The location in which Festia became present could not accurately be called a room. It was the abstract dream of a room, representing something very specific. It could be said in a certain sense that it was a room with walls composed of black bricks. What that meant practically was that Festia's sense of the room terminated at a boundary, which gave the impression of bricks that did not reflect any light. The room's shape could be categorized as cubic, Festia felt, but it was a cube without a specific size or orientation. Perhaps it tasted or sounded cubic.
One wall of the room was fully occupied by six light marble gravestones in a tightly-packed row. Each gravestone was accompanied by a human skeleton. Some of the skeletons simply sat in front of their gravestones, others lounged against one side, others stood behind their stones, and still others stood balanced atop their stones, with their outstretched hands scraping the black bricks of the ceiling.
The opposite wall held the decaying timber hulk of a once mighty ship. Its masts jutted upwards at different angles, with torn scraps of canvas hanging from the yards and fluttering in the breeze.
An immaculate house of cards took up the entire opposite wall. Each card was perfectly placed, but the slightest puff of air would bring the whole edifice crashing down. Each card was neatly printed on both sides with descriptions of items and abilities in VIVID. Festia could read every word without needing to move from her vantage point.
The remaining two walls held rows upon rows of numbered lockboxes with transparent fronts. Each one held an hourglasses. All were steadily accumulating sand in the bottom section. It was unclear how much sand remained in the top. There were hundreds of millions of these hourglasses. Most were flowing. A few had stopped. Festia knew that hers was one of the stopped ones.
A few loose items rested untidily in the corners of the room. Festia catalogued an assortment of candles, crows, a bucket, an actuary, a farm, a broken ladder, and the ice-cold iron heart of a long dead star.
All this, Festia sensed in an instant. Realisation and fear warred within her mind, but were quickly walled away by steely defiance. She said nothing, and concentrated every effort on ceasing observation of this place. On not concentrating.
"There's no point in ignoring me," were the words she became aware of having been inexorably communicated to her by Beve. She was within his domain, and it followed his rules.
"Return me at once," she said, finding herself capable of speech in this place. Or perhaps she was still thinking aloud. It resulted in the impression of having spoken, regardless of what may or may not have actually ocurred.
"Not just yet. You are a very interesting indivi—"
"I'll stop you right there," Festia said, boldly cutting off the patron deity. "I'll have no part in your machinations. No deals, no favours. No negotiations. I want out of this place. Put me back where I belong, now."
"Now, now. Now. That's a very interesting word. Now. The way this works is—"
Festia interrupted again. "No deal. I don't want to be here. I haven't broken any of your rules, or caused you any trouble. Nothing I've done should have caught your attention."
Beve seemed to find that amusing. "What makes you think I intend to correct your behaviour? I would have done that without bringing you to my realm. No, you are here as a reward for your achievement of so very many deaths. I cannot return you until I have settled that debt to you."
"I do not recognise such a debt. Release me."
"Now, now, that's not your decision. My offer to you—"
A chill ran up Festia's spine. "You can arbitrarily imprison anyone here? That can't be—"
"Oh, no, I can do no such thing. There are rules. And then there are sneaky ways around the rules. And then there's my kind who watch people sneaking around the rules, and do something about it to keep everything fair. And then... well then there are people like you. You are a perfect candidate to be my champion."
"I refuse to be anyone's champion, or agent, or tool. Except those who have been prevented from being their own champions."
"That is exactly why you should want to become my champion. There are many lords in your world who have accumulated great power, and now rest in safety, avoiding the possibility of the consequences of death. Death is a great equalizer, but they spit in my face."
"I can't help you. I don't have the time."
"Yes, there is very little sand in your hourglass, and it flips so often! But if you accept my quest to turn some hourglasses that are well past due, I can ensure that you have enough time to carry it out."
"You are wrong." Festia knew that Beve could alter many things, but only within VIVID.
"I, wrong? Such defiance is unheard of in someone I am attempting to bless."
"I know better than to believe the blessings of the patrons are not hooks with lines attached."
"You think you know so much. You even think you have protected yourself from my influence by refusing to look upon me. But you are wrong. I exist throughout this entire realm. I am it, and it is me. I am the gravestones. I am the flow of sand. And I am the actuary."
