Novel Red Souls Chapter 29

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

  1. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Active 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.

    Edit (24th June):

    Chapter 16: The Armor


    From the cockpit, the view of the looming Rocky Mountains looked utterly imposing and mysterious, totally befitting of the imagery as a place from a long-since forgotten dark 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 mortals to converge at its feet and offer worship.

    Jack had never come here, not even on a family holiday. Now that he could see the majesty of the mountain range up here in the air, he felt a tinge of regret for never even thinking of visiting this beautiful place.

    His senses, somewhat enhanced by the red souls, allowed him to pick up on several amazing visual cues, regardless of the distance. Jack thought that he could instinctively sense there were many hidden wonders waiting to be uncovered by the enterprising, adventurous minds within the deeper recesses of the mountains.

    Meanwhile, Mylorne Akkad was on the phone, making calls to his company's outlet in New York. The futuristic aircraft was on autopilot and didn't need his attention for now.

    The content of the call was not for the faint of the heart or for that matter, uneducated in the ways of the financial world. Jack certainly fit the bill for the latter. He didn't want to eavesdrop, of course, but since he was sitting right next to Mylorne Akkad, he couldn't help but overhear quite a few sensitive business-related discussions.

    What was bizarre, though, was the fact that there was someone at the office on a Sunday morning to answer the boss's call in the first place.

    Anyways, Jack thought he was listening to things he had no right to, especially when the chat became slightly heated over the matter of firing close to ten thousand people worldwide in order to protect the interests of shareholders and stuff.

    The on-goings at New York was also heavily discussed by Mylorne Akkad and the other person at the end of the line. The stock markets there were closed for the weekend so the impact of the attack on the JFK couldn't be fully assessed yet, but 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 while he was speaking his mind, getting 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 but also remarkable to witness.

    Jack figured that one needed to become a ruthless chameleon and adapt very quickly to the changing circumstances in order to stay competitive in the world of multi-billion dollar deal-making. So, who the hell 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. “Even with the threat of world's end lurking right around the corner, it seems that there is still a need to tame the packs of opportunistic hyenas trying to take advantage of the slightest lapse in my judgment. It's quite appalling at times if I do say so myself.”

    “Yeah, well. People gotta act like people, right?” replied Jack, trying to sound street-wise, or at least as if he was unaffected by it all. But he thought that his response was too lukewarm and unconvincing, and unable to fool the eyes of Mylorne 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.”

    Jack felt his jitters going up. Finally, the so-called trial was about to begin. How can he possibly not feel worked up? He tried to sleep in order to reinforce his soul so he could access the Soul Sphere thingy but ultimately failed. He thought that by listening to Mylorne Akkad drone on about the past, his past with Gilgamesh, that he'd become drowsy but no, that didn't work either.

    But hey, Jack got to know a lot about Mylorne Akkad's, or Utnapishtim's relationship with Gilgamesh just a little better, how the God-King had lost himself in the pursuit of an everlasting life that he nearly lost all of what made him a human in the first place.

    Akkad was only too happy to oblige, speaking with a great relish now that there wasn't anyone unrelated to their past among the crowd.

    All that reminiscing, and they hadn't yet to arrive at their destination.

    Speaking of which....

    “So, uh, you're still not going to tell me just what this artifact is? How that thing will make me stronger?”

    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 puffing out smoke from its chimney.

    Mylorne Akkad slowly scratched his chin, his eyes slightly nostalgic.

    “About ten years ago, I employed a top notch survey company for a purpose of finding precious ore deposits but instead of finding me gold, they ended up unearthing an archaeological site of a significant value.

    “Now normally in the case like this, 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. At least, I do not believe so. This site has been carbon dated to be a good few dozen millenniums older than the ages of Gilgamesh. Also, he never mentioned such an object before.

    “But since we have not exposed its secrets in full, I am assuming it might have ties to the gods of the antiquities. 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. Mylorne 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. There was no way science could explain adequately for this phenomenon.

    Still, it was hard to imagine Gilgamesh, a figure who lived in the Middle East, somehow coming all the way to North America for god knows what purpose. Here and there were separated by thousands of miles of tempestuous oceans, and large land masses in between. How can a person from an ancient civilization even hope to cross that?

    Having said that, even thought the image was unclear and fragmented, he did see something that suspiciously resembled a flying fortress in one of his dreams, so....

    Nothing's impossible, huh.....

    Jack mulled this line over and over. Sounded like a good advice to remember, although Jack found it a little hard to swallow as his modern sensibilities got in the way.

    “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 jitters, feeling rather glad that all this time, his accursed phobia had not acted up at all. Probably it only flared up when riding in a car or something, as he felt nothing while flying on this aircraft. It was kind of a blessing, really.

    What's not a blessing was his indecisive and easily-flustered heart. It did him no good whatsoever to dither about, not knowing what the correct path was to take.

    He had been telling himself to man up and follow through with whatever he chose to do in the beginning. Jack thought wryly that the number of times he chided himself for wavering had gone past his ability to keep track of. But what could he do? 17 years of a certain way of thinking rigidly hammered home wouldn't be erased that easily, no matter how determined he was. He needed more time. Yet that was precisely he was running short of.

    But maybe, he mused, that this very lack of time could be the catalyst for his growth. Forced into acting, forced into moving and fighting, forced into a position where he barely had any time to ponder – maybe, that was the answer. Whether this line of thinking was right or not, only time would tell, ironically enough.

    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. Every one of the trailers here was 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 the entrance to the side.

    The landing pad was next to the biggest trailer, also covered in camo but as the craft approached, a handful of men quickly removed the netting and exposed it.

    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 add to the illusion. A spy drone or a stray Google Maps satellite would never be able to take a lucky image of this place, it seemed.

    The hangar was well stocked with several jeeps, a couple of helicopters and all-terrain vehicles, as well as crates of some stuff, parked neatly to the side. It was all so very professional.

    Akkad and Jack exited the craft in a hurry. A crowd was waiting for them on the side of the landing pad. Jack quickly scanned the group of men and women, trying his best not to form a wrong first impression of them and not to give one himself. It'd be best if he could delay that process until after he got to know the opposite side well enough. His goals were easier said than done, however.

    The group that came to receive Jack and Akkad was, more or less, comprised of what could 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 whole day long. There were always exceptions, of course, such as two men in front of this group who looked like proper soldiers, geared up in simple green uniform. 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, as if that would make him a little more manly. Jack couldn't help but roll his eyes. Inwardly, of course. Nothing good would come from offending the other party so early in the relationship.

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

    Akkad firmly shook the man's hand and asked.

    “Yes, sir. It's not a problem. Instead, everyone here is really upbeat and excited for the day's proceedings. Well, the overall system is fully up and ready as specified. No errors and inconsistencies, so far. Which is a rather swell news.”

    “Good. Very good. Doctor, this is Jack Mercer. Mister Mercer, this is Doctor Norman McLean. He oversees this facility on my behalf. And he will also supervise today's process.”

    Jack frowned slightly while shaking the hand of the bearded doctor. “Uhm, how do you do? Nice to meet you, Doctor McLean. 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, getting rid of germs and the like.

    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 their turn to enter the huge tent through an automatic metal door thick enough to repel an explosive shell fired by a tank, or at least according to the proud explanation from the good doctor McLean.

    The passage immediately past those impressive metal doors was also designed to keep out the outside elements. The lighting was harsh, the glare quite prominent even through the Hazmat suit's visor.

    Further up inside 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. On the ceilings, countless spotlights shining down on the object of all this meticulous attention.

    And that was a huge depression, an artificial crater, on the ground. Inside this hole, were nine slender stone pillars arranged in a circle, while nine thicker pillars arranged also in a circle surrounding 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 the ground level.

    There were step ladders to enter this crater. The group descended down and Jack got closer to these strange stone pillars.

    An inexplicable chill ran his backside as he got near one of the outer stone pillars after realizing its utterly insane dimensions; it was humongous. 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 running on the plains as well as primitive men chasing after them 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. Most of them, Jack had no idea what they were supposed to do, even. And his mother was a scientist, for crying out loud.

    But they weren't the most important objects inside the tent. A man-made hole located left of the circle of outer pillars was. It led down under the ground. And boy, it was pretty substantial. But compared to the sheer size of the two stone encirclements, the hole looked tiny, like a preschooler standing next to a pro NBA player.

    As Jack was led towards this hole, he belatedly noticed that there was one more pillar smack dab in the center of the encirclement. This lone pillar was unbelievably short, though. All in the context, of course. But seeing that it didn't seem to reach the height of a grown man, it did seem a bit out of place here.

    A big crane and an electric motor operated the elevator, 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, they 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 seriously 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 where stalagmites weren't as prominent a geological feature. The electric buggies and large spotlights and people wearing Hazmat suits were everywhere, busy milling about and doing their things.

    Jack could feel the temperature in the air which was slightly warmer than that of the surface. Which made things pretty toasty, seeing that it was still in the middle of a Summer where record temperatures were being broken every single day. He remembered reading somewhere that the deeper a person went into the earth's crust, the warmer it got. Until now he dismissed that as a science fiction fantasy, but hell, here was the proof that his thoughts were an ass.

    Past 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 they climbed aboard an electric buggy. McLean did the driving duty himself and led the expanded group down the middle passageway, the biggest of the three. It was a pretty slow going, however. Jack had no idea the thing could be this slow.

    The middle passage was lit brightest among the three, with lots of lamps illuminating the walls and the undulating ceiling. All that light played with the numerous stalactites and stalagmites, creating an eerie shadow puppet show on the walls.

    It was on these said walls that Jack noticed the details on them, thanks to the snail-like pace of the buggy.

    “Wow, are these genuine cave paintings?”

    Jack pointed at the fading murals on the walls, his eyes wide open. But he did feel a bit stupid for asking this question right afterwards.

    “Yes, of course they are. And we estimate each and every one of them are at least forty 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 as the background, 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 staring forward. Seeing them, Jack lost any motivation to ask for an explanation of what the heck he was seeing on these walls.

    Down further into the cavern, the buggy finally clattered to a stop. 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 currently, he could use some of that “back the eff off for a second” to save his mind from going kablooey.

    Climbing out of the buggy, Jack was presented with a huge underground arena. It was bigger even than a football pitch, bigger than even an airplane hangar. Truly a ridiculous dimension for an underground formation.

    And on top of that sheer nonsensical scale, there was even a miniature pyramid colored in blood red and shaped 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 the monitors, looking important and intelligent.

    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 Crystal 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 well, sir. We got the boy's measurements down perfect and suit has been adjusted accordingly. While he's suiting up, we will place the Red Crystal in the chamber's core.”

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

    “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 here underground, in continental U.S, halfway across the world from where it's usually found? 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 obviously 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. But as to pyramid-like structures only found in Egypt, that assertion is very much wrong, indeed. You can find pyramids from just about anywhere, from Mexico to China, from India to Australasia, they are everywhere if you care to take a closer look.

    “We, my team, posit that this particular pyramid was deliberately built down here. We think that an extremely advanced civilization, not exactly terrestrial in nature, built it for a purpose of.... well, endowing combat experience to the earth-bound warriors.

    “The Egyptologists all think that these ancient buildings are tombs of the Pharaohs and stuff like that, but heh, if they knew ours isn't anything remotely similar to theirs.... Hahaha, it'd be funny seeing their shocked expressions. Well, anyways. Lately, some of the researchers began calling it The Hyperbolic Time Chamber. Unofficially, of course. Tells you all you need to know about it, really.”

    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 as long as it didn't hinder the purpose of this research facility.

    Realizing that he had failed miserably in his mini-quest, 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, 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 almost 24 hours inside. So, a day outside, you'll be spending nearly 576 hours inside, which is 24 days. 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 this time and replaced the utterly disappointed McLean. Taking Jack away from the earshot of everyone, he leaned in closer after switching off the radio.

    “You'll be training once you enter the pyramid. First, to reacquire the ability to use the Soul Sphere without sleep. And two, to absorb more of the red souls that will emit from the Crystal after it's activated and further enhance your abilities.

    “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. We don't know how much breathing room we have, and a single day out here is all we can afford for now.”

    Jack gulped involuntarily.

    I must do what?! But this....

    No, I am going to do this. Let's not waste any more of my time thinking about this. If the pyramid and what's inside can make me stronger, then let's do it. Why am I hesitating, when I'm already this deep down the rabbit hole?

    Now that it came down to this, nothing seemed to matter, nothing other than the relentless march forward. At the end of this march, he was going to emerge as powerful and imperious as his former self, the God-King Gilgamesh. Okay, maybe not that soon, but he'd be many steps closer, closer to the ideals of the man and to achieving his goal of exacting justice to the two Supers, Falcon and Master Evil. Jack nodded resolutely, not even bothering to ask what to expect once inside the pyramid.

    They returned to where McLean was, and like a small miracle, the dejected scientist had perked right back up already. He excitedly continued with the explanation.

    “Only one person can enter and activate the Time Chamber. When 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 an MRE was. But what about the issue of... a bathroom? Or sleep, even the matter of resting?

    “Well, you can pee inside your suit. There's a small reservoir where the discharged liquid is gathered. You can empty it during the breaks. I'll show you how it works when you're putting the suit on later.

    “As for sleep.... well, I don't think you can fall asleep inside but resting should be possible. There is a small boundary near the Crystal core that we think is a demarcation for a safe zone.

    “But, uh, if you're worried about, uh, number 2, then well, you gotta make do, somehow. Sorry.”

    Jack almost gave up on entering the pyramid but after a strong shake of his head, and a firm bite to his lower lip brought the resolution back to the fore.

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

    Jack's voice sounded grim but determined. It was a declaration from him that nothing would dissuade him from entering the structure. Absolutely nothing at all.

    Akkad nodded in appreciation and sighed gently. “Follow Doctor McLean to the locker room over there. You will be advised on the various vital functions of the prototype mech suit before putting it on. It might be a little uncomfortable, but bear with it as you will need its capabilities inside the chamber to withstand its trials.”

    There were some ominous words in what Akkad said but Jack didn't pay heed to them as it was a little late to back out now. Too committed for regrets, as it were.

    Wordlessly, Jack followed McLean and entered the locker room. There was a single gleaming silver crate in the middle, placed upright.

    “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 ahead and get out of the Hazmat suit. I'll help you put this beauty on.”

    Jack entered the clean air chamber located within the room 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 all the while waxing lyrical about the grandness of this suit and its abilities. 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. This must have been what wearing a racing helmet was like.

    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, and only the industrial-strength laser could, the ones used to cut diamonds.

    The suit also had the important function of keeping the body temperature stable 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. Shockproof, heat and water resistant, and the touch screen that was scratch proof as well – a perfect tool for the most demanding customers. Like him.

    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 things 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 as if it was made specifically for him. Although that couldn't have been, he silently mused to himself. Seriously, who in their right minds would spend millions upon millions on research and development to develop something that was destined for only one person and nobody else?

    Dismissing this line of thought, something suddenly came up on his mind. Jack turned and asked McLean earnestly. “Hey, does this armor suit thing come in red?”

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

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

    McLean chuckled. “Whatever, man. Move around a bit, let me 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 gave an all-clear thumbs-up, and McLean gave out a few more instructions on how to access the various functions of the suit via the PDA.

    Jack switched on the PDA as per the instructions. A dim orange glow emitted from the dormant screen. 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 finished, 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 and the shock reduction and absorption. If you have any other questions that you can't think of now but might later while stuck 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 emerged from the locker room. “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 entrance of 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. Even monitoring your vitals will not be possible once the structure activates.

    “Once you enter, you will encounter strange and dangerous situations. But overcome them to your best abilities. In the beginning, it will not be difficult. The further you progress, the harder it will get. Bear that in mind.

    “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 there be a need to wear this cumbersome and expensive armor? Or the strict advice from Akkad?

    Jack entered through the opening of the quarantine bubble and approached the ornately constructed entrance of the red 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.
     
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2017
  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 Active 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.

    Edit (24th June):

    Chapter 17: The Criminals


    Nico Gavalas didn't feel tired or fatigued. He hadn't slept, barely ate anything substantial or rested at any length of time, ever since arriving in this wonderful country, yet, he felt great somehow. He felt wonderful, alive and alert. His mind was incomparably clear, his steps light.

    Maybe, it was the energy of the city, its people, causing this metamorphosis. Even though there was a heavy presence of police officers and military personnel here and there – everywhere – Nico found it easy to feel the life pulsing in the streets from every nook and cranny, on his skin.

    Didn't matter that today was Sunday. Most cities would be empty and eerily silent on early Sunday mornings but not New York. It was like everyone living in this city had places to go, people to meet and things to do regardless of what day it was.

    Nico mused to himself that indeed, this city deserved to be called the one of the greatest on earth, judged from its stunning architecture to the vast melting pot of culture, art and heritage. Most importantly, its people.

    He loved it. It felt so much more alive and full of hope, compared to his hometown back in Greece. There was this aura, a buzz of excitement, permeating in the air, seemingly born out of the people's beliefs that there was an opportunity for everyone as long as one wished to grab it with both hands. And Nico was such a person.

    Oh, how he struggled for years to make ends meet.

    So much went wrong so very quickly; people losing their livelihoods and their homes, their directions in life gone almost overnight without warning. Of course, that wasn't really true, as there were enough hints of decay, signals of impending collapse, but as it was often the case with humanity, those hints went ignored and unanswered until it was too late to reverse. His home country and particularly, his hometown, was hit hard by the economic recession and needed to receive bail-out funds from the neighbors with humiliating conditions attached.

    All of that was meaningless, now that he had become the part of the light. He was a part of the solution. He was reborn from the ashes of the corrupted society. And pretty soon, others like him would be reborn in the same way.

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

    He was not 100% sure, but Nico thought that his face looked different. And there was this lingering feeling, telling him that he wasn't supposed to be a Nico Gavalas anymore, that he was instead somebody else now.

    A brand new being, befitting of a brand new beginning.

    As to who he had become after this wonderful metamorphosis, well, he believed it didn't matter. He was better off now anyways. No point in dwelling on the past for any longer, lest he roused his unpleasant memories from their slumber. Besides, he couldn't remember them all that well as it was.

    As he continued checking out his appearance, he saw a police car cruise by behind him. Two cops sat inside, looking vigilant and slightly trigger happy. Nico lost count how many times he encountered policemen and women this morning while on his way. He thought that all this presence of officers was the strangest thing, a blight in otherwise a wonderful cityscape.

    Not too long ago, he had heard that New York shed the unenviable title of the crime capital of the United States of America. But all this presence of the 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 with no problem, so that was the proof enough.

    Everything was going so well and he had no complaints. He found the Divine Dagger of Enki, the God of Creation, ahead of schedule with minimal resistance. And now, he was hot on the trail of the second artifact needed for the success of the ritual. The enigmatic broken compass was leading him towards an industrial district, to where his objective was. After he found this piece, then it'd be time to go to the Metropolitan Museum and boom!!

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

    Soon, a warehouse came into the view. The compass's needle was pointing towards it. Nico nodded in delight and hastened his steps but as soon as he got near it, his facial color changed for the worse.

    He saw familiar people, walking around the warehouse. 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 sour. 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 who got in their way with total impunity.

    Nico lost so much as a victim of their trickery. Their silver tongues and rich promises brought him nothing but heartache and pain. He was powerless to make it right, too weak and voiceless to take revenge.

    But now, things were different. He could deal with these bastards. 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 the society, begin the cleansing of the world proper with them, right here, right this moment.

    As he thought like this, Nico immediately 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 unhurriedly walked past the unmanned guard post between the steel wire fencing and got nearer to one of the gun-toting goons who was standing around oblivious while smoking a cigarette, apparently failing to notice a figure approaching his back. He was evidently alone, out of his friends' view. That was a fatal mistake on his part.

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

    Nico simply stabbed the smoking man from behind. The blade was unexpectedly sharp, cutting through the man's spine like a hot knife through butter and pierced his heart, killing the man instantly. Nico nonchalantly withdrew the weapon and the lifeless body fell with a soft thud, the semi-automatic rifle in his side clattering noisily on the ground. The blood on the blade sizzled, before dissipating into wisps.

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

    The tablet flew up in the air and started to emit a low hum, glowing in a sickly golden hue. As it did so, the pooling blood from the dead man quickly coagulated into a single ball-shaped mass, before floating up near the tablet, circling around it. Then a single thin thread emerged out of this bloody sphere, and its end was absorbed by the tablet. Slowly, the ball unraveled as more and more of the thread continuously entered the tablet.

    The stone tablet shook a little harder but returned back to a low humming after it finished absorbing the sphere of blood. Nico nodded in satisfaction watching from the sidelines.

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

    Nico shook his head but the wide 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, born 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. The heavens blessed him with a kind of physique well-suited for such a purpose and young Ylli – Wilhelm – learned early on how to utilize that advantage to the fullest.

    By the time he turned 20, he had 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 change of direction for the nation unwittingly allowed numerous local gangsters the 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 which shamed the traditional organizations of Western and Southern Europe.

    During this time of tumultuous change, Ylli decided to change 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. Whether his wishes were granted or not, no one could tell, really.

    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 fishes at the bottom of an unnamed lake.

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

    He had built his business very carefully since then. Wilhelm was never a fan of drugs himself, but it was a good cash cow, so he continued peddling them. In reality, though, his passion was weapons. And not just your average peashooter one could get from the car trunk of some shady character in a dark back alley.

    No, he loved handling stuff that could fire hundreds of rounds per minute, or stuff that could fire a rocket propelled projectile that could puncture a hole in the side of an armored truck. Or a helicopter. Or a plane, if that took the client's fancy.

    So he specialized in illegal weapons smuggling, in and out of the various countries around the globe to whoever was willing to pony up the cash. And as an aside, he also got in touch with some well-monied Middle Eastern gentlemen who wished to purchase fine, young Caucasian girls, preferably virgins, necessitating that he got going on that front as well.

    The end result was that, his business has been good. Very good. Very stimulating as well.

    It was only recently that one of his underlings suggested trying out at smuggling arts and ancient artifacts, and selling them on the black market. This suggestion was met with a certain amount of enthusiasm; as Wilhelm found himself getting older, his tastes had become more refined. A genuine appreciation for fine art had developed before he was aware of the change. This, from a man who couldn't be bothered to start a family of his own because kids would be too much work.

    Anyways, this new venture meant that not only could he enjoy feasting his eyes on some of the most beautiful works of art produced by mankind but he'd also make a healthy chunk of cash too. A win-win, in other words.

    Since it was a new thing, the scale of the operation was still on the smaller side compared to the rest of his other interests. But it was steadily growing in size and Wilhelm predicted that in no time it'd be as significant a contributor to his coffers as the drug running.

    And currently, Wilhelm was sitting in his office, his fingers gently toying a small broken bronze mirror.

    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, betraying its original purpose.

    But his huge shoulders and intimidating countenance hadn't lost any of its visceral intimidating power. He could cower any man simply by glaring. The ruthless coldness in his eyes was still the same as the day he decided to commit a murder for the first time 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 beautiful. A piece of its reflective surface was broken off, but the damage itself was negligible. The overall shape was quite nicely preserved, unaffected by the ravages of time, unlike his aging face.

    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. Even if the mirror turned out to be nothing more than some trinket a child might have played with back then thousands of years ago, it still was an item of immense archaeological value. The monetary price attached to it would be astronomical.

    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 very intricate and utterly beautiful. The craftsmanship was at a level of being enchanting, bewitching, simply arresting.

    Wilhelm Milosevic had heard how an unlucky farmer in Turkey or somewhere nearby accidentally unearthed the bronze mirror and tried to sell the damn thing to make the ends meet. A local gangster forcibly acquired it and then sold it to one of Wilhelm's partners there. Now, he held it, and he'd profit from it, 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.

    Sorry, boss, but we might have a couple of problems. I'm in a hospital right now. That idiot Max got his balls busted.

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

    Wilhelm massaged his temples as he lowered the mirror.

    The fat f*ck's in the ER right now. The motherf*cking Abyss roughed him up last night. Max called me for 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? No, 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 have 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? What else?”

    No, Well, this other thing is more f*cked up, boss. While I was in here waiting for Max, I got a call from the contact in Athens. He tells me the stone tablet we were supposed to receive next week got stolen.

    Wilhelm slammed the top of the table hard enough to nearly tip it on its side. The fiery anger blazed like a wildfire in his face.

    “What?! Who the f*ck pulled that off? Which crew dares to rip me off?”

    No idea yet, 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 his boys over there to find out what the hell was going on and to kill the bastard responsible for it. No one screwed with Wilhelm Milosevic and lived to tell about it, not even the Pope himself.

    And then, there was the matter of the vigilante, Abyss. To think, he'd get involved in the thing with the girl. That was quite a troublesome matter to overcome. The client waiting on the other side of the continent would not be pleased to learn that a nosy vigilante had caught on to the scent of this deal.

    “How the hell did Abyss catch a wind of the girl? Damn it.”

    Wilhelm angrily shook his head. He'd have to hire proper external help to deal with Abyss. His men were not trained or adequately equipped to handle a Super like that. Wilhelm wouldn't make the mistake of underestimating the legendary vigilante that was Abyss. Not in this lifetime.

    After all, the damn vigilante had been active in the underbelly of New York for a better part of a decade, killing and maiming all the criminals he could lay his hands on. And he evaded capture by the cops and other Supers until now.

    Most famously, he once 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. Even after pulling that stunt, no one could find him.

    That told Wilhelm everything he needed to know, that Abyss was a dangerous, resourceful opponent that would be terribly difficult to contend with.

    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, 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, the appearance of legitimacy and finally, diversifying his so-called portfolio.

    From the exit of his office, he had a pretty good view of the floor space below, being on a catwalk. He enjoyed checking out the cargo from the high vantage point, seeing them all wrapped up nicely and ready to be shipped to their destinations.

    As soon as he leaned over the railings, his face drained of all color. Wilhelm 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 his eyes all around the floor space until he spotted one of his men. From the look of things, it was as obvious as daylight that the man was dead, the way the poor shmuck was lying on the ground, face first on the cold hard floor, not even twitching slightly.

    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!! I swear, I'll kill that idiot bastard real slow, real painful, later!!”

    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 from the safe and threw it on, then yanked out another pistol, tucking it in his back. Next, he grabbed some rolls of cash and stuffed it in his jacket.

    Finally, he took the tablet computer from inside the safe 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 this much wasn't going to fluster him.

    If anything, he was feeling royally pissed off at the vigilante for killing his men, as it would cost him a fair whack of money to cultivate another group of loyal soldiers after all was said and done.

    As his feet stepped off the last rung of the stairs, 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 should know – Wilhelm heard it plenty of times 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 squeeze the trigger. But he was left frozen by the unexpected 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 cut wound to the throat. Wilhelm could tell the guy had his neck slashed open from behind and had 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 it was previously smooth and unmarked, now thin, hard-to-read lines of text were 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 recognized the stone tablet right away – the photo of the damn thing was stored 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 quickly 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. Wilhelm gasped out in shock.

    “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 playfully 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 the realization.

    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 promptly dropped the gun on the floor and hastily got on his knees, seemingly 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 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 nor 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. It was something a madman would have, or a crazed junkie finally getting his shot of the drugs.

    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 and shouted inwardly.

    Block this, motherf*cker.

    It took only a split second for Wilhelm to yank out his extra weapon and fire at Nico. It was practically a point-blank shot and no one in the world could dodge it, not even the most agilest Super known to man – or so he thought.

    Nico Gavalas didn't even bother to stop the shot nor did he tried to dodge it. He simply reached out with his left hand to grab and push away the gun holding hand of Wilhelm. At the same time, he 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 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 gray and cold. 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, rightful king of this world will be able to rise once again. And the great, wonderful gods shall descend on our planet after thousands of years in exile.

    “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 only the unending darkness. There was not a single mote of light anywhere. And it was also desperately cold, as if he had fallen into the bitter Balkan Winter's deadly clutch, recalling a particularly unpleasant time in his youth.

    Then, suddenly, 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 a leftover oil stain on the garage floor.

    Wilhelm tried to run but then, he realized that he had no legs. He had no arms either. He had become 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 appeared all around him. He was surrounded by the phantoms. No one could save his soul now as he was dragged deeper into the darkness....

    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 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. What should I do, my liege?”

    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, I understand.”

    Nico nodded attentively before brandishing the dagger. He 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.

    With the severed hand, Nico picked the mirror up, then, he used Wilhelm's expensive jacket to wrap both the limb and the bronze mirror.

    “Okay, all done.”

    Smiling happily, Nico stuffed the wrapped hand inside the gym bag alongside the golden skull and stood up to stretch his back. He observed the stone tablet carefully as many ancient runes written in crimson red slowly manifested on the surface the more it absorbed the blood spheres.

    The ancient, oppressive aura coming from the tablet got stronger by the second and the surrounding air seemed to distort ever so slightly.

    Nico nodded in genuine appreciation.

    “Hmm, looks like the gate should be ready to open soon. Haha, everything is going well. Very nice.”

    Once finished with absorbing all the blood, the stone tablet slowly fell back down to the ground. Nico collected and stored it back inside the gym bag. After hoisting the heavy bag on his shoulder with a soft grunt, he turned his gaze towards the direction of the Central Park with the usual wide grin on his face.

    “Well, it's time to go to the museum now, eh.”
     
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2017
  4. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Active 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.

    Edit (24th June):

    Chapter 18: The Convergence


    Abyss the vigilante coldly looked down 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 was all in vain.

    He felt somewhat 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, Abyss would have preferred to give Wilhelm Milosevic his due, by his own blade. In a roundabout way, that's what happened here but still, it did not feel all that satisfying.

    The sun was shining down the warehouse district like a spotlight from the heaven, highlighting every little fault present within the hearts of humanity. Abyss frowned and shielded his eyes, bothered by the strong glare of the Summer sun.

    He was a creature of the dark, operating 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, for the first time in his career as a vigilante, he had to make an exception. Here he was, basking in the sun, running across the city's rooftop, chasing after a monstrous criminal. This situation was turning to an unexpected direction and he needed to get a grip on it, pronto, or else, a lot more people could die. The proof of this possibility lay sprawled right in front of him.

    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 a couple of platinum credit cards and a driver's license, plus some cash. He counted the total of five hundred bucks. An expensive mobile phone, locked by a password, in the pants' pocket; two handguns, one empty of bullets, the other laying next to the corpse. Nothing else of note, besides the fact that Wilhelm was missing his right hand from just past the wrist.

    The wounds were 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 to Abyss and how strange to see that it was not him causing this death.

    The freakiest thing was that there was no evidence of blood. Not on the cold, hard concrete ground, not on the clothing, not on the vest, not even on the wound itself. 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 goons suffered the same fate. Via the visuals transmitted by the hacked exterior security cameras, Abyss got to see some weird sh*t before he came here, but seeing was, indeed, believing.

    Abyss had no idea what that strange stone thing could be, but whatever it was, he had no doubt that thing was a very bad news. And that it would thirst for more blood.

    Abyss remained silent as he continued to search around inside the warehouse but as expected, he couldn't find any other clues on where the murdering bastard disappeared to. He wasn't hoping for much, so he wasn't feeling that disappointed.

    However, there were questions lingering on his mind like a bad aftertaste. Why did that murderer come here? Why did he cross the width and breadth of the New York City to come here after taking the cursed dagger away from Abyss? It would have saved him time if he could just come here first as the airport of JFK was not too far from this warehouse.

    Besides, why was the secretive and careful Wilhelm Milosevic present at this warehouse in the first place? The bastard never stayed put in one place for long. So him being here could have meant that there was something big happening today, the Sunday.

    Unfortunately, there were no interior security cameras linking to the outside, and so 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? What was the connection?

    Since that monster was no longer around here and everyone else who carried a gun was dead, Abyss was spared from dealing with bothersome issues while he searched for the evidence linking Milosevic to 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....

    Or, his assumptions were wrong in the first place and he'd have to start from the very beginning.

    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 observed a thin layer of dust on it. Looked like Wilhelm Milosevic wasn't big on writing things down on paper.

    Abyss also realized that there was no dress jacket. Milosevic was wearing a suit so a jacket would have been a must to complete the attire. But he wasn't wearing it and it wasn't in the office. It could have been left back at the gangster's home, so Abyss decided not to mind it too much.

    The only other thing of note Abyss could find was a deliberately smashed-up tablet PC on the ground. 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 silicone, and found the internal flash memory modules. It was his lucky day – the thing was undamaged. With the 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. Or, it was inside the missing jacket. But it was hard to imagine the JFK murderer taking the whole jacket just for a measly memory card, so that thought was ultimately rejected.

    Now, Abyss had the phone and the memory chips. He hoped that these two would hold more than sufficient enough data for whatever the hell was going on here.

    Abyss scooped up the pieces of the broken tablet and did one last look-see of the office. He didn't find anything else that could be useful to him.

    Next, he went through the warehouse, thoroughly searching through every single corner and hidden crevice.

    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 they contained nothing more than cheap and pirated goods imported from Eastern Europe and China, such DVDs of famous movies and knockoff Rolex lookalikes. Nothing illegal, mostly, or eye-catching at all.

    However, hidden in a cleverly-concealed compartment of one of the containers, Abyss found boxes of ammunition, obviously in the process of being either smuggled in or out. He found more of these hidden compartments 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 decorating the concrete ground. Again, no blood whatsoever.

    Abyss fleetingly wondered if the Super responsible, Nico Gavalas, was some kind of a weird, mutated vampire. Since he walked around in broad daylight, that didn't seem likely.

    Most of the shipping containers were empty but after going through each one carefully, Abyss found two with thick chains and heavy padlocks out in front. He rued the fact that his cursed dagger was no longer with him. That damn thing could slice apart any metal with consummate ease and would have been useful here.

    Abyss decided to improvise and picked up the unused guns off the ground, firing at the locks. It worked better than he expected.

    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 numbed fear, but unable to act whatsoever.

    Abyss grimaced deeply after seeing this scene. He was trying to find a girl yet he found so many others. This caught him off guard.

    The air inside was stale – these girls were trapped inside the container under the hot weather, with no changes of clothing nor the chance to use a john. An air conditioner was installed in the far corner, silently whirring away so the air quality wasn't so bad, but in the end, that could only act as 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 updated the wheelchair-bound hacker extraordinaire what he had found here. That ten-minute window was to give himself time to finish up with his search and then leave.

    Frankly, Abyss found it appalling how the cops didn't show up after the first goon started dying; after all, there were security cameras installed on the opposite building, 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 locked container. And he hit the proverbial jackpot.

    After opening it with the gun, 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 once more 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 entered quickly.

    It was misty and cold inside, slightly obscuring his view. The interior was outfitted like a temporary laboratory. Walls were painted in pale blue, and several computer monitors were mounted on them, showing green texts and numbers that were continuously flowing past. There were computer terminals, chairs, canisters of liquid Nitrogen, and some wires as well as pipes snaking around.

    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 spotted some sort of movement behind the girl's closed eyes. She seemed 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 was looking at the brownstone across the street with intensity and her eyes gradually got misty. The building was as exactly as she had remembered it.

    Unable to endure it any longer, she hurriedly jumped out of the “borrowed” car and ran towards the entrance. Erik and Lei exited right after, complicated expressions on their faces. They were staying put in order to see if the Project King members were lying in wait but Cleo's actions meant that it didn't matter now.

    Fortunately, the trip had been uneventful. Mylorne Akkad's plane landed at a small private airfield just North of New York, and the trio procured a vehicle soon after.

    They ran into several military and police checkpoints, making the trip quite a nerve-wracking experience, but in the end, they managed to slip by. They witnessed that there were impromptu arrests being made on the spot by the NYPD and FBI agents so the tension did rise quite unnecessarily.

    They couldn't help but think that the people arrested were only handcuffed and corraled into a waiting police van because of their “suspicious” faces and nothing more. They even saw an African man speaking in a foreign accent struggling to convince a cold-faced NYPD policeman that he had the right to be here, in the country. His pleas fell on deaf ears.

    A couple of Italian wiseguys were throwing insults at FBI agents as they were taken away from a diner into an unmarked van, too. It was like a scene from a bad movie, Erik mused silently to himself. He was regretting the decision to come here.

    Overhead, helicopters, both news media and military, flew around, interspersed with an occasional Super or two.

    Somehow, weirdly enough, the freedom of movements for regular folks was not limited at all, leading Erik to believe that the arrests were actually targetted to certain individuals only. It seemed like cops and feds were taking advantage of the situation and arresting everyone they suspected of having criminal ties.

    But somehow, the trio made out of that maelstrom and arrived before Cleo's home unscathed. Erik was glad about that, at least.

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

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

    Erik grimaced slightly, before nodding his head 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 was about to pound on the door, but Erik quickly stepped forward to calm her down. Otherwise, with her exaggerated 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? It's Sunday, so they could be at the church or something.”

    She shook head fiercely. “No, well, yeah. They were Catholics but... hmm.” She pursed her lips in displeasure but returned to buzzing the doorbell repeatedly.

    Finally, there was a sign of life, a stir of movement.

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

    A loud, irritated voice of a man came from behind the door, the sound of locks being undone. 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, almost jumping up and down on the spot. 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. He scratched the stubble on his chin and with annoyed eyes, he glanced at Cleo.

    “What the... hey, what do you all want now? I ain't buying whatever you're selling.”

    The man seemed confused and irritated. But the defiant attitude was present and correct, ready to start a verbal assault if it came down to that. Even though the man had a long Saturday night playing poker with his pals, he had the mental wherewithal to trade insults if it need be.

    “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 Costanza was shocked at this sudden turn of events. 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 that he didn't know of. He glanced at Erik and Lei, asking for an explanation, but they just smiled back 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. He grabbed Cleo's shoulders and separated the crying girl from his chest.

    Seeing her face up close, Tony thought this girl was seriously familiar to him. Too damn familiar, in fact, and his heart began racing at the possibility. It was a tiny possibility, but... could it be?

    “Uncle Tony, it's me. It's Cleo!! I'm back home!!”

    ~​

    “Mister Vanguard, the plane is about to land. Please be seated and don't forget to put your seatbelts on.”

    Vanguard was deeply submerged in meditation but snapped out at the polite words of the pretty flight attendant. She gently touched his shoulder and smiled warmly.

    The burly, luchador mask-wearing Super nodded his thanks and got up from the plane's floor. Finding a seat for himself wasn't so hard, as the private aircraft was pretty much empty to begin with. Buckling up, he glanced around the plane's interior.

    Besides himself, there were three other members of the Guild of Heroes, all heading to the city of New York.

    For the event of this magnitude, more active members should've been recruited, but due to the time constraints as well as the prior engagements, this was the best the Guild could organize for this trip under such a short notice. Of course, those based in New York or the surrounding area were already doing their best over there. This plane was taking those Supers active along the Pacific Coast, like Vanguard, for instance.

    As the schedule opened up, more Supers would be flooding into the city, helping to locate the criminal responsible for killing thousands of innocent civilians in JFK.

    Vanguard had all the confidence in the world that the villain would be caught before long, but worryingly, he could not shake off this nagging premonition of bad things to come. He just couldn't ignore it, or get rid of this troubling feeling no matter what he tried.

    He had no supernatural powers of precognition. He was a fighter, a brawler, a straight-laced man who did his talking with fists until his untimely retirement.

    But his instincts, built up over the years after years of 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 looming on the horizon.

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

    That was why Vanguard was on this plane. He voluntarily came aboard, revoking his retired status temporarily so he could participate in the hunt for 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, another legend in the annals of GoH. And the Superhero community in general.

    He too wore a mask like Vanguard, 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 most attacks. There was a small device attached to 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 the internet as well as record high-def videos.

    A highly respected veteran of the Guild of Heroes, and only shy of Vanguard's in the number of years in public service, Blast Storm was regarded as one of the most significant Superheroes of this era. He had battled countless Supervillains, saved numerous lives and possessed enough scars as the proud trophies of his deeds. His ability to control tempestuous winds was known as one of the most versatile in the world as well.

    He and Vanguard had built up a good friendship after going through so much danger together. They even knew each other's real identities, something that 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 whole situation. It feels like... we've overlooked something important here. My apologies. 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 performing 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?”

