Chapter 52 – The Enemy Within

The world trembled and shook as Ares crossed the threshold, stumbling upon the white tiles. He lost his balance and fell, rolling around while protecting the girl in his hands with his entire body.

For a moment the world turned away from rock and dust infused with red light, turning instead into a field of green. The girl in his arms was different, yet she stayed the same. There was supposed to be peace in this place, without any conflict, and yet…

Screams, terrible screams, caught his ear. He turned his face and saw the field of green turned into a bonfire. From within that fire, red-eyed figures came closer and closer, their arms stretching out and grasping for him… and for her.

“No!” He yelled, sweeping the image aside. He caught hold of something and violently smacked it away. The burning field changed back into red rock and dirt. He was surrounded by shocked faces, and he saw Alai sitting in front of him, a hand to her face where something had struck her.

No, he had struck her.

“S-sorry,” he grumbled, then desperately looked down on the figure in his arms. Seila lay in his arms, eyes closed. The lifelink felt dead and useless. “No… no!” He cried, the strange new sensations taking hold of him. She could not be dead. She could not!

“She– she’s alright, Ares,” Izzy said, her voice calm and measured, “Please, let Alai have a look at her, then I’ll have a look at you.”

He blinked, looking at the blue-skinned Alai, who stared back with a shocked and hurt expression. “Yes.. Yes. Alai, please. Take her.” The Avore nodded and got a hold of herself, then got Saber and Cedwin to extract Seila from his grasp.

“You’re in a bad shape, Ares,” said Izzy, trying to keep her voice in control, but i failed her halfway through, “And I don’t you should use the lifelink right now. We need to start your self-repair protocols, but without draining anymore energy from Lady Seila.”

He nodded absently. From his storage he summoned a lizard core, and, without thinking, threw it into his mouth, crushing the crystalline rock between his mechanical teeth. He needed energy, no matter what kind. The energy within the core exploded in his mouth, as two different systems tried to take hold of the lifeforce. One was his natural absorption of lifeforce to grow his user level, the other was his use of eating as a way to increase his energy levels.

The system had proved several times to be subject to his will, and now Ares used that to his advantage, forcing the lifeforce to be accepted as energy. Once the system had acceded to his command, he used that energy to begin self-repairing.

One by one, the many spikes lodged in his body fell out, as his body began the process of repairing itself.

“Alright, good,” Izzy spoke with more control now, “I need to take a look at your internal systems, Ares. If there’s been any damage to it, I have to do some emergency repairs. Do you understand?”

He nodded, and observed as Izzy plugged something like a screen into his chest, then began studying the numbers and messages. “You’re alright for now, but your energy readings are in complete flux. We need to stabilize the flow when we get back, or we risk permanent damage to your inner systems.”

He nodded again, still without much enthusiasm. Looking over at the other patient, in Alai’s care, he wondered what was happening to him.

True, he had invested a lot of points in emulation, but surely that could not be the reason for this sudden explosion of emotion. Something had happened in their flight, something that made this unit remember. He was sure that what he had seen had not merely been a delusion. Something had happened to this unit, or the one who had once controlled this unit. Something which made him like this; desperate to ensure the survival of the girl lying upon the ground.

“Alright, I think that’s enough,” said Kindon, gaining his feet and looking around at the group. “Lady Seila is badly hurt, and Ares is not in good shape either. With these two in this condition, you cannot continue. Since we’re in a safezone, I’ll open an exit for us.”

Though disappointed, the party could only agree. The area they had entered was a circular perimeter differentiated from the rock around with the same white tiles that had dominated the test floor. In the center of the arrangement, a pedestal stood like a solitary monolith.

Kindon stepped up and pressed his hand to the pedestal. The group calmly awaited the black portal that would see them back to the surface, certain that true safety was only moments away.

Only, nothing happened.

“What’s this,” Kindon mumbled and furrowed his brow. He removed his hand and returned it to the pedestal, but there was no response. He stepped back, then circled the instrument. Finally, he tried for a third time. Nothing.

“Master Cedwin, would you please try to summon the portal?” The elf swallowed and nodded, stepping up and placing his hand on the pedestal. Nothing. “Saber, you try,” Kindon’s voice was slightly alarmed now.

