Ares came back to camp as the suns above began to wane from their zenith. Since his command for silence, Orca had kept enduring it, staying out of his head for a long time. The trip back had given him time to reflect on his actions, and he was somewhat at a loss.
After a long while of tense muting, Orca could not hold it in any longer, and, with a splutter said, “Master… Are you alright? Your readings are getting kinda weird.”
Ares sat down beside the ashen remains of the campfire and stared at it for a while before he answered, ‘I don’t know.’
“Are you hurt anywhere? Though, I can’t seem to find any new damage…”
‘I’m not hurt, Orca… I just—’
“Oh, you’re back,” Sloan said, arriving amid the tents out of nowhere, “Did you bring anything back? Something… edible, perhaps?”
Without looking at the halfling, Ares reached down the rabbit-like creature he had secured to his waist, handing it over to the cook. Sloan smiled as he received the animal and said, “You have good luck, master Ares, to catch a spriteling. This will make for excellent dinner, I dare say; much better than salted warg-meat.”
“Yes, you will do well to prepare the best for my master, Fatty.” Said Orca, transmitting her voice to the halfling. Sloan grimaced and turned to Ares, opening his mouth to speak in protest, when he noticed how the ambiance of the construct seemed somewhat off.
Staring into the ashes before him, Ares nodded even though he had heard none of Orca’s or the halfling’s comments. “Really, Master, what is going on?” Orca said, her tone suddenly taking on a more motherly note, concerned with just a hint of authority.
‘I think something is wrong with me,’ he said, looking from the ashes to his hands; staring at their deceptively human form.
“Yes, you are quite right, Master. You should have killed that brute — the fool thinks he could compete with my master? Well, I say, kill him right off the next time you meet!”
‘That’s not it,’ he said, clenching his fist so hard they popped, ‘What’s wrong with me, is that I really wanted to kill him. I should have been able to kill that… thing… and yet, when it came down to it… I couldn’t.’
“You couldn’t? I have seen you kill things, Master. From the perspective of your greatness, there really is no difference between that spriteling in Fatty’s hands and that stupid Demon boy.”
Trying to distract himself from the confusion welling up from within, Ares redirected the conversation. ‘You keep calling him a Demon, and he keeps saying he’s not; so which is right?’
Orca mumbled for a bit before saying, “Well, technically, I suppose he both is and isn’t, although I grant that it is not a real answer.’
Seeing that Ares was either deep in thought, or deep in conversation with his annoying assistant, Sloan carefully retreated to find wood for a fire.
‘Explain,’ Ares demanded, finding his head seemed to hurt from the day’s escapades. He understood there was no reason for his head to feel pain without any damage to it, and yet he could not shake the hazy impression.
“Well,” said Orca, beginning her explanation, “It’s because he’s both a Demon and and elf, which makes it kinda complicated. I understand that it may be confusing, so I’ll start from the very beginning: with the three races of Elhané.”
‘Only three? When Sloan talked about his home city, he mentioned several different races — a lot more than three, at least..’
“Ah, well you see, technically these are all one race, just separated into subraces; except of course for our half-Demon friend. Let me explain: on Elhané there are three distinct races, of which you have mostly just seen the one known as the elvish race. These are descendants of the ancient Elvans, who had a very peculiar method of propagating their genes through the generations.”
‘These were the ones who once lived here, right? Those ancestors of Sloan’s?’
“Exactly right, I don’t want to bore you with all the technicalities, but suffice it to say that the Elvans had the ability to form offspring between any other living being, including themselves of course. The most powerful among them could even form offspring between themselves and a mere object, like a rock, or a lake. Legends even suggests that some could form offspring with the stars!
“As long as they only bred among themselves, the offspring would be Elvan, but the union between the Elvan and another being, or thing, would always result in an ‘elf’ with a very distinct appearance and ability, depending on the characteristic of the ‘father’, granting them a particular phenotype unique to that specific union.”
‘That just sounds impossible. How would that even work? Breeding between species normally isn’t possible, exactly because they are different species.’
“That’s exactly what the Makers thought was so intriguing when they first arrived here! I’m afraid that I only possess the descriptive information on this peculiarity, and not the underlying reason, since my function is surveillance and observation — not research — so you must simply take my word for it.”
