Once Alastor left, Ares did not wait long before he set out. With midday creeping towards afternoon, he took off in the Northern direction, guided by Orca. He could reach the outer edge before nightfall, and use the cover of night to scout the enemies.
“I still don’t think this is a good idea, Master,” said Orca, for the umpteenth time, “Whoever this Behmet is, he cannot stop you from leaving if you really want to.”
‘Then what of Sloan? What of Alastor?’ Ares said, slipping through the forest with increasing ease of movement. His learning curve wast steep, but in turn it rose exponentially. After a few days in this place, he was growing more confident in his own abilities.
“What about them? Master, you can’t think that they are worth going through all this? Whatever happens to them is not your problem; they are simply insignificant compared to your magnificence!”
‘You say you have seen my logs, Orca? Then you should know that the first thing I did in this world, was stopping this unit from killing Sloan. Do you think I should let my efforts go to waste?’
Orca spluttered a bit, tried to deny ever wanting her master to waste anything, and finally stopped talking altogether. Ares was satisfied with the outcome, and focused on his surroundings.
It was still a marvel to travel through the forest, although the novelty had worn somewhat off. With his focus now on the next step, he no longer lost himself in the wonders about him, nor did the noise of hidden animals shock him.
Going in a straight line in this forest was not an easy task, and, above, the two suns were slowly reaching the horizon and day was coming to an end. Long shadows grew dominant in the undergrowth, and although Ares’ artificial eyes adjusted to the dimming light, he still found it more difficult to orient himself.
He was beginning to think he would not reach his destination before night truly came, when he finally laid eyes on the most intriguing sight he had seen yet. Walking out of a thicket, he found himself standing in front of a majestic, transparent screen filled with impossible images that blended with the background in an ingenious way.
Awed by the sight of the brilliant entity that appeared to envelop the horizon with her embrace, the myriad of beatific elfin creatures that danced about, and the illusory face painted around the two suns on the horizon that made it seem as if a great being was looking straight at him, Ares found himself physically drawn to the screen and unable to look away.
Hesitantly he approached. Both Sloan and Alastor had made it clear that there was some kind of bloodline requirement for stepping through the barrier. He had not considered what would happen if he could not get through. Would he have to just go back?
Step by step he inched closer, reaching out to touch the incredible imagery, until — at once — his finger touched the screen and the entire thing cracked like a mirror.
No sound could be heard. Nothing to indicate a great calamity was in progress. And yet, at this very moment, Ares watched the entire world shatter to pieces, crumbling to the ground at his feet as if this was the end of everything. All around him, small shards of the illusion fell down like a rain of distorted mirrors, while he just stood there completely stunned. It was only when the last piece of the screen had fallen to the ground and splintered into nothingness that Ares managed to snap out of it with a single, devastating thought.
What have I done?
He was just supposed to scout the surrounding area, not destroy the only thing keeping their enemies at bay! Looking to both sides, he could see the illusion crumble away in both directions, disintegrating slowly but surely. It might take a few hours, but eventually the entire thing would fall apart.
Frustrated, Ares considered what to do. As long as Behmet’s men were not idiots, they would soon realize the change, and undoubtedly constrict the encirclement, encroaching the Plateau to ensure no one could escape from their grasp.
The only thing working in his favor now was the growing darkness. It might give him a little more time before the change was noticed. Moving about in the darkness would be dangerous for these lower beings, and he dearly hoped they would wait until morning to make their move.
His line of thought was suddenly broken when a loud roar echoed through the forest. It was a bestial thing, full of dominance and power, but luckily it sounded far off, in the outer forest. He did, however, detect a certain note in the roar which he thought sounded like anger.
Some beast had become very angry, moments after he destroyed the barrier. Ares did not think this was a coincidence, not by a long shot. Groaning on the inside, he resolved to avoid the direction of the noise at all cost.
Even so, he could not go back just yet. In this situation, this night might be their only hope of escape. As Orca had said, he might be able to get away on his own, but then what?
‘Is it honor?’ He thought, looking into the darkness beyond the broken screen. It was a strange sensation that welled up in him, comparative to the urge he felt to dominate. Sam had not needed any conception of honor; when merely surviving was all that mattered, honor counted for very little.
However, Ares felt he had to take it into account. Indeed, he felt it, as much as he had felt anything since taking over this body. The moment he spared Sloan’s life, he had become responsible for the little halfling’s survival. Alastor, too, had come to him in good faith and requested mutual aid, after some initial difficulties.
If he simply took off on his own, he would dishonor the faith these two had placed in him.
