Quote:“We’ve concluded that Case Seven seeks to reach certain stages within their self-created worlds. Only by reaching an ending milestone, be it success in conquering some goal, or irrecoverable defeat, will they separate enough from the world for extraction. Both have risks to the Case Seven’s psyche.”
Doctor Long, The Virtual Conundrum
Days blurred by. It felt oddly fast and at the same time I could remember enough specific incidents to fill things in. Some days I stayed with Izzy and watched her struggle to learn new information. Nothing clicked right. She listened attentively during the one on one training offered by Professor Lianne but her practical abilities didn’t make progress.
Professor Lianne took a vacation near winter holiday. No one knew where the woman went. Upon returning, she looked both tired and sad. Our classes started involving more tired lecture and less one on one review afterwards. By summer, the professor had some bounce back. I suspected it had to do with the two men she was seeing at separate times.
Colleen turned fourteen and started spending more time with a boy two classes ahead of ours, by then Izzy was able to make her own breakfast most mornings. There were other issues as the dorm took on many new dynamics for a growing crowd of children.
Nathan never said much. Once a week he would be down in a lower court yard overlooking the ocean. I watched more than once as he practiced a martial art style learned from one of the fighting classes. Afterwards he would sit and stare out over the ocean, always quiet, never letting other people near him.
Still time marched on, and eventually Isabella Brand turned eleven. By then she was much more knowledgeable, but neither one of us had taken great strides in progression of our abilities. I felt conflicted about peaceful times but saw the value. Izzy needed time to be a child, to develop friends and chatter about hair.
Right now the two of us were sitting in the room. She studied more than ever. To her it wasn’t a matter of homework being assigned or questions asked. Izzy knew all those answers and more.
Maybe the cat aspect of my life was getting to me. I felt like these last few days, months, almost since we arrived at this school it was a muddled daze. Fast forwarding through stuff that just didn’t matter.
It wasn’t completely useless. We both picked up more skills that worked between contractors and spirits like myself. Direction sense, long distance communication, even sharing mana if we were so inclined. Just, very little that would help with fighting demons.
“Look Pierce. Here’s the Terror Rat’s we fought. It says they’re less than rank one demons.”
“And the king?”
She flipped through pages. “Four?” Izzy nodded afterwards quite a few times then flipped through more pages. “The snake was a Reed Constrictor, rank seven, this book goes all the way up to thirty.”
Izzy flipped around a picture of an absolutely giant turtle. There were notes scribbled on the side but I still couldn’t read this world’s language. I assume it said something like ‘big, slow, tough, tastes good boiled’.
“What rank am I?” I asked.
“Spirit Flame cats, full grown, aren’t in this book, and there aren’t classifications for kittens.” She said. The book spun back around.
I yawned and looked around the room. There was some sort of magic involved that expanded our surroundings in order to accommodate a growing child. It was one among many things I had stopped questioning about this new world.
“By the time you learn what rank I am, I’ll just get to advance to something else.” My words felt silly. At the rate we were going there would be no combat or visiting things outside the city. Izzy was safe this way.
“Mmmmhmm. I’m missing something still with these spells, or I would have tried to brave the labyrinth below.” Izzy turned around and spun together one of the spell forms her grandpa had taught her almost two years ago. It looked like a circle rolling over itself.
“Missing something?” I questioned. We had discussed this before, I was sure of it. Unfortunately the exact details slipped my mind.
“The spells that Professor Lianne keeps teaching me are the same as what Grandpa Hubble showed me. Even after all these years I still haven’t found the missing portion.” She rolled over and held the book up. Candle light from the table helped her read.
“I don’t know.” My feelings about magic were still kind of vague. I existed and could use natural abilities but none of these magical abilities worked despite multiple attempts to do so. “Have you tried comparing two of them?”
“To see if they’re missing the same piece.” I said with a half hearted shrug.
