Chapter 27: The Core

(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you happen to spot them, please let me know in the comments below. Thanks in advance!!)

The declaration of their intent was made and the six remaining, breathing men and a woman stared at the endlessly tall Tree of the End. Beyond it, the ethereal, otherworldly red sky was slowly fading away into the darkness of the starry backdrop. Somehow, there was still countless motes of floating light remaining that weren’t sucked up into the “creation” of Humbaba, and they were busy casting an eerie rainbow of colors on the smooth, metallic surface of the Tree. Jack found it all rather…. beautiful.

Of course, it wasn’t something to admire about. Not at all. The cost of establishing such an otherworldly beauty was far too great, far too painful to justify.

What the hell am I even thinking about?!

Jack wryly shook his head and got rid of the distracting thoughts before he turned his attention to the fading red sky. He didn’t know what it was but a nagging feeling at the back of his mind told him he’d see that sky again. And as for that mysterious black feather in the Soul Sphere….

There were just too many mysteries with no answers. Well, the answers were locked within the deepest recesses of his mind but accessing them was something else entirely. But that nagging feeling also told him that it was not a matter to be concerned about, at least not yet.

Right now, the matter of the Tree had to come first and foremost. He also reminded himself to call his family the very first thing after the completion of this damned mission.

The people present felt the two distinct hums alternating between each other. One of them was more akin to a dense, heavy signal wave, kind of like how a big bell might make the ringer feel while the other hum was much closer to that of a heartbeat. There was little doubt that both of these strange hums were originating from somewhere within the Tree.

While Stewart and Chuck attended to Leroy’s wounded arm, the surviving Dead Kings operators took a quick survey of the vicinity while collecting the dog tags of their fallen comrades. The cruise missile strikes really did a horrendous number on the remains and one of the tags were so badly scorched and melted out of shape, it was impossible to tell what was engraved on it. But the operators knew who it belonged to; it’d find the right casket when the time for the funeral comes around.

After the collection, the situation was assessed. It was clear that there were no golems anymore. Not one could be spotted, let alone try to attack them. It could mean something good, or maybe something even worse was coming the operators’ way.

Jack searched for his discarded helmet, and was amazed to find it in one complete piece. Other than the blood caking it inside the visor, it was fully operational. Just quite how it survived so many potential calamities, such as the rampaging Humbaba and the pair of Tomahawks, he could only thank the lucky star.

Speaking of which, even the enhanced survival suit was intact even after the walloping it received from the Guardian Beast. Sure was living up to its name of the “survival” suit, indeed.

After wiping the blood off with what he had at hand, he put it back on and immediately picked up on the salty iron scent. It smelled like death. He frowned at this reminder of his brush with meeting the maker. He didn’t care for it not one bit. Too late to take the helmet off now, he mused. There was a function to ventilate the helmet within the PDA so he activated that, letting some of the air enter and lessen the stench for now.

Next action to perform: checking the state of the suit via the aforementioned PDA. Miraculously, it was still functioning, this arm mounted computer. Must’ve been Gilgamesh’s will and his wonderfully absurd enhancements. Jack was thankful for that, too.

Once he saw that the suit was fine, he searched for the halberd. Of course, it was in a rough, rough shape. Supposedly made of the strongest, toughest alloy currently made by men – and it got nearly ruined to nothingness in the battle against the Guardian Beast. At least he still had that emergency baton, tucked up snugly in the compartment on his back. If push came to shove, he’d have to make do with that.

He was still tired and all his muscles ached from overexertion. But what could he do? Tired or not, he was the strongest combatant here, physically. Well, Stewart and his pals would live through the night without Jack, that was for sure, but it’d be a lot harder.

If it were him a month ago, he’d want to lay down and go to sleep, not giving a damn about anything. But now, though, he was committed to seeing through this mission until the end. His tiredness could wait. He was already so close to the finishing line. All he had to do was just cross it.

Jack wanted to look for Vanguard too, but couldn’t see him anywhere. The burly Super was gone. Either he was vaporized in the missile strike or he went home. That was the only explanation. Or maybe he was taken. No one knew. Even if he was knocked out cold somewhere, his big frame should have been spotted by now. It was another mystery Jack couldn’t solve, to his frustration. Even though he was concerned, he also understood that Vanguard had been around the block a way longer than he did. Crucially, the Superhero wasn’t some weedy little weakling noob. He wouldn’t die that easily. He’d be found eventually when all was said and done, or so Jack thought.

