The Heart is a Void: Ashes to Ashes



Chapter 76: Chapter 1 Re-Write, Now More Exciting, Short and Attention-Grabbing


A note from MOROSE

"A lie will gallop halfway round the world before the truth has time to pull its breeches on."

"[F]or it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone."

The instanced field behind the Hunting Lodge, where the group were taken to practice basic Hunting skills, was filled with grey-white tall grass that turned pale in searing sunlight. It was bordered to the left by a large North-Western lake, known as Draimsa* Lake after the local word for 'nature.' As Crucis descended the stairs from the Hunting Lodge into the field, he saw that the Lodge was reflected brightly in the lake, like a rearview mirror. A few tall trees were planted in clumps across the field, along with a few short trees near the lake.

He could make out the loud sound of the Hunting Lodge's radio, playing an old song by a band named Talk Talk. The words rung out over the tall grass:

"I'm picking up again.
Well, it got too much.
After the accident,
It could feel no worse.
I turned around and saw him hit the ground.
A little earlier, it was a game,
I guess the barrier
Must have dropped away.

"I don't like to read the news,
D'you know anything I'm going through."

The radio was a game element which allowed certain buildings to play music, like a localised soundtrack. Games like this tended to avoid having a soundtrack for most areas, but selectively-added music could still be an easy way to convey ambience or pathos to a player. The physical radio simply consisted of a black box with the name of a song and its artist imprinted on it. Most bars and lobbies had one. The Hunting Lodge's soundtrack mostly consisted of slightly old-fashioned music from the 1900s**, ranging from Elvis to AOR.

The group of players was led by an NPC named [Stevo] towards a tall, twisted tree with a black-brown bark. Stevo was a grizzled, middle-aged man with brown hair and large sideburns. Although he typically spoke in a British accent, he spoke with a slight Australian accent when he was enthusiastic. He also broke the fourth wall with gusto.

"There's always these people in towns and cities talking about how, y'know, hunters are all just a club of violent, angry, ignorant fellows, or vicious animal-haters. Have you met any? What they're saying, it's a myth. In fact, it's contrary to the first rule of hunting. What's the first rule? We don't talk about hunting! Nah, I kid, I kid. But the art of hunting isn't about anger, it's about understanding the way of nature, so that you can move freely in the wild.

"So what is the first rule, or should I say paradox, of hunting? The most compulsive hunters are also some of the people most attuned to nature and sympathetic towards it. And that's not just hunters like us, who come here to escape the cities. Plenty of people in 'primitive' societies, where hunting was an important part of their lives, were highly reverent towards nature and hunted in inventive ways because they lived close to nature. Why is this? The skillful hunter didn't learn by simply approaching nature with aggression and contempt, rather they came to understand it more than most.

"So try to remain calm and observant. Are you alright with this?"

As Stevo waited to see the group's reaction, Gastlem replied, "That's interesting, could you explain further?"

Stevo nodded. "You guys are fighters, yes? It's like a sword. Some people will try all sorts of flashy moves with a sword. But what makes a sword dangerous is not flashy moves, it's the nature of the sword: it is a deadly, sharp weapon. A good swordsman can use simple-looking maneouevres, without dancing, and still be effective because they understand the sword. Animals are like this swordsman, despite apparent simplicity they are responding to nature's way. If a cat falls on its back during a fight, it might look foolish, but it is actually lining up its natural weapons: claws and teeth. A camouflaged animal lives its life capitalising on this natural trait. You should learn from the animals, and from nature.

"Hence, before we practice hunting directly, it is instructive to look at tree-climbing. It is an instance where understanding the tree is paramount."

He leapt up the nearby tree and nonchalantly, as if by habit, caught hold of two strong, low branches. He appeared accustomed to this tall, dark tree. As he scaled it, carefully placing his feet into small, barely-perceptible gaps in the tree bark, he circled around the twisting tree in order to find sturdy branches for support.

From below, the twisting of the tree made his climb look even more daunting to the gathering of inexperienced climbers, by making the tree look like a series of unknown challenges which he had to ford. Every turn of the tree looked like a new difficulty, and each one that the climber bypassed made his spiralling ascent more impressive.

After a minute, he placed a rope carefully around a high branch, then climbed his way lightly down through the branches before rappeling down. He turned to address the group.

"The easiest way to climb without equipment is to use trees with low, sturdy branches. You follow along the branches, and carefully scan the tree for footholds, okay? In the end, the better your sense for the tree, the more easily you will be able to figure out a good way up. You have now unlocked the [Branch Climb] passive skill, but your familiarity with it is low. Would anyone like to try climbing some of the lower branches on this tree?"

