Quote:“Son? Can you hear me?”
“I, it’s so strange. The doctors tell me you’re alive, but it might as well be a coma.”
“Maybe it’s your mother and I, maybe we let you play too many games as a child.”
“Were we really such bad parents that you ran away from us? Is there no way to, come back?”
Portions of recorded conversation from Tom McNeil to his son, one of the earliest Case Seven’s (Deceased)
Izzy, Colleen, and I made it down to the seventh floor easily enough. Our newest addition proved to be extremely agile which made the difference in a floating platform challenge. The hard part had been picking up all the treasure chests on the way. Our path involved doubling back, defeating the same monsters multiple times in a row, and a lot of confused yells between the girls.
In the end, Colleen walked away with a few new piece of gear. Bracers strapped on both wrists, a rune etched sheath for her sword and undergarments that caused her face to go red and Izzy to glare at me.
I played my trump card, acting like a dumb uninterested cat, and proceeded to clean my head. It was a lot harder now that my body had doubled in size. An extended claw kept nicking the back of my ear while a controllable tail batted around.
“Do you know the way through?” Colleen asked Isabella. Her voice sounded rough and annoyed from the sudden change in temperature. One of the warrior woman’s hands kept fingering the new gear in wonder.
“Mmmmh. Pierce should, he’s explored this entire dungeon. This floor will be hard for us though. We specialize in fire, and the cold feels deep.” Izzy and I were mostly useless here.
Level five with the mirror boss felt nearly too easy, hoping platforms as felt simple enough. Having an outright major weakness to [Cold] made it even more unbearable. Plus I hated [Frost Wisps]. They often hit me despite using [Ghost Walk] to get around.
“Well, we have our Essence Saver Stones in their alcoves, so we should be okay.” Colleen shrugged but her eyes were unfocused. “This entire place is designed to prepare us, so there should be a way through.”
Colleen acted like that all day. The woman’s mouth seemed almost confused at the words coming out of it. Every so often a tongue would stick out as if tasting the air for the first time. Something in the distance seemed to be distracting her.
Izzy settled for grumbling the entire time.
“It gets colder the further in we travel.” I gave a soft rumble.
Colleen’s head tilted a little bit as if she could hear me, but in the end Izzy had to relay my words. Her lips curled down in a serious looking frown. I shrugged, Colleen was a nice enough girl, a little abrupt but caring in her own rushed way. Over the years, Colleen had checked on my serious looking partner more than once. They fit almost perfectly as teammates from my point of view.
I mean, she was nice to look at too. A girl who worked to keep in physical shape defiantly acquired an attractive body. Looking at Izzy felt weird to me, almost like peeping on a younger sister. Professor Lianne had a very friendly smile and was certainly adult enough to warrant noticing, but she also seemed to be in lust after Dale which was a strike against her.
Either way didn’t matter, I was still trapped in a cat body, although the larger form had more power. At this rate, all these ladies would be forty or fifty before I found an evolutionary form that let me be humanish, if such a thing were possible. With my luck, I would still be made of fire.
If only for that one reason, the lingering sensation of being with a girl, however awkwardly, I missed my old life.
The stupid box from [First World Legacy] popped up and faded rapidly. I growled at it and shook my head. Ripples of fur turned into a full body stretch to shake off my thoughts.
Izzy was looking at me funny and I sighed. The young woman probably heard entirely too much of my thoughts on all these matters. It wasn’t like had been thinking filthy slobbering thoughts about engaging in various activities with another human. For a moment nights with one vaguely faceless former girlfriend surfaced in my mind. The serious looking woman with a playful smile went to Colleen finding undergarments level of red.
I nodded to myself then went to scout this frozen hell of a floor. Walls were too small for me to properly hide in anymore, but [Ghost Walk] and a powerful [Leap] made it easy enough to get around.
