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(Edit: Oops, this is what happens when you don’t have an editor or a proofreader reminding you of missing parts of your story. I edited in a handful of paragraphs to fill the holes in the plot. Hopefully, no one noticed them!!)
After bidding farewell to the retreating Special Operations Forces soldiers, Jack and Vanguard rushed towards the base of the Tree of the End, where the Metropolitan Museum of Art once stood. Jack remembered that thing about collecting dog tags of the fallen soldiers but according to the company Captain, it wasn’t an issue as they’d return with a bigger force later on and do the collecting then.
Unlike before, the duo of Jack and Vanguard chose to enter the inner sanctum of the enemy in a smarter way. Instead of mindlessly mowing down the scores of metal golems that blocked their way, they tried to avoid as much battle as possible and hid behind the available covers, sometimes staying completely silent to avoid setting off the ears and eyes of the enemies.
Preserving their stamina was the main reason for this decidedly out of character behavior from both of these two close-range, destroy-first-ask-questions-later type guys. Well, they no longer had the luxury of having heavily-armed comrades guard their backs so economizing what they had sounded about right. Also, Jack and Vanguard were carrying the supply of HMX explosives in their backpacks – it wouldn’t be funny at all if a mistake happened during their charge and the bombs go off prematurely. Especially while still on their backs.
So, they ignored the golems at the front and the ones left behind, hoping that when they stop the Tree’s functions, these damnable things would stop on their own, giving them a smooth exit after the completion of the mission. They had no basis to believe this, but bereft of other choices, they simply had to forge on. They concentrated solely on getting there in the perfect incognito.
As expected of two Supers, the progress was faster compared to when babysitting a company of soldiers, and before long, they were standing only a couple hundred yards away from the Central Park. A massive but unmoving vine laid here, as if it was resting after a long day’s work. In the hazy distance, Jack could see the shapes of other vines.
He carefully observed the outer perimeter of the park while hidden behind some rubble of a building, up on the second floor. The view from up here was good, and the rubble seemed solid enough to support his and Vanguard’s weight. Plus, the passing golems couldn’t spot them, which was even better. Where were they? Jack couldn’t tell, since all the street lamps and sign posts were long gone. And he didn’t know much about Manhattan’s street names anyway.
After a while, Jack noticed, through the haze, that there were no metal golems on the grounds of the park itself. On the streets surrounding it, he couldn’t even count the sheer number of these things. Jack found this rather interesting.
“Damn, just how many of those damn things are out there?!”
Vanguard whispered after seeing the same situation as Jack did, evidently flustered by the sea of dark brown metal golems meandering around between the ruined, crumbling buildings and the park itself. To them, it looked like there were more than dozen tens of thousands here alone.
Jack had to agree that the number of these golems were on the wrong side of being ridiculous. Good thing they chose to avoid fighting anything and everything, otherwise it’d take literally forever to get here. But the situation in the park drew in the gaze, making him wonder what was going on there. Why weren’t any golems prowling on the once-pristine grassy banks of the Central Park?
Unable to think of a reason, he decided that two heads were better than one in this case.
“Hey, Mister Vanguard. You see what I’m seeing over there? Why is it that there aren’t any golems in the park?”
Vanguard trained his sharp eyes and studied the Park. He narrowed his eyes and slowly stroked his chin. “Yeah, I see it. Looks like there might be something in the park itself preventing these golems from getting near it. Not even one of them dares get close. Can it be…. the opening we were looking for?”
They exchanged knowing nods. Not one word was necessary to reach a simple consensus, which was, it’d be a real pain not to take this opportunity and rush in. If it was a trap, fine, they had firm confidence that they could escape from the nefarious clutches of the evil schemers so it was more than reasonable to take this offered chance.
Without further ado, the two gathered strength in their legs and kicked out of the cover. Their aim was to run straight past the walls of golems and to enter the park in one go.
Vanguard stepped on the head of the hapless and slow golem, crushing it as he rebounded off of it. Jack’s jump itself took him a lot further and he only needed to jump once more to reach the park. The golems immediately started attacking as soon as the duo broke out from behind the cover, but other than raising a noisy ruckus, there was very little they could do.
Vanguard crushed the ones trying to get clever with his bare fists. Jack didn’t just wait around and began to smash the golems too, clearing the way for the burly Super. Once the laced boots firmly landed on the park, the two braced for the expected ambush of the enemy.
It didn’t come. They waited for a few seconds, highly alert, but in the end, nothing happened. As a matter of fact, everything went deathly quiet.
Confused, Jack glanced back only to receive quite a shock. Vanguard belatedly also turned his gaze behind and saw the empty street behind them.
The landscape teeming with metal golems were now eerily devoid of anything. There was absolutely nothing there, not even a single golem standing. As if it was all a lie and the two of them had imagined the sea of metal golems all by themselves. Not a trace of the golem army remained.
“Okay…. now that is too f*cking spooky.”
Vanguard swore under his breath. Jack too felt like uttering an expletive to show how unnerved he was right now, but gave up after realizing he was too speechless to say anything smart to follow that up.