No reaction. They all tried, even Ares, but nothing happened.

“What does this mean, Captain?” Alai asked, her voice trembling as she returned to watch over Seila.

“This… I don’t know,” the captain said, deep concern now edged into his face, “This has not happened before, as far as I know.

Ares’ mind still felt muddled, but he still had enough thought to reach out for Orca, to see if she could come up with something. However, for the first time since his fall into the cavern within the Heart of the Forest, there was no joyous response from her.

He was alone.

The thought was terrifying. He felt actual fear. The sensations were so strange and overpowering in this new form that Ares had a hard time overcoming them. He tried breathing, and found the exercise as useless as it had always been in this body.

“What do we do? Captain Kindon? What do we do?” Cedwin’s voice cracked as he talked. Genuine despair slowly merged into his facial features as he looked from the dumbfounded captain to the helpless expression of the others. “No, this can’t be real. Surely not. Tell us it is a jest, Captain. It’s not a very good one, but surely it’s a jest!”

“I’m afraid not, Master Cedwin. We can’t return from here.”

“No!” The highborn elf screamed, grabbing the captain by the collar and lifting him up in the air, “No, I will not accept this!”

“Cedwin,” Saber’s deep voice stopped the elf, “Let go of the Captain. It’s not his fault.”

“Then whose fault is it? Is it yours, Saber? Is the gnome’s fault? Or is it the construct’s fault? Whose fault is it that we cannot get back!?”

“It’s no one’s fault,” cried Alai, raising her face and showing genuine anger towards Cedwin, “Except yours if you keep acting out like this. Get a hold of yourself, Ced!”

The elf breathed, his expression showing no hint of self-reproach. Ares tried to stand up, but Izzy put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Don’t get up yet, Ares. You’re not finished repairing…”

He looked at her. His golden eyes bored into hers, and she did not hold out for long. When she looked down and let go of his shoulder, Ares stood up and staggered over besides Seila’s lying form.

She looked so peaceful as she lay there. He could feel the lifelink was still there between them, it was just a thread holding them together. There was no lifeforce left within her, except the smallest trace. He dared barely move with fear he might burn that slight trickle up.

“We must move,” he said, his voice steady with mechanical calm.

“What?” Cedwin blurted, “Are you mad, Construct? You’re half-dead. Seila’s more than half-dead, and the rest of us might as well be dead, for all the good it will do us that we’re not. We can’t go anywhere.”

“Don’t say that,” Alai screamed, her face cramped into fury, “Don’t you bloody say anything like that, Cedwin. Seila is not dead; she’s not even close to dead! She’ll get better. I’ll make her better.”

The avore began pulling flasks out of her bags, pouring some into Seila’s mouth and forcing her to swallow, all the while blue tears began forming at the edges of her white eyes.

Ares kept silent as Alai treated Seila. He too hoped for a miracle, but right now that seemed so very far away. As he stood there, he suddenly began hearing white noise. He looked around, trying to find the source of the noise, but it did not seem to come from anywhere.

None of the others showed any signs of hearing the noise, and instead they all looked at him as if he was crazy. The white noise began cracking, its intensity varying as if.. As if someone was trying to talk to him!

He focused on the sound, and soon found he could just make out a voice – a familiar voice that was usually as happy-go-lucky as can be, but the echoes he now heard were full of fear.

“Ma…ter! You need… go! It’s… wrong, all wro…! It’s… coming! RUN!”

Especially the last word was as clear as day. Shocked he looked around him, sensing the same uneasy feeling that had been pricking his back when they first entered the labyrinth. Now, however, the pricks were all over his body, warning him of danger.

A soft whistle echoed through the rocky landscape, and everyone stiffened.

“What was that?” Cedwin asked nervously, his head turning violently from side to side. “Maybe the wind…?” Saber said, though he did not sound convinced.

“We must move,” Ares said brooking no argument this time. He reached down, despite Alai’s protests, and picked up Seila. “It comes.”

“What comes?”

The whistling increased. Something moved within the forest of stony spikes. They all noticed it out the corner of their eyes. Ares stepped towards the area leading further into the labyrinth, but Cedwin stepped out in front of him.