Large platforms were suspended in the air like icebergs. Stalagmites hung with a threatening beauty to them. Below was a pool of water so still that it looked like the spike ceiling above.
What confused me the most was how the layout of this floor had changed. My last few visits down here all showed the same sort of layout, but now it looked like a graveyard of monsters and the air crackled with an energy which made my fur uncomfortable.
Dead [Frost Wisps] were everywhere. Most had their beady little antennas burned to a crisp. I pawed one over the side and watched as ripples distorted a serene reflection.
“Izzy,” I said through our connection to each other.
“What?” She snapped back. The young woman had been getting increasingly annoyed the more Colleen traveled with us.
“There’s another group down here.”
“Who? Is it Livory? Or Ulric?” The young woman asked back with a hint of alarm.
“Dale, I think,” I said trying to remain calm. The charged air reminded me of Jezebel, his little electrical dragon.
“We’re going to catch up,” She responded. The mood reading vibrated and her mana bar dipped. Other symbols came up citing her various enhancements that had been developed to get around.
One of them allowed her to get a bit lighter. A plus, small ball of flame, and stick figure symbol all made that spell work. The other transferred energy into physical prowess. A fire, a minus then the stick figure again. Fire magic was made for combat in so many ways. She had come a long way from the eight-year-old straining to cast one chain of a spell.
Moments later and glistening Izzy arrived. Her robes combined with the fire magic had caused sweat to form. The cold air shortly brought it near freezing. My nose wrinkled in displeasure, but we had done this before many times.
Floor seven was a frozen nightmare for us. Our opposite, and in this strange world of magic and floating boxes, that made all the difference.
Ahead, the sounds of Dale’s loud fighting could be heard. Jezebel’s lightning bolts made my fur stand on end even from a few ice blocks away. Hopefully Izzy and Colleen would be spared her attitude.
“I should throw something at him, and let him die like he left us,” Colleen commented from my right. Her hand reached out to scratch my much higher ears and I tried not to purr in happiness. Being touched by one of the few people in the world I trusted was a welcome pleasure.
We hadn’t always gotten along, not even remotely, but Colleen had helped Izzy a lot with getting around the school. She had paid my coins to show her around, plus the woman no longer liked Dale. All those things were points in her favor.
“He would just recover upstairs. At least this way he’ll have to choke on his own failure.” Izzy’s face huffed.
I looked over at her and tried to understand what was going on. I drove my head into her side and got a halfhearted flick of one ear. A growl of displeasure escaped as my head shook off the sting. Weren’t we all in this mad dungeon dive together?
Maybe, we had never really let other people in. Her parents were very kind and caring, but nearly figments of a rapidly passing past these last few years. Grandpa Hubble still visited now and then rarely stayed for more than a day. Izzy had me, and our issue was working Colleen into a more important role. Dale had no allies but Jezebel.
Even now he was faltering, trying to catch a boss that acted like a frost themed whack a mole game. Brief images of the prior world came to mind, and were quickly overridden with a mouse hunt. I could remember hunting in Grandpa Hubble’s tower for a creature that moved rapidly through the bottom floor wall. That had been before my [Insubstantial] ability.
“How long do you think he’ll last?” Colleen’s voice sounded more animated the longer we spoke. I remembered feeling alone in the dungeon, but having two good look girls on either side helped. It almost made up for the lack of a human form.
“Not long.” I said a silent prayer towards whatever beings that ruled [The Inner World], in hopes they would make him fail soon. We would have an entire night to move ahead of him and reach the bottom. The Voices, or Ladies of Soul, or whatever was out there didn’t directly answer.
“Mmmhm.” Izzy made a noise as her fingers worked up and down the staff. There were small glowing symbols inside, three big fireballs made of magically assembled mosaics that twisted and tried to escape.
The creature, which turned out to be a snakes head, kept popping out trying to sneak up on Dale. We watched as he turned and slashed a sword. Jezebel seemed to be keeping an independently moving tail in check with lightning that faded off to nothing.
