This short story was written for a contest held by Shadow Alley Press in July 2018. The story is based in the Viridian Gate Online universe created by author James A. Hunter. It's available for free via BookFunnel.com in PDF format or below in web format.
When she arrives in Viridian Gate Online alone and without resources, professional cellist Mae Kilby must learn the rules of this strange new world and become a Bard. But can she learn them in time to save a precious musical artifact and capture a critical quest line from a mad under-priestess?
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Rolling Up a Character — An Optional Forward
When I first saw James A. Hunter's call for submissions, I was intrigued. I have enjoyed the Viridian Gate Online series immensely, and being both a table-top RPG and video gamer, the idea of leaving this reality for a virtual one does have its charms. So, naturally, I jumped at the chance to try my hand. But where to start?
In honor of the tried-and-true practice of rolling up a character, I sought out random generators on the Internet to set the stage. Here is the information that seeded this story:
Random Plot: This story involves a fuzzy halfling priestess, a park, a cello, and a huge mistake.
Random Name: Mae Kilby
Random Protagonist Characteristics:
Skin: Light brown
Hair: Mid-length, wavy, brown
Eyes: Brown, somewhat small
Height: Very short
Weight: Quite thin
Build: Somewhat broad
Random Flaws and Weaknesses:
● Your character doesn't have enough influence.
● Your character is afraid of change.
● Your character is afraid of hurting others.
● Your character is socially awkward, possessive of people, and xenophobic.
Random Villain Characterization:
This conniving, disfigured young woman with an ancient artifact comes from a strange city by the hills and is looking for a place to stay.
All these tidbits came from http://www.springhole.net.
First Sentence Generated by Plot Generator:
"Mae Kilby looked at the shiny calculator in her hands and felt irritable."
The random short story "Buoyant Mae Kilby," from which this first sentence comes, was generated at https://www.plot-generator.org.uk.
While I didn't use all of it, I found the random input to be weirdly not-that-random and it fell together into a story that might best be encapsulated as follows:
When she arrives in Viridian Gate Online alone and without resources, professional cellist Mae Kilby must learn the rules of this strange new world and become a Bard. But can she learn them in time to save a precious musical artifact and capture a critical quest line from a mad under-priestess?
We shall see...
Mae Kilby looked at the shiny calculator in her hands and felt irritable.
The afternoon light filtered in through the bay window of her living room, the skyline of Dallas visible through the afternoon haze. Before long, the vista would be awash with a rainbow of hues as the city lit up for the evening.
She was going to miss Dallas.
She was going to miss DSO and her colleagues in the orchestra.
She was even going to miss this damn calculator.
Mae rubbed the back of her neck and scowled at the ultra-modern looking, black-and-chrome virtual reality capsule, which lay across her beige carpet and clashed frightfully with her floral chintz couch. Even the hum of its power supply, a large generator that sat in front of the coffee table, grated on her nerves.
This was probably going to be a huge mistake.
She turned over the calculator and stared at the name "J. Kilby" scratched into the back plate. Her grandfather's hand-held calculator. The first one ever made. Ever.
Across the room her cello, propped on its stand next to the piano, mocked her with its silence. As soon as she got into that capsule—that coffin!—she would be leaving everything she knew behind.
Mae didn't even like video games. But, at the end of the world, she wasn't spoiled for choices.
"Wish me luck, Gramps," she muttered under her breath, and laid the calculator on the cool granite counter top that divided the living room from the kitchen. She crossed the beige carpet, opened the capsule, and climbed inside.
* * *
It was dark and stuffy in there once the capsule was locked. The VR head piece she was wearing was about as comfortable as a motorcycle helmet in August. Not that she'd know. She'd never even been on a motorcycle.
The AI that ran the technology inside the capsule projected a speech from Robert Osmark, the CEO of Osmark Technologies. It contained the expected descriptions of how the tech worked (which she didn't really understand) and explained that the tech would map her memories and personality—the very Mae-ness of her—and it would be digitized and uploaded to a game: Viridian Gate Online. All in an attempt to survive the end of life on Earth.
Mae was not at all confident she liked the risk involved as the AI projection explained that only five out of six successfully transitioned to V.G.O. and almost climbed back out.
But, she'd spent a fortune—Gramp's fortune, to be exact—to get the golden ticket, or in this case a private NextGenVR capsule.
"Would you still like to proceed?" the recording of Osmark asked.
What else could she do? Her parents and grandfather were dead. Her life was playing the cello in DSO and it was unlikely there would be much call for symphony performances once the comet struck the Earth. She didn't even have a cat.
Why hadn't she ever gotten a cat?
No, Mae was alone and she wasn't ready, at 32, for her life to be over. She shifted uncomfortably in the capsule, trying to adjust to the feeling of being trapped there.
Was she ready to risk what was left of her human life to try to start again as a character in a video game?
"Proceed," she responded finally, hoping against hope that this wasn't the biggest mistake of her life.
* * *
I screamed as I fell.
One minute I was choosing the type of character I could be in V.G.O. (an Imperial human, of course! Who wanted to be a creepy dwarf or winged thingy?)and choosing my name (Mae Kilby, of course. Nothing wrong with the name I had), when suddenly I was bombarded by nothing less than the opening credits of my own personal movie complete with a symphonic soundtrack, then dropped off a mountain top.
I plunged down through the clouds in confusion and fear, flapping and twisting as I dropped, trying to right myself. I landed hard, smacking the right side of my face and both palms on some ridiculously solid grass. Terror coursed through me as my wrists screamed in pain. Had I hurt my hands?! I gasped trying to drag air back into my lungs, but otherwise tried to hold very still so I wouldn't vomit. My right eardrum throbbed from the concussion pressure of the landing, and my jaw and cheekbone ached.
What in the hell? Props for the orchestration, but what kind of welcome was this? I lay my head down carefully against the grass and let my new reality sink in. It was light out and there was grass. That at least was good. It was a relatively warm day—I could feel the sun on my shoulders and back—and it smelled like I was in a field.
After a few minutes, my right ear mostly stopped ringing and my palms cooled from molten lava to merely 3rd degree burn intensity. I started to feel slightly like myself again. I pushed my chest up from the lawn despite the angry barking of the skin on my hands, and immediately felt a gob of grass and soil trickle down my chest.
