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The Sum of Your Parts
by Michelle Gold
(This story was written as both a present for my niece and a favor for my husband. The three of us play CoV together weekly, and have a static group of villains with developed personalities that we’ve leveled together. The protagonist in this story is my brute, a stoic guy who refuses to discuss his past. My niece wanted to know about his history, since the present-day character won’t talk about it. My husband wanted me to write about how our two characters, his and mine, originally met: they are on the surface, unlikely friends, but yet over the years have become as close as brothers. So I decided to write one story that covered both the making of a brute, and beginning of a friendship. Hope you enjoy it.)
He woke suddenly, thrashing at empty air. The icy grip of a dark dream still clutched at him; fragments hovering at edge of his vision, pooling in the tangled sheets. A piercing sense of loneliness, shame, fear: they were apparitions of his childhood. The details of the dream were clouded, indistinct, but he could feel something sinister still lurking at the base of his brain.
He shook his head, trying to chase the figments away, but it
was already too late. The hairs at the back of his neck stood on end, and he breathed
in the sharply familiar scent of ozone. Then a white hot barb of pain erupted
between his shoulder blades, and his body convulsed. He tried in vain to steel
A raw spike of energy arced down his vertebrae, bringing a
wave of nausea. He rolled into a tight ball, squeezing his eyes shut against
his screaming nerves. You're a mutant
with superpowers he told himself. His shoulders twinged, sparks crackled
against his skin. He stifled that train of thought through gritted teeth.
He should have felt a flush of pride, but instead the
thought carried only a sinking feeling: the fight last night. A dawning
realization, he groaned with embarrassment. No wonder about the nightmares and
the powers gone haywire. The dream was becoming much less important now, and
the agony was receding; tiny needles dancing down his spine. Riley sat up.
He was sure that, if he asked, Antonio could get him a room
somewhere in the Verandi mansion complex--probably some long disused servants'
quarters. Yet Riley knew he would never ask. He was relieved that the Family
trusted him enough to allow him some space; even if it meant paying rent on a
tiny run-down apartment. Plus he'd never be taken seriously if he didn't make
some effort to take care of himself.
He shrugged into a black blazer, and gave himself an
appraising gaze. Clean-shaven, well dressed, he looked every bit the young
gangster. Except of course for his hair; his other glaring abnormality. It was
bright, intense, glaring red: such a brilliant scarlet hue that it seemed
likely to bleed through the average hat. Spiky and wild, it defied every hair
care product known to man.
Riley stepped out of the murky light of his studio into bright mid-day sun. He tried to stretch out a lingering knot in his shoulder as he ambled past the row of drab second floor apartments, and made his way down to the busy street. Port Oaks was a commerce center in the Rogue Isles, known equally well for its beautiful weather as its bustling criminal activity.
At the corner of the building, a man clad in a suit and a fedora leaned apathetically against the brick facade--one of Verandi's thugs. Riley nodded in greeting as he passed, and was answered with only a cold-eyed blink. In this neighborhood he was relatively safe, but he had a decision to make. Blackbeard's pub was near the docks, and the only direct route would take him straight through Marcone territory.
Part of him silently cursed
Antonio for choosing Blackbeard's as his venue. Why not meet at any of the
local Italian restaurants that were not only accustomed to Family business, but
seemed to exist for that very purpose? As quickly as he considered it, he
answered the question himself. He was sure Antonio had his reasons; the man
never did anything without a good reason. Still, it didn't change the fact that
he would have to hike through Marcone territory, or risk being late. He weighed
the two options and decided that he was less concerned about the Marcones.
He picked his way over a pile of
crumbling junk, holding out hope that he wouldn’t be seen in this area of town.
Or if he was, he wouldn't be recognized as anything other than an oddity from
the arena. He hadn't been involved in any serious jobs for Verandi. Sure there
was cleanup work; and he occasionally played bodyguard for Verandi's daughter
at times when a pretty face mattered more than sheer muscle. Realistically
though, Riley was little more than a lackey himself, and as such shouldn't be
noteworthy to the low rank goons here on the street—at least that was what he
kept telling himself. On the other hand his hair was about as subtle as a flamethrower.
