“What the hell happened?” Shockwave slapped the steering wheel. He followed close behind the ambulance transporting Sludge. Vector and Pulse were sharing another on the way to the hospital. At least they were conscious. Hurt pretty bad, yes, but there wasn’t a worry for their lives like Sludge’s.
“Hang in there, Hector.”
Ichabod had arrived in time to prevent the flesh golems from getting their hands and claws on the three. Even then, Reaver had done a number on the Guardians on his own. Perhaps even mortally. If Valkyrie hadn’t shown when she did, those three Guardians would almost certainly have lost their lives.
Shockwave kept tight to the ambulance in the thick New York traffic. Midtown had been attacked by a small army of creatures and supervillains and the rest of Manhattan island went about its business. That was New York. Armageddon could be going down and New Yorkers may or may not bat an eyelash. Not that the people were heartless, they just weren’t rocked by much, for there was already so much to see in the city to begin with. The city’s residents could be fearless to a fault.
“Come on, move!” Shockwave shouted out the window. A pedestrian took the opportunity created by slowing traffic to dart across the street behind the ambulance. Shockwave had the urge to hit the accelerator. “Move!”
The ambulance pulled up to the emergency unloading area. There were half a dozen of the vehicles jammed into the space. Shockwave knew better than to try maneuvering the van there, and drove on in search of a place to park.
He was tired. His own injuries would need seeing to. Eventually. For now, adrenaline and determination would keep him on his feet. There was no time to rest. A twinge in his ribs said otherwise.
Shockwave set his jaw and pushed ahead. He met Ichabod—as Isaac—waiting for him at the entrance. The other Guardian finished leaving a message and snapped his phone shut.
“This place is a madhouse,” Isaac said.
“Stands to reason,” Shockwave muttered, slipping past and making for the emergency waiting room. “This was one clusterfuck of a day.”
Isaac trotted behind.
They made it a few dozen feet into the hospital when a security guard stepped up, one hand outstretched while the other hovered over his sidearm. “Whoa, there. Where do you think you’re going?”
“Our teammates just arrived in—” the words ‘meat wagon’ came to mind and were shunted aside—“emergency vehicles. The doctors are going to need us.” Shockwave made to walk around the security guard, but the man jumped in front of him. When the guard placed his open palm against Shockwave’s chest, the Guardian felt the urge to punch the man in the face.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, my man. But you need to settle down,” the guard said, injecting as much authority as he could into his voice. “You can’t just go back there.”
Isaac’s hand dropped onto Shockwave’s shoulder. In a quiet voice, he said, “Acting like a hard-case isn’t going to help anyone, Shockwave. Your own appearance isn’t helping matters.”
Shockwave stifled the string of curse words which came to the forefront of his mind. Yes, he looked and sounded like he was ready to chew and spit out nails, but he also looked like he had come from a war zone. Dirt and dried blood covered his clothing, enough so that he probably looked like he was in need of medical assistance himself. Having his face hidden like he was there to rob the pharmacy probably didn’t enhance his chances of positive interaction.
The security guard’s resistance to facilitate matters wasn’t helping Shockwave’s mood. Didn’t anyone follow the news? Weren’t the Guardians recognized heroes?
After taking a very deep breath, Shockwave attempted to explain the situation to the security guard. Slow and clear.
When he was done, the guard remained in place, still on edge. “I hear you, my man. And I recognize who you are. I’ve been a fan of the Guardians for a long while now, but I can’t just let you bull your way in there. There’s a lot of hurt people getting brought in.”
Shockwave felt the urge to hit the man in the face rise in him once more. Before he did something everyone would regret, Isaac took the reins.
“Listen, Mr.—” Isaac glanced at the security guard’s name tag—“Robertson. We’re not here to cause any trouble. But one of our teammates was injured very badly in the fighting. Sludge. You know which one of us that is?”
The guard looked Isaac up and down. Probably had no idea what Ichabod looked like when not riding around as a half-demon. Eventually, the man nodded.
“They needed to rush him into surgery to save his life,” Isaac said. “But he’s still transformed. You know, like his name. We know how to help the doctors work around that ooze, so they can operate. His life is very much at stake.”