Oh joy. I vaguely remembered from the character selection that I was wearing something low cut. And now, with sod garnishes. I looked down. The bustier—or was it a stomacher?—was nothing to crow about. It was a light brown garment made out of rough cloth, strapped in the front with rough leather laces. I had a white muslin shift underneath it, with three-quarter length sleeves. If you could call them that. They were open from my shoulder to my elbow and flapped as I moved my elbow in and out. I pushed up fully to my knees and sat back on my heels, as I did my best to remove the excess shrubbery from my décolletage. Not that I actually had décolletage, which was probably part of the problem.
I could hear the sound of children's laughter and looked up.
A crowd of a rowdy ragamuffins had gathered in a rough circle around me and they were apparently quite entertained by my belly flop. Five children, ranging in age from barely ambulatory to pre-teen menace, were watching me empty my bodice. That was just great. Were they even real or just some digitally created nuisance?
"Shoo! Shoo!" I exclaimed, flapping my hands at them, which made them laugh even harder.
"Ye ain't wearing shoes!" one boy exclaimed, pointing at my feet.
I glanced down at the beat-up leather boots pressed to the ground under my legs. "Well, aren't you the literal one," I retorted with a twist of my lips.
He balled up his fist. "Did she just call me a literal?" he asked, exemplifying the pre-teen menace qualities I had noticed earlier.
"Oooohh!" the rest of the group chorused. I winced at the sound. I still wasn't feeling 100 percent from the fall and this was a lot to absorb.
Which reminded me: Where in the hell was I?
"You're in Silver Glade Park, lady," a petite blond girl who couldn't have been more than six responded.
Whoops, guess I used my out-loud voice on that one. I cringed at myself. I generally tried not to swear in front of children, whether they were real or not.
"And where is Silver Glade Park?" I tried again, looking around me at large lawn of bright green grass, enclosed by large trees on two sides. I looked back at the children.
"New Viridia," the group chorused again, but with a very clear expression of "D'uh!" on their faces.
Tough crowd. Those game developers had some skills in creating life-like brats. Above the trees to my left I could see evidence of buildings with roughhewn roofs and the occasional brick chimney. Yep, it looked like a large park in the middle of a city.
"Right." I said. "I was just testing you. Where are your parents, anyway?"
General grumbling erupted at that.
"Ain't got none," said the literal boy.
"They're working," said the petite girl.
The rest either shrugged or remained silent. Clearly, this was not a well supervised group.
"Do you know how I got here?"
"You fell, lady. We saw it."
"Are you a Bard?"
"Are you here to tell us jokes?"
Bard? Jokes? What?
"Play us a song!" A boy with lanky brown hair waggled a tin whistle at me, while the petite girl pointed at a rough wooden stage about thirty feet from where we were. The sun beat down on its planks. Weathered pennants flew on each side and there was a gentle slope which apparently served as seating for a small audience.
I looked at it blankly for a moment, then an idea crept into the back of my mind. I had no idea what I was doing here, but I did know how to play a song or two. Maybe the little scallywags would trade me info for music.
"Tell you what," I said. "If you'll lend me that whistle, I'll play a song for every question you all answer for me. Deal?"
The boy, who identified himself as Ivan, thrust out the whistle and then insisted we "spit and shake on it" to be certain I'd give it back when I was done. I hoped that digital spit couldn't make me ill. That's just what I needed—virtual bubonic plague.
Gingerly I wiped the whistle clean as well as I could with the hem of my shift and stood up to play. I could do this. I pressed the whistle to my mouth and blew air through the embouchure of my lips.
Squawk! I shuddered at the noise, while Ivan looked at me skeptically.
What the hell? I'd been playing instruments all my life. A tin whistle was the musical equivalent of a tricycle. I tried again, more gently this time.
A note warbled in the air. It wasn't of the quality I generally expected of myself musically, but it would do, although I felt a little panic.
Had entering V.G.O. somehow caused me to lose some of my old musical talent?
I wished desperately that I had been the sort who had played some kind of video or role-playing game back on Earth. I had friends who had played Dungeons & Dragons growing up, but I never had time with all the music lessons and practicing. I had no idea how the rules of this new world worked.
Still, I remembered how to play a tin whistle. How to finger the notes on the body of the whistle and how to use my breath to create and sustain notes. I pressed my lips to the mouthpiece and tried again.
Before long, I had knocked out a perfectly serviceable rendition of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." I took the whistle from my lips, smiling in relief. "There you go."
The children had varying looks of disappointment on their faces.
"That song is kind of boring," said Ivan. "Don't you know any faster ones?"
"Beethoven is NOT boring," I huffed.
"It was boring," the angsty pre-teen insisted. The girls weren't quite as bold in their assessment, but the petite one wrinkled her nose.
"It wasn't so bad," she offered.
What could I play that would entertain this ragtag group? Last fall at DSO we'd given a children's concert. What did we play that night? I thought about it for a moment and started to play a rather slow "The Flight of the Bumblebee," by Rimsky-Korsakov.
The children's ears perked up and they started to wiggle in time with me. I picked up speed as I went, getting more comfortable with the instrument, my fingers flying over the holes. I missed a few notes and the phrasing of my breaths was terrible, but by the end of it, they were shrieking with happiness and jumping up and down.
A faint warm glow had settled around the group of children and something began flashing in the corner of my eye. Alarm filled me. What now? Did I have brain damage from the fall?
I looked more closely at the flashing and a message popped up in my field of vision. This was part of the game! My heart raced. I couldn't tell if it was fear or excitement to learn something new about this world.
Ability: Musical Inspiration
An ability that allows you to inspire others through song or music.
Ability Type/Level: Passive / Level 1
Effect: When you play music or sing, you inspire those around you. The effect of the inspiration is based on the nature and quality of the performance.
OK, that was pretty cool, progress for sure, but apparently I needed some practice at inspiration. I had inspired the children to be excited, insistent brats. Maybe I should have played a lullaby. I fumbled a bit trying to get the message to close, and bit my lip to keep self-pity from swamping me. This was all so new and strange and I missed my cello desperately. It was the instrument that I could best express myself with.
