The only sign of the bunker's destruction above ground was a distant rolling thunder followed by the smell of burning sulphur.
Scourge lit his cigarette as he emerged from Daysdale's kitchen and stepped out into the deck; several neighbors had gathered in the lawn, watching with a mixture of curiosity and confusion.
Scourge smiled several inches too wide and gave them a wave.
The woman with the metal arms--Gearbox--soon followed. She was nursing several broken ribs by the look of her, and her face was covered in bruises. She gave Scourge a glare and leaned heavily on the railing. "Well, that was pointless. Where is Man-of-War?"
"Pointless?" Scourge said. "He's coming up the rear."
"Yes, pointless," Gearbox said. "Not only did she get away, she detonated all her stuff. We didn't get shit."
"You're forgetting the third member of this little strike force," Scourge said.
"Eh? What, the Boomerang?" she replied. "Yeah, whatever. Like he was any use. Didn't even see him during the whole raid. Why the hell did you bring him on, anyway? Not like he has any--"
The porch door was smashed open. A cloud of smoke emerged, soon followed by Boomerang Kid--covered in soot from head to toe, but clad in a shit-eating grin. He was holding something in his hands.
Scourge turned and threw an arm around Gearbox. "Of course he has a power, my dear. Haven't you heard?"
Boomerang Kid opened his hands. Clutched in his palms, covered in ash but still stoppered closed, was the last remaining Skull formula.
"Boomerangs always come back."
"The first thing you need to understand," Sumerset said, "is that you don't have to do this."
Everyone was here, crowded together in the cramped storage room. Mulligan. Paladin. Bonesaw. Red. And me, in costume.
There weren't enough seats, so some of us had to sit on the floor; Red stayed close to me, while Mulligan was apparently glued to Paladin's side. Paladin was in costume, too--he had what looked like stitches on his temple and several bruises to match.
Sumerset, Wytch, and Paladin's aunt were near the front of the room--the latter sat aside and watched in silence. Sumerset was up front, standing next to a projector.
"This is as serious as it gets," Sumerset said. "Percival Murdoch is in charge. He'll clamp the Society--guarantee their non-interference. Which means whatever Scourge has in mind for Sovereign is shit he's facing alone. If we help him, there won't be back-up."
"What about your friends?" I asked. "That lady from Brazil--or the detective--"
"Blink isn't available," Sumerset said. "And Widget's out of range. All my other powered friends are in the Society, and calling them means running the risk of catching Percival's attention."
"What about that fucking hard-core bitch from before?" Bonesaw asked. "The one who scooped a demon's heart out with her bare hand."
"Jin won't come," Wytch said. "She's got her own half of the globe to contend with."
"So it's only us," Red said.
"Yeah," Sumerset said. "Which is why when I say you don't have to do this, I mean it. From what Mulligan and Paladin told us, Epoch got hit by Scourge's crew. Anyone and everyone involved is going to be a target. And the fact is? The only person in this room he really wants to kill is the Skull. So if you want out, get out. No shame in walking away from a fight that ain't yours."
"I am in," Red said, and she touched my arm. I felt a flush of warmth travel through her fingers and down my spine. "So long as the Skull is in danger..."
"And if she's in, I'm in," Wytch said.
"He hit us," Mulligan said. "He hit us hard. And I want to hit him back. Harder."
Paladin shook his head. "He's going to kill Sovereign. And only God knows how many more. Besides, there's a chance--Brick and Woot--he might have taken them prisoner. I'm in."
Bonesaw snorted. "You're offering me a chance to kick some ass and get to rub it in Sovereign's face? Of course I'm in."
"Alright," Sumerset said. "I've gathered what intel I could, based on recent prison breakouts and a few old sources I've called. I think I've assembled a pretty likely roster of Scourge's team. So let's go over it--who they are, what they can do--and how we're going to break them."
"What about Scourge?" I asked.
Sumerset looked to me. "Eh? What about him?"
"Mulligan--didn't you mention that he had some new powerset or something?" I said.
"Yeah," Mulligan replied. "Took a few rounds to the chest, didn't phase him. Moves fast, really strong. And his arm--from the elbow down. Where he used to have the Crimson Claw... it's all red, now. Like blood. He can extend the tips into blades, cut through just about everything."
Wytch narrowed her eyes. "His arm--the color of blood, you said? And it gleamed, like it was wet?"
"Yeah," Mulligan said. "No joints or anything, either. Just smooth as glass."
"Hand of Goron," she said, and she threw a look to Sumerset. "1984 all over again."
Sumerset winced. "Goddammit, it's not that bad--"
"Okay, what the hell happened in 1984, and what the hell does it have to do with the Scourge?" I said.
Sumerset gave me a look--then glanced around the room. He sighed and fell into a chair; it was then that I noticed how exhausted he looked. As if he had been stretched in every direction at once over the past few days--his eyes were rimmed with dark lines and his face looked as if it was slowly collapsing into his skull.
"Alright," he said. "You're putting your lives on the line to fight this guy. You deserve to know." He took in a breath. "1984 was the year we were invaded."
Bonesaw rolled her eyes. "By what, aliens?"
"No," Sumerset said. "By a parallel universe."
The boy struggled to open his eyes. When he did, all he could see was a red figure above him--a red figure with a white-toothed smile that stretched out several inches too far.
Scourge brought the tip of one of his clawed fingers underneath Woot's chin, directing the boy's attention to his face. "Do you know who I am?"
"The Red Skull?"
Scourge raised an eyebrow.
"From Captain America comics," Woot said. "Y'know, the Nazi guy who--"
Woot clamped his mouth closed. Scourge's clawtip nudged a little nearer. "I'm the man who has your family, Woot. I'm the man who you are now working for. Otherwise? I'm the man who's going to perform live vivisection on your little sister. While you watch."
Woot stared. Scourge smiled.
"Now, for your first job..."
Behind Scourge, a figure loomed--Tech-Head whirred steadily, peering down at the boy.
"...I want you to improve my friend, here."