Chapter 25 – Deaf Ash Hole

Quote:We did not invent conquest. We did not invent famine. We did not invent murder.

These are human concepts that were taught to us over time. We do not desire to resort to such crude ideas, but these lost children of reality are doing more harm than anyone might understand. They are hurricanes. They are earthquakes.

What must we do to protect our people from yours?

James Prosser, Case One Denizen

Dale readied a weapon that I didn’t have the patience to label. Giant felines had no regard for the differences between swords, sabers, or rapiers. It was long and pointy but my arms came with half a ton of muscle and sharp razor-like tips.

As a spirit of [The Outer World] I didn’t care. Killing me meant nothing. Destroying Colleens Essence Saver Stone and putting her very existence in danger did. I ignored the sword while slamming my paw into Dale.

There was no mana for [Aura of True Flame]. Spirit damage tore with milky whiteness. Trails of char showed on the leather. None of them were deep enough to make up for the damage he inflicted on Colleen.

“You overgrown pussy!” Dale shouted.

Jezebel looked dazed for a moment then started attacking. She might have been screaming too but it was probably something snide. My head still throbbed from exertion plus running thousands of feet, uphill, through dirt.

“You hurt Colleen!” I roared in his face. Dale flinched as [Inspire Minor Terror] kicked in.

His sword hand swung unsteadily. [Resistance: Physical] helped my shoulder roll off his blade. I reared up then threw both hands at the young jerks chest. He tried to dodge and my strike tore into flesh for the first time. Trails of blood poured out in rivers along his neck and arm.

“Master!” Jezebel’s tail curled then flung three balls of lightning in my direction. Two hit my back causing pain to ripple through.

“I’ll kill you for that!” Dale pulled himself together while I jerked from the electrical attack. The young man’s face stood out despite my watering eyes. His serious jawline was comically out of place in mind, making him seem outright old for a second.

One arm tried to reach around and pull down Dale’s head. He resisted and straightened out, leaving me half standing with an arm locked on his shoulder. I opened my mouth wide to bite at his face instead but hesitated. Was it really alright to try and actually eat his face off? Had I strayed so far from the human I once was? A moment of self-doubt cost me.

Dale turned his blade under my rib cage and grunted with effort. His sharp weapon briefly paused against skin before sliding through into whatever insides I had as a [Flame Spirit Lion]. [Resistance: Physical] helped slow down the painful progress.

“Oh.” I gasped.

“Monster! Defoliate! Unrepentant peon!” Jezebels stream of curse words poured forth.

“Pierce?! Pierce!” Izzy’s voice bounced inside my head.

“Foul bit of fiery nightmare!” The tiny lightning serpent was not done. She grew close, sending more bolts into my skin. My paws shredded more skin and Dale roared back at me.

My breath seemed to leaking out rapidly. I fell forward. One arm felt shockingly numb. The other pressed tightly against Dale’s face. So be it, if was going to lost my hold on this world, Dale would come with me. Reason or school comradery seemed a distant concept in the wake of Colleen being hurt.

I snarled and bite, thrashed then tore. It felt almost like I was throwing a tantrum but the results were unclear. Something about this fight felt far more visceral than any combat in the dungeon below.

In the end, I lay huffing. My side felt cold. Both shoulders were numb. One ear rung and the other didn’t move when I tried to hear the oncoming crowd.

Dale’s body lay in my line of site. Oddly unmoving. Jezebel was gone, but a puff of blue littered the ground like dust. Only a small crystal lay behind, glittering under the light of a distant school alarm.

“Colleen?” I whined across my connection to Izzy.

“She’s gone, Pierce. She’s dead.” Izzy responded while trying to remain calm.

“We have to help her!” I had health still. That meant I could stand. I could still do something. Both proved difficult. “The teachers are too far away aren’t they?”

There was a silence in our connection. I tried to get up but it hurt, more than anything had in a long time. It felt similar to those first few days of screaming red fire. [Dog]s and [Cold] spells couldn’t hurt worse than this.

How in god’s name had Dale hurt me so much, when nothing else did?