    While listening to Blast Storm's musings, Vanguard picked up the GoH-issue tablet PC and browsed through all the notifications, hoping to see if the Guild was able to track down the origins of the villain.

    There was nothing important, only some status updates from the guys on the ground inside the city. Did this mean Blast Storm's conjecture was correct? Vanguard frowned slightly as the bad premonition grew a little bit larger.

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

    Vanguard then checked on the detailed satellite map of the New York City. 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 this labyrinthine 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 to close the net and ferret him out in the open,” said Blast Storm, shrugging his shoulders. “We have the correct personnel sweeping through 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 chuckled bitterly and sighed. “Indeed. I have tried to keep the fitness level up, but man, my bum knee still gets in the way every now and then.”

    The plane bucked a little as it met turbulence. Vanguard exchanged glances with Blast Storm, waiting to see if there was a need to act but the plane soon stabilized and the smooth flying resumed.

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

    ~​

    Meanwhile, Jack was standing inside the red pyramid, cautiously studying the space around him.

    He thought that it all looked kind of.... normal, really. As normal as an underground pyramid could possibly be. Passing through the mouth of hell AKA the entrance was just as anti-climatic, although he didn't know what he was expecting there to begin with, anyway.

    The inside of the pyramid was.... a fairly spacious stone chamber, pretty much one might expect after checking out the pyramid's exterior. There was not much to distinguish it from any other stone structures ever made in the history of the mankind. It was just a stone chamber with a pointed ceiling. That was it.

    However, there were two things of note, demanding that Jack should pay attention to their presence here.

    One of those was a huge, bright red crystal emitting eerie glow right in the middle of this stone chamber. Thanks to the glow, the chamber was lit in ever-so-slightly sanguine hue. Not that he really needed the crystal to see where the hell he was, since the survival suit's helmet featured night vision. He wouldn't trip on his feet for being as blind as a bat.

    Besides that oddity, there was a pedestal right next to it. There was a clear crystal the size of a person's hand residing on top.

    Jack walked closer to the giant red crystal and carefully looked at its glossy surface. It sure looked expensive, but he couldn't readily tell what the hell it was made out of. Not that such a thing mattered anyway. But he did feel some kind of strange but familiar reaction coming off of it, greatly feeding his curiosity.

    Jack crouched down to study the platform the crystal sat on. He spotted many elaborate carvings on the surface surrounded by symbols and runes which were completely foreign to him. Not even the fragmented memories of Gilgamesh could help him decode what was written here.

    The carvings were of monsters and deity-like beings but without context provided by the accompanying text, it was hard to tell what they all meant.

    Giving up for now, Jack stood back up and studied the red crystal again. He got real close to the surface, his visor almost touching it. Then he saw it, and couldn't help but gasp out aloud in surprise.

    He definitely saw red souls swirling inside the crystal. Not just one either. Even though the interior of the damn thing was murkier than mud, Jack could still see the incredible spectacle of innumerable souls swimming without direction.

    What the.... Is this crystal made up entirely of red souls? Seriously? Wait, if I absorb all these red souls, could I be as strong as Cleo physically? Well, I guess there's only one way to find out.

    Jack closed his eyes and tried to recall the sensation when the red souls entered him in the past. He was mimicking that feel, to trigger a reaction from the souls trapped within the crystal.

    But there was nothing. Even though he could recall those sensations quite vividly, he couldn't attract the souls towards him.

    Hmm, did I do something wrong? Jack mused quietly to himself. Or I can't absorb them just yet until I... uh, activate this pyramid?

    Unable to come to a satisfying conclusion, he gave up trying to figure it out for now and decided to study the rest of the chamber. Maybe he'd get an inspiration from doing other things unrelated to the souls.

    There was a metal crater that was similar to the one that held the survival suit but small enough for a single person to carry it unaided. It was placed right beside the red crystal and could not be missed even if he tried. The word “rations” was written on the side, so Jack was pretty certain what was inside. There was no need to crack open the lid just yet so he ignored it.

    That left the pedestal as the last object for him to study. Jack observed it closely, but this item was as unremarkable as they came. No visible carvings or markings on the surface, no ancient runes and symbols and nothing particularly eye-catching, other than that clear crystal.

    When Jack got nearer, that crystal began to emit a weak glow. He thought that it was trying to entice him into touching it.

    Well, here goes nothing.

    Gulping slightly in anticipation, Jack slowly touched the crystal, depressing it slightly. Since he was wearing the survival suit, he couldn't feel the texture against his palm but he guessed it could be cold and smooth, just like how a quartz should 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 several dozen steps back, getting ready for whatever, but initially, there was nothing.

    He waited with bated breath for a few more seconds, until the huge red crystal suddenly began to vibrate, letting out an ear-splitting 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. If he stopped concentrating on the moving walls, he could bear the burden, at least.

    Jack also spotted the wisps of red energy escaping the crystal and beginning to permeate the air. Jack realized that this might be a good chance to start absorbing the red souls, so he again concentrated doing just that.

    Usually, he didn't have to do much to absorb the souls as they came towards him on their own accord but this time, it was different. There was a strange, unseen suction force that actively repelled Jack's attempts. Before he knew it, a tug of war unfolded between him and this unseen force, trying to cease control of the valuable red souls.

    As he was about 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. Not literally in front of him, per se, but close enough to take him by surprise.

    Jack stiffened as the monster took a swipe at him. He just couldn't react in time and so, when the monster's front paw struck him, it left him utterly unprepared.

    Jack was 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 amazement and relief, the diameter of the world he was trapped in expanded like a balloon filling up with air. The stone chamber became as big and wide as the open underground area where the pyramid was located – maybe even wider than that.

    Jack landed safely well before the spinning walls. The ground was as hard as he expected, and the suit did its job of negating a lot of the impact. Although he felt like spitting out either blood or vomit, he resisted the urge like a champ. As he was wearing a helmet, he had to. It'd do him no good if his precious vision was blocked off by his own blood on the visor, after all.

    Jack got up while calming his aching chest and observed the creature in front of him. Good thing it didn't pack much power, or he'd been a dead meat by now. The chest plate of the survival suit was undamaged too. Breathing in deeply to make sure there was no hidden pain in the chest, he accessed the PDA's functions. A metal baton as long as a forearm was released from the holding rack located on his back. He grasped it firmly and stared at the creature.

    The illusory monster looked like a cross between a brown bear and a wolf but bizarrely, it lacked eyes, instead thick fur growing over where the eye sockets should have been. Perhaps to compensate, the creature possessed massive ears which were as long as that of a rabbit's. These ears constantly shifted around, searching for its prey via the slightest hint of noise.

    Now, what should I do here?

    Contrary to his own expectations, Jack wasn't exasperated. He was just curious. Did he need to attack the monster? Did he need to defeat it? Or was the thing only here because he engaged in the tug of war for the red souls? If he continued, then would it become hostile?

    Jack figured that the monster was already as hostile as it could possibly get, so not fighting it was a whimsical nonsense. He needed to defeat it without a doubt.

    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. Could he risk a full-on frontal assault?

    Well, the monster made the choice clear for him. It snarled at his direction before pouncing on him.

    Jack's eyes sharpened like a blade, and he dodged to his left, all the while carefully observing how the creature moved. He dodged for a few minutes while maintaining his concentration and found it easy enough to predict the path of this monster. It was simple and repetitive.

    Now that he had read the pattern, it was time to return the earlier favor. The monster growled and pounced again in the predicted manner and Jack easily dodged out of the way. Then, he slammed his baton at the abdomen of the creature. He felt a solid connection, a heavy weight of the monster. It felt good.

    Jack grinned in satisfaction as the creature was flung away in the impact. But his smile disappeared soon after realizing that the monster's flight trajectory would result in it crashing into the red crystal, thereby destroying it and that he was helpless to change this outcome.

    But to his immense relief, a pale curtain of light suddenly fell around the perimeter of the crystal and blocked the flying body of the monster, repelling it away. The poor thing bounced on the ground a couple of times before coming to a halt, looking like a discarded rag.

    A barrier, huh? Right, McLean and Mylorne did mention there was a safe zone around the crystal. That must be it.

    Jack nodded in understanding. Now he wanted to find out a few things about this safe zone, such as whether he could enter it during the heat of the battle or not, whether there were conditions attached to the monster entering it, stuff like that.

    The bear/wolf hybrid 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. Didn't feel like he had landed a lucky shot, though. No, it was more like a deliberate attack on the weak point of the creature after observing it and studying it for a while.

    Jack was quite sure that a couple more hits there, and the thing would die. He clenched his fist tightly. His adrenaline was running high. He was feeling excited and alive again. This was a terrific feeling. He wanted this feeling to stay with him for a lot longer. Much longer. The thrill of the battle was beckoning him and he wanted to taste it, savor it.

    With a ferocious grin that couldn't be witnessed by anyone, Jack raised the baton and got ready. It was time to attack from the front.

    He dashed forward. In a matter of split 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.

    The monster was blown away again along the ground. Jack didn't sit around enjoying the fruit of his labor just yet, following the creature to its end and lashing out another powerful blow, solidly connecting with 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 fully gain the understanding of what was going on here.

    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. He hadn't had the chance to test out how the safe zone worked yet but if his hunches were correct, then he could escape there when faced with insurmountable danger.

    Of course, the quandary of accessing the Soul Sphere without falling asleep remained, something he had to resolve as soon as possible.

    Mylorne said that I needed to train on using the souls without sleeping, but how am I supposed to do that, I wonder?

    Jack glanced around, but there was nothing else besides the red crystal, the pedestal, the crate and the crazily spinning walls, which had magically contracted back to their original diameter as he walked closer to the curtain of light. He couldn't touch the curtain, but had no trouble entering it. It seemed like he was allowed to enter, just that it was unclear whether he could during the battle. Well, he'd find out as soon as another monster showed up.

    However, there was nothing. No monster appeared.

    Hold on, what's going on here?

    Jack remained puzzled as he continuously 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.

    Hmm. Do I need to play another tug of war with the red crystal and the unseen force? Or should I wait for longer? 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 replenishing 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's the case, then who built this thing?

    Since he couldn't recognize the runes below the red crystal, Jack felt fairly confident of the fact that this ancient structure wasn't related to Gilgamesh in any shape or form. But other than that, he had no other clue. Maybe, after leaving here, he could ask Mylorne Akkad about it.

    The things about the cave paintings bothered him too. Surely, there was something in those depictions that could shed light on the mysteries of this structure. But it wasn't really important right now, so as soon as he sensed yet another wisp of red soul emerging from the crystal, he pushed the matter to the back of his mind.

    In the HUD display, ten minutes had passed. And another illusory monster was taking shape just outside the safe zone. 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 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 as if daring him to come out and dance with it. How could he refuse such an invitation? A ferocious grin returned to his lips as he slowly stepped out of the curtains of light.
     
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2017
  5. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Active 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.

    Edit (24th June):

    Chapter 19: The Reunions


    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 since the launch of the manhunt and a portion of the airport's real estate was taken up by the National Guard for the express purpose of setting up a temporary base of operations. The Guild, or often abbreviated by the public as GoH, was one of the parties “cooperating fully” and had set up their own base here as well.

    The normally-busy airport full of 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 male representative coming over to guide them warned the group 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, would only be detrimental in delivering a controlled, unified message at a later time.

    Not to mention, Vanguard didn't need to hear such a warning as he had received extensive media training. He wouldn't make the gaffe of saying stuff he should not say in front of unrelated people.

    Vanguard, Blast Storm and the one other Super, a woman named Blue Solstice, were guided to the hangar occupied by the Guild of Heroes, located on the outskirts of the airport specially arranged for them.

    Vanguard took a glance at Blue Solstice, his eyes slightly narrowing. She was an enigma, even to the high-ups in the Guild. She never spoke more than three words, always worked alone, and the extent of her powers was also a mystery. Blast Storm didn't seem to care much, though. To the wind-wielding Superhero, as long as one was an ally, it was all good, frosty personalities be damned.

    The three including the guide remained largely silent as they walked to the hangar, keeping out an eye for any rat scurrying about. The distance between the runway where the plane landed and the hangar itself wasn't much, but it paid to be cautious regardless of the surroundings.

    The building was heavily guarded by the private soldiers employed by the Guild, called the Peacekeepers, and low-level Supers as well as high-tech security systems custom-made by the Guild's technicians.

    The reason for the extra level of security was simple. Inevitably, there would be sensitive information attainable only by those in the loop, and for the reasons of national security and stability, they were obviously kept out of the public domain. It wouldn't do good if any of them was leaked ahead of time while not under the careful control, after all.

    The temporary base for GoH in Newark airport was set up to facilitate quicker response to the Superheroes cooperating with the search for the JFK mass 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, connected via a powerful communication network 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, the other as the loadout where the response team could be outfitted on a short notice, a rest area with beds and showers, and finally, the command center where almost all of the action taking place was being monitored and guided by the well-trained personnel.

    The Guild owned several military-grade satellites graciously funded and sometimes provided free of charge by many benefactors, such as Mylorne Akkad and other wealthy industrialists. They nearly had no reason to rely on the U.S military to provide the real-time bird's eye view into the city.

    As Vanguard was brought in here, he could more or less survey the lay of the land through the multiple large projections set up in the middle of the command center. One of them was a three-dimensional map of the five boroughs. He nodded slightly after checking out the movements of all the Supers and the police force. The National Guard troop's movements were relayed a little later, perhaps a sign of information flow not being as smooth as it could be.

    There were several familiar faces as well as ones Vanguard didn't immediately recognize in the command center. Of course, he offered warm, diplomatic greetings and encouragements to all of them as he walked past. He was like a perfect politician, aiming to get re-elected for his position. Of course, Vanguard wasn't like that, but after years of doing nothing but PR work ensured such a behavior would be ingrained deep down to his bones.

    He saw the emotions displayed by the members of the Guild here, almost all of them not Supers and thus not possessing powers, and they were that of concentration, focus, dedication and belief.

    Seeing those mixed bags of steely faces, Vanguard felt reassured. They would surely catch 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 were planning to get some of us 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 Superhero.

    “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. Don't forget that.”

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

    Vanguard sighed inwardly, watching her walk away. That was not a very pleasant reunion, one he definitely could do without. Seeing his friend somewhat distressed, Blast Storm firmly grasped his shoulder and spoke wryly to loosen up the tension.

    “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 here, 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 risk, or the truckload of powerless civilians dying a horrible death. You made the correct call. So, stop beating yourself over it.”

    Vanguard smiled ruefully, while recollecting that very important moment when 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 you made. So, there. Now, let's get going.”

    Vanguard nodded silently. Some might say those words uttered by Blast Storm may have bordered on being insensitive, but Vanguard appreciated these kinds of talks. They were coming from a man who also made numerous difficult decisions almost 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 against the winds for whatever the reason might be.

    Blue Solstice watched the interactions with the emotionless face, before silently walking away. Vanguard and Blast Storm briefly thought about stopping her but then decided not to. She'd have her own reasons for separating from them.

    “Good day to you both. Thank you for joining us here at such a short notice.”

    A cool, professional voice greeted them from behind the two Supers, drawing their focus. It was from Emma Gilberts, in charge of assigning roles. She was, just like the most of the command center staff, not a Super but her ability to perform terrifyingly menial administrative jobs like clockwork was verging on being a supernatural ability in itself. Vanguard seriously admired her for that alone.

    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 a multi-channel radio with a mic was firmly affixed to her right ear. She carried thick files in her arms.

    “Please, follow me to the debrief,” said Emma as she handed out those 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 had received new updates after those files were printed. 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 at 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 seems to check out as that of a regular citizen. The facial recognition software had matched the face in the security footage to this Nico Gavalas from the passenger manifests submitted by the airlines. 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 now complete, that they haven't located the target. How far along are we now?”

    “The scanning of Staten Island should be completed by now. Manhattan and the Bronx are still ongoing. The cops and Feds have encountered something of resistance from the locals in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, so that's why it's taking some time to sweep them all, while on the island of Manhattan itself, there are a lot of shadowy places to hide 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 smells like a pile of a sh*tstorm, rolling down the mountain side and ready to sucker punch us in the ass. The NYPD, the Homeland Security, the 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, useful 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? The NYPD and the FBI are using the excuse of finding this guy, this Nico whatever, to crack down on the local wise guys, am I right? Don't even deny it, Emma. And what's the Homeland boys 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 mince his words. 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 doing that. Not my style.”

    Emma sighed softly. “It's good that we have you two on board. Mister Vanguard will be tasked 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 signed up for this mission. I'm still a Super, Emma, and I came here to find the villain, not to play a dress-up in front of a camera, no matter how many times I've done it for the Guild until now.”

    “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 long while before informing Vanguard and Blast Storm to the contents of the call.

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

    Blast Storm frowned. “Huh? Okay, I'm interested. What's up?”

    “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, the FBI and the 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, so a contemplative silence dominated the proceedings for a short while until it was broken by yet 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 found, alive, from what looks to be a holding cell of some kind. And the initial investigation has confirmed that Nico Gavalas could be the main suspect. 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 be the buyer for the golden skull and the brick? Paying for the trip and all that, for our man? Then, for some reason, the deal goes sideways, and so as a retaliation, the gangster gets 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 JFK. And why he killed the gangster. We need more evidence.”

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

    “Abyss? That crazy guy? He's not dead yet?” Blast Storm chuckled in wry surprise before cranking his neck. “Oh boy. Is this thing getting complicated or what?! That guy Abyss is like a rabid dog. Once he sniffs a scent he likes, 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 us updated with new info. In the meantime, the Guild President wishes to send a small team over to the warehouse in question. Mister Vanguard, I've been told to pass along the message – you'll be deployed there as the spearhead. Please get ready, as the team will be departing in five minutes. I will brief you on what to expect once you're ready.”

    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 coordinates.”

    “Why? What's there?”

    Emma waited for a bit before answering. She was waiting to make sure Vanguard was out of earshot. Not because she wanted to, but she was ordered to.

    “There was an unconfirmed sighting of the target in the vicinity only a moment ago. The Guild 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. Early Sunday morning or not, the world-famous park would host countless New Yorkers wanting to enjoy a bit of sun, each other's company and fresh air – as fresh as it could be in the middle of one of the most densely packed cities on the planet, that was.

    The main portion of the blame fell mostly on the people trying to avoid the popular gathering spots thanks to the ample warnings from the authority figures. And then, there was the presence of the National Guard troopers, heavily armed police and Supers all over the city that showed 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 well enough.

    Besides, this arrangement worked out in favor for those searching for the one suspect, Nico Gavalas. Fewer the number of people on the street, the easier it was to check those still out and about. The more people stayed put in one place, easier to corral and probe for the authorities involved.

    By now, Nico's identity was out in the open. His face was plastered in many electronic sign boards, local TV stations' broadcasts and even the front pages of every newspaper on sale.

    Yet, like a strange miracle nobody wanted, not one cop or a soldier or a Super could recognize Nico as he blithely walked past them. 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 city's sights and sounds. The daytime possessed a different charm compared to the night when Nico had crossed these streets so it was like walking on a completely new world. And because of his invisibility, 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 and culturally enrich himself and become a better human being at the end of the day.

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

    The vendor was selling traditional Greek food, and the one that caught Nico's fancy was the chicken Souvlaki, chunks of chicken meat in a skewer. Nico just couldn't go past without sampling it, what with this being potentially the last time he could taste an American version of Greek cuisine. 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 chatted for a while in their native tongue, swapping stories of here and back home. The Souvlaki itself was not as good as Nico's own mother's but truth be told, it had been so long, he could barely remember that taste anyway. And the good company meant the meal was one of the best he had in years, so he was quite satisfied with the result.

    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 announcing the dates of the upcoming exhibition 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 and the eyes of the world would be focused here. Accordingly, the security was 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 in his pocket. With this mythical, unfathomable compass in his hands, there was literally nothing in this world 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 steps that led up to the entrance, and to his slight concern, Nico spotted two Supers among them. Besides the flashy costumes, Nico sensed a certain type of undulations from the powers 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. He frowned slightly, realizing that this might present a slight problem.

    Nico could walk right past them just fine, but then, his big bag would draw in unnecessary attention. The cops would demand him to open it, and the similar thing as the airport could happen here. Not that it mattered in the grand scheme, but still, he wasn't sure just how long he'd need to get everything going, so the longer the distraction stay away, the better. He couldn't really afford to draw attention to himself.

    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 slightly confused. The cop vaguely thought that there was something oddly familiar about this smiling man, but he just could not put his finger on why.

    “Yes, can I help you with something, sir?”

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

    Nico's suggestion was ludicrous and under the normal circumstances, the cop would have become vigilant, but yet, his words seemed to hold some kind of strange, persuasive power. The cop couldn't refuse and ended up accompanying him.

    Nico had no sinister motives for the man. All he wanted to do was to simply hand over the gym bag in a place where no one could see them, so the officer could carry it inside the museum for him.

    Since the cop was under the influence of his liege, Nico didn't have to worry about the spell breaking off in the middle of the deed. 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 very much for your help, officer.”

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

    Now that Nico and his bag had safely crossed over, it was time to locate the final object – the ancient Seed 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 whole world would be transformed for the better, anyways.

    ~​

    Jimmy Costanza and his wife, Connie held their long-lost daughter Cleo tightly and cried. No one present in this family living room thought of stopping this tearful reunion, choosing to stand by the side and quietly watching the scene unfold.

    Erik and Lei both felt really awkward for being here like a pair of sore thumbs sticking out unnecessarily, but couldn't say anything. No, they had nothing helpful to say. Erik was doing his best to calculate what the future would hold now, while Lei was constantly keeping an eye out for all the communication floating in the airwaves.

    Tony Costanza was also busy wiping the tears off from his face. Most of them were from the tender reunion, but some of them happened to be from the acute pain in his chest when Cleo hugged him. She was way too strong for a regular person, after all.

    Still, he was happy. At the same time, concerned. What the teens told him just now, while waiting for Cleo's parents to hurriedly return home from their deli, left him dazed and unsure of what to do or say.

    He glanced at Erik and Lei, wondering just how much of the stories told by them could be believed. Ten years of forced captivity and training by the secret government project involving augmented Supers? Sounded like stuff from a cheap, Made-for-TV Friday midnight special. But the aching chest indicated that maybe there was a morsel of truth there, somewhere. He decided not to pry right now, as another chance to deeply delve into the matter should come around soon enough.

    But the implication was serious if the story was proved to be 100% legit.

    Tony groaned inwardly and kneaded his forehead. His worries for the future was reasonable. His side business as the “guy who knows a guy who knows another guy who happens to perform certain things for the right price” could be in serious trouble if there were Feds getting involved in the family's affair. No, it was a given that Feds would get involved. It was a certainty.

    But he'd cross that bridge when it came to that. For now, he would focus on the family being whole again.

    He could remember vividly the day when young Cleo went missing. Didn't matter she wasn't his kid, she was a family and her disappearance, an apparent kidnapping from the Elementary school she went to by the fake cops, shook his life pretty badly. He remembered putting up hundreds, thousands of posters with Cleo's face in black and white all over the damn city, sometimes at 2 o'clock in the night, fighting the effing cold and jeers from the passing drunken frat boys and crap like that.

    That felt like yesterday to Tony. And now, Cleo was in the same house, under the same roof, as him. She sure had changed a lot during the ten or so years she'd been missing, but the odd thing was, she was almost instantly recognizable. Yes, Tony didn't initially, but that was because of his long night, but Cleo's parents had no such trouble. They knew they were looking at their missing little girl the second their eyes fell on her.

    Tony mused that it was probably the oft-talked about the blood – or the parental bond in this case – running thicker than pretty much anything, as the old but modified saying went.

    Jimmy and Connie were busy stroking and laughing and talking and crying all at the same time, making for a somewhat difficult conversation. But miraculously, everyone understood what was being said.

    “My god, Cleo, my little baby has grown so much!! God, thank you so, so much....”

    Connie held her daughter so close, afraid that if she let go, her little girl would disappear again. Jimmy too was holding his daughter tightly.

    Watching them pouring out their decade worth of grief and anguish, Lei and Erik didn't feel so good anymore.

    Lei felt pretty especially conflicted, probably more than Erik, because unlike him, she would never get to have a reunion of any kind whatsoever.

    But Erik wasn't feeling bad because of the reunion that he'd not have, but because of his awareness that the time was running out for them. The Project Dead Kings operatives would be surrounding this house in a few minutes, if they haven't done that already. They literally had no time to waste reminiscing about the past. They had to move, preferably now.

    He cared not one jot about meeting his deadbeat parents. Gone were the days where he harbored a fierce desire to interrogate his family why the hell they threw him away, but he had gotten over it. It didn't matter anymore. Probably. There was a bigger fish to fry, and that was ensuring that he'd have a future free from controlling hands of the Big Brother or indeed, anyone else.

    Erik's impatience was growing. The time was wasting yet the waterworks showed no sign of ending at all. He and Lei had already explained the situation, albeit roughly, to Tony Costanza so at least that wouldn't eat up the precious minutes, but this, to him, was ridiculous.

    “Hey, Cleo. Mister and Missus Costanza? I don't want to be that guy, but we don't have the time here. We should get going. Like, right now.”

    Erik's words were like buckets of ice-cold water pouring over the tender reunion, and was received just as well, too. The Costanza family glared daggers at him, but Erik ignored the stares and stated his position pretty clearly.

    “Like I explained to Mister Tony Costanza over here, we're being chased by the shady government people. We risked a lot by coming here to bring you guys out of the city before the really serious things happen. So, please, time's a wasting. We need to leave, now.”

    “What do you mean?! Who is chasing after you?” Jimmy Costanza roared, evidently incensed by the claim. Connie too, was about to raise hell, when Tony hurriedly intervened and laid out the main gist of the story.

    “See, that's what it is. So, according to these kids, we better get the hell out of this city before that freak JFK villain does something even worse.” Tony shrugged his shoulders. “Well, it's not such a bad idea to leave the city for a day or two, don't you think? I mean, Jimmy, you wanted to go to Boston, see the Red Sox game at least once in your life, right? This might be a nice timing and all.”

    “Jesus, Tony. I'm a Mets guy, and you are busy tempting me with a Sox game? You must be really desperate or something.” Jimmy quipped acidly before turning to Cleo. “Okay, hon, honestly, do we really need to go?”

    “Mmm.” Cleo nodded her head while carrying a serious look on her face. “Yeah, there are a bunch of bad people after us. And according to someone, uh, sorta reliable, this city is not safe too. We shoulda go somewhere that's not Queens.”

    Jimmy locked his gazes with his wife, Connie, who returned an understanding nod.

    “Okay, we pack up and go. No problem. We'll just go and get Junior from the Bible study class,” said Jimmy.

    “Eh? Who's Junior?”

    Cleo asked after hearing an unfamiliar name.

    Only then, Jimmy, Connie and Tony's face color changed, realizing they had made a huge mistake. Even though there was plenty of reminders in the form of multiple family photographs hung around the living room and throughout the house, none of them thought of mentioning this little, albeit significant, development until now.

    “Baby, Junior is your little brother. His name is David. He'll be eight at the end of this year.”

    Cleo was struck speechless, indescribable feeling welling up inside like flood water, until she exploded in a giddy craze. “I have a little brother?!! I need to see him, like, right now!!! Oh my gosh, oh my gosh!! Did you hear that, Erik? Lei? I have a little brother!!”

    Cleo screamed in happiness and jumped up and down wildly, causing the whole brownstone building to tremble noticeably. The floor creaked and groaned in protest at the undeserved abuse.

    “Hey, hey!! Calm down, Cleo!!”

    Erik hastily grabbed Cleo's shoulders and shook her, hard. Or, at least as hard as he could manage. He used a small bit of his eye power to bring Cleo's excitement down a notch or two. Erik was the only one in the entire project that could do this with his power – the Eyes of Judgment. It took a lot out of him each time he used it, however, and he refrained from using it often as a result.

    On the other side, the Costanzas were in a complete daze at what just happened to the house. Gulping softly, Jimmy took a long glance at his daughter, before nodding his head. He was fully believing the story now, thanks to that bit of demonstration of Cleo's Superpower.

    “Connie, babe, get the essential things only. I'll call the church and the Sister Brenda, tell her that we're coming to get Junior. Tony, your car's still in the shop, right? Why don't you get us a rental? There won't be a space for everyone in the minivan when we pack it up with luggage.”

    Erik shook his head. “We came with our own ride, Mister Costanza. It's fine. It will take too much time to rent a car.”

    Jimmy and Connie sprang to action. They packed the important stuff first, like toiletries, cash, clothes, and jewelry that could be sold later, and Jimmy packed a small caliber revolver as well. A precaution, he said. No one argued, although Connie frowned a little.

    Tony, meanwhile, called the church that held the Bible study group for the neighborhood children, informing them that the family was coming to get Junior, David, early. He also called a few other people, telling them to evacuate from the city as soon as possible.

    The bags were shoved in the back of the old Chrysler minivan in a hurry. Jimmy told his neighbors to evacuate as well as he pulled out of the driveway, heading straight for the church. Cleo rode with her parents, while Tony got in the car Lei commandeered alongside Erik.

    “Hey, let me drive this car. Less chance of the cops stopping us with me in the driver's seat, am I right?”

    Tony said with a matter-of-fact tone. Lei shrugged her shoulders and told him it was fine either way.

    Erik remained vigilant, trying to ferret out anyone threatening them hidden in the shadows, but to his partial relief, there were none. It did add to his unease, however.

    The church was a few blocks away. There were one or two cars on the street, and as if it was a break between the classes, within the church's fenced ground there were young kids running around, playing and fooling around.

    Jimmy parked the minivan and along with Cleo and Connie, went to the church to get David. Meanwhile, Erik and Lei exited their own car and vigilantly surveyed the surroundings.

    Almost immediately, three black SUVs drove up from nowhere and blocked the road. Several people, kitted out in black, jumped out and glared at Erik and Lei.

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

    Erik muttered under his breath, tensing up at the faces staring at him. He recognized almost all of them. He did spend the last ten years with these guys, after all. It'd be worrying if he couldn't, actually.

    Out of all the familiar faces, one stepped forward. He was tall, handsome, wore the slick sunglasses like a Hollywood action star, a young action star at that, and walked with a certain confident swagger. Not an exaggerated one like something a pro wrestler might do, but more like a star athlete going out to the podium to receive the winner's trophy.

    “Hey, Erik. Fancy seeing you here,” said the tall youth. It was obvious in the way the others were looking at him, that he was the designated leader of the 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 away your fancy job from the very beginning, Stu. I thought I made that crystal clear before. 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.”

    The black SUVs blocked the road, and even though it was Sunday, a small amount of traffic built up pretty fast. Irate motorists, who got their paths blocked, let their anger known by honking their horns.

    Of course, the teen Supers present collectively ignored them. The tense atmosphere simply didn't allow them to do anything else other than stare the other party down. Even the slightest movement from either side could set off a chain of events that might end up troublesome to clean up afterwards.

    “Huh. So, why did you wait until we came to this church? You could've come for us back at the Costanza residence.”

    Erik asked, trying to buy time as his mind worked overtime to find a way out.

    “I wanted Cleo to see her little brother at least, before taking her in. Because, I got a feeling that once we return, she won't be seeing them anymore.”

    “Oh, how considerate of you, Stu.”

    Erik sourly retorted. He had formed a plan in his mind, but wasn't feeling confident of its success. Stu, Stewart Baxter, was a talented commander and a Super himself. He'd know what to expect from Erik and Lei, and probably came prepared as a result. Erik needed Cleo here if he were to have any hope of breaking out of this barricade.

    However, even before Erik could start implementing his plan, something quite unexpected changed literally everything. Not even the irritated users of the road could scarcely understand what happened next.

    A sudden burst of blinding light from the West, where Manhattan was located, exploded and showered everyone until nothing could be seen.

    Not even Supers were spared from this temporary blindness.

    Erik could barely see, thanks to his specially made glasses that could filter out certain types of naturally-occurring radiation from affecting his eyes. The lenses darkened in an instant and prevented Erik from going totally blind, even if the blindness was only for a few seconds.

    But as soon as he saw what the cause of the explosion of light was in the distant sky, he kind of wished he didn't.

    Erik felt chills quite unlike any other he felt in his life.

    Something tall and dark, enveloped in the light, shot into the sky, stabbing the blue canopy above like a spike. And even more shockingly, this “pole” literally pierced into the sky, cracking and then shattering it open like glass and exposing the starry darkness beyond it.

    The light lessened slowly after that, forming white clouds around this “spike/pole” thing. And when people's eyes returned to being normal, they too could see what Erik had been seeing for a while longer than them.

    A giant black rod, completely made of unknown metal, that was piercing into the heavens.
     
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2017
  6. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Active Member

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    Chapter 20


    Some time before the sudden explosion of light, a small team led by Blast Storm descended from a gunship helicopter. To differentiate it from the ones used by the army, the Guild's version was painted in deep blue with white stripes running on the side. Other than that, though, it was still a full-on assault vehicle equipped with rockets and a powerful minigun.

    Blast Storm looked around as saw the faces of surprised civilians, scurrying away to a distance in order to escape the turbulence from the rotors. It couldn't be helped, since the helicopter had landed on the grass bank of the Central Park.

    “Stay in the vicinity. We might need you to track the target from the air if it comes to that.”

    Blast Storm told the pilot through the ear-mounted communicator, all the while ignoring all the flashes of smartphone cameras around him.

    “Got it,” replied the pilot.

    “Okay, let's move out.”

    Blast Storm signaled to five men behind him and led them forward. All the men were in pseudo-military gear, also painted in blue, sporting powerful semi-auto rifles and communication equipment. Checking the screen of his bulletproof PDA to reconfirm the coordinates, the team quickly covered the ground, even though Blast Storm was the only Super among them. The others were seasoned former soldiers now working for the GoH.

    Normally, mercenary activities were deemed illegal, but working for GoH earned a merc the title of a “Peacekeeper” meaning it was all hunky dory and above board. There never was a shortage of former soldiers applying for a position at the Guild as a result.

    And since they all received good training, from the previous employers and then the current ones, their movements didn't lose out to Blast Storm's. Crossing the short distance to arrive at the last known sighting for the target Nico Gavalas was far too easy a job for these guys.

    Once arriving at the junction, Blast Storm looked around. He couldn't spot Nico Gavalas but that was expected. Unless the target was standing around and waiting for them, there was no way he'd be in one place.

    He glanced over at his men, and as practiced, they separated, each men going over to question people around here. Meanwhile, Blast Storm checked the map on his PDA and scoped out all the landmarks along the 5th Avenue. There was a handful, but the most prominent one out of them was the Metropolitan Museum. A team was there already and they hadn't said anything, so Blast Storm looked Southwards, tracing the addresses and trying to suss out how the bad guy might behave.

    He felt stifled, though. Blast Storm wasn't someone who went about doing stuff like this. He was a hitter, a finisher, not a scout. Just by him being here showed how stretched thin the resources of the Guild was at the moment.

    Sir.

    A radio chatter came over his earpiece after several minutes had gone by. One of the men Blast Storm brought along was trying to get a hold of him.

    “Yeah? You got something?”

    I'm not sure, sir. I got a fast food vendor here who might have talked to another Greek like him. Said the man admitted to being a tourist. But I showed him the pic of our target, and the guy isn't sure if it's the same person or not. How do you want me to proceed?

    Hearing this, Blast Storm rubbed his chin for a second before deciding.

    “Where are you? I'm heading over there.”

    Three hundred paces on your five, sir. In front of the subway entrance over at 5th and 59th.

    Blast Storm was San Diego native, so he wasn't too clued up on the Manhattan's dizzying network of streets. But by simply relying on his intuition and nothing else, he somehow didn't get lost and found the spot fairly quickly. The smell of Souvlaki wafted in the air as the masked Superhero approached the Peacekeeper.

    “So, that's the guy, huh.”

    Blast Storm perused the worn fast food cart and its operator. All it took was one look and he knew that something was not quite right about this guy. It was as if....

    Storm walked over the vendor and leaned in closer, startling the man.

    “Oh, hey man. You are too damn close,” said the fast food operator.

    Mumbling his insincere apologies, Blast Storm studied the man and couldn't help but sense that this guy was under some kind of hypnosis. He should know – one of his archenemies was quite proficient at it. Storm lost count the number of times he was attacked by the random strangers under the suggestion of that Supervillain in the past. His instincts told him that this fast food guy was also under a weak but well-hidden spell as well.

    Blast Storm leaned back and pulled the image of Nico Gavalas on the PDA, showing it to the food guy.

    “Sir, you sure you haven't seen this man in the last half an hour?”

    The Greek man shook his head. “Like I said to your pal over there, no, I am not sure, sir, uh, Mister Blast Storm.”

    “Okay, but you did talk to a guy from Greece, right? What did you two talk about?”

    “Uh, well, he wanted chicken Souvlaki, we talked about the city, back home, our families, nothing major, really.”

    “Okay, which way did he go off to? Can you remember that, at least?”

    “Uh, maybe, uh, North? Uh, maybe.... um... I was serving other customers, you know? I didn't really catch where he went off to. My bad.”

    Blast Storm narrowed his eyes. Now he felt more convinced than ever. He pointed at one of the skewered meat on the food cart and asked the man.

    “Hey, can I have one of these?”

    “Sure, boss.”

    As the food guy leaned forward, Blast Storm perfectly timed his slap towards the man's right ear. It did not touch the man but stopped just short, causing a shockwave of air that slammed into the inner ear drum.

    The food vendor shook slightly, his eyes glazing over for a second or two, before clarity returned to them. He looked confused, before recognizing Blast Storm in front of him.

    “Huh? What just happened?”

    Blast Storm showed the man the image of Nico once more. “You were under a light hypnosis. I broke it. Now, look at this photo again and tell me if you saw this guy before.”

    The food vendor's eyes focused on the image until a certain gleam began to shine in them. He tilted his head and spoke.

    “Yeah.... I did talk to the guy, but it's strange, you know? It's all a blur and I can't really remember the details.”

    Blast Storm impatiently asked the man. “Okay, fine. But which way did he go?”

    “I'm pretty sure he went up North – oh, wait a second. He said something about the Met and one of the exhibitions they are going to show off this weekend. Yeah, I remember that now.”

    Storm came in closer at the man, staring deep into his eyes. The hazy cloud of hypnosis was definitely gone; he was speaking the truth.

    Nodding his thanks, Blast Storm recalled all his men and instructed them to head towards the Metropolitan Museum of Art as soon as possible. He also told the gunship pilot to head over there and check the place out, and then he contacted the command center and updated them on what was happening.

    There was a bit of distance to cover, but for these muscle-bound men, such a thing was nothing but a trifling matter. In a matter of minutes, they traversed all the way up on foot and soon, the Met building was in full view.

    Outwardly, nothing seemed amiss. Blast Storm saw the usual cordon of uniformed cops and the pair of low-level Supers dispatched by the Guild sauntering about, checking out civilians entering the museum. But it was too early to feel relieved; now that Blast Storm was aware of Nico possessing some sort of ability to hypnotize, any one of these guys could be under the spell. Hell, maybe even all of them could be affected, which would be no laughing matter.

    The cops noticed a bunch of heavily armed men arriving before them and tensed up for a second before seeing the big figure of Blast Storm leading them. The Lieutenant in charge of the police force came over wanting to find out what was going on. The two Supers were updated on the status prior to their arrival so they were ready to receive Blast Storm, however.

    After informing the Lieutenant, Blast Storm asked if there was anything suspicious that had happened in the last thirty minutes or so. The answer was as expected – nothing of note. But funnily enough, Storm wasn't interested in listening to the answers, but instead, he was checking out the status of the cops first.

    Before long, he found the anomaly. Almost every cop present, even including the two Supers, were under a light hypnosis but only one of the cops was under a stronger spell. After breaking it, the cop paled visibly as he recounted carrying a suspicious gym bag inside the museum for a person who might be Nico Gavalas.

    Obviously, this was not a good news. Blast Storm hurriedly called the comm center, informed them what happened and asked for reinforcements that could specifically deal with hypnosis attacks. Then, he told the Lieutenant to contact the museum's administrators to close all the exits before leading his men as well as the two Supers to enter the building.

