The country looked so different from several hundred feet in the air. No matter how many times she flew over parts of the nation, from the urban scenery of the New York skyline to the rural landscapes of Iowa’s farmlands, Valkyrie was awed. One day, when she wasn’t rushing toward some emergency or other, she would bring a camera up and take a few shots of the world below.
Even flying at top speed, the journey was several hours long. Valkyrie wanted to get it over with, so she did not make any stops along the way. Clocking in at just over 600 mph, it took Valkyrie around five hours to arrive just outside the Seattle city limits. She might have been faster than a plane, but even the majestic scenery couldn’t remove the tedium of a long flight.
With her superhuman sight, she saw Ghost on the rooftop well before he would have seen her. Banking right, Valkyrie decelerated and aimed for that building. Ghost caught sight of her just before she swooped in for a landing. Being out in farm country, it was strange to see new housing so tall; the landscape was all spaced-out houses and one-story strip malls.
“The lady still knows how to make an entrance,” Ghost said as the breeze of her landing buffeted him. He wore the silver and blue costume of his hero persona, but the face mask was off, hanging from his belt near one of his knives. The smile he offered was warm.
“It’s good to see you too, Simon. Any reason you’re six stories above ground rather than at our agreed upon meeting place?”
Ghost’s smile disappeared. “Yeah, I figured you’d see me before you got into the city. There’s been another incident. About a quarter mile from here.”
Judging by Ghost’s face, it was as bad as he described over the phone. Maybe worse.
A breeze picked up. Valkyrie’s golden hair whipped around her head, but stayed out of her face thanks to the steel circlet around her brow. But that was not the only effect the wind had. It started faint, but the longer the breeze carried the more Valkyrie could smell it—blood. She may have possessed superhuman senses, but there had to be plenty of it for the scent to carry like that.
Ghost noted Valkyrie’s shift in focus and nodded. He pulled the mask over his head. “Let’s go.”
The temperature in the immediate area dropped a few degrees as Simon Todd’s physical body de-solidified. True to his name, Ghost’s ethereal form floated into the air, thin, silvery wisps twisting in the breeze the only indication his new state of corporealization interacted with the environment.
Valkyrie followed as the apparition flowed across the rooftop and over the ledge. While Ghost possessed no real ability to fly, in this state he was able to glide to the street below without harm. When he had a sufficient head start, Valkyrie took to the air herself.
Their destination was apparent. Yellow police tape cordoned off the building in question. A number of vehicles were parked in the area, none had their lights flashing. The lack of ambulances or other emergency personnel confirmed at least part of Ghost’s story.
She landed beside him. They were about a hundred yards from the yellow tape or the nearest officer.
“This is as close as they’ll let us go,” Ghost said, confirming Valkyrie’s suspicion.
“We’re getting some resistance from law enforcement these days, as well.” Valkyrie spied a shadowed figure lurking between two houses across the street. The hooded figure seemed to notice them looking, but made no move so Valkyrie could see what was beneath the hoodie. “Friend of yours?” she asked with a sidelong glance.
Ghost followed her line of sight. “It’s OK, that’s Lynx.”
“Any reason he’s covered up so tight and skulking in the shadows?”
“Lynx has some,” he struggled to find the right word. At last, ”Difficulty fitting in, you might say.”
Valkyrie rolled her eyes, not a very dignified gesture. He had a way of getting under her skin. “You’ve a real way with words, Simon.”
“You know me,” Ghost replied. Another breeze blew down the street, distorting his ethereal form for a second. “Like to keep everybody guessing until the last second.” Ghost solidified and motioned for Valkyrie to follow.
“I’m sure that’s why you have so many friends,” Valkyrie said.
They crossed the street, gaining a few curious stares from passers-by. Valkyrie learned long ago to let the intrusive glances slide off her. It was a price you paid for transforming into the image of a warrior-woman of centuries past.
Ghost introduced Valkyrie to Lynx. She could now see what Ghost meant about the other hero. The hoodie concealed slitted, golden-yellow eyes and six-inch whiskers protruding from the young man’s cheeks. Even the bone structure of Lynx’s face bore feline resemblance, all that was missing was fur.
