Chapter 7 – Discovery

His electric blood froze in his veins when he realized what he had been about to do. In that moment, his legs faltered and abandoned him, sending him reeling to the ground. A heavy fog settled on his mind, slowing his thoughts to a crawl while speeding up his surroundings in a dizzying array of light, sound and smell. The next instant, he hit the ground with a crash; the shock instantly refocusing his mind and causing the world to snap back into real time. Back to his senses, Ares could see his console working overtime to inform him about what had happened.

Warning: Overclock drive is conflicting with artificial throttle

  • Purging docked lifeforce… complete
  • Throttle has been disengaged

Energy levels are unstable

  • Internal conflict has resulted in severe system damage

Damage at 70%

Damn this system, Ares thought, trying to get back on his feet. Without an instruction manual, or at least some warning, how was he supposed to know what worked and what did not? He had no idea how he had engaged the drive that sped up his perception of time, and no idea how it conflicted with the throttle to begin with.

The ashen boy was also getting to his feet, and he was soon joined by the little fox. The beast faced him and raised its tail, hissing while showing off its fangs. They both got up around the same time, and both took cautionary positions. Ares’ HUD was a mess, constantly glitching and rebooting, meaning all the information he had relied on until now was currently unavailable.

He thought about running. Whatever treasure these fruits were, surely they were not worth it in his current state. He was not allowed the time. The boy charged him, the fox following in his wake. Ares took the first blow with his metallic body, hoping the rebound off his metallic frame would give the boy a surprise. It did not.

Instead, Ares felt immediate pain. He counterattacked, going for the boy’s head, but he was fast. Without the information from his HUD, Ares had no advantage in fighting. Failing to hit with his fist, Ares resorted to a low kick, aiming for the opponent’s feet. The boy jumped and riposted with a kick to Ares’ chest.

Stumbling backwards, Ares lost his balance and fell onto his back. Rolling over, he got up on his knees in time to see the little fox flying at his face, with the boy nowhere to be seen. He swatted the fox away, and was consequently hit in the top of his head with enough force to make him collapse over forward. He hit the ground with his forehead, rolled over his side just as another kick to his chest threw him backwards.

Fighting to gain his feet again, Ares could not help but wonder at the ease at which he was being trampled by his opponent. His HUD had finally stopped rebooting over and over, and was currently halfway through its startup. Once he got it back on, he would immediately have a fighting chance. As it were, Sam’s fighting experience was simply too poor to have any use.

The boy, instead of keeping his close-combat advantage, had allowed Ares to stand up. Now he was pointing at him and shouting something unintelligible. A sudden glow from the fox caught his attention, and every nerve of his body told him he needed to dodge this — now!

Green mist rose from the little fox, as it opened its maw up wide. A little globe of green mist concentrated in its mouth, and Ares jumped sideways with all of his might. A green beam tore through the air where he had just been, following him in flight. Luckily, it only lasted for a second or two, and he avoided the worst of it.

He rolled back up on his feet just as his HUD returned to normal, inundating him with immediate information. Back on top, Ares charged. With the system in place, his fighting prowess was drastically improved. The boy punched and Ares turned with the blow, stepping in and leveling a devastating elbow shot at his opponent’s head. The boy was still fast, though, and managed to duck. Ares followed up with a knee that hit the boy in the side, sending him sprawling for once.

Aside from predicting every attack from his opponent, his view was no longer limited to what was in front of him. When the fox tried to circle around and attack his back, Ares caught it mid-flight and held it up to the side. It clawed and scratched at his hand, but he cared little. His eyes were locked on his true opponent. The boy gained his feet slowly, observing the fox with a worried expression.

“Easy,” said the boy, holding up one hand, “Just let him go. I’ll let your construct leave.”

Ares gritted his teeth and tried speaking again. A muffled mixture of scratching and half-way English escaped his mouth, not the elegant speech these creatures relied upon. He looked to the side, trying to find Sloan, but the halfling was nowhere to be seen. Did he run? Perhaps it was for the best. He could try and write a message of course, but he dared not let go of his hostage.

“I don’t know how you got a construct in here, Battlemage, but believe me when I tell you, you do not want it to stay here,” The boy said, reminding Ares of how Sloan had first assumed he was simply the instrument of someone else. “Leave the kit, and I can ensure that nothing will happen to your construct.”

