This Mortal Toil: A Diary, Part Three
"dressed only in his starting cloth"
Brendan has been playing sandbox MMORPG, Mortal Online.
So this is how it ends. Trapped between two hissing lizard men and a fatally high, geographically unremarkable, cliff edge. The lizard men take another step and poke their razor sharp tridents at the air in front of me. The prongs of the weapon are barbed, and the barbs themselves are also barbed, which I consider to be unnecessary. I step back toward the cliff, completely unable to see the bottom. So this is how it ends. Lost in a hellish Congolese nightmare world, wearing nothing but rags and facing down two of the world’s most brutally rendered reptilians. Mortal Online, it’s been good. We had some good times, made some good memories. I would recite a few of them from the records in my leather-bound book but I lost it in that ravine, remember? Oh, Mortal. I wonder if someone found that book, would they think me a great adventurer? Or would they just throw it away and plunder my rucksack for the 500 gherkins you always said were weighing me down.
THE RECORDS OF VEGI ROLL, EXPLORER AND THAT
In Which The Venerable Vegi Roll Leaves The Starting Area Of A Buggy MMO And Takes On The Might Of Many Foes In Search Of The Mysterious Eden In The South That One Guy Told Him About.
I left by the main gates of Tindrem city today and walked until found myself in an orchard. I saw a man in the distance, just a smidgeon of pixels. But of course, he was much more than that. He is also the first person I have encountered outside the city walls. I have about 30 silver coins in my pocket and the moment I die this will be immediately looted. I have to always understand that death in this game is a form of damnation and that any other player can take a swing at me any time. In Tindrem I could have shouted “/guards” and relied on them to take on any mugger. Not so out in the wild landscapes of Nave’s countryside.
I saw this man, who was dressed only in his starting cloth, suddenly stop and equip a robe and a sheathed sword. It appeared on his body in a flash. We walked slowly along our courses, so far away from one another that I frequently lost sight of him behind trees and bushes. He looked vigilantly back, giving me as wide a berth as I gave to him, until we realised we were each equally terrified of the other and ran off in opposite directions.
I found myself in a desert today but caught sight of some gorgeous ruins. I went in for a closer inspection and saw a settlement on the horizon. I thought it’d be quicker to take a shortcut down the mountainside but I just fell and cut my knees until I had to have a sit down.
Today I reached a town called Meduli. I found some shiny stuff in the desert outside of town on my way in. It is called Bor and I have no idea what it is. I thought I might extract something from it so I put it in a fire. It burned away to nothing and the game told me I wasn’t cool enough to do anything like that yet. I spent most of the day asking people if they knew where the Jungle was. No response. Squatted in a strange house.
Found a beggar man in the town centre having a lot of trouble taming a horse. A knight in armour stood idly by, waiting for him to finish the job. I asked them if they knew where the Jungle was.
“a jungle in the desert?” said the beggar. I felt like maybe he was laughing at me.
The knight soon realised the beggar was incapable of the taming job. Nevertheless he threw him something shiny and said “something for your trouble anyway.” Before he left I shouted after him about the Jungle. He sighed and told me “south east of bakti” then vanished into the distance. Behind me the beggar still hadn’t given up with the horse. I snorted at him and said, “good luck with that buddy.” As I walked away he mumbled something. But all I remember hearing were the words “village in woods” and “bone walls”.
It’s probably nothing.
After pointlessly chopping a few trees for some time, I went back to the town centre. There were the usual crowd of bank customers and traders. But something by the fountain caught my eye. Two men had climbed on top of the leather-tanning racks and were now running on the spot, without end.
“What are you doing, if you don’t mind me asking?” I said.
“training,” said one of the men, called Jerny.
Training, I thought. Like Zen masters.
“Like Zen masters,” I said.
“when you autorun,” said Jerny, “some stats go up. but i’m a noob. i’m just testing.”
I pondered this for a while and said: “Can you teach me to be a Zen master?”
“lol i don’t think i can train anyone i’m still noob.”
He is so modest, I thought, this noble monk. And yes, I was disappointed when he declined but I respected him too much to argue.
“Okay, well... do you know the way to Bakti?”
“i think its to the east?”he said after a moment, followed by silence. All the while he jogged atop the thin pole of wood. “i’ve never been to this town before lol.”
This Jerny, I felt like he was sent to me by fate. I could not have asked for a wiser guru, or – dare I say it – a better friend. I thanked him and turned to make my preparations to leave town, then I heard him shout after me: “take care!”
