Chapter 6 – Exploration

Shaking his head, Ares dispelled that notion. The stray thought had snuck up on him like a thief in the night, hitting him over the head with disgust. He had a sudden and very violent desire to throw up all the creatures he had eaten during his brief existence in this world. “Are you alright, master Ares?” Asked Sloan, unaware of the gruesome thought he had been the subject of.

Waving the concern away, Ares got a hold of himself. Instead of looking at the little snack in front of him, he let his attention wander the encircling forest. The way the thicket stopped in a near perfect circle around the central cliff looked anything but natural. There had to be an explanation, and Ares wanted something to distract him from bloody murder.

“What is this place, exactly?” He asked, with another note.

“The Heart of the Forest, you mean?” Said Sloan. When Ares affirmed this, the halfling went on, “Like I told you: our ancestors the Elvan used to live here, back when the Old Ones —I mean; your people— ruled. Supposedly this was an ancient fortress of theirs, which even the mighty elven lords of the Ravager Age could not conquer. It’s very strange though… I think the few records we have are wrong.”

“How so?”

“Well, it’s like this. Before we found that hidden room you were in, we looked through every branching path up there, and all led out on other ledges. There were no living spaces up there, nor real fortifications; none of the signs you would expect of a habitable fortress. I think the entire ‘Plateau’ —as they called it— was a misdirection from their actual habitat.”

Though Ares did not quite get the context of what Sloan was discussing, and lacked the critical faculty to inquire seamlessly about the subject, he let the halfling continue his story, since Sloan was obviously too rapt by the tale he was spinning to recognize how entirely clueless his audience was on the subject matter. Instead, he simply wrote, “Explain,” and allowed things to take their course.

“I believe the habitat was not above us, master Ares, but entirely below us. Do you remember those shafts up there in the passages? Yes, of course you did. I was uncertain of what their purpose was at first, but when you consequently went and broke through the ground back there by the Plateau, I finally realized it. These shafts were not some sort of exit or hidden exits; I believe these were air-shaft, allowing for air to circulate from the true fortress below.”

Ares looked over at the small hole he had punctured in the ground. There had indeed been a huge space beneath —at least 22 meter deep by his measure— which he had to admit was interesting. He had none of the cultural understanding which made Sloan so excited, but the thought of an ancient people hiding themselves underground…? Which aspiring explorer would not have his blood burning at the prospect?

Only problem was, “How did they get down there?”

Sloan scratched his chin. He scratched his shaggy brown hair. Finally, he scratched the back of his neck, and still came out empty. “I honestly have no idea, master Ares. There would have to be some hidden pathways down there… And if they are able to disguise their entrances so well, it seems suspicious that the illusion leading into your chamber was so relatively easy to see through… Almost as if they wanted it to be found.”

Ares considered the halfling’s words, but found it no use to think about it too hard. Whatever the intentions of these people, they were apparently long gone from this place. While he wanted to check the underground out, he was not keen on another 20 meter drop just to get there. If they found the mechanism, great; if not — so be it.

“What about the forest? Any dangers?” He asked, turning his attention back on the thicket.

“Again, I don’t really know, master Ares. Before I got here, I would have said no. You see, the Heart is known as such, not because it is simply the center of the forest, but because it is protected by a barrier. Only those of Elvan blood can get through it, or help others through it. Even the beast known as the King of the Forest cannot enter, so I’d have thought there were no real threats in here, but now?”

Ares could not simply sit here and wait. If he wanted this world, he would have brave it first. “What about your betrayer?”

“Behmet? Yeah, he and his people might be out there, but he can’t get in. We made sure of that…”

The halfling took on a guilty expression, and Ares wondered what they had done to this ‘Behmet’ for him to look so abashed. “I will go scout the forest. What about you?”

“You’re going in there?” Sloan asked, with a very clear note of fright in his voice, “W-Well, I won’t stay here alone, that’s for sure.”

Ares shrugged at that. He had no real experience in foresting, and the halfling had at the very least trekked through this forest once to get here. He might actually be in a greater disadvantage than Sloan, simply due to his lack of exposure to the elements. Having stayed inside most of his life, he had probably eclipsed his total outdoor experience from the old world already.

Still, he was the one with the metal body so he took the lead of their exploratory team. After ensuring they had a way to return to this camp place —using a small compass-like instrument Sloan called a ‘Seer’— he set off into, for him, uncharted territory.

Walking into the alien forest was a surreal experience.

On one tree, purple leaves mingled with a yellow speckled snake-like vine, that held on to its host for dear life, while blue-leaved bushes below covered the ground and made moving forward nearly impossible. Whenever he was forced to, Ares took out the little axe from his belt and chopped himself a path forward, but he quickly found it a poor tool for the task and began to go around obstacles instead.

Sloan, meanwhile followed along in his tracks, easily avoiding the branches and vines that caused Ares difficulty, while being surprisingly nimble whenever he had to force his way through the lower thicket.

