THE DEFENDERS 20
"The Woman She Was..."
Published: February 1975, 25 cents
Writer: Steve Gerber
Layouts: Sal Buscema
Finished Art: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza
Colourist: P. Goldberg
Editor: Len Wein
The Defenders: Thing, Valkyrie, Doctor Strange, Nighthawk
Nemesis/Villain Appearances: Executioner, Enchantress, Van Nyborg, Nameless One, Sister Celestia
On a hillside overlooking Cobbler's Roost, Vermont, the Thing (aka. Ben Grimm) and Valkyrie are found grieving over a dead man identified as Alvin Denton, the father of Barbara Denton. In the background, the fallen figures of the Executioner and the Enchantress can be seen, having lost a recent battle with the two Defenders. The Valkyrie quietly weeps at the death of Mr. Denton for he held the answers to her questions as to who she is. The Valkyrie, after all, now inhabits the body of Barbara Denton, a person she never knew.
The grieving duo, lost in their separate thoughts, do not notice when the Executioner regains his consciousness. The bald villain quietly sneaks up behind the Thing and puts him in a choke-hold. The Executioner gloats at his easy capture, but this only enrages the Thing. Ben elbows his foe in the ribs with a resounding thunk which knocks the wind out of the Executioner. The Thing then plows the villain into a nearby tree with a massive righted hand blow. Ben chastises his enemy for his lack of respect for the dead and the grieving. But, the Executioner, whose role in Asgard was to do his name-sake without remorse, scoffs at Ben's comments. He remarks that he feels nothing but loathing for all things weak. He then picks up the trunk of the tree he smashed and runs at the Thing...only to be stopped by an unseen barrier. The Executioner turns to see it was the Enchantress who interrupted his charge. She remarks that it is folly to fight when the prize is already lost. With outstretched arms and a flash of blinding light, the Enchantress dematerializes her ally and herself and they are gone, leaving Ben to wonder if they departed because the harmonica's power was no more. With a shrug, he returns his attention to Val.
Ben consoles the Valkyrie and informs her that he will take Alvin's body in the Fantasticar. But, Val angrily retorts that she alone is to touch her fallen father. She then speaks no more but merely replaces her enchanted blade Dragonfang in its scabbard, activating Dr. Strange's spell of concealment. Her costume and the sword itself vanish and her civilian garb appears. She then scoops up Alvin in her arms and still silent, begins her trek down the hillside towards Cobbler's Roost. The Thing is left alone wondering where to go to when suddenly the astral form of Dr. Strange appears. He relates to the Thing that he has been "monitoring" them and tells Ben not to leave Cobbler's Roost. Ben lets Strange know he is not pleased that he was being observed but tells Strange that Val needs to be alone. Dr. Strange explains that because the harmonica's inscription is yet to be solved, Val may still be in grave danger. He then instructs Ben to hold onto the harmonica as he will soon be there with friends. Ben decides that he might as well hang around and see out this adventure to the end. In a flash, the floating image of Dr. Strange is gone. The Thing decides this might be a good time to catch up on some sleep and settles back against a tree to doze.
But, even in repose, Ben cannot elude the events of the night just past. Weird images haunt his dreams...A girl with a harmonica is struck by a subway train, and Dr. Strange is unable to save her. A girl who did not die but rather, exploded into fiery sparks which settled on Strange and Clea, and five others who stood on the subway platform. In truth, the girl was not human at all, but a manifestation of the universal Destiny Force, as was the mouth harp she played. And, all those present had, by their action or inaction, hurried their own meetings with destiny. A word can be read on the harmonica: CELESTIA. Between them, Doctor Strange and the Thing manage to avert catastrophe for four of the witnesses, but the fifth man could not be found. When Ben and Dr. Strange return to Strange's sanctum they learn that the harmonica had been stolen...apparently by the Valkyrie! (see Marvel 2-in-1 #6). In fact, it had been the disguised Enchantress who had captured both the instrument and the missing witness, unaware that the witness was Val's father: Alvin Denton, whose wife had died in an auto accident and whose daughter had joined an occult sect and then vanished. Briefly, the Enchantress lifted the facade of the Valkyrie from Alvin's daughter, Barbara, and allowed him to see the madwoman she had become. Filled with despair, Alvin seized the harmonica from the Asgardian sorceress, and believing its power could cure his stricken Barbara, he blew it. And, his destiny came to pass: His world came apart before his eyes. But, as with the others at that fateful subway station, Alvin's destiny took its literal form, his world...the Earth...crumbled! In pitched battle amid the chaos, Ben and Val defeated the Enchantress and the Executioner. Having regained the harmonica, Ben used the mouth organ to restore the world to the way it had been. Except that Alvin had died. He had suffered a heart attack during the madness, when none could aid him. Now, he and his wife, whose death had driven him over the brink, were reunited leaving Valkyrie more alone then ever (see Marvel 2-In-1 #7)...
