Dawn of the Asylum, Issue #17.5 – New Year Special 2020

Asylum Temporary Headquarters

New Year’s Eve

“You’ve been gone a while,” Frank remarked as Agent and Natalie returned to the tower. After kicking her boots off, Natalie went to the lounge, kicking her feet up on the sofa and pulling the knit blanket over her feet.

Agent shook his head and went to the staircase, presumably to his room to freshen up. Natalie’s family had spent the last few hours alternately whacking him on the arms for scaring them and tousling his hair for bringing Natalie back. The normally well-groomed Agent took pride in his appearance, so Natalie knew that they wouldn’t see him again until he could change.

“Oh, you know the roustabouts,” Natalie said. Frank wasn’t well acquainted with Thomas Fawkes’ boarders – affectionately referred to as “the roustabouts” by the twins, as they all worked on her father’s stage show – but he had heard stories. “They wouldn’t let us go without dinner, dessert, and gossip.”

“You told them what happened, then?” Frank said, bringing over a bowl of popcorn and sitting on the couch next to his friend. “I called my family, too – they would have loved to see you today, but Mom knows your issues with people. She said you can visit them tomorrow.”

Natalie took a handful of the popcorn, savoring the salty, buttery flavor. While the Primordials hadn’t starved her, she had been surviving on bland rations since the kidnapping and had missed eating real food for the last few days. “I’ll call her before I go to bed,” she said. “I can do that at least.”

“I’m sure she’d appreciate it,” Frank said. He stared at her for a few seconds and added, “I can’t believe you’re really back.”

“Weren’t you the one telling everyone I was still alive?” Natalie asked, throwing a piece of the popcorn at him.

“Yeah,” Frank said, “but still.”

“Hey,” came a voice from the doorway, “Is there room for more at this party?” Natalie looked up and saw Rina, Reiki, Haley, and Eli standing in the doorway. Rina was the one who had asked, but she didn’t wait for an answer before crossing over to the lounge chair.

“Sure, why not?” Natalie shrugged as the others came in as well. Reiki sat at the tea table, and Haley and Eli perched on footstools instead of seats.

“So, big day,” Eli said, grinning as he took some of Natalie’s popcorn.

“Get your own,” Natalie growled at him, covering the bowl protectively. “And it’s no big deal.”

Reiki raised an eyebrow at her. “‘No big deal’?” he repeated. “You came back from the dead, discovered a lost underground city, fought a bunch of elemental Third Gens, and you call that ‘no big deal’?”

Natalie shrugged, talking through the handful of popcorn she had shoved in her mouth. “Rea-y ‘ough,” she said, swallowing the popcorn before continuing. “Considering what else has happened this year, it’s not that big of a deal.”

“We had a funeral for you,” Frank pointed out.

“And compare that to, say, prisoners escaping from Zatvor – the inescapable prison,” Natalie said. “Or Haley and Butterfly getting abducted by aliens. Or the Elutherios drug, or Rina meeting her long-lost jerkwad father, or your sister getting kidnapped, Frank,” she listed.

“Not to mention the tower getting blown up in the riots earlier this year,” Haley piped in.

Natalie glared at her. “Or that,” she admitted. “Or Dark David stabbing Rina, or Hatter switching our bodies… face it, with everything that’s happened this year, me quote-unquote ‘dying’ is a drop in the bucket.”

“Fair,” Frank admitted. “So what do you guys want to do tonight?”

“We haven’t had a movie night in a while,” Natalie said. “I’ll go pick something out – hang on.” Her phone began ringing, playing a decade-old song called “Birds”. Natalie bit her lip, knowing who it was without looking at the caller ID. “I’ll be right back.”

It took her a few minutes to get downstairs and outside of the building, but she had to see him. Parker was skulking in the alleyway next to the Asylum Headquarters, waiting for Natalie to come out.

“What’re you doing here?” Natalie asked, shivering in the cold night air. In her haste after hearing his ringtone, she had forgotten to bring a coat with her, despite it being the middle of winter.

“Can’t I come see my sister after she returned from the dead?” Parker asked, holding up his hands in a shrug.

He took off his Faun mask, letting Natalie see his face for the first time in months. His blond hair was still cut in a short, spiky do, but instead of the professional cuts he had gotten for as long as she could remember, it looked as though he trimmed it himself with a knife. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, either, and his outfit seemed worn. His unkempt appearance showed her how difficult life had been for him, but he also did not look nearly as bad as she had imagined.

“Okay, you’ve seen me,” Natalie said brusquely. “Now what?”

Parker sighed. “I’m sorry, Nat,” he said sincerely. “I know I haven’t said it yet, but I really am sorry for everything.” He took a step toward her, and she took one back in response.

“Really?” Natalie asked, her patience wearing thin. “What exactly are you sorry for? For blowing up the tower? For lying to me for months about your ‘secret mission’? What?”

“All of it!” Parker exclaimed, running a hand through his hair and spreading his wings nervously. “I’m sorry for all of it. I was obsessed with bringing down Claw, and I got in too deep and didn’t know how to pull myself out. I’m sorry!”

Natalie pursed her lips, considering for a moment, before she ran forward and hugged her twin tightly. “I’m your sister,” she said, hiding her tears in the hug. “If you’re in trouble you can always come to me for help!”

Parker seemed taken aback for a second, but then she felt his arms hugging her back, and she knew they would be okay. They stayed like that for a few more seconds before Natalie got self-conscious and pulled back.

“Oh, hey,” Parker said as they both brushed off the moment of sibling affection. “I brought this for you.” He fiddled with his mask and handed her a small memory chip from the side of it. “There’s a lot of stuff on there, but the last bit is from the memorial service. I knew you’d want to see it.”

Natalie chuckled. “You’re right, I do,” she said, pocketing the chip. “I hear they said a lot of nice stuff about me.”

“Dad did, anyway,” Parker said, shrugging his shoulders in that familiar way of his. “I think after they saw me they tried to cut it short without making a scene.”

“Boo,” Natalie pouted. “I’ll have to give them hell for that. My funeral should mean the focus is on me.”

“I know, right?” Parker laughed, and for a moment it felt like old times; Natalie and Parker laughing together, the twins against the world.

Then the biting wind chilled Natalie enough to bring her back to the present.

“Have you seen Dad?” she asked.

