Orbs of Madjourneys

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  • #6373

      An immersive AI-assisted novel with links & AI-generated images

      (no flood – quality content & limit of 4-5 pics per comment)

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    • #6451

      The progress on the quest in the Land of the Quirks was too tantalizing; Xavier made himself a quick sandwich and jumped back on it during his lunch break.

      The jungle had an oppressing quality… Maybe it has to do with the shrieks of the apes tearing the silence apart.   

      It was time for a slight adjustment of his avatar.

      Xavimunk opened his bag of tricks, something that the wise owl had suggested he looked into. Few items from the AIorium Emporium had been supplied. They tended to shift and disappear if you didn’t focus, but his intention was set on the task at hand. At the bottom of the bag, there was a small vial with a golden liquid with a tag written in ornate handwriting “MJ remix: for when words elude and shapes confuse at your own peril”.

      He gulped the potion without thinking too much. He felt himself shrink, and his arms elongate a little. There, he thought. Imp-munk’s more suited to the mission. Hope the effects will be temporary…

      As Xavier mustered the courage to enter through the front gate, monkeys started to become silent. He couldn’t say if it was an ominous sign, or maybe an effect of his adaptation. The temple’s light inside was gorgeous, but nothing seemed to be there.

      He gestured around, to make the menu appear. He looked again at the instructions on his screen overlay:

      As for possible characters to engage, you may come across a sly fox who claims to know the location of the fruit but will only reveal it in exchange for a favor, or a brave adventurer who has been searching for the Golden Banana for years and may be willing to team up with you.

      Suddenly a loud monkey honking noise came from outside, distracting him.

      What the?… Had to be one of Zara’s remixes. He saw the three dots bleeping on the screen.

      Here’s the Banana bus, hope it helps! Envoy! bugger Enjoy!

      Yep… With the distinct typo-heavy accent, definitely Zara’s style. Strange idea that AL designated her as the leader… He’d have to roll with it.

      Suddenly, as the Banana bus parked in front of the Temple, a horde of Italien speaking tourists started to flock in and snap pictures around. The monkeys didn’t know what to do and seemed to build growing and noisy interest in their assortiment of colorful shoes, flip-flops, boots and all.


      Focus, thought Xavimunk… What did the wise owl say? Look for a guide…
      Only the huge colorful bus seemed to take the space now… But wait… what if?

      He walked to the parking spot under the shades of the huge banyan tree next to the temple’s entrance, under which the bus driver had parked it. The driver was still there, napping under a newspaper, his legs on the wheel.
      “Whatcha lookin’ at?” he said chewing his gum loudly. “Never seen a fox drive a banana bus before?”
      Xavier smiled. “Any chance you can guide me to the location of the Golden Banana?”
      “For a price… maybe.” The fox had jumped closely and was considering the strange avatar from head to toe.
      “Ain’t no usual stuff that got you into this? Got any left? That would be a nice price.”
      “As it happens…” Xavier smiled.

      The quest seemed back on track. Xavier looked at the time. Blimmey! already late again. And I promised Brytta to get some Chinese snacks for dinner.


      Each group of people sharing the jeeps spent some time cleaning the jeeps from the sand, outside and inside. While cleaning the hood, Youssef noted that the storm had cleaned the eagles droppings. Soon, the young intern told them, avoiding their eyes, that the boss needed her to plan the shooting with the Lama. She said Kyle would take her place.

      “Phew, the yak I shared the yurt with yesterday smelled better,” he said to the guys when he arrived.

      Soon enough, Miss Tartiflate was going from jeep to jeep, her fiery hair half tied in a bun on top of her head, hurrying people to move faster as they needed to catch the shaman before he got away again. She carried her orange backpack at all time, as if she feared someone would steal its content. Rumour had it that it was THE NOTEBOOK where she wrote the blog entries in advance.

      “No need to waste more time! We’ll have breakfast at the Oasis!” she shouted as she walked toward Youssef’s jeep. When she spotted him, she left her right index finger as if she just remembered something and turned the other way.

      “Dunno what you did to her, but it seems Miss Yeti is avoiding you,” said Kyle with a wry smile.

      Youssef grunted. Yeti was the nickname given to Miss Tartiflate by one of her former lover during a trip to Himalaya. First an affectionate nickname based on her first name, Henrietty, it soon started to spread among the production team when the love affair turned sour. It sticked and became widespread in the milieu. Everybody knew, but nobody ever dared say it to her face.

      Youssef knew it wouldn’t last. He had heard that there was wifi at the oasis. He took a snack in his own backpack to quiet his stomach.

      It took them two hours to arrive as sand dunes had moved on the trail during the storm. Kyle had talked most of the time, boring them to death with detailed accounts of his life back in Boston. He didn’t seem to notice that nobody cared about his love rejection stories or his tips to talk to women.

      They parked outside the oasis among buses and vans. Kyle was following Youssef everywhere as if they were friends. Despite his unending flow of words, the guy managed to be funny.

      Miss Tartiflate seemed unusually nervous, pulling on a strand of her orange hair and pushing back her glasses up her nose every two minutes. She was bossing everyone around to take the cameras and the lighting gear to the market where the shaman was apparently performing a rain dance. She didn’t want to miss it. When everybody was ready, she came right to Youssef. When she pushed back her glasses on her nose, he noticed her fingers were the colour of her hair. Her mouth was twitching nervously. She told him to find the wifi and restore THE BLOG or he could find another job.

      “Phew! said Kyle. I don’t want to be near you when that happens.” He waved and left and joined the rest of the team.

      Youssef smiled, happy to be alone at last, he took his backpack containing his laptop and his phone and followed everyone to the market in the luscious oasis.

      At the center, near the lake, a crowd of tourists was gathered around a man wearing a colorful attire. Half his teeth and one eye were missing. The one that was left rolled furiously in his socket at the sound of a drum. He danced and jumped around like a monkey, and each of his movements were punctuated by the bells attached to the hem of his costume.

