The three villagers and I had given up on venturing deeper into the forest, and instead we tried to listen for the trickle of water to locate the stream. It was complicated to distinguish between the sounds of birds chirping and the wind rustling through the leaves and branches, but the trickiest part was the sound of the villagers’ footsteps. Even the softest step on the carpet of dried leaves made a crunching noise, so they had to keep a careful watch on where to place their feet. We found two different edible species of mushrooms that didn’t look too disgusting, which the villagers added on top of the berries amassed in the basket.
The sound of running water grows loud enough that we know the surrounding trees must be hiding it. We follow the sound, and we suddenly reach the edge of the forest, arriving at the riverbank, which rises steeply on both sides of the brook. The stream flows swiftly between boulders, rushing past with white foam, carrying bits of wood downstream.
“Well, it appears we have found a source of drinking water,” Kurtz says, relieved.
My villagers stop in front of the bank, and peer into the crystal clear waters. The bottom of the brook is muddy, full of slippery stones. Us four gaze for a while at the silvery flow and listen to its soothing song. The midday sun warms my skin, the gentle breeze caresses my cheek. The air is sweet with the scent of growing plants.
I find myself comparing this pleasing moment with the world my real body is stuck in: lying on the lounge chair in a darkened room of a cramped apartment, located in an ugly and crumbling world that I wish I could forget. It must be around two or three in the morning, and tomorrow I’ll have to work on my freelance contracts or risk losing a couple of clients.
“Let’s walk along the edge until the riverbank goes flat,” Joseph suggests.
“I need to rest for a good while,” Kurtz says as he follows the older human. “This day has already been quite tiring.”
The villagers have to walk around lush vegetation, including tall reeds, that have grown besides the waters. Further upstream, the brook forms a few shallow waterfalls. As soon as the slope flattens enough for the villagers to walk on the pebbly riverbank, Sue hurries to fetch some water. Her breasts bounce around inside her peasant dress. She kneels on the bank and dips a cupped hand into the brook. When she drinks, she closes her eyes and lets out a squeal of delight that would have made my real body much warmer. She also splashes her cheeks and neck with cool water.
I sit down next to a boulder and stare at the rushing water, which carries away leaves and twigs. I’ll need to log off soon, and it has soured my mood. When was the last time I walked through a forest in real life? Maybe back when I was a child. But the virtual experience is so immersive and compelling that I guess it makes no difference. Even the nastier monsters that we might come across wouldn’t damage me. Once again I wish I could be plugged into this system permanently so I could never leave.
I look up at the sky. The bright blue dome is dotted with white clouds, and the wind rustles through the leaves of nearby trees. When I look back down, Kurtz is plunging his hands into the cold water, then he washes his face until his long beard is dripping wet. Joseph has headed to the largest piece of driftwood, which is floating near the closest edge of the brook. Joseph kneels beside the driftwood, places both hands under its broad flat top, and lifts the heavy object. When he sets it down on a patch of soft mud, two tiny frogs pop out and dart towards the trunk of a tree growing close to the stream. They hide among the roots.
“What is that about?” Sue asks. She approaches the human as she holds her hands behind her back.
“Now that we’ll be able to feed ourselves decently enough,” Joseph says, “until we start growing crops, we’ll have to figure out how to build a few huts.”
The dwarf sighs as if contemplating the work ahead.
“So we’ll have to haul large pieces of wood back to the clearing. How do we plan to carry them?”
“We’ll have to chop most of them up, and then find a way to fabricate a few log carriers.”
“I assume that the higher being among us will help with that,” Kurtz says, then looks around as if to locate me, but he realizes that I could be anywhere now.
I float closer to them.
“I’ll help you, of course, but I’ll also have to start saving up for more significant boons.”
“Shouldn’t we also need to carry some water back to the clearing?” Sue says as she drinks more from her cupped hand.
“I guess so.”
I conjure a big wooden pail with a metallic handle. The three villagers flinch, but Sue is pleased.
“Thank you, lord Festerbump! It’s such a relief that we can rely on your support.”
