Novel Red Souls Chapter 19

Discussion in 'Community Fictions' started by A_Passing_Wanderer, Mar 15, 2017.

  1. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Member

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    Chapter 16


    From the cockpit, the view of the looming Rocky Mountains looked utterly imposing and mysterious, utterly befitting as a place from a long forgotten fairy tale. Numerous tall white peaks, topped off by the never-melting snow and partially obscured by the gray clouds; framed by the backdrop of the clear blue sky, the mountain range stood majestically, waiting for the mere mortals to converge at its feet and offer worship. At least, that's how Jack felt after catching the sights of the magnificent natural wonder.

    And since he had never come here before, not even as a family holiday, his awe was understandable. Even more so, as his awakened self possessed better than average eyesight as well as perceptions that could pick up on other things of slightly preternatural origins rather easily. The distance was not an issue – he still could, instinctively, sense that there were hidden wonders somewhere within the mountains, waiting to be plucked by the enterprising, adventurous hands.

    The futuristic aircraft was put on autopilot so Mylorne Akkad could work on things that needed his urgent attention, which mostly included calling his subordinates to deal with the more mandate elements: the business of making money.

    To facilitate that, communication tools were built into the plane. Akkad connected to his head office and spoke to someone charged with running the day-to-day, nitty gritty details of the operation and began the conference call mid-flight.

    Jack obviously didn't want to eavesdrop, but since he was sitting right next to the man, he ended up overhearing quite a few of the sensitive business-related strategy and all that. It sure felt like he was listening to something he shouldn't have, especially when the discussion became heated over the matter of firing close to a ten thousand people worldwide in order to protect the interests of some shareholders and such. The on-goings at New York was also briefly discussed by Mylorne Akkad and the other person at the end of the line, but it seemed that the stock markets there were trading at roughly the similar levels as before, so the two of them agreed to keep an eye out and not act too rashly just yet.

    During the call, Mylorne exhibited various facial expressions and temperaments, none of them staying any longer than absolutely necessary to get his messages across. It was like watching an accomplished stage actor switch out different glass masks to play a new role every five minutes. Jack thought that was quite spooky and unnerving to witness, but didn't say anything because he figured that, in order to stay competitive in the world of multi-billion dollar deal-making, one needed to become a ruthless chameleon and adapt very quickly to the changing circumstances. Who was he to criticize that? Surely, it must be just as tough going for the one doing it.

    “My apologies, Mister Mercer. That must have been rather unpleasant to listen to.” Akkad smiled wryly after ending the call to his office. “Even with the threat of world's end lurking right around the corner, it seems that there are many packs of greedy hyenas out there trying to take advantage of the slightest lapse in my judgment. It's quite appalling at times if I say so myself.”

    “Yeah, well. People gotta act like people, right?” Jack tried to sound wise, or at least as if he was unaffected by it all. But he thought that his response was too lukewarm and unconvincing and couldn't fool the eyes of Akkad.

    “Quite,” Mylorne Akkad chuckled softly, shaking his head. “We'll arrive at our destination in about ten minutes or so. Please be ready to disembark at a moment's notice.”

    “So, uh, still not going to tell me where we're going?”

    Jack glanced at the ground visible through the cockpit window. Other than the undulating, mountainous scape, dark green forests and a wide, pristine river cutting through the land like a blue-gray snake, he couldn't see a speck of civilization out there, not even a quaint little log cabin. Not that he could see one at this altitude anyways.

    Honestly, Jack was confident that Akkad wouldn't be forthcoming with the truth, but his expectation was slightly subverted with a sort-of answer.

    “About ten years ago, a survey team I employed for a purpose of finding ore deposits encountered an archaeological site of some significant value. Now normally, the proper authorities should have been notified of the discovery, but after I personally confirmed of what the site actually was, I moved immediately to purchase the entire area and had it sealed off. Three years ago, the technology has finally caught up to a level that allowed me to take a good peek into the secrets of this site, then I had set up a small enclave of researchers tasked to unlocking all the mysteries this site has to offer.”

    Jack nodded slightly before frowning when he thought about something that was seemingly too crazy to happen. “Wait a sec. You are not going to tell me that this site has something to do with Gilgamesh and his legends, right? I mean, that would be.... uh, impossible?”

    Akkad checked the current coordinates displayed on one of the monitors directly in front of him and disengaged the autopilot. He grabbed the twin joystick-like controller bars and began to slowly lower the altitude of the craft.

    “Well... not directly, no. This site is a good few millenniums older than even the ages of Gilgamesh but crucially, its secrets are yet to be fully exposed so for the time being, we assume it does. And please, do remember this, Mister Mercer – nothing, and I do mean nothing, is impossible. Yes, there are improbabilities but never true impossibilities. Our very existences attest to that fact.”

    Jack couldn't really disagree with that notion. Akkad was right; his own being should have been impossible. Being a clone of someone was one thing, but inheriting memories of the previous life was something else entirely. Science simply could not provide adequate answers for this phenomenon. But still, Gilgamesh was a figure from the Middle East. He was in North America, for crying out loud. Thousands of miles away, separated by a tempestuous ocean. How can an ancient civilization even hope to cross that, and then the vast expanse of the continent itself, to build a historical site here, of all places?

    Nothing's impossible, huh.....

    Jack mulled this line over and over. Sounded like a good advice to remember, even if it was a hard one to swallow.

    “We're here,” said Akkad loudly as he clicked on some buttons before connecting to the ground control, asking for the permission to land.

    Jack took a deep breath, trying to settle his confused head. He knew that it'd do him no good to stay flustered and indecisive. It was time for him to man up and follow through with whatever he chose to do in the beginning. He thought wryly that the number of times he chided himself for wavering had gone past his ability to keep track of. That was a rather shameful matter to him.

    Jack looked out of the cockpit and at the approaching landing area. It was a wide clearing in the middle of a dense forest with tall, straight trees right at the foot of a mountain. There were several temporary lodgings built like the foreman's trailer offices commonly seen in construction sites with dozens and dozens of satellite dishes pointing towards various directions. Funnily enough, these trailers were all painted in green camouflage to seamlessly blend in with the surroundings.

    Next to them, a huge tent, also in full camo. The tent was big enough to hold a circus or a carnival inside. There were people coming in and out of then entrance to the side.

    The landing pad was next to the biggest trailer. Only after the craft touched down noisily kicking up a whirlwind of dust and grass did Jack realize there was a hangar situated right next to the pad; it was that well disguised, nearly impossible to discern from the air. The roof of the hangar was camouflaged but with the addition of mock vines and grass to seal the illusion further. The hangar was well stocked with several jeeps, a couple of helicopters and all-terrain vehicles, as well as crates of stuff, parked neatly to the side. It was all so very professional.

    Akkad and Jack exited the craft in a hurry and met with the crowd waiting for them outside. Jack quickly scanned the group of men and women, trying his best not to form a wrong impression of them and not give one of himself. Both of these goals were easier said than done, however.

    The group that came to receive Jack and Akkad were more or less comprised of what would be classified as the archetypal academics – scruffy beards, messy hair, uncoordinated fashion sense, thick glasses, pale skin and slightly hunched shoulders from sitting in front of computers and staring at the monitors for too long. There were always exceptions, of course – two men who looked like soldiers and geared up in simple camo. Also, underarm holsters with pistols were a dead giveaway so there was that.

    Akkad greeted the team leader who happened to be a man wearing the thickest pair of glasses Jack had ever seen in his life. Also, the lumberjack-wannabe beard, too. Jack inwardly rolled his eyes.

    “Doctor McLean. Apologies for the short notice. How far along are the preparations for the foray into the Incubation Chamber?”

    Akkad firmly shook the man's hand and asked.

    “Yes, sir. The overall system is up and ready as you have specified. No errors and inconsistencies, so far. Which is rather swell news.”

    “Good. Doctor, this is Mister Jack Mercer. Mister Mercer, this is Doctor Norman McLean. He oversees this facility on my behalf. And he will also supervise the overall process.”

    Jack frowned but still didn't forget to shake the hand of the bearded doctor. “Uhm, how do you do? Nice to meet you, doctor. By the way, what process are we talking about here?”

    “Since we are already pressed for time, let's talk while we head inside,” said McLean as he ushered the group towards the big tent.

    The entrance was actually less of a door and more of a mobile quarantine facility. Those wanting to enter had to relinquish all metallic and personal items that could hide potential contaminants. After that, a pressurized chamber, where the clean air was blasted into the bodies. And finally, changing into a set of white Hazmat suits fitted with Geiger counters, LED lighting and shoulder mounted cameras as well as short-wave radios for communication with the others. Each of these rigorous processes was overseen by a stern-looking man who seemed to lack any sense of humor whatsoever.

    Jack felt like that after wearing the Hazmat suit he was walking into a disaster zone or something just as sinister and forbidden. Then it was finally the turn to enter the huge tent itself through an automatic metal door. It was thick enough to repel an explosive shell fired by a tank, or at least according to the proud explanation from the good doctor McLean.

    Further up in the tent, the first thing Jack saw was the metal railings where observers could lean against or grab hold onto, in order to view what's up ahead.

    And that was a huge depression on the ground. Inside this hole, were nine slender stone pillars arranged in a circle, while nine thicker pillars arranged in also a circle behind the slender ones. The whole thing was almost a carbon copy of Stonehenge in England, except that they were a lot more intact, the stones were colored red, and were below ground.

    There were step ladders to enter the hole. The group descended down and Jack got closer. An inexplicable chill ran his backside as he got near one of the outer stone pillars and its utterly insane dimensions; it was huge. Easily twice the height of the aforementioned monument in Britain, this outer stone pillar was richly decorated with carvings depicting wildlife. Birds of unidentifiable characteristics, bison-like bovine creatures, and wild, untamed horses as well as primitive men were the subjects of the artists' focus.

    Without a doubt, they were quite striking to look at, seemingly enticing all those who gaze upon the pillars to come and unlock the hidden mystery of these monuments. Obviously, Mylorne's researchers agreed, since plenty of scientific measuring equipment were placed on and around every pillar here.

    But they weren't the most important objects inside the tent. A man-made hole right in the middle of the inner circle of the pillars, was. The inner circle was at least twenty-five meters in diameter, and the hole was slightly off to the side of the center, where there was yet another pillar but this one was very short, not even as tall as a grown adult's height.

    A big crane and an electric motor operated the elevator system, the only way to go in and out of the hole. McLean stepped into the elevator and motioned the others to follow him. With a creak and a noisy whirr, the elevator descended.

    Every few meters, strong fluorescent lights illuminated the darkness and Jack could peer down the edge of the lift to see just how deep this hole went. And it was pretty deep.

    The bottom of the hole led to a large natural cavern. The area around the elevator was fashioned into a hub for the researchers. Temporary tents and laboratories were set up here and there, with electric buggies and large spotlights and people wearing Hazmat suits everywhere.

    Jack took in the air which was slightly warmer than the surface. He remembered reading somewhere that the deeper a person went into the earth's crust, the warmer it got. He wasn't sure of whether that was true or not, but hell, here was his proof.

    Past the immediate area around the hub, there were three passageways to the right, left and in the middle. Thick electrical cables lined the floors and the walls; there was a low hum coming from one of the tents, with a number of servers inside. In another, Jack caught a glimpse of metallic crates that might contain weapons at a first glance. The markings on the side said “Property of Akkad Industries, Inc. Do Not Touch.”

    McLean hurriedly introduced some other important people to Jack and Akkad before leading the expanded group down the middle passageway, the biggest of the three. It was also the brightest of the three, with a lot of lamps illuminating the walls and the ceilings. All that light played with the numerous stalactites and stalagmites creating an eerie shadow puppet show on the smooth walls.