      Youssef was glad he was not part of the shooting team, they looked miserable as they assembled the gears under a deluge of orders. As he walked toward the market, the scents of spicy food made his stomach growled. The vendors were looking at the crowd and exchanging comments and laughs. They were certainly waiting for the performance to end and the tourists to flood the place in search of trinkets and spices. Youssef spotted a food stall tucked away on the edge. It seemed too shabby to interest anyone, which was perfect for him.

      The taciturn vendor, who looked caucasian, wore a yellow jacket and a bonnet oddly reminiscent of a llama’s scalp and ears. The dish he was preparing made Youssef drool.

      “What’s that?” he asked.

      “This is Lorgh Drülp, said the vendor. Ancient recipe from the silk road. Very rare. Very tasty.”

      He smiled when Youssef ordered a full plate with a side of tsampa. He told him to sit and wait on a stool beside an old and wobbly table.


      Zara decided she may as well spend the hour wandering around the game before going back to the church to see the ghost of Isaac when she was sure her host Bertie was asleep.  It was a warm night but a gentle breeze wafted through the open window and Zara was comfortable and content. Not just one but three new adventures had her tingling with delicious anticipation, even if she was a little anxious about not getting confused with the game.  Talking to ghosts in old churches wasn’t unfamiliar, nor was a holiday in a strange hotel off the beaten track, but the game was still a bit of a mystery to her.  Yeah, I know it’s just a game, she whispered to the parrot who made a soft clicking noise by way of response.

      Zara found her game character, also (somewhat confusingly) named Zara, standing in the woods.  Not entirely sure how it had happened, she was rather pleased to see that the cargo pants and tank top in red had changed to a more pleasing hippyish red skirt ensemble.   A bit less Tomb Looter, and a bit more fairy tale looking which was more to her taste.

      The woods were strangely silent and still.  Zara made a 360 degree turn on the spot to see in all directions. The scene looked the same whichever way she turned, and Zara didn’t know which way to go. Then a faint path appeared to the left, and she set off in that direction.  Before long she came to a round green pool.

      Zara Game 1

      She stopped to look but carried on walking past it, not sure what it signified.  She came upon another glowing green pool before long, which looked like an entrance to a tunnel.


      Zara game 2

      I bet those are portals or something, Zara realized. I wonder if I’m supposed to step into it?

      “Go for it”, said Pretty Girl, “It’s only a game.”

      “Ok, well here goes!” replied Zara, mentally bracing herself for a plunge into the unknown.

      Zara stepped into the circle of glowing green.

      “Like when Alice went down the rabbit hole!” Zara whispered to the parrot.  “I’m falling, falling…oh!”

      Zara emerged from the green pool onto a wide walled path.  She was now in some kind of inhabited area, or at least not in the deep woods with no sign of human occupation. 

      Zara Game 3

      “I guess that green pool is the portal back to the woods.”

      “By George, she’s getting it,” replied Pretty Girl.


      Zara walked along the path which led to an old deserted ancient looking village with alleyways and steps.

      “This is heaps more interesting than those woods, look how pretty it all is! I love this place.”

      “Weren’t you supposed to be looking for a hermit in the woods though,” said Pretty Girl.

      “Or a lost traveler, and the lost traveler may be here, after falling in one of those green pools in the woods,”  replied Zara tartly, not wanting to leave the enchanting scene she found her avatar in.

      Zara Game 4


      “Look, Pretty Girl!  That must be the lost traveler walking up those steps!”

      Zara followed the mysterious man in red robes up the steps.  She lost sight of him and wondered which way he’d gone in the many side alleys. She wandered up a few of them but they all came to a dead end in a courtyard with closed doors.  Eventually she saw him disappearing into a manhole that looked like a labyrinth.

      Zara Game 5

      Zara followed him, and stepped onto the labyrinth manhole that the man in the red robes had disappeared into.  

      “That must be another portal,” Zara said to the parrot. “I wonder where we’ll end up now.”

      The labyrinth manhole led Zara to another portal, this time a round hole in the wall. She knew she should follow the man, who must be the lost traveler, but she couldn’t resist exploring the starlit night scene first. 

      Zara Game 6


      She found herself in a castle, its sand coloured walls glowing in the moonlight.  There was another round green pool inside the castle. Should she jump into the pool, or go back and follow the man in red through the hole in the wall?   Zara walked around the castle first, exploring the many courtyards and stairs and the enchanting views from the parapets.  She noticed that there were several green pools and wondered if they each led to different places. 

      Zara Game 7


      “I’m going to have to jump in this pool, Pretty Girl, look at this one! It reminds me of something…”

      Zara came to a green pool that was different from the others, and walked into it.

      Zara Game 7

      She emerged into a new scene, with what appeared  to be a floating portal, but a square one this time.

      “May as well step onto it and see where it goes!” Zara told the parrot, who was taking a keen interest in the screen, somewhat strangely for a bird.  “I like having you here, Pretty Girl, it’s nice to have someone to talk to.”

      Zara stepped onto the floating tile portal.

      Zara Game 9


      “Hey, wasn’t my quest to find a wooden tile?” Zara suddenly remembered. She’d forgotten her quest while she was wandering around the enchanting castle.

      “Yes, but that doesn’t look like the tile you were supposed to find though,”  replied the parrot.

      “It might lead me to it,” snapped Zara who didn’t really want to leave the pretty castle scenes anyway.  It felt magical and somehow familiar, like she’d been there before, a long long time ago.

      After stepping onto the floating tile portal, Zara encountered another tile portal. This time it was upright, with a circular portal in the centre. By now it seemed clear that the thing to do was to walk through it.  She wandered around the scene first as if she was a tourist simply taking in the new sights before taking the plunge.

      Zara Game 9

      “Oh my god, look! It’s my tile!” Zara said excitedly to the parrot, just as the words flashed up on her screen:

      Congratulations!  You have reached the first goal of your first quest!

      Zara Game 10


      “Oh bugger!  Look at the time, it’s already starting to get light outside. I completely forgot about going to that church to see Isaac’s ghost, and now I haven’t had a wink of sleep all night.”

