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The impressive flying squadron consisting 24 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 still, mirror-like surface. The time was well past midnight, past the hour when the witches and demons of lore would break free from their chains, seeking sacrificial souls to seduce and devour.
The rhythmic pulsing of the rotors spinning in perfect sync was like an insistent heartbeat, building up the tension of the soldiers and Supers riding on the helicopters, keeping up their adrenaline levels at high.
Often, an intermittent and garbled chatter on the radio waves broke up the silence but that was pretty much it. Not one person riding on the helicopters spoke, nor did they make any unnecessary noise. The atmosphere was tense, the tension taut enough to cut with a knife.
Jack “Lugal” Mercer was riding on one of those helicopters. He read the mood well enough and said nothing to disrupt the flow. Only that, he extended Battle Sense every now and then to train this vital ability, as well as to learn more about the other passengers alongside him, sharing this noisy flying tin can.
He didn’t need the supernatural sensing ability of Battle Sense to notice their eyes, though. The eyes that were darting around non-stop, gazing outside and sweeping over the dark horizon towards the island, fleeting and frowning. What those eyes were taking in would remain unknown to him other than their owners as more than a fair share were unfocused and drowning in their own dilemma.
Jack also felt a certain amount of distrust among all the participants in this raid. Was it because of the composition of the group? Or was it directed at the unwelcome outsiders, mainly him?
The 15 of the helicopters were the latest versions of Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk. Each craft was capable of carrying up to eleven passengers. 6 of them, Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbows, were there to provide fire support. And the final 3 were Boeing MH-47G Chinooks, capable of carrying up to 55 combatants at a push. Although, for this operation, there were only twenty riding onboard on each of the Chinooks, except on Jack’s ride, where it was filled to the brim with dangerous-looking men and women.
Inside this very cramped helicopter were the members of Special Operations Forces comprised of Army Rangers, Delta Force, Navy SEALs and U.S. Marine Corps boys and girls. Jack couldn’t tell who was who, though, at least not by their uniforms.
Among these hardened soldiers, several “operators” from unnamed agencies. As for the civilians and non-military outfits, the GoH members consisting of the Peacekeepers and Supers, and FBI’s famed Special Weapons and Tactics Team riding on other Chinooks.
Of course, Vanguard was riding along next to Jack, apparently getting the okay from Mylorne Akkad. Jack found it slightly puzzling that the burly retired Superhero got the go ahead but having more help was always better, so he accepted this arrangement without reservations.
Out of those wandering eyeballs, there were a few that were burning the figurative hole on the side of Jack’s helmet. And they were from the operatives of the Project Dead Kings.
How could he tell? Well, besides the fact that they stealthily threw silent but suspicious glances specifically at his way, one of them even coming up to him to engage in a bizarre talk-down of sorts before the operation commenced. Apparently, all of the operatives from the Project Dead Kings, or at least those with Gilgamesh’s genes somewhere in their blood, were feeling the same…. resonance as Erik, Cleo and Lei had felt. The guy who tried to make Jack do something named himself as Sergeant Stewart Baxter, fashioning himself as the de facto leader of the operators dispatched by the Department of Defense’s Special Command.
That talk went as well as one would expect. And it was one of those rare times where Jack thought it was A Good Thing his face was hidden by the darkened visor, or otherwise he’d have some serious trouble down the line, judging by the personality of this Baxter fellow. He seemed like one of those guys that didn’t like defeats and would pursue whatever to the ends of the earth. A fun guy to be around, basically.
Anyways, that was a way before the take-off, back at the airport. Right now, Stewart and his pals were keeping their questions and aggro to themselves which was just fine by Jack. But in the long run, he acutely felt the need to find a way to mask whatever his body was emitting so these troublesome guys wouldn’t be able to track him down after all was said and done.
It was a pain in the neck for sure, but he was helpless to do anything about it, at least temporarily. As soon as his powers were comparable to that of original Gilgamesh, he had this hunch everything would work out towards his favor.
So, for now, Jack did his best to ignore the stares and instead choose to study them in detail. Battle Sense came in real handy in situations like these, he mused inwardly.
He hadn’t made any headway in extracting red souls from the Soul Sphere but he was slowly becoming proficient at taking a peek using his Battle Sense which kind of felt wrong, maybe even dirty, to him in a way that was oddly similar to the invasion of privacy. Basically, he was taking a look at the people around him and figuring out roughly what they can do. He wondered whether this was how Taylor felt whenever she used her powers. He could tell, more or less, if a person was strong or not. He could also tell what they were about to do, which was kind of freaky in itself as well. It was not a psychic ability, more like a predictive one where he could calculate within a reasonable accuracy by observing the way the muscles contract and expand.