It feels so satisfying when the villagers praise me, particularly this elf I have a crush on, that I want to help them all the time. I don’t recall anyone praising me like this in real life, even the few times I went out of my way to make life easier for others.
“If there is anything else you need, please let me know,” I say.
The three villagers sit in a circle to rest for a while. Joseph puts down the bow and quiver next to him, then lies back on the pebbles and closes his eyes. Sue and Kurtz eat berries and mushrooms hungrily. When Sue is full, she lets out a long sigh and lies down as well as if to take a nap, and crosses a forearm over her eyes. I leer freely at how her breasts stretch the soft fabric of her dress, at how the breeze plays with her dark gold tresses.
“I guess we’ll have to start gathering wood until the evening,” Kurtz says, disheartened.
“The sooner we start, the fewer nights we’ll spend sleeping under the stars,” Joseph says, his eyes still closed. “One of these days is going to rain for sure.”
“That would be miserable,” Sue says.
“At least the rain would wash away some of the mud,” Kurtz says as he checks his clothes.
“Also, if our godling is kind enough to produce a sturdy axe,” Joseph says, “we could chop up suitable trees right next to the clearing.”
“I’m sure that an axe will cost you plenty of effort, given that I have to pay for it. So you’ll need to spend your energies gathering decent wood for the rest of the day.”
“Well, I’d rather collect wood or chop down trees than hunt dangerous animals,” Kurtz says, “so we can leave all the shooting to you, human. And I’m talking about animals far more dangerous than deer and the nasty spider we came across.”
Sue’s chest raises as she fills it with air.
“For a while let’s just enjoy the sun and rest for a while, alright? This life is worth very little if we can’t take a break from time to time.”
When even the dwarf lies down, I face that my break has ended. I need to wake up from my lucid dream, log off and return to my dreary reality. I have the urge to say goodbye to my new friends, but they won’t know I’m gone. I stop the game, and the VR system returns me to the hub. It’s an endless, silent grey space with only the barest mesh forming a dome over my head.
I shut off the system. My eyes are closed, but I feel myself lying on my lounge chair, as well as the weight of the VR helmet on my head. I open my eyes and face the ceiling of my dark, cramped bedroom, and I smell the dust and my own sweat. A small lamp casts light onto me and the mattress next to the chair. I left the window open, which lets the sounds of the street drift into the apartment. The usual drunks are jabbering loudly in the nearby bar, as freely as if the world belonged to them, and I guess it does. They can keep it.
I close the window and lumber to the kitchen for a glass of water. I sit at the table, drink half of the water, then freeze with the glass halfway to the table. I can’t focus my gaze. My mind is trying to organize by itself all the work I’ll have to struggle through tomorrow, possibly until three or four in the afternoon. I feel a surge of fear when I realize that I’m not sure I’ll be able to accomplish any of it.
A familiar sentiment overwhelms me: I wish I were fucking dead. I’ve never been cut out for this life, and I have no idea why I bother enduring day after day of this nonsense. I want to return to the virtual world and be with fake people who understand what it means to live a real life, or else I want to grab the nearest knife and slit my wrists.
I slam the glass against the edge of the table and watch the shards fall. I’m not thinking straight. My senses have become dulled by the soft haze of the VR world, and the sharpness of reality is overpowering. I can’t stand it anymore. I hope I’ll manage to sleep for enough hours.
I go to the bathroom and splash cold water on my face. I walk to the bedroom, I switch off the lamp, and pull the sheets off my mattress. I crawl under them. A couple of minutes after I close my eyes, when the darkness feels total, I let the tears flow for a while. There’s nothing to do except weep, and I need to empty the grief from my body before I fall asleep.
* * *
The sun of the early afternoon bathes the trees in light, while birds fly freely between the branches above us.
“So should we build a hut for each villager?” Sue asks enthusiastically.
“Our options will be limited by the amount and quality of materials we can gather,” Joseph says, “so that’s going to be a problem, even if our lord Festerbump grants us an axe.”
