Pandemonium reigned. There were so many things going on it was hard for Shockwave to decide where they could be of best use, or of use at all. The veritable army of first responders were doing all they could to rescue the injured and trapped inside the buildings, but the situation grew more perilous by the second. Every gust of wind caused avalanches of debris, and structural integrities were moments away from failure.
After Shockwave and Pulse saved the firefighters from certain doom, he spotted Valkyrie deliver a pair of children to waiting EMS personnel. One of the buildings finally gave up trying to hold itself together and crumpled upon itself. People shielded themselves from the pressure wave and flying masonry as a thick wall of dust and debris fanned away from the collapse.
When the dust settled enough to see once more, Shockwave spotted Valkyrie as she released the van she had thrust between her and the avalanche. Those people huddled behind her were covered in a layer of gray dust, but the van had prevented any of the larger chunks from reaching them.
Valkyrie’s golden blond hair shook around her face as she spotted Shockwave and sent him a grim nod. Shockwave gave her a curt nod in return before the warrior-woman rocketed back up into the air.
“At least some of us are dong some real good,” he muttered.
Vector came dashing out of the danger zone. She had a soot-covered woman clinging to her back; the woman’s arms were clasped around Vector’s neck as if she were attempting to throttle the life from her savior. For her part, Vector bore no sign of fatigue despite the extra weight she carried.
“It’s getting really hot in there,” Vector said as she pried loose the arms locked around her. To the woman she had just pulled out of the building, she said, “You’re safe now. Let go.”
Shockwave waved over a nearby EMS technician and stepped forward to aid Vector in freeing herself. “Ma’am,” he said, laying a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “You’re gonna be all right now. But we’ve got more people to help, so we’re gonna need you to let go of Miss Vector’s neck.”
The tech arrived in time for Shockwave to usher the half-catatonic woman into the man’s care.
“How many?” Shockwave asked once the woman and EMS technician were out of earshot.
Vector ran a hand through her dark hair and sighed before replying. “There’s a lot of bodies.” She swallowed. When she spoke again, her voice was steady, if soft. “Before you say it, I’m fine. I can handle this, Derek.”
He gave Vector a single, curt nod. “Then get back to it, Guardian.”
Without further reply, Vector dashed back into the building, searching for other survivors.
“How come you don’t call her down for using real names, boss man?” Pulse asked.
In response, Shockwave grunted and walked away. His thoughts were torn between Vector’s safety and figuring out where he could be of best use.
“Was it something I said?” Pulse called to Shockwave’s back.
Behind them a police cruiser pulled up to the scene.
Ichabod’s sword struck out at the wall before him. The hellblade tore open a section large enough for the headless rider and his demonic steed to ride through. Behind the horseman a small group of people clung to one another, following the frightful rescuers.
A bent steel beam lay from ceiling to floor in front of him and Ichabod shoved the heavy obstruction aside like a toy block. Ahead lay an exit, red emergency lighting glowing above an intact glass door.
He pointed with his blade. ”There. You will find aid outside these walls.” The eerie voice of the horseman echoed on itself, deep and almost feral. The kind of voice which could haunt nightmares, just like the rest of him.
The small crowd of a dozen souls swept around Ichabod, a mix of elation and fear in their hearts. Elation at finding reprieve from the nightmare they were escaping; fear of the living nightmare whom was their savior and the hell from which he had rescued them. Myth come to life, Ichabod, the Headless Horseman, was a terrifying sight to behold. Between the ebon black armor, the frightful hellblade, and the flame-snorting war-charger he rode, it was easy to forget Ichabod fought on the side of heroes.
Not to mention that he had no head.
Ichabod spurred his mount, turning back the way they had come as the survivors filtered outside. There would be others in need of—
His horse snorted and stamped. Ichabod, too, could feel it. Another was nearby. A demon.
The presence was close by. Ichabod wheeled his mount and dug in his heels. Together they shot out of the exit, ahead of the survivors.
“What now, boss man?” Pulse looked away as he saw the mess of a human body dragged out of the smoke by a pair of firefighters.
A uniformed NYPD officer jogged up to the pair. “Hey, are you two supposed to be here?”
It wasn’t the first time law enforcement or some other governmental body official wanted superheroes out of the way. As if the Guardians were a detriment to the current situation and not helping. Not the first time, and most likely, not the last.
“Officer.” Shockwave gave the policeman a terse nod. He usually found it best to remain cordial in these situations. Metaphorical pissing matches or not. “My name is Shockwave and this is Pulse.” He indicated the younger man with a hand. “We’re members of the Guardians. I’m sure you realize we’re here to lend our aid in any way possible.
“In fact,” Shockwave continued, turning to face the disaster site. “You may not know it, but at least three of our members are even now inside, helping as many people as they can safely exit these buildings. At no small risk to their own lives. There’s one of us now.”
From the building ahead, the charging form of Ichabod astride his mount came toward them. The horseman made a bee-line for Shockwave, Pulse, and the policeman. Survivors were just beginning to exit the building in Ichabod’s wake.
“What’s. . . ?” Shockwave heard the gun cock next to his head. From the corner of his eye he caught the wide grin spreading across the policeman’s face. Too wide.
“Gun!” Pulse leapt for Shockwave, tackling the older man to the ground just before the gun went off.
