Ichabod was surrounded by the things when he heard the air explode. There was no time to dwell on it, however, as the creatures pressed in en masse. The mismatched collections of monstrous humanity reached for him with talons, tentacles, fingers, and stubs. Without hesitation, Ichabod flourished the hellblade and struck.
The first horizontal slash cleared the area immediately in front of him, a twist at the hips and a diagonal slash dismembered a host of reaching limbs on his left. Ichabod spun on his heel and flung out his open left hand, a gout of hellfire blossomed to life over the creatures on his right, the ravenous, crimson-hued flames making short work of the monsters there. The things twitched as they burned, mouths agape yet emitting neither agony nor rage. A stench of cooking human meat engulfed him, but the horseman was unmoved. His supernatural perceptions told him these things were not alive, at least not in the traditional sense. The soul energy of truly living beings was absent.
No need to hold back.
Fury borne not of this plane energized Ichabod as a fresh set of flesh golems filled the gaping holes around him. The hellblade burst to life with crimson and black demonic flame. Power built, the strange dichotomy of man and demon accumulating arcane might the equivalent of a small nuclear weapon.
The twisted amalgamations of flesh, skin, and bone lurched toward Ichabod. Gaping mouths, some drooling a sticky white paste, opened in silent moans, intent on clamping misshapen jaws around anything they could fit within. There was no sense of tactical maneuvers, they just came on and on.
When Ichabod released the pent up energies, the New York streets blazed crimson. The intersection was engulfed in a raging hellfire, a demonic inferno only held in check by Ichabod’s will. It took a strong focus to prevent the fires from setting the nearby buildings ablaze. Even then, the brick and mortar around the intersection would bare blackened scorch marks for years. The flesh-creatures caught within writhed and twisted as hellfire melted their inhuman forms. A black cloud, reeking of burning flesh, billowed into the city’s skyline, mixing with the ever-present gloom of urban pollution. Ichabod kept the flames enkindled until the last of the monsters caught in his wrath dropped to the now-warped and bubbling asphalt.
The veritable horde assailing Ichabod was vanquished. Bits of charred flesh twitched and jerked on the ground. Gunfire cracked over the wind, indicating to the horseman the larger battle was far from concluded. Doubtless, the other Guardians were engaged in the fighting by now.
Ichabod turned toward the closest sounds of conflict. With a flash of hellfire and a mental command, his terrifying, demonic steed materialized. With a single leap, Ichabod was mounted and prepared to charge into the thick once more.
Before he could join any of the others, a flash of light gave way to a glowing oval the size of a moving truck in front of him. The glare diminished and Ichabod saw through a hole in reality, a portal to another place, out of which another small army of flesh creatures lumbered forth. Just before the last monster stepped through the gateway, he spied the silhouette of a woman on the other side.
The hole shut, leaving fifty flesh-warped monsters to stand against the horseman.
Ichabod flexed his gloved fingers around the handle of his blade and spurred his war charger.
Gray shadows gave way to day’s light. Shockwave levered himself up and glanced around. No sign of Bloodhawk. His enemy must have been thrown just as far.
His ribs complained as he rose to his feet; the left knee twinged and almost buckled when he put weight on it. Aside from what would surely develop into a massive bruise on his left shoulder, those were the extent of Shockwave’s injuries. He counted himself lucky. So far.
The battle was still raging in the city streets. Police officers were using their cruisers as barriers, taking measured yet ineffectual shots at the lumbering horde of creatures bearing down on them. Though the officers could probably have used his aid, his top priority had to be finding Bloodhawk. That killer would be the greatest threat, even with the flesh golems outnumbering the cops two-to-one. The creatures were slow and lacking in tactical acumen, and those facts alone were enough to rate them lower on the threat meter than a superpowered cannibal with a sonic cry, claws, and the ability to fly.
“All right, you bastard.” Shockwave subconsciously touched the left side of his mask. “Time to bring you down.”
Valkyrie was in luck, the winds were calm. It had made the return trip faster. Maybe Shockwave wouldn’t be such a hard-ass when she got in earlier than expected. One could hope.
By the landscape rolling by below, all swamp and landfill, she reckoned she was flying over New Jersey. New York should be in view any moment. Not quite a minute later and her enhanced sight picked out the city’s iconic skyline.
Something was wrong. The structures were the same, it wasn’t that. But something. . . there! Smoke wafting into the air around midtown. Definitely worth checking out, especially considering the things that had been going on recently. Shockwave would just have to wait a bit longer; even if he was in a bad mood, Shockwave would approve of an action that placed the safety of the people at the forefront.
Valkyrie changed her flight path, arrowing for Manhattan rather than Queens. “Hopefully it’s nothing,” she mused. And it would only take a few moments to check out. If it wasn’t anything serious. Hopefully.
In the back of her mind she realized she was using that word way too often of late.