Besides Jack and Vanguard, Stewart Baxter was also a Super, which was kinda obvious seeing that he was from the Project Dead Kings. His squad entirely consisted of Supers as well, which was again obvious thing, too. There were nine of the Big Brother-sponsored Supers in total, including Stewart, on this helicopter alone. The rest of the Project Dead Kings operatives were split evenly and rode on other helicopters.
Jack checked out the other two closest to him, a Latino girl in her late teens and a white kid, also in his teens. Jack didn’t quite catch their names. They looked young but hardened. Their facial expressions seemed frozen due to all the hardcore stuff they had seen or some such like that. They must’ve been a riot in a dinner party, Jack thought wryly to himself. No wonder Erik and Co wanted to escape from the Project. The rest also were teens, just as Vanguard had mentioned, something that could be explained by the timing of their augmentation. It’d be done roughly around the same period. But other Dead Kings operatives were slightly older, so Jack had to assume they were…. older batches, for a lack of better description.
“Arriving at the Point B. Look sharp. Team Beverley, separating.”
The original 24 helicopters split into two at the Point A just above Jersey City, 8 of them forming the Team Amber, heading up further North towards the City College in Upper Manhattan.
At the Point B near the famed Statue of Liberty, the remaining 16 divided into two, Jack’s group continuing on til Times Square. The final group, Team Beverley, would descend near the iconic Charging Bull statue at lower Manhattan – the famed Wall Street.
Each of the groups was assigned different missions. Team Amber and Beverley’s primary mission was to find any survivors and perform reconnaissance & rescue operations, while Jack’s was to basically eliminate Nico Gavalas and the Guardian Beast Humbaba. And of course, stop the Tree of the End from establishing a contact with the Anunnaki. Easier said than done, and thus the best equipped and supported out of the three groups in terms of firepower and the number of hot-blooded soldiers.
Speaking of firepower, Jack was quite conscious of himself, mixed among the grim-faced soldiers. Why? The giant halberd was taking up a considerable amount of space within the relatively cramped confines of the Chinook, that’s why.
The imposing weapon was unpainted, just like the Kevlar survival suit, and taller than he was by at least a foot. The circumference was as thick as a person’s wrist, and the ax-head at the top was shaped in simple yet threatening fashion. The tip was sharpened to a point for the thrusting attacks as well. The whole thing was quite heavy and if it weren’t for Jack’s enhanced strength, there was no way in hell a normal person would be able to wield it let alone lift it off the ground.
Made out of a special alloy consisting of titanium and some other fancy metal Jack haven’t even heard of, apparently this halberd was sturdy enough to easily withstand a several dozen tons of impact. Jack would be very happy if that figure was not an exaggeration as pretty soon, he’d get to actually experience it. His life may depend on the thing delivering as promised.
Anyways, it was a long-ass weapon, for sure. And it couldn’t be bent in half or otherwise stored in some miraculous storage dimension made popular by countless web novels. This was the reality, after all. Or, at least, he hadn’t heard of such a power yet. The world was truly vast so who knows what other crazy and unbelievable things were out there.
A magnetic coupling system at the back of the suit was used to securely attach the halberd there, but it also meant that Jack had to remain standing because of that. Everyone else was sitting on the bench so with him standing there, Jack kinda couldn’t help but feel like that unlucky bus passenger unable to grab an open seat while everyone else stole it right under his nose. Even then, innards of a Chinook was not what you’d call substantially spacious.
By virtue of standing in the middle, everyone’s sights often landed on him. Really, he never thanked the blacked-out visor this much before until now. He was already deep in the pool of embarrassment what with sticking out like a sore thumb, robbing everyone of the valuable space in the helicopter. If someone complained loudly about it, he’d rather jump out into the cold water below.
Unbeknownst him, though, there was a reason why no one raised an issue with Jack and his unwieldy giant halberd. There was this subtle yet dangerous, oppressive aura oozing off of him, that was why. Even the “normal” non-Supers could feel it on their skin. It was pretty effective in shutting them up.
If he knew the existence of this aura…. he’d die even faster of a bigger embarrassment. He didn’t intend on being an intimidating, no good S.O.B., after all. He was not a thug and didn’t want to be branded as one, either.
“We’re now above the island,” shouted the pilot as he looked down at the ground. Many others took a long gaze down through the window, affected by the morbid curiosity of those still suffering on the surface.
Jack also glanced outside and grimaced at the sight. Even though it was nighttime, even though there was no electricity – the island was lit in colorful yet somber hues from the floating motes of lights. One of the soldiers commented that they resembled the Will o’ the Wisps. Jack personally thought they were closer to the floating souls sans the red color. Whatever they were, the fog of heavy eeriness coming off them covered the dead city.
The soldiers saw the devastated landscape. All of the tall skyscrapers had all collapsed. Smaller buildings too suffered and not much remained of the glorious structures that celebrated the varied and colorful history of the city. The concrete ground was gouged out, broken, pockmarked. Remaining walls crumbled at the slightest hint of a breeze and burst main pipes exposed to the air, the water occasionally sputtering out.