“And most of the valuable resources are buried,” Kurtz says. “So we’ll probably end up having to dig.”
“I’m sure you’d feel more comfortable in an underground home, but we’ll have to make do with the materials above ground.”
The three villagers keep looking around at the fallen branches and trunks we come across.
“Let me tell you an example of how not to build a house,” Kurtz says, and sighs. “This happened a few years ago in a community I used to live in. They tried to construct a building mostly out of mud bricks. We had no proper tools to dig the foundations, and as a result, when the walls weren’t yet finished, the floorboards collapsed underneath. The workers managed to salvage the construction, and a family lived there for a while, but when spring arrived, the floor gave away completely and buried them under a pile of dirt. What I mean is, we have to be extra careful if we barely know what we are doing.”
Sue grabs a fallen branch, then leans on it as she gazes thoughtfully into space.
“We’ll have that in mind,” Joseph says, “but I’m worried about getting decent lumber to begin with. Transporting logs to the clearing would be a pain. Our best option would be to chop down trees in the edge of the clearing. And that way we can use the same wood for all the huts as well.”
“I’m telling you now,” I say, “I can’t conjure an axe with the goodwill you have accumulated through your efforts, because I’ve spent too much of it. So you’ll have to focus on gathering available materials first.”
“Alright, then we’ll have to change the order in which we gather the materials. I was thinking of using straw for the roofs, and it would work as rope too. It does wonders to protect against wind, rain and snow. But we can’t make it without the stalks of cereal plants.”
“What about those rushes and reeds that are growing along the riverbank?” Sue suggests.
Joseph nods as he rubs his stubble.
“Yes, we should gather them. They will provide good insulation, and they can even be made into a basket, when we need more and lord Festerbump could use his powers for better options. The main issue is that we don’t have any tools to cut the plant stems, but I guess we can just gather them for now and rely on the axe later.”
“Let’s get to it then,” Sue says. “I don’t want to be caught in the woods when it gets darker.”
My three villagers barely speak as they head to the brook, a stretch of which passes by a kilometer or so away from the clearing. I accelerate time until they reach it, and they busy themselves gathering reeds and rushes. Sue walks with a light step as she does so, sometimes humming to herself. I can’t stop watching her. She moves with the gracefulness of a dancer. Her hair flows behind her, long and golden like wheat fields, and shining brightly in the sunlight. The men look awkward as they outstretch their arms to root out the most suitable reeds beside the stream.
I wish I had been born into Sue’s skin, or I guess into anyone like her. I might then enjoy doing things like these. I’d be useful, for a change. I suppose it’s too late for that.
When the three villagers have piled up a large number of long, slender, green reed shoots, they set out for the clearing with the load. The dwarf, who’s holding one end of the bundle of reeds, staggers at times, visibly exhausted.
They leave the reeds on the grass of the clearing, next to the pail full of water. They stand around as they recover their breath.
“Is this enough work to reward us with an axe, godling?” Kurtz asks in a sarcastic tone.
“It’s very close. I’d say that if you spend a couple of hours gathering more useful stuff, I’ll have your axe ready for tonight.”
The prospect of racking up two more hours of tiredness must have gotten to the dwarf, because his legs tremble, and he lowers himself wearily to the grass.
“Just stay here,” Sue says to him. “I’m sure Joseph and I can do the work by ourselves.”
“Alright,” the dwarf says as he fails to hide a smile of relief. “But don’t get carried away.”
Joseph and Sue scour the surroundings of the clearing, and they stack piles of suitable sticks, fallen branches and tree bark to haul them to the clearing eventually. These materials will later serve as planks, beams, roof tiles and such. By the time they decide to finish, the trunks surrounding them are blocking most of the sunlight. A breeze has picked up, and in the dimness, the branches sway in unison.
The two working villagers return to the clearing, hauling a few branches that were at hand. Joseph’s arms are scratched from the bushes and thorns. They sit down on the grass close to the dwarf, and wipe the sweat from their brows.
“That went by quick,” Kurtz says.
I bring up the interface to conjure tools.
