The first thing I was aware of was the incredible, searing pain.
Then I became aware of the pressure; it only made the pain worse. It encapsulated every part of my body--my arms, my legs, my fingers, even my toes. It was as if all my bones had been broken--and my body had decided to go about the task of rearranging them in their proper positions.
My arms cracked. My ribs snapped. My fingers made loud, obnoxious popping noises.
I would have screamed, except I was fairly sure my jaw had been dislocated; then, when I opened my mouth, I felt it slide back into place with a horrible crack.
"Hurts like nobody's business, huh?" a voice said above me.
The helm's viewscreen flickered. Warning messages of every type--red, yellow, and black--fluttered across the screen. I had landed somewhere on the street; somewhere on the sidewalk. Part of the concrete had given away beneath my head, leaving a jagged crack that traveled all the way up to a nearby street post.
"What--" I began. The voice sounded familiar, but...
Victoria Noble was standing above me.
Her clothing was in tatters; her dress had been torn from the fall, with smudge-marks lining her face and body. But despite that, not a hair on her head looked displaced. She didn't even look flustered.
Her hand reached down. She wrapped her fingers around my helmet and squeezed.
The warning messages became a blinding cacophony; I heard her terrible, miserable laughter. And then--
Then, someone grabbed her by the shoulder and threw her clear across the street.
Victoria Noble landed in a crouch and glared at her attacker. The man above me--was he a man? A woman? I couldn't tell--was dressed in the same suit I was wearing, except with some modifications. It looked leaner and meaner. On top of that, they had a sword on their back; as I watched, they drew it with a metal hiss.
"Back off," they said. The voice--modulated, but differently. But still very familiar.
My pain-soaked brain made the connection.
Deep-Throat. The one who had called Sumerset. The one who had lead us to the storage facility; to the Arsenal armor.
It was the Skull clone.
"Another one? Really?" Victoria said. "Are you setting up franchises, now?" She charged, grinning with fearless abandon.
The Skull clone stepped forward and swiped the tip of their blade at Victoria. Suddenly, she stumbled and rolled, coming to a halt some distance past us both.
When Victoria got to her feet, her face had been drained of all its color. Across her cheek was a single, thin line of red--so narrow that it would have been easy to miss. When she touched it, her fingers were trembling.
"You... you cut me," she said, her voice quavering. "That's--that's not--"
The new Skull turned and pointed the sword at her.
Victoria Noble turned and did just that.
When the new Skull fixed their attention on me, I tried to sit up--but my muscles rebelled. "Who--who the hell are you?" I still couldn't move--every part of my body was shrieking in collective agony. But I could talk.
"A friend," they said.
"Let's say the future."
"What--what's going on," I said. "I remember getting thrown off the roof--Scourge--"
"He got you through the chest," they said. "Your suit's still operational, but it'll be screwed up for a while. Until you get it fixed, anyway. As for what's going on, well. Things are about to get crazy. For starters, the Muse of Music is about to wake up."
"Red," they said. "Not the ideal choice, but she'll have to do. On top of that, we're about to get a visit from Tyrant."
I struggled against the pain and tried not to vomit. "Who?"
They shook their head and turned to look up at Metro Tower. "You're about to see."
Tech-Head, Rockstar, and Sovereign exploded into the streets of Metro City.
Tech-Head's claws managed to slam Sovereign down into the ground. Asphalt rippled; cracks splintered out in an extending wave. Rockstar leapt high above Tech-Head and descended for Sovereign's prone form, streaks of lightning following his descending guitar.
A single note sang out from above. The sound slammed into his chest and catapulted him back toward Metro Tower; the cornerstone of the building crumpled beneath Rockstar's weight.
Red swung down from above, her voice cutting through the din of noise and chaos. The single note swelled into a song; behind her, violet lightning crackled. Her eyes were lost amidst the glow of color, the beat of a song hammering through every window, every rock, and every stone of Metro Tower.
"Figures," Rockstar said, and he threw himself into the sky to meet the new Muse of Music head-on.
"We're trying to stop... Scourge," Bonesaw said, her voice strained. "From assassinating Sovereign."
"Good. Now, I want to know precisely how many of you there are," Philip said.
"Bonesaw," Anna said, her voice humming in her ear. "Ear-drums."
"What about them," Bonesaw said, and then she groaned. "Nine, if you count the unpowered brat."
"Unpowered brat?" Philip said.
"It's next to a bone," Anna said. "The malleus. Hammer-shaped..."
Bonesaw blinked. And then she grimaced.
Her ears promptly made a loud, gruesome popping sound. A trickle of blood flowed out of both of them.
"What--" Philip started.
Bonesaw turned, her fist extending into a set of claws. She swung her hand around and drove the bones straight into Philip's chest--and proceeded to dig, pushing him back toward the hole that the descending Sovereign had left.
