(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you happen to spot them, please let me know in the comments below. Thanks in advance!!)
Right about the same time as Jack was being given a choice of his lifetime, a passenger airplane was flying towards the runways of the famed JFK International airport on the other side of the continent. It was, for all intents and purposes, a regular commercial flight, packed to the brim with non-English speaking tourists looking to soak in the American culture, and maybe even catch the sight of a Superhero or two; wily businessmen coming back home after seeking a risky but financially rewarding venture abroad, or those wanting to find an opportunity to make it big in the so-called land of dreams; students wishing to further their academic careers in the famed universities strewn across all over the country; and other sorts of people, all with their own reasons and wants for being here.
Among these disparate souls, there was one particular man. Other than a gentle smile on his handsome, Southern Mediterranean face, there was nothing outwardly remarkable about him. His clothes, his height, his hair color – nothing about him stood out from the crowd.
As the plane’s intercom alerted the passengers aboard the flight of the impending taxing on the runway, and a reminder to put their seatbelts on, this man glanced at the airport through the small, round window. He saw numerous aircraft in the various state of movement – busy unloading passengers and cargo, busy loading passengers and cargo, busy taking off, busy landing – he found the array of activity rather dizzying and full of life. It was an eye-opener for a first-time flyer like him.
He whispered softly under his breath. His face was calm, but there was a glint of anticipation flickering in his eyes as he swept his gaze on the visible architecture of the airport.
The plane touched down without a drama; a sharp but distant squeak from the tortured tires kissing the tarmac; a slight lurch of the inertia.
As soon as the exits were opened, the passengers stretched their cramped limbs and began to eagerly retrieve their luggage from the overhead compartments. This man was no exception. He only had to pull out a single bag, though – a single, black, regular-sized gym bag with no identifiable markings on it. But the way he hefted it – there was some weight hidden within. His muscles flexed under the shirt as he carefully hoisted the bag over his shoulder as if it was the most important thing in the entire world.
He walked past the smiling stewardesses – or the flight attendants, as they wanted to be known nowadays – while returning a warm smile of his own, and made his way smoothly to the immigrations without encountering any obstacles. On the way, he checked out the many brash and colorful posters lining the walls and the ceilings of the corridors, loudly advertising each of the candidates running in the upcoming local election.
There were other, equally eye-catching posters plastered there too, like the one about an anti-hair loss shampoo, or a certain famous soft drink beverage. Another one, about the upcoming blockbuster from Hollywood, with its square-jawed protagonist looking out into the distant unknown, face full of a contemplative grimace and one arm around a buxom heroine.
Out of the riot of information overload, there was one poster that caught his attention more than the others; it was about an exhibit scheduled to open in the world-famous Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seeing this poster, the man’s face brightened just a little more, revealing a row of perfect white teeth under a charming smile, his dark green eyes glittering like a pair of fine jewels.
He stood behind a line, just like everyone else, waiting for his turn to clear the customs. To ward off the boredom from creeping up on him, he decided to observe the people standing in front of him, behind him, all around him. There were men and women from all walks of life and simply watching and observing gave this man an endless amount of entertainment. And he discovered that, indeed, there were a lot of different faces and body shapes in the world. Him included, of course.
“Next,” said the customs officer. The man smiled and took his place, pulling out his passport and handing it over the counter. The officer was an African-American woman in her forties, blessed with a sort of face that belonged to someone who had been on the job for too long; tired and uncaring, but wizened like a sage at the same time.
She received the passport and checked the front. It was issued by the Greek government. Not new, but never been used until now. Flipping it open, she saw the photo of the smiling man and his details. She began scanning his information on the computer terminal and began asking him the standard questions.
“Purpose of your visit to the United States of America, Mister Gavalas?”
The man smiled widely. “Artifacts. Arcane, ancient artifacts. There’s an exhibition scheduled to open in a few days. I’m here for that.”
The officer nodded. “Oh, I heard about that one. I heard that it’s kind of a big deal. So, it’s for pleasure, then, Mister Gavalas?”
“You can call me Nico. And well, it’s for both – for pleasure, and for business. Either way, I’m very excited to be here.”
She nodded and glanced at the monitor to check the progress of the database search; a minute later, the result came back as negative. Nico Gavalas was not a wanted man, nor did he forge his papers, at least not according to what was showing on the computer monitor.
She then asked him to place his gym bag on the conveyor belt that fed into the baggage scanner, and instructed him to step through the gray full-body scanner himself. Still smiling, he complied and loaded the heavy bag gently on the stationary belt before walking through the body scanner. The result was that… he was fine. No problematic items on his person whatsoever.
