Six knots was all that bound Ares to his current predicament, but in his current state they might as well have been the strongest chains and locks for all the difference it made.
The rope wound around his arms, which were forced above his head while he was dragged along by Corker. Ares was beginning to suspect the blasted creature was purposefully aiming to drag him over all the deadwood on the way. However, no matter how much he cursed his captor every time he headbutted against an obstacle, it did nothing to alleviate his troubles.
Bann, the obscure coat-wearing gunner, led them through the thickets of the forest, clearing the way with Corker’s knife whenever necessary and flowing across the forest floor like a ghost. From time to time, his captors would exchange a few words — mostly grumbles on Corker’s part — but they otherwise kept silent as they scouted their surroundings.
Ares almost wished an attack from his earlier, primordial stalker would come again, but no lizard suddenly burst out from the vicinity in a last minute rescue operation. It was just as well; had it happened, Ares was certain he would end up trampled alongside his captors, seeing as he was still completely lame in the legs.
While he had managed to increase his energy levels to 17%, he feared it would not be enough to repair the critical damage, and, even if he could mitigate the worst of it, beginning the process while also being dragged along on the ground by two hostile creatures seemed like a bad idea.
Hopefully, wherever they were dragging him, he could find the opportunity to finagle some foodstuff and earn himself enough energy to recover fully. Escaping would be the next step, but he would cross that bridge when he came to it. Right now, recovery took priority, no matter what he had to do in order to restore functionality.
While it helped to retain his current levels of energy, being dragged along the ground did incrementally increase his level of his damage meter. While it was still ‘only’ at 82%, bright blinking icons constantly reminded him of the state of his legs.
Corker was being no help at all, what with his increasingly intentional efforts to make the journey as uncomfortable as possible, now blatantly bouncing him off any nearby tree. From time to time, the wolf-man would turn his bestial features back at Ares and show off his impressive teeth, simultaneously expressing both spite and joy over his current, dominant position.
Finally, as the two suns above reached their zenith, Ares recognized the sound of muffled voices cutting through the forest as clearly as a cultivated field cuts through a plain. The noise simply did not belong to the wild and free spirit that ruled in this place. Nonetheless, those who imposed this touch of civilization upon the wilderness clearly had no shame, since they just became louder the closer Ares got.
They passed through the final thicket, and Ares found himself dragged into a clearing covered in makeshift tents and shelters surrounding a central fireplace. To the side of the camp, something like a small cart without wheels had been overturned and made into storage, keeping barrels and crates dry in the face of any chance rain.
A few trees had been cut down and split into the basic shape of benches, upon which a group unsavory characters currently sat and enjoyed a simple meal. All were humanoids, like those Ares had already encountered, but not a single one looked remotely similar to any other. There were bestial traits, like Corker, or elemental traits – one in particular had a branch growing out of its head – others again looked like humans, but all had the same distinctly narrow and sharp ears that ended in a point.
However, before his curiosity overcame him, his eyes were very quickly caught by a much more interesting — and terrifying — sight. Opposite the overturned cart, on the other side of the camp, four solid metal spikes had been hammered into the ground – each fastening a thick chain crawling over the ground shortly before reaching, and wounding around, a massively scaled beast that was much too familiar.
They caught the bloody dinosaur!
That made him sober up from his dreams of escaping real quick. Any company that could keep that thing in check through a bit of chain, would be more than capable of keeping a lame, heavily damaged, mechanical unit from going anywhere.
This line of thought was only underscored when he took note of the humanoid shape sitting with its legs crossed in front of the majestic beast, swerving a censer side to side right in front of the lizard’s snout. Incensed smoke poured out of the censer, which the beast visibly inhaled, while its one good eye followed the hypnotic movement intently, rocking its raised head along to the rhythm.
“El el eal-el el el eal-el..”, sang the humanoid creature in monotone, none of the words translating into English through the system, not until the tune changed cadence and pitch, the words changing into sentences and meaning.
King of the forest, lord of green sea
Dracor Aegis, remember the we
Ares was not sure how, but he could sense several strands of lifeforce twisting and turning around the dinosaur to the tunes of the singing. He also felt the beast instinctively try — and fail — to resist those ethereal bindings keeping it in check, bindings more powerful than any of the physical chains restraining the lizard.
As Corker, led by Bann, dragged him beside the eating assembly — who all glanced over at Ares’s pitiful form with barely any interest — Ares got a better angle at the seance happening around the dinosaur, and especially at the appearance of the humanoid that was exuding so much influence over the beast.