I shook my head firmly in response to their excited pleading. "No way. It's my turn to ask a question now."
They reluctantly agreed that that had indeed been the deal and that since I had already played them two songs, I got to ask two questions. I pondered the first question I'd ask carefully. This was my chance to finally get a little information about this place I'd landed in.
"What do bards do in this city for a living? How do they make their money?" I wasn't a bard yet, but I was going to need food, drink, and a place to sleep soon and I had no idea where to go or what to do to earn enough money to pay for it.
"My da hires 'em to play at our tavern," the petite girl said, then shrugged, "but most of them play a fiddle."
"I can play a fiddle," I said earnestly, nodding my head.
"But you don't got one in your inventory."
A semitranslucent box labeled "Inventory" popped up in my field of vision. WOAH! This was apparently how I accessed another aspect of the game. I could see a likeness of myself, or at least my new Imperial Human self, floating in the box, rotating in a circle. I looked closer.
I had light brown skin, brown eyes, and mid-length wavy brown hair, tied back in a ponytail. Physically, I had a very slender build with weirdly broad shoulders. I could live with that. They'd be great for supporting a cello, if I ever got one again. I looked like myself, but not quite. My nose was slightly more pronounced and my face had a warmer olive hue than it had before. Kilby was an English name, but frankly, overall now I looked kind of Italian, or maybe Roman was the best description.
I could see representations of the clothing I was wearing: burlap stomacher (shoddy); rough muslin shift (shoddy); rough leggings (shoddy); worn leather boots (also shoddy). I had small money purse somewhere apparently, with 25 copper pieces and 2 silver, as well as something called a minor restoration potion worth 12 silver pieces. That was somewhat reassuring, although if the copper pieces had the same value as pennies, I literally had less than a dollar to my name. There was a section in the box with a number (250) labeled Carry Capacity. Did that mean pounds? I'd never lifted, much less carried, 250 pounds in my life. As for other items carried, I had exactly nothing beyond Ivan's whistle (10 silver pieces). I dismissed the box with a nod and pulled on my right ear, which still had a faint ringing.
Well, the petite girl had me there. I was fresh out of fiddles. And if the value of Ivan's whistle was any indication, it was unlikely I could afford to buy one any time soon.
"And that's my whistle," Ivan said pointedly, as if he could read my thoughts. "You can't keep it.”
"What kind of bard doesn't have any instruments?" asked a tall, thin girl with long black hair. She crossed her arms and gave me a skeptical stare.
"The kind that fall out of the sky," I said, sourly.
That explanation made perfect sense to the group apparently, which left me with just one more question to ask before I would need to figure out another melody to play. But, to ask it, I'd have to tip my hand that I wasn't a bard quite yet.
"How do I become a bard?" I asked.
Trying to make my way as a bard in V.G.O. seemed like the only reasonable plan. I didn't know how to be a bar maid, or tavern wench, or whatever they called them here, and the thought of heavy physical labor, like digging ditches or scrubbing pots made me feel slightly ill. Not because I was afraid of hard work, but rather because my years as a professional musician had made me acutely aware of how easily I could damage my hands and effectively end my career.
Plus, if I was a bard, I could stay more or less in a town. I had no desire to get dragged off to the countryside or into some dark cave on an "adventure."
"We should go ask my da that," said the petite girl, adding as she took my hand, "my name is Lucy."
Right, Lucy's da had the tavern. That seemed like a step in the right direction, finally. She started to drag me toward the edge of the park, to the buildings I'd seen above the trees to my left. Ivan fell in beside us, most likely wanting to keep track of his tin whistle, while the others straggled along behind.
We walked across the grass toward large trees—they looked like sycamores. The graphics in this place were amazing. I was starting to forget already that I was in a game—when I heard a terrible noise.
I turned around in alarm and saw something truly disturbing.
A tall, platinum blonde-haired creature had climbed up on the wooden stage and was attempting to saw what looked like a viola in half with its bow. The noise was appalling. I shuddered at the damage she was doing to the bow strings. The instrument glowed with a faint purple hue and it was frankly the most beautiful thing I'd seen since I got here.
"Stop that immediately!" I yelled, dropping Lucy's hand and running back toward the stage. "What on Earth are you doing?"
The creature looked up at my yell and stopped sawing on the instrument. As I approached, I could see she was some sort of elf, with golden skin and pointy ears, and the fashion sense of Cher: She was wearing a long, deeply V-necked red tunic slit up to her mid-thighs with sheer shiny gold leggings underneath. Her feet were covered in brilliantly scarlet pumps with what appeared to be tiny gold mirrors on the heels, if the disco-ball flash was any evidence.
"She's not on the earth, she's on the stage," the literal boy's voice floated up from behind me, his confusion evident.
Right. Not on Earth anymore.
"Stay back you ruffians or I will cast a spell on you!" she shrieked in return, tossing a long, fuzzy braid of platinum-blond hair over her shoulder and holding out a hand to keep us back. "How dare you disturb the Maid of Flames? I am invoking the venerable spirit of this sacred salaqintl."
"That was no invocation. That was an offense against the ear. And that clearly isn't your instrument." I approached the base of the stage, pulling my right ear to try to stop its renewed ringing. I had no time for this. I needed to go to Lucy's da's tavern, but I couldn't leave this pointy-eared hussy to damage that beautiful viola, or salaqintl, or whatever she’d called it.
She looked nervously over her shoulder, the fuzz from her curls escaping the braid billowing around her face like a cloud of gnats. She turned to me again, her eyes narrowed into slits. "Why are you pulling on your ear?" she demanded. "Don't you dare try to ensorcell me! Who sent you? Was it Rakif? Or, Fildar? I am not going back!"
OK, this broad was coo-coo for coconuts.
"I have no idea what you're talking about. Now give me that bow," I said, "and tell me where you got this viola?"
The creature crossed her arms across her chest in defiance, making the V of her tunic gape dangerously. Behind me, the children muttered.
I turned to them and saw them backing away. "Don't you leave!" I mouthed at Lucy, pointing a finger at her. She gulped, but nodded her head. Lucy probably thought I was going to cast some kind of spell at her too. If it kept her here, I wasn't sure I cared for the moment.
