Chapter 20 – Path of Coal

Quote:“Originally we tested this out by injecting two Case Seven realities into the same mold, but it proved less than successful. Their self created rules were too different. Blending the two takes time and stand in programs to prevent outright rejection.”

Doctor Long, The Virtual Conundrum

I sat in the darkness of [The Outer World] for what felt like ages. My sense of time only ever had Izzy to judge by. She lay a slice of reality away. If either of us needed we could talk, or the young woman might summon me if an emergency happened.

Still, Isabella had been on to something. I needed a change of pace to progress. The longer I thought about pushing the boundaries of this self made prison, the more sense it made. How many years had it been since my last time peeking behind those walls?

The cord which connected us still shimmered in a snake line. Sometimes it felt like a chain that bound us together, other times it reminded me of those red thread stories. Colorwise it was both. It trailed behind my four legged form as I padded to one of the cardboard walls which served as a shield.

“Where do I go?” Meowing noises still issued forth as I paced the walls.

I wouldn’t know until the area beyond was revealed. Either my current skills could handle those green fires, or I would curl up into a [Flame Spirit Kitten] bundle of pain. The cardboard was only half an inch thick. Fake red flames built over each other in a wall that reached twenty feet into the sky.

“Why red flames though?” I spoke to the walls while looking up. Maybe it was a comfort issue. In my last moments I had been working a normal fire, those were unstableable. I had been trained to deal with them, and understood regular flames of the old world.

One paw picked a random chunk of the wall and started to peel back my barriers. It felt like scabs inside my mind, each movement itched and hurt, but in many ways the action pleased me. A portion came down, like peeling cardboard scales apart. It flopped to the ground and a burst of reddish flame arced through before dying off.

Strangely, it didn’t hurt. That made me happy. Inside the cardboard square room, where I usually sat in relatively but dark safety, a single light shone through. It felt like a brightness that had been unexpected until now.

“Izzy.” I said through our connection. “Some of the green fire, it’s gone.”

“Mmmmhm.” The young girl sounded sleepy. How long had it taken me to get this far? Was it night time in her world already? “It’s almost dinner and I still have another test tomorrow.” She yawned and the sound echoed strangely to my slice of other world.

I peeked outside the small fortress feeling better than ever about [The Outer World]. There was a landscape aflame, but none of it hurt to look at. What then, had been causing me so much mental pain during my last few deaths? Was the wellness of my [Flame Spirit Kitten] form related?

In the fourteen years of existence, I hadn’t once tried to look through the cracks when at full health. Why would I walk into pain for any other reason than Izzy’s protection?

My nose twitched as I poked through the hole. Paws knocked over more cardboard flames, each one flopping to the ground to sit there, still. Burnt paper wafted through my nostrils along with a hint of trees, pine maybe, smouldering, teasing, almost comfortable.

Finally there was a large kitten sized hole in the walls. Visual confirmation had to be backed up by paranoid cat testing methods. I put out a paw, partially in worry, but nothing felt odd or wrong. My paw pulled back, and then went forth into the strange landscape again. It wiggled as a flame leapt across at me, but nothing happened. It was like being brushed by a strong breeze.

I looked around for anything of interest. Going out into the wild would be fine, if there was an end goal of some sort. There seemed to be hills that rolled alone but they were all on fire. Everything looked like the standard red and orange hues. Ash littered the ground, trees looked destroyed. Six years, or so, as a flame spirit basically meant fire didn’t matter to me. Especially after the multiple laval baths.

Was there treasure out here? Maybe this place could be considered a dungeon for adventurous spirits. Part of me felt truly worried though, this was the first time I had dared to move around in my own world. Maybe there were rules, like going too far from my defensive shell might result in death.

[Locate Valuables]

Received: Skill provided with the [Treasure Hunter] title.

Details: By concentrating, items greater than the average value for your current location will display bright blue. These objects may show through walls, floors, or even invisible. Difficulty increases the more obscured or valuable the treasure is. Certain senses can be used to track objects from further away until visual confirmation is received.

 

I stepped out then immediately check the doorway behind me. It sat there, ignorant of my escape. One ear flicked back in suspicion. Maybe the door would suddenly seal up and scream ‘gotcha!’ at me.

Minutes passed where nothing happened. The landscape around me flickered as flames leapt around, but the square walls of my house sat untouched. I moved onward another ten feet then looked back. Maybe [Ghost Walk] functioned out here. I could leapt back to the odd looking black box of my comfort zone at any point, maybe. Or Izzy could summon me.

Honestly there were no perfect answers without trial and error, and those may be dangerous.

I went back to the blacked walls, put a paw up towards one of the still standard walls of cardboard, and watched happily while one paw sunk through. The black flame wall of my mental defenses ignored the burning landscape but still existed in a form I could pass through. Whatever happened next, I could run away back to safety.

“Izzy.” I tried out connection.