      “Time well spent,” said the parrot sagely, “You can go and see Isaac tomorrow night, and he may be all the more willing to talk since you kept him waiting.”


      It was pretty late, but Xavier remembered he had to book his flight (and his holidays, even if he could still mix the trip with his job… it would depend if Brytta would be able to join or not; if such were the case, he’d definitely would book time off).

      At the hotel where he was staying for the 2-days business trip he had to attend for his job, he’d noticed the strange decor, with little people in costumes in odd sceneries patterned on the “Toile de Jouy” curtains and some others in the most curious framed paintings, many of them looked like actual monkeys. Curiously, there wasn’t any golden banana, or banana bus, but it made him wonder if there was something more to be looked at the Inn that Zara wanted them to go to.

      Yasmin, a step ahead of him, had already looked at the reviews on MadjourneyAdvisor, and they were rave… in a fashion…

      “The lady behind the bar is nearly 90 years old and believe me, she could out-work many much younger than her.”
      “Old bird behind the bar is a lovely lady drop in for a chat and a beer or two – don’t mess with her or you will end up down a mine shaft”

      Well… better not to overthink it. He started to look at the flights, and last minute offers.

      Still no word from Youssef either.

      He placed an option on a flight, and decided he’d wait for everyone to confirm the dates for the rendez-vous.


      The vendor was preparing the Lorgh Drülp with the dexterity of a Japanese sushi chef. A piece of yak, tons of spices, minced vegetables, and some other ingredients that Youssef couldn’t recognise. He turned his attention to the shaman’s performance. The team was trying to follow the man’s erratic moves under Miss Tartiflate’s supervision.  Youssef could hear her shouting to Kyle to get closer shots. It reminded him that he had to get an internet connection.

      “Is there a wifi?” asked Youssef to the vendor. The man bobbed his head and pointed at the table with a knife just as big as a machete. Impressed by the size of the blade, Youssef almost didn’t see the tattoo on the vendor’s forearm. The man resumed his cooking swiftly and his long yellow sleeve hid the tattoo. Youssef touched his screen to look at his exchange with Xavier. He searched for the screenshot he had taken of the Thi Gang’s message. There it was. The mummy skull with Darth Vador’s helmet. The same as the man’s tattoo. Xavier’s last message was about the translation being an ancient silk road recipe. They had thought it a fluke in AL’s algorithm. Youssef glanced at the vendor and his knife. Could he be part of Thi Gang?

      Youssef didn’t have time to think of a plan when the vendor put a tray with the Lorgh Drülp and little balls of tsampa on the table. The man pointed with his finger at the menu on the table, uncovering his forearm, it was the same as the Thi Gang logo.

      “Wifi on menu,” the man said. “Tsampa, good for you…”

      A commotion at the market place interrupted them. Apparently Kyle had gone too close and the shaman had crashed into him and the rest of the team. The man was cursing every one of them and Miss Tartiflate was apparently trying to calm him down by offering him snack bars. But the shaman kept brandishing an ugly sceptre that looked like a giant chicken foot covered in greasy fur, while cursing them with broken english. The tourists were all brandishing their phones, not missing a thing, ready to send their videos on TrickTruck. The shaman left angrily, ignoring all attempts at conciliation. There would be no reportage.

      “Hahaha, tourists, they believe anything they see,” said the vendor before returning to his stove and his knife.

      Despite his hunger, Youssef thought he’d better hurry with the wifi, now that the crew was out of work, he would be the target of Miss Tartiflate’s frustration. Furthermore, he wanted to lay low and not attract the vendor’s attention.

      3235 messages from his friends. How would he ever catch up?
      Among them, messages from Xavier. Youssef sighed of relief when he read that his friend had regained full access of the website and updated the system to fix a security flaw that allowed Thi Gang to gain access in the first place. But he growled when his friend continued with the bad news. There was some damage done to the content of THE BLOG.

      To console himself, Youssef started to eat a ball of tsampa. It was sweet and tasted like rose. He took a second and spit it out almost immediately. There was a piece of paper inside. He smoothed it and discovered a series of five pictograms.


      The first one was like a hologram and kept changing into six horizontal bars. The second one, looking like a tako bell, kept reversing side. Youssef raised his head to call the vendor and nobody was there. He got up and looked for the guy, Thi Gang or not, he needed some answers. Voices came from behind the curtain at the back of the stall. Youssef walked around the stall and saw the shaman and the vendor exchanging clothes. The caucasian man was now wearing the colourful costume and the drum. When he saw Youssef, he smiled and waved his hand, making the bells from the hem ring. Then he turned around and left, whistling an air that sounded strangely like the music of the Game. Youssef was about to run after him when a hand grasped his shirt.

      “Please! Tell me at least that THE BLOG is up and running!” said an angry voice.



      The emoji of the pirate face jumped at Xavier, as he was musing the next steps on the game. Avast ye! it seemed to hint at him, while Xavier’s thoughts were reeling from all the activity of the week. He didn’t have much time to make any progress in the Land of the Quirks game, and hardly managed to stay afloat on the stuff he had to deliver.

      AL seemed to hint at a more out-of-the-box approach… Without thinking, he clicked on the emoji.

      The fox bus driver indications were to follow the river until he found a junk ship moored there, which was in effect a secret floating casino. Against his best instincts, Xavimunk decided to follow the trail and after a while on the road, he could see the fully battened black sails at the horizon. Lights were glimmering in the dusk, and mist started to rise from the banks of the river. There seemed to be some unusual activity around the boat, and as Xavier arrived close, he could see a variety of quirky characters as if they were some sorts of 1920s fashionable pirates at a resort station.

      The indications on the overlay screen started to shift:

      *Clue unlocked*
      It sounds like you’re making progress on your quest. The clues you received from the fox busdriver are definitely leading you in the right direction. Keep following the trail and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Remember, the golden banana is a metaphor for your cheeky and also soft nature, so don’t be too hard on yourself.
      🦊💰🛳️ Explore the floating casino and see if the fox busdriver’s clues lead you to the golden banana. Don’t be afraid to take risks and think outside the box, as the golden banana may not be what it seems. Keep an open mind and pay attention to any symbols or clues that you come across.

