The universe was simultaneously nothing and everything like he imagined.
A bright flash of blue-white light blinded him, and before he regained his sight he became aware of a soft, chilly breeze on his bare arms.
He stood surrounded by white mountaintops enclosing rolling hills as far as the eye could see. The Precursors must have sent him far away from any city, because there were no walls like the ones around Haven or Spargus to be seen anywhere, nor any other man-made structures save for a red-walled building and several vehicles that had clearly seen better days.
The grass crunched underneath his feet as he moved, the snow that must have fallen some time earlier melting away in the sunlight. In the distance several creatures that closely resembled yakows grazed the land. And closer by, scattered around the land – bodies. They were everywhere, men and women, young and old; clearly human despite their smaller size and apparent lack of ears. Dressed in camo and hardhats, some were clearly prepared for combat, while the street clothes others were wearing made him think they were civilians. Confusingly, there were also several men lying in the grass wearing nothing whatsoever, making him wonder what exactly had gone down here.
He whirled around when he heard a door opening behind him, nearly losing his balance when he stepped into a snow-hidden hole left behind by an explosion. He reached behind his back for his morph gun but swore when he realized he didn’t have it on him. Luckily he was never completely without weapons, though, not really: he had his fists and feet, and if he’d have to he’d turn dark.
He relaxed slightly when he saw it wasn’t some horrible beast that came through the door, but a young man about his age. The man was engrossed in wrenching the door open and shut; effort was needed because the structural damage clearly prevented it from operating smoothly, which gave Jak ample time to observe him. His hair shone red when it caught in the sunlight, and combined with his pale skin and short stature it oddly reminded him of Daxter – if his wish had been for humanity and muscles on top of pants. The resemblance was oddly disarming. Not to mention now he was sure he could take him on if needed.
With the door finally shut behind him the man stepped out on the porch – and promptly halted again when his eyes fell on Jak, looking slightly startled. He held up his hands in a placating gesture. “If you’re here for the battle,” he said, “you’ve made it kinda late.”
“Who did this?” Jak asked, his anger rising at finally ending the war back home only to be dropped into the trenches of the next. “Dark Markers? Metal Heads?”
That earned him a curious glance. “Didn’t figure you to be a fan of Tipper Gore.”
At that, the man dropped his hands and stepped off the porch and onto the grass. Surveying the area he said, “People. People did this.”
So it wasn’t some extraterrestrial entity like the ones that threatened his planet, but instead humanity tearing itself apart. Still, though…
“And this is what you do with them after you’re done?”
“For some kind of protector of this planet the dead sure are strewn around your front lawn like it’s nothing. Something doesn’t quite add up.”
“I think you got me confused with someone else. I protect my family. My friends. The world, though? That’s someone else’s deal. Hey, you haven’t seen her, have you?”
“You’re the first person I’ve come across who’s still moving.”
The man nodded briefly. “Well, that’s probably for the best. Right now I’d say she’s probably not too keen on meeting new demons. Rocking hairdo in spite.”
“I’m not a demon,” Jak all but spat, the Dark Eco singing in his blood with his rising anger. The accusations of Haven’s council still rang fresh in his mind, Veger’s and Praxis’ slurs against him, his own father calling him ‘animal man’, and now to be faced with it again on an entirely different planet…
The man’s hands went up again. “Okay,” he said.
“Okay,” he repeated. “Hey, I’m not the judge of who is human and who’s not. Pretty sure I could get into discussions about myself,” he said with a shrug.
Before Jak could follow up on that comment, the man gave a quick jerk with his head and asked, “What’s your name? I’m Oz.”
Oz. Such a plain name. For an alien he sure had expected something a little more exotic.
He recognized the question for what it was, of course—an attempt to diffuse the situation—and while it didn’t make Jak trust him he did appreciate the gesture. Quite a difference from the ‘shoot now, ask questions never’-routine he’d become so painfully used to over the past few years.
He rolled the answer over in his head. He had two names now, one real, and one realer.
“Jak,” he said, because it was.
“Okay, well, Jak…” The corners of Oz’s mouth gave the smallest quirk at that, “I’m going to gather some medical supplies for the wounded, and I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t use your help.”
Wounded… And here he thought the guy just couldn’t be bothered to bury his dead, while in reality he was too busy treating the surviving to tend to them. The anger and Eco drained away to be replaced by a sense of guilt.
“Thanks.” Oz motioned at Jak to follow him and set off through the snow-covered grass. “We’ve already taken out the medkits from most of the vehicles. Should still be one in that one over there.”
Jak’s heart sank when he saw what exactly was being pointed at: a damaged, roofless vehicle lying upturned in the grass. He followed Oz as he made his way around the car, watching as he crouched besides it in an apparent effort to see if he could reach the kit from there. The sides of the car sank deep into the snow, with only about an inch or two of space between the metal and the ground. Standing up, the red-haired man shook his head. “That’s no use,” he said; grasping the side of the car he gave it an experimental tug. The vehicle didn’t budge an inch, not even when Jak stepped in and pushed his own hands against the cold metal.
“Damn,” Oz said under his breath, and sighed. He stepped back and surveyed the area, Jak noticing his eyes momentarily resting on the red building every time his eyes swept over it.
“How important is it we get to it?” he asked the other man.
“Dozens of injured, supplies running low, guys getting new stuff from Lhasa not back ‘til after sundown?”
“Okay,” Jak said. His mind was made up. Even though he barely knew Oz and had no clue what had happened here other than ‘people’, he knew he could not with a clear conscience refuse him his help. Science may have made him into a monster, but when faced with the challenge he would always choose to use his dark powers for good. If only he could keep control of himself afterwards. “Stand back,” Jak simply said, after which he turned his attention back to the vehicle and crouched to put his hands in the space between it and the snowy ground, grabbing the car’s door. He grunted as his muscles tensed, even if it had nothing to do with trying to move the car’s weight.