Shaking his head, Vanguard groaned. “Whew. Alright, this is getting seriously weird. Hey, Lugal, you know what, let’s just rush forward here. If we stop and try to figure this thing out, we’ll need the whole damn year for it.”
Jack wasn’t happy that Vanguard lumped him into the category of the muscle-brained, but chose not to retort for now. Because he happened to agree with the older Super’s idea.
Jack nodded and the two began to run. The inert metal vine remained still but they took a wide berth from it, not taking any chances with the destructive thing. Not once did they lower their guard as the distance between them and the base of the Tree shrunk rapidly.
The number of vines increased closer they got. Soon, they had no choice but to run on the vines themselves as the ground had pretty much disappeared under these metallic protrusions. At least they were firm under their pounding feet and didn’t swat them off like an irritating bug.
Jack used this bit of temporary respite to configure the PDA and the survival suit to link up with the laser designator. Even though he asked for it, that didn’t mean he knew how to use it. By linking the laser to the advanced operating software of his suit, Jack thought he could at least do what the thing was intended for. Then he reminded himself of the activation sequence for the explosives. That one was easy enough.
However, the truly urgent issue of finding a way to contact the outside world, more specifically the aircraft carrier off the coast, didn’t enter their minds until now. Jack heard about the intense signal interference but naively he believed that once he pointed the laser at the target, the cavalry would come guns blazing.
In truth, because the normal radio waves couldn’t penetrate this unknown electromagnetic interference, those in command decided on the usage of the special short-range Ultra Low Frequency “Earth-mode” radio equipment. The signal generated by this radio could travel underground and even though the quality was also affected by the interference, it was deemed very much functional.
However, even though ULF communication was pioneered in World War 1, the equipment for personal use was still in research and testing phase under the project DARPA had funded. In other words, it was still an experimental technology. Almost no military base had this radio laying around, never mind equipping every soldier under the flag with one.
Thus, only one experimental ULF radio was issued per platoon. There were three platoons in a company, so that meant there was a grand total of three ULF radios in the hands of soldiers participating in this mission. One left with the retreating soldiers while the other two were lost during the melee of the golem army. As to why the Captain failed to hand over this vital communication equipment, it was simple, really. He wanted to contact the evac team as soon as he was near the rendezvous point. And the ULF radio was the only thing that guaranteed to get his message across. Nothing against the two Supers, but his priority was to get his surviving men off this goddamned island, after all.
Unfortunately, neither Vanguard nor Lugal were terribly aware of this oversight, blithely heading towards where the entrance to the core of the Tree was.
“Hey, Lugal. You feel that?”
Vanguard spoke in an uneasy tone as he stopped to take in the sight of the huge black “pole” in front of them. He was rubbing his knuckles just now, but stopped after thinking that something was amiss.
Jack glanced him, briefly wondering what he was talking about. Then he felt it too. There was another, faint vibration on the ground that didn’t belong to the Tree’s own hum. This new one was different, as he could actually hear the thump coming from the Tree itself. It reminded Jack of a heart beating slowly.
A grim foreboding that had taken root but was in quietened state roused from its slumber again and let Jack know he better hurry with whatever he was here for.
“So, isn’t this about time when either that bastard Nico Gavalas or that Guardian thing with a funny name show up?”
Vanguard casually spat out while cracking his knuckles. He grimaced a little as his body protested inwardly at the vigorous activity it had to endure, something he hadn’t done in a long while. Especially, his bum knee was raising the biggest complaint here, making him slightly frown in irritation.
Hearing the potential flag-raising words, Jack reached to his lower back to grab the laser designator, securely fastened there with a strap. He was getting ready to use the laser designator but thought for a second and decided to hand it to Vanguard instead. “Take this, Mr. Vanguard. I’ll be drawing Humbaba’s attention while you use the opportunity to tag the beast. And then, we will….”
Before he could finish his sentence, there was a huge rumbling coming from the dark clouds above. It sounded like a lion roaring in anger, sending instinctive chills down Jack’s spine.
He felt this incredible urge to dodge – and as he was about to say something, a crack of purple lightning hit the ground about one hundred meters in front. The world was scorched into white nothingness and it blinded Vanguard. Jack fared better, as the visor was able to block out the most of the glare.
In that moment, quicker than the proverbial blink of an eye, his body reacted. Jack grabbed blinded Vanguard and quickly jumped up high as the powerful surge of electricity traveled on the surface of the metal vine they were standing on. If they remained there, standing still and unaware, then they would have been deep fried right there.
The electric shock went past quickly and the danger of electrocution passed with it. Safely landing on the solid floor, Jack stayed vigilant as he let go of Vanguard. The burly Super mouthed the words of thanks as he rubbed his eyes, trying to get his vision back.
Jack checked out the place where the lightning and sucked in his breath. The metal vine’s surface was gouged out in a huge chunk and he could see some kind of blue liquid slowly seeping out. A few seconds later, the “wound” on the vine repaired itself and now, it was spotless. Now that was some Super regenerative ability, Jack mused silently.
Meanwhile, Vanguard’s vision was restored. He narrowed his eyes in displeasure, thinking he got caught with his pants down. He’d been away from the thick of things for far too long, and this was the result – inability to react in that split-second. If it weren’t for Lugal, he’d be dead by now, or at least, left completely defenseless.
