Chapter 17 – Torch Lights

Quote:“Our attempts at manipulating the virtual scenarios they are trapped in meets with failure in over ninety percent of all cases. In one case this resulted in the patient committing mental suicide, rather than lose the world that had been built.”
Doctor Long, The Virtual Conundrum

Time marched forth, as it always seemed to do. Days and nights blurred together and before it made sense, Izzy was thirteen. The clothes that had once looked kind of baggy on her were now filling out awkwardly around a young girls curves. I made it my mission to spend more time with her, to ensure that boys like Dale were kept in their place. They belonged far, far away from her.

The few copper coins we received from Grandpa Hubble weren’t enough for high end clothing and Izzy deserved better. Our trips into the dungeon met a roadblock at the six floor, which seemed to be consistent for everyone. Even Nathan, the former warrior who kept himself covered, seemed stuck. Nearly every night he and random partners came out angry and upset.

I couldn’t figure out the sixth floor boss fight either. There was a lot of movement required, and the floor kept lighting up in patterns that made no sense. It acted like a game where losers ended up bathing in lava until their health hit zero and their bodies were reset by the Essence Saver Stone. The heat was molten so part of me liked it, but even I didn’t survive the first falls. After the fifth such episode I gained a benefit.

  • [Immunity: Fire] added
  • [Major Weakness: Frost] added

 

If I died on my own, without Izzy there, [The Inner World] ejected me out to [The Outer World], complete with waves of green flamed pain and rebuilding my mental walls. Izzy woke up screaming from a nightmare every night for a week.

Afterwards she banned me from attempting bosses on my own. Instead I roamed through floors and walls looking for more treasure chests. Occasionally I spied on other students traveling around. It kept me busy, and over the last year I had built a decent reputation among the students as a guide. Nathan and Colleen often left me behind scraps of food from their dungeon meals.

“I think I’ve figured this staff out Pierce.” Izzy said one day, shortly after turning fourteen. “It only took-” her fingers went up and started counting. “Six months? Or seven?”

I licked a paw, which felt far too normal after so many years.

“If I use it right, I think it will hold a few spells, so that we’re prepared ahead of time.” Izzy lifted the staff above her head and squinted. I didn’t really understand what made the weapon so special. Occasionally it glowed red, other times it sat there like a dead lump.

My head nodded and a yawn escaped. Talking felt like a struggle some days. Maybe being a cat was grating on me. I missed being human but the memory of opposable thumbs felt distant. Fourteen years, if not more, had passed as a kitten. I felt trapped in this childish body.

Izzy got to grow up.

“Relax Pierce, we’ll figure something out.” The young woman probably sensed my melancholy mood.

I fell over and rolled to one side. Suddenly changing perspective would have made the old Pierce dizzy, but being a cat felt almost natural. My body sat in a beam of setting sunlight pouring in from a window.

Maybe this was kitten depression. Even chasing butterflies felt unrewarding. Most days I followed Izzy around mindlessly, being annoyed when other people tried to get too close. Colleen was okay, but she spent time chasing boys. The idea that Izzy too might leave me for another human disturbed me.

“Well, I’m calling it a night. Midterms tomorrow, and I don’t want to fail Professor Lianne’s test.” The young woman rolled over and fell asleep quickly. She worked hard, studied far too much, and never seemed to take a break. Hopefuly my extracurricular activities would finally provide enough money to buy Izzy a present.

I leapt up and tried to pull one of the blankets over her. “Goodnight Izzy.” came forth with slight sadness.

I was jealous, that was it. The unpleasant thought kept me company as I leapt through the door and across the school grounds. The janitor waved. Other night prowling students walked about. Many of the older teens seemed more interested in making it to dorm rooms they didn’t belong to.

What I needed, were some friends, or at least someone who understood and could talk to me. If Izzy was going to be putting socks on her dorm door soon, then I would have to find a way to occupy myself. The idea of walking in one her made me shiver briefly. She was far too young for anything serious. Were there magical contraceptives?

Putting any sort of focus on all these possible subjects involved felt a bit odd. I knew nothing about being an adult beyond paying my own rent. Izzy’s own parents were far away. Grandpa Hubble didn’t visit, though maybe one of them should. Once again being a [Flame Spirit Kitten] had major drawbacks.

