Time was ticking away. Shockwave sent out probing waves every so often, trying to determine if they were still on the right track. For the hundredth time today, he wished he had developed this aspect of his power better. Chalk that particular unpreparedness up to a failure of leadership. Just another fault to lay at no one’s feet but his own.
Lynx halted and tilted his head. “Hang on, I heard something.”
Shockwave looked to Valkyrie for confirmation; she was the only other one whom had enhanced senses. He watched her strain to hear and then shake her head.
“Can’t be sure,” she said. “But there was something. Lynx’s hearing is probably better than mine.”
With a nod, Shockwave went to the younger man. Lynx had his hood pulled over his head, yet Shockwave could tell he was still listening. “What is it?”
Lynx didn’t answer right away. Shockwave was about to ask again, when Lynx finally responded. “Definitely voices. I can’t make them out, but it’s not any kind of rhythmic droning or mechanical sound. Too erratic and no pattern. The first sound I caught was probably a shout. Now they’re talking, some louder than others. It’s those louder ones I can just make out.”
“I think. . . ” Lynx pulled back his hood, cocking his head to the side as he focused. “Yeah, that sounded like Ichabod. I think he said something about his wife.”
“Which way?” Shockwave asked.
“I can’t tell,” Lynx said, his tone apologetic. “There’s too much bouncing off the walls.”
They were close, then. No telling if their path would lead to Ichabod or the supervillains, though. “Damn. Fine, we keep going,” Shockwave decided. “Let us know if you hear anything we can use. Words, something that tells you a direction. Anything.”
The teams continued down the tunnels. Every second the sense of urgency increased, yet they were powerless to hasten their journey.
Hellion wasn’t a fan of putting himself in Ichabod’s cross hairs. The relative security afforded by the bulky forms of Flesh-kin would have be ideal to hide behind. Instead, he stood in full view of one of the scariest heroes ever to walk the Earth. At least Hellion was wearing one of those Dr. Madd portable shield devices. That should prevent Ichabod’s fire from charring him to ash.
In theory, anyway. Bullets and Shockwave’s vibratory fields were one thing. The supernatural nature of the horseman’s power could very well circumvent the mechanism’s protection. Maybe even plain overwhelm the shield. Dr. Madd made primo gizmos, but everything had a limit. It was a risk, but Hellion loved a good gamble.
Especially when he knew how the deck was stacked.
“Sorry we had to steal the missus, o’ headless wonder. But a job’s a job.” Hellion clasped his arms behind his back and paced up and down the line of Flesh-kin. So far, the Boss had been right more often than not. Ichabod shouldn’t snap now, not when the fate of his lady fair was in jeopardy. It was Hellion’s task to needle the big, bad, scary horseman close to the edge, yet not shove him over.
It was unnerving the way the hero tracked him without a face. The horseman made no move, but Hellion could feel Ichabod’s gaze burning through him. The effect was dizzying.
Hellion pressed on. “There were some tense moments along the way, let’s be clear. But I think we handled the tasks set before us quite well. Earned our pay, so to speak.”
“Release Melissa. Now!”
Once more, the very air seemed to quiver at Ichabod’s ire. It washed over the villains and ranks of Flesh-kin with physical force and unnatural cold. It left nerves ragged. Hellion heard Reaver pull his axes and Bloodhawk snarl afresh.
“Can’t do it,” Hellion said, collecting himself. “Sorry. But the Doc isn’t here yet. Party won’t be in full swing without him.”
Ichabod took a menacing step toward Hellion. The closer the horseman drew, the heavier the unnatural aura of fear and terror lay over the villain. Hellion had been through a number of tight spots in his life, he’d been incarcerated and sitting on Death Row, just waiting for his number to come up; he had gotten on the Black Satyr’s bad side early in his criminal career and was beaten to a literal pulp; law enforcement liked to train their guns on him and pull the trigger. None of those prior experiences compared to facing down the dread Ichabod in a barely restrained fury.
