The day was looking up. Ramone “Toothbreaker” Jones was feeling almost giddy. The victim of a name which drew him many a beating in grade school, Ramone learned early how to take a beating. Then, when he grew tired enough of the daily taunts, “accidents,” and bullies pushing him around, Ramone learned how to fight. By the time he was a Junior in Kings Row’s Schroeder High, Ramone wasn’t being pushed around any longer. In fact, he ran the toughest gang in Southside K.R., and had firmly earned his new nickname, “Toothbreaker.” He felt confidant in his newfound reputation as the resident badass, until a guy calling himself “Marrowsnap” taught him what tough really was.

When Ramone woke up, Marrowsnap offered to teach him how to really fight, promised to teach him how to break even the plague of heroes that covered the city like flies on shit. Eagerly, Ramone learned everything Marrowsnap had to teach him, and soon he was running his gang again, this time with bigger goals, more firepower, and the backing of his own dark powers, all in the name of the Skulls.

Ramone enjoyed his work. Every day he had plenty to do. There were always shipments of SuperDyne to oversee, and training a select few of his boys to use the shadows as he did took up a good deal of time as well. The Hellions were always trying to push on Skull turf, so a rumble was never far off, and heroes loved poking their noses into Skull business. This last was Ramone’s favorite pastime. Nothing equaled the fierce joy he felt when he kicked the living shit out of some spandex wearing freak. He wished he could have some more time with them, but the damn medical transponders ‘ported the heroes away before he could really get going on them. Still, it was great fun. and that was why he was so happy today.

Some lady-suit had come down to Southside K.R. to talk to him. When his boys had given her grief, she floored a good dozen of them before Ramone called them off. Clearly she wasn’t here to fight Skulls. She had a different look about her, something around the eyes that screamed business. So Ramone entertained her, and when he heard her proposal, he had roared with laughter and readily agreed to her terms. It wasn’t every day he got paid to beat the tar outta some hero, but hey, if someone wanted to give him money on the side for doing something he would do for free, he wasn’t gunna complain.

So that brought Ramone back to the ‘Dyne Warehouse he was standing in at the moment. A trap had been laid, word leaked to the right sources to make sure this hero would find them, and Toothbreaker had painted his “face” on. The trademark of the Skull bosses, a white skull was painted with great pride when preparing for any important event. Ramone had taken his paints, and when he was finished, Toothbreaker Jones glared back at him from the mirror. Oh yeah, this was gunna be a good night.

*********************************

“So I need you to get down there and put the hurt on this ‘Dyne operation,” Derek Amberson had said. The front man for ELITE (Enhanced Logistics for Insight and Tactical Excellence) in Galaxy City, Derek dealt with many martial heroes. Kane had been assigned to his department when he had registered with City Hall, and Derek had yet to let him down on a tip or lead. So a few hours later, Kane crouched in southern Kings Row amidst abandoned shipping crates, and watched a group of Skulls loading a sixteen-wheeler with crates of ‘Dyne. Score another one for Derek and ELITE.

The shadows were lengthening, and they provided plenty of space for Kane to stealth forward, ever moving closer to the truck and the unsuspecting Skulls. When he was within striking range, he paused to focus himself, and then moving quickly and quietly, he launched a powerful kick into the nearest Skulls side, propelling him into a companion, sending them both sprawling amidst the sound of ribs shattering.

The remaining Skulls went for an assortment of knives, pistols, and their leader unsung an sawed-off shotgun from his back. By the time they were prepared to offer any sort of resistance, four more of their number lay on the ground unconscious and bleeding.

Dodging an incoming bat-swinger, Kane performed a lightning fast roundhouse kick to the shotgun-toting lieutenant, shattering the Skull’s shoulder, and clipping his head hard enough to drive him to the ground unconscious.

A pain in his back reminded him of the knife-wielder. A hard elbow to the man’s gut, followed by a one-two combo across his chin laid him to rest. Even as Kane turned to face the last three Skulls he could feel the prickling sensation that indicated his healing powers at work knitting closed the wound.

The last three Skulls spread out slowly, ’till they made a 180 degree arc facing Kane. A fireman’s axe, baseball bat, and a set of nasty-lucking brass knuckles were ready to taste his flesh. Grinning suddenly, Kane looked the axe man in the eyes, and pitched his voice as sarcastically as possible: “What are you pussies waiting for? Roses?”

Snarling the Skulls rushed Kane as one.

*****************************

Agent Alicia Richardson flipped her monocle to a higher level of intensity. The warehouse walls faded from view, to be replaced by a green-tinted vision of the interior. Kane was progressing into his old abilities quickly. After the first week of repeated embarrassing defeats, Kane had pulled himself together and begun to use what skills and powers he had available.

