The smell of blood always reminded him of Christmas. The first time Rax Malcolm had murdered someone had been Christmas Eve ten years ago. At this point he couldn’t even remember her name, only that they had dated for a few weeks before Rax found out she was screwing some other dude from campus. The claw hammer came out the victor when set against flesh and bone. Her blood had tingled where it splashed against his bare skin.
He found the experience so enjoyable, he went out and knocked on his neighbor’s door, still covered in his now ex-girlfriend’s blood. The look of confused shock on the man’s face brought a smile to Rax’s. The hammer rose and slammed into the guy’s skull, right between the eyes. That kill hadn’t been as satisfying. Too quick. The guy’s wife, on the other hand, was a far more enjoyable experience. She was so startled and aghast that she didn’t have the presence of mind to scream for help before Rax was on her, swinging the hammer sideways to crush her jaw and knock her unconscious.
Rax spent a quiet Christmas morning coated in the blood of three people. Before law enforcement caught him eight days later, Rax had racked up eighteen bodies. Including the asshole who had been sleeping with his girlfriend and his two douchey roommates.
Those were the halcyon days where bludgeoning someone to death started off as great fun, only to devolve into busywork. Torture was only enjoyable until it wasn’t fun anymore. The killing was the money shot.
Nowadays things were more interesting. Rax had power. Power and people invested in helping Rax pursue his desire for murder. When he was tapped during a Death Row stint for ‘experimental biological therapy’, Rax Malcolm was reborn. Not quite literally, but damn near close to it on some genetic levels. He found he could superheat the air touching his palms, generating fireballs, and send them flying off at targets. A pleasant enough surprise, at least if you weren’t the two technicians sent to unharness Rax from the table. Or the handful of geeks and guards he had to burn his way through to regain his freedom.
Thus Hellion was born.
“Hey.” Bloodhawk tossed a dripping femur at Hellion. “Wake up. Anchor will be opening the portal in,” Bloodhawk paused, glancing up at the clock above hall leading to the restrooms, “in three minutes. We gotta have all this loaded by then.”
“When did you become the responsible one, partner?” Hellion raised a hand to wipe away the streak left by the flying bone, only to realize he was so coated in the blood of their victims he could not tell one splash of blood from any other.
Bloodhawk tossed the limp corpse he had been chewing on into the bin. That guy had been the last to die; the man expired as Bloodhawk tore out his throat with his teeth. Like Hellion, the crimson and brown of his armor was drenched in the life’s blood of their victims. A lump of flesh clung to the razor sharp blades on his shoulders. Bloodhawk gripped the hunk of meat on the spikes and tossed it in with the rest.
“Responsible?” Bloodhawk laughed, a sound akin to two lumps of coal being rubbed together.
The third member of their group came lumbering out from the bathroom area. Reaver was a giant, over eight feet tall and weighing several hundred pounds. The goliath dragged the bodies of those poor souls whom had thought safety lay in the stalls while the rest of the store was massacred. The corpses were strung together with their own entrails.
“Does it matter?” Reaver bent down, his massive wingspan scooping up four blood-streaked bodies, and dumped the load into an empty bin. Where Bloodhawk’s vocal cords were reminiscent of grinding stones, Reaver’s blared like the quaking of a mountain. “Just finish loading so we can get out of here.”
Bloodhawk grinned. There were flecks of red meat stuck between his incisors and canines. “Not having any fun, monster?”
Reaver picked up another load of flesh and dropped it atop the rest. “Not anymore.”
Bloodhawk’s response was to grin wider, the light of madness dancing in the killer’s bright, brown eyes. He hefted the corpse at his feet, the body hanging off his claw-tipped fingers, took a bite of the dead man’s cheek, and flipped the rest into the bin.
“I’m sure it’s just you that our newfound companion can’t stand,” Hellion said with a leer in Bloodhawk’s direction. He grabbed a package of tissues off a nearby rack and tossed the item to his longtime partner in crime and murder. “Maybe if you brushed the bits of people out of your teeth he’d like you more, B.”
Reaver ignored the banter, piling still more bodies into the rolling container until the broken and bloody limbs were stacked over the lip of the bin.
Hellion glanced at the clock. Their transportation should be arriving any moment. “Head’s up, gents. Let’s have everything ready for the Doc when Anchor throws open the gate.”
The limo picked him up outside the warehouse complex. Just as well. Shockwave did not really want to change into civilian garb just to take a meeting with the benefactor of the Guardians. It wasn’t often that Shockwave went back to his life as Derek Miles, anyway. That Morrigan was willing to send a car to get Shockwave and bring him to the old man was appreciated.
