The hardest part was keeping Isaac from transforming into Ichabod and tearing off ahead of the rest of them. Because the man really wanted to. You could see it in his cold yet furious expression in the rear-view mirror. The villains had cracked open Pandora’s Box; it was anyone’s guess in what form Ichabod’s fury would manifest.
Shockwave kept one eye on Isaac and the other on the road while Siege drove. Normally Shockwave would do the driving, but he conceded the point that Ghost’s team was fresher and would hold up better on a drive of a few hours. He wasn’t exhausted. Fatigued, yes. But he swallowed his pride all the same in the name of prudence.
The van was packed, six superheroes and their gear. Valkyrie had flown them, van and all, to Iowa. By agreement, the teams thought it best to drive from Dubuque, where they touched down, to Dows. It would take a little longer, but perhaps the villains wouldn’t be expecting them to roll into town by conventional means. By all accounts the supervillains were well-versed in Guardian tactics and methods, and would be prepared to have Valkyrie air-drop them in. Best to change up some things to throw those bastards off.
A tap against his arm caused Shockwave to turn in his seat. Ghost was leaning forward, like he wanted to share a secret.
“What?” Shockwave grunted. Maybe they had finally put some things behind them, that didn’t mean he wanted to talk like old friends.
Ghost jerked a thumb over his shoulder. His words were soft. “Your guy, he going to be OK?”
“He’ll be fine.” Shockwave was about to settle back into his seat. Instead, he unbuckled and slipped off the chair, moving into the van’s middle row. He tapped Lady Luck’s knee and switched seats with her.
Lowering his own voice, he replied. “The man’s wife was kidnapped by a bunch of killers. In his place, would you be as collected?”
Ghost thought it over. “Fair enough.”
“Your guys ready for this?”
Again, Ghost considered before responding. “Siege is solid as they come. He’s seen enough, knows the score. If the city hadn’t allowed the government to strong-arm them, I’ve no doubt he’d still be on the force. He’s someone you can count on when things start hitting the fan.
“Aegis has been doing this for a while. His experience has been a boon to the other guys. Only thing I worry about with him is that he’s a victim of kidnapping himself. The guy is usually reserved and cool in a pinch, but if this hits too close to home for him. . . I don’t know for sure.”
Shockwave nodded. He knew about Aegis’s history. “And the kid?”
“Eager,” Ghost said. “Remember when we were that age? All headstrong and like we knew everything? Out to prove to the world we could do what we thought we could? Well, take all that drive and add a dash more self-control than we ever had, that’s Lynx. Never hares off or thinks he’s got all the answers. Kid’ll do fine.”
“Except this isn’t like anything he’s been through before,” Shockwave pointed out. “This may not be something any of us have encountered.”
Ghost’s voice dropped even lower. “Maybe Ereshkigal.”
Shockwave felt a stab of ice enter his spine. It figured Ghost would bring that particular event up, he never knew when to leave things buried. . . no, that wasn’t fair. Much as he hated to admit it, Ghost was right. There were too many dark similarities between the events.
If Shockwave hadn’t known for sure Ereshkigal was still locked away, deep in the Pit, he might have thought she was behind all of this. He knew she was still secured, though. He had checked; the same idea had crossed his mind hours ago. Better safe than sorry, after all.
Shockwave tilted his head in concession. “We know it’s not her. I checked. We’re looking at a new player. It’s got to be this Sawbones character. The others don’t have the smarts for this kind of planning.”
“What about the teleporter?”
Here Shockwave was at a loss. For as much research they did, they had come up blank concerning known female teleporters. Only Ichabod and Valkyrie had caught so much as a glimpse, and those glances were the largest pieces of intel they were able to unearth. It was a possibility she was the brains of the operation, it just didn’t sit right in Shockwave’s gut. Besides, the level of planning fit better with someone of the doctor’s mental track record.
He shared his thoughts with Ghost.
The next few miles went by fast.
Isaac tried not to let his misery show. From the glances he was receiving, he wasn’t as successful as he would have liked. No one pestered him with questions of ‘how are you doing’ or ‘are you holding up’, for which he was at least thankful. He didn’t need nursemaiding. He needed his wife back. Safe, sound, and healthy.
If they would just go faster.
The demon within the amulet writhed and twisted, echoing Isaac’s consternation and anxiety. Ichabod could go faster. Much faster. If he decided to transform. . . Isaac shook his head. No. They had a plan. A good plan. Best not to be the wrench.
Contrary to what most people would believe, the entity, Hessiax, shared a symbiotic relationship with Isaac; it truly wanted Melissa back alive and well. There was no taunting of the mortal who had mastered it. The demon within had melded into a genuine part of Isaac. In less-complex times he had often wondered if the situation was as unique as it felt or if others had ‘tamed’ the infernal.
“How close are we?” he asked. Though his voice was low and quiet, it cut through the rest of the chatter like a blade. Conversations stopped.
“We just passed Route 27,” Siege said from the driver’s seat. “About an hour until we hit Interstate 35, then we go north. Call it two hours, total.”
Isaac did not reply. He turned to look out a window. The landscape of the American countryside rolled by. Isaac found no awe or joy in the spectacle. All that mattered was getting to Melissa before those butchers harmed her further.
