(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!!)
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.
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Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.