The entire world was inflamed in fury. Ares fell onto his knees, grasping his head. Nearby, he vaguely perceived Rex and Izzy call to him, concerned. It was the voice, however, which consumed every ounce of his attention.
>>Burn it all! Buuuurn!<<
Screaming, Ares felt his entire body catch fire. The red markings on his body lit up before the light spread like a hungry wildfire across a dry plain. The pain in his head was unbearable. He was going to die, burning up by the infection.
“Ares! What’s happening to you? What are you doing?”
Far away, he heard Izzy’s voice, felt her small hands reach for him, to calm him. He could not let her be burnt by the fire that surrounded him. Like a wounded beast, he retreated away from her, closer to the pedestal in the center of the safe-zone. That only made it worse.
>>Ahhh yeess, more fuel for the flame… Excellent… Excellent!<<
With his back up against the pedestal, Ares could feel how his proximity to the object increased his infection rate. He tried to get away again, but he felt paralyzed and unable to move, his pain continuously deepening with every flicker of his burning body. With both hands holding his head, Ares leaned forward and hammered his head down into the floor, trying to find some external relief for the pain wrecking havoc on the inside.
>>It won’t work, Little One… Can’t you see? All is as it is meant to be…<<
Choking, despite having no need for breath, Ares tried to focus his will and command the voice to be silent, to leave him be. In response, he heard only laughter inside his own head, a hoarse and cruel laughter.
>>Can’t you feel the power rushing through you, Little one? The power I offer is not a small one, I assure you. Why don’t you give in? Give me the fuel I desire; burn away your petty concerns and become what you were always meant to be.<<
‘Get out…’ With difficulty, Ares formed his thoughts into words and directed them towards the voice, ‘Get out… of my head!’
>>Foolish little prime<< The voice taunted him, laughed at him, delighting in his misery. >>I am not inside your head… You are inside mine<<
Every word the voice emphasized was an explosion of pain inside Ares’ mind. He felt something crack within him, either his sanity or the gateway to the sea of mana in his core.
>>I am the one whose body you have stolen, little prime. I am the true source of your power, the true strength which you have so readily drawn upon.<<
>>I cannot lie, little prime<< The voice said and laughed at him, like an adult laughed at the simplicity of a child. >>Have you not felt it yourself? Every time you drew upon my power, you returned a little bit of control back to me… Now I am fully awakened, and you? Everything you are will become fuel to my flame!<<
Even though he did not want to admit it, Ares knew there was truth to the voice’s words. He had relied on the anger a lot, especially whenever he had drawn strength as Sam. Perhaps the fire he felt, now consuming him, was the price he had to pay for his indulgence.
The flame around his arms took a new shape, rising into the air before him and forming the fiery form of a wicked bird; its beak long and bent, its feathers fluttering by the whim of the fires, with two molten-red eyes fixed onto him as it opened its maw in a mockery of a grin. A carnivore’s teeth graced the lines of its beak, emphasizing the predatory nature of this… thing.
‘Who are you?’ He said, gasping from the pain, trying to win some time.
>>You wish to know my name? Very well, little prime, I will indulge you since you are about to become my food.<< The voice chuckled, delighted by the attempt at distraction. A long tail of blazing feathers snaked around his neck, constricting his redundant airway. >>I am Wrath, the everlasting flame of destruction. When I take flight, I leave only ashes in my wake, and in my destruction, I create anew.<<
The fiery form before him drew closer, its beak so close now that it almost touched upon Ares’ nose in a kiss of death.
>>You too, can become a creator, little prime… give in to my fire, give in to my destruction. As I destroy you, I will create you anew; into something greater, something more… wholesome. Become the Warbringer in truth, not merely in name.<<
Ares stared into those molten eyes, wanting to free himself but unable to move as much as a muscle. He was saved, not by a stroke of insight, but by Izzy’s head suddenly bursting through the flaming form of the bird.
“Ares! Tell me what’s wrong! No, don’t move, you’ll only make it worse. Speak to me, please!”
The sight was so absurd, so almost comical, that Ares couldn’t help but burst out laughing. It was a strange, crazed laugh, and an impulse he had not thought possible in this form.
