Chapter 17 – Retreat

In the chaotic flight that ensued, Ares was mostly occupied with keeping pace with his rescuer while simultaneously ensuring that they were not being followed.

As such, he had little idea of the condition Ender was in before they arrived at a familiar clearing about the time of sundown. While it was entirely dark around them, the old tree was lit up by light from the golden fruits as if they were lanterns.

Alastor rushed to the tree before he put down his companion and saw to it. Ares observed that the little fox was still alive, but the analysis of his HUD suggested it was extremely weakened by using that attack. He tried to close in, to help, but Alastor turned towards him in a furious whirl, eyes wet with unshed tears, and said, “Don’t take another step. I can’t have someone so dangerous close to Ender right now!”

There was anger in that voice, despair even, emotions that Ares was intimately familiar with on an intellectual level. However, in his current form, he knew that he it would appear impossible for him to relate, and so he backed off.

While the horned boy began harvesting golden fruits, Ares sat down by a tree at the edge of the clearing and tried to think on what he should do now. The barrier that should have kept the enemy out was down now, plus they now knew of his existence.

Thinking hard, he tried to think of a solution, but he was coming up short. He had never done this kind of thing, and did not even know how he should begin to plan for what was to come.

That was when the flashing lights in his console finally got him to pay attention.

Compression complete

  • Congratulations: user level has increased to level 2

Primary functions restored:

  • Acquisition Software

Modules have improved according to performance

  • Scanning physical module…
    • Strength: 30
    • Agility: 17
    • Speed: 24
  • Scanning processing module…
    • Computing: 42
    • Response: 22
    • Emulation: 10

You have received 10 upgrade points [UP] which can be allocated in all module categories

Equipment function has been improved

  • A new skill slot is available in Equipment

The onslaught of messages kept going way past this, but Ares had to stop and consider the first few entrances. For one, his emulation units had not increased, yet again. The only points in the category were the 10 points he himself had put there, and so there was no question what he was going to spend it on.

With every point he allocated into emulation, he felt himself ease more comfortably into the glove that was his new body. Whatever the precise effect of emulation was, it was worth investing in it — if for no other reason than the familiar sensation of feeling something it gave him.

His console was apparently not done helping out, a new message soon gave him some much-needed good news.

User connection has stabilized fully

Restrictions have been lifted

Communications module has been re-enabled

“Ma-a-a-aster!” A familiar voice cried in his mind, which unexpectedly gave him a sense of relief. The one day he had spent without her companionship, since their meeting, had been a bleak experience.

‘Hey Orca. How have you been?’

“Master, p-please don’t ever leave me like that a-again,” she whimpered, giving Ares the mental image of a small dog with a splint in its paw. “I was sooooo scared… You just fought a stupid Dragon, and then the connection broke off, and then… and then… Waaaaah!”

Desperately, he tried to calm the stream of sobbing by placating her with soothing words, telling her he was alright and nothing had happened. When she finally calmed down, something she had said stuck out at him.

‘You said I fought a dragon. Do you mean that giant lizard was a Dragon?’

“Y-yeah,” she said, her voice still a bit unsteady, “It’s a lower one, but surely a Dragon. I guess it must have been given as a gift to the Elvans at some point, and has just been left here to guard the forest since then.”

‘Is there any reason as to why it wanted to attack me? It came straight for me in the middle of the night, and ignored all in its path…’

For a long while there was silence. Ares wanted to press Orca further, but she appeared conflicted about something. Finally, she said, “I can’t be sure, Master, but you did break that barrier back there. If I had to take a guess, I’d say this Dragon was left here with the instructions to defend the Heart against anyone who wanted to harm it, and you pretty much destroyed the greatest protection the Heart had.”

‘Is it normal to just leave Dragons with instructions like that?’

“I’m not really qualified to answer that question, master. My directive is to avoid any contact with Dragons as much as possible, even lower ones. They’re a hateful bunch…”

Ares wanted to ask more questions, but Orca changed immediately changed the subject. “Whoa, Master, you leveled up — congratulations! And you got Acquisition up and running too, score!”

‘Yeah? What’s it do?’

Ares looked at his console, just as it was activating the new function.

Enabling core function… complete.

Acquisition includes the following:

  • Skill acquisition: The user may integrate new skills into the unit structure through practice and training.
    • Warning: skill acquisition levels cannot exceed user level.
    • Warning: Integrating skill into unit structure comes at the expense of lifeforce.
  • Language acquisition: guided speech for languages unknown to the user
    • Warning: guided speech cannot overrule user autonomy

Scanning for adaptable skills…

  • Skills are a available
    • [Positioning]
    • [Pulse]
  • Adaptable skills currently in development
    • [Fall] – 48% complete
    • [Gather] – 23% complete
    • [Brawl] – 10% complete
    • [Desecrate] – 3% complete

There were more on the list, but many of them only had a few percent cleared, like [Trek], which weirdly enough only had a single percentage point, despite how much Ares felt he had been walking already.