It would be a few hours before they arrived at Morrigan’s house up in Catskill. If traffic was generous, which was a rare occasion, indeed, it wouldn’t take more than two or three hours. Sludge had assured him everything would be OK while he was gone, the rest of the Guardians could handle things. In truth, Shockwave would have felt better about things if Jessica had not taken off for the west coast. Nothing against Hector’s abilities, but Valkyrie had been a Guardian since the team’s inception, and Shockwave trusted her judgment above the rest.
Though, he thought as he settled into the leather seating of the limo’s rear, at least it was Sludge he was leaning on to assume the void of leadership. Chance and Shy—Pulse and Vector, respectively—were too young, too raw as yet to rely on in that capacity. Lady Luck was too flighty to count on placing Guardian business above her own personal interests. And then there was Ichabod.
Shockwave liked Isaac well enough. It was the Ichabod persona he wasn’t entirely sure of. They all knew the story of the horseman’s powers, the binding of demon to a man’s soul was not unheard of in the Guardians’ experience. The real life Headless Horseman was a powerhouse, perhaps the most superhuman of the team, yet Shockwave could not bring himself to give over his entire trust to the hero. There was too much of a personality difference between Isaac and his alter ego, a severity in Ichabod which was frightening at times. Like the other day. Even though it had been that imp, Skane, masquerading as an officer of the law, the ease with which Ichabod was willing to chop the faux-man in half was shocking.
To face down the nastiest of supervillains and come out on top, sure, Shockwave would lay his money on Ichabod. But to place the welfare of the team above all, to lead the Guardians through the darkest and most desperate of times, no.
The urban landscape gave way to the suburban after an hour. A little while later and the highway opened up.
Shockwave kept himself busy by closing his eyes and recounting the last time the Guardians had fought against Goblin and Worm. The two should have been nothing more than minor annoyances. Instead they had come across some heavy weapons and become major threats, taking hostages and blowing a bank vault to kingdom come as they tried to rob the place. Luckily the two numbskulls weren’t able to work their hi-tech weaponry to full effect and almost nuked one another in crossfire. The Guardians metaphorically rode in to save the day, subduing Goblin and Worm before any bystanders became lethal casualties; the same could not be said for the building the bank used to be in.
One nagging question remained: how do two small-time crooks get their hands on devices capable of taking out one of the superpowered like Valkyrie? Only a single answer came to mind—the enigmatic Dr. Madd was up to his old tricks again, passing out technological marvels of his own design to the criminal population. No one had ever met or even seen the mysterious Dr. Madd, not even those whom benefited from his nefarious genius. What the madman’s ultimate goal was remained a puzzle, even nearly a decade after the first stories of his existence began to surface.
Could Dr. Madd have been involved in the Queens explosion? To what end? And how did Skane fit in, if at all?
The limo decelerated. Shockwave was pulled from his ruminations as the car passed between a massive iron gate and rolled up the driveway to the residence of Peter Morrigan.
The driver came around to open his door, but Shockwave was out before the man could lay a hand on it. Shockwave did allow the man to lead him to the front door of the manse. Inside, menservants let him make his own way toward the parlor; Shockwave had visited Peter Morrigan enough over the years to find his way to the elder statesman without needing an escort. He only had to pass through three other rooms before finding the benefactor of the Guardians seated at a hardwood table next to a bay window.
“Ah, you’ve arrived.” Peter Morrigan rose from his plush sitting chair and extended a wrinkled hand. “Traffic was not the terrifying dragon today, eh, Mr. Miles?”
Shockwave returned the handshake. Behind his mask he frowned at how weak Morrigan’s grip had become since the last time he had visited. It had been, what, four months? Morrigan was pushing ninety but had always been in fine shape for his age. Looking more carefully at the wealthy philanthropist caused that hidden frown to deepen. Time, it seemed, had caught up to Morrigan. At least that was what Shockwave hoped was the case and not something worse.
“Smoother than usual, yes, sir,” Shockwave replied. “My thanks for providing transportation.”
Morrigan tutted. “Always so formal when you first get here. You’d think, my boy, that after our association reached its second year that you would have become a trifle less stuffy. Let alone five.” Whatever the issue—age, some undisclosed illness—there remained that twinkle in Morrigan’s eye. Like a child trapped within the skin of an octogenarian.
Shockwave nodded. He had a hard time maintaining his frown.
“Tea?” Morrigan didn’t wait for a response. He pressed a button on a console hidden under the cushioned arm of his chair. In all the time Shockwave had been coming to Morrigan’s private abode, he had never removed his mask to imbibe or take a meal. It didn’t stop his host from playing his role.
