The Name Of His Wife
Jacob Brown sat on a rough wooden chair. The light from a single flickering candle illuminated sod walls. He set down a wooden bowl filled with watery gruel, which was his breakfast, and blew out the candle. Dawn would come soon. No sense wasting wax.
There was a place across from him, a place where his wife usually sat. It was empty. It was always empty. Ever since…
He shook his head. How could it be forever, he wondered. I mean, she was here. Until those damn orcs came. Until…
He struggled, for a moment, to remember her more precisely. Her laugh. The color of her hair. The things they fought about. Nothing came to him. All he knew was, she was gone, taken in a raid, and he missed her, and would do anything if someone could save her. He knew the orcs kept prisoners alive for weeks or months. He had some hope.
Maybe I could….he thought, then stopped.
I can’t do anything. I’m no warrior. I can barely guide a plow, much less swing a blade.
The sun began to stream through the wooden shutters. Jacob stood up and walked to the door. Have to keep the farm running, he thought. Nothing else to do. Nothing else I can do. He spared one last glance at the empty place setting…was she really here only last night? Or was the raid last week? Why couldn’t he remember? Then he walked out.
There were Heroes there.
You always could tell Heroes. Their clothes were bright and varied. Their armor shone, or glowed, or burned with heatless fire. They wielded swords too large for a normal man to lift, much less swing around as if it were a twig, or they were themselves glistening with magical might, their very flesh aglow. Some walked in the shape of a wolf, but spoke with the voice of a man.
They were walking to his hut, crossing through his carefully sown fields, stomping the few shoots which had managed to spring to life. Spring…was it spring now? He should be planting…but that didn’t seem right…he didn’t remember plowing last week…but he must have. The fields were plowed. The fields were always plowed… but he never remembered plowing them.
No matter. The Heroes were approaching. He struggled to listen to them. Heroes were hard to understand unless they deigned to speak to you; to Heroes, simple farmers and smiths and innkeepers barely existed. Jacob knew the rules – don’t interfere with them. They are children of the Gods, and they must be accorded all courtesies. Accede to their requests, and be invisible if they don’t want to deal with you.
Lately, though, he’d found it growing easier to hear them. He wasn’t sure why, but he could grasp snatches of their conversation.
“…you sure this is the place? I think I started in this village.”, said one. He was garbed in the robes of a High Priest of Simmureyal, and an angelic halo girded his skull.
“Yeah, there’s the guard who lost his socks. Why are we wasting our time here?” said another, a woman in glistening azure mail, an ax big enough to fell oaks strapped to her back.
Then their leader spoke. He was a knight, wearing a suit of heavy spiked mail. Jacob wondered at the ease with which he carried himself. Such armor must weigh hundreds of pounds.
“Look, this is the right one. I know this guy who knows this guy who’s seen some of the hidden areas. He doesn’t care about this place, but he told me about it. We can be the first to do it.” He stopped. “Hey, there’s the farmer dude. Jacob Brown. That’s the right one!”
“About time,” said the Priest. “We must have gone through a dozen of these stupid hovels. They all look alike.”
The leader of the Heroes approached Jacob, who quailed back. The Hero smiled in a friendly way, his helmet disappearing as they were wont to do. He spoke to Jacob directly.
“Ho there, Farmer Jacob! What news have you?”
Jacob blinked in surprise. He’d never had a Hero speak to him before. He stammered for a second.
“Is he responding?”
“Hold on, he’s going to. I know this is the right one.”
Jacob finally found his tongue. “Ah…ah…I….greetings, noble knight! You honor my poor farm with your presence. Please, if there is anything I can do for you…”
“We seek to doeth good for thee, humble farmer!” spoke the knight. “Be there anything ye needeth?”
Jacob shook his head at the odd accent. It was, he reminded himself, the way of Heroes. Need….
“My wife!” he finally sputtered out. “My wife…she was taken by orcs in the raid…the Yellow Fang tribe…they lair in the hills north of here, there is a chance she might be alive…”
The Hero just looked at him, as if waiting for something else.
Jacob’s mind spun. He had to offer them something for their risk…he couldn’t ask them to fight and possibly die for him without some token…but he had nothing…nothing but…
“I have so little to offer you if you will help me, but I…I have an old sword which my grandfather wielded in the War Of Tyrant’s Fall. It might…might be worth something to a historian, perhaps….”
