The next part of the journey was on foot. Fang Force trudged through the tall grass with myself in tow, and eventually passed through the hillside forest. The ground was soft and uneven; too dangerous for most to scale. Gods, even I was tempted to fly over it.
It must have been an hour since Red Fang last spoke. I breathed a sigh of relief when she broke the silence. “The entrance to Lord Nihilex’s lair is just over the next clearing,” she said.
“Let’s hope the fight’s not too easy,” I said. All bravado, of course.
“A single ray of light is all it takes to dispel darkness,” Yellow Fang said.
Pink Fang hummed. “And you have light to spare, don’t you, Glimmer Girl?”
Of that there was no doubt.
We descended into a gully and stopped at the base of a plateau. Why there? There was nothing remarkable about the rock surrounding us. Already I was on edge. It was the perfect staging ground for an ambush. Thank the gods Fang Force were there.
“So,” I asked, “where to now?”
When they said nothing I was concerned. That feeling only worsened when their uniforms evaporated, revealing the people underneath. Neither Lindsay or her cohorts were smiling; in fact they weren’t much of anything. They just stared into the middle distance, as though in a trance. I braced for the worst.
Fang Force collapsed to the ground like rag dolls. Then, crimson smoke came billowing from their mouths. The clouds drew together as one and formed the shape of a man. That man had bright red skin and wore a crisp, dark suit. He also had a name.
“The Red Wraith,” I seethed.
He smirked with the corners of his mouth curling wickedly like horns. What was he doing so far from Milestone City? Stranger was his appearance; by habit The Red Wraith struck from behind the scenes, or sent an underling to do his dirty work. Using Fang Force was a whole other story.
My gaze darted between him and the heroes on the ground. They were innocent victims, all. Some team-up this was shaping up to be.
“Mind control? I didn’t know you could do that.”
“Not so much the mind,” he explained. “The blood carries oxygen throughout the body, among other things. Breathe me in, and you’re mine.”
The thought turned my stomach. “You’re sick.”
Someone had to stop him. I readied to pounce, but The Red Wraith was prepared. In place of his Society of Sin the air opened behind him and a number of – I don’t know what else to call them – creatures emerged. They had the limbs of a human under their bandages, but moved like nothing else I’d ever known.
“Say hello to my freakling pets,” he grinned. “Do you like them? They’re a present from my new friend, Lord Nihilex.”
So there was a Lord Nihilex. “I guess I’ll have to kick their butts too!”
I flew at the things like a photon-propelled cannonball, ready to take them all at once. The first line braced themselves a moment too late, and after fighting in vain collapsed into dust. The second, unaffected by the impact, held their own. Third, fourth and fifth waves of freaklings were at their back, solidifying the monstrous wall.
I doubled back. These things were stronger than they looked. If I was going to handle them it would be one at a time. Blast after laser blast erupted from my hands, knocking them back and dusting them on a second or third hit; just enough to give the others time to swarm.
The ground was a lost cause, so I took to the air. Dozens of freaklings jumped and grabbed to no avail, always just out of reach. I unleashed blast after the next, taking them out like fish in a barrel.
By the time I saw the giant hand descending it was too late. The smoking red palm came down with full force, smacking my body to the ground so hard that I felt it in holographic form. Surprise attacks were always the death of me.
I pried myself to my knees just in time for it to come down again, and again, and again. When it let up the freaklings rolled on like a tidal wave of blows. That was the last thing I remembered before everything went dark.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. That was the first thought when I woke to the wrenching pain in my arms. The next was escape, and the futility of fighting the restraints. It was a scenario that haunted my nightmares – a bad history burned into memory – and it was back.
I closed my eyes, slowed my breathing, and counted in gentle rhythm; three in, three out. Dr. Vortex is gone, I told myself; lost somewhere in the cosmos, where he could never hurt me again. On one level I was sure of it, but on another…
A voice whispered in the dark. “Glimmer Girl? Is that you?” Lindsay, the Red Fang; whether she was friend or foe was yet to be seen.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “The Red Wraith’s control was more than we could resist. We were awake for all of it, but he was calling the shots.”
Ally or not, she was a distraction from the all-too-familiar predicament. Thank the gods for that. I shook my head.
“The Red Wraith is ruthless,” I said. “It’d be unfair of me to blame you for this mess.”
“Well, we’re going to get you out of it,” she said. “Guys?”
“Still working,” someone said; I think Green Fang.
“Almost enough to break free,” said another. Him I didn’t know.
The room was darker than anything I could imagine, as though the absence of light could reach below zero. Our voices reverberated through an open chamber, offering danger any number of corners to hide. Meanwhile the air was musty with a hint of rot; not the most conducive to settling a panic episode.
I snapped to attention.
“Everything will be alright,” Lindsay said. Gods help me, she was so sure of herself that I almost believed her. Never mind that she’d lured me into a trap.
“Th-thanks,” I stammered.
“Ah, she’s awake!” The Red Wraith’s voice melted the fear in my veins into fury. It was easy to overcome with someone to blame.
There was someone else with him, or several someones. One strode into the chamber in short steps heavy with pride and position. By his side were bare feet shuffling. Something about them rattled my nerves; not the sound of them, but their presence. It chilled the air and prickled inside my stomach.
It was him, wasn’t it? It had to be him.
