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Literature / GrailQuest

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Hold still and don't fidget. See, Merlin (yes, that Merlin) has cast a spell on you, modern day reader, that will transport your mind back in time to the days of King Arthur and his court. See, they weren't quite as competent as the legends portrayed and someone (you) needs to save their bacon. Merlin's too busy.

You, in the body of sturdy farmboy (or possibly farmgirl) Pip, go forth to defeat the evil wizard, dragon, black knight, what have you; armed only with your dice, your spells (in some books), your talking sword; Excalibur Junior ("E.J", for short), and a lot of British humor.

GrailQuest is a set of Gamebooks by J.H. Brennan, with eight books in the series:

  • The Castle of Darkness (1984)
  • The Den of Dragons (1984)
  • The Gateway of Doom (1984)
  • Voyage of Terror (1985)
  • Kingdom of Horror (1985)
  • Realm of Chaos (1986)
  • Tomb of Nightmares (1986)
  • Legion of the Dead (1987)

Not to be confused with The Grail Quest by Bernard Cornwell.

For other gamebook series by J.H. Brennan, check out Horror Classic Gamebooks and Sagas of the Demonspawn.

GrailQuest provides examples of:

  • Agony of the Feet: In Voyage of Terror, when Pip is given the option to pick a lock or kicking the door open, kicking is a bad choice:
    That hasn't done your foot any good. Didn't you remember you were only wearing light little sandals? Deduct 3 from your current LIFE POINTS and limp a little.
  • Always Accurate Attack: Many of Pip's spells, such as the Attacking Dart and Firefinger bolt.
  • Anachronism Stew: Clearly intentional and Played for Laughs as much as possible, as things like chocolate biscuits and Horlicks appear in the time of King Arthur.
  • Anti-Frustration Features: Unlike Fighting Fantasy or Lone Wolf, the books allow a certain amount of fudging; you can roll for LIFE POINTS three times and keep the best result, and being killed rarely requires you to start over at the beginning (and you can usually ignore any already-killed enemies).
  • Attack Backfire: In Realm of Chaos, you encounter the Pondifilous Maximus, a six-foot-tall stick insect wearing purple robes. However, although he only has 12 LIFE POINTS, he is immune to weapons and each of your attacks will actually give him more health. However, he'll let you go if you give him enough LIFE POINTS.
  • Bears Are Bad News:
    • The giant bear in the middle of a ruined shack for no reason in book 3.
    • The invisible bear in book 5...
  • Big Bad: Each book has at least one serving as the Final Boss, including the Wizard Ansalom, the Brass Dragon, the Black Knight, the Giant Berkwaddle, The Phantom Grunweazel (dum da dum dum!), Grott the Hoddle and, finally Zombie Merlin.
  • Call-Back: The Wizard Ansalom appears only in the first book as a boss but re-appears as a ghost in the third book and is often quoted in later episodes. In the last book you even find a castle under his curse... which disappears as soon as you mention that Ansalom is long dead.
  • Cast from Hit Points: Pip's basic spells cost 3 LIFE POINTS; magic you can find in the adventure tends to take more.
  • The Chief's Daughter: Sort of parodied: in one of the random events of Voyage of Terror, you stumble upon a tribe of cannibals and must fight the chief's daughter in a duel. If you're killed, you'll be eaten. If you're unconscious, she'll keep you as her pet. Even if you win, you'll have to run for your life.
  • Comedic Sociopathy: A great deal of the injuries you sustain are presented as amusing, such as the double spear trap from Tomb of Nightmares that requires you to tear the spears out of your stomach.
  • Continuing is Painful: Losing a fight against a vampire in Realm of Chaos requires you to deduct 15 LIFE POINTS from the total of your next incarnation.
  • Covers Always Lie: These books are a lot less serious in tone than the covers would suggest. The French edition covers even have beautiful dramatic art by John Howe, who would then work on visual concept for The Lord of the Rings films. Most of these covers portray ominous armored figures that supposedly represent Pip, who rarely ever gets to wear this type of armor. The first book's French cover, Castle of Darkness, has an armored character in a boat on raging sea waves, contemplating a castle roughly sculpted on a high-steeped rocky island. In the book, Pip doesn't wear this type of armor and never gets to sea: Ansalom's castle is accessed by going through a forest.