We watched for a few more minutes. The three of us stood there getting increasing cold. I kept up my [Aura of True Flame], which allowed me to generate actual three small rotating balls of fire. It beat the old glow of red which would spill off of me.
Izzy leaned into one side and Colleen the other. I tried not to purr in happiness as whatever issues my contractor had were temporarily put on hold. Progress felt better, and Dale would soon be done. We needed all of our joints to be functional. I couldn’t even risk sitting down or my ass would freeze.
Moments after the thought crossed my mind, Dale did a twisting jump and slid a little too far. His body fell towards the edge of his giant whack a mole shaped ice cube. The sword in Dale’s hand twisted to try and jab downward for a hold. Fingers clawed and scratching could be heard as the block was scratched deeply.
“Master!” Jezebel yelled, but her electric floating serpent self couldn’t zip along fast enough to save the male.
He fell over the side and I waited for a splash of frozen doom. None came. Instead Jezebel and bolts of electric crawled across the ice’s surface. She could be heard trying to lift up Dale. The three of us scooted further along our own ice block and looked down.
Dale hung about halfway to the water, his sword finally having found good purchase. The young man’s body swung around as he tried to keep a grip. White and purple coloring could be seen in his fingers.
His eyes looked desperately up in our direction. “Help!”
“Sorry, I’m not part of your group, since you abandoned me.” Colleen said with more than hint of smugness. “Otherwise we could have been through this floor, and maybe even the eight one.
“We can still work together!” He tried to find the air to yell but only frozen puffs came out. Jezebel floated around in a panic. Her small blackened eyes looked wider than normal from this angle.
“Help us!” She pleaded at me.
I tilted my head and tried to figure out if such a thing were possible. Saving him would earn us a debt, having anything over the annoying male would feel good. Izzy’s fingers dug into my neck and clenched a roll of fur covered skin.
“No Pierce. We can’t help him. He’s against us.” She sounded certain despite a shakiness to the words.
Dale’s sword slipped and crunched. Ice around it had frozen nearly solid, as if growing over the blade. The man looked at us, to the wall above, sword, and Jezebel.
“I’ll get you backstabbing cunts for this!” He shouted. Dale let go of the sword and tried to push off from the wall. His foot slipped and fell downwards towards certain death. The water rippled once, twice, then was still.
Jezebell took it with far less grace. Her tiny dragonish face and whiskers twisted with madness. Both eyes glowed a sky blue as coils tried to swim through the air towards us. The lightning spirits mouth opened wide as her body vanished with a pop.
We sat there in the silent aftermath. Izzy’s fingers seemed unsteady. I felt pleased.
“What a self-entitled brat.” Colleen shook her head. “I can’t believe I ever liked him.”
“Let’s finish the boss. Then we can do the eight floor, and be done with this.”
“We can get to the advanced class if we make it through, right?” I asked. The idea of going to another level sounded exciting, especially since it would be with my few acquaintances in this world. Dale’s fall to doom didn’t really bother me much,, since I had seen it happen to multiple students over the years.
“Sure Pierce,” Izzy said.
“What did he ask?” Colleen leaned over a bit more to look at the spot where the jerk and his electric pet vanished.
Izzy’s fingers were still shaking. Her mood meter dimmer than normal. Whatever was happening, she seemed to be trying to distance herself from it. We had ‘died’ multiple times in this dungeon, but watching others fail was a new experience.
“He’ll be upstairs Izzy,” I said calmly. “That’s the point of the Essence Saver Stones.”
“If it had been real, then he would be dead,” Izzy responded without the same hint of detachment I had.
“If we win this race, then he’ll be cast out of the school. All we need to do is get down there before him, and after that he’s somebody else’s problem.”
“I doubt it will be that easy,” Izzy responded to the other girl.