"Oh. Regardless, I refuse. I will die on my own terms," Festia said, as if she was not supremely unsettled.
"And die, and die again. It need not be so."
"That is my decision. And my decision is to refuse. I have heard your offer. Your self-imposed debt is paid. Return me to my own world at once."
"Such defiance is unheard of in someone I am attempting to bless. If you insist, I will return you to your little dream. But first, a word of advice."
Festia shuddered at the uncanniness of the repetition, which reminded her that she was not talking with a real person. "I do not—"
"No strings attached. No hooks either."
Festia's jaw clenched. Beve did not seem to know how to take 'no' as an answer. Escaping here without owing something would be a more difficult challenge that she had anticipated. "Why should I trust you, Beve? You care only about bringing balance through death."
"You have made your opinion of me clear. Nonetheless, I am working to improve the experience of all people, just as you are. Since you and I have the same goal, I need not manipulate you. Please, let me help you."
Beve was asking her? Festia found that to be significant, and guessed at the reason. "You can't give me the advice unless I let you, can you? Then, no, I reject your help. Even at my lowest point, you cannot entice me. That is all."
The room sighed. "You made your choice."
Subsequently, Festia ceased sensing the room.
|You are Dead|
Festia snuggled cozily in her pile of cushions and beanbags. She would have breathed a long sigh of relief, but the attempt failed utterly. Instead, she silently watched the familiar system messages float by. It was good to be back in the... well, not the real world, but at least a world that usually made sense. The corners and edges of walls added up properly, items were contained within larger spaces, and colours were seen, not felt. Anything more than distantly appeasing the patron deities of VIVID by respecting the rules of fair play made Festia distinctly uncomfortable. The altar to Sandoti was nothing more than the efficient use of activities and values she already preferred. While Sandoti was her patron of record, she would have refused her help just as much as Beve's.
Though I did briefly consider paying to Sandoti. But I wouldn't really do it. That was just a moment of weakness. But if I wasn't dead in a few hours anyway... No I would find another way. And if one of them could save my real life, then what? Of course I would take the chance at living. Although... Owing my life to a jumped-up algorithm on a Carna processing core — that Oji sold them decades ago — would be intolerable. And it would probably require illegal Gantt technology. If it was possible, they would own me in every way possible. No, I would be better off dead.
As if to illustrate the point, she went through another death reset, gaining yet more Death Curse time.
This sequence of events bears remarkable similarity to events logged over the past several hours.
"Is that your way of saying 'Oh, you're still at it'? Yeah, I'm gonna be doing this for a few more hours. Beve offered me a way out but... No, just no."
The questlines provided by the patron deities are very rewarding, according to multiple metrics. They offer exciting new experiences, plentiful opportunities to practice skills and abilities, and rare quest rewards including...
"Yeah, yeah, I'm sure it's lots of fun. But I'm sure you know I don't like being locked into questlines, and I really don't like owing anything to anyone or anything that can easily crush me."
Such a policy avoids many great risks with possibly dire long-term outcomes.
"It sure does! I knew you'd understand, ALI. Yeah I know you're all formal and technical, but whatever you are feels much more alive than something like Beve. Though I suppose Beve feels extra dead, since he's basically the patron of death."
These sentiments are not entirely inaccurate.
"Heh. I suppose you'd know a lot more about them, since you can see everything in VIVID. Does Beve creep you out too?"
The patron deities' personality simulations exist separately from the Ares computing cluster. Their incursions into VIVID realms are set in motion in response to aggregate data statistics.
"You're saying you can't see them? I thought you could see everything!"
The concepts of 'everything' and 'seeing' are not applicable to VIVID. The dream virtualisation is limited to that which interacts with players.
"Ohhhh, you're saying you can only see them when we can see them. Did I give you a rare look into Beve's realm?"
Useful data relevant to the ongoing optimal operation of VIVID has been gathered.
"You're welcome, ALI. Well, it's time for me to die again and then write more letters. Good talk."
A remarkably low percentage of user interactions are preferable to this one.
"Aww, I like you too, ALI."