They ran through the night, evading encroaching pursuit with surprising ease. Using his proximity map, and Orca’s skill in predicting enemies not yet detected on the map, they passed unseen through the forest like ghosts passing through a wall.
From time to time, they would hear the shouts of their pursuers, frustrations and curses thrown into the night air. Similarly, an occasional roar sent trembles through the forest, as wildlife scurried into flight at the sound of the King’s call. The monstrosity was so far behind that Ares was certain it would not find them, but as long as Behmet was in command of this creature there would be no safe place in this forest. Not anymore.
They finally pierced through the final brush and into the clearing surrounding the massive rock in the middle. They arrived to an empty camp, which was not a great surprise. Without Ares around, Sloan would not dare to sleep on the ground. The halfling would have to be up in the cavernous system above.
Alastor gained his breath, although the retreat had not really taken much out of him, and said, “What now? I don’t suppose you’re ready to lay down your life to avoid disaster, eh Ares?”
Ares looked at him, cold gold meeting brilliant red, and shook his head. Through Orca he said, “Would you?”
Alastor screwed up his face, then finally shook his head and said, “No, I suppose not. We can’t destroy him, Kari, not now.”
The giant vixen stared at Ares with much anger in its eyes. He had no idea what he might have done to incur such wrath, but supposed it might have more to do with the body he was in, rather than his person.
“Stay here,” He had Orca say, “I’ll go find find Sloan.” As if he was at home, Alastor sat down by the unlit campfire and began tearing off some pieces of meat left on the spit. “Sure,” he said, eating his fill, “Say hi for me, and tell him we’re all about to die.”
Ares ignored him, and began climbing the steep cliff side up to the ledge he had broken only a few days prior. With his mechanical strength, it was a piece of cake to ascend the obstacle, arriving at his destination within moments.
Now at the top, he had Orca scan the area for the halfling, but to his dismay she came out empty. “There’s nothing here, Master, except for a lot of rock.” This, Ares found strange. There was no signs of a struggle in the camp, and, even if the halfling was weak, Ares knew the little man would not give up his life without fighting tooth or nail first.
Therefore he had to be up here, but where?
He stepped into the cavernous tunnel and, focusing his artificial senses to their extreme, he tried to find any hint that might help him locate Sloan.
A pebble fell further in, creating an echo. An animal of some sort chirped in the darkness, cursing the intruder to its territory. Far, far away, the muffled sound of screaming reached his ears.
He set into a sprint, rounding a corner and arrived before one of those small shafts, which led down into the darkness. From it, the sound of someone wailing and crying could be heard.
“That sounds like our lost halfling,” said Orca, and Ares agreed. Fumbling across the surface of the wall, he tried to find any point of leverage that might be a lever, or some sort of mechanism. Passing over a particular outcrop, he felt a slight electric spark, and from his fingers a hint of lifeforce flowed from him into the rock.
From the dull surface of the outcrop, a circular rune appeared, one Ares recognized as meaning ‘open’ or ‘close’, depending on the context. Using his familiarity with the runes, imparted onto him when he first came to this world, he used a hint of lifeforce to write the proper context for ‘open’ beside the rune.
With a low moan, the wall trembled and slid apart in four sides, revealing Sloan lying on the ground with tears and snot streaming down his pudgy face.
“M-ma-master Aaaaress,” Sloan wailed, seeing his savior appear before him, “I knew you wouldn’t a-abandon meee!” Scrambling onto his knees, the halfling crawled towards Ares and grabbed him by the leg, continuing his crying.
“That’s enough of that, Fatty,” Orca said, and Ares had to agree. He did not particular enjoy being clung to like that. “I was just sooo scared, master Ares,” Sloan cried, but finally did get a hold of himself.
Still sobbing, he took out a handkerchief and wiped away the disturbing amounts of fluids occupying his rotund face. Once he calmed down, Ares had Orca ask what happened.
“Well, I figured, you know, since this was once used as a fortress to defend against enemies — and yet there are no living quarters or other necessities — it stands to reason that an entrance to the underground would have to be up here somewhere.”
“And then you thought of the shafts,” Orca said, as Ares studied the opened hollow that he had made appear in the wall. The shaft leading down was still there, as a gap between the circular disk that Sloan had been lying on and the tunnel passage.
He could feel a slight sucking force from down there, meaning the Elvans had somehow managed to create a negative pressure down below. He did wonder where the air might go, but supposed there might be hidden exhausts elsewhere.
