Epic Quest to Eris
Jace stared back at her. The pale lights of the bar shone off her smooth, green cheeks. He realised he was staring and he felt himself blushing.
"I did say, I – I wanted to be a hero."
"But why would you not be happy with who you are now?"
At that moment there was a commotion in the bar as a small crowd entered. Prominent among them were the Admiral, Penny, and a strange man with shaggy hair and beard like a lion's mane. It turned out this guy was a good robot avatar from gamespace. He had gained the icon the Lion. Jace recalled that the Lion description was that they ruled the plain, were great hunters, but had big hearts as well.
The Lion quickly drew an audience around him, relating a story of how he and some non-player characters had saved the cityport in the game from destruction at the hands of a goblin horde (remember the Spider-bot had burned the cityport to the ground herself in her playthrough). Jace and Elthera sat and listened as well.
They all listened to the Lion with rapt attention. "In the end, the plain outside the city was covered with goblin dead, so that not one square yard could be seen. We found their leader's body by the river, its waters red with blood. Which of us had slain him, we did not know, so the three of us cut out his heart and lifted it into the air together."
"Big heart," said Elthera, scrunching her shiny green nose.
The Lion guffawed in appreciation of her joke. "You need some more wine, Elthera."
"Lion, there's someone I'd like you to meet," said Elthera. "This is Jace from the Lunar base."
"A pleasure to meet you, my fine fellow," said the Lion, grinning a little grin so that his sharp teeth just showed. His gravelly voice rumbled a little. A bit like an actual lion if it could talk.
"I love your story," said Jace, a little breathlessly.
"What I have done pales in comparison to what I am about to achieve," said the Lion. "I am on a quest. I am on a quest to recover the most revered icon from gamespace, before the Jackals do. I will retrieve the legendary Sword of Kings."
"Oh Lion, you told me your quest was a secret and that I shouldn't tell anybody," Elthera reproached him.
"A bright young lad like him could guess anyway," said the Lion shrugging. Jace was thrilled by that as well. Not many called him bright for some reason.
The Lion retrieved a scrap of cloth from his pocket. "I believe that this was a scrap of cloth from the wrappings of the Sword. I need you to confirm its authenticity, Elthera."
"I'll look it over in the lab first thing tomorrow," said Elthera, "right now I'm going to bed, and so should you guys."
She patted them both on the arm, leaned close to Jace and tenderly wished him goodnight and then left.
The Lion grinned at Jace. "Imagine the Cobra's fury when the Sword is snatched away from his cold, coiled grasp!"
The Lion made for an interesting drinking companion as they knocked back the ruby wine. When they were really drunk, Jace and the Lion were already great friends.
The next morning, Elthera reported to the Lion's quarters to find him slumped on the floor. He growled as he awoke.
Elthera helped him onto a chair. "How long were you up?"
"Until that toad-faced Stumpy slung Jace and I out of his bar." The Lion sat in the chair making a rumbling sound in the back of his throat.
"Wait, you kept Jace up late as well?" Elthera's tone was stern. The Lion tried to focus on the green face above him, although his vision was still a little blurred and kept switching to infra-red... She was talking at him, her hands on her hips. "I don't want him overtired or hungover. You should understand that."
"Mm – hm, you can order his comings and goings even when you've decided he has failed your tests? You don't want him. Well I do and I've decided he can come on the quest to retrieve the Sword. You have no say in this, Elthera."
"What?" Her blue eyes flashed. "Lion! How could you?"
"What's your gripe?"
She breathed through her nose. "Where you're going it's dangerous. If anything happened to him…"
Strange that she was agitated about Jace. The Lion wondered exactly what her feelings for the red headed boy were.
"Why don't you come along on the quest if you worry about him? That is… if there's going to be a quest. What did you find?"
Elthera glared at him. Her blue eyes were certainly expressive. "The wrappings do match the database profiles. I believe it is authentic. Maybe the Sword is somewhere in the Eris mines, where the wrapping was found." She paused. "Well I'm going to have to talk to the admiral and get him to approve my going with you. He'll get the importance of the quest. This could help us unite the good player characters. And the Cobra and Jackals are so superstitious... It may be a blow to their morale if they lose this time."
"I'd knew you'd agree with the importance of the quest, Elthera. Thank you for proving me right." The Lion dredged up memories of the previous evening from his memory banks and in so doing, dredged up snippets from Jace's drunken conversation. "You will prove Jace right too. He appreciates what a kind person you are, even if you do flunk him."
Elthera's blue eyes widened.
"Prove you are nothing like the Ghost," added the Lion.
At the mention of the Ghost, Elthera frowned and clenched her gloved hands into fists for a moment. The Lion let his words sink in. What effect would they have on her?
The Lunar lamp had gone out, and simulated sunlight shone in the station. Jace was doing some hasty last minute packing. He wasn't exactly surprised that Elthera came to call. She must have heard he was going and wanted to say good-bye.
She looked larger than life and hauntingly beautiful, as always. The synthetic sunlight shone off her green nose and cheeks. Her uniform hugged her statuesque figure and firm breasts…
"You heard? I'm going on the quest with my buddy, the Lion," said Jace without preamble. And because he was a little hungover and cranky and thought it would annoy her, he added; "the Lion doesn't think I'm a hopeless failure."
She blinked. "Jace… you did your homework, reading up on my life, but you don't know me. I never thought you were a failure, and especially not for making one slip-up. The metahuman path is not the be all and end all. It doesn't define someone's value or their usefulness. Not in the slightest." She sighed.