"Now why would I do either of those things?" the creature inquired with a sneer. "I am an under-priestess, and judging by your dress, you are nothing but a lowly...What are you, anyway?"
"I'm a...bard." I said, stumbling over the claim. I cleared my throat and said it more firmly. "I'm a bard and I can help you with the instrument, if you'll give me the bow."
Now that I was closer, I could see that the instrument she called a salaqintl was somewhat larger than a viola, but smaller than a typical cello. It appeared hand-carved, with a gorgeously marbled wooden top and sides with inlaid purfling and carved ivory tuning pegs. Despite the fact the crazy woman was attempting to play the instrument like a stand-up base, I could see a chin rest on its face, as well as a short end pin. Black fingerboard lined the tailpiece, most likely ebony. At the tip of a tailpiece, there was an ornate carving of some sort of bird.
The would-be under-priestess noted my admiration. "He is made of the sacred apple wood of our people and has a core of a phoenix feather. But unfortunately he does not yet have a name. I was trying to get him to tell me when you..." She flipped her wrist at us in disgust.
I noted she referred to the instrument with a male gender. Fascinating. Was it sentient? Were there also female instruments?
"Clearly you do not have the skill to do that unless you were hoping he'd scream it out in pain," I scolded her. "What is your name, anyway?"
"Not that it is any of your business, but my name is Khapia," she said with a huff. “I was named after a domed mountain not far from my village."
Domed mountain? She was named after a volcano? Fitting.
"Khapia, give me the bow, and let's see if I can help."
Khapia pursed her lips and growled in irritation. Then, she handed me the bow. I stepped up the stairs to the stage—standing next to her, I realized how much taller than me Khapia was. She had to be nearly six foot—and held my hand out for the instrument. The salaqintl might not have been as large as a cello, but it would be a real challenge playing it like one without sitting down, so I decided to attempt playing it like a violin or viola. Khapia handed me the tail piece and I swung it around up under my chin, avoiding the end pin. Despite its size, it was remarkably light and fit into my arms perfectly.
A message prompt popped up:
Quest Alert: The Naming of the Salaqintl
Help Khapia discover the name of the venerable salaqintl by listening to its voice.
Quest Class: Rare, Class-Based
Quest Difficulty: Moderate
Success: Coax the salaqintl to share its name by playing it.
Failure:Fail to learn the salaqintl's name.
Reward:Class Change; Unique, Scalable Item; 15,000 EXP
My breath caught with excitement. A quest! To uncover the name of a magical instrument? Suddenly my future in V.G.O. did not look so bleak. My heart swelled with happiness at the thought. But wait. What if I couldn't do it? What if, like with the tin whistle, I had lost my touch somehow? What if I failed?
I swallowed hard. I had to do this. What else had I spent so many nights and weekends practicing for? My whole life had been dedicated to playing the cello and this couldn't be that different. Before I lost my nerve, I accepted the quest, and turned my attention to the salaqintl.
Tentatively, tenderly, I plucked his strings and quickly played each to check for tune. Perfect. Now, what to play? I needed a piece that I knew flawlessly. I had many such options on the cello, but what would translate well to the salaqintl, which I expected to have a tenor voice. The most famous cello suite of them all jumped into my mind. J.S. Bach's "Cello Suite No. 1." I knew it could be played with some minor octave alterations on the viola and the piece was perfect for drawing out the character and voice of an instrument. It was difficult to play—largely because it was so well-known. Well-known, at least on Earth. Perhaps that wouldn't be a challenge with this particular audience. Then I remembered the only audience that actually counted was the salaqintl itself.
"Come on, fella," I said, quietly under my breath. "Tell me your name."
I began the opening arpeggios of the piece, over and back, using the full range of the strings, my fingers running lightly over the fingerboards, drawing out the vibrato.
The deep soulful voice of the salaqintl filled me with joy. What wide color palate of sounds! This—he!—was a marvelous instrument, the V.G.O. equivalent of the finest Stradivarius. This filled me both with awe and dismay. My own cello, back on Earth, had been French, with a warm beautiful voice. It had cost me as much as a new car and I had treated it (and insured it!) accordingly. I faltered briefly as I played, contemplating the fate of my cello. Would it be burned up and smashed when the comet hit or merely rot away in my apartment, unused and uncared for? I pushed down sorrow and focused back on the present moment. I was thankful I had never gotten a cat.
The beautiful resonant notes of the Bach suite flowed from the instrument, filling the stage with sound. I heard a small gasp from Khapia and out of the corner of my eye, I could see the children had remained, and were sitting on the grassy slope in front of the stage, a bright gold glow emanating from them.
I ended the piece on the final resonant octave G notes with the high E, and let the sound linger about me for a moment before I looked up.
Khapia and the children were utterly still, surrounded by a golden glow that remained after the sound stopped. Enraptured. A faint sigh came from the salaqintl. It sounded pleased, but only slightly.
That startled me. I wasn't accustomed to critique from my instrument, and I frowned. Was he upset that I faltered while playing the suite?
"So?" Khapia needled me. "What is his name?"
I shrugged, helplessly. I certainly hadn't received any type of name that I could tell. "I don't know. How will he tell me?"
"You're the Bard! How should I know?" she squawked. "Give him back!"
"No, no! Let me try something else first!"
Before she could react, I launched into the opening notes of Edvard Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King." I swear I heard the salaqintl chuckle slyly, and black streamers of energy began to flow from the F holes on his face, at the low, dark, insistent march of the melody of the orchestral piece.
The children scrambled up from the grass began dancing like weird stick figures in time with the music, stalking one another with their hands curled into claws.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" Khapia screeched. "Don't call them here!" She wailed and looked fearfully around the park. The day suddenly looked far more ominous than it had just a few minutes before. I looked up and saw black storm clouds gathering overhead and stopped playing as I stared at them dumbly.
What was happening? Had I evoked the energy of the mountain king? I was pretty sure Grieg's piece was based on Norse mythology and was about Peer Gynt visiting a troll king. I knew that Grieg had intended a certain irony with the composition, but clearly that was subtlety was lost in this context. Everything had responded to the sound of the music itself.
I was filled with a sudden grim awareness of how bad it would be to continue that particular piece. Lightning crackled in the sky in the distance and thunder boomed. I scrambled around in my brain, trying to think of a melody that would restore order.