“So,” Morrigan continued, “nasty business that explosion. I heard the Guardians did all they could to help out.”
“One of the worst disasters I’ve seen,” Shockwave said as he sat in the chair opposite Morrigan. “No idea why it happened, but it looks like somebody went to a lot of trouble to ensure a high body count.”
There was a brief silence before Morrigan cleared his throat and said, “We’re all glad that creature’s shot went awry, my boy. It would have been a sad day, indeed, if one of mankind’s champions had fallen to such perfidy.”
Now Shockwave did smile. Morrigan had always possessed something of a paternal attitude toward Shockwave, and it tended to rear its head in the form of extra loquaciousness. It was just the old man’s way of making sure the ‘youngster’ was hale and hearty. “I’m fine, sir. Pulse was paying better attention than I was. Saved my hide.”
Morrigan nodded and took the tray of tea from a servant as it arrived. “Good, good. This team is getting along well, then?”
The mood darkened. Things were difficult enough as is without the old man alluding to that particular sore point. “Yes, sir. Everyone seems to be on the same page. No divisions of philosophy,” Shockwave said, leaving out the part about Valkyrie heading off to deal with one of those old divisions. He suspected Morrigan already knew. As rich and connected as the old man was, it would have been a surprise for him to be out of the loop. No reason to bring the issue to the forefront.
“I see,” was all Morrigan replied, though his tone suggested he wanted to say more. He took a sip of his tea and smiled.
“So,” Shockwave said as the silence began to lengthen. “Why did you want to see me, sir? It’s not just to catch up, I’ll wager.”
“Indeed, no. I wanted to talk about the future of the Guardians.” Morrigan paused. “While there is still time to make plans.”
Shockwave shifted in his seat. “Still time, sir?”
“Things are going to get worse before they get better, I’m afraid.” Morrigan sipped his tea. “I wish I had cause for a better outlook, but the government is starting to pressure in regards to certain aspects. Privatization of superpowers, as I’m being told, will be illegal.”
Shockwave’s own cup continued to steam away, untouched. “What are we talking about, exactly?”
“Reduced funding, for one. The Guardians own all the equipment at the warehouse; I’ve been sure to purchase all that under different accounts. But the land and warehouse are under my name. I’ve been told that even allowing a team of individuals outside of government jurisdiction to use the grounds free of charge will result in penalties. And then there are the usual issues of property taxes involved.”
“So, what you’re trying to tell me is that soon you won’t be able to fund Guardian operations.” Shockwave leaned forward. The urge to scratch the stubble patches beneath his mask was back. “We’re gonna be out on our ear because the government is trying say we’re nothing more than a private army?”
“I’m afraid it’s even more complex than that, my friend. Times are changing in all phases of the game. The old regimes have been replaced by ‘progressive thinkers’. I’m afraid the general hand’s off approach the superpowered have received from the government since the forties is about to go the way of the dinosaur.” Morrigan took another sip of tea. This time he placed the cup and saucer back on the table before continuing. “The government is starting up their own. . . program. Or rather, they are finally going public with one.”
Shockwave shook his head. “Nothing new there. They’ve already got the Institute.”
“No, my friend. This is more than merely a training program and bringing in those with extra-human abilities together. They want to create their own.”
It was quiet enough to hear Morrigan’s butler clinking around in the kitchen downstairs. Shockwave tried to wrap his head around the implications. The word ‘create’ did not sit well.
Morrigan continued to give the bad news. “Not only that, but there are programs set in motion to act as counterbalances to superpowered individuals. The next few years are going to get very interesting. Though precisely how will be impacted by decisions made in the next few months.”
Isaac woke to the smell of bacon and pancakes. He rolled out of bed, bare feet soaking up the welcome coolness of the hardwood floor, and followed his nose to the kitchen.
As he descended to the first floor of their moderate cottage, Isaac scratched at the amulet embedded in the right side of his chest. The arcane object was the source of his power, the jewel an eternal prison for the demon, Hessiax. Unlike others whom had possessed the amulet in the past, Isaac had not only managed to bond with the dark force living within, but also tame it. Though not without cost.
But these were far better times for Isaac. He hardly ever thought of those days when the amulet had first come into his life, or of the legacy the demon within carried. No, because of Isaac, Ichabod was a hero rather than the monster found in history’s annals.
