Chapter 4 – Provisioning

One moment, Ares felt completely weightless hanging in empty air, awaiting the inevitable tug of gravity, which —when it came— was instantaneous and cruel. The next moment he was flailing through the air in a humiliating manner lacking any grace. The rock he had been standing on cracked first in one piece, then proceeded to break further apart every time it collided with the cliffside.
Unable to con

One moment, Ares felt completely weightless hanging in empty air, awaiting the inevitable tug of gravity, which —when it came— was instantaneous and cruel. The next moment he was flailing through the air in a humiliating manner lacking any grace. The rock he had been standing on cracked first in one piece, then proceeded to break further apart every time it collided with the cliff side.

Unable to control anything about his rapid descent, Ares was somersaulting through the air while mentally screaming. Outwardly, his broken voice screeched terribly, reverberating discordantly through the surroundings and causing smaller animals all around to flee — terrified of the thing that could produce such horrid sounds. Initially consumed by the biological memory of the fear of falling, Ares soon felt his mind adopt the cool logic of the machine once again. While disturbing, this allowed him to study his surroundings as he fell.

Dammit!

He inwardly screamed at his misfortune and tried to take control of his fall, but only managed to spin out in a new and even more awkward angle. His futile efforts were rewarded a few seconds — and quite a few rotations — later, when he crashed onto the ground with a horrible ‘crack’.

Immediate pain blitzed through his system, although it was nowhere near the pain he had experienced when he had first been given agency of his body. This time the pain felt more superficial — not the existential soul-crushing wrench he had been through before. For a moment, the pain was all he could register, before he understood what it signified.

I’m alive…! Ecstatic at the realization, he was about to open his eyes when he noticed a message from his console:

Warning: bad user maneuver

Damage at 91%

Bad user maneuver, my ass!

He had closed his eyes in the moment of impact, and now opened them to the sight of the wide and open sky above. Such a quick fall was a good reminder of how new he was to this world. Maybe he should put a hold on that all-engulfing desire to own everything, and just survive for a bit.

Sitting up, he found he could not move his leg. At first he was afraid he might have destroyed it during the fall, but instead he found that his leg had punched through the ground in his fall. While in the ground, he was able to move the foot around as he wanted, meaning there was some kind of hollow beneath him.

“Master Ares,” Sloan called from above, “Are you alright?” Ares looked up at the fat little creature and waved a hand, proving he was somewhat fine. The cracked ledge had separated the two of them, rather than bringing them down. Ares doubted Sloan would have survived this kind of fall.

How will you get down, then? He wondered, and was surprised to see how nimbly the wide-girthed creature moved. Despite the wide stomach — which should be a huge handicap — Sloan moved down the cliff face without any trouble, aside from a heavy breath and a sweaty brow.

The little man approached and studied the place where Ares’ foot was now stuck. “I say, master Ares, that is curious. It looks like you’ve punctured through the ground…”

Ares ignored the redundant comment, and instead began pulling on his leg. Cracks appeared on the ground around his foot, scattering like spiderwebs as he pulled with all his mechanical might. Sloan wisely moved back a little, remaining a few feet away until Ares retrieved his foot with a little ‘pop’.

A few chunks of rock split off the edge and fell into the deep beneath his feet, forming a wider hole. This time he heard the sound of the rocks hitting the ground, but it took at least a two seconds. In his calculating mind, he almost automatically logged the distance at about 22 meters, assuming this place had the same gravitational pull as Earth.

Curious, Sloan approached and peered into the depths, trying to discern what lay within. After a few moments of crouching around the hole, the fat little man had to draw back and shake his head. “I can’t see a thing down there, I’m afraid,” he said, holding his chin in deep thought, “But for there to be such a hollow right beneath the Plateau, could it be…”

Ares wanted to know what Sloan was muttering about, but the written communications were too cumbersome. He needed to be able to talk if he wanted to interrogate this little minion properly.

Leaving him to his thoughts, Ares stood up and walked over to the little camp, checking out its contents. There was a surprising amount of pots and pans, with a disproportionate amount of foodstuffs. Ares rummaged through the place and found nothing but a few root vegetables looking a lot like potatoes.

“Ahh, let me get that, master Ares,” said Sloan, who had returned from his musings, “If it’s food you want, you cannot get any better than cuisine made by halfling hands.” He took the potato-esque food from Ares and walked over to the little campfire in between the tents. Throwing some tinder into the fire, Sloan started to prepare a meal, using whatever was at hand.

Halfling, huh? Is that what he is?

Ares was pretty sure he would get the same amount of energy whether he ate it raw or cooked, but he let Sloan do as he wished. Clearly, the little man wanted to impress him with something. Ares saw him pull out herbs and some dried jerky, putting it all in the pan and cooking it very carefully along with slices of the potatoes.

With the notepad in hand, Ares sat down close to Sloan, deciding he should get some information while he waited for the food. Writing, he posed the question, “You called this place the ‘Heart’ what does that mean?”

Sloan read the pad that Ares held out to him, and began talking without diverting any focus from the cooking. “The Heart of the Ammedian forest, to be exact, Master Ares. Back when the Old One—“ The halfling hesitated slightly, eying Ares out of the corner of his eyes, “When your people ruled this land, this was the home to the last of our ancestors the Elvan.”

My people… this again. I shouldn’t have said I had been asleep for a long time; it has obviously given him the wrong idea.

“Why do you think I am one of these old ones?” He asked since it felt important.

