(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 mask. You will need a mask.”
Taylor said with a deadpan expression.
“Huh? Why do I need a mask for?”
Jack was slightly puzzled by her suggestion and couldn’t help but ask.
“Simple. A secret identity, Jack. It’s for keeping your identity secret from your enemies and the like. I mean, really – how many Supers you know walk around bare faced? Exactly. Even Vanguard wears that gaudy wrestling mask of his.”
A secret identity, eh? Jack nodded in contemplation. It was indeed true that most villains and heroes wore some type of facial wear, whether for style or safety. But Jack understood the need for keeping his identity to himself in his pursuit of vengeance.
For one, he was going after two targets. If he missed one, then if he was not careful, his family might be in danger of retaliation. That wouldn’t do. Not at all.
“Okay. Something like a mask, huh? Maybe I should go for a simple one. Like…. uh, Zorro? Or, you know, a bandana across the lower half of my face or something.”
Taylor shook her head slowly. “No way. You wanna look like a bandit from a spaghetti western? No, you don’t have to think too hard about this. A dark hoodie, maybe a simple pair of goggles and it’s all good.”
Jack frowned deeply and looked above at the sky. Then he exaggeratedly pointed upwards. “A hoodie? In this heat? Are you trying to kill me?!”
Taylor shrugged her shoulders as if she was the one being troubled with this, not him. “Well, you got a better idea? Besides, we ain’t going on no Super hunting yet, you know. By the time you are actually ready to do this, then the gods of weather should be more or less accommodating to your wardrobe needs.”
Jack’s frown remained, but he reluctantly agreed with Taylor’s assessment.
Currently, it was the Saturday of the same week the two of them agreed on the pact of mutual cooperation. Jack had to deflect Cindy and her bullying attempts aimed at Taylor for the duration of the week, and it sure as hell was tiring. To think that he had to repeat this in the coming weeks…. Quite frankly, he couldn’t understand why that queen bee had it out for Taylor at all. It was like an obsession. An exceedingly daft one at that.
But anyways. Right now, it was time to worry about something else. Like, the untold reasons why he had to come here. And “here” was a patch of untamed nature near their suburb. It was not dense enough to be called a proper, full-on forest, but still wild and untamed enough to feel alien to a teenager like Jack.
It conspired that they lived on the opposite side of the town, Bellview, located on the outskirts of the city. That was an unhappy coincidence. A compromise had to be reached if and when they wanted to meet up. This forest was the place Taylor suggested; apparently, it was at roughly the halfway point between their respective homes.
By being frank with Taylor – meaning, everything about the red souls, including the fact that they were inside of him and that they were the reasons for his quick recovery and improved sense of hearing and such, he was able to hear the complete set of what Taylor could do as well. Give and take, so to speak.
Of course, Jack conveniently forgot to mention the bit about the ancient civilization and the mysterious woman in his dream-like memories. He wasn’t sure what to make of those yet, so until he knew more, he was planning to keep that stuff to himself. Besides, if he mentioned the skimpily dressed woman, he feared that Taylor might see him as a pervert, or at least as a horndog. Neither would be all that conducive towards a good working relationship.
As for Taylor’s powers, he had hit the jackpot. She did indeed possess the ability to locate a person. Granted, the overall range of this ability was not that good, and she could only discern who was a Super and who wasn’t by the “fluctuations of power,” or so she claimed. She could find anyone within range, of course. That was a given. But it still had its limitations, but the fact was, she could help him find the right pair of Supers as long as they were in the range of her scope.
She had been using it more or less to avoid dealing with the walking, talking hassles AKA Cindy McAlister and her gang. She wasn’t entirely successful in this endeavor, but it was better than nothing in her eyes.
Anyways, Jack wasn’t really interested in her troubles although he did feign a concern ever so briefly. Their arrangement was simple enough on paper – she would help him find Falcon and Master Evil while Jack would chase away the rabid pack of dogs otherwise known as Cindy and her goons by utilizing his moniker as a victim of heinous circumstances. Political Correctness FTW, or so Taylor said with a smirk.