“Hard work deserves a reward.”
In a few seconds, as the villagers wait expectantly, an axe appears on the grass in front of them. It’s made of black iron. The blade is thick, but not too wide, and ends with a small spike at the back. The handle has a grip like that of a machete.
“A mighty weapon that can cut through anything,” I say.
“It’s beautiful,” Kurtz says as he reaches out for it.
After the dwarf picks up the axe, he stands up and examines its blade. He runs his fingers along its edges, testing its sharpness.
“I can hardly believe it,” he says in a thin voice. “Just where do these tools come from?”
“From the world of the gods.”
“You have our gratitude, lord Festerbump,” Joseph says, tired.
“A thousand thanks to the great Festerbump,” Sue adds.
My villagers’ gratitude barely registers a blip in my consciousness. I feel like I’m interacting with them from behind the glass of a zoo exhibit. My mind is getting fogged up.
“I guess I can be decent enough from time to time,” I say. “I wish I could do more, though.”
The next time I look over to Kurtz, he’s taking off his shirt. The hair that covers his muscular shoulders connects with his hairy chest, and his thick brown beard flows down his powerful torso. Thankfully he’s keeping his pants.
“That’s wholly unnecessary,” I say.
“You two, follow me,” he says to the other villagers. “I’ll show you how this thing gets used.”
He walks towards the woods. Sue and Joseph stand up, and they walk behind him.
“This axe is a gift from the god of the universe, I guess,” Kurtz says as he grips the axe with both hands. “I’ve never had one before, but I just need to hold it to feel that anyone with it would be able to make a good living.”
“That may be your dwarven blood speaking,” Sue says.
“I would have rejected such a notion just days ago, but you may be right.”
A short distance away, in the woods, lies a huge tree trunk that has recently felled itself. Its branches are heavy and thick, and they spread wide. Kurtz grips the handle of the axe tightly with both hands. As he grits his teeth, he raises the axe above his head and brings the blade down with great force. A loud crack echoes. He strikes the log again and the sound of splitting wood resounds throughout the area. His muscles bulge as he swings the axe once more, then again. He has to stop every few seconds to catch his breath, but he keeps at it. The axe has carved a deep groove through the hardwood, nearly cutting through.
“Whoa,” Sue says.
Kurtz stops after the fifth or sixth swing. The axe has split the tree trunk into two pieces.
“You’ve done well, master dwarf,” Joseph says, “but I think we’d better rest for the remainder of the day. I’m sure we are all hungry.”
Kurtz nods, but he’s looking at the axe he’s wielding as if surprised of the effect that holding it has on him.
“Sure, I can leave more chopping for tomorrow,” he says. “I don’t know what happened to my body, but I feel so strong now.”
The sun sets on the horizon, casting a warm glow over the clearing. After my three villagers sit down close to the basket with berries and mushrooms, and the pail full of water, their exhaustion gets to them. Kurtz breathing sounds ragged. All of them are dirty and covered in more or less dry sweat.
They eat in a trance, gobbling the scavenged food like beasts, without any thought or emotion. The first stars begin to appear, shining like jewels, and by then, the three villagers have collapsed onto the grass. They’re asleep before they know it. Kurtz starts snoring. One of his hands is almost touching the axe, and its blade gleams dully.
I float towards Sue, who’s lying on her back, eyes closed. Her dark gold hair has spread across the grass. I stare at her pretty face for a while as I fall into a trance of my own. I wish I could sleep that peacefully. I wish I wasn’t alone in this world.
A few minutes later, I log off from the game. I need to nourish the real body I’m trapped in.
A few days ago, when I finished the previous part, I was sure I wouldn’t write again for a long while, but the next morning I started writing as soon as I prepared my coffee. My brain is a mess. However, the overall state I have fallen into has worsened; I feel that every task is unsurmountable despite any previous experience, and I just want to crawl under the sheets and sleep for weeks.
More importantly for this story, I think I’m done with it for a while. I just can’t manage to make writing it fun for me, although I’m not sure if I can make anything fun at this moment.