But, as soon as the gym bag entered the scanning machine, the customs officer’s face changed color. She quickly stopped the machine and signaled to her partner, standing next to the scanner. Then, she turned to face Nico and slowly asked.
“Sir, can you tell us what’s inside the bag?”
Her right hand reached towards the gun holster located on her hip while her left grabbed the walkie talkie, her movements practiced and her eyes alert, watching out for any untoward, suspicious behavior from the man before her.
“Oh, that?” Nico chuckled amiably. “It’s my liege. You can probably tell that he can’t travel like the most of us, you see.”
“Sir, I advise you to open the bag and reveal its contents voluntarily. If it’s not a dangerous object you must declare your intentions before entering the country.”
The customs officer then called for assistance over the walkie talkie. As for Nico, he shrugged his shoulders, smiling and sighed.
“Well. I didn’t want to show him to anyone just yet, but if you insist, then please, allow me.”
He casually approached the bag and began carefully unzipping it. Then, he spread open the mouth of the bag, revealing a slab of stone and a pale golden skull. There was nothing besides the two, not even a toothbrush. At a glance, the skull looked to be an ordinary human bone – besides its odd color, obviously – but there was a symbol of some kind carved into the forehead area and the incisors were unusually sharp as well. But the air of ancientness coming off the skull was unmistakable, even to a layman.
As soon as the overhead light hit the said skull, it began to radiate a blinding yet completely bizarre aura. This strange aura carried a strong, disgusting energy that when a person came into contact with it, he or she began to feel sick immediately. No one was spared, not even the customs officers. But they bravely held on, sweat beads forming on their foreheads.
“Isn’t it so beautiful?! So, amazing, so incredible!! This is the future of mankind!! Your king, about to return from the abyss!!” Nico proclaimed in the unadulterated reverence. His face was full of wonder, joy and even a hint of mad fervor.
The officers were left completely dumbfounded. They have seen people trying to smuggle in money, drugs, weapons and even pets but this…. this was something totally new, leaving them unsure of what to do next. But they still had basic training to fall back to, if all the other avenues were exhausted.
So, as a precaution, they drew their firearms and pointed at Nico. But their aims were not steady at all; they faltered ever so slightly as the effects of that bizarre light took hold.
The African American officer found her voice first and loudly shouted at Nico. “Sir, please step away from the items. I won’t repeat this warning. Step away from the unknown items!!”
Suddenly, Nico’s face fell. A cold, crazed gleam began to burn in his eyes as a chilly sneer formed on his lips. It was not because be found what she said funny or amusing, no. It was because of a barely-contained fury bubbling under his skin.
“He’s not merely an item!! And he’s only unknown, because of you people fail to realize the true history of this planet, this world, which was hidden from you!! It’s only because you let those abominable heathens sitting on the thrones of power to manipulate the truth!! You, you are all at fault!! Every one of you!!”
The crazed light in his eyes became stronger as he stepped forward towards the customs officer. She frowned, finding it harder to concentrate, trying her best to suppress the nauseating feeling from invading her consciousness like a disgusting worm.
Her aim only wavered for a second; her vision grew blurry. Her finger slipped and landed on the trigger. But, to her confusion, no shots went off. Alarmed, she focused on the gun, only to find that, instead of the government-issued Glock, she was holding a book with a faded cover.
She recognized it almost instantly – it was her favorite collection of poems. She got through a very rough patch of her childhood thanks to this book, so how could she ever forget it? But obviously, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense for her to be holding onto a book, her favorite or not, right at this moment.
Ignoring the officer’s confusion, Nico continued to bellow loudly as if he wanted everyone present to hear him.
“It’s only unknown, precisely because you are all a flock of sheep allowing yourselves to be fooled!! When will you open your dulled senses? When?”
The sneer became colder, more domineering. Nico proudly scanned the crowd that had gathered around him; airport security officials and curious onlookers with their thumbs busily moving on their phones, snapping the photos and taking short and grainy videos of what’s been transpiring here, so they could share it on the various social media outlets with meaningless emojis attached at the end of each asinine posts.
“But it doesn’t matter anymore, now that my liege has come!! He’s here to reclaim what’s rightfully his!! You just wait and watch; this world will come to see the true history once more!! I swear it in my name!!”
Nico then placed his palm on the stone slab. Originally, it was featureless and smooth, its edges worn down. Yet, the moment he touched it, strange, red arcane symbols suddenly began to wriggle into life, glowing in a similar manner as the golden skull and its bizarre aura.