“Lord Nihilex,” I gasped.
The presence meandered to my shackles and lingered like a bad smell. Even its breath was cold, and was heavy with something sickly sweet. A shiver ran down my spine. Gods, it was like someone breakdancing on my grave.
“So you’re the ‘Glimmering Girl’ I’ve heard so much about.” His voice was a rich growl, heavy with importance.
Lindsay snapped. “Touch one hair on her head, and I swear you’ll pay!”
“Shush, you,” The Red Wraith said. “Now, according to the roughly scrawled specifications left by the late Dr. Theodore Fellows, the foreign element bonded to our subject will stabilize a portal to any theoretical dimension, including your Abyssal Realm.”
‘Abyssal Realm?’ Fang Force didn’t like the sound of that, and neither did I.
“There’s nothing ‘theoretical’ about it,” Lord Nihilex growled. “If what you say is true, then this world will soon be blanketed in darkness and overrun creatures born from nightmares, with me as its ruler!”
“Sounds fun,” The Red Wraith said.
“‘Fun’,” I spat. “Even if it means giving everything over to this… this-”
“This evil despot,” he finished. “No offense meant, Lord Nihilex.” The Red Wraith stroked my hair. I pulled away. “You know the sort of person I am, Glimmer Girl. Not only am I a being of pure indulgence, I’m also an enabler. Who am I to discriminate against an ambition so grand?”
“Even if that ambition is evil incarnate?” Lindsay asked from the wall.
The Red Wraith was resolute. “Yes.”
“At the cost of the world?” she pressed.
The villain huffed. “No matter its shape, I find a way to survive. That’s my nature.”
“Your banter does not amuse me!” Lord Nihilex bellowed. “Wiseman, prepare the entrance to the Abyssal Realm. Red Wraith; know now that I do not suffer disappointment. If you can’t deliver exactly as you promised-”
“I will,” he said.
“Then we begin,” the conqueror commanded.
The machine hummed to life, rings grinding as they turned, and ached as they pulled energy from me. My atoms jumped in hot agony, unable to resist the attracting forces drawing from my limbs. It was Dr. Vortex all over again, only the stakes were much higher.
Golden light cast into the space, revealing my environment. Lindsay pleaded with me from the corner to resist. She was chained to the ground with her hands behind her back, along with the rest of Fang Force. The Red Wraith hung over the console, busy making sense of the machine.
Last of all was Lord Nihilex; a devil if ever I saw one. The squat conqueror stared with a single eye. Even as I burned, I was aware of his mind crawling into the corners of my soul, twisting and corrupting by virtue of being in the same place. With one glance I was changed, and the horrors native to my heart plunged deeper than before.
Something snapped at my back. I screamed. Everything was different; wrong. When Dr. Vortex stepped into the multiverse, it was at a human cost. What Lord Nihilex sought was cold and devoid of wonder. The sensation was the death knell of hope on a conceptual level.
I was beside myself when two of the vampires broke free, and whipped around to unshackle the others. Lindsay flew into action. She whipped a phone from her pocket, and so did her comrades. They called out in chorus, “Soul Awaken!”
What were they doing?
I watched, rapt with pain and fascination, as clouds spiraled around them, replacing their everyday clothing with tights, vests, helmets and capes. The five took on the sigil of the bat, wolf, beetle, spider and mountain lion, elevating them to their heights of their power!
“We don’t need another introduction,” Red Fang said, and launched over Lord Nihilex’s head.
They moved like a well-oiled machine, knowing where to strike and when. Blue Fang and Yellow Fang split from the group, lashing out at the Red Wraith. Even when the villain turned into a plume of smoke they were at an advantage; the further they drove him from the console, the better.
From high and low, Pink Fang and Green Fang charged at Lord Nihilex with blows that left him stumbling. Their luck wouldn’t last, however, as the monster redoubled his stance and returned with blows of his own. The two guardians danced around him; it wasn’t a battle they hoped to win. All they needed was time.
Red Fang sprinted up to the machine and considered it. She winced at my expression. No words could convey how it felt to have your insides ripped from you on the atomic level. Red Fang braced herself and bore her claws.
“This might sting a bit,” she said. Yeah, real funny.
With a slash she tore through the shifting rings and the shackle binding my hand. The circuit was broken, and with it the device drawing life from me. What relief! But there was no time to relax; not with all hell breaking loose.
A specter flew across the room, taking Red Fang down with it. Her attacker looked like the grim reaper, little more than a skeleton draped in rags. I lunged for him, but they were out of my reach. The other shackles were still fastened tight.
The cloaked figure rasped. “You must not be allowed to interfere!”
Red Fang struggled to hold him back. He had a lot of strength for someone so scrawny, and there was nothing I could do to help; except hit him with a sucker-blast to the back. The old man went down like a sack of bricks, and Lindsay was free. It was a small win, but I’d take it.
“Let’s get you out of here.” Red Fang set to work on the other shackles, but by then it was too late.
In the space of seconds the world turned. Buttons on the control panel flashed in alarm; usually a good sign, until a great yawning pulled at my body. Red Fang reeled at the sight of a thing to emerge from the darkness. I saw nothing in the reflection of her visor; not even my own petrified expression.
The cries of the others became distant.
They moved farther and farther as we fell into the void.
To be continued…