Quote:”Lumping all alternate reality spheres together with single descriptions is almost impossible. Each one is too malleable based on who interacts with it. Each one is free form yet restricted based by hardware memory, users biometrics and what fantasy’s they contribute, and perceived limitations. Between those things a fully interactive world is generated.
People have suggested altering the code, but it’s not something we can go in and hack in a patch for. It’s self-evolving in ways that even DNA can’t compare to. This is why I tell people calling these realities digital or cyber based is misleading and damaging. They should be treated as pocket dimensions created through technology which can be visited by humans and denizens alike.”
-Doctor Long, during an interview
My home zone with all it’s fire beasts had been full of movement and bits of landscape flaring with life. In the world of [Ice] everything felt more still, serene, and less alluring. I sat still while watching an endless plain of dull white snow.
“Mmmhm.” I echoed Izzy’s trademark sound with a slow unenthusiastic hum.
The scene should have impressed me, but looking off into the distance I felt nothing. Even the pain of shifting my elemental nature to [Ice] seemed like an event I had read about before a nap. My mind still moved but felt uninterested in a likely beautiful landscape.
[Aura of True Flame] turned into [Presence of Pure Ice]. [Flame] damage to my claws now did [Frost], it sort of made sense to me. Blue hairs were motionless. The former flame hues to my body had transformed into dusty white. I could probably blend in and sneak around but I lacked the drive to do so. Even the idea of rescuing Colleen felt like someone else’s goal.
In short, transforming my element from [Fire] to [Ice] had come with a side effect. General apathy had drained me completely. I couldn’t even muster appreciation at my own detached introspection which had noticed the change. Maybe there would be a way to find a balance between the two elements, but it would take time and study, or Izzy. Izzy would probably know. She knew a lot.
The thought of my contactor sent shivers through every ounce of frost-tinted fur. My head shifted slightly to look at the small bars which helped a distant spirit like me understand. Her status bars looked to be the same half healed but still broken items they had been for days, weeks, or maybe hours. I growled in confusion while tilting my head. Maybe it wasn’t our connection, but her directly.
“Izzy?” I asked the air while staring at my leash which had stiffened in the cold. It trialed off into Izzy’s world two feet away from the neck clipping. “Colleen? Anyone?”
I had no clue how to help her. I could try to locate the farmer Voice chewing his tweed. Not that [Ba-Ba-Bad Sheep] would be fun. Maybe a Shadow realm existed and I could risk seeing if Grandpa Hubble was connected to any spirits out here. Oh God, that old man had frightened the life out of me threating punishment and doom should this exact sort of event happen. Shadow areas or realms were a express no go.
Professor Lianne would be the most neutral party. As a teacher in a magical soldier training school, she had to have experience dealing with mishaps. Someone there had to be helping Izzy, so my job would be to grow stronger and expand my abilities. Anything that would let me bear the brunt of risk to keep her safe.
She was my light in the darkness. Her existence had been the only existence in my first moments of the world. Merely by being nearby it gave me a reason to continue and not feel lost. I had nearly brought her to ruin through that [The Inner World: Sacrifice] healing. It felt like I did nothing but leech off her existence and didn’t offer enough in return.
Isabella Brand. I knew she was on a pedestal for me. At the same time we had a partnership, us against the world. Months of learning to cooperate in that dungeon had built trust. We didn’t have party members or other students. We didn’t go in with the express purpose of playing around. We were there to challenge the place as she grew.
Advancement and abilities would all help me explore to find another way through. Maybe somewhere in these realms was a portal I could crawl out of. I vaguely remember Izzy studying such locations. Volcanos, deep forests, great waterfalls, all of them were sources of element energy. Spirits like me might be able to break through to reality.
Alright, goals were established. Find a spirit I recognized and ask them to pass a message. Explore for a portal out. Find all the valuable treasures I could snag. Grow stronger and advance once more. Following these items in some combination would allow me to return to Izzy.
Thinking about my contractor being hurt, while being utterly useless out here, got my apathetic [Ice] spirit self-moving forward. One paw padded after another forward across a still landscape. I kept my eyes out for changes to the sheer whiteness but failed to notice anything for the first mile.
Izzy had talked about various creatures and their habits, but most of the words didn’t stick. She often explained while I tried to nap or sneak a piece of meat. Maybe there were creatures moving out that blended in? I lowered myself in the small layer of snow and tried to blend in. Eyesight focused on the horizon nearby, watching for movement.
My tail twitched. Ten minutes passed, or more. Time existed as a loose concept. My tail twitched again, slowly clearing a spot in the snow behind me. I could smell something faint. Not an intensely obvious smell like [Treasure Hunter] provided me, but a scent belonging to another creature out here.
I held still and tightened down. Muscles tensed then uncoiled in preparation to spring. Finally, something hopped up then sunk back into the snow. A tongue licked over frozen whiskers at the idea of eating food and quelling the odd hunger twisted my stomach. Soon the critter ahead would hop again.
