Bloodhawk slapped the iron bars. Their captive jumped at the violence yet did not cry out.
“Feisty one,” Hellion said, stepping up to the cage and rubbing his jaw. She had clocked him pretty hard yesterday, hard enough that there was still a clicking sound when he yawned.
Bloodhawk growled. He was still recovering from the beating he had received at the hands of Shockwave, and his jaw was swollen.
“Yeah,” Hellion said, as if agreeing to something Bloodhawk mentioned. “It’s too bad she’s married, B. Quite a looker, eh?”
Behind them, Anchor snorted. “Men. Always thinking with those dangly bits. Too bad yours work as poorly at that than what they were intended for.”
Hellion tilted his head to regard the teleporter. He still had trouble deciding if he wanted to grab her by the hair and toss her into a bed or slit her throat. If nothing else, she was. . . interesting.
“Don’t tell me you’re playing for the other team, Anchor,” he said with a sly grin. “That’d be a shame.” He added a wink.
Anchor snorted and walked away. A large bandage covered her shoulder and arm where that hero Ichabod had roasted her. Hellion could see just a hint of skin between the bandage and her mask—smooth and tan. For some reason, it excited him; again, the thrill running through his body could be anticipation of a kill or something different. Who knew? Maybe both. A man should keep his options open.
As Anchor sidled away into the cavern’s depths, Sawbones came loping toward the cage. The doctor’s gait and posture belied his astounding intelligence, but not his madness. The hump forced his body to lean to the left.
“I shall be prepared for the patient within the hour,” Sawbones said. His head tilted at an angle perpendicular to the set of his crooked shoulders.
“Sure, Doc. It’ll give me something to do while we’re waiting.”
“My amphitheater is open to viewing.” Sawbones hopped closer to the cage. As the mad surgeon reached between the bars with those impossibly manicured hands, the woman within shrank as far back as the iron would allow. “Ah, yes. I see. Excellent dermal sheen. Skeletal structure looks optimal.” Sawbones’ reaching arm thinned and snaked closer to the woman.
She let out a shriek as those pristine fingernails hovered in front of her face. When they brushed the skin of her brow, the woman’s eyes rolled back into her head. She slumped to the floor of the cage, unconscious.
Too bad, Hellion would have preferred more screaming.
Sawbones poked and prodded for another minute, muttering a bunch of clinical terms to himself before retracting his limb and limping away. “Give me fifteen minutes, then have the orderlies wheel the patient in. I go to scrub up.”
Hellion watched the surgeon’s crooked back lope away. A trail of bubbly spittle was left in Sawbones’s wake, like salivary breadcrumbs.
“What a freak, eh, B?” Hellion asked his partner.
Bloodhawk grunted in response.
Hellion considered the unconscious woman in the cage. If she really was out, she’d be far easier to handle. But if she was faking it, playing possum so she could clock him across the jaw again. . . The Doc may not get to play with his new toy, after all.
At least this caper was almost over. After Bloodhawk and himself collected what was owed them, Hellion figured they’d be back on their own, which is how they liked it. Reaver wasn’t a bad fellow to have along in a scrap, but the hulk had no personality whatsoever. Maybe they’d invite Anchor to come along with them for a while, though in what capacity was something Hellion had yet to work out. Chains were useful for a great many things, after all.
But not Sawbones. Once they got their money and the other goodies they’d been promised, Hellion was done working with that freak. The Doc was just too damn creepy.
“Hey, B. Gimmie a hand here.” Hellion opened the cage, keeping a wary eye on the woman lying on the floor of iron bars. It wasn’t quite time for the end game, but it was best to have everything set up beforehand.
Leave it to those damn heroes to wreck a plan.
Their return trip had been an event, one Shockwave wanted to never repeat. Valkyrie had left them without transportation back to Queens. And after almost a half an hour of sobbing, Isaac had come around, a strange fire in his eyes. The man had been insistent they return to base and figure out what that message meant.