The constant training in ELITE’s dojo’s, coupled with practical application on the streets of Paragon City were remolding Kane into a fearsome fighter. A fact that the melee she had just witnessed attested to. Alicia was confidant that it was time to further test Kane’s abilities, and so she had arranged this little meeting. Crey’s IntelNet had provided her with the name and location of an expendable asset in the form of this Skull gang leader, and her nigh-unlimited expense account had not even felt the price the Skull had demanded.

Brushing her long tresses form her eyes, Alicia settled back and prepared to watch as her two gladiators met.

**************************************

Toothbreaker slammed his fist into his other palm. The frenzy of battle was close and he could feel its approach in his blood. Shadowy whisps floated about him, signs of his growing excitement. This QuikStryke punk had dusted quite a few of his best guys, which meant that he would be a good fight. Toothbreaker started taking bets with himself over howling the fight would last… Odds favored better than sixty seconds… Of course he was betting on himself to win.

**************************************

Kane didn’t like it. The whole setup was too pat. The crates he had checked held no SuperDyne, weapons, or other illegal substances. Instead they held stolen DVD players, and other small electronics. Now that he padded through the massive labyrinth this ancient warehouse provided, he found little sign of use. Empty crates were scattered, and signs that squatters might live here normally were evident. What was lacking were gang symbols or other markings that indicated the Skulls claimed this property as their own. The few Skulls he had met were obviously lying in wait for him, not that their preparations kept them from unconsciousness. All signs indicated a trap, but why? He hadn’t fought the Skulls much, concentrating more on the Hellions and the little mechanical monsters known as the Clockwork. Whatever the reason, he was tired of this game, and more then willing to give whomever had arranged it a solid thrashing.

**************************************

Toothbreaker caught his breath when he saw the hero round the corner. The moment had arrived! He exhaled a giggle as he summoned the shadows to his whim. “Welcome QuikStryke! Goodbye, QuikStryke!”

**************************************

Kane was temporarily startled by the giggling madman before him. The white-painted skull mask that was favored by the Skull bosses was stretched in a gruesome grin. This guy obviously used way too much of his own product, but the shadows he was busy summoning were no joke.

Kane rolled to the side, avoiding the first blast of shadow stuff, but then felt its bite as the screaming face formed in its midst turned and circled ’round to connect. Thousands of tiny teeth drew blood as the shadow attack drew life from his body.

Spinning, Kane charge the Skull boss. This perp had just earned himself a few extra notches of respect, something he planned to pay with his fists and feet.

****************************************

Toothbreaker laughed again. The look of surprise on heroes’ faces when his attacks came back to strike them even when they avoided the initial blast provided him no end of hilarity. Predictably, the brawler types always charged after he pissed them off like this, and this this hero wasn’t going to disappoint his expectations.

Watching the hero advance, Toothbreaker set himself, launching a quick shot of shadow stuff to make QuikStryke duck, and then he launched his favorite attack, the shadow maul.

The hero clearly wasn’t ready for that! Stepping inside QuikStryke’s opening kick, Toothbreaker unleashed a flurry of blows, raining destruction down on the hero, and ending with an uppercut that sent him sailing, to land flat on his back. Throwing back his head, Toothbreaker laughed mockingly.

******************************************

Kane blinked at the ceiling, collecting his wits about himself. He’d heard that Skull bosses were tough, and capable at both distance and close use of their powers, but hearing was never quite the same as seeing… Or feeling. His ribs were on fire, and his jaw ached fiercely. Rolling to his side, Kane spit blood and teeth as he listened to the Skull’s mocking laughter.

“That there is why they call me Toothbreaker, Mr. QuikStryke.” Waving a stack of cash wound together with rubber bands, the Skull continued his gloating. “And this here? This is the $10,000 I was paid to kick you ass! Hell, I’d of done it for free, prancing around in my territory in those faggy tights like you are, but shit, when pretty girls are offering big bucks, ol’ Toothbreaker is more than accommodating…” he leered at QuikStryke, “…if you know what I mean.”

Kane stood, his regeneration already healing his bruised ribs, and new teeth piercing his gums as he rose. He nodded, listening to Toothbreaker rant away. When he felt the last rib knit, he clenched a fist and asked his host, “So the idea was to talk me to death?”

Toothbreaker stopped cackling.

“Seriously, I’ve had assassins paid ten times that much after me. That ‘pretty girl’ played you, fool. And that’s not half enough cash to pay a black market doctor for what I am about to do to you.”