I couldn’t write letters or talk to other people. In the last year no new skills were developed that might help in a dungeon. It didn’t stop me from trying out new methods of learning and helping.

The weather outside was cold this time of year. Izzy’s home town was much warmer than this coastal school. Fur helped but if I let go of the [Insubstantial] ability I would be chilled by wind. Getting distracted lead to strange feelings of half merger with various items.

“Ahhh! Pierce, you made it.” Colleen stepped away from the dungeon’s entrance to pat me on the head. I sat still for a moment to let her. After all, she was one of Izzy’s few friends in this entire place. Plus, the nice lady gave me food.

Maybe friends was too strong a word, Izzy didn’t really seem to connect with anyone but me. Colleen tried to help, but mostly it involved cooking and clothing tips. Izzy sometimes wore her hair in a ponytail like the older brunette, but often only when making meals. Women with their hair up distracted me, mostly from the swishing around.

Colleen’s clothes weren’t suitable for topside. She wore tight fitting gear, having given up the standard mage’s robe years ago. At some point she had started taking more fighter oriented classes. Right around the time she started noticing boys, or being noticed by them.

“Are you going to guide us to through the fifth floor?” The older girl asked.

I nodded. My midnight wanderings had familiarized me with nearly every inch of the school. All eight dungeon floors were included. I knew the first six floors of the advanced one, and had watched teams fight off against bosses in practice.

None of it really helped me solve things with Izzy. She wanted to learn for herself how to beat most of these places, so anytime I offered suggestions they were ignored. Not because the advice was worthless, but because neither of us really learned listening to other people explain. We both had to do, practice, and fail repeatedly to make progress.

“Is this the guide you promised?” The other person with Colleen was that annoying male, Dale. Snobby, he looked at all girls like they were being measured and imagined in maid outfits.

“This is Pierce. He’s been all over the dungeon. Haven’t you Pierce?” She said while patting my head. I didn’t want to move, but it did feel good and a momentary purr escaped. Only a short one.

“Please. He’s just a familiar. I’ve got one of those, and it’s way better than some furball.”

“Jezebel is cute too.” Colleen said cheerfully.

I tried not to let disgust show. Colleen wore a lower cut shirt than normal, and the hem to her pants seemed shorter by at least an inch. It was clear to me that the woman was competing for attention, and based on her glances, that someone was Dale.

Dale had many ladies fawning over him. Most stayed at a distance. Sixteen, and this guy was building a harem. I was willing to bet he wouldn’t actually know what to do with a girl despite being so oddly attractive. Parts of me couldn’t remember much either.

How many girlfriends had I actually had again? My ear twitched repeatedly while attention shifted into the distance. There had been an entire life before this world. I had been a young man once, not much older than these two. Based on their adventures within the dungeon they were much more experienced in terms of combat.

“We shouldn’t need to pay him anything, I’ll just ask Jezebel to guide us around.” Maybe it was Dale’s tone, but he pissed me off. It might have been the hair, or the cocky attitude. I prayed he would go bald early and maybe lose a few teeth.

Damage in the trainee dungeon only lasted until the student reappeared up top. I could try to use [Ghost Walk] and sabotage his Essence Saver Stone with some claw marks. That would probably get me in trouble and cause Izzy to be expelled, but I really didn’t like Dale at all.

“Alright, same deal as the fourth floor. You show us the treasures, and I’ll split tonight’s earnings.” Colleen said. Her face seemed embarrassed.

I nodded again then started off. Talking was useless and it was late at night. Only catnaps during the day allowed me to function in such a broken pattern.

Floor one still involved the rat spawning monster. The other two students simply bullied their way through. Dale chased used some lightning bolt move which rippled through multiple rats. Colleen tossed an endless stream of blades after the headless monkey.

“Pierce will show us the traps too.” Colleen pointed downward. The second floor was sixteen rooms, eight along two different paths. Halfway through we could switch sides, or keep going. The layout was silly and simplistic, but this was a beginner dungeon.

Colleen was smarter than Dale by far. She actually watched where I stepped and took note. I kept going over those little green lines of ickiness that represented traps. The older teens walked behind me.

“Jezebel is smart enough to avoid traps too.” Dale said as we made it through the dungeon rapidly. He may have been an annoying boy, but the lightning bolts and his one long sword sure made short work of our enemies.

