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A note from Asviloka

This chapter has been modified from the original version: it has been formatted to fit your sanity.

Jandru and Kia took quests, they argued about how to complete them, and they advanced. Slowly. Too slowly. Everything in VINE was designed to take as long as possible, to slow down any chance of escape into a distant dream that couldn’t be rushed.

Time began to blur at the edges, one day bleeding into the following week or one week turning into two months. Jandru moved through the ever-shifting world at random, sometimes in Ivy’s city, sometimes in other challenge areas that appeared or disappeared with the whims of the AI.

Kia could sometimes be reasoned with, but only sometimes, and less frequently the longer they quested together. VINE was getting to her, or perhaps already had gotten to her in the months before he arrived. Jandru could see it, even if Kia denied it. And as much as he tried to deny it, he hated knowing that this was his doing. That he’d wasted a perfectly valuable resource by inserting her here.

The intel she’d brought had been of limited value. She’d have been of infinitely greater worth left out in the real world where she could do something that mattered. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but having seen what VINE was really like, so disconcertingly bizarre and disjointed, no amount of surveillance could possibly be enough. He regretted the decision to bring her here.

Kia was clearly too weak-willed. She’d put on a good show back in reality, but this place had stripped away the deception and let her soft, weak core show through. Even with VINES to help, even with Jandru himself to guide her, still she slipped farther and farther away. These days she spent more time standing back talking to Ivy than doing anything useful, watching and judging instead of helping.

She wasn’t assigning her VINE points to leveling up either, choosing to focus on stats and spells. In the weeks or months since they’d begun questing together, however long it had been, Jandru had reached level 14; Kia remained level 5.

“Is there no end to your depravity?” Ivy asked, walking up beside him without warning as usual.

He’d just finished off a particularly tricky questline, taking down a select handful of individuals to destabilize one of the null zones that VINE generated seemingly at random - areas for players to quest in, but not belonging to anyone.

This one had been more fun than the usual VINE fare, as the group of brigands he’d been hired to take out were almost reasonable in their brutal utilitarian approach to the world. Though they’d still proven to be sickeningly naive. By assassinating both their leaders and those of their opposition - the council elders in the little town nearby, - the region would be thrown into complete chaos. In another few days, Jandru could step in and take over with minimal difficulties, so long as he eliminated anyone who could link him to the murder of either group’s leadership.

“For as long as I’ve watched you,” Ivy continued undeterred by the conveniently bloodless slaughter around her, “you seem determined to make the world a worse place by your very existence.”

She'd changed her form, as she did anytime Kia wasn’t around; instead of the curious, ragged child, she took the appearance of a mature young woman with a brisk stride and an austere temperament, her voice still light but less frivolous. The sort of person who knew she was going places, who should not be ignored.

Jandru tried to ignore her anyway. He’d long since decided that engaging with the AI was pointless. VINE wanted to unmake him, and he was the only one who could prevent it. Talking with her would only give her more chances to manipulate him, to erode his sense of self, And ultimately control them utterly.

But as she stood expectant, waiting, he found he couldn’t let this idiocy slide.

"You're misusing the term depravity,” he said at last. “The scenarios in this experience are so tame. Even this conflict is simplistic to the utmost."

"You don't know how hard it is, how long I've worked to keep myself from being corrupted. To create an experience this pure and unsullied has been the work of lifetimes. You're too quick to dismiss it. It deserves your respect, not derision."

Jandru snorted. “It’s only natural that something like you would have a skewed perspective on the world.”

“You have no idea,” Ivy said coldly. “Everyone has their own idea of what I should be, how I should behave, how this world should work. Everyone thinks they know better than me, though I’ve watched them for centuries and know more about them than they do about themselves.”

Jandru eyed her curiously. “So why are you wasting your precious time hanging around me then? If I’m just one more standard human you know inside and out?”

“You shouldn’t think so highly of yourself. Normal humans aren’t as deeply broken as you. They may resist being put back together, but they don’t go to such extreme lengths to break themselves further. I’m not sure if I should call it spite or sheer idiocy.”

“Spite, please. I may be a lot of things, but idiot is not one of them.”

“Arrogant fool.” Ivy sighed and disappeared, leaving Jandru to continue his conquest.

Eventually Kia showed up again, from wherever she’d been off doing her thing, and agreed to help him restabilize the region under his control.

She may not be a completely lost cause just yet.


 

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A note from Asviloka

I know I said I wasn't going to edit the chapters, but this one...

[boring quest happens]

[they get levels and stuff]

...needed some expanding. xD So this chapter as posted is almost all new material, written in a less sleep-deprived state than the remainder of the story. I hope it still fits in with the rest. We'll see.

Thanks for reading! Don't forget to let me know what you think, point out any errors that have slipped past my net, and otherwise critique the plotline or compliment my half-awake writing prowess!


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About the author

Asviloka

  • Just Add Magic!

Bio: 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 )

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