Starfighter volunteered, but Stevo turned him down with a smile and said that Starfighter was too familiar with tree-climbing and he would rather someone new.

Instead, the slightly frail-looking French-Canadian, Gastlem, volunteered and walked up to the tree. Conversing on the way to the Lodge, Crucis had learned that Gastlem was a former philosophy student who came from a rural family. His English was slightly basic, since he natively spoke French, and he spoke a bit slowly. Due to the recent economic crisis, Gastlem had been forced to interrupt his studies in order to return to his parents' farm and assist. Gastlem had decent experience with climbing trees in his hometown, but Crucis could see his slight hesitation as he adjusted to climbing trees in this game.

After a short delay, Gastlem grabbed a firm-looking branch on the twisted tree, and placed his right foot in a small hole on the trunk. Lifting himself up, his body aligned with the tree. Grabbing a higher branch, he looked for a good foothold to climb. Finding a depression on the trunk, he tried to place his left foot into it, but as he tried to lift himself he found the branches too weak to support his ascent. As such, he stalled slightly, and Stevo told him to slow down.

"Feel the trees' branches, get a feel for them. They might look deceptively firm, but you can't just go by that."

Stevo turned towards the gathered players on the ground.

"You should see a level next to your Hunting skill tree named [Tree Sense]. If you're new, it should be at level 1.

"By climbing trees, and then performing tasks such as hunting tree dens or pouncing on creatures below, you can develop your [Tree Sense]. Until level 4, climbing trees by itself is enough to develop. 25 is max. As it develops, you will become better climbers, and have a clearer indicator of the trees' structure and where to climb. But to truly develop your skill, you have to, well, 'be the tree,' your movements should near-instinctively follow the structure of the tree. Then you will make the most of whatever info you have, a level 3 [Tree Sense] with skill could outdo a level 8 on most trees."

The audience nodded. Gastlem had spent this time studying the tree and plotting a way up, so he carefully hoisted himself on a large branch opposite him on the tree, then twisted his body ably around like a spider until he had risen onto the other side of the tree. He then placed one foot on a branch, and scurried up the tree through a web of firm branches. He was by now about six metres high. However, as he attempted to go higher, he found that his feet were entangled in the branches, and the tree's trunk was curving steeply away from him.

"Well done," said Stevo, clapping lightly. The rest of the group joined in with brief applause.

Stevo directed Gastlem to kneel down across the trunk and disentangle his legs, then circle around the tree to a side with less branches where Gastlem leapt off. During the quick descent, Gastlem's calf took a slight cut from a jutting, curved branch which he had overlooked, but he still reached the ground safely.

Stevo patted him on the back, then turned to the group. "You did well, Gastlem. Now, the rest of you, use the trees around here for some practice. No need to go too high, stick to a height where you can easily leap down. I'll go to my hut quickly and get some supplies to hand to your group leader."

Crucis found a pale tree by the lake with low-hanging branches, and caught hold of its branches. The bark was flat, and seemed to have few footholds except near the bottom. He carefully tested the branches, then withdrew a small [Chair Corner Piece] stolen from the teachers in Mokra. It was a long, straight pole attached to a jutting-out horizontal wooden bar that was probably meant to be crafted into the side of a chair. He propped this against the side of the tree, then began to climb casually on it using a firm branch and a low foothold on the tree. From here, it would typically be difficult to climb higher across the flat trunk.

However, he used a hand to stabilise the [Chair Corner Piece], then placed a foot onto its horizontal bar and used this to vault steadily upwards towards the branches. He curled his right leg against one branch, and used his left hand to grab a higher branch as the rest of his body leaned against the tree trunk for support. Finding himself secure, he climbed his way across a few thick branches, and saw that his [Tree Sense] had grown to level 2. As he hoisted himself across the branches, he soon found himself swinging towards the trunk slightly dangerously, as one of the branches he was perching on came slightly loose. At this stage of [Tree Sense], it was difficult to spot such branches which were, though thick, slightly shaky under any pressure.

He eased himself down across a few branches, then carefully leapt down the tree. He took a scratch near the knee from the tree trunk as he descended. Without being used to this game's trees, it could be difficult to judge the descent.

Stevo noticed that he had made a successful climb, and came up to him to offer further advice.

"Congrats, now you can move on to [Trunk Climbing]. You've probably seen kids doing it. You have to wrap yourself around the trunk, then make your way up. Then you can climb without branches." Stevo walked up to a branchless tree near the entrance of the field, then wrapped his hands around a rough part of it. "This is how it should look at your level of the skill."