The two men slowly began to move forward again, this time even more cautious than before. But even then, they still failed to pick up on a ghostly apparition slowly emerging from the surface of the vines.
“Well, well now. We have visitors. Welcome, welcome.”
Jack and Vanguard quickly took guard and chased after the origin of the voice.
“It’s him,” said Vanguard as his eyes firmly trained on the smiling mug of Nico Gavalas who was standing where the lightning had fallen. He strode out confidently, his short dark hair now almost silver and shoulder length. There was silver beard growing on his face, too. A rather drastic change from what he looked like only one day ago.
But that wasn’t what made Jack do a double-take at Nico’s appearance. That gaping wound on his chest area did. The kind of damage that should have killed a person outright regardless of being a Super or not was clearly visible on Nico’s torso but he was walking around and speaking without a problem. He didn’t even seem to realize that there was a gaping wound with mangled bits of flesh hanging loose right where his lungs should have been.
“I’m not quite sure what brought you two gentlemen to the altar of worship for this magnificent Tree of the End, but I do welcome every visitor. Your timely sacrifices are an absolutely necessary for our glorious cause, after all.”
Nico grandly clapped his hands and from behind him, a stone tablet flew up, until it came to a stop slightly above his head. There was a low, powerful pulsating hum coming off of this thing, sending out illusory waves of golden light. Rather than making it look majestic, though, the golden light show looked sinister and foreboding instead.
Jack’s eyes trembled as he could sense an enormous, powerful resonance from it, similar to the unique aura from the red souls but this one was far denser and filled with this terrifying storm of resentment and hatred.
Even Vanguard could feel his skin prickling at the sight of that strange stone tablet. He saw bizarre red light mixed within the golden hue, like blood mixing in with orange juice and spoiling it. Every one of his instincts was telling him to be extra careful if he wished to survive the night.
Nico lightly chuckled as he walked closer. In his previously empty hand, an ancient looking dagger suddenly appeared out of nowhere. He casually brandished it and pointed it towards Vanguard and Jack nonchalantly.
“You two have come at just the right time!! I needed that little extra blood to fully open the summoning gate for the great Guardian Beast so your contributions here will be greatly appreciated. So, I thank you for your prudent arrival, gentlemen.”
“Dream on, you freak,” growled Vanguard as clenched his fist tightly. “What the hell did you do to Blast Storm?”
Nico tilted his head in confusion. “Hmm? What’s that?”
“Don’t act stupid, Gavalas. A Superhero named Blast Storm went to stop you at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And then that Tree or whatever sprouted out of there right after. You did something to him, so now spit it out, you bastard!!”
Nico searched his memory for a second or two, before his eyes lit up. “Oh!! Now I remember. Are you talking about the Super who could manipulate the wind? Whew, wow. Let me tell you, he was a real handful. I was nearly in deep trouble. Nearly.” Nico chuckled fondly as if he was recalling a particularly pleasant memory. “Well, he did put up a pretty good fight. But ultimately, he became the nourishing sacrifice for the opening of the gate, so you should be happy, mister.”
Vanguard nearly lost it. He took a threatening step forward but Jack swiftly stopped him from doing something rash. Vanguard simply gritted his teeth, trying to calm himself from recklessly charging in.
Nico’s grin turned sinister, watching Vanguard’s demeanor.
“Huh, was he your friend? Oh, I didn’t know. Well, if you so wish, I could summon him for you. He can help you see the light!! Hmm, yes. I think it’s a good idea. Don’t you agree?”
Nico clapped his hands again, then a nearly invisible wisp of soul emerged from the stone tablet before settling down on the metal floor in front of him. Jack stiffened and gripped the halberd tightly.
The surface of the metal vine rumbled briefly before splitting apart and a dark figure rose from the crack. Seeing this, Vanguard and Jack both sucked in their breaths, although each for their different reasons.
For Vanguard, it was the sheer horror of seeing his friend, Blast Storm, rising up from the dead as one of those infernal metal golems. And for Jack, his eyes perceived the process how the red soul infused with the ground and formed the golem in an instant.
Jack couldn’t help but utter the words, not caring whether anyone could hear him or not.
“The Lord of Darkness…. holy crap. Is this what a Lord can do?!”
The revived Blast Storm’s arms and legs were swiftly surrounded by the tempest of winds, shearing apart the accumulated rubble around its feet. The sharpness of those blades of wind was easy to discern; coming in contact with that would surely mean a very painful injury.
“Well, what do you think? A pretty good, yes?” Nico grinned brightly. “Now, please become the sacrifices.”
Blast Storm pounced at Jack and Vanguard. Jack was about to receive the golem’s attack with his halberd but the formerly retired Superhero had other ideas. He shoved Jack away and shouted. “I’ll take care of this, you get that son of a bi*ch Nico Gavalas!!”
Jack tumbled lightly on the uneven ground before rebounding on his two feet. He glanced over at Vanguard, who had dodged backwards from Blast Storm’s wind-encased fists.
He sighed and turned his attention back at Nico, but to Jack’s surprise, he was not at the same spot anymore. Nico was closing in on Jack incredibly fast, his deadly dagger shooting forward, aiming for the heart.
