Quote:“In the end, it was one of the AI entities who put forth a suggestion. We could use one virtual mind to leverage others out. The perception human mind’s have of other individuals is different than that of self-created monsters. Almost like two opposing forces meeting each other, and the weaker one would lose by the very rules their new reality operated by.”
Doctor Long, The Virtual Conundrum
After years of struggling, I had achieved many small milestones. I knew where the best place in the entire school grounds to sleep was. The dozen or so spirits hanging around campus each had their own preferred spot, but the perfect one happened to be at the top of Grumble Goat’s tower. Grumble Goat was one of the fighting instructors, and he had ram’s head.
He was one of the few nonhuman instructors running around. I didn’t care for his study, or the floors leading up to it. Instead, my paws spent many hours staring down at the peons below from a window ledge six stories up.
I sat up there, head down, ear twitching from a stray breeze, and mind idly wondering if this new [Defender] ability would help me with watching over Izzy. Daydreams of becoming a giant lion one day and intimidating all the bosses while slashing made me purr.
“Pierce, are you up there?” Izzy’s voice echoed inside my head and faintly down below.
I inched myself to the edge and looked down. Izzy was staring upwards with one hand covering her eyes to reduce the noonday glare. This gorgeous weather is why I tried to make it up to Grumble Goat’s tower.
“I see you.” Her mother’s playful tone eked out. “Come on down, we need to talk about Colleen.”
Colleen, my mind flashed back on Isabella Brand’s behavior. Chances were I would be in trouble for spending so much time looking at another girl. Part of me felt like saying no and sitting up here in the sunlight. Only, in a few hours the warmth would be gone, and come nightfall the best place on campus would be at the bottom half of Izzy’s bed.
Leaping straight down would hurt. Being a kitten who could [Ghost Walk] didn’t make me immune to gravity. I could just sort of ignore it and pad through solid objects like they were solid clouds. Actual air was too thin for stepping on.
Izzy had her hood down and arms crossed. Her eyes tracked me as I cleared through part of Grumble Goat’s tower and came over. My back rubbed against her legs but the standard sign of affection looked ineffective against the young girls annoyance.
“Is it true you let her bet with Dale?” Izzy had her arms crossed and glared down at me.
“Me?” My cheek pulled back in a half felt meow. “How could I stop her?”
“Why is it no one else understands you?” She looked annoyed and pointed to a stone bench. We headed over and sat down.
I licked a paw in response to Izzy’s question. She was asking me to explain her world’s rules. That had to be at least five flavors of backward. The physics behind my existence, or anyone else, were more of mystery than anything else.
“I’m serious Pierce. I can understand other spirits just fine, any of them, at least when they actually talk. Professor Lianne’s eagle mostly yells about food.” She said while running a hand along my back. The motion sent pleasant shivers up my spine. I shook a bit then laid down, one paw slightly crossed over the other.
“Dale didn’t seem to understand me.” I said.
“That might be for the best.” She responded with a slight chuckle. Her mothers nature showed more and more as Izzy grew.
“You know, he actually left Colleen behind to die?” The disgust in my meow felt surprising. Muscles attached to my tail pulled to the left then right, in an annoyed swish.
“Mmhhm.” Her acceptance noise made me feel happy for a moment. “Colleen told me after class. It’s a good thing the beginner dungeon has Essence Saver Stones.”
Both ears laid back as the idea of students dying after failure hit me. This would have been a terrible training ground if everyone was really in danger. The garbage man waded through and gave us both a nod before headed into Grumble Goat’s tower.
“Mmmhm.” Izzy paused too and we both enjoyed the noonday sun for a moment. Maybe it was being a feline, or partially made of fire, both of us enjoyed excessive heat. Other students often wilted under the sunlight.
“Can we help her? I don’t want Colleen to lose to Dale.”
“Do you dislike him that much?” She asked me with a slightly harder than normal motion. My back arched away slightly as I shifted position to try and get comfortable.
“He just rubs me the wrong way.” I answered. The answer would be literal if Dale had ever managed to touch me, but I made it a mission to avoid interaction.
“Mmmhm. I kind of like him.” Izzy’s hand paused and I twitched again in irritation. “But, I still don’t want Colleen to lose to him.” Her words didn’t sooth me.
I said nothing. Izzy’s love life should be her issue to solve. In my case it would be a matter of learning to overcome distaste. The best answer would be to let Isabella Brand live how she wished while I simply drove unworthy people away.
“Do you, want to group with Colleen in a few days?” She asked. “I think we can do it, but we’ll need time to prepare for that frost floor.” She motions to pet my back felt much more relaxed. It might be me calming down now that we were focusing on beating Dale. I sniffed the trash man’s leftovers and enjoyed the complex mix of materials. He waved to us then continued onward.