What he saw did nothing to boost his confidence whatsoever. This humanoid had an elongated head, topped with bony spikes, two thin nostrils, a wide mouth infused with sharp teeth, and as scaly as the dinosaur it was sitting in front of. While the dinosaur had reddish-brown scales, though, the humanoid had bright-red scales that almost seemed to burn with intensity.
When it stopped chanting, causing the dinosaur’s head to drop down powerlessly, it looked over at the newcomers, and Ares could see the hateful glare of deep-set yellow that resided in its bestial eyes.
This was a lizardman, if Ares was any judge, and he was bone-chillingly terrifying.
The lizardman stood up in one smooth movement and approached with calm speed, crossing the distance to Ares’ lying form in just a few confident steps. While the others in the gathering did not jump to give the lizardman way, they showed clear deference as he passed them, some bowing their heads ever so slightly.
This was a leader, not merely in name, but in spirit. The confident strides halted momentarily beside Bann, as the obscured gunner said something inaudible in his hoarse whisper. The scaled leader looked from Ares to Corker as Bann spoke, then finally nodded and took the last step to tower up in front of Ares with an air of superiority.
“You’ve returned, Corker. You were right, then,” said the lizardman while scanning Ares up and down with his piercing eyes. “I told you, I would find it, no?” Growled Corker in turn and tugged at the ropes, causing Ares to twist in his helpless state, “Now, let me rip it apart. That was the deal!”
The lizardman did not respond, but just narrowed his slitted eyes as he studied the scraps of clothing that still remained around Ares’s waist. With regal precision, the leader squatted down and grabbed the material, feeling it between his thumb and the other three fingers on his four-fingered hand. He then pulled a piece and sniffed at it, wrinkling the skin around his two small nostrils in either disgust or amusement and said, “No promise was made, Corky. You were told to find — you did. Now step back.”
The statement was said with so much asserted authority that the beastman instinctively obeyed before he realized he had done so. When Corker realized what he had done, it made him screw up his face in annoyance — and just a hint of fear.
“Now, Construct,” said the lizardman, turning from his subordinate to Ares, along with all the pressure his attention entailed, “Bann here says, you know words. Correct?” Ares could do little else than nod. He did not want to, but something within both the voice and demeanor of the lizardman simply demanded an answer to any and all questions.
“You are intelligent, then,” continued the leader, “Or are you perhaps a simple looking glass? Tell me: are you a master looking on from afar?”
Having been questioned like this before, Ares knew there was a significance to him having a mind of his own. Both Sloan and Alastor had put much importance in it, and mentioned it as key-reason to avoid the very lizardman before him.
He staid still, refusing to indicate one way or the other, avoiding the steely gaze. It was a useless attempt, as Behmet simply grabbed him by the jaw with his cold claw, twisting his head until he once again locked eyes with the scaled leader.
“Answer the question!”
Through the iron grip, Ares managed a meager shake of his head, enough that the lizardman got the meaning. “Is that so?” He said, baring his teeth in a feral grin, “No, I didn’t think so. Indeed, I don’t think you have a master at all, correct?”
Ares wanted desperately to avoid answering the question, certain that if the lizardman thought he had a ‘master’ around somewhere, he would be less inclined to hurt him, but the impulse to communicate the truth was simply overwhelming. Slowly, he nodded his head in affirmation, which only made the leader’s grin widen even further. Still gripping Ares’s head between his iron talons, the lizardman forced him to turn his neck from side to side so that he could study him closer.
“My, my… We’ve got ourselves a little monster here, then,” he said, touching one of the more damaged areas on Ares’ chest with a clawed finger while mumbling to itself, “Clearly Emporium make… although it appears in a form I have not seen before. Everything is exactly as you said it would be, Bann. I’m impressed.”
Bann nodded and crouched down beside Behmet. “I keep my promises,” hissed the gunner, a gleam of red flashing from within the shadow beneath his hat, “We have found what we came for. We should move out as fast as possible.” Behmet stared straight into the shadow without flinching, the echo of a sneer crawling its way up his face. Finally, the lizardman said, “Not quite yet. We have not gotten everything we came for.”
Neither Bann nor Behmet moved for a while, but kept staring at each other as if they were engaged in an invisible battle. Finally, the gunner stood back up and moved to stand with the other brigands, crossing his arms.
Behmet stood back up as well, a triumphant angle to the grin on his face. Ignoring the unruly gunner, the lizardman boss eyed his subordinates lazily, turning back to Ares only when each and every member of the group had lowered their eyes before his stare. Everyone but Corker, since he was openly staring at the boss with a mixture of hostility and challenge.