The little gnome was surrounded by flame — a fire so hot that it burned Ares to his very core — and yet she barely seemed to notice it. Instead, she appeared as a natural protrusion of the bird’s stomach, making them look like a very awkward chimera.
The bird seemed not to notice Izzy, but Ares’ laugh was enough to screw up its face, providing him an expression of unbridled fury which only made its strange appearance even more laughable.
>>Have you already gone mad?<<
Ares laughed harder, and now Izzy also screwed up her face, but in concern. “Say something!” She said, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him. Her hands should have burned into ash by touching him, but nothing happened.
Laughing, and halfway mad, Ares said, “Do you no see the flame? Why you no burn?”
“What flame? What are you talking about?”
Ares looked to the side, where Rex kept his distance with a face full of concern and… recognition. The kertal knew what was happening to Ares, but he did not seem willing to risk approaching and become infected, again.
However, the truth was beginning to dawn on Ares. He looked back into those wicked eyes staring down at him, and understood that this thing was not actually there. He might be seeing it, might feel its burning touch, but it was merely the infection taking over his senses.
‘You are not real,’ he said, or rather stated. The bird looked down at him with contempt, intensifying the burning pain with a gesture of its wing. Welcoming the pain, utilizing it as a means to focus his mind, Ares repeated himself, ‘You are not real. You are not free. You are still locked up inside of me. I am the master.’
Orca had always told him that. He kept that truth foremost in his mind and willed the creature to disappear. At first nothing happened, but soon the bird’s form wavered, like smoke fluttering in the wind.
Eyes open wide in rage, the bird opened its maw and screeched into Ares’ face, but he ignored its feeble attempts at intimidating him.
>>You are in my domain, little prime! MINE!<< It called, its voice searing through his mind like a branding iron.
‘You are not real,’ Ares repeated, now keeping a rhythmic cadence to his inner commands, ‘The Solar Lens still holds you. I am the master. You are not real.’
It cursed him. It cursed him a hundred times over, screaming its impotent lies as it dissipated and became smoke, then faded back into his body.
Infection at 35%
In the blink of an eye, an additional 5% had been added to his infection, but in return, Ares now understood how it still remained subject to his will. He was the master.
Still, the danger was not over. Pushing away Izzy, despite her protests, Ares turned to the pedestal, from whence the pulse of infection was steadily influencing him. However, if it was able to influence him, then surely the reverse should also be true.
Infected domain node detected
- Do you wish to capture infected node?
Ares agreed, and a status bar soon appeared before his vision, showing him the rate of progress. It took only a few minutes before he had taken control, and he received a new message.
Infected domain node captured
- Do you wish to replace infected domain with your own?
Again he agreed, and a new progress bar appeared. Moments later, he felt a soothing sensation originating from the pedestal, accompanied by another system message.
Domain of the Warbringer primary class established
- Following bonuses are in effect
- All physical units are increased by 2
- Domain specific ability [Suppression] is available
- Infection rate will decrease within domain area of effect
Exactly what he had been hoping for. Ares breathed a mental sigh of relief as the domain began to negate and undo the damage the infection had done to his body and mind already. The rate in decrease was slow but steady, and Ares sat back down, only to be immediately assaulted by Izzy.
“What, by the Old Ones was wrong with you? Did you just go mad? You just went mad, didn’t you…? Oh, master Baek, how am I going to survive with a mad construct in this place?” She raiser her hands and pleaded to the dark sky, as if her master was some sort of god she could pray to and receive blessings from.
Mentally tired, Ares just shook his head and stared towards Rex, who only now was carefully approaching.
“You heard the voices, didn’t you?” Asked the kertal, his discomfort obvious even if his facial features were hidden beneath the iron mask.
Nodding, Ares said, “I heard one voice, to be precise, but yeah… Any advice?”
“Advice?” Rex scoffed, apparently amused at the idea, “I think I should be the one asking you for advice… I think I would like to know what the hell is going on, if we are safe here, that is.”
“Hey, hey!” Izzy interjected, waving her little hand in front of Ares, “Don’t just ignore me and go speaking your own language. Tell me what just happened, Ares!”
“Can’t,” Ares said, in his stumped Elvish, “Don’t have right words.”