I needed something simple and calming.
Pachelbel's "Canon in D" sprung to mind and I took a deep breath and began playing the soothing deep notes that opened that melody. The salaqintl buzzed with mild irritation that its fun was over, but responded beautifully to the tune nonetheless. Before long, the clouds had parted and the sun shone down again. A slight cooling breeze cleared up and the day was once again peaceful and calm as I finished the piece.
I was floored. Music was incredibly powerful in V.G.O. It was heightened of course through the expression in the salaqintl, but it was there even with the tin whistle—it seemed to be innate in the world itself. After all, V.G.O. was a digital game world and technology ultimately was based on math. Gramps had always told me that music was the highest expression of mathematics. It was why, despite his own background in technology, he had enrolled me in music lessons as a child—so I could become proficient at it.
And here, I could literally change the world around me with a song. The sheer weight and responsibility of that realization made me take the salaqintl from my shoulder. I wasn't sure I wanted to play him anymore.
Khapia had backed away from me on the stage while I was playing. She looked at me with fear in her eyes.
"What do you want?" she pleaded. "I'll give you gold or gems, but please don't take the salaqintl. I need him."
Why did everyone around here think I was going to steal their instruments? I glared at her and she jumped back further.
"I don't want to steal anything," I ground out between my teeth. "Tell me what's happened and why you need him."
I crossed over to where she was standing and handed her back the instrument—it broke my soul a little to do so—although I cautioned her not to try to play him again. Khapia sighed with relief once the salaqintl was in her hands.
"This instrument is a relic of my people, the Hvitalfar of the Hills." she explained, gold glinting off her heels distractingly, as she began pacing around the stage. (And away from me, I noted.) "I thought that I could...speed up my progression in the Order of the Flames if I could get him to talk to me."
"I..." Khapia hesitated, as if fighting some internal battle with herself, then turned back to me, nodding her head with resolve. "I took him without asking and ran away from my home, Ostonal. I came to the city, to New Viridia, to look for a place to hide while I figure out how to get him to tell me his name. My brothers will be furious with me when they find out. I thought you were trying to summon them."
She thought the music would summon her brothers? My heart jumped into my throat at that thought. I swallowed down the fear and looked out at the grassy slope beyond the stage. The group of children were still and listening, rapt, eyes glued to the stage like they were watching Saturday morning cartoons. I understood completely. I felt like an extra in Lord of the Rings myself. I looked back at Khapia, tall and ridiculously gorgeous in that red get-up. I was a church mouse in my homespun rags by comparison. There was still so much I didn't know about this world and how to make my way in it. Like, where to get some decent clothes, for starters.
"Why is it so important you find out his name?"
"The salaqintl is a very powerful being. He was crafted centuries ago to support our people in times of war as well as peace," Khapia explained. Her voice dropped lower, pitched only for me to hear. "There is a darkness rising from Morsheim in the north and the wisest of the Hvitalfar whisper that a great battle between lightness and dark is coming. I want to help my brothers prepare to fight. No one has been able to coax the salaqintl to give his name. I thought perhaps I...but, alas, I am no Bard."
She shook her head ruefully.
"Let me help you." The words blurted out of my mouth.
What was I saying? I just wanted to find a gig with food and board at a nice tavern. I didn't want to prepare for war. And I certainly didn't need to tangle with this creature's brothers! I qualified my offer. "If you will help me learn about this place, I will help you discover his name."
Khapia brightened. "You would do that?"
The weathered green pennant flapped in the breeze stage right while I considered her question. I thought about everything that had happened to me since I arrived at New Viridia and realized that it was too late to back out. I wanted to find out what happened with the salaqintl. I had no friends and no family here.
Nowhere to be and nowhere to go.
I looked Khapia in the eye and smiled. "Yes. Yes, I would."
* * *
The interior of The Town Griffin—Lucy's da's tavern—was low ceilinged and close, but it exuded a cozy sort of cheer. The customers looked relatively well-heeled, and the establishment had a better quality of furnishings than I had expected from movies and books back home. This clearly was a relatively profitable establishment that did a good trade. I saw a small raised dais—most likely a makeshift stage—in the back right corner of the room.
Lucy's da, Lucius, was a medium height, but very fit, man in his mid-40s with a golden brown beard and piercing green eyes. He looked mildly alarmed when we walked in the front door, Lucy dragging me forward by the hand, but came over to talk to us directly.
Lucy explained that she had discovered me in the park after I fell out of the sky (his eyebrows went up at that) and that I could play the violin and he ought to hire me. He coughed lightly into his hand. I got the impression that we might not be the first strays Lucy had dragged home.
Lucy's mother—Marva, I soon learned—poked her head out of the kitchen where she clearly worked as chef. She had a ruffled white cap on her head, with brown curls poking out from under it, and a white apron covering the front of her blue shift. Her hands were covered with flour and she dusted them off as she ushered Khapia and me to a bar table while Lucius shooed the rest of the children out of the tavern. Ivan waggled his tin whistle at me as he left and I gave him a small wave goodbye. Lucius called for ales and sat down with us to learn the rest of the story.
We quickly explained most of what had happened that afternoon. Khapia went light on the part about where the salaqintl had come from and I went light on the falling out of the sky bit.
When we got around to discussion on him giving me a job playing in the tavern, Lucius grimaced and rubbed his beard.
"Well, I suppose it couldn't hurt to give you an audition," he hedged. "But you see, we're not really looking for a bard at the moment. Business has been solid, but..."
While I pitied him for being forced into the conversation by his daughter, I was not about to let the opportunity pass me by. "No problem. Happy to do it. Shall I get up there now?" I said, with forced cheerfulness. I didn't begrudge him the audition, but it had been quite a day so far.
He nodded and I looked over at Khapia, raising an eyebrow. She grimaced and handed me back the salaqintl and I walked across the room and stepped onto the dais.
Some of the patrons looked up with interest, but still more chatted away with their friends, drinking ale or eating their dinners. I was going to have to hit precisely the right note to get and hold their attention.
