Chapter 8 – Sheltering

Stumbling through the undergrowth, Ares and Sloan made it safely away from the clearing. Once he was certain they were a fair distance away Ares pushed away the halfling and sat down beside a tree, leaning against it for support as he activated his self-repair protocol. With the cool bark against the back of his head, he closed his eyes and enjoyed the soothing of his pain.

“Master Ares… Are you alright?”

He opened his eyes with the halfling kneeling in front of him, a strange expression of concern on his face. Fumbling for his notepad, Ares found that he had lost the vital item in the scuffle. Instead he used his finger to trace runes in the dark, leaving a short message.

“Why?”

Sloan looked from the message to Ares, doubt reflected in his eyes. “I don’t know… I just… You’ve treated me right, master Ares, even if you are very, very frightening.”

Ares had treated this little creature right? How bad had his former companion treated him, for Ares’ non-committal treatment to be considered right? For no apparent reason, the message from the tablet popped into his head.

We offer a small gift of knowledge in the hopes that you may take pity on our children and not needlessly harm them.

He had not been honoring that gift properly. It was a small ask, to merely avoid being cruel. Yet Ares thought he had already failed that task in  keeping Sloan alive and by his side. Perhaps just killing the little man back in the cave would have been a greater mercy.

He reached out and grabbed Sloan’s shoulder, giving it a firm shake in a gesture of goodwill. The halfling’s round eyes sparkled in response, so much so that Ares feared the little man might shed a tear in relief.

Having finished his repairs, getting back into tolerable levels of damage, Ares followed Sloan through the thickets back to their camp. Using the little stone-like object in his hand, Sloan could somehow pinpoint the right direction, leading them back out into the wide clearing from whence they had set out.

They found the two tents in good order, with no nasty surprises waiting for them. The hour had gotten late, with the two suns dying the sky red in a last, desperate struggle to illuminate the world. Though their exploration seemed to have only just begun, they had in reality spent hours just straggling through the wilderness.

While Sloan prepared a meal of salted wolf-meat, Ares sat down by the campfire and retrieved the few treasures he had managed to snatch from the jaws of death. There remained only two fruits from his scrap with the giant vixen, both horribly squashed to the point of losing their golden luster, hidden away in his make-shift clothing.

He looked at them for a while, uncertain whether he had won out, or lost during that whole debacle. There was no sense of victory as he looked at the boon, and so he surmised that he had indeed lost this round. Next time, though, I won’t let you get the better of me.

It was a strange superiority that dominated his mind, feeling slighted at the way the vixen had brushed him aside as if he was nothing. More than that, however, it was the way the ashen-skinned boy had talked about him, as if he was not really there, which really grated on his nerves. He would show that kid what was what.

With that in mind, he swallowed the first squashed piece of fruit, enjoying the strong flow he now recognized as ‘lifeforce’. Though it was not as much as a level-up, merely absorbing this unknown force made him feel truly alive.

With the added energy and lifeforce, he tried to reconnect with the sensation that had gripped him during the fight. As he found the same font of strength within himself, again a blood-red color seeped into his blue markings, lighting them up. His hand began twitching slightly, vibrating with the power that began concentrating between them. The red light in his hands felt warm, its heat intensifying as it coalesced into an almost corporeal form, where small dots of pure gold appeared within it.

An image coalesced before Ares, forming a sigil. The golden dots connected with one another, becoming perfect circles wounding around a tight ball of red light that expanded and warped in place. It grew slowly and steadily, as Ares fed it more energy, until it finally stopped changing. Finished, it formed the image of a molten-red star covered in golden rings like a net around its surface.

Faced with this strange sight, Ares became vaguely aware of his console, which once again spewed out text.

User has formed the Solar Lens

  • Under the influence of Solar Lens, unit energy capacity will double

Unit level is too low to fully accommodate Solar Lens

  • Some legacy bonuses will remain unavailable

Legacy may influence future unit growth

The image of the molten sun faded back into an ethereal shape which hovered back to him.

When it reconnected with his chest, it caused the glowing red markings at the point of contact to become infused with golden slashes — like the rings that had imprisoned the red globe. The change traveled swiftly out from his chest, growing across his body until all of his markings glowed with red and gold after a few breaths.

Compared to his earlier state, he not only felt recovered, he also felt more in control — as if he only now truly was the master of his body. He had relied heavily on the system before, but he thought he might even be able to move like that without it.

He stood back up and focused his will. The system had until now responded to the imposition of his mind, and figuring out how far he could take it might be valuable in the future. In response to his will, the information on his HUD faded away, leaving only the impression he could see with his own eyes.