Floor three looked like a giant chess board. Izzy had explained that the system changed based on which tile you touched first. I was not smart enough for chess, but I did enjoy stepping into a pawn position and then leaping through the ceiling using [Ghost Walk]. From there it was possible to land on the King’s peace and win the game in one absolutely silly move. Izzy didn’t let me cheat when we practiced. I, however, killed the rat king multiple times in a rapid pounce succession.

I wandered a well trodden path down through four and onto five. This floor was a bit harder. It consisted of sixteen rooms, but if you went through them normally it would send a person in circles. I often just leapt straight from the fourth floor boss room down to the fifth floor boss. From there I could work my way backwards and avoid the entire gimmick, teleporting rooms only worked one way.

By the time I back tracked through the entire floor Colleen and Dale had defeated the two horsemen on floor four. They were a pair that took turns charging down hallways, and it required hitting the rooms in a certain order to make them collide. Izzy and I could do it because we communicated through long distances.

I sighed heavily. Doing these dungeons at night without Izzy felt so dull and lifeless. It was almost like talking to myself in an empty room wondering when a partner might show up. Except Dale, he annoyed me to no end.

This room was the smallest. The walls were bricked and a torchlight hung at each door. Most students got trapped here and didn’t make it much further. There were four exits out, one went back upstairs to the floor above. One went to the next room, two teleported the dungeon crawler back to the starting location. Every single room on this floor did the same thing, only monsters started spawning with each failure.

“Did you get the path for us?” Colleen asked as I walked through the last doorway.

I nodded. No one understood if I actually meowed or tried to speak. Head motions and tapping my feet were clear enough for most of the students.

“I’m tired of following this cat though, we don’t need to split anything with such a greedy creature. I’m summoning Jezebel.” Dale said. His eyes closed and one hand raised up, a small lightning bolt appeared in one hand. He slammed it together with another symbol and bent down, shoving the combined items into a floorboard.

A circle spread out one foot in all directions from his hand. Aqua and white coloring crawled within the circles small confines. Symbols smashed together and a cloud started to form around Dale’s arm.

He lifted away and out came a fully form, yet tiny, dragon. I remembered the picture from my old world, but this wasn’t the typical western big beefy thing with arms. Jezebel, I guess that was the name, looked like a floating eastern dragon. Long azure scales shimmered down her side like a koi fish. Whiskers stuck out on either side and spikes trailed down the summons back.

“I hear and obey.” She spoke in a clearly subdued voice. Sparks of lightning generated at her whiskers and trailed down to the tail tip.

Jezebel was cool looking. I hadn’t actually stared at other students summoning spirits like myself. The two mage professors had one, but not every student did. Dale was maybe the fifth spirit I had ever seen. The floating dragon was at least the closest to another spirit I had ever been.

I did kind of feel jealous. It would be neat to have a face that trailed flame down my kitten body. Instead all I had was this vaguely blue ghostly outline and the ability to walk through walls. Which, wasn’t that bad really. It just wasn’t crackling lightning bolts.

“Cat got your tongue?” The dragon said towards me with much more of a smirk.

“No.” I tried to meow smoothly but failed. Dale’s summon was clearly a woman and I had botched the first impression.

I guess it didn’t matter.

“Well you must be short on your nine lives, because only a stupid creature would try to extort my master.” Her voice crackled with a bolt of energy.

That made me flick back an ear in confusion. Had she actually understood my meow? With an attitude like that I felt less worried about giving a poor first impression.

“Jezebel, lead us through this maze, if you would?” Dale waved an arm off at the three doorways out.

“My pleasure master.” The creature zipped to a doorway and waited for the other two players.

“What about Pierce?” Colleen had the decency to sound worried. The only thing that bothered me about this whole ordeal, other than meeting another spirit who was rude, was Dale’s attitude.

“He can go take advantage of some other suckers, but I won’t fall for such a simply money grubbing cat.” Dale said. He literally looked down on me and it bothered me. Maybe I could push him off a ledge into lava, assuming they made it down to six.

“Suit yourself.” I muttered while trying not to show any irritation. This jerk was getting in the way of my Izzy present fund.

“We don’t need you. I’m capable of guiding master safely without you.” Jezebel said. Her tail curled and lightning charged on it’s end. I tried to use [Insubstantial] but energy coursed through my ghostly body leaving me hissing in displeasure.