If the intent behind the melody worked magic the way I suspected it did, I needed a song to make the patrons feel happy and flush with coin so that they would stay and give Lucius their custom. After all, the point of music in a tavern was to draw patrons in and keep them in. I knew just the thing, a lively tune made famous by east Tennessee fiddler Charlie Bowman, called "Money in Both Pockets."
"Open the door," I mouthed at Khapia who waited back at our table. She looked startled for a moment and then caught on to what I intended and got up to do as I had asked, throwing me a conspiratorial grin.
I waited until she had the door propped open, then put the salaqintl under my chin, tapped my right foot four times to set the pace, then launched into the tune. The notes flowed easily from my fingers. I had always liked this cheerful song and not only had the Bowman recording, but had been known when I was younger to put off practicing to play it instead. The salaqintl played right along, giving the traditional melody a sassy twang with what felt like glee.
As I played, I watched green and blue streamers of energy buzz around the room. The patrons stopped talking and some began to clap along and stomp their feet. Others hollered for more ale. The salaqintl's enjoyment of their attention became clear and I found myself repeating the melody a second time, a little faster, without intending to do so. I couldn't bear to have it end so quickly when he was having such fun.
I could see a crowd start to gather at the door to listen to the music and everyone's spirits were high when I wrapped up the tune and gave a small bow.
"Give us another!"
I looked over at Lucius, whose eyes were wide with a kind of wonder as he took in the reaction in the room. He shrugged and nodded at me to give the crowd some more.
Clearly I had the right theme going. Now to build on it and add a little humor besides. I launched into a chipper rendition of a traditional Irish jig called, "The Hag with the Money," whose lyrics cautioned against the folly of women of a certain age being taken in by young men interested only in their purse.
Once again the salaqintl quickly made the song his own, slurring the notes of the melody in the traditional style. I could almost hear the lyrics, "She's your granny, she's your granny, she's your granny, the hag with the money," as the sound floated around the room. The room glowed with a golden sheen now, as well as the blue and green streamers, and the crowd grinned and continued to clap along. Two of the patrons even got up and were doing a fleet-footed dance in front of the dais.
As I ended the song on a crisp note, a well-dressed older woman walked in on the arm of a handsome young man past Khapia and they took a seat at one of the only remaining tables in the room. I choked back a laugh of surprise. I took the salaqintl off my shoulder and gaped at him. I got the impression that he winked slyly back at me.
Lucius jumped up to take the couple's order, and I bowed to thank the patrons, then stepped down from the dais as they continued to clap and cheer. I returned to our original table and Khapia closed the tavern door and came over to join me. Lucius came back across the floor headed to the bar to fill the order. As he passed by, he leaned over to us with a grin and said, "You're hired."
I was a little giddy with the performance and happiness that I now had a job, but I still was no closer it seemed to getting the salaqintl to give me its name. Also, it was clear that I had to keep working with him to figure out what he could do. An instrument this powerful would be a disaster in the wrong hands. I said as much to Khapia.
She lounged casually on the sturdy wooden chair at the table, her eyebrows furrowed as she thought about it, elbow on the table and chin elegantly on her hand. Good grief. She looked like a long-lost member of the Swedish cheerleading squad.
"I agree," she said finally. "He definitely responds to you. If we can find rooms in the tavern, we could continue to practice in the park to figure out how to get him to share his name."
"Is there no lore or stories among your people as to how to do that?"
Khapia sighed dramatically. "No one has been successful yet, or we'd have his name, and I wouldn't be here now."
I grimaced. No help there.
Before long Lucius returned from behind the bar and dropped off the order before rejoining us at the table and motioning Marva over. In short order we'd worked out a deal. They had a couple of small rooms above the bar they were willing to let with board in return for nightly music and a little help here and there with the tavern. Khapia wasn't thrilled at slinging drinks, but she realized it was her opportunity to help earn our keep.
* * *
Over the next couple of days we fell into a routine. We'd go to the park in the morning, often with Lucy tagging along, and I'd play a variety of songs on the stage trying to entice the salaqintl into spilling the goods. I tried playing him like a cello, lugging a chair over from the tavern, as Marva watched and shook her head. I tried strumming him like a guitar, but that was just awkward for both of us.
I played every classical and traditional tune, dirge, jig and ditty I could think of. I played commercial jingles. I played TV show themes. I played scores from movies and Top 40 songs I'd liked back on Earth. I even tried playing the main melody from Harry Potter, but all to no avail. We were learning a ton about the effects of the music on his magic, but seemed no closer to learning his name.
In the evenings, I'd play for a couple of hours at the tavern while Khapia helped at the bar, the mirrors on her red shoes flashing as she flitted from table to table, flirting with the patrons. The Town Griffin was fast becoming a favorite spot for the locals and the barroom was often full to bursting. Lucius and Marva were pleased with the arrangement as they were doing a booming trade.
Khapia, despite her fiery nature, was a good sport about it all. She seemed to have fun in the evenings and was endlessly patient with the "song practice" process during the days. It was clear that, despite my own frustration with my lack of success, giving me the chance to keep trying was her number one priority and as a result, we were quickly becoming fast friends.
I couldn't help notice, though, that she looked over her shoulder with increasing frequency at the park. The more days that passed, the more she seemed to expect someone or someones to arrive, beyond our regular audience of Lucy and her friends.
"Who is it?" I finally asked on the morning of the third day. I was feeling poorly for some reason today and didn't have my usual social reserve.
"Who is what?" she replied, cocking her head at me.
"Who are you waiting for?"
Her face fell, and she turned away and walked to the edge of the stage looking out across the grass field of the park, to the river and land to the east beyond it. After a moment she turned around and faced me where I stood in the middle, making a fine adjustment to tune one of the salaqintl's strings.
"I've been watching for my brothers. I expect them any day now to drag me back to Ostonal to answer for stealing the salaqintl."
I was startled and stopped what I was doing. Not only was Khapia uncharacteristically glum, but I had no idea her brothers had any means of tracing her. We had actively avoided anything that might magically "call" them to us again since the incident with the "Hall of the Mountain King."
Still, when I thought about it, it made sense. The salaqintl was clearly a powerful artifact and no culture would take its loss lightly.
"I don't want to go back." Khapia added, clenching her fists.
"What will you face there?"
