(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!!)
A few months had passed since that day.
Jack exited the hospital, unable to lift up his mood whatsoever. He was here to visit Nick who had been moved from the military hospital to a civilian one at the request of his parents.
He was no longer in a vegetative state, but that didn’t mean he was all healed up and ready to live a normal life. He had received a massive head trauma and the damage to his brain was substantial. Nick couldn’t remember much about himself nor anyone close to him at all. Not only that, he was now a paraplegic. He couldn’t walk anymore.
Jack continued to sigh as his feet dragged him towards the bus stop. He sat down on the bench, pensive and his shoulders slumped slightly. There was an old lady wearing a thick pair of glasses staring at her latest phone, reading something. He didn’t pay her any mind, nor did she him.
Jack could probably guess correctly what she was absorbed with, anyway. The Tree of the End and the clean-up of Manhattan island dominated the news even after so many days had passed by. It was not that difficult to figure out why, when that impossibly tall metallic structure remained standing, completely overshadowing the Eastern Seaboard skyline of the United States of America. Some said that on a spectacularly clear day, the dead Tree could be spotted even from a place as far away as Greenland, although the rumor hadn’t been verified yet. Was it one of those internet myths waiting to be debunked? Jack didn’t really care one way or the other.
The Tree had nothing to do with him anymore, that’s why. Instead, now it belonged to the federal government of the US of A. The current president, Mister David J. Trudale, declared a state of emergency and cordoned off the entire area of abandoned New York City. Eventually, he “graciously” allowed several international agencies a thorough look-see of the unexplainable structure, ostensibly for the benefit of all mankind. How nice of him.
The public wasn’t privy to all the things discovered within the Tree’s bowels. All the interested parties, whether that be the Department of Defense, FBI, GoH or Mylorne Akkad, they all got something out of the carcass, something that could ostensibly better prepare the mankind from the future incursions by the Anunnaki as well as other external forces.
Jack sighed, slowly kneading his temples. He was in no mood to worry about any of that. His mind was occupied with Nick’s condition. He came every Sunday to the hospital in the city hoping to see some improvement to his only remaining friend but no cigar so far. After waking up from the coma, Nick was just vacant and distant, no hints of recognition in the eyes at all. Slowly, doctors said, the broken pieces of memories would return but seeing his friend like this, Jack wasn’t so sure anymore.
Gilgamesh’s will said that he could improve anyone’s condition as long as Jack could develop his Battle Sense further, but during the last months he couldn’t improve this ability much at all. Whenever he tried, there were no tangible results. He was stuck in a rut, in other words.
While he was sitting there sighing his heart out, the city bus rolled by and stopped in front of Jack. He noticed the advert displayed on the side of the vehicle, featuring the smiling masked face of Vanguard. He was promoting a new documentary to be released in the local cinemas, chronicling the lives of three young Superheroes working for the Guild of Heroes. The burly Super even appeared on many talk shows to build hype for the film, saying it was one of the most moving piece of entertainment he had ever seen.
Jack was conflicted, seeing that banner on the side of the bus. He didn’t know what to feel. Vanguard looked to be in a perfect health as if he didn’t suffer through a possession by the mystery metal liquid thing. Was the smiling masked Superhero doing interviews the real Vanguard, or was he still being controlled? Either way, who was really in charge?
Jack hadn’t had a chance to converse with Vanguard yet, so there was no confirmation. Still, that fake smile upset Jack. There was nothing to smile about, if he considered the events of the island and millions of people who were either killed by the Tree and its metal vines or were displaced from their homes. The greatest city on Earth was no more.
Hence, the smiling face was at odds with the truth of the past.
Jack shook his head to clear out the irrelevant thoughts. As he reminded himself again, the Tree of the End and all the business related to it were not his concern anymore. Whether the whole of the former city becomes a no-go zone or a lawless wasteland, it didn’t matter to him right now. Whatever happens, that would be in the distant future.
Jack slowly got in and found a seat towards the back. His next destination was to head to the city’s vast library. He could hit the internet to seek out all he wanted to find out, but the truth was, Jack thought that his home was bugged. Phone lines, broadband, cable, satellite, even his own family – Jack couldn’t help but feel that he was being monitored 24/7.