Ichabod cut through a swath of the monsters with ease. As tough as they seemed to be, even the small horde could not withstand the full fury of the horseman’s charge. Left and right the hellblade slashed, severing limbs and heads, sometimes three or four times as many as there should have been per creature. Between Ichabod’s swordsmanship and the force of his steed, there was little more than twitching piles left in the Guardian’s wake.
A group of frightened New Yorkers were huddling behind a taxi ahead of him. The yellow cab had three of its four doors thrown open, blood stains dripping down the outer panels as the engine continued to idle.
"Go,” Ichabod commanded.
The people remained, cowering. A dozen feet in front of him another portal opened and another handful of the flesh creatures staggered onto the streets of the city. Ichabod wheeled his mount, preparing to run down this group like the others.
This time those clinging to their poor shelter ran. Ichabod heard their footfalls slap in a furious rush against the pavement. If they had half a brain among the lot of them, they would race toward the police lines and their relative safety.
A second portal opened to his left. Another group of the creatures lumbered out of the rift even as the first set closed the distance. Behind this group, lurking in the background of a cave, Ichabod could clearly see a brown-haired woman clad in red and gray leathers this time. A mask covered her face, but Ichabod got the impression she was staring at him.
She had to be the teleporter.
When a third portal opened on his right, he was ready. He leveled the hellblade at the opening, sword tip aiming for the place he believed the woman would be. With a thought, a stream of hellfire erupted from the point of the blade, blasting through a pair of the flesh creatures that had gotten in the way.
Ichabod heard a yelp and the portal snapped shut. Several of the creatures had not fully passed through the gateway, and the consequence was grim. Those that had fully passed were thrown aside with an explosion of energy, while those monsters partially within the rift’s borders were either sucked back in or thrown outward. Ichabod had suspected those caught would have been bisected, but this would have to do.
Bodies careened into one another, creating a confused jumble of all the groups. Though the flesh creatures had taken damage from the blast, they were rising as if injury was a minor inconvenience, and pain not a concern at all.
The teleporter was not likely to send another group against him for some time. It would just be him and the small army of golem-like creatures.
If Ichabod had a face, he would have grinned.
The closer she drew to the city, the more Valkyrie knew this was no small event taking place. Sirens lifted above the usual din of New York. Normally, that wasn’t all that out of the ordinary, but the amount she was hearing now was cause for concern. Not only that, but they were coming from multiple directions at once. And there was gunfire.
“Sorry, Shockwave. I’ll be longer than I said I would.”
Her first instinct was to think of some sort of terrorist attack. Ever since 9/11, the City The Never Sleeps was also the City That Remained On Alert. The smoke coupled with the sirens read explosion; Valkyrie thought of the blasts in Queens of last week. A smattering of groups laid claim to that incident, yet as far as she knew, the Queens explosions was not linked to any terror group.
She decided to bank around midtown a few times, get an overhead view of the situation before diving in to aid where she could. What she saw was something she would never have predicted. An area encompassing six city blocks had been cordoned off by police barricades outside of Grand Central Station. She could hear the gunfire and see the flashes of discharge as weapons were fired into things. SWAT units were joining the war zone.
From her height, Valkyrie couldn’t tell what the mass of creatures were. They looked humanoid, but the gaits, the limbs, the very forms wandering around the city were wrong. Very wrong. The only thing she knew for sure was that these creatures were the source of the danger. Watching a crowd of those monsters surround and overrun a blockade of officers only confirmed her thoughts.
She had made the decision to fly down and aid those beleaguered policemen when her ears picked out a pair of sounds which preceded an explosion of air. One sounded like a scream, but amplified to inhuman levels, the other reminiscent of Shockwave’s vibratory powers. Valkyrie looked to the street running parallel to the one with the officers. Her extra-human sight picked out Shockwave’s form as the man lay on his back.
Below, the policemen managed to fight their way free of the creatures and were pulling their wounded from the scrum. The creatures came on, heedless of the amount of lead flung their way. At least the officers were out of immediate danger.
“What the hell is going on?” Valkyrie banked again, taking in more of the battle waged on the streets. There seemed no end to where her strength and abilities were needed.
A flash of crimson flared at an intersection she had just flown over. Now I know where Ichabod is. But where is the rest of the team?
Valkyrie was just about to pick the next spot where those creatures threatened people to land, when she caught the telltale flashes of Pulse’s bolts. The young hero was standing firm, giving his target both barrels to no effect. Pulse’s foe advanced as if he did not feel the blasts. Then she noticed the size of Pulse’s foe, the familiar armor, and the axes.
No wonder Pulse was having trouble. Even at his strongest, Pulse’s abilities were painful for Valkyrie herself to handle, but nothing that would incapacitate her readily. Reaver was in a class equal to Valkyrie’s own.
The situation looked even more grim when she noticed Sludge at Pulse’s side, lobbing gobs of his ooze at Reaver as the killer bore down on the pair of Guardians. It was hardly slowing the supervillain. Several dozen of those creatures were closing in around the Guardians, as well.