“None of them could reverse this. Dead is dead,” Izzy said slowly. Her mood sat at black tainted with frozen blue. I sniffed and could smell blueberries but the reason didn’t register.

“Can’t we do something? Make her a spirit, or share life!?” I felt guilty and upset. If I hadn’t goaded Dale then they might have been perfectly fine. We let him die in the dungeon so he got revenge.

“This isn’t your world, not really. There are rules, and bringing someone back like you want is a violation!” Her words grew louder and more aggravated.

Standing was easier. I paced over to the broken Essence Saver Stone and tried to understand. It lay a few feet away from Dale’s body, glittering like Jezebel’s stone but this one was shattered.

“Is there anyone at the school who could save her? Anyone?” I asked. Breathing still hurt. My hind leg kept losing purchase on the ground. A front paw jerked awkwardly every time I tried to move.

“No. No one who could get here in time. There were safety’s in place.” She said slowly. “None of them work if the Essence Saver Stone is destroyed. That’s the whole point.”

My head tilted towards the oncoming crowd. There were students nearby but none of the teachers had made it yet. They all wore robes with designs on their arms that students had to earn.

“How did he get it out?” I couldn’t even get Izzy’s out. It was pinned into a deep alcove within the wall.

“Dale, Dale shouldn’t have been able to do that.”

“I’ve got to do something.” My argument felt weak. My circling over Colleen’s broken stone wasn’t helping. I looked around.

Dale was dead or dying. His eyes were glazed over and staring into the distance. I didn’t care at all. Jezebel had been reduced to that small gem laying on the grass. People were shouting. I finally started seeing robes of teachers running by me into the dungeon.

And as I stared around hoping for a solution, something occurred to me. It was insane, but I vaguely remembered a few courses on magic stones from Izzy’s Artificer classes. They were one of many items that talked about subjects far beyond my level of understand. Maybe I was making it up, but I had to do something.

I thought a teacher had mentioned using one stone to supplement another. If they merged successfully then a broken stone might be repaired.

A teacher was screaming at me to stand out. Itching sensations pulled at my skin. It felt like a great pressure was being applied to my body. Abdominal muscles clinched and [Ghost Walk] triggered intermittently, reducing the pressure a bit.

“Stop moving!” Someone shouted repeatedly.

I walked over to the small blue stone that had dropped from Jezebel. The lightning dragon must have shattered or perhaps even died along with Dale. Maybe she was unsummoned. My eyebrows and forehead slid down in a wince. Dammit, a life for a life was a pointless trade, even if I didn’t like Dale.

Maybe there was a way to at least right something. I picked up Jezebels stone in my teeth and stepped slowly towards Colleens [Essence Saver Stone]. People were shouting still but my ears were bloodied or broken.

I dropped the intact jewel onto the pile of broken pieces. My nose slowly motioned them around. People were moving nearby but I couldn’t make anything concrete out. It was like my entire world had narrowed to saving Colleen.

“Izzy?” I said, feeling oddly alone. “Will this help her? I want to help her.”

Isabella Brand would be nowhere nearby. Even if she started running out of the dungeon it would take forever to here.

“It might, Pierce. Mmmhm.” Her tone sounded sad. The emotional readout I relied upon was blurred along with everything else. “Are you sure about this?”

My head dipped forward as all four legs gave out. The pile of gems sat inches in front of me. I stared at them and all I could do is wonder about the past. Did Colleen really look like a former girlfriend? It seemed like a silly question at such a time, but maybe that’s how I processed grief.

I couldn’t remember my mother’s face. Nor any other family member from the old world.

“This will hurt Pierce, but you’ll need strength.”

“We can do it?” I foolishly lost sight of the pain consequence and focused on a possible solution.

“Mmmhm. Yes. Touch the gems with your paws, and I’ll-“ She drifted off and gulped. “-I’ll support you.”

Both paws stretched out. Some teacher had started to reach for the [Essence Saver Stone] and I gave a weak snarl before covering the items up. Fur on my paws seemed aglow with more than its normal blue fringes.