‘Sure, let’s just say that pigs can fly, while we’re at it..’
“I’m afraid I don’t understand that reference, Master. In any case, this is the basis for the lower races. Elves still have the ability to produce offspring with most living species, but if they do so, or breed with an elf with similar phenotype to themselves, they produce an even more specialized offspring that is genetically further removed from the original Elvans than before.
However, as long as the elves breed only with other elves, the Elvan heritage will never dilute. Instead, the phenotype of the offspring between elves is dependent on the proto-unions between Elvan and ‘other’ that is represented in their bloodlines, which create a kind of probability map.”
‘So, if I understand you correctly —and I’m pretty sure I don’t— the ‘appearance’ of an elf is not determined by their parents, but instead by the concentrations of these ‘proto-unions’ of their Elvan ancestors.. What does this have to do with the kid?
“Generally speaking, you’ve got it right, although they still inherit certain physical traits like hair-color or facial features from their parents. The phenotype they inherit from the proto-union is more about their nature, than their appearance.
“So, about the kid, most elven phenotypes do not have particular names, they are just an ‘elf’. On the other hand, when a type has a name, it usually speaks to its rarity, or its power. In that half-Demon’s case, it’s a bit of both, because he is clearly an elf with a phenotype resulting from a union between an ancestral Elvan, and a Demon; a combination known as a demos.”
‘Sloan seemed particularly scared of that boy… I take it the two races are not on good terms?’
“Absolutely right! The Demons are the second race here on Elhané, but they reside on an entirely different continent, so the races don’t encounter each other much. In any event, most elvish culture denote the demons as ‘evil by nature’, which makes it hard for them to accept their presence, not to mention how much of an embarrassment it would be for an elvish couple to give birth to a half-demon ‘demos’.”
‘But the child does not decide how it is born!’ Ares thought angrily at Orca with misplaced anger. His response was almost instinctual, and the strange semi-emotions that had begun bubbling up from somewhere within made his ghostly headache grew in strength.
He could not help it, though. Sam, too, had been born with a ‘defect’ that he had no control over, and Orca’s explanation made him feel a certain connection between himself and the horned boy, which only worked to justify the strange sensations within himself.
“It is as you say, but that does not change the cultural bias. His situation is even worse because he is not just a demos but a daelos demos — blessed with a superior Elvan heritage that gives him those long ears, along with other abilities — which, in derogatory terms, makes him a daemon: a ‘stealer of purity’, as it roughly translates to in your language. In elven circles, this is an even greater taboo, and he must undoubtedly have suffered greatly for his condition.”
Ares stared into the ashes, the color reminding him of the gray skin the kid displayed. With Orca’s explanation, he was beginning to understand why he had been unable to take out the kid when he was at his mercy. He had recognized that look in the ruby-red eyes — the look of someone fighting a constant battle with the nature they had been given.
As he considered this, something began bothering him. He was certain that something was missing from Orca’s explanation, but he could not quite put his finger on it. For a while he just sat there and stared into the ashes that were slowly being rekindled by Sloan — for the purposes of grilling the meat he had brought back — until it suddenly struck him.
‘Wait… You’ve told me about two races, but you mentioned that there are three: what’s the last one?’
Orca, who had been silent for a while, seemed to hesitate, and when she finally spoke, it was without the usual cheer in her voice, “The last race, master Ares, are the Dragons. I don’t know much about them, but suffice it to say that even the old Makers were vary of them, and so should you be.”
That was all she said about it, and nothing Ares did could make her elaborate further.
As Sloan prepared their food, Ares kept staring into the fireplace, trying to reconcile the budding emotions from within to his shifting understanding of himself. He knew he was different from Sam; that sick little boy had been weak, and had rightly died for it.
Now, however, apart from the memory of past experiences, certain features of Sam’s were bleeding into him. Was this the effect of the emulation units he had allocated? If so, he was not entirely sure he should put more points into that category next he leveled up.
For now, his lifeforce meter was only at 52%, so it was still some ways off. Since he was stuck in this place for as long as the unknown threat named ‘Behmet’ was still on the outside of the barrier, he might as well use the time to grow his level and strength.