    They caused some consternation inside the Great Hall, the entrance of the museum itself. The big guns, grim faces, and Supers wearing masks rushing inside tended to have effects like that.

    But what they all fail to notice was that when rushing past the entrance, there was a very thin golden film. They passed through this imperceptible barrier but failed to sense it.

    “Everyone, please listen up!!” Blast Storm shouted out aloud at the museum goers present in the Great Hall. “My name is Blast Storm from the Guild of Heroes. I believe the suspect wanted in connection with the JFK incident is somewhere within this building. Please cooperate with the Peacekeepers and allow yourselves to be searched. Then you will be allowed to leave right away!!”

    Behind him, the thick doors were shut closed with a loud bang. The sound alone was rather foreboding, as if the gates of prison shutting close. Blast Storm braced himself for a possible backlash from those trapped in here with him, but to his surprise, there was none of the violent and angry reaction he expected.

    If anything, everyone present was calm. Too calm.

    A chill went down Blast Storm's back side.

    “What the hell?”

    He muttered out in shock, before getting to grips with himself. He remembered that Nico Gavalas could potentially possess abilities to hypnotize a large number of people besides turning them into sand. So it stood to reason that the museum goers, at least a good amount of them, were under his spell as well. After all, enough time had passed already.

    Gritting his teeth, Blast Storm gathered strength in his arms and was ready to cause another powerful shock wave to break the mass hypnosis when a pleasant voice came out of the speakers placed in the hallways.

    Oh, well. That is a nice surprise. And a good timing too, since I was really short on quality blood sacrifices. Please, if you are trying to find me, head over to the Near East exhibit. I'm right there, enjoying the view.

    Peacekeepers exchanged glances, waiting for the next command, but a certain amount of nervousness was showing on their faces. No matter how experienced they were, it was still tough to go against an unknown Super capable of murdering so many in such a little time, never mind inducing a mass hypnosis like this.

    Blast Storm grimaced slightly before nodding his head. “A challenge, huh? Fine by me. Boys, secure the exits and wait for the backup. In the meantime, let me go and say hello.”

    Blast Storm flexed his muscles in a barely-contained anger before heading off. The Peacekeepers set off to do their assigned jobs silently, knowing that even though it was dangerous to go alone, there was very little they could do for now other than waiting for more capable help to arrive.

    Meanwhile, Blast Storm walked past the confused museum goers, seeing that, indeed, all of them were under a light hypnosis. He clicked his tongue, thinking that the target was a serious monster in order to put these many victims under his thrall. To possess two vastly different set of abilities, one to kill by turning a person into a bag of sand, and two, to hypnotize anyone in the vicinity – now that was the very definition of a troublesome opponent.

    And if he recalled right, that Russian-sounding gangster was stabbed to death, meaning there was a weapon involved in here too. Thinking about this, Blast Storm couldn't help but furrow his brows.

    And as he got in deeper, his expressions became uglier. The hallway leading up to the Near East exhibit was lowly lit and was quiet. Way too quiet for Blast Storm's liking. It gave off a rather ominous feeling which he didn't care for, not even a bit.

    And sure enough, his premonition of bad things came to light. In front of the Sphinx-like mock-ups - Blast Storm didn't know what they were called, nor did he care - he spotted two prone bodies on the floor, unmoving.

    He quickly checked them out, but he knew right away he was looking at corpses. Two security guards and two fatal stab wounds near the heart. But the darndest thing was that there was no blood present. Not on the bodies, not on the floor, not on the walls – nowhere at all. This only served to thicken the foreboding in Blast Storm's heart.

    But at the same time, his instincts as a warrior was kicking in. A surge of adrenaline was rushing through his veins, and he felt pumped up. Would he be able to face a powerful opponent and get to have a showy smackdown? He'd love that. And so soon after arriving in the city, even?

    The only issue could be that he was literally surrounded by priceless artifacts from all over the world. He didn't really care, but rampaging around here might cause unnecessary administrative bull dust for himself and the Guild. But what choice did he have? The target had holed himself in here, so he had to go where the fish was.

    And Blast Storm knew he wasn't cut out for negotiations. He simply lacked the right type of brain for that. Talking his target to vacate this building and have a go at each other outside was not going to happen. But he still didn't care. Whatever happens, it would happen anyway, or so that's how he chose to see things.

    Finally, he entered the exhibit hall. Blast Storm noticed yet more bodies, all in similar condition – stab wounds to the chest, no blood. Nico was there, waiting. He was sitting on a bench, leisurely reading a brochure. On the other hand, he held a two-way radio, taken from one of the dead security guards.

    “You seem really relaxed, for a someone who is about to go to jail for the rest of his life,” quipped Blast Storm as he took a threatening stance about ten paces away from Nico.

    Nico shrugged his shoulders as he lowered the brochure. “What can I do? There's still some time left before the earth is reformed, so I might as well enjoy the rich heritage this museum offers.”

    “Okay, whatever. Now I'm here, let's make this simple, Gavalas. Quietly hand yourself over, and save me the hassle, okay? What do you say?”

    Nico smirked before shaking his head. “Mister, you are a comedian, aren't you? Well, when you're this close to achieving your goal, would you throw all that away and obey some random passerby telling you to stop? Of course, such a thing will never happen, yes?”

    Nico slowly got up from the bench. In his hand, the dagger suddenly appeared, drawing Blast Storm's attention. Storm immediately recognized the weapon – it was Abyss's tool of choice.

    “Huh, that dagger. That used to belong to a vigilante. Mind telling me how you got a hold of that?”

    Nico glanced down at the dagger in his hand and tilted his head. “Belonged to a vigilante? Mister, this weapon has only one master, and it's certainly not you or me. I'm just temporarily borrowing it. This is a relic of the god Enki, after all.”

    “Riiiiight. So you're not only a murdering bastard, but a religious nutcase too. This is great. Just great,” groaned Blast Storm before he raised his dukes to cover his torso. “Well then, let's get going.”

    Blast Storm paid careful attention to that dagger. Last time he checked, one of the reasons why Abyss was such a difficult customer to deal with was because of that damn thing. Not only was it unnaturally sharp, but it also had a strange ability to change its length somehow. No close observations had been performed on the weapon since Abyss proved to be pretty good at evading all manner of pursuers after him. Whether that was a disadvantage or not, Blast Storm couldn't be sure.

    Nico moved first while Storm was lost in his thoughts for a millisecond.

    To say he was taken by surprise was a small understatement. Blast Storm quickly shifted his body to a side and dodged the dagger aiming straight for his heart. Good thing he had seen enough victims lying on the ground to give him hints, otherwise he might have been killed, right there and then.

    Nico's eyes glistened in a pleasant surprise. “Oh? That was a good reflex there, mister. See if you can dodge this one next!!”

    Nico swung the dagger horizontally around his chest height. Blast Storm dodged back, but his pupils widened the moment the dagger's blade extended in a flash, closing in on his torso.

    Shouting out sharply, he rotated his body in mid-air, narrowly dodging the extended blade that acted like a deadly whip and slashed across the entire exhibition hall, smashing apart all there was in one go.

    An icy chill crept up on Blast Storm's back, thinking that Abyss never extended his dagger that far out before, not to his knowledge. He quickly rolled on the ground to get in position to counter attack.

    Rising up using his explosive strength, Blast Storm threw a perfect uppercut. His fist was encased in swirling air, one of his powers, and caused a shocking boom as he splendidly connected to the chest of Nico Gavalas.

    The floor tiles shattered as the enormous wave of energy came out of the attack. The entire hall shook, the glasses turned to powder, and the fragile lighting bulbs shredded apart, encasing the hall in total darkness.

    Almost right away, emergency lighting came on, showering blood-red light inside the Near East exhibition hall, dying the area crimson.

    Nico slammed into a wall, his chest caving in. He spluttered out a mouthful of blood as he fell down on the ground with a thud. There he remained, limp and near death.

    Seeing this, Blast Storm narrowed his eyes. This was.... too easy. In the past, he ran into sly opponents who tried to lull him into a trap, just like this. Obviously, Storm wouldn't fall for such a cheap trick but upon a closer inspection, he could see that even if Gavalas was blessed with a power of insanely fast recovery, he'd still be dead in a minute or two. The chest injury was just too severe to survive – even with the miracle of modern medicine.

    Blast Storm remained vigilant as he slowly approached downed Nico Gavalas, searching for that dangerous dagger. The low red lighting made it a chore to locate it, but unless it was confirmed to be not in Nico's hand, Blast Storm was not going to relax his guard, not at all.

    “It's over, man.”

    Blast Storm spoke in a low voice. It was devoid of any emotion whatsoever.

    Nico chuckled slightly, coughing out more blood. Then, he slowly shook his head. “Over for you, maybe. But for me? It's only the beginning.”

    Blast Storm stopped his advance and carefully studied the dying man, trying to think if there was anything he had overlooked. Then it clicked; this guy could use hypnosis. Even though Storm looked out for it, ready to break the spell when it was used against him, but could it be he was already under the effects?

    As a Super, his resistance against hypnotism should have been stronger. But seeing that the two low-level Supers assigned to the museum also fell under Nico's power, it paid to be cautious. The grievously injured, dying man in front of him could be a false image projected to his mind, in order to confuse him.

    Grimacing slightly, Blast Storm decided to make sure and gathered power in his hands. And quickly slapped them together, causing a shockwave. This was usually enough to break any illusions caused by hypnosis.

    Seeing this, Nico's smile grew wider. As the shockwave swept across, he softly murmured. “Oh, you're unexpectedly sharp, aren't you?” He then raised his hand where the dagger materialized again. Pointing the edge, he smiled coldly. “Oh well, you're wrong this time, though.”

    The dagger's blade extended like a bullet. It shot forward and before Blast Storm could react, penetrated his chest, bypassing even the Kevlar armor the Guild specially developed for him. At the last possible second, he tilted his body, so his heart was spared, but the unbelievably sharp blade still managed to slice through every muscle, fiber, bone and tissue with ease.

    Blast Storm fell on one knee, but that was a huge, costly mistake as the blade hadn't retracted yet, and his falling body weight caused his own torso to be sliced up even more. The blade cut cleanly, exiting past Blast Storm's right shoulder, splitting him nearly in half.

    Storm's eyes glazed over at the sudden massive loss of blood. He somehow willed his powers to stop the bleeding by concentrating the wind to form a barrier over his extensive wounds, but he was literally staring down the barrel of a loaded gun at this point. He knew that, unless help arrived in the next couple of minutes, he'd be dead.

    And this realization thoroughly shocked him. Never before had he been in a situation where his life was ending like this. This was.... unreal. This had to be a lie.

    As the Super's eyes wavered and began to lose the spark of life, Nico slowly got up from his position, his caved chest visible and all. Out of nowhere, a stone tablet emitting a weak golden light emerged and slowly hummed in the air.

    The blood of Blast Storm rose up like a dancing snake, swirling wildly before forming a vivid red ball. It began to draw more blood from Blast Storm's body, going as so far to ignore the air barrier he had put up on his fatal wounds.

    No f*cking way?!

    Blast Storm watched the incredulous scene of his own body draining out of all the blood, and forming that ball. His consciousness began to darken, and it became so much harder to maintain his kneeling position. Gradually, he fell on his back, shivering from the creeping cold.

    With his final breath, he watched as his blood flew up towards the tablet, merging into it. Then, the imperceptible texts on its surface glowed in bright red. Each word pulsated like a broken heartbeat, thumping noises echoing inside Blast Storm's mind.

    “Ohh, this is.... wow. Mister, you were one heck of a warrior, weren't you? Amazing!! Not all of your blood has been sacrificed yet, but the gate of the Great Below is this satisfied?! Wow, just wow!! Is this what you Americans call a jackpot?! Yes, it must be!!”

    Nico cackled like a possessed man, not even caring about his chest wound. Bits of broken bone and flesh, mixed with the torn clothing made him look like a gruesome science experiment gone wrong, but he seemed perfectly fine, as if he didn't feel any pain or even the slightest bit of discomfort.

    Ahh, sh*t, so this is where I kick the bucket, huh. Blast Storm shuddered weakly. He was bitter about not being able to stop this lunatic, and by the look of things, he only managed to make the murdering bastard stronger, somehow. Whatever that stone tablet was, Storm just knew it'd be seriously bad news for his colleagues and friends. Speaking of which....

    God damn it. Vanguard, you better survive this calamity, you hear me? If you die and I see you up there, then I'm gonna kick your ass so hard....

    His dying whispers were heard by no one. Not even Nico Gavalas heard it. He was too busy cackling in satisfaction.

    Soon, the last bit of blood left Blast Storm's body and was absorbed into the stone tablet. The sickly golden light was incredibly strong and bright now, all of the letters clearly legible on the surface. Nico nodded happily at this.

    “Oh yes. With that much sacrifice, I don't need anymore, no? And let's see – ah, the Seed of the End should be ready as well. Shall I go and check it out?”

    Chuckling in a good mood, Nico turned on his hills and headed to the nearest staircase leading down to the storage.

    There were even more dead bodies here, workers and security guards of the museum lying cold and drained of their blood. Many of the wooden crates containing the stars of the exhibit in a few days' time were left unopened, never to see the light again.

    Nico whistled as he approached a huge black vault. Its front was sliced open, the thick metal door unable to stop him from accessing what was stored inside. The gym bag was here, and so was the golden skull. The bizarre skull was placed atop an examination table next to a small box that would normally hold myrrh, but now, it housed a small, black metallic seed.

    The golden skull was emitting a deep glow, and the strange mark on its forehead was spinning rapidly, as if it wanted to break free from its confines. Seeing the speed of the spin, Nico quickly moved and pulled out the bag, searching for the severed hand that held the old bronze mirror.

    “Whew, almost didn't make it, eh?”

    Smiling, he unwrapped the hand; the rigor mortis meant it was now solidly gripping the mirror, allowing Nico to use the entire limb as a sort of macabre tool.

    As soon as he readied himself, the spinning mark finally broke free from the skull, and immediately shot out towards the black metal seed, submerging into it.

    “Oh, here we go.”

    Nico quickly grabbed the skull and hurriedly left the vault, not even looking back.

    The black seed rumbled loudly. A keening, screeching noise shattered the eerie calm of the underground storage, and the box split apart. At first, one vine shot out from the seed, then another one. Then, yet another.

    Less than thirty seconds later, tens of thick, black metallic vines wriggled out of the once-small seed, expanding like crazy. Soon, the entire underground area was filled with the tumbling metal vines. The museum's walls gave way, the concrete splitting apart weakly.

    Nico had already exited the Near East exhibit when the whole building started to tremble as if an earthquake pounced on the unsuspecting city of New York. He hurriedly left the hall, laughing like a maniac as the walls were destroyed behind him, caving in, the numerous artifacts turning into nothing more than powder as the metal vines snaked out of everywhere.

    The dazed and hypnotized museum goers remained where they were, and were soon swept away by the tide of black metal vines, vaporizing into a fine mist of flesh and gore that nourished the tumbling vines.

    The Peacekeepers stood no chance as well, as they too were turned into nothing more than food for these vines. Not even their guns or equipment could survive, as they were split apart and were absorbed into the metal vines.

    Nico kicked the locked front door of the museum as hard as he could and jumped out just as the black vines exploded out of the walls and windows and pretty much everywhere. The cops and newly-arriving Supers were left stunned by this development, and was a tad too late to react, when the vines shot out towards everywhere, wherever metallic objects were present.

    Buildings, cars, people carrying guns, smartphones, whatever – none were spared as every single one of them were targetted. Bloody mist rose everywhere; blood-curdling screams of terror resounded the center of the greatest city on earth.

    When one of the vines came for Nico, he laughed and simply flashed the severed hand with the bronze mirror trapped within. The polished surface suddenly vibrated, and a dull brown light shone out, wrapping Nico inside it, forming a protective barrier around him. The metal vines avoided him from then.

    Laughing, Nico looked around him as the pandemonium of destruction broke out all over Manhattan. Buildings crumbled, cars exploded, the ground ripped apart and the subway trains were pulled up violently, all to become the part of the vines. And from where the Metropolitan Museum of Art once stood, a black metal sprout was taking shape.

    “Oh, it's here!! It's finally here!! Come, come and fulfill our wish, the divine and majestic Tree of the End!!”

    Nico screamed at the top of his lungs in pure, frenzied delight – and as if to respond to his cries, the sprout began to emit a dazzling white light that blinded everyone on the planet, and could be seen even by the astronauts in the international space station.

    And when the light finally dimmed, what stood where the Central Park used to be was a gigantic metal tree that resembled a rod, piercing the blue sky and shattering it, revealing the black starry space beyond.

    And Nico was below it smiling happily, nodding his head.

    “Oh, my liege, it's done!! The Tree of the End has returned to this corrupted world once more!! With this, we shall bring back our god from the realm now long forgotten!! The glorious days of Bad-tibira shall return!!”

    Okay, a small update: the next chapter will land a bit later than scheduled. I'm planning to go back to the early chapters and work on them. I don't know when I'll start working on the next chapter as a result. But I promise, it won't take more than a week, at most.

    Oh, and just you know, I opened up a PayPal "for donations" account recently after a jumping through quite a bit of hoops. The link is in the OP. I'm not asking for much, just enough to sustain my admittedly-poor habit of consuming pizzas at an alarming rate. So, uh.... please donate. Pretty please?

    If you don't wanna.... well, that's fine too. I guess.

    Edit (27th June):

    Chapter 20: The Museum


    This event happened some time before that sudden explosion of light.

    A small team consisting of five Peacekeepers and led by Blast Storm, rappelled down from a gunship helicopter. To differentiate the GoH's from the ones used by the army, the Guild's version was painted in deep blue with white stripes running on the side. The famous insignia, In Justice We Strive Forward, and the crest of a caped Superhero standing valiantly with the backdrop of a cityscape were also plastered on all visible sides of the craft. No one would mistake it for anything else.

    Other than that, though, it was still a full-on assault vehicle equipped with many rockets and a powerful minigun.

    After his feet landed on the solid ground, Blast Storm scanned his surroundings. He saw the faces of surprised, panicked civilians, scurrying away to a distance in order to escape the turbulence from the powerful spinning rotors and the gust of wind kicked up by their constant motions.

    He inwardly apologized for the inconvenience. It really couldn't be helped, since their destination was near a busy intersection and the helicopter had to hover over the grass bank of the Central Park, dropping the Peacekeepers and Blast Storm here in order to not disrupt the traffic flow. There may not be a lot of park goers today because of all the warnings, but still, there were enough around to feel disgruntled by this action. Some would think it was a bit of an overkill.

    Sighing under his breath, Blast Storm raised his head towards the aircraft and buzzed the pilot through the mic.

    “Stay in the vicinity. We might need you to track the target from the air if it comes to that.”

    The pilot confirmed his understanding. Blast Storm took some distance and watched the craft rise up, all the while ignoring the continuous flashes of smartphone cameras around him.

    “Okay, let's move out.”

    Blast Storm signaled to five men behind him and led them forward. All the men were also decked out in pseudo-military gear, also painted in blue, sporting the crest of the Guild. Each and every one was well-built, sharp, and trained by the best to react to whatever situation they might face. Wielding powerful semi-auto rifles and carrying communication equipment they followed Blast Storm's orders without missing a single beat.

    Blast Storm himself was no longer in a civilian clothing, instead fully outfitted in the GoH-designed combat gear – bulletproof vest, several stun grenades, cuffs to arrest the perps and the like.

    Checking the screen of the PDA to reconfirm the coordinates, the team quickly covered the ground. The Peacekeepers ably kept up with Blast Storm's pace, even though he was the only Super among them, the rest being regular humans.

    The Peacekeepers were given lots of leeways, even though technically they were mercenaries, soldiers hired with wages. In normal times, such an activity would be deemed illegal under the laws of most nations, but the boys and girls receiving monthly cheques from GoH got a free pass.

    Even during the last great World Wars, as long as a merc had the moniker Peacekeeper plastered on his or her vest, it was all hunky dory and above board. Many nations throughout the years wanted to oppose this system, but things didn't work out for those politicians until now due to various reasons.

    And of course, the numbers written on the paycheque was pretty damn alluring. The health benefits too, were more than attractive as well. Thus, there never was a shortage of former soldiers applying for a position at the Guild as a result.

    The Guild didn't just hire anyone, though – to be a Peacekeeper, the “compatible” personality – meaning no criminal tendencies – was a must, followed closely by the amount and the type of training received. Only the best and the dedicated could serve.

    No wonder, then, that their movements didn't lose out to Blast Storm's Super-enhanced speed. Crossing the short distance to arrive at the last known sighting for the target Nico Gavalas was far too easy a job for these guys.

    Once arriving at the intersection, Blast Storm took another quick glance around. He couldn't spot Nico Gavalas but that was to be expected. Unless the target was standing around waiting for them, there was no way he'd be staying put in one place.

    He sent the hand signal to his men, and as practiced, they separated, each men going over to different locations to question people. Meanwhile, Blast Storm checked the map on his PDA and scoped out all the important landmarks along the 5th Avenue.

    There was a handful that caught his eye, the most prominent one being the Metropolitan Museum. A team led by a pretty awesome Superhero named Magnaterran was there already and Storm didn't hear a word of anything strange happening there, so he looked Southwards, tracing the addresses and trying to suss out how the bad guy might behave.

    He couldn't help but feel like a fish out of water, however. Blast Storm wasn't someone who usually went around doing stuff like this, this thing about investigating and tracking and stuff. He was a hitter, a finisher, not a scout. Just by him being here showed how stretched thin the resources of the Guild was at the moment.

    Sir.

    A radio chatter came over his earpiece after several minutes had gone by. One of the Peacekeepers Blast Storm brought along was trying to get a hold of him.

    “Yeah? You got something?”

    I'm not sure, sir. I got a fast food vendor here who might have talked to another Greek like him. Said the man admitted to being a tourist. But I showed him the pic of our target, and the guy isn't sure if it's the same person or not. How do you want me to proceed?

    Hearing this, Blast Storm rubbed his chin for a second before deciding on his next course of action.

    “What's your position? I'm en route.”

    Three hundred and fifty paces on your four, sir. In front of the subway entrance over at 5th and 59th.

    Blast Storm was a San Diego native, and so he wasn't too clued up on the Manhattan's dizzying network of streets. But, by simply relying on his intuition and nothing else, he somehow didn't lose his direction and found the man and his query quickly. The smell of Souvlaki wafted in the air as the masked Superhero approached the Peacekeeper.

    “So, that's the guy, huh.”

    Blast Storm perused the worn fast food cart and its operator. All it took was one look and he knew that something was not quite right about this guy. It was as if....

    Storm walked over the vendor and leaned in closer, startling the man.

    “Oh, hey man. You are too damn close,” said the fast food operator while slightly backing away.

    Mumbling his insincere apologies, Blast Storm studied the man and noticed a thin hazy veil cast in this guy's eyes. Looked like some kind of hypnosis, a light one at that. He should know – one of his archenemies was quite proficient at it. Storm lost count the number of times he was attacked by random strangers under the hypnotic suggestion of that Supervillain in the past. His instincts told him that this fast food guy was also under a weak but well-hidden spell.

    Blast Storm leaned back and pulled the image of Nico Gavalas on the PDA, showing it to the food guy.

    “Sir, you sure you haven't seen this man in the last half an hour?”

    The Greek man shook his head. “Like I said to your pal over there, no, I am not sure, sir, uh, Mister Blast Storm.”

    “Okay, but you did talk to a guy from Greece, right? What did you two talk about?”

    “Uh, well, he bought chicken Souvlaki, we talked about the city, back home, our families, nothing major, really.”

    “Okay, which way did he go off to? Can you remember that, at least?”

    “Uh, maybe, uh, hmm. Uh, maybe.... um... I was serving other customers, you know? I didn't really catch where he went off to. My bad.”

    Blast Storm narrowed his eyes. Now he felt more convinced than ever. He pointed at one of the skewered meat on the food cart and asked the man.

    “Hey, can I have one of these?”

    “Sure, boss.”

    As the food guy leaned forward, Blast Storm expertly raised his right hand towards the man's right ear at the same time and clicked his fingers loudly. The shockwave of air slammed into the inner ear drum of the fast food vendor.

    He shook slightly, his eyes glazing over for a second or two, before clarity returned to the pupils. He looked confused, before recognizing Blast Storm in front of him.

    “Huh? What just happened?”

    Blast Storm showed the man the image of Nico once more. “You were under a light hypnosis. I broke it. Now, look at this photo again and tell me if you saw this guy before.”

    The food vendor's eyes focused on the image until a certain gleam began to shine in them. He tilted his head and spoke.

    “Yeah.... I did talk to the guy, but it's strange, you know? It's all a blur and I can't really remember the details.”

    Blast Storm impatiently asked the man. “Okay, fine. But which way did he go?”

    “I'm pretty sure he went up North – oh, wait a second. He said something about the Met and one of the exhibitions they are going to show off next week. Yeah, I remember that now. I think he was heading over there.”

    Storm came in closer at the man, staring deep into his eyes. The hazy cloud of hypnosis was definitely gone; he was speaking the truth.

    Nodding his thanks, Blast Storm recalled all his men and instructed them to head towards the Metropolitan Museum of Art as soon as possible. He also radioed the gunship pilot to head over there and check the place out. Finally, he contacted the command center and updated them on what was happening, requesting for logistics support at the same time.

    There was a bit of distance to cover, but for these muscle-bound men, such a thing was nothing but a trifling matter. In a matter of minutes, they traversed all the way up on foot, not a breath in disarray. The Met building came into view pretty quickly.

    Outwardly, nothing seemed amiss. Blast Storm saw the usual cordon of uniformed cops and the Superheroes sauntering about, checking out civilians entering the museum. But it was too early to feel relieved; now that Blast Storm was aware of Nico possessing some sort of ability to hypnotize, any one of these guys could be under the spell. Hell, maybe even all of them could be affected, which would be of no laughing matter.

    The cops belatedly noticed a bunch of heavily armed men arriving at their position and tensed up for a second, before seeing the figure of Blast Storm leading them. The Lieutenant in charge of the police force came over in a hurry wanting to find out what was going on.

    Magnaterran and the other Super were updated on the status through the transmission from the HQ only a couple of minutes ago. Once they spotted the Peacekeepers and Blast Storm, they came to make a report and confirm.

    Blast Storm hurriedly informed the Lieutenant and the Supers, letting them know there was a possibility that they were subjected to a light hypnosis. He asked if there was anything suspicious that had happened in the last thirty minutes or so, and the answer was as expected – nothing of note happened.

    Storm didn't ask because he was interested in the answers, though. He was actually checking out the status of the cops while they were giving their answers.

    It didn't take long before he found the anomaly. Almost every cop present, even including the two Supers, were under a light hypnosis. Out of them, one cop was under a much stronger spell. Blast Storm clapped his hands very loudly to break the mass hypnosis instead of clicking his finger like the last time. There were too many victims, and also they were outdoors, too many background noises and all.

    The cop affected by the strong hypnosis needed a second or two to recover. His face paled visibly as he recounted carrying a suspicious gym bag inside the museum for a person who could very well be Nico Gavalas.

    This was not a good news, never mind a surprising one. Blast Storm hurriedly contacted the command center, informed them what happened and asked for reinforcements that could specifically deal with the powerful hypnosis attacks. Then, he told the Lieutenant to contact the museum's administrators to evacuate the civilians and close all the exits but no one answered the urgent call.

    “Jesus, something bad is happening inside,” said one of the Peacekeepers, his face grim.

    Blast Storm grimaced as well while formulating the next course of action for himself and the boys. The command center explicitly ordered him not to enter the museum until the back-up's arrival, but he just couldn't sit idly by and let the innocent civilians suffer when he could've done something to prevent that.

    His fingers lightly brushed the ear-mounted communicator. There was a low-level anti-hypnosis frequency generator built within, which was useless against a focused hypnosis attempt but it could block out something like the attacks on the cops and that fast food vendor.

    “Okay. Boys, we're going in. We get the museum goers out from that place. Mister Magnaterran, I'll leave the perimeter to you.”

    Blast Storm decisively led his Peacekeepers into the museum, almost flying up the famed stone steps to the grand entrance named the Great Hall.

    He expected to cause a stir among the museum goers – after all, they were carrying big guns, their faces were grim and solemn, and on top of that, he was a famous Superhero wearing a scary mask. It'd be weird if no one reacted from all of those factors. He quickly thought of things to say to calm the panicking civilians. It would not do if there were a mass stampede and serious injuries resulting from that. Not only would the human cost unacceptable for him, the resulting paperwork could probably bury him six feet under because of the stress.

    However, whether because of his mind being occupied or due to the clever concealment, Blast Storm and his Peacekeepers failed to notice a very thin golden film when they rushed past the grand doorway.

    “Everyone, please listen up!!” Blast Storm shouted out aloud as soon as he stepped into the Great Hall. “My name is Blast Storm from the Guild of Heroes. I believe the suspect wanted in connection with the JFK incident is somewhere within this building. Please cooperate with the Peacekeepers and exit the museum in an orderly fashion.”

    Blast Storm prepared himself to deal with the ensuing panic but contrary to his expectations, no such a thing happened. Not one violent or angry reaction, not one word of abuse flew at his way.

    If anything, everyone present in this large space was calm. Way too calm. The confused and dazed looks floated on the faces of the museum goers and the employees at work. Seeing them like this, an inexplicable chill went down Blast Storm's back side.

    He and the Peacekeepers exchanged the knowing glances. Their fears of mass hypnosis had come true, it seemed.

    “What's your call, boss?”

    One of the Peacekeepers asked him while his eyes darted around the hall, focused and vigilant of even the tiniest hints of suspicious movements.

    “What else? We free these folks and evacuate them outta here,” replied Blast Storm. “Okay, let's do this.”

    Gritting his teeth, Blast Storm gathered strength in his arms and was ready to create a powerful shockwave to break the mass hypnosis when a pleasant voice came out of the speakers placed in the hallways.

    Oh, well. This is a nice surprise. And a good timing too, since I was really running short on quality blood sacrifices. Please, if you are trying to find me, head over to the Near East exhibit. I'm right there, enjoying the view.

    Blast Storm doubted what he heard for a second, before realizing the implications of those words. He turned to his men to order their evacuation first, but the huge, solid doors closed shut by themselves. And right afterwards, several metal security shutters slammed down on them, preventing their escape. Even all the windows were blocked off by metal shutters.

    There was no way out. Unless, of course, the one behind this blockade was defeated.

    “How the hell did he gain the control of the museum?!” Another Peacekeeper, a Hispanic man in his early thirties, muttered dazedly.

    The nervousness in the eyes of the men rose up a notch. They tried the doors and despaired slightly, knowing that the solid security barrier was designed to withstand Supers with devastating destructive abilities like Blast Storm.

    If the back was blocked off, then in the front, the numerous hypnotized men, women and children could become puppets pulled along on a string. No matter how much one was optimistic, this didn't look good.

    Blast Storm snorted angrily before clapping his hands loudly. The shockwave spread throughout the Great Hall and all those caught within its radius woke up from the mass hypnosis.

    “A challenge, huh? Fine by me.”

    Blast Storm cranked his neck and flexed his muscles. His anger was reaching very high, almost to the extent he'd destroy the walls to get to where Nico Gavalas was hiding.

    “Gentlemen, update the HQ on our status, then try to secure us the exits with the safety of the civilians as our priority. In the meantime, let me go and say hello.”

    The Peacekeepers nodded wordlessly and spread out, coming to the aid of the confused and dazed museum goers who were beginning to understand what was going on.

    Not one of the men offered to go along with Blast Storm, however, even though they knew it was dangerous to go alone. In truth, there was very little they could do to help Blast Storm. If anything, they would just get in the way of two high-level Supers duking it out.

    That's why Blast Storm didn't even suggest the matter. He just chose to walk right into the den of the lion, trusting in his own abilities to pull through. He was only 50-50 on this, though, thinking that he had a serious monster as his target this time. Not many Supers in this world possessed two vastly different set of Superpowers, one to mass hypnotize a whole bunch of people without seemingly doing anything, and to turn a crowd of people into bags of sand.

    If that wasn't the very definition of a troublesome opponent, then he'd have no clue what else could be.

    And Blast Storm also recalled that the Russian-sounding gangster was stabbed to death. Meaning, there could be a sharp weapon in the possession of the target as well. Thinking about this, Blast Storm couldn't help but furrow his brows and click his tongue in irritation.

    As he got in deeper into the museum, his expressions became uglier. The hallway leading up to the Near East exhibit was lowly lit and was eerily quiet. Way too quiet for Blast Storm's liking, anyhow. It gave off a rather ominous feeling which he didn't care for, not even for one bit.

    Sure enough, his premonition of bad things came true. In front of the Sphinx-like mock-ups – Blast Storm didn't know what they were called, nor did he care – he spotted two prone bodies on the floor, unmoving.

    He quickly checked them out, but he knew right away he was looking at corpses. Two security guards and two fatal stab wounds near the heart.

    But the darndest thing was that Blast Storm could not see a single drop of blood, not on the bodies, not on the floor, not on the walls, none at all. This only served to thicken the foreboding in Blast Storm's heart.

    It'd be a lie to say his instincts of a warrior weren't getting excited, though.

    A surge of adrenaline was rushing through his veins and he felt really pumped up, every fiber of his being alight with anticipation. Would he be able to face a truly powerful opponent and get to have a showy smackdown? He'd absolutely love that. A battle to end all battles, with the future of a city at stake. An event that'd be talked about for years to come.

    Blast Storm could see only one tiny little issue, and that was the small fact of him surrounded by priceless artifacts and items sourced from all over the world. He didn't really care what happened to them, but rampaging around here might cause unnecessary administrative bull crap for himself and for the Guild.

    But what choice did he have? The target chose to hole himself in here, so Blast Storm had to go where the fish was in order to get a bite.

    Plus, Blast Storm knew that he couldn't negotiate with his target to vacate this building and have a go at each other outside. He just didn't have the gift of the silver tongue for that. So, if a smackdown was to happen, then it was destined to happen anyway. No point in caring too much about it.

    Finally, he entered the exhibit hall. Blast Storm noticed yet more bodies, all in similar condition – stab wounds to the chest, no blood. The victims were museum staff and the tourists. No mercy was shown, even to children.

    Nico Gavalas was there, waiting. He was sitting on a bench, leisurely reading a brochure he held on one hand. On the other hand, a two-way radio, taken from one of the dead security guards.

    “You seem really relaxed, for a someone who is about to go to jail for the rest of his life,” quipped Blast Storm as he took a threatening stance about ten paces away from Nico.

    Nico shrugged his shoulders as he lowered the brochure. “What can I do? There's still some time left before the reformation of the world commences. I didn't wish to be bored, so might as well enjoy the rich heritage this museum offers.”

    “Okay, whatever, man. Let's make this simple, Gavalas. Quietly hand yourself over, and save me the hassle, okay? Just put these cuffs on your wrists and we call it a day. What do you say?”

    Nico smirked before shaking his head. “Mister, you are a comedian, aren't you? Tell me, when you're this close to achieving your goal, would you throw all that away and obey some random passerby telling you to stop? Of course not. Such a thing will never happen, yes?”

    Nico slowly got up from the bench. He dropped the brochure and the walkie talkie as he stretched his cramped limbs.

    In his empty hand, an ornately crafted dagger suddenly appeared, drawing Blast Storm's attention. Storm immediately recognized the weapon; it was Abyss's tool of choice.

    “Huh, that dagger. That used to belong to a vigilante. Mind telling me how you got a hold of that?”

    Nico glanced down at the dagger in his hand and tilted his head. “Belonged to a vigilante? Mister, this weapon has only one master, and it's certainly not you, me or that vigilante, for that matter. I'm just temporarily borrowing it. This is a relic of the divine god Enki, after all. Only he has the right to bestow this divine weapon to a chosen. I'm stepping on a sacrilegious ground just by wielding it like this.” Nico babbled on, shrugging his shoulders.

    “Riiiiight. So you're not only a murdering bastard, but a religious nutcase too. This is great. Just great,” groaned Blast Storm before he raised his dukes to cover his torso. “Well then, let's get going.”

    A surge of air gathered around Blast Storm's upper torso, forming a barrier of sorts. Then he paid a careful attention to that dagger. He had to.

    One of the main reasons why Abyss was such a difficult customer to deal with, was because of that damn dagger. Not only was it unnaturally sharp, but it also had a strange ability to change its length somehow.

    No close observation on the weapon was possible since Abyss proved to be pretty good at evading all manner of pursuers coming after him. That was clearly a disadvantage, Blast Storm was sure of this fact.

    Nico made his move first while Blast Storm was lost in his thoughts for no more than a millisecond.

    To say he was taken by surprise was a small understatement. Blast Storm quickly shifted his body to his left side and dodged the dagger aiming straight for his heart. Good thing he had seen enough victims lying on the ground to give him hints, otherwise he might have been killed, right there and then.

    Nico withdrew the dagger, his eyes glistened in a pleasant surprise. “Oh? That was a good reflex there, mister. See if you can dodge this one next!!”

    Nico swung the dagger horizontally around the chest height. Blast Storm dodged backwards, but his pupils widened the moment the dagger's blade extended in a flash, closing in on his torso.

    Shouting out sharply, he rotated his body in mid-air, narrowly dodging the extended blade that acted like a deadly whip. The magical blade slashed across the entire exhibition hall, smashing and slicing apart all in its path. Not even the bulletproof glasses protecting the exhibits could withstand the attack.

    The icy chill crept up on Blast Storm's back, realizing that Abyss never extended his dagger this far out before, at least not to his knowledge. He quickly rolled on the ground to get in position to counter attack.

    Rising up using his explosive strength akin to the compressed air, Blast Storm threw a perfect uppercut. His fist was encased in swirling air sharper than an industrial strength cutting laser and more stubborn than a crocodile biting down on its prey.

    His fist caused a shocking sonic boom as he splendidly connected to the chest of Nico Gavalas.

    The floor tiles shattered below each combatant's feet as the enormous wave of energy exploded out of the attack. The entire building seemed to shake; the glass shards turned to powder, the prone, dead bodies were mauled by the deadly storm of wind and energy, and the fragile lighting bulbs got shredded apart from all the ricocheting debris, encasing the hall in total darkness.

    Almost right away, emergency lights came on, dyeing the Near East exhibition hall in the bloody crimson hue.

    Nico slammed into the wall, his chest caving in. The entire wall crumbled from the impact and Nico's helpless, broken body fell down on the destroyed pieces of materials. He spluttered out a mouthful of blood, his limbs twitching occasionally. There he remained, limp and near death.

    Seeing this, Blast Storm narrowed his eyes. This was.... a little too easy. In the past, he ran into a few sly opponents who tried to lull him into a trap. It was similar to this situation.

    Obviously, Storm wouldn't fall for such a cheap trick but upon a closer inspection, he could see that even if Gavalas was blessed with a power of insane regenerative ability, he'd still be dead in a minute or two. The chest injury was just simply too severe to survive. Not even the most advanced modern medicine could patch that kind of damage. Blast Storm grimaced a little, thinking that he might have overdone it and killed a man.

    Now, that wasn't a serious problem, but the Guild of Heroes had a strict rule for catching bad guys alive if at all possible so they could stand trial and the public's scrutiny.

    Still, something didn't feel quite right. Blast Storm had to remain vigilant until this unease in his heart lessened.

    He slowly approached Nico Gavalas, while searching for that dangerous dagger with his keen senses. It was not on Nico's body nor in his grasp. Using a subtle vibration from the airflow, he could locate anything in this small confined area but oddly, the thing was not here. He figured that it could be buried under some rubble. That would explain why he could not to find it right away. Unfortunately, the low red lighting didn't make it any easier to locate the damn thing.

    He confirmed for one last time that Nico didn't have the weapon on him. Only then, Blast Storm got in closer and spoke.

    “It's over, man.”

    His voice was low and apathetic.

    Nico chuckled slightly, coughing out more blood in the process. Then, he slowly shook his head. “Over for you, yes. But for me? It's only the beginning.”

    Blast Storm stopped his advance and carefully studied the dying man, trying to think if there was anything he had overlooked. Then it clicked; this guy could use hypnosis.