She pressed her lips together and looked down. "I was hoping we would discover his name and I could return of my own accord in triumph, but..." she took a deep breath and ran her hands over her hair.
"I'm not sure what will happen. The elders of my people will make that judgment. Aneirin, the High Priestess of Flames is going to be very upset. She'll likely view this as a personal affront as well, since I was her student."
Oh great. Not only did we have angry family on the way, but there was a pissed high priestess in the mix as well. I nodded at Khapia with renewed determination. I had to figure out how to get the salaqintl to tell me his name.
"See what trouble you've caused," I scolded him, putting him back on my shoulder and readying the bow. He just shrugged and led me into another song.
* * *
We returned to The Town Griffin in the late afternoon and grabbed a bite to eat at the bar before business started to pick up. I was starting to get really brown after all the days in the sun on the park stage. Marva had loaned me change of clothes and I was saving my tips to purchase some more, but I was back in my original outfit, freshly laundered. The white shift glowed against my skin. Khapia looked stunning as always in her red tunic, her platinum hair combed back in the braid. She wore a white apron around her waist, also courtesy of Marva, and was wiping off the tables and chairs to prepare for the evening's customers.
I was trying to ward off a growing headache and chatting with Lucy in the corner by the dais when Khapia let out a small scream.
I turned to Khapia in time to see her drop a pint glass, which shattered on the floor. A large shard was stabbed into the top of her right foot and blood streamed from the wound. I set the salaqintl aside gently, then rushed over to help her.
"I thought I just saw my brother Rakif walk by outside," she said, pointing to the tavern window that overlooked the street.
Marva heard the commotion and came over to help.
"Let's look at your foot there, dear," she said. "Ach, the wound is deep. We need to clean it and put some stitches in it. There will be no working for you tonight." I bent over and picked up the broken glass, while Lucy ran for a broom. Marva helped Khapia over to a chair at the back by the bar and propped up her foot on a second one. Then she got up and poured a large glass of whiskey.
She handed the whiskey to Khapia. "Here drink this. It will help dull the pain. Mae, keep an eye on things while I go get my kit."
When she was out of earshot, I turned to Khapia. "Do we need to figure out an excuse not to play tonight?" I asked, eyeing the salaqintl in the corner. "Do I need to hide him?"
Khapia grimaced and shook her head. "I've been so much on edge, I'm not even sure I really saw my brother." She gulped down the whiskey and I poured her another, which she drank just as quickly. Marva returned with her kit and poured Khapia a third whiskey before she started in on cleaning and stitching her foot.
Customers had started to arrive for the evening, so despite feeling poorly, I got up and greeted them and took their drink and dinner orders while Marva finished patching up Khapia's foot. The table was back in the corner away from the entrance so they had some privacy while she worked.
Before long there was a large crowd and Lucius had come back from errands and was filling the drink orders, while Marva returned to the kitchen to start plating the dinner special. Lucy headed up to her room for the evening and Khapia was starting to get red cheeked and jolly in the corner. If I didn't miss my guess, she was on at least her fifth whiskey in an hour and was feeling no pain. My headache throbbed. I wished I could say the same.
"Play! Play!" she hollered from her seat in the corner. Several customers joined her in calling to hear the salaqintl.
"As soon as I get our guests seated," I said, opening the tavern door to greet the next set.
Conan the Barbarian and his twin brother walked through the door, ducking as they entered, and turning sideways to allow their shoulders to pass, which were covered in gleaming golden pauldrons. Both had long platinum blond hair past their shoulders, pulled back from their unbelievably handsome faces, and both had identical stern expressions.
Oh shit. Time to pay the piper. I looked over in alarm at Khapia.
"Oh THERE you are," she squealed drunkenly, slurring as she spoke. "Rakif! Fildar! Come over here. You've just got to hear Mae play. It's wonderful. Play, Mae, play!"
I looked at the brothers, who were scanning the crowd with suspicion, and made a decision. Surely if I was playing the salaqintl, they wouldn't snatch it from my hands and make a scene in front of all the patrons, risking the damage or loss of the magical instrument.
I rushed over to the dais and grabbed the bow, tightening it to prepare to play. I looked down at my hands and realized I had some of Khapia's blood on them and I had just gotten it on the bow strings. I felt alarm at that flood my body and I swallowed down nausea, as I looked up at the two brothers who were pushing their way past the tables headed toward me. It was too late to worry about any of that now. I grabbed the salaqintl from where he was leaning against the wall and hurriedly flipped him under my chin.
"OK, guy," I muttered to him. "Fun's over. It's now or never."
I put the bow to his strings and began to play. Fear had dashed any hope of me planning a particular tune, so I just played.
I played about my joy in finding the salaqintl. I played about my awe of his magical, musical power. I played about the happiness I'd found in my friendship with Khapia and Lucy and her family. I played about the sorrow of losing my old life, my job with the Dallas Symphony, and my colleagues who may have perished when the comet hit. I played about my fear of starting over and my determination to learn his name. I played about the importance of having friends and loved ones you could count on. And ultimately, I played about overcoming challenges and rising up to meet life anew.
As I played, magic flew from the bow and a deep golden aura glowed in my vision. Red, blue, green and silver sparkles filled the room and the audience was frozen in place, captivated, as the melody leaped and soared from the salaqintl's strings.
When I had played out my heart, I ended the melody, lingering on a final plaintive note, which begged the brothers to leave Khapia alone, to forgive her theft of the instrument and allow her to pursue the life of her choosing.
I wiped my forehead, which was dripping with sweat, with the back of my bow hand, and looked nervously at the two elves, as the audience sat in stunned silence. The salaqintl sighed with pleasure, and whispered to me in a low melodic voice, "Ryse."
A message popped up in the corner of my vision and I scanned it quickly before accepting the quest.
Quest Update: Plight of the Hill Hvitalfar
You have learned the salaqintl's name and created a strong bond between yourself and the instrument. In return you have received 15,000 EXP. In order to fully complete this quest and receive the reward—[unique, scalable item]—and the Bard class kit, you must journey with Khapia and her brothers to find the Hill Hvitalfar and let them know the fate of the salaqintl and stand by Khapia as she faces the consequences of her actions.