As for them meeting in this forest today, though – it was Taylor’s decision. She called the meeting for some reason. Jack had no idea what she was thinking of, asking him to come here. If this trip was a waste of time, then he’d be royally pissed, since he had to ride his bicycle all the way from his house. That wasn’t much fun under this blazing sun even with his red soul-enhanced physique.
“Why are we here, anyway? What’s so special about this forest?”
Jack asked, confused. He looked around to see what’s what, but as far as his eyes could see, besides being a wooded area, there was nothing remarkable about this place at all. In the distance, he could see the valley where the town of Bellview nested. From their position, slightly elevated on a hillside, he could see the immense expanse of houses and an occasional shopping mall jutting out in between. Sunlight reflected off from the distant moving cars, and Jack thought they kinda looked like the brightly colored M&M’s that had grown legs, busy trying to escape the mouths of naughty kids.
“We’re here because you need to find out whether you got what it takes. Also, there was something I am curious about, too.”
Taylor replied with a serious face.
“Takes to do what, exactly? And what are you curious about? Is it about my powers?”
Jack was now genuinely puzzled and turned his attention back on her. When he saw her serious face, he got this inexplicable feeling that something troublesome was coming his way.
“Well, firstly, you say you’re going to kill Falcon and Master Evil, right? Well…. here’s the thing – can you actually do that? Kill someone?”
“Yeah, sure I can. I mean, how hard can it be? Right?”
Jack was pretty sure of himself and spoke without a single shred of hesitation. But obviously, Taylor wasn’t so easily convinced.
“Well, we’re here to find that out for ourselves. I’ll use my power to locate a wild animal or something, and it will be your job to kill it. Let’s see if you can do that.”
Jack nodded when he heard that. Her reasoning made sense – a practice run of their teamwork as well as getting him ready for what laid ahead in the future. He also felt confident that when it came to taking away the lives of the others, it wouldn’t be a problem at all.
“Okay, so that’s that. What about the second thing? The one you’re curious about?”
“Oh, that,” Taylor thoughtfully gazed at him. “I was wondering whether you could extract that red soul even from an animal. If it’s possible, it’s like killing two birds with one stone, right? You get to practice killing and get stronger at the same time. Kinda like an MMORPG.”
Jack’s mind shook. What Taylor said left him momentarily speechless. And then, he felt like kicking himself for not thinking up this method in the first place. What a blunder.
If he could get the required red souls from the animals around this forest, then wouldn’t that solve his most urgent problem?
He felt the excitement building up. Now he felt totally pumped up for this. Unsure about his ability to take away lives? He saw such a notion as nothing but a joke. He witnessed plenty of deaths. He was surrounded by it. He was baptized in the fumes of blood, both in reality and within the memory-dream world of fantasy. Oh, he was more than equipped to handle death, alright.
But then, a slight problem reared its ugly head, cooling his enthusiasm somewhat.
“Wait a damn minute here. Hey, just how am I supposed to kill an animal? With my bare hands? You can’t be serious.”
Taylor gave him a weird eye. “Of course. You said you got a power boost, right? So, consequently, use your hands and feet and whatever at your disposal to kill. It’ll massively help if you could shoot lasers or something, though….”
“What?! Oh, come on. Don’t you have a knife or something I can use?” Jack asked with an exasperated look.
“Wha… why would I carry a knife?! Do I look like a thug to you, Mercer? Gee whiz, you’re like a baby. Just grab a rock or something.”
“A rock? ….Fine. I will make do.”
Jack hastily looked around; there were lots of rocks and pebbles but none were of the satisfactory sizes. Frowning, he scratched the back of his head.
He had to spend a good few minutes digging around until he found a jagged rock that was as big as a brick. It was unwieldy as hell, but a beggar couldn’t be picky about where his next meal came from. He also felt like a caveman, holding a rock as a weapon. After swinging it for a couple of times to get used to the weight, Jack felt more or less ready, so he gave Taylor the signal with a nod.
