The old woman's name is Diana; she serves me tea in a small saucer and cup. It is the first time I've ever had it--it's bitter, with something acidic and sweet behind it. I like it.
"Pardon the dust," she says as we walk through her house. The place is nice, except for the gaping hole in the roof. Bits and pieces of timber dangle from the shattered structure where something--or someone--tore through every floor down to the living room.
Her eyes follow mine. She smiles. "Family disturbance," she says.
"Uh. With the husband?" I ask.
"I do not have a husband," she says, and there's something harsh in her tone. Like she's correcting me. But immediately after, she's all sunshine and lollipops: "My mother. She and I didn't see eye to eye on something."
I find a hard time imagining what this lady's mother would look like. She's already old; her mother must be Jurassic.
We sit down in the kitchen, which mostly hasn't been disturbed by whatever disaster struck in the living room. She makes herself comfortable, steeples her fingers, and gives me a penetrating look.
"Your scars," she says.
I hesitate. "...yeah?"
"May I see them?"
I reach up and take ahold of my hood, pulling it down. The response when I show someone my scars is generally horror, mixed with fascination. But Diana only gives them a glance before nodding, as if to confirm something.
"Thank you. You're proud of them, aren't you?"
"How did you--"
"It's our family's gift," she says. "We have the ability to read the emotions of those around us--sense their wants, their desires, their needs. The way you hold yourself, the way you responded when I asked to see them. You're not ashamed of them. I feel your fondness for them," she says.
"...yeah," I tell her. "I guess I am pretty happy with them."
"Good. Be proud of what you are, child," she tells me. "Now. What did you want to ask me about?"
The Battle Suit's mailed fist crumpled through Voodoo Jones' side-doors like a battering ram slamming head-first into a house of cards.
The metal door hit the floor with a clatter. I stood before the crowd, my other fist wrapped around the face of one of Voodoo's thugs.
I threw him to the ground in front of me.
"Hi. I'm here for Voodoo Jones," I told them, my voice amplified through the helmet--booming with a metallic growl. "If you value the status of your currently unbroken bones, I recommend you stay the hell out of my way."
Dozens of eyes were locked on me. Some of them looked frightened--others looked pissed. I figured just about all of them were thinking the same thing: Oh shit, it's the Skull.
In the movies, the hero goes up against one or two guys at a time while everyone else dances around like twits on the fringes. It didn't go down like that--they swarmed me like a mob. I clenched my fists, lowered my head and ran straight in.
I felt a brief resistance. Then the suit's engine snarled with power, and five of them were thrown back to the cage. Some of them were hitting me with their fists--I heard more than a few cry out in pain as their knuckles impacted the armor. At least two managed to get ahold of heavy, weighted weapons, and were occasionally swatting the back of my head ineffectually. I started swatting back.
Voodoo Jones' laughter boomed over the proceedings. He was on top of his throne on his giant wooden platform, looming over the cage. I could see him grinning in the distance through my helmet's projected screen. He started to hoot, shaking his fist in the air; more people scrambled to swamp me.
"Don't say I didn't warn you," I told them.
The wall on the south-end buckled beneath a powered foot as the shrieking strains of a cymbal crash followed by Jimmy Page's wailing guitar roared through.
Sumerset had mounted two sonic inducers to his exoskeleton's fists. He had explained earlier how, with the proper frequency and volume, any sound could be used as crowd control. His choice was particularly unsettling: Led Zeppelin's 'Immigrant Song'.
We come from the land of the ice and snow from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow... Robert Plant's voice wrecked havoc upon the crowd. People shrieked, doubled over, and stumbled out of the way--Sumerset waded into the room in his riot gear, fists extended, grinning like a cheshire cat beneath his helmet.
Voodoo Jones had stopped laughing. The people around me were backing off, now--I shoved another pair out of my way as I charged right for the cage, jumping.
The boots hissed underneath me as I catapulted myself into the air. Soaring, I landed with a crash on the wooden platform--20 yards away from a scowling Voodoo Jones.
"Piss off," he said, and he extended his fingers.
Black spikes of shadow speared out from his fingertips, weaving together into a long whip-like tendril. It struck across my chest like a cinder-block--I was sent whirling to the floor beneath the platform.
Sumerset was busy with the hordes of Voodoo's people, fighting them off with the sonic inducers--meanwhile, Voodoo was descending the steps, shadows swarming him.
"I've got magic," he told me. "The hell you got? A skull on your head? I'm quivering in my hello kitty undies."
"You know what they say," I told him, getting back to my feet. "Fight fire with fire, magic with magic..."
That was the signal. There was a dull krack-kow above our heads as something thundered through the roof.
"And shadows with lightning."
Well, maybe they didn't say that. But it still sounded pretty cool.
Red descended in a single streak of lightning. She tore through the ceiling, sending insulation and smoking rubble down on all our heads. Her glove flexed as bolts of energy crawled along her knuckles before she sent a single stroke of it straight at Voodoo Jones--and hit him straight in the chest.
"I do not have a daughter," Diana tells me.
