Li opened his eyes to a whole different reality - Elden World. He stood in the midst of a wondrous garden that would never have been possible in the real world.
Flowers and ferns and vines and herbs of all kinds and colors and shapes dotted the garden, organized into neat little square patches walled with gold-engraved marble. Rustic, worn and beaten dirt paths ran around and joined each patch, forming into a neat grid that connected every grove to the other.
Gurgling from flowing water echoed through the air. The water trickled from fountains placed in the center of each garden grove, their forms carved from snow white alabaster and shaped into the maws of wondrous beasts.
Here was Li's greatest work. His time and passion manifested. His blood, sweat, and tears over five years crystallized. His guild – the Arboretum. He was currently located in the Inner Sanctum, the most important and central location of the guild. It was meeting place for the guild's executives, the treasury, and Li's garden all in one.
Over the years, he had gathered the rarest types of plants in Elden World and planted them here. These were plants that could be fashioned into the highest tier of crafting materials and certain coveted Celestial-class items required these unique materials to create. Many of these plants were also the only ones of their kind, won from one-time events or auctions that Li had paid no small price to obtain in both effort and money.
Li looked to the horizon. Tall trees rose up almost like gate walls. They were twisted and gnarly with the faces of what seemed to be agonized humans etched into their bark. Beyond them was an entire forest of these haunting trees - the Medial Sanctum.
Arboretum's structure was that of a concentric circle with three layers. The Inner Sanctum where Li currently stood was the smallest and innermost circle. The Medial was the forest surrounding it, full of wild beasts acting as guards. Then there was the Outer Sanctum, a great big moat teeming with fish both deadly and harmless, outlining the forest.
Mostly cosmetic choices, really. Guilds couldn't be invaded unless in agreed upon guild wars, but the idea of having some kind of indestructible fortress was still appealing.
As far as guilds went, though, Arboretum didn't rank highly. Li, though a competent combatant, wasn't even the highest ranked player in the guild. That title belonged to Oceanmaster or perhaps //BEAST//, creators and maintainers of the Outer and Medial sanctums respectively and two of Li's closest friends and executive members of the guild's board.
But there was no argument as to who the most important player was.
Arboretum was one of the wealthiest guilds around despite not having any tournament record. That was almost solely because of Li's gargantuan efforts. By stockpiling and gathering all these rare, one-of-a-kind herbs and materials over hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars, he guaranteed that the guild had sole control over their supply.
Farming them was easy. Place them in a garden, let time pass, and voila – copies of them emerged. But Arboretum tightly controlled who got these materials, jacking up their prices and preventing seeds from ever getting out, only ever selling crafting materials that could never be planted.
To that end, most of the guild's other membership was that of crafters and blacksmiths, not warriors and mages.
Li looked down at his hands, the very hands that had built this place up from the dirt. They were dark branches wreathed with moldy vines and dotted with curved thorns. His three fingers were long, spindly branches that ended in giant claws of splintery wood. He was an Elder Leshen, one of the highest forms of the treant race.
Li had chosen the race because of their lore, mainly. Treants were defenders of the green. They felt the flow of life and death deeply and cherished the sacredness of nature. They were the embodiment of the forest and earth and served as a reminder of untamed wilds that had long since been demolished in the real world.
Though perhaps not an incredibly efficient race for combat, Li's passion for nature overtook any regrets he might have had in not being as good at PvP or PvE as others.
And it was passion that separated him from the average player. Many players here came for just fun and games. But for Li, this was quite literally his dream. A second life. A world where he could see the greens and blues he had always wished for and truly grow something from soil that wasn't barren.
Even so, in the end, he knew even this was fake.
Though Li could see the beautifully vibrant world around him, there were still imperfections. Grainy pixellations where rendering wasn't complete. Colors, that though they were bright and beautiful, weren't quite real. Though he could smell the fragrant flowers and touch their soft petals, the sensations were faint – strong sensory stimuli was banned from commercial VR.
Li sighed, the leaves on his shoulders rustling. He couldn't think about what he didn't have so much. Instead, he focused on what he always did. Keeping inventory of his current plants and planting more. He carried around a pouch full of rare seeds - quite possibly one of the most expensive items in the entire Elden World community - while scrutinizing a sticky note brought up on his interface that detailed the location and contents of every square patch of dirt.
The work was soothing. There was a certain harmony and monotony to the simplicity of just walking around, making sure things were in order, and planting life where it was needed. It was a massive contrast compared to the complicated tumble of his work life and the dizzying buzz of keeping up with the chaos of current events.
It gave him peace and he felt that this was the closest thing he would ever get to to farming, to living the life his father had tilling the soils with callused, dirt-creased hand.
After a few minutes, Li something jolted him from his routine. Behind one of the garden patches was what he identified as a glitched spot. There was a small patch of complete darkness where nothing was rendered. Sometimes these patches appeared and generally they didn't affect the game, but they were annoying to deal with because they could block important visual cues for enemy spells.
Li thought about reporting the glitched area to moderators but decided against it. He was feeling a little curious today. Without thinking much of it, he stepped into the void, not knowing that he would never step back out.