In Norse cosmology, it was the world tree, rooted deep in the earth and stretching to the heavens, uniting the nine worlds with its majestic branches. Heaven unfolded around it, the gods gathered around it, and it was the centerpiece of all creation.
In the real world, it was a DMMO-RPG, which rose from many game servers and extended into the minds of its millions of players. Yet it was more than a game; it was more like a digital multiverse, containing nine virtual worlds of fantastic creatures and landscapes.
The YGGDRASIL developers wanted to inculcate the love of exploration into its players, and so they filled their worlds with beautiful vistas, secret locations and other impressive sights, in the hopes of enticing players to plumb the mysteries of the world they had made. In addition, they took a hands-off approach to player activities, affording them almost limitless freedom in their actions within the game world. Together, these two factors meant that players could experience the game in any way they liked.
Even the process of creating one's player character was a complex minigame in itself, seeing as one had hundreds of player races and thousands of character classes to choose from. Just about every sort of species and role was reflected in that selection, and the way that the character-building system was set up practically forced players to diversify and experiment with the way in which they made their avatars. As such, the most bizarre entities of YGGDRASIL were often not the monsters, but the players themselves.
However, like any good game, it was not a static thing of code. The lack of official oversight meant that players formed their own communities and cliques, which in turn made them more meaningful to the people who had made them. In addition, there were readily-available creator tools on the cash shop. Those allowed players to create and upload their own content, thus allowing them to shape their characters and little corners of the world to their liking. In this sense, it was the players and not the developers who were the true makers of YGGDRASIL, much like how a city was as much the people as the buildings in which they lived.
With all these factors in mind, was there any wonder why YGGDRASIL was the most popular DMMO-RPG of its generation? Anybody could hook up their cortex bridge or nanotrode net and immediately enter a world of fantasy, beyond the banal reality of daily life. It was a place where even the lowest dregs of society could wield world-shattering firepower, where people could recreate a blue and pure world lost to the grinding gears of industry, or where those who loved ancient shows of masked heroes could indulge their desires to jump in and save the day.
Yes, YGGDRASIL was a shared dream, born from the hearts and minds of those who made it and those who played it.
But like all dreams, it had to come to an end.
Asgard - The Upper Boughs
Each of the nine worlds of Norse mythology were represented in YGGDRASIL; fiery Muspelheim, fertile Midgard, gloomy Helheim, but there were more realms than that within the game. There was Valhalla, a waiting area where players scheduled PVP matches which would in turn be fought on the Plains of Vígríðr. One could compare the spacious void where all players logged in to Ginnungagap, the primordial abyss of ice and fire.
Naturally, the World Tree Yggdrasil qualified as a world unto itself. It stood as tall as a mountain, at the heart of every realm, where it served as an axis mundi -- a connection between the heavens and the earth. Only, in this case, it connected each of the nine worlds, from dreary Hel to soaring Asgard.
Anyone who touched its surface and used the appropriate skill (freely available to anyone who wanted to learn it) would be transported to a corresponding location on their destination world. This skill cost no MP or money or experience to learn, so in theory, it seemed like an ideal transportation method.
In practice, most players preferred to use spells or magic items for inter-world travel.
This was because travelling via Yggdrasil meant that one had to be in its vicinity. Many PKers -- especially those in the more heteromorph-friendly realms such as Niflheim or Helheim -- enjoyed setting ambushes near Yggdrasil and attacking disoriented travellers. Granted, Yggdrasil had a large footprint in all the worlds and there was no guarantee that they would be attacked, but high-level players often had high-level equipment they were attached to, and those articles of gear would drop if they were killed. Thus, many people preferred to use [Plane Shift] to cross over to another world, and then [Greater Teleport] to get where they needed to be.
Of course, not everyone did that. Some players were too low level to afford or cast the necessary spells. Others were roleplayers, who felt that making use of a facility which the developers had provided for them was a flavorful and fun act.
It was probably for the latter reason that the white-clad figure appeared out of thin air, one hand on the dark bark of Yggdrasil.
The other held a staff before it in a defensive stance. It was made of some kind of golden metal and terminated in an eight pointed sunburst with an eye motif in its center. Its body language was so expressive that one could imagine the grim set of its jaw and the intensity of the gaze under the golden mask it wore.