“Sir!! Step away!!”
The African American officer finally decided to do something. She did her best to disregard the confusion in her heart and reached out, grabbing Nico on his shoulder. Her aim was to pry him off the bizarre slab and thus stop whatever was happening from, well, happening further. In her confusion, however, she neglected to use the taser that was hanging on her hips. If she did, then the outcome perhaps would have been… different.
When her eyes met Nico’s, she felt like all of her blood froze on the spot out of sheer terror.
Nico Gavalas no longer had eyes. Instead, there were two empty sockets that were quickly filling up with blood. Soon, this blood overflowed out of the sockets and began to wash down on his face, down to his neck, down to his shoulders and chest.
She had no time to react; the blood got on her hand too fast. She pulled back but that blood was on her, moving up alongside her arm, dyeing it in pure crimson hue.
She tried to scream, but the blood entered her mouth, her nostrils, her ears, even her eyes, thus drowning her ability to voice out her terror.
From the outside, it looked like she was going through a seizure. But her eyes had turned deep red, and blood oozed out of the corners of her mouth. She then collapsed where she stood with a heavy thud. Her lips opened and closed repeatedly, but no sound came out.
The bizarre golden light from the skull suddenly took on a purplish hue. It was still golden but now laced with a tinge of purple, making it even more bizarre. One could even swear that the skull actually began to move on its own as the light intensified, its jaws moving and grinding.
Not only that, the strange writings on the stone slab wriggled even more violently as if to break out of their stone imprisonment. The writings became brighter, bigger, more corporeal.
The crowd started to panic after sensing that something was terribly wrong. They began to spread out in a disorganized fashion, trying to get away as quickly as possible.
It was a step too late, however. When the wriggling letters on the stone slab met with the purple-gold light from the skull, an explosion of blinding light erupted, completely engulfing the entirety of the airport.
The light permeated into every nook and cranny, sparing no one – not even one soul. Hiding behind a wall was no use – the light simply snaked past the edges, openings, gaps and found its way to attack a living creature. It didn’t matter whether that was a person or a mouse, a plant or a bird.
Every creature was swallowed up in the purple-golden light.
And when the light finally subsided, there was only a single person left standing; a madly smiling Nico Gavalas.
Jack Mercer found himself on a crossroad, yet again.
To his back, a car on its roof with its occupants currently trapped inside.
To his front, three Supers his age, politely requesting that he accompany them some place.
What should I do?!
Jack asked repeatedly in his mind. But as ever, a satisfying answer proved to be elusive, just tantalizingly beyond his reach.
Erik, perhaps sensing Jack’s reluctance, took a step forward and pointed at the car with Taylor and her dad still inside.
“Look, if you’re worried about them, we’ll help you to free the two. Lei here has already contacted the emergency services so they should receive help real soon. Nothing to worry about there.”
Jack wordlessly checked the body language of the three Supers. The glasses-wearing boy looked earnest. The muscle girl, Cleo, seemed slightly bored with all the talking, while Lei seemed busy, her fingers darting over the ancient iPod like a hummingbird.
Jack knew in his heart that there was only one way out here and that was to do as they say. He couldn’t last against the incredible strength of Cleo, not at his current condition, nor could he contend with the strange power of Erik. And he was no longer confident of escaping from whatever Lei could do. If they wanted him to accompany them somewhere, then that was that, no argument necessary.
Jack sighed and slowly nodded. “Okay, fine. But please help my friends first. Then I’ll go with you.”
Erik smiled faintly. “A wise choice. By the way, I’m Erik. That’s Lei, and this idiot here is Cleo. And you are?”
“Hey!! Who you calling an idiot?!” Cleo angrily stomped her feet and glared at Erik, who simply shrugged his shoulders and ignored her.
Jack didn’t see the funny side, though. Instead, he simply answered, “It’s Jack.”
“Alright. Jack, it is. Cleo, please help our friend here,” said Erik as he glanced at the athletic girl. She made an “oh, well” kind of a face before lightly bounding towards the upside down vintage car.
Alarmed slightly at the sudden burst of speed, Jack turned around to chase after her. It’d be a no laughing matter if either Taylor or her father got taken as an extra insurance.
Jack pushed his aching and tired body to run but his chest, with its cracked ribs, didn’t make the task easy. Trying to breathe alone was too painful a reminder of how weak he was. Even though he gritted his teeth and forced his body to move, Jack wasn’t making any headway. Eventually, he felt like giving up, to rest and not give a damn about anything.