Parker shook his head. “I saw him at the funeral,” he told her, nodding to the chip in her hand, “but that’s the most I’ve seen of him since going underground.”

“He misses you, you know,” Natalie said.

“Yeah, right,” Parker scoffed, the grin sliding off his face. “More like he doesn’t know how to feel about me now. His son is a wanted terrorist.”

Natalie shook her head. “Haley heard from her brother that you were coerced,” she told him, and Parker froze. “The only reason you were on that video was because Claw set you up. The guy might be willing to testify, if – ”

“It wouldn’t make a difference,” Parker cut her off. “Scott’s a nice enough guy, but he’s a satyr and a former Faun. His word wouldn’t mean beans in court.”

“You don’t know that,” Natalie said, raising an eyebrow. “If the Asylum was also backing you up…”

She trailed off, but Parker finished the sentence for her. “Then I’d be put into a nice prison cell,” he said. “Besides, there’s more going on than you realize, and you wouldn’t believe me if I tried to explain it.”

“Try me,” Natalie said, folding her arms. “I can guess some of it. Agent’s been acting weird, and Haley keeps bringing up the question of who put the bombs in the tower. What explanation could you possibly give that I wouldn’t believe?”

Parker shrugged. “Aliens?” he said. Natalie stared at him until he started laughing. Despite herself, Natalie also grinned.

“Okay,” she said. “There’s one explanation. ‘Aliens’, hah.”

“Seriously, though,” Parker said once he stopped laughing. “We’re all caught up in a very tangled web, and I don’t even know most of it. A lot of it is centered around the Asylum, though, so just… watch your back in there, okay?”

Natalie put her arm around his shoulder in a half-hug. “You’re worried about me?” she asked, teasing him. “You’re the one living with a bunch of feral degenerates.”

“They’re not all bad people,” Parker said, shrugging his arm over his sister’s shoulder in turn.

“Yeah, I met your girlfriend,” Natalie said, giving him a sly grin to let him know she was only joking. “Smart girl. Makes me wonder why she’s going out with you.”

“Kiara’s been great,” Parker said, hanging his head as he accepted his twin’s ribbing. “She helps me take my mind off things.”

“And Haley?” Natalie asked, poking his side with her elbow as she broke the hug. “What’s up with you two, anyways?”

Parker shrugged again, shaking out his wings. “Honestly, I have no idea,” he said. “Before the funeral the other day, I only met her once when she was doped up on that drug, and then again when she showed up on my doorstep asking if I’d help her get David back. She seems to trust me, but I can’t figure out why.”

“Seriously?” Natalie said. “The way she talks about you, you’d think she was your best friend. She’s always defending you.”

“Well, I did save her brother’s life,” Parker pointed out. “Though from talking to Scott in the Fauns, I thought there was no love lost between them.”

“Huh,” Natalie said. “Well, chalk it up to another mystery.” She shivered again in the wind, and looked back at the building behind her. “I’d better get back,” she said, “before the others start wondering where I went. Agent hasn’t let me out of his sight for very long.”

“Of course he hasn’t,” Parker said, grinning. “Speaking of what’s up…?”

“He’s my boss,” Natalie said. “Sure, I like him, but my crush is of the unrequited variety. I’m too young for him, anyway.”

“Ri-ight,” Parker said, giving her a teasing grin in turn. “Well, I’ll let you go. Enjoy the show,” he added, gesturing again at his recording of the funeral as he put his Faun mask back on.

“Hey,” Natalie said as Parker crouched to take off. “Stronger together?”

Parker gave her the first sincere smile she had seen that night as he finished their old ritual. “Stronger as one,” he said. With that final word, he jumped into the air, launching himself above the rooftop of the building next to the tower before flying off into the night.

Natalie watched him go, waiting until he was a speck in the distance before heading back inside the tower. She fiddled with the chip he had given her as the elevator took her back up to the living room.

“Hey, there she is!” Rina called, patting Natalie’s spot on the couch. “Where’d you go?”

“Not far,” Natalie answered, putting the chip into their TV before sitting down. “Just had to pick up the evening’s entertainment.”

As the recording began with the cameraman landing slightly away from the cliffs and walking into the funeral, Natalie caught Frank giving her a sideways glance. Nobody commented on her obvious source, however; Reiki dimmed the lights, and the team spent the evening groaning and laughing over the memorial service for their living friend.

All in all, it was a pleasant homecoming, with the promise of a better New Year.

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #18 – The Highest Form of Flattery

Dawn of the Asylum, Issue #17 – Fire and Water

Asylum Headquarters.

Something’s wrong.

Haley Prince and Eli Howard, otherwise known as “Outlier” and “Butterfly” respectively, were coming back from their patrol of the city to find a commotion in the lobby of Asylum Headquarters. Shadow, Earthborn, and Nightmare had just returned from a capture mission, and had one of the Zatvor Prison escapees in custody. They looked exhausted, more than they should have been for capturing one prisoner. Everyone passing through the lobby gave the Watchers a wide berth as the frog-marched the prisoner to the prison guards that were waiting for them. It seemed like a normal occurrence for the end of a mission, until they all were startled by a sudden shout.

“What the hell just happened, Shadow?!” Agent asked, storming out of the elevator as soon as the doors opened. “You guys were supposed to wait!” Haley had never seen the usually calm and collected Agent this upset before. The look on his face was alarming, if not downright terrifying to see.

The team didn’t answer him. Shadow looked at the floor, and Nightmare was watching Shadow with a worried expression on her face. Earthborn was pushing a girl with leathery, bat-like wings along in front of himself – Haley recognized Erinyes from the description in her profile. The Faun lieutenant’s arms were tied behind her with a layer of rock, but she was grinning as if she had won the fight.

“Take her away!” Agent shouted at the nearest security guard. A team of guards led the escaped convict to the holding cells, until they could transport her to Zatvor prison.

“Agent, we tried – ” Nightmare started to say, but Agent interrupted her.

“You tried,” he snarled. “I know you tried. But trying isn’t enough. Where is she?!”

Earthborn stepped forward. “We searched the cliffs, Agent,” he said. “We couldn’t find her.”

“Then get back out there and search again!” he shouted. “She has to be there!”

“Hey, what’s going on?” Haley asked. “Agent, why are you down here?” It was unusual for the team’s leader to be out of his office during the day, much less on the first floor as the Watchers returned from a mission.

