Barely had he noticed the little white fox, before it opened its jaws and bit down on his nose, hard!
For a greeting it was a bit excessive, and, had Ares had any ability to speak or emote, he would have howled so loudly that the entire band of brigands discussing nearby would have heard him and instantly been alarmed.
Why the hell is this thing here? And why is it biting me?!
He had no way of asking, of course, and it would probably not have done him much good anyway. The little red-eyed creature studied him closely for a moment before jumping down to the side and withdrawing what it had left there.
Ares did not even have time to turn his head before the fox had jumped back up on his chest and proffered the item to him, holding it above his head.
But not just any fruit — it was the essence fruit from the clearing he had inadvertently stumbled upon. To say Ares was surprised would be an understatement; not only had this fox returned to help him, it was even offering him this valuable essence fruit.
His hesitation made the little fox roll its eyes, before it approached and softly aimed the fruit towards the general area of his mouth. Hesitant, Ares opened up his own mouth and took a bite out of fruit, somehow managing to knock it out of the fox’s mouth in the process.
The fruit slid down the side of his face and rolled over the ground, where a few leaves stuck onto it, crunching softly as the momentum carried the little ball to roll around a few times before settling nicely beside a broken-off branch.
Though the noise was minuscule, to Ares it sounded like an entire orchestra performing a symphony. Tense, he carefully looked over at his captors, still sitting by the fire, certain that they must have heard the noise and would be up in arms and on their way in an instant.
But of course they were not. They were still bickering and arguing amongst themselves, still debating whether they should take their gains and go, or perhaps seek deeper into the forest and find more wealth, whenever they stalled on the issue of whether Ares should be chopped up into nice pieces or just enslaved to their whim.
Sighing a breathless sigh of relief, Ares looked back and found that the fox had already retrieved the fruit and was once again holding it up in front of him. This time he was more careful, and managed to receive it into his own mouth — fox saliva, leaves and all.
With its task accomplished, and Ares chewing happily away at the gift it had brought, the fox jumped back down on the ground and sprinted back into the surrounding vegetation, disappearing from sight as quickly as it had appeared.
Since he had already gotten used to the taste of leaves, Ares did not mind the extra crunchiness of his meal, although he did object to the fox saliva on principle. He very much doubted that he could get sick in this body, but the thought of all the germs that might hide themselves between the teeth of a wild animal like that made him shudder inwardly.
Still, he soldiered on, bravely chewing his way through the cocktail of sweet fruitiness and crunchy earthen waste. When he had swallowed the entire thing, his console lit up with heartening information.
Energy levels restored to 40%
Lifeforce at 88%
WARNING: lifeforce purity exceeding tolerable limits!
User level is too low to process lifeforce…
Artificial throttle has been imposed
Again he had to complete this process, just from eating the fruit. He had learned his lesson, and did not rush into repairing himself. Since he had little else to do, Ares just closed his eyes and waited for the process to complete.
Excess Lifeforce has been processed
Lifeforce at 95%
Just short of a level up!
Darn it, he thought, pulling slightly at his chains from disappointment, that might given me a chance to escape this place!
But there was no use in wishful thinking; he would have to resolve his problem another way. He was just thankful that the fox was indeed here, and if it was here then surely Alastor was nearby. He had thought it unlikely that the daemon would come for him, and now, to his great fortune, he was proved wrong.
Perhaps it is about honor? Like he had been unable to abandon Sloan and Alastor, perhaps the daemon felt the same. They had exchanged gifts of cooperation, binding their fates to the other.
If that was the case, then there was no need to hold back. It showed the sincerity with which Ares was treated, and Ares decided he would make sure to return such sincerity whenever he encountered it.
With this ideal set in his mind, he focused on the more immediate problem: his lame legs.
Initiating self-repair protocol
- Critical damage will be prioritized
Warning: energy levels below 10%
- Self repair protocol has been shut down
Damage at 75%
Critical damage successfully repaired
Spinal pathways have been restored.
Tentatively, Ares tried wiggling with his toes. As he looked down his outstretched form, he could just spot his small limbs move ever so slightly. Ecstatic, but wary of showing it, Ares looked back over at the brigands, who were still talking busily with one another. None of them had sensed the changed in his circumstances, or that anything in particular was wrong, which meant he now had an advantage. Granted, it was a small one, but it was all he had.