Cursing inwardly, Jack was about to tilt his body out of the way but then, his Battle Sense automatically kicked in and he instead crouched down and swung the halberd in a huge arc.
At the same time, the Divine Dagger of the Enki extended. Nico swung the extended blade horizontally in a practiced manner. If Jack had tilted out of the way, he’d been hit by that move.
Nico’s pupils contracted as he saw the halberd’s blade heading towards his midriffs. He kicked the floor hard and forced his body to twist out of the way. But the shock wave from Jack’s powerful swing still blew him away a good dozen feet or so.
Nico tumbled on the ground in ungainly fashion but stood up and dusted himself. The smile on his face grew a little colder as he pondered how his mysterious opponent was able to dodge his strike, which had grown in speed and accuracy as he neared the godhood.
Jack didn’t really care all that much for Nico’s internal monolog and rushed in after the vassal of En-men-lu-ana with the full intention to kill, driven solely by the disgust emanating from the deep subconscious.
Right next to them, things were heating up as well. Vanguard punched the metal surface below his feet and cracked it apart, then lifted this broken section up to block the fake Blast Storm’s projectile wind attacks. The section was as big as an office desk and offered some protection as Vanguard charged in towards the metal golem which now possessed the powers and the abilities of the Super it was mimicking.
Of course, it was far easier said than done, even to someone like Vanguard who knew ins and outs of his friend possibly better than anyone alive.
He knew that Blast Storm would usually fire off several long and mid-range attacks with the wind to tire out his opponents. It was best to get in closer in order to conserve the stamina. That didn’t mean the close-quarter fight with Blast Storm was easy. On the contrary, Storm was one of the finest hand-to-hand fighters in GoH. It was just that, faced with little alternatives, facing him in the short range was preferable and Vanguard knew that.
He stomped on the ground to crack the surface of the metal vine again, and threw the largest resulting piece of rubble at the Blast Storm golem. Right after, he proceeded to pick up several smaller debris and rapidly threw those at the fake as well, not trying to hit it but trying to distract it long enough to get in closer.
Normally, a plan this simple and transparent would never work against a Super like Blast Storm. But Vanguard had figured out that these golems, while preserving the outward appearances and abilities of the people they imitated, lacked what one would call a tangible intelligence. It was not that difficult to fool them.
Thus, Vanguard succeeded in closing the gap. To blindside the golem, he threw the large piece of metal debris he used as a shield until now at the enemy and dashed right behind it. Once he judged it was close enough, Vanguard punched as hard as he could at the rubble. The fake Blast Storm raised a barrier of wind to surround itself but he was waiting for that. The fist pushed the rubble into this barrier and the mess of metal bits broke out, turning it into a hurricane of sorts. Vanguard quickly took a step back to protect his hand from getting eviscerated by his own intentional move.
To bookend the maneuver, Vanguard quickly gathered strength on the muscles of his lower torso and sent the all of it down to the floor, causing a small earthquake of sorts. This attack took a lot more energy than usual as he was performing it on top of the metal vine, but the result was more than satisfactory as a wide area beneath his feet cracked apart.
The fake Blast Storm lost its balance and the hurricane of metal and wind went out of control. The sharp bits cut into the golem’s surface, slicing it to ribbons. With that, the barrier of wind disappeared. Vanguard seized this opening and threw out a fist loaded with incredible power behind it. The heavy attack splendidly connected with the abdomen of the wobbling golem, with a loud thud.
I’m sorry, my friend, for not being able to do more, thought Vanguard as he watched the expressionless golem fly away from the impact while crumbling into several chunky fragments. The core of the golem, a small, purplish round jewel-like item the size of a person’s pinky was left exposed from the disintegrating golem and even it bore the brunt of Vanguard’s fist, turning into a fine mist of powder.
Vanguard thought his battle was over and relaxed for a millisecond, before he sensed danger from his side and hastily dodged forward. And a blink of an eye later, the ground he stood on, cracked apart and an enormous stone hand rose up, trying to grab him.
Vanguard sucked in another deep breath as he immediately recognized this ability. It belonged to one of two GoH Superheroes dispatched to guard the museum.
Damn it, this means…!!
He had no time to ponder. The ground beneath cracked open again and a whip of earth snapped at his back. Vanguard raised all his limbs to protect his vital areas as the whip slammed into him.
Vanguard was flung away, a trail of blood oozing down from the corner of his lips. His backpack was torn from the shoulder strap and flew to another direction, disppearing into the dusty haze. He crashed on the concrete ground off the vine and left a lengthy trail of gouged earth behind, coming to a stop only after another vine provided a place for him to crash into and stop the momentum.
Vanguard spat out a mouthful of blood and slowly wiped the trail off his lips, all the while searching for the one responsible for his dire situation, the Super that could wield the stone like it was an extension of himself – Magnaterran.
And as he suspected, there he was, the fake Magnaterran. Just how this abomination was able to call out a hand made out of earth on top of a metal vine was a mystery, but for Vanguard, he couldn’t really care about that right now, because behind Magnaterran, more and more of the Supers that were caught up in the destruction of Manhattan began to rise up one by one, resurrected as the unfeeling, emotionless golems.