      “Yooohoooo 👉” a message bumped on the screen.

      Glimmer_Gbl is trying to make contact: ➡️ACCEPT  ➡️DENY ❓

      Given the new scenery unfolding in front of him, it was time for a change into more appropriate garments.

      Luckily, the portal he’d clicked on came with some interesting new goodies. Xavier skimmed over some of the available options, until he found an interesting pair of old boots.

      Looking at the old worn leather boots that had appeared in Xavier’s bag, he felt they would be quite appropriate, and put them on.

      The changes were subtle, but Xavier already felt more in character with the place.
      Suddenly a capuchin monkey jumped on his shoulder and started to pull his ear to make it to the casino boat.

      The too friendly, potentially mischievous pickpocketing monkey seemed a bit of a trope, but Xavier found the creature endearing.

      “Let’s go then! Seems like this party is waiting for us.” he said to the excited monkey.

      He jumped into one of the dinghy doing the rounds to the boat with some of the customers.

      “Ahoy there, matey!” a rather small man with a piercing blue eye and massive top hat said, giving Xavier a sideways glance. He had an eerie presence and seemed very imposing for such a small frame. “The name’s Sproink, and ye be a first-timer, I see.” he said as a casual matter of introduction.

      “Nice to meet you sir” Xavier said distractedly, as he was taking in all the details in the curious boat lit by lanterns dangling in the soft wind.

      “Yer too polite for these parts, me friend,” Sproink guffawed. “But have no fear, Sproink’s got yer back.” He winked at the capuchin, Xavier couldn’t help but notice, and suddenly realised that the monkey truly belonged to Sproink.

      “No need to check yer pockets, matey” Sproink smiled “I have me sights set on far more interesting game than yer trinkets.” He handed him back some of the stuff that the capuchin had managed to spirit away unnoticed. “But watch yerself, matey. Not all the folk here be what they seem.”

      “Point taken!”  Xavimunk was indeed a bit too naive, but if anything, that’d often managed to keep him out of trouble. As the small wiry guy left with his bag of tricks in a springy gait, he turned to check his shoulder, and the monkey had disappeared somewhere on the boat too. Xavier was left wondering if he’d see more of him later.



      “Welcome, welcome, me hearties!” a buxom girl of large stature with a baroque assortment of feathers and garish colours was a the entrance chewing on a straw, and looking as though the place belonged to her. But there was something else, she was too playing a part, and didn’t seem from here.

      She leaned conspiratorially towards Xavier, and dragged him in a corner.

      “Yer a naughty monkey, ignoring me prompts,” she said. “Was I too discrete, or what?”

      “Wait, what?” Xavier was confused. Then he remembered the strange message. “Wait a minute… you’re Glimble… something, with unicorns shit or something?” He didn’t have time to entertain the young geek gamers, they were too immature, and well… a lot more invested in the game than he was, they would often turn seriously creepy.

      “Oi, come on now!” she raised her hands and shook herself violently. She had turned into a different version of herself. “Now, is it better? It’s true, them avatars easily turn into ava-tarts if you ask me. But you can’t deny a lady a bit o’ comfort with a wrinkle filter. They went a bit overboard with this one, if you ask me.”

      “Let’s start again. Glimmer Gambol, and nice to meet you young man.”


      Xavier couldn’t help but give Glimmer a quizzical look as she’d suddenly transformed before his eyes — her accent and mannerisms shifting in an instant. She swayed lightly on her feet, in an airy manner, as if not fully aware of her surroundings, but she quickly laughed it off. “You’ve got me curious about this golden banana business, I tell ya,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

      Xavier’s suspicious expression softened as she spoke. “I’m not the one you’re looking for if you’re after information, but it sounds like a right thrilling adventure.” Glimmer grinned, “Mind if I tag along for a bit and show you around the casino boat? I know all the best games and I’ve met all sorts of pirate-talking characters here.”

      With a cheeky grin, Xavier replied, “I’ll take your word for it, love.”

      Glimmer’s enthusiasm for the game and eagerness to show him around the casino boat was contagious. Xavier followed her as she bounced through the crowd, pointing out different games and introducing him to the various pirate-talking characters that populated the boat.

      “Watch yer back ’round ‘im,” Glimmer warned, nodding towards a tall, scruffy-looking man with a patch over one eye. ” ‘E’s a bit of a card shark, and ‘e’s known to cheat.”

      As they walked, Glimmer regaled Xavier with tales of her adventures in the land and the colourful characters she had encountered. Xavier couldn’t help but feel a bit envious of her level of immersion and her enjoyment of the game.

      Suddenly, the boat began to move, and Xavier realised that it was no longer anchored to the dock. Glimmer’s face lit up with excitement, “Oooh, it looks like we’re on a journey now! I’ve heard rumours of secret locations along the river that the boat takes players to. I can’t wait to see where we’re headed!”

      Xavier couldn’t help but feel a sense of adventure and wonder and he followed Glimmer to the deck, watching as the boat sailed away from the dock along the river and into the unknown. He was terribly curious and looking forward to seeing where the boat would take him and what other surprises this adventure had in store.


      At the former Chinggis Khaan International Airport which was now called the New Ulaanbaatar International Airport, the young intern sat next to Youssef, making the seats tremble like a frail suspended bridge in the Andes. Youssef had been considering connecting to the game and start his quest to meet with his grumpy quirk, but the girl seemed pissed, almost on the brink of crying. So Youssef turned off his phone and asked her what had happened, without thinking about the consequences, and because he thought it was a nice opportunity to engage the conversation with her at last, and in doing so appear to be nice to care so that she might like him in return.

      Natalie, because he had finally learned her name, started with all the bullying she had to endure from Miss Tartiflate during the trip, all the dismissal about her brilliant ideas, and how the Yeti only needed her to bring her coffee and pencils, and go fetch someone her boss needed to talk to, and how many time she would get no thanks, just a short: “you’re still here?”