For a moment it looked like the security guard was not going to allow them to move on. He looked hard at Shockwave and gave Isaac another once over. Something must have clicked, for the next moment the man was moving his hand away from his gun and stepping aside. “Don’t make me regret this.”
Shockwave shouldered past without a word. He heard Isaac utter a thanks to the guard and passed through the double doors into the emergency ward.
Valkyrie stayed behind to lend a hand where she could. After an hour, it looked like the stragglers had been located and all that remained was the clean up. Normally she would have continued to lend her strength to the endeavor, but she was too worried about the others. The greatest danger had passed.
She gave her apologies to the people in charge of the recovery efforts and took to the sky. Her first instinct was to head for the nearest hospital, but there was no indication where her fellow Guardians had been taken. Unless she wanted to zoom around the city and check each one, wasting the valuable time of doctors and surgeons in her search, the next best option was to return to the base. She could always get a hold of Shockwave or Ichabod from there, find out where they were, and be airborne in minutes.
The flight back to Queens was full of self-doubt and recrimination. If she had just returned a few moments earlier, she could have handled Reaver while the others fought off those creatures. Nobody would have gotten hurt. Nobody would be straddling Death’s Door at this very moment. She could have. . . Sludge wouldn’t be. . .
No. This line of thinking served no purpose other than to torment herself. That realization was little more than a cold comfort. Yet it would have to do for now. Neither Valkyrie nor Jessica Tolbert could warp time and change the past.
When Ichabod had rode into the horde of those flesh creatures to stand over the downed Guardians, Valkyrie thought it was a glorious sight. Pulse and Vector were hurt, but moving, adding whatever they could to Ichabod’s defense. Sludge, however, didn’t stir. Valkyrie and Shockwave had joined them in time to finish off the last of the monsters.
Her feet touched down on the concrete patio at the front entrance. The weariness in her shoulders was not a physical thing, but it weighed nonetheless. Carrying her burden as best she could, she tapped the keys of the security panel. There was a beep of acknowledgment as her code was recognized by the system, followed by a hiss of hydraulics and soft clanks of metal while the locks disengaged.
Valkyrie reached for the handle and entered the Guardians’ base. Not half a dozen steps inside, a familiar voice carried to her ears.
“Valkyrie! What’s going on?”
Lady Luck, Gina Joyce, stepped out of the lounge. The part-time-Guardian, part-time-model, rushed down the hall. “Shockwave called and told me there was something big going on. I grabbed the earliest flight back from Vegas. Then I hear something about an attack in the city on my way in. I couldn’t reach anyone.”
“Yeah, it’s bad,” Valkyrie said. “Pulse, Vector, and Sludge had to be taken to the hospital.”
Lady Luck bit her lip. “Oh,” she breathed.
“Did Shockwave or Ichabod call?”
“No. But. . . ” Lady Luck disappeared into the lounge. She came running, a notepad in her hand.
“There’s a message for you from. . . an Arthur Jessamyn.” Lady Luck put down the notepad. “Didn’t say what it was about, just that he thought you two should talk soon.”
Valkyrie took a moment to think. There was no one by that name she could recall off the top of her head. Maybe it was somebody from the museum. No mention of an emergency. Whoever Arthur Jessamyn was, he’d have to wait. There were far more pressing matters.
Valkyrie turned and walked away. “Let’s go. We’ve got a lot to talk about.” She paused, looking over her shoulder. “I’ll tell you the fast version on the way. I’ve got to get a hold of Shockwave or Ichabod. Comm Room. Now.”
Without looking to see if Lady Luck was following, Valkyrie strode down the hall.
They were all here. Every Guardian not in the hospital, that is. The attack had been a little over three hours ago, and the team had found its effective numbers cut in half. Isaac noted the weariness and anger in Shockwave’s eyes, the bewilderment and disbelief on Lady Luck’s face, the grim set of Valkyrie’s jaw. He could not help wondering what other impairments the team would feel as a result of the day.
Even with members missing, the Comm Room never felt so cramped.