    Storm left the ear-mounted communicator to emit the low-frequency hum to prevent Nico Gavalas's hypnosis from affecting him ever since he approached the exhibit hall, but could it be that he was already under its effects? The grievously injured, dying man in front of him could be a false image projected to his mind, in order to confuse him.

    Grimacing slightly at the thought, Blast Storm decided to make sure. He gathered power in his hand and quickly clicked his fingers, causing a shockwave. This would be, usually, enough to break any illusions caused by hypnosis.

    Seeing this, Nico's smile grew slightly. As the shockwave swept across, he softly murmured. “Oh, you're unexpectedly sharp, aren't you?” He then raised his hand where the dagger materialized again. Pointing the edge, he smiled coldly. “Oh well, you're wrong this time, though.”

    The dagger's blade extended like a bullet. It shot forward and before Blast Storm could react, penetrated his chest, bypassing the Kevlar armor the Guild specially developed for him and even the barrier of wind.

    At the last possible second, he tilted his body, so his heart was spared, but the unbelievably sharp blade still managed to slice through every muscle, fiber, bone and tissue with ease.

    Smiling victoriously, Nico stood up while holding the extended dagger. Then, he deftly flicked his wrist and the dagger's supernaturally sharp blade cut cleanly upwards, exiting past Blast Storm's right shoulder, splitting him nearly in half.

    Blast Storm fell on one knee, his eyes glazing over at the sudden turn of the event. He felt his senses go numb at the massive loss of blood.

    He somehow willed his powers to stop the bleeding by concentrating the wind to form a thick barrier over his extensive wounds, but he was literally staring down the barrel of a loaded gun at this point. He knew that, unless help arrived in the next couple of minutes, he'd be dead.

    And this realization thoroughly shocked him. Never before had he envisioned a situation where his life was ending like this. This was.... unreal. This had to be a bad joke, a terrible lie.

    As the Super's eyes wavered and began to lose the spark of life, Nico slowly walked closer, his caved chest visible and all. Out of nowhere, a stone tablet emitting a weak golden purple light emerged and slowly hummed in the air.

    The blood of Blast Storm rose up like a dancing snake, swirling wildly before forming a vivid red ball. It began to draw more blood from Blast Storm's dying body, going as so far to ignore the air barrier he had put up on his fatal wounds.

    No f*cking way?!

    Blast Storm watched the incredulous scene of his own body draining out of all the blood. Then his eyes shifted to that sphere in the air, unable to fully comprehend. His consciousness began to darken, and it became so much harder to maintain his kneeling position. Gradually, he fell on his back, shivering from the creeping cold.

    With his final breath, he watched as the last of his blood fly up towards the tablet, merging into it. Then, the imperceptible texts on its surface glowed in bright red. Each word pulsated like a broken heartbeat, thumping noises echoing inside Blast Storm's mind.

    “Ohh, this is.... wow. Mister, you were one heck of a warrior, weren't you? Amazing!! Not all of your blood has been sacrificed yet, but the gate of the guardian beast is this satisfied?! Wow, just wow!! Is this what you Americans call a jackpot?! Yes, it must be!!”

    Nico cackled like a possessed man, not even caring about his chest wound. Bits of broken bone and flesh, mixed with the torn clothing made him look like a gruesome science experiment gone wrong, but he seemed perfectly fine, as if he didn't feel any pain or even the slightest bit of discomfort.

    Ahh, sh*t, so this is where I kick the bucket, huh. Blast Storm shuddered weakly. He was somewhat bitter about not being able to stop this lunatic, and by the look of things, he only managed to make the matters worse, somehow. Whatever that stone tablet was, Storm just knew it was a seriously bad news for his colleagues and friends.

    Speaking of which....

    God damn it. Vanguard, you better survive this calamity, you hear me? If you die and I see you up there, then I'm gonna kick your ass so hard....

    His dying whispers were heard by no one. Not even Nico Gavalas heard it. He was too busy cackling in satisfaction.

    Soon, the last bit of bloody Sphere was absorbed into the stone tablet. The sickly golden purple light was incredibly strong and bright now, almost all of the letters clearly legible on the surface. Nico nodded happily at this.

    “Oh yes. With that much sacrifice, maybe I don't need anymore? Hmm? Oh, maybe I do need a bit more. Hmm, oh, that is unfortunate. Really. Let's see..... Ah!! The Seed of the End should be ready by now. Did I run out of time? Oh well. Shall I go and check it out?”

    Chuckling in a good mood and babbling on and on to no one in particular, Nico turned on his hills and headed to the nearest staircase leading down to the storage below.

    There were even more dead bodies here, workers and security guards of the museum lying cold and drained of their blood. Many of the wooden crates containing the stars of the exhibit in a few days' time were left unopened, never to bathe in the light again.

    Nico whistled as he approached a huge black vault. Its front door was sliced open, the thick metal and the security measures unable to stop him from accessing what was stored inside.

    The gym bag was here, and so was the golden skull. The bizarre skull was placed atop an examination table next to a small box that would normally hold myrrh, but now, housing a small, black metallic seed.

    The golden skull was emitting a deep, sickly golden glow, and the strange mark on its forehead was spinning rapidly as if it wanted to break free from its confines. Seeing the speed of the spin, Nico quickly moved and pulled out the bag, searching for the severed hand that held the old bronze mirror.

    “Whew, almost didn't make it, eh?”

    Smiling, he unwrapped the jacket around the hand. The rigor mortis meant it was now solidly gripping the mirror, allowing Nico to use the entire limb as a sort of macabre tool.

    As soon as he readied himself, the spinning mark finally broke free from the skull, and immediately shot out towards the black metal seed, submerging into it.

    “Oh, here we go.”

    Nico quickly grabbed the skull and hurriedly left the vault, not even looking back.

    Less than a minute later, the black seed loudly rumbled. A keening, screeching noise shattered the eerie calm of the underground storage and the wooden box violently split apart. At first, a single black metallic vine as thick as a person's thigh shot out from the seed, wriggling around in a disgusting manner. Then another one shot out, striking the inside of the vault, destroying countless fragile artifacts stored within. Then, yet another vine emerged. And another. And another.

    In a blink of an eye. tens of thick, black metallic vines wriggled out of the once-small seed, expanding like crazy. Soon, the entire underground area was filled with the tumbling metal vines. The museum's walls gave way, the concrete splitting apart weakly. Metal frames bent, the machines to carry large crates broke apart under the immense pressure and were instantly absorbed into the vines.

    Nico had already exited the Near East exhibit when the whole building started to tremble as if an earthquake pounced on the unsuspecting city of New York. He hurriedly left the hall, laughing like a maniac as the walls were destroyed behind him, caving in, the numerous artifacts turning into nothing more than powder as the metal vines snaked out of everywhere.

    The museum goers were gathered into the Great Hall, waiting for help to arrive. But as soon as the vines exploded out from everywhere, the hapless tourists were all swept away by the black tide, vaporizing into a fine mist of flesh and gore.

    The Peacekeepers stood no chance as well, as they too were turned into nothing more than food for these vines. They fired their guns, threw their grenades, whatever – none of their desperate struggles could save them. Upon their demise, the guns and the equipment all split apart and became part of the metal vines.

    Nico kicked the locked front door of the museum as hard as he could and jumped outside just as the black vines exploded out of the walls and windows and pretty much everywhere else. The entire museum crumbled into nothing as the mountains of vines erupted out. The cops and newly-arriving Supers were left stunned by this development, and was a tad too late to react.

    When the vines shot out towards everywhere and wherever, absolute anarchy unfolded in the streets. Buildings, cars, people carrying guns, smartphones, whatever – none were spared as every single one of them were targetted. Bloody mist rose everywhere; blood-curdling screams of terror resounded in the center of the greatest city on earth.

    When one of the vines came for Nico, he laughed and simply flashed the severed hand with the bronze mirror trapped within. The polished surface suddenly vibrated, and a dull brown light shone out, wrapping Nico inside it, forming a protective barrier around him. The metal vines avoided him from then on.

    Laughing, Nico looked around him as the pandemonium of destruction broke out all over Manhattan. Buildings crumbled, cars exploded, the ground ripped apart and the subway trains were pulled up violently, all to become the part of the vines. And from where the Metropolitan Museum of Art once stood, an eerie black metal sprout was taking shape.

    “Oh, it's here!! It's finally here!! Finally, after six millenniums in slumber, a Divine Tree is taking root!! Come, come and fulfill our wish, the divine and majestic.... Tree of the End!!”

    Nico screamed at the top of his lungs in pure, frenzied delight. And as if to respond to his cries, the sprout began to emit a dazzling white light that blinded everyone on the continent, one that could be seen even by the astronauts in the international space station.

    And when the light finally dimmed, there stood a gigantic metal structure that resembled a lightning rod, piercing the blue sky and shattering it, revealing the black starry space beyond. Almost half of the Central Park was gone, destroyed. The metal vines continued to wriggle and extend out, spreading all over the island, destroying and devouring everything in their wake.

    And Nico was below the “Tree” smiling happily, his arms spread out wide. He fervently nodded his head and shouted loudly once more at the top of his lungs.

    “Oh, my liege, we've finally done it!! The Tree of the End stands tall in this corrupted world once more!! With this, our gods shall finally make the triumphant return from the realm now long forgotten!! The glorious days of Bad-tibira shall return!!”
     
    Last edited: Jun 27, 2017
  7. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Active Member

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    Chapter 21


    When Min-jung opened her eyes, she was still lying weakly on the bed in her bedroom. The house was eerily quiet, devoid of life; Bob took Dana to stay with his parents and was yet to return from the trip. She was all alone.

    The silence of the house actually helped her, mentally and physically. Before she knew it, Min-jung had fallen into a deep sleep from all the exhaustion she was put under as soon as she came back home.

    But she had to wake up when the smartphone on the bureau next to the bed noisily went off. By the time she regained a full consciousness, the call had ended, making her cuss out just a little.

    The sleep itself only lasted a couple of hours, but she felt a lot better, a lot fresher. She could think a bit better now. Even her tummy growled in protestation, not having been filled in the last twelve frenetic hours.

    Now that her head was spinning better, she could collect her thoughts.

    Her first priority was to find her son, currently kidnapped by her boss, Mylorne Akkad. According to Jack's friend Taylor, who was apparently a Super, her son had manifested superpowers of his own and that was probably the reason why he was targetted. She wasn't too far off the mark either, Min-jung mused at the time.

    The Finn girl helped Min-jung to locate her son but they were one step too late, as Jack was whisked away to god knows where. Not having any other ideas left, she took Taylor back to the hospital where her father was admitted to after the sudden attack of the trio of teen Supers.

    From the description provided, Min-jung knew almost immediately who the attackers were. She had seen their photos in those classified files in General William's office, after all.

    She was quite sure the consequences of that deal she made with Akkad all those years ago had finally caught up with her.

    When she was working on the Project, there was an accident that left her hospitalized for a while. The accident itself was thought to be nothing serious but the resulting injury was anything but. It was a terrible, horrible accident that had left her infertile. She couldn't have children anymore.

    She was devastated, scared, confused. But then, Akkad came to her with a proposal. An incredible, impossible proposal that could change her fate for good. So she took it. She didn't even read the fine print, simply choosing to dive in head first, throwing caution to the wind. Oh, how she regret those decisions now.

    The idea, the core of the deal, was simple – to carry a clone of a human in her, the baby's DNA interspersed with hers and Bob's as well as the crucial third source: that of Gilgamesh's. Since the ancient king's genetics acted as the binding agent to all the other Project Dead King's subjects, the success rate for her would be very, very good. No, it'd be more than good, as the fertilization wouldn't even take in her womb. She possessed all the right knowledge to succeed. And for his part, Mylorne Akkad would facilitate this medical procedure, pay for the post-op as well as offer her a sanctuary in case of an emergency. In return, she'd provide him with the technical data of all the subjects participating in the Project.

    All this, without the knowledge of the Project Dead King's overseers.

    What she chose to do was a clear breach of the Project's protocol. If found out, she'd have been arrested and thrown in jail without a hearing.

    Even now, if the secret was exposed after all this time, the only destination for her was inside a prison cell. Yet, she didn't care about that. Her son's wellbeing, his life, was at stake here. Who knows what kind of fanatical rubbish Mylorne was exposing her son to? Min-jung had to stop her mad boss before her son's mind was irreparably harmed.

    But where could she go to find him? She had the idea of calling the local aviation authority to ask for the flight plan of Akkad's personal aircraft, but then, what accreditation did she possess? She was a civilian right now. Could she ask for help from General Williams? He was currently splitting his attention on tracking down the three troublesome escapees as well as whatever was going on in New York. He wouldn't be able to even hear her requests seeing how busy he was.

    Besides, if he asked for a reason why, and he'd definitely pry deep into the reasonings, then what could she tell him? That her billionaire boss had somehow controlled three escaped subjects of the Project and kidnapped her son, not to threaten her but to do something else that she also didn't know herself?

    Eventually, she settled on the idea of calling Professor Evans for help. He was still at the underground base as she was leaving for home. If he was still there, then, Evans could potentially ask one of the computer technicians to check out Akkad's flight plan. Min-jung thought lying to the aged professor should be easier than to a career military man.

    She hurriedly checked her phone, wondering if that missed call was from the good professor. The call was from her husband, instead. The voicemail message was left behind and when she clicked on it, Bob's urgent and worried voice came over.

    Hey babe, if you're at home, turn on the TV. Something big and awful is going on, right now in New York.

    Confused, Min-jung narrowed her eyes and searched for the remote. It was cleverly hidden but she was able to locate it after a few minutes and turned on the wall-mounted television. The screen took a second or two before coming to life, and when it did, the very first thing on was an emergency news broadcast.

    The male anchor was doing his job as professionally as possible, but he seemed rattled. He was stuttering somewhat, loosening his tie and gripping the pile of paper on his hands as he spoke.

    The situation in Manhattan is currently unknown. All communication has been cut off and all attempts to make any type of contact has failed so far. These images coming in are courtesy of our affiliate station based in New Jersey. Please be advised that what we are showing you is not a computer generated imagery, nor is it faked in any shape or form. It is, indeed, as real as you and me.

    The screen switched to show a devastated landscape, shot from a great distance. Buildings had collapsed, the roads were destroyed, cars were set alight, and almost everywhere, thick, black metal things were visible. These metallic objects were writhing around, moving and squirming like a living, breathing thing.

    The shot changed and now, the destroyed skyline of Manhattan came to the view. The iconic buildings and structures were no more; replaced by what Min-jung could only describe as a black metal rod seemingly taking over the half of the island's width.

    And it jutted high into the sky, breaking apart the blue and piercing out of the atmosphere until the stars could be seen in the dark backdrop. It was a surreal thing to witness and Min-jung thought offhandedly that it would be even more crazy unreal to see it with the naked eyes.

    She blinked her eyes a few times, before wondering whether she should call her husband and ask him what the hell was going on. When she looked down on the phone, only then did she notice there was another message, this time a text.

    It was from Evans; the message had come while she was still buried in a deep sleep.

    Hurriedly, she opened it. After reading it, she dropped the phone on the floor, her entire body shaking from the shock.

    Doctor Mercer. It's Evans. I've found the flight plan you asked for. The plane's heading to a small airfield near New York. Hopefully that helps you.

    ~​

    Professor Evans washed and shaved his face. The feeling of refreshment made him crack a soft smile. Wiping away the residual water on his face with a luxuriant towel, he exited the bathroom and gingerly made his way towards the table where a laptop was switched on, waiting for a human to interact with it. After sending the text to Doctor Mercer, he had taken command of one of the rooms available here in the base instead of returning to his own residence.

    The reasoning was that there was a manhunt happening in New York and the fruits of his lengthy, often tumultuous labor were being deployed. He wanted to see how successful his vision was under the glaring spotlight of the reality. No better place than to do it here, in the underground base.

    As he was about to sit down in front of the laptop to commence with his work, there was an urgent knock on the door, followed by his name being called.

    Frowning, Evans asked with his raspy voice. “Yes? What is it?”

    His frown became deeper when he heard the reasoning for the call. He opened the door and told the young soldier to bring his laptop with him, while doing his best to briskly walk towards the command center.

    He was having a bad feeling the moment the soldier mentioned a new anomaly appearing in New York. An anomaly that looked like a massive metal spike.

    Evans was deeply invested in this project. He had studied and analyzed nearly every facet of Gilgamesh's tomb, and then the subsequent cuneiforms and hieroglyphs found in the burial chambers of the ancient Supers. His knowledge of the subject pertaining to anything and everything Lord of Darkness-related was perhaps the most extensive in the world. And his worries were stemming from this deep pool of information stored in his head.

    The distance between his quarters and the comm room never seemed so far away before, making him even more anxious to get there quickly.

    Eventually, he arrived. The electric sliding doors hissed and parted sideways, allowing the professor to hurry inside, only to be struck dumb by the giant image of the black metal thing projected to the main monitor here. General Williams had left for New York along with Major Podolsky so the place was left in charge of a Colonel named Pattison.

    Evans was too shocked to fully grasp what the Colonel was telling him, but had understood the gist of the story. After regaining his senses, he borrowed a work table and asked the poor soldier to set the laptop on it.

    Evans then hurriedly searched through the database, thinking that metal object was something he should know of, that he should recognize it right away. He didn't have to wade through tons of useless files, though, as he almost immediately found what he was looking for.

    “Oh, my god. That thing is.... Could it be the Tree of the End?”

    “What is that, Professor? What is a Tree of the End?”

    Pattison, who was near Evans, asked in confusion.

    Gulping his saliva, Evans clenched his fists into a ball and looked at the colonel. “The revised translation of Gilgamesh's tomb tells of a tale involving the petty gods and the mortals, battling for the right to decide their individual destinies. The gods had controlled the earth via six so-called divine Trees of the World.

    “One of the most well-known parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh speaks of his quest to slay Humbaba the Gatekeeper and fell a Cedar tree in the forest of the gods.

    “That tree is believed to be one of the six Trees of the World. As to which one, I'm not sure. But it was Gilgamesh that had destroyed the connections of our world to that of these so-called gods, thereby earning himself the moniker of the God-King in the process.

    “The translated texts describe what each of those trees resembles – and although we haven't decoded everything just yet, the outer appearances of two trees are known to us at this time. And that thing, that metallic object in New York, awfully resembles the Tree of the End, as described in the tomb!!”

    Pattison pointed at the image on the main monitor. “If that supposition is correct, then what are your recommendations, Professor? Is there a way to destroy or remove that Tree or whatever it is?”

    Evans leaned forward in his seat, locking his fingers. His expression was grim. “Remember, Colonel – the Lords of Darkness supposedly rise from the masses after the gods command them to go out and destroy humanity.”

    “Meaning....?”

    “Meaning, we are going to have a Lord of Darkness appearing in our midst very soon. I fear, that Tree is just merely the beginning. Please, Colonel, contact General Williams right away. He needs to know, and to get the combatants ready for a war.”

    ~​

    A seemingly abandoned warehouse well North of Manhattan, not too far from the eyes of the authority. In the shadows, two figures were moving in haste. Or, one figure was running while carrying the other on his back.

    It was Abyss, carrying the still unconscious girl along with him to a safe house. Well, calling it a house was a stretch of one's imagination, but it was considerably safe from the threats of his enemies, so it was fine. Didn't matter what anyone called it.

    The girl was wrapped up in the robe Abyss found inside the make-shift laboratory. But she hasn't shown any signs of opening her eyes at all. Her breathing and heartbeat were all normal, so Abyss didn't worry about her condition, at least not for now.

    Running on rooftops while evading the eyes of New Yorkers weren't so easy during the daylight but it had to be done. The intersection of his mission and that of the Super who had stolen his dagger was too unexpected and beyond his ability to calculate. In the end, no damage was done, but still, Abyss wanted to have a go at that man one more time if he could.

    But now wasn't the time. He had to make sure this girl was safe first. Only then, would he return to the city and have another go at finding that bastard before he did something as terrible as the massacre in the JFK. Abyss had to stop him. It was his job, his mission.

    The girl was a problem, however. As far as he knew, she had no dependents nor did she have a home to return to. Abyss had only learned of her existence by sheer accident when he was out on another one of his crime prevention run in the old neighborhood.

    He knew nothing about her. Not her name, not her age, not her origins, just that, bad people had interests in her and she was vulnerable and needed help. Being a twisted boy scout that he was, Abyss just had to intervene on her behalf. Not that he regretted his decision, though. It was the right thing to do.

    After running for so long, even Abyss was tired and he needed to take a rest. He put the girl down first, propping her against a wall before he too sat down next to her. In his years as a vigilante, this must've been the most troublesome mission he had undertaken, which was saying something, seeing that his past enemies were quite a colorful bunch, to say the least.

    On the opposite side to where he sat, Abyss could see the vague outline of Manhattan's skyline, his home. What a piece of work that place was. Full of lowlives, degenerates, corrupted bastards, rapists, drug pushers, armed robbers, murderers, thieves, religious fanatics, terrorists and hooligans, and then there was the white collar criminals who try to hide behind the protection of the crooked constitutions and laws and judges and lawyers.

    This was his town. This was his hunting ground, one where he'd never run out of prey.

    Abyss was well aware of how deranged he himself was. He didn't need a shrink to tell him that. Wherever he looked, he could only see evil. Goodness in people's hearts had long turned to ash in the naked pursuit of wealth and benefits. No city in the world exemplified this trait as much as New York. The main rot came from the overflowing temptation of the Wall Street and its myriad investment banking schemes to make millions overnight while sucking the system dry. It started from there.

    And because of him being slightly insane, this city was the perfect fit for him. He knew that if he had to go to, say, Denver, for instance, he'd be totally lost, feeling somewhat irrelevant and unsure of his purpose in this world. But not in New York. This was his hometown. He knew all the dirty secrets there were, or at least knew where to find one, knew which tree to shake for that juicy fruit.

    He grinned maniacally, after imagining himself tracking down that smiling man who stole his dagger and massacred so many in the JFK. What method should he choose to punish this new form of evil?

    He was excited just thinking about it.

    As he was grinning, the girl stirred slightly. She moaned softly, her head falling to a side. Abyss turned to observe her, hoping the girl might wake up now and provide him with some information about her. That'd be a massive help in deciding how to handle her future.

    “Mmm......”

    The girl slowly turned her head more, a frown forming on her smooth forehead. She then shuddered, her eyelids fluttering. Abyss waited for her to open her eyes and go into a full panic mode – that's what most people did when they saw him. He had developed a method to deal with such situations, depending on who was throwing a panicky tantrum.

    As he waited for her, Abyss sensed the ground tremble as well. It was very minute and easy to miss if you were a regular person, but he wasn't and he didn't. Confused and concerned at this uncharacteristic event, he placed his hand on the ground, continuously sensing the vibration. There was no subway going under his position, nor was there a construction site nearby. Such a shaking shouldn't even be here.

    Then the shaking morphed into a rumbling. The whole world seemed to quake. The broken window sills of the warehouse shook. The ceiling panels began to collapse one by one.

    “What the hell?”

    Abyss stiffened and stood up, ready to pick the girl up and leave this crumbling warehouse. Then he heard it; a giant screeching sound, and an explosive bang. Then, a blinding white light bursting out. He shielded his eyes but it still stung.

    Before his eyes could readjust, the walls exploded, and the thick metal vines attacked where Abyss stood. He belatedly saw them, and couldn't dodge in time.

    The vines were about to strike him when the girl's eyes snapped open, revealing a pair of golden irides.

    She raised her left hand and on her palm, runes began to gather. The space right in front of Abyss became separated from the rest, creating an invisible barrier that the vines crashed noisily against but unable to penetrate.

    Stunned, he stumbled back for a moment, watching the writhing vines trying to breach the barrier but failing to do so. He had never felt such malice and danger before in his entire life. He was actually breaking out in cold sweats.

    “What the hell is going on?! What is this?”

    He muttered in a daze, before remembering the girl behind him. He turned around and saw the girl whispering something in a low murmur, while a warm golden light seeped out of her.

    Her eyes narrowed, her frown getting deeper in concentration, as the warehouse began to disintegrate all around her and Abyss. He saw the concrete walls and the rusting metal frames assimilate into the metal vines, feeding the explosive growth of these said vines.

    The barrier continued to block the powerful attacks, ripples of the each impact clearly visible in the air. But eventually, the frequency of the attacks slowed until they ceased, and the calm arrived before long.

    Abyss looked at the girl, on high alert. She looked totally wiped out, her face pale and her breathing rough. She stared at him, panting, before asking him in a trembling voice.

    “We are not safe here. We must leave.”

    Abyss slowly nodded. “You don't have to tell me twice. Can you stand, or do I need to carry you?”

    She shook her head slightly. “I'm too weak to walk on my own. Please, lend me your aid for a foreseeable future, oh brave warrior.”

    Abyss cocked an eyebrow under his black mask. A brave warrior? First time someone called me that....

    ~​

    Erik pointed at the huge metal rod in the distant horizon and angrily asked Stu – Stewart – in front of him.

    “Look at that!! Are you still gonna try fighting us, when that thing is right there?! Hello!! Where is your priority, man?”

    Stu gritted his teeth, unable to make up his mind. He glanced around at his surroundings and saw that there was an incredible level of confusion and panic quickly spreading to the citizens like an infectious disease.

    “But I have my orders, Erik!! I'm a soldier, and I must follow my orders to the letter. You are coming with me, right now!! Stop resisting!!”

    The two of them glared at each other, not budging from their spots. Cleo's family worriedly surveyed the scene, unable to do anything. Tony tried to exit the car to vent out his fury but Cleo pushed him back inside, telling him to stay put. Things were dicey enough as it was; she didn't need the extra headache.

    There was another rumble that shook the ground, and the sound of thunder cracked the air. Surrounding the metal “tree,” clouds began to gather and several purple lightning could be seen snaking within them.

    “What the hell is going on in Manhattan? Lei, can you find out what's going on?!”

    Cleo asked in a worried voice, clearly sensing something very ominous from those cracking lightning.

    Lei was already on it. Until now, she was only monitoring the channels regarding the Project Dead Kings and more specifically, those trying to find them. So, she naturally didn't pay much attention to the other ongoings of the city itself.

    No one spoke until Lei raised her head and conveyed the grim news to all who were present.

    “There is a lot of confusion right now, and I can't tell what's going on, but before that... metal thing rose up, GoH guys were going after the suspect from the JFK thing. He was trapped in the Met, and a team of Superheroes went in after him. And then...

    “I can't tell for sure, but we need to leave the city right now. I'm hearing reports of strange black colored metal vines destroying everything in their paths and are trying to cross the rivers via all the bridges around the island of Manhattan but can't, because them collapsing under the weight or something. But there is no guarantee the situation will remain like that for long. It's not safe where we are.”

    “See? Did you hear that?! Do you think this is the right time to rigidly, mindlessly follow your stupid orders? Huh? Tell me Stu!!”

    Stewart gritted his teeth, but before long, his focus was taken away. A radio call came to his earpiece. And it was a very urgent one, recalling every available operative back to the temporary command center. On top of that, all the previous missions were being rescinded as well.

    Stewart's face crumbled in dissatisfaction, but the new order had to be executed. He gave the signal to withdraw to his teammates before glaring at Erik for the last time. “Don't think you got away, Erik. When this is over, I am still coming after you lot.”

    “Well, then. See you later, Stu.” Erik waved him away before jumping into the car. “C'mon, Lei. Floor it. Let's get the hell outta here.”

    ~​

    Mylorne Akkad's facial expression was not good. No, it was possibly the worst he had for quite a long while. In fact, it surpassed the one he carried after studying the camera footage from the JFK airport. Anyone who saw him right now, wouldn't even recognize him. It was that severe.

    But how can he not be so damn unhappy? He was staring at the unmistakable sign of ill omens to come, the Tree of The End, on the computer monitor.

    There was no one beside him inside the private resting quarter just outside the large tent hiding the ancient ruins so his ugly expression was left unseen. That was a good news for Mylorne, as he valued his public persona very, very much. Such a tyrannical, angry face would badly damage the carefully cultivated image of a man steeped in refinement, culture and an air of total mystery. With the invention of social media, keeping secrets were pretty hard nowadays. He had to be extra cautious.

    But the Tree was an incredibly bad news. Bad news for his plans, bad news for the humanity as a whole, bad news for the planet itself.

    To think, that the accursed dog of the so-called gods, En-men-lu-ana had this kind of trump card lying around. Even Mylorne couldn't have predicted this outcome.

    And things were moving too fast. He could not control matters anymore. If this Tree had been revived, then he had to assume that En-men-lu-ana also possessed other means to resurrect the rest and complete the portal to receive the vanquished gods back to the Earth. What would happen then? The subjugation and the enslavement of every living being on this planet, that's what.

    Mylorne Akkad glanced at the second monitor, showing the red pyramid underground. No signs of Jack Mercer emerging from it just yet. Understandably so, since it had not been even half a day since the boy entered it. Hell, even if the boy managed to withstand 24 hours inside the structure, it still would not be enough to destroy that Tree.

    Back then, Gilgamesh's powers weren't enough so he had to work together with another, Enkidu. They were former enemies who had then become lifelong friends. The two were the most powerful beings in the entire world, maybe even this galaxy, yet they nearly died trying to destroy the final remaining Tree, the ironically-named Tree of Life, and its guardian beast, Humbaba.

    I need to locate the potential spots where the other Trees might be located. Get rid of the potential troubles before they sprout.

    Mylorne frowned deeply, wondering how he should go on about this task. Even with his vast wealth and connections, he still failed to notice the presence of the Tree in New York. The satellite images moments before the Tree's resurrection had shown that the ground zero was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It stood to reason that En-men-lu-ana came specifically to the U.S.A in order to access something in the museum. An old relic, an ancient artifact of some kind – or maybe it was just a coincidence.

    Mylorne kneaded his temples, weighing the pros and cons of him stepping back out into the limelight. He had, for the better part of the last two millenniums, hid behind the shadows, never truly exerting a visible pressure on the directions of the history. But things were different now; with the appearance of the Tree of the End, it could truly signal the end of the independence of the human race for good.

    He had no idea where to proceed in order to find the nesting places for the other trees. He may have some inkling, but that was just that, a hunch, and in truth, he could be wrong. The planet Earth was a sizable one and it was impossible to scour it completely, even with his incredible wealth. It just couldn't be done.

    But if he went to New York personally, then maybe he could find a clue. Even better, he could capture the vessel for En-men-lu-ana and get the truth out that way.

    The question, though, was whether he should do it. He may be an immortal, but that didn't mean he couldn't die. Oh no. In fact, he was not that strong, physically. Someone like Cleo Costanza would easily overpower him in seconds. So, just what chances did he have in New York?

    He took a glance at the monitor showing the pyramid again. Akkad felt slightly helpless. He couldn't call Jack, nor could the boy inquire as to what was happening outside.

    And he, as the direct descendant of the God-King Gilgamesh, was the only hope for the mankind right now.

    Could he shoulder such a huge burden? Mylorne Akkad wasn't sure. The boy was too immature, too green and naive and idealistic. He wouldn't survive for an hour in the real world. The comfy suburbia life had spoiled the great seedling of a warrior into a potential pudgy middle-class wastrel. Nearly. What a pity.

    Luckily, the boy had awakened just in time and the damage may not be too severe. Mylorne could remold him, back into the monstrous powerhouse he was supposed to be. To rightfully reclaim his position as the King of all Kings. Only then, would Mylorne Akkad's, or Utnapishtim's, dream be fulfilled.

    He sighed and leaned back on his seat. He decided to endure for now and instead mobilize his contacts to search for the other Trees. And when Jack Mercer exits the pyramid, then he'd have to somehow bring that Tree down before it becomes too late. Akkad calculated that there still was a bit of time before the Tree's guardian beast, Humbaba, would appear in full strength. If that is so, then even Jack should have a decent chance of beating it with the aid of all the other Supers present there.

    Hell, the might of U.S Army was also focused there, so it was possible. No, it was completely doable. Mylorne Akkad was sure of it.

    He accessed his phone and made a call. His work was far from finished; it was only just getting harder. He needed to know more about how the hell En-men-lu-ana was able to break free from the eternal prison that the insane, undying ruler was thrown into.

    Mylorne was quite sure that it was indeed En-men-lu-ana; that golden skull was as good an evidence as any. Because of him, the human race was met with the Second Great Calamity, the Cleansing Flood, that nearly wiped two-thirds of the population as well as the culture and progress of the civilization.

    Thinking back to the time when he barely survived the ordeal, Mylorne Akkad's face became a lot darker. He had lost so much that day, and had gained this immortality curse at the same time.

    Since then, he survived the Third Great Calamity by the skin of his teeth. He had absolutely no intentions of going through a fourth as well if he could help it.

    Clenching his fist in anger, he waited for the call to be connected, but instead, it went to a voicemail. He tried it again but no cigar.

    What the.... did he get affected by the destruction of Manhattan? Shouldn't be – Milosevic is based around Brooklyn and Queens. He shouldn't have a reason to be on the island at all.

    A flash of worry added another crease on his face.

    That bastard better not be dead. That girl's power is essential to my cause, now more than ever. Damn it!! I shouldn't have trusted someone like that....

    Finally!! Whew.

    I've begun uploading the chapters of Red Souls at RRL. It'll also pop out soon Fantasy-Books.live as well. Please check them out!! Thanks. Links will be in the OP.
     
  8. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Active Member

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    Chapter 22​




    The bear/wolf hybrid monster before Jack was whining pitifully. It breathed its last before slowly dissolving into yet another pool of red souls that rapidly entered his body.

    Completely exhausted, Jack plopped down on his butt, out of breath. He lifted the damaged helmet off his head and lowered it next to him.
    Just how long has it been?

    Jack fell on his back, spread-eagled. His eyes stared at the pointed ceiling of the pyramid with fading interest.

    He glanced at the helmet next to him, wondering how he had stayed in here for. Whatever the total amount was, it couldn't have been that long, in all honesty. The visor's clock display wasn't visible from the outside. He didn't feel like putting the damn thing back on so he left it as it was.

    Jack sighed again. If it weren't for the last night's sleep and his incursion to the Soul Sphere to enhance his strength with the red souls, he wouldn't have made it this far in this place.

    But even that was proving to be inadequate as the trial continued. The last battle neared killed him. It was the toughest battle yet and he only won by a sheer fluke, nothing more. No guarantee that he'd survive the next one.

    The temptation to depress the crystal on top of that lone pedestal was quite strong; he just saw no reason to carry on this crazy.... thing, anymore.

    Oh, but he had to. Because this path was the one he had chosen to tread.

    You should have moved.


    Taylor's sharp criticism rang true in his head even now. He had the power to move and stop more tragedy from happening to other people. He was held back by his own weakness and indecisiveness. No, it was more cowardice than anything else, really.

    He was scared of being a monster, treated as one, shunned by everyone.

    Afraid of becoming a monster?

    Then, why not become a god?


    Mylorne told him the night before, after handing out a smackdown disguised as a sparring session.

    Afraid of being ostracized? Afraid of being frowned upon? Afraid of being hated, feared, distrusted? Then become something that surpasses humanity itself!!

    Become a god that not even fate can meddle with. Become a being that transcends the mortal coil and smash apart the common sense of this world.

    Become the savior of this world.


    Jack wiped the sweat away from his face and felt the texture of the glove against his skin. It was caked in dirt, now streaked with the discharged bodily liquid.

    A god, huh?


    Jack mused to himself, a wry smile that wasn't really a smile forming on his lips.

    True, that Gilgamesh dude in my dream – no, my memories of the past life, was a god-like being, feared by everyone and trampling on his enemies like going on a Sunday stroll.

    Can I be like that? Mylorne said he'd support me to become that, but can I really do that? Become a god?


    The answer seemed simple enough; he was a carbon copy of Gilgamesh, meaning he had the exact body. He had the exact same condition for becoming a ridiculously overpowered Super as the legendary God-King. All he needed was his determination to achieve that.

    Jack sat back up slowly. His muscles screamed but there was nothing he could but to endure the various aches and pains.

    His head was slowly filling up with the knowledge of the battlefield acquired through countless bloody battles suffered in the previous life. The fights against the hybrid monster were bringing them back to the surface, one by one. There was a long way to go, but compared to how he was a month ago, this was a remarkable change.

    Still, he felt this wasn't enough.

    He should know. He was the one who used red souls to enhance his physique, after all. Each of the defeated monsters gave out only a negligible amount of souls, barely more than from, say, the amount he accidentally absorbed from the dying clerk back in the convenience store robbery.

    That seemed like a long time ago now.

    Even after going through that many battles, Jack was pretty sure he had only absorbed enough to maybe heal his chest or so. This was too slow. Besides, there was one more problem he hadn't yet solved: the accessing of the Soul Sphere without going to sleep.

    Ever since he had entered this pyramid, he had no chance to enhance his specs with the absorbed red souls. The fights were getting progressively tougher while he was getting fatigued. He needed to enter the Soul Sphere for sure, as soon as possible.

    But with only roughly ten minutes of rest between the fights, there was just no way he could fall asleep here. Hell, he barely had any time to fill his hungry tummy, even.

    Hence, the temptation to leave this pyramid, even if it was just for a short moment. Jack remembered that no one said anything negative about stopping this trial or whatever and resume it after a short while. Thus, no need to put himself in further danger.

    He knew this was the best way to get stronger. But taking a deserved break in between didn't sound so bad. It sounded logical.

    After making his mind up Jack pulled himself up and walked over to the pedestal. He reached out to it and as his hand was about to touch the shining crystal, the scenery suddenly changed.

    It became dark. Darker than a moonless night. As dark as a black ink, untouched by the ends of a brush.

    Jack stiffened and quickly took guard. Around him, the pyramid had darkened, but the giant red crystal, the pedestal, the supply crate and he were clearly visible.

    “What the hell is going on?!”

    Jack, unsure of whatever this was, quickly pressed the crystal. Nothing happened. Jack was stunned into silence, before he hurriedly depressed the crystal again. And again. And again.

    Nothing happened. He was still surrounded by the darkness.

    “Hey, wait a damn minute. Am I.... am I trapped in here?! Is that what this is?!”

    Color drained out of Jack's face. He started to panic, and hurriedly put the helmet back on. There was a communication device built into the survival suit. He knew it didn't work, but he was hoping against the hope here.

    Of course, the only thing he got in the receiver was a distant static.

    His panic naturally grew. There was no way he'd voluntarily remain in here. He had to get out before another one of those bizarre bear/wolf monsters materialized.

    But the ten minute mark passed by without anything appearing in front. Instead, the darkness faded away and now he was standing on a wide open grassy plain.

    Utterly confused, Jack looked around, blinking his eyes a few times. The sight before him didn't change no matter how many times he did that. He really was standing in the middle of nowhere, not inside the pyramid. This was getting seriously bizarre.

    The plain stretched as far as his eyes could see. Jack looked below and saw the thin grass stalks and gray rocks. Bending down, he brushed the ground and saw the hint of dust rise. He then picked up a pebble. It felt real, not illusory. Thanks to the survival suit he couldn't feel the texture but he could still sense the weight. An illusion or, heaven forbid, hologram shouldn't have bulk, Jack reasoned. The piece of earth he held in his hand was as real as it got.

    Jack swallowed nervously. He had encountered a lot of crazy stuff of late, so he was trying his best to stay open-minded about everything. If he was a fan of Sci-FI genre, he'd say, this was teleportation and that he had fallen victim to it.

    Feeling helpless, he scanned the horizon once more, hoping to see something, anything, to help him figure where he was. In the distance, there was a mountain range; on the opposite side, a brown desert. No forests or signs of civilization anywhere. For that matter, no signs of any living creatures either. Not even insects nor birds. He was alone here.

    The sky above was gray and dim, as if all color was sucked out from it. The clouds were passing by like speeding cars on a highway, rushing past and constantly changing their shapes. But seemingly no sun whatsoever.

    There was truly nothing here. An utter desolation was the only appropriate term Jack could think of.

    Behind him, the red crystal was there, emitting that vivid red glow. So did the escape pedestal, waiting for him to come and press the crystal on top. And the unopened supply crate too, was there.