Hopefully they wouldn’t get too curious. He quickened his pace through the
narrow maze of moldering debris.
The conflict had started before
Riley's own involvement with the Family, and he hadn't had the luxury of
choosing sides. Riley had been pressed into service with the Verandis a couple
years ago, as part of his parents' attempt to make good on an outstanding debt.
He'd been a defiant kid, continually at odds with his parents, and on the verge
of becoming a runaway. Verandi had reined him in quickly—probably faster than
any military school could have accomplished.
He forced himself to keep a slow,
deliberate pace—measured steps toward the thugs unloading the truck. A bead of
sweat tracked its way down his ribs. Riley was just a few feet from them when
he felt the pressure in his ears, prickling along his scalp. Electrical impulses
chafed at his nerves, just barely hidden skin-deep. His resolve was taut like
an overstrung bow. He fixed his eyes forward as he passed the Marcones,
feigning disinterest and sidestepping large boxes littering the sidewalk.
Peripheral vision told him they were still preoccupied. A few more steps and he
allowed himself to breathe.
Riley finally chanced a glance over his shoulder. The alley was getting smoky. He could barely make out a dark suit lowering itself down the fence behind him: one of the Marcone gunmen. His attention snapped back to the alley before him. He let his fear spur him on. At least he still had a head start.
Ahead, the alley met a building
and forked to both sides. He made a quick decision and sprinted to the left. The
carcass of a fallen, rusted fire escape blocked the path—it would be harder for
the Marcones to bypass. Riley leapt it but misjudged slightly. He came down
hard, twisting his right foot. A dull pain in his ankle; he could ignore it for
Riley was slowing now, breathing harder. He tried to vault cautiously over the fence, but landed with a crash in a dumpster: knee-deep in ripe decaying trash. A guttural moan from outside the bin told him he wasn't alone. Tendrils of putrid smoke rose from the garbage; roused by the electricity still dancing around him. He needed to get out of there quickly. Suppressing the urge to gag, he wrenched his legs free of the filth.
A dirty, gnarled face appeared at
the edge of the container. Riley swung reflexively, glowing energy focused at
his fists. He connected with a satisfying crack, sending the man flying.
Homeless in this part of town didn't ask for change. They were more likely to
eat you instead. He pulled himself over the edge of the bin and dropped to the
His flight had taken its toll. He
was getting tired, and his powers were waning. He needed to do something to get
the Marcones off his tail. A few yards away, a crooked and dented warehouse
door caught his eye. Its cratered surface beckoned, promising a hiding place in
the depths of the run-down building. Riley crossed the parking lot to stand
before it, and summoned the last of his strength. He smashed the door in with
Lacking the energy to continue his
mad dash, he settled into an easy lope, favoring his right ankle slightly. The
highway was ahead, the only landmark he recognized. There should be an
underpass nearby that would take him closer to the docks. He'd misplaced his
sense of direction somewhere in the streets behind him.
This was the end of Marcone
territory and his ruse at the warehouse must have worked. His relief was almost
palpable. Riley paused in the tunnel and reached into his pocket for his phone.
He should check the time, maybe call Antonio. His fingers grasped at nothing. He
searched his other pockets frantically. It must be at home—he’d been too
distracted earlier. Or worse, he’d dropped it. He didn’t wear a watch. They
never lasted long against the high voltage of his bare skin. He’d just have to
hope he wasn’t too late.
Riley headed for the tunnel’s exit
with renewed urgency. He almost got there. An invisible force darted from the
shadows and caught his already-aching right ankle. It snapped him into the air
like a leaf in a windstorm, and flipped him once, end-over-end, before the concrete
walkway met him mid-yell. The air expelled from his lungs with a wet sigh.
The words flowed with a velvety thick Australian accent. Riley twisted against the rough ground, craning his neck. Beyond the tunnel’s sickly green light, tattoos and a wicked grin coalesced in the shadows. It was his opponent from last night's fight.