“Mmmmhm?” She hummed out that vague response even more than before. It sounded cute at least and made me laugh, when Izzy wasn’t around of course.
“There were a bunch of them, maybe they go together, or are all missing the same piece.” The idea had taken me almost a year off idle though to put together. My own abilities for clever thinking had taken that long to get this far.
“Mmmhm! Maybe!” She sat up and looked positively excited. “I’ll try Pierce, I’ve never tried to do two at once, or maybe I had to find the right two!”
Izzy sat up trying to pull down two spells at once. It went poorly. Her practice skills for a single one had grown in leaps and bounds but two took more work. I had only gotten better at hoping through walls and napping in sunbeams.
Hours later she was completely asleep. I carefully pulled the blankets over her body with my teeth. Afterwards I went about my nighttime prowls, confident that her room was private enough. If I couldn’t walk through anyone else’s door, no one should be able to get into hers.
The dungeon that Izzy spoke about was heavily defended by a nasty looking version of the four statues. They formed a large square, one to a corner, around a grassy bit of earth. During her first few classes we learned these statues represented the school’s first generation of students. I often hung around outside and wondered if it were possible to get at some smaller creatures.
“Ah. You again.” The man said. I heard his name at least a hundred times over the last six months but couldn’t remember it.
I shrugged at them and eyed the inside. Little creatures skittered by. They had to be lesser demons. They were in the book Izzy showed me next to the [Terror Rat]s. Often I hoped one would venture out past the markers but each time a mouse came close it flashed away in a beam of light.
One was almost close enough. I tried to pounce only to hit an invisible wall and fall flat to the ground.
“Aha ha ha.” A statue laughed at me. I was fairly sure that noise belonged to the dog statue. Instincts didn’t tell me the dog was a jerk, my racial dislike for them made a difference.
Two student’s appeared in a bright flash of light nearby. They both looked mildly wounded and frightened.
“We died, didn’t we?” There was a girl with wrappings around her hands. Makeshift leathers held everything together. This person almost qualified to be a woman by my old world’s standards.
“We didn’t even make it halfway.” The second one said, a boy with a bow. The weapon had snapped completely in two. He rubbed the back of one hand.
A third flash of light came down and Nathan Smart popped out. He too looked upset, and was the youngest of the three. “Once again, failure.” Nathan stared at me for a moment before shaking his head.
“Next weekend?” The girl shouted out after him. Nathan just waved a hand.
“He doesn’t like failure.” The older boy said. He took looked at least fifteen. “Still, he did damned good for such a youngster.”
These weren’t the first people to come out of the dungeon below. Students constantly went below in order to train. Part of the magic for this school controlled the area and somehow prevented them from suffering fatal wounds. It fell into the land of fantasy things that didn’t make sense.
All three vanished and I was left alone at night. The grass around me slightly lit up from the nature of being a [Flame Spirit Kitten]. It made sneaking up on anything hard. Maybe if I got another choice of evolution I could chose something darker.
Four failed attempts at getting dungeon mice left me dejected. The janitor, who always seemed to be doing laps, chose that moment to come by. His laugh was far less rude than the dog statues. I was always surprised to see him roaming around at all hours. Not once did he seem tired.
“Trying to hunt again?” The janitor asked me.
I sighed and lowered my head back down to watch.
He gave a good laugh again. The man reminded me of someone from the past world. A man who wore a red suit perhaps? “Students can’t cross the line until they’ve cleared basic coursework.” He said.
My ears whipped around and I stared at the man intently. How had I missed information regarding basic coursework? Isabella probably knew everything about the material. Was it just her spells that had been missing? Then maybe we would finally do something new soon.
“Thank you.” I meowed at the janitor. He never understood me but laughed anyway.
Izzy was sleeping still once I got back to our room. The creature book sat open. I carefully pawed through trying to see what sorts of demons we might fight. There were a lot of words that didn’t make sense. My night passed looking at our possible future of headless ogres, skeletons, and lots of bug types.