Alertness. Focus. Readiness.
If someone or something attacked it here, they would not find a defenseless mark.
However, there was no attack. The white-clad figure turned its head, and then its line of sight settled on a motionless stag that seemed curiously at home on the branches of a giant tree.
A distorted snort came from beneath the mask, and then it visibly relaxed.
The stag -- actually a low-level monster called a Child of Dvalinn -- was not moving because it, like all monsters in the game -- had been put on standby mode for the last day of the game. In all likelihood, there was virtually no chance of ambushers hiding around either. The figure's detection spells revealed nothing, and in all likelihood any potential attackers were having fun elsewhere.
The figure straightened up and sighed, the sound coming out as a heavily-modulated voice which sounded like that of a girl's.
"Well, it was only to be expected. The biggest party in YGGDRASIL's happening now; why would anyone try to bushwhack me? Then again, there might be no life kings who just want to make people suffer, even on the last day of the game..."
As its words trailed off, the figure removed its mask, revealing the face of a young lady.
She had long raven hair that she fluffed out by shaking her head. Her skin was a light gray, freckled with black. She was pretty in every sense of the word... well, except for her eye.
Yes, singular. She had only one eye; a big one with a golden sclera that occupied the center of her head, with a vertically slitted red pupil.
Her name was Hitomi Kousen.
In YGGDRASIL, players could pick their character races from three broad groups: the humanoids, the demihumans and the heteromorphs.
Humanoids, as the name suggested, were human-looking races such as dwarves, elves and, of course, humans. They were beings who were most commonly featured as the main characters or supporting cast of a fantasy story. Unlike the other racial groupings, they did not have access to racial classes, but that simply meant that they could take more job classes to compensate.
Then, there were the demihumans, who were races that were still roughly human-looking, but possessed distinctive -- perhaps even monstrous -- features that set them apart from the humanoids. Giants, pixies and trolls were all examples of demihumans. They were either much bigger or smaller than the norm, lived in more hostile regions, or simply looked different.
One thing they all had in common was their access to racial classes, which represented character power that was innate to their bodies and natural talents, as opposed to job classes, which typically represented learned skills. Of course, one acquired them the same way -- by gaining experience points -- but they embodied different play styles.
In general, racial classes gave a steady, always-on power boost, while job classes instead granted potent but limited-use abilities which had to be carefully managed, though skilful application of class abilities could often turn the tide in a dire situation.
In the case of demihumans, they could take levels in racial classes to represent the fact that many demihumans had special abilities which humanoids did not possess, or to show that they were offshoots or mutations of their base race. Trolls were infamous for that; it was often said that there was a troll for every occasion, but there were almost as many variants of giants too, ranging from the comparatively small hill giants to the towering storm giants.
Of course, taking levels in racial classes meant that they could take fewer levels in job classes, but some players enjoyed the idea of being large and in charge, or being able to regenerate, or simply being able to turn invisible and make others dance irresistibly. YGGDRASIL was big enough to accommodate the hopes and dreams of such players.
And then, there were the heteromorphs.
The heteromorphic races in YGGDRASIL could rightfully be called "monstrous player characters". That was because they were, in fact, monsters. There was no iconic selection of heteromorphic species, because one might as well open up the almanac that every player started the game with and randomly flip to a page in the bestiary to find a heteromorphic player character race.
Much like demihumans, heteromorphs had racial classes. Unlike demihumans, theirs were far more potent and varied; in fact, one could compare them to job classes in terms of their depth and variety. Where a magic caster's job classes might go from Wizard to Evoker to Elementalist (Fire), a dragon's racial classes might instead progress from Wyvern to Red Dragon to Hellfire Wyrm. Since most heteromorphs were based on powerful monsters, their racial class levels often granted very high base stats and potent special abilities. However, since YGGDRASIL was a game which balanced advantages with disadvantages, they tended to have corresponding weaknesses as well, such as vulnerabilities to a certain energy or damage type.
Hitomi was one such creature.
Specifically, she was a Gazer. Strictly speaking, she was a higher order of being than an ordinary Gazer, but Gazers were easier to pronounce. They were members of the Floating Eyeball family, which were famous for three things; spherical bodies which flew without the need for wings, many eyestalks, and the ability to emit powerful eye rays.