Alarms went off in his head. The man was a sorcerer. One
look from him had turned Riley inside-out, setting his powers against himself;
leaving him a twitching mess of electric current on the arena floor. Here,
outside the arena's controlled environment, there was no telling what he'd do
to him. Riley was up on his hands and knees instantly, inching his way backward
as his feet tried to find purchase under him. Then with a harsh jolt, he was on
the ground again. Snared in a vice grip, he couldn't move.
Riley's blank look only provoked
"Then today, seeing as you
show up out of nowhere—run off with the blokes from my game." He peered at
Riley quizzically. "You sure you meant to leave the money with me
"I think I believe you
He stopped and folded his tattooed
arms. "Anyone looking to teach you a lesson mate?"
"Might be you're better off there."
The words came with a malicious glint, but another card flicked between the quick fingers. Riley could move again. He sorted himself into a sitting position on the cold ground. He wasn't going to try to stand just yet; he still had a splitting headache.
leaned forward. "You want some advice mate?" he asked, voice like
poisoned honey. Riley's only answer was a dubious frown.
The Australian met Riley’s challenging look, and shrugged as if to say he’d wasted enough time here. He turned, poised to leave, but wavered a moment. “Here.” The man pivoted back, and deposited the card he was holding into Riley’s lapel pocket. “You keep that mate.” Then he danced away and dissolved into the shadows.
Riley stared down the dark tunnel
after him. He wondered what game the strange man was playing at. Whatever it
was, it smelled strongly of black magic, and Riley was probably better off not
involved. There were a lot of arcane types wandering around the Rogue Isles and
he'd always tried to avoid them. Magic unsettled him, made his skin crawl. He
suspected that it had its own malignant consciousness, always trying to corrupt
its wielder--not to mention what it did to its victims. He'd met the tattooed
sorcerer twice now, and both times wound up not only bruised and helpless, but
his mind had come painfully unglued.
Riley found Antonio on the building's top floor, seated near
a window with half-finished coffee and a pair of black mini-binoculars on the
table in front of him. Antonio Violi was a made man. He was a broad-shouldered
and thickset, and his stance was always loaded with deadly confidence. He had
hardened features and impregnable dark eyes that stared right through you.
According to rumor, he had business interests in St. Martial, and connections as
far away as
Riley's gaze shifted back to Antonio. The mobster was poised hawk-like, rigid posture, eyebrows furrowed over the binoculars. His body language spoke of latent violence. Whatever else was going on, Antonio was dead serious. Riley had expected that someday Antonio would involve him in something real—something more important than playing lookout boy, or running messages between gangsters, or cleaning up after a bloody conflict. He just wished it wasn't today.
The drama below looked like it had played itself out. The scene ended abruptly with a rude hand gesture from Drea; and the darker figure slunk off into the shadows. Antonio rose smoothly, deliberately, as if he'd been waiting for that cue.
"Gonna be right back. You wait here"
Riley's gnawing doubts got the better of him. "Antonio, you're not doing favors for the Marcones are you?"
The mobster's face was impassive.
"Don't you worry about it kid. Let's just say I'm looking to collect on a
bet." He clapped his hand against Riley's shoulder, as if a signal of
reassurance, and then he was gone down the stairs.
"Yeah." He was familiar enough, if unpracticed.
Riley took the gun and turned it over in his hands. It was a black .22 semiautomatic. Too small to be of any use in a shootout, it was a weapon better used for assassination. Firearms were so pervasive among the Family that it would have taken more effort to avoid them than to simply learn to handle them. Given the choice though, he would rather stick with his fists. Guns felt too detached, too impersonal, and Antonio's gun felt like holding death.
Antonio's dark eyes studied him, perhaps waiting to see if he would refuse the gun. When Riley didn't, but pocketed it instead, Antonio nodded and turned on his heel.
There was a car waiting for them
outside: a large dark sedan with bullet-proof windows. Riley didn't recognize
the driver. He hoped it was one of Verandi's guys, someone he'd never met.
Antonio took the passenger seat, locking eyes with the driver briefly, but no
words passed between them. Riley slid into the black leather back seat. He felt
disconnected from the men in front, like he was a mile away with only his own
thoughts for company.