They were all supposedly monsters down below. Somewhere at the very bottom was a reward for any student able to reach that far. There were bosses, and failure didn’t even result in death, the school had a spell or some sort of magic which would bring us back to the surface.
That night I slept with dreams of finally doing something new running through my head. In the morning I batted at Izzy before the sun even came up. She was used to it by now, probably.
“Morning.” She slurred. Eleven seemed to be a weird age for her. Part of me felt sad. My sister hadn’t gotten this far in life. The thought quickly vanished under the humm of excitement.
“Good morning.” I said. “I have questions.”
“I need food.” Izzy complained. She had gotten used to making her own meals from a chilled box that resembled a refrigerator. Every day a small amount of food was placed in it, just enough for six people to live off of. Often our mornings started by going in that direction and getting ready.
“Are these spell problems why we can’t explore the dungeon?” I marched along an already moving Izzy. She had just enough brain power to put on clothes and walk into the houses common area.
“Mmmhm.” Izzy said without any real feeling.
“Do you think you’ll learn the soon?” I felt almost too eager to fight things again. Being a cat was all well and good, but we had done nothing for over a year. That was a lot of downtime! In my mind, spirits were clearly meant to do something, anything.
“Mmmmhm.” The girl said once more.
“Izzy.” My meow was calm. I lowered my head to rest on paws and stare across the floor at her.
“The sky is falling.” I almost laughed but managed to keep a straight face. The girl still had very little awareness of her surroundings despite the autopilot of putting food together. It reminded me of my own childhood in a lot of ways, what portions I could remember anyway.
“Mmmmhm.” Izzy summed up the morning so far.
We spent a few more days talking about this training dungeon. There was a sort of draw to her face that spoke of nervousness. I mostly knew that the idea of going down into those places worried her because of my mood indicator tool. This place seemed like a better choice because there was no real death down there.
I wouldn’t want to let Izzy go into any other place without being prepared. Those [Tribal Lizard]s and [Terror Rat]s all seemed perfectly willing to kill her. If I could train enough in a safe area maybe we wouldn’t face those kinds of situations again.
Izzy kept trying activate two spells at once, but as soon as she pulled in one, the second would fall apart. Eventually the girl broke down and went to ask Professor Lianne.
“I can’t get these to work. Pierce said maybe I needed to combine them, but I can’t get two to work at once.” Izzy repeated herself in a rush to get the question out.
“You have two hands, don’t you?” The woman said with a freckled half smile.
“Mmmhm! I do! Thank you!” Izzy bowed twice then ran off to a grass field to try out the latest idea. I bounded after waiting to see what that meant.
There was a sun outside and the spot she chose was comfortable. A high noon sun sat overhead and made me feel pleasant. I stretched back legs out which felt good enough to get everything else. Finally I laid down to watch her progress.
Isabella Brand had one hand in the air. She always started with the right one. Lights swirled in together to make the rolling ring. Pink and white colors saturated the magical construction. I yawned. This part was normal.
She raised the other hand up. That was new. Izzy never used her left hand when trying to cast spells. A second set of lights started to swirl in. The first ring actually held a few seconds longer than normal. Eventually it all fell apart. Even Izzy wasn’t clever enough to figure such a thing out on the first try.
Instead, it took twenty seven such attempts and a lot of daylight. Izzy’s mana mostly recovered since she never actually finished any spells. The act of merely pulling in the energy drained her just a little, plus maintaining my presence here.
I stood up eagerly but didn’t get close. Now that the girl actually had two of them together we might see some progress. In one hand she held the ring shape. In another was something resembling a plus sign. The magic behind them made no sense but Izzy proudly held on to both of them.
Her face strained more as they sat in her palms. That couldn’t be good to just sit there.
“Put them together!” I shouted, almost hopping around in eagerness. “Quickly!”
“I don’t know what will happen!”
I didn’t either, but my summoned life was expendable so there were solutions.. “Can you focus? Pick a target, like the fireball?”
