Jandru led the way down the internal stairs of the half-buried ruined structure. Green tendrils of living plants had crept up the sides of the building, worming their way into any weakness in the stone, growing out of every crack and penetrating in through every window. It was an uncomfortable image, given the metaphorical nature of the landscapes around here.
He wondered if one of these buildings represented Kia, and if so how close VINE had come to dragging her down into the jungle’s tangled green heart.
“We need to find a way to free them,” he said aloud.
“I don’t think there is a way,” Kia answered.
“There has to be. There’s no way I can accept that we’re doomed.”
He had to hold onto his purpose here. He was here to make things different. To change the world. To change his little corner of it.
To fight back against the system that tried to destroy him. To stand against what would strangle and subdue him.
He couldn’t let his paralysis extend to this place.
Ivy had been right when she said he’d been afraid. There was nothing that terrified him more than the idea of losing himself so completely that he’d disappear completely into someone else. And she’d also been right about him choosing to face her anyway.
He’d miscalculated badly, but his purpose had to remain. He couldn’t give up.
Kia seemed, well, not ‘better’ but at least slightly less bad. She was wandering around staring blankly at him or their surroundings, instead of at her little figurine. That was progress. He had to believe it to be so.
He just had to find a way to shock her back into her old self. And then find a way to preserve his own self. And then a way to escape anyway.
VINES SYSTEM UPDATE REQUIRED: PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR HOME TERRITORY
Jandru looked around, but the ruined city stretched in every direction. He could not see a single space that contained anything but jungle vines and buildings in varying states of decay and decrepitude.
"Kia? I don't suppose you know how to return to our home territories?"
Kia shook her head. "I followed Ivy to get here. I don't remember much of the trip. But this is not a remotely normal sort of place. I don't know how it works."
Jandru started up a flight of steps that led to a fairly open balcony.
A deep voice shook the entire structure. "Yes?" something asked an incredibly deep rumble. Jandru lost his balance and fell to his knees. He looked up and saw that it was a giant statue. It seemed to be staring across the courtyard at him.
“Do you know how I can get back to my home territory?” Jandru asked.
“You want to go back to your tribe?” The voice shook the terrace and Jandru would have fallen if he weren’t already on the ground.
“Yes?” Jandru thought it unwise to attempt perfect clarification when speaking with something that might accidentally destroy the structure beneath him. The fewer words said, the better.
“The Warp Spiders can take you there. They’re not the fastest route, but it beats weeks of marching.”
“How do I find them?” Jandru asked with forced calm. By now he’d given up on the experience making any sense. He wasn’t even sure why he was following the quest prompt, but he did feel eager to return to his territory. Calm, empty of weirdness, no strangers he suddenly knew. A safe haven to escape the madness, to pause and recalculate.
"I can lead you there." The statue shifted, rising to its feet. It had a crown which Jandru only now realized was made of huge bones woven together with thorny vines and stained brown. He felt distinctly uneasy about their new guide, but wasn't going to turn down help when offered.
He hated feeling so helpless. He had no resources. No allies apart from a half-addled Kia, He couldn't even rely on the world to play fair. It kept shifting around, changing its shape, changing its rules.
He'd always been told that the VINE experience was realistic; this was more dreamlike than anything. Yes, it felt real, but it was so disjointed and bizarre.
The driving force behind the world in which he'd become trapped was an ancient, possibly mad AI who masqueraded as a child. And no one put a stop to it because it was useful. Because it worked.
Because they didn't have to worry about the people they subjected to its corrupting influence. They could throw their unwanted dregs in as tributes and keep VINE happy and active. Cheaper than refurbishing it. Cheaper than prisons. Gamers and vacationers alike paid enough for virtual experiences that the facilities kept improving and spreading. Long-term rates were reasonable, and the mineral upkeep costs were minimal.
VINE had no oversight. No laws governing its inner workings.
It could do anything to those it influenced, and no one would stop it.
Jandru's stomach squirmed uneasily at the thought, his throat achingly dry, then all unpleasant sensations vanished and he was once again physically at peak condition.
Nothing to worry about, VINE seemed to be saying. Relax and get on with it.
Jandru shivered, grabbed Kia's hand, and started after the slow rumbling stone statue though part of him wanted to run the other way. He had to get home, away from this city, from Ivy.
The animate statue led them further into the ruin, down a steep ravine that Jandru could have sworn hadn't existed when he'd looked out over the city a few minutes before, then through a waterfall and into the cavern beyond.
"Lizards!" Kia said eagerly, sounding more like a 12-year-old girl than the master thief she had been before VINE.
