Deep within the Shrine of Kaddan, Sophia hesitantly walked toward the bright altar holding the Sacred Orb of Aquios. There was something about this holy item that worried the young mage, but she knew she had to retrieve it for her party's mission to succeed. Her long brown hair swayed slightly as she looked over her shoulder, and she saw each member of her group patiently nod toward her in support. After turning back to the orb and taking a deep breath, she reached forward and carefully lifted the crystal globe with both hands. She sighed in relief and peered into her happy reflection as she was able to hold the orb without consequence.
Sophia's celebration was cut short when the sacred orb began glowing in a strange light. Feeling a tingling sensation in her feet, she looked down to see her stalking-clad legs were quickly dissolving into the air, and the same effect was quickly spreading upwards to her miniskirt and corset. With a look of horror on her face, she turned her head and weakly spoke to the leader of her party.
"Fa-... Fayt, what's happening to me?"
Her teammates watched in puzzlement as Sophia completely disappeared with the Orb of Aquios frozen in her hands. When the spellcaster was gone, Fayt turned his head toward his group's most agile fighter and questioned her in an angered tone.
"Nel, what's going on?"
The red-haired assassin stared downward as she replied in disbelief.
"I... don't know. None of the legends talked about this sort of thing happening."
Sophia slowly opened her eyes. She was floating in a reclined position in empty space, and she was surrounded by a round cage made of glowing red bars. The structure was lined with several holographic screens, all displaying the word "Caution" in the same color as the bars. This place seemed to be void of gravity, and Sophia couldn't see anything except empty black space outside of her cell. She couldn't imagine who could have made this prison, but she knew she didn't feel comfortable staying here. The location was bizarre in itself, and she couldn't get over the feeling that someone was watching her.
Sophia reached over her shoulder and gasped. The metallic wand she always carried on the back of her pink blouse was missing, limiting her options on how to escape from this lonely place. She then held her palms forward and closed her eyes in concentration, attempting to conjure some of her inherent magical power. This process had no effect, however, and Sophia concluded that the trap had somehow disabled her powers. Realizing all she could do was wait, she sighed before crossing her arms and pouting to herself.
"I've quarantined the virus, sir."
A single computer technician spoke in the Eternal Sphere's maintenance room. He was surrounded by similar staff at their workstations, each monitoring every aspect of the game's virtual environment. This particular technician's console currently displayed an image of a free-floating female figure, along with a box containing what appeared to be various vital signs. The game's head administrator, Luther Lansfeld, leaned over the programmer's shoulder and peered toward the screen with anticipation.
"Good. How's it look?"
The technician typed at his keyboard for a few seconds before his screen flickered. The pink, violet, and blue outfit the brown-haired character had been wearing now faded away, leaving the character model naked. As the programmer continued to type, his screen flickered a second time and the figure was reduced to a wire frame version of itself. Finally, when he finished typing and the screen flickered a third time, the wire frame gave way to a flood of programming language. The technician's eyes moved rapidly from left to right, glancing over the endless lines of code, before he finally replied to his superior's inquiry.
"Pretty low security. Probably one of the more sociable ones. I can crack it in a minute or so. It's still a sensitive procedure, though, so I had the firewall disable all of the non-critical components."
The blonde administrator's lips curled into a grin at this response.
"Excellent. Decompile it and overwrite its code with the revisions we discussed."
The programmer tapped his fingers on his desk as he stopped to think. He then swiveled his desk chair around so he could face Luther and politely question him.
"Are you... sure, sir? It IS an AI construct, but we're talking about 17 simulated years of human experience here. We could always edit a less crucial module. It would be a waste to just delete so much..."
Luther's gleeful expression quickly changed to one of obvious contempt toward his employee's advice. When he interrupted the technician's objections, his voice briefly startled the rest of the workers in the room.
"Damn it, just do as I say! It's not your girlfriend, it's a piece of software!"
The technician shook his head in defeat before replying in a timid manner.
"Very well, sir."
After a regretful sigh, he turned back to his monitor and began working diligently at his keyboard.
Sophia squinted and groaned quietly as she held one hand to her temple. She had suddenly fallen victim to a mild headache, and she figured the harsh red light surrounding her was irritating her eyes. Closing them solved nothing, however, and the pain in her head only grew with each passing second.
