June 25th, 2016


I B: Seek the monster

Harry cautiously walked toward the strange noises, until he saw something in the moonlight down by the creek. It was oddly shaped, not fully human, more like—

Well, yes. An ogre. In the middle of a forest inside a modern city.

Harry wondered if he was dreaming.

The ogre seemed to be grumping and whining to itself rather than mounting an attack, so Harry went closer. He tried talking to it, asking it about the princess. The ogre just growled and grumbled, looking pained.

Maybe it's just hungry? Harry had bought a Snickers bar at the deli, and it was in his jacket. He slowly reached out and placed the candy bar on a rock between himself and the ogre.

The ogre snatched it up and ate it, wrapper and all, and seemed thoroughly pleased. Harry waited a few minutes, and then tried asking about the princess again. And again. The monster no longer grumbled, but it didn't appear to have anything else to say.

Probably doesn't even speak real language, Harry thought. He gave a half-hearted wave and slowly turned around to start walking home. What a waste of time!

(Indeed, it was. Try again?)

I B: Return home

Harry turned around and walked back the way he came in. At least, he thought it was the same way. Or was it back through that grove of trees?

He wandered in several directions, looking for something familiar. It was even darker than earlier, and the path still more treacherous. He stumbled over clumps of weeds and slipped on loose stones, dropping the flashlight again and again until it finally went out.

What? Oh no!

Harry twisted the top of the flashlight, smacked it with his hand, anything to get it working again.

He heard howling nearby, a high-pitched sound like the crying of wolves. But surely—

(Oh, dear. It appears Harry is doomed. Try again?)


I B: The north park

Harry walked some ten or twelve blocks to catch a northbound bus to the park, stopping at a bodega for a sandwich to eat along the way. Good thing, too—he'd checked the fridge before he left, and he didn't even have leftovers.

He got to the park about an hour later. He'd seen this part of it by day a few times, and it was magnificent. The creek, the gorge, the trails—it was amazing to have something like this as part of the city.

At night, though, it was oddly creepy. He could hardly see where he was going, even with the flashlight, and he seemed to be tripping over roots and rocks every couple of minutes, even along the trails.

Maybe this was a bad idea…

He kept moving toward what could be more or less considered the "middle" of the park, and then stopped to listen. There were strange noises coming from his right, but he couldn't make sense of them. Those might be the kinds of sounds a monster would make. Or possibly a predator…

How did I get myself into this? This place was spooky enough already before those noises started happening.

Harry knew he had to make a decision.

Keep looking for the monster?

Or give up and go home?


I A: Return home from the old park

Harry walked back through the park, which was getting colder by the second. What a night—and what on earth was he going to do about those burns on his dining room table?

He stumbled onto the subway home, wishing he'd taken the time to find something to eat. As soon as the train left the station, he noticed a raucous group in the front part of the car. Strange-looking bunch, most of them dressed in leather and fur, which nobody wore these days.

They jeered and laughed, and he could see their pointed teeth. They almost looked like—

Wow. Who would have guessed? There were trolls on the subway. And they smelled.

What the hell was happening to this town anyway?

(That does seem strange. Perhaps it will make more sense if you try again?)


I A: Investigate the lights

Harry walked through the trees toward the lights, and came out into a clearing. There was a building up ahead, where something was happening. As he got closer, he heard voices and the faintest sound of music. A door opened and closed as small group of people came out onto the veranda.

This is probably the museum, he thought. Looks like there's a party.

A party where the only guests appeared to be ordinary human beings.

Harry was about to leave when someone called him over. "Hey," a young man said, "are you here for the party?"

"No," Harry said. "Just passing by."

"Yeah? There's lots of extra food and stuff. Come join us."

"Okay." Harry had some wine and hors d'oeuvres, and immediately felt much better. He'd been seriously overdue for dinner.

Later, a pretty young woman came up and started talking to him. She said her name was Natalie, and that she was a copy editor who enjoyed indoor rock-climbing. She and Harry chatted for hours, and Harry forgot all about his quest.

By the end of the evening, however, he had her phone number and a lunch date for the following Wednesday.

(Well, this wasn't so bad, at least for Harry. But what of the Quest? Try again?)


I A: The old park

Henry took the subway out to the approximate middle of the old park and headed in, hoping for the best. Without a lot of specifics, he figured the most literal-minded approach was his leading option, so why not? Not that it made a lot of sense, but then again, Quest… Monster… Princess…

Sense didn't really seem to be part of the equation.

He moved farther and farther in, looking all around him, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. He saw young lovers wandering the paths, he heard night birds in the trees above, and he felt the air grow colder and colder as he walked. His search was going nowhere.

Then, up ahead, he saw the glow of lights coming through the trees. He couldn't imagine lights having anything to do with monsters, but who knew? Maybe they were from a fire? On the other hand, it was late and he was freezing.

Should he investigate the lights?

Or just call it a night and head back home?


II: Continue to the park

Harry went up to the surface to catch the first of a couple of buses that would take him to the park. This quest was becoming a real hassle, and he wasn't even sure the whole thing was real!