They left to the next room, following a floating serpent through the air. I worried briefly for Colleen’s safety, would that other spirit be able to sense traps? Luckily this was a beginner dungeon. There were safety measures in place. They should be fine but sticking around to keep watch wouldn’t hurt. Plus, this other spirit probably couldn’t walk through walls and find all the secrets.

I kept tabs on them, sneaking around through the dungeon obstacles and generally ignore any monsters that annoyed me. The teleportation only kicked in when walking through doorways. Those successful at this floor had their own methods through, but so far no one could zip through like me.

My ability to find traps, treasures, and the quickest routes is why students hired me to guide them through the first seven floors. Floor eight confused me. There were eighty eight rooms but there seemed to be an order in which they needed to be visited. I always heard the same song playing over and over down there, but had yet to find other students willing to venture that far. It was usually just me, peeking through walls and avoiding scary looking black slimes.

Jezebel successfully guided them through the rooms, and only caused a reset four times. Each failure triggered a set of wooden golem spawns.

I licked a paw in irritation, flattening the fur back that had blown around in an underground breeze. Maybe that was Jezebel’s secret, she was detecting a flow of air. I had never tried that method, instead relying on my own skills.

They were doing oddly well without me. Most other students couldn’t manage to get through without a dozen tries. I poked around the next few rooms and found a surprise.

“You’re missing a treasure chest. It’s up there.” I yawned loudly as they passed by the secret alcove. A small slit along the ceiling hid the lever, and the reward was hidden right next to it. The corner was so dark that normal people wouldn’t see it, but I had [Low Light Vision]. There were two more chests in dead end rooms, but Dale didn’t need to know about them.

“No there isn’t.” Jezebel said.

“Yes there is.” I meowed again.

Colleen didn’t understand what I was saying, but she paid attention to the noises being made. She said “Is there something here?”

My nod was overridden by Dale’s snotty tone. He said “No there isn’t.”

“We should listen to Pierce, all the students in our class know he’s the best at dungeon navigation.”

I leapt up the wall, using [Ghost Walk], and appeared near the secret compartment. My head poked out of the wall and I meowed to get their attention.

Colleen held a torch in my direction. It lit up the area and the flames made me purr in happiness. Fire felt absurdly comforting given how my last life ended.

“That wasn’t there just a moment ago. If it was, Jezebel would have found it.” The man crossed his wiry arms. His serpentine dragon summon flicked another lightning charge in my direction from her tail. Fortunately it missed.

My ears flicked back in continued annoyance. People doubting me here drove me crazy. I had spent the better part of two years exploring this place.

Oh well. As a consolation there was a floating information window nearby. It sat there with glow red ember letters on granite tile. Tonight had finally resulted in positive ways for me. After over a year of failing to make real progress, despite my constant efforts, something broke loose.

  • [Sense Hidden Passage] granted!
  • [Underground Navigation] granted!
  • [Treasure Hunter] trait granted!

 

“Whatever, we’ll take the treasure and keep going. You should stop following us.”

“Sorry Pierce. Thank you for trying to help.” Colleen bowed briefly and looked almost sheepish. Dale seemed to only take note of her tight clothing from bending over in my direction. He coughed and actually looked bashful for a moment. Colleen turned and noticed his wandering eyes. The young woman turned red with a blush and she went for the treasure.

“Your master is a lecherous pig. You better hope you don’t become empowered and get a humanoid shape.” I told the agitated dragon as my tail lashed around.

Dale didn’t seem able to hear me.

Jezebel didn’t respond. The tiny floating spirit just glared at me. Her coils writhed in agitation and lightning bolts curled around her whiskers.

[The Overseer]s Log: We’ve tentatively allowed two of the Case Seven realities to merge again. These had a shared basis earlier this year, so their worlds were mostly stable. Both developed unexpected aspects though.

Subject 42 was looking for someone new to connect to. Fortunately their deep personality traits are directly opposed to each other. The very thought of two Case Seven’s working together is terrifying, not just to me, but to the denizens I have been in touch with.

Their neural networks have been given a limited space to work with. We hope that eventually the two will come into conflict as their views expand. My personal theory is that Subject 42 will win in the end, but Subject 17 has been immersed longer and adapted further.

We’ll keep them under observation.

 

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