The Liberty Bell hadn’t moved, and yet they could all hear the chiming as if the sound was being directly beamed into their brains.
Sam could only hope that this might be the case or else their little stealth mission was over. It wasn’t likely, but he had learned to become hopeful this past month, although the brooding and self-deprecating man was surely still hidden beneath this new armor of optimism.
“We should hurry and get out of here, mates,” Jackboot suggested. “I don’t fancy getting tagged by a breaking-and-entering charge on my first week in the States.”
But no one had moved. Not even Jackboot. They were all too focused on the Liberty Bell which was now glowing with an otherworldly light and finally revealing its secret to them, a secret it had kept for over seventy years. The words engraved on its copper surface blazed with ghostly light and rearranged themselves into a new phrase.
Atop the spire lies a hint to Poseidon’s gift, in a city where winds are constantly adrift. The path is laid hidden in Achelous’ test, so let Aeolus guide you on this ancient quest.
“What does it mean?” Jackboot asked.
There was no answer to his question as they all seemed too busy thinking about it themselves. So Jackboot perused his grandfather’s journal, and apart from sketches of that might pertain to Poseidon — all of which seemed unconnected to the clue — he could find no answer.
But he was British and so he might not have noticed the most obvious hint in the clue that the other three, particularly Sam, had noticed already.
“A city constantly adrift... I think it means Chicago, doesn’t it?” Sam asked.
Thunder nodded wordlessly.
“Why do you think that?” Jackboot asked.
“Chicago’s nicknamed the windy city,” Sam answered.
“And there are many statues dedicated to the god of winds and his cardinals there too,” Thunder added.
“Let Aeolus guide you on this ancient quest...” Sam repeated. “You think it’s literal... that a statue of Aeolus will lead us to the clue?”
“X marks the spot doesn’t it,” Thunder replied wryly.
“And Achelous?” Sam asked. “What’s he got to do with it?”
A frown had appeared on Sam’s face as the name left his lips. It was a feeling he didn’t quite understand like a cold shiver along his spine almost akin to that sensation akin to someone stepping over his grave.
“That’s another clue that we really might be going to Chicago after all,” Thunder said.
“How so?” Jackboot asked.
“Achelous is a god of freshwater... and Lake Michigan is east of the city,” Thunder explained.
“Achelous...” Sam repeated. And once again, he felt that slight shiver in his spine.
I know what you’re thinking, kid, Chiron whispered into his mind. But your life isn’t so similar to your moniker’s namesake that you’re expected to pick a fight with all of his old adversaries... LOL.
Well, I guess that’s true, Sam thought. But then he remembered there was a second secret labor he was expected to complete, and he wondered if a fistfight with a god was exactly that.
Sam’s ruminations were disrupted by Farsight who had been uncharacteristically quiet this whole time.
“He’s coming,” she whispered in that otherworldly voice that still sent goosebumps rising up Sam’s arms.
Farsight had a blank expression on her face. The irises of her eyes had gone white, drifting left and right as if she were watching something only she could see.
“He’s coming,” she repeated.
Then her shoulders slackened. Color returned to her irises, and a frown appeared on her face.
“Jack, write that clue down quickly,” she instructed. “We need to go now!”
There was very little time for Jackboot to write this new riddle down on his grandfather’s journal as Farsight’s sudden warning was instantly followed up by another. It was the ringing of another bell, one whose sound they were all quite familiar with.
“Bollocks!” Jackboot hissed as his pen flew across the page. “I expect we’re about to have company, mates...”
It was Sam, however, who pointed out that the alarm wasn’t coming from the building they were in...
“—it’s coming from the front gate...” Thunder finished for him.
As she was still in his arms, he couldn’t help but notice that she’d started breathing heavily, almost like she’d just finished running a marathon.
“Still getting used to the energy we absorbed,” she admitted, wincing slightly as Sam helped her to her feet. Then she added in a whisper, “I’m guessing you managed okay?”
Sam nodded. “Our mutual friend helped me this time...”