It did, skipping above the layer of snow. The small beast was a rabbit. I bunched myself and prepared to use an excessive [Leap] and teeth to end it’s life.
It leapt, and I dove after it. Snow went everywhere. The bunny ran rapidly. Frozen dirt bravely resisted my surge of strength to change directions. Even frozen my feline balance and reactions were top notch. Dinner used [Evasive Maneuvering] and I used [Starving Lion] to counter. Teeth closed about the critters leg and it kicked. I loosed just enough to get a more secure crunch and the rabbit throbbed with a few final twitches before ceasing resistance.
I purred in savage happiness. Being a frozen lion spirit had to be better than a human. When was the last time anyone from my old world had actually hunted for food? At least, [The Inner World] had a mix of farm and forest hunters. Izzy’s original hometown employed quite a few who had hawked their wares in the marketplace.
The creature went with heavy crunches. Bigger bones were left alone, and my rabbit didn’t really have much meat outside of the legs. Innards under the belly all tasted about the same and I almost wished to have [Aura of True Flame] back to cook my meal.
My stomach growled and I contemplated hunting another beast. Where there were rabbits, might be all sorts of beings. I needed something much bigger that might last a few days. The ache of my muscles from a brief few seconds of tussling bothered me.
Wasn’t I a spirit? Why did everything in [The Outer World] seem more taxing? Breathing in that cavern had taken real work. Plus eating and growing hungry felt annoying. Maybe those were part of Izzy’s malady. Our connection that had sustained me until now might be broken.
“How do I get out of here?” I mewled.
The wind shifted, and I caught the scent of another beast entirely. I turned my head away from the rabbit remains in my hand. The snow fluttered against as something white dove towards me. It gave a noise partway between barking and honking. Widely spread set of antlers came forth were lowered along the ground to drive into me.
“Shit!” I yelled while trying to dodge. One paw caught on the rabbit remains. Sharped tips caught my side and dug into cold, hard skin. A roar escaped and both paws flailed for the creatures face.
Part of one antler snapped off inside my ribcage. Claws tore a path along it’s face while I was cast aside. The buck’s powerful neck tossed me twenty feet away. Bits of fur and flesh were lodged under my paws. One of the stag’s eyes looked glassy. I raked a paw to keep it from charging again. The deer shuffled back a few steps before releasing another barking honk.
Hoofs fell down on the ground as it started charging again. I roared hoping to trigger [Inspire Terror] but the enraged creature didn’t balk. My gut clenched as [Ghost Walk] went off. My body didn’t sink through ground but the charging deer traveled through me instead. Each movement tore at my health but hurt less than being impaled by more antlers.
I released the ability and came up with paws spread wide. The white deer had slowed to turn. Antler Head’s neck curved far ahead of the backside. I leapt the short distance and clamed wide around it’s rump and hung on. Wisps of white were nearly impossible to see against the snow background. Matted fur by snow rolling under my slipping paws.
It bleated at me. I roared back while hammering with both paws. This buck would be lunch, or dinner, or something out here in the empty plains. My future meal fell to the side and started to writhe on its back. One paw sunk it and I hauled myself further up its flank. Both shoulders ached and most claws felt like they were being ripped out. I opened my mouth wide with a snarl then crunched in the creature’s neck.
Weak bucking ensued as blood drained from the beast’s wound to spill on broken snow. I felt elated at my first hunt in the wild and real meal. Neck muscles flexed back and forth to confirm deceased a deceased status. A glance around revealed generally empty land, even those ice hyena beasts weren’t nearby yet. Teeth sunk in right away while higher functions shut down in appreciation. The meal under my claws went down one glorious bite at a time.
Muscles sagged until they were almost numb. My belly felt stretched tautly over digesting contents. This death march into the wilds of [The Outer World] had been filled with constant motion. I felt exhausted, relaxed, and full. Almost like this frozen wilderness around me didn’t really exist. Almost like nothing existed.
Maybe none of this was real. I vaguely recalled the sensations of those around me. Izzy had real presence and a personality. Colleen started to give off the same feeling recently as well. That selfish asshole Dale had been so intensely annoying that I couldn’t help but acknowledge him since day one.
Everything else though, might be a weird dream. Even after all these years I felt oddly detached from the world. Maybe that’s how being a spirit went, we weren’t completely part of [The Inner World]. My icy disposition helped me stay calm and analyze the past while my body stayed relaxed.
There had to be a method to follow the same path Izzy’s ancestors did. She said they were people that had once been spirits like me. The idea of evolving into a real human being held great appeal. I wanted to find hints of that process while looking for clues of Colleen’s existence and treasures.
I sat there over the carcass for a long time trying to better plan out my goals. Doing so felt counter my normal nature, but I had to change my own thinking to make it through. Too much time had been wasted as Izzy grew older, time I could have wandered around out here and grown stronger on my own. All those afternoons lazing away on Grumble Goat’s tower were a waste. It was time to turn over a new paw.
