The Skulls lieutenant was not in a particularly good mood. Lately, scores of underlings had been picked up by the police after being found as bloody, beat-up heaps of flesh. Membership in his domain was beginning to noticeably decrease, a fact which surely his superiors would not ignore for long.

For the past month, this situation had been in existence. He had a good idea as to who was behind all the attacks, but he knew his hands were tied. His superiors would mark him a dead man if they knew what he had been up to.

A year ago, he had been approached by an old acquaintance who now worked for Crey Industries with a proposition. There had been several new products being tested by the megaconglomerate, and if he could find some “participants,” they would be happy to compensate financially. The products were two drugs, one named Persuasion, and the other, The Serum. He had tried it out on a few of his underlings, and to his amazement, the products worked incredibly well. But before the young Skulls could go out and test their newfound powers, a black truck marked “Crey Industries” on the side would pick them up, and the lieutenant would never see or hear from them.

About six months ago, he started to develop a plan; one that would lead to greatness, not only among the Skulls, but among Paragon City’s powerful. He kidnapped an up and coming model named Xandria, injected her with both drugs. The result was the tall beauty becoming a psychic completely loyal to him. Deciding if one high-powered model was good, more would be better, and he set his sights on Sara Shaughnessy. Xandria told him everything he wanted to know about the redheaded supermodel, and that was how he was able to lure her in.

“And now the seed has grown and blossomed.” he whispered, repeating the line one of the young Skulls had told him after getting out of the hospital. The boy told of a vicious attack he had survived, but barely. The Bone Daddy thought nothing of it at first, but now he was beginning to think Sara Shaughnessy was very much alive and out to destroy him.

Xandria entered his study with her usual slinkiness. She was tall for a woman, but fortunately, he was taller still. The Persuasion made her vulnerable to a stronger mind, suppressing the conscience and inhibition in those who took it. He capitalized on Xandria’s reduced mental capacity, not only for information on Sara, but in other ways as well.

He smiled at his prize. “My dear, how was shopping?”

“There was a sale today, darling. One hundred percent off of everything.”

“You’ve been using your abilities for selfish gain again, haven’t you?” he chided.

She smiled, and he wondered briefly what she would be like if she wasn’t on the Persuasion. She probably would fry my brains out, he thought. Instead of one supermodel out to get him, he’d have two.

“Xandria, I’m going to need you to do something for me.” he said, a plan beginning to form in his head. “I need you to find Sara and bring her to me.”

Across town, Jon was in no less of a bad mood. He had tried his best to help Sara to work with Paragon City’s law enforcement, and for the most part, she did. Unfortunately, she was keeping her main focus on two people; her brother and the Skull lieutenant who had kidnapped him. At every opportunity, she was out prowling the streets of Kings Row, slowly decimating the Skull network in the area in her efforts to find Evan.

This was not to say the reduced number of Skulls in the area displeased him. To the contrary, people were hearing about how Kings Row was being cleaned up, and some of the property values were starting to go up, even if slightly. What concerned him was Sara’s obsessive drive for vengeance on the Skulls. More than once she had run off en route to a mission simply because she saw a Skull member across the street or duck into an alley.

He sighed deeply, waking his wife up. She smiled sleepily at him.

“You should talk to her, Jon.” she said in a thickly accented voice. “She may be getting powerful, but she needs guidance. Like you did, remember?”

He smiled back at her. He remembered the day he met his wife; she was a novice heroine, he was a member of the Skulls. Instead of fighting, the two were immediately attracted to each other. Jon ended his affiliation with the gang to join the exotic Madam Medusa. For a while, they worked with legendary swordswoman Madam Lotus, using their combined might to fight crime. During that time, though, Jon had to retrain his thinking; he had learned to use his powers for evil, and now had to use them for good. But the powers he wielded came from darkness, and reflected a sinister nature at times. It was always a fight to not let that darkness consume him again. If Flora hadn’t been so patient with him….