Our waiting saw the bosses’ expansive ice block return to normal. The scars from Dale’s fight repaired. Holes dug by the serpent vanished. It seemed as harmless as all those we had passed across before.
Behind us [Frost Wisps] started to gather. I growled, and Izzy looked back. More emotions flickered through.
“We should take this boss down while we can,” She said, and we leapt across from one ice block to the next.
A giant head poked up, like a vicious worm from an apple, only we had an opaque block of frozen water instead. My head tilted down and the giant creatures’ body wiggled under the surface.
The ground around us rumbled and shook. Crackling sounds came for as another of the creature’s appendages shot upwards opposite the face. Both wiggled across the landscape with a scrape of scales.
“Pierce! Tail!” Izzy yelled. Colleen pulled out a sword then went straight for the head. Both left my circle of flame orbs generated by [Aura of True Flame]. A [Chilled] debuff started to appear on Izzy’s information.
I shuddered then tried to dig claws into the ice worm creature’s scales. My claws tore at it and chips came off. The creature’s face hissed while the tail rattled. The motion caused me to shake violently as ringing filled both ears.
Both extensions of the beast below withdrew then came out again from fresh holes. The damage I had done looked to be completely healed once the creature’s limbs submerged. Another four exchanges went buy with eight new sets of holes appearing. Our ice block started to look a lot like Swiss cheese. The imagery flashed in my head but I couldn’t even remember what a Swiss was or why they had cheese.
“Pierce! Can you hold it above ground?” Colleen apparently had an idea. Normally they came from Izzy. My contractor looked sick and dizzy.
“I’ll try!” My roar back activated [Inspire Minor Terror]. The worm monster didn’t care in the slightest and came forth with the same slithering pattern as before.
I leapt to the newest hole and went for it’s tail. My mind bent towards pouring more mana into my [Aura of True Flame]. Ice scales melt and I sunk paws into grooves before they could reform. There were no signs of my attacks doing more than slowing down it’s repair process.
“Isabella! Your biggest spell!” Colleen gave orders like a general.
My muscles hurt. Near my shoulder something violently tore. The giant frozen snake in my teeth threatened to get loose and tear into the two girls. The front end seemed to have stopped moving as it concentrated on shaking me loose.
“Colleen! Back!” Izzy shouted. My body lay upside-down as the creature tried to pull me back towards the hole.
Izzy’s hand raised into the air and a great ball of fire formed rapidly. Her forehead glistened with sweat from the energy being contained. Mana dropped out from the young woman’s bar faster than my own. She slammed the formed fireball into the first on her staff, then a second, then third.
“Izzy!” I growled out. My mouth was mostly occupied trying to dig into the fleeing tail.
Four spells chained together was a new limit for her. Colleen retreated to the platforms far edge. One hand raised above her face as a soft blue glow appeared.
Isabella Brand, Young mage in training, fire master in the making, and granddaughter to a powerful mage, stuck all four spells into a hole where the worm’s body had exited. Her serious eyebrows were lifted and mouth curled in an exhausted sort of glee. Light flared, air fled from the hole as fire poured across the ice cubes top. Izzy bore it all without suffering. The ice cube beneath us shattered as a fire greater than any we had unleashed before rippled through.
My eyes shut from the brightness and I tried to hold on.
[The Overseer]’s log: Today was rough. IB actually nuked one of the test rooms by straight overload it. She didn’t follow any of the expected solutions and we’ve been forced to adapt to her increased processing power. Honestly, I think she’s really starting to come into her own.
We don’t have the facilities for the kind of multilateral neural network used by normal Case’s. In order to keep up we’ve been forced to allow some more local updates. These should give more depth to the virtual fabric. Unfortunately, it also increases the sentience of all the current Case Four and Six, ones who may be outside our and that are completely blind to their own nature.
As a human, I’m still blown away by the way this code interacts. It’s literally like watching worlds made entirely of code, and it’s this very malleable existence that has created Case Seven’s in the first place.