They sat on a park bench, waiting for the other members of the Faction to arrive. It was quiet. Even the sun had yet to fully awaken.
Ghost surveyed the horizon. “Derek is going to be pissed.”
Valkyrie frowned. “He’s going to have to get over it. We need help. Three of us got hurt. Bad.” She hadn’t had the time to give him all the details when she first arrived. Luckily, none of Ghost’s teammates balked at being awoken at such an hour.
Ghost leaned forward. A serious edge, which only came through when things were going to hell, colored his voice. “How bad?”
She knew what he was thinking and shook her head. “Everybody survived. Sludge is in the worst shape, but it looks like his own powers kept him stable and his wounds from bleeding out until they could operate. Last I heard, they still weren’t sure either way, though. Pulse has a dozen broken bones, nothing life-threatening. Vector managed to only get a concussion, but a pretty bad one.”
He let out a breath. “Good for that, then. Considering.” He shook his head. “The news played video of the battle. In between the talking heads lamenting the cost in property damages, they’ve estimated a death toll of nearly two hundred. And four times that in injury. They were a little thin on the heroing aspect, though.”
Valkyrie cringed. She had been so concerned with the health of her teammates that she hadn’t checked on civilian casualty numbers.
“In all it looks like we were lucky. Those. . . flesh golems are tough, but slow. Most people were able to flee from them. Ichabod accounted for the majority. Most of those who lost their lives had run afoul of Reaver or Bloodhawk.”
“And Hellion?” Ghost asked.
“From what I’ve been told, he was absent from the battle. At least until the end. He popped out of a portal and hit me with a fireball while I was fighting Reaver. I saw their teleporter, too, though I didn’t recognize her. She stayed on the other side while Hellion collected Reaver.”
Ghost tilted his head to the side. “So, they retreated? In the middle of the fight?”
“Yes.” She grimaced, not wanting to think about the next part. “We’re pretty sure the whole attack was the diversion.”
“That’s some diversion.”
Valkyrie took a deep breath. And then she told Ghost about Ichabod’s wife. “Hellion would have grabbed her then. Perfect opportunity.”
His response would have made a gang-banger blush.
Ghost asked Valkyrie several questions about the battle in New York while they waited for the others. His reactions to her responses were often colorful.
Siege was first to arrive. The former detective strode up to the pair with a cup carrier in one hand. “Didn’t know what you like in your coffee, ma’am. So I brought you a regular.”
Valkyrie took the offered cup with her thanks. She didn’t need the caffeine boost while in this guise, but the gesture was appreciated all the same. Too bad her ‘regular’ body wouldn’t benefit from the jolt after she changed back. Whenever that would be.
Aegis and Lynx strolled up together a few minutes later. Siege passed Aegis the last cup before pulling a canned energy drink from his long overcoat and tossing it to Lynx.
“Sort of a ritual for us,” Ghost explained, sipping from his own coffee. “All right,” he said, standing. “Here’s the situation.”
Ghost laid out the events as Valkyrie and he had discussed. The Faction members remained silent, absorbing the information. They already knew some of the events in New York, it was all over the news and media. Valkyrie added detail as Ghost went along.
“So,” Ghost said as he finished outlining things. “Anybody want to stay behind? This is volunteer only.”
Lynx raised his hand, the tips of his fingers sporting sheathed claws like a feline. Valkyrie tried not to stare.
“Lynx?” Ghost asked, a touch of incredulity in his voice. “You want to stay back?”
The younger man shook his head, face hidden in the recesses of his hoodie. “No way. I’m in. It’s just, how are we getting cross country?”
“Ah. Had me worried for a second,” Ghost replied. He turned to Valkyrie. “And a good question. . . ”
It was something she had thought of on her trip west. The details weren’t set in stone, relying on materials at hand, but Valkyrie had a relative idea. “Siege, you came by car?”
The man nodded. From the look on his face, he must have realized her plan. “Not sure if my insurance is gonna cover this one.”
One by one, she could see the notion dawn on their faces. All except Lynx. He said, “We’re driving?”
Ghost stepped up and clapped the youngest Faction member on the back. “My boy, we’re about to be treated to a flight on Air Valkyrie. I hope you don’t get car sick. Or air sick.”
“Oh,” Lynx said. From the hitch in his voice, it must have sunk in.
Adrenaline wore off sometime after 3 A.M. Shockwave decided he needed to grab some shut eye in one of the bunks before his body simply failed him. He left Isaac in the Comm Room, the man furiously wading through websites for any and all information he could find which might help him save his wife.