This was a little awkward. Jace sort of wished he had not goaded her. "So, this is goodbye?"
She shook her head. Her dark green lips formed a small smile. "No. I'm coming too. The quest is important. We're dealing with robots and they all believe the Sword to be something special."
Elthera was coming? Wait, what did this mean? And how should Jace feel about it?
But before Jace could get his head round this, Elthera clapped her gloved hands together. "Are you packed, dear? I'll help. We've got to travel light and sensibly."
When the three were in the shuttle and about to embark on their quest, Elthera and Jace took the driver seats, ready to co-pilot.
Just as they were about to lift off, the Lion standing behind them raised a hand. "Wait! Let this moment be remembered. This is the moment that Jace of the Lunar Base…" he laid a large hand on Jace's shoulder,…"The Lion, undisputed master of the Game and Elthera, Metahuman Warrior Maiden…" he laid a hand on Elthera's shoulder…"set forth into the eye of destiny."
"Now?" Said Elthera with a small smile.
The Lion nodded.
"Ahead, half-thrusters," said Elthera.
"Glorious!" said the Lion, spreading his arms as the craft rose into the vault of space and soared towards the coldly gleaming stars.
Eris lay some way away, the path through space led through the debris of the Kuiper Belt.
So far the journey had been uneventful. "You're doing great, Jace," Elthera told her co-pilot.
The Lion was recharging in his unit – they could hear his thunderous snores resounding throughout the craft.
"Wait…" said Jace. "Look at this…"
There were ships with the Cobra symbol hurtling towards them on all sides.
Elthera and Jace looked at each other. "The asteroid field," said Elthera. Jace nodded.
They piloted the craft towards the field of space debris, but the Rogue Avatars pursued them, firing and narrowly missing.
"Through that asteroid," said Elthera, staring intently ahead. "It's hollow." There was an asteroid with a narrow tunnel through it.
"The tunnel is only twenty meters wide and this craft is ten meters," said Jace.
"So that leaves five meters on either side to work with," said Elthera.
Jace's heart was thudding in his chest, but … this was his chance to redeem himself in her eyes. Handed to him, although it wasn't exactly on a silver platter.
They piloted the craft with pinpoint precision through the tunnel. Dark rock enveloped them. It was like being buried alive. And then they were out on the other side, leaving the Rogue Avatars far behind.
The luckless Jackal scout had to report failure to the Cobra once again. He limped up to the grand table of the Cobra Council. The great council hall was only lit by flickering candles, the light of which shimmered off the pitch black surfaces of the table, walls, ceiling and floor. Other Jackals were seated there. The Cobra glared at him coldly.
"Cobra… I'm afraid the metahuman has escaped again. She's flown into an asteroid field."
"This is totally unacceptable!" hissed the Cobra. "She must be found and destroyed with all haste.
"I agree," said the Jackal hastily. "The security forces have been shambolic and those responsible should be agonisingly punished."
"And I agree also," assented another Jackal at the council table.
"And I… and I… and I also." Chorused the rest.
"I refuse to be surrounded by toadying sycophants," said the Cobra.
This precipitated another chorus of sycophantic agreement from the assembled Jackals.
"I want all members of my council to think for themselves, not agree with my every word and whim through some pathetic terror for self-preservation." The Cobra's hiss had taken on a wheedling tone. "Question my judgements. Only then will we truly strong."
"That simply isn't true," said one of the Jackals at the council table. "Every time an avatar disagrees with you, you order that he be executed. And you're going about this metahuman business the wrong way…"
"Kill him!" Hissed the Cobra, triumphant that he could execute someone who disagreed with him again.
Two Jackal guards dragged the offending Jackal council member away.
"Now find the metahuman's ship!" raged the Cobra.
Elthera and Jace were triumphant after their narrow escape.
"We did it!" Elthera leaned over and kissed him lightly on the cheek. Her green lips felt cold and he was thrilled by her touch. She had kissed him!
The Lion emerged from his cubicle, making growling and gargling sounds. "I slept like a new born cub."
"Well you didn't miss much… except our narrow escape with our lives from the Jackals," said Elthera.
"Ah, sorry I missed it my friends, but I had such an enjoyable dream. That we were all in the Hall of Heroes in the game world and that the good avatars all assembled before us as we held the Sword high and sung our praises."
Jace thought he told his dream well. He used exactly the same tone as he did for storytelling.
Their ship assumed a standard orbit around Eris. The gleaming icy landscape of the dwarf planet stretched out beneath them in all directions.
"The entrance to the tunnels is down there," said the Lion pointing at a craggy mountain on the computer map of the landscape below. "It has a cave entrance. There are certain defences in the tunnels and a forcefield around the Sword's chamber. No Avatar has got through it as yet... Pah! We'll be the first valiant warriors to break through."
"Why didn't you tell us about this forcefield before?" asked Elthera. She would have raised her eyebrows if she had any, Jace just knew it.
"It's not important, you'll find a way through," said the Lion shrugging.
The tunnels beneath Eris were an artificial construct with their own ecosystem and atmosphere, warmed by the internal geology of the dwarf planet.
The three of them trod lightly down the tunnels. A freak property of the rock suffused everything in an eerie green glow. Elthera looked especially weird in this light, even more than she had on the lower decks of the station. Like some achingly beautiful spectre.
She turned her head. "Wait… something's wrong. Something's following us…"
There was a crunching and a grinding of rock. Jace felt the sour taste of fear in his mouth. And then a hideous, eyeless head broke through the rock. It was dead white and its mandibles constantly crunched and ground together as it turned towards them…