They never make this easy for me, huh.
Vanguard chuckled bitterly. He didn’t find this situation at all funny but under the circumstances, that was all he could do. He groaned, and stood up gingerly while patting the dust off himself.
“Oh, well. Might as well, right?”
Vanguard took a deep breath to calm the aching body and kneaded his bum knee, praying that it would last until the end of this dirge. He wasn’t really confident of this, however. He had been running and fighting for a quite a while now, so the moment his repaired knee and all the metal bits and pieces in there holding up the damaged ligaments giving up the ghost should arrive pretty soon.
But before that happened, he had to give Lugal as much chance as possible to deal the finishing blow.
Vanguard took a quick glance at where Lugal was fighting Nico Gavalas and smiled ruefully at the high-tempo battle unfolding over there. Those two were ways away from his own position, but because of the distance, it was also easier to see how ridiculous their movements were. They didn’t seem human at all.
He knew now that it was a wise decision to let Lugal face off against Nico, as there was no way Vanguard could participate in that insanity. The two of them were moving so fast, even Vanguard was having a hard time figuring out what was going on.
Shaking his head ruefully, Vanguard loosened up his shoulders and took the final deep breath, before dashing towards the group of fake Supers, a grim but determined expression on his face hidden behind the torn and dirtied wrestling mask.
Meanwhile, Jack’s halberd relentlessly clashed with Nico Gavalas’s trick dagger. In a second, the two exchanged dozens and dozens of attacks and counters, neither side gaining a clear advantage over the other.
Jack was inwardly stunned at how brilliant Nico was at handling the strange dagger. Jack was relying heavily on his Battle Sense and the memories of Gilgamesh in order to proficiently wield the huge halberd and he could contend with Nico just fine. But that was only in the beginning. As the clock ticked on, this stalemate was fueling his impatience.
He didn’t expect the opposition to be this fierce. Jack fought enough difficult monsters back in the red pyramid so he was fairly confident of his rapidly developing skills, but Nico’s deft handling of that dagger really surprised him.
But, on the other hand, Nico too, was also quite unhappy and confused. After En-men-lu-ana changed him into a powerful demigod, he thought nothing in this world could stop him but here he was, a Super wearing a funny dark armor and a helmet was forcing him to use every bit of strength in order to survive. This was perplexing him a great deal.
Feeling flummoxed by this occurrence, Nico wasn’t sure what he should do. All his fights had ended fairly easily until now and this was probably only the second time he had to exert more than just a wink and a nod. Blast Storm was one such fight, but this guy… this Super was something else.
Nico thought that there was something oddly…. familiar about this man, about the way he moved and wielded that huge halberd, but could not understand why.
“Hmph, this is so troublesome!!”
Nico groaned in dissatisfaction. He could have used that attack of turning people into sand, but it used up too much of the stored blood sacrifices in the stone tablet. That wouldn’t work, considering he needed the said sacrifices to bridge the Dark Void and open up a gate for the Guardian Beast to cross over to this side.
Also, he couldn’t utilize the mental interception by the golden skull of En-men-lu-ana, his wonderful and trusted liege. The True Immortal King was too busy interacting with the Tree’s core, so Nico was basically on his own.
He couldn’t count on the assistance of the summoned golems either as they were still engaged in a bitter struggle with the other, macho Superhero over yonder.
Unable to find a simple and quick answer, Nico clicked his tongue in annoyance, and decided to just overpower his opponent. He had all the confidence in the world; his newly-acquired powers were the greatest under the heavens, after all.
Nico stepped forward and sent out a series of precise jabbing strikes. Jack swung the halberd and swept the attacks away before thrusting his own attack in, deftly building his own momentum.
With a harsh, clanging sound, sparks flew as the metal collided with metal. Taking a deep breath, Jack exploded with strength and struck Nico’s defense, sending him flying away. Nico’s bloody body slammed on the metal vine’s surface and he ungracefully rolled on it, leaving a trail of blood and gore.
That didn’t seem to damage him in the slightest, though. Nico couldn’t feel much pain at all from that attack. Dusting himself off, Nico stood up and glared angrily at Jack. “Who are you?! How can you be…. this strong?!”
Jack pointed the tip of the halberd at Nico and provoked him. “Stop wasting time and come at me.”
Nico’s brows tightened, even more annoyed. He snorted derisively, before clapping his hands. The metal surface beneath his feet trembled, before rising up to swallow him whole.
Jack frowned, thinking that Nico was trying to escape. But his Battle Sense screamed at him and before he knew it, his body moved out of the way just as the dagger’s blade shot out from the floor under him, squarely aimed at his chest. It didn’t end there, though, as multiple dagger blades stabbed at him, causing Jack to continuously retreat.
Damn it, this crafty bastard!!
Jack grimaced and hurriedly dodged the attacks, unable to counter. He wasn’t sure how Nico was doing this, but he needed to find a way to wrestle back the advantage ASAP.
