Chapter 56 – A New Threat

He should have known. No, he should have realized. The moment the kertal had spoken about voices, he should have known the human on the other side had been drawn in.

Not having encountered this situation before was no excuse. Now that it had spoken, it proved the consciousness of the human was here. Without hesitating, Ares dashed out from his hiding place, moving at full speed. In the darkness, the glowing lump noticed him, turning towards the direction of movement.

Invoking [Blade], he attacked the creature’s side, hoping the surprise would be enough of an advantage. Instead, he slashed through the air. The massive creature jumped backward with surprising agility, hissing dangerously.

You think you got away?

The whip from his left hand unfurled, snapping in the air and streaking across the creature’s unlit face. An angry whimper ensued, the creature backing further away, and Ares pursued relentlessly.

Within the massive lump, two red eyes stood out, glaring at him with their own light, even in this darkness. Seeing those red eyes made Ares livid. How many times did he have to face those kinds of eyes? How far was the infection willing to go?

Growling, he moved in, quick as a snake, stabbing and slicing at every opportunity. The creature continuously backtracked, hissing and whimpering, agile enough to avoid most of the damage, but unable to counter.

He finally caught it with his whip, pulling it in as he stabbed. To his surprise, the creature did not resist, but allowed him to drag it close. Too late, he figured out why.

His blade stabbed through something thick and leathery, but the creature only growled. Instead, he was embraced by strong arms, holding him close to a rough fur, stinking like all hells. He tried to wriggle and resist, but the creature only strengthened the embrace, crushing him between its body and arms.

Not good enough, he thought, then activated [Blade] at as many points as he was capable of. From his shoulders, from his back, from his feet, blades extended into the flesh of the opponent. A loud screech right by his ear told him the damage was extensive.

The creature released its grip and tried to push Ares away, but he would have none of it. If this little beast thought it could give him an embrace and walk away unscathed, he was going to make sure it understood the error of its way.

Using the creature’s grip as a purchase, Ares pushed off and whirled sideways, slicing up the deep wounds he had made, causing even more damage. Roaring and staggering, the creature finally managed to push him off.

Ares landed safely on his feet, having disengaged his blades. The gray lump whimpered and tried to withdraw, but Ares would not accept its surrender. He chased it, using his whip to constrain it, while slicing it up with his right hand.

Despite having heavily injured the creature at the outset, it still took considerable time before it finally collapsed and no longer moved. Ares had expended his energy down to 18% from this battle, and his mental exhaustion was piling up.

He had been lucky there was only one.

Having killed off the danger, Ares did not hesitate for an instant, turned up the light from his body to full force, illuminating his prey. The thing was massive, of course, but he recognized a disturbingly familiar look: the beast looked like a massive rat.

It had a long, naked tail, which had hit Ares several times in the fight, as the creature struggled to get away; a tattered coat of filthy fur, with four strong legs, which he had confused for arms in the darkness. Its head was the most disturbing, though, at least a third the length of the body, it ended in a long and narrow snout, with a maw that could probably swallow an elephant, if it wanted.

Though it was filthy and smelly, there was no alternative. Without thinking too hard, Ares cut up the beast and began swallowing it, bit by disgusting bit, feasting on all the matter he could throw into his mouth.

When he found the core of the beast, he swallowed it as well, forcing the energy within into his stores. Once he had done that, however, he got an unwelcome console message.

The unit has devoured an infected core

  • The infection feeds on itself, growing stronger with every enemy consumed
    • Unit infection rate has increased to 11%

Infection bonuses are now in effect

  • Gluttony bonus
    • All enemies consumed while in an infected state will have their traits analyzed by the Acquisition Software, making them available to the unit as skills
      • Warning: skills attained in this manner will not translate to origin
      • Warning: using skills from the devouring bonus will increase the infection rate
    • Skills currently available
      • Stereo olfactory

Not good, Ares thought, almost certain he could hear the satisfied cry of the thing hiding in his Solar Lens legacy. Although he gained ‘bonuses,’ it was obvious that this was just a thinly veiled scheme to increase his rate of infection. The infection was not simply threatening him, now it was also tempting him.

If all I wanted was power, then how would I resist that kind of ability?

This devouring bonus was an incredible power, capable of consuming and translating the skills of those he slew. In a matter of days, he could rival any creature within these depths, and in months he could become all-powerful, simply by crushing and eating everything before him.

Gritting his teeth, Ares resisted the temptation to read the description of the tainted skill, knowing it was likely to be a skill he really needed in this place. Instead, he finished up his meal, recovering up 50% energy. The meat itself did not add any infection rate, which meant he could at least supply himself with energy from hunting.