There was one option for travel. If Shockwave thought himself reluctant to climb aboard that demon steed of Ichabod’s, Lady Luck’s face held absolute terror. Ichabod had glared at them—so far as a headless man could glare—until they surrendered to his will. Shockwave was certain that Ichabod would not have told them to climb aboard again; the horseman would have abandoned them without another thought. How all three of them were able to sit upon that monstrous steed and remain mounted for the journey was a miracle and a mystery. Ichabod raced over the miles faster than Shockwave had ever moved, including those times when Valkyrie had flown him about. At least she had been considerate to those she was carrying.
He’d had to move fast to enter the security code into the door panel; it had looked as if Ichabod would have ripped the door out of the wall rather than use the keypad. Bad enough they had villains tearing the team apart, the Guardians didn’t need team members wrecking up the place.
Lady Luck had hung back as Ichabod stalked into the base. The question etched across her features was answered with a shake of the head and Shockwave saying, “We stay out of his way until he cools off a bit. Our job is to figure out where we need to go and what we need to do.”
So that’s what they did. Shockwave had no idea what Ichabod was doing while he and Lady Luck rushed to the Comm Room and started researching. They knew enough about three of the supervillains, now they needed something on the teleporter, the name ‘Sawbones’, and had to decipher the rest of Hellion’s message.
“I’ve got info on this place, Dows. It’s in Iowa,” Lady Luck tapped a few keys on the keyboard in front of her. “Small town. Population of less than a thousand.”
“Iowa? What the hell would they be doing there?” Shockwave muttered.
She sent her screen to his workstation; he had no idea how she did it. Shockwave skimmed the webpages, looking for any detail which might be of use. There wasn’t much. He wished Vector or Sludge were here, they would be so much better at this.
“Not far from Interstate 35. A few tourist attractions, nothing flashy. What looks like a quarry and a blacksmith museum.” He scrolled down. “Population is less than six hundred. More like a village than a town,” he muttered, straightening his back with an audible pop. “It’d be hard to hide in a place so small.”
“How much you want to bet we’ve met the residents of Dows, Iowa.” Isaac strode into the room.
The last time Shockwave had looked at the man’s face, it had been distraught and wretched. Now, Isaac Texel’s countenance was taut with anger and resolution. He took a seat at another of the workstations and set his hands to a furious pace over the keyboard.
“Those things we fought in the city?” Shockwave asked.
Isaac replied with a sharp nod. “The more I replayed that sicko’s message through my head, the more something started to fall into place about it. Remember that one name, Sawbones?”
Shockwave did. It was going to be his next search after he finished reviewing the material on Dows.
“I had to get my head clear before I could think straight,” Isaac continued, not waiting for a reply. There was an intensity to the man Shockwave had not seen during his time as a fellow Guardian. Isaac’s demeanor was resembling Ichabod’s too much for comfort.
“Not so much the name, but those flesh golems triggered something. There was a news story a few years back, some doctor found he had the power to mold people’s flesh and bone. At first, he used the power to help people, but somewhere along the way the whole god-complex thing set in. He started warping those he was operating on into misshapen horrors, claiming that he was helping them reach their ultimate human potential.”
It sounded familiar. Shockwave got up and joined Isaac as Lady Luck rolled her chair close. “California, right?”
“Right.” Isaac tapped a few more keys and leaned forward. He read a few lines off his screen. “Look at this.”
The list of headlines told the tale:
“Oh, God.” Lady Luck gasped. “Look at that. Did he really do. . . that?”
Shockwave looked to where she was pointing on the screen. There was a small image he asked Isaac to enlarge. It turned out to be a video. The grotesquery of the mad surgeon’s crimes were captured on camera. Stretcher after stretcher of warped human beings were wheeled out of the hospital and into waiting ambulances. Where they were headed was unknown, as was what could possibly be done to help those poor souls.
As they watched the victims of Dr. Morton Powell taken away, Shockwave listened to the reporter on scene during the taping. Utter disgust and horror bled into her report. No surprise considering what she was seeing. Images which had become all too familiar to the Guardians recently.
“That’s them. A bit more. . . ” Shockwave searched for the right word. There weren’t many which wouldn’t make him sound heartless. “Crude. But those are what we fought.”
