Rage was all.
In a flash of hellfire, Ichabod blasted the front of the cage to slag and tore away the molten gobbets with his hands. No force on Earth would stop him. Melissa, his wonderful Melissa, was on the other side. Dead. Defiled! There was nothing he could do for her now.
He had failed her. A pack of rabid, vile animals had taken her from their home. A madman had tortured her flesh and stolen her life. And where had Ichabod been? Where was the man who had vowed to protect her and cherish her forever? It did not matter that he had been trying to find the monsters committing all those crimes and bring them to justice. He had failed. In the worst way possible.
With tenderness belying his fearsome appearance, Ichabod lifted his wife’s tortured form from her prison and carried her away. He couldn’t help equating the action with some sick parody of their wedding night. This time, rather than bringing her into their life together over the threshold, he brought her lifeless, transformed body out of imprisonment.
A fresh pang of grief wracked the soul of the man half of Ichabod; it was more than enough to inundate the bound demon half with unfathomed sorrow. No sensation compared. The soul-rending pain was like nothing man or demon had felt before. For the first time, a sob escaped the horseman.
He carried her as far as his strength permitted. When he failed anew, it was a defeat of spirit rather than flesh.
Ichabod dropped to his knees. The flesh-tormented thing that was once Melissa Texel flopped in his arms. He cradled it—her—close.
“Oh, God,” Valkyrie heard herself say. It was far worse than she could have imagined. No sane mind should have been able to predict this.
They watched Ichabod transform from the horseman to human form. Isaac looked so small where once the mighty Ichabod stood. He held tight his mutilated wife, cradling her deformed body against his as a flood of tears and sorrow escaped the man.
It was almost beyond comprehension. People had died in this way of life, people Guardians had known and cared for. Innocents were threatened by those wanting to toss aside law and grab whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. But for such a loss to hit so close to home, it was devastating.
The fighting was over. Two supervillains—Reaver and Bloodhawk—had vanished, but three had been vanquished, one now permanently. With Sawbones’s death, the Flesh-kin ceased to move, many dropping to the ground, as equally deceased as their creator. The threat the villains posed was broken, yet there was no cause for celebration. The cost of victory was incalculable.
Valkyrie wanted to race to Isaac’s side, offer whatever comfort she could. But she knew there was nothing, absolutely nothing she could do to mend his pain. She could only imagine how terrible it was, knowing that even her wildest nightmares could never come close. It broke her heart.
“Isaac, I’m so sorry.” Her whisper did not carry.
The air rippled next to the grieving man, and then another being was standing next to Isaac. The newcomer looked down upon him with an unholy grin full of sharp teeth.
Valkyrie blinked. Was this, too, really happening? Now, of all times?
It was Shockwave who called out, “Skane.”
The imp looked around, casually taking in aftermath of the battle. “Good to see you, too,” the imp mocked. “Quite a mess you children have made.”
This was a complication.
Shockwave was as dumbfounded as the rest when the Skane materialized. Leave it to the imp to show up at the most inconvenient time.
Hellion was chuckling in his grip.
Shockwave lifted the villain by his collar and pulled Hellion’s puffy face close to his own. Hellion offered no resistance, but something like mirth danced in the eye which wasn’t swollen shut.
“Something to say, creep?” Shockwave still wanted to send his boot through Hellion’s face, but he retained control. He owed this piece of filth, especially after everything that had happened recently. Shockwave would not stoop to that level. He needed to be better than that. Shockwave had come within inches of beating Hellion to death, but self-control won out. A cell in the Pit would have to do. It would be Justice enough.
A tooth fell out of Hellion’s face before he replied. “Things are gonna get fun now. The Boss is here.”
Shockwave gripped the collar of Hellion’s armor tighter. “Boss? What do you mean? Sawbones. . . ” Ice slammed into the pit of his stomach.
He threw his captive to the ground and turned just in time.
Something was in Skane’s hand. It was moving toward Isaac. The distraught man so lost in his grief did not perceive any danger approaching.
But Valkyrie could.
The echoes of Shockwave’s shout were fading off the cavern walls as she was in motion. Valkyrie hefted her spear, setting herself to charge the imp before he could harm Isaac. A breath later she was in the air and moving.
Skane flicked his wrist and Valkyrie was flung across the cavern, slamming into stone hard enough to leave a small impact crater. Reaver had hit her harder in their battle, but something caused the world to spin as she tried to extricate herself from the stone. It was like trying to combat the effects of anesthesia.
She pulled free in time to witness Shockwave similarly tossed aside, thrown into Siege by an unseen hand. One by one, the Guardians and the Faction sped toward the demon only to be thrown aside like rag dolls. To make matters worse, Skane somehow tossed the bodies of the Flesh-kin at the heroes as they tried to rise. The entire cavern was filled with a momentary whirlwind of bodies, a vortex of flesh with Isaac and Skane at its eye.
Skane brought the object in his hand to Isaac’s face. It was some sort of chalice. Tears streamed off the despairing hero’s face and into the vessel. The imp stroked Isaac’s back with a taloned hand in a sick parody of comfort.
The dizziness was fading, but not fast enough. Regardless, Valkyrie could not allow Skane to continue whatever he was doing to her friend and teammate. Through act of will she rose to her feet and prepared to fight a foe the Guardians had seemingly underestimated for a long time.
Maybe she could distract the imp long enough for the teams to recover. Or at least get Isaac out of harm’s way.