*******************************

Toothbreaker couldn’t believe his ears! This hero was mocking him? He had the cahones to roll into his territory and dis’ Toothbreaker? Oh that would not do, would not do at all. Popping another ‘Dyne gel tab, Toothbreaker ceased to be a thinking organism and fell into a red haze of fury.

*******************************

Kane took in the swallowed pill, nodding in acknowledgment that the fight just stepped up yet another notch. Setting himself in a martial stance, he watching Toothbreaker vibrate, literally shaking as if in seizure, his veins bulging dangerously close to bursting. Foam flew from Tooth breaker’s mouth as he shouted something unintelligible, and then he was charging. Kane smiled, being able to infuriate people had its pluses on days like this.

Toothbreaker charge, swinging powerfully bulging fists in an effort to batter a foe that was not there. Kane faded away, allowing Toothbreaker to expend his energy on wild blows that struck only air.

After one such pass, Kane rose in a graceful roundhouse kick that connected with the back of Toothbreaker’s neck, propelling him into a nearby girder. Toothbreaker struck with a resounding thud that echoed through the warehouse like a church bell’s toll.

Shaking his head to clear it, Toothbreaker vented his anger on the girder, wrenching a chunk of it loose and turning to face his tormentor. Spotting him nearby, he charged.

SuperDyne’s influence on the human body was being given a classic field test, and Kane was sitting first chair to see it. Toothbreaker’s face was flushed red enough to blush beneath the white face paint. He was sweating profusely, and the air was rank with the ‘Dyne evaporation. Corded muscles were already tightening, and the beginnings of a seizure were obvious in the tremors rippling through Toothbreaker’s face and the whites of his eyes showing more clearly with each passing moment. Ripping the girder from the floor had to have strained something, because Toothbreaker’s charge was more of a fast hunchbacked shuffle. Kane could almost pity him…almost.

As Toothbreaker approached, Kane waited till the last moment to avoid the his opponent’s wild swing, and as the girder struck the ground, he struck. A palm strike placed between Toothbreaker’s eyes rocked him on his heels. A thunderous axe kick shattered ribs. The following roundhouse kick sent teeth flying, an irony not lost on Kane. As Toothbreaker reeled back, Kane readied to finish the fight with a crane-kick that would drive his foe’s sternum into his lungs. Something made him pause, and as he straightened, Toothbreaker’s eyes rolled back in his head and he fell to the floor spasming in a ‘Dyne-induced seizure. This time Kane did feel… Something. Ending this man’s life would not make him more of a man, proved nothing to his warrior’s code. Saving Toothbreaker’s life might say something about that spark of humanity he tried to nurture for his wife, Dana’s sake.

Shaking his head, Kane attached the electronic villain collection band to Toothbreaker’s wrist, and watched as the Skull boss was taken into custody.

Leaning over, he picked up the stack of greenbacks on the floor. Flipping through them quickly, he pondered on who might have hired a thug to take him out.

*******************************

Ripping her monocle off, Alicia screamed in frustration. Why hadn’t Kane killed Toothbreaker Jones? It made no sense… He was a predator, she knew that, felt it from him. He was no hero, only masquerading amongst them to get what he wanted, a free ticket home. He always pursued what he wanted, no matter the cost…

Alicia stopped her rage. Why had she just thought that? She had known Kane for less than a month, but somehow, she felt she had known him for far longer. Nodding to herself, she accepted her “gut instincts” and decided she knew more about this man than he did about himself. After all, they were two of a kind, weren’t they? All she had to do is wait, and she would see him fall of his heroic wagon, and then she would have the information needed for Crey to “pursued” Kane to enter their fold. And if he wouldn’t, she would relish crushing him with her own hands!

Pain drew Alicia’s attention to her right hand. In her anger, she had crushed the standard-issue imaging monocle she wore, and shards were protruding from her flesh. Wincing, she delicately pulled the offending metal from her hand, tossing it to the ground as she reached for a bandage.

She stopped in mid-motion as a green glow leaked from her palm and her hand itched uncontrollably. Flexing her fist to ease the itching, Alicia watched the glow die away. Stunned, she opened her palm to find it completely healed! This was no cybernetic ability given to her by Crey, and she had registered a complete zero when taking the Power Aptitude Test when registering for military duty at the age of eighteen. This… This was something new.

Staring at her palm, Alicia smiled cunningly. The random mutation of powers after the teenage years was almost unheard of. A nagging thought that she should report these new abilities to Hopkins was quickly squashed as she looked back across the street to where Kane exited the Skull’s trap.

If Agent Alicia Richards had been shown a mirror at that moment, she would not have recognized the expression on her own face. From deep within herself, a small voice chuckled to itself.

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