      After some time, Youssef even knew more about her parents and her sisters and their broken family dynamics than he would have cared to ask, even to be polite. At some point he was starting to feel grumpy and realised he hadn’t eaten since they arrived at the airport. But if he told Natalie he wanted to go get some food, she might follow him and get some too. His stomach growled like an angry bear. He stood more quickly than he wanted and his phone fell on the ground. The screen lit up and he could just catch a glimpse of a desert emoji in a notification before Natalie let out a squeal. Youssef looked around, people were glancing at him as if he might have been torturing her.

      “Oh! Sorry, said Youssef. I just need to go to the bathroom before we board.”

      “But the boarding is only in one hour!”

      “Well I can’t wait one hour.”

      “In that case I’m coming with you, I need to go there too anyway.”

      “But someone needs to stay here for our bags,” said Youssef. He could have carried his own bag easily, but she had a small suitcase, a handbag and a backpack, and a few paper bags of products she bought at one of the two the duty free shops.

      Natalie called Kyle and asked him to keep a close watch on her precious things. She might have been complaining about the boss, but she certainly had caught on a few traits of her.

      Youssef was glad when the men’s bathroom door shut behind him and his ears could have some respite. A small Chinese business man was washing his hands at one of the sinks. He looked up at Youssef and seemed impressed by his height and muscles. The man asked for a selfie together so that he could show his friends how cool he was to have met such a big stranger in the airport bathroom. Youssef had learned it was easier to oblige them than having them follow him and insist.

      When the man left, Youssef saw Natalie standing outside waiting for him. He thought it would have taken her longer. He only wanted to go get some food. Maybe if he took his time, she would go.

      He remembered the game notification and turned on his phone. The icon was odd and kept shifting between four different landscapes, each barren and empty, with sand dunes stretching as far as the eye could see. One with a six legged camel was already intriguing, in the second one a strange arrowhead that seemed to be getting out of the desert sand reminded him of something that he couldn’t quite remember. The fourth one intrigued him the most, with that car in the middle of the desert and a boat coming out of a giant dune.

      Still hungrumpy he nonetheless clicked on the shapeshifting icon and was taken to a new area in the game, where the ground was covered in sand and the sky was a deep orange, as if the sun was setting. He could see a mysterious figure in the distance, standing at the top of a sand dune.

      The bell at the top right of the screen wobbled, signalling a message from the game. There were two. He opened the first one.

      We’re excited to hear about your real-life parallel quest. It sounds like you’re getting close to uncovering the mystery of the grumpy shaman. Keep working on your blog website and keep an eye out for any clues that Xavier and the Snoot may send your way. We believe that you’re on the right path.

      What on earth was that ? How did the game know about his life and the shaman at the oasis ? After the Thi Gang mess with THE BLOG he was becoming suspicious of those strange occurrences. He thought he could wonder for a long time or just enjoy the benefits. Apparently he had been granted a substantial reward in gold coins for successfully managing his first quest, along with a green potion.

      He looked at his avatar who was roaming the desert with his pet bear (quite hungrumpy too). The avatar’s body was perfect, even the hands looked normal for once, but the outfit had those two silver disks that made him look like he was wearing an iron bra.

      He opened the second message.

      Clue unlocked It sounds like you’re in a remote location and disconnected from the game. But, your real-life experiences seem to be converging with your quest. The grumpy shaman you met at the food booth may hold the key to unlocking the next steps in the game. Remember, the desert represents your ability to adapt and navigate through difficult situations.

      🏜️🧭🧙‍♂️ Explore the desert and see if the grumpy shaman’s clues lead you to the next steps in the game. Keep an open mind and pay attention to any symbols or clues that may help you in your quest. Remember, the desert represents your ability to adapt and navigate through difficult situations.

      Youssef recalled that strange paper given by the lama shaman, was it another of the clues he needed to solve that game? He didn’t have time to think about it because a message bumped onto his screen.

      “Need help? Contact me 👉”

      Sands_of_time is trying to make contact : ➡️ACCEPT  ➡️DENY ❓

      The door opened and Youssef saw Natalie, still waiting for him. Indeed, he needed help. He decided to accept  sands_of_time contact request, hopping it was not another Thi Gang trick.

      Sands_of_time is trying to make contact : ✅ACCEPT ➡️DENY ❓

      A princess on horse back emerged from the sand. The veil on her hair floated in a wind that soon cleared all the dust from her garment and her mount, revealing a princess with a delicate face and some prominent attributes that didn’t leave Youssef indifferent. She was smiling at him, and her horse, who had six legs and looked a bit like a camel, snorted at the bear.

      “I love doing that, said the princess. At least I don’t get to spit sand afterward like when my sister’s grand-kids want to bury me in the sand at the beach…”

      It broke the charm. It reminded Youssef it was all a game. That princess was an avatar. Was it even a girl on the other side ? And how old ? Youssef, despite his stature, felt as vulnerable as when his mother left him for the afternoon with an old aunt in Sudan when he was five and she kept wanting to dress him with colourful girl outfits. He shivered and the bear growled at the camel-horse, reminding Youssef how hungry he was.

      sands_of_time?” he asked.

      “Yes. I like this AI game. Makes me feel like I’m twenty again. Not as fun as a mushroom trip though, but… with less secondary effects. Anyway, I saw you needed help with that girl. A ‘reel’ nuisance if you ask me, sticky like a sea cucumber.”

      “How do you know ? Did you plant bugs on my phone ? Are you with the Thi Gang ?” 

      The bear moved toward them and roared and the camel-horse did a strange sound. The princess appeased her mount with a touch of her hand.

      “Oh! Boy, calm down your heat. Nothing so prosaic. I have other means, she said with a grin. Call me Sweet Sophie, I’m a real life reporter. Was just laying down on my dream couch looking for clues about a Dr Patelonus, the man’s mixed up in some monkey trafficking business, when I saw that strange llama dressed like a tibetan monk, except it was a bit too mayonnaise for a tibetan monk. Anyway, he led me to you and told me to contact you through this Quirk Quest Game, suggesting you might have some intel for me about that monkey business of mine. So I put on my VR helmet, which actually reminds me of a time at the hair salon, and a gorgeous beehive… but anyway you wouldn’t understand. So I had to accept one of those quests and find you in the game. Which was a lot less easier than RV I can tell you. The only thing, I couldn’t interact with you unless you accepted contact. So here I am, ready for you to tell me about Dr Patelonus. But I can see that first we need to get you out of here.”