Twilight had given way to a dark skyline; high-rise buildings flecked with stray spots of light. They walked to the building's entrance. Antonio's long-practiced steps seemed to avoid the streetlights out of habit. Riley didn't try to emulate him. It was enough effort to maintain the aura of electricity crackling around him, and to keep from betraying his discomfort. They reached the door, and Antonio punched in a security code—probably courtesy of Drea.
Riley drew the gun with cold hands as they entered the building, but Antonio shook his head and waved it away.
"Sixth floor—only one guard. Don't get ahead of yourself."
The building's foyer smelled of musty carpet and astringent chemicals. The light was weak, and Riley guessed that the yellowing wallpaper was a few years his elder. The place seemed deserted: no sounds, and no movement. They found an elevator and took it to the sixth floor.
The elevator doors slid open.
It was too loud, wasn’t the sound of his own powers. Something else—sound of snapping electricity down the hallway. Cardboard boxes in the way. Piles of corrugated metal and discarded circuit boards.
There was a large shape lumbering in the room at the end of the hallway. It looked like a cross between a junkyard salvage pile and an industrial refrigerator, with the only vaguely recognizable form of a wasted human figure underneath.
Freakshow. The word rippled through his mind unbidden. Riley had heard stories about the cyborg anarchists. Dealers in high-tech weapons and cybernetic hardware, they were disorganized, but still managed to plague Family operations in Sharkhead Isle with trouble. He’d heard stories, stories about their fixation on technologized, drug-fueled chaos; but he never faced one.
He was still staring at the hulking form when Antonio walked forward, arm extended, and with a forceful movement of his hand, the air around the monstrosity seemed to congeal and lift upward. Riley had only seen him use his powers once before. Antonio had ripped a pool table out of a vortex in thin air and lobbed it at car that had been tailing them. Now he'd trapped the cyborg junk pile with the weight of its own reversed gravity.
Antonio took a thoughtful step backward, and rested a hand between Riley's shoulder blades.
"That'll last maybe one minute, which ain't as long as I need. So you're gonna keep it busy in the meantime."
"What?" A visceral shock jolted him low in the spine.
"Don't worry. I ain't going far."
Antonio shoved Riley forward with the heel of his hand. Then he strode out of the room without looking back.
Riley regained his balance quickly, now within arm’s reach of the massive cyborg. His chest was hollow, but he stood his ground. How do you even fight something like that? His eyes wasted precious seconds tracking over its metal frame.
The steel-clad monster was two heads taller than Riley's six feet, and the armored body was more than twice his width. Protrusions attached to the cyborg at odd angles, forming a lattice of sharp metal edges like crystal structures. The thing's arms ended in massive hammers—scuffed, battered, well-used hammers.
Maybe go for the head? Try to stun it. Its head was human—pasty skinned, misshapen, with hostile piggish features—but still human underneath all that metal.
Riley tried to center himself, slow his runaway pulse. His hands became a focal point, and he poured his concentration into them until they glowed. It had beady spiteful little eyes for a monster—he drove his fist into the thing’s face. He put more force into it; threw another swing, and another.
Then the eyes moved, and with them the armored bulk came free of Antonio’s lingering grasp. The hammers came together above Riley's head; a clap with the power of a shockwave. The sonic force threw him backwards down the hallway.
He was on his butt, in a swirling swarm of electricity, with the giant cyborg advancing on him. Christ. What had Antonio been thinking?
Riley fumbled to draw the gun. It felt tiny, insignificant. He raised it and emptied the clip into the Freak. Barely any recoil, and the bullets plinked off the thing’s armor plates like pebbles.
Protruding wings of metal rose from the cyborg’s shoulders, opening to reveal gaping multi-barrel muzzles. Riley scrambled to his feet, dropping the useless gun. Some kind of artillery, grenade launcher maybe—he needed to move.
His electrified skin could take a few hits. It would disperse some force, but nothing as powerful as that. Low bass boom of a shell being fired behind him. He ran for the elevator.
