Chapter 13 – Misfortune

The moment he hit the ground, Ares rolled with the motion and got back up on his knees. In front of him, the branch he had pushed landed upon a huge shape in the darkness. Even with his sensitive sight, he was unable to discern any features apart from a large body held up by four legs.

The massive beast roared a very familiar roar. It was the very same that had sounded through the forest when he broke the barrier. It had indeed not been a coincidence. Despite the darkness, Ares could still make out two large, yellow eyes locking onto him, staring at him with a mixture of bestial fury and resentment.

“What did you do to offend this one, Master?”

Shaking his head, Ares had no time to quip. Behind him the wolf-man had moved to intercept with his torch held out in front, reaching one hand round to the massive object at his back. Looking over his shoulder at the two humanoids, Ares decided not to try his luck with diplomacy at this point. Instead he got up on his feet and ran towards them at an angle, attempted to circumvent the opponent and get them in between the real threat behind him.

“Get ‘im!” Shouted the wolf man, as Ares deftly moved past and was immediately greeted with another torch, this time paired with a knife. The bird creature stabbed with the torch first, forcing Ares to duck and whirl to escape. The bird predicted his movement, and whirled simultaneously in the counter direction, launching a deadly backhand strike with its knife, aimed straight at Ares’s throat.

The humanoid bird was fast — incredibly fast — and had it not been for the torch it carried, Ares was pretty sure he would have been skewered on the spot. The heavy object slowed down the movements, and in Ares’ sensitive vision it was like a glaring warning light.

Instead of attempting a block, Ares simply collapsed on the ground and rolled, deftly avoiding the blow thanks to a timely notification on his HUD. The bird was not finished though, but quickly exchanged its failed strike into a kick at his abdomen, which held surprising force considering the small stature of his opponent. Ares was thrown across the ground, hitting a tree on his way.

He expected the bird-creature to pursue him, but when he regained control and stood up, it was nowhere near him. Instead it was the sight a gigantic set of jaws that met him, as the huge creature apparently really wanted a bite out of him. With a poorly executed roll, Ares managed to avoid the teeth that clamped down upon his previous position. He did not avoid the massive body of the beast that slammed into him, sending him flying — again.

He growled wordlessly at misstep, rolling uncontrollably on the ground until he came to halt. Coming back on his feet, a searing pain in his back suddenly struck him, making him flinch. He looked over his shoulder and spotted the gleaming eyes of the bird, before it vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving only a deep gouge in his lower left backside.

His HUD had given him no warning of the attack, meaning the bird had a way to hide from his systems.

Fucking great, he thought, as he backed up against a tree to protect his back while he evaluated the situation. A few feet away, the massive creature had turned around, giving him a hateful glare with its yellow eyes, snarling viciously through massive teeth.

Not far from it, the wolf-man had taken up a position between two trees, holding out his torch to the side while hiding behind what appeared to a massive rectangular shield with a thick handle sticking out of the top.

Right beside the wolf, the bird reappeared, having dropped its torch and instead armed itself with another edged weapon, licking the blade that had just stabbed into Ares while staring intensely at its prey.

“What be it, Shan?” Growled the wolf, as the three-way standoff created a break in the fighting. The bird, or Shan, stopped licking the blade and let its eyes pass between the huge beast and Ares. “Can’t ya see it’s the King?” It asked in response.

“You know that’s not what I—” The wolf-man got no further, since Ares decided to take the initiative before the beast in front of him pounced again. He might be able to escape the two humanoids, if he was lucky, but there was no chance he could get away from a natural predator on its home turf, not on his own. That made his decision easy, and he had no compunction to feel shame about his choice. Setting off in a sprint, he ran straight towards the two humanoids.

As he expected, the beast focused solely on him as he set off, disregarding the two humanoids that were the more dangerous.

Old ones,” exclaimed the wolf in a deep guttural growl, “I’ll take beast; you take that!”

“Pleasure,” said Shan with a strange grimace that Ares interpreted as a grin, without knowing how precisely the creature managed to twist its beak-like structure into such a grimace. Once again, the bird disappeared into a puff of smoke, leaving behind only a slight trace of something Ares had seen before: lifeforce!

Focusing on the impression, his HUD actually reacted this time, spamming him with warning signals. Shan reappeared beside him in the air, two blades aimed at his throat. No time to think of the implications, Ares activated [Edge] and met the strike with a sharpened hand in a sideways swipe.

