In a swirling haze of misty gray and muddled brown, Sam walked across an endless landscape as ephemeral as his own self-awareness. Twisting about in the fog, paintings of distant scenes and landscapes were continuously shaped by an invisible brush, only to disperse and fade away into forgetful nothingness.
Within this never ending, ever changing land of lost recollection, Sam saw many scenes he knew held no meaning to him. Scenes of children playing in the snow, a home with lavender scent, dimples and soft blue eyes; all of these appeared and faded away in a continuous stream, as if someone had put on a movie they wanted to see and then left Sam to watch it alone from the middle.
Since nothing made sense, he just kept on walking, putting one foot in front of the other until he realized he had no feet. Of course he had no feet — he had never had any. As he walked along with footless steps, the pictures came closer, twisting themselves towards him as if they wanted to reach out and grab him, but he deftly avoided them every time. Best be wary of the unknown.
Soon, distant voices joined the pictures; screams and shouts echoing through the gray halls around him in a language he knew, but could not understand. The fog twisted and turned the words into unrecognizable forms, into little demons chasing him through the mists, biting at his heels and forcing him to move onward.
I just want to rest for a little bit…
But there was no room for idleness. The voices came closer, twisted and turned on their heads, and yet there were moments when something suddenly made sense to him. Moments later, though, the understanding faded again and he forgot he had ever known such a strange and terrible tongue.
One voice cut through the fog, despite this. One voice made sense, one was real. Without knowing why, he sought that voice. It was distant, but he thought he knew the way.
It’s right here. It’s for me, and it’s right here…
Closer, ever closer he drew, parting the gray curtains obstructing his view, distracting him with pictures of magnificent cities hovering in the air, ballrooms filled with tall and beautiful creatures, feasts beyond compare, but he ignored them all.
And then he was there — he could feel it — at the kernel of truth that had always remained deep within him, despite all his hardships, all of his sickness and… and all the nights at the hospital. He remembered the hospital, very suddenly and very distinctly. He remembered the sanitary smell, the whiteness of everything and everyone, of Thomas Rain, his physician, of his boredom and of how very, very tired he was.
It was a scream right by his ear, as if the speaker was right there with him, and yet he knew she could not be. His sister, how could he have forgotten his sister? Lizea Welbourne was everything he was not: the light to his darkness, the heroine to his forgettable character… Her voice was a soothing lodestar in this hollow place.
“What’s wrong with him!? Doctor, what’s happening?!”
“Heart rate is dropping, Doctor, he is going into cardiac arrest.”
“Get Ms. Welbourne out of here, now! And get me the defibrillator!”
A moment of silence ensued. Sam felt empty inside, knowing that these were probably the images of his last moments before dying — before his rebirth. He had left his sister behind and come here, playing around like some kind of hero in a story.
He had ordered the disseminating and consumption of sentient beings, ripped living wolves apart, intruded upon a holy place, and then gotten into an impossible fight between a giant lizard and some dangerous creatures that he had never seen before.
For what? Because he wanted to live freely for once?
The memories welled back to him, crashing the floodgates that had held them at bay. They surrounded him in their colorful acidity, seeping into the gray fog swirling around him, and for a moment — just a moment — he saw an image of his hospital bed back home.
A nurse stood off to the side while another had a strong hold of his sister and was hauling her outside, despite Lizea’s best efforts. Doctor Rain stood to the side with the defibrillator, looking as if he was about to iron out the wrinkles on Sam’s chest with two weirdly shaped steam irons.
Everything was moving so painfully slow that Sam could see the worry on Doctor Rain’s face and the tears of desperation in his sister’s eyes dropping to the floor. As the door closed behind his sister, Doctor Rain put down the irons on Sam’s chest and side, preparing for the shock.
Then, just before the act, Rain suddenly looked up and seemed to stare straight into Sam’s formless perception, smiling slightly.
With a loud ‘boom’ everything happened extremely fast. The colored fog swirled around him, forming a gigantic whirlpool of foggy images and distant voices, turning into a very familiar, and very welcome darkness. For a moment, he thought he was safe and sound. How very wrong he was.