Everywhere the occupants of the helicopters looked, they could only see the unprecedented scale of destruction and chaos. Also, unnervingly, they couldn’t spot a single dead body but they were up fairly high in the air. For all they know, the shredded and rotting corpses could be lining up the destroyed streets below.
Seeing the desolate and ruined cityscape below, Jack regretted not getting to speak to his family for one last time. Yes, he found Mylorne Akkad just fine, but unlocking the call functions on the PDA was not possible because the billionaire didn’t have the right software with him. No one from the Akkadian Corporation present at Newark did, since the suit was still in development and not all of its specs were finalized. Making the updates to the OS wasn’t a priority, after all.
That wasn’t a good result but he got to borrow Akkad’s own mobile device so he believed it all worked fine. The issue was with no one answering when he tried to call his family’s numbers. Not even his grandparents picked the phone up this time.
That worried him even more greatly. Why would they not answer now, knowing that he’d call them again sooner rather than later? Something bad was going on but he was on the other side of the continent and there was not a single damn thing he could do.
Out of desperation, Jack almost called Taylor but stopped, not entirely sure if she should be involved with the shenanigans of his family, not knowing that she was already somewhat involved with the matter.
Jack was about to risk it and fly back home, but the top brass decided to greenlight the mission before he could arrange the trip. Meaning, he was too late. It was unusual, the speed at which the decision was made. And even more suspiciously, the preparations by the various branches of the military were done in a blink of an eye, as if they were already planning to enter the island way before Mylorne suggested the idea.
The operation was a go and Jack “Lugal” Mercer’s participation could not be withdrawn. So, trusting Mylorne’s promise that he’d investigate his family’s mysterious unwillingness to answer their phones, Jack boarded the Chinook and there he was, flying into the island of Manhattan. The sheer, gut-wrenching level of devastation on the ground made him regret this decision, He should’ve made sure to talk to his family before coming here. The amalgamated feelings of foreboding and encroaching fear were hard to keep under control if it weren’t for the increased level of adrenaline.
Before long, they arrived at Times Square. The Black Hawks hovered in the air and the Special Operations Forces soldiers poured out, repelling down the ropes and spreading around the moment their feet touched the solid ground. The Apaches provided the cover, maintaining vigilance. Once the immediate area was secure, the Chinook descended, allowing the occupants to jump out and join the others.
“Okay, here we go.”
Vanguard took a deep breath and jumped out of the helicopter right behind the rest of the soldiers. Jack followed soon after, feeling nothing on his feet as the boots of the survival suit landed on the uneven ground. He emulated the other soldiers and quickly moved away from the helicopter, reaching behind him for the massive halberd.
The Chinook stayed above the ground at a couple of feet, its rotors continuously spinning, and as soon as it emptied its human cargo, quickly rose back up to the sky. The Black Hawks and Apaches possessed powerful weapons but Chinooks did not and thus would become a sitting duck in case of a battle. It made sense to leave the area as soon as possible.
The Black Hawks and Apaches left as well, leaving behind several dozens of men, equipped with high-caliber rifles. The leaders of the each platoon did a quick head count and split into their designated spots. All of these were done in less than ten seconds and Jack had to admire their professionalism and efficiency.
The odd men out were Jack and Vanguard who didn’t belong to any one faction. Smiling wryly, Vanguard glanced at his partner for this adventure and shook his head slightly.
“So, Lugal, feeling nervous?”
Jack cringed pretty hard at the mention of that name. He had no idea why he chose that particular word. Could it be the personality of Gilgamesh showing up or something? Was it taking over Jack’s own persona? Whatever the case may be, Jack thought it was a quite shameless name. A thoughtless moment later, the name stuck. Now he had to live with it.
Jack sighed but the sound didn’t escape the helmet. He just shook his head. “I’m fine. What about you?”
Vanguard loosened his shoulders and stretched his arms, his eyes taking in the surroundings. There was the unmistakable heaviness in his voice, though, showing how angry and sad he was. “This place…. it will never recover after this. I was there at the World Trade Center when they fell. But this… this is worse. Way worse.”
Vanguard’s voice choked up towards the end. Jack silently nodded and didn’t say anything.
“Okay, no more chit chat. Let’s move!!”
The Captain leading the company of troops barked out the order through the radio. There was a lot of interference so the long-range communication was impossible, but within the close proximity, it wasn’t so bad. At least the soldiers could hear one another. The company was made up of three platoons, and one of them was made up exclusively of the Project Dead Kings operators, plus Lugal and Vanguard in tow. They took point as the Latino girl who had been next to Jack during the helicopter ride had some type of a scouting ability. Jack again wondered whether it was similar to Taylor’s powers, but after a short observation, decided it was inferior.