“Let’s do this.”
Taylor closed her eyes and concentrated. The world before her consciousness expanded and her mind began to melt into the surrounding area. All color drained out from her view, turning it gray.
In this washed out world, Taylor could see, or sense, movements, their shapes marked out in black emptiness. Small things, big things, medium things, all scurrying about. Their outlines allowed her to figure out what she was looking at.
She narrowed her focus and searched for something with a bit of substance, a bit of heft. In other words, something that might pose a challenge.
She used to come to these woods with her father, back when she was much younger. He was a big lover of camping, but because of work could not separate himself too far from his job – so he settled for this forest. Because of this experience, Taylor was fairly well versed in the ecology and layout of this area.
She knew there were quite a few wild animals roaming around here. From wild hares to coyotes, one just had to look hard enough and one would find them.
Her usable range was normally 100 yards if she left it in the “default” mode. Since she didn’t need the accuracy but the width, she sacrificed the former for the latter, increasing the range temporarily to well over 250 yards.
The world further lost what little color there was remaining and became far, far grayer compared to before. A lot of the details was lost but as a trade-off, she now could sense more movements on a wider scale.
“There, Southwest, roughly 200 yards out. It’s about the size of a dog,” said Taylor as she pointed towards the target. “Let’s get cracking.”
They had to be extra careful when approaching the so-called game. In part, because they didn’t want to spook the animal and lose it, but mostly because they didn’t know how to stalk a prey effectively either. They were not cut out to be a natural-born hunter, it seemed.
They were pretty comical in their ineptitude, really. The two of them stumbled about on the uneven terrain, trying to navigate the not-so-dense woods. Taylor fared far better compared to Jack who was struggling to even breath properly. Of course, he was embarrassed about his own lack of physical prowess, and swore to make the right enhancements as soon as he got the chance.
Taylor mocked him for going out of breath so easily, telling him to exercise more.
But secretly, Taylor was getting worried. The presence seemed to have noticed them, but instead of running away, it was lingering in the same spot for a while. This was contrary to what she knew. Even as she made the light joke, she hoped for nothing bad to happen.
“From here on, do not make a sound,” warned Taylor as she crouched low.
Jack followed suit and carefully threaded his way forward, or at least he tried to.
Past some bushes, the two of them saw the source of the movement – it was a coyote. It was busy picking on something on the ground. Upon a closer inspection, it was a carcass of some poor critter. No wonder the canine was reluctant to vacate the area and abandon its meal like that.
The blood and splattered gore were on full display. There was an acrid smell wafting in the air, too. Instantly, Jack froze on the spot before recovering from the shock, the sense of disgust and bile rising and falling rapidly in his throat.
The coyote raised its blood-soaked head and stared back at the duo. The animal bared its fangs and aggressively growled – warning the two humans to stay away from it and its meal.
Taylor glanced at Jack’s face and was rewarded with a look of strange, twisted emotions that was, honestly speaking, scared her silly. She didn’t know that a human being was capable of making an expression like that.
However, there was no fear-induced trembling or such. He was rigid like a statue, his eyes glued to the creature.
“Jack, you okay?”
Taylor slowly tugged at the short sleeve of his T-shirt. He nodded back, but his focus still remained with the coyote up front. That was all thanks to a very thin, nearly indiscernible fog of red slowly rising from the fresh carcass.
Jack felt the roof of his mouth go dry. He felt his heart racing. He felt the rush of adrenaline crashing into his veins like a tidal wave of a tsunami.
“Hey, don’t just stand there, talk to me,” Taylor quietly urged him to speak. His weird face was getting weirder by the second and it was creeping her out.
“Oh, sorry. You were right, Taylor. Looks like I can acquire the red souls by killing the wildlife.” Jack took a deep breath and spoke softly. “I can see the red mist coming off the carcass.”