"Sorry," she said as she threw him over a dozen floors down. "Can't hear you."
A few of the outer plates of Man-of-War's powered armor had been torn off, exposing the ceramic sheets that his own armor consisted of. At least one portion of the ceramics had cracked, exposing an edge of steel.
Sumerset's suit was faring only a little worse; portions of the exterior had been dented and damaged, but it wasn't enough to cause any serious malfunctions. Nevertheless, each blow rattled him inside of the armor, causing him a spurt of pain.
On top of that, it was getting harder and harder to breathe.
"You know that I always admired your suit," Man-of-War said as he delivered another molar-rattling blow to the side of Sumerset's armor. Sumerset was sent soaring; he was sent slamming through a chain-link fence and down into a small power substation nestled between two apartment complexes. Sparks flew; warning signs flickered by. "Simple. Functional. Violent. It's why I designed a version of my own. But I always secretly worried that mine wasn't capable of standing up to yours."
Sumerset grunted and drew himself up to his feet--just in time to face down the metal spiked ball, aimed directly at him. "Really," Man-of-War said, "beating the shit out of you has been kind of therapuetic."
"Quit talking and fire," Sumerset said.
Man-of-War's metal sphere launched straight at Sumerset. Rather than dodge, Sumerset took it straight in the chest--and leapt. His feet left the ground as he aimed his back for one of the transformers behind him. As he felt it crumple, he drove his spine into it--and sparks flew.
The arc of electricity traveled through Sumerset's suit, harmlessly redirected around him--then flowed into the metal sphere, down the chain, and into the outer suit Woot had constructed. A sharp, jagged spark of lightning swung up through the space where the ceramics had cracked--and flowed straight past Man-of-War's armor.
There was a sudden shriek, followed by a series of convulsions; wisps of smoke flowed up from Man-of-War's torso. With a final clunk, the powered armor collapsed to the ground--its pilot thoroughly electrocuted.
Sumerset let himself fall back to the ground with a clomp, grinning inbetween his desperate wheezes for breath. "Fucking kids," he said. "Never bother to make their armor a Faraday Cage."
The smoke cleared from the rubble of the night-club. Paladin swung through it, striding on stilts; when he reached the worst of the destruction, he fell to the ground and turned both hands into immense shovels. With scoop after scoop, he started searching through the rubble.
Someone groaned near the back.
Paladin ran toward the source of the sound; Mulligan was laid out among the shattered bedrock, his face streaked with blood. His leg was pinned beneath a thick chunk of concrete; it looked as if it had been shattered.
"285," Mulligan moaned.
"Don't move," Paladin replied. He wrapped a length of light around the concrete and threw it aside; he then inspected Mulligan for any further wounds. "You lost a lot of blood, but you should be okay."
"He knew about my power," Mulligan said. "Which means Scourge knows. Which means--"
"Stop talking. Save your energy," Paladin said.
Mulligan reached up to snag Paladin by the collar, pulling. "Fucker figured we'd be coming coming. Paladin. You need to go to Metro Tower. Serious shit is about to go down."
Wytch descended in a swell of electrical sparks; Tech-Head reared his claws just in time to receive a bolt of lightning to the face.
Sovereign, bruised and bloodied, stood up and delivered a punch capable of pulping steel to Tech-Head's central body; the robot was flung back through the front doors of Metro Tower, exploding through stone and support structures.
When he finally came to a halt, he had crashed through three separate rooms and come to rest somewhere in the back offices.
"Wytch," Sovereign said.
"Sovereign," Wytch replied.
"I saw a young woman fighting against Rockstar. Will she require assistance?"
"No," Wytch said. "Let's finish this one off."
They flew into the building, side by side; Tech-Head scampered to his feet just as Wytch and Sovereign swept inside.
Lightning and fist impacted the robot simultaneously, smashing him down into the basement. When the smoke and debris cleared, Tech-Head's twisted metal appendages were left twitching--like the death spasms of a freshly crushed spider.
"Hey! Hey, down here!"
A young boy in goggles was wriggling somewhere in the far corner of the basement, thoroughly wrapped in duct-tape; behind him were two gagged adults and a little girl.
"I'll handle Scourge," Sovereign said.
"I'll take care of the hostages," Wytch replied. "Then I'll join you."
Sovereign flew off; Wytch descended in front of the boy. "You alright?" she asked, and with a flicker of magic, his bindings were cleanly sliced through.
"No," Woot said. "Listen--listen to me! You have to tell Sovereign--it's a trap!"
"Scourge isn't trying to kill him, not yet. Scourge has the Skull Formula--"
"He has--? Oh. Oh," Wytch said, and her eyes widened in realization. "Oh shit."