There weren’t any physical traces of their surveillance, but every now and then, his Battle Sense would pick up on minute clues. Such as, a gentle breeze blowing while in a closed room, or a soft murmur out of nowhere, or a tickle on the hair tips, or a sudden drop in the temperature, a chill down his backside – that sort of stuff.
As nonsensical as it all sounded, with supernatural abilities in the mix, no one could blame Jack for being paranoid of his surroundings. Of course, with his nerves always on edge, he just couldn’t stay at home and endure the torture. At least in the library, he reasoned, he could hide in there and find out if anyone was tailing him. There were. Battle Sense occasionally picked one or two shifty characters checking him out.
Jack never really tackled one of these “observers” to ask who sent them but he could make one or two educated guesses – the GoH, and its Unit X.
Jack scanned all who was seating inside and made sure there weren’t any suspicious men on the bus before taking his seat. Once the bus noisily took off, Jack smiled wryly, thinking that before he knew it, the phobia of being in a moving vehicle had been cured somehow. He felt nothing as he rode on the bus. Was it because he knew he would survive pretty much 99% of all accidents now? Or was it something else, like not giving a damn anymore?
His phone buzzed while he was musing his psychological changes. He pulled it out to check and saw that a text had come through. It was from his mother. She said that she was going out on an urgent business and that individual Mercer family members should find dinner by themselves. He smiled wryly at that message, too.
“An urgent business, huh….”
Jack whispered softly to himself.
Ever since the entirety of G Children from the Project Dead Kings got wiped out, with the exception of Erik, Lei and Cleo, the DoD was in a state of frenzy. Billions invested were gone in less than one night. That was why they lured in Min-jung back into the fold with the promise of a blank cheque and fat bonuses on top. Shockingly enough, she agreed.
But whether that was because it was her own decisions or by another one telling her to, Jack wasn’t sure at all. Even now, he couldn’t be sure no matter how long he observed his family.
He briefly recalled the hours and days following the completion of the mission. The majority of Monday morning and the afternoon was spent answering many, many barbed questions from whoever asked them. Jack sort of remembered some part of those questions, but the rest was a bit of a blur. What he did remember, though, was the hostile and disbelieving faces of several high-ranking military officials, especially of General Williams from the Dead Kings.
Whatever, Jack stuck to the agreed script hashed out on the fly by Alexander Olmos Dupont. Even if he wanted to veer off and alert them to the GoH’s duplicity, with Emma Gilberts eyeing him like a hawk in the debriefing room, Jack couldn’t tell anyone anyway.
By Tuesday, Jack was able to return to his empty home. The very first thing he did was to plop down on the bed and just sleep like a dead log. He slept for a whole day, not caring about a thing. No, that was not quite right – he did care about the fate of his family, but he was just too damn tired to do anything about it. Sleep was the only natural recourse left for his tired, frazzled mind.
When he woke up next morning, the latter half of the agreement made with The Unit X was completed – his family came home. But their memories were altered. They had no recollection of the matters of the last couple of days. All they knew was that Jack was kidnapped but GoH members brought him home safe and sound.
Of course, Taylor was another witness but she had no idea what had transpired so she was deemed as a non-threat, for now. Whether GoH was watching her or not was unknown, but Jack remained cautious.
When his family returned, Jack used his Battle Sense on his family. He hoped to see no harm was done to them but his prayers weren’t answered. There was a small microchip embedded in the base of the brain on every one of his family members. He had no idea what they could be, but one thing was for sure – it wouldn’t be for their good health.
He looked through the topics of neural science while in the library in order to find a way to extract those chips but he was, in the end, just a dumb kid struggling through high school. What he needed was the level of knowledge base only someone like Mylorne Akkad could offer.
Recalling all this fact, his sighs grew longer. Jack read somewhere that sometimes, not knowing was a blessing in itself. He said this because, now that he knew, he had to distance himself from the worried family members as much as possible, lest he let slip something he shouldn’t have and end up endangering their lives in some way.
Jack felt like an asshole for sure, the absolute worst of his kind. Staying all by himself and not opening up to anyone created a silent, unbridgeable chasm between him and all of his acquaintances. It was difficult to endure every day, but he fooled himself by saying that it was all for their own good. Maybe it was for him, his conscience, the easing of his guilt. He could not tell clearly after a while.
Maybe I should’ve relied on Mylorne Akkad more….