I will, old master. I will.
I have not taken care. Darting from tree-to-tree under the cover of night, I left Meduli and headed south-east. I saw some small dogs pottering about in the distance, a little off my route, and I thought I might be able to tame one, so I walked out to meet them. The thing about the desert is: it plays with your sense of perspective. These dogs weren’t small – they were big. And they weren’t dogs – they were wolves. They looked up with bright, yellow eyes and growled. By the time I heard them barking after me I was already far, far away.
I saw a man in the distance today. I approached to ask him directions but he just shot me with an arrow. I ran away. When I reached safety I checked the game’s action tickertape. I had been hit in ‘the left limb’. Thanks, game.
I trek through the desert. Yet the real world still holds sway over me from time to time. I turn away from the computer to see Quinns, sitting cross-legged on his bed, frowning as he leafs through a boardgame manual. He ponders aloud.
“Phase one: Disengagement...”
He sighs heavily.
Some wooden part of Journohaus moans at us from downstairs. We try to ignore it. But the truth is it can’t be ignored. The mice have moved out. The tree in our back garden fell down the other day and died of exhaustion. The urban foxes that stalk the kerb outside have begun to mimic the blackbirds, and the blackbirds in turn have started mimicking the schoolchildren. Meanwhile, the schoolchildren themselves have evaporated from the streets. I thought it would be better with her gone. But the reality – the abominable, living reality – is that things are now much, much worse.
“When is she coming back, Quinns?”
He knows who. She has a hold on him, even from across the world. Leigh Alexander, popular selfie consultant, who has left us only with each other. He knows who.
“Quinns,” I say, “we’ve talked about this. Tell her about the Haus. Tell her... what it IS. Then she’ll be sure to understand. Maybe she’ll even come back.”
“TO HELL WITH THE HAUS.”
“Quintin!” I plead. “Not so loud.”
He scowls and turns his back to me, submerging his head into a plastic baggie of boardgame pieces and breathing in the stale, cardboard air. I turn back to the other world, the world of Mortal Online. There, the oppressive sun rises.
A horseman galloped past me this afternoon. I shouted “HALLO” and tried to raise my voice above the dust cloud he left behind. His horse careered round and strode in a wide arch, until he came the whole way back to me.
“hello,” he said.
He was a small man, with pointed ears and strange beacon-like eyes.
“I’m looking for the Jungle. I hear there is a settlement in the Jungle. Do you know the way?”
We exchanged words and I saw his name was Magicofoda. He told me that, yes, a jungle existed quite far from here. His English was not so good, but he spoke with warmth. Which I hated, because we were in a desert. I smiled and feigned politeness.
“well the jungle is danger. very danger animals there. ya.”
“But I heard there was a village there?”
“village yes. but in the middle. you look for the campodon?”
“Is campodon the nice village?”
“no. very big animal.”
“No, then. I do not look for campodons. I have been attacked by too many animals.”
“Do you know the way to Bakti then?”
“yes, that way,” he pointed with his horses head. “then the water. then sout. but please careful when jungle. it is very big. i was there 3 weeks. lost there to find exit. nothing there but misery and get lost.”
Suddenly another horse galloped up to us, completely alone. Magicofoda screamed at this and cursed the animal.
“stupid horse. it is mine.”
I looked at the horses carefully. They were named ‘1’ and ‘2’. Strong names, in their way. ‘1’ had been left behind somewhere an age ago and had only now caught up, because he and ‘2’ had stopped to talk. I thanked the horseman and we parted ways.
“good luck!” he cried.
The world is green again! I reached grasslands today. Trees swayed, flowers bloomed, the grass did that glitchy juddering thing because the motion blur effect is enabled. It was beautiful. I arrived in an abandoned plantation town by the river and dainty snowflakes fell delicately around me in eerie silence. Mongrel horses and donkeys roamed the plains near the half-finished houses.
Maybe some folks had tried to set up here because it was close to where the horses spawned? Whatever the case, it looks like nobody has been here for a long time. I’ll rest here for now, in the shade of this stable house. I wonder where everyone went?
It was sunrise when I saw them. They crawled out of the lake and marched in single file toward the plains. Dozens of them, slowly emerging from the water like an evolutionary diagram. Horses, wild boar, dire wolves, bears, some kind of rhino creature... And yet they didn’t attack one another. They just walked in line, one after the other, flat-footed. Like workers in commute. It wasn’t only here by the derelict town either, but elsewhere too. All along the shore the animals climbed out of the river in columns.