“You’re right, my dear.” He took her hand and kissed it. He often wondered how she managed growing up the way she did; green, scaly skin and eyes that seemed to glow red. Her childhood seemed to be a sore subject for her, and so he rarely brought it up. Maybe someday she would tell him, after all, they hadn’t been married very long.

“I’ll talk to her later. Right now, I’ve got to go see Madam Lotus. She called with some information about The Serum.”

Up on the rooftops of Kings Row, Sara watched what was going on in the alley below. Three Skulls had cornered some unfortunate woman. Somehow, she doubted they were interested in just her purse. She moved in closer to investigate.

“Come on, hand it over, and we’ll be easy on ya.” said the leader.

“Get away or I’ll scream!” the woman said, fumbling around in her purse. She brandished a can of mace with a violently trembling hand.

Her threat only seemed to illicit laughter from the gangers, who pressed in close on the woman.

Sara had seen enough; she silently came down the fire escape and made a heroic leap behind the men, who were oblivious to her presence. She unsheathed her claws, which had since become longer, extending about eight inches from her fingertips. The action produced a curious noise, like the sound of a switchblade knife, only instead of one blade, it was ten.

The three turned around slowly. They had heard tales from some of their brothers about the red-haired woman who seemed out to destroy the Skulls in this area. Word came from their boss that whoever brought her in, alive or dead, would receive a great reward. They knew that this could be their chance; there was three of them, and no reports indicated that she attacked groups.

“Are you here for the party?” the leader asked.

She smiled. A cheerless smile, it seemed more rooted in malevolence than mirth. Her hazel eyes gave no warmth, only a glittering coldness. Her claws were pointed at them, ready for them to make a move.

“If it’s a party, you forgot one my favorite things.” she finally responded.

The Skulls fanned out slightly. The woman cowered behind the dumpster.

“What’s that?” the leader asked.

She leapt into the air in a rapid spin. With her claws extended, the effect was part tornado, part buzz-saw. The leader saw his two underlings fall to the attack. He managed to duck in time and now realized he was going to be facing her alone.

“Confetti.” she said, resuming her claws-out pose.

He pulled out his knife, a large enough blade, but he would still have to get close to use it. If he could just buy himself some time, he might be able to get away from her. Aside from The Nightbringer, the Skulls had few enemies that solely targeted them, so whoever this girl was, she had obviously decided they were going to be her key adversary.

“Bring it, then, baby.” he taunted, readying his knife.

He managed to miss her first swipe, a fast downward slash, and was able to counter with a hit on her arm. Her leather armband, however, absorbed the damage. He felt her other hand cut into his side and the force of the blow sent him back a few feet, and spun him around.

He looked at the wounds. Several long slashes were in his jacket and shirt. The cuts were long and shallow, but bleeding profusely. If he took many hits like that, he would bleed to death. Thinking quickly, he jumped on top of the dumpster and over the tall fence. He was knew that he would be able to find a hiding place if he was quick. This encounter would have to be reported to his boss.

Sara entertained the thought of going after him, but decided that the woman needed some help. She walked around the dumpster. The woman was still huddled.

“It’s alright. They’re gone. You can call the cops to deal with these two.” she nodded at the two unconscious Skulls. She turned and started walking down the alley toward the street.

“Thank you, whoever you are.” the woman called out.

Sara turned. She had given some thought to her code name after she had decided to embrace what seemed to be her destiny in crimefighting.

“Call me Solanum. It’s Latin for ‘nightshade.’” she replied, and turned back around. With a swift leap, she climbed up the fire escape to her vantage point on the rooftops. As soon as she was away from the area, she felt as if something grabbed her mind. She huddled on the rooftop clutching her head.

Well done, darling.” the voice mocked. She could tell it was Xandria. “Like they say, you’ve come a long way, baby.”

“What do you want?” Sara snarled.

A snicker.. “A chance to talk. Meet me at Warehouse 7. Don’t worry about any sneak attack. This is purely woman to woman. Around dusk, then?