Taylor squinted her eyes but she couldn’t see anything like a mist rising up from the dead critter. Not even her ability could pick up on any anomaly. She was skeptical, but as there was no other choice anyway, she decided to take his words for it.
“Okay, so that works. Now, what are you going to do about the coyote?”
She asked, curious.
“Well…. I guess….”
Jack mulled his options. The coyote was staring at him with venom and a bit of unease in its eyes. It started slowly pacing near the carcass as if waiting for the two humans to act.
Jack glanced at the rock in his hands. It was brick-sized. He could throw it, but could he actually hit the animal with it? Even with his limbs enhanced, it was only by a negligible amount. No way in hell he could kill the coyote in one go.
“If you don’t do something, it’s going to run away,” said Taylor from his side.
“I know,” replied Jack, feeling slightly helpless and irritated.
He looked at his own hands and clenched it a bit. He felt strength flowing in it. Not literal strength, no, but something a bit more like spiritual; something akin to a metaphorical sense of strength, something that was more than physical in nature.
He returned his gazes back at the skittish coyote. He concentrated on it, on its patterns, the way it tensed its muscles and flitted about on its feet. Gradually, he began to see the potential patterns in its movement from the intense observation.
Even before noticing it, his own body stepped forward. One step, two steps; he slowly approached the animal. It bared its fangs and continued to growl threateningly at him.
When he got near enough, the coyote barked sharply and pounced at him. It must have had enough of this human getting closer and disturbing its meal time.
Jack clearly discerned its trajectory. He knew the exact direction its sharp, opened and drooling maw would take. He could even accurately tell the arc of its claws brushing past his chest. So, without further ado, he tilted his body out of the way.
Of course, nothing was that simple. Even if his senses were enhanced, it did not mean that his body could keep up.
Jack was shocked at how slow his torso moved. It was slower than the approaching coyote by far. At this rate, he’d get hit for sure. Reflexively, he raised his right arm and punched out.
His fist splendidly connected with the animal on the side of its head. There was a cracking noise – a soft then hard sensation transmitting through his skin.
The coyote made a loud whimper as it crashed into the ground and bounced around a couple of times before coming to a dead stop.
Seeing this, even Taylor was left speechless. This eruption of violence was so sudden, and its end was just as so. She didn’t even have time to react.
Jack too was dazed at his own actions. How the hell did I do that?!
Not even once in his life did he learn how to throw a solid right hook. He never even went to a Karate dojo before. Yet, he clean punched the poor coyote and now it was out for the count. Understandably, he was seriously confused at his sudden proficiency at Kung Fu.
It’s like…. I already knew how to…. uh, kick and punch. Is that even possible?! What the hell is going on with me? Did absorbing those red souls somehow changed me into an expert fighter??
“It’s not dead, so don’t relax just yet.”
Taylor lightly tapped him on the shoulder, breaking Jack’s chain of thoughts. He quickly looked over at the animal, and indeed, it was still alive.
The coyote slowly got up on its feet, but even he could tell it was totally dazed by the knockout punch. Jack felt he did some serious damage to it but apparently, it wasn’t quite enough to finish the job.
“So, what are you going to do?” Taylor asked in a somber tone. There was a certain strange emotion mixed in her voice which he vaguely noticed.
His mind was still racing hard from the experience of hitting the animal. But oddly, it also felt quite good, this surge of adrenaline. It was different from anything and everything he had encountered in his life so far.
“I’m going to finish it,” Jack nodded and began to approach the whimpering, tottering coyote.
He gripped the rock tightly and stood before the shaking canine. Its eyes were swimming and he saw there was fresh blood coming from its ear, on the side where he struck it. It was on the proverbial ropes, ready to throw in the towels. Jack even felt fear in its weak eyes.
Suffice to say, he felt a pang of guilt invade his conscience. He found himself questioning the reasons for him to kill this poor thing.
His conviction wavered. He began second guessing himself. Was he doing the right thing? Was all this truly necessary? Did he make the right choice?