His hand collided with one of the blades, shattering it and ruining the bird’s mid-air balance. The creature’s small bird-eyes widened in surprise. It opened its beak to speak, but was rudely stopped by Ares’s follow-up strike: a punch straight to its chest, sending it flying backwards.

Ares put everything he had into that attack, and was certain that his mechanical strength would cause massive damage to the vulnerable biological creature. To his immediate, and painful, surprise, the creature righted itself in mid-flight and flung a throwing knife in his direction before it collided with a nearby tree. The knife hit his left shoulder, lodging itself in the critical joint.

Impairing injury detected:

Left shoulder is functioning at reduced capacity

The pain was overwhelming, but Ares bit down and ignored it, because he had bigger problems. While his short exchange with Shan had preoccupied him, the beast was still charging him. His goal had been to put the two humanoids between himself and the beast, but with Shan’s interception, he was coming up short.

Luckily, the wolf-man had taken the initiative and blocked the beast’s charge. However, the moment Ares sent Shan flying, the beastman dropped his defense and stepped aside, leaving Ares to fend for himself.

Cheap bastard!

That was all Ares could think, although his own tactic was not the most heroic either. Left with no option, Ares turned on his heels and ran straight towards the bird, retaliating with a cheap move of his own.

“Shit! Shan, get up!”

Ares heard the call and increased his speed, while the sound of the massive creature behind him made his back crawl with imagined sweat. Shan desperately tried to get up on its feet and escape the situation. Ares was faster, though, grabbed it by its shoulders and whirled about on the spot, flinging it into the air towards his obsessive, charging stalker.

While in the air, Shan once again surprised Ares by managing to withdraw a couple of blades and throw them, but this time it focused solely on the massive bulk it was about to collide with. Most of the throws hit the beast but were repelled by its dark and obscured hide, falling uselessly to the side, but a singular knife pierced straight into one of the burning yellow eyes that were only focusing on Ares.

Roaring, the beast flinched and veered off to the side, glancing the bird instead of a head-on collision, which still sent Shan flying from the sheer mass behind the impact. Ares ignored the misery he had just caused and sprinted past the momentarily blinded beast, straight towards the wolf-man.

Growling with fury, the wolf dropped the torch on the ground and grabbed the massive shield by his side. Not knowing what the beastman was going to do with a shield, Ares had learned his lesson and was wary of anything he did not understand.

Instead of putting up the shield in front of him, the wolf grabbed the handle at the top, releasing the grips that had made it work as a shield, finally revealing the true purpose of the slab. It was not a shield, but a greatsword, or perhaps greatslab?

Seemingly made out of stone, it was impossibly thick and had to be the heaviest weapon Ares had ever seen — not that he had seen many. How the wolf-man was wielding it was a complete mystery, but once again Ares detected a slight trace of lifeforce emanating from the humanoid’s stance.

“Watch out Corker! That’s a bleedin’ construct,” yelled Shan, apparently having regained its composure. The eyes of the wolf widened in tune with the information, which gave Ares an indication of what significance it held. It did not make the wolf, or ‘Corker’, hesitate to attack, though, quite the opposite in fact.

Moving surprisingly fast, considering his heavy load, Corker leveled a devastating, sideways sweep with the slab of rock at Ares, who had to stop his charge and jump to the side to escape. That was not the end of it, however. The wolf-man used an unbelievable amount of strength to change the slab’s trajectory, using its own momentum to raise it into the air above his head and slam it down at Ares in one, fluid motion.

Again, Ares had to throw himself in a poorly coordinated roll, getting back up on his feet just in time to see another impossible maneuver. Instead of hammering the slab into the ground, which would have been the obvious move, Corker jumped into the air, combining centrifugal force and momentum into a somersault that flung him forward as the slab passed through the air beneath him.

Once the slab had completed the vertical circle, Corker was the right-way up in the air, arms over his head, and ready to slam down the massive weapon of rock in Ares’s face once again. Seeing this, and notified by the HUD that he did not have time to escape to either side or backwards, Ares made the only viable decision available to him and jumped forward, trusting the information that was streaming into his mind through unnatural means.