“Then you get to deal with whatever’s coming... I’m tapped out,” she grinned.
“I know,” Sam said, grinning too. “You’ve done more than enough.”
“You two really lack any sense of urgency, you know,” Farsight chided them.
After she reopened the hole in the wall they’d enter through, Farsight led them hurriedly across the lawn and back into the main building with all thought of stealth gone from their minds. It was no longer a time for hiding as the screams were getting louder and louder the closer they got to Independence Hall’s front gate. And when they burst through that final door — with Jackboot in the lead — they found themselves witnesses to a sight Sam had seen only once before.
A vision of a hospital wing littered with the bodies of the dead flashed across Sam’s mind as his eyes took in the sight of that front gate and the dead bodies of the three security guards lying on the ground around the man whose hand was now wrapped around the neck of a fourth guard. Well, calling him a man might have been a stretch as there were very few men as tall or as large as this one. Nor any who looked so feral and monstrous.
His red-skinned chest was bare and seemed undisturbed by the chilly night air. It was, in Sam’s opinion, the only part of him that seemed human. He wore a lion’s head like a hood that only amplified the savagery showing in his face, a face that was disfigured by scars. The cape that was draped over his shoulders was made of lion’s fur similar to the baggy pants he wore. His feet were bare, but that was probably because no one made shoes in his size.
“Blessed Artemis,” Thunder breathed. “I know who that is...”
Of course she knew who it was. They all did. They’d seen this villain in the news enough times. Thunder had actually fought him off once back during her prime, and she’d only managed it because her cousin had been at her side.
“This is bad, right?” Sam asked.
No, kid... it’s worse, Chiron whispered into his brain.
Superion, America’s number one hero, was one of only four omega-level superpowers of the age, and yet even he had difficulty fighting this particular beta-level strong man whose prodigious physical strength was further enhanced by the ancient relic he wore.
Honestly, he looks more like Hercules’ spiritual successor than you do, Chiron chuckled.
“I never asked for the name,” Sam grumbled.
The villain turned his gaze on Sam then, and the icy glare he sent the hero would have made anyone else shiver in their boots. Thankfully, Chiron’s training helped to fortify Sam so that he could now manage his fear that it no longer showed on his face.
“Release that man, Apex!” Thunder shoved her way past Sam and Jackboot. “Or I’ll light your ass up with another lightning bolt.”
Her threats caused a grin to appear on the villain’s face.
“You couldn’t do that at your best,” he said in a low grumbling voice. “And you can’t do it now that you’ve gotten weak, Thunder...”
She bristled at his mocking tone, her hands balling into fists.
“I’ve got more than enough in me to—”
It was Sam’s turn to step between them.
“Why are you here?” he asked. Seriously, can’t we get more than just a few nights off from all the crazy bad guys trying to kill us?
However, instead of answering Sam’s question, Apex posed his own query. “Are you the one?”
The much larger man dropped the now unconscious guard as if he was done playing with his broken toy,
“The weakling pretender to my ancestor’s name...” Sam could hear the disdain in his voice. He could see the annoyance in his face and the hunger in his eyes. “The fool who thought he could ever live up to the legacy of Heracles...?”
Yes, that was the truth. Apex was the last of Hercules’ living descendants because he’d killed off the rest of his family — all one-hundred-and-eight of them including the most obscure of relatives — for he believed only he had the right to the Lion of Olympus’ legacy.
It was a well-known story, the fall of a great house and the heir of Hercules, the greatest of heroes, turned into one of the worst serial killers of all time. The True Crime documentary had been quite the smashed hit on Netfilms.
Sam’s brows furrowed. “You’re here for me...?”
There was a low, cold rumbling that differed vastly from the Trickster’s maniacal laughter but was also quite similar in how it raised one’s hackles.
“You’re not powerful enough to interest me, pretender...” His eyes, golden cat slits, searched their faces and saw the truth hidden in their expressions. “I’m here for that which you’ve uncovered, the path to the Golden Fleece...”