Additionally, he thought this whole thing was just a mess. This whole mission was ripe with mistakes from the start. Too little information, too many cooks vying for a slice, too little prep time – and so many lives lost as a result. The time may not have been on the side of the good guys but still, that shouldn’t be an excuse.

Jack shook his head one more time. The fatigue was making it difficult to stay positive. He gritted his teeth, telling himself to endure and finish this so he could go home.

One good thing out of Humbaba defeated, was that there seemed to slightly less chaotic aura swirling in the air. It felt less stifling and oppressive than before. Although, that could be down to nothing more than the sense of relief acting up.

Stewart tried to contact the command center but now, even the ULF transmission was being blocked by the strange interference. He chose not to discard the transmitter, though. Seemed sensible to keep the best method of communication close by, he reasoned.

“So? Are we good to go?”

Jack asked Stewart who was organizing his remaining squad members and his gear.

“Just about. How’s the search on your end?”

Jack shrugged his shoulders. “Vanguard is nowhere. Gone. What about your men?”

“Well, Leroy’s hurt pretty bad, but he wants to come along. I can’t leave him behind alone anyway, so it’s not a problem.”

“So, you’re bringing him along?”

“Mmm. He can be the rear guard with Chuck carrying him in the back.”

Jack glanced at Chuck. He was the tall lanky white kid. Also, he looked thin. Could someone like that carry a person? Jack inwardly shook his head, thinking that he shouldn’t really judge a Super by his or her looks – for instance, Cleo was a monster but you wouldn’t be able to tell that judging by her appearances alone.

“Okay, so this is our new formation. Lugal, you take point with Lopez. Gunney and I are in the middle. Chuck and Leroy will watch our six. All good?”

They all shared a brief nod before turning their collective sights towards the tall and ominous Tree, and its base where the entrance to the Core was.

The entrance to the chamber housing the Tree’s core was actually a tunnel of sorts located on the base, accessible only after climbing up one of the huge metal vines. Clearly, it’d be a hassle to go up there without proper equipment. And add to the fact that the surfaces of the vines were smooth to a fault, the operators were faced with a unique and altogether not so nice challenge.

Jack was not troubled, though, as he could just leap up and get on top no problem. It was then decided by consensus that he’d play the role of an anchor while the rest of the squad climbed up. Gunnery Sergeant and Chuck already had their own ropes so they climbed just fine but injured Leroy was problematic as he couldn’t fully support his own weight with the broken arm.

But most of the issues could be solved with brute strength as Jack simply carried the injured soldier on his back. He thought that Leroy had this unhappy face, probably due to having his pride as a man and a Super somewhat stepped on but of course, Jack couldn’t care any less even if he tried. Not right now, anyway.

They stayed alert and cautious while approaching the Tree. Not one threatening thing popped out but it would be foolish to take easy because of that.

Arriving at the entrance of the tunnel, Jack noted its scale. It was big enough to allow something as big as Humbaba to freely enter at will. He couldn’t quite figure out why one needed to be this large, but it’d be a lie to say if he didn’t suspect one or two things as the cause.

Both of the mysterious hums were louder here. However, there was another sound mixed in, distinctly audible as they stood in front of the imposing tunnel. The squad members exchanged confused glances around as one by one, they began to figure out what this new sound reminded them of.

“Huh. Looks like there’s a…. destructive party going on inside. Should we go in and check out?”

Stewart murmured to his squad before hefting the assault rifle forward. He didn’t really wait for the replies and signaled his charge towards the tunnel without a shred of fear.

Jack too entered, standing in front of the formation with the Latino girl, Lopez. She took a glance at his way every now and then, but Jack was used to it by now so he didn’t mind it. He did mind his damaged halberd, though. If there was to be a vigorous battle down the tunnel, he had to reign his physical strength and try not to snap the weapon in half – after all, he was only renting it from Mylorne Akkad and he needed to give it back later.

The sound of destruction echoed louder once stepping inside the tunnel. Jack studied the walls, thinking that the exposed surface was as smooth as the vines and the trunk. Didn’t seem like it was formed naturally at all. At a whim, he tried to extend his Battle Sense over it, but he got nothing. He could tell his senses were being repelled by some sort of stronger power. As he was now, he couldn’t overcome this influence and take a peek.