A burst of explosive heat—the impact threw him sidelong into a pile of boxes. His head clipped something sharp before he slid to the floor. A thin edge of pain at his scalp line; there were drops of blood on the ground.
The massive metal form towered over him. It raised one sledge-hammer arm, and swung down with a wide arc. It hit him like a wrecking ball; hurling him across the hallway. His shoulder wrenched unnaturally as he crashed against the opposite wall.
Riley flailed at his attacker's legs from low on the ground.
His last chance: he would try to
throw it off balance. He'd lost the
focused energy around his fists, and his electricity was sputtering. With his
last desperate hope he tried to bring the armored monster crashing down.
The cyborg swatted him away like a fly. The hammers come down again, pounding him into the wall. Each vicious blow rained down a new layer of agony. His ribs creaking like brittle branches, his final strength used to protect his face with his hands. A glancing blow to his skull, and his head rebounded against the wall.
Light flashed behind his eyes.
He felt stretched thin, like reality had twisted and started to unravel as the circuits in his brain systematically shut off. He blinked and found a hole in his vision, a pocket of inky clouds growing more expansive by the second; and something else too, sinuous like a tattooed serpent, blending with the darkness.
Pain was receding into silent
numbness. Riley fought frantically for any remaining thread of consciousness.
He wasn't going to die like this. He wouldn't let himself die like this. Grasping,
clawing, he found a strand of old memory buried deep: like a lifeline, like a garrote,
cutting into him as the black curtain closed.
Another memory grasped him; stronger, more distinct; electrified filament throttling him.
Riley was fifteen and he could
feel the storm. He was sitting on the roof above his bedroom window, legs
dangling off the side in the raging wind. Rain had soaked him to the skin, but
he'd barely noticed. The raw energy of the thunder, the lightning: something
was stirring there and it was calling him.
Then she'd grabbed a fistful of his shirt collar and hissed in his ear "You little freak. You think anyone is ever going to care about you boy?"
She thrust him away and stalked
off; and Riley had looked up imploringly at his father with wet eyes. His
father had only offered an annoyed shrug.
By then his parents had disposed of their unwanted offspring by selling him off to the Family. Ostensibly it was an agreement to resolve a debt, but he’d known his own family would be happier without him. He hadn't understood what the mobsters wanted from him though--just that their heavy-handedness and his adolescent defiance didn't mix well.
Then some dormant, restless and volatile thing within him had finally snapped.
The storm he'd craved was an awakening vengeance from deep beneath his skin; and he was left convulsing on the floor. The ground heaved under him, kicking him as he jerked spasmodically; his spine brutally twisted and splintering with pain. He'd become the storm and it was eating him alive.
He screamed--a shrill and feral sound--until his throat was scraped dry, and his lips peeled back from electrified teeth. Pulsing electrical charges burned his pores; like being flogged with a thousand tiny live wires. A white haze, cramping and scorching, was punctuated by bright bursts of light. His senses had melted and warped around him. He could taste only dull metallic madness under his fevered breath; he could smell only a ruin of ozone and charred flesh.
From somewhere instinctive, he knew the broiled flesh was not his own. There was a second body on the floor, with smoking blistered skin and locked in rigid finality. An image slicing past his animal hindbrain like a razor: one of Verandi's lieutenants had hit him, fist to his jaw, over some small perceived disrespect. He'd fallen hard, and then what? Somehow he'd exploded in a squall of power and killed the man?
His body convulsed as if possessed by a broken drumbeat. There were heavy boots coming, a growing rumble in the floorboards. Then harsh voices shouting; Verandi's men, they would kill him over this.
Unwelcome hands on him, thick gloves. He wanted to scream "don't touch me!" but it was lost, choked in foamy spittle. He tried to bite them instead.
There were more hands grabbing him
roughly, vice grips on his shoulders and ankles. A backlash of power cut a cruel
arch in his spine. A voice from above--Verandi himself--barked sharp commands.
They rolled him on his side, held him down. One gloved hand at his throat
forced his head back, another jerked at his waistband. Then the stab of a
needle in his buttock, and he was being swallowed by a deep void.
