The Boneyard – 11:55 PM

“Does that hurt big mon?”

The white skull painted on his face grew more threatening as he contorted his features in anger and stepped down harder on the roof ledge. He smiled at the growling that ensued, satisfied at knowing how hard the hero below him was trying not to scream in pain.

Hanging from that ledge was a figure garbed in black and gray leather armor. A hood and mask shrouded all of his face but the eyes, almond shaped, hazel eyes that glared defiantly back up at the black man towering above him. But then as white spots filled his vision, hanging 60 feet above the concrete below by one hand, he blocked out the pain by trying to focus on just how he’d gotten here.

John Lee came to Paragon City with his parents long before anyone had ever heard of the Ritki. He grew up with the same wide eyed dreams of any kid who had the encouragement of parents he could be proud of. He lived by the lessons that his father taught, both in the martial arts and in life.

It was through conscious effort that he was sheltered from the reality of that life, though, or rather, from the cost of it. Even back then, despite what local historians try to claim, most of the city was ruled by one criminal faction or another. The supposedly affluent Steel Canyon, so-called birthplace of the superhero, was no different.

He started to know something was wrong in his early teens. This group of kids not much older than he was would visit the store every week. They’d come in, casually take what they wanted off the shelves in plain view of his father, pick up a brown envelope off the counter, and leave.

But then one day the envelope wasn’t there. They’d come in more often, taking more and more, harassing the paying customers. John watched it all, but never said anything. He focused on his studies, on making his father proud.

Until the fire.

He could still taste the oily smoke in the storeroom where he found his father. He could still smell the blood. He could still hear his mother’s screams over the sirens.

That’s when he did the most idiotic and most significant thing of his life. Filled with rage, he barged right into the old factory where he knew those kids who had constantly trashed the store hung out. He was lucky to get out alive, more accurately, lucky that they let him live.

That night, he vowed justice. If he had not been so bullheaded, perhaps his vow would have been tarnished by the need for revenge. But the pain of his encounter drove home every lesson his father tried to teach him. If he didn’t understand before, he now definitely knew the price of action without focus, anger without discipline. He would not shame his father’s memory that way again.

The next several years were spent traveling the Far East. There he learned the true way of the warrior. His martial arts arsenal grew to include the grace of Tai Chi, the power of Wing Chun, and the speed of Jeet Kun Do. In the mountains of Tibet, he discovered his innate potential, learning how to heal his body, “see” while blindfolded, clear his mind, and increase his strength and speed tenfold.

Years later, John returned to a world in flames. By the time news of the Ritki invasion reached him, every city across the globe was already in chaos. It took him over 6 grueling months to finally get home. He searched for his mother, only to find her name on a list with millions of others.

In the aftermath, his vow seemed so empty, almost petty. But in the reconstruction he saw families just like his, trying to start over. Despite the 3 mile high force fields now surrounding their neighborhoods, they all had the same hopes and dreams. And they all lived in the same fear that his family did.

John Lee upheld his vow, donning a black hood and a name that every criminal in the city would quickly learn to fear, Nightstrike.

Most criminals, that is, except apparently for the newest member of the Skulls gang, a big tank who went by the name of Papa Pain.

“I asked you if that hurt!”

This time Nightstrike did yell out, but more in shock at losing his grip on the ledge than from the weight of the big Jamaican’s boot on his fingers. He dropped 20 feet before managing to scramble off the wall and divert his momentum. Hoots of laughter echoed off the rooftop as Papa Pain and his four flunkies watched the masked vigilante hit the pavement like a limp rag doll and roll into a concrete bumper block.

The Skulls were still laughing when the hero slowly got up, rolled his neck around and stretched out his left shoulder. The laugher started to falter when he stopped and just stood there for 5 long heartbeats. Someone started to ask “What’s he doin’?”

Nightstrike was on the roof in two bounds, one off a lamppost and one off Papa Pain’s chest, with a jump kick that was so sudden it sent the giant flying. They were still trying to react when the blur that moved where Nightstrike had once been lashed out.

Papa Pain rose to his feet and shook his head clear in time to see two of his boys drop from a backhand fist and a spinning roundhouse kick. An elbow flew out of nowhere and down went a third. The fourth was yanked down into a knee to the stomach and then there were none.

Nightstrike turned his gaze toward him and said flatly, “I have a few questions for you.”

Papa Pain just cracked his knuckles. “One cheap shot and tossin’ around a coupla’ kids don’t prove a t’ing. Go home, hero, or find out how I earned m’ name.”

Nightstrike’s masked eyes never wavered. “I saw you leaving Tony Carlucci’s place in the Copper District. Way off your turf, pal.”

“The Skulls go where dey please now, mon. De–“

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. The whole city’s gonna learn to ‘spect you, right? I know. Get to the good part. What can The Family possibly have to say that’s so important, you get a personal meeting?”

Papa Pain answered with a scream, lunging at the smaller man. The effort was met with an arm drag that left him sprawled across the roofing, but he was up just as fast.

Nightstrike sighed. “Every loser on a Superadine high thinks they’re in the big leagues.”

Papa started laughing. “Superadine! I don’t use dat crap.” He grabbed a metal vent, ripping it clean off the roof like paper. “This mojo’s all mine, mon.”

As if to demonstrate, he cranked his arm back to whip the jagged hunk of metal, but a swinging axe kick to the crook of his arm ended the attempt. Papa snarled and tried to decapitate Nightstrike with a clothesline, catching nothing but air.

“Alright sounds like you need a lesson in superhuman anatomy,” Nightstrike continued, ducking another blow. “Lesson #1: No matter how thick your hide, you still have soft spots where you move. Like… here!” A knuckle strike under the jaw where it joined the neck punctuated the statement, followed by a spinning leg sweep to the back of the knees. “And here!”

Papa Pain was undaunted, springing back to his feet in an overhand charge. “Lesson #2: No matter who you are, where the head goes, the body must follow.” In mid-sentence, Papa found himself in a headlock, looking over the edge of the building. He gritted his teeth and flexed, but Nightstrike was already out of arms reach before he could get upright.

“Lesson #3: Unless your name is Statesman, you’re probably not as invulnerable as you think you are.” Papa took a sudden defensive posture, ready for anything. Nightstrike feinted left and sent a blinding kick square into his groin.

Before the near invulnerable man could form his next cohesive thought, a flurry of kicks pummeled his head and neck, sending him reeling in every direction until finally he felt the sensation of freefall. A second later, wondering why he was on the sidewalk, he blinked the spots from his eyes just in time to see a black boot fall from above and slam into his nose.

“NOW!” Nightstrike spat, picking Papa Pain up by the collar of his vest. “What does Tony Carlucci want with the Skulls!?”

Suddenly the sound of a roaring inferno filled the air. Both men turned in surprise as a pillar of flame flew into view from over the wall of Perez Park across the street. A column of green energy struck the giant fireball, dissipating the flames to reveal a red haired woman in tattered black robes trying to hold onto a terrified girl no older than 12.

The girl started to slip. For just an instant, the woman’s pleading eyes met Nightstrike’s.

Then what looked like a dozen figures appeared over the treeline of the Park, heading straight for them.

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