“Fine.” Sara growled.

As quickly as it descended, Xandria left her mind. Sara looked around the rooftops for any sign of the telepath. Seeing none, a sense of frustration filled her. Aside from the Skull leader, Xandria was her best lead to finding Evan, and while she wasn’t sure she could fight her friend alone, she did not want to drag Jon and Flora into her fight.

She jumped to the next rooftop, towards the warehouse district and to what she hoped would be her brother.

“Thank you for allowing me to come, Madam Lotus.” Jon said, bowing deeply.

The Japanese woman merely nodded in greeting.

“You have information on The Serum?” he asked, trying to get a word out of the swordswoman. Her taciturn nature was almost as renowned as her skills with the katana.

“Yes. We have uncovered something regarding it. I will tell you the findings over tea. Follow me, please.” she answered.

She took him through her apartment, a spacious place, open and contemplative. The place seemed to encourage introspection and meditation, and one could hardly believe that just outside was the hustle and bustle of Paragon City. Stepping into Madam Lotus’ place was like transporting to a manor house in Osaka.

The tea room was small, and overlooked her private courtyard. Down below, four girls were training hand to hand combat. The courtyard reflected the beauty and discipline that Madam Lotus herself always projected. She bade him to sit down, and proceeded to pour the tea for them both.

“What is your interest in The Serum, Jon?”

“Flora and I rescued someone that was injected with it. I’ve seen it used on someone else, but couldn’t help her. The only thing I know is that the effects are different each time.” he took a sip of the tea, and grimaced slightly from its bitterness. “The problem is, Sara seems more interested in getting revenge on the people responsible than in finding her brother, which is what led to her getting injected with The Serum in the first place.”

Madam Lotus took in the explanation silently. She took a drink of her tea and paused for a moment.

“The Serum was created by Crey Industry’s laboratory. What you have told me is correct, it works differently on everyone. Why it was created is unknown, but like most experiments, Crey Industries wants to keep track of the results.”

“What do you mean?” he took another sip.

“The Serum contains a chemical tracer that Crey scientists can track down. One of the students happened to find a vial and bring it here. For the past week there has been a Crey Industry truck parked outside my apartment building.”

“So they can find whomever has been injected with it?” Jon asked, realizing what danger Sara was getting into. Madam Lotus nodded again.

He gulped down the last of his tea. The still hot liquid burned slightly, but he ignored it. He started to get up from his seat. “I apologize, Madam Lotus, but I have to leave.” He grabbed his black leather jacket and threw it on. He was too self-conscious about the strange tattoos on his arms to let most people see them. The ink seemed to be burning, as if crying to him to use the power they gave him.

He left the apartment, unsure of where he might find Sara. He decided to head home and get Flora. The two of them could find her, and if need be, protect her.

As dusk began to settle on Paragon City, the Skulls lieutenant received a phone call. He was actually surprised to hear the voice of his friend, the one who worked at Crey Industries.

“How can I help you?” he asked.

“Thomas, we’ve got a problem. The Countess is furious that The Serum got used on “unauthorized” participants.”

“What does she want?”

“She wants those two models you injected. And don’t think she doesn’t know about it. She does! It’s amazing she hasn’t sent a team over to deal with you already.” His friend sighed deeply. “Look, I’m sure that you had your fun with that blonde, right?”

“Xandria? She was rather amusing. A little high-maintenance, perhaps.”

“Well, if you’re looking for some sort of personal bodyguard, then she’s willing to give you one of our latest projects. A one of a kind thing, to be sure.”

He thought for a moment. He really didn’t have a choice. The Countess was not a woman to take lightly. He had absolutely no reason to make an enemy out of her, especially when she could help him in his plans.

“Very well. When can I expect my bodyguard?”

“We’ll be dropping him off once we’ve secured the ladies.”

The connection ended, and the Skull lieutenant stared at his study in reflection of what was about to happen. Shrugging, he returned to reading his novel.
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