With a naked view, so to speak, Ares tried punching. It felt weak, as if he was still in a sickly body. He tried again, and a third time, but found no appreciable difference. He kicked — weakHe spun in a circle, evading an imagined blow — weakStepping in, he leveled a knee-shot at his ghostly enemy — weak..! He turned in a half-circle, swinging his backhand at the incorporeal form, and was surprised when he felt a bit of contact in the blow.

Blinking, he watched as the illusory enemy he had imagined was no longer just in his mind — it was actually within his vision. Like a gray blob it hovered above the ground, making no motions. Though he had dismissed his HUD, his console still blinked in the corner, demanding his attention.

Would you like to initiate simulated sparring?

  • Previously encountered enemies may be simulated

He tried to smile, his lips twitched. Accepting the options and flipping through the available enemies — which, granted, was not a long list — Ares made his choice with conviction. I will show you

Before him, the ghostly image of the ashen-skinned boy appeared with a wooden stick in hand. Now with a training partner, Ares tried to imitate the motions he had been able to do while the system was aiding him.

He punched, but the enemy dodged his clumsy attack. Using the stick, the opponent struck Ares’ side, sending waves of pain through his system. Staggering backwards, Ares was simultaneously shocked at how real it felt, and confident that this much was to be expected from his current body.

Now knowing the price for failure, he still assaulted the ghostly image. Within five moves he was completely thrashed and thrown to the ground. Groaning, he sat up and looked at the illusory enemy. Clearly, he had been able to fight and even overpower the ashen-skinned boy back at their initial fight, but at soon as he waived all of his advantages, he lost magnificently — again.

With a wave of his hand he dismissed the enemy, then crossed his arms and sulked. He knew it was a reasonable outcome, since Sam had never practiced anything like martial arts before, not to mention getting into fights. Obviously he was unable to move the way he wanted without assistance.

“What are you doing?” Sloan asked, moving closer with a plate of some meat. He had apparently rummaged through their surroundings and found some edible roots, which he had arranged beside the meat.

Ares withdrew his notepad and wrote, “Practicing.” The little man scratched his head, then shrugged and said, “What are your plans now? I don’t imagine you’d want to stay here.” He offered the plate, and Ares received it and took a bite while thinking.

What were his plans? He had really just gone with the flow until now, which was not really conducive to his original impulse to conquer the world. Now that he had been utterly defeated at the very first step of reconnaissance, it seemed a foolish impulse.

He thought back to what the halfling had told him about the land around them. “Would I be welcome in your kingdom?” He finally asked, showing his writing while eating. The meat was good and the roots at least edible.

“Oh, would you?!” Sloan laughed and clapped his little hands, “Master Ares, the kingdom of Ammedina reveres the Old Ones above all else, to the point of obsession I’d say. While I, myself, regard the old traditions as worth studying, many would rather focus on the legacy of your people, since it is so much more powerful. An Awakened One such as yourself would be regarded as a living god; even the queen would bow before you!”

“Just the queen,” Ares asked, somewhat miffed. To be regarded as a god was only natural, it seemed to him, “What of the king?” It was a ‘kingdom’ after all.

“Oh—ah,” Sloan said with a nervous smile, “Well you see, Ammedina is a little different from some of the city-states on the western coast, who also have kings. In Ammedina, it is true that the king is the sole sovereign of the land and its borders — which is why the king is the head of the army and its generals who protect the land.

“However, it is the queen who is sovereign of the people. She has the authority to set laws for the people, to judge crime or indiscretion, and to execute these laws through civil administration. In principle the king and queen should perhaps be of equal status, but, as we say in the kingdom, the king may own the land on which the throne stands, but the queen owns the throne.”

“So the queen is the more powerful of the two?”

“Exactly right. The only being a queen would bow to, would be an Old One. In fact, if I do not present you directly to the queen upon our return, I may be regarded as a traitor!”

That seemed like more trouble. While Ares thought it was natural for him to be regarded as a god, he did not necessarily want for others to openly express it — not yet. He was still too weak to take such a position.

“Why?” He asked, beginning to lean away from the idea of going to the kingdom.

“Why I would be a traitor? Because, by not allowing the queen the opportunity to bow before you, and letting you live beneath her laws, I would have implicitly placed you beneath her authority. She would have to show her sincerity to you by immediately executing me for such a transgression.”

Ares felt an immaterial headache coming on. Problems of authority had never really interested him before, but he understood the implication; it was just way too troublesome. If he was discovered, forget about Sloan losing his head, his own freedom might be severely limited by this queen. That was not worth a trip to the country.

“Is there any place that does not revere Old Ones?” He asked, hopefully.

“Hmm… The Empire does not explicitly do so, I think… some of the city states on the western coast are not that religious either… Your best bet is the Marshes, though, or the Cold Plains, simply because there are not a lot of people there. Why — are you going to punish those who do not revere the Old Ones?”