“No, we must stay here, Construct. This is a safezone, so nothing should be able to reach us here. We have to rest and recuperate before we try to go any deeper.

“We move or we die,” Ares said, clenching his teeth. The sensation of danger was overpowering now. He felt how there was something staring at them, ready to attack at a moment’s notice.

“Poppycock! Captain, explain this to the construct; you seem to understand one another.”

Kindon was looking out between the stone pillars, searching for any hint of movement. Without taking his eyes off the area outside of the safezone he replied, “Ares is right. We have to move, right now.”

Now that the captain had spoken, no one dared to argue. They all got to their feet and followed Ares, as he led them out of the safezone and deeper into the labyrinth. Even Cedwin, although he grumbled, did as the captain told him to.

The whistling intensified once more, and, looking back, Ares locked onto a pair of red eyes staring hungrily at him. It was here. Whatever it was.

He started running, knowing he had less than optimal energy resources available. He popped another core into his mouth and forced the energy to comply with his wishes as he ran. The whistling grew louder and even the air started vibrating in tune with that otherworldly sound.

Ares looked back over his shoulder and saw something flying through the air, coming right at their backs.

“Down!” he roared and crouched down, protecting Seila with his whole body. The air split above his head, following the whistling attack. The others had gotten down just in time as well.

He looked back again to see if he could catch a glimpse of the attacker, just as Izzy shouted, “It’s coming back!” The whirling stream of light that had passed over their heads turned in the air, rotating around its own axis and returning for a second pass.

This time it came at a low angle, and Ares had to jump over it, while the others threw themselves to the sides. It’s aiming for me?

He followed the missile with his eyes, and saw it return into the shadows where it disappeared. He had yet to see the full physical form of the attacker. “We move,” he called, ordering the party to follow him. No one objected, not even Cedwin.

It was mere moments before the whistling came back, and they had to throw themselves to avoid another whirling object. Ares got a good look at it this time: a large ring-shape with thick edges and crackling electricity churning in the hollow center. It was this effect that created the whistling sound, as it cut through the air like a frisbee, returning to their assailant like a boomerang.

As they ran across the rocky ground, Ares looked back several times in an attempt to identify their attacker, but, whatever it was, it remained in the shadows. He had the distinct sense it was being careful… careful of him.

It knows what I am… and what I can do.

If Seila had been hale, Ares would have turned and faced their opponent, to draw it out. As it was, he could not leave the vulnerable girl behind, nor did he feel secure leaving the burden to the others. This had to be his burden, since it was his fault she was like this.

“I can’t… go.. on..” Alai gasped, her face screwing up as they ran, “Need… a break…”

“We don’t have time for breaks!” Cedwin shouted, looking over his shoulder and widening his eyes in response to the whistling attack coming at them. They jumped to avoid it, but Alai was too slow. The whirling ring cut into her arm, biting deeply into the flesh.

She screamed and fell upon the ground. “Saber, grab her,” Ares said, following the disk with his eyes and freeing up his left arm. He would have to cover them.

Unfurling his whip, Ares threw it in the path of the second pass, momentarily connecting to the electric whirlpool surrounding the disk. The power shot through his whip and jolted his inner systems, causing serious damage.

Gritting his teeth, Ares ignored the pain. Saber had picked up Alai and nodded to him; they were ready again. They picked up the pace once more. Though they could not run fast, they still covered enough ground to stay ahead of the attacker. It had to spend a lot of effort to stay hidden in between the stone pillars, and could not move as fast as they could on open ground.

As long as it keeps hiding, we can make it.

“Look!” Izzy excitedly pointed forward. Everyone immediately saw what she did: a connector spanning a chasm. If they could get to it, they could force their pursuer onto the narrow pathway. Not only would it have to reveal itself, they would be able to attack from different angles if they spread out on the opposite sides while someone held the central path.

That someone, of course, being Ares. He barely thought about how quick he made the tactical assessment, since it felt so natural to him.

“Faster,” he said, his voice growing insistent. They all redoubled their efforts, sprinting towards the chokepoint.