The Knight made an odd gesture with his fist and turned to his companions. “Yeah! This is the right one! Damn! We do this fast and we beat everyone else to it!” He then turned back to Jacob. “Fear ye not, old man! We’ll get thy daughter back from thee orcs!”
“Wife, good sir.”
“Ah…right, yes, your wife. We’ll getteth her. No problem!”
The ax-wielding woman spoke. “Hey, where’s Korson?” Even as she finished, though, there was a flicker, and a shape appeared, a tall, thin, man in long robes, surrounded by swirling mists of fog. “Sorry…got dropped. The cat yanked the interface right out of my socket. Took me a minute to reorient myself and plug back in. Let’s go!”
Jacob stared as he watched them saunter off, this time crossing his western fields. They were taking the single straightest line to the orc’s lair, ignoring the roads, moving with Heroic grace and speed over his fields and the thorn-strewn lands beyond. Could they do it, he wondered. Could they save my wife?
What was her name? Why can’t I even remember her name?
It was maddening.
He thought about trying to undo the damage the Heroes had done to his field, but realized that if… that when they returned with his wife, they’d just tromp back over them again. A headache was beginning to form; every time he tried to remember any fact about his wife other than “She’s gone”, the pain spiked. I have to talk to someone, he thought.
The village proper was less than a mile down the road. He passed old Sergeant Tomlinson as he headed there. The “Sergeant” was nothing of the kind, having never served in any organized army, but he had some idea of how to wield a sword and could raise the alarm if bandits or orcs were spotted.
“Ho there, Tomlinson! How goes?”
“Not too bad, not too bad. Realized I’d walked out on patrol today without me socks on, if ye can believe it! Fortunately, there was a gnome walking by here looking for odd jobs, so I sent him. Nice little fella.”
Jacob frowned. “Didn’t you… didn’t you leave them behind yesterday, too? And wasn’t it some apprentice wizard you found to go fetch them for you?”
Tomlinson flushed. “Well, how daft d’ye think I am, losing my socks two days in a row! I think I’d remember if I lost ’em twice…ah, here’s the fella now.”
Jacob watched as Tomlinson happily took his socks back and tossed the gnome a few copper pieces for his trouble. The gnome looked at Jacob oddly, as if searching for something, then shrugged and ran off down the road.
Tomlinson put on his socks gleefully. “So, where ye headin’ to?”
Jacob shrugged. “The village. I need…I need to talk to some people. Tomlinson…did the orcs raid last night? When did they come?”
“No orcs for a long time. Can’t recall any raids.”
“But…my wife…they took my…”
Jacob stopped. A shifty-eyed man in worn leather walked by them. Jacob flinched back, wary for the few coins in his pouch, but the man ignored him. Instead, he fixed a piercing glare on Tomlinson, then seemed to notice something and smiled.
“Hey, Sergeant. I don’t suppose you have anything you need doing?”
Tomlinson nodded. “Do indeed there! As it turns out, this morning, I forgot me socks…and the road is cold this day! My house is over that rise. If you’d be so kind as to fetch them for me…”
Jacob backed away and hastened for the town. Either the whole village was going mad…or he was.
The Green Gander Inn formed the physical and cultural center of the town. It was a large, two story structure, with a roof of thick thatch and walls of mortared stone braced by timbers. Smoke poured from the chimney, and the smell of roasting meats wafted out. A steady stream of people dashed in and out of the place, running pell-mell to and fro. Jacob knew none of them; they were all apprentices of one sort or another – young men eager to take up the mercenary’s call, novices fresh from seminary, would-be sorcerers still struggling to master their first spells. There were a lot of them in the area, Jacob noted, though none of them were the children of anyone he knew. They never seemed to settle here, either… just vanish into the great large world beyond the village, to return on occasion as Heroes, or never to return at all.
The inside of the inn was brightly lit by oil lamps and a roaring cookfire. Jacob looked around, and finally spied Sackson. “Sack”, as he was commonly known, was a fixture at the Gander. Jacob pulled a stool up and sat down next to him. The apprentice’s chatter was simply a vague buzz at this point.
Sack stopped drinking for a brief moment, raised his glass in acknowledgment, then downed the contents in a single gulp. The bartender quickly replaced it.
“What’s up, Jake?”
“You didn’t hear? The raid? My wife?”