Jack gritted his teeth as his eyes saw the sliver of red mist drifting out of the carcass of the unknown animal. He knew this road he was on had to be trodden. It was a necessary evil.
Jack’s face darkened. He hardened his mind and raised the rock. And then, he smashed the head of the coyote.
The splitting sensation of something soft was transmitted to his brain via his hand, his arm, his shoulder, and then his neck. That sensation instantly put the brakes on his pumping adrenaline.
It was truly, utterly, horribly, and incredibly unpleasant. It nearly made him puke on the spot.
Even Taylor held her breath. The sound of the rock connecting with the flesh was a lot louder and more horrible than she expected. And the follow-up whining from the dying coyote only made it worse.
“Holy cow,” she muttered meekly under her nearly strangled breath. “It’s still not dead yet….”
Jack was startled by her words. And when he looked down at his handiwork, indeed the coyote was still twitching weakly on the ground. A part of its head was pummeled, revealing the pink flesh underneath and some brain matter as well.
Seeing the gore, Jack couldn’t hold back and puked. It was too sudden a reaction for him to stop. He doubled over and emptied the contents in his stomach in a blink of an eye.
Taylor backed away just in time to avoid getting the splatter damage on her clothes but her face turned deathly pale as well. She was also very, very close to the tipping point but by some kind of miracle, didn’t manage to vomit. Still, the bitter and terrible taste rose up in her mouth, making her realize that maybe, today wasn’t such a good idea after all.
After that, there was total silence. Well, discounting the fact that the coyote was still whining weakly on the ground, but that didn’t count. The two teens looked at each other uneasily, urging one another silently to do…. something. Anything would do at this point.
Jack wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and bitterly chuckled. He knew that this was an unsightly mess, and he was directly responsible for it. All of it. Too late for regrets, though.
Taking in another deep breath to clear his stinking mouth, Jack hardened his mind again and slammed the bloodied rock hard down on the coyote’s head.
Min-jung scanned the area before carefully parking her car in the dark and drab underground parking lot.
Almost every car present here was black in color, leading her to believe that every single one of the Federal Government’s employees, or in this case, the Department of Defense’s, lacked imagination when it came to ticking the car’s optional paint choices check boxes. She too, was guilty of this sin so she didn’t voice out her thoughts loudly.
She affixed the shiny “Visitor” credentials on the front, made sure it was visible and exited the black SUV. She was utterly alone in the lot, nary a sound nor echo of one serving to emphasize the point.
There was a row of elevators available for the visitors, but she didn’t bother with any one of them, instead opting for one that was located at the very end. She raised her right hand which had a slim, black ring in the middle finger. She swiped that ring over a small touchscreen.
This activated the elevator door.
Her floor was deep underground, 20 floors down.
And when the doors slid open, Min-jung was greeted by the scene of chaotic disorganization. The floor was bustling with activities. Soldiers, decked out in full riot gear, and scientists, with their white garbs, were busily moving to and fro. The trained men and women held the solemn looks, while the eggheads, concern, confusion, and excitement.
Min-jung was stunned at this scene; it had been a good few years since her last visit here, but even then, she could not remember the day when it was this hectic. Clearly, something big was afoot. She mused that maybe it was a bad day to heed the call of her former colleagues, as urgent as it sounded. Well, even though she played a pivotal role in setting this project on the present course, she was a civilian now and under the employment of a private institution. Surely, they wouldn’t ask her to handle something troublesome. But if they did, then she’d ask for a big cheque with as many zeroes on it as possible.
“Welcome, Doctor Mercer. He’s waiting for you.”
A smartly dressed female soldier greeted Min-jung as she left the elevator. The woman was a stunner – high cheek bones, slant, cat-like crystal blue eyes, pale golden hair pulled tight and hidden under a dark green beret. She held a black tablet close to her voluminous chest. The dark green skirt, normally a type of clothing that would hide a woman’s figure, instead here enhancing hers like a charm. A normal man, or even a woman, would have gone head over heels in adulation if this soldier winked flirtatiously just once. The only problem was, this woman had a gaze so cold and withering, it could probably freeze sea water with one well-placed sneer.
