The Ultimate Quest, by Earl Stoll (short story)
Doctor Malcom, a man whose professional experience in his field exceeded forty years, slowly put his pencil down, rubbed his temple with an arthritic finger, and tried his hardest to keep from rolling his eyes. It had been a while since he’d had a patient that irritated him so thoroughly. Five years, he guessed. Yes, five years. It had been that stubby little man in the pompous hat who had claimed to be Napoleon. After three sessions, Malcom had seriously considered rolling his eyes. Luckily, there was a breakthrough in the fourth session- the man had been channeling the spirit of Jon Heder while the actor slept- and so the temptation Malcom felt to roll his eyes took care of itself. This man, though…
Malcom took a deep breath and stared at the man lying on his couch. The flannel shirt draped over Ian Jericho like a wisp-thin napkin caught on a patch of melting ice cream. Its pale blue looked positively vibrant against his skin. Malcom knew the type. They swore they would get more sun if they weren’t so busy. Busy. These people were as busy as they wanted to be. Writers! It would take a fool not to see that they spent their days in front of the television. Why didn’t they get real jobs?
Jericho was looking at Doctor Malcom expectantly, left hand picking absently at the sofa. Malcom cleared his throat, took another deep breath.
“And how long now, exactly, have your characters been… interfering with your stories?”
The four heroes crept cautiously around the corner and tiptoed down the dark stone hall of the castle, swords drawn. Jack pulled ahead and signaled a halt before a large oak door. Putting his finger to his lips, he paused and bent down to listen at the keyhole. Voices. There appeared to be tortured screaming. Jack drew back and kicked at the door with all his might. The door flew open to reveal…
A bathroom. Lying in the bathtub under mounds of bubbles was one of the wizened old maids who lived in the castle.
“You could have just knocked,” she said with no small amount of annoyance in her voice. “Now I’ll have to replace those hinges…”
Jack glanced momentarily at the abused door, then bowed. “My lady, I crave your pardon. Mine companions and I had heard a most dreadful wailing- fit to wake the dead, forsooth- from behind this door. By my troth, methought it was the fairest Princess Amylia in distress, perchance being radished by a terrifying monster…” He trailed off as he caught the look on the old crone’s face.
She eyed Jack coldly. “My singing is not that bad.”
Jack’s composure slipped. “Of course not, m’lady. Clearly, thou aren’t being radished…
Jericho stared balefully at the wall.
“I mean…” Malcom cleared his throat. “Don’t you mean ‘ravaged?’”
Jericho sighed. “Do you think I haven’t tried telling him that?”
“Him… the character?”
Doctor Malcom stared blankly at his patient. With some effort, he shifted in his seat and nodded as if it all made perfect sense. “Go on.”
“Where was I? Ah, here…”
“Of course not, m’lady. Clearly, thou aren’t being radished either.” Methinks… erm, that thine voice ist like bluebells upon the…”
“Get over yourself.”
“Scram before I call security.”
Jack shut the door. “Methinks the lady doth protest like… wait, no… how does it go? Like… too something… hmmm. Well, I’ll think about it, but I was sure I was about to say something damn clever.” He looked down and groaned. “Bill! C’mon, man, do I have to take your bottle again? You’ll be useless against Lord Dark Death Dude if you keep that up.”
Bill Drinkswiller ignored him and kept chugging from the Chateau du Mont Everiste Chablis bottle just like was swilling moonshine. It was as if his life goal was to get a BAC of 100 proof. Of course, the dwarf could still be induced to fight like mad, but that was because he was a dwarf. Dwarves fight like mad. Bill put his own spin on the trait by fighting cross-eyed and twelve sheets to the wind whenever he had the chance.
“Drinkin’ me rum and scratchin’ me bum,” he sang hoarsely. A wet belch followed. The spittle dripped into his beard. “Beatin’ me head to earn me bread, ha ha hau huh huuurrk… ptoo.”
Leafy Twigbottom turned to Jack, eyes wide. “Oh… my… gosh! They have broken, like, so many environmental codes in this place. I just saw some manufactured, non-organic soap in that bathroom. The Grand And Almighty Forest Protection Council Of Pointy-Eared Elders is going to be so ticked off.” The elf strode ahead. “It’s almost like they went out of their way to be irresponsible. I mean, how stupid can you get? I can’t imagine what kind of animal cruelty violations there must be here. I’ll bet you they let the dogs go outside… and that they put collars on them!”
Bill muttered something about “damn hippies,” then passed out cold on the floor.
Jack sighed. It had been less than a week since their last intervention with their friend and his drinking problem. They had long since given up on getting him to AA meetings. He’d gone to one, then stopped by the local tavern on his way back “to wash the taste outta me mouth,” as he put it.
