"Well that was pointless," Stoni muttered softly as she filled out her latest mission report. It was another round of familiar answers to standard questions. The mission had been fairly interesting but the mission report inspired nothing but boredom.
I hope the player behind Lira appreciates the training I did. I wonder if they'll get back into VIVID before the whole blockade situation is over. Coda's gonna be waiting for someone who's not gonna show up. Oh well, players are probably used to that sort of thing.
She set down her completed mission report and took a look around Cube Farm 3. It was the same as always: desk after desk, divider after divider, and receding lines of ghostly forms in every direction. The overhead lights were dim and the sounds of activity seemed muted. Nothing ever really changed in Cube Farm 3. Everyone was busy but nothing happened. Everything that happened, happened in VIVID.
There's a word for this. The transition between what was and what will be. The waiting space that's neither here nor there. We're not here to be here, we're here because we're in between. I know there's a word, but it escapes me. It's still so strange that it's VIVID that feels more real. That must be what it means to be a ghost. Feelilng more real in other people's dreams. There's nothing I can do about it. Yet. It's interesting what Coda and the others were saying though. About how the situation in the dream world affects the great families. The economics of Renfros influences the economics of the world outside. I definitely need to learn more about that.
She tapped her ghostly fingers on her desk, trying to make a rhythm. The resultant lack of sound prevented her from determining how badly she was doing.
Hopefully I'll be put back in Star Town again so I can learn more about the blockade. Maybe I can meet up with Coda and the others again.
Her chance came a few minutes later. The drabness of Cube Farm 3 dissolved and familiar system messages appeared.
"Close enou— Ow!" Something heavy and solid hit Stoni in her new character's left leg. It also felt cold, but on the positive side it wasn't sharp. As she looked down she felt her balance was wrong. That made sense when she saw the bronze shield strapped to her unfeeling left arm. "Well that's going to be useless. And painful. How am I supposed to walk if I keep bashing that into my leg?"
She checked out her surroundings to see where she might want to walk to. "Rolling meadow, more meadow, a couple of trees, Star Town in the middle distance, the coast way over that way, various even more distant mountains in non-coastal directions. Guess I better start walking back to Star Town." The meadow featured irregular clumps of fresh green grass, scattered over reddish soil. The grass clumps were tall and solid enough that stepping over them would be difficult. They were essentially grassy bushes, not like anything that might be found on a lawn.
There didn't seem to be any point in lingering, so she turned to face the town. She felt drawn to the welcoming safety of the encompassing wall, particularly the safe zone the wall represented. Some of the larger structures within were visible from this distance, such as the white stone temple.
As she took an exploratory step forward with her latest pair of shorter legs, something at her back growled. It was a growl filled with menace, inspiring terror.
Correction: run back to Star Town!
Stoni ran. Her first steps were awkward and she very nearly pitched forward onto her face. The shield quickly became a problem, but holding it up with her other hand helped. That caused additional balance issues, but she had some practice dealing with those.
The growl repeated, closer. A second more distant growl followed it. She didn't dare look back. She knew that would cause her to either topple over or throw up. Her right eye was causing her more pain and disorientation than she'd noticed in the last few missions.
At least it's not as low as Lira's was. Not by a lot though. I'm starting to hate switching between all these really new characters!
Now that she had running figured out well enough, she put on more speed. The growls repeated, closer but not by much. Ahead, the safety of Star Town hardly seemed closer at all.
I need to be smart about this. Who am I and what can I do?
Some panicked reflection told Stoni that her character's name was Malivia Sturgeon, she was a Labourer, and she had Acceptable ranked skill with shields and daggers. They were still low tier, but that as an improvement over Poor rank. A decent steel dagger waited in a leather sheath on her right hip.
Shield skill? That's no use. Or perhaps...
The closer chasing beast snarled. It was almost upon her. A sizable grass tuft was before her. She dropped into a crouch so her compact body hit the base of the grass. It was thick and solid enough to stop her, though springy enough not to hurt badly. Heart was pounding in her ears, but she could now hear the footfalls of the approaching beast. At what felt like the right moment, she whirled around to face it, flinging her shield with as much force as possible. Her unfeeling arm swung and the shield caught the beast mid-leap on the side of its black-furred head. With a motion that had been well-rehearsed by Malivia, she grabbed her dagger and stuck it in the large hound's closest weak point.
The other approaching hound growled again. It seemed about as close as the first one had been originally, but she couldn't see it through the grass. She quickly chose to run again, hoping the fallen beast would send a message that she was not to be trifled with. Additionally she didn't want to spend any more time than required beside the dead or mostly dead creature.
Even as she ran for her life, she grinned. The feeling of having her progress recognised always brightened her mood.
The snarl of the hound brought her mind back to the reality of the situation.
Not that it's actually real, but if that thing gets its teeth into me it will be really unpleasant. And I really want to get back to Star Town if at all possible. Why can't I run faster than this? I'm short, but not as short as Nina Hanner. Even she could run a lot better than this!
Annoyed by Malivia's lack of skill and fearing that she might not do such a good job of slaying the second creature, Stoni concentrated her mind and body on nothing but running. She tried to invoke every scrap of experience of running as Nina in the hope of turning it into an advantage now. Any technique she'd used before might gain her a little more distance out of every frantic step.
It seemed to work. Running seemed a little easier. She pushed herself to go even faster. Her steps felt surer. She chose a path that was a little shorter than she might otherwise have taken.
"No way!" The joyous words forced their way out between heavy breaths.
I can hardly believe my eyes and ears! Well, one eye, and none of them are really mine. But... skipping all the way to Acceptable rank, tier 4... that's amazing!
The hound howled behind her. Something about the sound sapped away her glee, leaving room for fear. Stoni began to suspect what kind of beast was giving chase, and was glad it didn't seem much closer. There was still hope of escape.
The howl was answered by many similar howls. They came from all directions. Behind, beside and in front. All hope and happiness was gone from Stoni now, replaced by something beyond fear.
She was surrounded by terror hounds.