After eating and recovering some more from the excessive damage he had entered the world with, Ares stepped a little away from the camp and once more initiated the simulation of his ashen-skinned nemesis. He had won their bout in the forest, only because he had used the system for guidance and Orca as a distraction.
Without either of these, he found it difficult to keep up with the boy’s swift attacks, and his technique which diverted Ares’ strength made it impossible for him to land a single blow. He did feel some improvement, though, which went to show the efficacy of his training.
As night came, and he still felt no need to rest, he nonetheless had to stop and regain some energy. Fighting like this demanded a lot of him, and he sat back back down by the dying fire and ate the remainder of their salted meat.
While Sloan slept soundly under his protection, Ares found himself staring up at the unfamiliar starscape above, and the three alien moons traveling across the dome of the world. A different world. From time to time, Orca tried to distract him with conversation, but he dismissed her, preferring the silence of the night.
When it finally became morning again, and Sloan crept out from his tent, Ares remembered what the halfling had intended to do the day before. Through Orca, he asked Sloan on his progress.
“No, I’m afraid I found no entry-point, master Ares,” said the halfling, dejectedly, “I’m sure there must be an entrance within the Plateau, but, if there is one, I’ve been unable to locate it. Perhaps there might be some in the surroundings, but I’m not really too keen on going exploring without you on hand.”
Ares nodded, and agreed to go searching with the halfling during the day. He could hunt in the night without much trouble, if Sloan slept in the Plateau, which seemed a more effective use of his talents than simply lazing about on guard.
Like this, they spent the morning scouring their surroundings for any trace of an entrance into the caverns below. The task was made difficult by the simple fact that none of them knew exactly what they were looking for.
According to Sloan, an entrance might exist in a hollow tree, or some other natural part of the forest, camouflaged against detection. Orca was not much use in this, either, and just kept suggesting Ares should simply drop down through the hole he had made and stop all the nonsense.
At midday, dejected after having no progress, they stopped the search and returned to camp, since Sloan needed to eat. Here, they were surprised to find a visitor in camp, sitting by the rekindled fire in a relaxed position, roasting a large thigh bone by turning it on a spit.
Sloan, of course, squealed the moment he noticed the intruder, recognizing him on the spot and destroying any chance of using the element of surprise. The newcomer turned his head and red eyes met gold once more.
Yes, Ares thought, nodding to himself, Those are the same eyes…
The ashen-skinned boy waived to them and said, “Ho there. Fashion a bite, fellow forest dwellers?”
Sloan was white-faced and shivered as if he had caught a cold, retreating behind Ares, keeping the construct between himself and the terrifying youth.
“You little Demon,” Orca said, transmitting her voice openly, “Are you here to present my master with your head? Good, then go ahead and chop it off for us.”
The boy furrowed his brow and said, “For the last time, stupid noise, I am not a Demon. My name is Alastor, and I’d like you to use it.”
Orca spluttered in Ares’ mind, but to the boy she simply replied, “Alright, little Al, I’ll call you whatever you want, but you will have to show some respect as well!”
“I am not—” began the boy named Alastor, but then stopped himself before continuing, “Whatever, it’s your master I’m interested in. Care to join me… Ares, was it?”
Ares stood perfectly still, ready to charge or retreat at a moment notice as he studied the young boy seated at the campfire. Finally, through Orca, he asked, “Why are you here?”
“To see you, of course, and to say I’m sorry about our first meeting. I think we came off at the wrong foot, and I want to redo the introductions.”
Ares did not hesitate for long. After thinking it over, he stepped closer and sat down beside the young man, noticing a little white fur ball beside him. The fox kit he had earlier made an acquaintance with, raised its head lazily and stared at him with ruby-red eyes like its master. Without any fear, it proceeded to stick out its tongue at him, before lying its head back down.
“Don’t mind Ender,” said Alastor, handing Ares a piece of the roasted meat, “He just doesn’t have the best of impressions of you.”
“And you do?” Ares asked, using Orca to dictate his speech after a short internal argument about how to go about the conversation.
“Perhaps not, but I don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing whom to approach in my situation.”
“What situation is that?”
Alastor looked at Ares, then shifted his gaze onto Sloan, who still cowered behind his shield. “I’m sure he has already explained who’s waiting outside the barrier, just waiting for us to go outside.”