However, she did not fit the standard body pattern of Gazer-type monsters, because in her own words, "I don't want to look like a floating mass of cancer". Thus, she had used a cash item to change her look, and as a result she had lost the big toothy maw she had originally possessed, though she had retained the eyestalks and natural flight abilities.
As she adjusted her robes, said eyestalks emerged from behind her and through her long, flowing hair, seemingly anchored on her back where a tail would have been attached. They were the same black as her hair, but seemingly made of some sort of segmented, chitinous material. They swiftly arranged themselves all around her, and then their ends flowered open into eyeballs surrounded by an arrangement of petal-like black leaves. Each of them looked like a smaller version of Hitomi's main eye, and they served the same function.
From Hitomi's perspective, ten small windows appeared at the edges of her vision. Each one corresponded to the view supplied by an individual eyestalk, and when put together they allowed Hitomi to see (to some extent) all around her.
Currently, all she saw was the massive branches of the World Tree all around her. The faint sounds of festivity and merry-making filtered up from below, and she remembered why she had come here.
Two weeks ago, the developers had extended an invitation to all players to gather at the Plain of Iðavöllr in YGGDRASIL, at the feet of Yggdrasil, to celebrate the end of the game. Initially, Hitomi had ignored it; she had never been a very social player, after all. However, as the days wore on and the reality of the game's closure sank in, she had changed her mind.
For quite some time now, she had explored and adventured in the game by herself, using summoned monsters and mercenary NPCs for support. She did not actually need them to do what she wanted, but having them around had saved her from more than one ambush, and she could always send them out of the way when she wanted to enjoy the scenery by herself.
But it had never felt right. Knowing that someone was around her built an expectation for companionship, but the fact that the summoned monsters and NPCs could not respond to anything she said dashed that hope. In fact, it only made the feeling of loneliness worse; when people around did not react to her, it was not just solitude she felt, but something like rejection.
Of course, on an intellectual level, she understood the absurdity of how she felt. However, a person's emotions operated in an entirely different mental sphere, and she could not explain that away with any amount of logic.
Thus, when she had packed up from her Muspelheim hideout and come here, she had reached a decision: She would try and spend the last night of YGGDRASIL with others, in the hope of experiencing something she had not felt in a long time:
Hitomi had not always been a solo player. In the past, she had even belonged to a clan. But due to her foolishness, she had said things that should not have been said and done things which were irrevocable. She had left that clan, and it was far too late to regret her foolish decision.
That was the start of her days as an independent adventurer. Then she met some people who seemed friendly enough. They asked her to join them while she was languishing in solitude, and she accepted. However, after spending some time with them, she realised that they were nothing like the clan she had once adventured with, and thus she had left.
After that, she had kept to herself for the most part. She might have partied up with people farming a dungeon, or join in on World-Class Enemy fights, but she never affiliated with any particular grouping of adventurers again. After wronging others and being wronged herself, she had come to the conclusion that being in a group was not for her.
Yet, emptiness remained in Hitomi's heart. She tried to fill it with accomplishments and achievements. She travelled far and wide across the nine worlds, bedecked herself in a panoply of jaw-dropping wonders, claimed one of the legendary World-Class Items, amassed a huge pile of wins in the PVP circuit and through personal PKing, completed difficult dungeons by herself (and a few NPC party-stuffers), challenged fearsome bosses and monsters... she had done all those things that would need an adventuring group by herself.
She held on to the hope of recapturing the same sense of achievement that she had felt in the past.
But she had not. And the reason for that was obvious. The line of reasoning which fuelled her motivation was fundamentally flawed.
The whole point of accomplishing something in a team, of banding together in dire circumstances to achieve a goal through mutual effort, was that one was doing it in a team. There had to be people around to banter and joke with, to point out things that one would never have thought of, sharing joy and sorrow in a meeting of minds and hearts.
For all that Hitomi had tried to replicate the form of the thing, she had utterly failed to capture its essence. And because of that, no matter what she did, that hollow sensation remained within her; a feeling of it's just not the same and there must be something more.