Letting out a loud, angry yell, Jack jumped up and slammed the halberd down on the concrete, shattering the ground apart in the diameter of dozen feet and showering the surroundings with debris. This attack wasn’t as powerful as the one he used to clear out the golems before, but for what he had in mind, it’d do. He continued to slam the ground, matching the timing of the dagger’s sneaky thrusts.
Eventually, one connected and as the ground exploded, Nico was thrown out as well. His body was now in even worse shape than before. He took a nasty tumble, his arms and legs flailing around like a broken ragdoll.
Coughing heavily, Nico stood up and wiped the dirt off his face, shock and unhappiness mixing in together as a dangerous, volatile cocktail.
Nico glared angrily at Jack before calming all the way down, as if nothing troubled him anymore. An enigmatic smile returned on his lips as he sighed gently. The change in temperament was as sudden as it could get. Jack narrowed his eyes, his senses going overboard to stay alert at any other sinister tactics this villain might use next.
But before Jack could do anything, he was showered with debris as an explosion occurred nearby. Vanguard tumbled out of the falling rocks and rising dust, his body full of small scratches and numerous wounds, bleeding all over. The burly Superhero’s costume was ripped and torn in places, and it was unknown whether he was still alive or not.
Jack grimaced and divided his focus just a bit to see what the hell was going on there – and he promptly wished he didn’t. Well, the good news was, Vanguard was still alive, barely, and was standing up on his own power.
What’s not so good was the thirteen golems that resembled various Superheroes, flinging around all sorts of Superpowers everywhere like fireworks in a carnival.
Jack swore loudly inside, knowing that at this rate, Vanguard was going down. And then, he’d be next.
No wonder, that bastard Nico looks so damn relaxed…
Jack took another glance at Vanguard. Judging by the state of things, he figured he roughly had maybe five minutes, tops, before he’d have to fight everyone here with Vanguard out of commission.
Damn it, only if I could enhance my specs by drawing out red souls from the Soul Sphere – this fight wouldn’t have dragged out for this long!!
Jack gripped the halberd tightly, making a conscious choice to go after Nico first and to deal with him as soon as possible. That seemed like the prudent choice here. No, it was the only choice he had.
Vanguard, even if saved, wouldn’t be much of a help against Nico. And Jack would have to waste energy to deal with the golems too. If he was a bit stronger, then none of this would be of consequence, but….
Damn it, is that the only choice I have? Do I have to abandon Vanguard?
Jack desperately thought of a way. He even prayed that there was someone out there coming to help, like how it was in all those animes and movies. But it was a waste of time as he knew that there was no one in the vicinity.
In his pressured mind, an idea struck him like a mean left hook from Mike Tyson. His eyes focused on that stone tablet floating in the air, to the right of Nico Gavalas.
Yeah, that might work. But I gotta be careful with the timing!!
Jack narrowed his eyes and took a stance. He lowered the halberd and gathered strength in his legs, before shooting out like a bullet.
Nico chuckled lightly. “Oh? So you still wish to tangle with me, eh? Abandon your friend, just like that? How admirable!!”
He raised the dagger and stabbed out at the approaching figure of Jack. But just before the extending tip of the weapon came into contact, Jack leaped up in the air, and went for the stone tablet instead.
Nico’s eyes widened in shock.
As if driven by instinct far more powerful than that of self preservation, Nico threw his own body into the path of Jack’s halberd.
Jack didn’t stay his hands – no need to, unless he was an idiot. Jack’s halberd sliced through Nico’s body and ripped him apart like paper.
Blood and gore flew everywhere. Jack of old would have felt sick by now, but after spending so much time in the red pyramid and getting used to killing those hybrid monsters, he thought such a sight was normal to see. He didn’t even flinch slightly.
One half of Nico landed on Jack’s left side, while the other half was flung away from the shock wave and thrashed about on the ground.
Jack coldly thought, this should do, as he lightly landed back on the ground.
Nico, however, was miraculously still alive. He coughed out more blood, but his smile didn’t leave his face. No, instead, it grew in madness.
“Oh, well. You got me there real good, mister. Well done.”
Jack grimaced at the torn half of Nico before turning away. He might be okay at seeing such a gory scene play out, but something told him he wouldn’t be able to hold his meals later on if this moment was strongly imprinted in his head. Besides, he needed to go and help Vanguard out before it was too late.
Nico gruntled as he struggled to right his half body. “Oh hey, wait a second. Where are you going, mister? We are not done here, you know!!”
Jack’s eyebrows twitched for a second, before he dashed towards where Vanguard was, who was desperately trying to fend off multiple attacks from the fake Supers.
Vanguard was rolling on the ground to dodge balls of white flames as well as wisps of red electricity buzzing around incessantly.
Jack jumped off the metal vine and dashed forward real fast, remembering not to get hit by that electricity or he’d be cooked inside this survival suit. He swung the halberd and struck the nearest fake Super as hard as he could, with the express goal of launching it against other golem firing off the troublesome electrical attacks.
The two collided with a loud explosion, destroying them both. Smiling wickedly at the success, Jack then changed his direction and jumped into the fray of the fake Supers with wild abandon. But he had overlooked one important fact: Nico wasn’t dead.
As a matter of fact, the two halves of him were crawling toward each other rather laboriously.
