For a normal character, being incapacitated like this would send them to the logout screen of Nova Terra, where they could open their pod and exit, but Thorn didn't have that luxury. His condition had warranted full immersion, and full immersion is what he had. Instead of the epic landscape of the loading page, Thorn found himself elsewhere, suspended in darkness.
However, this darkness seemed more than a simple lack of light. Rather, it was darkness that was deeper. A smothering, consuming darkness. At first, Thorn assumed that there was nothing to see, but he realized that his other senses were muted as well, a perfect sensory deprivation experience.
At first, Thorn's brain scrambled to make sense of this strange state, reaching out for some sort of input. With rising panic, he began to scream mentally as the pain and anger he had been subjected to threatened to overwhelm him. Struggling to control his overflowing feelings, Thorn calmed himself by narrowing his focus, like he had been taught.
Reduce all extraneous thoughts, clear the mind, focus on a single point. Meditation had been part of his martial arts training, and it had worked wonders in helping him get through the pain caused by his condition. “Pick a point and zero in.” he repeated mentally, focusing his mind on the party that had betrayed him. His anger helped him throttle the panic that had surged up, and by focusing on the last scene he had witnessed before the darkness, he was able to settle his thoughts.
Taking a deep mental breath, he relaxed. After an indeterminable amount of time, Thorn noticed a growing glow and realized that he was starting to be able to see. Faintly, he began to see a strange figure materialize in front of him. It looked blurry and warped, almost as if he was seeing it through a translucent wall. The strange figure looked like a cross between an angelfish and a squid with a tall, flat body and eight tentacles that spread from where its mouth would be. Thorn was curious about it but, for some reason, felt no fear or trepidation, despite its bizarre appearance.
With an abrupt motion, the eight tentacles angled together, forming a point, and stabbed toward Thorn, pushing their way past the translucent barrier separating them. Squirming and pushing, the odd creature forced its appendages through the wall as it approached closer, its tentacles opening up and sliding around Thorn before pulling him back. With a pop, Thorn felt the sensation of being pulled through the wall, squeezing through the hole the squidfish had pierced in the barrier.
Sensation returned in full force as Thorn found himself standing in the endless expanse where he had started the game. The squidfish, its task done, released him and, with a wave of its fins, drifted off into the digital distance.
Hearing the polite cough, Thorn turned his gaze away from the retreating squidfish and looked down, where he found the NPC who helped him register standing with a clipboard.
"Hello, Traveller, it is wonderful to see you again," said Myst, her eyes darting around Thorn's face as if searching for something. "Please bear with me for a moment as I have a couple of questions for you. The first time a player dies, it can be something of a mental shock, so we like to take a moment to talk about their feelings on the subject. This serves to make sure that the experience does not negatively affect the player in the long term. But, before that, do you have any questions for me?"
"Yeah, what was that place? And that creature?" Thorn asked, looking in the direction the squidfish had gone. "Will that happen every time I die?"
"That is a great question, Traveller. To answer your last question first, no. Then, in order, the location you were in was NULL space, a portion of the game where nothing exists. In order to safeguard the players who encounter fatal bugs, the consciousness of the player is transferred to NULL space to protect it. Once the situation is stabilized, the player is brought back out of NULL space by an Angler, the program you saw now, and sent to respawn."
Flipping over a couple of pages on her clipboard, Myst frowned. "However, we have a slight issue."
"A slight issue?" snapped Thorn, startled by the words ‘fatal bug' that Myst had so casually thrown out.
"Yes, traveler. Our problem is that you are not dead, so we can't send you to respawn. In fact, it looks like your subconscious is refusing to accept death, which, apart from being inconceivable, is causing you to get stuck in our rebirth cycle."
"Inconceivable, why would it be inconceivable?" muttered Thorn, scratching his head. "Nova Terra is a game, there is no way I can actually die."
