Dows was a ghost town. No townsfolk came forth or looked out their windows as the superheroes arrived. Not a trace of human life existed, though chickens and horses could be seen in yards around the town.
Overhead, Valkyrie signaled down to Shockwave, indicating that she, too, had found no sign of life from her perspective. Yeah, he thought, definitely need to get some communicators.
Ghost stood at Shockwave’s shoulder. “Eerie.”
The rest of the combined teams spread out. Lady Luck transformed to a being of gold, skin and hair a living metal. Her clothing did not shift to a malleable form of the precious metal, but she was already wearing her costume. As she shook her head, platinum strands of metallic hair whipping around her head, Lady Luck looked every bit a geological goddess.
Isaac was last to exit the van. Once the others were far enough from the vehicle, he jumped off the flooring, becoming Ichabod before his feet touched the ground. A faint trace of sulfur hung in the air as the horseman once more strode this plane. At his side, a massive, black war-charger engulfed in crimson hellfires blinked into existence. Ichabod laid a gloved hand on the saddle’s pommel and leapt atop his steed’s back.
“Quite an impressive display,” Ghost commented. “I’m used to Val’s change, but it looks like you got all the powerhouse types on your side.”
“Get your own,” Shockwave grumbled. He barked a quick set of orders, sending the heroes to investigate various buildings and structures. They had agreed, before leaving New York, that Shockwave would be in overall command. Valkyrie would assume command if he were to fall; Ghost was third in line.
They moved off in pairs: Lady Luck and Ichabod, Lynx and Siege, Shockwave and Ghost. A faint clucking of chickens carried on the wind, then a tinkle of wind chimes. No one saw or heard another person. As if all the residents of Dows had been snapped up from their homes. The grisly theory regarding the fate of the townsfolk was looking more and more likely.
“Over here,” Siege called.
Shockwave and Ghost joined Siege and Lynx at the back of a one-story ranch house. The sliding glass door had been busted in, thousands of shards of glass twinkling on the linoleum kitchen floor. Inside there were signs of a struggle: blood streaks on the walls and furniture, upended chairs, torn seat cushions. The only thing missing were bodies.
“Just like back home,” Ghost said.
“And Ichabod’s place. Except there wasn’t so much blood there.” Shockwave moved away from the shattered doorway. His gaze swept the surroundings. He caught sight of three other busted doorways on nearby homes.
Ghost stepped beside Shockwave. “Combined with those crazy signs on the side of the road we saw on the way here, this place is reminding me of something out of a cannibal horror flick.”
The road signs had been strange. Keep going. You’re almost there! Don’t turn back now! Made all the stranger for the fact they carried the town seal on them. Bet the residents didn’t realize just how creepy those things could be when placed on a stretch of highway in the middle of nowhere, and leading to a small town which did look more like something out of a movie set than real life. Cue the eerie soundtrack and call in the post-apocalyptic mutants.
To make matters worse, those same townsfolk were now missing. From the impressions Shockwave had gotten about Dows from the few minutes since they set foot in it, he wasn’t sure the place was ever a bustle of activity to begin with. It had only been home to about six hundred souls.
“Cannibal Corners, USA,” Ghost murmured.
“Don’t forget,” Shockwave said, kicking aside a chicken that had strayed into his path. “Bloodhawk is a cannibal.”
Shockwave couldn’t see Ghost’s expression behind his mask, but body language alone let him know the man had forgotten that particular point.
There was nothing living here. Nothing but livestock, anyway. Ichabod detected no human auras as he surveyed the town. It took a measure of control not to blast the doghouse on his right to cinders.
Where had they taken his wife?
He would find her. There was no other option. If Ichabod had to ride across the continent to rescue her, he would, without a moment’s hesitation. But he could sense no one within his range, only those whom had arrived alongside the horseman. It was disconcerting, to say the least.
They had been expecting a trap. Why else would Hellion have scrawled the location and a candid invitation to come find them on Ichabod’s wall? The villains had something up their sleeves. Yet now that Ichabod had come to their battleground, no trap had sprung shut. Were they even here? Had this been another misdirection? No, this situation bore all the hallmarks of an endgame. The leather of his gloves creaked as his fingers balled into fists.
Ichabod halted his mount. There was something wrong with this entire situation. He could feel. . . something. Lady Luck was still moving ahead, she must not have noticed his stoppage. That mattered little to Ichabod. He knew he had paused for a reason.
He cast his eyeless gaze about, using his extra-planar sense and demonic gifts to feel the landscape around him. There was an incongruity. It tickled at the edge of his abilities, just beyond his range. North, South, East, West, each direction he moved, the sensation there was someone or something living of this plane lay just outside his notice, but the feeling never strengthened no matter how far he moved. He was baffled, and that was making Ichabod angry. He should be riding to his wife’s side, not spinning about like a top.
Ichabod wanted to burn the place to cinders. It was getting harder to control his rage. The dual mind of man and demon were of an accord, both desiring the cleansing fury of flame. Only the possibility of somehow harming Melissa stopped the horseman from unleashing hellfire and scourging Dows from the face of the earth.