“Whoa, fella,” Hellion uttered, giving in and retreating behind the nearest Flesh-kin. He avoided touching the pasty thing, but only just. He swallowed before continuing. “Hang on there, big guy. The Doc should be here any second. Don’t do anything which might result in a hard time for the wifey.”
Ichabod froze. Even without a head, Hellion knew the horseman was seething. Any second and the fearsome avatar could set the whole cavern ablaze. The Flesh-kin had proven ineffective at keeping Ichabod at bay, merely slowing him down for a short time. Hellion had his doubts that even the combined powers of himself, Bloodhawk, Anchor, and Reaver could best the hero while he was in this state. Now that was saying something. The Boss had better be right about everything from this point on or Hellion might end up a charred smear.
For a terrifying moment, the deck didn’t feel so stacked.
The sound of wheels in need of a good greasing echoed into the cavern. It didn’t wash away Hellion’s anxiety, but it did level it off. This was it. The final act was about to play out.
“Ah,” he said. “Here’s the good doctor now.”
From a rear tunnel, a hunched figure ambled forward. A pair of oversized Flesh-kin wheeled a large iron cage between them; only the bottom bars of the cell could be seen beneath a dark sheet.
Sawbones’ limp didn’t slow the mad surgeon. In fact, the doctor cavorted and capered like a jester all-too-proud of himself. Even with a large hump protruding from his twisted back, Sawbones maintained a near perfect balance as he hopped from foot to foot.
“Say hello to the Doc, Ichabod.” Hellion pulled further into the mass of inert Flesh-kin. “Here’s where you get to make a choice.”
“We’re getting nowhere!” Shockwave punched his open hand.
Valkyrie slipped next to him. She grabbed him by the arm and spun him around. “Pull it together, Derek,” she hissed. “This isn’t the time to lose it.”
Shockwave ground his teeth. She was right. The situation was frustrating as hell, but Valkyrie was right. As usual. Behind her the combined teams milled with uncertainty.
He took a breath and let it out slow. He needed to think. There had to be a faster way to get to that large chamber he detected. Hell, even just another tunnel would be welcome at this point.
“That’s it!” Shockwave shrugged out of Valkyrie’s grip. She allowed him to go. “Siege, think you’re up to blasting us a new hole?”
The man looked refreshed from his earlier exertion. “Yeah, I’m good to go,” Siege responded.
With a nod, Shockwave turned away. He pulled off his gloves again. He may have to stop wearing them entirely if he planned to use this part of his powers more frequently.
The stone was cold and clammy. He ignored the feel and focused, sending pulsing sound waves through the rock. The came back at him, so he put more effort into it, increasing his output until he didn’t feel them bouncing back as often. There, he thought. That’s got to be it.
Shockwave opened his eyes and turned to the expectant gazes watching him. “Here’s as good as anywhere.” He rapped the stone wall with a knuckle. “Twenty feet or so. We get through that and we should be in the chamber.”
“Is it solid stone, though?” Aegis asked before Siege could get in position to fire.
“Thereabouts,” Shockwave replied.
Aegis glanced about. “It was one thing to fire blind from the surface. We’re a good fifty feet down. If Siege cracks a fault or compromises structural integrity. . . ”
“The whole thing could fall on our heads.” Shockwave cursed. “Can’t make anything easy, can you?” he muttered to no one in particular. He glanced around in the dim light, looking for objects to shore up the ceiling.
“Give me a second,” Aegis said, rolling his shoulders and stepping forward. A second later and a glowing, silvery sphere formed around the cluster of heroes. “There. Now we should be safe if things start falling.” He paused. “So long as it’s not more than I can handle, that is.”
“I’m sure we could have all done without that last part, Aegis,” Ghost admonished.
“Just want everyone to be ready.” Aegis frowned. “In case. We’re pretty far down. I can hold several tons before the strain will start.”
