Over tune ye're playin'!"
Apologising, Nikki put down teh's guitar and folded his arms.
"You really do have the worst luck in the world, don't you?"
"In the plot, yes." Said Diggory, "But maybe there is no one true completion."
* * *
By midday the next day, they had reached Termina. Guided by Nikki, they wandered the back streets, away from all the tourists and fish, until they reached Slot Alley. This was the public gaming quarter of Termina, where neon lights flashed in time to a montage of beeps and game intro tunes. They walked past coin-ops and sound-test emporiums until they arrived at a run-down building with blue glazed windows and an old Gaj player displayed in the doorway.
"The Gaj Retro Experience!" introduced Nikki.
"And we can play unreleased themes here?"
"You can play any themes here." Nikki told them, "It's, you know, lawless."
He signalled for them to stay behind him and pushed the door open. It creaked, and a chime sounded. A fat, bearded administrator pointed to an empty booth and went back to twiddling buttons.
"Any unreleased themes?' whispered Nikki. The administrator sighed and disappeared under the counter. Moments later, he reappeared and they walked off, chattering incomprehensibly. Diggory shrugged and wandered off to play Hydlide. Teh mind-danced into the light metal world of the hydlidean Splash cave and its thousand levels. Nikki reappeared with a large collection of floppy disks.
"I won't need any of you for a while." He announced, why don't you, you know, stock up and do some training? It's tournament season in Termina."
Thanking the musician, the party left the building and returned to the Termina promenade. Greco and Korcha went element-shopping, Naod De chatted to the fortune-teller and Kid disappeared into the crowd, presumably to pick some pockets. Diggory was left to find a good spot to train. Teh climbed onto a huge pile of crates and jumped down into the harbour. Sailors always want fights, teh thought. Suddenly, teh saw a poster on a crate.
>Grand Tourney! Dario Pascal, champion of good, Level 56 Swordsman, challenges all good warriors. Come to Viper Manor!
* * *
Kid and Diggory didn't want to pay the entrance fee. Leaping over the wall, Diggory and the young thief entered unseen. There was a huge crowd, all warriors or battle mages. Armour clanked and ale was thrown in time to war chants from Porre. Healers in their medical tents barked orders, while their orderlies ran back and forth. Dogs chased each other through the crowds, eating spilt food. Diggory growled at people, who hastily moved out of the high-level warrior's way. Teh hadn't spotted one especially good fighter yet. Kid quietly pocketed some interesting weapons.
They soon found Dario. He stood twice as tall as most men, wielding his massive two-handed sword with ease. He wore white plate armour built for trolls, and his blade shone blood red with a malicious force. His face set in grim purpose, he defeated each attacker methodically, sometimes with only one sword stroke. This was a true master, Diggory decided, watching his style closely. His counter-attacks were especially powerful. Striding towards the ring, teh signed the challenger's book.
"Ye must be nuts!" gasped a nearby fighter, "The guy's beaten everyone, even the Dragon Devas!"
Not bothering to reply, teh unsheathed teh's sword and launched a heavier version of the Esterian Flip that sent everyone running for cover. Dario cried out and swung his blade in a desperate counter. The opposing forces struck each other with a force that sent up showers of red and green sparks. Both contestants lay on the mat, panting. They stood up and circled each other warily. Diggory saw a strange look in the other man's eyes, an obsessive anticipation that bordered on terror. Teh risked a heavy swing, which was countered by a downward sweep. Instead of retreating, teh brought up teh's other hand and grabbed the man. They began to grapple, to the crowd's delight.
"This is more than a contest, huh?" Diggory guessed, "Ye've been waiting for me."
"I am Miguel's champion."
'I thought so. And ye've got some kind of magic power to beat me?"
"Try an elemental attack."
Diggory whirled teh's blade around teh's head, invoking the element winds. Teh was naturally green-element, a throwback from teh's other, unknown parent. The crowd gasped as an emerald fire wreathed teh's blade. Yelling teh's battle-cry, teh rushed at Dario. The manoeuvre was known as the Grand Leveller, a lethal move that could slice a man's level in half.