    It was on these said walls that Jack noticed the details on them.

    “Wow, are these genuine cave drawings?”

    Jack pointed at the fading murals on the walls, his eyes wide open. He did feel a bit stupid for asking this question right after asking it, though.

    “Yes, of course they are. And we estimate each and every one of them are at least twelve thousand years old or more, so please, refrain from touching them carelessly.”

    McLean's expression was apologetic when he said that, but Jack was sure the man was feeling anything but that. Not that he was going to touch these drawings, though.

    The subjects of the drawings were not too different from the pillars outside the hole. Freely roaming animals, primitive men chasing after them with spears, homesteads with cultivated fields and the majestic mountains – the usual. But as Jack went in deeper into the cavern, the depictions began to take on a more strange, The Twilight Zone-esque flavor.

    The scenes of men encountering, and fighting, even offering worship, to monsters and strange figures were becoming common. Jack couldn't just chalk the drawings up to cavemen acting out in superstitions since there was the real possibility that these monsters were exaggerated depictions of Supers in the ancient times.

    But then, it was harder to make that call as the monsters became more bizarre and horrifying; in one, it was a huge black tentacle thing with a red eye in the middle. In another, a giant with six arms and three heads, busy eating humans. And then there was the biggie: Jack could swear the mural could be mistaken for a UFO. Although it was not round and disc-shaped nor silver in color, the thing was undoubtedly hovering in the air – yep, it had to be a freaking UFO. What else could it possibly be?!

    Jack felt like his head was spinning like the proverbial saucers in the old Sci-fi movies.

    What the hell. Is this some kind of a practical joke?!

    He glanced at Mylorne Akkad and Doctor McLean but they didn't seem to care about the murals and were resolutely walking forward. Seeing them, Jack lost any motivation to ask for the veracity of what were on these walls.

    Down further into the cavern, they finally arrived at their destination. And Jack did a double take on what he was seeing at the moment. He was getting real tired of more surprises right about now – he had been in constant state of being in one form of shock or another since yesterday and he could use some amount of “back the eff off for a second” currently.

    The area was huge. Literally, huge. Even bigger than a football pitch, bigger than even an airplane hangar – it was a ridiculously huge open area. And on top of that, there was a miniature red pyramid, just like the one outside the city of Cairo, smack dab in the middle of this huge open space. This particular one was not as big, though – maybe only a tenth in dimension, but it was uncannily similar in appearance.

    The entire structure was quarantined in the clear bubble-like material. A laboratory was set up just outside of the quarantine, with a ton of equipment and computers set up. And yes, there were also lots of researchers standing around pointing at stuff on the myriad of monitors.

    Jack hadn't yet had the chance to fully digest everything he saw until now when McLean turned to face Akkad and spoke.

    “Okay, so here we are, The Incubation Chamber,” McLean said as he gazed at Jack and at his boss. “The boy can enter it anytime. The prototype Kevlar survival mech suit is ready to wear as we speak, sir. I wasn't sure of his measurements so we got the standard size. Hopefully, that'll be fine. While he's suiting up, we will place the Crystal in the chamber's core.”

    Jack's head was spinning from so many questions, so understandably it took a couple of seconds before he registered what was said. “Eh? Me? I'm going to enter that pyramid?”

    “Yes,” nodded McLean and Akkad almost at the same time.

    “Okay, uh, slow down, guys. First of all, what the hell is that thing?! Why is a pyramid doing underground here, in continental U.S, halfway across the world? And just what the hell did I see back in the cave? Aliens? Monsters?!”

    Akkad motioned McLean to speak up on the matters of the pyramid. After all, the doctor knew more of it than anyone in this facility, a fact that he was quite proud of.

    “Ahem. Well, Mister Mercer – can I call you Jack? Right. Jack, there are some things we don't have the concrete answers to, such as how on earth this pyramid had ended up here underground. We posit that it was deliberately built down here. We think an extremely advanced civilization that was not exactly terrestrial in nature built it. The Egyptologists all think that these ancient buildings are tombs of the Pharaohs and stuff like that, but heh, the one we've got here is definitely not a tomb of some crummy dead monarch, that's for sure. Instead.... well, uh, my researchers all consented to calling it The Hyperbolic Time Chamber. Unofficially, of course.”

    There was a gleam of excitement in McLean's eyes as he fervently spoke, hoping that his great witticism would find an appreciative audience. Alas, his expectant gaze was met with confused pair from Jack as the teen didn't get the reference. It was before his time, after all. And Akkad was pretty much apathetic to the name.

    Realizing that he had failed miserably, McLean's shoulders sagged just a bit in disappointment before he continued.

    “Inside the structure, it's almost empty, except for two things – a pedestal with a crystal on top and a flat plinth at the core where we can place an object such as the power source of the whole thing. We know that the pedestal acts as a switch, to turn the structure on and off. Once you switch the structure on, the time begins to flow differently inside. And, uh, certain things happen.”

    Jack tilted his head in further confusion.

    “What do you mean, the time flows differently inside? Huh? And what... things?”

    “Well, it's like this. Once you go inside and activate the structure, the time will flow faster compared to the outside. One hour outside is equivalent to 24 hours inside. So, a day outside, you'll be spending 24 days inside. See, almost like the Hyperbolic Time Chamber!!”

    Jack still didn't get the reference so he ignored that.

    “So you want me to go in there? And do what, exactly?”

    Akkad stepped in and replaced the utterly disappointed McLean.

    “It's easy. You are going to train inside. First, to reacquire the ability to.... use the red souls while not sleeping. And two, to absorb more of the red souls and further enhance your specs. I believe you will need a lot more than 24 days to accomplish this, but the time is of the essence and you need to hurry.”

    Jack gulped involuntarily. So he had to go in there and train – which was definitely easier said than done. As he was thinking about this and that, McLean added a few more info.

    “When the structure, the Incubation Chamber is activated, you can't leave it without switching it off. Just thought that I'd let you know. If you are worried about rations, don't worry, we've got you covered. MREs, baby. They might taste dry but all the necessary nutrients for a growing body, all in there.”

    Jack had a slight idea what was an MRE, but that was not what he was worried about. He was about to think of an excuse to not go inside that pyramid, but then, he reminded himself of the oath – that he'd become stronger and take down the two rogue Supers who caused the deaths of his friends. And that he'd not remain indecisive anymore.

    He but his lower lip and the sharp pain brought him to his senses.

    “Alright. Tell me what I need to do.”

    Akkad nodded and turned to McLean. “Follow Doctor McLean to the changing facility. You will be advised on the functions of the prototype mech suit before putting it on. It might be a little uncomfortable, but bear with it, as you will need it inside the chamber.”

    There were some ominous words in what Akkad said but Jack didn't pay heed to them. Too late to back out now, anyways.

    Jack followed McLean and entered a small tent; there was a single upright crate there.

    “Well, here it is; the pride of Akkad Industries, Inc. The prototype Kevlar multi-purpose all-terrain survival mech suit, GS-011-PX. Now go in there and get out of the Hazmat suit. I'll help you put this beauty on.”

    Jack entered the clean air chamber located within the tent and stripped off the bulky Hazmat suit, then let the clean air scrub him down. As he was doing just that, McLean operated the crate and opened the lid. Inside, a set of unpainted combat armor, waiting for its new owner. Its surface was pitch-dark and non-reflective, as if it was actively absorbing all of the surrounding light.

    McLean helped Jack to put on the suit. First, he put on the black fabric that was harder than steel but as supple as silk. McLean explained that it was a new carbon fabric weave that Akkad Industries had come up with but due to astronomical cost it had never been implemented, remaining only as a prototype at this stage.

    Next was the armor parts. Each of the parts was tough like steel but light, as light as the black fabric. And finally, the helmet. The visor was black on the outside but from inside Jack had no problem looking out. It was a bit stuffy inside, though. And the sound was muffled as well.

    McLean explained that each of the armor was enough to reflect any regular small caliber firearms, well up to .45 depending on the distance. Combined with the fabric, the suit would even absorb almost 50% of the concussive force. Knives wouldn't even be able to cut it – only the industrial-strength laser could slice it.

    The suit also had the vital function of keeping the body temperature uniform at all times. It also had slots for shots of morphine in case the wearer was injured but it was empty now. On the hips, areas for holsters and weapons. On his left forearm, touchscreen miniature PDA computer, shielded by the same material as the armor.

    Fully suited up, Jack stood before a mirror and examined his appearance. To his dismay, he looked somewhat like a costumed hero wearing the type of thing that he'd never, ever wear unless he wanted to commit a social seppuku. Well, he was wearing one and it fit him like a glove.

    Suddenly thinking of something, Jack turned and asked McLean. “Hey, does this armor suit thing come in red?”

    “Uh... no, not really. What, you want one in red?”

    Jack shrugged his shoulders. “No, well. I was just curious.”

    McLean chuckled. “Whatever, man. Move around a bit, let's see if it's chafing up somewhere uncomfortable. Once you are happy in it, switch on the PDA and activate the suit.”

    Jack did as told, and moved around a little in it; nothing felt amiss. He then switched on the PDA, a dim orange glow emitting from it. The first lines it said was:

    Welcome, new user. Activate the standard settings now?

    Jack pressed the pulsing “yes” button without hesitation.

    The suit let out a short hiss, and a subtle beep, before Jack felt a slight tightening of the suit around him. Now, he didn't feel like he was wearing anything at all – as if he was completely naked. A weird feeling, that.

    And on the visor, orange texts floated up. “Initial calibration completed. In-depth calibration to the new user's specification unable to be carried out: insufficient data.

    Even though he couldn't see Jack's confused face, McLean still helpfully offered up explanations.

    “Don't be alarmed. The computer will change some parameters of the suit to best accommodate you. You will need to perform a lot of actions so the computer can collect as much information as possible. Once the in-depth calibration is done for good, the suit will be able to show off its most amazing stuff.”

    “Okay, then. Is there anything else?”

    “Nothing much. Most of the functions the suit provides, you won't probably need it inside the Chamber, other than the body temperature modulation. If you have any other questions while inside the structure, the PDA has one or two FAQs so take a look. Alright, let's get going, then!!”

    ~​

    “Looking good,” said Mylorne Akkad as he sized up Jack. “You know, I initially took inspirations from the Armor of Crimson Starlight when designing the GS series. Who knew it would suit you this well?”

    Akkad had a gentle smile as he nodded, but he became serious as he and Jack approached the pyramid.

    “Okay, listen to me, Mister Mercer. The suit is linked with the monitoring system out here but because of the time difference as well as how the structure is constructed, we won't be able to communicate when you are inside. Once you enter, you will encounter strange situations. But ignore them and overcome them to your best abilities. In the beginning, it will not be difficult. But if you feel that your life is threatened, then do not hesitate and switch off the structure and escape. That is not up for a debate. Understood?”

    Jack nodded solemnly. Even though no one said out aloud, but judging from their expressions he could tell entering and withstanding even a single day inside the pyramid would be difficult, most likely deadly. Otherwise, why would he need to wear this armor? Or the advice from Akkad?

    Jack entered past the barrier and approached the entrance of the pyramid. Perhaps fittingly, it was shaped like the mouth of a monster; wide open and ready to swallow the next hapless fool who chose to step within. The Hazmat suit wearing technicians rushed out as Jack stood in front of the entrance. One of them shouted at him.

    “Hey man. Good luck in there. I'll pray for you.”

    Jack almost retorted that he was not religious, but saved his energy. The technician meant well, after all.

    Taking a deep breath, he stepped inside the doorway.
    Here's this Friday's chapter. Hope you enjoy it. Please comment if there's something you'd like to let me know. Thanks.
     