Inside of the tunnel was suitably dark. The operators had to switch on the various light sources at their disposal but Jack only had to activate the night vision built into the helmet. Occasionally there were one or two motes of light lazily floating by but they weren’t bright enough for the smooth traversing.

As they carefully jogged forward, Jack noticed in the distance a thin golden film hanging over the tunnel like a curtain. Lopez didn’t seem to see it, so he hurriedly stopped them marching and told them there was something up ahead.

Jack approached it first and using the halberd, he slowly poked at it. The weapon went past it with no resistance and nothing happened. A couple more pokings later, Jack turned to Stewart and asked.

“Well, what do you think? It doesn’t seem to do anything but it’s still an unknown obstruction.”

Stewart chewed on the decision briefly. There was only one tunnel leading into the chamber housing the Core, most likely. He could be wrong, but to go outside and search for another could take time. Plus, there was something else happening near the destination and he had no idea what that was. Could he risk his men and rush on ahead? With Lugal here, they could potentially overcome most obstacles, but he wanted to be on the safe side.

There was the possibility of finding another entrance only to encounter the same golden film as the one Lugal had perceived, so there was that.

He couldn’t deliberate for long, as the sound of destruction shook the tunnel noisily, reminding him to get a move on.

Stewart frowned a little but made up his mind. “Okay, let’s go. If it’s a trap, let’s break out of it. We can do that much, surely.”

One by one, they stepped past the film. Jack was the first to cross it, followed by Lopez, then the rest. Jack’s Battle Sense felt a slight trembling of the atmosphere but other than that, he couldn’t feel anything different.

Jack held a deeply unhappy expression. He thought the Battle Sense was an all-conquering cheat skill but hell, it had some severe restrictions, it seemed. He swore to develop this skill once he had some free time on his hands.

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Past the film, even the motes of lights were gone, leaving the tunnel in complete darkness, were it not for the flash lights mounted on the combat armors and the assault rifles and the combat helmets of the operators. The static buzzing coming from the radios became heavier and distracting the further they progressed. Even the ULF transmitter was totally inoperable here.

Before they knew it, the smoothness of the walls gave way to the one that felt more organic in structure. There were creases and folds on the surfaces that reminded Jack of an insect’s carapace, or maybe even that of a worm. It made him feel like he was walking inside a digestive tract of a giant.

The sound of things breaking apart and destroyed became louder. Stewart gave a hand signal and the operators smoothly flowed forward at a faster rate. Jack wasn’t too clued up on various hand gestures used by the soldiers but even he recognized the “go forward” signal so he also hurried in, all the while trying to extend the Battle Sense as far as possible.

So far, the range seemed interchangeable – either he fixated on a target disregarding the distance almost entirely, or not much beyond 15 feet around him. He had to be satisfied with this for now.

Around 100 paces, the squad finally encountered a huge open chamber that was probably as big as an aircraft hangar, maybe even bigger. There were a plenty of light motes floating around in here, no longer necessitating the group to rely on their own light sources.

And inside of this massive chamber, the very first thing they noticed was a huge creature which the size didn’t lose out to Humbaba from earlier. Except, this time it was purely made up of the metal alloy, just like the golems outside. Actually, on a closer look, the metal golem definitely resembled Humbaba, what with its long, ape-like limbs and the way it jumped around. The only difference was the lack of the metal club or the signs of intelligence reflected in the eyes.

It was rampaging around, its gigantic fists and feet slamming down on the ground and against the walls like exploding tank shells. Amazingly, the entire chamber didn’t even shake from the immense power of each attack.

And who could be the golem’s target?

Why, it was Vanguard, of course.

“What the hell?”

Jack couldn’t help but mutter in amazement at this unexpected revelation. He sure as hell didn’t see this coming at all, neither did the operators from the Dead Kings.

Not only the mask-wearing burly Superhero was fine and healthy, he was actually keeping up with the fake Humbaba’s attacks quite superbly which was also kind of surprising to see as well. Vanguard nimbly dodged another thumping fist strike from the giant golem and he kicked the arm with his left leg, causing the arm to nearly break in two.

That’s when Jack noticed something was off.

Jack knew that Vanguard’s left knee was busted. The veteran Super often massaged it whenever he had the chance. And Jack covertly observed the injury before, with his Battle Sense so he was sure of it.

Yet, Vanguard was able to kick the sturdy metal arm of the golem using that supposedly bum leg?

“Look over there!!”