He placed the balls of his feet onto the trunk, then suspended himself against the tree. Carefully feeling his way up, he shimmied his right arm up the trunk followed by his right leg. After repeating this for his left leg, he called down with a hint of impatience, "Eventually, you'll be able to just leap up the tree. It's like flying! I'll show you."

He carefully pushed both of his arms upwards, then leapt softly with his legs, remaining suspended from the tree as his legs came to rest at a higher position. He did this a couple of times, then leapt down casually.

"Alright, try out the basic method."

Crucis nodded, and after a few tries he managed to get his feet onto the tree safely and clamber slowly up. The tree seemed slippery at first, but eventually he figured out where he could safely wrap his hands in order to balance from the tree. His tree sense had by now nearly developed to level 3.

As Stevo led other players over to the trunkless tree, Crucis saw Gastlem resting by the lake after also climbing this tree. Crucis got out of the way of the approaching players, and went to chat with Gastlem.

Gastlem was still interested by Stevo's earlier speech. "So, the guy said that hunters have reverence for nature. I was told that there were a lot of debates over hunting, and even though it became a craze of late it wasn't really popular among students at my uni. It's not a subject that I went into too deeply, though. What do you think?"

"I mean, even if you look at the recent hunting craze, it's not because people suddenly hate animals. It's because they feel isolated from nature, and want to experience the wild. As the economy weakened, city life began to feel suffocating or depressing to them," Crucis said.

He paused for a moment, then continued. "As for the rest, well, Stevo's mostly right, the motivations behind hunting are complex. From a practical perspective, sure, everything here is in the firing line, but animals are a bit different. Say, as an image, that you drop a flaw into an animal and then into a human, the latter will ripple until it's an ideology, a philosophy, a way of life and the whole parade, the former will ripple much less. If you make an enemy of both, then you'd want to kill the latter more as their enmity ripples, and with the former it's no rush and they may not even care.

"People talk about the nobility of humans, them being in the image of God, etc. That's just religious talk, but provides little clarity. They can have ideology or religion, but make an enemy of one - intentionally or not - and you'll typically see all of that ideology, feeling, religion, whatever, turned against you even if you were God himself. Is man nobler because he is not only corrupt and stupid, but he fervently believes in his corruption and stupidity, nay, makes a religion of it? An animal might fight back and then ignore you or run away, but what of man? Their enmity is a piece of work, it 'evolves' through all sorts of exotic, ideological forms, they write their shallowness onto the roots of the tree of life while animals are content to just climb up and down, and if they're your enemy then so is their 'nobility.'"

"Oui. In fact, it's often said by historical philosophers or theologists that humans can be potentially better than most animals, but potentially also worse, to simplify. I think it's a fairly common theme."

Crucis emulated Gastlem's contemplative tone. "In a sense. An animal's natural advantage may be camouflage, but it will use this. A human's natural advantage is supposedly 'thought,' but most humans do not care for this or actively flee from it. And, well, thought would require exertion in the first place, camouflage mostly just requires adaptation. So it's easy for humans to be despicable, but animals typically do little to earn malice."

"I mean, yeah, I don't tend to mind killing animals, it's necessary sometimes out on the farm, but it's not that thrilling. It's more like solving a puzzle."

"Exactly. But there's still worth to hunting, you'll get a better feel for nature here and hence for our own predicament. Besides, the animals here have started to behave slightly more 'naturally,' but they're still arranged by the demands of a p2w game with all kinds of errors, so even if they adapt to the nature of this place then it's likely to leave them a bit perverse. We'd always have to cull some of the flock and rearrange the game's 'ecosystems' somewhat, it will take quite some force to twist nature back into shape. You're clever, so think about how this could be done in DeathGang territory. But animals have stats and so on here, quite like us, I wonder if there's some way to communicate with them based on these common traits."

"I'll try to figure the fauna out on our territory, good idea. If we can get some rare or high-level creatures from the East to move into our territory, and not overhunt them, then we should be in better shape and can get some valuable drops. But there's a few types of large, mole-like creatures who are natural predators to most rare animals, yet who are themselves prone to disease, drop little of worth, and mostly lay ill in their dens until prey appears. But with more hunting skills we'll be able to smoke them out and kill them more often."

"Good idea. Do you have any clue why the game would spread these strange creatures around?"

"Well, if I had to guess? Since whales, that is, big spenders have a higher chance of encountering rare animals, the rare animals have to be kept away from other players so that they can be shuffled towards whales."

