“This is your plan?”
Instinctively, Ares put a finger to his mouth, hushing Orca despite her voice only being in his head. ‘It’s fine, isn’t it?’
“Fine? You think it’s fine, Master? Why would you take on the most dangerous task yourself? You could have let Fatty do it; he’s not worth all that much anyway.”
‘I’m the only one who can do this, and this is the most important part. If Sloan went and got himself killed before the task was done, how could we complete the plan?’
“I still think this is stupid…”
‘Duly noted. Now, shut up for a bit, I’m trying to listen in.’
The first rays of the morning suns had already broken through the canopies at Ares’ back, illuminating the wreck of a camp before him. Using great caution, and the advantage of his proximity map and Orca, Ares had been able to slip deep into enemy territory, and now sat hidden in a brush.
The very camp in which he had been imprisoned was currently unrecognizable; scorch marks everywhere, deep rends in the earth from huge claws, and the rubble of tents and tools was strewn across the grounds.
Humanoid brigands shuffled among the ruins, salvaging what could be salvaged, and throwing away what could not. Most of these were dressed in bandages, some clean while others looked to have been ripped from the nearest piece of cloth, usually their own shirts.
Only a few had come out unscathed; among them, Ares took particular note of Bann, who should have been missing a foot. Instead, the man appeared completely unscathed, without as much as a scratch on his boots.
The other one in good health was Behmet, who was sitting atop the King and calling out orders from his high seat; the lizardman looked none the worse for wear, although he was clearly grumpy as all hell.
“Leave everything unnecessary behind,” The lizardman said, towering above his fellows, “The moment our scouts return we are moving out!”
“Behmet,” Bann said at his side, the only one who appeared able to command the leader’s attention, “There is no need to rush. They cannot go anywhere; we should move slowly, and avoid giving them a chance to escape.”
“No need to rush?” Behmet scoffed, pointing towards where Ares had been lying by the overturned cart the night before. Now, the remains of the cart was a charred husk, with foodstuffs scattered about it with abandon. “We cannot both forage for food and secure the area. We’ve lost too much manpower already; no, Bann, we move now, or we lose everything.”
“You don’t know what you’re up against,” Bann hissed, a wicked red light gleaming beneath the wide brim of his hat. “You made a promise—”
“I will keep my promises, Bann, and I expect promises made to me will be fulfilled in turn. Are we clear?”
The lizardman stared the obscure gunner down from his superior position, until Bann finally, reluctantly, nodded. “Very well… But if you fail, you will answer for it,” The gunner said, his voice like ice.
Behmet just laughed. “I will not fail. I am blessed by supreme powers, remember that.”
Bann turned away from the lizardman before he had even finished, walking away with purpose. Ares observed the argument with fascination, thinking of ways he might turn it to his advantage.
“Infighting, huh,” Orca said, sounding smug, “They must be utter fools to expend energy on one another like that.”
‘Weren’t you just trying to pick a fight with me?’ Ares asked, slightly amused.
“That’s different, Master. As your assistant, part of my responsibility is to give advice and question your decisions. If I don’t do that, then who will?”
‘Fine, then advise, oh great adviser. How should I go about grabbing their attention?’
“We’re still doing this? Oh fine, it’s just your life after all. It’s not like I’ll be left all alone in the dark once you’re gone. Maybe in another five thousand years I’ll get a new master, maybe this time it will be a master with a brain… Ahh, if only…”
‘Skip the melodramatics, Orca. I promise I’ll be careful, and I won’t get caught. Just tell me how you think we should do this.’
“Remember, you promised, Master,” she said, her voice truly serious now. Ares agreed, and she finally gave a useful opinion. “I can target everyone within a twenty meter radius, hitting them with some really painful sound waves. It’ll cost you a lot of energy to keep it up, so I suggest it only as a means to get their attention.”
Ares nodded, now only waiting for the right timing to initiate the play. The others should be out playing their part. The bulk of the forces were here, but if they wanted the roaming scouts to land in their trap as well, timing would be absolutely crucial.
It was not long before the first scout returned to camp, crashing through the thicket and into the clearing to much alarm. “Wither, is that you?” Behmet called, commanding the King to trot over and receive the man who had just arrived, “Have you found them?”