Connection has been successfully stabilized
Some features remain restricted
User autonomy reestablished
Welcome back, Ares
Those flashing words was all the warning he got, before his entire sensory apparatus was suddenly active all at once, and he was Ares once more. It was not as painful as the first time around, but the sensation was still disorienting. Blinking, Ares tried to gather his wits about him, trying to make sense of this world that was so very wrong.
Light obscured his vision, blurring it while his internal processors recalibrated his perception to allow for optimal sight in these conditions. The blur turned into mush, and then into a pin needle vision slowly expanding until he could see all of his surroundings, which were largely dominated by a pair of deep set, ruby-red eyes that looked straight into his own.
Shocked, he attempted to scream, but was thoroughly stopped by his body’s inability to make any sound, or even a minor twist to his facial expression. Instead, the owner of the red eyes moved back with a startled expression.
With more distance between them, Ares recognized Alastor, who was now studying him with something akin to concern on his face. “Are you alright?” said the daemon, still looking him over.
Ares nodded, while trying to get through to Orca. ‘Are you there, Orca?’ the voice in his head, which had kept him company for the past few days was completely silent, which was both disturbing and a relief.
Trying to stand up, Ares found himself falling short. He was sitting propped up against a tree while his legs were strewn out in front of him, completely immobile.
Looking at the two unhelpful appendages, he could see nothing specifically wrong with them, except that they were in the same damaged state that they had been in from the beginning. However, a look at the console quickly made things much clearer.
Sustained damage has severely reduced structural integrity
Automated self-repair protocols have been put into action
Warning: energy levels below 10%
Unable to restore full functionality
Critical functions have been impaired
Spinal pathways… unknown error
In short: he was a wreck.
Whatever damage the lizard had imposed upon him, it had been enough to critically disable his mechanical body to the point that he could not move, or even feel his legs.
Desperately he looked around, for something edible around him, but saw nothing but brush and leaves. Alastor followed his roaming gaze, but mistook his intentions. “I’ve already scouted the area, there’s no one else nearby. You had hidden yourself pretty well there; I wouldn’t have found you if it wasn’t for Ender’s help.”
The little fox kit peeked its head out from behind Alastor’s feet, studying the pitiful construct on the ground. Ares nodded, and instinctively tried to speak, coming up short. Nothing but scratching noises came out of his mouth.
“Is there something wrong with your noisy assistant?” Alastor asked, squatting down and furrowing his brow. Ares nodded, frustrated at the difficulty a lack of communication imposed. He pointed to his feet and then crossed his forearms, trying to communicate his current handicap.
“So, you can’t move?” The boy sighed after Ares had confirmed with a nod, “No wonder you did not return, then. Sloan was pretty worried, you know. I don’t know how you made that one feel such loyalty, but he wouldn’t stop pestering me to go look for you.”
Ares gave Alastor a skeptical look. He really had done nothing that should have made the halfling like him, not to mention loyalty. Surely, Sloan was just worried that, without Ares, he would be unable to leave this forest alive.
Pointing to his feet once more, and then to his mouth, Ares tried to get the most important point through. He needed energy to repair himself.
“You want food? How much?”
Ares made a wide gesture with his hand, meaning ‘as much as possible’. Alastor nodded and said, “I’m not strong enough to move you, so you’ll have to wait here. While I’m gone, you should hide yourself as much as possible. I don’t know what Behmet did, but with the barrier gone, his goons will surely come here soon.”
Ares nodded, not having the means, or the desire, to divulge the fact that he was the one who had broken the barrier. It was probably best if he allowed Alastor to believe this was all Behmet’s fault.
Standing up, Alastor gave him a wave of the hand before walking into the nearby brush.
For a while, Ares just sat and stared at the spot of colorful vegetation which the boy had disappeared into, before he turned his attention to his immediate surroundings and more pressing issues. Looking around once more, he was unable to locate anything of any real nutritional value.
Instead, he finally noticed the pools of dried-out blood that covered his hands, his torso, and the ground around him. The sight was a familiar one, and so were the gruesome scenes that began flashing in his mind, once he tried to make sense of it.
