Chapter 1.1
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The rain gently tapped against the window to Emily's room, making a soothing and steady drumming noise. She couldn't understand why people thought that rain was gloomy. Rain had always been relaxing and cleansing to her, and the smell of rain always put her at peace. Staring out her window, she watched the trees in her front yard sway in the wind from the second story bedroom that was her sanctuary from the noise below.

It was a Friday, and unlike most teenagers, she absolutely abhorred Fridays. The reason for this was that Friday marked the beginning of the weekend, which for her meant that there was a high probability of some sort of unpleasant drama happening in her house. Emily's mom and step dad tended to go on benders pretty much every weekend from Friday until Sunday. Things usually started out in good fun, but they would eventually reach blackout stage and arguing would ensue. In fact, arguing was typically the best case scenario as over the past several years she had seen many holes put into walls and doors, broken lamps and even on one occasion a smashed TV. 

Sighing to herself, she sat down on the edge of the bed and put her head into her hands to block out the loud music coming from downstairs and the yelling that had started. Every time this happened, she couldn’t stop certain thoughts from entering her head. Will I be taken away again? Emily shook her head, trying to force away those thoughts. Stop thinking about it. The past is the past. Her family really did love each other despite their problems. This was just the hand she was dealt and there was nothing to be done about it. She tried imagining herself somewhere else, anywhere else. 

After a few moments, she heard a loud smashing noise from downstairs. Tensing up instinctively she looked over at her bedroom door. She had learned in the past that going down to interfere in their arguments led to nothing good. She got up and sat against the door to her room. I just need to stay up here, she thought. Please, just stop fighting and go to sleep already. Only two more years and she'd be off to college and she could leave this place behind, just like her sister.

Emily glanced over at her computer screen while continuing to sit against the door. One good thing would come from this weekend. It was the launch day of a game she'd been waiting ages for. Her escape from this awful and unfair world was imminent.

For as long as she could remember, she has loved escaping into exotic worlds portrayed in fantasy novels, TV shows, movies and especially video games. She constantly daydreamed about living interesting and exciting lives like the characters of those stories. She could spend countless hours tucked away in her room while her mind was out slaying a dragon or sailing a pirate ship.

Emily could hear her mom's shrill voice downstairs saying, "What the fuck is the matter with you?"

She closed her eyes again. In just a few short minutes, the game she had been waiting ages for would finally be downloaded, patched and installed. Standing up, she walked over to her desk and sat at the computer. Phoenix Online was the most hyped VRMMORPG to have ever been made and had been in development for over a decade. 

VR games had been immensely popular for longer than Emily had been alive and had gotten more and more sophisticated every year. Phoenix Online was completely cutting edge and required special hardware that didn't come cheap. Not to mention, the game itself was extremely expensive for some reason. It cost her almost all of the money she had saved over two years of babysitting and working part-time.

Other than the demo video released online a year or so ago, not much was known. It had been announced that the game world was vast and that players would be randomly assigned spawning points to begin their adventure on their first time logging in. The hardware was supposed to make the game fully immersive, and it was said that moving around in the game was just like real life. The demo generated so much hype that even before release, the game had sold millions upon millions in pre-orders. The game had an interesting slogan, "You will rise from the ashes of this world and be reborn. There will be no turning back," which made her want the game even more.

Emily paced around the room in anticipation. The installation bar inched its way along across her screen as slow as a snail. She had started the install as soon as she got home from school and it now stood at 96%. Emily was chomping at the bit to get into this new world and escape from this crappy one for a while. Come on already!

The game finally finished installing. She could hardly contain her excitement as she reached over to the side of her desk, grabbed her VR headset and moved over onto the bed. The technology was completely cutting-edge, and the headset resembled a motorcycle helmet more than a typical VR headset. There were no controls for the hardware. Apparently, it operated using her brainwaves and would somehow make her unable to move her real body while the game was running.

