I step into the chamber. It’s large, but not massive. There’s a row of pillars on each side, but what’s more interesting are the two creatures wearing golden armor at the other end of the hall. Ornstein and Smough. Dragonslayer. Executioner.
I ready my flame sword and my shield, and myself with the understanding I will probably perish almost immediately. This time and many other times. I utter my little mantra (“May this death teach me something new”) and charge into battle.
Ornstein, thin and agile, zooms across the floor and skewers me with his spear. I recover and slash at him with my sword, but he jumps away. Smough twirls into us like a giant hammer-wielding hurricane. I block the blow with my shield, but Ornstein’s already at my back, impaling me with his spear.
The lights go out, but worst of all, I don’t think I learned anything about their pattern.
I stare at the calendar on my phone. May 5th. Another day gone, another day closer to post-graduate school life. Another day in which I will fill out an application for a job I might not get. Another day to tweak a small twine project I’m putting together with some writers I know. Another day to look at my Damn Good Novel that needs to be edited and know that I’m not brave enough to do it yet.
Ten days until the online literary journal I’m the editor-in-chief of needs to go live.
Eight days until graduation and greeting my parents after their love drive and nice warm chats with my brother about his upcoming freshman year of college–at the same school I went to, no less.
May 5th. The Day of the Battle of Puebla. The local Tex-Mex places are offering deals on margaritas and tequila, but I don’t drink either of those so I’m just shit out of luck, I guess.
May 5th. A strange, stagnant time to be alive.
They rush into battle in that now old familiar way: Ornstein flying across the floor with Smough shuffling along with his mallet o’ death.
By now I understand their movements. I’ve died at least five times now and made the long trek back to this hall each time, but I have both their attacks memorized. However, the fact that the two might occupy a single space and unleash a random combination of attacks sets me on edge, makes me play it safe. I keep my back pointed toward the wall and my front facing the pair of them. But they move in formation, Ornstein orbiting Smough. They know I want to play it safe–like I did with Capra Demon, with Gaping Dragon–but they won’t let me.
In the end, my defensive play doesn’t work. Ornstein zaps me from afar with his lightning bolt, which bypasses my shield. Sometimes he zooms in and I get a small stab in, but it’s a ploy to make me think my tactic is working, to make me think I can break him down slowly.
It works. I live out a series of moments all of which involve Ornstein slaughtering me. I learn nothing. I am nothing. Right before my last death, I kneel down to read another player’s message etched in the floor hoping it gives me some hint, some key that will help me emerge victorious in the 11th hour.
“I did it!” the message says.
“Liar” is my last thought before Smough crushes my bones with his hammer.
The worst bit of moving around? Losing friends. We all lose friends, in the end. They leave us or we leave them in one way or another. However, there’s little doubt in my mind that my reluctance to become close friends with people is at least tied to the number of a good people I knew for and cared about before moving away from college and the bout of depression that occurred after the move.
Down here I’ve made friends, but not many. I am not opposed to the notion, and I do not find people disgusting or disappointing. Quite the opposite: I am incredibly anxious person who lives in constant fear of disappointing those he respects. The less I have to deal with that anxiety, which can be a boon to my work or be cripple it for large periods of times, the better.
This isn’t something I have to worry about so much with other writers I’ve met through the games writing community. There’s obviously a distance there, a bubble of sorts provided by digital communication but there’s also the sense that these people experience the same set of anxieties, or their own separate kinds of anxieties, that make them much easier to talk to, though you may never bring up those anxieties in conversation.
Still, there exists a yearning for those meetings with old, familiar faces. The meetings in person. The conversations at cafes into the late hours of the evening about Joyce and DuBois and Woolf and Pynchon. The golden old days that are gone gone gone.
I run past the towering guards in front of the hall, dodging their blows. I am angry, and tired, and ready for this fight to be over. I enter the arena, say my mantra, and charge directly at Ornstein. No more playing it safe. I just don’t care anymore. I don’t care about living or dying, I just have to know that I can kill one of them. I have to know they can fall, that they are mortal.
I have to know.
I need this and I have to do it on my own. I don’t know why I need this, but I need this. Badly.
I circle him, not bothering to put up my shield, and slash at him again and again and again. He gets me good but he weakens quickly as well. Smough swoops in with his hammer, but I put up my shield just in time, trading blows only with Ornstein.
I drink up all estus flasks and dash in one last time to stab the dragonslayer. I watch him fall to the ground dead just as Smough swings his hammer into me, but I’m not even upset.
“It can be done,” I tell myself. It can be done.
The commute to work is almost two hours. This is a pain in the ass, especially since I often head straight back after teaching two back to back classes.