“Mmmmh. Pierce, I’m tired. Let me sleep please.” She sounded the same when I woke her for school. Anything before sunrise was brutal for the poor girl,

“I’m, going to go exploring. But, if I run out of health, I’m sorry.”

“Mmmh!” She yawned loudly. The noise of a blanket being pulled over rustled through our link. “Do your best.”

Time went by as I poked around. My nose and front paw tapped everything in the nearby landscape searching for a reaction. There was nothing right around my home, and the first thing I actually saw was nearly a quarter mile away.

Fist sized bugs traveled the landscape in packs. They looked like bloated ticks. They were skittered around, grabbing at the root of various fires and sucking them dry. Their actions didn’t make any logical sense. If I could accept headless monkeys in Izzy’s world, then giant fire feasting ticks made sense too.

Two turned towards me at the same time. Icky jaws on the front mouths clicked together. My back arched in an uncomfortable his and worry rippled through my body. Would they latch onto me and try to suck all the flames out? My mouth felt gross just thinking about it.

“Izzy.” I said abruptly while inching back towards my home’s safety.

“Mmmmhm? Pierceeee…I’m tired.” Her tone was half a step away from snoring. I was thankful she put up with my questioning though.

Briefly I wondered if maybe I should just buy her food. Maybe this world had chocolate. I remember it being tasty, especially after they did, something sciency to it. Izzy didn’t seem to eat that often. Maybe things tasted funny to her too? Everything that went into my stomach got extra flavors.

“There’s weird bugs out here. Do you know of any spirit bugs?” My tail flipped back and forth in agitation as they kept coming. They didn’t attack me right away, they drained other fires behind them. Oddly the flames they pulled away weren’t recovering.

“No.” Isabella answered.

They were certainly coming in my direction. I worried what a mess of the might do to me, would I lose levels? Or die? “What if I, get killed, out here?”

“We’re bound together Pierce. You will suffer, I’ll prolly be unable to sleep, but, mmmhm, you’ll probably live.” She said.

The lack of permanent death took out some of the worry. At least I was safe enough. Izzy would be the weak point between us. For some reason, my contractor’s mood meter flipped to amusement. A slightly mirthful yellowish color. I didn’t quite understand the reasoning behind that. Maybe she had a funny dream or something.

Well, if all this venture would cost me was pain, then so be it. Or being grossed out. These ticks were almost twenty feet away and still looked gross. Dark red bodies with almost glowing red veins were easy enough to pick out among the landscape.

I had spent years attacking things in the beginner dungeon. These bugs would just be the next thing on my list of weird monsters to fight. Instead of skirting backwards I tried to roar my loudest and activate [Inspire Minor Terror].

The ticks didn’t flinch. They underestimated the fear a giant kitten could cause! I leapt for the nearest one only to see it tilt up as if welcoming me. It too jumped and latched onto one leg, quicker than my claws could swipe. Panic set in as my health bar grew nasty looking veins of black.

“Agghhrh!” I swear the noise came out as a human sounding hiss. “Get it off, get off!”

Two more latched on quickly and I tried to roll to squish them. They flattened against the ground and ignored flames. My attempts at using [Insubstantial] failed. Each little critter traveled with me in the same manner I ran away with coins for Izzy.

Health didn’t drop rapidly, but it did go down. A few ticks, from the ticks, at a time. My eyes kept drifting from the health bar to my arm in panic. These creatures were worse than leechs. I felt woozy. A message from the First World Legacy said I was losing health and showed a stack of three. There was also some [Sedative] mixed in with their bites.

I howled again and tried to activate [Aura of Minor Flame]. It went off but none of them cared. Using burning damage against bugs that ate fire felt pointless. They pulsed with red and a new round of dizziness came over me. I stumbled around the landscape and tried to find things to bash my sides against.

That failed. Hindlegs came up and clawed rapidly. One of the creatures was big enough for my claws to get purchase. Wisps of milk while spirit damage floated around. I had forgotten that my damage types included more than just fire. The second one gooed into shreds.

The third, on my left shoulder, required teeth to tear apart. I turned and bit into it, gnawing long after the creature had lost all signs of life.

It tasted filthy. If I were to put a taste to my sister’s diapers when she was a baby, these tick creatures would be the same. Why that memory stuck with me among all the other missing tidbits of life was beyond me. Maybe there were some times that starting over in a new universe couldn’t remove. That idea explained why I hated pickles and found scratch and sniff markers to be repulsive.

As the tick monsters died they burst into large balls of flame and their bodies became ash, which was different than popping like demons did or bleeding out similar to the [Tribal Lizard Men]. In the exploration of the flame terrain surrounding my home I found six more of the little bastards. My health recovered easily enough with Izzy’s trickle of mana and the [The Outer World: Respite]

An hour of kitten fueled exploration later and I found a lake of tar like substance. None of the [Small Fire Fiend Tick]s, as I learned they were called, were anywhere near it. Maybe they avoided it for the same reason some ticks couldn’t stand soap, which was only half truth.

