Instead of panicking, a sudden calm overcame Sam. Slowly getting to his feet, he stood up and found himself towering above Idris. He did not possess the greatest of statures, but in this moment, the proud girl seemed to curl in on herself, shying away as he straightened and looked at her – almost gently.
A small step forward, he approached without haste. She instinctively responded by stepping back, but something assured Sam that she would not be able to flee. Maybe it was the way he held her gaze, powerfully, to the point of a tangible connection, or perhaps she was simply consumed by terror. Whatever the case, there was no way for her to even contemplate the concept of an escape.
He came close; closer than he would normally get to other people, closer than his social anxiety should have allowed him. Stretching out his hand, he spoke, still calmly and in control. “Can I see that?”
Shaking, she slowly surrendered her phone to him, sucking in her breath as their hands briefly touched.
Turning the phone, Sam could see the rolling video of him jumping out of the bathroom and taking the barista by the throat. Their conversation was not loud, but if he turned up the volume he was certain he could hear it in entirety. Finally, from his hands –right where they touched the barista’s skin– a soft red light began suffusing air, pulsing as he drew out all the lifeforce from the unfortunate man.
And through it all, the barista’s face was an imperceptible blob of washed-out features. Like a water-color painting that had once been pristine, but which someone had taken a damp cloth and scrubbed it with.
Still calm, and a little high on the rush of energy, Sam deleted the video and handed the phone back to Idris with half a smile.
“I-I’ve already streamed it..” She said, hesitantly and with an apologetic tone.
He sighed. Of course he would not be lucky enough for that to be the end of it. “How many have seen it?”
“I-I don’t know… Perhaps.. ten people, or so?”
“I think you should try to convince them that this is some kind of special effect work, don’t you agree?” His voice was almost ethereal, otherworldly even. Inside, he wondered at how perfectly in command he felt, as if this was nothing to worry about.
She nodded vigorously, opened her mouth and tried to speak, but ultimately closed it and finally broke eye contact and looked down.
“You can go now,” Sam said, sensing her hesitation, “I’ll be going now. Tell them I’ve suddenly started to feel a bit ill. Sandy will understand.”
Without seeing whether she agreed or not, Sam strode past her, through the empty café interior –ignoring Sandy when he called out to him– and stepped out onto the street, heading for home.
He did not stay calm for long. On the bus trip home he suddenly began shaking uncontrollably.
“Are you well, young man?” An elderly lady beside him asked, and he smiled weakly in response, trying to get a hold of himself.
The moment he got home, he rushed up the stairs, past his very surprised mother, and jumped into bed without hesitation. For a good five minutes he kept shaking, as something kept pushing on his insides. He felt excruciatingly hot, like a bonfire had been lit in his chest.
“Are you alright, Sammy?” His mom knocked on the door, and spoke with hesitation.
“I-I’m fine, mom. I just need to rest.”
“Okay, good. Are you sure everything’s fine? You looked a bit pale there – can I come in?”
“No, please!” He nearly yelled in desperation, “I just need to sleep that’s all.”
“Fine, but if you’re not well by morning, promise me you’ll stay home. You got it?”
He agreed while digging the nail of his index finger in the root of his thumbnail; an old trick he had learned to control his pain.
It took some time before he calmed down, and even then the churning heat in his chest forced him to breath in ragged, shallow breaths. For the longest time, he had felt like he had a seething sea of lava in his chest, but right now it felt as if a massive maelstrom had appeared in the middle of the sea, creating movement where there were otherwise none.
At the very centre of the maelstrom, he felt his connection to the other side solidify and beat in tune with the heartbeat pounding the insides his head. What Orca had said would happen was coming – he was changing.
Before it might have been supple changes, but in this very moment he felt the reconstruction happen in real-time, coursing through his veins as the maelstrom forced streams of lava to overflow. Groaning, he held his head and tried to find the same calm that had overcome him in the café. He understood that the calm had originated from the same place as the burning sensation that was currently overcoming him, but at this moment he did not care.