“Hey, don’t hurt yourself,” he heard Oz say from behind him.
‘Don’t hurt yourself.’ Cute. Unfortunately hurting himself was the only way he was going to be able to do this.
“We should find a lever or something. Maybe ask Xander if he can—”
Whether Oz fell quiet or Jak simply didn’t hear the rest of the sentence he wasn’t sure, because his ears buzzed when purple lightning streamed from his body.
He tried to relax but as always it proved futile: his body shifting was a feeling he never quite got used to. But he had to be thankful for the Light Eco in his system, if only because it had taken away his horns – those things drilling their way through his skull was something he could do without.
Jak grunted through fangs too big for his mouth as his feet dug into the grass and his grip on the metal intensified. He breathed in deeply, once, twice, and with a wrench of effort stretched his legs and back, lifting one half of the vehicle into the air and onto its side. With the car balanced vertically, all it needed now was a push to put it back onto its wheels. Jak had to fight the urge not to use his claws and tear through the metal but with some effort managed to put his palms flat onto the hood of the car and push it back.
“Or that works, too,” Oz said.
Turning over the car right-side-up was not an action without effort, but said effort wasn’t near enough to get the Dark Eco out of his system. He was alight with it, could feel it pump through his body with every beat of his heart, felt it buzzing in his ears. This was what he had feared: he longed to let his claws rend and tear, to create a battlefield equal to the one he already found himself in. Normally, taking out a few Metal Heads or overzealous Krimzon Guards was enough to quell the bloodlust but now there was nothing here. Nothing – except Oz.
Jak wheeled on the other man when his voice cut through the quiet mountain landscape. Black eyes fell on the redhead, boring holes into his head.
“Easy, man,” Oz said with furrowed brows, holding up his hands, palms out. “Breathe.”
Breathe. Jak inhaled deeply through his nose, but the smell of blood in the air only added to his rage. A growl escaped him before Oz continued, “You’re not a demon. You just told me.” Jak heard the redhead swallow. “Now show me.”
The words resonated within Jak, and letting his mind focus on something else—the simple act of breathing—dissipated some of the bloodlust, allowing him a penchant of control back over himself.
Getting his powers under control, Jak focused the darkness inwards while simultaneously directing his attention to the source of light within himself. The Light Eco worked as a coolant over the white-hot rage, giving back color to a world drenched red, and after a tense moment the darkness was swallowed whole.
He grasped his head in pain as he felt his body shift back, heartbeat pounding in his ears like a steel drum: nails shortening, fangs sinking back into their gums, white skin flushing to a light bronze and hair to a healthy yellow-green.
Jak rubbed his eyes with a weary hand as he heard Oz ask, “You okay?”
Jak didn’t think he was particularly bad at conversations, even if he had always been a man of few words – and for a long time even less than that. But his strengths were definitely in other areas and he suddenly became distinctly aware of Daxter’s missing weight on his shoulder. Daxter who always knew what to say, and still said it even if he didn’t.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. You get used to it.”
“Alright. Thank you,” Oz said as he stepped around Jak and made his way towards the vehicle. He wrenched open a door and climbed inside, foraging through the car's interior until he re-emerged holding a green box emblazoned with a white cross. Opening it, he rummaged through its contents – Jak saw bandages, gauze, scizzors and several tubes of salve of some sort, but any Green Eco was curiously missing.
“Good. This is good,” Oz nevertheless said. He closed the box's lid and stepped back out onto the grass, saying, “We can patch up several people with this.” He nodded his thanks.
Jak folded his arms and gave a curt nod back. He looked around himself, saw the bodies thrown across the land and had to ask: “And what are you going to do with them?”
Oz considered his answer for a moment before speaking. “The men’ll probably be picked up by the US military – or whatever military they’re from. The women’ll be sent back to their relatives. Whoever stays behind? I guess cremated. Maybe a sky burial.”
“Sky burial? That sounds like a contradiction.”
“It’s a, ah… a funeral practice of the Tibetan people. Gives back the body to nature.”
“Sounds nice. That’s what your people’re called?” Jak asked.
“Hmm. Interesting question. Yes and no? I’m not originally from here but I do consider them my people. What about you? Where’re you from?”
Jak looked up at the bright blue sky, but saw nothing but several birds swarm above head. No signs of any Precursors, moons or green planets that could serve as a beacon of recognition. “Away,” was all he said, but Oz accepted the vague answer with a nod.
“Alright. If you ever need a place to stay… We’re a bit booked now but when the peace has returned you’re welcome to crash in our monastery. My wife and I could teach you a thing or two about powers, I think.”
“If that’s how you see them.”
“Think about it.”
“Thanks,” Jak said, considering Oz's words. Maybe he would come back here again. Covered in white fluff, the place reminded him of Snowy Mountain, if its Lurkers were traded in for yakows. He thought of home, of Sandover, Spargus and Haven and of the friends who made those places home. “But I think I’ll be going now.”
“Me too. I should really get this inside.” Oz started his way back to the red monastery, but turned around after several steps to face Jak. “I’ll see ya,” he said.
Jak couldn’t help but smile, albeit briefly. Here was a man he had almost torn apart and who now expressed the desire to see him again. People like that were far and few between. “Yeah,” was all he said.
After Oz went inside the valley was quiet again, and Jak was left to his thoughts. He closed his eyes as a bright flash of blue-white light enveloped his senses, taking him away from the mountain range.