The scout was a bit short, but was easily recognizable by the branch sticking out of his head. The man breathed heavily, before speaking in a rush, “The Daemon… came upon us right at sun-up… We set to chase, but… we have not caught him yet… He’s moving deeper into the forest as we speak.”
Behmet scratched his scaled cheek, nodding. “This might be a diversion tactic. How many is on his tail? Good, let that be enough. We will let the rest—”
He did not get a chance to speak, before another scout rushed through the thicket on the other side of the clearing, calling, “We’ve found the other, or halfling, or whatever!”
“Sloan…” Behmet said, flashing his teeth in a wicked grin, “So, he’s alive after all… didn’t think he would be spared in a meeting with an awakened construct.” Raising his voice to the newcomer, he yelled, “Where’s he fleeing to? The West?”
“No, Boss,” the man said, coming to a stop before the King, “He’s going deeper into the forest, back into the encirclement!”
This made Behmet pause. He looked from the man to Bann, who stood nearby and was now crossing his arms. “They are up to something,” the lizardman growled, gritting his teeth, “No matter… Men, we’re dropping everything here. We move to reinforce the circle; we won’t let them have their way!”
“I think it’s time we move,” Orca said. Ares nodded, ‘Let’s roll.’
Stepping out of the brush and into the clearing, Ares gave Orca the all-green. He felt his sensors firing at a frenzy, sending out sound waves at Orca’s precise commands. One moment, no one really noticed his appearance, the next an excruciating screech tore through the heads of everyone in the vicinity, sending a few screaming to their knees as they held their heads with their hands.
However, neither Behmet nor Bann appeared any worse for wear. The moment his men began falling, Behmet scoured the clearing for a source, quickly locating Ares. “Construct,” he said, his voice intense and laced with a powerful command.
Ares raised his hand and had Orca follow up the excruciating tone with a gentle, “Hi there,” to everyone in the clearing.
For a moment there was a bit of quiet, as everyone got their bearings back, before Behmet growled a command from his seat upon the King, “Get it!” Bann was the first to move, grabbing his blunderbuss and taking his first shot.
Ares saw the incoming trajectory on his HUD and evaded the shot with millimeters to spare, the beam scorching a few of his unruly hairs.
‘He’s trying to bloody kill me!’ Ares said, somewhat taken aback.
“What did you expect, Master? I told you this was dangerous, but you wouldn’t listen. They’ve already lost you once; they’d rather see you in parts than see you gone.”
There was no time to argue. While Bann was loading for a second shot, Behmet made the King charge towards Ares. Looking around, Ares saw that most of the brigands were gaining their feet, but they were not fast enough.
‘Damn, we need to make them mad,’ he said, an instead of fleeing back into the forest, ran into the clearing. Using [Edge], he ran by the first couple of brigands, who was still trying to get their bearings, and slashed open their neck while dashing by.
Behmet roared atop his seat, and tried to steer the King around, but the beast was slow in its turns. While the dinosaur stomped at his heels, Ares took out another brigand in an instant, scoring blood across the forest floor with increasing ease of conscience.
Killing Corker had been a trial, now it was simply a matter of survival. The stragglers were getting back on their feet, however. Soon they were chasing him from all directions. Without looking back, the system still allowed Ares to see how the King was getting close, and when the scout from earlier, the one Behmet had called ‘Wither’, got in his way, Ares was not about to slow down.
The man, who still had a branch sticking out of his head, suddenly formed a stick from his hands. Ares could see the flow of lifeforce in the creation, but ignored it in favor of ramming the man. Instead of staying still, like a good little dog, the man swayed to the side and used the stick to catch Ares by the legs.
At that very same moment, Bann took another shot at him. With warning signals coming from two different directions on Ares’ HUD, he had to prioritize not getting fried. Managing to stay his feet, Ares still stumbled, losing speed. It was only a slight halt in speed, but it was enough. The king caught up and smashed Ares in the side, sending him flying through the air.
Massive blunt trauma sustained
Damage at 71%
And he had just barely managed to get it down to 60, and already he was back up 10%. Ares hit a tree and sustained another 2% percent damage, much to his annoyance, while Orca followed the damage up with a, “That was about the dumbest thing you could have done, no offense, Master.”
‘Yes offense! You try avoiding laser bullets and kite through an entire squad of brigands without getting hurt!’