He found it in the center of the maelstrom; calling out to him, by name no less. Not his name, not his other name either, but a title he had very muched asked to be rid of.
“Master!” It became clear enough for him to recognize the words, and Orca was suddenly inside his head. Not his mechanical head, but his biological, flesh-ridden, and very weak head.
“Master, please relax! Don’t fight it – that’ll only make it worse!”
“Orca?” He gasped, trying to keep from screaming.
“Yes! Yes! I’m right here! I finally got through your connection! Oh this is amazing, master, I wish I could open a feed to see your world, but I think the current synchronization rate is already overtaxing your system.”
“What’s… happening… to me?”
“It’s as I said, master. You’ve accelerated your synchronization rate with your unit, both in your latest adventure on Elhané, but also from your original side. The Prime Unit is reacting to your wishes, but is finding it difficult to operate though your current biology, and thus it’s… well, it’s changing you.”
“Can you… stop it?” He asked, gritting his teeth and keeping his eyes tightly shut. The pain that was overcoming him was like nothing he had ever felt.
“Stop it? By the Makers, no, I doubt even you could stop it as it is right now. But don’t worry, this is a good thing!”
“How.. is this.. good?” He gasped, sensing a slight response when he focused on the burning sensation.
“Aside from possibly prolonging your life for.. well, for as much as you want, I guess? This means higher control, Master! You’ll be able to do things in your own world that you’ve never even dreamed of; and I’ll be there with you – yaaay!”
The experience continued for another hour before he, at some point, passed out. When he opened his eyes again, he was no longer in bed, looking up at the ceiling, but was standing upon grass and surrounded by a heavy mist.
He only had a few steps around him for visibility, and he recognized none of it. In front of him was a magnificent statue, carved from a milky stone and polished to a shine. It depicted the form of a highborn elf-woman; eyes large, hair flowing down upon her shoulders and back, with a flute at her gentle lips, giving the impression that she was playing a tune as she overlooked the scenery.
He was Ares again.
The cold sensations within him were a relief from the hot, burning mess he had left behind on the other side, and yet he did not feel as ‘detached’ from himself as he had been before. Before, whenever he had been here, Sam would be a distant memory –akin to a dream or obscured memory– but right now he felt Sam within, felt that kernel of personality that was him.
And he knew he was forever changed.
While this understanding unfolded, a notification from his console made him perk up.
Synchronization has fulfilled current compression conditions
Congratulations: user level has increased to level 3
Primary functions restored:
Modules have improved according to performance
Scanning physical module…
Module units found:
Scanning processing module…
Module synapses found:
You have received 10 upgrade points [UP] which can be allocated in all module categories
Equipment function has been improved
A new Ability slot is available in Equipment
New Ability awarded for leveling up: [Mana Rift]
Verifying unit level…
Unit at level 1
Storage has been restored
Enabling Storage… complete
Unit is now able to utilize a personalized dimensional pocket to store items
Level up complete
This was perhaps his least impressive level up to date. There was no new skill, like there had been the two previous times, but rather an ‘Ability’. His experience with his only other Ability, [Final Discharge], was not exactly stellar, and so he had no real hopes for this one either. Looking up the description, however, he was happily surprised:
The unit transfers pure magical energies from the core into the hands, which can tear rifts in the fabric of space. Once opened, the rifts will remain for a short amount of time, splitting anything apart that comes into contact with them. User discretion is advised: if unit level is too low, the unit will sustain damage with each successive rift opened.
It was leaps and bounds better than [Final Discharge], which was essentially a suicide ability. This one, at least, had practical implications. Although, he would have to figure out how he could increase the level of his unit, at least if he did not want a massive backlash everytime he used [Mana Rift].
As for the other addition, Storage, he was about to try it out, when he felt something tugging at his sleeve from the side. He looked to the side, and saw Seila standing there, brows furrowed, as she put a finger to her lip and jerked her head in another direction. He was surprised at how hale she looked; last he had seen her, she was being rushed to the lazaret for treatment.