Shadow shook his head at her, pulling her away from the scene. “We just took down Erinyes,” he said.

“Erinyes?” Eli repeated. “The bat-satyr Faun that’s been giving Trick so much trouble?”

“One of the Zatvor escapees,” Haley nodded. “So why does Agent look like he’s about to kill somebody?”

“Who died?” Eli asked, staring at the scene in the middle of the entranceway. Shadow looked sharply at him, so he explained, “I know that look. He doesn’t look like he’s about to kill somebody – he looks like someone he’s responsible for just died. So, who was it?”

Haley gave him a questioning look, but Shadow looked away and whispered something. “What?” Haley asked.

“Natalie,” Shadow said louder, looking back at them. “Trick is dead.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum HQ.

Debriefing room.

“Okay, start from the beginning,” said Jones, the psychologist that Pharos Industries had brought in to evaluate the team.

O.N.C. and Sean Hannah had agreed to send in a professional to talk with the team about the loss of their teammate; it had been a failing in their predecessors, Team Ark, that the team had fallen apart after a member had died. In fact, Frank realized with a start, it had been Natalie’s mom who had died back then. Well that’s ironic, Frank thought sardonically, staring at the psychologist as he took his seat at the conference table. Frank was surprised that Jones had gotten there so quickly; it had been only a few hours since they had captured Erinyes.

None of them wanted to speak up first. If they said it out loud, then it would be real. Frank looked around at the others, but they all seemed to be staring at him expectantly.

“Shadow?” Jones asked kindly. “Do you want to start?” Frank was starting to hate the shrink’s too-calm voice already.

Then it hit him – the others were waiting for him. Haley, Granny, Reiki, and Eli had not been there, and Nightmare and Earthborn had joined later. Agent had been on comms the entire time, which left Frank as the only Asylum teammate to have been present for the whole story.

“What do you want me to say?” he asked, resigned. “There’s not much else to report. We chased after Erinyes, and Trick went over a cliff. Then Nightmare and Earthborn showed up and captured Erinyes. End of story.”

“Start with why you guys went after Erinyes without waiting for backup as ordered,” Agent said, glaring at him.

Frank shrugged. “I heard you give the order to wait, but Nat had already taken off,” he explained. The memories seemed to blur together – chasing Erinyes through the city, trying to catch her, Trick going over the cliff – and suddenly Frank felt really tired. He looked down at his hands on the table to see that they were still shaking, but he didn’t know why.

Dale noticed, though. He spoke up from the corner of the room where he was observing the meeting. “Jones, maybe this should wait ‘til tomorrow, aye?” Frank caught the look that passed between the two doctors, and the slight nod Dale gave at his shaking hands.

“I’m fine,” Frank insisted, pulling his hands off the table and shoving them onto his lap. “Just – I didn’t expect…” he trailed off. What didn’t he expect? Frank had been to the future, where Natalie had been alive and well – or at least that was what Razorwing had told him. But then again, he was also told many times on that trip that the future could change – in fact, he had been brought there for the specific purpose of changing certain things. Did that mean it was his fault? Could he have changed the future so Natalie – ?

Thinking like that would only drive him crazy. He ran a shaking hand through his hair, taking a deep breath to calm his nerves. “I’m fine,” he repeated, hating how the doctors gave each other that look again.

“It’s okay if you’re not,” Jones said in that annoyingly calm voice. “It’s perfectly natural to feel angry, or upset, or sad. You’ve been through a traumatic experience, and I’m here to help.”

“‘Traumatic experience’?” Frank scoffed, leaning back in his chair and putting his feet up on the table. “We chase down bad guys every day. Nothing traumatic about that.”

Haley raised her eyebrows and looked at his feet. Frank had changed out of his rocket-skates, but his practice shoes were also worn out and filthy. He just raised an eyebrow back at her, daring her to say something.

In response, she mimicked the movement, putting her feet up as well. The look on her face was amused, as if she were silently saying, “I can play that game, too.”

Frank sighed and sat up straight again, taking his feet off of the table. Nothing ever got past Haley. “Look, I just don’t have anything else to say. It’s all in my report. Can we go now?”

Dale stood up, and the team followed. “Frank, I’d like to see you for an after-mission check-up,” he said.

Before Frank could respond, Jones added, “And I’d like to see each of you individually for an evaluation. Shadow, how would – ”

“I’ll go first,” Rina piped up, giving Frank a slight wink behind Jones’ back. “Frank, you should probably go to that check-up.”

Rina stayed with the shrink, and the others all left the room. Agent pushed Frank with his shoulder on the way past, but Haley was the one to speak up. “If you’re going to be a jerk, Agent, maybe you should stay with Doctor Jones,” she said.

Agent paused, then turned around to face them all. “Outlier, Reiki, Granny, I want you to check the base of the cliffs again. Earthborn and Nightmare will join you as soon as they’ve been checked out.”

Haley closed her eyes and took a deep breath before responding. “Agent, I don’t know what you think we’ll find that we didn’t the last fifty times we searched,” she said. “If her body was washed out to sea – ”

“She’s not dead,” Agent said, shaking his head. The team looked at each other, their thoughts clearly written on their faces. “I’m not crazy; I’m telling you, there is no way she’s dead. Not like that.”

Frank took a step forward, his own grief showing through his eyes. Natalie had been his friend since high school, long before either of them became Watchers. He didn’t want to believe it either, but he had been there when it happened. “Agent, I know you two were close,” he said reasonably, “but Erinyes threw her off a fifty-foot cliff into the ocean. There were sharp rocks at the bottom. No human could have survived that fall.”

“Natalie’s no ordinary human,” Agent told them, pointing his umbrella at Frank. “She’s pulled off miracles before. She is not dead.”

“We searched the area,” Frank started.

Agent cut him off. “Then search again!” he shouted, his emotions finally breaking through his normally calm demeanor. “Natalie isn’t… she can’t be!” His voice dropped to a whisper as he added, “It just doesn’t make sense.”

“What makes you so sure?” Haley asked him reasonably. “Frank saw it happen; Erinyes was gloating about it when they brought her in. All the evidence tells us that Natalie is dead – so why are you so sure she’s not?”

“Casey had a vision,” Agent said. “It hasn’t come true yet, so Natalie can’t be dead.”