He had no time, however, to keep up the banter, as the tree-trunk humanoid from before closed in fast. Ares got back up on his feet and retreated hastily, but the other was fast. He threw his stick at Ares like a javelin, and immediately constructed another. Swerving to the side, Ares just managed to avoid the projectile, but lost awareness of his surroundings.
He stumbled over a root and fell, rolled over one time, before he got back up on his feet in time to deflect a stab from the new javelin. ‘How many of those does it have?!’ Ares howled at the unfair arsenal that was turned against him. He activated [Edge] and cut the weapon in half with his hand.
The humanoid said something that sounded like a curse and kicked, hitting Ares in the knee and causing him to stumble. Instead of fighting to regain his balance, Ares let himself fall and roll over his shoulder and back up on his feet, just in time to see a new javelin forming within the humanoids hand.
“That’s a dryad, Master! As long as it’s on the ground it can keep forming weapons!”
Admitting to himself that having a voice in his head was useful sometimes, Ares closed in on the opponent, ignoring a stab that went through his shoulder, grabbed the dryad and lifted off the ground.
Piercing damage sustained
Damage at 75%
Right shoulder joint functioning at reduced capacity
Another well-meaning message punctuated Ares’ lacking fighting ability, seeing as he was simply brute-forcing his way through this. With a kick he launched the opponent into the air, towards the compatriots who were also closing in on Ares’ position.
Instead of everyone coming at him in single file, some had moved to his right and others to his left, boxing him in. At the front came Behmet, riding his dinosaur, while Bann was on a knee inside the clearing and aiming his rifle at Ares. Before the shadowy gunner pulled the trigger, Ares rolled on to the side, narrowly avoiding a third shot, and got up to face the nearest attacker.
This one was a dirty creature with a cloth on its head, dressed in leathery protection and with some kind of knuckle iron on its hands. Ares took the first hit to his side, causing another 2% damage, before he managed to just body slam his way out of the entrapment. The dirty creature hit the ground behind him, while Ares turned towards the clearing once again, charging through the forest growths towards Bann. The obscured gunner seemed unfazed by Ares’ bull-rush, retrieving his smaller pistols and fired them calmly one-by-one.
“Mast—” Orca screamed in warning, but was suddenly cut off.
Ares managed to avoid one, but was hit by the other square in the chest, causing his HUD to momentarily buzz and his sight to lose focus, before the system restored along with the message,
System overload detected
Damage at 81%
Communication module has been temporarily turned off due to calibration failure
Fuck off! Ares growled to no one, after Orca’s warning was forcibly cut off in mid sentence. He ignored the pain and the disadvantage he suffered from his newest abilities shutting down. Instead, he grabbed Bann by the coat when he got close enough, and smashed the annoyingly obscure gunner into the ground.
Though the broad-brimmed hat that Bann carried fell off to the side, Ares was still somehow unable to discern any feature on the creature; it was as if its face was a washed-off painting of something strangely familiar, but now beyond recognition. Only two glowing red eyes were distinctly visible, fixing Ares with a hateful stare.
Without the time, and not in the mood, Ares disregarded the strange features, and instead sprinted as fast as he could away from the camp in the direction of the Plateau.
From the deep ‘thumps’ he heard behind him, Behmet followed him. By the sound of his screaming commands, the rest of the band was chasing him down as well. ‘Just as planned,’ Ares thought, an inner smile passing through his mind though his ‘actual’ face never even twitched.
Communication module has been restored
Patching into orbital network… complete
“Makers dammit, Ares! You can’t take energy attacks like that without a proper shield!” Orca’s voice was back in his head in an instant, already admonishing him for his lack of understanding. ‘I don’t have any skill to make a shield, Orca!’ Said Ares, returning the admonishment even while fully concentrating on running as fast as he could through the thick foliage.
“It’s not a skill, you silly master,” said Orca with a sigh, “It’s equipment that you should make your first priority to acquire if we get out of this mess!”
‘I’ll put it on the list,’ Ares growled, really not in the mood for a discussion about this in his his current predicament, and instead redoubled his efforts to not get caught. This was a tall enough order on its own. His newly restored proximity map told him the exact locations of his pursuers, and how close they were, and it was not encouraging.