    “Just what the hell is going on here?! Huh? Where am I? Hello? Is anyone out there?!”

    Jack shouted out at the top of his lungs. Since there was literally nothing to reflect back, there was no echo. The only other sound he could hear was the wind.

    At a complete loss, Jack stumbled until he was able to sit on the crate, trembling in shock. Angrily, he pulled off the confining helmet off and dropped it on the ground.

    He was falling head first into a pit of despair. To get stuck in this world, whatever this world was, did not sound like a vacation of a lifetime. What about food? A place to sleep? Water? A protection from the elements?

    He had problems right now, and they were definitely not first world problems.

    Then, a voice suddenly called out to him, scaring the bejesus out of Jack.

    “What are you doing, boy?”

    He shot up like a scalded cat and spun around to face the source of that voice.

    And to his confusion, there was a person sitting on a throne of stone. He wasn't there before, yet now, there he was.

    There was a certain disdainful haughty frown on the man's face as he propped his face on his hand.

    The problem wasn't the sudden appearance of this man, though. No, the real issue was that the man had Jack's face.

    Calling him a man was a misnomer – he was a teenager just like Jack was. If it weren't for a simple but strange garb, and the stone throne, Jack would've made the mistake of believing that he was looking at a mirror reflection.

    The man on the throne asked again.

    “What are you doing, boy?”

    Jack was speechless for a while. Hearing himself ask that question while calling him a boy seemed a bit.... unusual to Jack.

    “Uh.... I, uh, am not sure?”

    Jack stuttered slowly, still on guard.

    The other Jack shook his head, disdain on his face growing.

    “To think that you're my descendant. This.... this is disappointing.”

    The other Jack cranked his neck and stood up abruptly. The stone throne wavered before dissipating into the thin air. But even more shockingly, the other Jack started changing as well.

    Gone were the robes of ancient society and now an impressive set of heavy red armor took place. The teenaged face morphed, a bushy beard forming on the chin; the previously short hair grew long until it reached the back of the shoulders, whipping powerfully on the whistling winds. His entire body seemed to grow a few inches taller, his bulk increasing accordingly. Now, the man became a hulking figure that looked like a blood-thirsty warrior, a monarch of countless lands and a judge of million souls.

    Jack was immediately cowed by the incredible pressure and a thick killing intent oozing from this man. He stumbled back involuntarily, his confusion and alarm constantly going up and up.

    “Who are you?! No, wait a second. What the hell are you? You... can't be possibly real.”

    The heavily armored man stood before Jack. He had an unimpressed expression, a scowl even. Then, with a loud snort, a thick halberd appeared out of nowhere and slammed on the ground, causing a serious tremor. The man grabbed the weighty polearm with only one hand and pointed it at Jack.

    “I am you. From your past. When you were a god among gods, a feared conqueror of all men, and an undisputed devil under the skies!!”
    The man then lightly swung the halberd. It seemed slow but calculated. Jack's heart thumped in panic and he hastily ducked down.

    The swung halberd created a powerful wave of energy that cut apart the very fabric of nature; Jack could hear the sharp cracking noise behind him, above him, all around him.

    When he carefully looked back, his jaw dropped in pure terror. Even if this grassy plain was nothing more than an illusion, the damage caused by the casual swing of that halberd was still astonishing to behold.

    There was a crescent-shaped crater where the earth was overturned. The crater was huge, its dimension enough to hold a football match in. And the destruction was still ongoing, as Jack could still see the earth continuously being blown away.

    Jack's back was coated in buckets of cold sweat. That was a serious demonstration of pure destructive power.

    “Stand up.”

    The imposing man spoke again. No, he commanded Jack, in a voice that no one could possibly rebel against.
    Jack trembled like a wet dog and stood up on the unsteady pair of legs. Almost every hair on his body was standing up from awe and shock. A lot of that also came from fear as well.

    “You are me.... Are you... Gilgamesh? The Gilgamesh of the legend?”

    The man, Gilgamesh nodded and took a powerful step forward. The ground shook again.

    “But how? Isn't this an illusion? Or did I travel back in time? But that's not possible, am I right?”

    Gilgamesh shook his head. “No, you did not travel back in time. Neither am I an illusion conjured up by your weak mind. I am a remnant will of the God-King. I am simultaneously Gilgamesh and at the same time, I am not him.”

    “I... I don't get it.”

    Jack took a step back, slightly widening the distance between him and Gilgamesh. But that gap was shortened in a heartbeat as the man in the big red armor literally blinked right in front of Jack.

    “There is nothing to get, boy. I have left an imprint of my soul in one of these damnable structures. You have obviously stumbled onto one yourself, triggering this safeguard. Now, I'm going to eject you from this world before it's too late.”

    Jack's lips hung loose, confused.

    “Before it's too late?”

    Gilgamesh nodded. “That attack earlier was to sever the mental connection you have unwittingly formed with the other side of the Dark Void. Usually, warriors subjected to this trial would not arouse the interest of the false gods, but you're different. You are my descendant. In you, flows my blood. My seeds. The gods would be fools not to notice you entering this structure.”

    Jack was even more confused at this. “I... what? I haven't done anything like that. I came here to get stronger quickly. There's something bad going on outside and I need to do this!!”

    Gilgamesh cocked an eyebrow, showing a slight surprise. “Ho? When did the descendant of Gilgamesh need to worry about the woes of the commoners? You come from the long line of superior being, a being comparable to true gods. You should not trouble yourself over the trivial matters of the mortal world, boy.”

    Jack was stunned to hear the haughty and uninterested words of his ancestor. The original, as it were.

    “What?! But, weren't you the most powerful man on this planet? Why....”

    Gilgamesh dismissively waved his hand.

    “I built my strength to enjoy life, not to sacrifice my being for some feckless mouth breathers. That's all there is to it. Why should I lose sleep over those weaklings? They must take care of themselves.”

    Jack's face waned all of a sudden. He didn't expect to hear such a selfish reasoning from the original/ancestor. From the snippets of the story Jack heard from Mylorne Akkad, he thought that Gilgamesh was a remarkable warrior who led the whole of humanity against the oppressive gods – in other words, a hero.

    But this guy? He wasn't a good guy.

    “Wait, wait, wait. That doesn't make sense. If you don't care about anyone except yourself, why did you leave behind a.... an imprint as you say? Why are you here to save me?”

    “Simple. My enemies are numerous. And they can be persistent too. I'll be damned if I let those buffoons take advantage of my bloodline after I'm gone.”

    Finished with explaining his position, Gilgamesh grabbed the halberd with both of his hands and got into a stance.

    “I am going to destroy this structure's hold over you. That should do the trick. And you shall go home and get stronger somewhere else. Got that?”

    “No, wait a damn minute!! Stop for a second, please. I have so many questions, and if you are not a fragment of my imagination, you can answer them, right?”

    Gilgamesh frowned unhappily but withdrew the halberd for a bit. “Fine. I shall spare you a moment of breaths. Ask away, but be quick about it, boy.”

    Jack took a deep breath and quickly rearranged his thoughts. He wasn't going to lose this chance since he had no idea if he'd be able to “meet” Gilgamesh again.

    “Right, so, uh, how did you get here? I mean, the pyramid I'm in is located on another continent altogether. Don't tell me you traversed the oceans as well?!”

    “That is your first question? Aren't you a funny child. Well, a pyramid, huh? That's what you call these damnable structures, eh? It doesn't matter what it's called anyways. These structures, these traps, are built by the false gods to recruit potential pawns to control the humanity. They wanted to groom strong individuals so they enticed the talented ones here and threw them carrots.
    “For that purpose, the gods built many, many structures all over the world. This one is just another, hidden cleverly to enhance its allure. Once a talented warrior survives to a certain stage, a deceptively obtuse mental link is made between the clueless warrior and the gods above.
    “I too, was seduced by the purported rewards and had entered one of these structures. Of course, I was far too strong for them to control, so they instead decided to become my enemy!! Hmph, that was the costliest mistake they have ever made!! Anyways. I left behind an imprint of my soul behind, knowing that each of these structures is interconnected to one another. If a foolish descendant of mine sets foot in any one of them, I'd appear to save their idiotic asses.”

    Jack didn't know what to say here. This answer only brought about yet another question.

    Did Mylorne Akkad know about this? He is the Immortal, after all. He had lived for millenniums before the Gilgamesh's time. Logically, he should have known about this pyramid and its real functions.


    Watching that Jack had fallen silent, Gilgamesh became impatient and urged the boy. “Are you finished? If you have no more queries to satisfy, I shall do what I'm here for.”

    “No, no, wait. Uh... right!! Right. Yeah, how do I enhance my body without going to sleep? You know, the Soul Sphere thing.”
    Gilgamesh made a weird face as if he just heard something incredulous. “Huh? You don't even know how to quickly utilize red souls?! How much did my bloodline decline in the intervening years?! How old are you, boy? At your age, you should've at least received a proper instruction on how to control your battle sense and along with that, accessing your Sphere too. Just who is your negligent teacher?”

    Jack, for the second time in a few minutes, was left speechless. What could he say here to dissolve this misunderstanding? From the way Gilgamesh talked, he must've thought that the world was quite similar to the time he was still alive.

    “See, the thing is, I only began to learn about myself and what I can do about a month ago.”

    This time, it was Gilgamesh was stunned and he took a step back.

    “What? You're my blood, so how come you have not trained your skills until now? What nonsense is this?! Ah, so that's why you're like that earlier, lost and meek and quite a disappointment. Hmph, have my house gone that soft? Coddling the weak and the easily scared?”

    Jack felt like doing a facepalm before stopping himself.

    “No, that's not it. You've lived over five thousand years ago, maybe even more than that. Times have changed. For the better, I mean. Most people have no reasons to take up arms and fight nowadays.”

    After saying that, Jack realized what he had said wasn't entirely true. There was war still raging in some parts of the world. He too was now embroiled in one, too. Times may have changed, but the battles were still being fought all over the world.

    He was simply thinking that there wasn't any, because he hadn't been exposed to the darker side of the humanity until recently.

    Jack shut his mouth. If he spoke any further, he'd end up exposing how naive his thoughts were.

    Gilgamesh pursed his lips. “Hah? What is this boy mumbling about? Doesn't matter how many years had passed. Humans will never, ever change their nature. You ever hear the saying of how the snow leopard never changes its spots? It's the same with man's heart. Five thousand years, ten thousand years, hundred thousand years – human beings will always be at war with another.”

    Jack sighed and nodded his head in agreement.

    Gilgamesh continued. “Alright, fine. You want to know how to access your battle sense? Hmm. You say it's been only a month since you took up arms? If so, then it is by some kind of miracle that you have survived the trial until this stage.... You must have some latent talent then. That is good, because to develop the battle sense, you will need high perception which is accompanied by your inborn talent.”

    The battle sense, huh?
    Jack slowly scratched his chin. Right, maybe it's like when I was facing the coyote or the armed robber. Or against Cleo. I could accurately tell what might happen in the battle and make plans accordingly. That could be the so-called battle sense.

    He was convinced of this deduction. But how did this battle sense relate to him not needing to go to sleep for the accessing of the Soul Sphere?

    “If you can utilize the battle sense, then try not only to look at your opponents, but at your own body as well. Go on, try it. Depending on how good your understanding of the battle sense is, your ability to draw out a number of souls from the Sphere will change. Be glad that I am telling you this much, boy. I had to find this out the hard way. All alone.”

    Jack ignored the boasting tone of Gilgamesh and tried hard to recall those moments when the battle sense would activate by itself. At first, it was hard as hell. But after going through enough life-or-death battles within this pyramid, he had grasped the very edge of freely controlling this supernatural sixth sense.

    And as his mind slowly turned inwardly, he saw it. There was a small sphere the size of an apple slowly rotating within his heart. He was pretty sure that the sphere wasn't really there in the physical form, but something more ethereal. Like, something out of magic, really.
    Within this sphere, Jack saw those red souls. They were swirling around soundlessly, seemingly waiting for him to pluck out and do something with them.

    Jack held his breath. He had done it. He didn't need to go to sleep every time to enhance his strength!!

    But as soon as he was about to reach into this sphere to pull out a soul, a piercing headache punched him in the side of his head, snapping him out of the battle sense.

    Jack breathed heavily as he plopped down on the ground, confused.

    “Ho. Not bad. That was your first try, wasn't it? But you were able to see into your Soul Sphere, weren't you? Not bad, not bad at all. Hmph, my approximation of your worth has increased a little. Be glad, boy.”

    “What happened? Why couldn't I....”

    Jack murmured in confusion, the pounding headache slowly subsiding in the meantime.

    “You couldn't forcibly maintain the battle sense for long because you are not proficient with it yet. More practice, boy!! With your latent talent, soon you'll encounter no obstacles like that. Well, when I soon, it's still decades for a runt like you.”

    Jack frowned slightly, unhappy about this state of things. He dusted himself and got up.

    Gilgamesh peered closely at Jack's armor for a moment or two before drawing the boy's attention towards him.

    “Hm. That is an intriguing armor, made with materials I've not yet seen before. But it's still not good enough for a descendant of mine. Well, I shall give you a bonus for you encountering me like this. After all, our encounter is fate playing tricks on you, and my blood needs to overcome such petty dealings.”

    With that, Gilgamesh pointed at the red crystal with his halberd. It suddenly shook violently, before a good chunk the size of a person's head broke off. Then, this bit dissolved into a huge swirling mist of red souls.

    Gilgamesh controlled this mist and separated it into several sections.

    “Here we go.”

    Gilgamesh spun the halberd and lightly swung it towards Jack. The red souls rushed towards the boy and madly entered just about everywhere. An immense pain assaulted Jack and he almost screamed out in anguish but something inside of him, his primal instincts, told him not to.

    He gritted his teeth and endured. Gilgamesh's eyes glittered in silent approval.

    A few minutes later, the pain subsided and a gentle, soothing sensation enveloped him. Jack felt relaxed, comfortable – a feeling akin to returning to a mother's womb. Safe, and protected.

    “I've enhanced what I thought was lacking in your body. It's not by much, so you will still need to train hard on your own. Also, I modified your armor somewhat. Don't be alarmed, boy. There were some things I can't recognize on that armor so I only improved its defensive capabilities. That's the bonus I told you about, this knowledge. You can actually enhance all your equipment, be that your weapons, your armor, the clothes you wear every day, whatever it is, as long as you can touch it, feel it, smell it, see it and taste it, you can enhance it.

    “Hell, you may even choose to enhance your companions if you can spare the necessary souls.”

    Jack's eyes went round in utter amazement at this new information. Jack looked down on the Kevlar survival suit, and while a few places were damaged during the previous trials, he could sense that they had changed somewhat.

    Jack took in a deep breath to calm his excited mind. Jack wanted to thank his ancestor, but before he could open his mouth, the sky above them darkened and a deafening roar could be heard in the distance.

    Gilgamesh's face was full of irritation after hearing that roar.

    “Tsk. Looks like they are trying to get to you. We can't dally around any longer. I'm sending you out of this place now. In the future, if you wish to get stronger, do it yourself and not look for a shortcut like this!! Destroy this structure as soon as you leave, got that?”

    Jack nodded.

    The roar became even louder. Jack's entire being shook from unparalleled fear. He looked up into the sky and his eyes nearly popped out of their sockets as the gray clouds split open and a huge five headed dragon like creature began to descend.

    Before Jack could say anything else, Gilgamesh coldly harrumphed and took a step forward. He grabbed Jack and let out a short shout.

    “Break for me!!”

    Then, the entire world shattered. The grassy plain, the descending five headed dragon, the gray clouds, everything. Even the image of Gilgamesh broke apart and shattered into countless fragments, scattering into the ether. The large, firm hand Jack felt on his shoulder was gone.

    Instead, he was back inside the pyramid. It was not spinning anymore. It was as if everything he had seen and heard was nothing more than his dream.

    He immediately tried to activate his battle sense, just to make sure he wasn't hallucinating. And sure enough, he could see the small Soul Sphere rotating within his heart.

    None of that was fake. It really happened.

    As Jack was elatedly digesting the new discoveries, his helmet began to emit cracking statics. He hurriedly came closer and picked it up.

    What he thought was static was actually a radio signal coming from the outside the pyramid. Someone was trying to contact Jack.

    He quickly put the helmet on and answered the radio call.

    “Hello? Is anyone there? This is Jack Mercer.”

    Jack? Is that really you?! Oh wowsers!! You okay in there? What happened? We suddenly saw your vitals appearing here in our monitors. Did you quit the training of the Hyperbolic Time Chamber already?

    “Yeah, something like that,” said Jack before asking about the time outside and what had happened in New York. “How long was I in here for? And what happened in New York?”

    Well, the proverbial sh*t had hit the fan there, Jack. You better come out and see for yourself.
    Here's Tuesday's chapter. Please enjoy it.
     
  9. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Active Member

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    Chapter 23


    Jack sat in his seat, silent and in contemplation.

    Mylorne Akkad's aircraft scythed its way in the sky, rapidly closing in towards New York.

    “We'll be there in twenty minutes,” said Akkad at the helm.

    Jack raised head and nodded once. His face was dark, creased with worry. He licked his dry lips and asked.

    “Still no news regarding the vessel of En-men-lu-ana?”

    Mylorne grimaced a little and sighed.

    “Yes. He has cleverly hidden himself. Surveillance into the island itself is not possible, and because of the Tree of the End, taking satellite images is also quite difficult. But one thing is for sure, he will try to resurrect the Tree's guardian beast, Humbaba. We need to stop him before he succeeds.”

    Jack nodded slowly again, before falling into a deep contemplation once more.

    The Tree of the End... Jack groaned inwardly. Never thought I'd have to go up against that. Even my past self struggled to deal with it. And there are supposed six of these trees, all of them bad news.

    Jack hadn't arrived at the point where Gilgamesh was fighting Humbaba or the Tree in the dreams/memories yet. Thus, he had very little to go on as far as knowing what to do.

    All he had to go on with was some odd text from the stone tablets in Mylorne Akkad's possession. In it, there was some mention of Gilgamesh and his closest ally and lifelong friend, Enkidu, fighting together and bringing down Humbaba and cutting down the Cedar tree, buying the fury of the gods in the process.

    Jack could infer quite easily that Cedar was one of the six Trees and that the guardian beast was incredibly strong, so much so that the God-King needed someone else's help to kill it.

    That was the source of the worry. Well, the majority of it, anyway.

    The current him was nowhere near Gilgamesh at his peak. What chance would he have against Humbaba, then?

    Mylorne Akkad did say that even if the guardian beast revived, it'd take some time before it regained its full power, meaning taking it down could be done with all the forces gathered near the city. But Jack wasn't so sure about this.

    The big issue would be the voice that could convince all of the parties involved to act as one. That would be the biggest challenge, right next to subduing Humbaba itself.

    When everyone was trying to count their benefits over their rival's, it would be difficult to unite them all under one rule and make them move accordingly for the shared end goal.

    Mylorne Akkad said it should Jack, with him making the grand debut as the modern descendant of the God-King. But he was less than thrilled at the prospect of that. For one, could he actually step out into the limelight and show off? He didn't have any time to confirm just how much his strength had grown. He could be as strong and quick as Cleo, or maybe not.

    And also, could he reveal himself to the scrutiny of the world and their unceasingly critical views? He could remain anonymous, use the helmet of the survival suit that he was wearing now to hide his identity. It'd be nice if that was that. But would people believe him and follow him when he remained unproven, a complete stranger?

    Akkad said that absolute strength, whether from actual physical strength, financial muscle, intellectual smarts or the military might, would be enough to pull together all those unwilling to unite on their own. But did Jack possess any of that? No, he didn't.

    Mylorne glanced over Jack and carefully read the teen's complicated expressions. Sighing, he calmly spoke.

    “Have more confidence in yourself, Mister Mercer. I can sense it, you have what it takes, physically. I will lend my assistance and bringing everyone involved together will happen.”

    Jack said nothing but just nodded.

    Whatever the case may be, Jack had already prepared for the outcome anyway. His original wish, the plan, was to get stronger and hunt down Falcon and Master Evil. He was almost there, only one more hurdle standing before him to overcome.

    But what a hurdle this was turning out to be.

    It was not a set deal, but Akkad posited that the reason for En-men-lu-ana appearing in New York was to revive one of the Trees. If the vessel for the Mad Emperor was left to run amok, then the other five would revive as well, welcoming the fourth Calamity that might as well destroy humanity for good.

    Jack had seen the snippets from his dreams, about how insanely powerful beings calling themselves gods oppressed and subjugated the human race. The picture of oppression wasn't complete but he had fairly good idea of what went down back then. And since coming to a conclusion that the dreams were indeed his past memories coming back, he didn't question the veracity of them either.

    He still wasn't sure how, but if those six trees were left standing, even if it was just a single one, then never mind his revenge, he wouldn't be able to survive the incoming calamity. Hell, he felt that five-headed dragon inside the pyramid and that thing, whether real or not, was insidiously powerful. These Trees could act as the conduit to draw in those creatures. Could.

    Jack needed to destroy the metal tree. There was no other way around it.

    “We're almost there, Mister Mercer. Prepare to land soon. Oh, right. Before we do that, there is something else we need to discuss,” said Akkad.

    “Such as?”

    “Your name. I can't call you by your family name in front of the others, now can I? So, what types of a heroic title would you like?”

    Jack frowned deeply. “Uh, is that important? I mean, we may not make it out of this situation alive, you know. Worrying about some professional Super name is just a little...”

    “Doesn't mean I should continue calling you Jack Mercer while you're going in as a masked Super, correct? And you are, by your own words, not powerful enough to be deserving of the name Gilgamesh. So, what will it be?”

    Jack groaned and leaned back in his seat. After giving it some thought, he finally opened his mouth.

    “How about.... uh, The Avenger?”

    Mylorne Akkad cocked an eyebrow, giving him a weird look. “No, Mister Mercer. Rejected.”

    Jack slowly scratched his chin. “Okay, how about.... The Mystic Man?”

    Akkad shook his head. “Again.”

    “The Red Baron?”

    “No.”

    “The Gil Mesher?”

    “....No, Mister Mercer. Please, do try to take this more seriously.”

    “I am serious, though... Oh, fine. Let me think about it for a little while longer.”

    Jack groaned loudly again and sunk back deeper into his seats. He had no idea what name to use. He thought about something related to Gilgamesh and the adventures he went on. But nothing suitable came out from that. Nothing rolled off his tongue. If he was trying to sound exotic, sure, he could use one or two names but...

    “There it is,” said Mylorne Akkad.

    Jack changed his focus back out in front, outside the window.

    And he took in a sharp breath as the distant horizon was broken up and the metallic spike, or the rod, became visible. Even with the curvature of the earth, the damn thing stood out. Colored in eerie orange thanks to the setting sun's glow coming from the West, the Tree of the End imparted this unsettling aura of terrible, unavoidable calamity at an instinctual level.

    Seeing it on a computer monitor and with his own two eyes were quite a different experience altogether. The sheer immense scale of the spike/rod was difficult to fully explain. And Jack couldn't even begin to fathom just how he might topple such a thing to the ground. Maybe an atomic bomb might suffice. Or even two of them.

    Mylorne Akkad got in touch with the airport's control tower and confirmed his approach.

    The twin-rotored futuristic craft entered the Newark airport's airspace and Jack could see countless military attack helicopters hovering nearby. There didn't seem like any civilians at all, which kind of made sense.

    Jack was briefed on the way that all the surrounding boroughs were evacuated of noncombatants and the city of New Jersey was, of course, no exception. Only the registered Superheroes and military personnel were allowed to remain or assist with the evacuation efforts which was, frankly, one of the biggest ever held in the history.

    No wonder, then, to witness long lines of cars leaving the vicinity of New York. Both lanes of roads were clogged, all heading one way, as far away from the island of Manhattan and that black metal thing as geographically possible.

    Jack wished them good luck. Only the hard, unkind and tough road laid up ahead for all who had to abandon everything and flee, with literally the clothes on their backs the sole remaining possessions. And the cars they ride on, of course.

    “It's time. If you wish to remain anonymous, consider putting back the helmet now before we land,” said Mylorne Akkad, reminding Jack.

    Wordlessly he put the slightly bulky unpainted Kevlar helmet on. Immediately the heads-up display came on and all sorts of information appeared on the visor. Jack mechanically swept his eyes over them, not really interested in what any of them were trying to tell.

    All he needed to know was that the survival suit, enhanced by the stock of red souls, was good to go.

    Too bad the helmet itself was not enhanced, though. Only if Jack could do it himself....

    After putting on the helmet, Jack looked completely unrecognizable. The unpainted Kevlar survival suit had taken in a tinge of red after the injection of the red souls and it certainly gave off a dangerous aura. He went to the rear of the craft and as instructed, pressed a button on the wall to access a hidden compartment.

    There, a titanium alloy halberd came out.

    “That, Mister Mercer, is the best flexible halberd my company can manufacture. It's the best martial weapon the current technology can provide. I hope it will be sufficient enough for our oncoming battles,” explained Mylorne Akkad.

    It was jet black, top to bottom. Thick, as thick as a wrist of a person. The tip was fashioned into a sharp blade. No decorations, no flourishes, but the ax head itself was shaped like a half moon, polished until it reflected the light like a razor. And it was heavy. Really heavy.

    Jack held it one hand slowly moved it around. It was taller than he was, so swinging it inside the aircraft was out of the question. He estimated it to be at least eight feet long, yet he had no trouble wielding it. As a matter of fact, the length and the bulk felt pretty good. That thing about the weapon having a good balance, it applied here as well.

    “There's a magnetic coupling system on the back of the survival suit. You can attach the halberd there,” said Akkad as he keyed the landing procedure into the flight computer.

    Jack slowly placed the halberd on his back. A prompt appeared on the visor's display, letting him know that a compatible item was found, that it needed his consent to link it to the suit.

    Since he had to manipulate the PDA mounted on his left arm to do that, and his right hand was holding the halberd at his back, it turned out to be a bit awkward position to find himself in. Sighing, Jack used the chin of the helmet to press the flashing “confirm” button.

    Akkad laughed apologetically. “I promise the next armor will eliminate such inconveniences.”

    Soon after, the craft landed on one of the helipads. A group of military personnel as well as a Peacekeeper representative stood by, waiting.

    Mylorne Akkad put on a double-breasted suit and slicked back his hair, tidying his appearance. He then nodded at Jack and said, “Let us depart, and greet the destiny awaiting us.”

    The rear hatch of the craft was the exit this time, rather than the regular door to its side. The reason was, according to Mylorne Akkad, to build up the reveal of the new Super's arrival. In other words, to show off Jack Mercer to the world at large. It was a theatrical tactic to maximize the exposure, although Jack thought it was a waste of time. He thought that it was just an exit, nothing as grand as how Akkad was making it out to be.

    Contrary to Jack's expectations, however, he heard a collective gasp when he emerged from the rear of the hatch after Mylorne Akkad left first. There was a surprised, nay, shocked eyes focused on him. Jack had to wonder what the hell was that all about. Now that he thought about it, McLean and his men also did a serious double take when Jack came out of the red pyramid.

    Huh, why are they looking at me like that? Is there something on the armor or the helmet?! But I checked before, and there was nothing....

    Jack frowned under the dark visor. No one could see his facial expressions, obviously.

    He checked out each of those waiting outside. Mylorne was busy talking to a stunning blonde woman dressed in a sharp business suit and a pair of frameless glasses. Jack could immediately tell that she wasn't a Super, but also that she had received some sort of combat training after extending his battle sense for a second. In fact, no Super was present at the landing site.

    “Everyone, allow me to introduce the new hero.”

    Mylorne Akkad smiled widely and extended his hand to Jack.

    Taking the cue, Jack nodded once and opened his mouth. The helmet had voice modulation which he had switched on. The result was that he sounded rather different, even to his own ears.

    “Good day to you. You can call me..... Lugal.

    Akkad smiled brightly when he heard that name. It was a Sumerian word for “king.” He was of the opinion that was quite a good name.

    The blonde woman offered her hand. “Mister Lugal, welcome. My name is Emma Gilberts, from the Guild of Heroes. Please, follow me. As Mister Akkad have requested, the important personnel involved with the operation have gathered in one spot. I shall take you there.”

    ~​

    The chamber to be used for the meeting was hastily put together, just like the meeting itself. The place was actually a room used for a quick press conference. Cheap plastic folding chairs usually warmed by the bums of journalists were now playing hosts to more important sets of rear ends.

    The unadorned stage played host to Mylorne Akkad. All those gathered had their focus firmly trained on him.

    “I'd like to thank you all for gathering at such a short notice. My name is Mylorne Akkad, the owner and chairman of the Akkadian Corporation. As I mentioned before, I come to you with valuable information regarding what we are about to face.”

    Jack was not on the stage but to the side, waiting. He was kind of hoping that he was not really needed to say something in front of these important people. He counted several high-ranking military officials, the New York's commissioner of police, a district attorney, the mayor as well as the state governor who were luckily not at their respective offices due to today being a Sunday. The FBI field director was here too. That was it for the government bureaucrats present.

    And there were GoH members here, too. That Emma Gilbert woman, for instance. A couple other solemn-looking faces. And then, there was Vanguard, whose grimace was deep enough to show on the mask he was wearing.

    “I'll be brief. That mysterious metallic spike is actually called the Tree of the End,” said Mylorne Akkad, as he manipulated his tablet to project a 3D hologram in the air. It showed a stone tablet. “I have been in possession of several artifacts, many of them well over five thousand years old, which all speak of six Trees of World. And one of them happens to fit the description of what has taken root in Manhattan.”

    There was a soft murmur from those present. From the looks on their faces they had questions but for now, they'd have to wait until the end of Mylorne's speech.

    “The Tree itself is dangerous, but the bigger issue is its guardian beast. It's named Humbaba. According to my calculations, it should only have awakened not too long ago but it will still possess an incredible power. Lugal here will, with the assistance of the military and GoH members, subdue the beast and proceed to bring down the Tree.”

    One of the military men, who was silently chomping on a cigar narrowed his eyes. “Humbaba? How do you know all this, Mister Akkad? How were you able to obtain this information?”

    Mylorne smiled enigmatically. “Well, General Williams, I have more than enough avenues of collecting important information. This is the result of one such avenue. You have been tracking a suspect involved in the JFK massacre, a man named Nico Gavalas, a Greek national.

    “The truth, however, is that Gavalas is nothing more than a vassal of the real threat – an ancient Super named En-men-lu-ana. He used to go by the nickname of The Mad King. And one of his powers was to turn people into grains of sand. Sounds familiar, yes?

    “Anyways, that's not the salient issue. Please, take a look at this.”

    The hologram now showed a diagram of the Tree of the End, like one of those X-ray shots.

    “The Tree of the End is made up of amalgamation of metallic elements. It can't interact with any other matters, such as water or fire. But it does possess a certain amount of, shall we say, a non-aggression treaty with others, such as air and earth. Hence, it's existence on top of the island's soil.

    “The most effective way to destroy the Tree would be to set fire to, with a temperature higher than 2200 Fahrenheit, higher than that of a napalm bomb, the hidden nucleus accessible through this passage, shown here.”

    Mylorne Akkad pointed at the base of the Tree where the dozens upon dozens of thick root-like vines emerged. There seemed to be a tunnel leading into the heart of the metallic tree, at least according to the 3D projection.

    “The nucleus is about 10 to 12 feet tall and 5 feet in width, most likely shaped like a plant seed. Destroy that, and the Tree of the End will wither away and eventually die.”

    The members present murmured to each other quietly. General Williams was chatting to other military officials in a hushed tone, while Emma Gilberts was on the phone with someone. The representatives of various agencies were also busy yapping away on their own communication devices.

    “I shall forward the findings to all the parties involved with this operation, of course. You will be able to dissect the information to your heart's content, and give me your favorable answer as soon as possible, before the guardian beast Humbaba regains more of its former strength.”

    With that, the 3D hologram ended and Mylorne Akkad began preparing to send the copies of the files with his tablet.

    But before that, there were other questions that needed to be answered.

    “Why do we need to attack this Tree of the End? Is it a dangerous object? Or could it be beneficial to us? And why do you take a proactive role in this venture? What's in it for you, Mister Akkad?”

    It was, of course, General Williams who said that. Mylorne Akkad gazed at the career military man and smiled genially.

    “As I said before, there are six such trees, spread throughout this planet. Each one is in control of a different attribute, air, water, fire, so on and so forth. When all six of them sprout, then the being in command of them will be, in turn, in command of this very planet. In other words, in complete command of every living human beings on the face of this earth.

    “And we have a Super and his vassal acting out to resurrect these trees. Obviously, they would have the means to control them as well, not to mention where to find the rest of the trees.

    “Would you rather let them control the humanity by not sitting on the knowledge I've provided, or will you actively seek to curtail the enemy of humanity from gaining sovereignty over mankind? I believe the choice is a simple matter.

    “My benefit is thus – I get to stave off the incoming disaster and at the same time, collect data with Lugal here. To me, scientific data is far more precious than any short-term monetary gains there might be, unlike the certain section of our society.”

    Akkad, his face full of enigmatic smile, pressed the “send” button on his tablet and soon after, the files were in the hands – or the computers – of those involved. Now, it was about waiting for their answers.

    Jack felt slightly stifled so he stepped out of the conference room for a moment. He wanted to take off the helmet but couldn't, as there were too many eyes watching him. Literally, every Super present here was scoping him out.

    They weren't explicitly hostile but rather, quite wary of him.

    Jack mused to himself that he indeed was in a funny spot as far as being a Superhero was concerned. He wasn't registered as a law-upholding hero with the GoH, nor was he recognized as one by the public. He was being “funded” by a secretive tech billionaire. And he was carrying a huge halberd on his back. That wasn't the kind of weapon seen on regular, nice-guy Superheroes. No, that was a weapon meant to destroy, butcher and maim.

    Plus, Jack had belatedly realized this, but somehow he had gained a bit of bulk. He only realized this after exiting the pyramid. His body stank, so he took a shower and his clothes wouldn't fit anymore. Which was bizarre, as the survival suit that was adjusted to his size remained the same.

    He had to chalk that up to the enhancement by the red souls, both on his body and on the suit itself. No other explanation fit. So the soul fragment of his ancestor did something that was a little excessive, it seemed.

    Whatever, as long as I gain the necessary strength to achieve my goals, it's fine.

    Jack's thoughts were focused. On the gigantic black metal tree in the distant horizon, on the future after toppling it, on the two Supers he'd go after soon enough, and most importantly, on himself.

    He closed his eyes, trying one more time to extend the battle sense inwardly to see the Soul Sphere within himself. Also, to extract it and enhance the helmet and the halberd while he was at it. Now that he knew enhancing the equipment was not only possible but a must, he wasn't going to skimp on this important aspect at all.

    Jack's sense slowly reached inside and found the Sphere, rapidly rotating near his heart. He was about to reach in and extract a wisp of the red soul when a voice interrupted him from behind.

    “Hey, Lugal, right? Got a minute to talk?”

    Jack slightly turned his head to see Vanguard standing there, emitting a dangerous aura. It looked like he was barely containing his fury.

    Jack frowned slightly, wondering why this masked Superhero was a worked up for.

    “May I help you?”

    Jack asked solemnly. Since he didn't know whether the target of Vanguard's anger was him or not, it seemed like a safe bet to be vigilant and respectful for now.

    “Maybe. I want to be on your team. Take me with you when you go to Manhattan.”

    Jack nearly tilted his head in confusion. Somehow, he resisted the natural reaction and took a second or two to digest this sudden request.

    “I beg your pardon? Please explain yourself, Mister Vanguard. What do you mean, you want to be on my team?”

    Vanguard stepped forward and stood before Jack, AKA Lugal. Surprisingly, Jack wasn't much shorter than the hulking Super.

    “GoH won't let me go over there. But my friend.... my friend Blast Storm is somewhere in that goddamned place and I need to find him ASAP. Please, put me on your team. I am willing to quit GoH if you let me in.”

    Jack felt a fresh new bout of a headache rushing over. Now he understood the source of Vanguard's fury.

    But he couldn't make this decision alone. Mylorne Akkad was the leader of this enterprise; Jack was just borrowing some stuff from the guy, that was all.

    “Why me? You could ask the military. They would welcome a Super's help, especially if it's someone as famous as you are.”

    “I asked already. They refused, saying they already have a unit ready to go. A bunch of wet-nosed teenagers and that's their goddamn unit!!”

    Teenagers? Could they be from the Project Dead Kings? Huh. So, uh, are they reacting to my presence as well, in the way Cleo, Erik and Lei did?

    .I wonder what those three are doing right now. Were they caught after coming here? Or have they got away with Cleo's family? With the chaos of evacuation, they are probably fine.

    Jack slowly shook his head. “It doesn't matter whether you tag along or not. But I do not want to get on the bad side with GoH – so, please reconsider. If your mind's made up, then you should ask Mister Akkad instead.”

    Vanguard clenched his fist. But he didn't say anything. His angry eyes said enough.

    Jack watched the back of the retired Super walk away disinterestedly.

    A friend, huh. I wonder how's Nick doing right now.

    And mom and dad and Dana. Are they watching the news and seeing that tree thing? What are they feeling about right now?

    .I should call them, tell them I'm fine, before they die of worry....

    Jack sighed softly. He should find a phone somewhere to call either Bob or Min-jung, but at this day and age, finding a payphone was going to be an issue. And since the military had taken over the airport, all the stores and kiosks not related to the operation had closed shut their doors, their workforce all sent home a long time ago. Asking for a smartphone from a passing soldier didn't seem like it would work, unless he exposed his identity.

    What then?

    Hmm. Does this suit has a phone or internet connectivity?

    Jack glanced at the PDA's screen. Indeed, there seemed to be some sort of wifi and Bluetooth connectivity but in the menu, they were grayed out as if the functions weren't available on this particular version of the software.

    Do I have to ask Mylorne Akkad for a phone? Looks like it's the only choice for me right now....

    Hell, why does it feel like I'm trying to get his permission to call home?! What is this, a detention?!

    Jack groaned inwardly while he went back to the conference room to find Mylorne Akkad.

    This was supposed to be the Friday's chapter but.... I couldn't make it due to reasons. I really had to rush through to complete this chapter, too. Oh well. I'm guessing there might be a lot of plot holes and massive mistakes in the chapter, so, if you sopt them, please comment on them. Thanks.
     
  10. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Active Member

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    Status update: at the moment, I'm trying to finish the chapter 24. Just like how it was with the chapter 12, I wrote more than half of it but then, had to redo the whole thing from the very beginning. Not sure when I'll be done with it, as a result. My bad.

    Instead, I have posted the new drafts of the chapters 8 to 14. Please check them out, tell me what you think of them. Thanks, in advance.
     
  11. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Active Member

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    Chapter 24


    The squadron of helicopter gunships were approaching the deathly silent island of Manhattan under the cover of darkness. A pale half-moon illuminated the night and a spattering of clouds cast moving puppets of shadow on the Hudson's surface. The time was well past midnight, the time when the witches and demons of lore would roam free, seeking sacrificial souls to seduce and devour.

    The rhythmic pulsing of the spinning rotors was like an insistent heartbeat, slowly building up the tension of the soldiers and Supers riding on the helicopters.

    There was an intermittent muffled chatter on the radio but that was it. No one spoke nor made any noise. Their eyes were darting around, from gazing outside, unfocused, drowned out in their own private thoughts, to the other participants of this operation, hints of uncertainty and mistrust flailing up every now and then.

    Jack “Lugal” Mercer was riding on one of the helicopters right in the middle of the formation. Vanguard rode along next to him, plus a handful operatives from the Project Dead Kings. They sometimes sent silent, suspicious glances specifically at his way but Jack forcefully ignored it.

    The reasons for those stares were quite obvious. The operatives were feeling the same.... resonance as Erik, Cleo and Lei had felt. Good thing they had no idea who Jack was under the darkened visor, but he needed to think of a way to mask whatever his body was emitting so these troublesome fellows wouldn't be able to track him later on.

    What a bother.


    Jack groaned inwardly but thanks to the helmet of the survival suit, no one could see his displeased expression. He was okay with that.