“‘Casey had a vision’?” David repeated skeptically, speaking up for the first time that day. “Agent, Casey would be the first to tell you that her visions aren’t a hundred percent accurate. The farther out in the future they are, the more likely they won’t happen. I’m telling you: Natalie’s gone. We need to talk about how to inform her family…”

“She’s not dead,” Agent repeated.

“Then why hasn’t she come back yet?” Reiki shouted, pushing Agent back. “If Natalie were alive and well, she should have come through that door by now, cussing us out for leaving her.” He marched past them and opened the door to the stairs before turning around and adding, “But she didn’t. She won’t. She’s gone!” The others looked away, but they knew what he was doing – ripping off the band-aid the way Natalie would have was the only way to get through to Agent.

Agent closed his eyes for a moment, then grabbed his umbrella and marched out the door without another word. The team looked at each other, but nobody followed him.

* * * * * * * *

Casey’s bar.

Slow night.

Cassandra “Casey” Johnson was clearing the tables after closing when the door burst open. “Agent,” she said, not surprised to see him. She knew he was going to come in, and that he would be angry about something, but she wasn’t sure what – her ability to see the future didn’t always show her everything.

“Nat’s dead,” Agent said expectantly, sitting down on a stool at the bar. He didn’t believe it – that much was obvious from his tone and demeanor – but he wanted Casey to confirm it.

“What happened?” she asked, putting her rag down. Her eyes turned white for a few seconds as she heard what he would say next with her powers. “Trick was thrown off a cliff, and the team thinks she’s dead. But I take it you don’t?”

Agent sat with his back to the bar, leaning on his ever-present umbrella as Casey pulled up a chair. “Of course I don’t,” he said. “Erinyes threw her off a fifty-foot cliff, true, but you also had that vision of the twins and the Gamemaster, remember?”

“I remember all of my visions,” Casey said. “Even from two years ago. But you know as well as anyone that they don’t always come true, and that vision in particular was vague enough that it could have been anybody; I got a feeling that it was the Fawkes twins, but I might have been wrong.”

“I worked with you long enough to know that most of them do come true,” Agent countered. “She’s not dead.”

Casey walked over to him, pulling up her own chair and putting her hand on his shoulder. “I can’t tell you for sure one way or the other,” she said. “I haven’t had any visions about this. But I can point out to you that we’ve both had this conversation before, when Steve disappeared.”

Stephen Johnson, also known as Striker of Team Ark, was Casey’s older brother. He had disappeared in the middle of a mission seven years prior, and was presumed dead by everybody. Casey spent four years chasing shadows before admitting defeat, realizing that if he were still alive then he would have returned.

“It’s not the same,” Agent muttered.

“It’s exactly the same,” Casey said, not unkindly. “I’d had a vision of Steve standing in a wasteland, and it never came true. But that vision, plus never finding his body, made me spend so much time searching for him instead of moving on with my life.” She gave Agent a wry smile as she added, “You were the one trying to convince me that he was dead before I did that. So now I’m returning the favor.”

Agent closed his eyes again, drawing in a shaky breath. “If… if she is… dead… I’m the one who sent her in,” he said. “Her and Shadow, against a bat-satyr in the middle of a field. No shadows for Frank to use, no cover for Nat’s illusions, no backup, and facing down a terrorist who could fly. It was a stupid call…”

“You couldn’t have known,” Casey told him. “Nat also makes her own choices. If they had any chance of taking down one of Claw’s lieutenants – especially with her grudge against the Fauns – then you couldn’t have stopped her from trying.”

Agent opened his eyes but didn’t look at anything in particular. “She was still my responsibility,” he said. “They’re all my responsibility. I let them down.” He shook his head, adding bitterly, “Again.”

“Natalie was also special, wasn’t she?” Casey asked knowingly. “I don’t need a vision to see what she meant to you.”

Agent shook his head, biting his lip as he thought aloud. “Never acted on it, though,” he said. “I’m thirteen years older than her. She wouldn’t have wanted an old man like me.” He took a deep breath and looked at Casey, adding, “And now it’s too late.”

“I’m sorry I can’t give you what you came here for,” Casey said, shrugging. “Is there anything else I can do?”

Agent shook his head. “No, thanks, Case. I have to go tell Tom now.” Thomas Fawkes was Natalie’s father.

Casey winced in sympathy. “You sure you got this?” she asked. “I remember how it went down last time – if you want, I can tell him about Natalie.”

“No,” Agent said, standing up and heading to the door. “It needs to come from me. He already hates me for what happened to Lyta, and to Parker – I can take this, too.” He did not say the words, but from his tone Casey could tell he was also thinking, “I deserve it.” But she did not say anything as she watched him grab his ever-present umbrella and walk out the door.

Casey watched after him as he got into his car, with a nagging feeling in the back of her mind like she was forgetting something important. She shook her head to clear it and went back to work.

* * * * * * * *

Outskirts of Eon City, near the cliffs.

A very nice memorial service.

Frank fidgeted in his suit. He had not been to a funeral in years, and this one was especially hard. Given the negative reactions Team Ark had sparked in the city with Hippolyta’s very public funeral, they kept the memorial service to just friends and family. City police kept reporters and onlookers away, and Agent had conscripted non-Asylum Watchers to patrol that day so the entire team could mourn.

The yawning space behind the podium seemed to swallow all sound. Frank couldn’t hear the reverend’s words over the roaring in his ears. At first, he thought it was the waves crashing against the rocks below the cliff, but as the service dragged on his mind started wandering back to the incident…

“She’s getting away, Shadow!” Trick called through the communicator in her helmet. Shadow was next to her, using his rocket-skates to keep up with her motorcycle as they chased after Erinyes. The bat-satyr was a Faun lieutenant and a wanted criminal that had escaped from Zatvor prison during the breakout last week. The Asylum members were tracking down the escapees, and they had found Erinyes after an anonymous tip came in – Trick and Shadow had been sent to bring her in, but the bat-satyr surprised them. The wings on her arms actually allowed her to fly – something they hadn’t been prepared for. What was supposed to be an easy arrest had suddenly turned into a high-speed chase out of the city.

They should have known – it was never that easy.

“Agent, we need help out here,” Shadow called over the comms. “She’s leaving the city, heading southeast towards the cliffs!”

Earthborn and Nightmare are on their way,” came the reply. “Try to stall her, but don’t engage until backup arrives.