But sometimes it isn’t so bad. When I was younger, I would go see my girlfriend every other weekend, often making the three and a half hour journey in the early hours of the morning. I would prepare for each trip, creating music playlists, storing small coffee packets into my glovebox so that I could use to make coffee in the bathrooms of gas stations on the interstate. I didn’t have much money then and saving every cent so I could see her. I would navigate the labyrinth of South Carolina’s dirty back roads to the interstate. I would watch the sun come up over the interstate. I would plan my novels and short stories. I would drink ungodly amounts of coffee and pull over to the side of the road for emergency bathroom breaks. When the coffee didn’t work, I’d reluctantly smoke a cigarette because it was the only thing that would keep me awake.
But getting to see Lily after such a long journey was bliss. Long distance relationships are, for a very large part of them, hell and I don’t wish them on anyone. However, nothing quite beats being together with someone you deeply care about after not seeing them for weeks on end. It makes up for all the fights about stupid shit, for all the weary conversations because you’re both just tired and have had bad days.
Sometimes I get fleeting sensations of those long night journeys and the weekends with her when I’m coming home from work. A brief taste of old rewards for surviving a difficult era.
Soft times are nice enough and safe, but goddamn the hard times can you make feel alive.
Ornstein isn’t a problem anymore. I have found the balance between being aggressive and defensive. I can respond to his movements more quickly. He thrusts his spear. In another version of this moment, a past one, I am leaning into the spear and taking a fatal blow, but in this one I’m skillfully dodging the hit and counterattacking with a slash aimed at his back.
Ornstein dies. Smough absorbs his companion’s lightning powers into his hammer. As it turns out, I have grossly underestimated how difficult the behemoth would be. He is easy to outrun, to dodge even, but I can’t get close enough to land a hit and guarantee that I’ll move away in time to avoid a nasty, crippling attack.
And yet, I still try. Losing chunks of health with nothing to show for my efforts until, at last, as I cower behind the rubble of a pillar, I realize what I have to do to win.
I rush out to meet Smough and smile as he lifts the hammer.
The poor son of a bitch doesn’t even know I’ve won.
He brings the hammer down and I die one last time.
Lily is downstairs trying to work on her law school homework but apparently our cat keeps sitting on her textbooks. Today, I’m writing this. And I have to grade some papers. And chat with our department’s nice webhost. And check, double check, triple check my students’ grades before submitting them. I will also work on that twine project.
At some point, I’m sure an urge will drift into my mind encouraging me to sit down and edit the aforementioned novel, but it won’t happen today. Instead, I’ll likely spend the late hours of the evening submitting more job applications, hoping to get a bite.
And yet in spite of all of these busy happenings, I feel the stagnation creeping over me and nothing to distract me from it. Exercise is a slight slap to ward off that feeling, as is writing small pieces like this. I need a new project, something challenging and audacious.
Until then, I have Lordran.
I step into the hall once more. I do not utter my mantra. I know I will be victorious this time. It is a fact. Across the seventeen versions of this moment that I have lived and died, this will be the one where I triumph.
I sprint toward them. We meet in the center of the room and begin, not a battle, but a dance, weaving between the pillars and slashing at one another. I have not merely memorized their movements, I know them, can identify the slightest twitch in Ornstein’s hands.
In a way, I feel bad for the pair of them. They’ve given me a gift after all, forcing me to master all the skills I’ve learned throughout my journey in this one intimate battle. We’re almost friends, you could say.
I open myself up to attack, baiting a crippled Ornstein (just as he baited me) and allowing him to take away a slight chunk of my health. Too greedy. I land a blow and send the Dragonslayer to his final grave.
Smough absorbs his powers. I drink an estsus and trade my sword for a bow. He chases me around the destroyed pillar while I fire arrows at his gargantuan belly. An age passes. I wear him down slowly, like a grunt bringing down a war elephant by chucking sharpened pencils at him.
I do the math in my head. Always firing from the right distance to do the most damage I can without opening myself up to his hammer.
I use at least a 100 arrows, maybe 120. I know when I have the final arrow lined up to fire. I let him get close, stomping toward me, ready to lift up that hammer and smear me all over the floor. To put everything back in place. To bring his companion back from the dead.
To do this all over again.
But this is not his moment. It is mine.
I let loose the arrow. It soars over cracked pillars, over the body of the dragonslayer, over the moments of past lives, of my failures, until it embeds itself in the right eyeball of the giant. He drops his beloved, bloody hammer. He topples headfirst to the floor and explodes into white dust.
I stand and look at the space where he was. I look around at the destroyed room and out into the cathedral where those two stone guardians I dodged are and in front of me where two elevators are now active to lead me onward and upward and I look at the shield and sword in my hand and then my inventory and at long last I look at my hands, my real hands holding a real, tangible controller.