"Ah, that would make sense. How did you figure out the encounter rate issue?"

"Darys had a bunch of people walk down the same forest path while fetching materials, but then he found that 90% of spenders - 100% of bigger ones - ran into the rare [Grey-Eyed Deer] along this path, and no freeplayers did. We confirmed it with a few other Guilds, who verified it with a GM. That was early on, when most Guilds were still getting used to the game and not going on moral crusades against us."

"I see. Yeah, it's probably best to get your Guild up to speed on hunting, then start going after the mole creatures en masse."

"Those guys are slippery. But yeah, we'll figure something out. Are you planning to join DeathGang?"

"At the moment, I can't. I'll figure things out as that's fixed. All kinds of stuff has changed over a few days, including people moving out of Kruxol, we'll see how things pan out and if we're near DeathGang territory if and when Guild sign-ups work. "

"That's fair enough, I guess. "

Some of the group were still queuing up to climb the branchless tree, and a few were having difficulty with it.

"Sorry that this conversation has gone on for a while -"

"No, it's no problem," Crucis interrupted. "It's enjoyable. If anyone is overhearing, maybe they'll get bored to death because they were hoping for something exciting. Well, I mean, good. It's a creative ganking method."

"Alright. Well, after the war, I was thinking about the Guild. People in town called Darys a monster, but I'm familiar with him, he tends to enjoy art and talks about old ghazals. He also helped many of us adapt when we came over from another game. Isn't there some complexity to the matter?"

"There's usually complexity to the matter. Several figures are called 'pure evil,' yet even if 'evil' they have several distinct traits which don't fit into this rubric. Hitler fought for his nation in World War I, went to prison for his beliefs, indeed on the side he even loved his dog and promoted vegetarianism. His anger and fervour gave Germans hope in the ruins of World War I and Versailles, which was part of his appeal, and he attacked what he characterised as egoistic, money-grubbing tendencies. Despite his flaws, it's quite a contrast to Yeltsin. Most serial killers have several stranger, exotic beliefs, often with erotic themes. Does that make them inconceivable? Not at all, if anything it is realistic.

"They are like islands in rough seas, sand and flora tossed and turned by the movement of the storm. People want to see in Hitler a paragon of evil, they will not find such a 'paragon.' They should not expect to. Evil is destructive, and the idols it builds qua 'evil' are crumbling ones. And yet it still remains there, constructing and disposing of its own idols, it is not necessarily destroyed itself. Why? Well, 'evil' is something that is defined negatively, it is not something that is known. It's like the top of Wittgenstein's ladder. Morality is a quest to find out 'why,' and at this point it must be silent. Evil is often a light that is hidden to the moral, but still it shines."

"I like the comparison of Wittgenstein. Yes, maybe that's a point. The people are still dreaming in the town about the successful war on evil, many are drunk. They don't want to wake up, so they are even more angry about the war, they can't see us. But then there are also the town's mischief-makers, they get drunk and give speeches about DeathGang, say they're defying us by getting drunk and we'll cry because of how happy they are. These clowns, truly Nietzschean, beyond good and evil. They claim to be good guys, but how can we take it seriously when it's just a license to get drunk and party? Some of them stumbled onto a road into our territory right after the war, on a mock-Crusade, they were so drunk that could barely fight."

"Ah yes, the American Jesus on the interstate. Kierkegaard was onto something when he defined evil in terms of limitation, as a result of popular 'mediocrity.' He was a wise man. Now, if 'evil' is defined like that, then it's not a wholly moral category, but more of a natural one. But people don't want to think of evil like that, they want to live in degeneracy while attacking anyone who stands out or stands aside."

"Well, we stand by aside Kruxol. And it's wise. When invasions come, town-dwellers will be forced automatically to fight them. We will not be penned in like that to Kruxol."

There was a loud shout from the East of the field, where Stevo was calling the group together. Crucis and Gastlem joined the rest of the group, scurrying towards the sound.

Stevo led the group over to a large, wooden box, with a hole as an entrance. He began to speak.

"Now, traps. You've probably heard stories where some sailors take refuge on an island, only to find out that the island is a sea monster? Yeah, same logic. The animal is walking down a familiar path, or they're exiting their den. Then - wham! - a trap shuts, they're in a box or a cage. You can use traps casually, but you'll be much better if you research the animals' habits, find their dens, find places where they frequently run through. So one of you please volunteer to be the animal in this demonstration. Imagine that the box is your home, or a familiar building, then walk on in."

Akshel volunteered. "This game is a trap, I'm probably used to being trapped by now," he quipped, to a few laughs.