In the hours since they had returned to the base, the Guardians had complied a dossier on Dows, IA and the individual villains they were up against. Information on Dr. Morton Powell, aka Sawbones, was plentiful before the man went crazy with power. Since then, he had not been spotted in years. Most of what they had was conjecture and rumor, but it was more than they had on the teleporter. She was a complete unknown.
He meant to rest for an hour, maybe two.
Images flashed across his retinas after he closed his eyes. Old villains popped out of jack-in-the-boxes to point and laugh at him as he walked down a corridor made of meat and entrails. At the end of the corridor was a backlit steel door. It was covered in glistening ichor, jagged rents covering the metal.
Shockwave ignored the villains, knowing he had to reach that door before it was too late. He started to run. Two steps before he reached the door he slipped, landing in the very puddle of urine and feces his foot had slipped on. The rancid mixture sluiced through his mask and he could taste it on his lips. The urge to vomit threatened.
He was rising to hands and knees, keeping his stomach from expelling bile, when harsh, deep laughter came from behind the doorway.
It called his name. “Too late, Derek.”
Something nudged his shoulder. Shockwave bolted upright, one hand reaching for the arm of the person hovering over and poking him, the other hand balling into a fist. A visage of a young woman formed in front of him, making Shockwave question whether he had died and went to heaven.
Then his brain kicked back in through the haze. Lady Luck was backing away from his bunk as far as his grip allowed. Shockwave cleared his throat. “Oh. Sorry, Gina. Reflex.” He released her forearm.
She slowly nodded. “It’s fine. I shouldn’t have snuck up like that.”
He’d rattled her. That was unexpected. It took a moment before he realized her cringing expression was more likely caused by the sight of his unmasked face than any other fright he might have caused.
Shockwave reached for the ski-mask he habitually wore. “Sorry,” he muttered, securing his barrier against the world on his ravaged face. His shame.
“Don’t be. It’s just I. . . I didn’t know it was that bad. . . I’m sorry.” She looked away.
It was for this very reason he wore the mask. He neither wanted nor needed anyone’s pity.
“What is it?” he asked. Probably too harshly.
He glanced at his watch. Had he really slept that long? It was afternoon!
“Valkyrie is back,” Lady Luck said. “She brought some people with her.”
Shockwave slid off the bunk. He put a hand to his chin and pushed to the side, cracking the vertebra in a pleasing way. Lady Luck followed him out of the sleeping quarters as she brushed past her, not saying another word.
Although he suspected it was the case, Shockwave still found his hands forming into fists as he entered the Ready Room. Valkyrie was, indeed, returned and had brought others with her to help track down the villains.
But Ghost was the last person he wanted to see.
“This is the help you mentioned?” Shockwave growled as he stalked into the Ready Room.
Valkyrie had known it was a risk, yet she had also known that it was essential. “We need all the help we can get. The Faction have first-hand knowledge of the crimes.”
The look in Shockwave’s eyes resembled a roiling thunderhead.
Before she could stop him, Ghost stepped up. “We’re here to see these bastards put away. You can count on us.”
Shockwave pulled his shirt over his head and threw it at Ghost’s feet. He turned so everyone could see his back and left side. The skin was puckered with old burn marks, pale and severe; the marks were a stark contrast to his dark flesh. “You see this? This is what happens when you think you can rely on someone, a teammate, and they betray that trust!”
“And this,” Shockwave ripped the mask from his face, revealing the ugly scarring where his left cheek and part of his neck had been, “is what you’re left with when you realize the truth!”
After a few heartbeats, Ghost stepped forward. He stopped within reach of Shockwave, the Guardian’s chest heaving with restrained rage.
“Go ahead,” Ghost softly said. “Take your shot at me; it’s no less than I deserve. Much less, actually. But just do it, Derek. Let’s get this over with, and then get back to doing what we swore to do at the start—protect people from those who would abuse their power over others. I’m sure you, above all of us, you especially remember the oath we swore those years ago.
“Instead of being there to back you up when Hellion and Bloodhawk attacked, I was off seeking petty vengeance for Starbright’s death.” Ghost’s shoulders sagged. “There’s nothing I can do about my choice then, but I can stand alongside my team, my friends, now, when I’m needed. When we’re all needed to stand against the darkness.”
For a second, Valkyrie contemplated coming between the two men. A hand laid on her forearm brought her up short. She looked to her side and caught the slight shake of the head Siege gave her. They need to come to terms with it all themselves, that movement said. Valkyrie set her jaw, reluctant but knowing the truth of the matter.
She almost didn’t see the fist which knocked Ghost to the floor. Shockwave, with scars bared for all to see, stepped over Ghost’s prone form, his entire body heaving. Spittle flecked the ruined portion of his jawline.