  • Cow Tools: The beginning of some books gives you a list of items to choose from. Said lists are basically a mixture of these and Chekhov's Gun; the trick is figuring out which is which.
  • Crazy-Prepared: The series gives players the option to acquire seemingly ridiculous items, such as mechanical aardvarks and devices for communicating with crickets (not insects in general, you understand, but solely crickets). In any given book, most of these items will be useless, but one or two situations can inevitably come up where one of the ridiculous items is be the only thing suitable. The trick is figuring out which, which is trickier than it sounds given the books' surreal, Pythonesque sense of humour.
  • Creepy Child: The daughters of the Phantom Grunweazel (dum da dum dum!), met in his lair.
  • Critical Encumbrance Failure: In the third book, Gateway of Doom, due to the eponymous Gateway of the Ghastly Kingdom of the Dead being open, the laws of Gravity have been affected. You roll two dice to find out your SPEED score, and you must deduct one point of SPEED for every item you pick up. If your SPEED score drops below half, you can only strike once for every two strikes your enemy gets.
  • Critical Existence Failure: Averted — if you reach five LIFE POINTS, you fall unconscious (and are generally presumed dead unless the text says otherwise).
  • Darker and Edgier: Realm of Chaos is considered the bleakest and generally less inspired chapter, possibly on purpose, because it involves exploring Camelot during the peak of a curse that makes everything rot. So most of the story is spent venturing through desolate landscapes and deserted places, with very little of the trademark humour of the rest of the series.
  • Death Is a Slap on the Wrist: The later books in particular — the boss fight in Voyage of Terror allows you to return to two sections before the fight if you dies, and the last two books allow you to return to the section where you died.
  • Dem Bones: An animated skeleton can be found at the Castle of Darkness. If you can get a friendly reaction from him, you will learn he was a servant of Ansalom but got sentenced to being crucified (for spilling drink on Ansalom's kilt) with a spell that kept him alive and sentient even as the dogs ate his flesh.
  • Disconnected Side Area: On the final map in Gateway of Doom, there are no doors leading into the conspicuous massive room numbered 200.
  • Doomy Dooms of Doom: Book 3, The Gateway of Doom.
  • Dragon Rider: You get to have a go in Legion of the Dead. It is still a baby, but is near-unkillable because it has so much LIFE POINTS.
  • Dub-Induced Plot Hole: An infamous one in the French translation. In the last book, Pip can get a Sunstone from the castle people who were cursed by Ansalom. The Sunstone becomes important later. However, in the French version, the Sunstone is given a different name when you get it ("Phoebus") and when you are asked to use it! ("Aventurine")
  • Early-Installment Weirdness:
    • The first book, despite its moments of humor, still plays its plot and environment quite straight, which is quite a weird contrast to the Denser and Wackier rest of the series. The illustrations were also noticeably more extreme compared to the later books.
    • In said first book, The Undead are devoid of LIFE POINTS ('cause they're, you know, dead) and need to be destroyed in one shot with a high enough roll. Later on, undead are treated like any other enemy (although their LIFE POINTS are called DEATH POINTS).
    • This first book has an enemy wolf — an ordinary wolf, mind you — that attacks Pip by biting their arms, legs and neck, which aren't covered by their dragon scale armor (thus disabling the protection bonus). No other enemy in the series takes advantage of this.
  • Easing into the Adventure: The first book introduces Pip having a fistfight with the local bully (to introduce the combat rules) before he or she meets with Merlin, gets starting spells/magic items, and is sent on an adventure.
  • Eldritch Abomination:
    • The thing guarding the eponymous Gateway of Doom and dragging Pip into the Ghastly Kingdom of the Dead.
    • The very first boss met in the last book. Also a sort of octopus-like monster met later in a ravine.
  • Encounter Repellant: In the second part of The Gateway of Doom, you can find a trinket that put an end to every Random Encounters in a given level of the dungeon. It has three charges, which should be well enough to finish the book without any longer being bothered by these encounters, except the dungeon also includes teleportation traps that can send you back to another level, forcing you to deplete it further.
  • Excalibur: A plot point in books 4 and 5 is the theft of Excalibur.