This made everything clear. He would move into the outer forest and scout the patrols, finding an opening. He could return to the plateau before midnight and reconvene with Sloan and Alastor to compare notes. Once they had their best route of escape, they would have to move before morning came.
With this newly hatched plan, Ares crossed the old boundary, entering the outer forest.
As twilight became night, Ares skulked through thickets like a shadow. The meager light from the moons above was all he needed, as his eyes adjusted to the new conditions with quiet efficiency. While Orca scanned the surroundings for unseen threats, Ares focused on moving forward, looking for the enemy he knew was out there.
In a nearby tree, a night bird looked down at him and gave a sorrowful cry. Eying it, Ares refrained from make any moves against it. It was just an animal, after all. It gave another cry, then unfolded its wings and flowed into the night, disappearing among the trees.
Looking after the disappearing form of the bird, Ares shook his head and focused on the task ahead instead. ‘What is it?’ He asked, scouring the surroundings for any signs of life.
“I cannot verify yet, but I see signs of incoming lifeforms from the East. Please take proper precautions.”
Ares was halfway stunned at Orca’s professional tone, since she had been acting like a little child since the moment their connection had been established. Seeing this change in attitude, Ares dared not take her warning half-heartedly.
Seizing the lower branch of the tree, which the bird had just vacated, Ares quickly climbed up, using the incredible strength of his body to arrive at an almost uncomfortable height.
Sam always wanted to climb trees, Ares thought, growing accustomed to thinking of his old self as a different person. They were different persons, after all.
Orca soon confirmed her assertion and, peering into the darkness with his light-sensitive sight, it was not long before a small point of luminescence appeared amid the giant pillars of the forest.
Another point of light appeared, hovering only a little distance off from the first. The two lights moved in zig-zag patterns through the forest, meeting and spreading out only to meet again, inching closer to his position.
Holding his imaginary breath, Ares watched as the light turned into balls of fire, which became torches, held up by two humanoid figures whose features were partially obscured between his sensitive sight, and the now-blinding hue of the light in their hand.
Merely from what he could see of their appearance, these were definitely not humans. One was short and walked with a bent back. Instead of clothes it was covered in feathers, while the arm with which it held its torch was scaled and had talons instead of nails.
Able to see half of its face, was enough for Ares to see how elongated it was, ending in a beak-like structure where its nose and mouth would have been on a human. Although it was not clothed in a normal sense, belts of leather criss-crossed its body, from which an unpractical amount of small knives and blades hung from specially made holsters.
The other was bigger — much bigger. It was two times the breadth of Ares, and at least a head taller, with a few added inches from its large, furry ears sticking straight up into the air. Unlike the first figure, this one was clad in more traditional clothing, although it was basically just a big chest-piece armor, padded pants, and bracers on its wrists.
The rest of its body was covered in thick brown fur with a distinct wolf-like texture. Its face made the connection even clearer, with a flat face ending in a stubbed snout. It did not carry the same ridiculous amount of knives as the other, but Ares could see a handle sticking out from behind its back where it carried something massive.
Obscured beneath the low-hanging branches of the tree beneath him, Ares watched as the two figures drew closer, then walked past him towards the area where the big screen had been before Ares had accidentally destroyed it.
These two might very well become the first of his enemies to be aware that the protective barrier was gone. He could launch a preemptive attack, but the amount of weaponry on the figures made Ares hesitant to approach them, as did the dangerous feeling he got from the two of them.
Instead, he observed them pass by until he could no longer see the light from their torches. Carefully, he crawled back down on the ground, and resumed his trek northward. Fighting with these two was not his current objective, and so he could not afford to be detected yet.
He moved further into the outer forest, and soon stumbled upon a second patrol a little further out. Alastor had mentioned two concentric circles of patrols, with a possible third. This second patrol also consisted of two people, but they did not rely on torches for light. They skulked through the forest with minimal sound, and had it not been for Orca’s warning, Ares would have walked straight into them.
With no time to climb a tree, Ares could only hide himself in a nearby thicket, hoping they would not look to closely. As they came closer, Ares could distinguish one of the figures: a tall humanoid dressed in a long, knee-length leather jacket with multiple pockets, and a broad-brimmed hat that obscured his facial features.
This one, in particular, felt dangerous, much more so than the previous two figures. The companion of this danger was smaller and dressed in ordinary clothing, with no obvious weapons. Sitting in his hiding place, Ares felt an unnatural shiver run down his spine when the dangerous figure past him by.
For a moment, he thought he saw something red shine from beneath the brim of the figure’s hat. A physical response of fear ran through him, so powerful that Ares thought he might have returned to a biological form.
What is happening? He wanted to run away as fast as possible. He wanted to get away, be anywhere but near this terrible thing right before his eyes!