He saw the images of the struggling bird-creature, as his body dragged it through the forest, repeatedly smashing its head down into the ground whenever its struggles became a nuisance, until finally his legs faltered, buckling beneath the pressure.
Once paralyzed, his body did not hesitate, but immediately began exploiting the closest energy source, ripping the bird creature apart in a terribly efficient manner. Ares shook as he recalled the pictures that the system had saved just for his entertainment, as if it wanted to prove how good a job it had performed while he was incapacitated.
That brought his thoughts back on the vivid visions he had seen while all of this bloody business had happened, the images of his sister and Doctor Rain. He thought of the family he had left behind, and how they might react if they had seen the gruesome actions he was inadvertently responsible for in this world.
I’m a monster…
He kept repeating those words in his mind, wanting to scream them out loud but unable to move the smallest muscle in his stiff and unemotional face — not to mention the act of speaking simply seemed beyond him.
As the emotions overwhelmed him, despite the efforts of the system to dampen the biological response to trauma. Ares placed his face in his blood-dried hands, and attempted to grieve despite the stoic mask that was forced upon him.
He owed it to his family to be better than that, better than this. No matter how far apart he was from them now, they were still a part of him, and he should not let the sudden freedom he had felt in this world corrupt him. He was still restricted — this time not by sickness, but by a system that would keep him alive at any and all cost, no matter the consequences. He would not bend to his worst impulses, but work to overcome them and improve upon them!
With that resolution set in his mind, Ares immediately reached for, and chomped down on, a discarded branch beside him. The newfound desire to be better, followed with it a deep seated desire to survive, fueled him through the inedible texture and earthy taste of the natural waste.
Once he pushed through the first branch, he grabbed the next and shoved leaves into his mouth alongside the stick as if he was eating a fast food meal combo. Without caring for the health of his, presumably, strong mechanical teeth, Ares kept up the eating frenzy until he had sucked up most biological material in the surroundings.
When finally there was nothing else to reach around him, he began dragging himself along the dirt, shoveling down leaves and branches until his mouth was covered in splinters and dust. He even found a purple mushroom-like growth covering a dead tree-stump that he also devoured without even considering any possible toxic it might contain. For that, the system rewarded him with a message:
Poisonous material ingested
Breaking down substance into its chemical components… success
No penalty has been incurred
Although he was occupied by his feeding frenzy, Ares still stopped for a moment to contemplate the significance of the message. It hinted at the possibility that something could poison him. He stopped eating the purple mushrooms, just in case.
While he fed, he kept an eye on his energy levels. The conversion rate of the materials he was consuming was not great, and he had barely crept above the 16% mark when an alien noise in the forest soundscape caught his attention.
He had grown accustomed to the ‘tweet’ and subtle roars all around him, but a sudden ‘crack’ that did not belong disturbed him immensely. He perked up and looked in the direction of the offending sound, finding something rustling and shaking the brushes barely within eyesight.
Whatever it was, Ares did not intend to be caught by surprise again, and so quickly shuffled himself into a hiding position beneath a thick brush. Just in time as well, since he had only managed to cram his dead legs into the hiding spot when two shadows emerged from the forest undergrowth, closing in on his position fast.
Still chewing his way slowly through a mouthful of leaves, Ares watched as a recognizable figure of the wolf-man Corker stepped into the light, limping slightly on one bandaged leg while he was hunched forward and sniffing in every direction. The giant slab of rock he had carried on his back last night had apparently been too much for the creature to carry while on a wounded leg, and so he merely carried a long knife, which he used to chop up any obstacle in their path.
The other shadow was also a familiar figure. A cold tingle went down his spine as he recognized the leather-coated creature with the broad-brimmed had obscuring its features. In the light of day, Ares noticed the elongated weapon it carried slung over its shoulder, which it revealed every time it turned to scour its surroundings.
Over its shoulder, the hilt had seemed familiar, but with a full view of the thing, Ares recognized the signature profile of a 17th century-style blunderbuss, straight out of a war painting. As it got closer, Ares also recognized the two flintlock pistols hanging from the creature’s belt.
