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The download of the game still took about half an hour, even with the really fast internet at Soleil’s place, but once it was installed, Willow finally allowed herself to relax. Everything had gone according to plan and they’d had their pizzas and snacked on things that Willow didn’t even know existed, some odd candies that Soleil had, they were now fed and hydrated, and Willow was pretty high on sugar.

There were two programs Willow could boot from within the new BASE interface, the ‘Extended AR Experience’ and the game that everyone wanted to play ‘Shades of the Spirit World’. She had seen some videos from the game, and it had looked pretty neat, but she didn’t know if she actually wanted to play it just yet, if she was ready for it. It had been a long day, and she wasn’t sure she was awake enough for it.

So, she booted the Extended AR Experience first, just to see what it did. The room around her went fuzzy for a few moments before going back to what appeared to be normal, but small ‘tags’ had appeared over items all around the place, even Violet and Soleil’s names hovered over their heads.

Willow stood up and walked over to the window looking out over the garden, touching the plane.

*Do you want to put in place a special view?*

*Yes/No*

Nope. Nope. Not what she was trying, she’d just wanted to look out, not change anything.

Then she walked over to a plant in the corner, a tag hovering over it too.

*Water this plant for 1 XP*

She’d get XP for watering plants? What the?! That was odd. She walked along the wall, over to another plant.

*This plant is sufficiently watered, try again in twelve hours*

Okay, so it could read the state of items and know when they needed something? Like it would understand when plants needed water? Interesting, and curious.

As she walked around the room, she touched different items, like the old consoles on the shelves which would show the name and make of it, or the collection of games, which would show a still from the game for each one she touched together with the name and release date. The extended AR experience was pretty extensive in its data, even if she didn’t know what she could really do with it.

But the idea of being able to gain XP for her character with simple daily tasks did appeal to her, maybe it would help her not forget things…

“Willow?” Violet called out to her from the beanbags, and as Willow turned around, Violet grinned at her. “Are you liking it?”

Willow shrugged and then went over them. “It’s different, but I guess I can get used to this.”

“Want to dive into the game?” Soleil sat up a little. “I know that the start isn’t like super active or something, just simple character creation. It’s not full-dive, so you’re not really transported anywhere, you’re just where you are.”

Not a full-dive? Of course. She was just there in AR, it wasn’t like diving into VR where she would be shut off from the rest of the world. This was just in AR, that didn’t sound as exhausting. “Okay.” She sat down again in the beanbag. “Let’s do this, then.”

Willow booted the program and the Shades of the Spirit World logo spun a few times in front of her, before the room changed into a clearing in a bright forest, the trees overlaying on the walls and an opening between the trees where the door to the garden was in front of her. She could see Violet and Soleil as their normal RL selves, but they were all sitting on some mossy lumps, their beanbags having been changed in AR to fit the rest of the aesthetic.

“Oh, pretty.” Violet smiled, running her hand over the moss of the lump she was sitting on, the moss moving as she touched it, as if she was really touching it in real life. “Oh. You can actually feel it.”

Willow reached out too and felt the soft and tickly feeling of the moss under her hand, how it bent as she put pressure on it, how it brushed against her skin, nothing like the way the beanbag felt, this was all AR. That was cool.

A Shrine Maiden appeared in front of them, the name hovering over her head, most of her face hidden by the shadows of the big hood of her red cape. She opened her arms, revealing slightly odd hands, like a mixture between human hands and cat paws.

Shrine Maiden: Welcome to Shades of the Spirit World.

She could see the maiden’s lips move, just barely visible, but there was no sound, just the text in a small text box. That was a good start, it meant that Willow’s normal settings were already set in this game, she wouldn’t have to figure that all out later.

Then the shrine maiden pulled her hood back and Willow let out a slight gasp. The shrine maiden wasn’t exactly human, she was what some would call a ‘cat girl’. She stood up like a human, built similarly too, in her shoulders and hips, but, like her hands had been partially claws, she had cat ears near the top of her head instead of human ears down the side, her eyes were shaped like a cat’s, in a deep amber colour, and her nose and lips were more cat-like too. But the way she held herself, it was much more human. Willow couldn’t see much else of her, as she was wearing a long robe, hiding the rest of the shrine maiden. Then the maiden smiled at them.

Shrine Maiden: If you pull up the starter menu, you can choose how you’ll look inside the game. People using the Extended AR Experience program and the Shades of the Spirit World game will be able to see you as your character.

Shrine Maiden: Go ahead.

As Willow looked to the side, she laughed as she watched Soleil switch through different hair styles, shaking her head a couple of times, and frowning at some of the odder styles. When she looked to the other side, she watched as Violet held up her hand, which kept changing just a little, longer fingers, narrower fingers, smaller hand, shorter fingers, more hair, less hair, different nail shapes, all sorts of things.