“Bann? What’s wrong?”
The dangerous humanoid had stopped in its tracks, only a few feet away from Ares hiding spot. Its companions scoured the surroundings, looking for anything that would be cause for alarm. The hatted figure did not move, nor turn its head in the slightest. After a while, it said, “Nothing…”
Its voice was a hushed whisper, like tendrils creeping up your back, and even its companions seemed nervous around it. “Well… Then I think we need to get moving. The others will think something has happened to us.”
The dangerous one nodded, the broad brim bobbing up and down in tune with the motion. “Let’s go,” it said, and the two disappeared deeper into the forest, away from Ares.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Ares moved out of the thicket. This encounter alone had assured him that he was nowhere near ready to face these people head on. Orca, too, attested to this, saying, “Master, you should definitely not get anywhere near that one. I thought you were going to short-circuit with all of the in-built warning systems going off like that!”
‘Do you know what it was?’ Ares said, looking in the direction of the foe. He would like nothing more than to stay away, but he might not have that kind of luxury in the future.
“I’m not sure. I detected no life-signs on it, which could mean it has some kind of masking device, or… Well, there’s not enough information to speculate.”
After this experience, Ares was torn between continuing his observations, or to retreat and regroup. It would be preferable to have some information with which to plan, but the more he stayed out here, the more the risk of discovery increased.
The option to move onward and escape the encirclement was tempting as well. Even with his previous conviction, Ares could not help but look northward with a bit of longing.
I could just leave them behind, he thought, cold logic building a solid argument, I don’t owe them anything, least of all Alastor…
He remembered the offering the daemon had brought him, and the gift he had given in return. The axe meant very little to him, since it had been mostly useless compared to his other weaponry, but as a gesture it now became a potent anchor for his budding emotions.
Holding onto that anchor, Ares turned away from the North, and decided to stay and await the next patrol. With such a dangerous enemy, Ares knew they had to rely on superior information to get out of this.
Climbing a nearby tree, Ares could scout a wider vicinity as he waited and counted the time it took. The moons above traveled slowly across the night sky, each in a different state of fullness, reflecting soft light down upon the lands below.
After about ten minutes of waiting, Orca alerted him to approaching enemies. Soon, he saw lights in the distance, and recognized the two figures that grew closer. It surprised him to see the wolf and the bird humanoids, since they should have been at the inner-most circle.
As they passed beneath his hiding spot for a second time, Ares realized that Alastor’s assumption had been wrong. They were not patrolling in concentric rings, but in spirals.
Beneath him, a snippet of conversation caught his ear. “Why do you think we were told to keep going as if nothing has changed?” The bird asked, moving a branch out of the way before it.
“Behmet has his plans, Shan,” said the wolf-man, grumbling, “If he says keep going, we keep going.”
“But the barrier is gone! We could just go in there and catch them unaware! I’m sure those little dwarfs are bathing in the spoils right now…”
The two slowed their pace as they talked, allowing Ares to overhear more before they disappeared into the thickets. “We don’t know what’s in there, you fool. Going in the dark is foolhardy; better to go in the morning, when we have more light.”
Ares wanted to hear more about their plans, and was considering how to move from tree-top to tree-top, when Orca spoke in an alarmed tone, “Master, we have a problem.”
‘What is it?’
“Something huge is moving in our direction. The tremors in the ground suggests it is at least as big as that fox you’ve met, if not bigger.”
Ares looked down below. The two had not moved nearly far enough for him to crawl down and escape on the ground without them noticing. Looking across to the nearest tree, he made a quick decision. Carefully getting onto his feet, Ares too aim and leaped across to the next tree, catching hold of a branch with a not-so-subtle crash.
“What was that? Shan, do you hear that?” The wolf-man had stopped to look around, and the bird had drawn some of its many blades. “I did… And I hear that as well.”
Now Ares heard it too, hollow booms coming closer like running footsteps of something unspeakably huge. Desperate, he crawled onto the branch and looked for the next place he could escape to. With Orca screaming in his mind, however, he was distracted from his purpose.
“Master, it’s coming straight for you!”
Something huge crashed through the thicket, hammering into the tree Ares was holding onto. The branch cracked, unable to hold onto Ares’ weight under the immense pressure.
“Tha’s the King, Corker!” The bird screamed, and retreated, just as the branch below Ares snapped with the sound of a whip. Clawing for something to hold onto, Ares managed only to grab weaker branches and leaves.
With one last-ditch effort, Ares kicked the falling branch beneath him, aiming it straight at the huge enemy as he fell.
Waiving his arms in the air like windmills, Ares once more fell onto the ground, crashing into it only feet away from the two patrolmen.