“Yes, the shafts!” Sloan agreed, nodding enthusiastically, “I spent some time looking them over, and found the outcrop which seemed to respond to lifeforce. I activated it, just as you did, and went inside, but the door closed almost immediately behind me and I was unable to figure out how to open it again.
“I must say, it is an ingenious mechanism. Somehow they have fused lines of lifeforce with the rock itself, making it act as a kind of circuit board that can activate given the right input. Who would have thought our ancestors capable of such a feat!?”
Sloan laughed, having completely shed his helpless and desperate demeanor in favor of that of a scholar, consumed by the object of his study.
“And yet, you got stuck,” Orca remarked with a bit of sadistic satisfaction, “Not so ingenious after all.”
“That only proves my point,” Sloan said, placing fists on hips and straightening his back, “The fact that I could not figure it out simply means it is too advanced. If the ancestors were this advanced back then, after years of enslavement, think of what they might have been capable of at the height of their power!”
Ignoring the rambles of the obsessed halfling, Ares stepped into the circular hollow and studied the walls on the inside, sliding his fingers across the surface. The door made to close, as it had done to Sloan, but with the halfling outside to put in the commands, Ares was not shut in.
The tingling sensation manifested itself once more, and Ares studied the very polished part of the wall he currently had his hands on. From behind, Sloan commented, “I found that spot to be interesting as well, but I was unable to find anything like on the outside.”
Ares nodded, he too felt it was different from the outcrop that had opened the door. There was surely something that responded to lifeforce here, but it felt inert and distant.
“Master, the mechanism might have lost what little lifeforce was keeping it functioning over time,” said Orca in his mind, “It is a miracle that the one on the outside was still in order. You might be able to expend some lifeforce to reactivate it, but it will cost you significantly more than before.”
After leveling up, Ares’ current lifeforce was a measly 11%, barely enough to pay for any skills. Merely drawing the corresponding runes with lifeforce had not cost him dearly, but if he wanted to reactivate this thing — whatever it was — he might lose a more significant portion.
Thinking of this, Ares was not certain it would be worth it. He was currently in a life-or-death crisis, and every moment he spend frolicking about in ancient ruins were moments wasted to prepare for the enemy’s assault.
Looking over at Sloan, though, Ares almost burst out laughing — had he been able to — seeing the puppy-expression on the halfling’s face. His eyes were as round and large as they could get, shining with the hope that Ares might reveal to him the secrets he desired.
Fine, Ares thought to himself, focusing what little ability he had to guide the lifeforce within him. He needed some way to counter the superior numbers and fighting power of Behmet and his men, and perhaps the ancient people of this place had an answer to that.
The stone sucked up the lifeforce within him the moment he made contact. Like pouring water into a hole, he saw his lifeforce fall to all the way to 9%, giving him just enough to pay for one of his available skills.
His efforts were rewarded, however, when the entire hollow lit up with diagrams and runes, from floor to ceiling. A tremor went through the floor, and Sloan was unable to hold the door open any longer. Without hesitation, the halfling jumped through to stand at Ares’ side, jumping from foot to foot in excitement.
Once the door closed behind, the entire hollow began to move, churning and circling around its own center, as Ares felt the distinct feeling of a controlled descent. He had used an elevator before, as Sam, and the feeling was much the same.
Sloan squealed at the new experience and insisted on walking back and forth, peering over the edge of his spectacles at how the runes made the lifeforce flow, then jumping up and down to see if there was any difference. Finally, Ares grabbed him by the shoulder and held him fast, giving him his most passive stares.
Smiling nervously, Sloan gulped. The memory of their first meeting flashed through his mind, and he stopped trying to experiment on this first descent.
The going was slow, but finally they came to a halt, and the door opened once more to complete and utter darkness. The meager light of the runes within the hollow was unable to penetrate this endless void, but with Ares’ eyes adjusting the sensitivity, this was no issue.
He stepped out into the room and looked around. It was a huge space which he could not see the end of, even with his good vision. Sloan stepped up beside him, holding up a small torch he had brought and lighted.
“This is…” The halfling breathed, looking around in astonishment.
“It’s a big dumb room, you idiot,” said Orca, depressed at the outcome. Her scans indicated nothing of value down here, only a huge cavern veiled in complete darkness.