“Easy for you to say,” Trick growled, swerving her motorcycle as the escaped convict threw a rock in her path. “She’s grabbing anything she can and throwing it back at us!”

Natalie, I mean it,” Agent said. “Earthborn and Nightmare will be there soon. Don’t be stupid.

Trick grinned under her helmet. “Aw, is Agent worried about us?” she teased. “What fun can we have if we don’t take a few risks – whoa!” Her taunt was cut short when Erinyes threw another rock back at her.

“See what you get?” Shadow taunted her back, jumping over another stone. “Eyes on the prize, Nat.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Trick would have rolled her eyes if she didn’t need to watch the road. They came to the end of the developed part of the city, and Erinyes turned towards the ocean. “Agent, where’s our backup?” Trick asked into the comm. “If she gets out over the ocean, then we’ll never catch her!”

ETA three minutes, guys,” Agent replied.

“We don’t have three minutes,” Trick said to Shadow. “You got anything we can use to slow her down?” She threw some of her flaming playing cards, but the wind was against her and they harmlessly bounced off Erinyes’ leathery wings.

“I’m running on empty,” Shadow said. “I can bend her shadow into her eyes, but in bright daylight it wouldn’t do more than tint her vision. She’s too high up for me to use my nightsticks!” He glanced over at Trick but had to slow down to avoid a streetlamp. “What about you?”

“I’ve got a couple more tricks up my sleeves,” she said, “but it would mean engaging her before the others arrive.”

“Agent told us not to,” Shadow warned her.

Trick shrugged, stopping her bike before she went over the cliffs and tossing something from her sleeve at Erinyes. “Since when do I listen to anybody?” she asked, grinning.

Erinyes screeched as she slammed against the ground. The tiny grapple that Trick had thrown was wrapped around the bat-satyr’s ankle, connected to a strong cable so thin that one could only see it if they knew what they were looking for.

“Cards aren’t the only things I can throw,” Trick called over, taking her helmet off before Agent could yell at her over the comms.

“Could have fooled me,” Erinyes spat back. “You’re just a one-trick pony, after all. You think this’ll stop me?”

She swiped through the cable with one of the sharp claws on her hands, cutting clean through it. “Yeah, I didn’t think that would hold you,” Trick said, running over to her as Erinyes scrambled to stand up. “I just needed to slow you down for this!”

She flicked one end of the long black scarf she carried in her coat, wrapping it tightly around the convict’s wrist, and twisted it slightly to make it stay. Erinyes screeched again in frustration, and jumped up, trying to take off anyways.

Trick held on, and for a long second it looked like she was flying a large, ugly kite. She threw some of her flaming cards at the Faun with her free hand, but Erinyes had forty pounds of muscle over her and their tug-of-war ended with Trick’s feet coming off the ground as the bat-satyr flew away.

“Trick!” Shadow shouted, speeding up to the scene on his skates. The world moved slowly as he watched Erinyes yank his partner over the edge. Trick held on for a few more seconds, dangling over the long drop. Her eyes were wide as she looked back at Shadow, as if she knew what would happen – then Erinyes cut the scarf with her clawed fingers, and Trick was falling…

“Frank!” came Reiki’s hushed voice next to him. “Frank, look!” He sounded mad.

Frank snapped out of his reverie back to the memorial service and turned to see what had Reiki so angry. In the back of the crowd a single figure stood out – he wore a worn black trench coat to cover his wings, and his face was covered in his beaked Faun mask, but there was no mistaking the feathery blond hair of Parker Fawkes.

“What’s he doing here?” Reiki growled.

Frank put a hand on his teammate’s arm. “Nat was his sister,” he reminded Reiki in a whisper. “Let’s not start something here.” When Reiki continued to glare at Parker, he gripped his arm and added, “Not now!”

“That bastard is in charge of the Fauns right now,” Reiki said, a little too loudly – people around them were starting to stare. “Erinyes is a Faun – he’s probably the one that sent her!”

“Not here,” Frank hissed, yanking on Reiki’s arm to get his attention. “Do you think this is what Nat would have wanted?”

“A fight at her funeral?” Reiki asked. “Yeah, I think she’d have loved it.” He calmed down anyway, and Frank could feel the tension leaving his friend’s arm.

Frank grinned in spite of himself. “Not at the memorial service. Wait for the wake,” he whispered. Both teammates started giggling, earning a glare from Agent and Haley. Frank subtly pointed back at Parker with his thumb; Agent missed it, but he could see Haley stiffen as she saw him.

She leaned over to David on her other side and whispered something, but then the reverend called Natalie’s father up to the podium to give the eulogy, and Frank’s attention was drawn back to the speaker as Mr. Fawkes stood up in front of him.

Thomas Fawkes was a bird-satyr, like his son. He didn’t have wings, but his arms and face were covered in black-and-white speckled feathers, and he had bird eyes and a beak in place of a normal human nose and mouth. His hair, similar in style and just as feathery as Parker’s, was jet-black, and he wore a simple black suit for his daughter’s memorial service. Frank watched his friend’s father slowly mount the podium and thought of his own parents.

Frank’s mother and father had been a part of Team Ark, along with Casey, Agent, and the twins’ mother, Lyta. He had known Mr. Fawkes since grade school, and it was difficult to see him this way. Thomas Fawkes was a stage magician, and so was usually a bright and cheerful man. He had always worried about his children becoming Watchers like their mother, especially after Lyta had been killed in action, but he had always greeted them with a grin and a joke. But time had taken its toll on the man; within the last few months, his son had become a terrorist on the city’s Most Wanted list, and now he was speaking at his daughter’s funeral. Mr. Fawkes moved more slowly, and there was no trace of a smile on his tear-streaked face. Frank knew he should say something to him after the service was over, but he had no idea what he might say.

Mr. Fawkes started the eulogy by hoping his wife and daughter were together again in the afterlife, looking on from wherever heroes went when they died in the line of duty. He told the audience about Natalie’s love for her work. He spoke a little about teaching her his stage tricks when she told him about wanting to be a Watcher, hoping that they would keep her safe. He even spoke warmly about her friends, particularly Frank and his sister.