Not just lizards, though; flying lizards. Jandru wouldn't quite call them dragons, they had a distinct shape that he couldn't describe as dragon-ish, but they were certainly lizards and they were certainly flying.
The statue gestured expansively. "The Warp Spider tribe. They can help you on your path." Then it turned and walked back the way it'd come, shaking the ground with every footstep.
"Flying lizards!" Kia whispered urgently. "Jand, they're flying lizards."
"And we're quite capable of introducing ourselves, thank you," said one, landing nearby. It flared its bright red wings, flapping them twice with enough force to send Jandru stumbling back a step, then settled itself comfortably, front legs crossed in front of its chest, tail flicking like a cat's.
"I'm trying to return to my home territory," Jandru said, well aware as he spoke of the inanity of asking for directions from flying lizards. "Can you help get us there?"
"I can fly you there myself, but it's a long trip and I'm still injured from our last battle with the Harpies."
"But you can do it?"
"I can try." It leapt into the air, wings flapping furiously, and then the world warped and shifted. Jandru and Kia stood on another ruined building, in an unfamiliar section of the city.
"This is as far as I can warp," the lizard said, as it dove down to hover at eye height. "Your territory is further north."
Jandru nodded. He could see the familiar broken landscape of his territory in the distance, the rifts scarring the broken land, the craters and voids.
"What do you want in return?" Jandru asked. In his experience, nothing came without a cost.
"Nothing. I just wanted to help," replied the lizard.
"You're being strangely helpful to someone you've never met.”
"That's the tribal way. We help each other. Especially our allies, but anyone in need."
Jandru felt mildly uncomfortable at the frankness of the conversation. He didn't want to feel grateful or indebted, particularly not to a winged lizard thing, but it was hard to deny good fortune when it dropped in your lap.
Was this how VINE worked? It started off with others treating you well for no reason, then transitioned to making you reciprocate, until you were the moron going around giving flowers to sick people you'd never met at your own expense?
Jandru wouldn't be taken in.
He didn't speak again until they reached the edge of his territory. The flying lizard bowed and turned to go.
"You're sure you don't require any payment?" Jandru asked.
"Nothing I could give you would be anything but a gift. Lead your tribe well."
Jandru wondered, uncomfortably, if this was a reference to the many companies and organizations he was responsible for in the real world. Was VINE warping together reality and fantasy?
He turned to step into the land that represented himself. He'd forgotten just how dead and empty it looked, until he returned. The vibrancy of the ruined city felt so much brighter, his scarred and cratered landscape so much uglier in comparison.
That had to be VINE messing with him. This was his haven. He forced himself to see beauty in the desolation, to appreciate the safety represented by the deep rifts where he could hide away from observers.
As the lizard turned to leave, Kia raised her hand. "Do you want to join us?" she asked, sounding almost desperate.
"No. Go and face your adversaries, and make your new home proud." The lizard took one last flap, then soared into the sky and warped out of sight.
Jandru sighed, feeling relieved and also concerned by the whole encounter. It troubled him how little made sense around here.
QUEST UPDATE: VINES UPDATE READY. PROCEED?
Jandru gave it permission, and his interface flashed red. Warnings began to appear, too quickly for him to acknowledge, flashing then vanishing as selections were made without his involvement.
PLEASE CONTACT USER 0126 TO TRANSFER UPDATE
"Kia?" Jandru held out his hand. She hesitated, then seemed to understand what he wanted. She placed her palm against his, and the data link hissed like steam escaping an over-boiling pot.
DATA TRANSFER INITIATED
PLEASE WAIT . . . ... ...... .......
QUEST UPDATED: INTERACT WITH THE WORLD TO OBTAIN VINE CURRENCY. TRADE IN VINE TOKENS FOR EXPERIENCE AND LEVELS. WHEN YOU REACH LEVEL 100 YOU WILL BE RELEASED.
MORALITY RESTRICTIONS HAVE BEEN SUBVERTED. HAVE FUN!
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- Just Add Magic!
I've been writing longer than I can remember, but only started taking it seriously around '08 when I discovered nanowrimo and started attending conferences. Since then I've written several million words of practice stories leading up to posting here starting in '19.
My goal is to continue to perfect my craft and find a way to make writing my fulltime occupation rather than an obsession pushed aside by the necessity of working to support myself. Whether that means traditional or independent publication, building a strong patreon following, or something else entirely, I have yet to discover.
I always welcome suggestions for improvement and gladly accept all feedback, positive or negative. Don't hesitate to let me know what you think, and please consider leaving a rating or review! :)
(If you're looking for my cover thread, it's at https://www.royalroad.com/forums/thread/110578 )