Jericho fidgeted. “Well… last weekend, I… I was at my desk as usual, see. I’d just got to this part where I was introducing- well, giving a bit of backstory- for this character. He’s… well, he’s this dwarf, see, and he drinks a lot…”
Malcom stifled a groan. If Jericho’s writing continued to be as bad as his speaking, his characters were probably as multifaceted and lively as wheat crackers. “Bill the dwarf?”
“Yes… was going to give him a limp, but hey, he’s already drunk, huh, so why bother, right?” Jericho laughed the laugh of a man who found stamp collections engrossing. Malcom seized the moment to divert the writer’s attention back to the question at hand.
“So, you had Bill in this story of yours, this…”
“”The Ultimate Quest of Epic Epicness.’ It’s a, well, a parody of sorts. Y’know, the sort of thing that pokes fun at something you really enjoy, but it has all these holes, see? You know, it’s always better to have someone who loves something parody it because, well, they know it, don’t they. It’s like putting St. Elmo in charge of…”
Malcom realized he was getting nowhere. “When did your characters start… messing… with your story? Please?”
Bill had come from a proud line of dwarves. His father’s father was Edmund Drinkswiller, who was still known throughout the lands as the subject of the folk tale ‘The Full Keg and the Halfwit.’ Edmund’s mother was the famed Daryl Drinkswiller-Drinkswiller (Dwarves aren’t imaginative enough to come up with “girly” names; they figure, if they can’t tell the difference, then why give the rest of the world a hint? Dwarves are also stubborn, contrary, and slightly inbred.) was known as the daughter of the great Melvin Drinkswiller, who, family legend held, could swallow an oaken barrel whole and digest the wood to get at the ale. Melvin’s great-grandfather’s mother’s cousin’s aunt’s husband Bertram Drinkswiller had once…
Jack cleared his throat. “We get it. Dwarves drink a lot. Now can we please get on with the story?”
Well, excuse me. I just thought it was important to provide some backstory. How are readers supposed to feel an emotional connection to the characters if we don’t know where they came from?
Oh, and I suppose you want a ridiculous fight scene in the middle of everything? Just to please the audience?
Jack shrugged. “This isn’t exactly shaping up to be Helm’s Deep, if you catch my drift. The final scene from ‘Dragonheart,’ perhaps…”
So you want a random fight scene?
“Some action wouldn’t hurt.”
“I didn’t quite follow that. You talked back to your character?
“And he just demanded a fight scene?”
A hesitant nod. “Yeah.”
“And…” Malcom scratched his ear, breathed slowly. A pause. “Did you… give him one?”
A monster appeared suddenly before Jack. It roared, revealing foaming spit, stained teeth, and purple gums. On its right claw, it wore a giant foam finger; the words “Go Lord Dark Death Dude” were written on the finger in bright neon marker.
“Look out!” Jack cried. “It’s a rabid fan!”
He pulled out his sword, the legendary Thumbpricker, and held aloft his 20-sided die. With a yell, he charged.
The fan held up its ghastly arms. “Whoa, man, easy, easy. Do you even know what level I am? I’m a level four rabid fan!” The horrid beast puffed out its bare, slimy chest, where three large ‘D’s had been tattooed. “Although I’ve always thought of myself as number one, if you know what I mean.”
Jack stared at the foul fan triumphantly. “Level eight swordslinger, fiend!”
The fan held up its claw. “Ah, but I have a radius three fear aura! It affects all swordslingers up to level 10!”
“Oh yeah? Well, I have the boots of Un-Fear. And ,” he said, turning Thumbpricker in a lazy circle, “a plus-eight legendary sword.”
The fan looked momentarily impressed, then slightly crestfallen. “Oh, well that’s good, I guess.” It sniffed. “Well, I suppose we can start. Do you want to start?”
“I did. You have a first strike ability, remember? You get the first move.”
“Oh, right. So I roll for area of effect first…”
“Well, yes. I told him we needed to save some budget for the final part of the story.”
“Oh, yeah. You need to conserve resources. You never know when you’ll, like, run out of something in a story. Um, like in this one story, I wanted a horde of goblins to pour over a wall and swarm the heroes as they made their escape. But, you know, got to that point and, well, I was out of walls that goblins could pour over. I’d used them all in chapter eight. I had to have them run across the drawbridge instead.”
Malcom closed his eyes for a moment and prayed silently that the rest of today’s patients would be run-of-the-mill, garden variety psychopaths. This kind of session was almost too absurd for words. The kind of session that might drive him crazy. He thought of Scrooge’s retirement plans and grew a momentary smirk- I’ll retire to Bedlam.
Well, yes. You want some budget left over for the epic final fight, right? I don’t want to waste every special effect in some random fight scene.