Ares was not so quick to dismiss it though. Looking up, he saw a slight light coming down from above. A small hole in the ceiling was imperceptible to anyone but him, seeing as the ghostly light from the outside was barely able to make its way through the opening.
While his face remained impassive, on the inside he smiled with sudden inspiration. ‘Don’t worry, Orca, a big dumb room is all we need,’ he said, his mind already crushing the calculations necessary for his next move.
With no time to lose, they ascended once more, effortlessly using the strange elevator to get back up into the tunnels above. On the way, Orca laid out their situation to Sloan, who only went whiter and whiter in the face with every sentence.
“Wha-what will we do, master Ares? Without the barrier, we… Behmet’s gonna kill us all, isn’t he?”
“Don’t be an idiot, Fatty,” said Orca in a stern tone, “My master is brilliant, and he already has a plan. Don’t worry your stupid mind thinking we’ll die, or I’ll kill ya first!”
‘Stop taunting him, Orca,’ Ares said to her, engrossed as he was in thinking through the implications of his idea. The setting would have to be just right. The power… could he calculate the right amount of power? If not himself, then Orca surely could do it… It might just be possible…
“But he’s such a crybaby,” said Orca, in her own crybaby whine, “He needs to man up!”
“Is it true, master Ares, you have a plan?” Asked Sloan, peering up at the giant construct beside him with trepidation. With Ares’ stoic mask and demeanor, it was difficult to find any clue to his thinking.
Ares nodded, absent minded, just as they arrived at the top, and the door opened up once more. Wasting no time, he rushed out of the tunnels and back down to the camp, where Alastor sat and fed the still-weakened Ender.
Seeing Ares’s rushed appearance, Alastor furrowed his brow and said, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Al,” said Orca with a tone of superiority, “My brilliant master is just going to save all of your hides, is all.”
“Oh? You were gone for a long time; did you find something up there?”
Sloan hid behind Ares the moment they closed in, peering carefully at the daemon and frowning at how the boy was eating his cookery.
“Where is Kari?” Ares asked ignoring Alastor’s question and using Orca to pose his own.
“She went out to scout our surroundings,” said Alastor, now on his feet and in a battle-ready stance, “Tell me what’s going on, Ares. Do you really have a plan?”
Ares nodded and relayed, “I do, but we have to wait for Kari first. We need to know their location if this is going to work.”
“Fine,” said Alastor and sat back down, “But you better not be pulling my nose here, Construct. I won’t be made a slave again, I’d rather die.”
They waited, as the moons traveled further across the starry dome. Sloan finally succumbed to sleep, having been unable to rest due to his earlier predicament. Sitting there by the unkindled fireplace, Ares focused on regaining as much energy, and restoring his condition as much as possible.
After consulting with Orca, he also made his final decision on which skill to take. He needed this for his plan to work, after all. When his damage had just been reduced to 60%, and his energy levels increased to 40%, Kari finally appeared from the forest like a ghost.
Her white fur glistened in the moonlight, and yet it was not until she was fully out of the trees that either Ares or Orca was able to sense her. She still had minor wounds all over her body and looked exhausted, but the glare in her eyes was like steel, especially when it landed on Ares.
Alastor stood up and helped her get some food, chomping down the last of the gismar that was left. After she was sated, she and Alastor conversed for a while, and Ares was certain she sent several deadly glares his way.
“Kari says that Behmet’s men has closed in their circuit and surrounded the area, but are keeping their distance for now. She took out a few stragglers, but they are getting smarter. We can try and break through, but in her current state Kari cannot match the King if Behmet manages to catch up.”
Ares nodded. This was expected; his rescue had taken a huge toll on the giant vixen, and he felt a bit responsible for that. If they wanted to get away with their lives intact, they would have to turn the tables in one move.
“You say you have a plan, Ares, so let’s hear it,” said Alastor, eying him. Surely, he was still considering whether he should at least take out Ares to ensure Behmet would not get his hands on a construct, but Ares did not care. Right now, he did not need his loyalty, but just his strength of arm.
He laid out his initial plan, and the others looked at him with increasingly enlarged eyes. “You want them all to come here? How will you manage that?” Alastor asked, and Sloan added, “This is really dangerous, master Ares, not to mention the insult to our ancestors.”
“Screw the ancestors,” Alastor growled, “How will you make sure they all get here at the same time, and in the exactly right place, no less?”
For the first time of his own volition, something like a grin graced Ares’ stoic mask.