The purple jewel was set in a framework of gold, bonded directly to the man’s flesh and bone. At the touch of Isaac’s fingers, a darkness swirled within its depths and he felt a surge of strength. Isaac used the energy to bound down the rest of the staircase and pass through the sitting room and into the breakfast nook. There, Melissa, his wife of the past eight years, was placing cream cheese covered bagel halves on a plate in the center of their table.
“I was just about to come get you, sleepy-head,” Melissa said, wiping her hands on the floral apron tied around her waist. “Not like you to sleep the whole day away.”
Isaac covered the distance between them in two long strides. Melissa’s shoulder-length auburn hair tickled his nose as he embraced her.
“If I’d have known you were home, I’d have gotten up sooner.” Isaac kissed her cheek and released her so her heels once more nestled into the carpet. “Breakfast for dinner?”
Melissa winked and pulled out her chair. “It’s a nice change, now and then. I didn’t feel like making a huge meal after the double shift at the clinic. They really need to get another girl to help with the record keeping. I’m bushed.”
“Then you shouldn’t have even done this,” Isaac said, gesturing to the simple spread of pancakes, eggs, and bacon on the table. “I’d have managed something before heading out.”
“Maybe I love you.” Melissa poured a healthy dose of syrup over her pancakes and eggs. Well, maybe not that healthy. “Or, maybe I was just hungry myself and figured I’d be nice enough to throw you a bone.”
Isaac chuckled and filled his own plate with bacon strips and bagel halves. “Well, thank you anyway, hon.”
The next few moments were spent in relative silence while they ate.
“So,” Melissa said after she finished off the last slice of bacon. “You’re off on Guardian business tonight?”
“Shockwave had to go upstate to meet with the guy who funds the team,” Isaac said before shoveling another forkful of pancake and scrambled eggs into his mouth. The sweetness of the maple syrup was perfect.
“Peter Morrigan?” Melissa refilled her cup of orange juice.
Isaac dropped his fork onto the half-emptied plate with a chuckle. He glanced up at his wife and a grin spread across his face. “Sometimes I forget how wonderful you are. I’m sorry.”
Melissa arched an eyebrow and swiped a bagel half from her husband’s plate. That playful gleam in her eye was just one of the thousands of reasons Isaac had asked her to marry him. “Oh, really? I can’t tell if I should be insulted or if I should be doing more for your lazy ass.”
“Wait,” Isaac said, effecting a look of shock. “There could be more?”
Melissa’s response was to throw the last uneaten bite of the bagel half at him. “Keep it up, buddy, and there won’t be any. If you take my meaning.” Isaac replied by miming locking his lips and tossing the key.
“But seriously,” he said after retrieving his fork. “Yeah, Shockwave is in a meeting with Morrigan. Val had something come up on the west coast, and Lady Luck is off on some photo shoot. The younger girl, Shy, uh, I mean Vector, has some school stuff coming up. So it’s just me, Sludge, and Pulse to mind the store.
“After the last few days, the guys could use a break. As Ichabod, I don’t need sleep and I can handle just about anything that pops up. Barring any more massive disasters.”
Melissa’s face had run through a gamut of emotions as her husband talked. From a smile at the mention of Valkyrie, to a slight frown when Lady Luck was mentioned, to a passive neutrality when Isaac spoke of the rest of the team—until he brought up disasters. She asked in a quiet voice, “Do you think that could happen again?”
Isaac chewed silently. Once he swallowed he said, “I just don’t know, hon. The world is full of maniacs. We still don’t know exactly what happened. And its not like law enforcement or any of the government agencies are being forthcoming.”
The reassurance fell flat. Isaac dropped his utensil onto the plate once more, reaching across their little table to lay a hand atop Melissa’s. In the light of their dining nook, their wedding rings glinted.
He squeezed his wife’s hand. “Don’t worry, Mel. As Ichabod, there’s very few things that can actually harm me. Even if I wasn’t transformed, you’ve seen what the amulet can do. If something were to happen, I’ll be OK. Promise.”
She wriggled her hand out from under Isaac’s and rose from the table. In a second she was plopping her rear onto her husband’s lap, arms wrapping around his neck and her head dropping against a shoulder.
“You better be, mister,” she murmured. Isaac snaked his arms around her and held tight. “Because I need you around for a long, long time, superhero or not. You hear me?”
Isaac kissed the back of her neck. “I hear you,” he moved Melissa so he could stare into her eyes, “and I obey.”
“Dork.” Melissa gave Isaac a playful slap before kissing him. “Why do I love you?”
Isaac shrugged and kissed her back. “Something about a slow learning curve, I think.”
“Keep it up, buddy,” she warned.
“Oh, I will.” He winked. “Forever.”