Emily took one last deep breath and put the helmet on over her head, then hit the power button on the left side. Her field of vision immediately changed and she was standing in a plane of darkness with nothing except a window in front of her. It had Phoenix Online stylistically written on it with an image of a giant phoenix fighting a dragon. In the middle of the window was a login prompt.

Username: Astoria
Password: *********** 
Login Successful!

Are you certain that you wish to rise from the ashes of your existence and be reborn in the world of Phoenix Online?
Yes     /     No

WARNING: There will be no turning back.

What a weird thing for it to ask me... I guess they just want to drive their slogan home. She shrugged and selected yes. The window disappeared and a moment later she felt the grainy texture of dirt between her fingers as she found herself sitting on the ground. After taking a moment to get her bearings, it was clear that she was inside some sort of cave. The area around her was poorly lit by a torch set into the wall that flickered giving uneven light. Some games started players in dungeons or jails and so this type of situation wasn't completely unheard of. It was odd that there had been no further menus asking her to create a character, choose a race or anything. The game hadn't even offered her a tutorial mode. 

Astoria was completely awestruck with how real everything was. All the other VR games she had played in the past only had visual stimuli. The new hardware that this game ran off of was on a completely different level. For one, when using the old hardware to play VR games, she always had control of her real body and had to use controllers. Phoenix Online felt just as real to her as if she was actually inside a cave in real life.

The air was musky and cold like a real cave would be. Astoria picked up a handful of dirt and let it slide between her fingers and back to the floor of the cave. It was so realistic. The spot she was in was a dead end and the tunnel led off into darkness. Astoria finished looking around and went over to grab the torch. After examining it for a moment, a translucent information bubble popped into her vision next to the torch.

Crude Torch
This item will light a 10 foot area and will continue to burn for four hours.

Sweet. So I can get information about things I pick up by just examining them, she thought in amusement. She smiled and wondered what this world had in store for her. It was then that she noticed a small status icon in the corner of her field of vision. It looked like a character status icon. Astoria focused on the icon and it brought up a window with her character stats.

Name Astoria
Level 001 (0/90 EXP to next Level)
Class None
HP 150/150 MP 150/150
Attributes
Vitality 10 Magic 10
Endurance 10 Magic Resistance 10
Strength 10 Luck 5
Agility 10  
Dexterity 10
Abilities
• Kleptomancy
Skills
• None

She grimaced. It doesn't really give me much to go on... and what the heck is Kleptomancy? Astoria decided to see if she could get the system to give her more information on the ability. Concentrating on it seemed to work and she got another pop-up.

Kleptomancy

The ability to steal skills from others. In order to steal a skill you must come into direct physical contact with a person for 5 seconds. Until you become more proficient at Kleptomancy, the skill stolen will be chosen at random.

The level of the skill gained will begin at 1 regardless of the skill level of the person you steal it from, unless you already have this skill, in which case it will increase your skill level by 1. The victim will have their skill level reduced by 1. If their skill level was only 1, then they will lose the skill. 

You may use this ability only once every 48 hours.

Note: Your victim will not be notified directly that you have stolen a skill level; however, the next time they open their status they will surely notice. Use with caution.

She wondered just how proficient she would need to be in order to be able to choose the stolen skill. She smiled to herself. With this, I can literally learn how to do anything!

It was a pretty big drawback that she started with nothing in this game, but at least she had potential. Astoria wondered if everyone started with the same stuff as she did. There was really no way of knowing though, and it didn't really matter, she supposed. Shrugging off the thought, she began walking down the corridor and after a few minutes she came to a large open room that had tunnels branching off in several directions. 

Not knowing which way to go, she decided to just take the tunnel to the right. It appeared to be the biggest one and she didn't really want to scrape herself crawling through tight spaces if she didn't have to. One way was as good as another since she had no information to go by. Hopefully this would lead outside where she could get a true look at what this world had to offer. It was still early evening and she intended to spend every second of tonight inside the game. With a skip in her step, she headed off down the tunnel, all the while not noticing the scuttling noises that could be faintly heard in the distance.

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