And if she was already harmed—
The demon’s ire flared in tandem with Isaac’s. It took no small amount of control not to become the horseman right then. Dows was so close, a relative stone’s throw. Time was against them. For the thousandth time, Hellion’s scrawled message ran through Isaac’s brain. It did nothing to relieve the tension mounting in his body or soul.
But Shockwave and Valkyrie had made sense, cautioning him against such a reckless move. The villains had targeted Ichabod. They would be ready for the horseman to charge in. Best to have the Guardians and the Faction there to move in and see his wife safely brought out of the trap. Ichabod’s arrival would undoubtedly bring everything to a whirlwind of motion.
He scratched at his chest, watching the landscape roll by without really seeing it.
Well, Isaac would spring their trap, whatever the cost to himself. And may some force in the universe have mercy on those bastards. Ichabod would have none.
Valkyrie flew overhead, keeping pace with the van as it rolled over the highway. Aegis hung in her grip, the hero holding a protective shield over the vehicle below. If the villains wanted to ambush them on the way, the Guardians and the Faction would be ready.
“You holding up?” she asked over the roar of wind.
“I’m fine,” Aegis yelled back. “Though I prefer the indoor flights.”
Valkyrie suppressed a laugh. She had flown the Faction east in Siege’s car, bringing the vehicle to the Guardian headquarters, and then carrying the combined teams in an oversized van to Dubuque, Iowa. This was Aegis’s third flight in the span of a day, and the only one outside of a car. Odd as that was.
It had been decided to approach the town from two directions. Valkyrie and Aegis would head in by air, keeping a visual on the combined teams as they rolled up in the van. Ichabod’s appearance should spring whatever trap had been laid. If Valkyrie could spot Melissa fast, she could get Aegis to her, and he could shield them both until the teams defeated their foes.
That was the plan.
They would see just how well that worked out soon enough.
“Any extra advice? You’ve fought these guys before. I haven’t taken down many heavies, myself. And not for a long time.” Aegis’s shout carried just above the wind as they tore through it, but Valkyrie’s enhanced senses picked up the words as if they were alone in the same room.
She made sure her own shouting could be heard as she replied, “Keep your guard up at all times. They’re killers, every one. They won’t hesitate to slit a person’s throat, and for the sheer thrill of it alone. They’re far more organized than then any of them have been in the past, so either they’ve gotten smarter or at least one of them has a brain. Expect a few surprises, don’t get bogged down in complacency.”
Rather than yell again, Aegis gave her a thumbs-up.
They flew on a little farther when she could see the highways meet. In a few more minutes they would turn north and travel the final leg of their journey.
“We’re about an hour from the danger zone.” A heavy wind buffeted them, and Aegis rocked in her grasp. She felt him stiffen. “Be ready in case they try to hit early.”
“Gotcha,” Aegis shouted, giving her another thumbs up. Then he muttered, “Damn it’s cold as balls.”
Valkyrie smirked, figuring he didn’t realize she could hear him that time.
“They just passed the first marker,” Anchor confirmed as her portal slid shut. She had been watching the junction between highways for the last couple of hours, using her ability to open holes in reality like windows. “Wasn’t easy to spot as they should have been. They’re not using the regular van.”
Hellion clapped and jumped down from the rock he was using for a seat. “Nice work. Knew you’d come in handy one day.”
Anchor snarled. She wasn’t wearing the faceplate yet, the handkerchief couldn’t hide the expression. “An hour. Maybe less.” If a glare could skin a man. . .
Hellion grinned back. “Ah, but I think I’m falling in love.” He turned away and spotted Sawbones. “And speaking of, hey, Doc! Everything ready with our prison—er, patient?”
Sawbones loped out from between a set of oversized Flesh-kin. The mad surgeon had made each of these creations with the flesh and bone of at least three people. They were massive, as large as Reaver.
The madman caressed the nearest Flesh-kin’s leg. It had the girth of a medium-sized tree. “Yes, yes. The specimen is prepared. My amphitheater is all in readiness.”
Hellion watched Sawbones continue to stroke the Flesh-kin like a lover. As callous and murderous as Rax Malcolm had been in his life, somehow this tableaux made his skin crawl. Like maggots wriggling through wet cream cheese in his underwear.
“Yeah, all right then. We’re set on our end.” He couldn’t turn away fast enough. But not all the way around, no way he was turning his back on the Doc. “Hey, B! Reave! They’re on their way!”
The villains prepared themselves. Ordered ranks of Flesh-kin stirred at Sawbones’s prompting, ready to march out into the world above. Bloodhawk loosened his limbs and stalked back and forth like a caged animal; he still bore the hallmarks of a run-in with Shockwave, but that only made the ravenous light in his eyes burn hotter. Reaver stood by, stoic and still as a statue.
Time ticked away. Soon enough the moment had arrived.
Hellion sauntered up to Anchor. “What’d you say we grab a few beers after we’re done here. Celebrate the right way.” He winked. “I know a whole trailer park that needs killing.”
Before Anchor could frame a scathing response, Hellion whipped around. “Show time!” he crowed, clapping his hands together like a carnival barker.
Behind him, Anchor opened a portal to the town above.