Stunned by the sight of the modern-esque weaponry, Ares was not paying attention to Corker, who had begun to inspect the ground where Ares had woken up. The wolf-man bent down and grabbed a pinch of the still-bloodied ground, raising it to his snout and sniffing two times.
“Is Shan’s blood,” said the beastman in his rough, grinding voice, looking over his shoulder to his companion, “we’re close, now.”
“Where be the body?” Asked the coat-wearing creature, his voice a raspy whisper that made the tingles down Ares’ back flare up. Corker sneered, but shrugged and said, “Prob’ly gone. You know what constructs do, yes?”
The broad-brimmed hat bobbed up and down, indicating a nod from the obscured creature beneath it, but no words came in response. Corker growled something beneath his breath, but turned back to his task, finally taking note of the upturned forest floor all around them. Grinning, the beastman said, “Looks like the thing took a beating.”
The obscured creature knelt down and took its own sample of the undergrowth, bobbing the the hat once more in affirmation. “It did take out the King, still. Be careful,” said the whisper.
I took out what? Ares remembered the bird creature saying something about a king. Was that the giant lizard?
He had no time to think about it though, as the wolf-man growled and stood back up, turning straight in his direction and pounced. With the long knife, the beastman cut through the brush until he revealed Ares’s position, and seeing the clear infirmity of his opponent he howled with excitement.
“Is here, Bann! I’mma cut it up real good!”
Ares had no opportunity to see what ‘Bann’ did in response, nor did he care, as he desperately attempted to haul himself away from the reach of the long knife and Corker. Without careful and deliberate motions, though, his legs quickly got stuck in the brush, hampering any desperate escape he might pull off. In any case, the wolf-man could simply circumvent the brush if Ares ever managed to get out, and without legs he had no way to escape his attacker.
Still chopping away, Corker forced Ares into the opposite edge of the brush, until something very cold suddenly touched the back of his head. Very slowly, Ares looked back over his shoulder, finding the coat-wearing creature standing behind him with the barrel of the blunderbuss aimed straight at him.
Peering into the obscure darkness beneath the broad brim of its hat, Ares shivered at the hint of red light within.
“You understand words, Construct?” Hissed the gunner, his whisper carrying through the victorious howl of the beastman. Again, slowly, Ares nodded in affirmation as he put up his arms in surrender. “You know what this is, Construct, what it will do to your head?” Again, Ares nodding his understanding. He had no idea how much damage a salvo from a lone blunderbuss would do, nor was he willing to find out in his current state.
“Good,” said the whispering gunner, “Then don’t move, yes?”
Ares was in the midst of repeating his nod, when the wolf-man rushed at his side, roaring with frenzy,”We got it, Bann! Let me at it; I’ll chop it up!”
To this, the beastman received a very sudden and violent kick to his side, from his comrade no less. Too fast for Ares to take any note, or for him to use it to his advantage, the coat-wearing gunner had let the blunderbuss in his hands go — letting it hang from its leather strap around his shoulder — and pulled out the two flintlock pistols, aiming one at Ares and the other at the sprawling Corker.
“Don’t do anything stupid, Corky,” hissed the gunner, while keeping a tangible sensation of attention squared on Ares, “This one is Behmet’s call. ‘Is not up to you.”
Even wounded, Corker was still up on his feet in a flash, waiving his arms at the blood-stained ground not far from them saying, “It killed Shan, don’t you see? I will rip it apart for this!”
Again he closed in, and again the gunner kicked him back, seemingly without exerting himself whatsoever. Ares got the distinct sense that there was a power dynamic here that he did not understand.
“You question my call?” Hissed Bann, once Corker had gotten up on his feet and turned a threatening glare at his companion, “You question Behmet’s call?”
That somehow seemed to mollify the beastman, who turned down his eyes and bared his neck. Finally, after a long pause, he said, “No, I question no call.”
With that, Bann bobbed his hat up and down and holstered the pistol aimed at Corker, withdrawing instead a coil of rope that he threw towards the beast.
“Tie up the thing, we let Behmet decide its fate.”