“Behmet,” Ares agreed, still without knowing much about this illusory enemy.
“Indeed,” said the boy, nodding, “He’s still here, and he’s not going anywhere.”
“Can’t we just wait him out?” Ares asked, thinking he could just stay within the barrier for as long as he needed to either grow strong enough to leave, or for the mercenaries to retreat.
“Behmet isn’t going to just let me or whatever treasure he think is here go. Especially if he knows about you; you he would chase to the ends of the earth to get a hold of, Ares.”
“Because constructs of your caliber are incredibly rare, and the fact that you are sentient only makes you more valuable to him. If he knew you were in here, he could wait for as long as he needed to.”
“I’ll just escape,” Ares said, curtly, “I am fast, and he can’t cover the entire forest.”
Alastor shook his head, his long ears flapping around in the wake of the gesture, “It won’t work. I’ve spent the last few days scouting their patrols. They might not be able to cover the entire forest, but the Heart isn’t that big. I’ve spotted two concentric rings of patrols around the barrier, and I’m pretty sure there’s a third further out.”
Ares was getting frustrated by this. He had just woken up in an entirely different world, and he was already in danger of ending up in the hands of a bloodthirsty mercenary. The world simply was not fair.
“Then what do you suggest?” He finally asked Alastor, who presumably had come here with a plan of some sort.
“I’m not sure yet,” said the boy, dispelling any such notions, “I first wanted to see if you were willing to work together. If you are, I suggest splitting up and scouting their patrols at different points to get a feel for their spread. Once we have that, we can plan how to get out of here.”
Ares nodded, then looked to the little fox by his side. Gesturing towards it, he asked, “What about that one’s mother? Can’t she just barge through and make a path for us?”
Again, the boy shook his head, saying, “Kari won’t do that. She has been good to me, it’s true, but she won’t put the security of her territory at risk for me — and especially not for you. You, she does not like.”
Internally, Ares sighed. At his side, Sloan tugged at him and whispered, “Be careful, master Ares, you can’t trust Demons…”
“I am not a Demon!” Alastor said and stood up to tower above Ares and the little halfling, “How many times must I say it? If not because you saved me from captivity, Sloan, I would have stabbed you through for every time you insulted me.”
“See, master Ares?” The halfling wailed, “He’s threatening me!”
Ares slapped the halfling over the head, stopping his outburst. Once Sloan had calmed down, Ares gave Alastor a glare, until the boy sat back down and carelessly began chewing his meat.
“If I agree,” Ares finally said, “What would you have me do?”
“They’ve set up camp on both the Eastern and Western side of the barrier, with smaller posts to the North and South. If we want to escape, the last two directions would be the optimal. I suggest you scout to the North, while I go to the South; I need the number of patrols, their size and how far there is between them.
Orca, of course, protested the plan, thinking Alastor would betray Ares, and use him as a distraction to escape in the opposite direction. Looking into those stark red eyes, Ares had no such impression. The boy had spoken of honor, and even said Ares had some.
Something within him wanted to believe this person. It was Sam’s influence, no doubt, but maybe it was not such a bad idea to give into the human sensation. He had wanted to feel something, after all.
With that in mind, he finally nodded his assent.
“Excellent,” said Alastor, standing back up and gesturing at the meat on the spit, “I left the rest of the kill beside your tent; consider it a gift to prove my sincerity in proposing this alliance.” With those words, he turned and made to leave.
Ares stood up as well, and looked over at where Alastor had said the animal was. He immediately recognized the very deer-like animal they had been hunting the day before. Sloan was already at the side of the beast, marveling at the potential food suddenly available.
“A gismar,” the halfling breathed with excitement, “This is really very impressive…”
Ares turned back towards Alastor, who was walking away from the campsite. Using Orca, Ares called on him, and the boy turned to face an object coming flying at him. Without missing a beat, Alastor caught the object in flight, studying it with a bit of surprise.
“What’s this?” He asked, looking at the little axe Ares had retrieved from the unlucky Krens’ possessions.
“A gift,” Ares replied, “To prove my sincerity in accepting this alliance.”
The boy looked surprised, but finally he nodded and gave a slight bow. “Honor, indeed,” he said, before turning back and disappearing into the forest undergrowth like a ghost.”