“Get up,” Shockwave growled. “Get up!”
Ghost rubbed the side of his face as he rose to a knee. A bruise was already forming. He got to his feet and set himself in front of his former teammate once more. The members of the Faction looked shocked, but followed Siege’s lead and held back.
With a nod, Ghost said, “I’m sorry for tearing apart the old Guardians. I’m sorry for not being there when you needed me. But I’ve never been sorry for the honor of standing beside you against the enemies of mankind, Derek.”
Valkyrie was sure Shockwave was going to hit Ghost again. The leader of the Guardians’ fists curled tight at his side, but he did not raise them.
Shockwave’s voice dropped in timbre, his words quivering with the anger scarcely held in check. The man placed his tortured face so close to Ghost’s the latter could feel the words as they were spoken. “I’ve got three Guardians down. All because you pulled Valkyrie away. Again.”
“No,” Valkyrie said, stepping forward. “That’s completely untrue, Derek, and unfair. There was nothing personal about my absence this time. If you’ve got to blame Pulse, Vector, and Sludge being hospitalized on someone, then set that blame on me and me alone! I’m the one who took off. I’m the one that made that choice.”
Three of the original six Guardians all faced one another. Captain Meteor was retired. Starguard had retreated to parts unknown. Starbright was dead. This was the best the original Guardians would get of a reunion.
Back then, Valkyrie and Ghost were at the end of their personal relationship. When Starbright had been killed at the hands of Ereshkigal’s Death Cultists, Ghost had wanted to seek bloody vengeance on the cult. Along with Starguard, Starbright’s distraught and now unhinged older brother, Ghost had tried to convince Valkyrie to come along with them on their mission. Captain Meteor, then leader of the team, had attempted to hold the team together through the loss, trying to keep them focused on the fact that they were heroes, not executioners. But Starguard disappeared.
Shockwave and Ghost were on call at the base when an alert came through. Shockwave went on ahead while Ghost tried to contact Valkyrie and Captain Meteor; the former was off on her own, contemplating a great many things, while the latter was searching in vain for Starguard. Ghost was to be right behind Shockwave.
At that very moment, Starguard returned, claiming to have found the cult members responsible for Starbright’s death. Ghost made a choice, one that echoed with regret since then. He went with Starguard, leaving Shockwave to face down a pair of killers on his own. Those killers had been Hellion and Bloodhawk, fresh into their partnership of murder. Thinking Ghost was right behind him and that other Guardians had been notified, Shockwave engaged.
In some ways, Shockwave had been lucky Hellion and Bloodhawk had merely set to torturing him. They could have killed him outright after a few minute’s battle saw the villains gain the upper-hand. Captain Meteor received the alert and flew to Shockwave’s side before Hellion and Bloodhawk could finish the job, but not until after leaving Shockwave a bloody, maimed, and partially-eaten, mess.
Ghost had a change of heart at the last second before he and Starguard were to attack the cultists. He managed to subdue Starguard and call in to the base before blood was spilled in the name of vengeance, but the greatest damage had been done. When Starguard came around, his rage was white-hot. A brief skirmish ensued. Still espousing vengeance was his only reason to live, Starguard fled Captain Meteor and Valkyrie’s combined front.
Valkyrie remembered the ferocious argument taking place between Captain Meteor and Ghost when she returned to the base. That first incarnation of the Guardians lasted but days after that.
“We all have our screwups. We have to live with our own mistakes.” Valkyrie sighed. “But people need us. Innocent lives are at stake, right now. And our friend needs us.” She gestured to Isaac. The man looked absolutely wretched.
“We know they have his wife,” Valkyrie continued. “Isaac could have transformed into Ichabod at any moment and taken off without us. But he knows how big this is, how bad this could be if we don’t all work together to stop these madmen.”
She could feel Shockwave’s temper begin to cool at her words. She plowed onward, making a gesture with her arm to encompass the Guardians and the Faction members. “These people are all here because they’re willing to put their own lives and interests behind that which is right. Ghost realizes his errors have been devastating in the past, and is doing all he can to make amends. By standing on the side of what’s right, Derek. Can’t we lay all the past in the past once and for all?”
Shockwave’s gaze traveled over everyone, lingering on Valkyrie, and then finally settling on Ghost. He said nothing. Another tense moment went by.
Eventually, Shockwave bent to retrieve his shirt and mask. When he rose, he locked eyes with their former teammate. Another moment that felt like an age passed. He nodded once and turned away.
“All right,” Shockwave said, slipping the gray t-shirt over his abused back. “What do we know of this place, Dows?”