Seeing him like this, Erik turned to Lei and asked her. “Can you bring our ride around? I think Jack’s gonna die at this rate.”
She nodded nonchalantly and glanced around the rows of parked cars. Their commotion had attracted quite a lot of witnesses, watching from the distant sidelines and not wanting to get involved with whatever shenanigans were going on.
Lei did her thing with the iPod, and soon enough, a dark, nondescript car silently glided over where she stood. And there was no one driving it. This was the vehicle they “borrowed” after disembarking from the Greyhound bus earlier on.
Wordlessly, they entered the car – Erik on the passenger’s side, Lei behind the wheels – and like magic, the car began to drive on its own, creeping up to where Jack was trying to catch his breath while clutching his chest down the few yards.
“Get in,” said Erik after the car stopped next to Jack.
Jack hesitated briefly, before climbing on the backseat. But he didn’t forget to ask. “Hey, you know how to drive? You don’t look like you are old enough to have a driver’s licence yet, though?”
Lei continued to fiddle with her iPod, not even bothering to raise her head. “It’s fine. I can drive almost any car I hack into. I’ve logged hundreds of hours in Forza 6, so it’s all good.”
That’s a goddamn video game!! Jack almost blurted out impulsively before realizing that the car was moving on its own, with no input whatsoever from either Lei or Erik. The wheel turned on its own, the gas pedal and the brake all moved without anyone touching them. Even the gears shifted by themselves. Watching this scene play out was ever so slightly unsettling to Jack.
“Oh, and Jack, please hand me your phone. It won’t do if they end up tracking your movements, you see.”
Jack reluctantly pulled out his smartphone from the pants pocket, but sighed weakly and tossed it over to Erik. The screen had a nasty crack on it and frame was bent over. It looked deader than a dodo. Erik shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly before throwing the dead phone out of the window.
Their car finally stopped next to where Cleo was. She had already extricated the vintage luxury vehicle from the mess of the mangled wreckage and righted it. Next, she simply grabbed the twisted door and yanked it loose, chucking the now-useless metal away. She reached in and did the same yanking thing with the broken belt buckle, freeing David Finn from the seat.
Taylor, of course, was screaming at her. “Hey!! What the hell are you doing?! Let him go!!”
Cleo retorted back. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m helping him, you know? Gosh, you’re so panicky.”
She lightly carried unconscious David and propped him on the side of a nearby vehicle. Then she noticed an underarm holster and a pistol tucked in there. Cleo tilted her head slightly, wondering what the heck was going on, before snapping back to reality from Taylor’s shouts. Shaking her head, Cleo then went over to Taylor’s side and pulled the broken door open quite easily.
“Hey, don’t come near me, I can get out myself!!” Taylor shouted as she began to struggle against the belt buckle.
Cleo lightly snorted. “Hah, whatever, girl.”
Ignoring the frantic Taylor, Cleo simply snapped the buckle off the frame and that was that.
Now that she was free from the confines, Taylor ignored her own injuries and rushed to where her dad was. She hurriedly dialed 911 on the smartphone as her fingers checked for his pulse, confirming that he was still alive.
Cleo shrugged her shoulders and climbed next to Jack in the car. Noticing that she was about to share the backseat with him, her eyes narrowed as she leaned over and peered closely at his pale face. “I wanna know how you did what you did, you know? I’m gonna find out ve~ry soon.”
Her face got too close to his, making him feel mighty uncomfortable. Jack was literally surrounded by the powerful enemies with no way to escape and such a close proximity with the muscle of the group only served to confound things even more.
Jack chose to do the only thing he could do here and ignored Cleo. Instead, he leaned outside the window and spoke to Taylor.
“I’m going with them. No choice in the matter. Take care of your dad – and uh….” Jack hesitated on what he wanted to say next. It was not an easy decision to make, but at the same time, seemed like a no-brainer to him. Finally making up his mind, Jack sighed deeply. “And please contact my family. Tell them I’ll be alright. You can… tell them everything if they ask you about it.”
Taylor hid her shock, choosing to simply nod. She understood Jack’s decision well enough – no point in trying to second-guess him at this stage. “You take care of yourself, okay? And…. I’ll find you. That much, I promise you.”
Jack grinned bitterly at that.
The car drove off with the four of them, taking the road leading towards downtown.
And as the car hummed and clunked softly from the undulations on the road, Jack found himself gripping the rear armrest hard once more. His phobia of moving vehicles was acting up again. His breathing quickened, his head felt heavy, his back was clammy and most importantly, his mind was spinning wildly, almost out of his control.
