Blinking into the body of Festia Hightree almost sent Jannit Oji into sensory overload. The balmy air of a Tangian summer night filled her nostrils, tainted by particles of ash. Tropical forest creatures raised a racket as they hunted by the light of the moons, echoing from points far nearer than normal. The inside of her mouth tasted bitter. Her tongue felt parched and her lips were dry. Her bones ached in entirely unfamiliar ways. Above her a wash of multicoloured stars painted the sky, partially obscured by the jagged edges of the remains of her house's roof.
Festia felt alive. Not as alive as she ought to be, but significantly more than Jannit had been. This was not an uncommon feeling. Whenever she arrived here from the depths of an induced dream state, the real world felt like the dream. That was how it felt for most VIVID users.
The 72 years of rapid ageing felt terrible though. Not too terrible, as her personal pain preferences prevented her from being too uncomfortable when in VIVID, but enough to be a nuisance. There had to be some stakes to choices in this or any world, or it would all rapidly become pointless.
Festia's mental response to that system message was practically palpable.
Just my luck, a mutation. Sheep matter, really? Haven't encountered that before. Woolen Lungs sounds annoying but at least it's nothing visible.
Festia began to stand, pushing herself up from her partially-destroyed bed with bare, wrinkled arms. She wore a plain thin brown summer nightdress, which was thankfully undamaged. In addition to having the wooden frame cracked in two places, the bed had been dusted with ash and splinters of wood and stone. There would be little salvageable left in Vantibia, and few interested in trying to salvage it.
Better get out of here before the radiation ages me any furth... Woolen Lungs did WHAT?
Festia immediately understood the dreadful implications of the VIVID system message that appeared in her consciousness in appropriately vivid red. Even in VIVID, she had not escaped death by asphyxiation. In scarce minutes she would experience death and its consequences. She wished to delay that for as long as possible, so she started running for the only source of help. Vantibia had a small hospital — closer to a clinic — which kept a small stock of herbal concoctions for aiding in health and healing. It had an even smaller supply of Celestially-imbued potions which could induce rapid recovery. These were difficult to produce and store safely, and so were quite expensive. Right now, the cost of Festia's death would be far greater than the loss of the potions, if any remained.
The front door of Festia's home — little more than a single-bedroom hut of wood and stone — lay broken among the charred remains of her vegetable garden. She ran out into the street, which was a simple gravel path wide enough for a horse to pull a cart.
Which way is the hospital?
She was struggling to think, as the dizziness from the suffocation — both virtual and real — began to kick in and combine with her general stress. This was represented by the reduction to her Mind, which affected the outcome of all mental activities she attempted. Festia'd had a total of four points in Mind. The loss of one point was bad. The loss of two points was devastating. Now she regretted some of her character build choices.
After looking left and right, Festia spotted half of a large red and white sign directly in front of her, which was illuminated by a lantern. She stared at it in confusion.
'HOSP' has to be what I'm looking for, right?
Hoping her panicked deduction was correct, she ran forward into the building. This one at least was relatively intact and free of ash and smoke inside. It was also free of all staff. She staggered in a drunken matter past the gossip station — what the locals called the reception desk — and towards the dispensary.
How am I going to get anything without help?
There was still no sign of any staff or patients. Everyone had either fled or was asleep and offline. That is, their VIVID characters were asleep. The actual humans were awake, living their lives. They might choose to abandon their characters and roll new ones, rather than experience the ravages of intense Celestial radiation as Festia was doing.
I'm alone. These might be my final hours, and I'm dying alone.
What she really needed was someone to fetch the potions for her, but she would settle for someone to talk to. Instead, she got another piece of bad news.
Only halfway to the dispensary, Festia collapsed in a boneless heap beside an empty bed. She would have much preferred to have landed on the bed, but paralysis prevented such choices.