Sack frowned. “The raid…Right. Orcs attacked the village last…night, was it? Got your wife. Tragic. Here. Have a beer on me.” A coin appeared in his hand and was flicked to the bartender; a second mug was quickly placed on the bar, in front of Jacob, who ignored it.
“Sack…we’ve been friends for a while right?”
“Ever since we were kids.”
Jacob nodded. “What was my wife’s name?”
Sack’s face froze. Totally. All hints of life vanished. For a second, Sack became a flesh-colored statue. Then he returned to normal. “I….I don’t know. Can’t remember. Too much booze, I guess….” He seemed suddenly troubled.
Jacob continued. “You’re my best friend, so you must have been at my wedding. When was it – spring, summer, or fall?”
Sack sat the beer down. “I don’t know.” He looked down at his hands, then around at the bar, as if seeing them for the first time. “Why don’t I know?”
Jacob’s voice began to rise. “Who were her parents? Was she born in this village?”
Sack was backing away, his eyes wide. “I don’t know, I don’t know! Why are you asking me this?”
Jacob grabbed his friend by his burly shoulders and shook him. “Because I don’t know either! She was my wife, Sack, my wife, and I can’t even remember her face!”
People were staring. A mercenary youth, a battered and worn greataxe slung over his back, approached him. “Pardon, sir, but if you have any foes you need slain…”
Jacob practically spat on him. “Piss off.”
The mercenary faded back into the crowd. Jacob whirled back on his friend. “Sack, when did you last leave this bar?”
“Uhm…last night, I suppose. I mean, I have to go home sometime, right?”
“Where do you live? Which house? In town? Out in the fields?”
Sack said nothing. He began to look more frightened.
“Did you leave last night? Do you remember leaving? Do you know what the sun on your face feels like?”
Sack stood up suddenly and kicked the chair away. “I’m leaving now.”
Jacob smiled. The two of them would solve this. There was an answer to be found. They both strode to the inn’s door. Jacob noted the buzz of noise from the visitors was growing louder; he allowed some of it to filter in.
“Didn’t think he did that.”
“He never leaves. He’s been here since, like, the alpha.”
“Must be some new event.”
“We ought to follow them….”
Several of the crowd began to cautiously tag along. Jacob ignored them. The pair passed through the door.
Sack vanished as he set foot over the threshold.
Jacob’s eyes widened, He called out for him. “Sack! Sackson!” He ran back into the bar, hoping to see him at the stool at the end, but it was still empty. The milling crowd began to press in on him, asking about his friend, asking if he needed anything done.
Jacob cursed, and forced his way out of the crowd. A dwarf holding a small leather purse raced past him, heading for Sack’s old seat, then stared in confusion.
“Huh? He despawned? What’s up? I’ve got a turn-in!”
Jacob just ran.
He paced the length of his farmhouse, a fairly short walk. The old blade lay on the table…if the Heroes did return with his wife, he wanted to have it out. The less time they spent tromping on his crops, the better.
He hoped they’d return soon, one way or another. The longer he sat alone, the more his thoughts raced around all the dark holes in his mind. He knew he knew things, but the things weren’t there. He knew he was born and raised here, but he had no clear memories of his childhood. He knew he had parents, but they had neither faces nor names. He knew he had a wife…and that was all he knew about her, the mere fact she existed.
There were voices and footsteps and the sound of newly sprouted plants being trampled.
“Are you sure we get the sword? We kind of messed up…”
“Yeah, don’t worry, I checked it out with my friend. It’s rigged. We can’t save her no matter what, there’s some kind of timer trigger. It’s more, you know, dramatic or something.”
“Right, like anyone bothers paying attention to that shit.”
Jacob’s face went slack. They…they didn’t save her? What?
There was a knock.
Soul-numb, he went to the door. The Heroes were there. The leader spoke.
“Greetings, Farmer Brown. We bear dark and grave tidings. We…”
“You didn’t save her.” His voice was low, calm, flat.
“Uhm… no. We struggled, racing to breach the orcs’ defenses before…”
“Get out. Leave this farm and never return.”
The Hero stopped. His fellow Heroes were looking at him in a mix of anger and confusion. “If we blew this….” one of them began. He waved them to silence and returned to Jacob.
“I am deeply sorry for your loss, but we did try. Surely that’s worth something…”
Words appeared in Jacob’s mind: I am glad you risked your lives to aid me. Here, take the blade anyway. It is of no use to me. He felt his mouth beginning to form the words.