An hour later, he arrived at the park and made his way toward the gazebo. Things were fairly quiet, though he wasn't sure if that was a good sign or a bad one. He shone the flashlight around, trying to see what was in store for him ahead. As he got closer, he could see that there was someone at the gazebo.

Unfortunately, the flashlight showed someone who looked a lot more like a homeless guy than a wizard.

Harry sighed. Well, fine. He just hoped the guy wasn't dangerous. He asked him whether he had seen or heard anything about a missing girl.

"Yon building was all abuzz earlier. There were a great many people there."

The building was the boathouse, which probably was busy because it was a tourist attraction, but Harry thanked the man and went over to check.

He could see something moving in the dark, and swung the flashlight around to check. It looked like a—well, what exactly? It was small and black and nasty-looking. Huh.

It menaced Harry with a pitchfork, which he wasn't expecting, but his reflexes took hold and he roundhouse-kicked the creature into the lake. A cloud of evil-smelling steam rose up. Another little creature came at Harry from around the side of the building, and he kicked it into the lake, too. He found the whole thing oddly satisfying.

He ran up to the boathouse and looked for anyone who might be inside. "Hello?" he called, hoping he might find a princess and not more demons or whatever they were.

There was a young woman in some sort of extravagant prom dress curled up in a corner. She was bound with rope, which Harry untied.

"Are you all right?" he asked. "Maybe we should get you to a hospital."

Instead, there was a flash of light and Harry found himself and the young woman in an elegant room, standing before a king and queen.

"Thank heavens, you have saved her!" The king said. "I offer you her hand in marriage as a reward."

"Uh," Harry sputtered. This seemed an awful lot like the time he'd tried shrooms with a friend back in college. And what kind of father would let a complete stranger have his daughter? That couldn't be good, although the princess was gazing at him all starry-eyed now, so maybe she was happy with the arrangement?

If he was honest with himself, the princess was beautiful—far more so than anyone he had ever dated. And his job, well… ugh. He was tired of marketing, tired of trying to sell cheap, ugly, weird things to people that they didn't need. Perhaps this was the opportunity of a lifetime?

He didn't have anything to lose, which was certainly not a response the king would welcome. Instead, Harry drew himself up graciously, and bowed.

"I would be most honored."

(Well what do you know? Fortune smiled on him after all. It could have been much, much worse. Try again and see how?)


II: Return home

Harry climbed the stairs to the surface and waited for the next uptown bus. He would have to transfer halfway through the trip, but that wasn't so bad. He'd probably be home by ten.

The bus came a few minutes later. Harry and nine or ten other passengers from the subway got on board, and started the journey home.

I should get off a few stops early and buy something to eat, Harry thought.

Suddenly, the bus driver hit the brakes. Tires screeched as the bus slid into a traffic pole.

Everything seemed to happen in slow motion as Harry looked out the windows. He saw the pole looming ahead on one side of the bus, and on the other, there appeared to be a demon army pouring across the street.

(Hells bells! That's no good. Try again?)


II: Consult The Wizard

The closest thing to a temple on the river Harry could think of would be the gazebo in FDR Park. It was as good a guess as any.

He put on a warm jacket and took a bottle of water and a flashlight with him to the subway station, where he boarded the train. This would be a much nicer trip during the day, he thought. He hadn't been to the park in years, but he remembered it being very pretty.

As the train slowed four stops later, the engineer made an announcement.

"Ladies and gentlemen, there has been a breakdown on the line ahead. All passengers must leave the train at this station. There are connecting buses that can help you reach your destination. Please exit to your left when the train comes to a full stop."

Harry got off the subway car, feeling as dazed as the other passengers. Well, this was great. Obviously, he was going to have to start digging through bus schedules now. But which direction?

Should he try to continue on to the park?

Or just figure out how to get back home?


III: Enter the room

Harry got out his Swiss army knife and pulled up the largest blade, which was still ridiculously small. God, I must be nuts.

He slipped inside the locker room, and tripped over something. Someone.

He used his phone light to look around. There was a group of men in the locker room who had been bound with rope and gagged with basketball jerseys. All of them were dressed as knights.

Well, what do you know?

Harry removed the men's gags and used his knife to saw through the ropes.

"We are most grateful, sir!" one of the knights said, and the others quickly agreed.

Harry was still working on the second knight's ropes when he heard the men gasp, and looked up to see—

What are those? And what are they holding?

Moments later, the demons had Harry bound and gagged along with the rest of the knights. Their beady red eyes glowed in the once-more dark locker room, as the demons stood ready to deliver an unknown and probably unwelcome fate.

(How unfortunate for everyone! Try again?)


III: Return home

For all Harry knew, there were a bunch of huge, angry men in that room. Or warthogs. He backed up, and worked his way up the stairs and out the side door as quietly as he could.

Out in the parking lot, he ran toward the roadway where he'd gotten off the bus earlier. He wondered about calling the police, though they'd be able to identify him from his cell phone and he'd have to explain what he was doing trespassing in the building after hours.

The bus came soon afterward, and he got on.

"Hey, Harry, what're you doing here?"

It was Steve, a friend from Harry's college years. "Hey, how's it going?"

