The fact he knew about their purpose here boded ill tidings for the team. For it meant their quest wasn’t as secret as Farsight had hoped, and that there were other interested parties searching for the Ram’s Blessing.
“How do you—”
“We have known of the fleece for quite some time,” Apex stated matter-of-factly. “Although the secret to finding it had only recently been uncovered...”
“That’s impossible... there’s no other record of the clue’s existence except for the one we know about,” Jackboot insisted.
But what if there were? Sam thought.
That was the only conclusion he could draw from Apex’s words — and if there wasn’t then... Sam glanced sideways at his companions.
No, there are no spies in this group, he reasoned. There’s no motive...
And he was right to think that. Thunder wasn’t likely to sabotage the very quest meant to save her. Farsight wasn’t likely to be in league with the villains who murdered her sisters. As for Jackboot, sure they just met him, but he didn’t even know about the Golden Fleece until Sam brought it up. Plus, he and Sam now had a genuine [BOND], and that had to count for something.
No, I can trust these people, Sam reaffirmed in his mind. Instead, Sam concluded that Apex was working for, “Chimera... you’re with them, aren’t you?”
Surprise flitted across Apex’s face. It was quickly replaced by cold calculation, however, when he replied with, “The bastard Trickster always was too loose with his tongue...”
Not that this secret had come from the Trickster’s lips but Sam wasn’t about to admit that. It was enough that they now had a face to put up next to this clandestine organization.
“How did your organization of evildoers learn about the Liberty Bell?” Farsight asked curiously. “It obviously hadn’t come from any of us. We’re all allergic to nefarious deeds.”
Sam couldn’t help but smile as she had voiced his thoughts better than he could have. It was the master’s twelfth lesson; Trust in yourself, kid, and in those fools you choose to surround yourself with until the moment that they prove unworthy of your faith in them.
“That is for me to know and for you to discover should you survive this night...” He stepped forward, his foot causing cracks to appear in the ground, and bared fanged teeth at them. “Now comes the test for you heroes. Show me you’re a fit to survive.”
There was a ‘snikt’ that accompanied the claws that popped out of the tips of his fingers, and then Apex pounced on them like a lion about to gut a herd of sheep. Unfortunately for him, these sheep had fangs of their own, and so they stepped forward to meet his charge.
“Herculean!” Sam screamed.
|[Herculean (Δ)] is now active. Based on probability and threat assessment calculations, your current strength is temporarily quadrupled .|
It was quite the indicator that even the system recognized Apex was such a threat that it was willing to give Sam the very rare quadruple boost of power.
|WARNING! Your body is still learning to adapt to this power. You will accumulate damage while it is active.|
You’re not a match for his strength, kid, Chiron warned. Try for lesson number thirty-seven instead.
“I know,” Sam said through gritted teeth. “Use my opponent’s momentum against him...”
Barely a moment had passed when both combatants reached the other, but just as Apex launched a clawed hand at Sam — one intended to skewer him in the throat — he ducked out of its way. Then Sam zipped underneath Apex’s thick arm and hooked his own arms around the bigger man’s trunk-like legs.
“...and catch him off balance,” Sam recited.
With an almighty heave, he swept Apex’s legs to the right in what was basically a super-powered double leg takedown.
It was a perfect execution that was instantly reversed by one who obviously had more experience in cage fights than Sam did. Apex broke Sam’s lock by shifting his legs back at the last second. Then he forced his massive bulk down on Sam’s back, pushing them both down into a sprawl that gave the villain the advantage.
“Styx!” Sam hissed.
He felt himself get lifted by his waist, up past Apex’s head, and left hanging there in the air in what Sam quickly realized was the setup for a suplex powerbomb.
Get out of there, kid! Chiron warned.
That was easier said than done as Apex’s arms were as hard as steel and twice as strong. Luckily, he wasn’t fighting alone.
“For liberty!” Jackboot yelled as he jumped into view.
Sam felt himself get shoved forward like a rag doll, his body turned into a shield against his friend’s attack. There was pain where Jackboot’s white boot struck his spine. It was quickly replaced by the pain of their bodies colliding with each other in midair. Then Sam and Jackboot were hurtling away from Apex. They crashed into the ground in a messy heap moments later.
“Yow...” Sam gasped. It was a feeling Jackboot mirrored with, “Bloody hell...”
Despite the haze brought about by the crash, he could hear Farsight’s comment of, “Idiots,” as she passed them by.
Get up, lame-brain, the master urged. Don’t let the ladies show you up!
And Sam got up on shaky legs, his head still swimming.
|ALERT! Please wait while [Regeneration (ζ)] works to heal your head trauma.|
No can do, Sam thought. I’d rather not give Farsight more reasons to tease me...
The teenage hero was doing remarkably well against the villain despite how much bigger and nastier Apex was. She dodged every single one of his claw swipes — twirling around him like a ballerina dancing alone on a stage — while firing arrows at him from very close range.
Sadly, very few of her arrows stuck. Only the one or two that managed to nail him in the leg or arm. The rest had been soundly repelled by his lion fur cape. As it should, for this was one of Hercules’ relics which like his bow carried powers that would make even the gods envious. It was the Raiment of the Nemean Lion, named for the horror whose skin was said to be impervious to attacks. The monster was the first of Hercules’ twelve labors and its fur would become his prize. Now the helmet and cape protected Apex, making him seem invincible — to fists and kicks and arrows at least — but perhaps not against the elements.
“Hold on to something,” Thunder warned.
Sam felt it in the air, that jolt of electricity that came whenever Thunder called down a lightning bolt.
“Styx...” He sent his gaze up at the same time as a bright blue glow tore open the sky above. “This is going to hurt...”
There was that familiar scene of the world going white and then Sam felt the power of the lightning bolt as it smacked into the earth with a thundering boom.
The shockwave from the blast threatened to blow Sam off his feet, but he managed to plant himself on the ground as he had rightly expected this area-of-effect attack. And when the dust had settled moments later, Sam couldn’t believe his eyes.
Apex had been obliterated. There was not a single bit of him that could be found save for the white puddle on the ground which was a stark contrast from the scorched earth it lay on.
“Sam,” Thunder called weakly.
Despite his confusion at this abrupt ending, Sam made it quickly to Thunder’s side as her knees gave way and he caught her before she could fall to the floor. He searched her face and noticed how pale she’d become with just that single attack. Sweat dripped down her forehead.
“You did it,” he said in a bewildered tone. “You nuked him into kingdom come.”
“No,” Thunder whispered. “The real Apex wouldn’t have died so quickly...”
“What do you—”
“It’s candle wax,” Farsight called.
She was kneeling by the white puddle with her fingers dipped into it. Jackboot stood cautiously over her as if he were expecting Apex to spring to life once again.
A cloud of steam wafted out of the portion of white puddle Farsight touched.
“We were fighting a copy,” she reported.
“How could a fake be so powerful or feel so real?” Jackboot asked with a furrowed brow. “Even his cape seemed sturdy enough to be the real thing...”
“There’s a villain... called the Candlemaker...” Thunder said in a voice that was nearly a whisper. “He can make copies of others using candle wax... copies wielding a fraction of the original’s power...”
“Explains how hard he hit,” Jackboot replied. “But not the cape—”
Whatever he was about to say was lost in the sound of an alarm suddenly coming to life, an alarm Sam thought originated somewhere else in the building.
“You don’t think...” he began, and Thunder finished the thought with, “This copy was a distraction... they’re after the Liberty Bell...”