“If it helps her beat Dale.” My ears both ruffled rapidly for a moment. The idea of defeating that snot made me happy.
“Okay. We’ll do it. You get some rest, and I’ll let Colleen know.”
“Do I have to go back?” I asked.
“You should probably rest. How long has it been since you visited your own realm?” Izzy tried to keep me soothed but it wasn’t effective. My pleasant sunbeam nap filled day turned sour.
Days? Months? The only times my body went back was when death happened or I needed a lot of health and mana. [The Outer World: Respite] still had huge advantages in terms of recovery speed. Still, I said, “I don’t like it there.”
“I know. But you’re not alone, right?” Izzy tried to sound positive but all I could think about were those green flames dancing around. Their very existence caused flickers of my former death to come back. Large teeth, a mutated dog, the virus which ate my old body.
“No.” I acknowledged. Being in [The Outer World] didn’t leave me completely alone. Viewing Izzy’s surroundings was always a possibility.
“Mmmmh. Maybe the rest will help you figure out something.” Her face was well above me, but I could sense Izzy’s mood brighten.
That brought to mind an entirely different set of questions. There were many topics we had covered, Izzy knew nearly my entire life, blurry thought it was. She remembered portions better than I did now.
“I wanted to ask, when you, learn stuff, do you see things?”
“Like what?” She asked.
I hesitated because this felt strange to discuss. Borderline madness, or the kind of crazy that families didn’t discuss. In many ways it was how my dad had acted after the death of my sister and mom. Their passing got glossed over in a wake of similar peoples problems. One in five died, those kind of numbers impacted nearly everything.
“Boxes? Floating boxes that tell you things.” I said.
She paused for a moment and looked down at me. Izzy said, “Sure. We all do. It’s part of the First World Legacy. Some people get a communications, or message, or hear a voice. Some hear ranks, or levels. Others skills, or traits.”
“What’s the First World Legacy?” I had a million other questions too. Izzy sounded so casual about a great oddity in my life.
“Mmmhmm. I, this may sound weird, but when our universe was made, there was only one reality.” Izzy lifted up my paws and moved them across her lap for a better position. “We were all from The Outer World then, there were no denizens of The Inner World.”
I lifted my head a little to ask, “You used to be a spirit? Like me?”
“Me? No.” Izzy laughed at me. It amazed me how well she mixed her father’s quiet but serious laugh with Miss Brand’s abruptly loud one. “Mmmmhm. Many, many generations ago, some denizens were. Others were created by the first self aware being in The Inner Worlds. Some of us are a mix of both.”
“That’s cool.” I tried to sound positive. This world’s lore interested me, but only in how it might help grow stronger. My mind tried to work through those floating granite boxes with their burned words. They were a gift from essentially the creator of this existence?
“My great, great, great grandmother was a spirit like you, Pierce.” Isabella said, straightening her back for a moment with pride. The motion made me shift both paws and tilt slightly to get a more comfortable position. Izzy’s smell always reminded me of a softly burning fireplace. Warm, comforting, secure, all those things with a slight hint of sharpness.
I sucked at math, along with most academic studies. The best part about being a fireman with advanced technology was that machines did most of the heavy lifting in all regards. “So, you’re like, ten percent spirit.”
“Twenty four, actually. Some of it is from my mom’s side, some from dads. The numbers are weird.” She shrugged then hung her head for a moment. Seconds later we were both watching the distant horizon, watching other students go about their day. The martial studies groups almost looked like they were playing a really elaborate game of tag.
We both watched them run by. One was in the lead wearing fuzzy headpiece that looked like a skinned wolf mask. The lad was easily older than the five youngsters chasing after him. It served as both play and training. They screamed out attacks and swung wooden blades while the older one dodged all around.
“Is that why you can form a contract?” I asked Izzy after a parade of children ran through screaming.
“No. Being part spirit, mmmmhm, made me eligible. The Ladies of the Soul bound our paths together. From there, the choice was ours, if we wanted to come this far.”
We had already talked about our path going along. We were pretty much in this until the end. That part didn’t feel like a concern anymore. Other than my lack of progress. Based on our current aging progress, Izzy might pass away before I ever aged a day.
Would life as a spirit always be like this? Never really aging? If Izzy passed away, what would become of me? The idea made today’s sun feel colder, a bit less real and shaky. Even the comfort of being near Izzy didn’t make me feel better. Her legs felt almost unreal and [The Inner World] faded for a moment.
“Pierce?” Her voice sounded far away. I tried to relax a bit, we had decades together, at least if I could grow strong enough.