Satisfied, he walked over to the kertal, still lying on the ground, purple eyes flickering between Ares and what little remained of the rat. He knelt and poked the kertal in the side and said, “You alive?”

“I… I don’t understand…”

Without thinking too much, Ares shifted into the language of the kertal, speaking strangely naturally, “I’m sure this is all very weird, but I need you to focus for a moment. Do you know where you are?”

“I… Yes, I’m… No, that’s not right. I’m… I’m… I don’t remember,” the kertal finally said, shock in its voice.

“Alright, what’s your name? You have one, right?”

“Name? Yes, I’m… I think it should be… No, but that’s not me… I think my name is… Rex?”

“You’re asking me? I don’t know your name, Rex, I just know you’re in a lot of trouble. You don’t remember anything?” Ares said, poking the helpless kertal in the side again and again. Why was it not moving?

“W-what kind of trouble? I’m not a bad person… I think?”

Ares sighed mentally and stood up, looking towards the nook where he had left Izzy. “I don’t know what kind of person you are, Rex, but if you want to get out of this alive, you need to listen to me. Can you do that?”

“Listen? I-I can do that… Wait, where are you going? Don’t leave me!”

“I’m just finding our head-mechanic, Rex. Don’t worry, she’s right here… Oh, you’re awake, good. Can you take a look at that one for me?”

Izzy stared up at him with the widest eyes she could possibly manage. Lips trembling, she said, “I… have never… heard a construct… speak like that!” Suddenly excited, she sat up, winced with pain, then grabbed a hold of Ares’ boot and began throwing out words as if her mouth was a waterfall.

“What kind of language was that? You both speak it… Oh my, is that the language of the Old Ones? Can you teach me? Is there something specific you need to learn that tongue, like a crazy amount of lifeforce? It didn’t seem like you spend any lifeforce, was it perhaps… mana?!”

She breathed the last word, as if she could not believe it. Ares just blinked, then looked back at Rex, who had managed to turn a masked face in Ares’ direction, purple eyes staring pitifully after him.

Had he just spoken plain English? Ares had not even taken note of it, but seamlessly begun conversing in the language as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Of course, to him, it might quite possibly be.

“Complicated,” he just grunted in Elvish, rather than try a lengthy explanation, “Will you fix?”

“Oh, sure,” she said, excited. Ares helped her over to Rex’s side, where she immediately began blabbering. “Oh my, you’re a lot like Ares, aren’t you? Don’t worry, Dear, I won’t bite. Just gotta take a quick peek at… How did you become scary like you were before? Now that’s all gone, and you seem as harmless as a puppy… Although, I guess puppies usually do not have specs like yours…”

“You not scared?” Ares asked, a bit confused. Izzy had always acted a bit strange, and her ability to gauge the will of the one inhabiting the constructs was scarily accurate. Still, the kertal had recently tried to kill them; he thought that might at least elicit a protest.

“Oh, no, it is so much different than before… Or should I say, ‘he’? You’re quite the specimen, huhuhu…”

Ares had never heard her laugh like that before. It actually sent chills down his spine, seeing her eye Rex’s features with that much glee.

“W-what’s going on…? What’s she doing?” Rex said, his voice nearing a panic.

“She’s fixing you. Stay still and don’t try to move.”

Rex obliged, but still passed desperate looks from the gnome to Ares and back again, pleading for reassurance.

“Aaand done,” Izzy said, dialing a final time on her instrument board, “I’ve bypassed some of your safety protocols to allow you movement, but it’s just a temporary measure. You need to engage your self-repair function as soon as possible, preferably for long enough that we can re-engage those protocols. They’re not included just for the fun of it, after all.”

“What did she say?” Rex asked, not quite panicking.

“You’ll be alright, as long as we can find a safe place to hunker down. Try moving.”

Tentatively, the kertal tried to move, first one leg then the other. Finally, he got up on his feet and looked around, seeing the narrow passage lit up only by Ares’ red and gold markings.

“Where are we?”

Ares studied the kertal closely. He saw no signs of deception, but he was no expert. Should he be more careful? With Izzy’s assurance, he was leaning towards trusting the kertal, rather than assuming the worst. Still, he inched to the side and reached down for the circular weapon Rex had been using above, storing it securely in his storage without attracting too much attention to the act.

“We’re at the bottom of a dungeon,” Ares began, listing out their many, many problems, “We’re not equipped for this, we have no shelter, no steady source of food, and oh yeah; I’m slowly being infected by something that will slowly take over my mind and make into a murderous beast… Any questions?”