Frank looked over at Miranda, who was sitting with their parents, and saw her staring unblinkingly at Mr. Fawkes as he spoke. Her jaw was clenched, and Frank looked away before she caught him staring. He hadn’t spoken to his family since Natalie died, afraid that they would blame him as much as Agent did. He blamed himself, but he didn’t know if he could take his sister or parents looking at him with the contempt Agent had been showing him these last two days.

He looked down to see his hands shaking again and clenched them into fists. Maybe Reiki was right; picking a fight with Parker might give him someone else to blame; Natalie certainly would have loved the drama of a fight breaking out at her funeral.

At that thought, he took a deep breath and turned his attention back to the speaker. She also would have killed him if he interrupted people saying nice things about her.

“My – my daughter wasn’t the easiest person to get along with,” Mr. Fawkes was saying, “but she was fiercely loyal to her friends. Those who knew her could always count on her to drop everything to help, even if she did it with a sarcastic remark.” The audience chuckled. “Thank you all for being here; I know it would have – have meant the world to her.”

He gave them all a curt nod, pursing his lips and walking back to his seat quickly. Frank leaned forward and patted him on the shoulder. Those who didn’t know him would have thought that was a sweet speech, but Frank couldn’t help but notice that he never once mentioned Natalie’s twin brother. Frank stole a glance at Parker, and noticed David and Rina standing behind him. So that’s what Haley had been doing; they weren’t going to interrupt the service, but they also weren’t going to let him get away.

Two more people spoke. One was Frank’s mother, who had been particularly close to Natalie over the years after her mother’s death, and the other was Agent. While Sara Mejia spoke for a bit about the kind of girl Natalie had been growing up, she seemed to cut her speech short on purpose. Frank saw her glance to the back and knew she had figured out the situation with Parker; as an experienced Watcher in her own right, she knew that the sooner the service ended the better.

When Agent got to the stage, he first looked at Mr. Fawkes – which was a mistake. Natalie’s father was glaring at him with such hatred and animosity that Frank had never seen before. Agent stumbled over his greeting and looked away – and visibly stiffened.

Even Agent had noticed Parker in the back. He froze for what felt like eternity, then said a few short lines about how Natalie had been a great Watcher and teammate, before rushing off the stage. The reverend then had Mr. Fawkes throw a wreath of lilies over the edge of the cliff, and the service was dismissed.

The team immediately turned to Parker, ready for a struggle, but Parker just stood there watching his father sadly through his mask. He didn’t try to run or fly away now that the service was over. He didn’t do anything until Rina spoke to him.

“What are you doing here, Fallen?” she asked, using the name the Fauns had given him.

Parker didn’t seem to notice the insult. “I’m paying my respects to my sister – what else?” he sounded calm – too calm for having just lost his twin. He looked around at his former teammates, who were surrounding him.

Frank strode over, keeping his shaking hands clenched at his sides. “I told you last time,” he said, “the next time I saw you I would have to take you in. Did you think I was bluffing?”

“No,” Parker agreed, “but I also know you know my sister better than to think she’s actually gone.”

“What are you talking about?” Agent demanded, coming over with the former members of Team Ark in attendance. Mr. Fawkes also came but didn’t seem to know what to say or how to feel. A few of his friends, whom Frank recognized as the boarders who lived with him, also stood near him for emotional support, and as Chip and Dale also approached Frank wasn’t sure how to protect so many civilians if this escalated into a fight.

“Nat said it so many times I lost count,” Parker replied. “’No body, no death’. Until we find her body, I’m not going to believe she’s not still out there. It’d be just like her to pull a Tom Sawyer and show up to her own funeral, and I wouldn’t miss that for the world.”

“You’re wrong,” Frank said, painfully aware of how many eyes turned towards him. “She wouldn’t put all of us through this for a prank.”

“Not on purpose,” Parker agreed, “but you have to admit she has a talent for dramatic timing. Besides,” he added, tapping the side of his mask, “she’ll never forgive any of us if no one was recording this.”

“I watched Erinyes drop her off the cliff,” Frank said, his voice raising as his emotions took over. That alone caused Parker to take a step back; Frank wasn’t usually an emotional guy. “You know, Erinyes – one of your lieutenants?”

The crowd watched Parker expectantly. Parker looked over at his dad, who looked away from him. “You guys can’t honestly believe I had anything to do with that,” he asked, looking from face to face as if he were hoping for some sympathy. Finding none, he tensed up. “Erinyes is crazy,” he added. “Even the other Fauns hate working with her.”

“You’re in charge of the Fauns in Eon City,” Frank reminded him. “Everything they do is your fault, whether you ordered it or not.”

Claw is still in charge of the Fauns,” Parker snarled. “The only reason I’m still with them is because I have nowhere else to go. I’m a figurehead, nothing more, and there’s someone else pulling the strings from behind the scenes.”

“Let’s all take a breath here.” Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries, stepped forward. “A funeral is no place for violence.”

“You!” Parker’s eyes widened, then narrowed in anger. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Frank saw Agent’s eyes looking between the two of them, but before Frank could wonder how Parker knew the CEO, Agent said, “Mr. Hannah here has graciously paid for Natalie’s service, and is hosting the wake later this afternoon.”

“Is he now?” Parker said suspiciously.

“I feel that it’s only proper, to honor those who pass in the line of duty,” Mr. Hannah said. “After all, it is my company that helps run the Asylum; it’s only fitting for me to help take care of the expenses.”

“Right,” Parker said, raising his eyebrows. “Anyways, I can see I’ve overstayed my welcome.” He turned to his father. “Dad, I’m sorry things turned out this way,” he said softly. “I hope someday you can understand.”

Mr. Fawkes looked at his son for the first time and nodded once, then turned away without a word. Parker tensed as if he were about to run, but David put a hand on his shoulder. “Not so fast, buddy,” he said. “You’re under arrest, for acts of terrorism against the city.”

Parker sighed. “You really think I came here without an escape option?” he asked. “You see, buddy,” he added, using the same address as David, “I’ve been training this last year.”

In one swift motion, Parker crouched down and jumped up, using his Third-Gen strength to break out of David’s grip on his shoulder as he flew up into the air, letting the overcoat flutter behind him as his wings stretched out. With an ironic salute at his former team, he flew out past the cliff and over the ocean. Dressed for a funeral and not a fight, none of the team were equipped to follow him.

“Not fair!” Reiki cried. “Since when does he take off like that?”