Dario's blade hummed over his head, crackling with black energy. It struck with the force of a mountain, neutralising teh's technique and shattering teh's defences. Teh fell to the ground, fighting to keep teh's last HP. Only teh's Black Plate had saved teh, absorbing some of the elemental damage. A healer rushed up. Pulling her towards teh, Diggory whispered a few words.
"The tournament's off!" she yelled, "This fight is rigged- the man's using unfair magical bonuses!"
The crowd booed and began pelting Dario with whatever food or drink came to hand. The disgraced warrior came up to Diggory and growled.
"This isn't over." He promised.
"I'm trained in the instant death techniques, come any closer and your game will be over, son." replied the healer. Diggory sank into unconsciousness as Dario walked away.
* * *
Crisp white sheets brushed against Diggory's face. The room smelt disinfected. Diggory opened teh's eyes and looked around. Beside teh's bed was a cabinet with a lamp and a small jar. A window was open to allow a cool sea breeze through. Teh moved teh's limbs experimentally; there wasn't even a hint of pain left. Teh smiled; teh was in the hands of a competent healer.
As if on cue, a beautiful woman appeared. She wore a simple white dress that matched her lush purple hair. She gave Diggory a no-nonsense smile and examined teh for injuries. I recognise her, thought Diggory. She was in the bar with Lynx.
"You've recovered well." She told teh, "I can let you out now."
"Thanks, lass. Ye're a good healer." Teh complimented her, "If ye want a decent campaign, ye can join us lot. We've no proper healers, just a stupid priest who sings Game Over tunes all day."
She blushed and wiped teh's forehead with a wet cloth. She looked at teh as though determining whether teh was mad, but she obviously decided no.
"You aren't from around here." She smiled sympathetically, "I am Lady Riddel of Viper Manor. My husband rules this island. I am well known for treating people of all social status, free of charge."
"Don't deport me!" yelled Diggory automatically. She laughed.
"I don't mind, I always wondered what it was like for people to think I was a common healer. You should leave the bed now, so I can treat my next patient"
"Where are my party?"
"They are waiting outside." She swept regally out of the room. Diggory picked up teh's sword and strapped teh's scabbard around teh's waist. A chill wind sent shivers down teh's spine as teh approached one bookcase. Whirling around, teh smashed teh's fist against something furry that went 'OW', teh grabbed t by the ear and pulled it out of the shadows.
"Come along to finish me off, eh?" teh growled.
"If you had requested such, I would have performed such services." He replied, "but I was merely... observing. I fully expected you to die from your wounds. You were close enough to death's door to put a leaflet through the mailbox."
"Oh yeah? Well, spy on someone else, ye pervert."
"You owe Game Over, little exile. You were saved from death before, many times, by forces that would kill any other man who intruded upon them. Know that there are two sides to every RPG. Never, ever lose sight of that. We will come to claim you, one day. Even a perfect RPG has a Game Over screen."
Before Diggory could hit him again, the dark priest moved back into the shadows where he lived.
* * *
Business was better than ever for the element shops today. Since opening time, the band of adventurers had been running from shop to shop with some bizarre request. Whatever they were planning, thought the shopkeeper, it obviously required meticulous strategy, a huge amount of trail and error, and a lot of element spells.
"Y' see, the man always counters an elemental technique with the opposite technique." explained Korcha, "So, what we need to do is use a weak element. That way, the counter will be weak, and Diggory can wear him down. Diggory can heal, but he can't, see..."
"Why doesn't Diggory just whack him with a sword" asked Greco, "Swords don't have elements!"
"Ah, but Dario's counter-attacks..."
"Don't tell me they're jinxed as well!"
"They're black-element. That's Diggory's weakest element. And, you know, physical elements are the worst of all!"
A loud thump on the long bar table interrupted the strategy meeting. Coloured tiles flew everywhere. The source of the noise soon revealed itself to be an old lady thumping a pint of Kazalt Tree Brew of the table. Nikki gasped.