I really wish I could have got a better photo.
I needed to pass these animals to get to Bakti but I knew if I got too close to these regiments I would aggro the carnivores and be eaten alive. So I had to time my runs, waiting for a break in the lines and then darting across the open plain. Each time I crossed one column I would notice more animals in front of me. What the hell was going on?
I reached an abandoned outpost and avoided one final bear. It looked safe from here on but the thought of the animal brigades lingered in my mind. It could be a long time before I find some relief from that eerie image – some viable distraction to ease my thoughts.
I reached down and harvested about 500 of them.
I arrived in Bakti late last night. I’ve never been so happy to see poorly scripted AI-controlled guards in all my life. I’ll make some axes and pick up anything good I can afford. Bakti really is a lovely place.
A lovely place.
A lovely, lovely place.
There’s also a heavily armed fellow who keeps going to the local graveyard and sparring affectionately with the undead walkers there. He stands between three of them and allows them to hit him while his guard is up. Then when they get tired and stop attacking, he pokes each of them once with a blunt sword to provoke them into action again.
I have made a few silver coins already just from following this man and picking up the severed zombie heads he sometimes leaves behind.
Someone in Bakti gave me directions to the jungle and told me to “watch out for doom”, which was a warning against a particularly murderous player guild called ‘Doom’, as opposed to a general warning about life’s existential horror. He told me to follow the river round the mountain until I found the bridge. I followed his instructions. And what a bridge it is.
Quinns presses down on my shoulder, bringing me back to the Haus.
“I... I know that bridge!” he says.
Years ago, a friend of Quinns’ got lost in Mortal Online for a while, and told him about this bridge. There was a man on it, completely naked except for a staff, which he used to dispatch any player attempting to cross. He knocked them right off. He guarded passage to the other side.
Whoever this strange guardsman was, he’s gone now. I crossed the bridge without any trouble and reached a broad green plateau, hosting a ramshackle watchtower dedicated to some long-lost player group called the ‘Highlanders’ and a stony, dream-like structure with a dome. I looked around the structure for a way in and found nothing, until I realised that it was perched on the edge of the plateau and the only stepped entrance to the dome were suspended over a hundred feet drop.
Who the hell would build a temple like this? What mad architects once stalked this rise? Was it the Highlanders? Was the Naked Staff Man of legend a part of these mysterious pagans? I walked along the plateau, daydreaming. Then I saw it. The Jungle.
My destination! It is within my sights! As sure as I now write these words, I am bound to find the peaceful, beautiful Utopia at the centre of this terrific garden. I am so excited to find it that my patience with all this walking and writing is growing thin. I looked out from the plateau today and saw that to get down to the Jungle I would have to backtrack a long way. I simply can’t afford to wait that long. What if the peaceful people of the forest have moved on? What if the settlement is as ghostly and forgotten as all the other player-run towns I’ve found along the way? What if the SERVERS GO DOWN? No, I can’t afford to wait. Luckily, I have a plan. You see, I have played enough videogames to know one thing for certain: that diving from this bridge into the river below is the quickest and surest way to reach the bottom. Everyone knows you can land in water from any height in a videogame and survive. So long as you’re not playing GTA: Vice City or something. It is a
“I dunno,” says Quinns, from the real world. “Anyway, I’m going to the shops. Want anything?”
It’s settled then. Tomorrow I’ll step off the bridge and make my way into the thick foliage of the Jungle. Tomorrow I will find that village and be celebrated as a hero of MMOs. As a grand adventurer – a true explorer.
I can hardly wait.
So this is how it ends. I can sense the lizard men approaching from behind, quickly now. This is how it ends, by spike or by fall. I whimper and step toward the cliff edge. I reason I’ll take my chances with the ledge. At least I have some experience of falling from high places. And still I wonder, how did it come to this?
Say they did find my journal – soaking and pulpy as they fished my body out of that bloody five-foot-deep stream – they still wouldn’t know that I finally made it. That my ghost slid out of my meaty corpse and washed down the river. That as a spirit I fell over the waterfalls and slopped up on the soily shore of the rainforest. That I wandered the loud jungle, not knowing my purpose, my name, or even where my fashionable golden shoes had disappeared to.
They wouldn’t know that I woke up by a silent hooded priest with all my flesh and blood intact, and from shock fell down several banks into a mucky stream. They wouldn’t know that it was then, at my lowest point, sodden by the process of resurrection, that I looked up and saw it. The village in the Jungle. The Eden in the South.
It has bones for walls.