Stewart pointed behind the rampaging fake Humbaba, drawing Jack’s gazes away. The group could see another passage there that led deeper into the inner sanctum of the Tree but unlike everywhere else, there was a lot of light inside, allowing everyone to more or less discern what lay waiting at the end of the line.

And what they saw was a pulsating metal sac the size of a person suspended from the ceiling with blue veins sticking out on the creased surface. The heartbeat-like hum seemed to come from this sac.

“Is that the core? So we blow that sh*t up and it’s over?” Gunnery Sergeant whispered quietly. “It’s smaller than I thought….”

Jack was slightly confused by the appearance of that sac, though. Because that thing sure as hell didn’t look like the Core Mylorne Akkad mentioned back in the mission briefing.

His attention had to change when Vanguard was struck by the fake Humbaba’s attack and was sent flying away.

“Damn, he might die at this rate. We need to help him!!”

Stewart commanded his men to take position. Then, they began firing away their rifles and Superpowers like crazy at the metal golem. It issued a keening noise and roared angrily, but it was clearly much weaker than the real Guardian Beast, unable to overcome the multitude of attacks on its own. Meanwhile, Jack hurried to where Vanguard was slumped on the floor.

But he got a shock of his life, almost, when Vanguard silently stood up from where he was, apparently not too badly affected by the impact of that blow.

Jack then noticed the strange, emotionless eyes exposed under the torn mask. It was…. glazed in deep white. No pupils, just eerie milky white – as if he was possessed by a spirit or something.

As a matter of fact, only then did Jack notice that Vanguard’s body, and more specifically, the left leg that was supposedly broken, wrapped in some kind of dull metallic material. It had expanded nearly to the rest of the torso, covering Vanguard up like tin foil.

“What the?!”

Stunned, Jack stood there, his mouth agape. Vanguard brushed the speechless teenager aside without even an acknowledgment and jumped towards the giant golem, totally disregarding the numerous injuries on his body and the showering of bullets as well as Superpowers.

Jack was left utterly confused by this new twist. He couldn’t figure out what happened to Vanguard nor his condition. Was he being controlled by the Tree? Then why was he fighting against the fake Humbaba in the first place? Or was…. he under the influence of someone else, a third party unknown to all? Or was that the fourth party instead, since Mylorne Akkad would’ve been the third interested party in this mission, logically speaking.

Jack sent out the Battle Sense and studied Vanguard, taking a glimpse into the burly Super’s muscular and joint structures. The result made him deeply grimace.

A dull, metal-like material was actually coming out from the metal knee plate and the bolts inserted into the burly Super’s joint. It was flowing out like the melting chocolate, and Jack could see that as much as 60% of Vanguard’s internals were, for the lack of better description, coated in this material.

Essentially, this coat of metal, or whatever it was, was controlling Vanguard. He was basically just an unconscious puppet now.

Since he had no clue about all the details regarding Vanguard’s knee, Jack could only surmise this in his head – that the bits and pieces supposed to aid Vanguard to enjoy a fulfilling life were actually not helpful at all. Someone or something must have had implanted a way to remotely control Vanguard at will during the medical procedure.

The mere thought gave Jack a bout of chills. Just who could’ve done something like that? It was insane. Unless it was done by the Guild of Heroes, or the doctor who performed the operations was in the cahoots with the bad people, what happened to Vanguard was simply not possible. And looking at either possibility, the implications were serious. Very serious.

The deadly fight continued on. Vanguard struck another solid blow on the fake Humbaba’s leg with his beefy fist, almost toppling it. And a well-placed round of bullets and Superpowers against the tottering leg finally brought down the metal giant.

Vanguard pounced on the head of the downed golem and began bashing it like crazy. The whole thing lasted no more than a few minutes since Stewart and his men joined in. Jack didn’t have to do anything in this fight at all.

“Well, thanks for your help, Mister Lugal,” Leroy remarked sarcastically as he glanced at Jack, barely hiding his disdain. With his broken arm, he still managed to contribute to the battle so he felt like he had all the right to criticize those who didn’t.

Jack ignored the man and concentrated his focus on Vanguard, observing to see if there was anything else untoward or suspicious about the veteran Super.

Stewart must have noticed that something was off with the Superhero as well. He came closer to Jack, his eyes narrowing. “There might be a problem with Vanguard over there. You noticed how he moved? I’m pretty sure he was never that nimble before. And what the hell is that stuff on his body? New costume?”

