Chapter 59 – The Next Step

Orca’s voice was music to Ares’ ears, and her enthusiastic sobbing made him strangely happy.

“I’m so glad you’re alright, Master!” Orca said, when she finally stopped her jubilant cries, “I’ve been able to confirm your signal down here, but I was blocked whenever I tried to access the deeper network. You establishing this domain has opened a lot of pathways for me, though! I might even be able to fight off that little bastard if he tries to go after me again.”

‘Slow down,’ Ares said, mildly regretting having another voice inside his head so soon after getting rid of a more dangerous one, ‘Tell me what happened first. You said something about being under attack, are you alright?

“Oh, I am great, Master, thank you for asking! Although, I suppose it wasn’t so great that I managed to lose you while in the training ground… Who would have thought the damn administrator would suddenly come for me, blocking my access points and trying to push some malware onto me. I say, the nerve!”

‘You were fighting the administrator? I thought you said there wasn’t an administrator here?’

“Well, there didn’t seem to be one, but the moment we got deep enough in the labyrinth I was suddenly cut off from you. I had to fight tooth and nail just to re-establish our connection for a few moments, and even that was dangerous.”

‘Are you that disadvantaged?’

“Well… If it was a fair fight, I might be able to beat the administrator, but I am in his domain, and have to play by his rules. That is, until you established your domain here. Now I have free access to this area of the training ground and can establish firewalls to keep out the administrator. Effectively, you have taken over the training ground, and I can take the position of administrator!”

‘That’s good… I suppose. What advantages does it give us?’

“Well, outside of keeping the administrator away… not much. This area is a common field, without any particular features. There are no spawning grounds or resource extractions here, so I can’t provide you with any benefits. However, if you keep taking over these nodes, we are deep enough into the training ground that we should stumble upon some of these at any given moment!”

Nodding, Ares looked out into the darkness as the last percentage points of infection faded away into nothingness. Soon, his user-infection began dropping, and he felt more and more relieved at returning to a sane state of mind.

‘Tell me, Orca… what do you know of the infection?’

“Infection?” She said, and Ares could feel her rummaging through his logs, however uncomfortable the ability made him, he had to admit it was useful.

“Oh… Master… This is not good… This is very, very bad indeed!”

‘I know. Tell me what you know about it.’

“Know about it? Well, I’ve never seen anything like it! I have no information on the phenomenon, and no idea where something like that could have come from!”

‘Orca… If you’re lying to me…’

“I’m not lying, Master! I’ve told you how little I know about the Makers, outside of them being my masters, and you also being my master. My purpose is surveillance and tactical advice, not being a history book.”

‘Alright, what can you tell me from seeing my logs, then?’

“That’s… What I don’t understand. This… infection is obviously a part of you, even now, but I can detect no sign of it. You might have suppressed it for now, but I fear it can flare up at any moment if you make a mistake…”

‘It appeared to be locked inside of my Legacy, the Solar Lens. Can you tell me anything about that?’

“I can tell you about legacies in general, but I have no more information than you about your particular one.”

‘That’s fine, spill it.’

“The legacies are the most prized possessions among prime constructs. As far as I know, there are only twelve legacies in total, and each of them allows the prime unit to exhibit the full power of their class.”

‘So, like my unit’s Warbringer class?’ Ares asked, flicking through his status information for confirmation.

“That’s right! Since your unit can utilize the legacy, it is proof that it is a legacy distinctly made for your unit class. The information available about your particular legacy is its power of ‘concentration’. You’ve seen some of the effects, when you applied it to your blaster, for instance, but I think there are more wide-ranging effects which you should explore in the future.”

‘So that means there are twelve other legacies, which suggests there are twelve different classes of constructs, correct?’

“Yes, spot on!”

‘Then what about that one over there?’ Ares said and pointed towards Rex’s slumped form.

“That one? I can’t tell from a distance, although I can say it is not a prime unit.”

‘I had guessed as much already… Wait, is it possible to have a prime unit without a legacy?’

“Sure, I should think so,” Orca said, jovially as always, “I mean, there are only twelve legacies, but in their prime, the Makers had at least a hundred prime units in action.”

‘I see…’ This information opened up new avenues of thought. Ares had thought he was a Well on the other side because the construct he was connected to was a prime unit, but knowing this, he thought it too much of a coincidence that there were so few Wells. Was it possible that being a Well had more to do with these legacies, rather than the nature of the constructs?

In that case, the other Wells would also have legacies, and would have had more time to figure out what theirs could do. Ares wanted to start experimenting with his as soon as possible, but with the knowledge that the infection came from within his legacy did not make the prospect very appealing.