“Maybe.” Izzy closed her eyes for a few seconds. Long dark hair slid around. “No, I need something bigger, living.”
“Pick me then.” I wasn’t really afraid of fire at this point. Not after spending all my time in [The Outer World] building defenses against it. Being a [Flame Spirit Kitten] helped too. I was practically a fire elemental creature mixed with a feline ghost.
“It might be bad.” Her teeth almost chattered the word.
“It’s okay. Worst case, I go back.” I shrugged and flicked my tail around.
“But that’ll hurt you.” Her face was actually sweating now. I saw a mood display showing stressed mixed with upset.
My own pain mattered very little at this point. Ever since my family had passed on I just didn’t worry about such little things. Their lives had barely been a blip in reality, how could mine measure be worth more?
I let out a feline version of a sigh. Air puffed out and my tail flicked once more to wrap around the front paws. Maybe I became a fight fighter because I wanted to matter somehow. I threw away my life to save those three little children, and didn’t think twice about suffering for Izzy’s sake.
“Do it, we need to see if this works.”
“Mmmhm.” Izzy blinked once more. Both hands trembled and she brought them together. It wasn’t a slam of motion or a perfect melding. It was like sticking together a key and lock. Only they were shaped like a ring and cross.
The glowing object sat in her hand. A trail of white and almost pink roses colored lights fell off of it like a firework. Moments later the spell zoomed out of her hand and slammed into me.
Everything tingled. It didn’t hurt, just confused me. Hair on my back started to stand on it’s own. Energy rippled up and down my body, then something popped and a ring of fire appeared around me. It hung a foot out on each side, a perfect circle aside from the rolling bar of flame.
“Pierce? Are you okay?”
“I’m okay, just startled.” I tried to stay calm for a moment. That had not been expected at all. These flames were hot too, not just mild like my [Aura of Minor Flame] was.
“Can you move?” She asked.
I tried to. The ring moved too. Grass around me charred rapidly. I jumped up and down to see what the ring would do, it stayed level the whole time. Laying in a circle, chasing my own tail, doing a back flip, none of them changed the circles orientation.
“Try yourself now.” I suggested. If this worked she might have a good defensive ability to use. There was no telling how long it would last though.
Izzy was able to bring the two spells together much faster this time. After the brief energy shower and light show a similar ring appeared around her. She moved and spun around, laughing. The girl did something I didn’t dare to though, she reached out to touch the flames. My heart clenched as her hand passed right through.
“Mmmhm! I think I understand Pierce. I think this one means to add something, and this one means a ring. Then add in my proficiency, and we’re adding a ring of fire.” She stood up abruptly then started jumping up and down. “I get it!”
A minute later and my ring flickered off. She cast it again and we found a less grassy place to practice. Behind us a small circle of scorched plant life grew using whatever magic fueled this place.
Her mana had taken a dive after we tested this one combination a dozen times. There were others she could merge but there was no telling if they would be as benign. It didn’t matter, we had made progress, soon we could both move on to new things.
[The Overseer]‘s log: IB made huge progress today. She’s managed to double her own processing power. We spoke briefly about through a few encrypted chat messages. If everything goes right we can use this new processing power, plus Subject 42’s own psyche, and use that to leverage another Case Seven out of the virtual world.
All the pieces are there. At least a dozen Case Seven’s share a similar enough world due to the earlier breach. All we need to do is push the defenses on both of them a bit more. IB has agreed to step up her own development.
If things go right we’ll effectively be pitting one lost mind against another lost mind. Only our Subject 42 will be paired with a denizen who can interpret and better guide the efforts. Instead of one versus one, we’re doing two against one in order to eject a Case Seven from virtual space permanently.
Yes, if this goes as planned, the loser will be removed and the denizens will shut that person out forever. It’s the only way to ensure they won’t become a Case Seven again. Uncle and I both agree, this is a better solution than outright killing them, and likely more effective.