It was somewhere around the seventh charge against the demon when he managed to pin me to the ground beneath one clawed fist.
Bonesaw had been smacked through an upper level wall on one of the streets previous to this one; I hadn't seen her for the last few minutes.
The demon snarled, and his drool smoked and sizzled when it hit my suit. "I will wear your bones as my trophy."
It was at this point that we both heard the thump.
It wasn't loud, but it was hard. The sort of sound you could hear through the streets--the sort of sound that jumped out of the ground and rolled up your spine. And it wasn't just one--it was several. It came steadily, one after the other.
The demon looked up; I gritted against the pain and bent my head back as far as I could.
Something massive was walking down the street toward us.
It resembled some sort of astronaut built out of spare parts. Thick, bulky, and over 7 feet tall--it was wrapped from head to toe in grayish-white kevlar. Its arms were too short and its torso too thick; its legs were squat trunks that crushed asphalt with every step. And where its head should have been there was a glass plate--a half-sphere mounted on its shoulders and back.
Through the glass, I could see a face.
My jaw dropped.
The shrieking serenade of Lady Gaga's 'Bad Romance' ripped forward like a lance and hit the demon straight in the chest. My head was pounding--but the demon suffered the worst of it. He stumbled back and clutched at his horns, snarling with rage.
The sound died down. Sumerset's voice boomed.
"Last tracked Red's communicator somewhere back at her homebase. Go back her up, Skull. I've got the demon."
I got up to my feet, still gawking. "The hell is that thing?!" I shouted.
"Plan B," he replied, and he lifted the fists up to point past me. "Get down."
I leapt for asphalt. Another shriek of Lady Gaga--the demon howled. The kevlar body suit had some sort of sonic inducer built into the sleeves--I could see the holes along the length of its massive wrists.
Fires had broken out in the buildings around us during the fight. The armor flickered and gleamed as it walked past the inferno. It shimmered like steel--as if Sumerset was wearing a suit of armor.
"Back Red up," he told me. "If Bonesaw shows, I'll send her your way."
"You think you can handle this?"
"Kid," he told me, "I was kicking the snot out of Gods back when your mommy was in diapers. Get the fuck out of here."
My name is Red and I refuse to break.
"I will not be shattered by his words," I whisper. "I will not be threatened by doubt. I know who I am--what I am--and nothing he says or does will change that."
I repeat the words, trying my best to believe them. My mind and body unite beneath the might of the magic and I soar higher into the night.
Beneath me, the Stix burns as it suffers under the contagion Voodoo Jones has unleashed. Lurklings--the forgotten castaways he has sacrificed to his distant, alien God--hunt for their brethren, hungry to fill the void where their names once lay. When I can, I strike at them with spells--but I do not tarry. If Voodoo Jones is the master of this infection, slaying him may cure it. At the very least, I can stop him from harvesting the names of more victims for his own dark designs.
I extend my senses into the city and search. I feel him at once; he is not hiding. To the contrary, he wants me to know where he is. No doubt he has laid a trap--he the fox and I the hare.
I do not care. I will not let his traps contain me. I will not let his words break me. I will call down lightning upon him until there is nothing but ash and bone--and then I will scatter his remains to the four winds.
I descend upon the rooftop where I sense him. The glove's blue lightning follows in my wake, gouging a hole through the ceiling. What few Lurklings he has sent to defend him are dispersed in an instant amidst the snarl and crackle of the glove's elemental fury.
Only dimly do I realize that he has come back to my home--the abandoned complex where I had made my stand. It does not matter. I extend my will through the lightning and reduce the walls around me to dust.
"Reveal yourself," I say.
Somewhere in front of me, shadows unfurl. Voodoo Jones lies within--and he wears his wretched grin.
"Die," I respond, but my confidence flickers--and the magic wavers. The lightning hesitates before it reaches him. With a swipe of shadow, he dismisses it--and then he is leaping toward me, his limbs cloaked in claws formed from red-rimmed darkness.
I fly back before his claws swipe me. The tips carve narrow, deep paths through the wall to my left; I slide to a halt, drawing deep for more lightning. I try to ignore his words--but I can still feel his spell as it works upon me. Feel him trying to spread his diseased words into my mind.
"You want to be a woman, but you aren't one," he tells me as his claws lengthen. "You never were. These things--your dress, your glove, your magic--they are not yours. You have stolen them and cloaked yourself in lies. Out of envy. Out of jealousy. Out of pride."