“Not a chance.” Jack shook his head and carefully called out to Vanguard while gripping his halberd tightly. “Mister Vanguard. I need to talk to you for a second. Please, wait.”

Jack ignored an enormous amount of red souls rising from the decomposing, melting body of the fake Humbaba and slowly walked closer to Vanguard. The souls were automatically absorbed into his Soul Sphere, so no need to concern himself with that matter at the moment.

Vanguard seemed to ignore the call and he began to step into the passage that led to the inner chamber where the pulsing metal sac was.

Stewart retained his narrowed eyes as he gave out a new signal his men. “Let’s go.”

Jack was the first to follow after Vanguard, entering the passageway. It was less spacious as the outer tunnel and the digestive tract theme continued here. There didn’t seem any other defense mechanisms or traps, what with Vanguard brazenly strolling ahead, seemingly unafraid and uncaring.

Jack was convinced now. There was definitely something else controlling Vanguard. Without hesitation, he reached out and grabbed Vanguard’s shoulder, stopping the burly man in his treks. “Vanguard, hold up.”

Suddenly, Vanguard spun around and attacked Jack. His fist was sharp, thick with the intent to cause maximum damage. Being a high-spec Super himself, Jack was able to narrowly dodge the strike, but he had to let go of the shoulder in order to do so.

Jack quickly retreated a few paces while the operators trained their firearms at Vanguard. But once there was some distance between the two sides, Vanguard seemingly lost his interest in them and turned around, resuming his solitary march into the chamber.

“Oh, there’s definitely something wrong with him, alright,” muttered Stewart under his breath. “Okay, what now, Lugal? Frankly, you’re the only person here who can bring that guy down without killing him. But is it possible or is it too late?”

Jack shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. Can’t tell, yet. But our destination’s the same, so let’s at least see this to the end. Come on.”

The group increased their speed, catching up with Vanguard but didn’t forget to maintain a little bit of distance. Vanguard didn’t seem to care or just plainly didn’t notice.

The innermost chamber was dome-shaped. The air inside was incredibly warm and humid like the middle of a lush tropical jungle. There was also a sickly bittersweet smell in the air, too. Kinda like the scent of blood.

But it wasn’t the strange odor that made the group to suck their breaths in. No, that was due to the several dozen metal sacs occupying this chamber. Some were sprouting from the walls, some were hanging from the ceiling and the rest, from the floor. The blue vein-like protrusions continued to pulse in a forceful rhythm, and if one concentrated, the “glug” sound could be heard, even.

Every single one of them hummed in unison. It was like a chorus of beating hearts, only several times more eerie and unforgettable in all the wrong way imaginable.

“What the f*ck, man? Is this from a set of Aliens?

Chuck swore softly under his breath but since it was silent within this chamber, other than that gulping noise, everyone heard it as clear as the daylight.

A set from a movie, huh? Jack scanned his surroundings visually before extending his Battle Sense towards one of the sacs. As he expected, the metal-like substance actively repelled his attempt at probing inside. There was no way to tell what these sacs were or what was inside. They could be nothing more than some eclectic decoration, they could be the beating hearts of the Tree, or hell, they could be artificial wombs where replicants were grown in. Anything was possible.

Vanguard ignored all these and continued to walk in deeper. Seemed like he wasn’t interested in these bizarre sacs at all. Jack exchanged more glances with Stewart before walking after the possessed Super. But his thoughts were still stirring wildly in his head. He couldn’t find a way to express them out loud which made him feel like a blocked drainage pipe or some such.

One of the big, quickly churning thoughts was the true purpose of this Tree of the End. What was it supposed to be? The ancient godly beings, Anunnaki, allegedly used this structure and five others like it to control humanity. But how?

Jack took another look at the pulsating metal sacs. There was a hint of an ominous aura coming off of them and it was getting on his nerves somewhat. It was the fear of the unknown, playing a harsh mind game with him.

A desire to destroy these sacs developed in his mind, thinking that if he did wreck this place, then he could prevent any future troubles from blowing up in his face. But if the Core of the Tree was destroyed. then just like that, everything else would be taken care of so he decided that there was no need to waste extra energy which he didn’t have much of anyway.

In the center of the chamber, they finally came across what could be the controlling core of the Tree, although it didn’t look like anything they were thinking of.

Firstly, there was an altar. And an extravagantly decorated one at that. Jack failed to figure out quite how anyone would actually carve out something like that inside here, but well, there it was.

