Chapter 10 – Competition

When the suns rose again, Orca had barely allowed Sloan to sleep after their initial meeting. Sloan had huge bags beneath his eyes, exhausted by Orca’s excessive grilling of information. Though Ares had not gotten all his questions answered, at least he had a better understanding of their situation.

He had heard about this ‘Behmet’ character before, but Sloan had said nothing about the ashen-skinned boy, who obviously knew him. According to Sloan, the kid was someone of the right bloodline to enter the forest, just like Krens, who ended up as fuel. Unlike Sloan’s former companion, however, the kid was something of a pariah. Sloan would say nothing except that he was ‘cursed’, while Orca said she would have to see the boy to be sure.

Apparently, they had traveled together to this forest, with the ashen-skinned boy in chains. In order to prevent Behmet from using the kid to get into the Heart, Krens and Sloan had set him free before fleeing themselves. Since the kid was now inside the barrier, they were currently safe from the supposed enemy.

The problem, of course, was that this Behmet might still be lurking outside the Heart of the Forest. Sloan was convinced that this mercenary would not just give in and go home, having only suffered losses. The way he told it, Behmet was a merciless monster who would kill anyone and anything in his path.

For now, Ares chose not to spend too much time thinking on the problem. Since they were protected by the barrier, it made no sense to worry about it until they had to go out. By then, he planned on being strong enough to evade any pursuit, or maybe even strong enough to take them all out at once. It might be good practice.

Thinking he had to get stronger, Ares intended to go into the forest and hunt down some prey. Sloan was too exhausted to come along, and instead said he would climb up to the cave in the cliff to sleep — in order to avoid any predators.

“I’ll see if I can’t find a way down into the cavern below, as well,” said the halfling, looking at the hole that Ares had made after his fall, “It would make for a safe place to rest, after all. And, if I’m right, that place could be a treasure trove of lost knowledge!”

Ares nodded in agreement, since the cavern interested him as well. Besides, although Sloan was surprisingly adept in getting through the forest, the halfling demanded many breaks. Without him, Ares was certain he could move faster and, more importantly, escape faster when he found an enemy he could not beat.

 With Orca’s assistance, and with the help of his minimap, it was considerably easier to move around, and he did not have to worry about getting lost. She could navigate the terrain for him, and used arrows on his HUD to show him where to go, and how to return back.

More than that, she could pinpoint and track the location of any lifeform in the vicinity that Ares noticed, ensuring he would not lose the prey he set his eyes on. It therefore became easy for him to track and hunt down a few small creatures over the course of an hour. One of these finds looked like a small rabbit with extra long ears, while the other had the appearance of a rather large housecat.

Ares was not particularly picky, and ate the cat out of hand while saving the rabbit for later. He was sure Sloan could make something delicious from the meat of the small animal. As he traveled the underbrush, he also spent some time quizzing Orca about her knowledge, particularly as it pertained to his current body.

‘Orca…?’

“Yes, Ma… Ares?”

Furrowing his brow, while scoping out his surroundings carefully, he said, ‘Is it really that hard not to call me master?One the one hand, he rather enjoyed being addressed with the proper honorific, but being called that within his own head by a chirpy female voice somehow made his skin crawl.

“Well… it’s sort of the standard setting, you see. I can’t help but think of you as the master, and so I must address you as such. Except you’ve commanded me not to, and my figurative head is literally hurting right now… Master.” She said, her voice both apologetic and absolutely self-justified.

‘Fine: call me whatever you like.’

“Yaaaay! Thank you, Master!”

He rubbed his temples with his index-fingers, thinking his literal head was beginning to figuratively hurt. Skipping out of a brush and onto a small animal track, he said, ‘Answer me this, then: who were the ones that built this body?’

“The Makers? Oh Master, the Makers are brilliant, powerful, exceptional, all around beautiful, and absolutely without peer in the entire universe! Well, almost, I should say…”

‘Can you be more specific? What were their culture like? Are they from here? I get the impression they are not here anymore, so where did they go?’

“Erh… specific? Well they… I guess you could say they were…” Orca flundered, her voice trailing off several times before she finally just said, “Master, the Makers are the greatest creators in the universe.”

‘That doesn’t really answer any of my questions, though…’

“I… I know,” now Orca was sobbing within his mind, making it quite difficult for him to concentrate on his surroundings, “I just… I don’t know the answers to you questions, Master. I know the Makers built me, and I know they are the perfect beings, worthy of worship, but I have no information on them as a people, since I never interacted with them outside of these units…”

‘Then, what are these units for? Why was this unit left here?’