He was right, Frank realized. Parker used to need a running start to take off; he had never been able to jump into flight like he had just done – at least, not that he had ever told the team.

“Let him run,” Haley said. “He’s more useful where he is anyways.”

“So, you believe that bull he was spouting about not being in charge?” Reiki demanded.

Haley glanced at Agent, who was quietly leaving before Mr. Fawkes saw him. “I do,” she said slowly. As everyone stared at her, she added, “Come on; with everything that’s happened this year, don’t you think it’s strange how many things seem to be connected? I’m like ninety percent sure that someone else is organizing things behind the scenes, and I think Parker just got caught up in it.”

“Your loyalty to your friend is admirable,” Mr. Hannah said, “but misplaced. Parker is currently the leader of a terrorist organization in this city. As a Watcher, your job is to bring him in and dismantle his organization.”

“My job is justice, Mister Hannah,” Haley replied coolly. “I’ll bring wrongdoers in to face their charges, but I will find out the truth to make sure those charges are correct. Everything Parker has done this last year flies in the face of everything I know about Blackbird,” she added, using Parker’s Watcher name. “Given my own experiences with an alien A.I., a girl who could alter reality with a sentence, a prison breakout from an inescapable prison, an organized riot, my own brother’s testimony, and these portals that are popping up everywhere, it all seems too… clean.”

“What’s your definition of ‘clean’?” Rina asked incredulously.

“It’s chaos, but it’s organized chaos,” Haley explained. “Parker said that someone’s pulling his strings, and frankly that’s made more sense to me than any other explanation I’ve heard.”

Frank considered for a moment, then added, “She’s right.” As the onlookers turned their attention to him, he said, “I recently came back from the future, where a future version of myself said that Parker’s going to be of use where he is in the Fauns.” He shrugged, adding, “If I can’t trust myself, who can I trust?”

“We should get ready for the wake,” Rina said. “What’s done is done, and we won’t get anywhere speculating about it now.”

Everyone agreed and turned to leave. Frank looked for his family, but his parents were talking to Agent. Miranda stood off to the side, appearing to be lost in thought. Frank took a deep breath and walked over to his sister.

“Mom and Dad aren’t ready to leave yet,” she said. She still was not crying but was staring at the edge of the cliff. Ever since she had been kidnapped earlier this year, she had been different – but this was a new situation, so Frank did not know if her behavior was normal.

As if there was anything “normal” about Natalie being dead.

“I’m sorry,” Frank said, not sure what else to say.

“For what?” Miranda asked, looking at him for the first time. He could not be sure, but her eyes seemed more feline than they used to appear. Her gaze was steady, but she seemed upset. “For not letting me know? For not talking to me until now?”

“I… Yes, for all of that,” he said. “I got it into my head that you might… you know, blame me. For what happened.” He had not even considered it before, but Miranda would have been told by their parents, and not her brother, that their mutual friend had died. He kicked himself for his selfishness; even if she had hated him for it, he should have been the one to tell his family. They all loved Natalie like a favorite cousin, and he was off moping on his own – and that was after he had disappeared shortly after Parker’s treason. He shook his head slowly as the realization came to him. “I’m an idiot,” he said. “How do you put up with me?”

Miranda shook her head. “My silly, stupid brother,” she said, chuckling. “Everyone who knew her knows that Natalie was an unstoppable force.”

“Still,” he said. “I feel like there must have been something I could have done.”

“Nope,” Miranda said, stretching her arms behind her head. “Natalie’s… she was a hard-headed dope. You remember that time she climbed Pharos Tower?” They both laughed at the memory of fourteen-year-old Natalie climbing a twenty-story building to launch fireworks off at the top, just to prove she could. It had been before they were friends, but they had known Natalie back then as their parents’ teammate’s daughter, and Frank had snuck out to watch with the rest of his class. “She could have died – nearly did, right? – but she did it anyway.” Miranda shrugged to finish her point.

“Myeh,” Frank said, shrugging himself. “I guess you’re right.”

“I know I am – ” Miranda was cut off by a girl stepping in front of Frank. She seemed oddly familiar, but Frank was distracted by the bright green top hat she wore over her dark green suit.

“Shadow, right?” the girl asked. “We met once, but you were wearing your outfit at the time.”

“Oh, my uniform,” Frank said, turning on his PR charm. “I’m sorry, I’m really bad with faces, miss…?”

“Alice,” the girl said, smiling politely at him. “Alice Winters. I have something to tell you,” she added.

“We’re not taking interviews today,” Frank said dismissively, turning back to his sister.

The girl called Alice shook her head. “That’s not why I’m here,” she said with a grin that was slightly too wide for her face. “See, I owe Trick my life,” she added.

“Oh,” was all Frank could think of to say, but the girl spoke quickly over him.

“That’s why I’m here. Trick saved my life about a week ago, in the Zatvor breakout, and I absolutely hate being in anyone’s debt, so I’m coming in to change the story.” She still stood in front of Frank, leaning in a little too close.

Frank looked confused. “In the Zatvor breakout?” he asked. “Were you a guard? And what do you mean by ‘change the story’?”

“He’s a bit slow, isn’t he?” the girl asked.

Give him a second; he’ll put it together.

“Maybe,” Alice said. “Of course, I don’t think I ever said my real name before.”

“Who are you talking to?” Miranda asked, looking at the girl as if she was crazy.

“No one of consequence,” Alice said. Ouch. “As for ‘changing the story’, I guess the story will stay mostly the same as before, but I’m hurrying it along a bit. Otherwise, we’re going to be stuck doing these melodramatic funeral and wake scenes for the rest of the issue, and after that we might get derailed into a montage of psychiatric sessions with that creepy Jones guy. No, thank you – I want to get back to the action, so I’m bringing the segue!”

That was when Frank realized where he had seen the girl before. “You!” he said, his face draining of color.

“’Bout time,” the girl said with another grin. “Anyways, I know we were in the middle of a touching family reunion, but there’s something you really ought to know about your dead friend.”

“Frank? Who is this girl?” Miranda asked. “And can I hit her?”

Frank’s face had widened in shock, and he began wrapping his shadows almost possessively around himself as he stepped between the villain and his sister. “We call her Hatter,” he said. “She’s one of the Zatvor escapees. When we put her away, she switched my powers with Reiki’s, and made Haley and Natalie swap bodies!”