“All right,” Shockwave said, taking control before anyone else interjected accidental gloom into the situation. “Aegis is ready. Siege, hit it.”
Siege set his feet and leaned forward, arms outstretched. A fury of light formed at the former detective’s core, flowing between his arms as his skin paled and then turned darker and darker shades of gray. When Siege judged he had enough power to punch through the stone, he released.
The world shook as the blast met stone. Shards of rock came flying back toward the heroes, causing them to duck and cover until Aegis created another shield to their fore with just enough of a hole for Siege’s cannonade. They kept at it. Stone backlashed against the front shield and rained from above as the tunnel quaked and pieces came loose.
Shockwave covered his eyes with a hand, but kept watching. No need to worry about Aegis. If he failed, they were all doomed. The only way out was through.
At first, the new tunnel was only a few feet deep. Siege pushed harder, looking more like a sculpted piece of geology than a man now, and the hole widened and pushed further in. Aegis seemed to have his own challenge maintaining the two shields and keeping his feet, but the only emotion he showed was determination.
Shockwave had to give Ghost credit. He’d assembled a good core of guys for his team. They weren’t Guardians, but this Faction might just hold its own when they got out of this mess. If they got out.
He stifled that dark thought as soon as it popped into his skull.
Shockwave moved as close to the new tunnel as he dared. Just a little further and Siege should have broken into the chamber.
Something was causing the earth to shake. A deep rumble accompanied the motion.
Hellion glanced around. “What the hell is that?” No one answered. The rumbled turned into a roar. It sounded like it was coming closer.
Ichabod hadn’t moved since Sawbones had entered the chamber with his golems and the cage. Could the horseman be creating the small earthquake? Doubtful. From what Hellion had been told about the hero, he wouldn’t do anything cataclysmic if he thought his wife was at risk. So far that had held.
And Hellion was sure Ichabod had assumed his woman was in that cage.
“Hey, B,” he shouted over the din. “Any idea what that is?”
Reaver, not Bloodhawk, was the one to respond. The giant lifted his weapons and glared around the cavern walls. “It’s them.”
“‘Them’ who—oh, shit.”
The Guardians. Had to be. Them and those others. It was one part of the plan which seemed to have backfired. Valkyrie was supposed to have been distracted away from the team while the attack on Manhattan was going on. She was supposed to be with those other heroes on the west coast, trying to figure out the trail of missing dead Hellion and the others had left out there. Instead, the warrior-woman had not only come back at an inopportune moment in Manhattan, but it appeared she had gone back again for reinforcements.
Good thing the Boss had contingency plans. Unfortunately, all those do-gooder losers were showing up where they weren’t wanted, yet again. In all likelihood, too late, but they were still here and still a complication which needed to be dealt with.
Well, that’s why Hellion and the others had been hired. The coming confrontation couldn’t be interfered with. Time to improvise.
“Handle them,” Hellion shouted at Reaver. “B, give the big guy a hand.”
“I don’t take orders from you,” Reaver growled. He hefted his axes, thick fingers curling around the hafts in anticipation. “But I will take great pleasure in finishing that woman. The spear-maiden is mine. None may slay the Valkyrie but me.”
“Yeah, OK. Whatever,” Hellion said. He needed to get back to Sawbones. There was no telling how long Ichabod would remain paralyzed with indecision. Especially once that curtain fell. “Just kill whoever you want. I’ll get Anchor to dance her fine little ass over here, too. Don’t let them screw this up.”
Reaver stepped between a group of twenty Flesh-kin. With a roar, he lay about with his axes. The blades tore through flesh and cracked bone. Every drop of blood Reaver spilled was sucked up by his enchanted weapons; a deep vermillion glow coming from the blades of each axe as they supped. Already a giant of a man, Reaver seemed to grow as the strength of that shed blood empowered him. The golems possessed less of the vital fluids than a normal human body, but every bead provided potency. A corona of crimson energy flowed from the broken Flesh-kin and into Reaver.