Quest Class: Rare, Class-Based
Quest Difficulty: Hard
Success:Survive the journey to Hill Hvitalfar and let them know of the salaqintl's fate.
Failure: Die on the journey or allow Khapia to die; fail to tell the Hvitalfar of the salaqintl's fate.
Reward: Class Change: Bard, Bard Kit; Unique, Scalable Item
I had learned Ryse's name and now I had a chance to truly become a Bard. I should have been thrilled, but I found myself suddenly exhausted beyond belief. I hadn't really felt well all day, but the energy it took for the performance had left me drained and I was starting to sway on my feet. My muscles ached and I felt nauseated and chilled.
One of the tall elves approached me and took the salaqintl from my hands.
"Wait! I know his name," I protested weakly, then crumpled to the dais in a heap. Stars swirled in my vision and then blackness overcame me.
* * *
A faint afternoon light filtered through the west-facing window of my small room above the tavern, hitting my eyes and bringing me back to my senses. I’d spent hours in and out of consciousness, with fever dreams of my old life plaguing me. I wasn’t certain how long I’d been there, but judging by the pain and stiffness in my back and legs, I was guessing it had been a while.
A message awaited me in the corner of my vision and I blinked back tears as I read it. I now knew the cause of my mysterious illness. Overnight, my body back on Earth had perished in the NextGenVR capsule in my empty apartment, and I had fully and successfully transitioned into V.G.O. I lay still for a while and processed how I felt about that. I ran a hand through my hair and over the skin of my face, feeling the wetness of my tears on my cheeks. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I was here now and everything felt as real—good and bad—as it ever had.
“There you are, dear,” Marva’s voice floated to me and I turned my head to the sound. She approached the bed carrying a rag and put it on my forehead. It was wonderfully cold and damp. “How are you feeling?”
How was I feeling? Terrible. My mouth tasted like I had been licking a cat. That’s right, I didn’t have one. I grunted noncommittally.
“You’ve been asleep for hours, nearly a full day,” she said.
“Where Khapia?” I asked, my voice croaking.
Marva reached for a glass on my dresser and helped me as I scooted up on my elbows to take a drink.
“She and her brothers are preparing to leave to go back to the Hvitalfar. They wanted to leave this morning, but she insisted on waiting until you awoke. They agreed, but mostly because she was nearly as sick as you were after all that whiskey. I gave her some of my famous hangover cure. You’ve just had some as well. Hopefully it will settle your stomach and make your head feel better.”
Marva chuckled lightly, then paused and gave me a serious look. “You know, you could have trusted us with the truth.”
I didn’t think I could feel much worse, but shame flooded me, making my head pound again. “I’m sorry, Marva. You and Lucius have been wonderful to us and we should have told you the whole tale.”
She chuckled wryly. “Once I saw that instrument and heard you play, I knew we didn’t know the half of it.”
“I have to get up and go join them,” I said, rubbing my forehead, and shifting my legs over the side of the bed to sit up. “Khapia will need my support to face her people and I have something they desperately want.”
Marva looked at me curiously. “What’s that, dear?”
I looked at her and smiled. For the first time in the past day and a half I felt hopeful. I knew what I needed to do.
“I have the name of the salaqintl,” I explained. “And I have friends here and a quest to fulfill.”
* * *
Role in Story: Protagonist
Physical Description: Skin: Light brown
Hair: Mid-length, wavy, brown
Eyes: Brown, somewhat small
Height: Very short
Weight: Quite thin
Build: Somewhat broad
Personality: Mae is socially awkward, possessive of people, and xenophobic.
Habits/Mannerisms: Mae is prone to ear-pulling when stressed. She has a penchant for summery colors and really likes clothes that are fairly sturdy. She also has a love for belts and scarves. She loves reading and is a rather poor writer.
Background: Mae is from Dallas, Texas, and admired a famous scientist growing up. [Her grandfather - J. Kilby, inventor of the handheld calculator.] The emotional distance of a grandparent [e.g., J. Kilby] left her unsure of her talents and skills. She has quite a bit of money due to a large inheritance [which gave her the ability to buy a place in V.G.O.].
Internal Conflicts: She is afraid of change. She is also a pleaser and afraid of hurting others.
External Conflicts: Mae doesn't have enough influence in VGO. She needs to grow a spine to exert herself on the world to find her faction and place in the new world.
Notes: This rambunctious [character] is female. She has brown eyes, an olive complexion, and curly brown hair in a mid-length ponytail. She is very short, fairly muscular, and her duty attire resembles a skimpy police uniform in black and ice blue. [Think Martha Higareda.]
Khapia, the Maid of Flames
Role in Story: Antagonist (NPC)/Sidekick
Occupation: Under-Priestess (Hvitalfar)
Physical Description: "Fuzzy Halfling"
Hair: Long, curly, platinum blond, worn in a braid
Eyes: Dark brown, somewhat large
Khapia wears a flirty outfit is done primarily in warm colors. It involves a pair of heeled shoes and tunic.
She has a small scar on the right foot received due to an incident with a town griffin.
Personality: Khapia wants to explore and see new places.
Habits/Mannerisms: She is annoyed by people prone to ear-pulling.
Background: This conniving, disfigured young woman with an ancient artifact (a cello) comes from a strange city by the hills and is looking for a place to stay.
Internal Conflicts: Khapia is dangerously obsessive, short-tempered, and overly dramatic.
External Conflicts: She wants to escape a restrictive situation.
Notes: Khapia means "volcano."
Platinum-blond starlet. [Think Tricia Helfer.]
Copyright © 2018 Amber McKee
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise (except for brief passages for purposes of review) without the prior permission of author.
This short story was written for a contest held by Shadow Alley Press in July 2018. The story is based in the Viridian Gate Online universe created by author James A. Hunter.
The Viridian Gate Online universe and LitRPG book series are the property of James A. Hunter and Shadow Alley Press. This short story is available for free and shared with the author’s permission. For more about Viridian Gate Online, visit Shadow Alley Press’s website at https://shadowalleypress.com/.
Any V.G.O intellectual property (IP) referenced is the product of James A. Hunter and Shadow Alley Press. The author claims no ownership and uses the IP with the permission of Shadow Alley Press. Any other names, characters, places, and plots are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.