“Hah, you think you defeated me?! Not even close, mister. Oh no, I have things to do, the world to change!! My purpose is glorious and can not be denied….!! I will show you, all of you…. that me, Nico Gavalas won’t be forgotten like this!! I won’t fail when I’m so close!!”
He reached the other half of his body and tried to mount it, but as expected, the damage was too catastrophic to overcome that easily. Unless there was some kind of divine healing magic at work, the two torsos weren’t going to attach themselves no matter what he did. Nico gritted his teeth in anger, and howled like a beast.
“No!! I can still…. fight!! I can still change this world for the better!! The gods haven’t abandoned me, I still have my will to carry on!!”
His feverish eyes turned and searched like a madman, until he fixed on the stone tablet. Then, a crazed smile crossed his lips.
“Yes!! Yes, that is it!!”
Nico shouted gleefully. In one moment, his hand was empty; then next, the Divine Dagger of Enki that was blown away to somewhere when Jack sliced Nico apart, reappeared like a magic trick.
Without hesitation, Nico stabbed himself with the blade and then viciously twisted it. More blood spilled out from his mouth and his body became withered in a second. His blood, from his body, on the ground, rose up and began to form a globe.
The crazed smile spread wider on his lips.
“Yes!! If it’s not enough, then take my own blood!! Open the gate and let the gods in!! Let my blood be the key to this world’s salvation!!”
The very last drop of blood left Nico just as he lost all strength in the grip of the dagger, his hands falling on the ground and soon after, his torn torso slumped forward, finally dead.
It was at this precise moment Jack felt it. The resonance from the red souls crazily soared, lighting up his senses like a bomb going off. He smashed the golem that shot white flames with the blunt side of the halberd and hurriedly looked back.
He caught the sight of Nico’s sizable red soul coagulating right before the stone tablet. Now, it was the turn of Jack’s eyes to open wide in shock.
Oh, sh*t!! That…. is not good!!
Cursing loudly, Jack ran towards the stone tablet. If he got close enough, he would be able to wrestle the control of Nico’s red soul and prevent it from entering the tablet.
But the suction force was far stronger than Jack imagined. Well before he could take three steps, the globe of blood was absorbed into the tablet and spiderweb-like red cracks rapidly spread out on the tablet’s surface.
Then, with the loudest explosion he had ever witnessed, Jack was thrown a long way back from the shockwave, hundreds of feet away even though he was already so far from it. This time, he did spat out blood from his mouth as the incredible shock transmitted throughout his body, dyeing the inside of the visor red.
Vanguard and the remaining golems were swept away as well.
Jack struggled to his feet and threw off the backpack, instinctively searching for air and trying to wipe the sticky blood away from on his face only to remember that he was wearing a helmet. Not caring whether he was seen or not, he threw off the helmet and gaped for the lung-filling breath. He then looked around but couldn’t spot Vanguard nor the golems anymore. His Battle Sense wasn’t picking up anything at all.
Grimacing, he tried to settle the tumbling innards to the best of his ability all the while searching for the halberd which was knocked out of his grasp. Thankfully, it was nearby, lodged firmly on the side of a metal vine.
Jack pried it loose and held the weapon closely as the roiling clouds began to emit sickly purple hue down to the spot where the stone tablet was. But now, in its place, there was a mass of swirling purple-golden light, interspersed with crimson and screeching howls of numerous souls in torment that sent shivers down Jack’s backside. This mass of light floated just above the thick vine, hovering there and attracting the clouds and all the malevolent aura around like a vacuum cleaner. The motes of light weren’t spared either, as all the nearest ones were pulled in as well.
This swirling mass then emitted a powerful, ear-splitting screech and expanded in size. Another sharp screech, followed by yet another expansion of the size. It continued to grow, until it reached a humongous proportion, as big as a three-story building.
And from this floating, burning light, a foot emerged at the bottom, landing on the ground with a loud thud. Jack couldn’t help but think, now that is one helluva big-ass foot.
Soon after, another foot. Then the hovering mass of purple-golden light changed and morphed slowly into a humanoid form.
Jack was deeply shocked at the sheer size of the creature that emerged from the light. He had a feeling that its size was going to be enormous judging by those feet on the ground, but even then, he was not prepared.
It was huge. It was at least as tall as a city bus if it stood on one end. No, it was taller. Much taller.
“What in the name of holy hell…. So that is Humbaba?!”
Jack muttered as he clenched his fist tightly. The Guardian Beast’s appearance looked exactly like the creature in one of the murals back in Mylorne Akkad’s loft. It had the exaggerated limbs from an ape, and a head shaped like a bull but its facial features were closer to that of a man. It also stood completely naked and its considerable junior was in full exposure.
And in its right hand, a huge black metal club, seemingly made out of the same material as the Tree itself.
Jack’s mind went blank for a second; the fragmented memories of Gilgamesh suddenly rushing out to greet him. The past of him battling it with the aid of Enkidu filled his brain, utterly shocking him with the gory, unbelievable details.
Holy mothereffing cow. I…. I can’t fight that thing!! Not like this!!