However, as he walked calmly into the wooden box, he was still slightly surprised by the loud, grating, metallic sound of a door slamming shut across the hole.

"Alright, now we kill 'im," Stevo joked. "But seriously, some people will just leave a trap out in the open, that's often a wasted trap. You should figure out the animal's habits, and the trap itself. A snare, for instance, you probably want the animal to pull that shut. So how are you going to get the animal to push through it, so that it ties around 'em? You could place it in the undergrowth, somewhere that animals will push through habitually. But you'll have to figure that out, mate."

He hoisted the door open, allowing Akshel out.

"But you want the easiest targets? You find common paths used by animals, or you find their dens. If you stake out the area outside their den, you can strike them as they emerge. The trap is like a praying mantis, if you set it up right, so it won't be noticed until it's triggered."

After telling the group that they had finished their basic training, but could come up to him for further training or information later, he led them over to the East of this field, which was fenced. There was a small, thatched-roof hut here, which he pointed at.

"That's my house!" he said. "Alright, nah, it's where I stay for research about the lake, Hunting Lodge told me not to keep coming in when I'm soaking wet after wrestling lake animals, y'know?"

He was startled as a loud, violent crashing noise rang out from next to one of the tables in the hut.

"The hut has a door to the forest up North, hope some critter hasn't snuck in from there, wouldn't be the first time."

With a spear drawn, Stevo crept quietly into the dark hut. He quickly cast [Conjure Light], cupping his palm to focus a ray of light at a small shape under the table. In the light, a small, grey pigeon sat transfixed and unmoving in spite of the impending spear.

Seeing that it was just a pigeon, Stevo dispelled the light and shooed it away. The pigeon noisily flew away into the Northern trees.

"The light keeps them still sometimes, you've maybe heard of something like this with deer," Stevo said. "I don't know with pigeons, I'd guess it might be hard for them to escape if the light blinds them. As for deer, they'll even freeze up as a protection mechanism, since predators like big cats sense them by motion. Speaking of predators, there's still a few to the North of the reservation, we haven't cleared 'em all out yet. So be careful, keep slightly South. Even if the predators have orange names, they could be man-eaters, and those will still attack you. Anyway, let's get you back to the Hunting Lodge, you can learn the rules and regulations before going on your way, I don't know 'em to be quite honest."

The group walked into the Hunting Lodge. Most of the DeathGang members walked up a flight of stairs in order to avoid notice, but Crucis, Gastlem, Konstantin and Vladimir stayed in the large lobby as Gastlem made arrangements for the group's expedition.

The lobby was formed from cylinders of dark wood, and had a few trees peeking in through the roof. The radio had changed to a song by Peter McIan named 'Light In Your Eyes,' with the chorus, 'Girl, you've got that light in your eyes.'

Scanning the area, Crucis saw that there was a long wooden corridor on the left end of the lobby, leading to an adjoining building which had a hammer sign outside it. This probably led to a room for blacksmithing.

Vladimir turned to Crucis and politely said, "Konstantin and I had to write poem for English class here, but our English is not so good. Can you help with?"

"Sure," Crucis said with a smile.

"Alright, here is mine. It needs two more line. Ignore the last part, am not submitting that!" Vladimir jovially showed Crucis a crumpled piece of paper containing a poem on it, and Crucis saw that many words had been crossed out during the writing.

Here is green feeld thik
with blak bush on fire
it wispers abot magic
what it say is lies

but stil a man kneeling
in front of bush will pray
to get power of magic
insted he will be dead.

His magic staff is snake
and its venom is kill.



My class was killed by bear,
But I wasn't there,
Insted I go hunt with Konstantin,
Hope it will be more fun.

Crucis said, "This seems good, but even if you don't know some of words, the game has a lot of words everywhere. Check menus, books, items. You can copy the spelling from there, or even some phrases for the two extra lines. I'll look over it and help soon, but if you make most changes, maybe is less suspicious. If too different from your usual writing, they will be suspicious."

Vladimir smiled industriously, and began looking through his menu and amending the poem. "This is cheating, but will do it! Can be useful."

Crucis shrugged. "If you want to do something, then maybe don't cheat. If someone else wants you to do something, then go ahead and cheat."

A note from MOROSE

* pronounced 'drah-him-sah.'

** Yes, this also includes Rick Astley's 'Never Gonna Give You Up,' although sadly our protagonist did not get to listen to this song during the course of this Chapter. It is because the Chapter is too short and snappy. We are fully committed to this modus operandi.

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