Isaac replayed the video. His knuckles went white on the mouse. Shockwave wondered if the device would crack under the pressure Isaac was exerting.
“One difference,” Isaac said, pausing the video on a close-up of a twisted humanoid form.
It was impossible to tell if it was male or female. The face was elongated and widened to proportions which should not have been possible. Where eyebrows should have been was a long ridge of white bone, sectioned like the contours of a stone wall. But the eyes, the eyes bespoke of torment and terror beyond what man or woman should endure.
“Those people there, they knew what was going on. They were still alive.” Isaac sat back. There was a darkness leaking out of the man. “Those things we fought were not.”
“They were dead?” Shockwave asked, peering close at the image.
“Not in the same sense of dead tissue. But the souls were gone. Like they were merely animated flesh, no will of their own any longer.”
“Zombies?” Lady Luck asked.
Isaac though about it for a moment. “No. They possessed some rudimentary intelligence, very basic. But, it was as if they were being directed. Controlled by an outside force.”
“Could that doctor—what’s his name, Powell?—could he be capable of controlling his victims now?” Shockwave crossed his arms. A twinge in his side made him rethink the posture, but he resisted. “They’d need some sort of driving force if they’re not self-aware.”
“No way to be sure,” Isaac replied. “But I’d stake this Sawbones character is Dr. Powell, and has my wife.” The temperature dropped a few degrees in the room, and Shockwave could have sworn he heard another voice intermingling with Isaac’s own when the man spoke again. “And I’m going to get her back from the madman. One way or another.”
Valkyrie landed outside Ghost’s apartment in the darkest hours of night. It had been a long flight. So long that she had contemplated simply breaking in to the apartment through one of the the second floor windows. The only thing preventing her from such a course of action was the late hour and the potential ruckus which could result from entering the domicile of a superhero uninvited.
He buzzed her up, meeting her in the hallway of his floor. A look of relieved concern covered his face. “I saw the news. Didn’t think you’d be back anytime soon.”
They retreated into his apartment. Once the door was shut, Valkyrie spared a moment to shift back into Jessica. She felt a hunger in her belly, like one that had been ignored for days on end. With all the commotion, she hadn’t had a moment to grab a bite to eat as she had planned. That needed to change if she were to be at her best.
“Things are bad, Simon,” she dropped onto the sofa. “Three Guardians are in the hospital. Vector, Pulse, and Sludge. We’re not sure if Sludge is going to make it.”
“And they’ve taken Ichabod’s wife. Left a taunting message scrawled across his wall. They want us to come after them,” she finished with a sigh.
Simon settled in on the other end of the couch. He leaned forward, elbows on knees. “Sounds like trap. And what were those things?”
“We know it’s a trap. We know Reaver, Hellion, Bloodhawk, and a teleporter are involved. Those creatures you saw on TV were some sort of flesh golems. So we’re assuming there’s at least one other, but we’ve got no intel to go off. No way to figure out how many of those golems there are, either. And we’re nowhere near peak. When I left, Ichabod was distraught,” she explained. “Shockwave is battered, but he’s holding up. Only myself and Lady Luck are even remotely fresh.”
Simon rose from the sofa. He moved into the next room as she called out to him, “Where are you going?”
“You need help,” he said, retrieving the phone from the kitchen. He dialed a number, but didn’t yet hit SEND. “That’s why you flew all this way, right?”
“Then the Faction will stand with you.” He hit the button. “Besides, it sounds like we owe those bastards ourselves. Too many people have died over here. They need justice.” The line must have connected, because he turned away, talking to whoever had picked up. “Siege, it’s Ghost. Time to saddle up.”
While Simon made his calls, Jessica stole off to the kitchen. The culinary selection in the cabinets was sparse. She grabbed it all anyway. His next grocery bill would be on her.
A stab of relief flashed through her while she emptied the first cabinet of Simon’s breakfast cereals. She had thought, hoped Ghost and his new team would be able to lend a hand stopping this madness.
Now all she’d have to do was convince Shockwave that this had been their only option.