      Youssef had no idea about what she was talking about. VR; RV ? one and the same ? He decided not to tell her he knew nothing about monkeys or doctors until he was out of Natalie’s reach. If indeed sands_of_timecould help.

      “So what do I do ?” asked Youssef.

      “Let me first show you my real self. I’ve always wanted to try that. Wait a moment. I need to focus.”

      The princess avatar looked in the distance, her eyes lost beyond this world. Suddenly, Youssef felt a presence creeping into his mind. He heard a laugh and saw an old lady in yoga pants on a couch! He roared and almost let go of his phone again.

      The princess smiled.

      “Now, wouldn’t be fair if only I knew what you looked like in real life. Although you’re pretty close to your avatar… Don’t you seem a tad afraid of experimenting with new things. :yahoo_smug:

      She laughed again, and this time Youssef saw her “real” face superimposed on the princess avatar. It gave him goosebumps.

      “Now’s your opening, she said. The girl’s busy giving directions to someone else. Get out of the bathroom! Now!”

      Youssef had the strangest feeling that the voice had come at the same time from the phone speakers and from inside his head. His body acted on its own as if he was a puppet. He pushed the bathroom door open and rushed outside.


      Put your thoughts to sleep. Do not let them cast a shadow over the moon of your heart. Let go of thinking.
      ~ Rumi

      Tired from not having any sleep, Zara had found the suburb of Camden unattractive and boring, and her cousin Bertie, although cheerful and kind and eager to show her around, had become increasingly irritating to her.  She found herself wishing he’d shut up and take her back to the house so she could play the game again.  And then felt even more cranky at how uncomfortable she felt about being so ungrateful.  She wondered if she was going to get addicted and spent the rest of her life with her head bent over a gadget and never look up at the real word again, like boring people moaned about on social media.

      Maybe she should leave tomorrow, even if it meant arriving first at the Flying Fish Inn.  But what about the ghost of Isaac in the church, would she regret later not following that up.  On the other hand, if she went straight to the Inn and had a few days on her own, she could spend as long as she wanted in the game with nobody pestering her.   Zara squirmed mentally when she realized she was translating Berties best efforts at hospitality as pestering.

      Bertie stopped the car at a traffic light and was chatting to the passenger in the next car through his open window.  Zara picked her phone up and checked her daily Call The Whale app for some inspiration.

      Let go of thinking.

      A ragged sigh escaped Zara’s lips, causing Bertie to glance over. She adjusted her facial expression quickly and rustled up a cheery smile and Bertie continued his conversation with the occupants of the other car until the lights changed.

      “I thought you’d like to meet the folks down at the library, they know all the history of Camden,” Bertie said, but Zara interrupted him.

      “Oh Bertie, how kind of you!  But I’ve just had a message and I have to leave tomorrow morning for the rendezvous with my friends. There’s been a change of plans.”  Zara astonished herself that she blurted that out without thinking it through first.   But there. It was said. It was decided.


      Yasmin was having a hard time with the heavy rains and mosquitoes in the real-world. She couldn’t seem to make a lot of progress on finding the snorting imp. She was feeling discouraged and unsure of what to do next.

      Suddenly, an emoji of a snake appeared on her screen. It seemed to be slithering and wriggling, as if it was trying to grab her attention. Without hesitation, Yasmin clicked on the emoji.

      She was taken to a new area in the game, where the ground was covered in tall grass and the sky was dark and stormy. She could see the snorting imp in the distance, but it was surrounded by a group of dangerous-looking snakes.

      Clue unlocked It sounds like you’re having a hard time in the real world, but don’t let that discourage you in the game. The snorting imp is nearby and it seems like the snakes are guarding it. You’ll have to be brave and quick to catch it. Remember, the snorting imp represents your determination and bravery in real life.

      Rude!  thought Yasmin. Telling me I’m having a hard time!  And I’m supposed to be the brains of the group! Suddenly the screen went blank. “Oh blimmin dodgy internet!” she moaned.


      “Road’s closed with the flooding,” said a man from the kitchen door. Yasmin didn’t know him; he had a tinge of an accent and took up a lot of space in the doorway. “They reckon it should be clear by tomorrow though.”

      Fred!” Sister Aliti looked up from chopping yam and beamed. She pointed her knife at Yasmin who was washing the breakfast dishes. “Have you met Yasmin? One of our new volunteers. Such a good girl.” The knife circled towards the door. “Yasmin this is FredFred drives the van for us when we are too busy to do it ourselves. So very kind.” She smiled fondly at the man.

      Fred nodded and, taking a step into the kitchen, he stuck a hand towards Yasmin. She quickly wiped her damp hands on her skirt before taking it. Fred’s hand was brown and weathered like his face and he gripped her fingers firmly.

      “Nice to meet you Yasmin. So where are you from?”

      “Oh, um, I’ve been living in London most recently but originally from Manchester.” Yasmin noticed he had a snake tattoo curling up his inner  bicep, over his shoulder and disappearing under his black singlet. “Is your accent Australian?”

      A flicker of a frown crossed Fred’s face and Yasmin felt anxious. “Sorry,” she mumbled, although she wasn’t sure what for. “It’s just I’m visiting soon …”

      “Yeah, originally. But I’ve not been back home for while.” His eyes drifted to the kitchen window and stayed there. For a moment, they all watched the rain pelt against the glass.

      Sister Aliti broke the silence. “Fred’s a writer,” she said sounding like a proud mother.

      “Oh, that’s so cool! What do you write?” Yasmin immediately worried she’d been too nosy again. “I’ve always wanted to write!” she added brightly which wasn’t true, she’d never given it much thought. Realising this, and to her horror, she snort laughed.