I need some way of getting these chains off…
This was the next obstacle in his way. If he could find a way to release his bindings, he could formulate a plan with that in mind. There was the brute force method he could attempt, now that he had the capacity to flee, but he doubted it would be effective. The noise would alarm his captors, and with at least ten opponents the chances of getting away were slim.
If, on the other hand, he could understand the mechanism that kept the spikes in the ground, he might be able to slink away without drawing too much attention. He tried looking very closely at the iron cuffs binding his hands, hoping that some information about it might appear on his HUD display, but nothing useful was forthcoming.
Sure, information on the density of the material was readily available, but anything useful on the forces that kept the iron spikes solidly in the ground was apparently out of scope for the system.
Frustrated, he tried tugging on the chains again, but found it an exercise in futility. Next, he attempted to creep towards the overturned cart beside him. Even with his arms chained, he had just enough leeway to twist his body to the side and use his legs to rummage around, but after a cursory attempt Ares abandoned the idea.
Sighing inwardly, Ares let his attention wander back to the sky above, where the two suns were traveling across the horizon in a slow arc. Indifferent to his situation, the two burning circles were halfway from their zenith towards the horizon, making the shadows grow long and the light within the forest begin to murk. Unable to help it, Ares wished himself as free as the two suns, until he recognized that the celestial objects above were just as chained as he was; them to natural laws, he to thick iron anchors.
Unable to find a solution to his impossible problem, Ares just followed the slow progress of the suns across the horizon, until the canopies above obscured their path, and he was left in growing twilight that obscured the deeper forest from view.
It was then that a low growl suddenly erupted from the massive dino-esque creature on the opposite side of the camp. At first, the bickering captors paid it no mind. The creature, although subdued, had been moody ever since the lizardman had left it alone. When it tried to stand up on its feet and get into some sort of position, however, the assembly stopped their discussions and took note of the strange behavior.
It was not that the creature was attempting an escape, nor was it completely woken up from its hypnotic stupor. It seemed that the giant lizard was wary of something from within the deep forest, almost as if on guard—
An instantaneous eruption of leaves, brush, and carnivorous teeth caught Ares, and every other bipedal in the surroundings, by complete surprise, as something gigantic and white flew out of the forest thicket. It charged the armed band in a rush for blood.
The brigands broke their circle and each jumped away in every direction, avoiding the snapping jaws moments before they caught their prey. Though taken by surprise, all of them were on their feet again within seconds, raising their weapons and retaliating without missing a beat.
It was an impressive display of discipline and skill, enough that Ares almost forgot that he was captured to these skillful fellows. He took especial note of how Bann, the rifleman, rolled back up on one knee after escaping the initial charge, instantly aiming his long-barreled weapon at the side of the white creature and firing the first shot of the battle.
Surprisingly, it was not a gunshot in the traditional sense, at least as Ares knew it, but a beam of light that shot out of the barrel, much like the one Ender had been able to produce when Ares fought it. The shot hit the flank of their assailant with a sizzle, scorching the white flank and causing the creature to growl in pain.
That was also when Ares recognized the great white attacker, because he had faced this one down himself. He should have known as much, since he had just been approached by its offspring, and now here was the vixen that had caused him his first defeat after assuming his current form.
The massive fox lunged from side to side snapping at the brigands, while these in turn jumped and evaded, turning their weapons against their attacker whenever they saw an opening.
Even with all the fighting and chaos, Ares found his attention drawn to the side, where Behmet was currently skulking towards the King of the forest; the beast struggling powerfully against its chains. Ares really wished he had the ability to warn the vixen about Behmet’s actions, especially after seeing how Behmet freed the giant lizard and mounted it.
“Charge!” The lizardman roared, an order which the scaled beast obeyed with visible joy. With impressive agility, the dinosaur accelerated, lowering its head and rammed into the side of the equally giant vixen. The blow sent the fox flying and tumbling across the clearing, but it somehow gained its feet after only a single roll, where it faced its new opponent with eyes flashing deep crimson.
Ares was certain that it would return the charge, but was surprised when blue flames erupted around the fox. For a moment these illusory flames danced around the vixen mother, and then, with a snort and a shake of its head, the fox commanded the flames to assail the entire camp, splitting it apart piecemeal.