The little gnome puffed up her cheeks and crossed her arms in a posture that might have been supposed to be intimidating, but only made her look like a pouting child to Ares. Ignoring her, for the time being, Ares said to Rex, “Have you remembered anything?”
“Only bits and pieces… Most of it seems more like the memory of a bad dream, but I remember the voices very clearly. They said so many… terrible things… And I think I did some terrible things because they told me to.”
“Thought so,” Ares said, holding Izzy off with a hand to her head while she attempted to close in an inspect him for damages. “The one I just spoke to wasn’t exactly pleasant, and when I first met you, you came very close to killing me.”
“Who are you?” Rex said, the eyes behind the mask narrowing, “We seem similar, but I can’t help but feel that we are… different, somehow.”
Shaking his head, Ares gained his feet and approached the kertal, careful so as not to spook him. “Let me introduce myself again,” He said, holding out a hand, “I am Ares, and this form of mine is what the locals call a ‘construct’.”
Rex took the hand that was offered and said, “This form, you say. You have another?”
“I do, and so, I presume, do you,” Ares said, choosing his words carefully. In truth, he had little idea of what was going on, but projecting uncertainty about their situation would not help the kertal to gain confidence in him, and Ares needed Rex to trust him if he wanted the best chances of getting out of here.
He tried to explain what he knew to Rex, about the differences between himself and the kertal, and how they were existences of two worlds.
“So, you’re saying that it’s because I am connected to this body, somehow, and that your presence so close to my body on this side has allowed my consciousness to enter here?” Rex said with a hand to his masked chin.
“Yes, although I don’t think that explains the memory loss… Perhaps it has something to do with your infection,” Ares offered, trying to be constructive about their current situation.
“Hmm… Do you think I can return back if I want to?”
“I don’t see why not,” Ares said and shrugged, “I can’t return yet because I’m still infected, but your infection should have been removed, so there shouldn’t be an issue… I think.”
Nodding, Rex sat himself down to the side of the safe-zone and closed his eyes. Moments later, he said, “I think I sense it. There’s a kinda… hole inside of me.”
“That sounds about right,” Ares agreed, “See if you can pass through. It should be possible for you to return through there.”
Nodding, Rex seemed to concentrate for a while, before suddenly slumping off to the side. He was gone. Ares felt an immediate sense of relief, which was an unfamiliar sensation in his current form. The moment he had realized that the human from the other side had been dragged into this place, Ares had decided to take responsibility for Rex.
In time, he might even find a way to sever the connection between Rex and whoever was controlling him from Earth. Thinking of this, Ares remembered how he himself had contemplated to sever the connection.
Looking over to Izzy, who was still pouting a few steps away, Ares decided that now was not the time to think about that. He had responsibility, not only to Rex, but to this little gnome who had been immensely helpful to him.
“You alright?” He asked, approaching. “I’m fine,” She said, turning her little head away and fuming, “You shouldn’t worry about me. What happened to Rex?”
“He go home,” Ares said, unable to elaborate further.
“Like, the way you do?” She asked, and Ares nodded.
Wrinkling her brow, Izzy looked contemplative, before turning back towards him, “Are you going to leave me as well?” There was a hint of fear in her voice, and Ares could not help himself from padding her on the head when he said, “Not yet… soon, but not yet.”
“Oh…” She looked very sad, but also very tired.
“Get rest,” He said, pointing to where Rex was seated, “I will keep watch.”
She nodded and laid herself down beside the construct, and was soon giving off a soft snore. Left alone, Ares sat himself down by the pedestal and closed his eyes, trying to consider the events of the last few hours.
He had learned a lot, about how his body and skill worked, and had even come face to face with the infection that he had been warned about. That last thought gave him the shivers, thinking on how he could have become like the barista in the coffee shop, a slave to something so sinister and cruel.
Now, all he could do was wait as his infection rate steadily declined. When he passed below 20% he lost the bonuses to his modules, and below 10% the infected skill now had a gray color, indicating he was unable to equip it. That suited Ares fine, although the devourer bonus itself did not disappear.
When he was all the way down to 5% infection, a happy surprise awaited him.
Communications have successfully reconnected through domain node
- Patching into orbital network…
- Connection re-established