Meanwhile, in the streets of Cobbler's Roost, Val carries the deceased Alvin Denton through town and stops outside the sheriff's office. She is unaware of the man standing in the shadow of a doorway who observes her passing and is amazed to see her again (see Defenders #18), this time carrying a grown man in her arms. The man races away to report his sighting to someone named Van Nyborg. Val enters the sheriff's office and asks to lay her father on the couch. The sheriff is shocked to see "Barbara" and asks if he should get an ambulance. However, it becomes quite clear to the officer that Alvin Denton is in need of Henry Todd, the undertaker. Shortly, after Mr. Todd has taken Alvin away, Tom the sheriff and Val go for a walk with Val feeling responsible for the recent events. Tom asks her if she plans on staying at her old house or leaving again which makes Val realize that everyone in town believes her to be Barbara. The pair head into Alice's coffee shop to sit and catch up on things. Alice greets her warmly which causes Val to return the greeting hesitantly. Tom reminds Val that her father left him the keys to her place but she can also get a set off her estranged husband, Jack. Hearing that Barb has a husband, Val is shocked and spills her coffee. Tom, thinking he spoke out of turn, apologizes. Val asks if he still lives in Cobbler's Roost and becomes visibly shaken when she learns that he is. Tom suggests that he can take her to him but Val explains she is not yet ready to meet him. Instead, she asks Tom to take her to her father's house. He agrees and the pair depart. Moments later, they pull up to the home of the deceased Alvin Denton in Tom's police cruiser. Val asks the sheriff if he would allow her to explore the house alone. Tom, nods in understanding that she might wish to be alone with her memories. And, as he leaves in the police car, Val watches him go with relief that her ignorance as to who Barbara Denton is, did not betray her.
Elsewhere, the Thing is awoken from his quiet slumber by Doctor Strange and Nighthawk. Strange indicates that he has detected a hostile presence and they must find the Valkyrie, quickly. The Thing, meeting Nighthawk for the first time, asks him about the group they seem to be in. Strange avoids the question and using the his amulet, lifts the Thing off the ground and head off to find Val. Nighthawk however, is willing to explain to the Thing about the Defenders...or rather, the lackadaisical attitude of its members. Doctor Strange openly chastises Nighthawk for his comments making the Thing wonder what the world would be like if the Fantastic Four were as organized. Strange explains to Ben that there are many volatile personalities involved and the situation is quite complicated. Before, the discussion can continue, the group arrives in Cobbler's Roost and commences their quest to find Valkyrie.
The warrior woman herself however, does not share the same sense of urgency as her compatriots. Indeed, for the first time in days, her soul seems almost placid. There is something soothing and comforting about this house, about its elegant furnishing and the portraits which adorn its walls. Inside, she feels Barbara telling her that this is home. She feels her reaching up from the depths of her unconsciousness, not to attack (as seen in Defenders #8) but to reassure. Suddenly, Val hears the sound of footfalls and senses someone stalking her. And, with a swift pull of her sword, there stands the Valkyrie! From behind Val a figure stands silhouetted in the door and calls out "Sister Barbara ... welcome back to the fold!". Before Val can react, she is struck by bolts of energy from the hands the intruder.
Moments later outside the Denton home, the Defenders land on the front lawn, drawn to this house by traces of Doctor Strange's spell of concealment which he bestowed on the Valkyrie. Alas, magic has no such affinity for mechanics and suddenly, a trap door opens beneath the Thing and Nighthawk and then shuts leaving Strange on the lawn alone. In the trap, the man who earlier witnessed Barb's return to Coobler's Roost is surprised when he sees that Strange is not with the duo. Realizing the trap was in fact set for Doctor Strange, the Thing grabs the man by the collar and demands that he explain what is going on. But, Nighthawk is more concerned with getting out and indicates that the trap doors are too heavy for him and too high. Ben drops the man and attempts to kick his way out, only to find that the walls are electrified. He falls to the ground and the harmonica falls out of his shorts. Nighthawk moves to help Ben up and when the pair are again standing, they discover the man is gone, and so is the harmonica.
Back above ground, Strange's attempts at opening the trap are futile and he realizes that some mystical force is barring his way. He gives up trying, wishing he had have been able to contact the Hulk for a job like this, and enters the house through the front door. Inside, he finds the portrait of woman who bears a striking resemblance to Val, only older and more mature. The bottom of the picture identifies the woman as Celestia Denton. Strange quickly understands that there is a connection with the inscription on the harmonica but does not know what the connection is. Suddenly, a dark figure appears at the entrance to the room and blasts Strange with a bolt of mystic energy.