  2. GoodOldChap

    GoodOldChap Member

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    I always fall behind my schedule in rl because I'm so good at procrastinating
     
    A_Passing_Wanderer likes this.
  3. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Member

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    Lol. I know what you mean, bruh. We all want perfection, so we dither here and there and before we know it, it's the dang deadline!! Holy shite.

    Oh well. What can you do, right? {shrugs shoulders}

    Chapter 17


    Nico Gavalas didn't feel tired or fatigued. He hadn't slept, barely ate anything or rested ever since arriving in this wonderful country, yet he somehow felt great.

    Perhaps it was the energy of the city, its people. Even though there was a heavy presence of police officers and military personnel here and there, Nico found it not that difficult to see the life pulsing in the streets, from every nook and cranny. New York deserved to be called one of the greatest cities on earth from its stunning architecture to the vast melting pot of culture, art and, heritage.

    He loved it. It felt so much more alive and hopeful, compared to his hometown. There was this aura floating in the air that there was an opportunity for everyone here as long as one wished to grab it with both hands. And Nico was just such a person to grab hold onto one.

    Oh, how he struggled for years to make ends meet. There was so much that went wrong so suddenly, people losing their livelihoods almost overnight without a warning. Of course, that wasn't true, there was enough signs of decay, signals of impending collapse, but as it was often the case with humanity, those hints were ignored until it was too late.

    But that was all meaningless now that he had seen the light. He was reborn from the ashes of the corrupted society. And pretty soon, others like him would be reborn in the same way as him.

    While walking down the street he caught his reflection from the window of a store. He grinned slightly at his own visage. Although he hadn't rested he looked great. No one would doubt this handsome, jovial man would be their savior. Funnily enough, even Nico himself couldn't really recognize it.

    He was not 100% sure, but he didn't look like this. There was this lingering feeling that he wasn't supposed to be a Nico Gavalas, that he was instead somebody else before he became this person. As to who he was prior to this metamorphosis.... well, it didn't matter anymore. He was better off now, so no point in dwelling on the unpleasant past. He couldn't remember it well anyways.

    As he continued checking out his appearance, he saw a police car cruise by. Two cops inside looked vigilant and trigger happy. Nico lost count how many times he encountered policemen and women this morning. He thought that all this presence of officers was a strange thing, indeed. He'd heard that New York had shed the unenviable title of the crime capital of the United States of America but all these police force made it like there was a major crime going on right at this moment. He found it all very bizarre.

    Not even once did it cross his mind that he was responsible for this heightened security level, though.

    Anyways, they weren't looking for him, that much Nico was sure of. He went past many cordons of checkpoints no problem, so that was the proof enough.

    Everything was going so well. He found the Divine Dagger of Enki ahead of schedule with almost no resistance. And now, he was hot on the trail of the second artifact needed for the ritual. The broken compass was leading him towards a pier, to where his objective was. After he finds this piece then time to go to the Metropolitan Museum and boom!!

    Nico couldn't wait to see the elated faces of all the New Yorkers. He was quite sure it would be an incredible spectacle.

    But as he walked into the pier, his facial color changed a bit.

    He began to see familiar people. No, not familiar as in he knew them, but familiar as in how these people smelled. How these people talked. How these people moved, their eyes shifty and suspicious and arrogant and worst of all, corrupt.

    They were criminals. Nico saw them bully innocent and weak back in his hometown. Their Eastern European faces and accents pretty much confirmed his suspicions.

    Nico felt his mood worsen. Before he came here, before he became this new person, he too had suffered at the hands of these despicable criminals who peddled narcotics, trafficked young girls, robbed and assaulted anyone getting in their way.

    But now, he was different. He could deal with these bastards now. Just as well, the Dagger and the stone tablet needed sacrificial blood to get going anyways. Might as well spill the blood of these scums of society, begin the cleansing of the world proper with them, right here, right now.

    As he thought like this, Nico felt better. An amiable smile returned to his lips. Chuckling lightly, he approached the warehouse guarded by several burly men carrying semi-automatic assault rifles.

    Nico walked past the unmanned guard post between the steel wire fencing and got nearer a man who was smoking a cigarette, apparently not noticing a figure approaching his back. He was evidently alone, which was a mistake on his part.

    In Nico's free hand, there was nothing. Then, a blink of an eye later, the dagger he had taken back from Abyss the masked vigilante, appeared like a magic trick.

    Nico simply stabbed the smoking man from behind; the blade was so sharp, it cut through the man's spine like a hot knife going through butter and ruptured his heart, killing the man instantly. Nico nonchalantly withdrew the weapon and the lifeless body fell with a soft thud, the gun in his side clattering noisily on the ground. The blood on the blade sizzled, before dissipating into wisps.

    That's when the strange things began to happen. Nico's gym bag started vibrating. Remembering something important, Nico hurriedly put the bag down and opened it, releasing the stone tablet inside.

    The tablet flew up in the air and began to emit a low hum, glowing in a sickly golden hue. As it did so, the pooling blood from the dead man began to coagulate into a single ball-shaped mass, before floating up near the tablet, circling around it. Then, slowly, a thread came out of this bloody ball, and its end was absorbed by the tablet. The ball of blood began to unravel as the thread continuously entered the tablet.

    The stone tablet shook a little harder but returned back to a low humming. Nico nodded in satisfaction.

    “Heh, so this guy was a warrior, eh. Must've killed a quite a few people in his life.”

    Nico shook his head but his smile remained on his lips.

    “Oh well, this amount of blood isn't enough, but I'm sure there are enough sacrifices inside, so no worries, my liege. It's all going to be just fine.”

    Nico spoke reverently towards the exposed golden skull, before picking up the gym bag and the skull within it. The stone tablet remained suspended in the air just above his head, following him as Nico started moving again.

    ~​

    Wilhelm Milosevic was a self-made man.

    Born to a poor peasant family eking out a wretched living in rural Albania, as one Ylli Markaj, Wilhelm quickly made a name for himself as a bare-knuckle underground prizefighter in his teenage years. It was the only way he thought he could earn a bit of money and dig an escape hole for himself.

    By the time he became 18, he'd fought almost everyone he could in his neighborhood – even crippling two and killing one – and was left with no choice but to move to a bigger league. Which was, of course, crime. Organized crime, to be exact. After the fall of the Soviet Union and its societal ideology of Communism, Albania moved on to the paths of a freer economy and democracy. This allowed small-time gangs access to the bigger markets beyond its borders. Tempered by years of doing things their way, the brutal, unrestrained way, the Albanian criminal gangs proliferated at a rate that shamed the traditional organizations of Western and Southern Europe.

    Ylli changed his surname to something that sounded a bit more Russian, Milosevic, thinking that having a background of being a dirt-poor, uneducated rural Albanian would only serve to buy ridicule from his peers. Also, he hadn't told anyone this, but his first name was supposed to be a William – but he got the spelling wrong on the paper and somehow, the guy forging his new identity effed it up big time and went with Wilhelm instead. Suffice to say, the idiot was now.... sleeping with the fish at the bottom of an unnamed lake.

    After that, it was a whirlwind of drugs, armed robberies and murders before leaving the old continent for the land of the free – the United States of America, the country that welcomed all those having a more than decent bank balance. William happened to be such an individual so naturally, he was able to enter without running into any issues. That was almost twenty years ago.

    He had built his business very carefully since then. He was no fan of drugs himself, but it was a good cash cow, so he continued peddling them. Most of his passion went into weapons, though, so he smuggled them in and out to whoever was willing to pay up. As an aside, he also got in touch with some Middle Eastern gentlemen who wished to purchase fine, young Caucasian girls, preferably virgins, so he got going on that front as well. The business has been good, so far.

    It was only recently that one of his underlings suggested trying out at smuggling arts and ancient artifacts and selling them on black markets around the world. The scale of the operation was still on the smaller side compared to the rest of his other interests, but as Wilhelm became older, his tastes had become refined as well. A genuine appreciation for art had sprung forth within him before he noticed it, so the suggestion was met with a certain amount of enthusiasm.

    And now, Wilhelm was sitting in his office, toying a broken bronze mirror in his hands.

    His dark brown hair had lost most of its color, now more or less gray. His taut, scarred and chiseled face had a few more spots than before, never mind the wrinkles on his forehead. To disguise the ravages of time, he had grown a luxurious beard but even that had turned gray.

    But his huge shoulders and intimidating countenance hadn't lost any of its visceral power. He could cower any man by simply staring at him. The ruthless coldness in his eyes was still the same as the day he decided to commit a murder in order to make a living.

    Currently, though, his eyes were softer as he studied the ancient bronze mirror. An appreciative sigh left his lips as he traced the smooth lines of the artifact.

    The mirror was beautifully constructed. The carbon dating hadn't been conducted yet, but from what Wilhelm could gather, this item was old. Very old. Like, thousands of years old. Older than even the ancient Egypt kind of old.

    He had hit a jackpot, in other words. If it came to be known that this mirror was actually nothing more than some trinket a child might have played with back then, it still didn't dampen the fact that it was seriously an old piece of archaeological marvel. The price attached to it would be out of this world.

    The bronze was highly polished with an unknown technique. Its reflective ability would put most modern day mirrors to shame in this regard alone. And then there were all those decorative patterns on the side. They were so, so beautiful, it was at a level of being enchanting, bewitching, even.

    He heard that this mirror was accidentally unearthed by a farmer in Turkey or somewhere nearby. A local gangster forcibly stole it and sold it to one of Wilhelm's partners there. Now, he held it, and he'd profit from it a big time.

    As he happily toyed with the mirror, his phone vibrated. Raising an eyebrow, Wilhelm unhappily answered the call.

    “Yeah? What is it?”

    A familiar voice came from the other side.

    Boss, we might have a problem. Also, that idiot Max is in the hospital.

    “What? Why? What the f*ck did that asshole did now?”

    Wilhelm massaged his temples as he lowered the mirror.

    He's in the ER right now. A vigilante roughed him up last night. It was Abyss. Max called me for a help so I got here and heard the story. Abyss is looking for that girl, boss.

    “Abyss? That crazy bastard? How the f*ck did Max live through the night? Ah, it doesn't really matter. Did he spill the f*cking beans? What did the idiot say?”

    That's the thing, boss. Apparently, Abyss got interrupted by another Super. They fought, but Abyss lost and hightailed it out of there. Max said he didn't even a chance to NOT talk before the crap went down in front of him.

    “Huh, is that right. Fine. I don't trust the f*cker anyway. Get rid of him later. So, did you call me for that?”

    No, there is something else as well. While I was in here waiting for Max, I got a call from a contact in Athens. He tells me the stone tablet we were supposed to receive next week was stolen.

    Wilhelm slammed the top of the glass table hard enough to nearly tip it on its side. The fiery anger was blazing in his face.

    “What?! Who the f*ck pulled that off? Which crew was it?”

    No idea, boss. The contact says that everyone taking care of the thing ended up dead. All their eyes were dug out, or some sh*t like that. Funny thing is, the contact also tells me it was one man, apparently. Some smiling bastard or some such like that.

    Wilhelm sat back down on the chair and slowly rubbed his forehead. After a short silence, he barked out an order.

    “Okay, fine. Take care of business on that end and come back in, tell me everything in detail. Got it?”

    Wilhelm ended the call and chucked the phone away in disgust. That stone tablet was also supposedly a very expensive, very old artifact of unknown origins. It was going to give him a huge financial boost when he'd get his hands on it. But some lunatic bastard stole it from him?

