“95... 96...” Sam huffed.
His arms strained against the weight of the Argo VII’s backend.
“97... 98...” he puffed.
With his fingers grasping tightly onto the rear bumper, Sam dropped and then re-raised the school bus until its backside was higher than his head. This was the final exercise of the latest version of his daily missions [EXPLOSIVE TRAINING MENU #3]. Unlike #1 which focused on his entire body’s growth and #2 which concentrated on weapons training, #3 was geared solely toward increasing Sam’s physical strength and allowing him to make better use of his, in Chiron’s words, “Cheat of a power.”
Sam couldn’t disagree with that assessment as ‘Herculean’ made it possible for him to bridge the wide divide between levels, a feat that very few other low-level heroes have ever managed to do.
“99... 100...” he gasped.
Breathless, Sam let the Argo VII go and its backend fell on the grassy floor with a loud thud.
“Hey!” Farsight yelled. “Stop manhandling my baby, you dumb jock!”
“I’m not a jock...” Sam reasoned.
Like most of the young gifted, Sam could never play sports in school as having powers automatically disqualified one from joining official teams.
|CONGRATULATIONS! You have completed daily mission [EXPLOSIVE TRAINING MENU #3]|
|Rewards: Permanent +2 increase to Strength.|
Not bad, kid, Chiron praised him. Your time’s a lot faster than yesterday.
“Starting to get the hang of it,” Sam replied.
“We’ve noticed,” Thunder said as she passed him a towel. “Do you think the training will help you even the odds against Apex?”
“I hope so...” Sam used the towel to wipe the sweat from his brow. “We’re bound to face him again after what happened at Independence Hall...”
Sam could still recall it in his mind’s eye, the sight of the Liberty Bell mangled into a messy heap by someone strong enough to crush it. He remembered feeling a great deal of sadness at seeing such an important symbol of liberty broken like that. It was as if Apex had left it there as a promise for Sam and his friends that their fate would be the same.
It had also been clear that the enemy now knew the same secret they did and that the destruction of the Liberty Bell was meant to keep others from finding the all-important clue. Luckily, Farsight had the foresight to have Jackboot write it all down, not that any of them could have forgotten the otherworldly words engraved on the bell’s surface.
“Sam...?” Thunder called him back into the here and now. “Lost in your head again?”
“Sorry,” Sam smiled sheepishly. Then his gaze drifted from Thunder to the signpost a little way ahead from where they’d parked the Argo VII on the shoulder of the freeway. “I hope we guessed right...”
WELCOME TO ILLINOIS, THE LAND OF LINCOLN.
“All clues did lead to the windy city,” Thunder reasoned, although her brow furrowed just like Sam’s did. “So let’s hope...”
Much, much later, Farsight parked the Argo VII in the tight parking space opposite 806 North Michigan Avenue, the location of one of Chicago’s most famous landmarks; the Chicago Water Tower.
Sam was looking at its lone spire from the window by his seat. “Um, are we really sure this is the place?”
The light of the late afternoon sun bounced off the turquoise tiles at the top of the tower, sending a myriad of shimmering blue rays down onto the ground. It was an ocular effect that made it seem like sea waves were crashing against the building’s lowest walls.
“Atop the spire lies a hint to Poseidon’s gift,” Jackboot recited. “Feels like this is the place, mate... It’s old enough, built in 1869 if I’m not mistaken...”
“Also, according to the Flint Consolidated Satellites Crow-Man lets us use,” Farsight tapped on the tablet in her hand, “there are four statues of Aeolus in the city, and all of them have their hands up with fingers pointed in this general direction.”
“So let Aeolus guide you on this ancient quest,” Jackboot recited. “Yep, seems more and more likely that we’ve come to the right place... So, shall we?”
With baggy civilian clothes hiding the suits they had underneath, the crew of the Argo VII made their way to the small park where the tower stood.
Built in the castellated Gothic Revival style that gave it a very ‘fairy tale’ vibe, the tower and building at its base were made from yellow limestone, a very popular material used for monuments dedicated to the gods. The bell-shaped roof was a good fifty-five meters up and made with turquoise tiles that were said to be a favorite of the priestesses of Poseidon.
“There’s a crowd here,” Sam noted, his brow furrowing. “Why’s there a crowd here?”
A long line snaked from the building’s entrance and slithered all the way to the other end of the street.