      Fred dragged his eyes back from the window and looked at her with amusement. “Yeah? Well you should go for it!” He turned to Sister Aliti. “Internet’s down again too with this weather,” He dug into the pocket of his shorts and dangled some keys in the air. “I’ll leave the van keys with you but I’ll be back tomorrow, if the rain’s stopped.” The keys clanked onto the bench.

      “He’s such a chatterbox,” murmured Sister Aliti after Fred had gone and Yasmin laughed.

      “Shall I put these in the office?” Yasmin gestured to the set of keys then gasped as she saw that on the keychain was a devilish looking imp grinning up at her.


      Bertie dropped Zara off at the bus station in Camden early the next morning. She let him think she was catching a plane from Sydney, given her impulsive lie about having to meet her friends sooner, but she was going by train. The reviews she’d read online were tantalizing:

      “The Ghan journey tells the story of the land. The train is the canvas, and the changing landscape paints the picture.”

      A two day train ride would give her time to relax and play the game, and she assumed two days of desert scenery would not be too distracting.  Luckily before she paid for her ticket she had the presence of mind to ask if there was internet on the train. There was not.  Zara sighed, and booked a flight instead, but decided she would catch the train back home after the holiday at the Flying Fish Inn.  By then perhaps the novelty of the game would have worn off, and she would appreciate the time spent in quiet contemplation, and perhaps do some writing.

      Zara hated flying, especially airports. The best that could be said of flying was that it was a quick way to get from A to B.

      “You’ll have to go in a cage for the flight, Pretty Girl,” she told the parrot.

      “I think not,” replied Pretty Girl.  “I’ll meet you there.  See you!” and off she flew into the low morning sun, momentarily blinding Zara as she watched her go.

      Her flight left Sydney at 14:35. Three and a half hours later she would arrive at Alice Springs and from there it was a half hour road trip to the Flying Fish.  Zara sent an email to the inn asking if anyone could pick her up, otherwise she would get a bus or a taxi.  She received a reply saying that they’d send Bert to pick her up around seven o’clock.  Another Bert!


      “One of them’s arriving early!” Aunt Idle told Mater who had just come swanning into the kitchen with her long grey hair neatly plaited and tied with a red velvet bow.   Ridiculous being so particular about her hair at her age, Idle thought, whose own hair was an untidy and non too clean looking tangle of long dreadlocks with faded multicolour dyes growing out from her grey scalp.  “Bert’s going to pick her up at seven.”

      “You better get a move on then, the verandah needs sweeping and the dining room needs dusting. Are the bedrooms ready yet?” Mater replied, patting her hair and pulling her cardigan down neatly.

      “Plenty of time, no need to worry!” Idle said, looking worried.  “What on earth was that?”  Something bright caught her eye through the kitchen window.

      “Never mind that, make a start on the cleaning!” Mater said with a loud tut and an eye roll. Always getting distracted, that one, never finishes a job before she’s off sidetracking.  Mater gave her hair another satisfied pat, and put two slices of bread in the toaster.

      But Aunt Idle had gone outside to investigate.  A minute or two later she returned, saying “You’ll never guess what, there’s a tame red parrot sitting on the porch table. And it talks!”

      “So you’re planning to spend the day talking to a parrot, and leave me to do all the dusting, is that it?” Mater said, spreading honey on her toast.

      Pretty Girl at Flying Fish Inn


      With the flurry of activities going around, in life and virtually, Xavier had trouble keeping track.

      His sanity demanded some clarity of intention and some focus. Too many threads were open, and of all things, he didn’t like loose ends.
      Somehow that silly notion of the Golden Banana quest did pose him a nagging reminder of something incomplete he was eager to get a resolution to. That, or he was unconsciously getting annoyed at seeing his 3 friends making strides in their adventures. The pirate quest was fun enough, but he’d rather enjoy it without having to check everything against being a possible clue.

      There were no rules against cheating. The thought struck him. Maybe that was it. The simplicity of it!

      Since they made the rules, they could make them, break them, amend or bend them.

      He looked up on the internet for an image he could feed AL, and *bam* it was there! In all its glory, a gorgeous Golden Banana on a purple cushion, in a pirate chest. The reward for an online game… That was eerie!

      He’d had a sneaking suspicion the game was not just about virtual any longer. Synchronistic happenings like that were more than just random.

      He logged into the game only to discover a simple message.

      “Congratulations on completing your quest. You may enjoy your trip until the next stage of your journey.
      Look for the cook on the pirate boat, she will give you directions to regroup with your friends.
      And don’t forget to confirm your bookings.”


      Will be at Flying Fish this evening, Hope to see you all soon!  :yahoo_smug: :yahoo_smug:    Congrats, Xavier:yahoo_thumbsup: :yahoo_thumbsup:

      Zara sent a message to Yasmin, Youssef and Xavier just before boarding the plane. Thankfully the plane wasn’t full and the seats next to her were unoccupied.  She had a couple of hours to play the game before landing at Alice Springs.

      Zara had found the tile in the entry level and had further instructions for the next stage of the game:

      Zara had come across a strange and ancient looking mine. It was clear that it had been abandoned for many years, but there were still signs of activity. The entrance was blocked by a large pile of rocks, but she could see a faint light coming from within. She knew that she had to find a way in.

      “Looks like I have to find another tile with a sort of map on it, Pretty Girl,” Zara spoke out loud, forgetting for a moment that the parrot wasn’t with her. She glanced up, hoping none of the other passengers had heard her.  Really she would have to change that birds name!

      If you encounter Osnas anywhere in the game, he may have what you seek in his vendors cart, or one of his many masks might be a clue. 

      A man with a mask and a vendors cart in an old mine, alrighty then, let’s have a look at this mine. Shame we’re not still in that old town.  Zara remembered not to say that out loud.


      Zara approached the abandoned mine cautiously.  There were rocks strewn about the entrance, and a faint light inside.