    That wouldn't do. Not at all. Wilhelm was already thinking of dispatching some boys over there to find out what the hell was going on and kill the bastard responsible for it. No one effed with Wilhelm Milosevic, not even the Pope himself.

    And then, there was the matter of the vigilante, Abyss. To think, he'd get involved in this. That was yet another obstacle to overcome – although Wilhelm wouldn't underestimate him. Not in this lifetime, anyhow.

    After all, Abyss had been active in the underbelly of New York for a better part of a decade now, killing and maiming all the criminals he could get his hands on. Most famously, he had publically executed a serial killer who preyed on young children in full view of everyone at Times Square, declaring that he'd kill all the darkness in this world or some crap like that. The fact that he hadn't been caught not even once by the cops nor the bad guys told Wilhelm everything he needed to know – that Abyss was a dangerous, resourceful opponent that was hard to fight against.

    Cursing inwardly, Wilhelm picked up the phone again and dialed it, trying to connect to an underling outside his office. But the phone kept on ringing. No answers.

    Frowning in irritation, Wilhelm tried another number, but still, no answer. His irritation grew in leaps and bounds. He no longer restrained his anger and spat out a choice of expletives before walking out of the office.

    His office was located on the second floor of the main warehouse Wilhelm owned. In fact, he owned quite a few in numerous parts of the city, all for the sake of security and diversifying his so-called portfolio.

    From the exit of his office, he had a pretty god view of the floor space below, as it was on a catwalk. He liked seeing his cargo, all wrapped up nicely and ready to ship, no matter what, no matter where to.

    As soon as he left, though, his face drained of all color. He initially saw not one of his soldiers but that was for only a brief second. Right away, his senses told him it was dangerous to hang around here and he whipped out his pistol, ready to fire at a moment's notice.

    Wilhelm quickly ran towards the railing to look down and spotted one of his men. From the look of things, it was as obvious as daylight that the man was dead.

    Wilhelm frowned. How the hell didn't he hear anything? No gunfire, no screams, not even the shouts of warning or panic? This made no sense. Unless....

    “Sh*t, it must be Abyss. That f*cker Max did spill his f*king guts, after all!! I swear I'll kill that idiot bastard real slow, real painfully!!”

    Wilhelm hurriedly returned to his office and locked the doors. He then went to one of the walls and roughly ripped the cheap painting off it, revealing a safe. He quickly punched in the security code, unlocking it. Wilhelm pulled out a bulletproof vest and threw it on, then yanked out another pistol, tucking it in his back. Next, he dug out some cash and stuffed it in his jacket. Finally, he took the tablet computer and smashed it to the ground, hoping that this action would render the device unusable and its data unsalvageable. Of course, he didn't forget to grab the bronze mirror too.

    All done with his preparations, he exited the office and hurriedly went downstairs, his pistol pointing forward. His aim remained true and unwavering. Wilhelm had encountered enough life or death experiences so no way he'd get flustered by something like this. If anything, he was royally pissed off at the vigilante for killing his men – it'd cost him a fair whack of cash to cultivate another group of loyal soldiers after all was said and done.

    As his feet stepped on the ground, Wilhelm heard a gurgling noise not too far from where he was. The view was blocked by the wooden containers but he didn't have to see it to know what that sound was – the death throes of a dying man. He'd know – Wilhelm heard it a lot while he was killing, or when he was watching his men kill.

    Grimacing, Wilhelm cocked the firing pin into position and quickly stepped out past the container, ready to fire. But he was left frozen by the sight in front of him.

    A smiling man was standing there, holding a bloodied dagger. By his feet, one of Wilhelm Milosevic's men, lying in the pool of his own blood. There was a stab wound to the throat; Wilhelm could tell the guy had his neck slashed open from behind, no chance to defend himself.

    But that wasn't the craziest thing that stopped Wilhelm from moving.

    No, the floating stone tablet did. Around it, several globes of reddish liquid substance lazily danced around and were in a state of being slowly absorbed by the tablet. On its surface where previously was smooth and unmarked, now thin, hard-to-read lines of text slowly materializing as more and more blood entered the tablet.

    “Oh, hello there.”

    The cheerfully smiling man turned around to face Wilhelm and greeted him. At once, the hardened gangster came around from his daze. He remembered the stone tablet – the photo of the damn thing was residing in the tablet PC he just smashed not too long ago in his office. It'd be strange if he couldn't remember his own merchandise, after all.

    “You f*ck, you're so dead.”

    Wilhelm spat out at the smiling man and pulled the trigger. Three rounds were fired, all heading for a sure kill. The range was close enough too. No way someone like he would miss.

    And sure enough, the bullets didn't miss. But the target simply swung his dagger and deflected the bullets away.

    “Oops, now that was dangerous, sir. You shouldn't point that gun at a person, you know!!”

    The smiling man chuckled amiably, waving his dagger slightly in the air. For a second there, Wilhelm saw the blade leave behind an afterimage of itself, like some kind of a ghostly apparition. The gangster felt his legs go numb from primal fear.

    This guy is a f*king Super!! God damn it!!

    Wilhelm's grimace became deeper. Without hesitation, he fired more shots, emptying the ammo almost immediately. Not a single shot went through. The man simply swung the dagger in a lazy manner and all of the bullets were blocked in mid-flight.

    “Okay, mister. I'm guessing you are out of bullets now?”

    The smiling man asked as the clicking of the empty gun resounded in the warehouse.

    Wilhelm dropped the gun on the floor and hastily got on his knees, trembling in fear.

    “Jesus, god damn it!! Okay, fine, man. What is it you want? Huh? I can give to you. Anything you want, I can organize for you, you know what I mean? Chicks, drugs, weapons, money – whatever it is you want!! Just don't f*king kill me, okay?”

    Wilhelm pleadingly looked up at the smiling man. On a closer inspection, the man seemed to be a Greek descent. Remembering that the stone tablet was stolen in Athens, somehow, it fit the bill. But the weirdest thing was, Wilhelm thought that he recognized this guy from somewhere. But from where?

    It felt like he should've remembered it right away but, for some reason, he just couldn't. How strange.

    The smiling man had a troubled, wry smile now, as he shook his head. “No, sir. I don't need drugs, money, women – none of those are important, you see. Oh hey, would you look at that, you do have something that I want after all.”

    He chuckled happily and lowered the gym bag on the floor. Then, he fished out a broken compass from his pocket and pored over at it for a second before beaming widely.

    “Well, mister. I know you have it on you, so may I have that, please?”

    “What? What do you want from me?!”

    Confused, Wilhelm asked in a high pitched voice. His right hand was creeping along to the back of his trousers, feeling for his side gun.

    “It's in your pocket. It's the bronze mirror. Please, give it to me.”

    Hearing this, Wilhelm's face darkened. But sighing deeply, he slowly pulled it out of the inner jacket pocket and placed in on the cold ground before his kneeling figure.

    “Here. Take the damn thing and leave.”

    The smiling man's eyes brightened as he saw the mirror. The happy, jovial smile spread out much wider on his face. But all Wilhelm could think about was how creepy that smile looked to him. It was something a madman would have, or a crazed junkie finally getting his shot of narcotics.

    The smiling man, Nico Gavalas, walked towards the mirror with anticipation in his face. And as he bent down to pick up the mirror, Wilhelm snorted derisively.

    “Block this, motherf*cker.”

    It was a split second, but Wilhelm yanked out his extra weapon and fired at Nico. It was practically a point blank shot and no one in the world could dodge this, not even the most agilest Super in the world. Or so he thought.

    Because Nico didn't even bother to stop the shot nor did he tried to dodge it. He reached out with his left hand to push away the gun holding hand of Wilhelm; and at the same time, thrust the dagger into the hardened gangster's heart.

    The bullet ricochetted noisily on a steel supporting beam above their heads and bounced away. Wilhelm's eyes trembled in disbelief as he looked down at the dagger penetrating his chest and the bulletproof vest, and then at his right hand holding the pistol, with Nico grabbing the wrist and pointing it away from himself.

    Nico chuckled slightly as he spoke. “Whew. Now that was a close call, don't you think?”

    Wilhelm opened his mouth to utter another round of defiant expletives but no words came out, only the thick, gushing blood. His eyes began to dim and the world became colder.

    He heard the smiling man's voice as his torso fell over.

    “Don't worry, mister. Your life, your blood – it's all being used for the greater good of the mankind, you see. With your timely sacrifices, the one true god of this world will be able to rise once again. Oh, but uh, since your soul is so corrupted and impure, well.... You will end up suffering everlasting torment in the Great Below, Irkallu. Sorry about that. Okay, not really. You should've lived your life more virtuously, mister....”

    As the smiling man's voice faded away, Wilhelm's consciousness dimmed to a point where the only thing he could perceive was darkness. There was not a single mote of light anywhere. And it was also desperately cold as well as if he had fallen into the middle of the bitter Balkan Winter.

    Then, something brushed by his cheek. Alarmed, Wilhelm turned around, only to catch a fleeting glimpse of a faint figure. Then something else brushed by his other cheek.

    Screaming in fear, Wilhelm turned around once more, but this time, the illusory figure didn't float away and instead chose to remain in his view. Wilhelm screamed even louder when he saw what it was – a ghostly, wailing face of a man.

    It was the face of the very first person Wilhelm, no, Ylli, had murdered for money all those years back.

    It was silently wailing at him, cursing at him, its ghostly face distorting gruesomely like an oil stain.

    Wilhelm tried to run but then, he realized that he had no legs. He had no arms either. He was becoming just like the screaming apparition in front of him. Wilhelm desperately screamed out in terror, as more and more of the ghosts from his past began appearing all around him.

    He was surrounded by the phantoms. No one could save his soul now.

    Meanwhile, Nico had pulled the Divine dagger of Enki out of the cold corpse of Wilhelm Milosevic and was in the process of picking up the bronze mirror. The moment his skin came in contact with it, though, he felt a strong resisting force repelling him.

    Surprised at this sudden turn of events, he turned around to look at the gym bag and spoke. “Something is wrong. It's rejecting me. I can't hold it.”

    Silence ensued. But Nico slowly nodded, apparently hearing an advice on how to proceed from a figure only he could perceive and via words only he could hear.

    “Okay, got it.”

    Brandishing the dagger, Nico lowered himself and got closer to Wilhelm's body. Ignoring the blood that was rising up to form yet another globe, he began to chop the right hand of the dead man. Once the limb was removed, Nico used it to pick the mirror up. Then, he pulled the expensive jacket off the dead body and wrapped the hand and the bronze mirror in it.

    “Okay, done.”

    Smiling happily, Nico stuffed the wrapped severed hand inside the gym bag alongside the golden skull and stood up to stretch his back. He observed the stone tablet and watched as all of the gathered blood orbs were slowly absorbed; more and more of the runes began to manifest on the tablet, and the ancient, oppressive aura coming from the tablet was getting stronger by the second.

    Nico nodded in appreciation.

    “Hmm, looks like the gate should be ready to deploy pretty soon. Haha, everything is going well. Nice.”

    He lifted the gym bag and hoisted it on his shoulder with a soft grunt.

    “Well, it's time to go to the museum now, eh.”

    Here's Tuesday's chapter. Hope you enjoy it.
     
  4. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Member

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    Chapter 18


    Abyss the vigilante looked down coldly at the corpse of Wilhelm Milosevic. He had rushed to the gangster's warehouse as fast as his legs could carry him, but alas, it proved to be too late.

    He felt conflicted; on one hand, he couldn't care any less even if he tried whether this scumbag lived or died. But on the other hand, he'd prefer the criminal got his due by his own blade. In a roundabout way, that's what happened here, though. Still, he didn't feel any good about it.