Jack stared at the screen of his phone for a second longer. The private numbers for the immortal billionaire were only a press of a button away. Until now, Jack stayed away from him as well and he too gave Jack a wide berth.
There was a moment during the Monday’s debriefing session when Mylorne’s eyes flashed in cold light while Jack was recounting what had happened inside the Tree of the End’s Core chamber. Ever since then, the contact was sporadic between the two at best.
Did he see through me back then?
Jack knew he could have. There were one or two holes in the story, after all. Sighing, Jack gave up on the idea of calling Mylorne and put the phone away.
He was not looking forward to his civilian life. He didn’t want to go to school tomorrow. Which was funny, as one of the things he fervently wished for was to live a normal life. Now, that was all but impossible. The world continued to churn and bounce day to day regardless of his feelings, though, and to continue with the charade Jack had to attend the school as if nothing was amiss.
Right, there is that test coming up. I haven’t even studied for that….
Jack groaned softly, his eyebrows sinking low. It was true that his academic performance was suffering badly of late, but it wasn’t like he could put an extra effort there when he was being besieged from all fronts.
There were far more important eggs to fry, at least according to Jack’s mind, anyways.
Thinking of school, he suddenly remembered the faces of the girls who began to hit on him. That was out of nowhere, Jack thought rather bemusedly. Refusing their advances weren’t much of a big deal and he wasn’t really bothered by it, but still, it’d be a lie to deny feeling good when he was being hit on. To be on the receiving end of the opposite sex’s attention sure made him feel like a man.
Although, he had to wonder whether they were under the influence of GoH or something else. The Battle Sense said they were not, but he remained cautious.
Then the face of Taylor took center stage in his head. Jack contemplatively scratched his chin. Through all the daily troubles, she continued to stick around him. Jack couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or not. GoH’s attention could be drawn to her if she stayed next to him. However, it was also true that she was not strong enough to defend herself if something untoward happened and he was her only shield, at least for now.
Her dad, David, seemed to have recovered just fine, slightly worse for wear but otherwise, not too badly injured. Mylorne Akkad apparently took care of the hospital bill, which was nice of him.
Finally, Jack’s thoughts turned to the trio of Erik and his two friends, Lei and Cleo. Jack hoped that they made out okay, settling down somewhere safe and far away from the madness of the world of Supers. That was just a wishful thinking, but hell, Jack just wanted to believe in something positive for once, never mind the fact that his connections with the trio not running all that deep to begin with.
The phone buzzed again. Jack complained inwardly, thinking who could it be this time. It was Dana, who texted him to complain about their mother. And she asked him to get some fried chicken for dinner.
Huh. My allowances aren’t enough to cover your gluttony, kid. Get your own damn chicken for crying out loud…
Jack groaned and put the phone away, but not before consciously glaring at the list of messages on the device.
GoH hadn’t contacted him until now. No calls, no mails, no visits from Alexander or his cronies – just those irritating observers silently following him around. Which became more unnerving the longer Jack thought about it. What games were they playing? What did they want from him? Were they waiting to find more weaknesses in Jack’s armor before pouncing on him like a pack of hungry hyenas?
If that was so, one more reason to stay further away from his family at all costs. They were hostages and victims, but at the same time weapons to be used against Jack. One sign of weakness, one moment of carelessness, and who knows what might those bastards do.
Jack’s shoulders shuddered slightly at the disturbing thoughts and the chilly winds coming in from the open windows. The weather was getting colder. The Summer had moved on. The Autumn was entering a full swing. He pulled the jacket closer and crossed his arms.
Sinking back deeper into the unhygienic bus seats, Jack thought back to the day his parents forced him to go to a shrink’s couch. That was a couple of days ago. Trauma and PTSD counseling, they said. Jack mused inwardly that he’d not go there anymore. It was way too awkward and all that.
He wasn’t suffering from the mental issues anyway. His problems were external. And as long as there was a cocked gun labeled “GoH” pointing at his family, there was nothing he could do. Jack’s anger rose up a notch, remembering the hardened, troubled and worried faces of his family members.
He clenched his fist tightly, the urge to scream out and punch something growing steadily in his heart. It felt so good to cut loose and fight but he couldn’t do any of that for a while now. His supply of red souls remained the same since the mission’s end, with those mysterious blue souls occupying a small chunk of his Soul Sphere.