  • Excalibur in the Stone: Averted. A lengthy paragraph in Voyage of Terror explicitly points out that the sword Arthur pulled from the Stone and Excalibur are completely different swords.
  • Experience Points: The rules regarding these are very hazy: you get one for "every battle or puzzle solved", but what defines these is never explained. In any event, you get one PERMANENT LIFE POINT for 20 experience points. The rules also say you can carry 10 PERMANENT LIFE POINTS to the next book, but you would need a very, very liberal definition of "puzzle" to get anywhere near that total.
  • Fate Worse than Death: All the deaths instruct you to turn to paragraph 14, but a few times the text tells you that your fate is so bad as to be worse than 14, so you may as well save yourself the trouble and go to 14, such as when you get stuck looking at the magic mirror in The Gateway of Doom.
  • Featureless Protagonist: Pip's gender is carefully not given — Merlin's introduction calls him/her an "adopted child" of John the farmer, rather than "son" or "daughter", and of course the rest of the book is in Second-Person Narration. Most obvious in the second book when the narrator is offering Pip some encouraging homilies, and one of them is "(S)he who hesitates is lost". Whenever Pip is illustrated, it is from very far, partly or distorted; indeed, the illustrations in later volumes seem to actively play it for laughs, with one memorable example being a full-page picture of Pip's head as it graphically explodes. note 
  • Fisher King: The victim of a curse in Legion of the Dead (see Call-Back).
  • Fluffy the Terrible: Fred the demon in Kingdom of Horror.
  • From Beyond the Fourth Wall: The entire premise of the series.
  • Full-Boar Action:
    • One of the first enemies to be fought in the first book is a wild boar charging at you.
    • Despite his name, the Phantom Grunweazel (dum da dum dum!) looks like a boar man to you... if you have the Bonkers Helm equipped.
  • Fun T-Shirt: E.J. also refuses to fight someone wearing his fan club's T-shirt. She's not a club member; her sister is.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Most of the spell names, including Pip's Outstanding Wallop (POW) and Pip's Incredibly Rapid Repeater (Pi R2). Parodied with the Invisibility spell, which is given the acronym "I.N.V.I.S.I.B.I.L.I.T.Y. for short".
  • Game Over: When you die, you are sent to Section 14, which would make fun of you before telling you that, next time, you can skip the intro and ignore any enemies you killed (later books changed it so you had to fight them again, but they had half the LIFE POINTS they had previously). What is less nice is that some items and gold that were picked up by Pip will also be missing.
  • Gameplay and Story Integration: After defeating the "ghost" of Ansalom in book three, you find a copy of your spellbook on him. This one also has Resurrection, which prevents death once if successful. He wasn't a ghost; he had successfully cast Resurrection after you killed him, and then cast an Invisibility spell. But he's dead now.
  • Guest-Star Party Member: In Voyage of Terror you can be helped on your quest by Jason, Herakles and Achilles.
  • Hair-Trigger Sound Effect: The Ghost Grunweazel (dum da dum dum!) in the book The Realm of Chaos is otherwise The Scottish Trope, as people avoid saying its name. Considering that every time the Ghost Grunweazel (dum da dum dum!) is mentioned, this sinister echo happens, it is understandable. The first time Pip hears it, he's quite freaked out.
  • He Knows About Timed Hits: Merlin breaks the fourth wall to give you the basic instructions, as do several other characters (if a character gives you an item that will stay with you even if you die, they will explicitly say that it stays with you in section 14).
  • Hell: Where you begin in the final book.
  • Hit Points: Called LIFE POINTS.
  • Holy Burns Evil: Averted with the Golden Vampire in book 7: the cross does nothing but the Golden Garlic can hypnotize him.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place:
    • The Ghastly Kingdom of the Dead in book 3.
    • The eponymous Kingdom of Horror in book 5.
  • Infinity -1 Sword: E.J. gives accuracy and attack bonuses. He's less useful against spiders, and if he's mad at you, he won't fight at all.
  • Intercontinuity Crossover: Mainly in Book 4, Voyage of Terror:
    • For most of the journey, Pip joins Jason and the Argonauts.
    • On one island, he can meet with Long John Silver. No, really.
  • Invisible Monsters:
    • The Invisible Demon in book 1.
    • The Ghost of Ansalom in book 3.