A change in air pressure came from behind. Ichabod wheeled his mount around. A portal had opened, ordered ranks of Flesh-kin marching out and onto the soil of Dows. Past the golems lay a cavern of great size. Ichabod could feel the life forces of humans among the dull auras on the other side of the portal.
Melissa! She had to be over there, through that gateway.
Ichabod spurred his mount and charged into the horde. The creatures did little to slow the rampaging horseman as he bore down. Flesh-kin burst as Ichabod trampled and battered his way through the mindless brutes.
With a final leap, demon-horse and rider were across the portal, heedless of the fact that it snapped shut the moment he crossed the threshold.
“Son of a—!” Shockwave blasted the front rank of Flesh-kin to the ground. They tripped the next few rows, forming a wall of flailing flesh which was all too human. “He went through the gate!”
Valkyrie came hurtling from the sky, Aegis in tow. She dropped the man to his feet before landing. “We can’t have lost him already,” she said.
The golems Shockwave had knocked down were lumbering to their feet. Talons and claws scraped across skin, heedless they shared the same side in the conflict. Flesh-kin rose in silence, reorienting on the heroes and trudging forward.
“We handle this crowd first,” he said. “Then we find Ichabod.”
At his side, Valkyrie hefted her spear, setting her sights on the approaching Flesh-kin. “This is going to be very messy.”
Shockwave unleashed another barrage of power at the creatures, narrowing the width of his attack to the front two Flesh-kin. The focused attack caused the monsters to twitch and flail rather than tumble backward. Shockwave held them like that for a moment before ramping up the strength of his attack.
The spasms became violent jerks and fits. Even at this distance, he could hear bone snap and crackle. When he released the Flesh-kin from his power, they slumped to the ground, more flesh bags than upright creatures. For any normal human, the equivalent would have been getting hit by multiple cars in succession.
He released a heavy breath. Using his powers like that took a small toll; crushing bone and organ with his vibratory powers caused more of a mental strain than a physical one. Shockwave could count on one hand the number of times he’d used his superpowers to injure a human being in such a manner. Even then, it was no more than disabling a criminal’s single limb. These targets were mindless, soulless things. There was something cathartic about unleashing his power without restraints.
“Very messy,” he said, picking out his next targets and letting loose.
They fell before him. Nothing would prevent him from finding Melissa. He would tear apart every living thing in this cave to get to her. These pathetic Flesh-kin were little more than a nuisance, impeding his charge in a minute way. And if any other stood against him, they would find just as much mercy as he allowed those soulless husks.
Ichabod had come to deliver vengeance!
The creatures pressed in, seeking to overwhelm mount and rider with sheer mass. Misshapen hands and claws reached for Ichabod, latching onto his armor, trying to tear into the flesh which was surely beneath the dark leathers. He could feel them tug at him, a tentacle wrapped around his leg and attempted to yank him from the saddle.
Ichabod slashed left and right, clearing a path ahead inches at a time. The war-charger snorted and stamped, crushing Flesh-kin bone and pulping flesh. Let them try to best him. The Flesh-kin were nothing to one such as him.
"Monsters," he roared, bifurcating one of the creatures which had attempted to leap at him. ”I bring your doom!"
Hellfire raged around horse and rider. The nearest Flesh-kin began to crisp and blacken. Ichabod fed his anger, his rage, into the supernatural flames, letting them build as they had in Midtown.
When the surge of energy reached its peak, Ichabod unleashed the hellfire. Unlike the battle in Manhattan, the horseman did not check the flames, he let them vent the fury of hell against the Flesh-kin and the cavern walls. What remained of the creatures was little more than charred hunks of bone and ash. The walls of the cave were molten and dripping.
In a single moment, one hundred of the Flesh-kin had been immolated by Ichabod’s wrath.
"Free my wife!"
The strange vocalization of the horseman reverberated off the cooling stone. Like shouting underwater.
Ichabod led his mount through the ruined husks of Flesh-kin, and the path began to widen. A steady light source shone up ahead. The tunnel opened into a cavern several hundred feet wide and long, and about thirty feet high. Ranks of inert Flesh-kin stood at attention.
Two figures stepped out of a side cave near this opening. Ichabod recognized Reaver’s massive form; the woman was the teleporter he had seen in New York. Reaver stood his axes in hand, glaring at the horseman. The teleporter stood with her arms crossed beneath her chest, masked face tilted to the side.
Ichabod raised his sword. He pointed it at the two villains. Their auras burned bright where all the Flesh-kin behind them were dull. ”I have come for you."
The woman spoke. “Come get us, then.”
Before Ichabod could spur his mount into a charge, she raised one hand overhead. The sound of several tons of rockfall tumbling against itself carried to him a split second before the avalanche hit. Heavy stone rubble crushed Ichabod to the tunnel floor, burying him and his steed in seconds.