Does he think he can stop me? Ares wondered. If he wanted, he could escape without trouble. This boy could not possibly hope to hold him here, not if Ares applied himself solely to run. It was a bluff then. Or…

Wait, did he say ‘kit’? Ares inspected the fox in his hands closer. It truly looked like a fox from his homeworld, with its triangle ears, characteristic muzzle, and that clever look that had made it into a creature of myth and fable. Although its clear white pelt seemed out of place in this lush forest, where no snow or ice made the color feasible as camouflage, it had a beautiful, almost ethereal sheen, that sparkled in the waning sunlight as it passed through the forest canopy. Paired with its glowing, ruby-red eyes, the fox could have been mistaken for an apparition, if not for the corporeal substance that Ares held onto.

It was too big to be a child though, nearly half the size of the wolves he had fought before. Surely it was fully grown. Was it an issue of translation? It seemed a strange detail to focus on, but something about the whole situation made it stand out to him. He looked back at the boy, who returned his look with a bit of sadness and resignation.

“Too late. I’m sorry.”

Too late for wha—

A massive ‘boom’ behind him, made Ares freeze on the spot. There had been something deliberate about the noise, as if someone — or something — wanted him to hear it. With extreme care, Ares turned his head to identify the source, only to find that a white pillar had grown out of the ground behind him. Why had his HUD not informed him of the change?

Except, it was not a pillar, and it had not grown. Electrical buzzing filled his mind as he followed the pillar upwards, where it forked into a barrel chest, consolidated into a wide neck, and ended in a calm mask of animal savagery — an enlarged version of the little creature he was still holding up in the air.

Truly, in front of him stood a massive white fox that looked like something out of legend; its white fur softly caressed by the light forest breeze, its ruby-red eyes transfixed on Ares and burning with intelligence, the soft edge of its lips slowly curling into a vicious snarl.

If Ares had had any bodily functions, they would have leaked with immediate effect. The buzzing in his mind was overwhelming — coupled with the still-flashing notice from his console — and, without thinking, he let go of the little kit in his hands.

The furry creature hit the ground and jolted into a sprint, jumping around Ares and behind one of the massive legs of its presumed mother vixen. Once safely behind the behemoth, the little kit made a very human-like expression of schadenfreude, sticking its tongue out between its teeth in mockery.

Taken aback, Ares had absolutely no response to what was happening. He had not understood Sloan’s warning — how could he have predicted this? Of course, this was an entirely different world from his; there were other rules of common sense he would have to learn.

If he would ever get the chance.

Deciding this would be a good moment to run, Ares legged it as fast as he could towards the clearing’s edge. Impossibly fast, a white coat of fur appeared beside him. Turning on the spot, Ares tried to avoid the blow his HUD was currently screaming about. Unfortunately, he was no match for the white fox. It lazily dashed him with its paw, sending him flying off to the side.

Flailing to retake control of his balance, Ares took no notice of where he was heading. He smashed into a nearby tree, back first. The pain should have knocked him out — would have knocked him out, if he had been a creature of flesh. Instead he got to enjoy the whole ordeal flooding his system in a tsunami of pain.

He felt liquids squeeze out all over his body, as the force strained his damaged system to the point of critical failure. With a heavy ‘thump’ he landed back down on the ground to an encouraging message from the console.

Damage at 81%%

It was a complete and utter reversal to his earlier success with the wolves, and he was once again reduced to a leaking wreckage. Gritting his teeth, Ares forced himself up to a seated position, just in time to see the massive fox slovenly pace towards him in a guarded prowl. Apparently he was worthy of caution, or perhaps it was just in the animal’s nature to always proceed with care. Without any mirth, Ares unlocked his mechanical jaws and laughed soundlessly, clacking his teeth together in mockery.

How petty his ambition now seemed — the ambition to make something out of himself and live fully, given this new chance. Just hours after waking up he was teetering on the brink of utter failure, and once more he would barely touch upon the world around him. Perhaps it was his fate to live half lives, barely ever seizing the opportunity to experience the full spectrum of what life could offer.

While he mocked himself, the fox approached slowly but surely, spelling his doom with every step it took. Although its massive form should have made quakes every time it put down a paw, no sound or vibration could be heard or felt – indeed, the creature seemed a spectral ghost.

With waning strength, Ares desperately raised a hand, as if he could stop the beast by posturing. The will to live was so strong within him, and yet his mechanical body was faltering, liquid spilling out of his joints and the large holes that covered him.

Even his arm was pierced by several holes that had only been superficially repaired. They now leaked out a bit of liquid, bleeding into the pale blue markings that covered his skin. Holding his arm up in front of him, Ares continually chanted within himself, I want to live…! I want to live…! His eyes blurred, failing him just before the critical moment of his end, seeing as the white beast now towered above him, red eyes brimming with deadly intent.

In that singular moment of utter defeat, Ares felt his will to live flow through him, melting together with the electric energies that animated him, seeping out along with the liquid spewing from his wounds. His mind trembled and shook. With his blurry vision he was vaguely aware of how the liquid suddenly changed color, going from soft blue to a tainted sanguine which, when it came into contact with the markings on his flesh, lit up in a warning red.