“I’m here.” I said, feeling comfortably sleepy. Being pet like this while basking in the sun was divine, far better than Grumble Goat’s tower top perch.
“Mmmmh. Maybe if you return to your world and rest, you’ll receive contact from the First World Legacy. It might help you understand what needs to be done in order to advance.” She spoke slowly. Our emotions were probably getting mixed up, since Izzy could sense mine as easily as I sensed hers.
“Does sleep help you talk to this, Legacy thing?”
“Mmmmhm. I wonder.” She leaned back and kicked her feet. A few years ago they had barely touched the ground, now they scuffed along. All I could think was that the young girl needed new foot ware. I tried to run through the numbers on my coins, would my stashed coins be okay in the space between walls? It took me months or work to gather them together.
“I could try. There’s still much about my world, the outer one, that I don’t understand.” I hadn’t braved the area beyond the walls, or died, since gaining my [Fire: Immunity], maybe those green flames wouldn’t hurt.
At worst, I would suffer an intense amount of pain, but come out alright. There was no sense of mortal danger anywhere in this world for me, just extreme physical pain.
“Maybe the key to your next form lies in there.” She said.
That reminded me of something disturbingly funny. Especially if these granite boxes were a floating leftover from the creator of this universe. “I did get a message with the last one. This, Legacy, offered to let me chose a Flaming Blob.”
“Oh ew.” She shook her head while the emotional notification switched rapidly to disgust. “But I’ll trust you to choose what’s best. You’ve never let me down Pierce, I, would learn to like a Flaming Blob, I swear.”
“Probably about as much as I could like Dale,” I muttered.
She laughed and I felt bad for admitting my distaste out loud. Thoughts of waking her up with nightmares due to falling into lava crossed my mind.
“What about you?” I asked.
“Soul Binders don’t grow the same way spirits do. For us, it’s about seeing the weave, a pattern, and holding many threads in order to knit them together.” Izzy put a hand up and streams of light came in. The pinkish white had taken on a new ash sort of hue in the last year. “When I cast my spells, you see motes of light, I see dozens, hundreds, or thousands of energy threads coming from all around. It’s difficult to learn.”
Her hand came down, and there was an almost lifelike rose, frozen in her hand. It shimmered brightly as the spell completed. Flames spilled out of her hand like a science fair volcano gone wrong. Each one faded into nothing before even hitting the ground.
“I’m glad that my powers are simple.” I couldn’t hold that man bits of information together. It looked impossibly difficult.
“Mmmhm. We’re both, balanced, together. I think that’s what my Grandpa Hubble said in a letter. He asks about you, you know?”
“Oh?” That scary old man still gave me shivers after all these years. Five, or six years later and I could still feel shadows creeping over me.
“He’s happy we’re still together, but then I told him you were looking at other girls. He got mad, but I said it’s not your fault. It’s just what boys do.”
The idea of being called a boy made my heart jump for a moment, before it came crashing back down. I was a [Flame Spirit Kitten], not a [Normal Human Boy].
“Don’t worry, Pierce, I still like you too. Maybe we’ll find some nice spirit kitty.”
Izzy was hitting home runs today. I vaguely remembered baseball, and science class. Too many sayings were stuck in my brain for a world that didn’t matter anymore.
“Can you send me home Izzy?” I asked, feeling sort of depressed. The idea of having a spirit friend was attractive, but it would be a whole new dynamic between Izzy and I.
“If you want Pierce.” She scratched behind my ear and turned my giant chin up. It felt weird being so huge for a cat and still tiny compared to a human. Izzy’s eyes stared down at me, her hair hung too. My eyes flicked to the clip on earrings she wore. “Mmmmhm. Don’t get lost looking for answers. We still need to help Colleen beat Dale.”
“Okay Izzy.” I moved my chin. That angle felt weird to my neck.
Light spun together once more, and my world faded. Boxes appeared from the First World Legacy. I read them with a bit more focus than normal. They were messages from the original creator of his world. There were mysteries here that I didn’t understand.
Minor [Learning] demonstrated.
Minor [Learning], [Advanced Spirit Form], [Spirit Binder] contractor class all noted.
Conditions of access will vary based on the spirit’s desire for knowledge. Tests may be conducted to deem the worthiness of a supplicant.
[The Overseer]’s log:
Subject 42 might be able to get through, but most of it will be following a path the Case One lays out. I’m interested to see how the interaction goes.
IB showed some hesitation over the entire process. Watching IB try to explain some of these basics to Subject 42 made me smile. She really watered down the science in favor of a more fantastical explanation.
Things could get hectic soon. Most beings inside the reality fall under Case Six. Between the two Subjects being merged, there’s room for a few to possibly reach Case Four status, which means that IB might have company soon. The question will be, which way will these new beings go?