The altar was wide but low; its base was decked out in countless precious stones, or at least that’s what it looked like, judging from all the sparkling bits that could be rubies, sapphires, diamonds, opals, jades and what-have-yous.

And then there was the altar itself – carved like a nest of thorns, it looked imposing and rather majestic. The operators felt an almost instinctual need to kneel down and offer worship at its base.

Above this altar, suspended from the ceiling, was a huge crystal. It was even bigger than the one inside the red pyramid. If that crystal was as big as a person, then this one was as big as a luxury four door sedan. The most noticeable difference between the two, besides the size, was their colors. One was blood-red in color, while this one was in deep, deep navy blue.

Vanguard was approaching this altar without a single shred of hesitation. Him being next to it, Jack could get the sense of how big the altar was – the burly Superhero seemed positively like a toddler before it.

“What’s he doing?!” Steward asked just as Vanguard jumped up on the altar.

Jack, using his improved eyesight, belatedly saw the golden skull right below where the tip of the blue crystal was pointing downwards. And when he extended his Battle Sense there, he watched in shock as strands of souls slowly emerged from the crystal – except, now they were blue in color.

The strands of blue souls were merging with the golden skull. And like a mirage, a figure of a person was slowing forming around it. This scene couldn’t be seen by the naked eyes, though, so the operators from the Dead Kings and Stewart had no idea this was happening.

Vanguard was reaching out to the skull, evidently trying to grab it. Just as his hands were within a touching distance, a loud pang!! resounded out. Vanguard was flung away with considerable force, and a thin barrier of some kind formed around the golden skull.

The Battle Sense told Jack that the barrier’s energy was coming from another object behind the skull – a small round bronze artifact, maybe an ancient mirror. Jack couldn’t really tell what this energy was, but whatever it may have been, this presented another significant problem, because the barrier continued to expand until the altar and the blue crystal above was encased in it.

Vanguard landed with a thud off the altar and on the metallic floor. Anyone, even a Super, would have felt that, but he just stood up and tried to get closer to the skull. Of course, the barrier meant his efforts were proved to be useless. Vanguard then began to attack this obstructing barrier with all he had, but other than creating some ripples, there wasn’t much progress made to speak of.

“Okay, this was to be expected, right? Wouldn’t be a fun trip without an obstacle like this,” quipped Lopez, sounding rather bitter about something. Jack didn’t ask what that could be.

“But is that the Core? It doesn’t even look like how it was described to us. How the hell…. are we supposed to blow it up? Do we even have enough HMX for this?”

Chuck groaned and kneaded his temples. Gunney then began to calculate in his head before replying. “Yeah, we can make do if we add other explosives. We still have a couple of M18A1s, and a handful of Thermites. It’s doable.”

Jack nodded and walked up close to the near-illusory barrier to touch it, while ignoring Vanguard who was pounding away like crazy.

A feeling of something quite solid could be felt and when he pushed slightly, there was no give whatsoever. Jack couldn’t help but inwardly frown.

Hmm. This isn’t the same as that golden film as before. And I’m pretty sure its energy structure is different from the Tree’s, too. My Battle Sense can see past it, meaning it should not be impossible to cross over to the other side. But how?

Jack thought for a moment or two before deciding to take away that blue soul strands from the crystal as an experiment. He closed his eyes and concentrated and lo and behold, the strands began to deviate from their paths and came over to his direction, eventually entering his Soul Sphere. Almost immediately, Jack felt ice-cold chill spreading throughout his body. Rather than being harmful, it felt incredibly refreshing to absorb.

And unlike the “normal” red souls, the blue souls were easier to control. His Battle Sense could interact with them if he concentrated on doing just that. Still, no discernible change in the barrier, though.

However, the figure forming around the golden skull slowly raised its still-forming head. Jack could see how grotesque and nightmare inducing it was, the way the flesh and blood vessels were pulsing and quivering. The pair of piercing blue eyes landed on Jack and his mind was filled with a terrifying roar that sounded like it was coming from a distance but echoing right beside him.

There were some words hidden in this echoing roar, telling him to cease wrestling away the blue souls and heed this creature’s orders. Jack’s frown deepened. It was really unpleasant and annoying as hell, so he started resisting this attempt at controlling him.