‘I think I’ve been neglecting the basic knowledge you have, Orca. Tell me about these classes and what they can do.’

“You have absolutely neglected me, Master!” Orca said, happy as a peach, “I’m glad you’re finally realizing that. You want to know about the classes? Then let big sis Orca here tell you all about them!”

As Orca began a lengthy lecture on each of the classes, Ares began to regret his decision to learn about them. She spoke so fast that her words became a river of sound to his mind, as images and windows popped up on his HUD, displaying the information she was running through.

Finally, in the end, she came to his class. “The Warbringer class is the class of peacekeepers and guardians of the Makers’ most guarded secrets—”

‘Wait…’ Ares interjected, unable to help himself, ‘Are you saying the Warbringers are peacekeepers? How does that make sense?

“Ehh… Now that you mention it… it doesn’t…” Orca sounded uncertain as she continued, “As I said, I don’t actually know much about the Makers, but I do know they had a certain idea about how prevention can lead to the end result you were trying to avoid.”

‘How so?’

“Well, I believe their thinking went like this: a guardian exists to prevent just anyone from approaching what they guard, right? However, the presence of the guard also indicates that there is something that is in need of being guarded. Thus the guardian is both a ward against- and a signal to, those who they are trying to keep from their charge. Contradictory, right?”

‘I suppose… So, you’re saying the Warbringers are named that way because their very existence is proof that there is war to come?’

“Absolutely right! Oh… I suppose I never actually thought about it that much myself… Strange…”

Although the logic was a bit twisted, Ares’ could still sense the protective instinct that had awakened while in the top-side of the dungeon. It clashed with the anger, which still seethed within him, creating a sort of balance he was unused to. Before there had only been anger, but now?

He was more comfortable with thinking of himself as a protector, although he had succumbed to the anger many times before when in need of power. Perhaps he could find a way to strangle the anger with this new sensation. Only time could tell.

‘Anyway, tell me about the class.’

“Sure thing! The Warbringer class excels in combat above all else, with a sturdier frame and heavier build, however this does limit the amount of skill-slots available at every upgrade. A low and steady energy consumption has also been prioritized, although the Warbringer class is also capable of consuming large quantities of energy in case of an emergency. The skills most suitable for a Warbringer are lifeweave skills, as they are fitted with the most advanced materials available.”

Ares was not exactly sure how useful this information was, but he supposed it was good to know. All of his active skills were lifeweave skills, which made sense, since they were skills the system had gifted him, rather than some he had acquired on his own initiative.

When Orca’s lecture finally came to a close, Ares’ user infection had gone down to 0%. He could once again feel the connection to the other side, and decided he better go back before his parents went into a panic.

‘I have to go, Orca. Keep the sentinel in line for me, will ya?’

“Sure thing, Master! I’ll keep that stupid oaf company while you’re gone.

Shaking his head at Orca’s antics, Ares leaned back against the pedestal, closing his eyes and leaving this place. Through the connection, back to his home.

The hour was early in Flotsam and darkness still reigned. The city fought against the encroaching abyss with streetlights and glowing billboards, but most houses lay dormant, their windows reflecting what little light came from the outside.

One building, however, was never completely dark. Like most of its kind, Flotsam Hospital was staffed for the night, with nurses and doctors going their rounds even as the rest of the city slept. What was unusual, however, was for the offices of the building to be lit up at this hour.

In these early hours, a particular office was still lighting up in all its glory. Inside sat a beatific man with dark hair, softly curling around his face like a plethora of snakes dangling from the top of his head. His gentle eyes skimmed over the papers on his desk, as he sipped a cup of tea that had long since gone stale and cold.

The particular papers on his desk told of the condition of a particular patient, one the doctor had spent a lot of effort on for the last decade. Something had gone wrong, however. There was a problem to solve, and this man was known for solving problems.

Sighing, doctor Rain leaned back on his chair and took his glasses off to rub his eyes. The hour was late… or was it early? He could not tell at this time.

A knock on the door brought doctor Rain out of his reverie, and he quickly put his glasses back on and called, “Come in.”

His soft voice carried through the door, even when he made no effort to raise his voice. The door opened, and a young man stepped inside and approached doctor Rain’s desk with confident strides. Holding off on the greetings, since the young man was obviously in a hurry, Rain waited until his guest was seated before he said, ever so gently, “Welcome, Warren. How may I help you?”

Warren Welbourne looked at doctor Rain with narrowed eyes behind his rectangular glasses. This young one was always in a hurry, and yet he was able to take his time when he needed to; doctor Rain respected that in him.

“That should be my line, Thomas,” said Warren, his tone low, “Seeing as how you’ve managed to screw everything up so royally, you must need a whole lot of help.”