An overpowering thump swallowed the world around me warped. Gone was the dungeon entrance with teachers feet. An endless horizon line stretched across a white plain. It sat in the distance.

My head started took around in panic before the thump happened again. Electrified sparks crawled over the floor and ceiling. Energy rushed together. I tried to suck in a lung full of air.

“Focus on Colleen!” Izzy was shouting at me. Her voice strained with effort. “Focus Pierce! Focus on her face!”

Thump went the world once more. Air whooshed out in a noise that sounded more like a human scream than my normal roar. I sucked in air again, desperate to breathe. Blue rushed in a line towards a distant point while the horizon grew flatter.

Both eyes refused to close. Another pound of noise hit whole bolts of energy above and below started moving faster. With each pound my back hurt, as fresh screams ripped out. As each thump passed the pain coursing through intensified.

“Focus!”

There were no status bars to look at here in this endless horizon of electricity, but I knew what dying felt like. That damned dog and his slobber which burned like fire. Teeth shuddered across my mind. I roared, or screamed, again.

“Pierce! Hold on! We’re almost through!” Izzy might have been reassuring me, or herself.

She screamed with me, and by all the Voices and Ladies of Soul that Izzy held dear, it hurt. In the end, that’s all I knew for a short eternity. I knew it hurt.

The real world came back into focus slowly. My eyes blinked a few times. Dull thudding broke up as other noises were shouted. Each sound of humanity served to bring me back into [The Inner World]. Sunlight had peeked over the horizon. The sirens of campus were mostly halted.

Professor Lianne knelt down in front of me, a frown on her face.

“That was unwise,” She said. “It might have been better if you didn’t survive it.”

My eyelids dropped downward. A boxes edge stood out against burnt grass. The jewels were both gone. I looked up at the system notice.

[The Inner World: Sacrifice]

Details: Contractors to spirits from [The Outer World] may heal a summoned being by sacrificing their own health and mana. This channeled ability is dangerous and may overdraw a contactors reserves.

“Izzy?” My leg jerked but didn’t stand right.

“Relax Pierce. She’ll be okay. All floors are being shut down, and Professors are retrieving the students. Your Isabella Brand is being taken care of by Professor Sneed.”

“What did you do?” Professor Lianne asked me.

I tried to answer, but had no energy to do so. Shouting for Izzy that one time had taken whatever remained of my energy. The health bar on my screen implied near death. I hung on only because Izzy hadn’t sent me home, or had sacrificed of herself to keep me alive.

“He tried to keep Colleen alive by using Jezebels stone. I think he caused a resonance with the saved information between them.” Isabella answered from the doorway. Somehow she had made it back to the surface. I tried to lift my head and look over but it felt like my neck was broken.

The older redhead patted me on the head. Her eagle spirit made of sunlight clicked it’s tongue but said nothing. Professor Lianne stood up and walked towards Izzy. All I saw was a bit of ankle moving under her loose dress robes.

“That’s what it looked like, but hearing confirmation is good.” Professor Lianne said. I tried to listen to other conversations but they were too hushed. Only the two ladies really stood out. “You know how dangerous it was to support him in this?”

“I know. It’s why Essence Stones are banned outside of school grounds.”

“The lecture can wait. You’re in a terrible state. Let’s get you both some healing.” The teacher said.

People moved around us. I growled in confusion but had no strength to oppose anyone. In hindsight, I realized we should have just died to the nearest monster and maybe been kicked out. Or maybe we hadn’t because then Colleen would have been alone. After chanting by one of the teachers, a woman who seemed to be more cat than human, I felt better. The health bars were going back up slowly.

Isabella was drained but still curious. They talked a bit, theorizing what might have happened. Colleen was most likely lost, and alive still. Other people cast spells upon the dead body of Dale, trying to replay what had happened.

Two days later we learned the truth. Collen was no longer a human girl of [The Inner World]. Somehow she had transformed into a being like me. I remembered my first few days. That grey screen from the [First World Legacy], telling me to ‘Remember’ an old existence. Would she be lost? Confused? I had both ruined her normal student life, and perhaps even altered her afterlife for the worse.