    The interior of the helicopter was a bit on the cramped side, especially with the big halberd slung around Jack's back. Some of the Supers shot him irritated looks earlier on for robbing them of room in this cramped interior. But that was it, no one complained outright, no one voiced their displeasure.

    Besides not wanting to sour the air right before a dangerous mission, there was this subtle but oppressive aura coming off of Lugal that shut their mouths off quite effectively. Jack was thoroughly unaware of his own aura, though. And if he knew, he'd probably laugh bashfully and respond with a shrug of his shoulders.

    Jack continued to deftly ignore the heavy atmosphere and focused on himself. He tried to expand his battle sense again, to look inwardly, into the Soul Sphere and extract a wisp of the red soul.

    Up to the point of looking into the Sphere, he had no problem but from there on, the difficulty spiked upwards rather dramatically. Maintaining his control over the battle sense crumbled like the edges of a biscuit.

    He frowned at the headache buzzing in his temples. Whenever the battle sense fell apart, he would be beset with a painful throbbing like that. By now, he was somewhat used to it. This was nothing much.

    Still, it was puzzling. How come using it in the heat of a battle was easier than sitting down and looking inwardly with no danger around? Made no sense, no pun intended. There must have been something else he had not considered yet.

    Jack extended his battle sense and swept it across the whole helicopter. It was a creepy-ass sensation to literally feel the other people, almost every single one burly men. It sure seemed like he was.... assaulting them in a very wrong way. But no one picked it. They couldn't feel it or sense it, which was a relief to Jack's conscience. Or not.

    Whenever Jack swept the battle sense over, he received some sort of information. He could sense clearly the muscle mass, the size, the placement, flow of blood, the synapses and whatnots. From these, he could estimate just how powerful or not each individual was physically. It was not an exact science, of course, and he had no point of reference to begin with. Yet, he had no troubling headache attack him. The battle sense could remain engaged just fine.

    Jack frowned. No easy answers were available, only half-baked conjecture. Currently, his attempt at accessing his Soul Sphere was fast devolving into an exercise in keeping his mind off other stuff, like the time when he tried to call home, to let his family that he was fine.

    Oh, that was right ol' debacle, trying to find himself a phone.

    Obviously, he had no way to make a call nor did he have money to use a payphone so he had to find Mylorne Akkad. But the thing was, the billionaire immortal was nowhere to be found, at least not initially.

    While Jack was searching for him, he ran into an assortment of people, wanting to engage him in small talk. He wasn't interested, since he was wary of exposing himself by making an unintended gaffe. That's how he learned that government reprentative with ulterior motives could be obnoxiously blind to reading the atmosphere.

    Trying to get rid of them probably – unconsciously – activated that imposing aura. A happy side effect? Jack could chalk it up to that.
    There were two people who weren't really affected by his intimidating aura, Vanguard and the operative from the Dead Kings, a young soldier who introduced himself as Stewart Baxter.

    First, it was Vanguard who came up to him. He just sauntered near where Jack was standing, and just as suddenly, offered a cigarette.

    “Care for a smoke?” Asked Vanguard. There was a certain disgruntled anger to the way he sounded. Probably he was looking for someone to talk to, pour his anger out and stuff. Preferably someone not affiliated with his guild, someone who was a stranger and also of certain age group, presumably.

    Jack was slightly bemused by this. If Vanguard knew that he was trying to get a minor to smoke....

    Well, the helmet blocked Jack's face from the view, plus his voice was modified too, so it was no wonder that even someone as experienced as Vanguard would make a mistake thinking “Lugal” was a grizzled old geezer under the visor.

    Jack shook his head silently.

    “Well, yeah. It's a bad habit anyway,” said Vanguard before lighting one up. He sucked in a deep breath before dropping it on the concrete floor, stubbing it out with the sole of his boot.

    “Today's the first time I smoked in a long, long while. I quit almost fifteen years ago, you see. But hell, I just felt like doing one all of a sudden. You know what I mean?”

    Jack did not, but nodded his head in agreement anyway. Staying silent would probably help here.

    Vanguard sighed deeply, before throwing away the pack of cigarettes and cranked his neck. “Just how long are they making us wait? Damn, I'm all fired up and ready to go.”

    “You should hold your horses, old man,” said a young sounding voice from behind them. Guess who could that be?

    Jack sensed the arrival of the cocky owner of the voice, Stewart Baxter, but Vanguard was slightly taken off guard. When the burly mask wearing Super looked back at the teenager, the younger man sneered coldly before stepping forward without a hesitation.

    Stewart wore a modified military outfit, equipped with armor plated vest and the various holsters placed throughout his body filled with pistols.
    Vanguard narrowed his eyes in slight irritation. “Need something, squirt?”

    The young soldier narrowed his own eyes in response. “Yeah, I do. Please be kind and scram, old man. I want to talk to Mister Lugal here alone, if you don't mind.”

    “Yeah, I do mind,” replied Vanguard.

    Jack was busy cringing pretty hard at the mention of that name. He had no idea why he chose that particular word. Was it the personality of Gilgamesh sneaking past the barriers or something? In truth, it was quite a shameless name, coming from him.

    Disregarding his feelings, the friction in the air rose up a notch. Vanguard flexed his muscles, ready to kick some ass. Stewart's hands were moving towards the pistols in the holsters.

    Jack stepped in the middle right before any fists could be flung around, however. He shook his head and asked Vanguard gently. “I'll take care of this. Please, Mister Vanguard, give us a moment.”

    Vanguard hesitated slightly but eventually he did walk away. Jack sighed inwardly while watching his back and turned to face the young upstart before him after making sure there was no one around them to eavesdrop.

    “Please speak what's on your mind,” said Jack.

    “....You, what are you, exactly?” said the young soldier.

    There was a thinly veiled hostility in those words. It was as if the soldier was not only wary but also.... didn't want to be involved with him? That wasn't quite right – no, it was closer to the soldier slightly cowering before Jack's presence.

    Of course, he had a pretty good inkling as to why the young soldier had this reaction.

    “What is your name and rank, soldier?” asked Jack, trying to sound like an adult.

    “...Stewart. Sergeant Stewart Baxter, from Fort McGinley, sir.”

    The infamous Fort McGinley. That means he's from the Project Dead Kings, huh.
    Jack nodded inwardly.

    This Stewart kid was just like Erik and co. He must have felt Jack the way those three did. This pretty much confirmed that the rest of “G” children could feel him. Without a doubt that was awkward, in many ways possible. But how should he answer here? What does he say to send away the inquisitive young man? Jack mulled his options for a second before opening his mouth.

    “For now, I am your ally. That is all. Don't think too hard on this.”

    Stewart wasn't satisfied. He was not satisfied even now, riding alongside Lugal in the helicopter. A small coincidence that both he and Jack was recalling the same thing at the same time. Well, their thoughts soon diverged enough, Stewart turning back to the upcoming mission while Jack thinking about his failure to call home.

    After tracking down Mylorne Akkad who was doing a quick maintenance on his craft, Jack was able to use the call and internet function on the PDA. All it needed was an operating software update, a simple tap of Akkad's finger on his tablet and et voila.

    He first tried home but no one picked up. Slightly puzzled, he then tried his father's smartphone. Jack briefly entertained the idea of calling Min-jung, but didn't know what to say to her so he deliberately chose not to. Maybe later, when he gathered a bit more courage, then he could confront her.

    But he hesitated slightly, hearing the ring tone of Bob Mercer. Did his father also knew? Was he aware of the fact that Jack was a clone and didn't possess one iota of Mercer blood in his veins?

    Before he knew it, Jack terminated the call.

    He was undecided and unsure. His feelings towards his family became even more complicated. He went through his memories, trying to see if there were any hints shown on Bob's face in the past. He dug in deep but in the end, came up with a whole lot of nothing. But that lingering doubt would not dissipate.

    Jack sighed weakly. He wanted to call his family, tell them he's fine but....

    Why am I reluctant to hear their voices?


    He asked to no one in particular. Not like anyone would answer him anyways. He slowly shook his head, wry feeling welling up inside. Finally, he steeled himself enough to call Dana's phone. At least, Jack figured, she wouldn't have known.

    The phone went to voicemail.

    Jack was concerned by this. Why wasn't there an answer? Dana practically lived with her phone on the weekends. The darn thing was never more than one foot away from her at all times.

    Is the call function broken?


    Jack tried to call someone else, but he realized that besides Taylor, all the others he knew were.... dead. Except Nick, of course. So, he dialed the number for Taylor.

    And the call went through after only three rings.

    Hello?

    Her voice sounded urgent. Jack found it welcoming. He hastily explained what had happened as there wasn't much time for a lengthy chat.

    She of course tried to get more out of him but had to give up after Jack simply told her to get in touch with his family.

    Then, he had to hang up as the call for his presence was finally made. The operation was about to go ahead.

    The ground beneath gave way for the second time and the rippling water's surface appeared once more, to that of the Hudson River. The pilot sent out a heads-up warning, telling his passengers that the ETA was less than five minutes.

    Those who could, took a closer look at the closing sight of the island and tensed up even more.

    There was supposed to be no light in the island, seeing that almost all the buildings had collapsed and electricity supply was cut a long time ago. Yet, the soldiers and Supers riding in the helicopters could see faint flickering colorful lights surrounding the Tree of the End. Those lights were almost like a large fireflies or motes of soul fire. It was quite eerie and gave chills to anyone watching.

    The formation broke up into three separate groups, heading towards the different landing zones. The plan was to infiltrate the island from three opposing sides and to search for any survivors. If the Super suspected of causing the massive destruction was sighted, alert the HQ and execute him if an arrest was not possible. And in the case of the guardian beast, to laser paint it for a surgical strike with a cruise missile fired from a destroyer situated off the Atlantic ocean.

    Jack had no idea how powerful the resulting explosion could be, but he hoped it should be enough.

    The area near his landing zone was devoid of.... all things. The concrete on the ground remained, but it was pockmarked. No signs of any metallic objects and no signs of life at all. And just as important, no metallic vines anywhere. Those damnable things had retreated once the obstruction of the waterways were found and the supply of metal had ended. As to how far they had retreated, no one knew for sure.

    The two helicopters in this group hovered just above the ground as the soldiers and Supers jumped out. Jack was not too keen to follow them but everyone else was doing it as a matter-of-factly so he too gritted his teeth and leaped off.

    He felt nothing as the soles of the survival suit landed on the damaged ground. He emulated the other soldiers and quickly moved away from the helicopter, reaching behind him for the halberd. He didn't forget to spread out the battle sense, too, trying to get a good grasp of his surroundings.

    All he got in return was a hopeless sense of desolation.

    He could feel nothing out here. Not even an insect had survived. There was a thing, a saying, about cockroaches and rats surviving a nuclear holocaust, but Jack was pretty sure even those two irritatingly tough vermin were wiped out.

    The group split, with the intentions of the soldiers heading off elsewhere to search for the survivors. Jack, meanwhile, accompanied by
    Vanguard and Supers, headed for the interior, towards the Central Park where the main body of the Tree of the End resided.

    It'd have been a long trek on foot – normally.

    Because almost all the buildings had collapsed, there was little to no obstructions. Meaning, they didn't really have to take a detour. Made the jobs of the soldiers easier too, as it was hard for the survivors to hide in this desolate and empty environment.

    The howling winds blew up choking dust. A ghostly wail sang out to the group as they silently marched forward. The terrifying metallic vines did not attack them. Occasionally, an entrance to the underground subway line was found, but judging by the way how they were all caved in, it seemed like rescuing anyone would be impossible, if they managed to survive underground, that was.

    Before they knew it, the soldiers and Jack's group converged again into a single squad. It was clear to them that not one soul had survived in this place.

    As they got closer, a distinct pulse could be heard.

    The Tree of the End was emitting a bizarre, low-frequency hum every half a minute or so. It couldn't be heard but felt through their bodies. The ground trembled every time the pulse rang out. The trembling grew heavier the closer they got to the Tree.

    Vanguard studied the barren landscape with a grim expression. He came here to find his friend but seeing the level of destruction, he had to concede that it was quite unlikely Blast Storm had survived this calamity. And that royally pissed him off.

    Jack was busily scanning the surroundings. His battles sense was fully stretched to the limit and it was slightly taxing on him but he kept at it.
    And soon, he was rewarded for his hard work.

    Jack narrowed his eyes and used the PDA to access the zoom function on the visor. In the distance, he sensed movements. His battle sense was spitting out alarm bells, telling him to be on guard.

    “Eyes in front,” said Jack in his best Lugal voice. “Eleven o'clock. The distance, five hundred meters and a change.”

    Jack's prior experience with the military-themed first-person shooters was paying dividends here, with him sounding rather professional and all. Inwardly he couldn't help but feel a bit proud of himself. Just a bit.

    The soldiers equipped with binoculars hurriedly checked out. One of them breathed out heavily as he spotted the movement first.

    “Holy sh*t, is that a survivor?!”

    In the soldier's lens, he could see a humanoid figure weakly walking towards where they were. The person seemed injured and was having trouble moving. The second soldier also confirmed spotting the movement and that was it; the squadron began swiftly moving forward to receive the potential survivor.

    However, Jack wasn't so sure. Something about the way they moved felt off to him. The motes of lights floating near the Tree of the End wasn't quite sufficient enough to illuminate everything and the moving object at the distance was hard to fathom.

    The special forces soldiers weren't a bunch of dummies, though. They knew the score. The squad kept a tight formation and kept low as they hurried forward at a decent gallop.

    Jack and the Supers followed them from behind. Before anyone noticed it, Stewart and the operatives from the Project Dead Kings had overtaken the soldiers, leading from the front. Jack thought that was slightly more prudent, taking into account the combat potential.

    But Vanguard didn't agree. “Hey, you youngsters, fall back in line. You don't have the right equipment to take point.”

    Stewart snorted lightly but didn't argue aloud. Instead, he raised his assault rifle and concentrated forward, signaling to his squad mates to follow.

    Jack's worries grew as he watched them accelerate. He gripped the halberd tightly and focused his battle sense as he ran after them. He didn't really care whether they died here or not, but that didn't mean he'd watch them foolishly throw away their lives in front of his eyes. He had the power to act, so he planned to act on it.

    Quickly the gap closed and the stumbling figure was in sight. Indeed, it was a person.

    But it was unlike any other. The Dead Kings operatives, once full of deserved confidence, stopped dead in their treks when it became clear what they were facing was not.... really a human.

    “What the hell is this?!”

    One of the special forces soldiers muttered out in shock.

    The humanoid figure they saw indeed had a shape of a person. Yet it was made up of bizarre metal. It had a face, a mouth and a pair of lips, a nose, a soulless pair of eyes, even hair that seemed to flutter in the dusty winds. Flaps of the jumper the thing wore, also made of metal, danced ever so slightly in the air.

    Jack knew what this was. It was a fabled golem. A metal golem, magically created by the Tree of the End as its foot soldier. A pawn to deal with pesky insects trying to disturb it.

    Normally the soldiers and the Dead Kings operatives would have attacked by now. But what took them back was the way this thing was shaped into – as a regular New Yorker, just going for a casual stroll on the warm Sunday evening, maybe to catch the latest showing of a stage musical off Broadway, maybe out to walk the dog or to go buy an Espresso around the block.

    “Jesus Christ.”

    Vanguard grimaced slowly, the Adam's apple in his neck bobbing up and down as he swallowed his shocked spit.

    “What the hell.... are we supposed to do?”

    Jack stepped forward and before anyone could react, he swung the halberd, hard.

    A sharp, ear-screeching noise of metal cutting metal resounded in the air, and the upper torso of the golem was sliced in half horizontally. Not stopping there, he then cut it one more time vertically. A rough groove was carved out on the ruined ground from the attack he just did, slightly shocking the rest of the group. And himself, too. That was a lot of power hidden in that swing, something he didn't notice until now.

    To make sure it remained down, Jack had to find the control core the golem had somewhere in its body. That was a pretty much a standard fantasy fare, applicable in just about every known works of fiction, but it was doubly more important as the control core linked the individual golems to the Tree itself. As long as the core existed, the Tree would be able to multiplicate the golems and endlessly repair it from the distance.

    His battle sense highlighted the potential areas for the core inside the golem's body, which was its chest. Sure enough, after two powerful cuts, the core was sliced up and the control exerted over it by the Tree of the End was severed.

    The metal golem then melted into a gray puddle and solidified right there. Jack grimly watched as a wisp of red soul emerged from the felled golem and enter his Soul Sphere.

    “What the... why did you attack it all of a sudden?! He looked like a survivor – maybe we could have helped him!!”

    Stewart angrily hissed at “Lugal” but was ignored outright. Jack was too busy sensing other golems heading towards their position.
    “Heads up. We've got more in coming. Look sharp,” said Jack, again borrowing from the knowledge of the FPS games and their military vernacular. “These things are not people. They are defensive automatons designed to kill intruders. Destroy their control cores, usually located around in the chest area. Or else, you'll turn into one of them, too.”

    The soldiers stiffened as Jack said that. Seeing the facial expressions, Jack felt kind of sorry for them, and for himself as well. It was only now that his memories told him of what to expect. If he knew this golem thing would happen, then maybe he might have asked for a different equipment or something. Maybe even a bigger squad of soldiers to accompany him.

    Another crucial memory then entered his mind and that made him groan in anger.

    The island of Manhattan had around 1.65 million inhabitants. And most likely, they were all.... dead. And turned into this golem things. Every single one of them. Between him and the Tree, there were over a million and a half of automated soldiers waiting to kill him.

    Suddenly this excursion didn't sound so clever to him anymore. Grimacing deeply, Jack decided that they needed to go back but as soon as his battle sense swept behind, he sensed more of those golems slowly approaching the group.

    Damn it.


    Jack clenched the halberd tightly.

    Vanguard was the first to notice the change and he asked in a voice that was barely keeping cool.

    “Hey, Lugal, what's going on? What's happening right now?”

    Jack glanced at the man. It was not easy to read his emotions through that wrestling mask but his eyes seemed calm and collected, a hint of anger flashing every now and then.

    “We're surrounded. I was going to advise retreating for now, but it seems it won't be easy.”

    The soldiers grasped their weapons tightly and began to scan the horizon in a hurry. From under the cover of darkness and fleeting light above, one by one, metal golems possessing the characteristics of dead New Yorkers began to emerge.

    Stewart was busy trying to connect to the gunship pilots, in order to request for an assistance. But all he got was static.

    Vanguard asked Lugal again.

    “How many are we looking at? These automatons?”

    “Around us, or in total? I don't have a solid number but for the latter, it should be more than 1.6 million.”

    The collective intake of sharp breath hushed Jack's surroundings really quickly. It was quite understandable, of course, this negative reaction.

    “Sh*t, why didn't you inform us of this? Are you trying to get us killed, Lugal?” One of the soldiers spat out angrily. “We gotta contact the other squads. If we're surrounded, what about them?! We gotta call the HQ and let them know what the hell is going on here!!”

    Stewart gritted his teeth and shook his head. “No good. I'm only getting static. We can't connect to no one. There's just too much interference. Why didn't you inform us of this level of danger, Mister Lugal? If you told us, we wouldn't have entered this godforsaken island in the first place!!”

    Jack wanted to apologize. He really did. But what could he say to them? That the memories from thousands of years ago only came back to him just now?! As if anyone would believe that nonsensical explanation.

    So, he just bluffed.

    “I can't explain how, but only after stepping onto this island I could sense the change and the existence of the defensive automatons. If I knew, I wouldn't be here either.”

    Jack sighed grandly and glanced at the faces of the soldiers and the Supers around him. They were expectedly unhappy but not a single one of them was behaving unprofessionally. That was admirable.

    “So, what should we do, then?”

    Stewart asked him.

    Jack frowned inwardly and almost retorted How the hell should I know? But he held back and began to muse on what to do. It didn't feel so bad to have so many people rely on his words so suddenly.

    He didn't have too much time to waste, though. Those golems were closing in, fast. Their numbers were growing quickly, too.

    He could retreat and force his way through. But there was no guarantee that, one, they could get to the shore. Two, the helicopters would be there for them, and three, if they come back later, then not only they had to contend with these golems, but then, the guardian beast Humbaba as well.

    Right now, the beast should be weak. He hadn't recollected the memories of his battle against Humbaba but from what Mylorne Akkad told him, the creature had seven levels of power, interpreted as “garments” in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Currently, as a newly revived being, it should barely encroach the first level. It was at its weakest.

    According to the Epic, Enkidu and Gilgamesh fought the beast Humbaba when it only wore a single garment, at its weakest. Yet the two of them barely managed to kill it. Didn't matter how much of that story was real, what was important there, was the implied power of the guardian beast. If it was at its weakest right now, the forces they had now could potentially contend with the creature. Plus, the promised cruise missile strike could ensure them the victory.

    Only if they acted now.

    This is a suicide,
    Jack thought inwardly. Yet, he didn't feel at all worried. No, if anything, his mind was clear. It was not overflowing with useless confidence nor with conceit.

    Jack raised his head and pointed towards the Tree.

    “I'm marching forward. Trying to go back will be difficult but then the danger will double, no tripple, when we return later. The guardian beast Humbaba should be weak right now. I'm planning to take that chance and strike, destroying the core of that Tree before the sunrise. If you want to go back, I'll not stop you. But I'll need the explosives.”

    As soon as he finished speaking, the metal golems entered the firing range.

    “Decide, gentlemen. You don't have much time.”

    Jack said as he hoisted the giant halberd, before he cleaved down, hard, splitting the earth and the metal golem that got caught in it. He sensed the control core breaking apart from that hit.

    Behind the melting golem, a dozen more appeared, their soulless eyes wandering, unfocused, half closed and in agony.

    Vanguard cranked his neck and popped his knuckles. “Well, might as well I start this show. Here we go!!”

    He dashed forward in a blink, and struck the chest of the nearest golem. The automaton's chest burst apart and at the same time, the core was destroyed in that strike. Jack whistled, impressed by the destructive power of the formerly retired Super.

    “Damn, the blasted thing's tougher than how it looks,” quipped Vanguard, lightly massaging his fist. But there was a ferocious grin plastered on his lips.

    He continued to punch out with all his anger, striking down every single golems that entered his attack range.

    Meanwhile, Jack too had stepped forward and started cutting down swathes of golems with the expansive swings of his halberd.

    The last to act was the Dead Kings operatives and the Special Forces soldiers.

    Stewart gritted his teeth before shaking his head. “We are retreating. Get to the rendezvous, now!! That includes you two, Vanguard, Lugal!!”
    Jack gruntled and swung the halberd, hard, cutting down five golems in one go. “Leave the explosives, and the laser equipment behind before you retreat. I'll finish this mission with Vanguard.”

    Soldiers began firing their guns. The Dead Kings operatives began using their powers as well. Soon the area was bathed in sparks of bullets meeting metal, explosions of fire, soil and electricity, cries of weapons colliding against the countless enemies.

    It took them less than three minutes, but the first wave of the golems, numbering in the high dozens, were finally subdued. However, the price paid was a rapid depletion of ammo for the soldiers, as well as their plummeting moral. They knew that a couple more waves like this, and they'd be dead meat. Even the Dead Kings operatives realized this point.

    “Lugal, Vanguard, I'm in charge of this operation. I say we retreat and you follow, do you hear me?”

    Stewart spat out, his eyes bloodshot.

    Jack just shook his head and repeated what he said. “Explosives, and the laser equipment. Leave them and go.”

    Stewart tried to raise his voice but he stopped. He slowly glared at both Jack and Vanguard before nodding. “Fine. You're not a part of this squad to begin with, anyway. Gunnery Sergeant, I'm relinquishing our C4 reserves and the laser designator to Mister Lugal here. I hope you two know how to operate them.”

    And with that, they hightailed it out of there.

    “A bunch of weak-kneed kids,” lamented Vanguard.

    But it wasn't like they didn't understand. Oh, Jack understood very well how Stewart and his boys were feeling at the moment. He couldn't really blame them, not really.

    Jack picked up the explosive packs with ease and glanced at Vanguard. “Well, old man. Let's not keep Nico and his gang waiting.”

    Finally done!!!! Whew. That was tough. Let me tell you, I seriously struggled to complete this chapter. The whole of yesterday, my mind was a complete blank. Nothing came up, not a single sentence. Never had a day like that before, so no idea how handle something like that.

    But here we are. I'll try my best to finish the next chapter before next week Tuesday. Wish me luck.
     
  12. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Active Member

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    Chapter 25​




    Jack and Vanguard rushed forward, cutting down and smashing past the near-endless stream of metallic automatons. However, it wasn't just some mindless mowing down of the enemies.

    The two ignored those they could and concentrated solely on making a breakthrough. The progress was fast, and before long, they were standing only a couple hundred yards away from one of the large metal vines protruding from the ground.

    The closer they got to the massive vine, the less resistance they met. This was contrary to their expectations, so Jack and Vanguard were on a heightened alert.

    The land here was completely obliterated. Not a single thing stood, not even the entrances to the subway underground. The metal vines did incredible damage to the island and the malevolent aura of death hung in the air like a guillotine, ready to chop down at a moment's notice.

    Jack used this bit of temporary respite to configure the PDA and the survival suit to link up with the laser designator. Even though he asked for it, that didn't mean he knew how to use it. By linking the laser to the advanced operating software of his suit, Jack thought he could at least do what the thing was intended for.

    The issue of contacting the destroyer off the coast was a bit harder to resolve, however. Since the normal radio waves could not penetrate this unknown electromagnetic interference, the usage of special short-range Ultra low frequency “Earth-mode” radio equipment had to be used. This radio wave could travel underground and even though the quality was also affected by the interference, it was still functional.

    However, even though ULF communication was pioneered in World War 1, the equipment for personal use was still in research and testing phase under the project DARPA, an agency under DoD's umbrella, was leading at the moment. In other words, almost no military base had it, never mind equipping every soldier under the flag with one.

    Thus, only one experimental ULF radio was issued per squad. And neither Jack nor Vanguard had one, other than the standard communication equipment. That was a blunder on their part, really.

    Neither of them was terribly aware of this oversight, though, simply heading towards where the entrance to the core of the Tree was.

    “Hey, Lugal. You feel that?”

    Vanguard spoke in an uneasy tone as he stopped to take in the sight of the huge black “pole” in front of them. He was rubbing his knuckles just now, but stopped after thinking that something was amiss.

    Jack glanced at the burly Superhero, wondering what he was talking about before sweeping his battle sense over the nearby terrain.

    Then he felt it too. There was another vibration on the ground that didn't belong to the Tree's own hum. That one came off every minute or so but this one was much more urgent. Jack wasn't sure what it was, but evidently, Vanguard did.

    “Looks like something not-so-nice is coming to greet us.”

    These words were spoken with a certain amount of dread and anticipation. Jack couldn't help but cringe slightly after hearing of the big thing. He was hoping for a relatively trouble-free trip but hell, it looked like his wish was going to be ignored.

    Well, he did declare that he'd fight the thing, somehow. And that thing should be the guardian beast, Humbaba, probably coming to greet the intruders, ie Jack and Vanguard.

    Jack got ready to use the laser designator but thought for a second and decided to hand it to Vanguard instead. “Take this, Mr. Vanguard. I'll be drawing its attention while you use the opportunity to tag the guardian beast. And then, we will....”

    Before he could finish his sentence, the ground shook noticeably, harder and meaner. The two turned their attention solely on the front, and at the growing source of this shaking.

    With every hum, the ground thumped. The thin layer of dust rose and fell slightly. The motes of light seemed to disperse, purely out of primal fear. The whistling wind quietened down, and not a whisper could be heard. The world turned silent, the distant black clouds surrounding the Tree roaring without a roar.

    Then a crack of purple lightning hit the ground, scorching it and blinding Vanguard. Jack fared better, as the visor was able to block out the most of the glare.

    Within the whiteness of the strike, Jack saw it, its silhouette. And it was not entirely what he expected.

    “Well, well now. We have visitors. Welcome, welcome.”

    An affable voice came from the silhouette and when the blinding light receded, the figure of Nico Gavalas stood on top of a metallic vine, his face full of smiles.

    But Jack couldn't help but do a double-take at the guy's severely wounded chest area. The kind of damage that should have killed a person regardless of being a Super or not was clearly visible on Nico's torso but he was walking around and speaking without a problem. He didn't even seem to realize that there was a gaping, mangled bit of flesh right where his lungs should have been.

    “I'm not quite sure what brought you two gentlemen to the altar of worship for this magnificent Tree of the End, but I do welcome every visitor. Their timely sacrifices are absolutely necessary, after all.”

    Nico grandly clapped his hands and from behind him, a stone tablet flew up, until it came to a stop above his head. The low, powerful pulsating hum was coming off this thing, shaking the ground as if it was a beating heart of a giant.

    Jack's eyes trembled as he could sense enormous resonance from it. The damn thing was emitting an incredible amount of the unique aura that could only be felt from the red souls. But this one was far more denser and filled with this terrifying storm of resentment and hatred.

    Even Vanguard could feel his skin prickling at the sight of that strange stone tablet. He saw bizarre red light pulsing and surrounding this thing and every one of his instincts was telling to be extra careful if he wanted to live.

    Nico lightly jumped off from the vine and slowly brandished the dagger. “You two have come at just the right time!! I needed that little extra blood to open the gate fully so your contributions here will be greatly appreciated. So, I thank you for your prudent arrival, gentlemen.”

    “Dream on, you freak,” growled Vanguard as clenched his fist tightly. “What the hell did you do to Blast Storm?”
    Nico tilted his head in confusion. “Hmm? What's that?”

    “Don't act stupid, Gavalas. A Superhero named Blast Storm went to stop you at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And then that Tree or whatever sprouted out of there. You did something, now spit it out, you bastard!!”

    Nico searched his memory for a second or two, before his eyes lit up. “Oh!! Now I remember. He was a real handful, I tell you.” Nico chuckled fondly as if he recalled a particularly pleasant memory.

    “Well, he did put up a pretty good fight. But ultimately, he became the nourishing sacrifice for the opening of the gate, so you should be happy, mister.”

    Vanguard nearly lost it. He gritted his teeth, trying to calm himself from recklessly charging in.

    Nico's grin turned sinister, watching Vanguard's demeanor.

    “Huh, was he your friend? Oh, I didn't know. Well, if you so wish, I could summon him for you. He can help you see the light!! Hmm, yes. I think it's a good idea. Don't you agree?”

    Nico clapped his hands again, then a nearly invisible wisp of soul emerged from the stone tablet before settling down on the ground in front of him. Jack stiffened and gripped the halberd tightly.

    The ground slowly rumbled before splitting apart, a dark figure rising from the rubble. Seeing this, Vanguard and Jack both sucked in their breaths, although each for their different reasons.

    For Vanguard, it was the sheer horror of seeing his friend, Blast Storm, rising up from the dead as one of those infernal metal automatons. And for Jack, his eyes perceived the process how the red soul infused with the ground and formed the golem in an instant.

    Jack couldn't help but mutter the words, not caring whether anyone could hear him or not.

    “The Lord of Darkness.... holy crap.”

    The revived Blast Storm's arms and legs were swiftly surrounded by the tempest of winds, shearing apart the accumulated rubble around its feet. The sharpness of those blades of wind was easy to discern; coming in contact with that would surely mean a certain death.

    “Well, what do you think? A pretty good, yes?” Nico grinned brightly. “Now, please become the sacrifices.”

    Blast Storm pounced at Jack and Vanguard. Jack was about to receive the automaton with his halberd but the formerly retired Superhero had other ideas. He shoved Jack away and shouted. “I'll take care of this, you get that son of a bi*ch Nico Gavalas!!”

    Jack tumbled lightly on the uneven ground before rebounding on his two feet. He glanced over at Vanguard, who had dodged backwards from Blast Storm's wind-encased fists.

    He sighed and turned his attention back at Nico, but to Jack's surprise, he was not at the same spot anymore. Nico was closing in on Jack incredibly fast, his deadly dagger shooting forward, aiming for the heart.

    Cursing inwardly, Jack was about to tilt his body out of the way but then, his battle sense kicked in and he instead crouched down and swung the halberd in a huge arc.

    At the same time, the Divine Dagger of the Enki extended. Nico swung the extended blade horizontally in a practiced manner. If Jack had tilted out of the way, he'd been hit by that move.

    Nico's pupils contracted as he saw the halberd's blade heading towards his midriffs. He kicked the floor hard and forced his body to twist out of the way. But the shock wave from Jack's powerful swing still blew him away a good dozen feet or so.

    Right next to them, Vanguard had lifted a section of broken concrete the size of a desk and was using it to block the fake Blast Storm's projectile wind attacks while running towards the automaton. It was easier said than done, however, even to someone like Vanguard who knew ins and outs of his friend better than anyone.

    He knew that Blast Storm would usually fire off several long and mid-range attacks with the wind to tire out his opponents. It was best to get in closer in order to conserve the stamina. Of course, that didn't mean the close-quarter fight with Blast Storm was easy. On the contrary, Storm was one of the finest hand-to-hand fighters in GoH. It was just that, faced with little alternatives, facing him in short range was preferable and Vanguard knew that.

    He threw the heavy concrete rubble that acted as his shield until now towards the automaton that resembled Blast Storm and picked up several smaller rubble. He then rapidly threw those at the fake as well, not trying to hit it but trying to distract it long enough to get in closer. This was only possible because, these automatons, while preserving the outward appearance and abilities of people, lacked much of an intelligence. It was not difficult to fool them.

    Once he got close enough, Vanguard punched as hard as he could while holding a piece of a rubble. The fake Blast Storm raised a barrier of wind to surround itself but he was waiting for that. The fist was repelled but thanks to the rubble, his hand was undamaged.

    Vanguard stomped hard, and caused the ground to split apart. The automaton Blast Storm lost its balance and at that brief timing, the wind barrier was gone. Vanguard struck with his other fist, landing a powerful blow to the unprotected abdomen.

    I'm sorry, my friend, for not being able to do more,
    thought Vanguard as he watched the automaton fly away from the impact while crumbling into several fragments.

    Vanguard thought his battle was over and relaxed for a millisecond, before he sensed danger from his side and hastily dodged forward. And a blink of an eye later, the ground he stood on, cracked apart and an enormous stone hand rose up, trying to grab him.

    Vanguard sucked in another deep breath as he immediately recognized this ability. It belonged to one of two GoH Superheroes dispatched to guard the museum.

    Damn it, this means...!!


    He had no time to ponder. The ground beneath cracked open again and a whip of earth snapped at his back. Vanguard raised all his limbs to protect his vital areas as the whip slammed into him.

    Vanguard was flung away, a trail of blood oozing down from the corner of his lips. He crashed on the ground, leaving behind a lengthy trail, coming to a stop only after a protruding rubble provided a place for him to grab onto.

    Vanguard wiped the blood off his lips and searched for the new player on the scene, the Super that could wield the stone like it was an extension of himself – Magnaterran.

    This Super too had become the automaton. Vanguard could not help but furrow his brows. Because behind Magnaterran, more and more Supers that were caught up in the destruction of Manhattan began to rise up one by one.

    They never make this easy for me, huh.


    Vanguard chuckled bitterly to himself and stood up gingerly, while patting the dust off himself.

    “Oh, well. Might as well, right?”

    Vanguard took a deep breath to calm the aching body and kneaded his bum knee, praying that it would last until the end of this dirge. He wasn't really confident of this, however. He had been running and fighting for a quite a while now, so the moment his repaired knee giving up should arrive pretty soon. But before then, he had to give Lugal as much chance as possible to deal the finishing blow.

    He took a quick sideways glance at where Lugal was fighting Nico Gavalas and smiled ruefully at the high-tempo battle unfolding over there.
    He knew now that it was a wise decision to let Lugal face off against Nico, as there was no way Vanguard could participate in that insanity. The two of them were moving so fast, even Vanguard was having a hard time following their movements.

    Jack's halberd relentlessly clashed with Nico Gavalas's trick dagger. In a second, the two exchanged dozens and dozens of attacks and counters, neither side gaining a clear advantage over the other.

    Jack was inwardly stunned at how brilliant Nico was at handling the strange dagger. Jack was relying heavily on his battle sense and the memories of Gilgamesh in order to wield the huge halberd and he could contend with Nico just fine in the beginning, but as the clock ticked on, this stalemate would only fuel his impatience.

    He didn't expect the opposition to be this fierce. Jack fought enough difficult monsters back in the red pyramid so he was fairly confident of his rapidly developing skills, but Nico's deft handling of that dagger really surprised him.

    But, on the other hand, Nico too, was also quite unhappy inside. After En-men-lu-ana changed him into a powerful, immortal-like being, he thought nothing in this world could stop him but here he was, a Super wearing a dark armor and a helmet was forcing him to use every bit of strength. This was perplexing him a great deal.

    Feeling somewhat flummoxed by this occurrence, Nico wasn't sure what he should do. All his fights had ended fairly easy until now and this was probably only the second time he had to exert more than just a wink and a nod. Blast Storm was one, but this guy... he was something else.

    Nico thought that there was something oddly.... familiar about this man, about the way he moved and wielded that huge halberd, but could not understand why.

    “Hmph, this is so troublesome!!”

    Nico groaned in dissatisfaction. He could have used that attack of turning people into sand, but it used up too much of the stored blood sacrifices in the stone tablet. That wouldn't really do.

    The mental interception by the golden skull of En-men-lu-ana was also ineffective against those with stronger minds so even that option was not available. He couldn't even ask his liege for the assistance as it was busy interacting with the Tree's core so he was basically on his own.
    And as for the automaton soldiers, they were in a bitter struggle with the other, macho Super over yonder so that was no good either.

    Unable to find a simple and quick answer, Nico clicked his tongue in annoyance, and decided to just overpower his opponent. He believed in his newly-found powers, after all.

    Nico stepped lightly forward and sent out a series of precise jabbing strikes. Jack swung the halberd and swept the attacks away, stepping forward to build his own momentum to counter.

    With a harsh, clanging sound, sparks flew as the metal collided with metal. Taking a deep breath, Jack exploded with strength and struck Nico's defense, sending him flying until he crashed noisily against the metal vine.

    That didn't damage him in the slightest, though. Nico didn't feel much pain at all from that attack. Dusting himself off, Nico stood up and glared at Jack. “Who are you?! How can you be.... this strong?!”

    Jack pointed the tip of the halberd at Nico and provoked him. “Stop talking. Come at me.”

    Nico's brows tightened in annoyance. He snorted derisively, before clapping his hands. The ground beneath his feet trembled, before rising up to swallow him whole.

    “What the?!”

    Jack frowned, thinking that Nico was trying to escape. But his battle sense picked up the warning sign and he was able to move out of the way just as the dagger's blade shot out from the ground, squarely aimed at his body.

    Damn it, this crafty bastard!!


    Jack grimaced and hurriedly dodged the attacks coming from the underground. He wasn't sure how Nico was doing this, but he needed to find a way to counter ASAP.

    Letting out a loud, angry yell, Jack jumped up and slammed the halberd down on the concrete, shattering the ground apart in the diameter of dozen feet and showering the surroundings with debris. Jack continued to slam the ground, matching the timing of the dagger's sneaky attacks.

    The final slam connected, and as the ground exploded, Nico was thrown out as well, his body now in even worse shape than before. He took a nasty tumble, leaving behind bits of flesh and gore.

    Coughing slightly, Nico stood up and wiped the dirt off his face, shock and unhappiness mixing in together as a dangerous, volatile cocktail.

    “YOU....?!”

    Nico glared angrily at Jack before calming himself down. An enigmatic smile returned on his lips as he sighed.

    The change in temperament was as sudden as it could get. Jack narrowed his eyes, his senses going overboard to stay alerted at any other sinister tactic this villain might use next.

    But before Jack could do anything, he was showered with debris as an explosion occurred nearby, and Vanguard tumbled out of the falling rocks and rising dust, his body full of small scratches and numerous wounds, bleeding all over.

    Jack grimaced and divided his focus just a bit to see what the hell was going on there – and he promptly wished he didn't.

    Vanguard was fighting against thirteen automatons that resembled various Superheroes. Worse still, all sorts of Superpowers were being flung around like the fireworks in a carnival.

    Oh, crap.