    • The Invisible Bear in book 5.
  • It May Help You on Your Quest: Quite frequent throughout the series, though the items are often rather bizarre. Especially notable in book 3, The Gateway of Doom, which adds a Critical Encumbrance Failure aspect, and has Merlin lampshades the trope in the text:
    Pip: Why should I want a gold braid, a joke book or a xylophone?
    Merlin: Why should you want a hammer or a saw?
    Pip: Because they might come in handy.
    Merlin: So might a gold braid, a joke book and a xylophone. Anything might come in handy in an adventure like this.
  • Joke Character: If you attack the old gardener in Gateway of Doom, you automatically get the first strike due to having surprise on your side, and he has so few LIFE POINTS that this may well be enough to kill him. Even if it isn't, he needs to roll an 8 or better on two dice to hit you and his weapon of choice (a blunted pitchfork) scores no extra damage at all. The book lampshades how incredibly unlucky you would have to be for him to kill you.
  • Killer Rabbit:
    • In book 2, a fluffy white rabbit can give Pip a tough fight. Certainly no relation at all to another incarnation of the Arthurian myth.
    • In Book 6, there is another nasty cute-looking rabbit, actually being called a Vorpal Bunny.
  • Kleptomaniac Hero: You can get a lot of gold in these books. Lampshaded when you have to fight your Evil Twin in one book and you can get out of it by offering your clone an extremely large bribe.
  • Level of Tedious Enemies: In Gateway of Doom, the last wave of monsters you have to fight before the Black Knight (the game's Final Boss) are the seven Slime Monsters. Each has sufficiently low LIFE POINTS that one or two hits will be enough to kill them, and they score only dice damage with no bonuses, but the problem is that every time they successfully hit you they poison you, which causes you to lose 2 LIFE POINTS every combat round until you cure yourself, which takes up an attack round, so they can try and hit you again whilst you're curing yourself (and you risk running out of spells or potions that cure poison). Their low LIFE POINTS mean you can use magic to just blast all seven of them before they can strike you, but that risks burning through spells you could have used against the Black Knight himself.
  • The Many Deaths of You: To the point that the last two books include a "Deathometer" to keep track of how many times you died. You get a better rank the less times you die.
  • Medieval European Fantasy
  • Medium Awareness: The characters are all aware that they are in a gamebook, and talk freely about dice, LIFE POINTS, and section numbers.
  • Memetic Badass: Pip has definitely become this, in-universe, by the time of the final book.
  • Mirror Match: In The Gateway of Doom, one of the enemies is a distorted version of yourself created by looking in a magic mirror (the only difference is that it has only half your current LIFE POINTS).
  • Mr. Exposition: Merlin.
  • Named by the Adaptation: The Poetic Fiend is called "Nosférax" in the French translation.
  • Nintendo Hard:
    • Tomb of Nightmares, with its massive numbers of traps, powerful enemies and precious few opportunities for healing. Not to mention the secret passage mechanism unique to this book, that makes finding the right path damn hard.
    • Realm of Chaos requires you to fail a dice roll and fall into a very specific pit trap, so that you can find the vital passage hidden there, with no indication that said pit trap is in any way different from the other pit traps you find in the same section. The catch is that the reader is not given the choice to explore these pits on purpose, but you can only fall into them by failing the roll, so ideally, particularly "lucky" players could avoid that trap more than once and never be able to beat the game, and they would never know what exactly they did wrong.
  • No-Gear Level: The whole of book 4, Voyage of Terror. Pip is accidentally sent to ancient Greece instead of Avalon, and starts out with none of the usual equipment, nor the numerous magical items that could have been gathered during the three precedent books, including Excalibur Junior. Sure, you can find some new weapons, armors and magic along the way, but none of the usual fare until the next book.
  • Non-Indicative Name: At no point in this series do you ever go on a quest for the Holy Grail.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The first and third books both feature enemies that are in completely pitch-black rooms. It's possible to dispel the darkness in the former and find out exactly what it is you're fighting, but in the latter you never learn exactly what it is you were up against (the monster is implied to generate the darkness itself).
  • Obvious Rule Patch: One of the items you can find in The Castle of Darkness is a single-use spell which will allow you to hypnotise any enemy, meaning you can ignore them and act as if you won the battle. You can carry it over to The Den of Dragons if you don't use it in Castle, but the texts notes that it does not work against dragons.