“The interior houses an art gallery that’s currently showing a Superion greatest hits exhibit... photographs were taken by that popular photo-journalist, Christina Pratt,” Farsight explained. “I hear it’s very popular...”
“We could have used that information earlier, Ash,” Sam sighed. “How are we going to look for clues with this many people around?”
“Easy,” Farsight pushed past her friends to take the lead, “you have me.”
Getting past the line was easy enough for the seer who led the way with an air of authority that forced would-be complaints to get stuck in the civilians’ throats. Even the guard at the entrance let them through without tickets after Farsight had shown him a very official-looking Warden badge.
“Where did you get that?” Jackboot asked.
“Fabricated it in the Argo VII’s 3D printer,” she replied. “My spidey sense said we would need it.”
“So it’s a fake,” Thunder smiled.
“A very convincing fake,” Farsight smiled back. “We have the very best toys.”
After finding their way into the lower building, the team abandoned the gallery almost immediately as it was too full of people exploring the exhibit of photos dedicated to the world’s greatest hero, a hero that Sam admired a lot. In fact, if Thunder hadn’t dragged him away, Sam would have wanted to walk around the exhibit himself.
“What’s he like?” Sam asked as they shuffled into the elevator Farsight kept open for them.
“Who?” Thunder asked.
“Your cousin,” Sam replied. “Who else?”
“A lot more down to earth than most people think... A good man, bit of a klutz, and the corniest joker on the planet,” she answered. “He’s also everything we all think he is... a symbol we all aspire to be.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the music that began to play as the elevator made its way up to the top floors of the tower; The Rubberband Man by The Spinners.
“So... what can we expect at the top?” Jackboot asked. “I seem to recall there being a pumping station here or something...”
“No, that was the original Water Tower, but it’s been renovated since then to be both an art gallery at the bottom and a shrine to the Olympian gods associated with water at the top,” Farsight explained.
“It must be a rather small shrine then... That top floor didn’t look very large from the outside,” Jackboot reasoned.
The music stopped. A bell chimed.
“We’re about to find out,” Farsight said.
The elevator doors opened to total darkness almost as if there was nothing beyond them but an empty stretch of space that went on forever. It was a sight that caused a shiver to rise up Sam’s spine as his mind began to recall that time when he was lost within the darkness of the giant’s shadow.
“Magic?” Jackboot asked, earning him an eye roll from Farsight who countered with, “This was definitely not in the brochure...”
It was Thunder who stepped into the void first, which was when she suddenly vanished from their sights even though they could still hear her voice and her exclamation of, “Oh!”
Sam jumped forward without a second thought. He crossed into the void — feeling that icy cold touch graze his skin, almost like he’d jumped into a pool — and onto the other side of it, and then found himself staring up at water.
“Oh...” he said.
It was like they’d fallen from the top of the Chicago Water Tower and into a circular glass dome surrounded by the bluest of watery depths. While the ceiling was all glass, the floor was polished stone. Fish swam overhead, their own gazes momentarily catching Sam’s eyes as they floated past the dome.
“There’s an aquarium at the top of the tower?” Jackboot asked after he too had stepped past the void. “Definitely magic...”
“No, we’re clearly somewhere else... and underneath a large body of water,” Farsight countered as she too made her way into the dome. “Possibly Lake Michigan...”
“Teleportation is magic,” Jackboot reasoned.
“There are so many realistic ways to explain teleportation and your go-to is magic?” Farsight sighed.
This discussion prompted Sam and Thunder to sigh too. “Guys...” they both said together. “Shut up for a second,” Thunder finished for them both.
She was standing closest to the bronze statue at the center of the glass dome that Sam was surprised to have noticed only now as the thing dominated the surrounding space.
He had the head of a man, but with bull horns sticking out of the sides with the left horn broken around the base. His body was muscular in the way of a bodybuilder up to the torso, while the lower half was a scaly coiling tail with fins at its ends.
Sam was staring up at the statue’s face — the obvious anger displayed in the curling of the lip and in the flaring of the nostrils — when he noticed that the eyes — twin irises of the brightest bronze — were staring back at him.
“Um, guys,” Sam grabbed onto Thunder’s arm and dragged her back toward him, “I think it’s alive...”
As if in answer to his words, the bronze statue did come to life then. It uncoiled itself from the ground with a series of clicking and banging noises much like that of an old machine turning on. Then, after raising itself to its full height, a hollow voice escaped the statue’s lips, “To you who has discovered this sacred place, a trial of wit and nerve you must now face.”