Leading this particular platoon was Stewart Baxter. He glanced at his charges, his stares lingering a while longer on Lugal’s dark and mysterious, oppressive figure before moving on. In all honesty, he wasn’t satisfied with this arrangement. He understood that the purpose of his existence was for assignments like this, but still.
He couldn’t help but let his mind lose focus, thinking about just what it was with Lugal that made him sense this strange feeling. The other G Children from the Project all professed to having the same sensation as he did before, so it wasn’t just him going crazy. It was just that, he hadn’t felt it so strongly until now.
Is this what Erik, Cleo and Lei felt a month ago? Is Lugal the reason why they left the unit? So, do they know who this Lugal is under that helmet?
Stewart chewed on this possibility. He reported this matter to the higher ups who were already well aware of the anomaly, so with this new info, they might be able to figure out what was going on with him and the rest of the squad. It was his responsibility to properly command his men and he’d be damned if he failed in this regard.
He was originally tasked with leading the G Squad, made up with the 12 G Children. But now that Erik, Cleo and Lei had deserted, the brass chose to combine the remaining members from other squads and thus forming a single sizable platoon of augmented Supers.
Stewart’s role was diminished a great deal because of this. And now, he had to share the same air as the one who caused this rescission of his prestigious position. Of course he was not satisfied. But it was an order from the above, so he had to abide by it…. for now.
Unaware of the unfriendly gazes towards him, Jack gripped the halberd tight and looked up at the Tree of the End, rising from beyond the destroyed and crumbling ruins of the once magnificent city. It looked a lot taller up close. What was the technology used to raise such an incredible structure? Was it magic? Jack silently mulled these questions.
The Anunnaki created this thing. So that meant they possessed a much higher level of technology than humanity. Could he be able to fight against them if it came to that? Jack felt less confident now, looking up at the huge monolithic object. He sure understood what ants must’ve felt looking up at passing humans.
The rolling black clouds rumbled around the Tree, purple lightning coiling within, threatening to strike down all those daring to harbor any thoughts of rebellion.
The motes of lights were bigger nearer the Tree, swirling and dancing slowly around like planktons in deep seawater. Maybe they were pyreflies from one of the video games he saw someone playing a long time ago. Now that he was actually on the ground, these motes seemed rather melancholic and sad rather than eerie. He could be the only one feeling this way, though.
Jack dismissed these thoughts from his head. He was now on the enemy territory. A single stray thought, one second of distraction, and he would die a dog’s death here. His heart thumped loudly in the dreadful anticipation as the platoon rushed forward, towards the base of the Tree of the End.
All of the buildings were destroyed but the group couldn’t simply run on top of the rubble as they had no clue what laid beneath and couldn’t risk traversing on an unstable foundation. Almost all the high-rises in Manhattan had underground parking lots and they could collapse further if the soldiers tread on top, causing massive casualties if so.
Going around or clearing out these obstructions took time, affording Jack a breather to review the plan in his head.
One, infiltrate the island from three different locations and search for any survivors. When found, evacuate to the previously designated rendezvous points and wait for the exfil. If none are found, then head to the Tree’s base where the core is supposedly found.
Two, if the Super suspected of causing the massive destruction, Nico Gavalas. is sighted, execute him with extreme prejudice if a due process can not be carried out.
Three, laser paint the Guardian Beast Humbaba for a surgical strike with a guided missile fired from a passing bomber that would be launched off an aircraft carrier anchored in the Atlantic Ocean. Jack had no idea how powerful the resulting explosion could be, but he hoped it should be more than enough to do the job.
And four, install a batch of HMX explosives on the core of the Tree and destroy it.
Simple enough, Jack supposed.
There were finer points to the plan but Jack’s job was not about worrying over those. He was here to fight Humbaba and distract it long enough so the U.S. Army could bombard it to kingdom come. That was it.
Initially, there was some concern regarding traveling in the air to enter the island, but seeing that the bridges were all out of commission and the tunnels were flooded after the metal vines did a number on them, infiltration via a squadron of helicopters were deemed to be the only way in. The only other alternative was to go in via water, but that would have, comparatively speaking, take too long. There was a justified reason why the aerial route was seen as the last resort.
After the initial appearance of the Tree, every moving object was attacked, and this included all those flying in the air. A countless number of civilian helicopters and airplanes inexplicably lost all electronics and fell from the sky, becoming fodder for the violently rampaging metal vines on the ground. The reasons for this phenomenon was not explained other than some weak conjectures. So yes, the concern for the safety of the combatants was not misplaced.
Thankfully, nothing happened. The vines had retreated to near the Tree and stopped attacking anything moving indiscriminately.
But that didn’t lessen the painful reality of the scale of destruction wrought by those damnable things. Everywhere Jack looked, there was this hopeless sense of absolute desolation. While his time on the island was less than ten minutes, Jack couldn’t even see a single insect. Not even one or two scurrying rats, or those famous oversized New York cockroaches. He once heard that those vermin could survive even the nuclear holocaust but here, that assertion seemed false to the extreme.
