Quote:“What happens to those who lose their way? We have seen this occurrence at least ten times now. In most cases they put themselves into a vegetative state. They chose not to have a hold on the real world, and the digital one refuses to indulge them forever. There is no other existence waiting out in the reaches of space. There is no psychic realm to crawl away to and live. Case Seven’s typically expire between one and three years after immersion. ”
Doctor Long, The Virtual Conundrum
Izzy didn’t dismiss me. I wouldn’t have gone willingly anyway. Everything hurt here, and things would feel even worse in [The Outer World]. Going back to recover my health would result in being unable to protect the little girl.
“We could go back?” I meowed while coughing.
“No. The path is gone. Look.” She sniffed and heaved with deep shuddering breaths. A trail of ash littered the aftermath behind us. The road back to Grandpa Hubble’s tower had vanished utterly.
Our only path went forward. Trailing after the long gone Defender and Izzy’s luggage. I don’t think walking was an option for me right now, and she didn’t have much mana or health. We both needed rest.
This new world added insult to injury. In the distance thunder rippled between mountains. I lifted my head, which hurt far too much, and looked at the sounds source. Lightning flashed again and two seconds later noise caught up. Two miles, maybe, to close. A wall of grey rainclouds rapidly approached.
“We need shelter.” I said. “And you need to rest. Without mana we’re both dead.”
“But it will hurt. You, I mean.” Izzy stared at the storm ahead and seemed to be on the verge of real tears. She held them back then kept moving forward steadily.
“I’m okay with pain.” High School football taught me plenty about taking a hit.
“I don’t want to be alone.” She said. The poor girl was suffering too. We had no good options. Only going forward could give us any hope now. Maybe the Defender stood up ahead of us somewhere, waiting silently.
“You won’t be. Let me go now, and recover some. Then you can summon me back.” I said. My teeth were already gritting in preparation for fresh pain. Everything was mostly broken from the snakes attack. A real cat with this kind of damage wouldn’t even make it to the hospital.
“Just, stay a little longer, please Mister Spirit.” Izzy asked.
I understood. Those moments of being alone in the darkness without any contact had been frightening. I had cursed God and scratched a hole into the ground in panic.
“Only if you call me Pierce.” I said.
“Mmmmhmm.” Izzy was smart. She would know that me resting would help us both. Her mana would stop going down as much, and my health would all come back up. In the end being a child and not wanting to be alone won out. I understood.
Going back to that abyss and screaming in an effort to rebuild my defenses wasn’t appealing. I tried to purr a bit for Izzy but it was hard. My remaining mana went into the [Aura of Heat]. Our bond made sure such a simple ability didn’t cause her harm.
“There’s got to be a way through this Mister-” She paused. “Pierce. I just, I can’t figure it out.”
“Did Grandpa Hubble tell you anything?” I asked.
“Lots of things, but nothing that actually worked. It was like, he gave me puzzles with huge portions missing.”
“I saw.” I had watched the exercises over three months. All of them started out as shapes but seemed to be missing a key portion.
“I still don’t know what I’m doing wrong.” She admitted.
The storm was reaching upon us. Rain pelted down. My [Aura of Heat] didn’t prevent us from getting soaked. Thankfully we had no other monsters attacking us on the road. Our walk was just one of two half broken existences who had no other good hope.
Her father’s serious eyes kept up a gaze into the distance. Feet kept up a march forward. Somehow this girl kept moving despite carrying my weight. Maybe [Ember Kitten]s didn’t weight much. I was missing parts of my body. Guts didn’t hang out. Like those demons I showed damage in another way. A trail of ash marked out continued journey through the mountains.
“I don’t know Izzy. I’m not smart like you.” The words came out in a low broken meow.
“No. You’re brave. Like a knight.” She tried to insist that I was
“God. I’m no knight. I don’t know how to do anything but throw my life away.” I had tried many times to put myself in the line of fire. Part of me remembered choosing my old job for exactly that reason. A chance to make a difference with the only value I had.
It wasn’t low self esteem, it was realism. I didn’t do well on tests. My ability to take a beating wasn’t extremely high end. There were no secrets inside my brain or clever skills.
Well, I was a [Ember Kitten] in huge amounts of ongoing pain. I guess there were some skills of value in my life now. Without getting my health back all my ability to claw at things wouldn’t do any good.