    Jack knew that at this rate, Vanguard was going down. And then, he'd be next.

    No wonder, that bastard Nico looks so damn relaxed...


    Jack took another glance at Vanguard. Judging by the state of things, he figured he roughly had maybe five minutes, tops, before he'd have to fight everyone here with Vanguard out of commission.

    Damn it, only if I could enhance my specs by drawing on red souls from the Soul Sphere – this fight wouldn't have dragged out for this long!!


    Jack gripped the halberd tight, making a conscious choice to go after Nico first and to deal with him. That seemed like the prudent choice here. Vanguard, even if saved, wouldn't be much of a help against Nico. And Jack would have to waste energy to deal with the automatons too.

    If he was a bit stronger, then none of this would be of any consequence, but....

    Damn it, is that the only choice I have? Do I abandon Vanguard?


    Jack expanded his battle sense, hoping against hope to see if there was anyone that could help him, like those Project Dead Kings operatives. But it was a waste of time as he sensed no one in the vicinity.

    But then, he sensed the stone tablet and the red souls swirling around it. An idea struck him like a mean left hook from Mike Tyson.

    Yeah, that might work. But I gotta be careful with the timing!!


    Jack narrowed his eyes and took a stance. He lowered the halberd and gathered strength in his legs, before shooting out like a bullet.
    Nico chuckled lightly. “Oh? So you still wish to tangle with me, eh?”

    He raised the dagger and stabbed out at the approaching figure of Jack. But just before the extending tip of the weapon came into contact, Jack leaped up in the air, and went for the stone tablet.

    Nico's eyes widened in shock.

    “NO!!”

    As if driven by instinct far more powerful than the one for survival, Nico threw his own body in the path of Jack's halberd.

    Jack didn't stay his hands – no need to, unless he was an idiot. Jack's halberd ripped through Nico's body and ripped him apart like paper.
    Blood and gore flew everywhere. Jack of old would have felt sick by now, but after spending so much time in the red pyramid and getting used to killing those hybrid monsters, he thought such a sight was normal now. He didn't even flinch slightly.

    One half of Nico landed on Jack's left side, while the other half was flung away from the shock wave and thrashed about on the ground.
    Jack coldly thought, this should do.

    Nico, however, was miraculously still alive. He coughed out more blood, but his smile didn't leave his face. No, instead, it grew in madness.
    “Oh, well. You got me there real good, mister. Well done.”

    Jack grimaced at the torn half of Nico before turning away. He might be okay at seeing such a gory scene now, but something told him that he might not be able to hold his meals later if he imprinted that scene in his head too much.

    Nico gruntled as he struggled to right his half body. “Oh hey, wait a second. Where are you going, mister? We are not done here, you know!!”
    Jack's eyebrows twitched for a second, before he dashed towards where Vanguard was, who was desperately trying to fend off multiple attacks from the dead Supers.

    Vanguard was rolling on the ground to dodge balls of white flames as well as wisps of red electricity buzzing around incessantly.

    Jack dashed forward, hard, remembering not to get hit by that electricity or he'd be cooked inside this survival suit. He swung the halberd and struck the nearest automaton as hard as he could, with the express goal of launching it against the automaton firing off the troubling electrical attacks.

    The two collided with a loud explosion, destroying them both. Smiling wickedly at the success, Jack then dashed forward and jumped into the fray with wild abandon.

    But he had forgotten one important fact: Nico wasn't dead. As a matter of fact, the two halves of him were crawling toward each other slowly.
    “Hah, you think you defeated me?! Not even close, mister. Oh no, I have things to do, the world to change!! My purpose is glorious and can not be denied....!! I will show you, all of you.... that me, Nico Gavalas won't be forgotten!!”

    He reached the other half of his body and tried to mount it, but as expected, the damage was too catastrophic to overcome that easily. He gritted his teeth in anger, and howled like a beast.

    “No!! I can still.... fight!! I can still change this world for the better!! The gods haven't abandoned me, I still have my will to carry on!!”
    His feverish eyes turned and searched like a madman, until he fixed on the stone tablet. Then, a crazed smile crossed his lips.

    “Yes!! Yes, that is it!!”

    Nico shouted gleefully. In one moment, his hand was empty; then next, the Divine Dagger of Enki that was blown away to somewhere when Jack sliced Nico apart, reappeared like a magic trick.

    Without hesitation, Nico stabbed himself with the blade.

    He spat out even more blood and his body became withered in a second. Then his blood, from his body, on the ground, rose up and began to form a globe.

    The crazed smile spread wider on his lips.

    “Yes!! If it's not enough, then take my own blood!! Open the gate and let the gods in!! Let my blood be the key to this world's salvation!!”
    The very last drop of blood left Nico just as he lost all strength in the grip of the dagger, his hands falling on the ground and soon after, his torn torso slumping down, dead.

    It was at this precise moment, Jack felt it, the resonance from the red souls.

    He smashed the automaton that shot white flames with the blunt side of the halberd and hurriedly looked back.

    He saw Nico's sizable red soul coagulate right before the stone tablet. Now, it was the turn of Jack's eyes to open wide in shock.

    Oh, sh*t!! That's one big ass red soul!!


    Jack ran towards the stone tablet. If he got close enough, he'd be able to wrestle the control of the red soul and prevent it from entering the tablet.

    But the suction force was far stronger than Jack imagined. Well before he could take three steps, the globe of blood was absorbed into the tablet and spiderweb-like red cracks rapidly spread out on the tablet's surface.

    Then, with the loudest explosion he had ever heard, Jack was thrown a long way back, hundreds of feet away. This time, he did spat out blood from his mouth as the incredible shock transmitted throughout his body, dyeing the inside of the visor red.

    Vanguard and the remaining automatons were swept away as well.

    Jack staggered to his feet, instinctively trying to wipe the blood away from his face only to remember that he was wearing a helmet. Not caring whether he was seen or not, he threw off the helmet and gaped for the lung-filling breath. He then looked around but couldn't spot Vanguard nor the automatons anymore. His battle senses told him they were well out of his range too.

    Grimacing, he searched for the halberd which was knocked out of his grasp. After finding it nearby, Jack picked it up and held the weapon close as the roiling clouds began to emit sickly purple hue down to the spot where the stone tablet used to be.

    Now, it was a mass of swirling purple-golden light, interspersed with crimson and screeching howls of numerous souls in torment that sent shivers down Jack's backside. This mass of light floated just above the ground, hovering there and attracting the clouds and all the malevolent aura around like a vacuum cleaner.

    This mass then emitted a powerful hum, and expanded in size. Another hum, another expansion of the size. It continued to grow, until it reached a humongous proportion, as big as a three-story building.

    And from this floating mass, a foot emerged at the bottom, landing on the ground with a loud thud. Jack couldn't help but think, now that is one helluva big-ass foot.

    Soon after, another foot. Then the hovering mass of purple-golden light changed and morphed quite slowly into a humanoid form.

    Jack was deeply shocked at the sheer size of the creature that emerged from the light. He had a feeling that its size was going to enormous judging by those feet on the ground, but even then, he was not prepared.

    It was huge. It was at least as tall as a city bus if it stood on one end. No, it was taller. Much taller.

    “What in the name of holy hell is that thing...?!”

    Jack muttered as he clenched his fist tightly. The guardian beast's appearance looked exactly like the creature in one of the murals back in Mylorne Akkad's loft. It had the exaggerated limbs from an ape, and a head shaped like a bull but its facial features were closer to that of a man. It also stood completely naked and its considerable junior was in full exposure.

    And in its right hand, a huge black metal club, seemingly made out of the same material as the Tree itself.

    Jack's mind went blank for a second; the fragmented memories of Gilgamesh suddenly rushing out to greet him. The past of him duking it out with the aid of Enkidu filled his brain, utterly shocking him with the gory, unbelievable details.

    Holy mothereffing cow. I.... I can't fight that thing!! Not like this!!


    In the memories, Gilgamesh was at his peak, vastly more superior than Jack in every conceivable way. Yet, he nearly lost his life even with Enkidu aiding him while fighting this massive monstrosity, the guardian beast of the Trees Humbaba.

    Just what chance Jack, alone, had?

    Right, the laser designator!!


    He hastily brought the laser from his back and pointed it at the guardian beast, Humbaba.

    Of course, Humbaba wouldn't stand still idly and do nothing; it roared into the air, and the already-ruined battleground split apart further from the massive pressure emitted from the demonic beast.

    Jack nearly lost the grip on the designator from the instinctual fear. It took a lot from him to remain standing but the incredible pressure, the choking killing intent oozing from the beast, was really terrifying. This was taking into account how far away Jack was from the beast itself.

    Sh*t!! What now?! What can I do? Is that suppose to be its weakest? As if!! That thing is incredibly strong – even with all of the Dead Kings here, we won't be able to subdue that monster, let alone killing it!!


    The guardian beast snorted and licks of red flame flickered from its nostrils. Its eyes turned violet and an aura of purplish gold rose to cover it like a robe – like a garment. Just like how it was described in the legends. It was thin, nearly imperceptible but Jack could sense a powerful undulation coming off of it. It reminded of Jack that five-headed dragon monster he saw inside the red pyramid.

    Jack became even more convinced that he'd never be able to beat that thing. Not as he was now, not even after absorbing every red soul he could get his hands on and enhancing his specs to the absolute maximum. He had no hope in hell.

    Gritting his teeth, Jack decided to backtrack. He knew his own limits, discovering it after going through enough battles. And he'd not be able to even scratch that beast's hide. Even with the laser tagging and the promised cruise missile support, there was no guarantee of a victory here.
    Besides, Jack had a feeling that the monster wouldn't stay put in one place for him to lazily point the laser at it.

    Weighing all his options, Jack decided to run. After that, though, he had no idea. He'd cross that bridge when he gets there, he thought inwardly.

    But the guardian beast Humbaba roared loudly and spoke in ancient Sumerian. Of course, it was directed at Jack.

    Oh, the foolish King of mortals, Gilgamesh, the favored son of lesser god Lugalbanda and goddess Ninsun, you who have sinned against the true divinity, has stepped forth into the cauldron of fire once more. Come, come and fulfill your glorious fate, come and become the legend that you always wished to be!!

    The Sumerian words carried magical, unexplainable power hidden in them. The language of the gods, when spoken to mere mortals by the gods and their divine servants, could affect the judgment of all who heard it.

    Jack was fine, though. His status as the Gilgamesh's clone meant those magic had no effect on him.

    Come, and share the fate of this world, as us Shepherds guide this planet back to the bosom of our Fathers and Mothers. Come, King of mortals, Gilgamesh, and be the cleansing sacrifice to receive the rightful rulers of humanity!!

    Jack was about to simply ignore the guardian beast Humbaba's words and run when a large caliber bullet flew past him. He watched the bullet's path and followed it until it slammed against the purple-gold aura. A small hole appeared and the beast seemed to flinch a little.

    “Who?!”

    Jack cast his battle sense behind him, and could just about pick up a group of soldiers rushing towards his position.

    They were led by Stewart Baxter from the front. He was holding a large caliber sniper rifle. Stewart pulled the trigger again while running, his aim remaining steady and true.

    Another large caliber bullet shot past Jack and slammed into Humbaba. The guardian beast, enraged by the attack, roared mightily and cursed out aloud in Sumerian.

    Cowardly mortals!! Who dares to wound this divine servant of Enlil, the god of earth, wind and air?!

    “Yeah, yeah, I don't know what you're yapping about, so shut up already,” retorted Stewart as he fired off another round. By the third shot, he was almost next Jack's position, their eyes meeting for the first time. Well, without the helmet in the way, of course.

    The shock and surprise in the faces of soldiers present were quite something. None of them expected Lugal to be this young. Stewart was almost speechless. But Jack shook his head pointed at the guardian beast.

    “Before you ask any questions, we should deal with that thing first.”

    Here's the first draft of chapter 25. Lately, I've not been able to sleep well and my head goes completely blank every now and then.
    Couldn't figure out why, only to realize that this Sunday is my birthday. Sigh....
    I don't like birthdays. Well, not anymore anyways. It's a sign of you - or in this case, me - taking one step closer to my expiration date...
    As Sirenia once sang, life is just a funeral march, after all.
    Yes, I'm getting old and it sucks. Bah.
     
  13. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Active Member

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    Chapter 26​




    “The path behind us is blocked,” said Stewart. “Otherwise, I wouldn't have returned here at all. And we can only send a simple signal out with the ULF transmitters. So, I thought, what the hell.”

    Stewart left his sniper rifle pointing at the guardian beast Humbaba as he quickly explained his sudden return. But his face wasn't so good, neither the faces of the men under his command.

    The hate-filled eyes of Humbaba turned towards them. The ugly creature gritted its teeth, fangs, whatever, and licks of flame billowed out menacingly like the overflowing magma. It swung the metal club like a baseball pitcher and began to take large strides. The ground visibly shook under the enormous creature's angry stomps.

    “Okay, what now?”

    One of the soldiers muttered in panic.

    Jack handed over the laser designator back to the soldier he took it from originally and said in an urgent voice. “Baxter. Get a couple of your men to operate that thing. You and other Supers under your command, on me. We go distract that monster as long as possible until the promised missile strike happens.”

    Steward grimaced but didn't protest. Indeed, he had no better idea at this moment, either.

    When he took his men back hoping to reach the shore where they landed, they found that this already ruined landscape of the island was now crawling top to bottom with the automatons. And besides that, the remnants of buildings had collapsed completely, and it became nigh impossible to safely traverse the landscape. The only way off this accursed land was by air.

    And as long as that Tree or whatever existed, that would be impossible. That's why he had come back, hoping to at least damage the defenses of this island and send an SOS signal. That had a higher chance of success then blindly forcing his way to the shore where an evac team may or may not wait.

    One man took the laser designator and with another carrying the ULF transmitter they went off to their separate ways, searching for a high enough vantage point. There were no automatons around ever since Humbaba's grand appearance, so it seemed like they would be in no immediate danger. Stewart didn't have to attach an extra man as a lookout.

    Jack stared deeply at Humbaba, and expanded his battle sense towards it. His heart was pounding madly, his primal instincts telling to run as far as he could. He forcibly ignored the warning. Not like he had a choice, anyhow.

    Even if he could run, where could he possibly go? Rationally speaking, he was on an island and there was only a finite amount of land mass he could run on. Plus, according to Stewart, the way back was blocked off anyway. So, unlike his usual self, Jack quickly made the decision. And that was to believe in the military to deliver the promised fatal strike. That was it.

    A gamble of a lifetime, in other words. With his life on the line.

    The moment his battle sense touched Humbaba, however, Jack felt a deathly chill creep up on his back. He was utterly shocked to sense not a being made up of tangible, solid matter, but entirely consisting of wailing, screaming souls.

    Almost immediately, though, his senses were repelled by that robe, the garment or whatever, of light and he couldn't pry further. But that brief glimpse was enough to seriously spook him. The worries of failing to injure the beast entered his mind, only to quickly recover when remembering that Stewart's bullets managed to harm it, albeit not fatally.

    Rearranging his thoughts, Jack gripped his halberd tightly, and searched through his memories. He may not be as powerful as Gilgamesh back then, but he could call on the knowledge of the battles and suss out the correct way of surviving this crisis.

    “How long will the missile strike take to reach us?” Asked Jack.

    “Depends on a couple of factors, but as soon as we get the message across, between five to eight minutes,” replied Stewart.

    Jack shook his head wryly. That long, huh.

    “Don't attack the legs. It's not going to work. Concentrate on taking the weapon away – that thing connects the guardian beast to the Tree's endless supply of vitality. As long as Humbaba continues to hold that metal club, we'll all die within minutes.”

    With those words, Jack dashed forward. He deliberately did not use his full speed. No need to – as the beast arrived first. It swung that gigantic club without a single hesitation.

    Jack perceived the path of the attack and dodged to his right. Humbaba was holding the club in its right limb, so in order to follow him, the creature had to turn to its left and thereby exposing the arm that held the weapon.

    This created an ample enough target for the soldiers.

    “Fire!!”

    Stewart ordered aloud.

    The soldiers let rip a barrage of lead. And these deadly storm of bullets weren't some random, aimless spread one might have seen from a cheap movie either. The attacks were accurate and they were focused on the limb of Humbaba.

    Fresh blood splattered, and the guardian beast frowned unhappily. The ammo that was enough to shoot through metal automatons couldn't penetrate too deeply past the garment and the creature's thick hide, only causing superficial wounds that were irritating at best.

    Jack expected this – while the modern weapons were unbelievably powerful, the opponent in this case possessed a barrier of some kind that decreased the velocity of the bullets greatly. Stewart's massive sniper rifle would have caused bigger damage, but it could not rapid fire and there weren't enough rounds. He had to stick to the assault rifle for now.

    Once the first volley of bullets did its job, Jack dashed back near the creature whose attention was taken away. He swung the halberd as hard as he could and struck the metal club. The resulting sound was as clear and crisp as a ringing church bell but a thousand times louder.

    The halberd issued creaking noise as it bent under the pressure. Jack grimaced as he pushed, intending on blowing the metal club into the sky.

    Humbaba snorted coldly and resisted. Jack was pushed back from the awesome physical power of the creature and had to retreat hastily, his body lifted up slightly into the air. The halberd regained its former shape, but he noted that the edges were damaged slightly.

    What fearsome power!!


    Jack gritted his teeth in exasperation. Humbaba was supposedly at its weakest, yet it was this strong? He did expect it to be like this to an extent, but Jack had caught it off guard. His attack should have at least make it flinch. Not only it didn't do that, Humbaba was able to push him away quite easily.

    Jack took some distance away from the beast and regained his posture after skipping on the ground like a gazelle.

    Stewart, meanwhile, received the garbled transmission from his men. They had sent out the message to the destroyer off the coast and was lighting the target up with the laser.

    Five more minutes!!
    Stewart narrowed his eyes solemnly and wielded his large caliber sniper rifle. His Super ability, The Perfect Aim, allowed him to hit any target with the unnerving accuracy. He'd use this to shoot the wrist of the guardian beast.

    He squeezed the trigger, and with a huge recoil, the bullet exploded out of the lengthy barrel and struck the hand of Humbaba. The damage was greater this time, and the creature winced slightly. The grip on the weapon loosened and taking this opening, Jack rapidly closed the gap. Humbaba cocked an eyebrow but its reaction was a step slower.

    Jack's halberd struck the weapon at an angle and there was the sensation of the movement he was looking for. The metal club was shoved out of Humbaba's grasp, seemingly beyond its reach.

    The elated look on Jack's face lasted for half a second before crumbling apart. Humbaba reached out with its other hand at a speed he couldn't even trace and the creature nimbly grabbed the club. And before Jack could say, “oh sh*t,” it swung the massive weapon down.

    Jack was able to offset some of the impact by placing his halberd near his torso and angling it but that only negated probably less than 20% of the force.

    He felt the kind of pain he had experienced only once before, back at the highway R-35 Northbound. No, this one seemed several times greater. The pain he felt when the bus exploded and shoved him right through the side of a delivery van, the pain of his entire being dying, the pain of watching everyone he knew burning away.

    Jack's innards tumbled viciously. He threw up a mouthful of blood as his helpless body slammed against a protruding beam of a ruined building. The impact was so harsh, the building itself collapsed right after, creating a huge cloud of dust.

    Even after the impact, Jack was still tumbling through the debris like crazy. It took full 30 seconds before the momentum of the hit weakened and he could stop his body from sliding and colliding with the surrounding objects.

    He then spat out huge chunks of blood mixed with bits of flesh on the ground.

    The pain was indescribable. His entire body shook from the shock. It felt like every single bone in his body was either broken or shattered.

    Limply, he fell over on the ground, unable to breathe. He rolled on his back, staring into the night sky above. Jack was stunned into a total silence from the impact.

    He couldn't really figure out what just happened. No, he remembered exactly how he had ended up in this state. But what he couldn't, was where he had made a mistake.

    Did I underestimate the ability of Humbaba?! Right, it just switched its hand from right to left. It's something so damn simple. How the hell did I overlook something like that? How did my battle sense fail me so badly?


    Jack grimaced as the pain wracked his chest. He was sure that his internal organs were all badly damaged. He was dying from getting struck just once. He didn't even have strength left to laugh at this absurd situation. No wonder his instincts were telling him to run.

    My battle sense.... it hasn't failed me once, yet here I am. But why? Is it because when I tried to see into the beast, I only saw the screaming souls? Is that the reason? My battle sense is useless against it?


    Jack could do nothing but to extend his battle sense around. He certainly couldn't move his limbs and he couldn't even speak. In the distance, he could see the desperate battle between the soldiers and the beast. Stewart had commanded his men to split the moment Jack was blown away. Humbaba seemed irritated at the ants making it difficult for it.

    The invisible laser was still tagging the beast. And the promised cruise missile strike was nowhere to be seen.

    Humbaba swung the metal club. The ground where it hit exploded. Bodies of the soldiers flew to all directions. Blood and mangled limbs showered the land red.

    Bullets continued to fly, but only caused negligible scratches on the guardian beast's thick armor-like skin. Even frag grenades were thrown around, and the resulting explosions seemed to swallow the beast. This time, the wounds were slightly deeper, but Jack could “see” that the garment did something and the bleeding stopped, restoring the creature back to what it was like.

    It was hopeless.

    Jack felt his body go cold. This sensation was quite similar to him. It was just over a month ago that he was subjected to the very same thing. He felt eminently familiar with it, as if this feeling of death was an old friend coming to visit him.

    Of course, Jack didn't feel like dying. Only just that, he thought all his work up until now was meaningless. He hadn't even achieved his goal yet, but already, his second chance was fading away. He asked for a power, received it, but in the end, he was still powerless to even survive. How unfair was this? The fate forced him to act even though he wanted nothing to do with it. And now, he was getting crushed under the immense weight of the fate's cruel manipulation.

    The faces of his family flashed by. His mother, his father, his sister. His grandparents, the uncles and aunts – all moving past like a revolving lantern display. Jack wanted to ask Min-jung and Bob and Dana about so many things, but at this rate....

    Then, it was the faces of his friends. Nick, who was still lying in the bed comatose. Sue and her crying face. Nick's parents, trying to stay strong but failing. The faces belonging to the parents of his dead classmates. All crying, lamenting, cursing, praying.

    Jack felt so f*cking pissed off right now. He swore he'd get revenge yet he was faltering at a place nowhere even close to the end goal. He grimaced angrily. He was so, so pissed off, the uncontrollable rage seething within him, coiling like a red Eastern dragon, a snake purely made out of resentment and anguish.

    The exploding rage clouded his judgment. His battle sense quaked and went through an imperceptible change, something he failed to notice due to his anger.

    Before he could reign in, the battle sense began to materialize in the real world. The gray and drab world filled with dust brightened in the crimson light show. Arcs of red lightning-like sparks buzzed and whirred around him. Jack's body was surrounded by this lightning storm, lifting him up from the ground where he lay.

    In the skies above, the atmosphere slowly cracked apart and the world that was not of this one appeared. There, the night sky was filled with gloomy red clouds, fast moving as if they were on crack cocaine. What was bizarre was that there was a single black feather floating near these red clouds.

    Humbaba felt the change first. It stopped squeezing the life out of a soldier trapped in its hand and stared dumbfoundedly at the sky, its expression becoming cold and concerned.

    This is.... could it be....? Is Gilgamesh.... breaking the shackles on his own? No, that feather – that is undoubtedly.....

    Humbaba's expression turned seriously solemn. It quickly scanned for where Jack could be.

    Meanwhile, surrounded by the arcing sparks of red light, Jack's anger-infused battle sense raged inside his body and miraculously, almost all the red souls stored inside his Soul Sphere was drawn out.

    Jack watched with crazed eyes as the red souls poured all over his body, restoring the numerous fatal wounds in an instant. The stock of souls depleted rapidly.

    And when all his injuries were healed up, Humbaba destroyed the nearby wall and appeared before where Jack was slowly standing up.

    Gilgamesh, you foolish mortal, do you wish to destroy both this world and the Divine Realm? Cease this stubbornness immediately!!

    Jack didn't give a crap. His eyes burned in the crimson color. The leftover souls circled around him like the winds of a category 5 tornado.

    Seeing this change, Humbaba's face became even colder.

    Know your place!!

    It roared loudly and pounced at Jack, ready to pummel him into the ground with the huge metal club.

    In that moment, in that millisecond, the red soul tornado rapidly condensed into a single object – a spear. A blood-red crimson spear. Jack's eyes fell on this weapon made of souls, and he firmly grasped it. He didn't know what it was, but he didn't care. He just wanted to slay this damnable creature that made him feel like a weakling, a failure, a total laughing stock.

    He threw the spear, aimed at Humbaba's core, its heart, where that damn stone tablet was.

    Because of the momentum, Humbaba could not dodge this. And because of the attack it performed while pouncing on Jack, it couldn't block the spear either. It could only helplessly watch as the red soul spear slammed into its chest and ripped out huge chunks of meat, scattering the souls trapped in the stone tablet.

    Roaring in pain, it was now the turn of Humbaba to feel what it was like to be thrown away. It flew backwards and crashed loudly only a few yards from where it was killing the soldiers. A large crater was formed where its huge body landed, and the ground quaked in protest.

    Most its chest was ripped away, revealing the stone tablet that was gleaming in golden-purple hue. But there were some cracks visible on the surface. Jack's aim wasn't quite good enough and could only graze the surface of the core, the stone tablet.

    Humbaba grimaced angrily as it forced the torn body to stand. The wound was starting to close up by itself. The reason was simple – the metal club was still within its grasp. As long as it held that, the near-limitless vitality of the Tree of the End would heal all of its wounds.

    Jack, on the other hand, fell on one knee, out of breath. The arcs of red light no longer surrounded him. His own injuries were healed, but that didn't mean his stamina was restored. In that final attack, he had emptied his Soul Sphere, putting every fiber of his being into it.

    In other words, he was pooped out from overexertion.

    Humbaba laughed. It was the distinctive laughter of a victor.

    Too bad, there was a pair of soldiers hiding by the rooftop of a half destroyed building, their eyes bloodshot and angry. One of them was holding the laser designator.

    And then, there was a silence. Humbaba cocked an ear, trying to figure out what was going on.

    By the time he caught the thin whistling sound in the air, it was too late. A white BGM-109 cruise missile, otherwise known as the Tomahawk, slammed into the open chest of Humbaba where the stone tablet was still exposed. And then the second Tomahawk hit the target less than a breath later.

    The resulting explosions were incredible. The mushroom cloud rose high up in the air and the countless debris fell all over the landscape like lethal drops of rainfall.

    When the massive dust storm cleared, Humbaba's upper torso was torn apart, and there was basically nothing left other than the stone tablet and its lower limbs. Even the tablet was beginning to crumble apart.

    The reason? The huge metal club was blown away from Humbaba's grasp by the massive explosion.

    Jack's eyes sharpened when he saw this. Humbaba hadn't died yet but if he could somehow land one more blow, then it'd be game over.
    The boiling rage hadn't been appeased in his heart. No, he was still angry. And now, a perfect opportunity had presented itself. How could he miss this chance?

    Jack's battle sense exploded out one more time, allowing him to find the missing halberd somewhere near him. He willed his tired, spent body to move. Picking the heavy weapon, Jack ran as fast as he could and arrived at Humbaba's exposed core, the stone tablet.

    With a primal roar, Jack swung the polearm hard.

    The blade of the weapon collided with the unstable garment of purple light first, but the light shattered into pieces, not hindering Jack's momentum not one bit. The halberd magnificently slammed into the tablet. The numerous cracks widened and with a screeching, keening sound, the tablet exploded. The force of the explosion meant Jack was blown away again.

    Humbaba, even though no longer possessing a mouth, issued a painful, sorrowful roar. It's remaining body slowly disintegrated along with the tablet which turned into sand and was blown away by a strong wind that kicked up from out of nowhere.

    This is not over, the King of Mortals!! As long as the Tree of the End stands, I shall be resurrected and the true divinity shall return to this planet!!

    “Oh, just shut the hell up,” groaned Jack as he wiped the trace of blood from his lips.

    By the time the harsh winds stopped blowing, Humbaba was gone without a trace.

    Now, only the solitary Tree of the End stood below the broken sky filled with ominous red clouds. The black feather remained floating in the air, unmoved by the events on the ground.

    Jack instinctively looked up and watched as the feather fell on his palm. It then directly entered his Soul Sphere. He didn't feel anything when this happened. Nothing felt odd or out of place. Rather, this feather made him feel safe. His anger cooled rapidly because of the calming effect.

    What Humbaba had said remained as a puzzle in his mind, but for now Jack would not pay it any mind. He still had to bring this Tree down.
    He rubbed his chest, checking to make sure nothing ached or hurt. He was fine. Completely fine. He involuntarily used all of the red soul reserves within his Sphere after all.

    Oh, wait a second. Did I just....?!


    Jack paled after realizing what he had done. He had used up all his reserves of souls. Meaning, he used up the souls of his classmates. He had never touched them because.... it just didn't feel right to him. And now, they were all used up. And that included Emily's soul, too.

    He felt like puking from the shock. Now, he won't even be able to see her face anymore, albeit one in agony.

    Jack was going to wretch but then, a voice called out to him.

    “Lugal!! You did it!!”

    It was Stewart. He led the remaining soldiers and came to where Jack was. He looked terrible, his combat gear in tatters, his sniper rifle bent in a bad way. Out of the squad of twelve men, including Jack, only five had survived. That was counting the two that manned the laser and the ULF transmitter.

    Taking a deep breath to calm his bitter mind, Jack nodded slightly before asking out aloud.

    “It's not over yet. We still need to get rid of the Tree's core. Do we have the necessary C4 to do it?”

    Stewart nodded, pointing at the man next to him, specifically at his backpack. “We've got enough to blow up a f*cking building. Let's finish this.”

    Finally, I'm back. Hopefully, I can return to the usual schedule of Tuesdays/Fridays from now on. We'll see. Also, still looking for any kind-hearted donators. Any amount is fine. After spending a thankless, joyless Birthday, I certainly can do with a change of pace in my life...
     
  14. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Active Member

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    Chapter 27​




    The six remaining men stared at the endlessly tall Tree of the End. The countless motes of floating light cast an eerie rainbow of colors on the surface, and the broken, dark clouds hovered around the middle. Occasionally, flashes of purple lightning could be seen rolling within the depths of these strange clouds.

    The metal vines were inert, their previous rampage seemingly a lie. Although they pulsed every now and then, the vines didn't move. The aura of unease coming off didn't lessen because of that, however.

    No automatons attacked them while they sought out the bodies of their fallen comrades. Their dog tags were retrieved, the ammo and intact weapons taken in to replenish their depleted stock.

    Meanwhile, Jack searched for his helmet and after wiping the blood from the inside the visor, tried to put it back on. It smelled of death. Good thing it had a ventilation system built in, and was not damaged in any shape or form.

    Jack put it back on and did a thorough systems check; the PDA was miraculously still functioning. When Gilgamesh's apparition enhanced his armor, he must have done something wonderfully absurd to the portable computer as well. Jack was thankful for that, at least.

    Jack looked at the halberd. It was ruined. Supposedly made of the strongest, toughest alloy currently made by men, and it got ruined in the battle against the guardian beast. At least he still had that emergency baton, tucked up snugly in the compartment on his back. If push came to shove, he'd have to make do with that.

    With the defeat of Humbaba, he felt less stifled than before. There seemed to be less chaotic aura swirling in the air. His battle sense could feel a lot more things now, too. Didn't mean that the contact with the outside was easy, though. Only the ULF transmitter could send and receive simple signals. That was it.

    Next up, Jack searched for Vanguard. The burly Superhero hadn't at all showed up during all this time and Jack was concerned by that. Vanguard didn't seem that weak to lose his life because of some light explosion. Hell, even Jack somehow managed to survive it.

    But the funny thing was, he couldn't spot Vanguard anywhere.

    Jack found this unbelievable. There was just no way he could not sense any hints of where Vanguard was. It was as if the traces of the Super had deliberately been erased. No way such a thing was possible, he thought. But how could he be sure? No, he couldn't be sure of anything.

    His mind was too stressed out and tangled in a mess to fully understand the implications, if any, there were. No, he just wanted to see this mission to its conclusion and go home, to a hot shower and a warm bed. That was his current aim. Forget about saving the world, forget about his revenge, forget about Gilgamesh and being Lugal and all that. He just wanted to get this thing done and move on.

    Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, that part of him occupied a small space right now. The overwhelming majority of his being was still focused on the destruction of the Tree, because every bit of his instincts told him that it needed to be done.

    “How's the search on your end?”

    Stewart came up to Jack who was intensely studying the massive structure.

    Jack shook his head. “Vanguard is nowhere. What about your men? All done?”

    Stewart nodded his head, his face relatively calm, considering. “Yeah. Let's finish this.”

    Jack took one last sweep of the area with his battle sense as well as with his eyesight before making his way towards the base of the trunk, Stewart and his men following behind in silence.

    The entrance to the chamber housing the Tree's core was actually a tunnel of sorts. Located where Nico Gavalas had appeared from, it was a chore to get up there. The group had to climb on the surface of the metal vine which was incredibly smooth and harder than steel. Thus, going up brought about a unique challenge for them.

    Jack was able to leap up and somehow get on top so he played anchor for the rope while the others climbed up that way. Next, they carefully moved in closer, wary of the surroundings and of any hidden dangers.

    What they got was a loud banging noise coming from the tunnel. It didn't sound like something natural. It sounded like something was being destroyed inside.

    Jack tried to extend his battle sense, but the Tree repelled it. He couldn't really “see” into the tunnel and figure out what was going.

    “Well, sounds like there's a party going on inside. Should we go in and check out?”

    Stewart whispered before hefting the assault rifle forward. He led his men towards the tunnel without a shred of fear.

    Jack groaned slightly and wielded the damaged halberd. The sound of destruction echoed louder once he stepped inside the tunnel. He studied the walls, thinking that the exposed surface was as smooth as the vines and the trunk. Didn't seem like it was cut out naturally at all.

    Then Jack noticed something else. If it weren't for the enhanced night viewing capabilities of the helmet, he'd have never seen it – a very thin golden film, hanging over the passageway like a curtain.

    He hesitated on whether he should touch it or not, but then, Stewart and his boys didn't even notice it and walked straight past the curtain. Jack observed them to see if they were affected in some shape or form, but he couldn't see it. They didn't seem changed at all.

    “Hey, you coming?”

    Stewart looked back and questioned Jack, unaware of what had happened just now.

    Jack frowned a little, but since the helmet was in the way, no one could see his dissatisfied expression. Inwardly sighing, he stepped past the golden film, trying to monitor if there was a change with the battle sense.

    He did feel a slight trembling of the atmosphere, but other than that, he wasn't sure.

    Stewart continued to take the lead. The passage got darker as they progressed, the motes of light not permeating this deeply into the innards of the Tree's trunk. They all switched on their own night vision cameras as well as the infra-red lights mounted on their shoulders.

    Before they knew it, the smoothness of the walls gave way to the one that felt more organic in structure. There were creases and folds on the surfaces that reminded Jack of an insect's carapace, or maybe even a worm. It made him feel like he was walking inside a digestive tract of a giant.

    The sound of things breaking apart and destroyed became louder. Stewart signaled and the soldiers began dashing forward at a faster rate. Jack silently followed right behind them, his battle sense still unable to extend too far outward. It seemed that around 15 feet from him was the limit.

    Around 100 paces, the group encountered a huge open chamber. There were a plenty of light motes floating around, no longer necessitating the group to rely on their own light sources.

    And inside of this chamber, the very first thing they noticed was a huge creature which the size didn't lose out to Humbaba from earlier. Except, this time it was purely made up of the metal alloy, just like the automatons outside.

    It was rampaging around, its gigantic fists slamming down on the ground and against the walls like tank shells. Its target?

    Why, it was Vanguard, of course.

    “What the hell?”

    Jack couldn't help but mutter in amazement at this revelation. He sure didn't expect to see the mask-wearing Super here.

    Vanguard nimbly dodged another thumping fist strike from the giant automaton and he kicked the arm with his left leg, causing the arm to break in two.

    That's when Jack noticed something was off.

    Jack knew that Vanguard's left knee was busted. His battle sense told him as much. Yet, he was able to kick using that leg?

    “Look!!”

    Stewart pointed behind the giant automaton. There was another passage there but unlike everywhere else, it was brightly lit as if someone lit a huge bonfire inside.

    And thanks to that lighting, the group could sort of see what was waiting for them in there, a pulsating sack of metal, with blue vessels quivering on it.

    “Is that the core? So we blow that sh*t up and it's over?”

    One of the surviving soldiers asked in a low voice.

    Jack wasn't so sure, though. That sure as hell didn't look like the core Mylorne Akkad mentioned back in the mission briefing.

    His attention had to change when Vanguard was struck by the automaton's attack and was sent flying away.

    “Damn, he might die at this rate. We need to help him!!”

    Stewart commanded his men to take position. Then, they began firing away like crazy at the automaton. Meanwhile, Jack hurried to where Vanguard was slumped on the floor.

    But he got a shock of his life, almost, when Vanguard silently stood up from where he was, apparently not too badly affected by the impact of that blow.

    Jack then noticed the strange, emotionless eyes hidden under the mask. It was.... glazed in deep blue. No pupils, no whites, just eerie blue – as if he was possessed by a spirit or something.

    As a matter of fact, only now Jack had noticed that Vanguard's body, and more specifically, the left leg that was supposedly broken, wrapped in some kind of dull metallic material.

    “What the?!”

    Vanguard brushed past Jack without acknowledging his presence and jumped towards the giant automaton, totally disregarding the numerous injuries on his body.

    Jack was completely confused by this sudden development. He couldn't figure out what happened to Vanguard. Was he being controlled by the Tree? Then why was he fighting against the metal automaton in the first place? Or was he under the influence of someone else?

    Jack spread out the battle sense as wide as possible. He was able to glimpse briefly into Vanguard's muscular and joint structures, and to his surprise, he saw the dull metal-like material was actually coming out from the metal knee plate and the bolts inserted into the burly Super's leg. It was flowing out like the melting chocolate, and he could see that as much as 60% of Vanguard's internals were, for the lack of better description, coated in this material.

    Essentially, this coat of metal, or whatever it was, was controlling Vanguard. He was just an unconscious puppet now.

    Jack grimaced more under the helmet. Even though he wasn't sure what was going on, something told him that the things supposed to help Vanguard's knee were not there to be helpful for him at all. Someone or something must have had implanted a way to remotely control Vanguard at will.

    The mere thought gave Jack a bout of chills. Just who could've done something like that? It was insane. Unless it was done by the Guild of Heroes, or the doctor who performed the operations was in the cahoots with the bad people, what happened to Vanguard was simply not possible. And looking at either way, the implications were serious. Very serious.

    The deadly fight continued on. Vanguard struck another solid blow on the automaton's leg, almost toppling it. And a well-placed round of bullets against the tottering leg finally brought down the metal giant.

    Vanguard pounced on the head of the automaton and began bashing it like crazy. The whole thing lasted no more than a few minutes since Stewart and his men joined in.

    Jack didn't do anything at all in this fight.

    “Well, thanks for your help, Mister Lugal,” one of the soldiers remarked sarcastically as he glanced at Jack, barely hiding his disdain.

    Jack ignored the man and concentrated his focus on Vanguard, observing to see if there was anything untoward or suspicious.

    Stewart must have noticed that something was off with the Superhero as well. He came closer to Jack, his eyes narrowing. “There might be a problem with Vanguard over there. You noticed how he moved? He was never that nimble before.”

    Jack nodded his head in agreement and called out to Vanguard.

    “Mister Vanguard. I need to talk to you for a second. Please, wait.”

    Jack ignored an enormous amount of red souls rising from the decomposing body of the automaton and slowly walked closer to Vanguard. The souls were automatically absorbed into his Soul Sphere, so there was nothing for him to care about there.

    Vanguard seemed to ignore the call and he began to step into the passage that was guarded by the giant metal automaton, towards the chamber with the pulsing metal sac.

    “Time to follow him, huh?”

    Stewart shook his head slightly before signaling his men.