  • Odd Name Out: King Blogwort's royal advisors in Kingdom of Horror: Tom, Dick, Harry and the Reverend Plantagenet O'Rourke.
  • Off with His Head!: It is possible to decapitate yourself with E.J. if you fail a dice roll to remove a magical collar that is choking you to death in Legion of the Dead.
  • Oh, Crap!: If you manage to stumble into the Vampire Crypt in Gateway of Doom...
  • Old Save Bonus: Certain items and spells carried over to the next book; until book 4 Voyage of Terror, where you go into the mind of some random Greek kid instead. You go back to Pip in book 5, but presumably Merlin hocked your stuff.
  • Optional Boss:
    • The Invisible Demon in the first book.
    • The Tyrannosaurus rex in the fourth.
    • The Cherry Blossom Giant in the fifth.
  • Our Dragons Are Different:
    • There are "common dragons", grey winged reptiles with two or four legs and metallic front teeth, which in addition to maidens and cattle eat chestnut leaves. The leaves ferment in the stomach to produce methane, which the dragon can ignite by snapping its teeth together to produce a spark.
    • Killing the Brass Dragon is your main objective in book 2.
    • In book 5, you can summon "Green Alchemic Dragons".
  • Our Liches Are Different: Grott, the Big Bad in Tomb of Nightmares, is a lich.note 
  • Our Vampires Are Different:
    • The Poetic Fiend is a vampire poet who appears in every book and will usually help Pip... provided Pip compliments his poetry, or else...
    • There are also regular vampire enemies, a vampire made out of gold, another made out of jade, not to mention the dreaded Vampire Carrot.
  • Painful Rhyme: Done with every single one of the Poetic Fiend's appearances; Pip has to sit down to recover from how awful one piece of verse is. On one occasion where the Fiend composes a limerick that is actually passable, Pip reacts with surprise.
  • Pit Trap: The Gateway of Doom really went to town with these, including a room that consisted of about half a dozen unavoidable pit traps in a row.
  • Portal Book: Via Merlin's Net Spell.
  • Press X to Die: J.H. Brennan's gamebooks require you to always turn to paragraph 14 when you die. As a result there are several cases where you can kill yourself:
    If the shock of this has killed you, turn to 14. If not, turn to 64.
  • Random Encounters: The second part of The Gateway of Doom plays like a typical Dungeon, including a roll on random encounter tables every time you've crossed enough length of the grayed hallways. There is a different table for each level, and the encounters become more frequent and more dangerous as you get deeper into it.
  • Reviving Enemy: Grott the Hoddle can pull this twice.
    I don't believe this — he's getting up again!
  • Rhymes on a Dime: The Poetic Fiend.
  • Right-Hand Attack Dog: Ansalom has attack dogs you must fight before attacking him.
  • Running Gag: Several.
    • Among them, Merlin's different houses, a new one in each book.
    • The different titles that are bestowed upon Pip throughout the series: by the end, s/he is known as "Pip the Wizard Basher, Dragon Slayer, Gateway Closer, Realm Saver, and Chaos Tamer", and is frequently referred to by this entire title regardless of the current circumstances.
    • Also the one about the Phantom Grunweazel (dum da dum dum!) in Realm of Chaos.
    • King Pellinore being mistaken for the Dreaded Black Knight of Avalon by Pip. Culminates in The Gateway of Doom, where the real Black Knight tries to pass himself off as Pellinore, only for the ploy to fail, as Pip has made the same mistake too many times before.
  • Sadist Teacher: The Evil Math Teacher in book 3.
  • Savage Wolves: One of the first enemies in the first book is a wolf. If you are lucky enough, it can accept your sandwich as food and go away. If fought it can be quite nasty as it attacks specifically where your body isn't covered by the armor (although no other enemy in the series does this, strangely).
  • The Scottish Trope: Played for laugh with the Phantom Grunweazel (dum da dum dum!).
  • Shock and Awe: Pip starts Kingdom of Horror with a metal bolt charged with electricity jammed through his/her neck as a result of Merlin's experiments, which can be used to Pip's advantage in battle.