    The sun shone down the warehouse district like a spotlight of the gods, highlighting every little fault present within the hearts of humanity; Abyss frowned and shielded his eyes. He operated in the dark, during the deepest hours of the night and never during the broad daylight. That was his modus operandi – hidden from the plain view, hidden in the shadows, hidden from the critical voices of the world in order to mete out exacting, unceasing, uncaring justice.

    But today, he had to make an exception. Here he was, basking in the sun, running across the pulsing city's rooftop, chasing after a monster. This situation was turning towards an unexpected direction and he needed to get a grip on it, pronto, or else, a lot more people might die.

    Abyss sighed and shook his head slightly. He bent down to observe and check the body; there was a stab wound to the chest. A wallet with five hundred bucks inside. An expensive mobile phone, locked by a password; and not much else to hold Abyss' attention.

    The wound was a clean cut, no serrated edges. Just like how his cursed dagger would do. The armor plating on the vest Milosevic wore was sliced open like a tofu. How familiar this scene was. And how strange it was to see that it was not him causing this.

    But the freaky thing was, there was no blood. Not on the cold, hard concrete ground, not on the clothing, not on the vest, not even on the wound itself. And as a result, the body of Milosevic was a bit on the withered, dried-up state. It wasn't only this corpse either – the rest of the dead group of the goon squad suffered the same fate. Via exterior security cameras, Abyss did get to see some weird sh*t before he came running here, but seeing was indeed, believing.

    He had no idea what that strange stone thing was, but whatever it could be, Abyss had no doubt that thing was a very bad news.

    Abyss remained silent as he continued to look around inside the warehouse some more. As expected, he couldn't find any other clues on where the murdering bastard disappeared to. For obvious reasons, he wasn't hoping for much, so he wasn't that disappointed. But besides that, questions lingered on like a bad aftertaste. Why was that guy here? And why did the secretive and careful Wilhelm Milosevic present at this warehouse when he never stayed put in one place for long?

    Since there were no interior security cams linking to the outside, Ramirez and his hacking wizardry couldn't help in this case. Abyss was operating completely blind here. What did that mass-murdering Super want in this place?

    Since that monster wasn't here and everyone else who carried a gun was dead, Abyss didn't encounter any resistance which saved him some time looking around for the missing girl. If he was lucky, she'd be here nearby, safe and still breathing. If not, and the girl had fallen victim to that monster, then....

    First, the upstairs office. Abyss ransacked the place. The safe was, for the most part, empty. Some rolled up dollar bills, tax documents, business registry, the useless stuff.

    On the desk, even more barren. No computer here, not even a fax machine. The drawers held stationary but little else. A notepad was here too, but Abyss noted a thin layer of dust on it. It seemed like Wilhelm Milosevic wasn't big on writing things himself.

    The only other thing of note Abyss could find was a smashed-up tablet PC on the ground. He could tell that it was done deliberately. Could have been Milosevic; he probably thought that this kind of damage would be sufficient for keeping his secrets safe.

    Abyss sifted through the broken plastic and found the internal flash memory modules. It was his lucky day – the thing was undamaged. With a right equipment, he'd be able to extract whatever information was stored inside. There was no extra memory card, though. Milosevic didn't have one on him, so it was possible that he only used what came as standard from the factory. So now, he had the phone and the memory chips. He hoped these two would hold more than sufficient enough data for whatever the hell was going on here.

    Abyss scooped up the broken tablet and did one last look-see of the office. He didn't find anything useful.

    Next, he went through the warehouse, searching every corner. This time, hoping to find the girl.

    The wooden containers were too small to keep a person inside but out of curiosity, Abyss broke open a few here and there. Most of the time it was nothing more than cheap imported goods from Eastern Europe and China. Nothing illegal or eye-catching at all.

    However, hidden in a cleverly-concealed compartment of one of the containers, Abyss found boxes of ammunition, obviously smuggled in. He found more hidden compartments like that and even uncovered a few caches of guns. They might be considered a good haul, in terms of breaking the back of this criminal operation, but they weren't what Abyss was looking for.

    Outside the warehouse itself, there was a stack of shipping containers. Even here, there were corpses with stab or cut wounds. Again, no blood whatsoever. Abyss fleetingly wondered if the Super was a vampire. Since he walked around in broad daylight, that didn't seem likely.

    Most of the shipping containers were empty but in the end, he found several with thick chains and heavy padlocks. Abyss rued the fact that his cursed dagger was no longer with him since that damn thing could cut metal easily, but by improvising, he was able to break through the obstacles. He simply picked the unused guns up and fired at the locks. It worked beautifully.

    In one of the containers, he found girls. A dozen or so young girls, their eyes hollow and lifeless, scarred and scared. In a various state of stupor, their lips hanging loose and faces murky with pain and fear, but unable to act whatsoever.

    Abyss grimaced deeply. The air inside was stale – these girls were trapped inside the containers under the hot weather, with no changes of clothing nor the chance to use a john. This particular container had an air conditioner installed so the air quality wasn't so bad, but in the end, that was only a stop-gap measure.

    Upon a closer inspection, most of these girls had needle marks on their arms. They were drugged in order to soften their resistance and make them more pliable.

    Abyss really felt pissed off. He gritted his teeth, thinking that he should have moved against Wilhelm Milosevic sooner. Too bad the asshole was already dead, otherwise Abyss would have dragged the scumbag across Times Square and do another public execution.

    He contacted Ramirez, telling him to call the cops and ambulances after ten minutes. He also told the wheelchair-bound hacker extraordinaire what he had found here. The time was to give himself a window to finish up with his search and then leave. Frankly, it was appalling how the cops didn't show up after the first goon started dying; after all, there were security cameras in the distance surveying this place.

    Or was it because of what had happened in the airport that most of the available manpower was diverted into finding the culprit? Abyss wasn't sure; but whatever, the cops had to come here now.

    After finishing the call, he quickly checked other containers.

    He hit the jackpot with the final container. After opening it, he was greeted by another set of metallic doors, this time much more high-tech and secured with an electronic password system. Obviously, Abyss didn't know what that password was, so he decided to strong-arm it and let the bullets fly.

    After blowing up the number pad, the metallic door hissed and chugged, releasing their grips and opening the path for him. Abyss dumped the empty gun on the ground and quickly entered inside.

    The interior of the container was outfitted like a lab. Walls were cold blue, devoid of useless decorations other than several monitors showing green texts and numbers, continuously flowing past and being updated in real time. There were computer terminals, chairs, canisters of liquid Nitrogen, and some wires as well as pipes snaking around, all of them obscured slightly by the cold white steam.

    And in the middle was a large glass cylinder, filled with bluish-green liquid. The pipes and wires and all the computers were connected to this cylinder – and there was a young naked girl of indeterminable age silently floating inside.

    Abyss could see some sort of movement behind the girl's closed eyes. She was barely conscious. An oxygen mask covered more than half of her face but it was easy to see how beautiful this girl was, almost otherworldly in her looks. If her ears were longer, one would be tempted to call her an Elf or some such.

    Seeing her, Abyss took in a deep breath. He had found her.

    ~​

    Cleo looked at the brownstone across the street and her eyes got misty. The damn place was exactly as she had remembered it. Hurriedly, she jumped out of the “borrowed” car and ran towards the entrance. Erik and Lei exited right after, complicated expressions on their faces.

    The trip had been uneventful. Mylorne Akkad's plane landed at a small airfield just North of New York with no trouble, and the trio procured a vehicle soon after. Getting past the military cordon was a nerve-wracking experience but in the end, they managed to slip by. They could see that almost all exits out of the city were heavily guarded by National Guard soldiers and on their way encountered quite a few police checkpoints. Overhead, helicopters, both news media and military, flew around, interspersed with an occasional Super or two.

    Despite all that, the freedom of movement for the ordinary citizens was not restricted at all.

    Lei checked her iPod as she intercepted a piece of intel and tapped Erik on the shoulder to inform him.

    “Looks like they know we're in the city.”

    Erik grimaced slightly, before nodding in understanding.

    “Probably one of our guys is trying to warn us. No way the CO of the unit, knowing your abilities, would make the chatter available on-air. We should be thankful for the heads-up.”

    Lei nodded in agreement before returning to the iPod. Erik lightly grasped her arm and led her across the street and stood by Cleo.

    The overeager girl was excitedly jabbing at the door bell but even after several buzzes went by, no one answered the door. This made Cleo frown in worry.

    “They are okay, right? They gotta be.”

    Cleo began to pound on the door. Erik quickly stepped forward to calm the girl down – otherwise, with her strength, she'd break the damn house down in no time at all.

    “Take it easy, Cleo. Your family should be fine. Just relax, okay?”

    She nodded weakly before buzzing the doorbell repeatedly again.

    Finally, there was a sign of life from beyond the door.

    “Yeah, yeah. Hold your horses, I'm coming. I'm coming, already!!”

    A loud, irritated voice of a man was heard and Cleo's face immediately brightened. It was pretty vague, but she could sort of remember the owner of this voice.

    She was having a hard time trying to reign in her excitement, nearly jumping up and down where she stood. It had been nearly ten years since she last saw her family, so she had every right to be like this, of course.

    When the door swung open, an unkempt Italian man in his mid-forties appeared, looking somewhat peeved off.

    “What the... what do you all want now?”

    The man seemed confused. He initially was going to verbally assault the idiot that was ringing his bell but then was taken aback when three teens were standing in his doorway.

    “Uh... Are you Tony Costanza? You are, right?”

    Cleo asked, her voice trembling softly.

    “Yeah, that's me. And you are?”

    “Uncle Tony? It is... really you, right?”

    Cleo choked up and her big eyes all watered up. Shaking like a leaf in the storm, she ran into the man's chest and began crying her eyes out.

    Of course, Tony was shocked at this. He helplessly looked over at the crying girl, thinking there was something familiar about her but wasn't quite sure. For a moment there, he wondered whether his past dalliances with loose women had netted him an illegitimate kid. He glanced at Erik and Lei but they just smiled apologetically and didn't say a thing.

    “Hey, hey calm down, kid. What's going on here?! Who are you?”

    Dazed and confused, Tony Costanza tried to gauge the situation – and when he finally was able to hear what the crying girl told him through tears and snot and spittle, he was left completely shocked to the core.

    ~​

    “Mister Vanguard, the plane is about to land. Please put your seatbelts on.”

    Vanguard was deeply submerged in the meditation but snapped out of it at the polite words of the pretty flight attendant.

    He nodded his thanks and got up from the plane's floor, finding a seat for himself. Buckling up, he glanced around the almost empty interior.

    Besides himself, there were three other members of the Guild of Heroes riding the plane to New York. Normally, more members should have been recruited for the mission of this scale, but due to the time constraints as well as the prior engagements, this was the best number the Guild could organize for this trip. Of course, as the schedule opened up, more Supers would flood into the city, looking for the rogue one responsible for killing thousands of innocent civilians.

    Vanguard had all the confidence that the villain would be caught before long, but he had this nagging premonition of bad things to come. He just couldn't ignore it, no matter what he tried.

    He had no supernatural powers of precognition, but his instincts, built up over the years after surviving numerous dangerous life-or-death situations, were telling him that what happened in the airport was just simply the beginning, that there was an even worse event on the horizon.

    This thought alone scared him. And it took a lot to scare the big man.

    That was why he was on this plane. He voluntarily came aboard, revoking his retired status temporarily so he could participate in the hunt of the villain. He figured that the sooner the bastard was apprehended the better.

    Maybe then, his unease would let up.

    “What are you thinking about, my friend?”