    Jack too went after Vanguard, into the passageway. He was the first to get near the Super before their arrival at the innermost chamber.
    He was about to reach out and grab Vanguard's shoulder. “Vanguard, hold up.”

    Suddenly, Vanguard spun around and attacked Jack. His fist was sharp, thick with a desire to kill. Being a high-spec Super himself, Jack was able to narrowly dodge the strike, but this turn of events did take everyone by a slight surprise.

    Jack quickly retreated a few paces, while the soldiers trained their firearms at Vanguard. But once there was some distance between the two sides, Vanguard seemingly lost his interest in them and turned around, resuming his solitary march into the chamber.

    “Oh, he's definitely being controlled by something, alright,” muttered Stewart under his breath. “Okay, what now, Lugal? Frankly, you're the only one who can bring that guy down without killing him. But is it possible or is it too late?”

    Jack shrugged his shoulders. “I don't know. But our destination's the same, so let's at least see this to the end. Let's go.”

    The group increased their speed, catching up with Vanguard but didn't forget to maintain a little bit of distance. Vanguard didn't seem to care or just plainly didn't notice.

    The innermost chamber was dome-shaped. The air inside was incredibly warm and humid like a middle of a jungle. Besides the metal sac, there were several dozen others like it, some suspended from the ceiling, some from the walls, and the rest from the floor. The blue vein-like protrusions continued to pulse in a forceful rhythm, and if one concentrated, the “glug” sound could be heard, even.

    “What the f*ck, man? Is this from a set of Aliens?

    One of the soldiers swore softly but since it was silent within this chamber other than that gulping noise, everyone heard it.

    A set from a movie, huh?
    Jack scanned his surroundings visually before extending his battle sense towards one of the sacs. As he expected, the metal-like substance actively repelled his attempt at probing inside. There was no way to tell what these sacs were. They could be nothing more than some eclectic decoration, they could be the beating hearts of the Tree, or hell, they could be artificial wombs where replicants were grown in. Anything was possible.

    Vanguard ignored all these and continued to walk in deeper. After exchanging more glances with each other, the soldiers went forward. Jack was a step behind, caught within his thoughts.

    Inwardly, he was contemplating the true purpose of this Tree of the End. What was it supposed to be? The ancient godly beings allegedly used this structure and five others like it to control humanity. But how?

    Jack took another look at the pulsating metal sac. The ominous aura coming off of it was as unpleasant as it could possibly get. His desires to destroy these sacs were hard to keep a lid on, but he persevered. If the core of the Tree was blown up, then just like that, everything else would be taken care of. He figured there was no need to expend extra energy when he couldn't really afford to.

    In the center of the chamber, they finally came across the core, although it didn't sure as hell didn't look like anything they were thinking of.

    Firstly, there was an altar. And an extravagantly decorated one at that. Jack failed to figure out quite how something like that existed within this structure.

    The altar was wide but low; its base was decked out in countless precious stones, or at least that's what it looked like, judging from all the sparkling bits that could be rubies, sapphires, diamonds, opals, jades and what-have-yous.

    And then there was the altar itself – carved like a nest of thorns, it looked imposing and rather majestic. The soldiers felt an almost instinctual need to kneel down and offer worship.

    Above this altar, suspended from the ceiling, was a huge crystal. It was even bigger than the one inside the red pyramid. The only difference between the two being, one was blood-red in color, while this one was in deep, deep navy blue.

    Vanguard was approaching this altar without a single shred of hesitation. Him being next to it, Jack could get the sense of how big the altar was – the burly Superhero seemed positively like a toddler before it.

    “What's he doing?!” Steward asked just as Vanguard jumped up on the altar.

    Jack, using his improved eyesight, belatedly saw the golden skull right below where the tip of the blue crystal was pointing downwards. And when he extended his battle sense there, he watched in shock as strands of souls slowly emerged from the crystal – except, now they were blue in color.

    The strands of blue souls were merging with the golden skull. And like a mirage, a figure of a person was slowing forming around it. This scene couldn't be seen by the naked eyes, though, so the soldiers and Stewart had no idea this was happening.

    Vanguard was reaching out to the skull, evidently trying to grab it. Just as his hands were within a touching distance, a loud pang!! resounded out. Vanguard was flung away with considerable force, and a thin barrier of some kind formed around the golden skull.

    The battle sense told Jack that the barrier's energy was coming from another object behind the skull – a small bronze object, maybe an ancient mirror. Jack couldn't really tell what this energy was, but whatever it may have been, this presented another significant problem, because the barrier continued to expand until the altar and the blue crystal above was encased in it.

    Vanguard landed with a thud off the altar. Anyone, even a Super, would have felt that, but he just stood up and tried to get closer to the skull. Of course, the barrier meant it was not possible. Vanguard began attacking the obstruction with all he had, but other than creating some ripples, there wasn't much progress to speak of.

    “Okay, this was to be expected, right? Wouldn't be a fun trip without an obstacle like this,” quipped one of the soldiers, sounding rather bitter about his current situation.

    While Vanguard was pounding on the barrier, Jack walked up close to the near-illusory defense system and tried to touch it. He could feel how solid the barrier was and inwardly frowned.

    Hmm. This isn't the same as that golden film as before. And I'm pretty sure its energy structure is different from the Tree's, too. My battle sense can see past it, meaning it should not be impossible to cross over to the other side. But how?


    Jack thought for a moment or two before deciding to take away that blue soul strands from the crystal as an experiment. He closed his eyes and concentrated and lo and behold, the strands began to deviate from their paths and came over to his direction, eventually entering his Soul Sphere. Almost immediately, Jack felt ice-cold chill spreading throughout his body. Rather than alarming, it felt incredibly refreshing to him.

    And unlike the “normal” red souls, the blue souls were easier to control. His battle sense could interact with them if he concentrated on doing just that. Still, no change in the barrier, though.

    The change came from the figure forming around the golden skull, however. It raised its still-forming head, which was grotesque and nightmare inducing the way the flesh and blood vessels were pulsing and quivering. The piercing eyes landed on Jack and his mind was filled with a terrifying roar that sounded like it was coming from a distance but echoing right beside him.

    Jack frowned and resisted this attempt at pushing him away. He took a step back and wielded the halberd. With a loud snort, he slammed hard into the barrier, sending ripples of shockwave both physical and supernatural, repelling the roar from the illusory figure. The figure shrieked in pain and its form faded slightly, a sign of it weakening.

    The skull shook a little. Vanguard seemed to freeze on the spot, before resuming its mindless attack on the barrier.

    “Hey, hey, Lugal. What should we do here?”

    Stewart asked, not affected by the roar and oblivious to what just happened.

    Jack hefted the halberd again and spoke. “I'll break this barrier. You guys just get ready to set the bomb.”

    “But where? I don't see the core, do you?”

    “Blow up the altar. That'll do.”

    Jack spoke with confidence and let the halberd drop on the barrier. Another barrage of powerful shockwave inundated the barrier and the illusory figure shrieked louder. Its form faded even more; all the while, more and more of the blue souls were entering Jack's Soul Sphere, spreading that cool sensation all over his limbs.

    When he struck one more time, the skull rolled to its side and revealed the bronze mirror. There was a severed hand wrapped around it which was bizarre but not important right now. Jack sent out his battle sense to it, trying to interact with it, to see if there was another way to disarm this barrier instead of bashing it a million times.

    It must have heard his thoughts, because the mirror groaned and made a keening sound, before slowly levitating off the altar. Then, he sent out a warm glow of light before flying into Jack's outstretched hand, landing safe and sound there.

    “Huh,” he muttered in amazement. The other soldiers too looked at this development with equal parts confusion and happy surprise. Needless to say, the barrier receded and they were granted access towards the altar.

    Vanguard immediately leaped up and landed near the golden skull. He seemed to be hell-bent on retrieving that thing no matter what. The soldiers began to set the C4 explosives all around the altar while Jack also jumped up to where Vanguard was.

    Amazingly, the illusory figure was growling threateningly at Vanguard, and the burly Super was having a hard time trying to get closer.

    Jack frowned, wondering what he should do here. He knew the golden skull had to be destroyed, but what was Vanguard's agenda? The Superhero was still under the control of another force that was clearly not aligned with the skull – the despotic Mad King En-men-lu-ana. But Jack certainly didn't get the feeling that Vanguard, or whoever was controlling him, wanted to destroy the skull, either.

    A third party not sharing the same goal, then. Jack made the conscious choice, and he quickly stepped behind Vanguard. Using the advantage of the sudden attack, he threw the burly Super away, off the altar. And just as quickly, swung the halberd as hard as he could at the golden skull.

    The illusory figure looked horrified, then gnashed its still-forming teeth. As the halberd's dull edge slammed down on the skull, Jack thought he heard the figure cuss at him.

    You!! You insolent fool!! This isn't over.....”

    The halberd smashed the skull apart, even going as far as cracking the altar a little. The illusory figure issued a sorrowful whine before completely fading away. The blue souls that were used to form the figure dispersed and then shot towards Jack's Soul Sphere, entering it and becoming one with him.

    Jack felt satisfied. This mission was almost over. Nodding his head, he was about to turn his attention to Vanguard when he heard a loud scream. Following the sound to its source, Jack was greeted with the sight of Vanguard choking two soldiers with each of his hands. Not only that, the metal-like coating was extending from his arms towards the struggling soldiers.

    Seeing this, Jack knew right away bad things hadn't stopped yet. There was one more hurdle to conquer – and it looked like another tough one.

    “Baxter!! Are you finished with setting the bombs?!”

    Jack shouted out loudly just as Stewart and the remaining soldiers rushed around from the other side of the altar. They immediately pointed their firearms at Vanguard but could not shoot because of their comrades were in the way.

    “Yeah!! But what the hell is going on here now?”

    Stewart's shout reached Jack's ears. Less than a second later, Jack jumped down to the ground below but it was too late to save the two soldiers caught within Vanguard's iron grip. The metal coating took over their bodies and as soon as that was done, Vanguard tossed the seemingly lifeless bodies up above the altar.

    “Motherf*cker!!”

    The soldiers let rip an avalanche of bullets. Vanguard dodged a few but the rest struck the metal coating and bounced away. With a pair of emotionless eyes, the Super ran towards the soldiers, his arms reaching out for another pair of victims.

    Jack timed his swing and struck the torso of Vanguard with his halberd. He was shocked greatly when the feedback he got was as hard as the stone tablet of Humbaba. The halberd creaked in protest as Vanguard was blown away, slamming into the side of the altar. Jewels and broken thorns flew about, scattering like a spray of water.

    Jack watched as the metal coating absorb the brunt of the attack, ensuring Vanguard's survival. Perhaps discouraged by the strength of Jack's swing, Vanguard maintained a small distance from him, neither getting in close or running away.

    The stalemate remained like that for the next minute or so, before Jack noticed movement above, on the altar itself. Two soldiers affected by the metal coating suddenly jumped down from there, their hands holding the pieces of the golden skull.

    Damn, so he was wasting our time, while the others collected the skull's fragments!!


    Jack quickly dashed in to block the three affected men. Vanguard stepped out and met Jack head on. The halberd, as damaged as it was, still proved useful as it meant Jack didn't have to touch Vanguard. That way, the risk of getting affected by the metal coating was close to none.
    Stewart and his men chased after the two affected soldiers who ran away. “Lugal!! Come on!! We're going to blow this joint up!!”

    Jack shouted back his understanding and quickly stabbed out with the halberd. Vanguard dodged to his side and closed in, his hands reaching out. Jack clicked his tongue and slipped out of the reach but the halberd was caught in the grips.

    The metal coating then invaded the halberd, swiftly spreading all over it. Jack's expressions fell and he discarded his weapon while retreating. Vanguard didn't care about the halberd and went after Jack again.

    The pattern soon developed in this strange battle. Jack was almost entirely devoted to dodging. He didn't even try to block or attack. While Vanguard was either trying to grab the boy or to land a hit. They snaked past the metal sacs, weaving between them and playing a super-fast game of tag.

    Jack had enough of this nonsense, so out of desperation, he kicked the sac towards Vanguard just as the burly Super came into view. The sac swung and slammed into Vanguard, knocking him back. The sac's connecting “tissue” with the ceiling broke loose, and viscous liquid poured out all over the place.

    The acrid smell of sulfur quickly filled the chamber as the content of the sac spilled out. Jack froze on the spot as pale blue liquid washed over his feet. His eyesight was naturally drawn into a huddled, naked, half-formed lump of a person, its body incomplete and hideously disfigured.

    “Lugal!!”

    Stewart's urgent voice resounded behind him.

    Gritting his teeth, Jack ignored Vanguard and dashed back, making his way out of the chamber – just as the C4s began to explode one by one.

    Here's this Friday's chapter. Wrote it in a rush - there could be more than a few mistakes here and there. I will get around to fix it soon. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts, if there's any.
     
  15. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Active Member

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    Chapter 28



    The explosions of the C4 bombs caused a chain reaction. The altar was the first to become incinerated; the shockwave of the destruction reached the giant blue crystal hanging above, shattering it into million pieces. The entire chamber full of metal sacs containing human-like creatures burst open, spewing their contents out.

    The giant metal Tree of the End issued a keening noise that sounded like a sorrowful wail, sending a cold chill down Jack's backside as he chased after the soldiers. The cavern quaked and seethed, writhing and cracking.

    While running, Jack thought he might have to do some Indiana Jones-type evasive maneuvers. Falling rocks, or in this case pieces of metal debris, from the ceiling would be deadly enough if struck, even for someone like Jack.

    But the expected deluge of falling things didn't happen. If anything, other than the ground shaking nonstop, nothing fell on top of the fleeing men. Jack was thankful for that, but at the same time, felt a little disappointed at missing out on a unique experience.

    Maybe next time,
    he thought inwardly and glanced back, seeing the figure of Vanguard following him in a hurry. Jack clicked his tongue in annoyance – the situation with Vanguard hadn't changed at all. The burly Super was still under the influence of that strange metal-like substance. The eyes behind the luchador mask were vacant and emotionless.

    Annoyance came from the fact that this was clearly far from over. Jack still had to something about Vanguard as soon as they exited the Tree. But what could he do to subdue someone who was being controlled by an unknown third party? A puppet that didn't feel any pain or fear of bodily injuries, a creature that could continue to attack singlemindedly and do that without hesitation – how could he possibly defeat such an opponent, unless Jack was prepared to kill him?

    Well, killing Vanguard could be done. That wasn't the problem – it was obviously the fact that he was being controlled. Most likely unwillingly as well. That complicated things. Plus, that metal-like substance could infect others, so if more victims appeared, then it would be too damn troublesome. Jack had to make a decision here.

    He thought about dumping the responsibility to Stewart, but he already had his hands full, what with his own men being controlled as well. Well, that could work in Jack's favor, if he packaged his words carefully.

    Oh, what the hell am I even thinking about?!


    Jack groaned inwardly after coming up with nonsensical stuff in the middle of a struggle to survive. Just where he found the breathing room to take things this easy would remain unsolved for a while.

    Finally, he emerged out of the Tree's cavern and into the stale air of the destroyed Manhattan island. The night sky illuminated by the floating balls of light never looked so inviting.

    What's not so inviting was a crowd waiting for Jack and Co.

    The “possessed” soldiers were among the crowd, and Stewart was on his knees, hands behind his head. His weapons were relinquished and were taken away by the crowd. Six black colored aircraft that looked futuristic hovered slightly above the ground while not even emitting a single hissing noise.

    Powerful spotlights bathed the entire exit of the cavern, coming from the aircraft, leaving no place for a shadow to hide.

    The crowd mainly consisted of black armor-clad personnel, their faces hidden behind combat helmets like Jack. There was not a single identifying mark on them at all and their weapons too looked like nothing Jack had seen – rifles but not like the ones wielded by Stewart and his squad.

    Jack stopped his feet and stood there, stunned. He immediately spread out his Battle Sense, rueing the fact that he didn't already have it prepared in advance, to know of this.... ambush.

    He noticed that the men under the black armors were human and well trained. And even more shockingly, he felt some sort of unique undulations seen on Supers coming off all of them. It was not as prominent as from Vanguard or Stewart, but it was there.

    The mysterious soldiers pointed their weapons at Jack, forcing him to stop from going any further. Behind him, Vanguard had caught up and stood there, blocking his retreat.

    This.... didn't look so good.

    Jack glanced around for one more time and tried to call Mylorne over the survival suit's radio, but there was still that interference. No signal could get through.

    Mister Lugal, please surrender peacefully. We mean you no harm as long as you cooperate with our mission objective.

    A booming voice, amplified by a megaphone-type device, called out to Jack. It came from one of the aircraft floating behind the crowd. It also pointed a massive minigun at his direction.

    Wordlessly, Jack raised his hands in surrender. He figured that, even with his enhanced specs, dodging a rapidly firing minigun was impossible for him.

    The black armored “soldiers” surrounded Jack and pushed him near Stewart and his boys, making him kneel next to them. Vanguard moved in to mix among the soldiers, and Jack could just about hear the conversation taking place behind the helmets.

    One of them examined Vanguard's condition and made a hasty report saying that the Subject Number 23B-X needed an immediate medical attention. Right away, Vanguard silently jumped into one of the aircraft's open hatch and disappeared.

    As for the possessed soldiers....

    The metal-like substance withdrew from the bodies of the soldiers and coalesced in mid-air to form a single ball of liquid thing. Then, it flowed into a black box. The mystery soldiers took the box away, leaving behind two bodies that fell limply on the floor once the invading substance had left them.

    The golden skull fragments were also taken by these mysterious soldiers as well. Jack spread his Battle Sense towards the two prone bodies and confirmed that they were dead.

    “Who are you people? Who sent you here?”

    Stewart asked in anger, but no one answered him.

    Being ignored was not a good feeling, so Stewart was about to snarl and hurl abusive words at the captors, when Jack calmly spoke.

    “What are you going to do with the golden skull of En-men-lu-ana?”

    One of the mystery soldiers glanced at Jack before stepping forward to stare into the helmet's visor. Jack was pretty sure the person's focus was on his eyes.

    There was an uncomfortable level of silence, as the black soldiers rushed inside the cavern. They were carrying things that suspiciously resembled the biohazard containers. Watching them stream past, Jack's frown dug deeper between his brows.

    And the frown became the shocked horror, as this soldier pulled out a pistol-like weapon and fired at Stewart and his men. Two rounds, quickly fired point-blank range – one aimed at the brain, another at the heart, execution style.

    Stewart and his men didn't even have time to protest. They died where they knelt.

    It happened so fast, Jack had barely any time to react. He knew right away that he was facing yet another life-or-death situation here. He decided right there and then, if that gun pointed at him, he'd not hesitate and counterattack. He'd rather die fighting then on his knees.

    But the expected firefight didn't happen. Instead, the man behind the helmet calmly addressed Jack.

    “Now that there are no more witnesses, shall we have a quick chat, Mister Lugal? Or should I call you Mercer instead?”

    Jack stiffened noticeably. “Who are you? And who's Mercer?”

    “Please, Mister Mercer. Don't play that game with me. We don't have a lot of time to waste here. All we want is a level of understanding and a fruitful cooperation between us. That is all.”

    “Says the guy with a gun who just murdered three men in cold blood,” quipped Jack.

    The man shook his head. “These are the matters that needed to be done. You would also value your secret identity, I'd assume. With the witnesses dealt with, you no longer run the risk of the overseers of Project Dead Kings knowing your circumstances. I just did you a favor.”

    “Did I ask you for it?” replied Jack, his eyes sharpening towards the mystery man.

    His Battle Sense grew to envelop the surrounding area around his current position. If there was an opening, he'd take it and escape. The first priority right now was to contact Mylorne Akkad or the military outside the island. Jack wasn't sure why, but the level of unease he felt from this guy or the rest of the armored men was quite high.

    “Oh, my. The files said you were an amiable person, but it seems the past 48 hours changed you somewhat.”

    The man in black armor chuckled softly before removing his helmet. Jack narrowed his eyes as the face of an African man in late thirties appeared. His head was cleanly shaven, there was a well-groomed goatee but no eye patch.

    “Greetings, Mister Mercer. My name is Alexander Olmos Dupont, the Vice President of the Guild of Heroes. And also the leader of The Unit X.”

    Jack frowned. Guild of Heroes? Seriously? Are you kidding me right now?

    “Mister Mercer, now.... I will be honest with you since we don't have much time left before the U.S. Military comes charging in, guns blazing. We should cooperate – you and the Guild. We can certainly use a talent such as yourself. A talent, blessed with all the power of the fabled God-King, Gilgamesh of the legend.”

    Jack's frown just got deeper. “And what if I'm not interested?”

    Alexander Olmos Dupont laughed genially, before shaking his head slowly. “I shall now draw your attention, here. Please, watch.”

    He pulled out a tablet PC and did something on it. Then, he turned the screen towards Jack's direction and pressed “play” on one of the video files.

    What he saw on the screen made his heart go cold.

    The video playback showed four things at once. First, on the right top corner – Jack's grandparents, together, watching TV. Jack didn't recognize the room they were in.

    Second, on the bottom right corner – his dad, Bob Mercer, sitting in a small room with only a single table and nothing else. His face was incredibly anxious.

    Third, on the top left corner, Dana. She too was in an unidentified room, alone and unattended. She was holding her head, remnants of tears on her cheeks.

    And finally, Min-jung, currently shown on the bottom left corner. She was handcuffed, but to Jack's consternation, she looked lethargic and powerless. She was also in a room with no identifying features, but was lying on a rough bed.

    “Don't worry about your mother, Mister Mercer. We gave a light dose of sedative to calm her down. As for the rest of your family – well, they are fine, as you can see.”

    Alexander spoke with a thin smile, but it got wiped out the moment he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand.

    An incredible surge of killing aura exploded out of Jack as he slowly stood up. His eyes were burning in pure anger, his whole being brimming with unstoppable power and momentum. Even someone like Alexander Olmos Dupont felt the pressure. He thought that this intimidating presence was quite easily comparable to the current Guild President, who was a serious monster himself.

    “Release them, now.”

    Jack's anger infused voice caused the black armored soldiers of The Unit X to quiver in alarm. Some even began to take a step back or two. Naturally, dozens of guns were immediately trained on Jack's shimmering figure.

    “We'll let them go, all in a good time,” said Alexander as he tensed up, his previous relaxed demeanor gone now. “Their freedom is entirely dependent on the choice you make here today, Mister Mercer.”

    Jack scowled and clenched his fist, ready to pounce. Behind him, the soldiers who went inside the cavern emerged, carrying the loaded biohazard boxes filled with stuff from the core chamber of the Tree. Seeing this, Alexander addressed Jack in a serious tone.

    “Mister Mercer, you and I are not enemies. No, we both face the same opponent – the beings from the Dark Void. I'm sure Mylorne Akkad already told you some things about them – if not, you should research on this topic. It's an eye opener.

    “But I fear, your desire for vengeance against Falcon and Master Evil can not be satisfied. They have their roles to play in this society, after all.”

    Jack narrowed his eyes and stared at Alexander, deeply surprised. How did this man know about the desire of revenge burning hotly in Jack's mind? He told no one except Taylor. He refused to believe that she had anything to do with this. It could be that there was a Supernatural ability involved here, just that Jack couldn't be sure.

    Alexander continued as his men loaded up the various biohazard boxed onto the aircraft.

    “Our suggestions are thus: forget about your anger. Forgive Falcon and Evil for their actions. Look at it this way – if it weren't for their acts that day, you'd never have awakened as a godly being.

    “Of course, we'd like you to join the GoH. As its full member, as well as for the matters that can not be seen in the public light. Such as today.”

    “For that, you kidnap my family and threaten me?”

    Jack's killing aura surged once more as he stepped forward. The ground seemed to shake a little as he took that step.

    Alexander smiled, but a thin line of sweat traveled down his cheek.

    “They are merely an insurance to achieve full cooperation between you and the Guild, is all. So, what say you, Lugal? Join us, and we will provide you with many benefits and information previously unobtainable for you. Such as, things Mylorne Akkad didn't tell you until now.”

    ~​

    The dawn's light seemed warmer than usual as the sun cast its rays on the devastated landscape of the island. The Tree of the End stood still, it no longer emitting any hum. In fact, the oppressive aura coming off of it was gone. Now, it was just a giant hunk of metal without a purpose.

    The purple clouds with rolling thunders were gone. The pierced sky had reverted back and it looked normal now. The numerous metal vines had all withered up and the automatons formed of the dead Manhattan citizens froze still on the spot where they stood, becoming an eerie collection of statues with morose faces.

    Jack bitterly gazed at them while the military helicopters approached his position. In the distance, he saw the Statue of Liberty but for some reason, he wanted to ridicule the ideals that thing represented.

    He gazed as several helicopters landed near him while others kept on going ahead, towards where the tree was. After all, Jack did radio in that the threat was neutralized and the recovery team could enter no problem.

    As for him, he was by the coastline of the island, where he had entered from. He just didn't want to be anywhere near that damn tree. This was the furthermost point away from it on the island.

    Among the helicopters, there was Mylorne Akkad's aircraft. Jack could easily recognize it due to its unique design. Mylorne didn't have to come, but he did it anyways to retrieve Jack personally.

    After sending the okay, the rear hatch opened and Jack climbed aboard. He sat down on one of the seats and took off the helmet as soon as the hatch closed and the privacy was assured.

    “How was the battle, Mister Mercer?”

    Mylorne asked, concerned.

    Jack slowly shook his head. “Everyone's dead. Except me. I don't know what happened to Vanguard, but.... it doesn't matter.”

    He sighed and leaned back, too mentally exhausted to care.

    Mylorne nodded slightly before turning his attention back to the controls of the aircraft. “We'll do a debrief after returning to Newark airport. It's unfortunate that many men lost their lives today, but ultimately, this was for the humanity's own good, Jack. You did well today.”

    “Thanks.”

    Jack murmured before closing his eyes.

    A part of him whispered that he needed to tell Mylorne Akkad what happened with The Unit X of the GoH. He had to. But somehow, those men, that guy Alexander, they knew too much. It was as if they were listening in on every conversation Jack ever had.

    He could be paranoid over nothing, but when it came to unexplainable abilities and happenings, he had to be cautious. The leak could come from literally everywhere.

    Besides, he didn't really trust Mylorne either. The stuff Alexander mentioned in passing about some of the Immortal's business dealings, while their veracity not verified, couldn't be ignored wholesale.

    And what about his mother, his family? They were still in the hands of The Unit X, hidden away in some secret location. He had to cooperate with them for now.

    His head became heavy, thinking about this unwelcome turn of the events. For now, he just wanted to home and lie down for a while. He really wanted to do that. But of course, even though one catastrophe was largely avoided, another one had reared its ugly head, giving him no time to rest.

    And his faith in humanity was fast eroding. Everyone he could think of was either sad fools manipulated by the hidden strings, or the manipulators of the said strings. He was pretty sure now that there was no one innocent left out in the world.

    He felt gloomy, tired, hungry and irritated. Worried, scared, reticent of what was to come, too.

    Jack Mercer felt like he was being cornered by enemies from all corners. He couldn't really trust anyone right now, no one to really depend on. This feeling was the absolute worst, and even though he was powerful now, he was completely helpless to do anything.

    Here's this week's chapter. It's a short one, though. And another thing of note - Red Souls will "end" on the next chapter and go on a short hiatus while I go back to writing the second volume of Aeterna Saga. In the meantime, I won't forget to upload the "fixed" versions of the chapters here.
    So, please look forward to it. Thanks.
     
  16. A_Passing_Wanderer

    A_Passing_Wanderer Active Member

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    Chapter 29​




    A few months had passed since that day.

    The dead Tree of the End still dominated the Eastern Seaboard skyline. It was rumored that on a spectacularly clear day, the incredibly tall structure could be spotted from even as far as Greenland. It hadn't been verified, however, remaining as one of those internet myths no one had yet to debunk yet.

    Jack didn't really care. The Tree had nothing to do with him anymore. Instead, now it belonged to the federal government of United States of America. The current president, Mister David J. Trudale, graciously allowed several international agencies a thorough look-see of the unexplainable structure, ostensibly for the benefit of all mankind. How nice of him.

    Vanguard, unscathed and physically fine, appeared on TV to shake the president's hands and smile for the camera. They looked nice and cozy together on screen, grinning and happy and all that. Frankly, Jack saw nothing there to be happy about. Millions of people were killed or were affected by the destruction of Manhattan. Millions more displaced from their homes. The greatest city on Earth was no more. So, smiling politicians were at odds with the truth.

    The city of New York became a no-go zone, a lawless wasteland. The transformation would be gradual but the signs of criminal elements and Supervillains “escaping” into the heavily quarantined parts of the city and hiding were there. The parameters around the boroughs were fenced in, but somehow, they knew ways to get in and find a suitable hole for themselves.

    The battle between the security forces comprising several agencies with these criminal elements occurred sporadically. But this would be some time well into the future. For the months following the “Manhattan Incident, ” as it came to be known in the history books, the attention was solely focused on how to divvy up the benefits for all those who participated in this venture.

    Out of all of them, GoH took the biggest slice of the pie. They were able to take home a slightly larger portion than the others due to the political, financial influence and that of generally positive sentiments from the voting public towards the Guild's past actions. It was hard to argue against their merits when the numbers were tallied up, at least from the politicians' point of view.

    Following closely by was the Department of Defense. They had lost a huge chunk of their special manpower in the Manhattan Incident and needed an appropriate compensation. Mylorne Akkad's Akkadian Corporation also earned big; the freelancer hero under the employment of the company was instrumental in ending the Tree's threat, as it was later judged to be.

    Jack didn't feel like it, but he ended up debriefing the gathering of heavy hitters a couple of hours later that morning. And boy, was it tough or what.

    He could still remember all the angry questioning, hostile and unhappy gazes, the barely concealed suspicions directed to his way. He ignored them all to the best of his abilities and told them the version he agreed to share – the version hashed out by Alexander Olmos Dupont.

    Jack couldn't go against it. Emma Gilberts from GoH was attending the meeting and her gazes were sharper than a knife's edge. Besides, Jack didn't know if he was being watched and being listened to by another superpower, one that was far more powerful and sinister in its scope.

    He wanted to get a message across to someone, anyone, but it was impossible. No, not because it was actually impossible, but because he was paranoid about who could be the puppets of the GoH. He kept on looking over his shoulders, scared of someone hearing him, finding out his secrets.

    Mylorne Akkad seemed to notice something was off about Jack but he too couldn't ask after realizing that the boy was unusually abrupt about the subject, declining to say anything with a curt “Nothing's wrong.”

    The majority of Monday was spent answering more barbed questions from whoever was asking them. Jack sort of remember some part of it, but he chose not to. It'd be too tiring and too bothersome when he was already under a lot of stress.

    By Tuesday, Jack was able to return to his empty home. The very first thing he did was to plop down on the bed and just sleep like a dead log. He slept for a whole day, not caring about a thing. No, that was not quite right – he did care about the fate of his family. But he was just too damn tired to do anything about it. Sleep was the only natural recourse left for his tired, frazzled mind.

    When he woke up next morning, the latter half of the agreement made with The Unit X was completed – his family came home. But their memories were altered. They had no recollection of the matters of the last couple of days. All they knew was that Jack was kidnapped but GoH members brought him home safe and sound.

    Of course, Taylor was another witness but she had no idea what had transpired so she was deemed as a non-threat, for now. Whether GoH was watching her or not was unknown, but Jack remained cautious.

    There weren't any physical traces of their surveillance, but every now and then, his Battle Sense would pick up on minute clues. Such as, a gentle breeze blowing while in a closed room, or a soft murmur out of nowhere, or a tickle on the hair tips, or a sudden drop in the temperature, a chill down his backside – that sort of stuff. No one could blame Jack for being paranoid of his surroundings.

    If it weren't for his Battle Sense, he would have gone mad a long time ago. It helped him to find the occasional snoopers in the vicinity and allowed him to either avoid them or lose them completely. That was good.

    But not everything about Battle Sense was good. When he used this all-encompassing ability on his family, his heart stopped beating for a second or two – he found a small computer chip embedded in the base of the brain on every one of his family members. He had no idea what they could be, but one thing was for sure – it wouldn't be for their good health.

    Sometimes, not knowing was a blessing. Now that he knew, Jack distanced himself from his worried family members, lest he let slip something he shouldn't and endanger their lives.

    Jack skipped school for that week. He largely stayed by himself. The distance between him and all his acquaintances grew. It was hard, for both himself and for all those affected. He felt like an asshole, the absolute worst of the kind, but he fooled himself by saying that it was all for their own good.

    Maybe it was for him. He could not tell clearly after a while.

    In the meantime, Mylorne Akkad kept himself away from Jack. Not a single communication. The reasons weren't immediately clear either, but nevertheless, Jack was glad for the older man's discretion on this matter.

    He returned to school and the life continued as it was. He hung around here and there, but couldn't really concentrate on anything. His academic performance suffered but not like he could spare extra efforts on it. Jack's mind was preoccupied with what he deemed to be more important matters. He overheard some kids whispering that he had grown somewhat but again, there was nothing he could do about that.

    Bizarrely, one or two girls hit on him. That was strange, he thought. Refusing their advances weren't a big deal, and he was not bothered by it, but still, it did feel good to be on the receiving end of the opposite sex's attention. Although, he wondered whether they were under the influence of GoH. Battle Sense said they were not, but he remained cautious.

    Through all the daily troubles, Taylor stuck around him. Her dad, David, seemed to have recovered just fine, slightly worse for wear but otherwise, not too badly injured. Mylorne Akkad apparently took care of the hospital bill, which was nice of him.

    And speaking of which, Jack hadn't heard from Erik nor his gang again. He didn't really go out of his way to inquire about them, though. His connection with the trio didn't run that deep, after all.

    Like this, life continued to flow.

    Jack occasionally received calls from GoH, asking him to lend a hand. The Kevlar survival suit was with him so at night, he'd go out as Lugal and do stuff. So far, the jobs given were not illegal nor complicated in nature, but still, the bitter taste in Jack's mouth wouldn't go away.

    Before he knew it, the few months went by.

    Because of the burden placed on his shoulders with his family as the hostages, he constantly grew distant from everyone until he was not talking to them anymore. Bob and Min-jung thought he was just not coping with the trauma so they sought out counseling but since that wasn't the real issue, not much success came from that. The cold chasm deepened within the family and although he was angry about it, there was nothing he could do about it as long GoH was around, watching him.

    Only Taylor persisted and stuck around but even she found it hard. Jack was fast becoming a loner, incapable of saying anything to anyone. The fear of GoH's reach was too damn strong.

    His birthday, September 29th, came and went with little fanfare. He didn't feel like celebrating it at all. Gifts were handed out and there was a tentative party but it was mirthless.

    Out of all the well-meaning gifts, Jack noticed one from Mylorne Akkad. It was a smartwatch, designed in-house by the Akkadian Corporation. With it, a note of gratitude and a small celebratory poem. Jack wasn't the type to enjoy something as cheesy as that so he just wore the watch and be done with it. He really liked the design. It was red, rugged and manly.

    As soon as he wore it, though – he heard a telepathic communication entering his mind. It was a recorded message from Mylorne Akkad. The contents were simple. Jack followed it to the letter.

    Later on in that week, he was at the building of Faraday Laboratories, on the pretext of seeing his mother at work. No, he didn't come to see her. Mylorne Akkad was waiting for him in his office. It was swept for any possible bugs. The employees were secretly checked and vetted to make sure there were no leaks. And the whole office was encased in a special material to obstruct any Supernatural spying from, well, anyone.

    Mylorne Akkad then took a step further and built the smartwatch just for the occasion to have a chat with Jack. To get to the bottom of the truth.

    As soon as Jack entered the office, the two exchanged the pleasantries before Jack activated the hidden function of the smartwatch.

    It allowed Jack to freely talk in telepathy to a nearby target, but it could be maintained only for a 30 seconds before the batteries ran out. And he had to be in a close proximity to the person he wanted to talk to. That's why Jack had to come here, and why Akkad had to specifically tailor the technology.

    “Thank you for coming in, after such a short notice,” said Mylorne Akkad. “Well then, shall we?”

    Jack used the time he was afforded and told Mylorne as much as he could. The billionaire Immortal remained silent and listened. At the end of the story, Mylorne's expression was quite ugly. It was as bad it could possibly get. Shaking his head profusely, he couldn't contain his fury but after hearing about GoH's capability, he calmed down remarkably. He had to.

    Mylorne Akkad promised to find a solution to this problem. He implored Jack to remain patient and do as told as to not raise any suspicions towards him.

    Jack wasn't all that optimistic about the success but chose to believe. What choice did he have?

    He returned home after the meeting, having hope. Which was good. Jack continued to train his Battle Sense as diligently as possible but very little progress was made. He was frustrated but kept on doing it regardless. He had to get stronger and mastering Battle Sense would give him a huge boost in overall power. It had to be done.

    And the more it developed, however slow, his phobia of the moving cars weakened until it was totally tolerable. And he could sleep well without the aid of the pills, which was also a good piece of news.

    Inside his Soul Sphere, a portion of the available real estate was taken up by the mysterious blue souls. No, calling them souls was a bit of misnomer, as they seemed fundamentally different from the usual red souls. No screaming, despairing faces of the dead were visible, for one. And unlike the red souls, the blue... souls were colder.

    The dreams, the recollection of the past occurred less frequently and there held no answers to the blue soul quandary either. He was all on his own. But he never forgot to enhance his body. He couldn't dump a lot of souls on himself at one go, but he continued to experiment with it. He thought he was making a good progress.

    At the end of the windy Autumn, the temperature slowly dropped. It was getting chillier. After school, Jack was alone, riding on a bus to the city library.

    He could go online and search for the data regarding Gilgamesh there, but he figured it'd be better to go somewhere else where his family wouldn't be able to peek at what he was looking, via the browser history.

    Also, he wanted to see how Nick was doing. His best friend was still in the coma in the best civilian medical facility in the city. The best doctors in the world couldn't do a thing. Mylorne Akkad also paid for his expenses as well.

    And there was this thing that as he rode on the bus, he was left unbothered. He was alone and relaxed – a remarkable change from what he was like a few months ago. It was because now, physically, he was capable of surviving the explosion of the bus. His specs had improved by that much. A measly little traffic accident wouldn't even really leave a scratch.

    He sat towards the back and leaned against the window frame, closing his eyes. He concentrated his Battle Sense inward to continue the training.

    Because of that, he didn't notice a slender figure entering bus at the next stop. She was a young girl, an extremely beautiful one at that, almost Elven in her ethereal beauty.

    She was the very person Abyss had rescued from the hands of the dead Albanian mobster, Wilhelm Milosevic.

    When she saw Jack, her eyes brightened. She slowly approached and sat down right next to him on the bench, startling Jack out of his silent Battle Sense training.

    When his eyes met hers, he was truly, utterly gobsmacked by the encounter. Not one single word came out of his mouth. No, there was one word that appeared in his mind, but it got stuck in the throat and couldn't climb out.

    The girl smiled and tucked her long, glistening light brown hair back behind her ears.

    “You recognize me, don't you?”

    Jack nodded, somehow managing to close his mouth shut, before opening it to finally mutter the word.

    “Siduri..... is that... you?”

    The girl, Siduri, slowly nodded. “Yes. It is I. I have been searching for you for so long. And now I've found you.”

    Jack's mind shook. His vision seemed to gray out all that's unimportant and he solely focused on her. Her face, her eyes, her gentle, relieved smile. Over this beautiful face, another face superimposed on it.

    And that face was of the beautiful raven-haired woman, the one next to the huge saber-tooth tiger, from the very first recollection of the past he had all the way back at Northbound R-35.

    She was Siduri, Gilgamesh's last great lover.

    The cogs of fate hadn't abandoned Jack just yet; unbeknownst to him, the wheels were continuously turning. And soon, his life would encounter another earth-shaking change, only he wasn't aware of it yet.

    Well, here it is. The "end" of Red Souls. The next chapter of this novel, which will carry a different name, will be posted after I'm done with the 2nd Aeterna Saga volume - which could be months from now. In the meantime, I will post the updated drafts of the previous chapters here.

    See you, then.