The halfling blinked, but kept his focus on the food and said, “Because the Old Ones were the ones who first build constructs like yours. Even now, thousands of years since your people left these lands, we can only imitate the likeness of your great creations. So, if you are not a battlemage who have claimed this construct, you must be one of the Old Ones who were left behind.”

“One of them? So there are others?”

The halfling shrugged. “I’ve only heard rumors, Master Ares. If you are looking to reunite with your kindred, I wouldn’t know where to start. Constructs from the Emporium- and Ravager age are all possible candidates you might look into. Though rare, I have seen some of them, and they functioned as well as any modern construct — only much better, of course.”

I was right, he has seen units like this one before. ‘Constructs’ is it?

“Where is the closest city to this place?” He asked, thinking through the implications; If there were construct like this one being built, then obviously they would need a ‘builder’. If he could not fully repair himself on his own, he would need someone to take care of what he could not. What better place to look for such a person than a city?

“Well… You’re in the very center of the continent, so there’s about equal distance to many cities. I, however, could only show you the way to Al Mendor in the kingdom of Ammedina to the East – which is pretty much the only place I’ve been to.”

“Where else could I go?”

The halfling tossed the contents of the pan, mixing it gently. Ares thought he could see a slightly green shimmer around Sloan’s hand. Was the halfling doing something to the food?

“Well, there’s the Empire to the south — but I would not recommend going there. They have strict military law, and all constructs there are the property of the imperial family. On the other hand, they have been enemies of Ammedina to the East for a long time, so I am a bit biased. North of Ammedina are the Free Marshes, where pretty much anyone can live as they please — as long as they can survive. It is a harsh land, and not a place to go idly.

“If you go West, you’ll get to the Shallow Coast. There are a lot of city-states there, but not a whole lot of order. Directly North of the forest lies the Cold Plains, which are as desolate as the name suggests. Unless you want to leave the continent, those would be the most obvious choices.”

This was good. Knowing the general geography of the land would come in use for when he conquered—traveled it, of course. “Other continents?”

Finishing, Sloan retrieved dishware and served up the cooked food. Before handing Ares a goodly sized portion, the halfling gently waved his fingers over the food. From his fingertips, green streamers gently fell upon the exposed material, infusing it with a lustrous light.

He can’t be poisoning me that blatantly, can he? Would poison even work on me in this body?

With a deep bow, Sloan proffered the food to Ares and said, “Please accept this offering, master Ares, as my apology for disturbing your sleep. I have used my essence to heighten the quality of the meal, so even with poor materials it should provide you with a lot of energy.”

Ares accepted the dish, as well as Sloan’s explanation. Whatever this ‘essence’ was, the halfling had been blatant about its use, so it did not seem a ruse. Taking his first bite, he waved the notepad in front of him, still containing the question from before.

“Ahh, apologies. Yes, other continents, however I know even less about them than I know of other countries. One, to the far West is the land of Dragons… They are solitary people, unrelated to our elvish bloodlines, and rarely leave their shores. All I know is that they are ruled by their ‘Great Dragons’ and that no one goes out of their way to offend them.”

While Sloan spoke, Ares enjoyed the meal with delight. It was surprisingly good, considering the poor contents — just as Sloan had claimed it would be. He could also feel whatever it was the halfling had done to the dish at the end; with every bite, strong pulses of warmth flowed through him, which was reflected in his energy gauge. After only a few bites, his energy was up to 15%, and steadily rising as he chewed away.

When Sloan did not continue to speak, Ares waived the notepad again. He had said ‘other continents’, plural, meaning he was leaving something out. This time, the halfling looked reluctant to speak, but finally said, “Yes, of course… The third continent is the land of Demons… Master Ares, it is a bad place, and I hope you never find yourself there. Demons are cruel creatures by nature, and should not be trusted for any reason.”

Well, that’s clichéd… Ares thought, considering what these Demons might have done to incur such a reputation. While Sloan went silent, Ares chewed away on the delightful food, digesting both it and the information he had received. Finally, when he was done —and his energy was up to 40%— he asked the final question he needed an answer to.

“Did you not hate me, Sloan?”

The halfling went as white as a sheet in the face, once more widening his eyes so much they were in danger of popping out. “Master Ares, I wouldn’t dare hate you,” he said, holding both hands up to both surrender and protect himself with.

“Why not? I did kill your friend.”

Sloan hung his head, sitting like that for a while before he answered, “While Krens may have died by your hand, Master Ares, you are not the one who killed him. Krens was killed the day he accepted the services of Behmet, our escort. It is Behmet who betrayed us and forced us to flee alone through the forest.

“The way I see it, we were the ones in the wrong, when we disturbed your rest. While we couldn’t have known we would awaken you, we should have been more careful. The way we treated your resting place; we deserved to be punished.”

Ares studied the man closely, looking for any sign of deception. In his former life, he had no experience in the art of seeing through such masks, but something in this new existence demanded he paid attention to it.

“Furthermore,” continued Sloan after a while, “I’m pretty sure you were not wholly in control of yourself when you killed Krens, Master Ares. I am grateful that you let me keep my life, where it would have been easier to simply take it.”

He is not an idiot, then. Even if he wanted to blame me, there is nothing he can do.

This ‘Behmet’ character was interesting, though. He would have to ask Sloan more about him later. Later, because a sound from the forest caught his attention. Looking over his shoulder, Ares met the stare of four, yellow and predatory pair of eyes.

With an unlikely calmness, brought on by a lack of emotional distress, Ares scribbled a quick message and handed it to Sloan.

“Defend yourself.”