"Yes, well, your brain doesn't think so. Or rather, it shouldn't think so. The realism of Nova Terra is strong enough to convince your brain that death in-game is real, and the game can judge when your brain accepts death. This is also supplemented by the game pods, as each has a limited amount of processing power. When the processing power peaks, the brain is counted as overwhelmed, and in-game death occurs. In effect, the two ways for death to occur are: your brain acknowledging that you have died, or, your pod's processor hitting a threshold. However, I see that because of your special circumstances your pod has more processing power than others, an oversight that led to this occurrence."
"Huh, so I died?" asked Thorn, unsure of where this was going.
"It isn't that simple," sighed Myst, looking much more human than when she had helped Thorn register at his first login. "The situation, as it stands, is this. Your character is incapacitated and should have already suffered hypothermia and died due to your brain accepting death. However, your subconscious refuses to accept the situation, which keeps it alive," said Myst
"Normally, this situation would still result in you being logged off due to your pod's processor peaking, and you would only be able to log back in after your body died, and you passed the 12-hour death penalty delay. But, the condition which should have caused your brain to shut down by taking up all available processing power is only affecting the primary computer on your pod, leaving the secondary and tertiary computers running."
Pausing for a breath, Myst shook her head. "In effect, your avatar is shrugging off the effect of hypothermia because you genuinely don't believe that it would affect you, and the gaming hardware is keeping your body alive. This is an oversight on our part, and your firmware is being updated to prevent this from happening again."
"Wait, so I am dead?" asked Thorn, confused.
"No, you are alive. We have pulled you from the game to install the update. Your avatar is still laying on the floor in the cavern," Myst replied before flipping back to the first page of her clipboard and staring at Thorn. "Now, why don't we talk about what just happened. You were betrayed by a group of people, used for their own ends, and discarded. Tell me, how do you feel about that?"
The abrupt change in topic jolted Thorn out of his stupor. Too much had happened in the last few minutes for him to focus on the events prior to being thrown into NULL space but, with this question, everything came flooding back. He had been recruited into a group and had been tossed away like he was nothing, used and abused. His first experience with other players was an absolute disaster, and that made Thorn furious. But, even as he raged in his heart at the four traitors, something in the back of his mind couldn't help but wonder at the situation.
Before coming into Nova Terra, Thorn had done a bit of research and was aware that the concept of morality embraced in the outside world had been tossed aside by some players. There were very few humans who could get rid of the moral constraints that society placed on them, and Nova Terra actually had a solid screening process to alert the authorities to psychotic behavior.
In fact, the more he thought about it, the more puzzled Thorn was. Ouroboros had led his group into that dungeon for a specific reason and had both Velin and Mina ready to transfer his potential away to Ouroboros, which indicated they not only knew what to expect from the encounter with Karrandaras, but they were planning to strip his potential away the whole time. On top of that, Jorge very clearly indicated that they had expected to receive some sort of beneficial title from the archdevil that Thorn, being passively involved, had missed out on.
Additionally, they had killed him, rather than letting him continue to suffer the pain of the sacrifice. Why not leave him there if they were going to backstab him? Despite the cause of his death being intentional, it had been a more humane way to kill him than hacking him up with a sword. Did it have something to do with the reward they were expecting? Questions swirled around Thorn's head as he tried to remember anything that would give him a clue.
Thinking back, Thorn recalled that, in the "lesson" he had been given as he had knelt on the floor, Ouroboros had mentioned everyone having a goal. The way he said it made it sound like everyone in the game had the same goal. Thorn had started playing recently and wasn't aware of any secret goal that would put players in such brutal conflict with each other. Granted, there was much he didn't know about Nova Terra.
Looking at Myst, who was still watching him, Thorn replied, "I think I'm fine."
"Yeah?" Myst didn't seem convinced. "Player killing is common in Nova Terra due to the non-permanent nature of death, but the damage done to relationships is as real in-game as it is in the real world. It is to be expected that you would be experiencing mental turmoil over this situation."
"Am I okay?" Thorn wondered. Strangely, he was. The burning anger from a moment ago had disappeared, flaring before being smothered by a cold line of reasoning that had emerged from the recesses of his mind. Did that mean he would not seek revenge? Well, that remained to be seen.