Satisfied with their reactions, the lizardman opened his sharp-toothed maw and said, “You think it is chance that the old barrier has disappears? You think it natural that the King of the Forest chases this construct? You do not think it strange that we lost those two little pests to Heart of Forest, and this one comes out?”
The others mumbled in unison, most grasping the significance of what the lizardman was suggesting, all except Corker, of course.
“Behmet, stop speaking riddles,” growled the beastman, stepping up close to the scaled leader, “You said we would find riches here, but I’ve seen nothing but dirt and moss! You’re saying we lost them two dwarfs, but it is through your negligence they were able to go! You took the daemon with us, and you gave the pest a chance to free it! Now, Shan be dead – this thing killed her! And you will say this be worth something?!”
While the beastman rambled on, Behmet the lizardman stood relaxed and watched, aloof to the accusation and provocation that his subordinate leveled at him. Only when Corker had finished his say did Behmet step in — quick as lightning — grasping the throat of the much bigger figure, and lifted him off the ground. Corker struggled mightily, but only when Behmet allowed him to fall did the beastman regain his foothold, staggering backwards as he attempted to recover his balance.
“You speak truth, Corker,” said Behmet in a low growl, “But you forget, I did nothing that we did not agree on.” The lizardman turned towards the others and swept his arms outward, saying, “We agree, always, brothers and sisters. That be our way; the way of our band. We have lost here, this be true, but we have walked this path together. This decision too, we will make together.”
He then turned back to Corker, grabbing his subordinate by the arm in what appeared to be a friendly exchange — although Ares could see how the strong iron claw bit into the beastman’s thick hide — and said, “Corky, as discoverer, you have the right to speak first. What is your say?”
The beastman gritted his teeth, but did not otherwise show any signs of pain as he spoke, “My say be for Shan. This thing be too dangerous. Value, it has, but we cannot let it be. The daemon too was a danger, and I spoke against bringing it here — see what happened? Brothers and sisters, hear me this time: chop this thing in pieces, sell its parts, but take no chance. This be my say.”
With a grimace, Behmet finally released his iron grip on Corker’s arm once the beastman had finished, leaving clear red marks behind, from where his nails had bit into the skin. The lizardman then turned to Bann and said, “Bann, do you still speak for the band?”
The gunner turned towards the others, his shadowy figure revealing nothing of his own intentions. When no one appeared to challenge the assertion, Bann turned back to Behmet and nodded, saying, “I speak for the band.”
“What is your say?”
The mysterious gunner appeared to consider carefully — as much as any shadowy figure can appear to do anything — and finally said, “Shan knew the dangers of coming — we all do. Dying is the risk, and the band must recover for our loss. This thing is dangerous, but has value as a whole. Split it into pieces and the band lose coin. Sell it whole, and the band gains. Shut it down, yes, but do not break it. This be my say.”
Behmet studied the faces of his subordinates as they listened to Bann’s words. Ares could see that the lizardman wanted something in particular, and that he searched for this in each and every one of his men.. — or his women, or heck, they could have a completely different biological system from anything I could imagine.
The brief explanations Orca had given him was enough for him to know that he could not apply the common sense he had to these people. Unable to fully understand the finer points of what his captors were talking about, Ares still managed to grasp the gist of the two first opinions.
Corker was obviously livid that Ares had killed his companion, understandably so, while Bann was considering the group higher than the individual. It was clear though, that their leader wanted something different, as he soon drew breath to speak again, saying, “This be true as well. We may gain from selling, or we might gain enough from scrapping it, but as leader of the band I have the final say.”
He then turned back to Ares and asked, “Construct, two little dwarfs were lost to us in the forest. You’ve met the two, yes?”
Again, Ares had no choice but to nod, the lizardman’s tone of voice commanded it. “Perhaps the dwarfs came to you, yes? Wake you up?” Ares nodded again, unsure what significance this held.
Behmet turned back the assembled humanoids, grinning his feral grin and said, “They found our prize and they woke it up.” Then he turned back towards Ares and ripped off a strip of the meager cloth he covered himself with, “Their stench is still on this cloth, so it must be true. They found the place we were looking for and woke up a construct made by the Old Ones!”
Gasps ran through the band of brigands, soon followed by protests, especially from Corker. “How do you know that, Behmet? You don’t! Stop saying nonsense!”
“I know, ’cause I looked!” Behmet roared and stared daggers at Corker, “It be Ravager aged, at least! Don’t you see? No master pulls on its strings; no warsmith forged this weave. I cannot even identify the period of its making, meaning it might be an early Emporium make!”