“M-many…” Rex said, nodding, “But I’m guessing we don’t have the time. I believe safe shelter is the first order of business?”

“Good guess, and yes. But first, tell me how much you do remember, anything at all.”

“I just remember… music of some sort, playing,” Rex shut his eyes and shook his head, looking like someone whose head was about to explode, “And a voice… no, many voices. All speaking at the same time, telling me to…”

“To do what?”

Rex blinked a few times. Finally, he shook his head and said, “I don’t remember… sorry.”

“No need to be sorry; we’ll figure it out, Rex. For now, I’m Ares, and this here is Izzy. We gotta work together if we want to get out of here. Are you in?”

“I’m not going alone, that’s for sure,” Rex said, shaking his head vehemently, “So I guess that means I’m coming with you.”

“Good,” Ares said, reverting to Elvish, “You walk, Izzy?”

“Not yet… although the stitches you made are wonderful, I don’t think I should be walking yet.”

“Rex will take you,” Ares said, repeating the command to the stammering kertal. “She’s important, Rex. You’ll have to defend her with your life if it comes down to it.”

“M-My life? Then, what will you be doing?”

“Defending you,” Ares responded, looking over his shoulder as he pocked a random direction and set forth. Unbeknown to him, what Rex saw was not his usual, placid expression, but the slight hint of a smirk, a few bloody teeth shining in the darkness.

They trek through the dungeon maze was a slow one. Ares tried to move as inaudible as possible, but even though he was their source of light, he still found it difficult to avoid every little rock or hole in the path. Rex was much worse; for one, he was carrying Izzy in his arms — who looked way too excited at being carried by a construct — and second, he had little skill in moving in the dark.

They managed to stumble their way down one path without too much difficulty, but Ares soon halted their march, putting a hand in the air. Rex immediately came to a halt, and even Izzy stopped stroking the lifeweave on Rex’s chest in fascination for one moment.

“What is it?” Rex said, his voice as low and hushed as possible.

Ares’ proximity map had lit up with warning signals. Ahead, three spots lay in wait, quite possibly an ambush. From the slight smell he could pick out, these were the same beasts as the one he had just killed, just in more numbers. Although Ares was confident he could deal with one, he did not fancy his chances with three of those creatures.

Opting to avoid the enemy, Ares backtracked, choosing a different path at the nearest fork and walking straight ahead. Despite this, it was not long before his proximity map alerted him again, this time to four enemies ahead.

There was no way to tell whether these were the same as the ones from before, and Ares was not about to go up and ask. He made the signal to turn about once more, returning to the same fork as before and picking the third option.

This time they made it past a few more forks before the same thing began to happen. Enemies would appear in front of them, and Ares would back off. Sometimes they had to go back once, to get around the enemy, but sometimes they had to go through several options, but always there was one path left open.

Although it appeared they were in luck, Ares was growing suspicious. The rat-creatures were apparently smarter than he had initially thought. He stopped up in the middle of a pathway, and took a look at his proximity map.

With a thought, he enlarged it to make the entire path they had taken visible. What he saw was not encouraging.

“What is it? What’s going on?” Rex said, pacing back and forth with Izzy on his shoulders now. The gnome looked like the happiest little girl in the world, as she inspected Rex’s dark curls with her fingers.

“We’re being led,” Ares explained, pointing to the map. Rex looked a bit confused before Ares mentally slapped himself. Of course, the kertal could not see into his system, could he?

Focusing his will, Ares mentally commanded the system to allow Rex access to his map. The kertal suddenly jerked and pointed, straight at where Ares had stretched out the map between them.

“So, you can see it now?”

“Y-Yes… That is… Amazing!”

“It’s useful,” Ares said, cutting off the kertal’s excitement. “We’re here right now, and this is where we were an hour ago; where we started. See the pattern?”

Rex studied the map closely, guiding his finger through their path, their backtracking, and finally to their current position.

“We’re going in a straight line,” Rex said, nodding, “You’re right. They’re leading us.”

“Exactly. Every time we attempted to take a different path, away from the straight path, they set up an ambush, forcing us to turn back and return to the path they set.”

“Huh… that’s rather smart of them…” Rex commented, tilting his head. Now that he had something else but endless darkness to stare into, Ares thought the kertal looked positively competent.

“So,” Rex stopped staring at the map and looked up at Ares, “What do we do? I assume you have a plan?”

“Well, kinda…” Ares said, scratching his chin, “Although I doubt you’re gonna like it…”