However, before Thorn could continue this line of thought, soft light pulsed once, and Thorn's eyes opened a crack. The cold flagstones of the dungeon floor pressed into his face, contrasting with the burning pain that ran through his body.
Opening his eyes to the dim, flickering torchlight of the dungeon, Thorn looked around with bleary eyes. With a grunt, he got a hand up and rolled over, marveling at how much easier it was without having to be worried about his skin ripping. Thorn gave a painful chuckle as the thought flashed through his mind. That chuckle turned into a cough, with pain continuing to wrack his body. A number of screens popped up, but he waved them to the side and dragged himself to his feet.
Feeling the carvings under his hand, Thorn took a deep breath, focusing his mind as his sensei had taught him, using the pain to clear his mind. He pushed the pain to the side, accepting it as reality and forcing his body to relax, despite the spasms wracking his body. After a few moments, he carefully stood and made his way to the entrance of the room. About to limp out of the door, he remembered the altar with which the others had been interacting.
Approaching it, Thorn stumbled over the uneven tiles, nearly crashing to the floor. Catching himself on the edge of the stone altar, he gritted his teeth and pushed himself back up. The stone altar was only four feet high, made of a dark, porous stone. Symbols carved into the top and sides depicted the moon in various phases, covered in scratches and chips.
The top of the altar was lit by a ghostly red light, casting a bloody glow on Thorn's pale face. Seeing that the item Ouroboros had fit into the front of the altar was still there, he ran his fingers over it, jerking his hand back in surprise as the faint light intensified, and the large, red spirit boiled up from the top of the altar.
Seeming puzzled, the archdevil swirled forward through the air, examining Thorn with interest before commenting, [CURIOUSS. YOU SSTILL LIVE? I HAD WONDERED WHY I WASS SSTILL TIED TO THISS PLACE!]
"Why is that?" asked Thorn. "Should I have died?"
Sinister laughter echoed around the chamber at his question. Shivering with excitement, the spirit moved forward, twining itself around Thorn's body and running the back of its hand across his cheek.
[YESS. YOU SSHOULD HAVE DIED. ASS THE SSACRIFICE OF BLOOD, YOUR SSPIRIT SSHOULD BE MINE!] The spirit stared at Thorn's body, examining his features. [YET HERE YOU SSTAND, DESSPITE THEIR TREACHERY, DESSPITE YOUR SSUFFERING. YOU MUSST HAVE SSOMETHING DRIVING YOU TO BE ABLE TO SSTAND IN THESSE SSIRCUMSSTANCESS. TELL ME, WHAT ISS IT THAT DRIVESS YOU SSO?]
Barely able to keep his feet due to the pain that still sent spasms through his body, Thorn was startled by the question. What did drive him? What was it that caused him to refuse death, despite the pain? Wouldn't it have been easier to give up and go with the flow, being reborn? Was it because he had spent his whole life in this sort of condition? A saying his aunt used to repeat to him when he was young and hurting sprang to his mind and flowed, unbidden from his lips.
"I am more than my pain, I am more than my body. My body bends to my will, not I to it."
[AHAHAHA] laughed the specter, [WHAT A MARVELOUSS WILL! YOU HAVE BEEN FOUND WORTHY. YOUR BLOOD HASS BEEN GRANTED MY BLESSSING. I LOOK FORWARD TO SSEEING YOUR WRATH VISSITED ON YOUR ENEMIESS! YOU SSHALL BE MY CHAMPION, MY AVATAR! KILL YOUR BETRAYERS AND I WILL GRANT YOU POWERSS BEYOND YOUR COMPREHENSSION!]
With a thunderclap, the specter turned into a deep red mass and burrowed into Thorn's chest, bringing with it a violent, rending pain that left Thorn, once again, gasping for breath. The burning pain soon spread through his body, raging like a torrent into his limbs. The red current flowed through his body, pushing up into his head, bringing with it a splitting headache.
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Bio: My name is Seth Ring and I am a writer. I create worlds and tell the stories of those who inhabit them. I love exploring these new worlds with other people. I post a chapter every Friday around 12 pm EST. To get advanced access to chapters you can support me on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/SethRing.