I checked on my contractor’s status, but only got faint snoring in response. My health being leeched must have only caused her minor turmoil, the young woman also slept really heavily. Izzy’s small cord still trailed behind me. It always pointed back to the cardboard flames paneling. The beacon of my primary home existed almost a mile away. I kept checking over my shoulder to see if the structure would vanish without me.

Since there were no clear landmarks, I tried to focus on using my [Sense Treasure] ability. Nothing blue showed up, but a faint scent of zesty lime drifted across the fire charred landscape. I trailed towards the area where smells grew stronger.

Over flaming hilltops and through the burning woods towards the scent of lime I went. Every few seconds I would look up and search the landscape for any wild creatures. A large flame winged bird circled overhead. A giraffe made of molten stone chewed at flaming trees.

I avoided their sight by keeping low, or passing through objects with [Insubstantial]. None of them cared much about one [Flame Spirit Kitten]. The lime of [Locate Valuables] changed to a bit more zesty scent as I grew closer. Freshness set my step to near prancing.

There it was, half buried in a drift of burning bushes. One oddly giant chest. That made me stop to tilt my head. Why would a chest even exist out here in [The Outer World]? This thing was easily five times my size.

How was I intended to open this object? Maybe they had left it for some [Crazed Fire Giant]. I did three laps around the object before stopping to paw away the surrounding bushes. Revealing the chest into it’s entire glory triggered attention from the bird circling overhead. The large giraffe stood too far away to notice.

“Mine!” It shrieked in an absurdly human sounding voice. “Treasure mine!”

I didn’t even try to understand why the creature spoke clearly. It was folding wings and banking downwards at insane speeds. I arched my back and swung at the bird. The burning avian curved away and rapidly turned around for another dive.

“You stupid bird! How are you even going to open it!” I shouted upwards. The enemy didn’t care, but instead flew towards me with streaks of flame trailing behind. Small birds hung in the air as it passed, creating a momentary line of potential pain.

I was had [Immunity: Fire], but nothing that saved me from sharp beaks and sharp talons. It hadn’t stopped the [Small Fire Fiend Tick]. This creature kept fluttering overhead and my attempts to fend it off weren’t working. Repeated dive bombing had my heartrate up.

Finally I decided to simply go about things a completely different way. Rather than fight for the rights to open this chest, I would just [Ghost Walk] through. My face grinned and I waved a paw goodbye at the evil bird.

“My treasure!” It cried again.

“My treasure.” I said calmly.

The bird thunked loudly into the surface I had passed through. I laughed as it’s silly body couldn’t pass through things like mine could. Putting my further form in the hands of [The Overseer] had served me well thus far.

  • [The Cat Who Walked Through Walls] title received!

 

I ignored the message from the First World Legacy. My eyes scanned around, expecting to at least see what was inside so I could evaluate it’s worth to me as a [Flame Spirit Kitten]. Unexpectedly, the inside of this box was bigger than the other side.

There was nearly an entire world in here, or at least the image of a green hilltop. Sheep were all around, chewing idly at real grass. A sun poked through clouds in the distance. Thin fog littered pockets of a valley down below us somewhere.

And, perhaps most importantly, was the large human looking creature poking fluffy sheep to the sides. His giant cane with a curled tip cleared a path all the way to me. Once nearby his lips pursed together in confusion.

“You are no sheep.” The man said at last. There was something about his eyes that seemed unfocused, almost absent minded, or on designer drugs.

Suspicion ticked my thoughts. There was no possible way that the inside of a treasure box simply teleported me to another world. This place, and the creatures in it, couldn’t be so simple. I hoped that there really was something of value in here for me.

“You are no shepherd.” I dared to respond. I wouldn’t even know what shepherds were was if it hadn’t been for Izzy’s world. Sheep wasn’t from this universe though, it was from mine. What existence was this Voice from?

Better yet, why had this guy appeared after I walked into a giant treasure chest? That made no sense to me. My head tilted back to look for an escape in case one was needed, but nothing obvious showed. It looked like I was trapped here until Izzy woke up to summon me.

[The Overseer]’s Log: IB has successfully given Subject 42 clearance to contact the Case One, while she maintains all the security measures needed. Normally each Case Seven has their own mental barriers in place, but Subject 42 would never have been able to breach those defenses and proceed further into the neutral network without assistance.

After a few hours, we officially recorded first contact between a willing Case One (AKA Voice), and the deliberately created Case Seven. We’re all very hopeful that things will proceed as planned. The Case One is going to try and set up some blockers in place so that we don’t lose Subject 42 to the dangers of prolonged immersion. How, exactly, that will happen, is not something I’m allowed to decide. The Voices (AKA Case Ones), all of them, seem to be following guidance from the deceased Case Zero.

 

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