Warm air, thick with moisture, caressed Ares’ unclothed form gently. It suggested, along with the general vegetation, a warm temperate or near tropical climate, which narrowed his position down if he ever found a functional map. Sloan said his companion had had one, but he was unable to locate it in the camp. It was very likely that it had been lost in the violent encounter with Ares’ new body.

As they walked along he constantly found himself staring in wonderment at the scenery all around, thinking, The trees here are huge! They’re like skyscrapers, or something.. With how heavy they must be, how do they keep from collapsing in on themselves? It seemed impossible that these wooden giants could keep themselves upright, assuming they were anything like Earth-trees. Looking up, he could barely see the sky for branches, leaves and vines, which tangled together into a net of obscurity.

Like this, they walked on for at least another hour in the chattering din of hidden animals. From time to time, Ares froze in the spot when any particular noise seemed too close for comfort. Despite the apparent closeness, had Ares relied purely on eyesight he might never have seen the creatures dwelling here. Instead it was his HUD that marked down any lifeforms in the vicinity, taking note of any dangerous ones. He caught sight of something like a monkey with two tails, terrifyingly huge insectoids the size of a shoe, and so… so much more.

Completely mesmerized by all these new experiences, Ares came to a sudden halt when he passed through an especially rough thicket, to find himself on the edge of a wide clearing that appeared almost unnatural in this thick forest. Rays of sunlight peeked through the upper crust of the forest to grace the scene before him with an ethereal presence, illuminating the central element of the clearing in a way that could imply nothing less than hallowed ground — if not outright divinity.

Cast in this majestic light, in the center of the clearing — and dwarfed by every single tree in the vicinity in size — stood an old and gnarled tree that looked like an ash. Its crown was wide, and dressed in leaves of both deep amber and lush red, forming a cone around the trunk starting at Ares’s shoulder height. On many a branch, ripe-looking fruits hung ready for the taking, looking like apples, or perhaps oranges, with a golden-white sheen to their skin and just oozing with the sweet scent of sugar-infused juice.

All but irresistible, his mouth would have run liquid if he had had any mouth water. Despite this, Ares still managed to take a careful look around the clearing for any signs of danger. He had already victim to one ambush and did not wish to go through a similar experience.

Thus, with eyes scanning every inch of the clearing — literally, his HUD worked overtime to provide him with near-useless information —  he found nothing out of the ordinary. Failing to find a reason to stay away from the tree, Ares still crouched down and waved Sloan forward. Scribbling quickly, he asked, “Do you know what that tree is?

Only problem was that the halfling looked as stupefied as Ares felt. Waving the paper in front of the little man’s face, Ares finally got his attention. “Tha’ is a bleedin’ essence-tree,” said Sloan, his formerly learned tone taking on a sudden, gritty slur, “I didnae know, Master… we must leave, before ‘is too late!”

“Why?”

The halfling looked half-crazed, as he tore out his hair and said, “This is a burial mound for ancient Elvans, Master; below these roots are the buried hearts of my ancestors — but that is not the issue! Such a place would most certainly have a guardian, even if you cannot see it right now. We have to leave, master Ares, I beg you.”

Ares looked out on the scenery, focusing especially on those delectable fruits. The analysis on his HUD suggested these did not merely contain a high energy density, but that there might be lifeforce in these fruits. Thinking about the rush he had experienced during his level-up, a near obsession welled up from within, wanting to possess all of these fruits. It was only right, after all; he should be the master of this place.

Disregarding Sloan’s warning, Ares stepped carefully into the clearing, constantly looking from side to side. There were no signs of anyone being close by. Sloan made one last attempt at halting him, grasping his arm, but Ares simply tore his hand away from the halfling. Whimpering, the fat little creature hunkered back in the thicket, looking out with a terrified expression on his round face.

I cannot let this chance pass me by, Ares thought. If Sloan was right, he had been lucky to find the tree unattended. This might be his only chance of getting these fruits without a fight. With this objective clear in mind, he approached tentatively, to the point where the nearest fruit from its branch was barely an arms length away. He jerked his arm, seizing the golden prize and returning an instant later, without any immediate repercussions.

He looked around once more, ensuring nothing dangerous was out there, then bit into the fruit when he was satisfied. It was indeed sweet, and juicy to boot, immediately hooking him on the flavor. As he swallowed his first bite, and initiated his second, he was hit by a warm wave of energy nearly identical to that first euphoria after leveling up. Stunned by the sensation, Ares immediately checked his energy levels and saw something that made his eyes widen in surprise.

Energy levels at 43%

Eating three whole wolves had only gotten him from 10 to 40 percent energy, and he had steadily been spending percentage points in his trek through the forest, falling down to 35. Now, with a single bite of this fruit, he had immediately won 8 percentage points of energy. That alone was astounding, but when he checked through the menu this time he also found a little green bar flashing happily in concert with his eating.