He swipes. I block with the glove, wreathed in lightning--but it is not nearly enough. The magic is waning, and I am flung aside.
As I roll to a halt, bruised and battered, he continues.
"You are ugly, Red. An ugly boy trying oh-so desperately to pass as a pretty girl. Playing dress-up--wearing make-up--but it never changed who you are. Even the magic knows it. Even the spells are fleeing you--where is the lightning now? That little glove of yours only works for girls, doesn't it? It must know something you don't."
I hate myself for it, but when I get up, I start to run. I try to fly--try to invoke the glove's power--but it is not listening. I try to draw out lightning, but nothing comes.
I feel something dark and heavy form in my chest. Where the magic once burned, there is only a smothering void.
I hear him, in the distance. Coming after me, step by step. His tone has changed, now. "Of course, there is another way. There's always another way..."
The magic--the gauntlet--has abandoned me. But as I feel my eyes growing wet--as I feel despair swelling over my chest--something else intrudes.
Not sorrow. Not self-pity. Not self-loathing.
I tear the glove's straps from my arm and rip it from my hand.
His voice continues. Closer, now. "I can change you, you know. It will soon be within my power. Alter you down to your very soul... Recreate you. Give you what it is you want."
If the magic has abandoned me, then it can go to Hell. I will not be shattered by words. I will not be threatened by doubt.
I gather what little magic remains into one fingertip and create a single burning spark. And then I bring that spark to my hand, burning into my skin. I grit my teeth as my flesh blisters.
"Help me--give me your lightning. And in return, I can release you. Free the little girl trapped in a boy's body--"
It hurts, but it only takes an instant. My mind shapes the flame as it crawls over my arm. When I am finished, I step back into the hallway and face Voodoo Jones.
He stops and stares. He did not expect me to emerge, but his look is triumphant. The shadows gather around him, and he opens his mouth to speak.
"No," I tell him, and I feel the void in my chest melt. "This is not a trap." I lift my hand, still smoldering from the fire I used to burn it. "This is my own body--on it I have drawn my signature."
Panic flashes in Voodoo Jones' eyes as he sees the markings on my arm and palm. "You--you burned the glove's runes into your own flesh--?!"
Violet-red electricity writhes across my bare knuckles. I smile, and call the magic--my magic--forth.
The air splits with the sound of thunder.
I built the first prototype back in the 60s, during Vietnam. Back then I was in the Marines--3rd Combat Engineer Battalion. Got sick and tired of seeing people die at the end of a bomb. So I decided to do something about it.
Built a suit for disarming traps. A suit that could take anything.
When the government saw what I made, they wanted one for their own. Had me weaponize it. Called it 'Arsenal'.
73 years old and it doesn't feel like I'm a day over 30. I'm back in the suit again, feeling that familiar rumble of gears--the metal twang of steel cables--as I stomp my way down the street.
Demon charges. I hit him with the improved sonic inducers, then follow it up with a punch to the face. The exoskeleton under the alternating layers of kevlar, aerogel, and shear thickening fluid accelerates my hit until it's got enough force to turn a train into twisted ruin.
The demon's nose crunches beneath my kevlar-sheathed fist. He flies back, rolls, hits a wall, and keeps going.
When he explodes out the burning building, I try not to look too smug.
"Mortal," he roars, extending his wings. "What manner of magic could you hope to bring to bear against a Duke of Hell?"
"Magic?" I ask. "Fucking magic?"
I crank the sonic inducers as high as they'll go. Windows around us explode--the exoskeleton shakes. The demon buckles and folds, his shriek lost amidst the din of sheer goddamn noise.
"Did magic build the pyramids? Did magic bring water to the desert? Did magic put a man on the goddamn moon?" I ask him. "Was it magic that humans used to drag themselves--inch by bloody inch--out of an abyss of ignorance and misery?"
The demon exhales an immense wave of flame. I take it head-on--suit's coolants kick in, cycling through the layer of aerogel and the heat-resistant kevlar. I don't even feel a tingle.
"You're up against ten thousand years of human achievement bought with blood, sweat, and tears--and you think I'm gonna break out a musty spellbook and a nugget of bat guano?!" I head-butt him with my helmet. His horns chip beneath it--doesn't even leave a scratch on the sapphire glass plate.
I grab either horn in the immense gauntlets and squeeze--then throw him to the ground. Asphalt cracks and crumples beneath his head. "I'm a goddamn engineer, mother-fucker. I'm going to kick your ass with science."
I twist, spin, and throw--hurling him straight toward the next building.
"Eat math and die."