Ghost Cache

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'Boot' 2.7


Late Afternoon

Wilting Woods, Exalted Reach, Mrilchift, Riches of Renfros

Aga Utana woke with a splitting headache, a burning throat and a screaming leg.  She unwillingly opened her eyes to the sight of dark brown tree trunks towering above her.  A fragment of bright blue sky stabbed down from between needle-clad branches.

"You're lucky we found you," said one of the trees, or so Aga throught for a few confused seconds.  Then she realised that some of the smaller trunks were legs standing around her.  That explained why some of the branches looked like spears aimed at her body.

"Huh?" she asked weakly.

"You wouldn't last half an hour in these woods.  You're some fifteen-year-old diving into VIVID for the first time, aren't you?  Well in case no one told you, the Wilting Woods are last place in the Exalted Reach a newbie like you should be.  Literally.  If you can make it through here then you're ready to start exploring the rest of the world."

"Um."  Aga felt that she'd been insulted and was unsure whether she deserved it.

"And in case you forgot, no one likes thieves," said a different voice.  The speaker sounded older than the first, and equaly as male.  "That doesn't change just because you're in a dream world.  And you have zero chance of getting away on a stolen horse with zero riding skill.  Now, let's see if you feel so eager after a night in the lockup.  Let's hope for your sake that the horse walks back home.  Otherwise, you'll be paying for it in labour for the next few months."

"I... But..."  Age was sure that this wasn't fair.

It wasn't me, was it?  Someone set me up.  I don't remember stealing any... Oh.  Now I remember.

"I surrender," she said weakly.

"Good choice, thief.  Tiaja, check her for weapons and valuables."

"Sure thing boss," said a third person, this one sounding female but just as gruff as the others.

But what are they, exactly?  City guards?  Police?  Neighbourhood watch patrol?

"Who are you?" Aga asked as Tiaja carefully prodded her and confiscated everything but her clothes.  That included a tiny knife up her sleeve and a set of lockpicks in one of her boots.  "Ahh!"

"I think her leg is broken," Tiaja reported to her boss.

"Hmm.  Well I'm not carrying her all the way back and I'm not waiting for her to hop, so...  Where's your respawn tether set to, girl?"  That had to be the boss speaking.

In spite of her current condition and obvious recent foolishness, Aga was cognizant enough to see where that train of thought was headed.  "You're gonna leave me out here to die?"

"Yeah.  And we'll count it as time served for your sentence."

"I haven't been sentenced!"

"The three of us watched you fall off a stolen horse.  And you clearly weren't returning it to its owner."

"Um...  I got lost?"

"Sure.  If you somehow turn out to be innocent I'm sure you'll be adequately repaid.  Actually you'd be better off since this way you get your belongings returned without having to loot your own body.  But you'd better tell us where you respawn so we can have someone ready to arrest you.  And don't try to lie or you'll add obstruction to your crimes."

"Er...  Respawn tether...  Um..."

"Just ask ALI, you utter noob," said the other man.

"Oh, right."  She was feeling all mixed up after hitting her head.  She was still seeing stars, among other things.

"ALI, where's my respawn tether?"

Queen Matala's Orphanage, Reach City, Exalted Reach, Mrilchift

Right, of course, I'm a kid who lives in an orphanage.  How did I forget that?  Oh, right, bump on the head.  Should I tell the guards that?  Right, they're guards.  City guards, from Reach City.  Is there any reason not to tell them my tether?  No, they'd find me quite easily and there's no way I could flee and stay alive out of their reach.  I'm just a kid and this is my first day, right?  That doesn't quite seem right, but it must be.

"Well, kid?  We haven't got all day," the lead guard said.  Tiaja handed him a bag, and Aga recognised it as her own.  "Haven't got much to you name, eh?  You an orphan?"

"Yeah.  Queen M's.  That's my tether point," Aga admitted.

"Went for the tragic backstory, did ya?  Or did your family not have any suitable legacy characters available for you?" the other male guard asked.

In the absence of names, Aga decided to think of the lead guard as Bossy and the other as Nosey.  Nosey happened to have the larger nose of the two, so that worked out well.  "Uh, what?"  She didn't understand most of what Nosey had asked.

"She might be the first in her family to try VIVID," Tiaja said.  "And you're scaring her off.  It's supposed to be fun!"

"It's not so fun for us when noobs think they can commit grand theft equine on their first day," Nosey said with all the sourness of a grapefruit.

Hold on, when have I eaten a grapefruit?

"It's such a shame that we get to do our jobs, Kayne!" Bossy said, nudging Nosey with an elbow of disapproval.  "How about you ride back to the city and wait to collect our stray orphan when she respawns.  Tiaja and I have more patrolling to do."

"Why do I—"

"Because I'm the boss, that's why!  Now get out of here."

Aga finally strugged into a seated position, just in time to see Tiaja wave smugly to the departing guard.  "See you later Kayne.  Don't let  her get away!"

Nosey Kayne shot her a dark look and mounted his horse.  Bossy studied him closely, as if waiting for him to say something that would warrant handing out a further indignity as punishment.  Kayne kept his mouth shut.

"So you're gonna just leave me and hope that I die soon?" Aga asked, trying to make her displeasure very clear through her tone and expression.  That was not easy, as most of her facial muscles were dedicated to clenching at the waves of pain from her broken leg.

Bossy chuckled as if he thought the whole situation was a joke.  "Hope?  You're not going anywhere on that leg, and you can't fight barehanded."

"Fight what, exactly?"  Aga's voice wavered, and it wasn't all from the pain.

"Timberwolves.  Say, you might want to turn down your pain settings.  It looks like they're set to max.  If you think a broken leg feels bad, just wait 'til the wolves get to you."

"I'm surprised she's in so much pain," Tiaja said.  "The system limits kids, regardless of their settings."

"Um..."  Aga tried to remember how to adjust that.  "ALI, set my pain level to minimum," she said, guessing that should be close enough to work.

The primary account holder has not authorised hirelings to assign skill specialisations.

"Uhhh... what?"  Something didn't feel right.  Aga's mind raced.

Hireling?  I thought that was a way of paying someone to play my character while I'm awake.  I remember setting up something like that.  Yeah, when I realised the guards were catching up to me.  I didn't want to get caught, so I picked the cheapest option available.  And then... then I cranked the pain settings up to max and locked it there.  Heh.  But then why am I stuck here?  This isn't meant to to be happening to me!

"You alright, kid?  You look like you saw a ghost," Tiaja said, sounding more concerned than seemed possible of a person about to leave a teen to be attacked attacked by wild beasts.

Stoni gasped.  "Ghost!"  That was what she was, not Aga at all!  "If I get my hands on the person who paid for this and locked out the pain settings, I..."  She wasn't actually sure what she might do, and realised in time that she should probably refrain from any violent vocalisations.  "So this is what I get for ripping Nat's dress," she said more quietly.

"I don't know who Nat is, but it sounds like I don't want to cross them.  Which means it's time for us to be out of here," Bossy said.  "Have fun with the wolves!"  He mounted his horse in a single fluid motion.  Tiaja did the same, after gracing Stoni with a sympathetic glance.

"Hey!  You can't just leave me to the wolves!  I'm not the player who stole the horse!"

"Sure, and I was born yesterday.  Wait, no, that would be you, horse thief."

"Doesn't that mean you're abandoning a baby?" Stoni argued.

"You're no baby."  Bossy seemed to consider that the last word in the argument, and began to ride off.

Stoni scrambled for some way to keep the conversation going.  "Wait, this doesn't make sense.  How do players who aren't focused on combat get past the wolves to leave the starter zone?"

No one bothered to reply.

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