He shook his head and thought for a bit while eating the rest of his food. His energy levels were steadily increasing, and he thought he might get his damage beneath 50% if he used the last fruit as well.

Sloan chattered on for a while, without Ares interjecting. The halfling told of his hometown of Al Mendor, which sounded impressive. He told of the many different people who could be found there, and of the sights. A massive tower that had fallen from the sky, a dungeon deep below that swallowed up people, and a massive academy for only the most gifted mages.

“What are mages?” Ares asked, when he found an opportunity to stop the halfling’s cascade of words. Then he thought better of it, and took returned the notepad to ask, “What are battlemages?” The term had come up a lot, after all.

Sloan chewed on his lip for a while, before finally saying, “I suppose it’s only right to tell you, master Ares. Mages are those of elvish descent who can manipulate lifeforce freely.”

The little man showed his palm, where little green streamers appeared — the same ones he had used to sprinkle their food with. “I can only use my essence, which is something every elvish bloodline can do with various effect. Those who train hard, and have talent, may manipulate lifeforce outside their bodies, which allows them to use the runes of our ancestors to great effect. These we call mages, and they are treated like nobility no matter which class or bloodline they come from.”

Ares waved his note again, since Sloan had not answered the principal question. “Oh, right,” he said, abashed, “Battlemages are of an even higher rank than mere mages. These are mages who have trained to such a degree that they may use lifelinks, which enables them to activate the constructs that demand the most energy, such as yourself, master.”

So this was why they had assumed he had a master. Ares nodded, even though the underlying principles was fantastical to him, at least the common sense picture the halfling described made sense.

Sloan seemed embarrassed by this admission, but Ares let him be. As the suns sank beneath the horizon, Sloan offered to take the first nightshift. “I feel no need to sleep,” Ares wrote, waving the halfling to sleep.

He truly had no desire to sleep. It was a strange condition, when one had been used to the sensation of tiredness and exhaustion for a lifetime, but in a mechanical body it obviously made sense. As such, he just satisfied himself with staring up at the unfamiliar stars above.

Sam had taken to stargazing from time to time — what else to do when you are chained to a bed? He could recognize the most basic starsigns like the big and small dipper, and Orion’s belt, but here there was not even a semblance of any such forms. There was simply uncountable small points of light, illuminating a sky free from light-pollution.

What a wonder. Ares sighed and put both hands behind his head as he lay looking up. What wonder to find oneself in a different world. Knowing he was lost to his old world, he could still not help himself from considering what might have happened to his family.

Was his sister crying? He was sure his mom was. His dad would be stoic in their company, but in secret, Ares was sure the man would be unable to hold back some tears. And Warren? Ares had no idea what his older brother would do. The way he had been acting for the past ten years, Ares thought he might even skip the burial of Sam’s body.

Even in an emotionless husk, thousands — if not millions and uncountable billions — of light-years away from his homeworld, Ares still wanted to let them know he was alive. That something of what had once been Sam still existed somewhere, and he would ensure that this sliver of neurological memory consisted in this new world for as long as possible.

Thinking such deep thoughts of existential nature, Ares took out the last of the squashed fruits he had managed to retrieve and popped it into his mouth. The sense of lifeforce was once more like a soothing drug through his system, and he felt himself relax and come to terms with reality.

That is, until his console began blinking with information.

The collective consumption of materials has increased unit level

  • Unit has reached level 1

Increased unit level has restored primary functions

  • Communications

Solar Lens has influenced unit growth

  • Energy extraction has become more efficient

Very satisfied with the coincidental result of his eating-everything-within-reach policy, Ares let the system work its magic.

Communication module has been restored

  • Patching into orbital network… complete
  • Pinpointing location… complete
  • Mapping surroundings… complete
  • Matching data with with satellite imagery… complete
  • Proximity map is online, displaying… complete

Blinking, Ares tried to make peace with a sudden obtrusion in his visual field: a colored circle that looked like a bullseye, with added circles within it, where a line kept circling around center, kinda like a—

A minimap! Ares realized, suddenly perking up at the addition to his HUD. The little map showed a single dot in the vicinity, right where Sloan would be sleeping, relative to his own position.

The surprises were not over, however. The system kept adding more and more.

Unit-exclusive communications administrator identified…

  • Patching into administrator feed… complete
  • Downloading administrator interface… complete
  • Uploading data… complete
  • Syncing linguistic input/output script… complete

Unit has been successfully linked to exclusive administrator

Activating…

For a moment, nothing happened, then all of a sudden a very enthused and high-pitched voice invaded Ares’ solitary head-space.

“OH MY GOD!”