Vanguard also 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. That thought was royally pissing him off. He couldn’t wait to get his hands around Nico Gavalas’s neck.
There was a lot of dust blowing around in the howling winds, making it a chore to breathe. On top of that, the winds sang a sorrowful, ghostly wail at the soldiers, making some of them shiver as they continued the silent marching forward, their rifles resolutely pointing forward.
Occasionally, an entrance to the underground subway line was found where the bare concrete was exposed, but judging by the way how they were all caved in, it seemed like rescuing anyone potentially trapped inside would be impossible – that was, if they managed to somehow survive underground.
More and more soldiers realized there was no one alive, no survivors to speak of. The faces darkened, hints of anger rising behind their eyes.
“What is that?”
The Latino girl who was taking the point murmured in confusion just as the Central Park became visible in the front. Jack wasn’t sure what she was referring to, and so he strained his senses to the max. Then he heard a sound, a distinct pulse.
The source was the Tree of the End. It was emitting a bizarre, low-frequency hum at a fixed rate. It was something that couldn’t be heard by normal means but instead, felt through one’s body. The ground was trembling every time the pulse rang out, becoming noticeable as the soldiers got nearer and nearer to the target.
The Latino girl frowned and closed her eyes for a second before hurriedly opening her eyes. “We have company.”
As soon as the words left her mouth, all of the soldiers became extra vigilant. They were already pointing their powerful automatic rifles forward but now, their aims have become far steadier, far more focused on a single point.
Jack narrowed his eyes and used the PDA to access the zoom function on the visor. In the distance, he could barely see movements. He extended his Battle Sense as much as possible and it began to spit out alarm bells like crazy, telling him to be on guard.
“Eyes in front,” said the Latino girl. “Eleven o’clock. The distance, one hundred fifty meters and a change.”
The normal, non-Super soldiers quickly utilized the scopes on the rifles to check out the spotted movement way out in front. The light from the floating motes helped but the rising dust kicked up by the winds made it difficult to make out properly what it was they were supposed to see.
One of the Dead Project Kings operators breathed out heavily as he first spotted what it could be. He possessed a powerful eyesight that could discern even the most smallest movement.
“Holy sh*t, is that a survivor?!”
At those shocked words, all attentions were placed towards the blurry figure in the distance. The views through the scopes yielded a figure of a humanoid weakly stumbling towards the soldiers’ position.
Soon, more and more soldiers could spot this figure, prompting the Captain to give the word. The squad from a platoon broke off and began to quickly rush in, planning to secure the target if it turned out to be a survivor.
However, Jack wasn’t so sure about this. Besides his Battle Sense telling him to be careful, something about the way the figure moved felt off to him.
The Special Operations Forces soldiers weren’t a bunch of dummies, though. They knew the score and kept a tight formation while swiftly covering the distance. They were moving at a decent gallop but not once did they lower their guard. But even then, they were not prepared for this.
Quickly the squad gap closed and the stumbling figure was in sight. Indeed, it was a person. But…. it was unlike any other person they have seen in their lives before. The soldiers, once full of well-deserved confidence, stopped dead in their treks when it became painfully clear what they were facing was not really a human.
“What the hell is this?!”
One of the Special Operations Forces soldiers muttered out in shock.
The humanoid figure emerging from the haze of the blowing dust was indeed shaped like a person. Yet it was made up of a bizarre, unknown dark brown 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 unzipped windbreaker this thing wore, also made of metal, danced ever so slightly in the air.
Anyone who played games would instantly recognize this thing as it could only be the fabled golem. A metal golem magically created by, most likely, the Tree of the End as its foot soldier. A pawn to deal with those pesky insects trying to disturb its important work, no doubt.
Even more disturbingly, the golem was shaped like a regular New Yorker, just taking a casual stroll out 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.
“Christ, Mary and Joseph. That is….. Son of a bi*ch.”
One of the soldiers muttered under his breath. The golem heard him, and it stopped its jerky, awkward movement. It unnaturally tilted its head, the vacant and unseeing eyes turning towards the soldiers. Its mouth laboriously opened and from within that inky darkness, a keening metallic screech exploded out. The dusty haze seemed to quiver, and suddenly, many more silhouettes of humanoid figures emerged one after the other.
Before anyone could react, the golems poured out from the fog. Belatedly, the squad of soldiers started firing, but by then, their fate was already sealed.
A squad consisted of between 8 and 12 soldiers depending on the particular branch of the military, and this squad had 9 well-armed men which would be more than enough to deal with most situations. But not now. The number of metal golems swelled in less than a second, and the squad was facing hundreds of them all at once.
Bullets began firing, striking the metallic flesh, scattering sharp sparks and bits and pieces of stuff. Golems fell, but in their place, more replaced the fallen.