__No no nonono! I should have taken Unruffled instead of Unflinching as my race ability._
Unruffled was one of the ability options available to humans in VIVID, bestowing some resistance to confusion. It likely would have helped Festia fight through the dizziness, saving valuable time. Unflinching instead gave some pain resistance. Unfortunately it was only effective against pain debuffs such as crippling pain. Festia's collapse was due to her inability to breath, not pain, so her ability didn't help at all. But none of that information helped Festia. Her fate was already sealed.
There's no guarantee the potion would have fixed the mutation. Or that there even are any potions left.
Regardless of the possible futility of her attempt, she felt like she had failed personally to have come this far and achieved nothing. She'd wasted her one shot. Now she was forced to lie here on the white tiled floor and die again. This time, she didn't even have Lume's voice to keep her company.
I should have kept a healing potion on me at all times.
She quickly dismissed that thought. Potions were too valuable to hoard, and could be broken or stolen. Protecting against loss would cost extra. Besides the practical issues, enriching herself personally went against the entire purpose behind founding Vantibia. VIVID existed to enrich powerful families such as Nojus and Goodminton. She had hoped to give an opportunity for some of the exploited people to be more than serfs. Many tried, but the system was designed to make success all too rare. Tantalisingly possible, but far from common. Festia — or rather, Jannit — had seen enough to know that merely throwing around wealth would simply funnel more funds directly to the lords of this place. Vantibia had been a path for hundreds of regular people to grow beyond subsistence, so they in turn could help others. But now Vantibia was dead.
And I'm dying too. In the real world. Does that mean I could blink out of existence at any moment? Or will I stay conscious until my VIVID session ends? Will I wake up dead? Will I just cease to be?
All these thoughts and more swirled around her troubled mind like water around a drain. Festia's eyes had remained open, letting her stare up at the cracked white paint of the ceiling, searching for answers.
Perhaps prayer? Nah, Sandoti won't care whether I live or die, and she doesn't give out anything that would actually help me right now.
She wasn't quite ready to give up yet. But there was nothing she could do or hope for. No way to call for help, and no one who could reach her in time. Even if a deity took pity on her...
The world greyed out until it was hardly visible. Festia's other senses dulled to a similar level. She very nearly lost consciousness entirely, but desperately clung to the sliver of stimulation VIVID was feeding to her mind.
If I lose hold of this, I might never wake up. I'm about as close as a person can be to death without crossing over, and I don't know how long I can hold on.
Her chance of survival had gone from essentially zero to negative. She could not drink a potion while unconscious, so she was done for unless a powerful healer happened by in the next few moments. There were precious few healers on the Isle of Wighland, and as users of Celestial power they were more likely to be foes than friends. This was intensely frustrating. Not at all how she wanted to spend the end of her life.
It was finally over. Jannit temporarily ceased to be Festia. On whatever virtual plane she dreamed she existed, she sighed in relief. Now to see how bad the damage was.
|You are Dead|
This message was a cheery yellow in contrast to the black of the death message. The bright default colours of most of the system messages clashed with the more rustic aesthetic of Riches of Renfros, but Festia preferred it that way. Attempting to make the imaginary floating boxes blend in only reminded her how imaginary everything else was, making the experience feel less authentic. It was better for her to have the interface feel jarringly false. In her current state, the bright yellow gave her mind something solid to cling to for a few seconds.
Enough. I'd better go back before I lose my nerve. Or my mind, I guess.
She pressed, or chose, or otherwise mentally selected the Yes option, beginning the process of reforming Festia at the appropriate respawn point. Hopefully her place of worship still stood. Though perhaps it would be better if it didn't, so she could respawn in some other location. There was really no point in coming back in Vantibia.
It still exists. Looks like I'm going to be stuck in Vantibia for a while longer.
A profound loneliness washed over Festia as she realised she would not be meeting anyone else.
And my day goes from terrible to worse. This time I'll die even faster. I'm stuck like this for sure. But at least I get to exist physically and move for a little while.
Yeah that's about as bad as I expected. Ouch! Hang on, when did I hit 97.2? Must have been in the minute I was unconscious.