Harry sat down next to Steve, and the two of them got to talking. They stopped off between buses to get a beer, and Harry completely forgot about the Quest and the noises from the locker room.

(Some hero! Maybe he should try again?)


III: Journey To The Tournament Hall

The modern-day equivalent of a tournament hall was probably the arena where the 76ers played, so Harry decided to go there. He took his Swiss army knife and some twine with him—why exactly, he couldn't say, but he would be prepared to truss a turkey, if nothing else.

He rode the bus there, or several buses as it turned out. There was no game being played and no concerts or other events. Would he have trouble getting in? There were probably security guards.

This is stupid. What was I thinking?

When he got to one of the side entrances, however, he found that it was unlocked. He slipped inside, working his way down toward the locker rooms under the stadium. Those were underground chambers, right? Unless the wording on the scroll had been referring to janitors' closets or something. Whatever.

It was dark in the basement. None of the light switches seemed to work, and the light from Harry's cellphone didn't help much. He was able to locate one of the locker rooms, but thought he heard something and stopped to listen.

There were thumps and moans coming from the other side of the door. Crap, what the hell is that? It's just me all alone down here, plus whatever's in there...

Should Harry go into the locker room anyway?

Or sneak back out the way he came?


IV: Use the food at hand

What he had wasn't much, but Harry decided it was enough for a small meal. He could stop by a deli on the way home from work tomorrow (though that meant extra subway stops), or maybe even drive to a grocery store. Whatever. At least he'd bought himself some time.

He made rice and scrambled the egg, then put them in a large bowl. He microwaved the Cup-a-soup and added it to the bowl and stirred everything together.

Well. Edible, but not especially appetizing.

He ate at the kitchen table, scrolling through Facebook and various blog feeds on his phone. God, this really is pretty bad, he thought. Maybe I should go shopping tonight.

Suddenly, something plummeted through the ceiling of Harry's apartment with a *crash*.

Harry sat there, covered in plaster dust and mouth hanging open. What the hell…?

The large dragon in his living room shook itself off and glared at the destruction surrounding it. "Dreadful place. Nasty carpeting, too." It coughed and thrashed its tail. "Yes—I believe I shall burn it."

Harry watched in horror as the dragon breathed flames on his Dr. J poster, his television, his favorite sofa. It was turning in his direction when he realized he still had on his work clothes—with his wallet and keys in the pants pocket. He bolted up and toward the door, slipping through it and slamming it behind him as he ran down the stairs to the sound of angry dragon roars and far off fire engine sirens.

I should never have stayed home, he thought. I've lost everything!

But as much as he regretted his choice, there was nothing he could do about it now.

(Unless you'd like to try again?)


IV: Order out

Harry knew ordering out would mean waiting longer to eat, but he was a lousy cook, so at least the food would be worth it. He called his favorite Chinese restaurant, already dreaming about their Kung Pao chicken and twice-cooked pork.

"Hello, Szechuan City."

"Hi, I'd like to place an order to have delivered," Harry said.

"Sure, what can I get you?"

"I'd like the—"

Harry heard a crash on the other end of the line, and then screaming. "Is everything—"

"Dragon!" yelled the person on the other end of the phone.

There were loud scuffling noises and more screaming before the line went dead.

"Huh." Harry ended the call and stared at his phone. Guess I'll get pizza.

He called Pizza Heaven and ordered a pepperoni, mushroom and olive pizza. Then he changed into sweats and a t-shirt, and started a grocery list for the weekend.

The pizza came, and he ate half of it and saved the rest for leftovers later in the week. Then he binge-watched Game Of Thrones for a few hours until he fell asleep on the sofa.

Even decades later, he would never realize he had been cursed that night. He was forever doomed to yearn for love and never find it.

(That could have been worse. Also, better. Try again?)


IV: Stay Home

Harry looked in the fridge and poked around in the cupboards. Apparently, he'd forgotten that he didn't have much of anything to eat in the house. I should really get in the habit of shopping more regularly, he thought, though that didn't help him right now.

Well, this sucks.

He had instant rice, a packet of Cup-a-soup, and an egg. Plus mustard and ketchup in the fridge, along with steak sauce and some dead vegetables. Normal people would at least have cereal around, though with his luck, he'd either have sour milk or no milk at all.

Harry groaned.

Should he order take-out?

Or try to work with what he had?


I: Meet The Monster Of The Middle Forest

What could pass for a forest in the middle of a large city? Harry hoped the King's message was referring to the city, because if not, there were far too many forests to choose from—hundreds in this part of the country alone!

Someone should really have organized this thing better, Harry thought. Assigning individuals to specific areas would have gone a long way toward streamlining the whole process.

There was a huge urban park in the city, though it spanned both sides of the river and about half of it was in another chunk to the north. Henry sighed. He would have to commit to one of the three sections.

He lived on the West side, and was more familiar with those parts of the park, so he decided to remove the East side from consideration. But there was still a ton of acreage to choose from. The West side's older park was bigger, but it was broken up by monuments and museums. The northern park area was wilder and much more like a forest, but it was also dark and more deserted this time of night. Either way, he would have to bring a flashlight and hope for the best.

Should he try the older more developed park?

Or the wilder northern section?