The remaining company of soldiers watching from the distance fell into a panic at the sudden explosion of violence, the appearance of the most unexpected enemy. Before the Captain could give out a fresh order to go and aid his isolated men, all around them an incredible number of golems began to pop out of the dusty haze.
A frenzied firefight was the only result that could rise from the meeting of the two opposing forces. The company of soldiers, under the order of the Captain, rapidly formed a circular defensive formation as the enemies surround them and started firing without hesitation.
Jack had not heard of the real gunshots until now, so he got the shock of his life at how loud they could be. The cacophony of gunpowder expanding under the heat and bullets meeting metal filled the night air. Jack and Vanguard couldn’t move from their spots as they were close-range fighters and if they tried to butt in, a stray bullet could easily hit them. That would be very unfunny.
In the maelstrom of destruction, Jack kept his Battle Sense stretched as far as possible and observed these metal golems. In the games and fantasy books, these things had a weak point, the magic core. Disregarding the fact that they were simply works of people’s imaginations, he hoped the rule of the core applied here to these golems as well. Because, the countless golems, shot down by the explosive barrage of bullets, continued to attack the soldiers no matter how badly they were damaged.
Sure, there were enough that were cut down by the rifles but that number was like a pittance compared to the hundreds upon hundreds of golems that had descended down on the company of the soldiers.
The squad that broke away earlier on were already dead, their limbs ripped apart and the blood coating the rutted concrete below. Red souls rose from the dying bodies but with Jack being in close proximity, they rushed into his Soul Sphere.
And everytime a golem was destroyed, a wisp of red soul emerged from it. It was too thin to be seen as a full soul, but nevertheless, it entered into Jack without a problem. In a way, this gun battle was nourishing his depleted Soul Sphere.
What was also being depleted was the ammo of the soldiers. Each of the golems needed a large number of bullets to bring down unless the elusive core was hit, so the stock of ammo was hitting the bottom in no time.
The Project Dead Kings operatives didn’t use their powers but relied on the weapons they carried, at least for now. Stewart pulled out a humongous anti-material rifle that was as long as Jack’s halberd and started firing the massively overpowered rounds at the body of the golems. This gun was so powerful, the golems that got hit disintegrated after a single shot. And the ones behind the destroyed golems also suffered terrifying destruction from the immense power of the bullets.
Unlike Jack and his unfoldable halberd though, Stewart’s AM rifle could be disassembled and carried in a metal case, denoting its custom design. The white kid who sat next to the Latin girl, on the other hand, held a carbon composite hunting bow. But he didn’t use any arrows; instead, every time he tugged on the string, a line of deep green light materialized on his fingertips. This line shot out like a real arrow and pierced the golems. It lacked an explosive power like Stewart’s AM rifle, but in turn, had incredible piercing capabilities, plunging past several dozen golems in one shot.
Looking at them, Jack thought that there were all sorts of Supers out there and that guys like him or Vanguard who could only go out there and swing their fists around were rather unsophisticated and uncouth. He got slightly depressed by that. Why couldn’t Gilgamesh shoot lasers or something? Jack sighed inwardly and lamented the lack of cool long range attacks.
But his lackadaisical lamentations had to wait for another day as the golems began to overwhelm the outer flanks of the soldiers with the sheer numbers. Blood flowed thick and screams of those falling under the cold, hard metallic hands resounded in the air. One side of the formation collapsed and the golems broke in through this opening.
Jack had enough. After checking the golems out with Battle Sense, he knew more or less where to attack these damn things. It was time to move. He quickly shouted at Vanguard who was also moving in to intercept the pouring golems. “Aim for their cores!! It’s near the heart!! Destroy that, and these things will go down in one shot!!”
Vanguard heard him just fine, and as to show his thanks, he began to expertly pummel the golems one by one. He used his gloved fist like a pair of battering rams and blew away the torso of the golems. Inwardly, though, he was alarmed at how tough these golems were.
Meanwhile, Jack swiftly stepped forward and swung the halberd in a wide arc, mindful of not hitting his own allies. A single, clean line was drawn in the air as the weighty weapon scythed past multiple golems’ torsos. A sharp, ear-screeching noise of metal cutting metal drowned out the nearby screams of dying soldiers and the upper torso of the dozen golems flew away, sliced in half.
Not stopping there, he then proceeded to swing the weapon one more time. The ground gouged out from the sheer power of Jack’s attack, blowing away the surrounding golems into the air and forcing them back.
The soldiers and the Dead Kings operatives who saw this display of power felt a shocking chill settle down on the pits of their stomachs. The number of golems Jack split in half was not low – it numbered past a dozen, and the ones he pushed back were couple times higher than that.
Jack himself was surprised by his own strength too. This was the first time he attacked in anger since his power-up, and the extent of the improvement was beyond his own expectations.