    Vanguard turned his head over to the next aisle and met the gazes of another Super accompanying him: Blast Storm. He too wore a mask but his was a lot simpler in design, foregoing style for practicality instead. The portions for the eyes were covered in dark gray mesh made of special material that could protect his vision against attacks; there was a small device attached near the left of the mask, connected to the nose that filtered the air entering his lungs. To his right year, a communication device that could connect to World Wide Web as well as recording high-def videos.

    He was a highly respected veteran of the Guild of Heroes, only a couple of years junior to Vanguard in terms of the number of years in service. The two had built up a good friendship after going through so much together, they even knew each other's real identities, something which was seen as a taboo subject among the Super community.

    Vanguard sighed and shook his head.

    “I'd like to say it's nothing, but.... hmm. Honestly speaking, I feel uneasy about this situation. It feels like... we've overlooked something important here. It's difficult to articulate properly....”

    Blast Storm nodded and rubbed his chin, his voice sounding contemplative.

    “Mm. I agree that something does feel off about this case. If he was a regular villain out to plunder wealth from the populace, then he'd not make the mistake of announcing his arrival like that. What did such a grand act get him? The whole world has come down to the city just to find him. Does this mean either he doesn't care about getting caught, or has so much confidence in not getting caught at all?”

    Vanguard picked up the tablet PC and browsed through all the notifications hoping to see if the Guild was able to track down the origins of the villain. But there was nothing, only some status updates from the guys on the ground inside the city. Did this mean Blast Storm's conjecture was correct?

    The Supers had cordoned off the strategic sites within New York that could serve as potential targets to safeguard them. These included the 9/11 memorial, the city hall, Wall Street, Federal Reserve Bank, the stock exchanges, United Nations, and various other infrastructure facilities. Museums and monuments were protected by the police and the National Guard as they were seen as less risky targets.

    Vanguard frowned and checked on the detailed satellite map of the New York. Seeing the density of the streets, the number of people living in them, as well as all the available exits, made him wonder whether it was possible to find the villain in the city. There was just no way to plug up every little hole out there, no matter the number of soldiers deployed.

    “We know nothing about what he wants, so all we can do is close the net and ferret him out into the open,” said Blast Storm, shrugging his shoulders. “We have the correct personnel sweeping the neighbors one by one, so sooner or later, we will hear about it. I won't tell you to relax, my friend – but stay sharp. You haven't been riding the rodeo for a while so you could have gotten rusty.”

    Vanguard sighed bitterly. “Indeed. I have tried to keep the fitness level up, but man, my bum knee still gets in the way now and then.”

    The plane bucked a little as it met turbulence. Vanguard exchanged glances with the rest, waiting to see if he needed to act but the plane soon stabilized and in the end, the smooth flying resumed.

    Too bad he still felt uneasy at what was waiting for him in New York.

    ~​

    Meanwhile, Jack was walking cautiously inside the red pyramid underground.

    After passing through the mouth of hell AKA the entrance, he was greeted by the sight of a fairly spacious stone chamber. There were no light sources in here, but thanks to a huge, bright red crystal emitting eerie glow, he could more or less see his surroundings. Plus, the survival suit's helmet featured night vision, so it wasn't so bad overall.

    Of course, that huge red crystal was indeed an oddity, a big one at that, that stole all the attention he could muster. It sure as hell looked expensive, but Jack wasn't sure what the hell it could be. But as he got closer, he felt some type of reaction from it. He felt rather familiar with it, but wasn't really sure why.

    The crystal sat on a platform that was quite elaborate in the surface carvings. Jack knelt down to observe them, and saw strange symbols and runes that didn't resemble anything he'd seen so far. Not even the fragmented memories of Gilgamesh couldn't help him decode them.

    When he peered at the crystal, Jack couldn't help but gasp out loud as he definitely sensed souls inside the thing. He leaned in closer, trying to look through it, but unlike any regular red crystal it was foggy inside and he couldn't see squat. Next, he tried to absorb it, like how he'd do with the “normal” red souls, but it didn't even budge.

    Did I sense wrong? Jack mused quietly to himself.

    Unable to come to a conclusion, he gave up trying to figure it out for now and decided to search the rest of the chamber. There was a metal crater that was similar to the one that held the survival suit but small enough for him to carry it alone. It had the words “rations” written on the side, so Jack was pretty certain what was inside it. No need to open the lid just yet.

    Next to the crystal, there was a small pedestal and on top, a slender clear crystal lay on its side. As Jack stepped closer, he felt it react to him as well – and it began to give off weak but still noticeable light.

    Gulping slightly in anticipation, Jack slowly touched it. Since he was wearing the survival suit, he couldn't feel the texture of the crystal but he guessed it was cold and smooth, just like how a quartz would be.

    As soon as Jack's fingertip touched the crystal, he felt a minute amount of energy leave him and enter the pedestal. He took a step back, getting ready for whatever, but there was nothing. He waited with bated breath for a few seconds, until the huge red crystal vibrated suddenly, letting out a screeching howl as it did so.

    The whole pyramid began to spin clockwise on its vertical axis. The speed gradually picked up, until Jack felt like he was standing in the middle of a wildly out-of-control merry-go-round. It was quite dizzying even with his heightened perceptions.

    He also saw wisps of red energy escaping the crystal and beginning to permeate the air, dyeing the world crimson. Jack realized that this was a good chance to start absorbing the red souls so he concentrated doing just that.

    Usually, he didn't have to do anything special to absorb the souls, but this time, it was different. There was a strange, unseen suction force that was actively repelling Jack's attempts. So, he was in a tug of war, trying to cease control of the valuable red souls.

    And as he began to eke out an upper hand, he heard a threatening growl from somewhere, and an illusory figure of a bizarre monster suddenly materialized right in front of him.

    Jack stiffened as the monster took a swipe at him. He was too surprised to react in time and so, when the monster's front paw struck him, it left him utterly unprepared.

    Jack flung backwards, feeling like all his innards were tumbling out of place. He was worried about colliding with the spinning walls of the pyramid, but to his shock, the spinning world expanded in diameter in a blink of an eye. The chamber became as wide as the open underground area where the pyramid was located – maybe even wider than that.

    Whatever the case maybe, Jack was safe as he landed well before the spinning walls. He nearly spat out blood but since he was wearing a helmet, he held back with some difficulty. It'd do him no good if his vision was blocked by his own blood on the visor, after all.

    Jack got up while calming his aching chest. The illusory monster looked like a cross between a brown bear and a wolf but bizarrely, it lacked eyes, instead fur growing over where the eye sockets should have been. Instead, the creature possessed massive ears, as long as that of a rabbit. These ears constantly shifted around, as if to search for its prey via the slightest hint of noise.

    Now, what am I supposed to do here?

    Jack thought exasperatedly. Did he need to attack the monster? Did he need to defeat it? Even though it seemed illusory, the monster's attack landed on him, so conversely, his own attacks should land on it, but there was no guarantee on that. Did he risk it all and go on a full frontal assault?

    Did he even have a choice?

    No, he emphatically didn't. The monster made the choice for him, by snarling at his direction before pouncing on him. Jack had to fight here.

    His eyes sharpened, and he dodged to his left, all the while carefully seeing how the creature moved. He did this for a few minutes while maintaining his concentration and found it easy enough to predict the path of this monster.

    Now that he had read the pattern, it was time to hit out. The monster growled and pounced again; Jack dodged, and then, slammed his fist at the abdomen of the creature. He felt a solid connection, a heavy weight of the monster. It felt good.

    It's payback time, Jack told himself as he watched the monster getting blown away from his attack. The creature couldn't right itself in the air and flew away for a long time, before crashing on the ground with a thud. Thankfully, its trajectory took it away from the huge red crystal and the pedestal so there was no danger of them getting destroyed in the fight.

    The monster teetered on its legs, struggling to stand straight. Blood dripped from its jaw, showing the level of damage it had suffered. Jack knew, instinctively, that he had struck a vital part of the creature. A couple more hits there, and the thing should be dead. Even though it was illusory, like a ghost.

    Jack clenched his fist. Time to wait was over – and it was time to attack from the front.

    He dashed forward. In a matter of seconds, he was in front of the tottering monster. Jack struck the side of its head with the most powerful swing he could muster. He felt bones snap under the load and the monster spun in the air, its head acting as the axis. It was a weird sight for sure, but Jack didn't sit around enjoying the fruit of his labor just yet. He lashed out another fist and solidly connected to the crown of the monster.

    He heard a sickening sound of bones cracking apart. Brain matters of the monster flew about as it slammed into the ground. It twitched for a few seconds, before dying. It dissolved into a mass of red souls, which immediately shot towards Jack, entering his body.

    Only then, did he understand what was going on.

    There was a certain force acting within this pyramid. It used the red souls trapped in the huge crystal to create monsters. If Jack defeated one, then he'd be able to absorb the souls and get stronger. Of course, he still needed to go to sleep in order to access the Soul Sphere, so that quandary had to be resolved as soon as possible.

    Mylorne said that I needed to train on using the souls without sleeping. But how should I do that?

    Jack glanced around, but there was nothing else besides the red crystal, the pedestal and the crazily spinning walls, which had contracted to their original diameter while he stood there, analyzing.

    He waited for another monster to show up, but there was nothing.

    Hold on, what's going on here?

    Jack was puzzled as he glanced around, wondering what he should do now. The heads-up display inside the visor showed that it's been almost five minutes since his battle with the monster. Enough time had passed by for another one to show up.

    Hold up. Maybe I am supposed to use this time to rest up and get ready for the next round. A break, eh? That's a reasonable assumption, right?

    It made sense to think that way; otherwise, he'd be stuck in a revolving battle of attrition where he wouldn't even have time to relieve his bladder, never mind replenish his energy levels.

    The set up of this pyramid reminded him of a training chamber designed to let the participants experience real combat without facing too much danger or too hard a difficulty.

    If that was the case then, who built this thing?

    Since he couldn't recognize the runes below the red crystal, he was fairly sure this ancient structure wasn't related to Gilgamesh or his contemporaries. But other than that, he had no clue. Maybe, after he left here, he could ask Mylorne Akkad about it.

    But for now...

    Jack sensed yet another wisp of red soul emerging from the crystal. In the HUD, ten minutes had passed. And in the distance, another illusory monster was taking shape. It was the same creature as the one before, but Jack felt that, somehow, this one was slightly stronger. Something about its aura gave off a much more dangerous feeling.

    He tensed up and slowly raised his dukes. A ten-minute break between each deadly encounter – seemed like a bum deal, but well, it was what it was.

    The creature snarled at Jack, and once more, it pounced at his direction.

    Here's this Friday's chapter.

    It was a sucky day yesterday - Chris Cornell died and the world lost yet another brilliant, talented soul. RIP.
     
  5. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Member

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    Chapter 19


    The private airplane owned by the Guild of Heroes landed on Newark airport, West of New York. The number of flights going in and out of the city had been limited by consensus since the launch of the manhunt and a portion of the airport's real estate was taken up by the command center set up by the National Guard. The Guild, or abbreviated as GoH, was one of the parties cooperating fully and had set up their base of operations here as well.

    The normally busy airport full of foreign tourists and businessmen was now playing home to packs of military personnel and journalists looking to get a scoop of a lifetime. As Vanguard and his company descended from the plane, the representative coming over to guide them warned them not to talk to anyone outside of their circle. There was no need for such a warning, though, as they were already familiar with the score. Speaking to a member of the press, even if it's so-called off the record, was only going to be detrimental in delivering a controlled, unified message at a later time.

    The only exception being Vanguard himself, who had received extensive media training before, so he'd not make the gaffe of saying stuff he should not say.

    Vanguard, Blast Storm and the one other Super that was on the plane were ushered into a mobile command center run by the Guild of Heroes, located inside one of the hangars specially arranged for them.