“No!” he shouted.
He turned, spun, and grabbed the sword. He didn’t hand it over to the Hero, but, clumsily and gracelessly, jammed it into his gut. The sword suddenly flared in his hands, sheathing itself in violet fire. The rust and grime vanished, and the blade became mirror smooth.
The Hero he had just stabbed staggered back and gurgled a few times. Then he collapsed, flickering into nothingness before his body could hit the ground. The others stared in momentary shock, then recovered.
“Wasn’t expecting that!”
“Guess this is the hard part! Let’s get ‘im!”
The three other Heroes charged. Jacob held the sword in what he hoped was a defensive position, and steeled himself to join his wife. Maybe, he thought, maybe, in the afterlife, I can ask her her name.
They came for him then, axes swinging and spells blazing. Explosions of color and light surrounded him…and he felt nothing. The blades passed through him. The blazing explosions destroyed his tiny home, but didn’t even singe his hair.
The Heroes were confused.
“He’s still flagged non-com to us! We can’t kill him!”
“Aw, shit, it’s bugged!”
“Hey, why hasn’t Valkor relogged?”
“I don’t know, I’ve tried rezzing him, but he’s not responding.”
“What’s that nutty farmer doing?”
Jacob suddenly understood.
He couldn’t be hurt by the Heroes, but he could hurt them.
And he wanted to.
Everything began to fall into place. Everything began to fit. All we are, he realized, is playthings for the Heroes. They’re chosen by the Gods, and we’re their toys. We exist to teach them, guide them, worship them, or be killed by them. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We barely have lives outside of them.
Enough. Gods be damned!
He launched himself into a clumsy attack, but the blade moved of its own will. Farmer Brown found himself ducking, weaving, and striking. The priest fell first, appropriately, since Jacob had spurned the gods. The warrior woman with the axe was next, her blade a phantom against his, unable to parry its lethal touch. The wizard ran when he saw his spells fail, but he was easily winded and Jacob felt as if he could do anything.
They left behind no bodies, not even blood on the blade. Whistling jauntily, Jacob returned to town.
It was dead.
Everyone in it seemed to be frozen, locked solid in position, Even the leaves blowing in the wind hung motionless in the air. The sky above had turned to ash, a uniform gray from horizon to dome. The sun had vanished, though it was still daylight.
Jacob entered the Gander.
Sackson was there. He was behind the bar, smashing open bottles and guzzling them down. He looked up.
“Jake? You… you’re still here… I mean, moving… I mean… what’s happening?”
“I killed some Heroes.” He sat down at the end of the bar and helped himself to some nuts. “Wasn’t even hard.”
Sackson dropped the bottle he was holding. It fell a foot or so, then hung in the air. “You… you what?”
“Killed them. I was sick and tired of being fodder for their games, so, I killed them. I cursed the gods and I drew my blade and I killed them.”
Sack’s face paled in horror. “You’ve killed the world.”
Madness glinted in Jacob’s eyes. “So what if I have? What kind of world is it, where the Gods push us around like stones in a child’s game? Besides, you’re still moving.”
“I don’t know why. I still can’t leave, Jacob, I try, and then I just go… someplace else, someplace filled with frozen fire, someplace made of words, and then I come back here. I think… I don’t think we have long to live.”
“My wife’s dead. And nameless. I don’t much care.”
Sack reached across the bar to try to grab him. Jacob stepped back, bringing up the blade.
“Jake… please… atone! Apologize! Beg the gods to forgive you… bring the world back!”
Jacob Brown looked upwards and spread his arms. “Do your worst!”
The world began to fall apart. There was a howling, and all of reality changed. Every line suddenly seemed sharper, infinitely sharp, as if each component of the world were being pulled out of it.
Sack fell to his knees, half-sobbing, half praying. As Jacob watched, he saw things begin to crawl along his friend’s face and body. They looked, at first, like black worms, like an infestation of the most vile sort, but then Jacob saw they were words, strange words he could not understand. The blackness grew and grew until it covered his friend entirely, and then he vanished.
Nothing remained outside the inn. There was no darkness, there was no light, there was just nothing. The inn itself was dissolving around him, black wordworms crawling everywhere, turning everything into letters and then into emptiness.
No, thought Jacob. I’m not going. They’re not taking me.
He looked around in desperation. There was something… a rip, a tear in the world. Beyond it was light.