Hellion weaved through the inert golems. If this was still to go off without a hitch, those creatures would come in handy. The Doc would just have to set them in motion and the hundreds of Flesh-kin should overwhelm the heroes. Leave it to last second inconveniences to throw a monkey wrench into the works. If he was lucky, Hellion might get to carve up a hero or two, but his paramount task was to make sure nothing came between Sawbones and Ichabod.
“Get to it,” he shouted. “Save at least one for me.”
Ichabod wanted to rush forward and tear the sheet from that cage. He needed to get Melissa out of here. Then he could come back and exact vengeance on those who had mistreated her.
But he couldn’t attack until he knew the circumstances. The demon in him wanted to lunge forward and slice the hellblade through every enemy in sight, remove the dangers to their wife before they could harm her. The man, though, he acknowledged there were other things to worry about, insidious traps which the villains could have laid. What would happen if he reached the cage and tore off the door only to set off a bomb attached to the hinges? What if they were just playing with him and Melissa wasn’t in the cage at all? No, best to be safe, to be sure.
Ichabod flexed his hand around the hilt of the hellblade. The unholy metal flared with the horseman’s displeasure.
The man in front of him—a disgusting creature whom gibbered and drooled, bearing little resemblance to a world-class surgeon—would pose little threat to Ichabod. The only one of the villains that might give Ichabod a run was Reaver, but even now that one was turning from the horseman and focusing on the source of the rumbling. The Flesh-kin were nothing. Hellion might be dangerous, if only as a threat to Melissa if Ichabod could not reach her in time. Same for Bloodhawk.
“Release. Our. Wife.” The dichotomy of voices was more pronounced than it had been.
The parody of a doctor tilted his deformed head. A thick, viscous line of drool escaped the oddly curved corner of his mouth, bobbing as if on a string mere inches from the stony ground.
“Come to see my newest success? Yes, of course you have,” Sawbones drawled. The words sounded refined, but the warped features through which they were spoken corrupted them. “My children are ready! The Flesh-kin have arisen! A new age in modern medicine has come. You shall be the first to bear witness. The world shall sing praises in my name.”
Ichabod spotted Hellion hiding behind a set of those golems. The killer waved his arms in a frantic manner, trying to catch the attention of the twisted surgeon without becoming a target.
“Hey, Doc. Wake up!” Hellion tossed a small rock at Sawbones. The stone sailed through the air to thump against the exaggerated ridge of the doctor’s brow. “We got company. Get the kiddies moving, eh.”
Ichabod considered immolating the whole lot. He would have to be careful to keep the flames from the cage, but that’s why he still had his sword in hand. They had tested his patience long enough. If the charade continued much longer, neither man nor demon would hold back.
“What?” Sawbones muttered. He blinked repeatedly, as if coming out of a trance. The rumble caught his attention. “Ah, yes. Of course. Children! Awaken and feast upon those who refuse to acknowledge my superiority!” Sawbones straightened his back further than his twisted nature and hump would have seemed to allow. He flung his arms skyward and the entire horde of Flesh-kin pivoted toward the source of the rumbling.
“There,” Sawbones said, running a pristine hand over his face. When the hand fell back at his side, the doctor’s twisted features now resembled something approaching normalcy. The oddly curved lips were a straight mouth, the exaggerated ridge of his brow more in line with a man’s than an ape. His speech also benefited from the sudden makeover, losing the liquid drawl. The creature known as Sawbones once more bore the countenance of the middle-aged, world-renowned surgeon—Dr. Morton Powell. “Much better. My children need time to play. But this is not why you have come. You are here to see.”
Ichabod tensed, ready to spring forward as Sawbones reached up and gripped the curtain hanging over the cage. A simple tug would reveal what lay behind. The horseman gauged the distance, he could skewer the madman in the time it took to inhale. First, he needed to know Melissa was alive.
Before the mad surgeon could pull, the cavern wall exploded.