“I guess, but… oh, all right. Whatever.” He turned grudgingly to his orc companion. “Gruk, pick Bill up. We needs must want him later.”
The orc lifted the fallen hero as if he were a sack of overripe turnips.
“Or perhaps radishes,” said Jack. “Yes, radishes.”
Shut up. For the last time, it’s ravage. How can you not get that right?
“Onward!” Jack cried. “Though one of us has fallen, we shall fight on until we have defeated Lord Dark Death Dude! If we must fight to our dying breath! Or come back as ghosts! Or zombies! We will fight! Unless we need to get some more supplies! Or if Lord Dark Death Dude is really awesomely dangerous!”
A halfling wandered through the background, but no one paid him any attention.
Malcom felt a small headache coming on. This Jericho fellow had the writing talent of a monkey at a typewriter. Drinking bourbon.
Malcom realized he could use a bourbon.
He wrote on his clipboard: “Mommy issues?”
Lord Dark Death Dude appeared before them in red fire and black smoke and black fire and red smoke and cigarette smoke and sulfur and brimstone and burrito farts. A high, evil cackle came forth from the smoke, but immediately turned into a coughing fit.
Jack stepped forward and pointed accusingly into the choking haze. “I hath cometh to liberate thine princess from thy radishings! Face me, Lord Dark Death Dude!”
“That’s Lord 3D to you.” 3D strode menacingly from the cloud. He was swathed in a deep green robe, a tall pointy hat, and a shirt that appeared to be…
Jack laughed. “Plaid?”
Lord 3D shifted uncomfortably. “I have a budget too, you know.”
“Dude, you should at least get a belt. Suspenders look pretty ridiculous.”
Lord 3D quickly recovered from this stinging attack and went on the offensive. With loud, dramatic music playing from the loudspeakers in the background, he rose up and bellowed, “How can you hope to defeat me? I have the power of earth magic, wind magic, fire magic, propane magic, mind control…” and here he had another coughing fit. Jack, always someone to fight by the rules, politely waited for 3D to continue. “Body control, snake control, spider control, gerbil control, magic-controlling magic, and magic-controlling magic magic. What can you do against me?”
“We will cut you to pieces with our swords!” Jack cried.
Jack looked around and had a minor panic attack, the kind one might have after realizing one hadn’t brushed one’s teeth that morning. “Dang, I knew we forgot something. No matter! I guess we’ll have to defeat you with the power of the FINE FOUR!”
Lord Dark Death Dude lit up a cigarette and took a long drag on it. “I count you, a dwarf in a coma, and an orc. Where is your fourth? Don’t tell me that you forgot him, too.”
Leafy had left the group to go far into the dungeons. He had found a room where wild animals were being kept against their wills and subsequently had chained himself to their cages.
“Animals are friends! They never, like, did anything to deserve jail time! This is animal slavery!”
The rather irritated old lady from earlier in this story stood watching him in the doorway. She had come downstairs after her interrupted bath to take a nap. This pointy-eared fruit loop in her room was trying her patience with trespassing miscreants. She liked to think herself a reasonable woman. She had spent years quietly serving Lord Dark Death Dude, changing his bed sheets and listening approvingly to his evil plottings and mutterings. This, however, was pushing her too far.
“Don’t experiment on animals! They, like, have souls too! They belong in the wild!”
The old lady rolled her eyes, walked up to Leafy and said, “They’re… pet… gerbils. Now then, kindly use your key to unlock those ridiculous handcuffs, and get out before I call security.”
Leafy blinked. “Dang, I knew I’d forgotten something.” And the absurdity of his situation finally came clear to him.
At this point, the halfling wandered back in with a witty one-liner, but no one remembered exactly what it was.
Malcom felt like he could do with two or maybe three bourbons now.
“We will defeat you with the power of the TERRIFIC THREE!” said Jack.
“The dwarf’s asleep.”
“C’mon, man, you’re leaving me with just the orc. He can’t even talk, man, he’s lame.”
Gruk leaned forward. “I actually do talk. I’m just soft-spoken. And a pacifist.”
“See? I can’t even have a dynamic duo.”
Lord 3D grinned. Crushing the protagonist’s world was always his favorite part. “Princess Amylia betrayed you. Give up now and I might let you live. Come join the side of the dark! Cliché evil sentence! Mwahahahahuh haaaaacch cough cough…”
Jack’s face fell. He dropped to his knees and began to wail and gnash his teeth. “NOOOOOOO! Amylia! How could she? I thought she loved me!”
Lord 3D coughed again. “Man, I need to give up this smoking thing.”
