It wasn't long till Voodoo Jones put me to work.
I woke up to the soothing sound of someone hammering on my door; Bonesaw was waiting for me with a sullen glare and a bag of cheesy chips. She threw the bag to me as I stumbled out of the room; I caught it with one hand and blinked at it groggily.
"Wake up, princess. Breakfast of champions," she said, and then: "I'm showing you the ropes."
We walked through the hotel. It smelled of stale cigarettes and washed out insulation; the walls were black with old soot and damp with rain-water. The beds were cracked and broken, there were holes in the ceiling above us, and kids in sleeping bags were strewn everywhere across the floor. As we walked, one of the kids I had seen last night on the platform joined us with a grocery sack.
The one who looked like she had no skin--her wet muscle left visible and twitching. She was dressed in a loose jacket and jeans, and apparently only answered to the name 'MeatFreak'.
"What's with the names?" I said. "What's wrong with your old ones?"
"You wouldn't understand," Bonesaw said. "You're pretty. Ain't a monster. Out there, that plays in your favor. Down in the Stix? It's the monsters who rule."
I found myself staring at the network of scars that covered her; I wondered when she first started getting them, or how long it took for her to start wearing them with pride.
"Kids these days," Sumerset said through the transmitter in my ear.
"So why Voodoo Jones?" I asked as I tore open the bag of cheesy bits Bonesaw had thrown me.
"Why do you want to work for him?" Bonesaw said, and I caught something accusing in her tone.
"Heard he was the biggest and the baddest," I said between bites.
"He is. But I don't work for him just 'cuz of that," Bonesaw said, and she turned away.
"He took us in," MeatFreak said. "You know, if you look like this--but you can't level buildings with eyebeams or light people on fire with your mind--"
"We got work," Bonesaw cut her off. "Let's get to it."
We stepped out onto the street. I noticed that the people who caught sight of us--the people who saw Bonesaw, or MeatFreak--were quick to move out of our way. I kept a brisk pace behind them, dusting my fingers of the flavored powder and following as they moved through the morning ritual.
We hit several stores; the owners ranged from those who were pleased to see Bonesaw there to those who were marginally terrified. All of them talked briefly with Bonesaw, then handed over some of their wares to MeatFreak, who loaded them up in the grocery sack. After the fifth stop, I asked Bonesaw what was going on.
"What do you think is going on, princess? People paying their dues to Voodoo Jones. For keeping the Stix safe and organized."
"With snacks and sugar-drinks?" I asked.
Bonesaw rolled her eyes. She reached into the sack that MeatFreak had, taking out one of the six-packs of generic cola and wedged the cans apart. A small yellow envelope was taped between them. When she tore it open, I could see what looked like several crisp bills inside.
"Extortion?" I said.
"Not like capes or police'll keep this neighborhood safe," Bonesaw said, and then she grinned. "Somebody's gotta fight crime, right?"
The next storefront we hit was a liquor store; the owner--a burly looking man with dark skin and a bushy mustache--didn't have all of that week's payment.
Bonesaw didn't say a thing. Instead, several serrated blades just sprouted out of her knuckles.
The store-owner nearly stumbled over his stock as he dove into the office. A few minutes later and he gave Bonesaw an envelope near-bursting with Voodoo Jones' money.
When we stepped out, Bonesaw and MeatFreak were grinning ear-to-ear.
"You see that poor bugger's face?" MeatFreak said.
"Looked like he was about to shit his pants," Bonesaw said. She grabbed the back of one of the boney potrusions that had sprouted out of her knuckle, giving it a twist. It made a slow crackling noise as she drew it out of the flesh. She grimaced, throwing the dried husk to the ground. The open wound on the back of her hand bled a little, but quickly sealed up--leaving a puckered mark in its wake.
"Does that hurt?" I asked her.
"Fuck off, princess," she said.
"Hey!" A kid up ahead was waving us down, running toward us. He didn't look like one of Voodoo Jones' crew--by which I mean he looked relatively normal. A little dirty, but normal. "Hey! Hey, Bonesaw! It's her--it's Red!"
The whole mood shifted. At once, Bonesaw was sprouting all sorts of extensions--crawling over her face, her knuckles, sprouting out of her clothes. She glared at the kid, who stopped mid-run--and then, with a low growl, she spoke.
"D-down on Copper street," he said, backing off.
The bones crackled, growing larger. Serrated barbs laced every inch of them--her jacket was starting to rip and twist as a set of blades extended out of her shoulders.
"Jesus," I whispered, stepping back. MeatFreak stepped back with me--I felt her arm on my shoulder.
"Just stay out of her way," she said.
Bonesaw sprang in the direction that the kid pointed in--she leapt forward, her boney portrusions scraping across asphalt and stone. I followed, with MeatFreak somewhere behind.
"Who the hell is Red?" I yelled.
"She leads another gang," MeatFreak shouted behind me. "Call themselves the 'Hoods'."
"She thinks she's a freak like us," Bonesaw said, her voice a snarl. "Fucking bitch doesn't even know the meaning of the word. When I get ahold of her, I'll show her what it fucking means to look like a freak. I'll carve her up till--"
We came around the alley into the center-square. Lightning ripped through the brisk morning air, slamming straight into Bonesaw's chest--it sent her soaring into a far wall, smashing against concrete and opening a smoldering hole in her jacket.
Another bolt lashed out like a whip and caught MeatFreak and me, throwing us both to our knees. MeatFreak groaned; I felt my muscles clench beneath the crackle and heat. I'd taken enough hits from Scourge's Crimson Claw to know what to expect; this wasn't nearly as intense. I could already feel my body recovering--but I kept down, faking injury.
"Bonesaw. MeatFreak," a voice said. "And a new member. But I am not here for any of you."
"What's going on?" Sumerset said. "Getting interference--some sort of static. Lightning?"
"Yeah," I whispered, and I lifted my head to watch the girl who had just laid all three of us low.
I could see right away why Bonesaw hated her; she was beautiful--a hovering apparition of red and black. She floated above us as if caught in a warm, upward breeze; she was clad in a red hood that obscured her eyes and flowed naturally into a dress. Her left hand was engulfed in a studded leather gauntlet, with its claw-like nails dipped in metal--as I watched, coils of lightning crawled their way through her fingers and up her arm.
It was then and only then that I realized we were surrounded--other kids were crawling out from behind the dumpsters and out from the windows. It was an ambush, and we were in the center.
When she spoke next, her voice was clear and penetrating--and her words raised the hackles on my neck.
"Tell me: Where is the Skull?"