If faces in YGGDRASIL could show expressions, perhaps one might see hers droop in dejection as that realization slowly sank in.
Only now, at the end, do I understand.
Nothing she had done meant anything without people to share them with. Those days, the ones when she had been happiest, were gone forever.
That point was only driven further home when she came to the edge of the branch she stood upon, and looked down upon the merrymakers below.
A quick glance at the time revealed: [11:53:49].
The Plain of Iðavöllr spread below her, bathed in the light of the full moon above. There were several large pyres below, turning the people around them into elongated, dancing shadows.
Most of the people down there were humans or human-like creatures. They fired off cash item fireworks and other novelty items with wild abandon (they would be useless after tonight, after all). They flashed weird emoticons at each other, sharing strange jokes which rocked their groups with laughter, and so on.
GMs flitted between the groups, taking pictures and making amusing changes to people; an otherwise unthinkable abuse of power, forgiven because they would soon cease to matter.
But when she looked closer, there were also creatures like goblins, orcs and giants sharing in the festivities with them. Dwarves, the mortal enemies of the jotunn, rode on giant shoulders, while orcs and elves line-danced in the firelight, to the accompaniment of satyrs' pan pipes. Beings which would normally have killed each other on sight instead joined hands in the twilight hours of the game.
Further away, there was a gelatinous cube bouncing halflings up and down its polymorphic surface, while a graveknight posed for pictures with the clerics and paladins who should have destroyed it. Hitomi even saw a gazer -- like herself, but untransformed -- giving rides to and shaking eyestalks with people.
I should go down there, she thought. And indeed, she had already stepped off the edge of the branch, preparing to descend through the power of her innate flight abilities... but then she stopped.
It was true that she might be welcomed if she stepped into the firelight. Even if there were old enemies present, they would probably let bygones be bygones in the last few minutes of the game.
But she knew that deep inside, she would not feel comfortable there. She had avoided contact with others for so long that any attempt at pretending to fit in would be just that -- pretending. There would be no connection there, none of the emotional involvement she sought. Worse, seeing others revel in their friendship and realizing that it would never be hers would hurt even more.
Thus, instead of descending, she rose, flying on silent wings.
She did not put her mask on, because she did not care who saw her. She returned her staff to her inventory, because she did not intend to fight.
Hitomi's eye looked up to the disc of the moon as she ascended.
It was now [11:54:33]
Seeing the moon up there brought back an old memory... a dream, perhaps. The desire to soar in the skies above Asgard, and look down upon the world in all its glory.
Her old group had fallen apart after she left it, so by the time she regretted her mistake and thought to ask for forgiveness, it was too late. All she had left were the faded memories of bygone days.
Hitomi smiled. Those had been good times.
Maybe that's why I did this, she thought. At the very least, I can fulfil one last wish before everything is over.
One thing they had always wanted to do was fly over Asgard and look down upon the world from its highest point. But dungeons and other obligations kept getting in the way, and then she had fucked up and that was the end of it.
Nothing she could do now could bring those days -- or those friends -- back, but she had long resigned herself to that fact. She knew this was an empty gesture, but she wanted to make it regardless.
Even so, Hitomi made a wish upon that star.
I wish I could experience those days again.
It was foolishness, she knew. There was no shooting star to begin with, and even if there was, what were the odds that a distant astronomical phenomena could warp reality on her behalf?
Despite her attempts to rationalize it away, however, the hope -- the prayer -- in Hitomi's heart remained.
She looked down, and gasped. Asgard was every bit as beautiful as she had imagined. Perhaps the shroud of night had covered up parts of the scenery, but points of light danced in the darkness like fireflies; signs of life and activity, dusting the landscape that was gently lit by the glow of the moon.
Everyone, it's beautiful, she thought. I wonder if you managed to see something like this on your own.
Trails of sparks rose from the ground as that thought crossed Hitomi's mind. She focused on them --- not hard, considering the visual acuity of gazers -- and saw that they were fireworks. Some of them seemed to be heading right at her, and she wondered - are they aiming for me?
Not that it mattered. Everything would be over soon.
It was almost a relief.
Hitomi closed her eyes, counting down the moments to midnight, and the server shutdown. The soft thump of bursting comet shells came from beneath her, and she knew more would follow.