The Australian sorcerer was
standing before him, tattooed arms crossed casually.
"I DON'T WANT TO SEE THIS!"
The memories were like weeping
scars; memories he would kill over, sooner than relive.
His hand made a sweeping gesture,
which ended in a finger pointed at Riley. "Now all this other bloody mess
in your head, that’s a real beaut. You can barely fight when it counts, and
you’re crazy if you think no one sees it.”
Maybe that was enough. His blood—his mutant blood—that he had railed against so many times. The memory of its taste burned sweet and salty. He knew with grim determination that his fate would never be found in star signs, or some long-forgotten prophecy. It had been etched in his blood before he was born; and that was where he would have to find it.
He would stand up and face the Freakshow monstrosity. He would take it apart piece by piece if he had to. Then, he promised himself, after this business was done, he would have a talk with Antonio.
Riley mouthed the words "thank you" at his last fleeting image of the tattooed sorcerer.
Then, with a howl of fury and hunter-sharp senses, he was back in the office building and leaping to his feet through a cloud of pain. There was blood spray, seeping into a cracked indentation in the wall, a souvenir of his body's impact. There was more blood running down his face. Lashing tongues of electricity turned scarlet where they met his blood—scarlet like his hair, scarlet like his rage.
He couldn't have been down long: a couple minutes at most, though it felt like longer. The cyborg tank must have left him for dead. He could hear its mechanical bulk moving through the next room. It would be heading for Antonio, and there was still enough time to catch it.
He followed its sound. He dashed after it, electricity singing in his brain like a rising red tide. His powers had never quite obeyed the pleas of his rational mind, but they would obey his anger.
Riley ran past the wreckage of the grenade blast: scorched carpet, wallpaper, damaged office equipment. He paused to retrieve the gun. The steel-plated form was ahead of him, back turned, moving rapidly despite its size. He hurled the gun like a cruel joke. It struck the Freak's armored carapace with a metallic clang. The cyborg turned ponderously toward him.
A challenging roar loosed from his throat before he leapt at
monster. He struck it square in the chest, with the raw force of hammer against
He went for the head again; this time with more force, more focus. Base instinct told him to smash it, before it could react, raise those deadly hammers. A thundering need demanding fulfillment; wrath fueled his arms, his fists, until the cyborg buckled beneath him.
Riley stepped back as the Freak collapsed on the ground. His eyes, emerald scorn in a rivulet of blood, studied its prone bulk.
He waited a full minute, and almost turned to leave when he heard a familiar loud snap of electricity from the massive metal form. It was getting back up. He scowled. You didn’t really think it would be that easy did you?
The cyborg rose to its feet again, electricity scuttling around it.
Riley straightened his back and faced it. He knew detachedly that his body was screaming in agony underneath the adrenaline. There would be a price to be paid later, but right now it was just more fuel for his burning core. He’d found a place of savage harmony and embraced it: a knife-point where hurt and power and blood and anger had all mingled and become a single urgent drive.
The hammers clapped together with a sonic tremor. This time he was ready for it. He dropped to a low crouch as the shockwave hit him. It threw him backwards, but he landed balancing on the balls of his feet, taking the impact in his haunches. His hackles were raised. He charged forward.
The Freak brought its sledgehammer arms up defensively. It was ready for him too. It wouldn't let him at its head again easily. Sharp metal appendages were moving behind it—rising off its shoulders. It was bringing out heavier weaponry.
Riley changed course, veering to the side and then behind the monster. He had a storm in his veins, electrical current in his nerves. He was lightning-quick, while the cyborg was confined in a steel shell. He wouldn't give it an easy target.
Keep circling, stay behind it. There was a drumbeat in his blood, furious and resonating.
A mechanical whirr launched a spinning saw-disc from a shuttered opening in the Freak's shoulder. He skirted its trajectory easily. The razor-sharp wheel lodged in the wall. A hammer spun at him, but it was laboriously slow. He moved out of its arc.