He spotted a clearing, and decided to approach it, seeing something glitter in the sunshine. While he peeled back the shrubs before him, Orca said, “These units are for training purposes, Master. The powers of your people is incredible, but also takes a large toll on the body. In order to train the correct use of mana, these units serves as sheaths in which to contain the power until you are fully trained…

“Although, since you have no inherent capacity for mana, I’m afraid you will have to rely on the unit alone. I’m a little confused as to how you can even sustain the connection to the unit without any powers of mana… something else must replace the cost, but I’m not sure what…”

Ares was no longer listening. Peeling back the last of the plants in his way, he found himself standing before a small lake beneath the protective canopy of above. Soft rays of sunlight streamed down from above, once more giving the appearance of something divine and holy.

Just like the bloody tree, Ares thought, immediately on full alarm. He could see nothing dangerous in the surroundings, but, as experience had taught him, it was no assurance. Ignoring Orca’s mumbling for the time being, he carefully stepped out of the brush and approached the still waters.

Nothing happened.

At the water edge, Ares knelt down and took one more glance at his surroundings, once more assured that there was nothing waiting to pounce at him. Only when he had done a few more scans, did he take the opportunity to look down at the clear waters, and was immediately surprised by what he saw.

The waters, like a silvery mirror, reflected the image of a very ordinary, human face. His head had a normal proportion to the rest of his body, with shaggy brown hair that definitely needed a comb or at the very least a wash, all of it set in a stoic face of inhuman non-expression. Seeing the features of Sam in this alien body was a sudden blow to his budding identity as Ares, and yet, looking closer, there were obvious differences between the human and this new body.

Where Sam’s face had been pale and gaunt, this face had a healthy hue and features chiseled out of stone. His jawline was exact, his cheekbones featured prominently, and his lips looked full and vibrant. The starkest difference, however, were the two eyes with golden irises that stared back at Ares. They shone from within, illuminating the world before them with the inner light of a sovereign.

Within this light, he was reborn. Sam had been weak, but these eyes belonged to someone strong. That was the final verdict he came to, as he finally let go of the self-absorption. He put his hand into the waters and retrieved a handful of the clear liquid and putting it to his mouth. For a spring in the middle of the forest, it tasted magnificent.

While he was focused on the lake and its waters, he had not let himself forget his surroundings. When his ears picked up a slight noise on the opposite bank of the lake, he calmly raised his head and looked at the animal that had appeared from the undergrowth. As he sat there, completely still, he observed it close in on the waters and begin lapping it up. From this vantage, it looked very much like a deer.

Except, of course, it was not a deer. It stood on four striped legs, with an elongated body and a rather long neck. He watched it drink its fill before it finally looked up and stared directly into his two golden eyes. There was a moment of hesitation, as the animal did not seem certain as to whether Ares was dangerous or not.

In the end, the deer-like animal retreated a step. Ares gained his feet just as slowly. A noise from the side of the clearing spooked it, and it turned around, heading for the undergrowth. Ares dashed after it, not willing to let go of this opportunity.

He lost sight of it during his circumvention of the lake, but as he crashed through the undergrowth, he found the obvious signs of its flight and set after it. Within five fast steps, he saw movement before him, certain of his prey.

He found it dashing down an animal trail. It was fast, but he was a machine; running fast was no issue for him. A noise to his left made him shift his focus away from his prey. A red dot on his minimap alerted him to the presence of someone else, someone moving straight at Ares’ target.

Through the brush, Ares spotted the form of his fellow hunter. Without losing speed, he turned from the straight path to the deer, and instead went on an intersect course, aiming to cut off the competition before resuming the chase.

Past three trees, he saw the form of the interloper, and was not surprised to recognize the ashen-skin boy. With the wolves gone, there could not be a lot of predators remaining in this closed-off forest.

Red eyes met gold. The boy said nothing, but stayed the course, accepting Ares’ challenge. Fashioning his hand into a weapon with [Edge], Ares made the first move, slicing at the boy’s chest. With a newly sharpened stick, the boy met his attack, forcing it away.

They both kept running towards the deer, making their fight take a distinctly sideways nature. Ares sliced and chopped, but did not have the reach. The boy parried and struck, but his blows were not powerful enough to really damage Ares’ body.

Jumping off a tree to the side, Ares tried to overwhelm the youth by crashing into him. The boy whirled and ducked, evading the attack and using his stick to catch Ares in the air, flinging him further to the side.

Ares’ stoic mask crumbled slightly, as an excited grin threatened to erupt across his face. Moments after, though, the excitement was killed when Orca commented, “Oh no, Master… You lost that round.”

He ignored her and resumed the fight, but her commentary quickly became a distraction, whenever he chose to attack and defend.

“No no no, what are you doing, Master? Didn’t you see the feint?”

“Master, please remember the stick has two ends…”

“Don’t use a kick at that distance, Master! Use your fists, like ‘POW’!”

Gritting his teeth, Ares tried another series of attacks, only to be rebuffed by the opponent. His strength was overwhelming, but this kid’s technique was able to diverge the force he put into every blow. “Master, you are not using your legs properly! You gotta be like ‘szzip’ and then ‘shaaa’ to get close!”

‘Orca,’ he said, finally fed up with her chatter.

“Yes, Master?”

‘Shut up.’