Valkyrie banked hard. She knew where she needed to be. Courage and determination would only go so far for her teammates.
Reaver covered the remaining distance between himself and the Guardians with a pair of long strides. The giant’s twin axes glittered in the evening’s light. When they fell, Sludge’s ooze-coated body went flying.
“No!” the cry tore from her throat. Her heart seemed to freeze up.
She began her dive.
Below, Reaver kicked out and Pulse flew into the thick of creatures.
Valkyrie squared her body, leading with her spear and shoulder as she aimed for Reaver’s heart.
To Valkyrie’s further horror, Vector came racing out of a crowd of the creatures. “Pulse!” she heard the girl scream before Vector used her speed in attempt to free Pulse from the clutches of the monsters.
Reaver swung out and slammed the flat of an axe into Vector’s path. The girl’s limp body rebounded into the scrum.
Valkyrie felt her anger solidify. A dark pit formed in her chest and expanded. She pushed herself, both fearful for the lives of the two young Guardians and furious at the monster who had harmed them. And Sludge, was he even alive?
At the last second, Reaver noticed the rage-fueled warrior-woman coming at him like a vengeful comet and braced. The impact sounded akin to the cracking of a mountain. The street could not handle the stress and caved; the two titans were driven into the man-made ground as a shallow impact crater formed.
“You,” Reaver growled, red eyes narrowed. Massive hands flexed around axe handles. Those enchanted weapons would have been difficult for a regular human to lift, in Reaver’s hands they were like hatchets.
Valkyrie gripped her spear in numb hands. It was difficult to master her fury, she wasn’t even sure she wanted to. After seeing her teammates fall, not knowing if they would be able to defend themselves against those monsters, she was ready to recant her oath and send her spear through Reaver’s heart. Intentionally.
Valkyrie and Reaver were no strangers to one another. It had been Reaver that she had first fought upon becoming a superhero akin to Norse legend. They had battled three more times since then, each time Valkyrie gaining a narrow victory, sometimes alongside her fellow Guardians. But, also each time, Reaver had escaped.
Never before had she wanted more to ensure the conscienceless killer did not get away.
It took a strength of will to rein in her ire. Reaver fed on rage just as his axes fed on blood. Both would fuel his power. Blood shed would flow into those dread axes, converting the fluids into mystical strength for their user; the wrath and fury of others was like a tonic to Reaver’s mind. She needed to have a clear head if she was going to overcome the killer again.
“Well, then.” Reaver grinned. It was a hideous thing, full of malice and hatred. “Let us dance the dance again, spear-maiden.” He swung his weapons in lazy circles around his body. “Let us see if you last longer than those whelps.”
Valkyrie measured him. She wouldn’t rise to the baiting. She just had to watch for Reaver to tense.
“Their blood was weak,” he continued to taunt, the sound like a mountain grinding against itself. “Hardly worth cutting apart!”
Valkyrie met the first blow with the butt of her spear. The second she slapped aside with the tip. Reaver attempted to bull rush her, but she sidestepped and hit him in the back with her elbow as he passed. There was a short-lived moment of satisfaction as Reaver grunted and stumbled.
He spun around, axes coming in high and low. Valkyrie parried the blows with the haft of her spear, but he drove her back with a flurry of strikes. She knew that she was the stronger of the two, except that Reaver had been loose in the city, slaughtering people for an unknown length of time before she had arrived. Those enchanted axes would have supped well, accounting for the extra power Reaver was putting into his blows. Shivers ran up the length of her spear and rattled the bones of her arms.
She waited for an opening, a numbing sensation running up her fingers and arms the longer she blocked the strikes. When Reaver overextended an attack, thinking her guard weakening, Valkyrie thrust her spear for his face. She felt the tip gouge flesh, but it was nothing more than a glancing strike, tearing the skin below Reaver’s left eye.
Reaver retaliated by kicking her left leg out from under her and hammer-fisting her in the face with the butt of an axe.
Vision wavered. Valkyrie felt herself go down to one knee. The sensation of broken asphalt digging into her knee gave her clarity. She brought her spear overhead just in time to block a vicious double chop. The force of Reaver’s blow cracked the ground under Valkyrie, a ripple effect expanding outward and warping the asphalt beneath their feet.
“You’ll die today,” Reaver growled. “Like the other weaklings.” He hooked the curves of his axes under the haft of her spear and ripped the weapon away.
Her fingers burned. Reaver had never been able to disarm her before. The amount of lives he must have taken to gain such strength was staggering. In her mind’s eye, Valkyrie replayed the images of Sludge’s fall, of Pulse’s and Vector’s possible deaths. When she added those three lives to the theoretical tally, Valkyrie felt fury roar within her breast.
Reaver towered over her, axes raised for a final blow.
“Not yet, monster,” she yelled. Reaver was unprepared for her attack. She surged off the ground, wrapping her arms as far around Reaver’s massive waist as she could, fingers digging into armor and clothing.
In a blink, they were airborne.