    The placement was slightly inconvenient as they had to walk for a fair bit, and there was a danger of being overheard, so naturally, even Blast Storm managed to keep his mouth shut for the duration. The guide continuously remained vigilant of any rat that might lurk in a corner, snooping around.

    Inevitably, there was sensitive information attainable only by those in the loop, and for the reasons of national security, they were obviously kept out of the public domain. It wouldn't do if any of them was leaked ahead of time while not under a careful control, so all the security was necessary.

    The command center in the airport was set up to facilitate quicker response to the Superheroes cooperating with the search for the JFK murderer. The idea was that there would be a simple chain of command here that directed intelligence to the Supers on the ground. And when the need arises, the command would then efficiently dispatch a rapid-response team that was tailor-fitted for the crisis at hand. It was how the military did things, but the crucial difference was, the troops were comprised of low-to-mid level Supers telepathically connected to almost everyone so the flow of information was far more succinct and smoother.

    The interior of the hangar was divided into several areas. One was reserved for a debriefing room, the other as a loadout where the response team could be outfitted on a short notice, a rest area and finally, the comm room where almost all of the action was taking place.

    The Guild owned several military-grade satellites provided by many benefactors, such as Mylorne Akkad himself, and nearly had no reason to rely on the U.S military to provide the real-time bird's eye view. As Vanguard was brought in here, he could more or less survey the lay of the land through the large projection set up in the middle of the comm center, a three-dimensional map of the five boroughs.

    There were several familiar faces as well as ones Vanguard didn't immediately recognize. Of course, he offered warm greetings and encouragements to all of them as he walked past. The emotions displayed by the members of the Guild here, almost all of them not Supers and thus not possessing powers, were that of concentration, focus, dedication and belief.

    Seeing those mixed bags of steely faces, Vanguard felt reassured that they would be able to capture the culprit of the massacre sooner rather than later. But that warm, fuzzy feeling ran into a cold, impassable wall soon after, in the skeptical face of a masked Superheroine, Mercury Retrograde, who blocked Vanguard's and Blast Storm's path.

    “I heard you were coming over, Vanguard. Doubt you'll be much of a help, though. Shouldn't have bothered to come here, unless you want some of us to get hurt.”

    She said with ice in her voice, her deep gray eyes narrowing as she blocked Vanguard's path. Her tight fitting silver armor seemingly barely containing her resentment of the big luchador mask-wearing former Super.

    “It's been a while, Miss Mercury,” Vanguard coolly nodded at her, choosing to not to respond to her provocation.

    Blast Storm cut her off as he stepped out. “Cut it out, will you. We are on the same team. Do not forget that.”

    She snorted coldly, before turning on her heels. “Well, whatever. At least you'd be useful for saving us the bother of talking to the press, so that's nice.”

    Vanguard sighed inwardly, watching her walk away. Seeing his friend somewhat distressed, Blast Storm firmly grasped his shoulder.

    “That woman is never going to forgive you, isn't she?”

    “Can you blame her? I couldn't save her husband, after all.”

    “Still with that?! Hey, listen man. You did the right thing. No one here is blaming you for the choice you made that day. It was either one Super who signed up for this sh*t knowing the risks or the truckload of powerless civilians. It was the correct call. So, stop beating yourself over it.”

    Vanguard smiled ruefully, while recollecting the very moment his career veered off to the left. Unconsciously, he reached down and massaged his damaged knee – the scar of that day, the unwelcome reminder of that difficult choice he had to make.

    Blast Storm sighed. “Look, if you're still bothered by it, think of it this way – you've paid penance with your leg. You had to retire early. That should be good enough, no? Being a Superhero was all you ever wanted to be and you paid the price for the choice. So, there. Now, let's get going.”

    Vanguard nodded silently. Some might say those words uttered by Blast Storm may have been insensitive, but Vanguard appreciated these kinds of talks. After all, they were coming from a man who also made numerous difficult decisions daily, a man who didn't lack empathy or sincerity. Blast Storm was a reliable friend who'd set him straight if Vanguard's boat rocked unsteadily for whatever reason.

    The third Super accompanying them went her separate way as Emma Gilberts, in charge of assigning roles, greeted them. She was, just like the most of the command center staff, not a Super but her ability to perform terrifyingly menial administrative work like clockwork was verging on being a supernatural ability in itself. Vanguard admired her for that.

    She was dressed rather smartly in a two piece business suit, her short blonde hair pulled tightly back. A pair of frameless glasses sat high on her nose and on her right ear, a multi-channel radio with a mic attached. She carried thick files in her arms.

    “Good day to you both. Thank you for joining us here at such a short notice. Please, follow me to the debrief,” said Emma as she handed out thick files to Vanguard and Blast Storm.

    They followed her to the partitioned debrief room. As expected, it was sparsely furnished, only with a round table and a set of chairs around it. A projector and a whiteboard with aerial photos of the city clipped on were the other fixtures present here.

    After sitting down, the two browsed through the files and saw that these papers contained all the reports of what had conspired up until now. Still, Emma offered commentary for a quicker summarisation.

    “We did receive new updates after those were printed out. Now we have a name and a face to go along with all the material evidence collected on site.”

    Vanguard and Blast Storm looked up from the files and focused on Emma's cold but beautiful face.

    “The target's name is Nico Gavalas, 36, a Greek national.”

    She pointed with a slim remote at a white wall and a projection of a smiling man appeared there.

    “His background is being compiled as we speak, but so far, no history of Super activities, no history of known criminal affiliation and his past behavior checks out as that of a regular citizen. We've just received the passenger manifesto from the airline and the facial recognition software has matched the face in the security footage to his passport photo. It's a 90% match – as good as we'll ever get.”

    Vanguard nodded as he flipped through the files. “Says here that the searches of Queens and Brooklyn area are complete, that they haven't located the target. How far along are we now?”

    “The searching of Staten Island should be completed by now. Manhattan and the Bronx are still ongoing. There are a lot of shadowy places to hide in the last two area, even if it's geographically boxed in. To be safe, we are also conducting a thorough search of Jersey City as well.”

    Blast Storm browsed through the file but half way in, he simply chucked the document on the table and leaned back in his chair.

    “Okay, what are we looking at, here? Because to me, this whole thing looks like a pile of a sh*tstorm. NYPD, Homeland Security, FBI, the National Guard and us, all jockeying for a position here, am I right? Just how bad is the level of cooperation? Are we sharing, if any, info between us and them?”

    “We are sharing enough,” replied Emma. “No jockeying going on here, Mister Storm. But truth be told, there are things only we can do. Likewise, there are some matters we can not get involved in.”

    “Let me guess, the brass chose not to butt in, am I right? NYPD and FBI are using the excuse of finding this guy, this Nico whatever, to crack down on the local wise guys, right? And what's Homeland up to? Are they looking into one of those ever-elusive terrorists gathering hot spots again, saying that a Greek national might blend in with the local immigrant population since they all kind of look alike?”

    Blast Storm didn't even try to hide acid in his voice. Vanguard thought that he was getting heated up at the wrong person, but to her credit, Emma didn't show any signs of getting flustered.

    “There are, certainly, movements like as you have described, but it is the prerogative of the local law enforcement to act as they see fit. Well, look at it this way, Mister Storm. If the bad elements are weeded out in this increase of proactivity by the authorities, then our jobs might get just a little easier overall.”

    Blast Storm snorted derisively and waved his hands. “Okay, whatever. So, what's our role here? Both of us are not what you'd call subtle types, investigating around and all that stuff. Well, maybe Vanguard can, but I know me, and I can't sit around like that.”

    Emma sighed softly. “It's good that we have you two on board. Mister Vanguard will be asked to liaise with other agencies invested in this manhunt as well as to engage with the media, while Mister Storm will ride shotgun with a team ready to deploy in a couple of hours.”

    Vanguard sat forward in alarm. “Wait a minute. That's not what I agreed to do when I came on board. I'm still a Super, Emma. Not a damn spokesperson for the Guild, no matter how many times I've been in front of a camera.”

    “I understand your feelings, Mister Vanguard, but it is true that you are not medically cleared for a full active duty. I'm sorry, but you have to be on the reserve roster in case the extra assistance is required. This is the best way for you to help us right now.”

    Vanguard felt like slamming down on the table in frustration but held back. He might break the poor furniture if he did that. Instead, he took a deep breath to calm himself.

    A slight hiss from Emma's earpiece broke the tense atmosphere in the room. She responded to the call and listened attentively for a while before informing Vanguard and Blast Storm to the contents.

    “Okay, a new update. Our man, Nico Gavalas, does not have a history. He's clean, confirmed as a civilian. No powers, no prior special forces or tactical assault training. But he is being flagged by the local Greek police and Europol as a person of interest in an ongoing investigation, for a murder of multiple known criminal syndicate members.”

    Blast Storm frowned. “Huh? Okay, I'm interested. What is it?”

    “Apparently, Nico Gavalas lost his job as a stockbroker after the market collapse. Being out of work and on welfare for almost five years, he found a job as a security guard on an archaeological dig of a recently uncovered underground burial chamber, suspected to be that of Alexander the Great.

    “Last week, the vault where the recovered artifacts were kept, was broken into and men affiliated with a known smuggling ring were found dead within. All personnel involved with the dig are accounted for and interviewed, except for our Nico Gavalas.”

    Vanguard sat forward in his chair, thinking that something didn't make sense here. “He's not a Super, received no training and yet, was able to take care of a gang of would-be thieves singlehandedly? Even if he was armed, that would take a miracle to pull off. Is this info reliable?”

    “Well, FBI and Homeland should have received the same information as us, so they are probably trying to verify it,” said Emma. “The report here says two items went missing from the vault, and they are a ceremonial golden skull and an ancient stone tablet, thought to be as valuable as the Rosetta Stone. That's it.”

    “A skull and a stone brick, huh? That could explain the reaction of the customs officer. Anyone would freak out when you see a skull as the very first thing inside a bag.” Blast Storm slowly scratched his chin as he spoke. “But what I don't get it is, what the hell is he doing in the States, of all places? If he wanted to fence those stolen items or whatever, couldn't he hop on a train and head over to the deep recesses of Eastern Europe or the Middle East? Surely, that should be better than coming over here, where the security is a lot tighter.”

    Vanguard was curious as well, but there was no one who could answer that question present in the debriefing room.

    Then, another soft hiss from Emma's earpiece. She listened, nodded and turned to the two Supers.

    “Well, looks like there's something else. NYPD just informed us that there was an incident down at the warehouse district in lower Brooklyn this morning. A local crime boss, Wilhelm Milosevic, was found murdered, along with his men. A dozen or so girls were recovered from what looks to be a holding cell of some kind. And the initial investigation has confirmed that Nico Gavalas could be the man. The security footage has matched the face to that of the JFK's.”

    Vanguard and Blast Storm looked at each other.

    “Okay, so that's a new development. Probably too early to ask, but what the hell is the link here?” Blast Storm continued to rub his chin. He narrowed his eyes slightly before nodding his head. “He's a gangster, right? This Russian-sounding dude. So could he have been the buyer of the golden skull and the brick? Paying for the trip and all that, for our man? Then, the deal goes sideways because of Nico's attack in the JFK, so as a retaliation, Wilhelm got taken out. Hmm. Makes sense to me.”

    Vanguard shook his head. “We can't make any assumptions yet. For one, we don't know what triggered Gavalas to unleash an attack of that magnitude in the first place.”

    Emma cut in here. “Perhaps unrelated, but NYPD also reports that Abyss was seen leaving the scene with an unidentified young female in tow as well.”