Shockwave felt the air ripple as the bullet flew through the space his skull had recently occupied. Years of training and instinct had Shockwave twisting in Pulse’s grip, arm outstretched toward the officer’s weapon. Before they tumbled to the asphalt in a heap, Shockwave unleashed a blast of vibration, knocking the weapon out of the would-be assassin’s grip.
Adrenaline had Shockwave back on his feet a heartbeat after his shoulder hit the ground. Even so, he was nearly too late. Ichabod towered over the policeman, hellblade risen to strike.
“No! Ichabod!” Shockwave unleashed a second blast. This time he hit the officer with his power, knocking the man out of the path of Ichabod’s sword. The jagged blade sliced the shield off the policeman’s blue shirt, but wasn’t the deathblow the horseman had seemingly intended.
As the man tumbled away, his body bleeding off the kinetic force of Shockwave’s power, the leader of the Guardians stalked toward Ichabod. He couldn’t believe it. “What are you doing? You almost murdered a man! We’re Guardians; we don’t act like vigilantes!”
Behind him a bewildered Pulse was back on his feet.
Ichabod’s form turned to face Shockwave. The latter felt a twinge of fear pass through his soul at the scrutiny of the faceless rider. He shoved it down and faced the horseman. As leader of the team he was responsible for their actions, and if that meant he had to face down and reprimand a being as terrifying and powerful as Ichabod, then so be it.
A giggle came from behind the horseman. “Murder? Not hardly. At least not by human standards.”
Shockwave and Ichabod broke off their unique stare down as the officer staggered to his feet, laughing all the while.
“Too bad you decided to lend me a hand, oh righteous lord of the Guardians.” As the officer took a step forward, his features rippled and twisted. “You could have been rid of me on this plane. At least for a while.”
The policeman seemed to melt before them. With every step, tortured spasms of flesh occurred. The closer the man came, the less human he looked. Skin sloughed and warped, becoming a pebbly, crimson-hued leather. Tan horns curved forward and jutted from the temples, while human fingernails elongated and became sharp points which looked more like bone than nail. As the policeman’s brown eyes became orange pits with blood-red pinpoints of light, the Guardians knew what they were dealing with.
“Skane,” the horseman intoned.
The fully revealed demon bowed. “Miss me? Oh, I’m so flattered. The mighty human warriors remember me, a lowly little imp? How nice.” Skane performed a perfect backflip, launching itself into the air to come down on top of the fence surrounding the Queens Center Mall parking lot. “Hello Horseman. Found your head yet?”
It was just the sort of complication the Guardians wanted to avoid with the massive devastation behind them. They had tangled with Skane a few times, each encounter leaving little more than a few bumps and bruises and a sour taste in their mouths. Skane was a minor demon, a glorified trickster with horns and a smattering of demonic powers. Yet Skane was still dangerous. The demon had orchestrated gang fights and hypnotized a group of petty thugs into a hostage situation at a bank. All seemingly for the fun of it. Other than taking an extra special delight in needling Ichabod, Skane was not known to truck in schemes of world conquest or the propagation of massive disasters like the one behind them.
As usual, the imp was taking advantage of a greater threat to cause mischief.
“They’ve got a place all set for you in the Pit.” Shockwave raised a hand, preparing to unleash a barrage of power strong enough to subdue a charging lion. If he could do little else to aid the situation crumbling around their ears, Shockwave would settle for delivering the demon to the ultra-maximum security prison designed to hold superpowered criminals.
Skane cackled and cavorted along the fence. “Oh? And how will I be getting there? You think I’m just going to go with you? Oh, you humans! Have I ever before?”
The demon’s orange eyes fixed on the form of Ichabod, the bright red pinpoints in the centers blazing like hellfire. “Almost had me that time.” Skane turned back to the rest, fixing his gaze on Shockwave. “And I almost had you, little man. Enjoy your disaster.”
As mysteriously as the demon had arrived, he had fled. Shockwave made a slow turn, scanning the surroundings for some sign Skane had tricked them and was still around to cause mischief.
"He’s gone,” Ichabod said, the rasp of his hellblade slamming home in its sheathe punctuating the horseman’s distemper. One of Ichabod’s many abilities allowed him to sense the presence of beings of the Nether Planes. If he said Skane was gone, then the trickster imp had indeed quit the scene.
Shockwave bit back the oath forming on his tongue. This wasn’t the first time Skane had eluded capture. Nor, he feared, might it be the last. The only upside was that the demon was more of an aggravating nuisance than any type of real threat. He wasn’t a MechaDragon, a Tempest, or a Reaver. Those powerhouses could level a building by their lonesome.
The shadow of the horseman fell over the leader of the Guardians. “Next time,” Ichabod said, leaning down from his supernatural steed. Shockwave got the impression that the headless rider was glaring at him. “Stay out of my way.”
Ichabod spurred his mount, rider and horse tearing off toward the rubble.
“Ich’s got a stick up his ass, eh, boss man?” Pulse raised his arm to elbow Shockwave in the ribs, but one glance at the tightness surrounding the leader of the Guardians’ eyes caused the younger hero to abort the action.
“We need to get back and lend ourselves to the rescue.” Shockwave turned on his heel and strode in the wake of Ichabod’s passing. He didn’t turn to admonish Pulse, and the mask did nothing to soften the bite of his next words. “Move, Guardian! Lives are depending on us.”