Those blue souls….
Jack frowned deeply. The blue souls were different from the red ones. While the red souls were like boiling magma, seething and burning, with the people howling in anguish, the blue ones were a complete opposite. They were calm, cold, emotionless. The people’s wills were docile.
It was as if…. these souls were refined. All mannerisms that made a human a human, were all wiped away and now the blue souls were nothing more than just a stream of energy to be used up by the superior beings. That’s how Jack felt. Gilgamesh’s memories didn’t give him many clues either, but the occasions where he could bathe in those glorious encounters of the past now long forgotten were hard to come by.
The last time he dived in the ocean of memories were on his birthday back in early September, which was a week ago. Otherwise, that day came and went with little fanfare. Even the fragmented memory he witnessed was dull and seemingly unimportant. No wonder he didn’t feel like celebrating it at all. Gifts were handed out and there was a tentative party but it was all mirthless in the end.
Still, he experimented with the mystery blue souls and concluded that they were in essence, the same and as well as different compared to the red ones, certainly a lot colder and were less difficult to look at. Just where they have come from, Jack could venture a guess but he’d rather not say it out loud. But it was obvious that the only source of souls near the Tree was the island of Manhattan itself so it was safe to assume that they were indeed the unfortunate residents who were killed by the rampaging metal vines.
He felt sorry for them. He felt sorry for thinking of using the souls to make himself stronger. A necessary evil in a world full of evils. He didn’t know how, but he swore that, someday, he’d find a way to settle their grievances as well, just as he was planning to settle his.
Jack pensively sunk deeper into the seat. He closed his eyes for a minute or two, seeking a respite from the weary matters of the world. The bus in the meantime came to a scheduled stop at the next terminal, letting the passengers on and off. Among them, a slender figure slowly entered the bus, her eyes alert and sparkly. She was a young girl, an extremely beautiful one at that, almost Elven in her ethereal beauty.
She was the very person Abyss had rescued from the hands of the dead Albanian mobster, Wilhelm Milosevic.
When she saw Jack, her eyes brightened. She quietly approached and sat down right next to him on the bench, startling Jack from his rest.
Jack’s irritated gaze fell on the girl, but no words came out of his mouth. Instead, his jaw dropped to the floor in utter, utter shock. There was one word that did appear rather loudly in his mind, but it got stuck in the throat and couldn’t climb out. Jack was too busy reeling in this unexpected surprise to rescue that word from its predicament, though.
The girl smiled and tucked her long, glistening light brown hair back behind her ears.
“You recognize me, don’t you?”
Jack nodded, somehow managing to close his mouth shut, before opening it to finally mutter the word.
“Siduri….. is that… you?”
The girl, Siduri, slowly nodded. “Yes. It is I. I have been searching for you for so long. And now…. I’ve found you.”
Jack’s mind shook. His vision seemed to gray out all that’s unimportant and he solely focused on her. Her face, her eyes, her gentle, relieved smile. Over this beautiful face, another face superimposed on it.
And that face was of the beautiful raven-haired woman, the one next to the huge saber-tooth tiger, from the very first recollection of the past he had all the way back at Northbound R-35.
She was Siduri, Gilgamesh’s last great lover.
The cogs of fate hadn’t abandoned Jack. Unbeknownst to him, the wheels were continuously turning behind the scenes. And pretty soon, his life would encounter yet another earth-shaking change.
Totally unaware, he was marching straight into the dark pits of the incoming chaos.
(Alright, so here we are. This is the end of Red Souls. But it’s not really the end, because there will be a follow-up story, called…. uh, I haven’t decided on the name yet. Anyways, it is coming. That I can assure you.)
(However, before that happens, I am going back to Aeterna Saga. I’ve been planning the 2nd volume of that and am itching to get started. Once that’s done, I’ll either return to the next part of Red Souls, or start on another wild idea that’s been kicking around in my head.)
(Of course, I’d like to take a small break before I start Aeterna Saga, Volume 2. I’m only a human and I do need a time-out in order to not burn-out, you know.)
(So, I’d like to thank my readers for sticking with me. I’ve no idea how many of you are out there and also no clue, most of the time, what you think of my work, but still, the mere fact that you are out there in the world, reading my story makes me want to write/type more and more. It’s a good feeling, really.)
(Until next time, then. See you soon.)
(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.)