Riley could see gaps between steel plates: chinks in the armor at the monster’s joints. He dove low for the cyborg’s knees—but he underestimated the thing’s momentum.
A hammer slammed into his side, knocking him away with a spray of sparks, a bright wash of new pain. A split second and he was on his feet again, fierce and delirious with rage. A low murmur of a growl was rising in the back of his throat.
He lunged headlong at the Freak’s legs again. Crashing into its knees with a violent tackle, he threw a brutal jab at the joints in the metal shell. What was under there? Human flesh, muscles, ligaments? Or delicate robotics? It didn’t matter, and whatever it was, the massive, top heavy form was finally loosing its balance.
The leg was folding. He threw his weight against it, felling it like a tree. The cyborg collided with ground in a peal of thunder.
Riley was on top of it, pounding his fists’ blistering energy into the monster’s armored chest. He was a frenzy of spitting, hissing blood-red electricity; grappling with the Freak, crushing through steel plates. Layers of metal, circuit boards, and creaking fiber optics gave way under his fury. His powers were a bloated, riotous electrical storm, filling the room with scarlet chaos.
He was on the verge of splitting from the seams when he finally stopped himself. The air was heavy with the taste of smoke, an acrid smell of burning metal. He was left exhausted and empty, straddling the cyborg’s ruined form, breathing its defeat.
Now the pain was creeping back, sinking its hooks into him. He felt feverish, light-headed. There was barbed wire constricting his chest, and a spike driving into his forehead. His hands were cracked and blistered; red and white patches of scaly broken skin.
An itinerant thought ran through his weary mind. The first thing he would do, when this was all over, was to buy some insulated gloves.
Riley grabbed one of the Freak's spire-like metal appendages for leverage, and forced himself to his feet. There were thorns tugging at his guts, claws digging furrows in his ribs. He swayed on his feet. Smoke in the air, in his eyes—he should find Antonio and get out of here.
He stumbled through another door, another hallway. Staggering, he leaned against a wall. You're almost there. Only a little further. He dragged himself agonizingly closer to a smoky office doorway.
Then Antonio was stepping through the smoke, with a grim expression and carrying a laptop computer under one arm.
Riley was close now. He felt a wave of heat. His gaze traveled past Antonio, and into the room. A room full of computer equipment and smoldering fire—Antonio had likely ignited the flames.
There was a figure there, hanging grotesquely like a broken marionette, pinned against a tall bookshelf. A crumpled face, eyes bugging out, throat crushed. There was a silver plate covering half of the man's shaved head: swollen skin and protruding electronic nodes. Twisted cables hung from jacks in the skull, swaying in the rising heat. Stunted cybernetic limbs attached to the body, crooked and vestigial. The mechanical appendages were still twitching like a dying insect. Smell of cooking flesh and metal.
The scene was too much—too intense, too much pain.
He doubled over, gorge rising, dry
retching. A throbbing pulse caved in his knees, and then carried him to the
Riley awoke gradually to dim grey light. His eyes were gritty and raw, like they'd been coated with sand. His body was a web of pain.
He was alone in his apartment, lying on his own bed. Someone had removed his shirt and taped up his ribs—probably Verandi's pet doctor. Mottled patches of purple and yellow across his chest, like he'd met the wrong end of a meat tenderizer.
He touched his face: tender, bruised but no blood. There were stitches at his scalp line though; a small wound that probably wouldn't even leave a scar. The damage would heal, he was mostly unscathed.
Images of the broken ex-mobster swam through his head—a budding cyborg, covered in fresh implants. Antonio hadn't wanted him there while he tortured the man; downloaded his brain or whatever he'd been doing. It was just as well. What little Riley had seen would stay with him, filed away in his subconscious. It would be another nightmarish memory to add to his collection.
He sat up gingerly, wincing. His fingers found the glossy surface of a playing card stuck to his back. It must have come loose when they'd undressed him and dumped him in bed. He peeled it away from the dried sweat of his skin, and studied it.
The card was as enigmatic as its owner, but he thought he understood it now. It held no power of its own. It was a mark of a newly forged relationship, like a calling card. Maybe it was even an offering of friendship.