He took a step back and wielded the halberd. With a loud snort, he slammed hard into the barrier, sending ripples of shockwave both physical and supernatural, repelling the roar from the illusory figure. The figure shrieked in pain and its form faded slightly, a sign of it weakening.

The skull shook a little. Vanguard seemed to freeze on the spot, before resuming its mindless attack on the barrier.

“Hey, hey, Lugal. What should we do here?”

Stewart asked, not affected by the roar and oblivious to what just happened.

Jack hefted the halberd again and spoke. “I’ll break this barrier. You guys just get ready to set the bombs up.”

“At the altar? Is it the Core?”

“Not sure. But I believe it could very well be. Blow it up, start the chain reaction and bring everything else down alongside it. That should do, right?”

Jack spoke with confidence and let the halberd drop on the barrier. Another barrage of powerful shockwave inundated the barrier and the illusory figure shrieked louder. Its form faded even more; all the while, more and more of the blue souls were entering Jack’s Soul Sphere, spreading that cool sensation all over his limbs. His tiredness seemed to disappear and he felt nice and airy.

When he struck one more time, the skull rolled to its side and revealed the bronze mirror wrapped around in a severed hand which was, strangely enough, rather fitting considering the situation. There was a compass there as well, but it didn’t seem like anything important so his attention didn’t remain on it for long.

Jack sent out his Battle Sense to the bronze mirror, trying to see what it was and if he could interact with it. If he could disarm this barrier instead of bashing it a million times somehow, that’d be great, or so he mused silently.

Jack could feel some sort of mental wave emanating from it and latched his thoughts onto it, and felt some sort of connection being snapped into place. There was another weak presence within this wave, but as soon as Jack took over, this presence, presumably that of the sinister-looking creature, was erased off.

The mirror groaned and made a soft keening sound, before slowly levitating off the altar. The severed hand limply fell off and landed on the top of the altar with a plop. Then, the bronze artifact sent out a warm glow of light before flying into Jack’s outstretched hand, landing safe and sound there.

“Huh,” he muttered in amazement. The other soldiers too looked at this development with equal parts confusion and happy surprise. Needless to say, the barrier receded and they were granted access towards the altar.

Vanguard immediately leaped up and landed near the golden skull. He seemed to be hell-bent on retrieving that thing no matter what. The operators, including Stewart, began to set the various explosives all around the altar while Jack also jumped up to where Vanguard was.

Only allowed on

Amazingly, the illusory figure was growling threateningly at Vanguard, and the burly Super was having a hard time trying to get closer, as if there was a tug of war being played between the figure and whoever was controlling him right now.

Jack frowned, wondering what he should do here. He knew the golden skull had to be destroyed, but what was Vanguard’s agenda? The Superhero was still under the control of another force that, outwardly at least, didn’t seem in cahoots with the skull’s owner, the despotic Mad King En-men-lu-ana. But Jack certainly didn’t get the feeling that Vanguard, or whoever was controlling him, wanted to destroy the skull, either.

If that was the case, then Jack just couldn’t stand back anymore. He quickly stashed the mirror in one of the compartments of the survival suit, silently stepped behind Vanguard and utilizing the advantage of the sudden attack, he threw the burly Super away, off the altar. And just as quickly, swung the halberd as hard as he could at the golden skull.

The illusory figure looked horrified, then gnashed its still-forming teeth. As the halberd’s dull edge slammed down on the skull, Jack thought he heard the figure cuss at him.

You!! You insolent fool!! This isn’t over…..”

The halberd smashed the skull apart, even going as far as cracking the altar a little. The bits of golden skull flew away; the same thing happened to the compass as it too rolled away, disappearing from the view.

The illusory figure issued a sorrowful whine before completely fading away. The blue souls that were fusing with the figure dispersed before shooting towards Jack’s Soul Sphere, entering it and becoming one with him.

Jack felt satisfied. This mission was almost over. Nodding his head, he was about to turn his attention to Vanguard when he heard a loud scream. Following the sound to its source, Jack was greeted with the sight of Vanguard choking Leroy and Chuck with each of his hands. Not only that, the metal-like coating was extending from his arms towards the struggling duo.

Seeing this, Jack knew right away bad things hadn’t stopped happening yet. There was one more hurdle to conquer. And it bore all the hallmarks of a ridiculously difficult hurdle at that.

“Sergeant Baxter!! Are you finished with setting the bombs?!”