No one had explained that even spirits had to be adults. In theory I was close to forty years old between my old world and Izzy’s, but I still felt eighteen. There weren’t any classes in Izzy’s college telling people how to grow up.
I kept eating and thinking, even until it hurt. A message from the [First World Legacy] cropped up in ashen greys mixed with frost laced blue lettering.
The still left over from a long-dead creator apparently thought I was dumb and couldn’t get any smarter. At least I thought [Depth] related to my attempted resolution searching. I honestly didn’t know for sure, the boxes only came up when it was convenient for them.
“Pierce.” A weak voice said. It slid under a whistling wind before my brain registered that someone had even spoke. Eyes blinked and a snow covered landscape came back into focus.
My head shot up and looked around wildly. That had been a female of some sort, but not Izzy. It couldn’t be her. It sounded, older. How long had I been out here? There was a depth and shakiness of pitch that didn’t belong to Izzy’s serious tone.
“It hurt.” The female voice groaned softly.
I stood up and padded around my meal for signs of a visitor. There didn’t seem to be anyone near me at all. Nostrils flared as I trick to catch a scent of anything. Above more clouds gathered while snow started to fall. My eyes stared upwards to figure out which path the storm might be headed. It moved from behind me and started rapidly moving towards an unknown destination. I couldn’t tell east from west out here. The dark clouds overhead crackled with lightning. A rumble shook the ground.
My basic understanding of [The Outer World] had revealed one two major points. First each element probably had it’s own realm. Second, between each realm ran a border where things blended together. That very zone between elements is where the giant frozen rat and fire bird had fought.
Bolts shot off as the entire bank seemed to hang above the indistinct area between [Fire] and [Ice] realms. Blackness rolled past and I started to realize that maybe there were other elements at play here. Maybe lightning, or sky, or air, all existed above me somewhere.
“Pierce? Did you stop Dale?” The woman’s voice questioned a bit louder. Thunder rapidly followed in its wake almost drowning out the words.
My held tilted around to try and find the source. That voice couldn’t belong to Colleen, could it? It sounded like a very rough version of the girl that helped Izzy all those years. Who else would know to mention Dale and stopping him? It had to be our sword carrying acrobat. It had to be.
“Izzy? Could Colleen be in a thunderstorm?” I asked while turning my head around and around. Dizziness started to set in. Feline necks were not meant to be craned backwards for so long. “Can a storm speak?”
Jezebel had been an elemental being of thunder. I gasped then started running after the leading edge. Hail pelted downward and bounced from the ground. Colleen might have turned into an element or something similar after I merged her [Essence Saver Stone] with Jezebels blue core!
My body ached and the half eaten meal vanished to my rear. Snow looked the same nearly everywhere but I still covered a lot of ground. My head scanned the storm for any sign of Colleen or more words.
Nothing came down, but my gut said this had to be the right direction. A scent hung in the air like lavender mixed with springtime. Colleen had smelled like that, especially as she started going out with dale.
It had to be her.
I kept running. Lightning flashed down from above without a sound. Snow went in all directions as the connection cracked against earth. I skidded to the side while managing to stay upright. More bolts came as powerful leaps pulled me forward.
Then I saw her, a face hanging in the clouds above. It hung like a faint memory illuminated by silent electrified bolts.
“Colleen!” I tried to keep up.
The storm blew south, taking the image of Colleen with it. I ran over the fields in case while every muscle in my body screamed in protest. Hours passed, maybe days as the chase ensued. My form could barely keep up with the tail end of quickly moving clouds.
Nails scraped and stumbled causing my paws to bang awkwardly against the ground. A hind leg muscle forced me to limp. At some point I lost control and fell forward into a snow drift, an endless plane of white all around. The cloud rolled far into the distance ahead.
”Collen is out here, she’s changed, but she’s out here. Just wait, I’ll find her and then come back to you.” I murmured across our connection. Small bits of blue energy floated through the blackened leash. “If I just follow the border after her, I’ll find something, right Izzy?”
Feet slowly pulled together to stand upright. My body wobbled but weakly and stumbled after the storm front. Tingles rushed through me as I realized my aimless wandering finally had a proper destination. A clear set of goals and a destination to reach for felt good. It was time I grew up as a spirit and stopped relying on Isabella to do all my thinking.
[The Overseer]’s log:
Not that I would compare the Case Zero to nature.
The latest one is for curing Subject 17 and his being locked out of the digital world. The lawsuit implies mental damages incurred by our labs actions, a loss of ability to get a job due to being blocked from using any Alternate Reality immersion device, and seeks back pay for not curing the problem sooner.
I mean really, why are we being sued for saving him from being a vegetable? Legal advised me not to send pictures of the brain dead subjects who failed to find a solution in time. Long-term immersion inside an alternate reality without surfacing is insanely damaging. It’s happened before, and only a few people have transitioned to Case Three, and those people had help. These Case Sevens won’t get any help because no one wants to invite a time bomb into their fold.