Moments later, Val and Doctor Strange lie on the altar of the Nameless Ones! Presiding over their sacrifice is Van Nyborg. The disciple of the Nameless Ones is dressed in red with yellow tights and cape. In his hand he holds a double pronged sceptre. Around the altar are various priests of the Nameless Ones. Together, they plan on sacrificing the Sorcerer Supreme and the former sister of the cult Barbara who is imbued with Asgardian magic to release their mystic energies so that the Nameless Ones may enter our universe. The group turns to praise she who made this day possible... Sister Celestia who was snatched from the maw of death by the Nameless Ones themselves, thus altering the course of destiny for two years. Sister Celestia, who has shown the ultimate devotion to the cause by offering her own daughter on the altar. For that deed, the Nameless Ones have pledged to restore her youth and beauty when they arrive. Celestia pulls back her hood to reveal her face which is disfigured into a horrible grimace and sneer. Van Nyborg raises his scepter and begins the ritual to release the energies of the Strange and Val.
While the sacrifice begins, Nighthawk and the Thing have been exploring their trap for a way out. Suddenly, Nighthawk discovers an area where the wall is not solid, but an illusion. They push their way through and enter the chamber in which their friends are being sacrificed. Poised over the heads of Strange and the Valkyrie, Van Nyborg's twin pronged fork glows and pulsates as it sucks the energy from the brains of the unconscious Defenders! Moreover, the accumulated energy has allowed the barrier between dimensions to dissolve and has permitted the Nameless One entrance into our realm. Neither Ben nor Nighthawk is aware that Barbara had once been the mate of the two-headed god. They are also unaware that it was her forced uncoupling from the creature that had driven her mad (see Defenders #3) and that it was Van Nyborg and Celestia who had arranged the obscene marriage as part of their plan. Regardless, the Thing launches himself at the winged-god and strikes it with a resounding blow. Nighthawk meanwhile, prepares his own attack on Van Nyborg and the overseeing disciples. The priests are no match for the strength and fighting skill of Nighthawk and they fall easily. Ben Grimm hardened fists pound the Nameless One with relentless force.
Consider this: Barbara's husband happened to be a member of this cult and induced Barb to join. The cult then happens to be responsible for bringing the girl, the Hulk and Doctor Strange together for the first time (see Incredible Hulk #126). Years later, the same magician and the same green skinned superhero free the same girl. Then, the duo happen to encounter the Enchantress (see Defenders #4) who changes Barbara...so, the girl in whom no magic dwelt, who was therefore useless to the nethergod's objective of earthly domination, becomes a living vessel of Asgardian sorcery...is this chance? Is it co-incidence? Or, is it the designs of a being who KNEW that Doctor Strange and the Hulk would meet again and who KNEW of the Enchantress' plight? A being who could reshape destiny to bring these same forces into conjunction again two years later...but, who could not predict Benjamin Grimm's role in the bizarre drama! The unreasoning Hulk might have spent his power on the cultists or Celestia or even the Nameless Ones themselves, to little avail. Whereas the harmonica would have beneath the Hulk's notice ("Bah...dumb music can't help the girl or magician!"), it is paramount to the Thing.
As the last of the priests fall from the heavy blows dealt by Nighthawk, the superhero turns to see Celestia with the harmonica, apparently preparing to blow the dreaded mouth organ. He calls out to Ben who has already pushed the horrible Nameless One back to the edge of the universal barrier. Ben acts quickly and snatches the instrument from the vile woman and crushes it in his mighty hands. The harmonica held the mystic forces in sway...but, it also held the life-spark of Celestia Denton and, once destroyed, the woman who was Celestia turns to a pile of ashes and the Nameless Ones are once more banished to their own universe. But, before Celestia goes, she whispers to the Thing. Ben, hearing her words, rushes to the altar and removes the double pronged scepter from the heads of his fallen comrades. Val and Doctor Strange slowly recover from their ordeal with no apparent harm done. Both Val and the Thing are unsure as to what exactly transpired but Doctor Strange promises to explain in due course. For the moment, he casts a spell over Van Nyborg and his disciples. Glassy-eyed, the villains march in single file from their temple escorted by the Defenders.
Meanwhile, Strange comments that there is much to despair at this time, but there is also a cause for great rejoicing. For, an entire cosmos has been set aright this day and although their own lives may be scarred forever, destiny goes on, unhindered at last.
NEXT: Val's husband, Nighthawk out of costume and the Headmen!
Front Cover: The Defenders Issue 20