The demon looked up from his work. “Too late, northern one.” Skane dipped one claw into the chalice, bringing the finger to his mouth and licking a glistening drop of liquid from the talon. “Tears of a demon. Do you know how hard those are to come by?”
Valkyrie struck. In one motion she launched her spear at Skane and took to the air, fists ready to strike. She hoped to catch the demon with one attack or the other. Valkyrie and the spear covered the distance to their target in the blink of an eye. She was within arm’s reach when something froze her in mid air. Her spear continued on its journey, only to be plucked from its aerial path by Skane’s free hand.
“Tsk tsk. A fine gambit,” the demon teased, idly whirling her spear as one would a baton. “Doomed to failure, nonetheless.”
Her limbs would not obey. Valkyrie grit her teeth and struggled against the invisible force holding her in place, to no avail. She was helpless. Unable to vent her sense of injustice at the monster in front of her.
“Valkyrie,” Skane drew out her name in a considering manner. “Do you know that the valkyries of old were also known as Odin’s Choosers of the Slain? I bet you did not realize how apt the moniker is for you.”
Though her body was halted, Valkyrie found herself still able to speak. “Let him go.”
Skane’s brow creased. “Impudent child.”
The torment of thousands of volts of electricity coursed through her body. Valkyrie cried out, her body arching and twisting with current. When she was able to open her eyes, she found herself on the ground, no longer floating above Skane and Isaac. She tried to crawl, but her limbs were still not fully under her control; spasms continued to wrack the muscles of her legs and arms. The best she could do was lift her head and bite her lip against the residual pain.
“You’ve all been very accommodating,” Skane said. “A few wrinkles—you returning from the western lands, my bullet missing Shockwave—but overall you performed to plan. Predictable, humans.”
Metal glinted in front of her. Skane traced the contours of her face with the tip of her own spear. The added indignity fueled her, but Valkyrie remained impotent to change the situation.
“Do you remember this?” Skane’s face and body began to morph and twist. In seconds a visage which was vaguely familiar to Valkyrie surfaced and set in place.
“Or perhaps this will better jog your memory?” Skane’s voice changed to compliment his physical appearance. As soon as he began speaking, a chill flooded Valkyrie’s soul. Before her was the face of a man she couldn’t save, a poor soul she had condemned to death so that others could be rescued from their doom. ”You’re Valkyrie. Of the Guardians? Is Ichabod here?"
Skane’s form wrenched and sloughed until the demon once more wore his regular skin.
She steeled herself. If Skane wanted to torment her with her failures, then she would play along. Protecting Isaac was paramount. “That man in the building,” Valkyrie said. “That was you?”
Her answer came in the form of a harsh chuckle. “Stupid mortal. No, but I was certainly watching as you left that little problem to die while you rescued those urchins. Oh, and a fine job that. Good to see your species still place such value on the most undeveloped of your kind. Stagnant races are the easiest to manipulate.”
Feeling was coming back to her limbs. If she could just keep the imp talking a little while longer, she could make another attempt at reaching Skane. She was close enough that even with the surprises the demon was tossing their direction, she could take him. Or if she failed, mayhap her efforts would give one of the Guardians or the Faction a free shot. The others were milling at the edge of her vision. They just needed one shot.
“I stand by my choice, demon. You won’t shake my resolve that way.” Just a little longer. Valkyrie felt control of her arms return. She kept her body still, not wanting to tip the demon off that she had regained part of herself.
“Bah.” Skane waved off her words with the hand holding the chalice. “Would you be so affirmed if you knew the full consequences of that choice lay before you right now? Oh, that’s right. When he said he was a Warden, you probably had no idea what that meant. Thought he was a minor lordling of one of your mortal penal system buildings.” Skane swirled the contents of the chalice and stared into depths beyond the vessel.
“Poor Valkyrie. No inkling that you were helping remove one of the few who could stop me. In truth, there were moments I wasn’t sure my machinations would bear fruit this time, either. Russia. Germany. And others before. Some of the most vile of your human monsters were my errant children, after a fashion. But I cannot take credit for some of the worst. Humanity can and has perpetuated atrocities which can make even my brethren blush. Most of the time the demon wins the battle of wills, I was well pleased when your mortal bonded as he did.” Skane gave a pointed glance toward Isaac. “Looking back, that seemed the easier piece.”
Just keep talking. A few more seconds and she would be in full control of herself.
The demon sniffed Isaac’s liquid sorrow. “Look around you. Friends destroyed. So many pathetic lives stolen away. And all because of your choice. Your choice allowed these things to come to pass. You chose to save two worthless urchins, allowing another to die in their stead.” Skane flicked a crimson tongue over his needle-sharp teeth. “Most delicious. You have my sincere thanks.”
While Skane continued to taunt, Valkyrie felt the feeling return to her legs. The sharp pins-and-needles sensation never felt better. The imp wouldn’t know what hit him.
Valkyrie tensed and struck. A fury she had never felt before burned inside. Whether the demon spouted some perverse truth or not, there had been so much death, so much pain. Valkyrie had had enough. She was ready to lash out.
Her fists sped for Skane, but when they should have connected, she merely flew on past. Valkyrie spun in the air to find her enemy, just in time to witness her spear fall to the stone.
Skane was gone. And with him the chalice full of Isaac’s tears.
Echoes of her spear clattering to the ground were only overpowered by her friend’s heart-wrenching sobs.