Riley imagined the tattooed Australian sorcerer, all cocky stance and wicked grin, holding a deck like a stack of business cards. A wizard's card would be a gift rarely given, a symbol deserving of respect. He placed it carefully on the crate at his bedside.
His cell phone was lying there too, where he'd forgotten it earlier—it felt like ages ago. Next to it, sat a bottle of pain pills. Someone must have left them for him, knowing how much he'd hurt when he woke up.
He weighed the phone and the bottle of pills, one in each hand. His left hand promised pleasant benumbed sleep, his right only an uncomfortable conversation. He flipped open the phone and dialed. He needed to talk to Antonio.
"Yeah?" The veteran mobster's greeting was curt.
Riley was too drained to waste time with trivialities. He would just have to get this over with.
"So, did you win your bet?"
There was a long pause, then what sounded almost like a hint of pride in Antonio's voice.
"Yeah kid. You did good. You think you can handle more jobs like that Reid?"
The answer came easily to him, like second nature. Riley felt the anger, a low simmer in his blood. He could remain civil when it suited him, but when he called it, it would be there waiting. It would come to a boil at his command, along with his powers, which would obey.
"Yes. I'm fine. I found something that works."
Then because he needed to raise the stakes, show Antonio he wasn't stupid, wasn't a mere pawn:
"It's too bad all that information Marcone wanted burned up in a fire."
"Yeah. That's a real shame, ain't it?"
Image of the mobster carrying a laptop out of a burning office—Antonio would never admit his motivation, but Riley knew. He knew, and the knowledge gave him strength.
"Look Antonio, I'll fight for you and Verandi. I'll kill for you guys. But I'm not going to be your pet dog. You need to tell me upfront if something like this comes up again."
There, he’d said it. His demand hung in the air for long heartbeats before Antonio answered.
"Ok Reid, maybe you earned the right to say that. You'll know as much as Verandi's other guys."
Antonio's words were calm and calculated, and promised nothing; but they took him seriously, and that was enough. It would have to be enough.
He was answered by a click and dead air. The conversation was over.
He’d never challenged Antonio before, about anything. Maybe it was time. Maybe he needed to for the sake of preserving his self-respect. The mobsters would treat him like property if he let them—valuable property, but property none the less. He couldn't blame them for manipulating him if he allowed it.
The tattooed sorcerer had warned him; told him that Antonio “kept his cards close to his chest.” That was probably true. But everyone had secrets didn't they? He had his own too, and he would keep them more carefully guarded in the future.
Riley stood up stiffly, one palm braced against his tortured ribs. He closed his eyes and ran his other hand through his hair. There was matted blood on his scalp, and a familiar sting, like saw-grass in a lightning storm. It bit at his blistered fingers, welcoming him home.
You're still alive and kicking Riley. This was looking like a good day so far.
He tossed the pain pills in the trash as he headed for the shower.
There you have the events wherein Riley Reid (later known as Payback in Spades, for reasons outside the scope of this story) met his lifelong friend, who he came to call Stack of Cards. In the time that followed, Riley saw less of Antonio. They still met weekly over dinner to discuss Family business, new jobs, and occasionally Riley's powers. However, they traveled in different circles. Riley became entrenched in the Port Oakes scene and Antonio had farther reaching pursuits.
Riley never told Antonio that he'd met the tattooed sorcerer again--outside the arena where Antonio had arranged their first meeting. But he did tell Stack all about Antonio. To this day, Riley and Stack are the only two people alive who know about Antonio's stolen cache of information: a database containing many names, some prominent, some incidental, some cloaked in secrecy.
If you were to run into the two of them today, you would find that Riley still has his wild red hair, intense red lightning, and knows when to let loose his fierce red temper. Stack still has his wicked grin, biting wit, and of course, his bewitching tattoos. Together they are formidable foes.
if you managed to catch Riley during one of the rare moments where he might
discuss his past, he would say that though he resents much of it, even detests
parts of it, he doesn't know where he would change it. It is too much a part of
him, too entwined in his being, and it could never be cut away without
diminishing the rest.