“I take it you met young Sam—”

“I met him,” Warren said, cutting off Rain’s further comment, “And I confirmed that you have not performed your task. What the hell have you been doing all this time?”

“There were a few setbacks, but I think you might be exaggerating the failure. I—”

“I’m not interested in your sophistry or your excuses. I gave you a task — no, we made a deal, remember? I have been diligently working on my side of the deal, while you have managed to go backward on yours. How am I supposed to think about this, other than a catastrophic failure?”

For the first time, a wrinkle creased doctor Rain brow. He was not accustomed to being interrupted and did not greatly appreciate the experience. “I told you there was no way to ensure success,” he patiently explained, keeping eye-contact with the unruly young man before him, “I told you there were risks involved, and that we might trigger the very event we were trying to avoid.”

“So, he’s really awakened. He is in control now?”

“Not quite…”

Warren bared his teeth and growled, “Don’t play word-games with me, Thomas. Tell me what the hell happened, now!”

“Very well,” doctor Rain sighed, resigning himself, despite not liking Warren’s tone. He had made a promise, after all, and he had failed to deliver on his end. It was only right that he explained himself.

“Our preparations were perfectly sound. As you know, we’ve known about Sam’s general location for quite some time, but lacked the necessary man-power to delve into such a dangerous area. The boost we gave him in the last surgery was only meant to provide the energy necessary to pinpoint his exact location and allow for sentinel protocols to enter into effect. This should have allowed my agent to easily locate and move Sam’s unit, once we were in position.”

“This is what your report before the surgery told me. So what went wrong?”

“Well, I believe two things did,” Rain said, folding his hands before him, “One mistake on both sides of the issue. On my side, I believe we overestimated how much energy we could safely inject into Sam without waking him; and on the other side, my agent did not properly secure the guides we had prepared, and they managed to escape. This alone should not have been an issue, had they merely run back to Al Mendor. Instead, they traveled to your brother’s location and triggered the sentinel protocol, without my agent present to take control.”

“So, you admit you screwed up,” Warren said, matter-of-factly.

“I admit there were unforeseen variables that we did not manage to contain.”

“Stop splitting hairs — you screwed up, admit it.”

Doctor Rain sighed and rubbed at his temples. He really did not like the tone of this boy. “Need I remind you,” he finally said, fixing his calm gaze on the unruly young man, “Who it was that screwed up in the first place?”

Warren’s cheeks flushed with red, and doctor Rain could see anger flashing behind the young man’s glasses. “I paid my due,” Warren hissed, “I did what was expected of me. You, one the other hand, was supposed to get that thing out of my brother, and you have failed. So tell me, Thomas, how will you pay your dues?”

Doctor Rain smiled, seeing how his words had gotten under Warren’s skin. He really did not like to be reminded of how he had failed his most important task back when he had been such a rising star. “My agent is already making preparations for a second attempt. We still have a lock on Sam’s location, but he’s somewhere we can’t easily reach.”

“And so, what preparations have you put into place?”

“We have solicited an army from Nargol, and will be making landfall upon the Eastern shore within a month.”

“You went to a Dragon? A risky move…”

Rain shook his head, knowing what Warren was thinking. “Nargol is the easiest to deal with, since he merely greedy, and we have not employed any of his personal armies, but rather a group of Demonfolk whom he has dealings with.”

“You’re taking Demons to Ammedina? That’s your great plan?”

“A mere mercenary troop is not enough,” Rain explained, growing tired of this interrogation, “And if nothing else, Demons knows how to move unseen. As long as we can get ashore, getting to Sam’s location won’t be an issue.”

“I don’t like this…” Warren said, shaking his head, “It’s… messy. There wasn’t supposed to be any uncertainties with the old plan, and yet you failed. Now you want to introduce several variables into the plan, some of which are not merely risky, but downright suicidal. If Sam learns how to use that construct properly, or worse…”

“It won’t come to that,” Rain assured, “He may learn a few tricks, but nothing that can stop us if we go all out. And as for your main concern… I doubt he’d end up in a situation were the Source would awaken, but if it does… I would not expect Sam to remain sane for long.”

“You promised me, Thomas…” Warren warned, leaning forward, teeth bared like a predator.

“I know, I know… I won’t let it come to that. We will release him from this curse and you will get what you want, don’t you worry. You only need to have a little patience.”

They held each other’s gaze for a while, until Warren finally sighed and stood up. “I guess I’ll just have to trust you… I’m leaving in two hours. I’ve been asked for your opinion on our progress, so tell me if you have anything to add before I leave.”

Rain tapped his desk, thinking it over carefully. “I believe,” he finally said, weighing his every word, “We should push up our schedule a little…”