The list was now available to him in the newly created Acquisition tab in his menu, where he could also look up the individual skill’s description, as well as its presumed cost, like:

[Positioning] – level 1 skill

Category – Passive skill

The user has gained insight into the advantages of taking the right position in battle. With this skill, the user will gain a damage boost whenever a superior position is employed against an enemy. The system will also be able to better evaluate potential positions, and make better suggestions.

Lifeforce cost: 9%

It was not terribly expensive for a skill that might have its uses, but Ares also had to take into account that he had limited skill slots available. Currently he had two slots, one occupied by [Edge] while the other was free. While the damage boost of [Positioning] was a nice touch, Ares was uncertain whether the skill would be much use in his current situation. 

The other skill available to him was:

[Pulse] – level 1 skill

Category – Active skill

The user has gained the ability to manipulate lifeweave in a pulsating rhythm. The strength of the pulse is determined by the medium it is transferred through, and the way in which it is applied by the user. Greater mastery will increase the amplitude of the pulse, as well as the frequencies available.

Lifeforce cost: 7%

Looking at it, Ares could not really see the uses in this skill. He knew waves were powerful, especially if used with precision, but, the way he read it, he would need to get really up close before he could apply it to his enemies.

‘What do you think, Orca? Should I choose one of these skills, or wait to develop a new one?’

“Hmm… I’d say wait for a bit, Master,” said Orca, suddenly sounding very authoritative, “There is no need for you to pick right now, and it might be better to wait until you have made plans for your next move… My, you really got in a bind there, didn’t you?”

‘You’ve seen my logs? Then what do you think about our enemies?’

“They’re certainly strong, and they outnumber you several times over. Especially that Behmet is weird; I’ve never heard of anyone being able to just take control of Dragon, even a lower one.”

Ares looked towards Alastor, where the daemon was still tending Ender with extreme care. He found there was something off about Orca’s assessment; should there not be another who was more dangerous than Behmet?

‘What about Bann, you know, the gunner? To me, he seemed the more dangerous one, even if I don’t know why…’

“Who?” Orca said, surprise clear in her voice, “I’ve seen no one like that in your logs… Hmm… something’s weird… let me check…”

Ares let her work, watching how Ender’s vital signs stabilized, as Alastor squeezed out juice from the golden fruits into the mouth of the little kit. Forcing it to swallow, Ares could see the lines of lifeforce improve around it, revitalizing it from the inside out.

“Holy… Master, there are actual holes in your logs”

‘Holes? What does that mean?’

“I honestly don’t know… I’ve never seen anything like this… ever. How would they even do that, I mean… they wouldn’t be able to access your information, so the only plausible explanation is…”

‘Is what?’ He said, without much patience. He did not like the sound of there being holes in his system, even if it was unreliable at times.

“I can’t say, Master, I really don’t know what to make of this. You say his name is ‘Bann,’ so you must have some memory of him stored in your origin, suggesting he cannot avoid biologically stored information…”

‘My origin? What’s that?’

“Ahaha, just a slip of the tongue, Master, nothing serious,” she tried to laugh it off, but Ares was suspicious. He was about to question her further, when Alastor loudly cheered, and gave the feeble Ender a huge hug.

The little fox still appeared weak, but at least it had its eyes open now. The idyllic scene was a soothing sight to Ares, after having been faced with the darker sides of himself and this world over the past two days.

Seeing this, he knew he had made the right choice in not abandoning Alastor back when he had the chance.

With the source of Alastor’s distress finally solved, Ares dared to approach once more, squatting down beside the two of them. Alastor noticed him, but did not object to him closing in.

“The great master Ares deigns to thank you for your assistance, daemon,” said Orca, haughtily, after Ares had convinced her that he needed to thank them.

“Hmph, your little noise has grown arrogant, Ares,” said Alastor, finally releasing Ender from his grasp. The little kit jumped down onto the ground carefully, trying out its limbs for any problems. “If not for us, you might have been split into spare parts by now.”

Ares nodded, and mentally knocked Orca over the head for her impudence. “Fine!” His assistant sniffed and said, “You have my master’s sincere thanks for saving his skin, little Al. Don’t go thinking you’re all that, just because you got to be the hero for once.”

“Don’t call me…! Ahh whatever, little noise,” Alastor shook his head in resignation, then fixed his gaze on Ares, “You sure know how to get into trouble, Ares. I think Behmet is likely to burn the entire forest down to get his hands on you now.”

“He can just try it! My master is the most powerful, most magnificent—”

“Yes, yes,” said Alastor, waiving her off, “And he is the best at getting himself caught, too. That’s not the issue here — without the barrier, we no longer have the advantage of time. We need to move quickly, I’m sure they’re already on our trail.”

Orca was about to butt in with a scathing remark about the outcast, when something big and white burst through the undergrowth and into the clearing in that very moment. It stumbled towards them until it finally collapsed before the glowing tree, gasping from exhaustion.

Alastor was the first to move, gaining his feet and sprinting towards the great vixen that had returned to the sanctuary. Much slower, Ares followed behind, more concerned with the direction from whence the giant fox had come.

When no indication of pursuers appeared, and Orca assured him that she would be able to tell if there were enemies approaching, he relaxed a little.