“Glad you could join us,” Shockwave growled. His glare slid off an indignant Lady Luck to land on Valkyrie. The pointed look was noted by everyone present.
“My flight just got in,” Lady Luck retorted, hands on her hips. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help, but I can’t fly!”
Isaac frowned as he watched Shockwave glance at Valkyrie again before giving his attention back to Lady Luck. Things were bad enough, they couldn’t afford their leader to crack under pressure. Isaac had been with the team a short while compared to some, but even so, he had never seen Shockwave fly off the handle. He had come close earlier, at the hospital with that security guard. The man was usually collected, even if his tone said otherwise.
The clock showed half-past nine. Melissa should have called him back by now. Even if she had been taking a bath, he knew she never spent longer than an hour in the tub. It was nearing two hours since he had called.
“Yeah. Right,” Shockwave muttered, pacing the room. “So what the hell is going on? Anybody have a goddamn clue as to where those bastards are hiding?”
“Great!” Shockwave threw up his arms and stalked out of the room.
Once he was out of earshot, Lady Luck said, “I’ve never seen him like that.”
While the younger woman’s face went through a gamut of emotions, Isaac retrieved his phone. Shockwave would need a few moments to cool off, and Isaac wanted to check his voicemail. Sometimes you could get a message and it wouldn’t show up on the phone for several hours. One time, Isaac had a message waiting for him for almost a week before the little icon showed up on the device.
He hit the 1 on his cell phone. Voicemail connected, telling him there were no messages waiting. Isaac dialed the house number. Behind him, Valkyrie and Lady Luck were talking in soft tones.
The phone rang. And rang. And rang.
It rang until the house voicemail picked up. Isaac heard his own voice notify him that he wasn’t home and neither was his wife. That’s what’s worrying me, he thought. He could not think of a reason Melissa might not be at home. Her shift would have ended hours ago, before all the craziness.
With everything else that had been going on of late, his concern felt as sharp as a dagger. The demon caged within his breast writhed in sympathy. Isaac wouldn’t ignore the nagging voice in the back of his skull or the dead lump of ice forming in his gut.
He made a decision.
“Val,” he said, interrupting the conversation between Valkyrie and Lady Luck. “Melissa hasn’t returned my calls in the past couple of hours. It’s not like her.”
She regarded him with a frown, but kind eyes. “Could she have just gone out, forgotten her phone?” Valkyrie asked.
Isaac shook his head. “No. Mel has called me down for doing that myself too often. She’s too careful about stuff like that. And my gut is telling me there’s something wrong. I know things are all over the place here, but as Ichabod I can ride out there and be back in less than an hour.” The shakiness in his own voice disturbed him.
Valkyrie nodded. “You need me to come along? In case. . . ” The slight hesitation in her voice at the end did nothing to aid Isaac’s state of mind.
“No. You should be here. We’re spread thin already.” He hated saying it, but he knew it was true. Too true to ignore. “I just need to be sure she’s OK. I’ll be back in no time.”
Valkyrie looked like there was something more she wanted to say, but she simply nodded. Isaac did not waste any more time, heading outside to transform. He slipped his hand beneath his shirt, fingers heading for the amulet embedded in his chest, where his heart was. It was unnecessary, Isaac could take on the guise of the horseman with a thought, he didn’t need any special method of change. The act was subconscious, an affectation he usually would not enact save for times of great stress.
The demon purred from within its cage of crystal and flesh, ready to stretch its metaphysical limbs. Extra-planar energies swirled around Isaac, drawing upon the demonic force held within the arcane jewel to meld man and demon-kind anew. There was a momentary sensation of millions of tiny knives tearing through his flesh, and then Isaac Texel was gone, merged with the demonic entity Hessiax to form Ichabod, the headless horseman.
In a blaze of hellfire, the horseman’s steed erupted into this plane. Ichabod jumped into the saddle and spurred his mount. Hoof-sized circles of fire were left behind on the asphalt as Ichabod traveled at speeds he rarely utilized.
Inside the man-demon hybrid, Isaac clung to the idea that his wife was well and at home; the demon echoed the sentiment. In minutes they would know for sure.