Jacob leaped for it as the inn finished dissolving. He felt pain, a horrible burning, He could feel his skin crisping, his fat melting, his bones cracking in the heat, but he struggled to keep his mind, to keep himself together. Then the pain, and all other sensation, vanished.
BEGIN PRESS RELEASE:
Worlds Of Infinity, Incorporated, wishes to announce its deep regret and sorrow at the apparent deaths of four players of Quest Of The Heroes. While we mourn their loss and extend all condolences and sympathies to their families, we deny any possibility that a coding error or feedback loop could be responsible. While Quest Of The Heroes is currently offline until all investigations are completed, we at Worlds Of Infinity are certain that no action of ours could have led to this tragic situation.
Quest Of The Heroes is the crown jewel of Worlds Of Infinity. After ten years of continuous play, it remains the most popular simulation in our lineup. We continue to dedicate full resources to it, including recent upgrades to our SimuReal Interactives, providing the best and most immersive experience possible. We Are The Makers Of Worlds TM.
Jacob was somewhere else.
It was a strange place.
It seemed to be a room, but a room such as Jacob had never seen. A soft cloth was underfoot, almost like the hide of some odd animal, and there were large metal boxes, the strangest chests Jacob had ever seen, standing everywhere. The room seemed to go on forever, but every few dozen feet, there was a standing rectangle of green fire, the size and shape of a door. Here and there, far away, in the distance, he saw figures stepping out of or into the green doors, seeming to vanish or materialize. Some sort of magic portals?
He noted, with some grim delight, that he still bore the sword.
Jacob just stared in wonderment. This was no heaven or hell he had ever heard of.
There was a voice.
A man was there, strangely dressed. He didn’t look like a Hero…he looked, Jacob thought, like a tax collector.
“You! You there! What are you doing here?”
Jacob fumbled for an answer. “I… I am lost…”
“Lost?” The man seemed angry. “Oh, please. I know that getup. The damn game is offline, so you’re busy hacking to see if you can find a backup server somewhere. This isn’t your stupid game. You’ve managed to log into the V-Space Accounting Database.” He sighed, then continued his rant.
“God damn useless sim addicts. Well, I don’t know how you got through the firewall, but you are in deep, deep, trouble. You know what the laws are for trespass into private zones? I’m getting a trace on your signal sent. Might as well unplug, the cops will be there soon. No sims in prison, you freaking fantasy nut. Now log, I’ve got accounting data to lookup. Whole company is in a tizzie thanks to you losers.”
Jacob tried to puzzle out bits and pieces of the speech. “You… you work for the gods? For the Makers Of Worlds? You are their servant?”
The man rolled his eyes. “Great, not only an addict, but one of those roleplaying weenies. Yeah, I work for ‘the Gods’. Sheesh, they’re going to love you in the can! Here’s a hint, loser – don’t drop the… ”
Jacob sliced his head off, cleanly. The body vanished. He expected as much now.
If I can kill the servants of the gods…and their Heroes…perhaps I can kill the Gods themselves.
He went to one of the rectangles and gingerly stepped into it. There was a moment of light, then a sense of dissolution, then he appeared somewhere else. It was another room, similar but not identical to the one he had just occupied.
I am in the realm of the gods. I wander their halls… and here, they can die.
This place is immense, he thought, but I have time. Somewhere in here, I will find the Gods. Then I will kill them.
He smiled a thin, cold, mad, smile.
I am a Hero, he thought. I have a Quest.
As with most of my fiction, this was written in a moment of desperate panic before my monthly writer’s group meeting. It was posted ages ago on the original Joomla version of this site, then never moved over in the Great WordPress Revolution of… whenever I switched to WordPress. I think it was 2010. (Wow, that means I wrote the Star Rovers piece a long time ago.) Prior to reposting it now, I gave it a quick edit to clean up a few sentences. (No matter how many times you reread your own writing, you always find one word to change here, another word to add there…)
Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to mention that a small bit of the inspiration comes from a quest in Vanguard (ah, Vanguard… you could have been amazing. A perfect example of the harsh reality of “Ship Now or Ship Never”). You were sent to go rescue someone from lizardmen, but as soon as you got near to the village, the text box informed that you heard a scream and that they were dead. No way to save them. (Given how borked the NPC pathing/follow was, it’s probably for the best it wasn’t an escort quest.)