“Hey, boss.” Lynx gave Valkyrie a once over. Recognition dawned. “Hey! I know you. You’re that viking warrior-woman from the east coast. Valkyrie, right? Boss, you never said you knew one of the Guardians!”
Though Lynx’s enthusiasm was appreciated, it brought with it a twinge of. . . what did it make her feel? Valkyrie glanced at Ghost, but his mask covered any reaction. Had he not told his new team about his past? About his split from the Guardians?
Lynx started to extend a hand only to snatch it back before Valkyrie had a chance to attempt a shake. He shuffled his feet. “You’re a lot bigger in person.” He smiled as he said it, but realization could be seen dawning on his face in stages. “Uh, not that you’re big, ma’am. I mean, you’re large for—not to say that you’re large. You. . . "
Ghost’s hand dropped in Lynx’s shoulder. “Just give up, son. No way to win this battle.”
Lynx sputtered one more time and then dropped his gaze to his feet. Valkyrie was sure her own grin wasn’t helping matters. She decided to try to lighten the embarrassment.
“Well, that makes him smarter than you, Ghost. At least Lynx knows when keep his mouth closed.” It seemed to work. She caught a hint of a smile beneath the hoodie.
“All right,” Ghost said, brushing off the remark. “Down to business. What’s the situation? Anything changed?”
“Nothing,” Lynx replied, idly rubbing the back of his neck. “They still won’t let anyone near the place. Even the media is getting turned away. And it still smells pretty bad. I can’t be sure, but I’m picking up familiar scents.”
It was being handled just as Ghost had told Valkyrie previous incidents had. This time it was a smaller establishment—a chain drug and convenience store—but it was all playing out as before. Someone stumbled across the charnel house, blood everywhere, yet no bodies, and alerted the authorities. The area was sealed off and no one got in. Media hounds were turned away, Ghost and his fellow superpowered individuals were told to take a hike, casual gawkers were discouraged.
“So if they won’t let you in,” Valkyrie asked, “how exactly are we going to be getting any clue as to what we’re up against?”
Ghost tilted his head. From their time together as original members of the Guardians, Valkyrie knew he was smirking. “I’ve got a guy.”
Reaver shoved the final bin through Anchor’s portal. The orange cart bounced over the uneven stone floor, but came to rest alongside its fellows. As the giant stepped through the hole in reality the oval doorway began to shrink. In seconds the portal was sealed, no trace of having been a linkage point to a place hundreds of miles away.
“Where’s the Doc?” Hellion asked Anchor.
The group’s teleporter shrugged. “Same place he usual is, I’d wager. Good hunting?”
Hellion considered her. Anchor’s brown hair framed her face in a way he could get to like. If only she didn’t wear always that stupid handkerchief over her mouth, even when she wasn’t wearing the emotionless faceplate, he might get a better look at what lay underneath. She did have that glint in her eyes, that wicked sparkle which captured Hellion’s attention every time he looked into those chocolate orbs. However, it would be nice to know if the mouth behind the curtain belonged to a beauty or a dog before he tried stuffing anything anywhere.
“Some better than others,” Hellion replied. He picked a stray piece of meat from the razors set in his right vambrace and dropped it to the floor. “B seemed to have fun; Reaver sounds like he’s getting antsy. More surly than usual, anyway.” He shrugged. “You should come along some time. We could find a nice private spot and get down to business.”
Anchor’s gaze narrowed. Oh, yeah, Hellion thought, There’s that spark!
“Maybe some other time,” Anchor said, deadpanned.
Though he couldn’t be sure, Hellion detected a full on sneer behind the cloth. The only thing Hellion could see was her eyes, and they were not inviting. Not that a trivial thing like that mattered.
Her power allowed her to create portals between practically any two points, but she was unable to cross through them herself. The instant she tried, the gateway would snap shut, a kinetic blast hurling everything in a two meter radius in all directions. To make matters worse for anyone passing through one of her portals at that moment, the gateway would bisect any object caught between locations, leaving pieces on either side. The only the thing immune to being sliced into parts was, oddly enough, Anchor herself.
“Suit yourself.” Hellion turned on his heel and strode away. Over his shoulder he said, “Maybe you can give the boys a hand while I go check on old Sawbones. Make you feel like part of the team to get your hands dirty.”