“And so? That only makes it more dangerous! We must chop it up, quick!”
“You think this thing is easy to find? You think it is easy to sell? What then, when the parts are too good? They will ask where we found this — No one will not buy without! They will think we stole it from the army.” Behmet slung out questions, and answers to those question, in rapid succession, quickly garnering a mumbling support from the group around the leader, “And what of keeping it whole? This be priceless, no elvish lord alone can pay us a fair price! Only the Empire or Ammedina can afford this around here, or they may just kill us first!”
“What do you want to do, Behmet? Speak your say,” growled Corker, clearly annoyed that Behmet was winning support.
“We will take it in, we will repair, and then we will bind it. With such a construct we could go to the West and take over some minor kingdom. Who would stop us? Let the band become lords; This is my say.”
“We already have the King! Why take such a chance!?” Corker gesticulated wildly towards the sedated dinosaur, or King of the Forest from what Ares could understand. This caused the discussion to flare up, until Behmet cut through, “Enough! We speak in turn. By sundown, we will make a final decisions. Bann, secure the construct. Use the daemon’s bindings, just to be safe.”
Bann nodded and took hold of the rope that still bound Ares’s arms, while the rest of the group walked back to the campfire. Here they sat down and immediately began the discussion anew. Meanwhile, Ares was dragged to overturned cart. Once there, Bann reached in and took out two iron spikes with accompanying chains, like the ones that they had used to fasten the King of the Forest.
“You are lucky this is all we have left,” hissed the obfuscated gunner, before chaining up Ares’ arms and pulling them apart until he lay outstretched on his back. Then he hammered down the iron spikes into the ground and spoke an inaudible word while touching each spike in turn.
This made the spikes flash with light momentarily, before they returned to normal. Finally done, Bann stood back up and kicked out at Ares’ dead legs, “It’s shame you’re in this state; I had been looking forward to meeting you.” Then he laughed in that hoarse, whispering manner, and walked towards the fire to join the discussion with the others.
What does that mean? Ares thought, looking at the back of the sinister gunner. Behmet was dangerous, true, but this one was downright terrifying every time he came close. Something about the man was simply wrong, even if Ares was unable to put a finger on the exact cause of it.
Left to his own devices, Ares could finally focus on the most important task: recovering as much as possible. He was pretty sure his captors underestimated his recovery abilities, and so he shut down his eyes and initiated the self repair protocol.
Energy at 16%
Self repair protocol initiated
Warning: energy levels below 10%
Self repair protocol shutting down
Damage at 78%
Unable to repair critical damage
Unknown error in spinal pathways
Just as he had suspected, he simply did not have enough energy to repair the critical damage received in the fight with the dinosaur. The fact that his captors called it the King of the Forest did little to alleviate the circumstances of the damage, except perhaps make him feel lucky that only his legs were lost.
Stretched out as he was on the ground, Ares only had to turn his head to look at the cart only a few feet away with all the foodstuffs he would need to fully repair himself. He could almost sense the presence of their sweet energy — the very thing that could save him was simply just out of reach.
Of course, he tried tugging at his chains to no avail. Whatever Bann had done to the iron spikes, it had clearly made them resistant to his mechanical strength. That was impressive, in its own way, and it made Ares curious as to how strong Alastor really was, to demand such security.
Had the kid been going easy on him in their fights?
It did not really matter, though. What really mattered was whether he could rely on Alastor for rescue. He had not had a lot of interaction with the boy, outside of fighting, and yet he had shown surprising concern at Ares’ immobile state.
Once Alastor returned to find Ares gone, would he come look for him? Would he brave the risk of entering the camp of his former captors, just to save the existence of some unfeeling construct? Ares found it highly unlikely.
This is rock bottom, he thought, as he looked back on the good old days with mock fondness. Back when he had just been some dying kid in a hospital bed and not a monstrous killer machine lying around in a forest, about to be either chopped into pieces, shut down indefinitely, or somehow enslaved to some very bad people.
He longed to be back on Earth, with all the coughing, weakness and simplicity that life back then entailed; where he had at least been sure of who and what he was, where he had people he loved, and where he was not just a lonely kid trapped in a mechanical piece of equipment he did not understand.
So absorbed was he by his abject misery, that he did not feel any stimuli to his body. No nudge to his legs, kick to his side, or lick on his cheek caught his attention, only the hazy sight of the dual suns traveling beyond their zenith high above the colorful crown of the forest had any pull to his dulled mind.
Only when the heavens above were covered by a much closer — and a lot fluffier — white fur, and two bright ruby-red eyes stared into his own of gold, did Ares take note of his visitor.