The trio who kidnapped him initially failed to notice his predicament, instead talking to each other about someone chasing after them and stuff about some projects and such. Jack didn’t pay any attention to the contents. No, not that he did that deliberately, but he actually couldn’t.
He sweated heavily, holding the armrest until his knuckles turned white, his breathing getting faster and shallower until Cleo finally took a glance at his way.
“Hey? You don’t look so good – you feeling alright or what?”
At Cleo’s puzzled questioning, Erik turned on the passenger seat and looked back.
“I think his injuries are pretty serious. You did go overboard as usual, Cleo.”
“Hey, what do you mean by that?! I properly held back, you know? Like how we agreed earlier!!” Cleo indignantly rebuked Erik’s remark, her face getting slightly redder.
On their way, a squadron of police cars passed them by. There were also a couple of heavily modified supercars belonging to Supers mixed in there, too. Their obvious destination seemed to be the street the four of them were on, causing all sorts of ruckus not too long ago.
Jack’s face darkened. Even in his current condition, he could easily figure out that the repercussions of his actions, and of these three Supers, would be enormous. His life as he knew it, was basically over. Well, his attempt at trying to live one, that was.
He sighed weakly, allowing his pounding head slowly fall to his lap. His sight was fixed on his dirty, torn jeans, signs of blood smeared all over – some his, the rest, uncertain.
Jack wondered how shocked his parents and his sister might be after learning that he was a Super. He hadn’t lied explicitly to anyone but he did cover up his secret so maybe that was akin to lying, after all. Whatever, right now all his efforts so far seemed like a great waste of everyone’s time.
And he felt awful about that, too. He remembered the concerned faces of his parents and how he curtly refused to talk to them, resolutely keeping secrets and ignoring all of their worries and caring hands just to wallow in his self-pity.
No, wait – I never felt that way, did I? I never felt pitiful, no. Yeah, I hated the fact that I didn’t have enough power. But self-pity? That can’t be.
All I wanted to do was to get my revenge. That’s all I wanted. That’s all I obsessed over. I didn’t care who I hurt as long as my goal was reached….
Jack massaged his temples, his pounding head feeling like he was surrounded by hundreds of loudspeakers, blaring rubbish House music nonstop.
I…. hurt my family a lot? Did I? But…
Inevitably, Jack began to sift through his memories, trying to see if he did cause unbearable pain to his family. At first, there was nothing and he was nearly relieved of his uncertainty. But then, the small moments of heavy, worried creases, barely held back tears and mostly, hesitant hands wishing to reach out and touch him, to comfort him but failing to do so because of the unscalable wall he surrounded himself with.
I…. I did hurt them. I am the worst…
Jack’s mind darkened further with the invasion of several ominous thoughts. To him, disappearing from the face of the earth and not having to face the angry, disappointed and hurt family sounded much more preferable. If he indeed disappeared now, then his family would be spared further pain from his idiotic actions in the future. It seemed like a good deal to Jack, really.
“Hey, we’re almost at the destination, so hang in there,” said Erik as he worriedly examined Jack’s condition with his eyes.
Jack raised his head and his wavering view caught the passing scenery outside. He was surprised to find that they were not heading into the city but instead, took a ring road circling it and exited directly, heading further North.
The avenues the car traveled on were quite familiar to Jack; he felt like he’d been here before. The signs of civilization lessened until there were no more buildings, only the untouched nature. The thick forest ran on either side of the road, sunlight failing to penetrate the tree canopy.
No way in hell….
Jack swore in his heart. His mind was spinning madly, faster than before. He definitely recognized this forest. There were no landmarks to memorize yet he remembered coming here.
Soon they arrived at the automated gate belonging to a massive compound. The electrified fence ran all the way around the perimeter, with several large, clearly written signs loudly and threateningly proclaiming that any and all trespassers would be harshly dealt with.
There were at least a dozen security cameras mounted on the various points of the entrance alone, although there was no one manning it. Everything was automated.
Erik pulled out an old Nokia cellular phone that didn’t even have a touchscreen and dialed the only number stored on it. “Hello? Yeah, we’re here with him. Please open the gate… number 6.”
The gate creaked open soon after, and they were allowed beyond the fences. A verdant green lawn, meticulously kept, stretched as far as they could see. The only thing that broke this flat sea of green was a lone white tower, shooting up high into the sky.
Jack took a deep breath as the rest of his memories flooded in. He had been here before, indeed. He came here with his mother and father a decade ago.
Because… that huge tower belonged to Min-jung’s current employer.
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