Izzy kept walking despite the pelting storm. I tried to figure out a way to heal here in the real world. Her stomach grumbled violently. We had no food either. There was no more mana to maintain my [Aura of Heat] either.
“Izzy. It’s time.” I said. “I need time to recover.”
“Okay Mister-” she sounded exhausted. We could only pray that nothing else happened. Izzy moved to a nearby tree and huddled up against the cold.
Contractor Isabella Brand is activating [Dismiss Contracted Spirit].
I felt bad for leaving her. There were no good options. My body weight had dropped a ton. She had no energy, nor did I. Resources were at a low. Letting me go would hurt but our options were limited.
It hit quickly and with more force than before. My mind blanked and green flashed over everything. All I could see was that last moment of my life in magnified stereo. Giant teeth opened wide, green dripping liquid flame. A crushing sensation as my side caved in. That moment hit me over and over in waves.
I tried to construct the cardboard walls of red flame. Doing this last time had numbed out the ongoing pain. My teeth felt like they were cracking under pressure. There were messages about receiving some [Endurance] increase and [Willpower] bonus. They meant nothing in the face of enough agony to white out my mind.
It kept going. There were no clocks to measure this reality with. My mind couldn’t reach out to Izzy’s world and get something to anchor life with. Five minutes or eternity, that’s how long I endured for.
Hope came in the form of a box that could barely be answered. One paw jerked badly and slammed a button. I must have pressed no because Izzy’s world did not come into view. The box displayed again. My head got mixed signals between pain and trying to focus. Finally, I managed to press the right button and my alternate world faded away.
Izzy was shivering. I hastily activated [Aura of Heat] and was pleased to see a new message come up.
[Aura of Heat] upgraded to [Aura of Minor Flame]
It was enough to start thawing out the little girl quickly. I crawled into the space next to her and felt proud that this increased aura didn’t cause Izzy damage. The water soaking her clothes dried up fairly quickly as a result of the aura’s upgrade.
A skill transformation wasn’t enough to prevent rain from hitting us, but it helped. I had never experienced an ability changing like this. The pain was still clearing from my head or I would have pursued the reasoning further.
“Thank you, Pierce.” Izzy chattered. Her hands rubbed away goosebumps that crawled across every exposed portion of skin.
I checked over her status. She had a [Cold] and [Weakened] notation. The moodring like system showed a depressing shade of blue. We were in a better situation but nowhere near good. My focus was spent on trying to make the [Aura of Minor Flame] use less mana.
“We’ll need to keep moving.” I said. A yawn escaped me. The brief return to [The Outer Realm] only brought me to about half health. My energy had recovered much quicker but it was being drained by the only ability I had.
“I know.” She responded with a similar yawn.
We formed a vague plan. Izzy would summon me for warmth then release me in order to rest. The girl maintained a steady pace. I tried not to leave our path again for fear of fighting more demons when we were so weak. There were critters running around, squirrels, birds, crickets, each one distracted me for just a moment.
Izzy’s staggering form kept me in line. Both of her feet looked damaged. She needed better traveling shoes. My health had mostly recovered after our third cycle, of summoning and healing. Energy kept bouncing around. Lower levels of mana caused me to drag in exhaustion right next to her.
“There’s another spot over there.” Izzy said while pointing towards a tree down the road half a mile away. Shelters were few and far between. We spent time stumbling between vaguely die spots. The [Cold] status kept dropping off and being reapplied.
“Alright.” I stayed next to the young girl and tried to keep her from freezing in the rain. Doing this left us wet, exhausted, still behind the Protector, but mostly warm.
Our latest dry location gave me a chance to shake off waterdrops. Izzy laid against the tree trunk and tried to crawl further into drenched clothes. The [Aura of Minor Flame] dried me out a bit more, and started heating up her clothes. It took a lot of focus to prevent the ability from setting her heavy dress on fire.
“We need to get you better clothes.” I meowed at her while licking my fur into the right direction. “And a raincoat.”
“I’m cold Pierce.”
“I know. We will need to walk again.” I tried to focus on my training. When stuck in a terrible situation we couldn’t just stop. We had to move.
I would need to find food for her soon, especially if we didn’t catch up with the Protector. Maybe if I grabbed a squirrel then used my [Aura of Minor Flames] on it we could cook food. Izzy hadn’t complained yet but I could hear her belly rumbling.