"Are you, uh, sure?" I ask. I find it hard to believe that the spell got the wrong place. Especially not after seeing that hole in her living room--or the mention of magic. "Because--"
"I do not have a daughter," Diana repeats. "But I do have a son."
"Okay, because the person I'm talking about is definitely a lady," I tell her. "Kind of hard to miss, too. Flies, shoots lightning, that sort of thing. Goes by the name of Red."
Diana sets her tea down. There's something hard in her eyes, again. "Yes," she tells me. "That is my son."
"My son--" Something strained enters her voice. "My son is a very confused young man."
Red flew after Voodoo Jones as he tumbled into the backroom. I followed, springing over the platform and leaving Sumerset to deal with the crowd.
The force of the lightning had sent him crashing through a cracked and broken wall and into what looked like an abandoned lobby. There were no lights here; Red's weaving lightning provided the only illumination, casting everything in a shade of cobalt blue.
It was then that I noticed the art. Across all the walls were sloppily painted images of lightning bolts--hot white streaks that flashed across brick and plaster.
"Nice graffiti," I said, and then I thought of Red's prophetic portraits. "Hey, Red, what's--"
More black spikes snapped out. One of them wound around my throat, choke-slamming me into the wall; solid concrete gave beneath my shoulder. Even through the armor, it hurt like hell.
Red unleashed bolts of energy into the darkness; we heard Jones cry out with pain. And then there was a dry, rasping laughter.
"Lightning," he said. "It's what I see in my future."
"No crap," I told him as I got up off the floor and reached for the flash grenade. "I see a lot of lightning in your future too. Oh, and hey--a lot of fists."
"You don't understand," Voodoo Jones said, and it was then that I realized why we couldn't see him. The other half of the room was engulfed in tendrils of shadow, swirling in a churning maze. "The lightning is mine."
"I didn't mean to drive him away," Diana explains, and then she looks back to the hole in the living room. "But--you must understand. Female magic is very important to us. It is our family's legacy."
I stare at her, long and hard. She continues.
"Our magic invokes the feminine spirits," she says. "Baba Yaga. Lilith. Calypso. Women who lend us their power. He never understood this boundary--that our magic was for women only. And his grandmother only encouraged him..."
"But it still works?"
"I don't know why," she says. "But somehow, he managed to learn it. Use it." Her eyes center on me. "Don't misunderstand me. I want to find him. Bring him back. I'm ashamed that I said what I did, that I drove him out. But--"
"He refuses to accept the fact that he isn't a woman."
Behind us, we could make out the distant strains of Jimmy Page going nuts on the guitar. In front of us, Voodoo Jones' shadows began to coalesce into something solid.
"I've had a guest," Voodoo Jones said. "Someone close to you, Red. He's told me a little secret."
Red narrowed her eyes. "It is neither a secret nor relevant," she said.
"You're forgetting how magic works, boy."
For a moment, the lightning in Red's gauntlet flickered and died; a whip of shadow snapped out and caught her by the waist. She cried out as it hurled her back toward me--I crouched low and crumpled under her weight, catching her with my arm.
Voodoo Jones stepped out of swarm of shadows, gathering tendrils about him. His grin was as gruesome as ever. "Magic relies on identity. And if you question your identity..." One of his shadow-tendrils seized hold of a brick; he swung it down like a jack-hammer. I shoved Red away and took it straight to the face--it cracked against the helmet hard. I stumbled back.
Red's lightning flared to life once more; Voodoo turned and slashed with shadows at her. The lightning caught the shadow, ripping through it and leaving nothing more than dwindling shreds.
"What have you done with William?" she asked, energy burning in her eyes.
"What do you think, boy?"
The lightning dwindled again; the shadows swelled and struck out at her, smashing her against the wall.
"The same thing I'm going to do to you. The same thing I'm going to do to all of the Stix," he said, and then all the shadows surged forward.
I sit the teacup down.
"Do you understand?" Diana asks.
"You mentioned my scars," I tell her.
"You mentioned how I'm proud of them. I am," I tell her. "But there's something I think you should see."
I flex my arms. The bones emerge from my bones, sprouting from my biceps--cutting through flesh and muscle. As they emerge, I hear her gasp.
"When I first discovered I could do this, it left a scar," I tell her. "I realized that if I kept using my power, I'd keep getting more. The more I use it, the more scars I'd get."
She looks uncomfortable.
"The first scar made me ugly," I tell her. "And for the longest time, I was worried about that. Being ugly. I still am. But--at some point, I realized that I preferred ugly. Because it reminds me that it's my body. I've signed every inch of my own flesh--no one can ever tell me that it isn't mine."
"I don't see what this has to do with--"
"It's why I left," I say. "Parents didn't understand. Wanted me to stop. Told me I'd have to get therapy. Surgery. Told me I'd have to live on their terms or get out. So I got out."
Now she gets quiet.
I sigh. "I really was hoping that it'd turn out to be stupid--the reason she left. That she ran away to fight crime, or to join the circus. Something ditzy or dumb. But it's the same damn reason--she didn't want to live her life on your terms."
I turn my back and walk out.