After tolerating the mysterious migraine for a few minutes, Sophia's eyelids fluttered open and her hazel orbs widened with shock. A new sensation was overwhelming her, feeling as if something was tearing away at her brain. She raised both hands to her head as she let out a painful scream, and she thrashed about in her floating prison as she felt herself forgetting where she was, who she was, and how she had ever gotten here. Visions of her most intimate memories flashed in her head before fading away like they had never been there. Her squeals stifled and her writhing subsided when she eventually slipped into unconsciousness. Her arms and legs hung limply in the open air of the cage, and her head lifelessly rolled backwards.
When Sophia awoke again, she slowly lifted her head and studied her glowing environment with a stoic glare. New thoughts cycled through her mind, and a eerie smirk appeared on her face.
A blinding flash of light filled the Shrine of Kaddan. When Fayt's team finished rubbing the stars out of their eyes, they saw Sophia now standing at the altar of the shrine with the Orb of Aquios in her hands. There was a bright smile on her face, and her wand had returned to its holster on her back. Fayt quickly ran to her to greet her.
"Sophia, are you okay? What was that all about?"
Sophia blinked in curiosity and tilted her head before responding.
"Um... I'm not sure. I was in this weird place after I picked up the orb, and then I was teleported back here."
She smiled again and lifted her hands slightly to present the object she was holding.
"But now we have this, so I'm not really worried about it."
The blue-haired swordsman nodded in relief.
"Yeah, now we can..."
His words were cut off when he abruptly let out a choked grunt. The Orb of Aquios clattered to the shrine's marble ground as Fayt was impaled through the abdomen with a long silver blade. When the weapon was removed and the doomed fighter toppled to the floor, the rest of the party saw Sophia's entire right arm had morphed into the deadly blade. It soon changed back to its original form, and Sophia stared at the rest of the group with a sinister grin as she closed her transforming fingers into a fist.
"That's not Sophia!"
After the party stepped back in a collective gasp, Albel dashed toward his new enemy and shouted. He aggressively swung his katana at Sophia as soon as he reached melee range, but his attack failed when she parried to the side with impossible reflexes. This left Albel vulnerable, and he soon paid for his mistake when Sophia swung her arm and slit his throat with the sparkling dagger her left hand had temporarily turned into. Albel's corpse joined Fayt's on the floor of the shrine.
The remaining members of the group had now readied themselves for battle and charged their deceitful opponent in unison. Sophia's newfound abilities allowed her to slaughter the rest of her own party, however, and soon only Nel remained. The red-headed ninja cautiously stepped backwards with a dagger in each hand as she shouted toward her psychotic foe.
"Sophia, what the hell are you doing?"
Sophia giggled quietly before answering her former comrade's desperate question.
"I'm doing my job."
Her eyes narrowed and her voice became colder when she continued.
"I need to erase this system's anomalies."
Nel grit her teeth in rage before lunging toward Sophia. The attacker's target soon disappeared from sight, however, causing Nel to swing her knives at thin air. When she turned around, she saw Sophia was now standing behind her. The young sorceress was in the middle of performing a exotic twirling dance, and Nel's eyes widened with terror when she recognized the position Sophia was holding her staff. Nel barely had time to mutter one word under her breath.
She then howled in agony as she was consumed by the wall of flame Sophia had summoned.
"It was a complete success, Mr. Lansfeld. The new defense program eliminated the other malignant processes just as you intended"
The Eternal Sphere technician spoke as he observed his monitor. His administrator leaned over his shoulder again before speaking.
"And where is it now?"
The technician loaded an overhead map of one of the game's many dungeons on his screen, then pointed to a flashing red dot on the display.
"It's still in the sector we placed it in. It's waiting for new commands, but it's pretty unstable. It could go rogue if it finds something else to attack. Should we uninstall it?"
Luther shook his head and responded in a casual tone.
"No, that won't be necessary. Have it revert to basic NPC functions and move it to one of the towns until we need to use it again. I don't want it to become unpredictable."
He grinned and thought to himself before speaking again.
"If any more threats to the Eternal Sphere appear, our little tool will be right there to deal with them from the inside."
The technician simply nodded to his employer's somewhat ominous words.
"As you wish, sir."
Luther left the maintenance room as his workers returned to their normal operations.