Lifeforce at 6%

When he took another bite, the little bar instantly jumped up to 7%. According to the console message from before it was this lifeforce that increased his level, and just as the system had predicted, he was currently advancing simply by eating. Marveled by the lucky discovery, Ares chomped down the fruit in an instant, and then jumped out in a frenzy to collect the next one. After swallowing another fruit, the two little bars had advanced accordingly at:

Energy levels at 53%

Lifeforce at 17%

Overjoyed by the discovery, Ares jumped between branches gathering fruits, barely stopping to swallowing them. He began circling the tree, aiming for all the fruits he could reach from the ground, keeping his attention up above. After eating his fourth fruit, Ares had to stop eating, due to a message from his console.

Warning: lifeforce purity exceeding tolerable limits!

  • User level is too low to process lifeforce…
    • Artificial throttle has been imposed
    • Docking excess…

Apparently he could not just eat away as he please, instead, he gathered another three fruits into the folds of his makeshift clothing. Nearly dancing with elation, he stepped around the trunk of the tree to reach the next fruit for his collection. Obsessed with treasure, he carelessly stepped on something soft. Through his bare feet, Ares recognized the gentle textile of fur. A yowl soon followed from below, and Ares looked down just as whatever was below chomped at his foot.

Enraged by the sudden attack, Ares kicked the offending object away with all of his power. A white thing passed through the air like a cannonball, after it lost its grip on his foot. Seizing the initiative, Ares rushed forward to deliver a fatal blow to his attacker, and in only a few steps he was right beside the white lump as it rolled around and revealed itself as a… fox?

Surprised by the little animals audacity, Ares’s mind immediately went to food, thinking the little animal to be a decent meal to go between the sweet fruits. He activated [Edge], fashioning his hand into a razor sharp blade, which he used to go in for the kill.

The white fox managed to get onto its legs, even as it was nowhere near fast enough to escape the blow that was coming. In its last moments, it looked up at Ares with almost human fear edged into its little red eyes — or perhaps he was just imagining it. He ignored the sting of human pity that welled up from his conscience aided by his emulation units, and mercilessly proceeded with the execution. This lower being had dared to attack him first!

With single-minded purpose, he was too late in recognizing the signs of danger coming from his HUD.

Something heavy intercepted his blow, forcing his hand away. Ares only had a moment’s warning, and could only stumble sideways, falling into a roll. Awkwardly he got back up on his knees and tried to find his second assailant. Instead, he found the point of a wooden stick coming straight at him.

Unable to dodge, he put his arms up into a desperate guard that took the blow with his lower arm. He cursed his lack of attention that had led him into this; after the fight with the wolves he had felt indomitable, thinking no one could really harm him. Jumping into a sideways roll, he came back up on his feet.

Again his attacker was swift. Ares barely had time to discern a vague humanoid figure before the stick was back in his face. A hit to his side made him flinch in pain, anger rising within him. Ignoring his flashing console messages, Ares managed a bestial growl from the deepest recesses of his mechanical body, and felt the entire world slow down all around him.

No – the world was not slowing down: he was speeding up!

User has engaged Overclocking Drive

  • Time perception has been speed up by 5 times
  • Energy consumption has increased by 10 times

Electrical currents rushed through him like boiling blood, dampening the sound in his vicinity until all he could hear was the steady methodical buzz of his inner mechanics. Falling leaves from the ash-like tree slowed to a crawl. A disturbing calm fell over his surroundings, appearing to await his actions. In this time-warped place, Ares took a careful look at his attacker, and found what appeared to be a young boy in humanoid form.

Unlike Sloan, this one was tall and slender, with long arms holding up the wooden stick. His feet were widely spaced apart into a martial stance, allowing a low center of gravity. Although his face was contorted into a mixture of anger and concern, Ares could see how fine and delicate his features were, framed by black locks of hair, loosely tied up by a piece of cloth. The eyes locked onto him were like rubies, glowing violently red in the forest shade.

He would have looked an ordinary Earth-boy, if it had not been for the ashen skin that was so clearly alien, long and sharp ears the length of two hands, or — most importantly — the small horn, size of a thumb, growing out of the boy’s forehead.

Halfway amazed, halfway infuriated, Ares stepped forward with careful deliberation, knowing that his movement speed right now would appear near-instantaneous to those unaffected by his overclocking. Three steps was all it took to get him right in front of the boy. He grabbed the wooden stick and gave it a pull before he leveled a frontal kick at the boy’s stomach, to maximize the force to its fullest.

Surprise lit up in the boy’s eyes when felt the blow and was pushed into the air, before crashing into the ground with a dampened ‘crack’. Feeling a strange sense of superiority, Ares observed with giddy interest how the boy’s expression changed during his flight.

He waited until his opponent hit the ground before advancing again. With disdain he threw away the meager stick, opting to use his own hands for the kill, as he had done before.

The anger boiled, overflowing. Ares now knew that he was put into this world to avenge a great wrong, knowing that this would only be the first of many, many kills. He would crush the life out of this lower lifeform, return it to its proper place among dirt and dust, and.. He stumbled and mentally shook the sensation away, clawing at his sense of self until he finally believed himself to be… Sam?

What is happening?