He looked around, through the thick mist, and recognized the outlines of similar statues to the one he had been staring at – realizing that, at least from Seila’s perspective, it might have seemed as if he had been staring at this elf-lady for an obscene amount of time.
Making no sound, he followed her as she turned on her heels and strode down a pathway of singular stones set distinctly in the grass, apart from one another. Aside from the mist that dampened their footsteps, the entire place had an eerie feel to it. The statues he managed to properly glimpse at, through the white blanket covering them, were all very vivid and lifelike, but most were stoic or… sad, somehow. He had a sinking feeling he knew exactly what kind of place this was.
They did not continue on for long, before they arrived at a space distinct from all others by the ancient trees that ringed the area into a grove. Several statues stood here, all straight-backed and serious, but Seila had eyes for none of them. Not until they walked down a narrow passage, through some rose bushes by the side of the path, did she stop and look at a statue; one that made Ares marvel.
The first statue he had looked at was pleasant to the eye, but this one was positively radiant. Like the first, it was a highborn elf –like all the statues he had discerned– and a woman, but this one stood tall with her hands folded before her, looking out at the grove with a serene look. She had luxurious and thick hair, streaming down her back like a waterfall, half a smile caressing ample lips, and a dress buttoned up to the chin, yet unable to hide any of her womanly graces.
If Ares had any such inclination, he would say this woman was a mortal goddess.
Flowing letters by her feet shifted around as he looked at them –his HUD translating them into passable English on his behalf– spelling her name: Senistra Mingdale.
“Mother,” Seila said, kneeling before the statue and bowing her head, “I have returned, as I promised.”
Another look confirmed the similarities: the high cheekbones, the sharp neckline, even the eyes –despite Seila’s unusual pair– were a clear indicator of familiarity, even with the strange way their bloodlines worked.
“I told you I would bring my construct with me the next time, and to show you my progress. I know you did not want this life for me, but I must do what I can to help Father, even if I must become the same as… as…” Choking, Seila stopped talking, and Ares felt the sadness welling up inside, tinged with a bit of… hatred?
“Anyway, here it is. Construct, come closer.” Ares obeyed, stepping up beside his mistress and taking a closer look at the beautiful elven lady. If he did not know any better, he would have sworn the eyes of the statue slightly shifted, and now focused their serene stare onto him.
“It’s disobedient and willful, but very powerful,” said Seila, tugging at him again to indicate he should kneel. He did so. “The Old Ones made him, Mother, at least that’s what old master Baek says, and he’s an expert, after all. You always told me that the Old Ones were the benefactors and saviors of us elves, and that they must have been the most noble of existences before they left us. I’m afraid there’s little left of that nobility in this construct, but I’m still grateful for the grace they have shown us in granting it to us.”
Ares felt a little insulted at that, although he had no frame of reference for knowing whether he really had no ‘nobility’ compared to the old Makers. The fact that his mistress would assume he was beneath them was insulting, though.
“Father says I should show more respect for it,” she said, after a moment of silence, “And perhaps he is right; it is supposedly a piece of divinity, after all. But, let me tell you, Mother, during our first dungeon delve, this construct was pretty much useless! It could barely deal with a few spiders, and when it came to the final challenge, it could not even be a proper shield for our group! It even…”
She turned her bowed head towards him and stared daggers, “It even dared to use mana without my command, and yet it hardly did any damage to our opponent. How useless is that?”
Unsure whether she was still speaking to her mother, or was now addressing him, Ares wisely held his tongue. No need to incite any further vitriol if he could avoid it. She turned her head back to the statue and said, “Mother, your faith in the Old Ones was always strong, and for your sake I am also trying, but… You said I would feel it, when the Old One’s grace was upon me, and yet I feel… nothing…”
A single tear escaped her eye and fell upon the grass below, wetting the already moist ground. After another moment of silence, Seila stood up and said her farewells, then walked away. Ares took a last look at the beatific statue, which still seemed to scrutinize him closely, shuddered within all of his mechanics, and followed his mistress.