“I need more rest, and I’m hungry.” She said. Part of me was surprised the little girl lasted so long. Our options were give up and lay down or keep marching forward.
Izzy got up and managed to travel to the next dry spot further up. I sat down, drying us once more while staring at where the road had been behind us. There was no sign of the clear path from this angle. It might be magic for this world. Maybe it had to do with Grandpa Hubble’s ability to guard the valley.
I didn’t know what else to do.
“I have an idea.” I said. “Two, I guess.”
“Mmmmhm.” Izzy mumbled her noise for agreement.
“Do you know who The Overseer is?” I asked first.
“Only whispers. She’s like Grandpa Hubble, only more, much more.” Izzy warmed up a little. My mana didn’t have much left as a result. Once the [Cold] went away I would shut off the ability to conserve what was left.
“I got a message that she was alerted about our progress with the rats.” I said. One boss kill, thirty four minion rank ones. One unsorted weasel faced snake of constricting nature.
“Then you’re growing stronger too.” She only chattered a little. Dark strands still clumped on the back of her head.
“I can either try to run ahead and see how far the Protector is, or try to hunt for more demons and meet the empowerment.” I said. Izzy might be able to figure out which option was better. The rules of this world were still beyond me. Advancing might come with a larger size, or a different form, or simply stronger abilities to defend her.
“Run for the Defender, run fast Pierce.” Izzy nodded quickly.
She got one half felt purr and a headbutt of parting. “Just like before, if you need me, release me and pull me back.” I said.
“Mmmhm.” Izzy was tired.
I didn’t waste any more time. Izzy wouldn’t have enough energy to keep me summoned forever and scouting ahead was our best bet. The path seemed safe enough. Running for help was the only way to find a bright spot in our journey.
Rain pelted against my fur. My ears kept tilting back to prevent more from getting in. I slunk quickly, opting to shuffle quickly and save bursts of speed for dodging between dry spots. Being a spirit from [The Outer World] didn’t prevent me from getting tired. Between this and my remaining mana I should be able to escape another snake demon.
Hours worth of rain turned the mountain path into mud. I sat under a bush and stared down path trying to find signs of the Defender. It had stopped before to wait for us, now it kept moving forward, why?
My latest shelter on the roadside was occupied by a fat looking owl. It stared at me, and I glared at it. Part of me vaguely remembered that owls and other birds of prey would eat cats. The large fluffy raptor stared downward at me.
“Try it!” I hissed and swiped at the air.
The large creature let out a squawk that sounded more like a chuckle than any bird noise. Giant light green wings expanded and it took off. I followed it as the switched bird flew off to another tree.
I tried to evaluate the creature as possible growth fodder. How many giant cat eating birds would need to be murdered to feel safe walking through the forest? Never mind the whole empowerment possibilities.
My eyes drifted downward from the owl things departing path. Another feature of the landscape stood out, There were giant heavy footprints lining the pathway between the hills. Fresh mud squished to the sides.
I was no tracker, but that was pretty clear to this [Ember Kitten]. The Defender had to be close. My earlier attempts at conserving energy were discarded in a mad dash. Twenty minutes later I found the rear of our cart.
It was close. If Izzy and I just kept running we could easily catch up. Even sooner if the stone golem could be told to stop. I leapt onto the back of the cart. My bobcat sized weight barely made it tip.
Something smelled off. Amber eyes glared at me from in the back. My mind rapidly tried to understand what happened. The blankets in the back were shoved to one side and a large lizard looking creature stood up.
“Warrrglglgl!” It screamed nonsense.
I had figured out why the Defender kept right on moving. It must believe that we were sleeping in the carriages back, under cover against the rain. Dozens more lizard man things poured down from the hills.
[The Overseer]‘s log: Found out the problem. One of our new techs decided to gather data without telling anyone. He likely expected to be praised upon solving a problem that dozens of people have been working on for longer. Nevermind the denizen’s investment. They’re easily smarter than he ever will be.
Still, one Case Seven was able to reach into another one’s mind space. This is exactly why the denizens are so against the Case Seven’s being allowed to continue living. They show no regard for boundaries and just brute force through the digital landscape. We’re an hour out from plugging Subject 42 into a hardline, hopefully we can get him there and isolate the data, IB will be contained behind the wall as well until she can fully fight off other attacks across the network.
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