“Major Podolsky. Been a while. You haven’t changed a bit, looks wise. Please, lead the way.”
Min-jung and Major Podolsky, the blond bombshell, shared a cultured nod. And as the two women began walking, Min-jung looked at the unfolding chaos around them and decided to satisfy her growing curiosity.
“Tell me, Major. What is going on here? Something big happened?”
Major Podolsky simply replied. “He will brief you on the current situation, doctor.”
Min-jung briefly pouted in annoyance at the curt reply. Incidentally, the two of them never had a good relationship. Not bad enough for a full-on catfight, but neither good enough to share a passing joke and a polite chuckle together. She had already given up on figuring out why this was so.
Past the rushing soldiers and scientists, she ran into people she knew and used to work with, and shared light greetings with them. They then passed multiple cordons of well-armed soldiers acting as guards set up in the hallways, and another group of male and female soldiers in a spacious office floor who were weaponless but busy doing some kind of paperwork on their individual desks. The biggest desk placed near the end was empty – but Min-jung knew very well that one belonged to Major next to her.
Right after that, the two arrived at a large, black oak doorway. Podolsky knocked on it three times before opening it authoritatively.
Inside, a lowly-lit, smoky and spacious office, a hardened military man in his sixties, sitting behind the huge desk, chewing on a cigar and carrying a scowl fierce enough to terrify even the blind children. And to his opposite, an old man in his late eighties, supporting himself on an archaic wooden cane.
“Professor!! This is a nice surprise. How have you been?”
Min-jung smiled brightly as she gently grasped the hand of the old man.
“Hello, Doctor Kim. Oh, my apologies. It has changed to a Mercer a long time ago, yes? Haha, I am getting on in years, it seems. Regardless, it’s been a long while, Doctor.”
Min-jung and the Professor shared a hug before parting slightly. They shared more polite words before a throat clearing noise from the scowling military man reminded them of where they were.
Min-jung then turned her attention to the military man and lightly nodded her head.
“General Williams. Good to see you again, sir. I see you are rather busy today for some reason.”
“Doctor. Thank you for coming in at such a short notice. Major, please brief the Professor Evans and Doctor Mercer of the development.”
Min-jung couldn’t help but look at Podolsky with a weird eye. In the end, it fell to the good Major to explain the current situation. If she did so from the very beginning, it might have helped her organize her thoughts earlier, but no – the cold beauty just had to drag things out for no good reason. Was it done out of spite? Min-jung couldn’t explain this irrational behavior at all.
“Yes, General. At 0730 Zulu, The subjects G-9, G-10 and G-11 escaped from the Fort McGinley Training Facility. Their current positions are unknown but it is estimated by the last known sightings that they are headed here.”
Min-jung stiffened almost immediately upon hearing this. “You called me in for this?! I am not a combatant, General. How will I be able to help you in this situation?!”
“Relax, Doctor. You weren’t called here originally because of the breakout. But if it comes to that, don’t worry, we will provide you with adequate protection. Professor, please inform the skittish Doctor here of the breakthrough your team has made recently.”
General Williams flicked the burning end of his cigar casually on the marble ashtray and deposited the ash in a practiced manner.
“Ahem, yes. Excuse me. The algorithm finally cracked the previously indecipherable parts of the arcane cuneiforms found in the tomb. And the results, in my opinion, warrants a serious relook at the Project Dead Kings. Especially, at the overall direction this project needs to take.”
Min-jung slowly sat down on one of the unoccupied seats. And steadied her breath. “Oh? So the final bits of mystery has been solved, after all these years? What did the symbols say?”
Professor Evans had a rueful smile as he sighed. “Well…. it speaks of a threat on a bigger scale than previously thought heading our way. And that we might have been preparing to fight against the wrong enemy all this time.”
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Synopsis: The online game <