In the memories, Gilgamesh was at his peak, vastly more superior than Jack in every conceivable way. Yet, he nearly lost his life even with Enkidu helping him while fighting this massive monstrosity, the Guardian Beast of the Divine Trees, Humbaba.
Just what chance Jack, alone, had?
Right, the laser designator!!
He hastily brought the laser from his back and pointed it at the guardian beast, Humbaba. But before he got to switch it on, the gigantic Guardian Beast roared loudly into the air, and the already-ruined battleground split apart further from the massive pressure emitted from the demonic beast. The vines all quaked, the soil and rocks blew away, and the hazy dust in the air got dispersed in an instant, revealing the starry night sky.
Jack nearly lost the grip on the designator from the instinctual fear. It took a lot from him to remain standing but the incredible pressure, the choking killing intent oozing from the Beast, was really something else. It was beyond terrifying. He had felt absolutely nothing quite like it. And this was after taking into account how far away Jack was from the beast itself.
Sh*t!! What now?! What can I do? Is that suppose to be its weakest? As if!! That thing is incredibly strong – even with all of the Dead Kings here, we won’t be able to subdue that monster, let alone killing it!!
The Guardian Beast finished howling and snorted. Licks of red flame flickered from its nostrils. Its eyes turned violet and a purplish golden aura materialized to cover the creature like a robe – like a garment. Just like how it was described in the legends. It was thin, nearly imperceptible but Jack could sense a powerful undulation of energy coming off of it. This energy reminded Jack of that five-headed dragon monster he saw inside the red pyramid.
Jack became even more convinced that he’d never be able to beat that thing. Not as he was now, not even after absorbing every red soul he could get his hands on and enhancing his specs to the absolute maximum. He had no hope in hell.
Gritting his teeth, Jack decided to backtrack. To run away after coming so far felt like a betrayal of his own beliefs, but alone, he just couldn’t do it. He knew his own limits. He knew he wouldn’t be able to even leave a single scratch mark on that beast’s hide.
Hell, he wasn’t sure whether the promised missile support would be enough to clinch a victory against that monster. Besides, Jack had a feeling that the monster wouldn’t stay put in one place for him to lazily point the laser at it.
Weighing all his options, Jack decided to run. After that, though, he had no idea. He’d cross that bridge when he gets there, he thought inwardly.
But the Guardian Beast Humbaba roared at Jack, the noise actually containing ancient Sumerian. It was directly addressing him.
“Oh, the foolish King of mortals, Gilgamesh, the favored son of lesser god Lugalbanda and goddess Ninsun, you who have sinned against the true divinity of Anunnaki, come and step forth into the cauldron of everlasting fire once more!! Come, come and fulfill your glorious fate, come and sate your desire to become the legend that you so proudly exclaim!!”
The Sumerian words carried magical, unexplainable power hidden in them. The so-called holy language of the gods, when spoken to mere mortals by the Anunnaki and their divine servants, could affect the judgment of all who heard it. It was a powerful manipulation tool available to those who wished to control all of the mankind.
Jack was fine, though. His status as Gilgamesh’s clone meant this magic had no effect on him.
“Come, share the fate of this world, as us Shepherds guide this planet back to the bosom of our Fathers and Mothers. Come, King of mortals, Gilgamesh, and be the cleansing sacrifice to receive the rightful rulers of humanity!!”
Jack was about to simply ignore the Guardian Beast Humbaba’s words and run when a large caliber Depleted Uranium armor-piercing bullet flew past him. He watched the bullet’s path and followed it until it slammed against the purple-golden aura. A small hole appeared and the beast seemed to flinch a little.
Jack cast his Battle Sense behind him and could just about pick up a squad of soldiers rushing towards his position.
They were led by Stewart Baxter from the front. He was still holding on to that large caliber anti-materiel sniper rifle. Stewart quickly swapped out the ammo magazine to another one and just as swiftly pulled the trigger again, all the while running at full steam, his aim remaining steady and true.
Another large caliber bullet, this time shaped differently to regular bullets, shot past Jack and slammed into Humbaba. Each of these bullets, called Modified High-Explosive Anti-Tank rounds, could easily pierce the armor of a modern day tank. Its tungsten core would be propelled deep into any armor it struck against by utilizing controlled explosion within the bullet itself. And without a doubt, it was stupendously powerful, enough to wound the mythical monster regardless of how thick skinned it was.
The Guardian Beast, enraged by the attack, roared mightily and cursed out aloud in Sumerian.
“Cowardly mortals!! Who dares to wound this divine servant of Enlil, the god of earth, wind and air?!”
“Yeah, yeah, I don’t know what you’re yapping about, so shut up already,” retorted Stewart as he fired off another round. By the third shot, he was almost next Jack’s position, their eyes meeting for the first time. Well, without the helmet in the way, of course.
The shock and surprise in the faces of soldiers present were quite something. None of them expected Lugal to be this young. Stewart was almost speechless. But Jack shook his head pointed at the Guardian Beast in a hurry.
“Before you ask any questions, let’s deal with that thing first, shall we?”
(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.)
(Okay, so I was supposed to upload this chapter yesterday, but, uh, ended up wasting my time watching the three released episodes of Knight’s & Magic instead. My bad.)
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.