  • Shout-Out: In book 5, if you find one of Merlin's old houses: he apparently keeps books "about some idiot named Fire*Wolf", another series that J.H. Brennan wrote.
  • Spoiler Opening: The beginning of Voyage of Terror presents itself much like any other, with Merlin casting the Net Spell, and at the beginning Pip is totally unaware that s/he isn't in Avalon, having to wander around until s/he discovers otherwise. Unfortunately the blurb on the inside front cover and back of the book makes it clear that Merlin's magic has accidentally sent Pip back to Ancient Greece.
  • Strength Equals Worthiness: In the fourth book, Voyage of Terror, you can meet with the god Hephaestus himself, who has just forged an enchanted breastplate which is the best armor in the whole game. Hephaestus offers to give it to you — but only if you best him in combat. You can refuse, as when he starts announcing his stats, it looks like a completely unwinnable fight. But the god actually has a sense of fair play, and notably allows you to wear the breastplate before starting, and to give you the win if Hephaestus loses a set number of LIFE POINTS (instead of his huge total).
  • Summon Everyman Hero: While Merlin doesn't summon the body of an everyman hero, he does summon their mind to inhabit Pip's body. Your mind.
  • Super Drowning Skills: Pip can't swim, and this comes up several times in The Den of Dragons, where you essentially have to roll dice to see if you can learn to swim on the spot.
  • Talking Weapon: E.J. also speaks. He gets more talkative as the series progresses, and in later books gains the ability to read your thoughts.
  • Too Awesome to Use: Enforced with the sunstone in Legion of the Dead. It can either give you a massive amount of PERMANENT LIFE POINTS or a massive amount of gold, but if you use it at any time apart from in the boss battle with Merlin and the Legion, you can't win the game.
  • Unexpected Gameplay Change: Once you reach the Ghastly Kingdom in Gateway of Doom, you have to use a series of maps rather than straightforwardly going from reference to reference.
  • Useless Useful Spell:
    • In one of the earlier books, you receive the spell PIP (Pip's Immunity to Poison). At one point you are presented with a poisoned meal, and given a subtle prompt to do "something" before eating. The section you turn to determines whether you live or die by a random roll, not even mentioning the spell; if you live, it's because you're immune to that particular poison. The spell doesn't affect it at all.
    • The Invisibility spell is the only one that can only be used when the book specifically gives you the option (which is very rarely).
  • Vancian Magic: The spells Pip can learn can only be used a limited number of times in each book: 10 for the Firefingers, 2 for the Fireballs, 3 for most common spells and only once for the rarest spells (like Invisibility).
  • Violation of Common Sense: Lampshaded thusly:
    If you're mad enough to try and make friends with the spider...
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Towards the end of Voyage of Terror, a Sidetrack Bonus features a disembodied voice which informs you that it is the only person who can tell you where Excalibur is hidden. In the next book, Kingdom of Horror, you have to find Excalibur (following on from the end of Voyage), but the mysterious voice is never mentioned. The mysterious voice might well be that of the silver-skinned creature who sends you into the Fairy Kingdom in Kingdom of Horror.
    • From the same book, once you've made your way back to Camelot, Jason and the Argonauts are never mentioned again.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: Tomb of Nightmares is pretty much a snarky version of Tomb of Horrors.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: E.J. is very afraid of spiders and will cause much less damage if you fight a Giant Spider.
  • The X of Y: All of the books' titles.
  • You Can Talk?: At the start of The Gateway of Doom:
    Pip: You can talk! You're a talking snake!
    Snake: Don't be silly, I'm a talking wizard in the form of a snake.
  • Your Head Asplode: Pip's head explodes in Realm of Chaos. This is accompanied by a full-page illustration of said explosion. Surprisingly, this is not fatal and is actually required to progress in the game.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Sleeping is one way of regaining LIFE POINTS, however you have a good chance of dreaming, which sends you to DreamLand, where anything that happens to you will usually impact the real you. In the first books, this usually meant you could die or lose LIFE POINTS while dreaming, and the best you could hope from a trip to DreamLand was staying alive (although you can still gain experience points for vanquishing enemies in dreams). Later books made way for more beneficial dreams, including one that allowed you to gain money after dreaming you found a treasure.

Now turn to 14.

Alternative Title(s): Grail Quest Solo Fantasy