He missed the gesture she leveled at his back as Hellion disappeared around a bend in the cavern.
As he stepped into the section of caves given over to the doctor’s workshop, the mad physician was elbow deep in a mass of body parts, sifting for just the right combination for his latest creation. Dr. Morton Powell, once known as one of the world’s top surgeons, was hard at work, perfecting his latest wonders.
Hellion watched with mild interest as the former surgeon held up a leg, knee to foot, and a loose ear. Sawbones, as the doctor had come to be known, pressed the latter to the back of the ravaged calf. The flesh and cartilage of the ear melted and ran over the doctor’s bare hand, oozing into place where a great rent of skin and muscle was missing from the limb. Sawbones held onto the newly repaired leg a moment longer and boney protrusions began to grow from the shin.
“Anomalous growth of fibrous tissues, hardened into calcified protrusions along anterior ridge. Yes, well done.” Sawbones tossed the leg over his shoulder, onto a lumpen mass of mismatched body parts. The mound stood almost as high as the man’s head. He continued to speak as if for an audience. “Internal structures weakened, but within tolerable limits. Stress fractures may be induced by thirty-percent less pressure. Further investigative measures will be taken.”
Sawbones selected two more pieces from the mound of corpses, murmuring to himself all the while.
Hellion cleared his throat, hoping to pull the mad doctor’s attention away from his work. Instead, the flesh-shaper limped away from the pile of body parts with his newest selections. Both his hump and the limp were intentionally affected by Sawbones. Though why the once-famed surgeon would wish to maim himself was anyone’s guess. He seemed to like them, anyway.
“Now watch carefully as I transect the pulmonary chamber and reconnect the damaged arteries. If you’re paying attention,” Sawbones’ head twisted almost fully around something resembling more a stalk than a neck. “Ah, a new student! Please, find a place in the amphitheater and enjoy the show. Be sure to take notes. Finals are in a few weeks.”
Hellion gripped the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. It was going to be one of those days. His digits pulled away sticky. A quick glance at his hands reminded him that he should have cleaned off at least some of the viscera and blood from his armor. The last time Hellion had come too close to Sawbones while still fresh from a murder spree, the crazy old fuck had tried to meld a hand to his forehead.
“All right, Doc. Just stay over there.” Rax Malcolm was a lot of things, but some insane loon’s science experiment was not one of those things. At least not again.
Sawbones blinked and clarity settled over the villain’s face. “Ah, yes. My apologies. One does get a trifle carried away when one is at work.” A gobbet of spittle began to drip from the side of Sawbones’ misshapen lip, but he wiped the disturbance away with a smooth, well-manicured hand. Another incongruous affectation.
Hellion waved away the apology. “We brought you a new load of parts. Town’s empty, too. How many more you need until everything is ready?”
“How many more, indeed.” A new line of drool formed on Sawbones’ face. Once more the mad surgeon was quick to wipe away the disruption, but his time, those oddly perfect hands remained on his jawline a second longer. When he removed them, the doctor’s crooked mouth had become a firm, square jaw.
Patience was waning. Hellion wanted to leap over to the Doc and fry the skin from the man’s skull, but that would severely impact his payday. Instead, he took a deep breath. On the plus side, at least it was Hellion himself who dealt with the marginally sane Sawbones; if things were left to Bloodhawk, Hellion’s partner would have long past tried to rip the surgeon to bits. Though whether or not Bloodhawk was crazy enough to eat any piece of Sawbones was something Hellion still hadn’t figured out.
Sawbones took a loping stride in Hellion’s direction. He was outside of arm’s length, but still too near for comfort. It took effort not to leap away at Sawbones’ swift approach.
“Ah,” Sawbones said as he manipulated the flesh of his face, forcing his eyeballs out of their sockets on six-inch stalks of fibrous tissue. The mad surgeon let his eyes range over Hellion’s armor. “Judging by your attire, the harvest was good. But to further answer your query—soon.” The eye-stalks retreated. “I need but a few more days and the Flesh-Kin shall be prepared.”
“Good, Doc. Good.” Hellion began backtracking. No way he was gonna turn his back on any of the people or things in these caverns. “Just let us know. We’re ready to start up the real fun.”