He then turned towards the gigantic creature, now resting beside the tree with all the signs of exhaustion. Alastor was feeding it golden fruits while stroking its fur and speaking in a soothing voice. His efforts were rewarded with some low yelps and glances of gratitude from the creature, as its wounds visibly healed merely from consuming the magnificent fruits.

“Is she going to be alright?” Orca asked on Ares’s behest, as he approached carefully. The mother vixen turned her grand visage towards him, her eyes turning cold and a low snarl escaped her maw. “She will be alright,” answered Alastor carefully, “But she is heavily wounded. I did not expect Behmet to be able to control the king in such a way… it should not have been possible from what I know of the lizardmen…”

‘He did something to the dinosaur.. It was like, hypnotism or something..’ Ares said, and when Orca relayed the information, Alastor immediately looked concerned. “We may be in greater danger than I thought,” he finally said, “I fear Behmet is more than he says he is…”

He did not get to finish that thought, as the vixen suddenly snapped out after Ares. Luckily he had kept a vary eye on the creature, and, the moment his HUD warned him about a possible attack, he deftly avoided the jaws of the beast. Alastor rushed up in front of the mother vixen and guarded Ares with his own body while saying, “Please, Kari, we went through all that trouble to get him! Don’t hurt him now!”

In response, Kari growled with menace and tried to stand up to face down Ares. However, her legs did not seem to agree with her determination, and she quickly fell back down on the ground. Instead of advancing, she took a swipe at Ares with her paws. Again, he avoided the blow and retreated further back, out of her reach entirely. “Kari!” Alastor pleaded and embraced her head, “Please!”

Slowly she turned her attention back on Alastor, her eyes shining with icy wrath, and a low rumble went through her throat. For a time, Alastor simply listened and nodded, then finally he turned towards Ares and said, “Kari says that we must destroy you, so that Behmet and his men do not get their hands on you.

“Now that they have taken control of the King, and there is no longer a barrier to keep them out, they can go anywhere in the forest. They can even come here, and should they succeed in binding you as well, nothing in this forest will be safe from their greed.”

“Now just wait a moment, Al!” Said Orca, without waiting for Ares to respond, “We are not about to let ourselves be caught, and even if we did, this Behmet-fellow does not have any way of chaining master Ares to his will. I keep telling you: Ares is the master!”

Sighing, Alastor looked from Kari to Ares with furrowed brows, finally he said, “The way things are going, I think Kari may be right. Even if you are a powerful construct, you don’t seem to have regained much of your potential power; in fact, you seem positively new to fighting, even if your basic reflexes and strength are considerable.

“Behmet, on the other hand, leads battle-hardened troops, he has control of one of the ancient guardians of the forest, and he himself has considerable fighting ability. Furthermore, if what you told me is true, he might even be hiding his true strength. Unless you have something that can even those odds, we have to avoid the worst case scenario.”

Ares took a few more steps back, while Orca began berating Alastor for not trusting the magnificence of her master, and similar nonsense. His mind was churning, trying to take in all the variables and factors at play in their current situation, but the fact of the matter was that he was too far out of his element to make heads or tails of this predicament.

He could sense how his body was responding to his distress, attempting to soothe his confusion and aid with calculating a possible solution — in a manner that was both unfamiliar and disconcerting – and it led him towards the only solution that seemed plausible: flee as fast as possible.

Behind Alastor, Kari finally got her legs to obey, as she slowly stood up and towered above Ares once more, teeth bared and ready to snap down on his form in an instant. As she got closer, Ares backed further away, getting ready to turn and sprint away as fast as possible, while Orca kept up the verbal abuse.

Alastor as well, took a hold of the little axe with a sad expression and approached. It was clear that they their minds were set, and nothing Ares could do would dissuade them. He wished he could just return to that dilapidated coffin from which he had risen, and stop being a part of this ongoing nightmare.

So much for honor, he thought, feeling a hint of sadness course through him. Not enough to be called grief, but enough to indicate that a modicum of emotion was growing within him. He was just about to turn and make a run for it, when something appeared on his proximity map.

Putting a hand up in the air, he had Orca confirm before she relayed the information to the two approaching dangers. “WAAAIT you imbeciles!” She screamed, and actually made both Alastor and Kari halt their steps. “They’re coming!”

For a moment they seemed suspicious, but as they looked out into the night, small lights could now be seen amongst the trees, and a the low sound of voices approaching from a distance.

“We can’t stay here and squabble,” Orca relayed for him, “Let’s retreat together for the time being, and then you can take my head if you want to.” Though miffed at having to speak such blasphemous words, Orca did as he said nonetheless.

Alastor looked to Kari, and she to him. The two of them nodded, and Kari reached out with her tail to touch the tree with the golden fruits on it. Ghostly flame appeared from the tip of her tail, enveloping the tree in a strange screen. When the fire died down, there tree had not burned out, but rather taken the appearance of a very ordinary tree.

“This will hide the essence fruit from them,” Alastor explained, without releasing the tight grip on the axe Ares had given him, “Let’s move. The Plateau is the most defensible position in this forest, and I guess we can’t really leave Sloan to be captured by Behmet.”

Ares nodded, and the dysfunctional party set out to retreat further into the Heart of the Forest.