Then Willow let out a deep breath and pulled up the starter menu with a swipe of her hand, the same as most other games used, pretty universal, just a simple flick of her hand in front of her, moving down a little and the menu unrolled.

[NEW - Set Character Profile]

[Character Stats]

[Game Settings]

A pretty simple menu, not much there. She opened the character profile, since she was pretty sure she didn’t have any stats yet, since she hadn’t played anything, that would have to wait until later.

In front of her, her own body appeared, like a projection, and she could turn it around to take a look at herself, not that she really wanted to, she’d seen enough of herself in the mirror. Then, she noticed the buttons down the side of the interface with images for eyes and hair and other things on them.

She first opened the ‘body type’ menu, which seemed to be a more global setting. She had a couple of sliders for height and body width, and then separate settings with names like ‘fur’ and ‘musculature’, but what she was most looking forward to was the option to choose her own race. There were a lot of ‘preset’ body types hovering over her projection, just the outlines as if they were shadows, and one of them appeared to be exactly what she wanted. She reached out, tapping one of the girls hovering over her projected self and it lit up, gaining colour. Yep, exactly what she wanted.

A cat girl. Yay!

Without doing anything, the projection of herself changed into the cat girl she touched. The game could interpret her excitement, of course, so no annoying choice boxes. Her projection was still wearing the exact same clothes as she was, but she could now see that her legs were shaped a differently, since cat legs were a little different, the knee and the ankle were in much higher locations and she was standing on her toes.

As willow looked down at herself, her legs, curled up on the beanbag, had changed too, into the legs of the cat character in front of her, and as she reached up, she could feel the cat ears, both the sensation of the fluffiness of them on her fingertips as she touched them as the way her ears felt as she ran her fingers along the edge of it, much longer than she was used to, and hairier. Okay, cool, she really had turned into a cat girl in this game. Neat.

Then she went back to the main menu for character creation, time to fiddle with her fur colour and things like that, make it more her style instead of generic like it was now.

She could probably do this for hours…

***

After they’d all finished their characters, Violet had turned into some tall elf-like creature, still with her dark skin and tightly braided back hair but her eyes were an icy blue, and Soleil was human-like, though her ears were a little pointier than before and Willow was sure that the green colour of her eyes wasn’t natural either, they went outside, into the garden, since walking around the living room wasn’t really that safe with everything there. The game wouldn’t start inside a small room, it was a safety feature, as the change of breaking things while playing was too high. They had more space out in the garden, enabling them to actually play the game.

As Willow stood outside, the world around her a mixture of AR and reality, the shrine maiden appeared in front of them again, her hood down around her shoulders, not as imposing, mostly just very cute.

Shrine Maiden: Are you ready to play the intro quest? This is not an optional quest. Without completing this quest, the game will not turn on into ‘game mode’ and will effectively function as the Extended AR Experience program does.

Okay… She wasn’t a fan of mandatory quests, but since she still hadn’t chosen a class or knew how to fight or otherwise interact with the game, she didn’t have much choice.

Violet touched her shoulder, her hand heavy and comforting. “Can we do this as a group, do you think?”

Willow looked back at her, but Violet was looking at Soleil instead.

Soleil shrugged. “We can try. Let’s see… Can we get group options?”

Shrine Maiden: Would you like to form a group?

Willow hadn’t expected for the answer to come from the NPC… Or to be directed at her.

Willow: Yes.

Shrine Maiden: Who would you like to have in the party?

Willow: Violet and Soleil.

That was pretty obvious, right?

“Accept invitation,” Violet and Soleil both said next to her at the same time.

And now Violet and Soleil both appeared in small round portraits at the side of her interface, close enough into her line of sight to see comfortably, but not close enough to the middle to be in the way, and their names over their heads turned purple from the simple white they’d been before.

“Oh, cool.” Violet grinned. “We’ll have to figure all this group and guild thing out at some other time. But for now… I guess we can make this work.”

“Let’s start the quest together.” Soleil grinned too. “I’ve heard so much about the game, but I’ve never actually seen footage of the early part of the game, the intro quest and stuff. Just things that are in the overarching game, not this part.”

“Nice.” Willow smiled. That meant that they all started this for the first time, together.

Willow: I accept the quest.

Shrine Maiden: Introduction Quest Activated.

The world around them went black for a few moments, probably putting them into a more instanced experience than they had been in and Willow was surprised by how smooth it went. It really was like she was in VR, but at the same time, she wasn’t. She could still feel the wind on her skin, hear the sounds of the real garden she was standing in, the steady breathing of her friends at her side.

She was in a digital world and the real world at the same time. This update really was something totally different than she’d ever experienced before. This was next level cool.

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Had a little break in posting as other things came first, but I'm back now!!


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