Entranced by the battle, Ares was oblivious to his own surroundings before he felt something touch his shoulder. He snapped his attention towards the new sensation and found a new set of ruby-red eyes, but this time it was accompanied by ashen skin and a nervous expression.
Alastor had found him.
“Get up,” his rescuer said in a low hiss, “We must go, now!”
Ares wanted very must to point out that he was completely stuck in the ground, but just as he looked down at the two spikes that held him to the ground, the ashen boy put a hand over the first and mumbled something inaudible.
With a red flash, the spike lit up and was finally pliable, enough that Ares easily could pull it out of the ground. The feat was repeated with the other spike, and within moments Ares was back on his feet and following closely behind the horned boy.
Looking back over his shoulder, Ares saw that the fight between the giant fox and the band of brigands had reached an apparent climax, with the lit-up camp as the stage. Red gouges painted the white fur of the vixen red, while the dinosaur was limping on one of its four legs, having suffered severe burn.
“Don’t waste time!” Said Alastor, as he took a hard grip on Ares’ arm and forced him to run faster, “She won’t hold out long!”
They were close to the edge of the clearing, just about to escape from view when a voice cut through the din of battle, “The construct is escaping! The daemon is here, too!”
It was Corker, of course, the beastman had spotted Ares and the horned boy running away at a chance glance. After yelling the warning, he set after them in a limping run. Behind, the vixen snarled but was too occupied by the dinosaur to set after the pursuer, and instead she retreated backwards, drawing the brigands away from Ares and the horned boy.
“Bann! Go with Corker,” Behmet said, roaring over the bustle of combate, when it became clear that they were being distracted. The lizardman’s second-in-command acknowledged with a salute, and set after Corker in a sprint.
Shit! Cursed Ares, knowing they would have hard time of escaping the senses of the wolfman as well as the ranged attacks of the gunner.
“Run!” Alastor yelled, unhelpfully, and they both turned up the tempo, penetrating into the forest at their highest speed. Though unburdened by such inconveniences as breath or muscle fatigue, Ares found himself struggling to keep up with his rescuer.
He seemed to flow over the forest floor without ever being slowed down by the surroundings. Meanwhile, Ares had to constantly pay attention to the information on his HUD to avoid entangling himself in the vegetation, or falling over roots on the ground.
“Not far now!” said Alastor, while keeping his smooth pace, “keep up!”
Don’t bloody ‘keep up’ me, growled Ares in his mind, looking over his shoulder to scout for the enemies. Corker was only a few meters behind and Bann… Bann was nowhere to be seen.
That frightened Ares even more than the limping wolfman, seeing as the obscured gunner was clearly the more powerful one of the two. His concern was confirmed seconds later, when a beam of light split the murky darkness of the forest, hitting Ares straight in the left shoulder.
Critical hit – left shoulder movement has been impaired
Damage at 85%
The pain hit him like a thunderbolt, causing him to lose focus for a moment. In a chase with life or death at stake, this was a critical mistake, and Ares quickly paid for it.
His foot hit one of the raised roots, sending him sprawling onto the forest floor, with Corker only a few steps behind. The wolfman lost no time, but pounced on his downed foe, despite his bad leg. Instead of ripping apart the metal construct, however, he was met with the sharp end of a wooden spear that cut into his leathery breastplate.
Corker growled and knocked the spear aside, snapping of its end, and was rewarded with the butt of the stick coming straight at his face. The horned boy was adept in his staff-handling, and hit the distracted wolfman in the side of his head with a loud ‘thump’. This gave Ares the opening to get back up on his feet and continue the assault, but the horned boy grabbed him by the arm before he could make any attempt at the dazed Corker.
“Not now! Run!”
Despite his better judgment Ares did as he was told, just in time to see a light beam hit the exact spot where he could have assaulted the wolfman from. With shivers running down his spine, Ares acknowledged the wisdom of retreat, and followed the horned boy closely from behind.
With zig-zag motions, they avoided most of the shots that occasionally flew through the forest from Bann’s unknown position. This did, however, make it very difficult to escape Corker, who despite his limp was strangely fast. They could only hold on for so long, before they were caught up, and Ares had no idea how to avoid it.
Just when he was about to turn and make a desperate last stand, the horned boy did so instead. As they reached a relatively spacious part of the forest, the boy made a turnabout towards their enemies, leveling his point-less spear at the oncoming wolfman.
