"What are you babbling about?" Bonesaw said, smoke swirling up from her. She dragged herself up to her feet, the burn marks on her throat and neck rapidly fading--I noticed that Red's lightning had hit her far harder than MeatFreak or me. Probably figured that Bonesaw could take it. "Skull ain't here. Deal with me."
She flexed her fist. There was a sharp crack, followed by a hiss; slender needles of bone fired out of her knuckles.
Red had already lifted her gauntlet. The bone-needles popped in mid-air as lightning snarled through them, burning them down to ash and cinder.
The kids around us were moving in. Some of them had bats; others had hammers, sticks, and rocks. I kept low, still faking my injury. MeatFreak got to her feet--and then her muscle-tissue started to tighten and bulge.
She growled and charged straight into the crowd.
Guess that was my cue.
"Leave Bonesaw to me," Red said to the crowd. "She is too dangerous for anyone else to--"
"First sensible thing you've said all fucking month," Bonesaw replied, kicking herself off the wall and hurling herself up at Red. I had to admit--the girl could get some serious air. Her hands extended into barbed claws, her red eyes darkening. Red flew back, lightning rolling up and down her fingertips as she clenched her leather-clad fist.
Some of the kids were coming for me, now. I cracked my shoulders, stood up, and assumed the position.
Sumerset had shown me how to fight, but a month or two worth of training didn't make me a pro. I knew some takedowns, how to throw a punch, where to apply my strength--but I wasn't sure I could take on a crowd of six or seven kids at once. And by the looks of them--claws, glowing eyes, burning hair--some of them were powers, too.
Didn't mean I couldn't make them work for the effort, though.
I threw the first punch, sending a kid with fire for hair hurtling to the ground. A stick connected with my back, hard--I arched, grimaced, and used the momentum to head-butt another kid in the stomach. After that, it was a free-for-all--flailing arms and sticks, screaming faces, and my clenched fists.
With a throaty roar, I shoved my arms forward and threw three kids off me and into the far wall.
MeatFreak wasn't faring much better. She'd managed to get her back to a dumpster and was holding off a few kids with bats and sticks who had cornered her; occasionally she got a punch off, and more than once I heard a crack followed by a yowl--but it was clear she was making her way to the alley's exit.
Bonesaw, meanwhile, had eyes for no one but Red. Lightning ripped across the rooftops as they fought; Bonesaw was scarcely a match for the girl, but what she lacked in power she made up in sheer dogged persistence. Every so often, her smoking body would plummet down from above and slam into the asphalt--only to stand back up with a snarl and hurl herself at Red.
This was getting ridiculous. It was only a matter of time before they wore us down. And I needed answers.
Two more kids hefted up their makeshift weapons and approached. I charged straight through them and stiff-armed them to the ground; they cried out as they hit the dirt. I kicked my feet and flew up the side of one building, running for three steps up the wall before springing off and leaping straight for Red.
Surprised the hell out of her when I tackled her in mid-air from behind.
I felt something soft and tingling. In an instant, she was awash in electricity--it swept through me like fire, burning through my veins and muscle. I refused to let go--but rather than descend, she soared.
"Release me!" she said, and the lightning intensified. I could tell she was testing me--trying to figure out where my limits were. She clearly didn't want to fry me to death--but as my hold grew more persistent, her power grew more reckless.
I realized this was going to end one of two ways: Either she was going to electrocute me to death or I was going to squeeze so hard that I'd snap her ribcage.
I brought my mouth as close to her ear as I could, and whispered above the growl of energy: "I'm the Skull. Take us down."
We plummeted like a rock.
"Retreat!" she cried, her voice carrying over the teens in the alleyway. At once, they scattered--and MeatFreak followed suit. I could see Bonesaw staring up at us with impotent rage, unable to reach us--meanwhile, Red swept over the rooftops of nearby buildings, struggling to keep aloft.
When we hit, it wasn't with any particular care or grace. We rolled across some tiles before I let go of her; I dropped flat on my back, wheezing as wisps of soot rolled up off my arms and chest. My jacket had melted to my skin--I could feel blisters covering my entire torso.
Slowly but steadily, the blisters were receding--but it still hurt like hell.
"Know this," Red said as she struggled up to her feet. "If you are attempting deception, I will--"
"Shut up," I groaned. "Just, shut up, okay? This really, really hurts, and I need a moment."
She became quiet. She watched intently as my wounds healed, her glove pointed squarely at me. On occasion, a tiny arc of energy would roll between the knuckles of her gauntlet.
After about a minute, the pain had receded enough for me to sit up. "Okay," I said. "That really frigging hurt."
"You said that you are--"
"I lied to get you to land. But I know the Skull," I said, holding up my hands defensively. "I'm here on her behalf." She wouldn't buy that. Not in a million zillion years. But I had to give it a try, right?
She lowered the gauntlet. Somehow, her hood had remained up during the whole mid-air wrestle; it obscured her eyes and most of her face, making it hard to see what she was thinking.
"You said you are here on her behalf?" she asked.
"Then you can bring her here."
Holy crap. She was buying this. "Yeah," I said. "I mean, sure. I'm here looking for somebody, but if things are getting serious, I can definitely call her in."
It occurred to me then that Sumerset had been rather uncharacteristically quiet--I touched the transmitter in my ear. I could hear the distant hum of static--had Red's lightning disabled it?
"Things are indeed 'getting serious'," Red said. "And I require the Skull's aid."
She gestured to the cityline. "I have reason to believe that within two days' time, the Stix will cease to be."