Jack shouted out loudly just as Stewart and the remaining operators rushed around from the other side of the altar. They immediately pointed their firearms at Vanguard but could not shoot because of their comrades in the harm’s way.

“Yeah!! But what the hell is going on here now?”

Stewart’s shout reached Jack’s ears. Less than a second later, Jack jumped down to the ground below but it was too late to save the two caught within Vanguard’s iron grip. The metal coating took over their heads and as soon as that was done, Vanguard tossed the seemingly lifeless bodies up above the altar.


Gunnery Sergeant was the first to let rip an avalanche of bullets from his assault rifle. Vanguard dodged a few but the rest struck the metal coating and caused numerous dents before bouncing away. With a pair of emotionless eyes, the possessed Super ran towards them, his arms reaching out for another pair of victims.

Jack timed his swing and struck the torso of Vanguard with his halberd. He was shocked greatly when the feedback he got was as hard as the stone tablet of Humbaba. The halberd creaked in protest as Vanguard was blown away, slamming into the far corner of the altar. Jewels and broken thorns flew about, scattering like a spray of water as the portion of the impressive monument was destroyed as if it was made out of paper cards.

Jack watched as the metal coating on Vanguard’s torso absorb the brunt of the attack, ensuring the survival of the Super, which was within Jack’s expectations. Perhaps discouraged by the strength of Jack’s swing, as soon as emerging from the debris, Vanguard cautiously maintained a small distance from him, neither getting in close or running away.

The stalemate remained like that for the next minute or so, before Jack noticed movement above, on the altar itself. Two soldiers affected by the metal coating suddenly jumped down from there, their hands holding the recovered pieces of the golden skull.

Damn, so he was wasting our time, while the others collected the skull’s fragments!!

Jack quickly dashed in to block the three affected men from escaping, now that their objective was seemingly complete. Vanguard stepped out and met Jack head on, allowing Leroy and Chuck to run towards the exit of the chamber.

Grimacing, Jack swung his halberd at Vanguard. “Get out of the way!!”

The weapon, as damaged as it was, still proved to be useful as it meant Jack didn’t have to touch Vanguard, thereby reducing the risk of getting affected by the metal coating close to none.

Vanguard’s arm, coated with the metal thing, met the swing and sent out a heavy, explosive groan. Amazingly, their individual strength was more or less a match – no one getting an upper hand at all.

Meanwhile, Stewart and his men chased after the two affected operators who was running away. For a moment there, Stewart glanced back at Lugal but after thinking that the lives of his men took precedence over that of a stranger, he squarely re-aimed his focus on the backs of Leroy and Chuck.

Catching them leave with the corner of his vision, Jack clicked his tongue. Being left behind didn’t sit so well with him, but hell, there was a bigger issue to deal with in front of him so he let them go for now. Recovering the golden skull pieces were important too, but Jack hoped that Stewart was wise enough not to touch the affected comrades lest he too became one of the possessed like Vanguard.

Jack shouted loudly and quickly stabbed out with the halberd. Vanguard dodged to his side and closed in, his hands reaching out. Jack correctly judged the attack’s direction and slipped out of the reach but the halberd was caught in the grips.

The metal coating then invaded the halberd, swiftly spreading all over it. Jack’s expressions fell and he discarded his weapon while retreating. Vanguard didn’t care about the halberd and went after Jack again.

The pattern soon developed in this strange battle. Jack was almost entirely devoted to dodging. He didn’t even try to block or attack. While Vanguard was either trying to grab the boy or to land a hit. They snaked past the metal sacs, weaving between them and playing a super-fast game of an “almost” tag.

Jack had enough of this nonsense, so out of desperation, he kicked the nearest metal sac towards Vanguard just as the burly Super came into view. The sac swung and slammed into Vanguard, knocking him back. The sac’s connecting “tissue” with the ceiling broke loose, and viscous liquid poured out all over the place.

The acrid smell of sulfur quickly filled the chamber as the content of the sac spilled out. Jack froze on the spot as pale blue liquid washed over his feet. His eyesight was naturally drawn into a huddled, naked, half-formed lump of a person, its body incomplete and hideously disfigured.


Stewart’s urgent voice resounded behind him, from the exit. It didn’t sound good.

Gritting his teeth, Jack ignored Vanguard and dashed towards the exit, a growing, gnawing feeling of worry rapidly blossoming in his heart.

(Next release will take a bit of time, as I’m planning to do two chapters at the same time. My apologies in advance.)

(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.)

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