    “Abyss? That crazy guy? He's not dead yet?” Blast Storm chuckled in wry surprise before cranking his neck. “Oh boy. Is this getting complicated or what?! That guy Abyss is like a rabid dog. Once he sniffs a scent, he ain't gonna stop until he bites down on the baddie. But are they related, this Nico what's-his-name and Abyss? Ah, never mind. You don't know it yet.”

    Emma nodded. “I'm sure NYPD will keep updating us with new info. In the meantime, the Guild president has elected to send a team over. Mister Vanguard, I've been told to pass along the message – you'll be deployed there as well. Please get ready, as the team will be departing in ten minutes.”

    Vanguard didn't like it, but since this was better than doing nothing, he reluctantly got up and left the debriefing room. Blast Storm too, got up from his seat to follow his friend, but Emma stopped him.

    “Mister Storm, your presence is required elsewhere. As soon as Mister Vanguard departs, you will be assigned to a new team and head for the South of the Central Park. We will provide you with the GPS.”

    “Why? What's there?”

    Emma waited for a bit before answering. She was waiting to make sure Vanguard was out of earshot.

    “There was an unconfirmed sighting of the target in the vicinity only a moment ago. The president wishes you to take a small force and visually confirm it and if possible, track the target.”

    ~​

    The Central Park was oddly empty this time of the day. It was mostly due to a certain amount of New Yorkers avoiding the popular spots thanks to the ample warnings from the authorities. And then there was a healthy number of National Guard troopers, police and Supers around that also ensured this thing was not a drill, not a joke to be scoffed at. Most New Yorkers, while defiant in the face of adversity, were also pretty street smart, so they ably understood the score.

    Besides, this worked out in favor for those searching for the one suspect, Nico Gavalas. Fewer people on the street, the easier it was to check those still out and about. His face was now plastered in many electronic sign boards, local TV stations' broadcasts and even the front pages of every newspaper on sale.

    Yet, like a miracle, no one could recognize Nico as he blithely walked past everyone. No one, and absolutely no one, even took a glance at his way. It was as if he didn't exist on the same plane as the rest of humanity. This greatly increased his enjoyment of the cityscape. No one hassled him, no one tried to mug him, no one tried to stop him and ask him troubling questions.

    It was all so very relaxing. He'd never guessed he'd be able to travel to this greatest city on earth like this and enrich himself culturally.

    On top of that, when he did decide to interact with the locals, they didn't recognize him still. Like just now, when he stopped by a food vendor after catching the whiff of smell that reminded him of home. Well, almost.

    The dude was selling traditional chicken Souvlaki, chunks of chicken meat in a skewer, and Nico just couldn't go past without sampling it. Not that he needed to eat, but the man could indulge himself now and then, no?

    The vendor turned out to be an immigrant from Greece, so the two of them talked about home for a while, swapping stories of here and back where they were from originally. Suffice to say, it was one of the best Souvlaki Nico ever had. Not as good as his own mother's, for sure, but hell, he hadn't had that in years so this qualification stood, for now.

    After paying the vendor, Nico said his goodbyes and carried on in his way, towards the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There were street lamp-mounted banners loudly announced the dates of the upcoming exhibition of newly acquired ancient art to be held in the world-famous museum. The items of immense value from all corners of the globe, dating back thousands of years in history were to be displayed there. The eyes of the world would be focused here and the security was, accordingly, very tight.

    Even the passing city buses were adorned with the same banners. It was expected that the opening night, the gala event would be attended by countless celebrities and people in a position of power – although, now that Nico had caused a bit of trouble, it was doubtful just how many of them would show up. Not that Nico cared anyways. Hell, he didn't care whether the whole exhibition got canceled or not.

    He was after one single artifact, after all. Even if the whole show was canned and the items shelved in storage, he'd still be able to track it down, thanks to the Compass of Wishes that the golden skull helped him to find initially. With this compass in his hands, there was literally nothing he could not find no matter where it was hidden. Nico's confidence was totally justifiable, in other words.

    Setting his foot on the 5th Avenue, he followed the iconic street down until the imposing gray structure of the museum came to his view. There was a cordon of cops around the entrance, and to his slight concern, Nico spotted two Supers. Besides the flashy costumes, Nico sensed a certain type of undulations from the power they possessed coming off them, so he knew straight away to be cautious and not to stand out from the crowd.

    They were spot checking people entering and leaving the museum. So the place wasn't closed to the public, which was good since he didn't have to force his way through. Saved him from wasting time and energy, really.

    He rifled through his wallet and found exactly $25. He read somewhere that this was the “suggested” admission price for an adult. What a stroke of luck it was, him having the exact amount of money in his pocket. Well, he was not worried about running out, though. After he was through here, the concept of a monetary system might collapse altogether, anyway. Or not, but either way, he didn't have to worry about money ever again.

    He was about to walk straight past the police blockade when he noticed that the cops were searching through almost all the bags people were carrying. Now, this presented a slight problem.

    Nico could walk right past them just fine, but then, his big bag would pose a problem. The cops will see it and demand him to open it. And then, the same thing as the airport will happen here. Not that he cared, but still, he wasn't sure just how long he'd need to get everything going, and the longer the distraction stay away, the better. He couldn't really draw attention to himself here.

    After mulling his options for a bit, he heard a suggestion from his.... unseen friend, and nodded in delight. Nico then approached the nearest police officer and smiled at him.

    “Hello officer, can I have a moment of your time?”

    The uniformed cop looked up and down at Nico, his expression confused. He vaguely thought that there was something oddly familiar about this man, but he just could not put his finger on it.

    “Yes, can I help you, sir?”

    “Indeed, I need your help. Please, will you follow me for a second?”

    Nico's suggestion was ludicrous, but yet, it still held some kind of strange, persuasive power. The cop couldn't refuse Nico and ended up accompanying him.

    Nico had no sinister motive for the man. All he wanted to do was to simply hand over the gym bag so the officer could carry it inside the museum for him.

    Since the cop was under his influence, Nico didn't have to worry about the spell breaking off in the middle of the deed, either. So, the cop carrying the bag went up ahead, while Nico leisurely sauntered up the front stairs of the museum, getting himself checked by the security, all the while smiling warmly like a gentleman that he was.

    The cop handed the bag over as soon as Nico found him waiting by the front help kiosk right in the middle of the Great Hall. “I won't do this again, so you better ask someone else next time, sir.”

    “Thank you for your help, officer.”

    Nico chuckled amiably and saw the man leave the museum, none the wiser of what he had done.

    Now that Nico and his bag had safely crossed over, now it was time to locate the final object – the one to revive one of the six great Trees of the World.

    He looked around and saw that there wasn't a lot of people here today. The mood of the city probably didn't allow for visitors to muster up the courage to come and enjoy what this wonderful place had to offer.

    Oh well, it wasn't like Nico could worry about how they felt right now, when in a matter of few hours, the world would be transformed for the better, anyways.

    ~

    The tearful reunion for the Costanza family had to be cut short for the obvious reasons. Once Tony Costanza recovered from the initial shock, he called his older brother, Jimmy, and his wife, Connie, at work, telling them to hoof it back home pronto, to meet their long-lost daughter.

    Erik and Lei sure felt like a sore thumb, sticking out, when there were so much waterworks being turned on all around them. It turned out, Cleo was taken from her Elementary school by those dressed as cops and that was the last time she was seen again until now. She had changed a lot during the ten or so years she was missing, but hell, her mom instantly recognized her little girl right away. The blood – or the parental bond in this case – indeed ran thicker than pretty much anything, as the old but modified saying went.

    Lei didn't feel so good, since she would never get to have a reunion of her own like this, and Erik was too preoccupied with cooking up ways to keep the Project Dead Kings' overseers from grabbing them again to really care. Sure, he'd love to meet his parents one day and ask them point blank why the hell did they gave him up, but now wasn't the time to brood over such matters.

    After the tears were wiped away and the quick explanations were given, now it was the turn of the reason why Cleo risked so much and came over here – to evacuate her family out of the potential area of the upcoming devastation. According to Jack who blurted it out like a possessed man, the entire five boroughs, and maybe even the Jersey City, would fall under the spell of this En-men-lu-ana, or whatever its name was.

    Understandably, Cleo's parents were skeptical at first but after she demonstrated her powers, they had to believe something fishy was going on, after all. There was the bizarre terror attack in JFK to consider as well, so after a short deliberation, the Costanza family decided to heed the warning and leave the city for a while.

    They packed the bags with essential supplies, some cash and clothing, and climbed aboard a beat-up Jeep Wrangler that Tony drove. It turned out that Jimmy's own car was in the shop for repairs. Since there was the second vehicle Lei borrowed, the matter of transportation was not an issue.

    After loading up, Jimmy contacted his friends and other distant family members and told them to pack up, leave the city for a few days. He couldn't convince all of them, but hell, he tried.

    Next up, they drove to the nearest kindergarten to pick up Cleo's little brother, David. The boy turned six this year, and Cleo had never met the kid before, so she became all misty eyed and everything. Lei really became envious of it all, but what could she do, other than sigh inwardly?

    But the real trouble caught up to them around the corner of the kindergarten after hastily picking up David.

    Just like how the trio had blocked Jack and Taylor's car, there were three teens, dressed in army camo, blocking the road in front of the Wrangler.

    “Oh, crap. So they have caught up with us.”

    Erik muttered under his breath, tensing up at the faces staring at him.

    He couldn't even tell Tony the driver to back up, since the rear was also blocked by another Super from the Project. Of course, he recognized the faces of all of them. He did spend the last ten years cooped up with them, after all.

    Facing no other choice, Erik, Lei and Cleo slowly exited the cars while telling the other occupants not to worry.

    “Hey, Erik. Fancy seeing you here,” said the tall youth, the leader of this group.

    “Hey to you too, Stu. How're things?”

    Stu shook his head. “I wish you'd stop calling me that. I'm Stewart!! Well, whatever, man. Actually, I'm disappointed in you three, you know? When you left without permission, I thought maybe you'd be smart enough not to show up on the grid anymore. But here you are. This is why you'll never become a squad leader, Erik.”

    Erik shrugged his shoulders, trying to act nonchalantly.

    “I don't really care about taking your fancy job, Stu. But I do care about leaving this city as soon as possible. You don't mind accommodating us on that front, do you?”

    Stewart sighed ruefully. “You know I can't do that. Orders. We are to bring you in. By force if necessary. You guys did hurt quite a few people while trying to go AWOL, after all.”

    There was loud honking from the irate passing motorists but the teen Supers collectively ignored them. The tense atmosphere was getting a lot tenser still – and even the slightest movement from either side would set off the ticking bomb here.

    However, that role of being a catalyst didn't belong to anyone present. Not even the irritated users of the road. No – that dubious honor belonged to a sudden burst of white light from the West, where Manhattan was located.

    The light was so bright, it blinded everyone present. Not even Supers, such as Stewart and Cleo could withstand this light. But Erik could. His glasses were specially designed to keep certain types of naturally-occurring radiation away from his eyes, and it was able to partially block out the blinding light. After he saw what was happening in the distant sky, though, he'd wished he didn't see that.

    Erik felt chills as something, enveloped in the light shot into the sky, connecting to the blue canopy above like a pole. And even more shockingly, this “pole” broke apart the sky, cracking it open like glass and exposing the darkness beyond it.

    The light lessened slowly after that, forming white clouds around this “pole” thing. And when the view became clear, people could see what Erik had been seeing for a short while longer than them.

    A giant black rod, completely made of unknown metal, piercing the heavens and ripping out the sky.

    Here's the first of this week's chapters. I also posted a revised draft of chapter 3 as well a bit earlier. Please do check that out and leave behind your thoughts. Thanks.