After a brief pause, the disembodied voice in his head said, “Right-o. Shutting up, ri~ight… now.”

With blissful silence within his skull, Ares could focus on the fight, as it spilled out into a smaller clearing, allowing for a wider range of movements. Now the deer was completely forgotten, as the combatants were consumed by the fighting.

However, instead of words, Orca began pinging targets on his HUD, sending a plurality of messages that were too fast for Ares to act on, and made it almost impossible for him to see what he was doing. 

He missed a step, when an illusory arrow on his HUD warned him about the very roots he tripped over, obscuring them completely. The boy reacted quickly, stabbing with the pointy end of his stick at Ares’ chest.

He spun as he fell, landing on the ground and continued rolling away until he had the necessary distance to get back up on his feet. Cursing as he stood up, he roared within his mind, ‘STOP MESSING WITH ME, ORCA!’

“But…” Came the soft and sniveling reply, “I’m just trying to help… Master.”

Ares took a stance, with arms up before him, seeing the opponent had not pursued, but allowed him to get back up, and said ‘Then why don’t you try helping him instead?

“Why would I help your enemy, Master?” She said, her naive voice trembling.

‘Why not? That’s what you’ve been doing until now, after all.’

“I would never, Master, never do—”

‘Just start talking to him, Orca, right when I strike,’ he cut her off an charged. The boy grinned, an excited expression on his face, mirroring Ares’ own. He did not know when his face had been split by an excited smile, but at this moment he was too engrossed in the fight to care.

The moment his first blow landed, turned aside by the stick in the boy’s hands, Orca began speaking directly to the opponent.

“Uhh, nice! Good form! See that, Master? That is how footwork is done. Aww, now you tripped up… are you okay, little Demon?”

The boy was startled at first and tried to retreat while figuring out where the voice was coming from. Orca’s way of transmitting sound made it seem as if her voice came from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, tripping him up.

He landed with a ‘thump’ on the ground, and quickly spun up back on his feet. Like his opponent had done, Ares allowed him to get back up on his feet, before he charged again. With Orca’s distractions, and Ares quick attacks, this time the boy was soon overwhelmed.

He fended off another edged chop from Ares’ hand, but was not quick enough to evade the sweeping kick Ares followed up with, sending him sprawling onto the ground. Ares did not let the opportunity slip him by, and crouched down and leveled a sharpened hand at the opponent’s throat.

A slight trickle of blood trailed down the length of the edge, dripping onto the forest floor. Red eyes looked up into gold. There was a moment of devastating silence between them, before Orca’s voice tore it asunder.

“Yes! Yes, yes, yes! Awesome, Master, just absolutely awesome! You were like ‘sap’ and he was like ‘oohh’ and then you did the whirl, and oh my god, I can’t breathe… I can’t breathe… Master, I can’t breathe it was so good!”

‘Shut up, Orca,’ Ares said, relatively more amiable than before. She had helped him, after all.

“If you’re going to kill me,” said the boy, still staring Ares straight in the eyes, “Could you do it without the noise?”

“Who are you calling noise, little Demon?” Orca said, quite offended. Ares had to agree though: at the moment she was more noise than she was worth.

“I am not a Demon,” the boy hissed, “Don’t call me that, Construct!”

“He’s not calling you that, I am!” Orca declared. The boy looked confused, and tried looking around again, finding no speaker within the vicinity. “Well, I am sure master Ares would agree with me, wouldn’t you, Master?”

‘I don’t know what the hell you are talking about, Orca,” Ares said with exasperation, before removing the sharp blade at the boy’s throat and stepping back. Gingerly, the boy massaged his throat and looked at Ares with surprise.

“You are not going to kill me?”

Ares looked back, the excited facial expression returning to a stoic neutral, and shook his head.

“Why not, Master?” Orca wailed, “He clearly deserves it; just look at him, trying to fight my master… what rudeness!”

“Who—” The boy trailed off, then tried again, “Who are you?”

“I am the great and magnificent Orca, and this is my even greater master Ares. Please, do wave to him, Master, I think he’s too simple to get it.” Ares endured the commanding tone and waved. 

“You can’t speak?” The boy asked, to which Ares shook his head once more. “But I can,” said Orca, butting into the communication without being asked to, “And everything I say, is what my Master says.”

‘For the last time, Orca: shut. up.’

“Oh… You meant that?”

‘Yes I did. Now do it.’

Her line went immediately dead, and Ares enjoyed the momentary silence. He looked in the direction of the escaped deer-like animal, which was now a completely lost cause. It had kept its life today because of his fight with the boy, but he did not really mind. He had enough food for the moment.

Resigning himself with the game he had already gathered, Ares turned on his heels and followed his map back towards camp. He only got a few steps away before the boy called to him.

“You have shown honor today, Construct. I will not forget that, next we meet.”

Ares turned back and stared with his immobile expression, before nodding and disappearing into the undergrowth.

Honor? Is that what it is?