Two days of VIVID time meant forty-eight hours of play. Players were allowed a maximum of sixteen hours of perceived play time per real world day — compressed into eight actual hours of sleep — so it would take a spot over three game days for the curse to wear off. If she was only online every second day — since thirty-two hours passed in VIVID in the sixteen real waking hours between sessions — then six whole days would have passed here in Vantibia. Or if she paid for a hireling to play in her offline hours, only three VIVID days would pass and she would only have to be aware of two of them. Of course, all those calculations were futile. In just a few short minutes she would die again and add another forty-eight hours to the curse.
None of those hours really mattered. Festia could potentially blink out as any moment. She might, but she might not. Maybe Jannit wasn't quite brain dead yet. Or maybe she was already gone and VIVID was keeping some part of her consciousness running. For now. Whatever happened, she would be completely gone when the eight hours were up.
Didn't I already think about that? I'm sure I already thought about that.
Here we go again. Oh, less radiation here. That's a plus. Won't matter in a few hours though.
There was no point in running again, so Festia remained reclining on the altar. While it was called an altar for mechanical purposes, its form did not fit that description. The Altar of Knowledge was located in the centre of the Hightree Museum of History and Culture's reading room, and consisted of a loose pile of beanbags and cushions. Here, patrons of the museum — and of Sandoti — could relax and peacefully enjoy their choice of manuscripts. Collection and preservation of lore was an act of service pleasing to Sandoti. Unfortunately, not so pleasing that Sandoti would care how many times Festia died. Nor would Sandoti actually care that the museum had been partially destroyed and essentially abandoned.
As noted in a bright orange system message, the altar was in disarray. The beanbags and cushions had all been ripped open, and their contents were strewn about the room. The dried beans and woolen stuffing were intermingled with the crumpled, torn pages of books, and books with the pages torn out. It was no longer a place for restful contemplation and study.
After Festia tossed a few books aside, the remaining mess was comfortable enough to relax on while she suffocated to death again. Some sorts of people configured VIVID for extreme realism of sensation, including all the unpleasant ones, but Festia was quite happy only experiencing mild discomfort instead of realistic suffocation. The one time in Jannit's real life would have sated her curiosity, if she'd had any.
I might tidy up a bit more on the next go around. If I can get to the supply closet, I could repair some of these cushions and beanbags. Maybe put some of these books back too.
She looked over to the main bookshelf, which was now marred by large stretches of missing books. The bookshelf had been fashioned by a friend from dark hardwood from the nearby jungle. From a seated position it looked imposing, and for good reason. Even without the hundreds of books on its shelves, the dense wood was heavy enough that it would crush any unarmoured regular human it fell on. For that reason, it was screwed into the wall very securely.
Poor Cobb didn't know what hit him. He was a good librarian, most days. Now I'll never see him again. I wonder what kind of character he'll roll next.
Cobb had been one of the earliest characters to die to the cultists' attack. He was among those who had logged out early to post the news online, alerting Jannit to the tragedy.
I still have another minute until I'm paralysed. One minute, and nothing to do. I guess I could write in a book. But what's worth writing? A message to Lume? The odds of him or anyone seeing these books in the next several years is pretty darn low.
Celestial radiation was very long-lived, and was quite effective at keeping players away. Only throwaway characters and very specific builds — including cultists — dared delve into such places.
Actually, there's a decent chance Lume might make or hire a throwaway just to check whether I left anything. A message, and of course loot. So I better not disappoint him.
Finding usable blank paper proved difficult. No one had left any pens or pencils sitting around either. Festia would need to go further afield to find something to write with, and she did not have time for that on her current iteration of life.
Playtime's over. Now I'm more helpless than a baby. Baby! How's my baby?
Panic washed through Festia as she realised she had failed to consider more than herself. How had her irradiation and death affected her baby? She directed her thoughts outward, very deliberately invoking a powerful being far beyond herself. The prayer was not to her patron deity Sandoti, but to an element of the VIVID system considered by most players to be a deity of much greater power and significance.
"ALI, how's my baby?"
Please clarify what you are referring to, Festia Hightree.