"That stuff could kill a wild boar!"
"Ah, ye've never seen a real wild boar!" mocked Naod De, "Anyways, I came here especially to tell yer something'"
"This Dario fella. He's impossible for yer to beat, yer know!" she cackled.
"As they used to say, Ozzie's in a pickle!" she laughed again, "But Naod's got an idea. Miguel's made him able to counter anything... but Naod knows about an element ye can't counter against."
"All elements have opposites."
"Not the element of the Lost Dragon."
"Chaclon was tellin' me about that!" yelled Korcha, "We need to go to the Singing Mountain!"
Diggory rushed into the room carrying all their luggage.
"We're leaving Termina, NOW!" teh yelled frantically. Naod looked at teh enquiringly.
"Have we been deported?" asked Nikki.
"No... worse! There's someone after me, someone VERY dangerous!"
"Who is it? Miguel? Dario?"
Diggory forced the words out, teh's face white with terror.
"Professor... Luccia... has found me!" teh squeaked, "We know each other from school!"
"For dragons' sake, run, man, she'll dissect ye!" the shopkeeper shooed them out of his shop and closed up early for the day. he helped them onto the back of his wagon and rode out of town. The true challenge had begun.
* * *
"What's a switchboard?"
"Boss, he's lost his memory again... OUCH!"
The sound of Wicks kicking Veg brought teh out of teh's initial shock. Teh could process information again. Familiar objects floated into view- an office, a laptop, a swivel chair, two supervisors arguing. Teh felt physically different- slightly smaller, less suited for combat. In place of the sword teh wore was a laptop in a leather case.
"Oh, I get it, I'm the Operating System again!"
"Operator." Corrected Veg. Wicks wiped his forehead, relieved.
"You're awake again!" he cheered, "Just in time for your meeting! Well done, sir!"
"With your boss, President Lunarian!" he said, exasperated, "Please try to remember! I'll get the sack if you don't!"
"I thought the project was abandoned before any sprites were loaded..." teh noted the logo on a passing secretary's suit. It was a flatline icon, "Who's that secretary?"
"Oh, that? Someone on the Game Over team." Wicks told teh.
"Game Over team?"
"They design the Game Over screen for the Perfect RPG."
"A whole team of staff for one poxy..."
>Will the Operator of the Information Center please report to the President's office at once!
Wicks practically dragged Diggory and Veg along the corridor. They passed through endless corridors, all clean and administrative except for a red light that kept flashing off just to annoy everybody. A canteen trolley rattled past. Slowly, the noise of office machinery and busy telephones quietened. They had reached a door labelled 'President'.
"Come in." said a voice like a recorded message. Hands trembling, Wicks opened the door. Inside the office, which looked perfectly normal, a tall woman in a spotless black suit greeted them.
"I received your report, Operator." She told Diggory, "Our scientific department told me it was very positive. It is now safely possible to produce a stable version."
"Then the Perfect RPG will exist at last?"
"Yes. A full, released version." President Lunarian never blinked, noticed Diggory, was she a robot? "The fruit of all our experimental RPGs will be realised. But there is one problem..."
"Problem?" Wicks gulped.
"Free." Said Diggory automatically.
"This is worth more than money, er... President. This is the fulfilment of creation. To charge money for it would be like... giving God a price tag."
"You make us sound very important."
Wicks hid behind his briefcase.
"If you created the Perfect RPG... I guess ye are."
"I like that." Wicks relaxed, "Operator... your task now is to use your switchboard to transport the completed Perfect RPG to the world of the released."
"Thank you, President." Wicks grabbed Diggory and Veg and pulled them back out of the room.
"Oh well." President Lunarian went back to her computer,"Maybe we can charge money for Perfect RPG 2."
* * *
Diggory fell face-first onto the caravan floor. The swift transportation to reality meant that Diggory was flooded with sudden recollections of the past few days. Naod stood over teh, waiting patiently.
"Ye went there again, didn't ye?"