Jack was sobbing, but through the tears he realized something: “Hey, wait a second. I’ve only known Amylia for a day and a half. What am I so worked up about?” He straightened up, pulled the Ring of Ultimate Deep-Frying from the Categorizing Hat and zapped Lord 3D as he tried to wail “NOOOOOOO!!!” between coughing fits. The Lord of Darkness and Deathness and Dudeness had become Grand Duke of Deadness.
Malcom felt his eyelid twitch. He wondered if crazy was contagious, or perhaps stupidity.
Gruk came up to Jack. “Well, that was incredibly easy.”
“Yeah, it was. Hey, you!”
“Yeah, you! Is that it? I mean, the explosion was pretty decent there, but…”
Seriously? I saved up a lot of the budget for that scene, and now you’re disappointed?
“Well, yeah. I guess I just didn’t get the character buildup I would have really needed in order to hate Lord 3D. I mean, he seemed like a nice guy.”
Are you kidding me? He turned Amylia against you.
Jack shrugged. “Well, I do have a girl back home…”
What? Well, why didn’t you tell me? I could have skipped so much of the romantic nonsense! I could have removed all of chapter three! The gratuitous sex scene!
Jack fidgeted. “Yeah, I was meaning to tell you. That’s going to be kind of awkward to explain…”
Ugh. You know what? So much of this story has been messed up already, what with the budget and wardrobe issues and all… I could just cut a lot of the first three acts. That would save you some of the embarrassment, at least. Then I could reuse some assets for this final scene.
Jack nodded, thinking hard. “I hate to think that I wasted my time, but… yeah, go ahead. Alright with you, Gruk?”
Gruk nodded. Bill belched in his sleep.
Okay, hmm. Let’s see what would add to the ending…
It was at this point that Doctor Malcom realized that a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster might hit the spot right about now.
He wrote on his clipboard: “Repressed hardship?”
The castle shook violently behind them. “Quick, good orc!” Jack yelled, not questioning for one second why they were outside of the castle, “The castle is falling right at us because that’s always what happens when you defeat the bad guy!”
Jack took a 20-sided die from the pouch on his belt. “If I roll a one or higher, a dragon will save us!” he yelled. He threw the die: it was a 16. A second before the wall would have crushed them, a dragon swooped down and picked him, Gruk, and Bill up into the air, and off into the sunset it flew. Dice ex machina.
Gruk looked at Jack. “I don’t know if I should ask, but why didn’t you do that sooner?”
“Summon the dragon? To, oh, I don’t know, kill the bad guy?”
Jack glared at him. “Don’t spoil it by thinking so hard.”
Silence. Then, “And our swords. Didn’t we have them earlier on in the story?”
Jack silenced Gruk with a look.
They all lived happily ever after. No one cares what happened to the halfling.
I’m retiring, thought Doctor Malcom.
“Mr. Jericho, I’m afraid I can’t do much with what you’ve shown me. Everything you’ve told me so far points to Jack and his situation as being products of your… creative mind.”
Jericho sat up. “I beg your pardon?”
Malcom spread his hands. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing about this that says your experience is abnormal. I’ve had a few writers have come to me saying they can’t control the direction of their stories. This doesn’t sound all that strange. You’re normal, Jericho.”
The pale man stared at his psychologist like he was itching to call for a duel. Instead of whipping out a derringer and demanding they walk ten paces, Jericho handed Malcom his stapled and marked-up story. “You’ll believe it when you read the words for yourself. It was like… like a wall came down, and the characters were free to talk to me, with me.”
Doctor Malcom sat back and glanced through the story. It was just the story, nothing more. Bad writing, a nonexistent plot… just like Jericho had read. Suddenly, he was gripped by an irresistible pull. He stood up and went to his window, eyes fixed on the pages before him. He looked out at the green grass, the overcast sky clearing as the sun burned through the clouds, bringing down that barrier. A single beam of light landed on Jericho’s story, illuminating the line: “She liked to think herself a reasonable woman.” A single tear hit the page. Doctor Malcom closed his eyes, slowly opened them. He knew what was coming.
“And the, the thing is,” Jericho kept saying, “if they’re real, and they’re talking back… well…” He fidgeted. “What if we’re just characters in some story, huh? What about that?”
Malcom took a deep breath, turned to face Jericho…
…and rolled his eyes.
Hey, everyone! My name is Earl Stoll. I’ve always enjoyed trying my hand at the fantasy genre, but I’ve done other fiction as well. I’ve been published three times in Gustavus Adolphus College’s literary collection, the Firethorne, as well as being the winner of the top fiction writing prize on campus in 2014. Mostly, I write for the fun of it. Then again, don’t we all?
Posted on July 19, 2016, in Issue 18: Mark My Words: Prophesy Signs & Portents and tagged drabble, e-zine, fantasy, flash fiction, genre blender, horror, microfiction, poetry, prophesy, science fiction, short stories, The Were-Traveler. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.