The maniacal grin spread on Jack’s face, hidden under the dark visor. Laughing inwardly, he extended his Battle Sense to envelop the whole of the battlefield that was fast descending into chaos, and jumped into the fray like a wolf jumping into a flock of sheep. Golem massacre had begun in earnest.
Jack swung and cut down golems like a man possessed. He became the character from one of those Japanese Musou video games where he was mowing down wave after wave of mindless enemies with wild abandon, not worried about his life at all.
And everytime he cut down a golem, the wisp of red soul entered his Soul Sphere, filling it ever so slightly. When the hidden core was destroyed by his wild but powerful swings, the golem’s connection with the Tree of the End got severed and it melted into a gray puddle, solidifying on the ground after only a few seconds.
While Jack was minding his own business, the formation finally broke and the individual squads had to take cover in the ruined cityscape, trying to find refuge against the seemingly endless deluge of the metal golems. One of these squads was the Dead Kings’ G Squad.
Stewart led his unit into a nearby building that missed two of its sides. At least here, he reasoned, there were two fewer sides to cover. He knew it was a suicide to separate from the company but there was no choice in the matter. They were getting overwhelmed and staying put in one place was just as bad as splitting up.
He calculated the odds and the equation became rather simple – find a shelter from this storm or die trying to defend a point that was actually insignificant in the actual mission itself.
Also, there was this thing, a nagging belief at the back of his mind that told him this was the best course of action for his men. And that was the statistic he read in a report some time ago.
The island of Manhattan had around 1.65 million inhabitants. The golems he fought until now… resembled regular people who might have lived in this city. Was there a possibility that every single one of the former residents of this place became those golems? If so, then they simply didn’t have the enough ammo or explosives to weather this storm. He could groan in abject horror at this thought.
If his conjecture was true, then between his unit and the Tree, there were over a million and a half of metal abominations waiting to kill them. Suddenly, this excursion didn’t sound so clever to him anymore.
After running for a while through the maze of destroyed buildings, they were given some respite as no more golems attacked them. Catching his breath, he turned to the Latino girl and asked while wiping the sweat off his face.
“Okay, what’s our situ, Lopez?”
She pulled out a canteen and took a long sip before answering him. “We’re okay for now, but as far as I could see, there’s no way we can break out of that back there. We were totally surrounded. Want my advice? Let’s retreat. We need lots more firepower for this mission. One company is just not enough.”
Stewart gripped his AM rifle tightly and groaned again. “No, we can’t just abandon our mission just like that. We need to…. take a minute to compose ourselves, and we’ll find the others. Our mission is to kill the Guardian Beast and to destroy the structure’s core. Until another order is given, we carry it out to the best of our abilities.”
He turned his attention to another one of his men, a lanky youth, and spoke in a hurry. “Chuck, can you contact the Command with your powers? We need to let them know what happened here.”
Chuck shook his head. “No. The interference also affects my powers. I can only talk to someone within the radius of a couple hundred yards, but that’s it. Even that’s getting tougher the closer we get to the Tree.”
The silence gripped the squad. This was their first real combat outside of the simulation test runs. They were all gung-ho about this first wide scale mission against a suspected Lord of Darkness, but this…. they had seen a lot of people die today. They were mentally prepared, but still, thoughts tumbling in their heads were mixed and barely under control.
“Okay, don’t give up yet, Chuck. Keep on trying. The C Squad possessed the special ULF radios, right? You can boost the output of that thing. We need to call the HQ and let them know what the hell is going on here.” Stewart gripped Chuck’s shoulder and nodded. But before he could give out the next order, someone else chimed in.
“Wait a second. What about the other companies? Amber and Beverley, I mean. Are they also encountering the same problem as us?”
Stewart gritted his teeth and shook his head. “Maybe. No, most likely. But that’s out of our hands. Look, they can handle themselves. Let’s not worry about them for now. My priority is to get us to the Tree’s core. To complete our mission.”
He studied the faces of his squad and after seeing the grim determinations, he nodded his head slowly.
“Okay. We can do this. No, we will do this. Because we trained hard for a day like today. So let’s make ourselves proud and get this sh*t done!!”
Meanwhile, Jack continued to cut down the golems. His arms were getting tired from all that swinging and he knew if this continued, then even he’d have to seriously consider running away. But that was out of the question.
He knew this was the best chance to bring down the Tree and its Guardian Beast, Humbaba. He knew it was at its weakest right now. If he couldn’t capitalize on this chance, then it’d only get harder later on.
According to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the battle against the fearsome Guardian, which was going through a trough in its power for some reason, still injured Gilgamesh and his friend, Enkidu. It described the Beast as “only wearing one garment,” whatever that meant. Didn’t matter how much of that story was real, what was truly important there was the implied power of the Guardian Beast.
And Humbaba was at its weakest right now, even weaker than back then. The forces here could potentially contend with the creature. Plus, the promised missile strike could ensure them the victory. But that was only if they acted now.