      Zaras mine entrance

      This looks a bit ominous, thought Zara, and not half as inviting as that old city.  She’d had a lifelong curiosity about underground tunnels and caves, and yet felt uneasily claustrophobic inside one.  She reminded herself that it was just a game, that she could break the rules, and that she could simply turn it off at any time.  She carried on.

      Zara stopped to look at the large green tile lying at her feet in the tunnel entrance. It was too big to carry with her so she took a photo of it for future reference.  At first glance it looked more like a maze or a labyrinth than a map.  The tunnel ahead was dark and she walked slowly, close to the wall.  

      Oh no don’t walk next to the wall! Zara recalled going down some abandoned mines with a group of friends when she was a teenager. There was water in the middle of the tunnel so she had been walking at the edge to keep her feet dry, as she followed her friend in front who had the torch.  Luckily he glanced over his shoulder, and advised her to walk in the middle. “Look” he said after a few more steps, shining his torch to the left.  A bottomless dark cavern fell away from the tunnel, which she would surely have fallen into.


      Zara tile mine entrance

      Zara moved into the middle of the tunnel and walked steadily into the darkness. Before long a side tunnel appeared with a faintly glowing ghostly light. 

      It looked eerie, but Zara felt obliged to follow it, as it was pitch black in every other direction. She wasn’t even sure if she could find her way out again, and she’d barely started.

      The ghostly light was coming from yet another side tunnel.  There were strange markings on the floor that resembled the tile at the mine entrance.  Zara saw two figures up ahead, heading towards the light. 

      Zara mine tunnels


      The two figures disappeared from view and Zara continued towards the light. An alcove to her right revealed a grotesque frog like creature with a pile of bones and gruesome looking objects. Zara hurried past.

      Osnas 1


      Bugger, I bet that was Osnas, Zara realized. But she wasn’t going to go back now.  It seemed there was only one way to go, towards the light.   Although in real life she was sitting on a brightly lit aeroplane with the stewards bustling about with the drinks and snacks cart, she could feel the chill of the tunnels and the uneasy thrill of secrets and danger.

      “Tea? Coffee? Soft drink?” smiled the hostess with the blue uniform, leaning over her cart towards Zara.

      “Coffee please,” she replied, glancing up with a smile, and then her smile froze as she noticed the frog like features of the woman.  “And a packet of secret tiles please,” she added with a giggle.

      “Sorry, did you say nuts?”

      “Yeah, nuts.  Thank you, peanuts will be fine, cheers.”

      Sipping coffee in between handfulls of peanuts, Zara returned to the game.

      As Zara continued along the tunnels following the light, she noticed the drawings on the floor. She stopped to take a photo, as the two figures continued ahead of her.

      I don’t know how I’m supposed to work out what any of this means, though. Just keep going I guess. Zara wished that Pretty Girl was with her. This was the first time she’d played without her.

      Zara tunnels floor drawings


      The walls and floors had many drawings, symbols and diagrams, and Zara stopped to take photos of all of them as she slowly made her way along the tunnel.  

      Zara meanwhile make screenshots of them all as well.   The frisson of fear had given way to curiosity, now that the tunnel was more brightly lit, and there were intriguing things to notice.  She was no closer to working out what they meant, but she was enjoying it now and happy to just explore.

      But who had etched all these pictures into the rock? You’d expect to see cave paintings in a cave, but in an old mine?  How old was the mine? she wondered. The game had been scanty with any kind of factual information about the mine, and it could have been a bronze age mine, a Roman mine, or just a gold rush mine from not so very long ago.  She assumed it wasn’t a coal mine, which she deduced from the absence of any coal, and mentally heard her friend Yasmin snort with laughter at her train of thought.  She reminded herself that it was just a game and not an archaeology dig, after all, and to just keep exploring.  And that Yasmin wasn’t reading her mind and snorting at her thoughts.


      Zara took dozens of screenshots of the many etchings and drawings, as her game character paused to do the same.  She had lost sight of the two figures up ahead, and remembered she probably should have been following them.

      The tunnel came to a four way junction. There were drawings on the walls and floors of all of them, and a dim light coming from a distance in each. One was more brightly lit than the others, and Zara chose to explore that one first.  Presently a side room appeared, with green tiles on the floor similar to the one at the mine entrance. Daylight shone though a small window, and a diagram was drawn onto the wall.

      Zara toyed with the idea of simply climbing out through the window while there was still a chance to get out of the mine.  She knew she was lost and would not be able to find her way out the way she came. It was tempting, but she just took a screenshot.  Maybe when she looked at them later she’d be able to work out how to retrace her steps.

      Zara room of tiles window

      After recording the image of the room of tiles, Zara continued along the tunnel. The light shining from the little window in the tile room faded as she progressed, and she found herself once again in near darkness.  She came to a fork.  Both ways were equally gloomy, but a faint blue light enticed her to take the right hand tunnel.

      So many forks and side tunnels, I am surely completely lost now! And not one of these supposed maps is helping, I can’t decipher any of them. Another etching on the wall caught her eye, and Zara forgot about being lost.

      Zara stopped to look at what appeared to be a map on the tunnel wall, but it was unfathomable at this stage. She recorded it for future reference, and then looked around, unsure whether to continue on this path or retrace her stops back to the four way junction.  And then she saw him in an alcove.

      Osnas 2

      Osnas! This time Zara did say it out loud, and just as the frog faced stewardess was passing with her cart piled with used cups and cans and empty packets.  I swear she just winked at me!  Zara did a double take, but the cart and the woman had passed, collecting more rubbish.

      With a little smile, Zara noticed that the mask Osnas was wearing was one of those paper pandemic masks.  She had expected something a bit more Venice carnival when the prompt mentioned that he always wore a mask, not one of those.  She hoped the clue in this case wasn’t the mask, as she had avoided the plague successfully so far and didn’t want to be late to that particular party,  but the square green thing on his cart resembled the tile at the mine entrance.  What do I do now though? I still don’t know what any of these things mean.  Approach him and see if he speaks I suppose.

      “Ladies and gentlemen, we are now approaching Alice Springs, please fasten your seatbelts and switch off all your devices ready for landing.  We hope you have enjoyed your flight.”

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