The King was right on his heels, something he could tell from the shaking ground alone, while the others were fanning out behind to cut him off in case he tried to make a quick switchback maneuver. The only thing he had going for him was his speed, which was fast!
With his energy levels relatively high, he cared little for his usage, which resulted in an unbelievably fast pace. His metallic parts and artificial muscle fiber were pushed to their maximum in order to keep him in front — to keep him alive.
While this should not exhaust him, just drain him of energy, he felt a mental exhaustion that matched his exertions. This was so unfamiliar that he had to divest his concentration to ask, ‘Why am I getting exhausted, Orca, in my head!?’
A mumbling told him that she was scanning him, searching for the root of the problem. He vaulted an old, derelict tree that had fallen long ago, meagerly avoiding a javelin from behind followed by an energy shot that lightly scorched his right ear.
“You’re not used to this, Ares,” she finally responded, her voice distinct by a lack of emotion, “Pushing that much energy through the unit — as well as the residual heat that is building up — is causing your mental connection to the unit to destabilize. You should pace yourself better, or you will burn out in a matter of minutes.”
‘Damn, this system is incredibly stingy! Why does this have to be so complicated?!’ He asked, mostly rhetorically, but he still received an answer.
“This is incredibly advanced technology that you’re playing with, Ares. Furthermore, your genetic signature is only a surface-level match, without the intricate detail that would enable you to deal with the massive psychological overload you’re experiencing. The fact that you’re even achieving this much is already impressive!”
That might be the case, but that did not help his situation at all! Growling bitterly, while stubbornly pushing away the mental fatigue, Ares flew across the forest floor like an arrow, cutting through the undergrowth with sheer power. His proximity map told him that he was still closely pursued; an especially large dot told him that the Behmet and the King had no difficulty keeping up.
Although many of the henchmen had fallen back, the King chewed at the gap, and Ares could hear Behmet’s cries for blood inching closer by the step. An uncomfortable feeling that he might not be fast enough drew him to strain his limits further, resulting in a hazy gray fog descending upon his vision while he ran.
Several times he stumbled over the thick undergrowth. His skill as a forester might have increased over the last few days, but the speed he was currently traveling at did not lend itself to novices. Although it fogged up his mind, he used his full speed to overcome any momentary stumble.
Only thanks to Orca, did he manage to stay the right course, as she kept guiding him back on track, whenever a particular path turned him slightly off-course. Since he had managed to stay alive, so far, everything seemed to go according to the initial plan.
His wild charge through the forest had, however, cost him dearly. From the initial energy storage of 40%, only a measly 18% remained after his short confrontation and extended flight. it would have to be enough. No, it would be enough!
Clenching his teeth, Ares fought through the undergrowth in a race against time. Making sure he never extended his lead too far, he strained to strike a balance such that he was just within the reach of his enemies.
He had gotten nicked a few times by a javelin or an energy shot, along with his stumbles and rough maneuvers, which cost him another 4% damage along the way, putting him over 85% damage.
With his energy decreasing, and damage steadily increasing, Ares launched a last-effort sprint to the finish. Blowing through the last of the thickets, he found himself back in front of the fist-formed rock formation from whence he had first entered this world.
Screaming silently from the strain — and to keep his mind somewhat focused through the fog that made the surroundings look like a washed-out painting — Ares gave his all in a final sprint to the finish.
Crashing through into the clearing on his right side, Alastor appeared, likewise heading straight for the Plateau. Ares knew the boy had been waiting for him, using his skill to disappear from sight while his pursuers searched about.
Moments after he revealed himself, six brigands crashed through the thicket behind him, hot on his tail.
Satisfied, Ares looked to the other side of the clearing as he ran. Everything now depended on whether Sloan had managed his side. Ares was almost at the rock, when the King burst through the thicket behind him, and Behmet roared in anger.
A wailing from the side, caught Ares’ attention, and inwardly he smiled. Falling through the thicket, the little halfling appeared in the clearing, screaming and crying for all he was worth. Though Sloan was far from athletically built, he was surprisingly agile and fast in the forest.
Hot on his heels, another three brigands came after him, lashing out when they got close. Rollin on the ground, Sloan evaded their attacks and gained his feet, dashing towards the Plateau.
Finally, Ares thought, glad to see his mad scheme come together, the pieces are in place.