Normally, this is nothing more than a fool’s errand, a suicide, Jack thought inwardly as yet another golem turned to a puddle of liquid below his feet.
Yet, he didn’t feel at all worried, weirdly enough. No, if anything, his mind was exceedingly clear. It was not overflowing with useless confidence nor with conceit. He knew what must be done, no matter the cost.
His Battle Sense told him not one living soldier was within his vicinity. He grinned like an evil man and gathered a huge amount of strength. He jumped up in the sky, before doing a perfect roll in the air to gather momentum.
Then, he fell down into the middle of the metal golems like a falling meteor.
The ground exploded and the dozens and dozens of golems were blown away, disintegrating into nothing more than tiny fragments. Heavy smoke rose from where he struck, and when it cleared, the ground was gouged out into a small crater. All the golems that were surrounding him were destroyed in one go. There were a few that still functioned but the damage was catastrophic and to him at least, didn’t pose any danger. So he ignored those.
Jack felt satisfied. He felt good, doing that. He was feeling alive at this very moment, relishing this opportunity to cut loose and go wild without a worry in the world. And the halberd was holding up incredibly well, not a nick or scratch on its edges.
He turned his attentions to where the rest of the soldiers were. In his heightened state, he could see the flow of the battlefield incomparably clearly. It was like he could almost see how each and every skirmish would play out even at a single glance. He was like a wizened general in complete control of the war, able to manipulate it to however he wished.
Is this how Gilgamesh felt back then? Is this how Gilgamesh became the greatest King on earth?
Jack’s grin broadened under the visor. He gripped the halberd tightly and rushed forward to the nearest pockets of golems engaged with the desperate soldiers who were fast running out of ammo.
Several stray shots flew at his way but Jack expertly judged the trajectories correctly and dodged them all. Back in the convenience store, when that armed robber tried to shoot him, he was too slow and all he could do was to duck. But now, he was weaving past the bullets. The change in his abilities was drastic, to say the least.
Jack moved like lightning and cut down dozens and dozens of slow golems. He alone was responsible for whittling down the number of enemies by more than half. He didn’t keep count, of course. It was not important anyway.
By the time the last visible golem was cut down, Vanguard had joined up with Jack, looking a bit worse for wear. They simply shared a knowing nod before moving on. The company of soldiers had dispersed and different squads had gone off to different directions. The two Supers wordlessly decided to locate and reorganize the scattered soldiers for the push towards the Tree of the End. This battle was far from over.
There were dead soldiers everywhere. Vanguard and Lugal – Jack – grimaced at the strong smell of blood floating in the air. Although he had been subjected to death and gore already, the scale here was quite different as there were people involved here, rather than monsters or some wild coyote.
The duo located the surviving soldiers quickly but the trouble didn’t end there.
“We’re withdrawing. We can’t continue,” said the company Captain, his face caked in blood and fatigue. “We underestimated the threat level. The preparations weren’t enough. This mission… is a failure.”
Jack couldn’t blame the guy for his decision. Almost three-fifths of his company were either dead or missing. Radio communication was difficult, verging on impossible if he wanted to call HQ due to strange interference. Their ammo supply was running critically low. There were many wounded. And they had no idea just how many more of those golems they had to fight to get to the base of the Tree. In the Captain’s estimation, this was already a lost cause. He was cutting his losses before it was too late.
Of course, empathizing with the person and agreeing with him was two different matter altogether.
“I’m not going back. The danger will double, no triple, when we return later. The Guardian Beast Humbaba should be at its weakest right now. I’m planning to take this chance and strike, destroying the core of that Tree before the sunrise,” said Jack. He took a long, probing stare at the Captain, seeing the man’s mind not about to change.
Sighing, Jack shook his head. “If you want to go back, I’ll not stop you. But… I’ll need the explosives and the laser designator. Leave them behind.”
There was a moment of silence, before the Captain turned to his subordinate and gave out the order. “Fine. Sergeant, relinquish our HMX reserves and the laser designator to Mister Lugal here. I hope you know how to operate them.”
As the bombs were being gathered, what was remaining here anyway, Jack asked Vanguard who was drinking water from the canteen. “What about you, Vanguard?”
“Do you even need to ask?” replied the burly Super. “We keep going, and smash this thing apart. I ain’t planning to keep Nico and his gang waiting.”
(Another chapter that took a bit longer that I expected. Oh well. I may have fudged up the military tactics and their gear so if you spot them, please forgive me and point out the mistakes out in the comments.)
(Please support my writing by reading it, and talking to your friends about it. Any comments you wish to make are welcome, especially the constructive criticisms. Also, I would deeply appreciate if you show your love by donating some $$. Ahahaha. Well hey, I need “motivations” too, you know!! Well, it doesn’t have to be a lot….. even a single buck would be fine, you know.)
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.