Corker’s white grin was visible in the dimming light, and it was further illuminated by a lightbeam from within the darkened forest. The horned boy barely avoided the shot and closed in on his opponent, all the while Ares was still figuring out how to respond. With no direction from his rescuer, Ares did the only thing he knew how to do: a frontal charge.
Corker avoided the staff this time, drawing his long knife and closed in for a straight stab. The boy turned and crouched in one move, avoiding a second shot that would have hit his head, and stabbed at the wolfman with the butt of the staff. With uncanny agility, Corker sidestepped the attack and crouched in one movement, avoiding Ares’ telegraphed punch and leaned into him with his shoulder.
In one moment, Ares cursed himself for the obvious attack, the next he was sailing through the air as Corker used his own speed against him. Hanging there, Ares was an easy target for Bann’s marksmanship, and the opponent was not one to let the chance pass him by. This time Ares was hit clean in the chest, rewarding him with yet another cheery message.
Integral weak point has been hit
Had he been a creature of flesh and blood he would probably have died from that hit, since it skewered him completely, luckily he made it out with a mere 6% damage. Still, he had been very lucky to get his damage down, and seeing his advantage disappear so quickly made him feel incredibly useless.
A burst of green light flashed, in the wake of the horned boy’s command, frying Ares’ visuals just as he hit the ground. A roar of anger assaulted his ears, as something had obviously harmed Corker, but he was unable to see what was happening, blinded as he was.
When he finally blinked the world into sharpness again, he saw the wolfman kneeling on the ground with half his body fried and burnt to a crisp. The smell hit him, moments later, reminding him of a barbecue gone horribly wrong.
To the side stood the boy, but he was now joined by the kit, which still had hint of green light flowing around it. Clearly it had just been firing that green beam, and Ares was surprised at how much damage it had done. He got back up on his feet and looked around, thinking they needed to move as fast as possible.
“Da..daemon,” choked Corker, before falling into a fit, “C-curse you…”
“I did not want this, Corker,” said the boy, calmly. The little kit at his side looked up at the boy, and he returned the look with a gentle smile and a pat on its head. The scene was almost idyllic, before a shot from within the forest tore it apart. Again the boy avoided it, somehow, but right at that moment Corker stood back up, despite his heavy wounds, and went straight for kit!
The little fox was in a near panic, unable to avoid the assault of the much greater wolfman towering above it, and its master had just stepped out of reach to avoid the shot. With a clawed hand, Corker aimed a deadly swipe at the pest that had caused him so much grief, but was suddenly stopped in his tracks when a hand erupted from his chest.
Smeared with blood and viscera, Ares withdrew the hand with which he slew the wolfman and dismissed [Edge] from it. Desperately slow, the light of life escaped the beastial eyes of his victim. It had been a close-call, but he had made it in time to save his rescuer, and he had killed a sentient being by his own hand and will for the first time.
There is no room in this place for weakness, he assured himself, just as another shot erupted from the distance. Distracted by his own actions, Ares was spellbound in place, watching the oncoming missile in slow motion as the system overclocked.
This allowed him to see what happened next, when the fox jumped up in front of him while green streams of energy erupted around it from geyser-like points, blowing out an incredible amount of energy that was drawn to the front, right to the fox’s opened maw.
“Ender, no!” Alastor screamed nearby, the sound deep and alien in the slowed-down world in which Ares existed, but there was no stopping now. In an explosive flash, all the collected energy was sent flying in a massive beam, straight in the direction from which the oncoming shot was fired.
For a moment it was possible to see, within the murky forest, exactly where Bann was shooting from. With his sped-up perception, Ares watched how Bann’s shot was overwhelmed by the green beam, eradicating it while continuing straight at Bann. The gunner made an attempt to avoid the attack, and managed to escape the worst of it; his foot, however, got caught in the blast and was consumed by it.
As the threat abated, Ares’s perception returned to normal just in time to see the fox falling back down on the ground, lifeless. Alastor was at its side in an instant, scooping it up in his arms. With a glance in the direction of Bann, he turned on his heels and ran as fast as he could.
Ares followed suit, his mind still muddled by the events that had transpired — so much in fact, that he paid no mind to the console that was flashing in the corner of his vision:
User Lifeforce has reached its limits