Manual user calibration complete: unit compatibility confirmed

Legacy available to form: Solar Lens

The fox raised its upper lip and snarled, speeding up its pace to a half-run. Apparently it was not keen on allowing whatever was happening to continue. Ares hoped that, whatever this was, it would allow him to get out of this mess. If only he had time!

“Waait!” Someone wailed, and a round ball appeared in front of Ares, holding out two chubby arms, shaking violently. Ares recognized Sloan’s form and voice, but was nonetheless shocked to see the little halfling stand in front of him like that. The little man was obviously scared halfway to death, even as he stood his ground against the mythical creature in front of him. His head was leaned away to the side, as if such an act would in any way help or save him. Ares could see his small and round pig-eyes were completely shut, fearing to look into the eyes of death.

“You!” The boy said, surprise clear in his voice as he held the kit in his arms. The boy’s recognition halted the Vixen’s approach, and she looked back at the humanoid who was currently safeguarding her offspring. “Yes, I know him, Kari. Please, don’t kill him.”

The vixen, obviously dissatisfied, tossed her head in Ares’ direction and growled. “I don’t know about him, yet…” The boy said, stepping closer, “You are Sloan, correct?”

The halfling opened one eye. Seeing everything was safe, he righted his head and replied in a shaky voice, “Y-yes…”

“I never got the chance to thank you for releasing me, so thank you. I will ask Kari to leave you be, but the construct must be destroyed; we cannot allow a battlemage to know about this essence-tree.”

“Th—there is not b-b-battlemage,” Sloan stammered, surprisingly cowed despite the bravery it presumably took to stand before the vixen like that, “H-he is one of the Awakened.”

Both the giant fox and the horned boy immediately turned their attention on Ares. “Is that true, Construct? Do you have no master?”

Ares looked from one to the other, still glowing violently red from the change within him. Finally he nodded, despite not knowing the exact meaning of their words; at least he was certain he had no master.

The vixen growled deeper and snapped at him. “I’m not sure that changes anything, Sloan,” said the boy, calmly, “The Awakened are supposedly more dangerous than any battlemage could ever hope to be. Please step aside.”

“I… I cannot,” The halfling said, mouth quivering with both fear and resolution.

“Why not? Why do you stand for this thing?”

“I d-don’t know,” the halfling admitted, “But it’s all I have l-left now. Krens is dead. Behmet lurks outside the Heart, and even you would surely not let me live if we meet again after this… You are a Demon, after all…”

“I am not a Demon,” the boy hissed, stepping forward and grabbing Sloan by the collar of his shirt, “I am an elf, just like you — no, more than you!”

“Are you sure?” Sloan asked, his quivering voice hinting at something beyond Ares’ understanding. Whatever the story was between these two, it was not one in which he had enough pieces to grasp the significance. For a long time, the red-eyed boy stared the halfling down, and, inexplicably, Sloan returned the stare with more calm than Ares had ever seen him display before.

“Fine,” said the boy, after a long showdown between the two of them, pushing Sloan away with a disgusted expression, “I suppose I do owe you a big favor. Let it be this, then. Leave, and don’t come back. If I see you or that construct again, I will not hesitate to end the two of you.”

The vixen snapped her jaws, obviously not impressed with the boy’s decision, and yet she acceded when he gently padded the side of her massive head and spoke into her ear in an inaudible voice.

With the danger apparently over, Ares let the red light fade away, seeing how it was beginning to drain his energy reserves dry. He had no idea what it did, but the Vixen’s expression immediately calmed after seeing him let go. He would have to investigate it further.

Escape came first, though. Sloan turned to him and reached out a hand, saying, “Are you alright, master Ares?” Seeing how relieved and frightened the halfling was, Ares had to admit he was impressed. Although the vixen could probably kill him pretty easily, he at least had a body that might withstand some punishment. Sloan probably could not even have survived a single blow from the behemoth, and yet he had placed himself between Ares at it because of… What, exactly?

Ares took the hand, even if he mostly relied on his own strength to get back up on his feet. It would not do to dismiss the help of the one who had just saved his second life. Though he could stand, his legs had taken a lot of damage, and he had to lean on Sloan to move forward. With a self-repair he might be fine, but he wanted to get away from this place as soon as possible.

With unsteady steps, the two exited the clearing, escaping the deadly danger. Looking over his shoulder, he saw three sets of ruby-red eyes watching him very closely as the undergrowth swallowed them up.

I will remember this defeat, he thought, locking eyes with the ashen-skinned boy. And I will remember you.