"Ye do know that ye're breakin' all the laws of physics, don't ye?" she grinned, "Goin' to unreleased places. Supposed to be discontinued, they is."
"I don't think reality applies to me any more."
Before they could go any further into the science of it all, Greco rushed in.
"We're almost there. We'll be there by noon."
"Twelve hours after you wake up." Naod told teh.
Teh groaned. It was early, VERY early. Teh should be in bed. Yawning, teh went to pack teh's bags. I hope this will be enough, teh thought. I hope I can face Dario with the training and preparation I've undergone. Even without Miguel's little bonus, Dario is stronger than me. Dragons know what kind of brainwashing the man's gone through- I hope I can make him see sense. I want him on my party. I want that big red sword through Miguel's chest. Teh decided to stop thinking about it and go to sleep.
The journey was fairly uneventful The sea was calm, the weather was still and Diggory was too tired to attract monsters. Korcha hummed an old sailor's shanty with swear words in it while Nikki played along on his guitar. Greco calmed the spirits of the drowned, and Kid did whatever Kid does on a boat. Soon, the lofty spires of pure white rock appeared on the horizon, spreading out across the sky like the wings of a bird. They left the boat and climbed the path that wove around the precipitous formation. Occasionally, a figure would dart in and out of the grass, and Kid would argue with Nikki whether it was a duck or an alien.
"Don't be silly, how can it be an..."
"Quiet." Said Diggory. Teh pushed teh's way to the front. A huge warrior in excessive plate mail paced moodily in the distance. Casually, Diggory quickened his pace and rushed the man with a blood-curdling war cry.
* * *
Teh's enraged charge held the force of a fast-moving express train. The swordsman fully expected Dario to turn round and counter the blow, probably killing teh, but instead he moved out of the way listlessly. Teh fell over and landed face-first into the grass. Teh's other hand went up, but Dario's strike did not come. Teh looked upwards, confused. The other man was leaning on a branch, struggling to breath. His HP was almost zero.
"Diggory... go... stop Miguel..."
"What happened to ye?"
"Luccia did this to ye?" Diggory had always assumed the lady professor reserved that kind of treatment for teh and rodents.
"No... she stopped... the mind control... spell..." he gasped, "But Miguel... I... couldn't... defeat..."
"Where is Miguel now?" it must be pretty important if Luccia actually did something nice to someone, thought Diggory.
"Here... Singing... Mountain... wants to... close... link... Beta..."
"He wants to close the link between this world and the Beta world?" gasped Diggory, "The idiot, the Perfect RPG is in there! He'll destroy the world!"
"Take... sword..." Dario collapsed.
"He's dead." Greco told Diggory.
Teh removed the red blade from Dario's grip; the crimson flames flared up like the fires of the apocalypse. It was a heavy sword, made of an extremely strong metal. Diggory wondered if it had some kind of magical properties. Teh hoped not; teh wasn't the magic-sword kind of player character. Teh sheathed the sword and ran up the cliff path.
There, arms outstretched in religious rapture, was Miguel. He held a white crystal rod that glowed with azure fire. Behind him, Chaclon was slumped over a plain white rock with a crack down the middle, as though two halves had been forced together.
"NO!" yelled Diggory. Miguel turned around.
"So, spawn of evil, you have come?' he yelled, "Well, I don't care how you survived! I've stopped your little plan! You'll never be able to use the powers of the Perfect RPG now!"
"Miguel, if nobody can access the Perfect RPG, the plot of the Universe is gone. Absolute entropy will set in. The world will be destroyed," warned Diggory calmly.
"The harbinger of Armageddon... telling ME not to destroy the world!" he screeched, "Avaunt, demon!"
"Please, Miguel, I'm not lying. It's getting too late. We..."
Pixels hit Diggory in a tidal wave, throwing teh upwards. All the laws of physics upturned themselves, becoming merely one suggestion in an infinite number of possibilities. Feeling teh's life draining from teh, the exile charged at Miguel. Everything went black; teh saw a man in a brown suit, touching the Frozen Flame... it shattered... blue light...
* * *