Timed slowed to a crawl, as he shifted into an automated overclocking response that sped up his perception of time. With ample time to move and avoid the blow, Ares could now see how the attack was purposefully overshot, in order to catch anyone who would dodge in any other direction than forward. Had it not been for the information displayed on his HUD, he would have made a fatal error and gotten flattened by the big slab of stone.

By jumping forward, on the other hand, Ares exposed the critical weakness of the impressive maneuver: Corker was completely exposed and unable to dodge any attack in mid-air. He was not charitable enough to let this chance go by, even if the presence of these humanoids were the only reason why he had not been swallowed whole, yet.

As he turned his jump in a roll, receiving the ground with his hands in slow motion and rocking his body from the neck and onto the the small of his back, he activated [Edge] on his feet and tried to aim them in the general direction of the beastman.

Putting everything into the blow, Corker had used his legs as a counterweight, pulling them up as he forced the slab down in between them, meaning that they were in a horizontal position when Ares rolled under him and used his legs to attack.

With the very tip of his toes, Ares’s counterattack sliced up Corker’s back thigh from the edge of the hamstrings, all the way up to his buttocks. At the same instance, recoil from the slab’s collision with the ground traveled up the beastman’s arms, numbing them completely.

The pain alone should have been enough to make any man pass out. Corker, however, just roared infuriated as he lost the grip of his greatsword and fell onto the ground, staunching it red with blood from his sliced up leg. Ares spared no time to observe his handiwork, but immediately completed his roll, grabbed the torch that Corker had dropped on the ground on his way up. Spinning about, he threw it in one smooth movement that should have been impossible for him at his skill level.

Overclocking drive is overheating

Shutting down

The moment he released the projectile, the overclocking — and his advantage — ended. He watched as the torch sailed through the air, lighting up the appearance of the beast that was once again charging him, before hitting it right in its wounded eye, flame first. While rolling around, Ares had seen the hulking shape of the beast recover and resume its pursuit of him.

Although it had not been for long, that single moment of illumination had revealed much of what he was up against. The giant teeth he was already familiar with were encapsulated in a scaled maw, an elongated head dressed in a crown of spikes. It had a thick neck connecting to a thick, barrel-chested body ending in a wide tail. Holding up this monstrosity were two pairs of cylindrical legs with massive talons at the end.

That’s a freakin’ dinosaur! Screamed his inner child with excitement, while his more sensible adolescent self echoed that thought with a more pronounced emphasis on the pure terror that realization brought.

The gigantic lizard, because that was what it essentially was, growled in pain, but did not change trajectory. Instead it just lowered its head and trampled over the wounded beastman, stumbling forward straight into Ares, who was completely unable to move this time around.

He was rammed by so much force that he heard several pieces of — what he presumed to be very delicate — mechanical pieces shatter within him instantly. The hit sent him flying through the air, until the first possible tree received him, which caused something else to crack within him.

“Master!” Orca screamed, but he barely took note of it. The pain had taken control of his mind.

Critical emergency status has been reached!

User synchronization rate too low

  • Threat of destabilizing unit connection detected

Disconnecting user… failure:

  • Origin is unresponsive

User autonomy has been set to ‘limited’

Unit survival and restoration is now at priority 1

  • Initiating Sentinel Program… complete

Just like that, Ares was no longer in control. Instead, Sam had returned to be a passive observer, but he had little mind to note it. The all-encompassing pain that wrenched his mind, cracking and splitting him to pieces, was slowing down any thought or idea. He was barely able to notice what was happening outside his tiny little world of spectral torture.

He saw nothing of how the unit stood back up on its own after the collision, eyes glowing with golden passivity, and faced the giant lizard that was bearing down on it.

He took no note of how the unit received the beast with its arms, stopping the deadly creature in its tracks, and the resulting pummeling the unit bore down on the massive beast.

He barely perceived it, as the unit flung the lizard to the side as if it was little more than a puppy, and closed in on the beastman that was trying to crawl away while dragging his sliced up leg behind him.

He witnessed none of the ensuing violence, as the bird-creature stepped up in front of its comrade and attempted to fend of the unit — an ultimately futile endeavor.

Finally, he was numb to the visions of the unit taking a strong grip around the throat of the bird, dragging it along as it slowly walked away from the gruesome battlefield, deeper into the dark and terrible forest.

In the prison that was his mind, Sam felt only loneliness, pain and a fathomless, petrifying terror.