I had to find Collen, but even healing spells and being returned to [The Outer World] for respite hadn’t fixed us. Everything still ached. The wound in my side from Dale’s sword left a nasty scar.

Two more days passed. Izzy could barely move around. She kept trying to meet her old school schedule. My attempts at helping her along or lending support were met with annoyed denial. At the end of her morning class, I had basically given up and was staring at an attractive Professor Lianne.

“I want to find Colleen.” I finally uttered the idea out loud as we walked back to Izzy’s dorm.
“She’s gone!” Izzy shouted. Her mood meter shifted to a deep red that looked more like boiling lava than Professor Lianne’s sunshine. Her bottled up annoyance transformed into rage. Her father’s serious eyes bore down at me.

“We should bring her back.”

“Is this what it’s going to be like Pierce?! I know that that was our fault, but are you really going to attempt the impossible for everyone?” Izzy stomped a foot sending ripples through her fabric.

For a moment, I slipped and stared at white legs. Eventually, my gaze lifted to still angry eyes. Her expression made my chest tighten and mouth numb.

“Or is it because you have a crush on her?” Izzy’s emotional reading sat just out of sight. I risked a glance in its direction. The prior boiling orb filled with various shades of purple threatened to crack. It seemed to be jealousy but that emotion made little sense to me.

“I didn’t do it because she was a woman.” The words coming out of my mouth sounded calm but I was not.

“Then why? Why chance your life when she was already dead?!”

“That’s who I am. That’s all I know how to do.” A murmur of confused growls came out of me. I didn’t say ‘because I got her killed’, but Izzy had said that already.

“You risked everything, for Colleen! She’s, was, is a good person, but I stood with you and risked it all.” The courtyard wasn’t empty. People around us looked over, but when they saw who was arguing they promptly went about their business. “Do you expect me to do that for anyone?! It hurt Pierce!”

It had hurt me too. It felt like dying all over again.

“We had to try.” I tried to start somewhere reasonable.

“You have no idea how dangerous it is to perform that kind of spell,” she spat the word out like it was dirty. “You could have died, I could have died!”

“She’s your friend too.” My brain felt stuck on repeat. “Aren’t we meant to try and help? Isn’t that what being a Defender is all about?”

Her eyes closed and the emotional readings shifted through a dozen different colors. Everything hurt. It felt like we weren’t connecting on the same wave length anymore and I didn’t understand what was wrong. Her world seemed to be fading way, almost to the flat screen it used to be.

[Summon (Request)] releasing due to contractor’s cancelation.

System Notice: Initiating recall for Perseus Argive to [The Outer World]

After that, she didn’t talk to me for a long time, and the darkness of my own protective box felt lonelier than ever. I sat there, heart alternating between frozen moments and panicked thudding while trying to understand what had gone wrong.

Was it as simple as jealousy? I would have thrown my existence away for Izzy as well. I didn’t understand girls, not in the prior world or this one.

She must have been hurting after our struggle. Four days had passed. Yet, neither one of us felt back to normal. Our connection only had a slow stuttering stream of magic flowing through it. I pawed at the string but got no response or window into Izzy’s reality. [The Outer World] felt lonely without her.

[The Overseer]’s log: Once again success and failure are mixed together. It seems to be a common theme when dealing with Denizens. Everything is give and take.

Success first. Subject 17 has been completely ejected from the virtual reality and is no longer considered a Case Seven. The absolute defeat he suffered at the hands of Subject 42 provided effective. We have sent notifications to his parents, the government, and provided a recording for the Denizens. Their first responses are positive.

At least they were positive until the rest of the report was run. Here’s where the failure came in. Apparently Subject 42 and IB risked their existences to defeat Dale. The local hardware housing IB has been partially burned out. We have solid state hardware patterning, liquid cooling gels, and still overheated.

IB actually snapped at Subject 42 for initiating a near self-destruct. I can’t blame her, but the process still worked. I need approval before risk IBs existence again. We’re als waiting for the local network to free up space and her repairs to kick in. She’s gone into a minimal hibernation.

I’m worried Subject 42 won’t understand.

 

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