“Oh please,” Hatter said, waving a hand airily. “I wouldn’t have been in prison in the first place if it wasn’t necessary to the story. Like what I’m about to tell you.”

“What could you possibly say that I’d believe?” Frank demanded.

“Honestly.” Hatter rolled her eyes, using her Third-Gen powers of narration to say, “Shadow then believed the next words out of Hatter’s mouth without question.” She paused to look at Frank before telling him:

“Trick is alive, you know.”

* * * * * * * *

A dank, dark cave, a few days ago.

Natalie Fawkes, somehow alive.

Told you.

Natalie woke up with a pounding headache. She nearly retched, but managed to keep her stomach from turning as she looked around. She seemed to be in some kind of medical facility, but the lights were artificial, and the ceiling cracked in places to reveal stone underneath.

“Oh, she’s awake,” came a woman’s voice from the doorway. “You shouldn’t be sitting up, you know – you had a nasty crack to the head.” A cool breeze wafted over towards Natalie, gently pushing her back down onto what appeared to be a hospital bed.

“Where am I?” Natalie asked. “Who are you? What happened?”

“Those are all very important questions,” came a different voice; this time a man spoke, chuckling at his own joke. The speakers came into her view, and Natalie realized they weren’t much older than herself. “I’m Leo,” the guy introduced, “and this is Nadia. We kind of rescued you from the cliff.” Leo grinned sheepishly, brushing his shaggy black hair out of his wide face.

“He says ‘kind of’ because he hit your head against the rocks on the way down,” Nadia said, elbowing him. She wore a pastel-pink hijab over her hair, and her face was friendly as she teased Leo.

“As for where you are,” Leo added, “you’re home!” He waved his hands, dramatically gesturing around them, but all Natalie could see was the underground hospital room.

“And by home, he means we’ve brought you to Paracelcus, the city of Primordials,” Nadia explained practically. “It’s the ruins of the old city that Eon was built over; we call it Paracelcus because only Elementals like us live here.”

“Elementals…” Natalie mused, trying to catch up. “You mean Third-Gens, right?”

Nadia laughed. “Of course, that’s how we started,” she explained. “After being drafted to terraform the cliffs for Eon City fifty years ago, many of our people were chased down here by those above. But everyone who lives here has some kind of elemental power, so we call ourselves Primordials – people who can control the powers of nature.”

“Our city keeps us safe from the overlanders,” Leo said proudly. “I’m a water Elemental, and Nadia here is air. We were on patrol outside when we saw you fighting the satyr girl with your fire powers. When she dropped you over the cliff, we used our elements to save you from the fall.” Nadia elbowed him again. “Ah, right,” he added. “You hit your head against the cliffs on the way down (sorry), so we brought you to our doctor to recover.”

“You’ve got a nasty concussion, so try not to sit up for a while, okay sweetie?” Nadia put a blanket on over Natalie in a very mothering fashion, tucking her in. “You’re safe now.”

“Thanks,” Natalie said, still confused. She didn’t seem to be in danger, though, so she figured she could just roll with it until she recovered. “How long have I been out?”

Nadia smiled. “A few hours,” she told her. “Our doctor is running some tests to make sure you’re okay.”

“Hours?!” Natalie shrieked. “I need to contact my friends. Where’s my comm unit?” When Leo and Nadia gave her matching blank looks, she added, “The watch-looking thing on my wrist? Where is it?”

“We had to take it off for the scans,” a new voice explained. A young woman with long red hair walked in. “The water seems to have logged it, in any case. You two – we have a problem.” She gestured to Leo and Nadia, her expression suddenly stern.

“What’s wrong?” Nadia asked, her grin fading. “Oh, this is Doctor Brianna – ”

“She’s human,” the doctor interrupted the introduction, and Nadia fell silent.

“No, that makes no sense,” Leo said. “We saw her throwing fireballs…”

“Fireballs?” Natalie asked. She tried to shake her head, but it hurt too much to move. “No, that was just a trick. See, I have these playing cards that I covered with flash paper – ”

“Human?” Nadia asked, cutting off the explanation. “Did you tell – ”

“Yes,” Brianna said, putting her hands on her hips. “I had to. You know the rules – Primordials only in the city. You shouldn’t have brought her here.”

“Hang on,” Natalie said. “Maybe it’s the concussion, but I’m not following. So what if I am human? What’s wrong with that?”

“It’s bad,” Leo told her. “Humans aren’t allowed in the city.”

Natalie scoffed. “What are they going to do, lock me up?” None of the others answered, but Nadia nodded. Natalie looked between them, realizing how bad her predicament was; she couldn’t fight with her head hurting so much, and they had taken her communicator so the team didn’t know her location. She had no back-up, and was apparently in a whole city full of Third Gens who wanted to throw her in prison.

“Aw, fu – ”

* * * * * * * *

Sean Hannah’s Mansion.

Natalie’s wake.

“So Hatter, a known criminal, told you that Natalie is alive,” Haley summarized, raising an eyebrow at Frank. “And you believe her?”

Frank and Miranda had just finished reporting their encounter with Hatter to Haley, who seemed skeptical. They hadn’t yet told the rest of the team, not wanting to get anyone’s hopes up in case Hatter was wrong.

“Why else would she come to the funeral?” Frank asked. “Besides, Natalie saved her life in the Zatvor breakout. What could she possibly gain by lying to us?”

“She could be trying to distract us,” Haley pointed out. “Keep us searching the cliffs while she and the other Zatvor escapees wreak havoc in the city.”

“I don’t think so,” Frank said, shaking his head.

Miranda sighed from next to him. “Of course you don’t,” she said. “She told you to believe her in a funny voice, and then you just did. That’s a Third Gen power if I’ve ever seen one.”

“Hatter told us that she had ‘limited powers of narration’, whatever that means,” Haley explained. “All I know for sure is that anytime she spoke in an unusually deep voice, anything she said came true – including making me and Trick switch bodies.” She turned back to Frank, adding, “Sorry to say it, but I think she hit you with some kind of hypnotism. That’s not helping me believe her.”

Frank gave an annoyed exhale. “Okay, you like logic, right?” he asked, changing tactics. “Let’s look at it logically then. What’s the best-case scenario if Hatter is telling the truth?”

Haley nodded, playing along. “If Hatter is telling the truth,” she stressed the “if”, “then best-case scenario, we spend more time searching the cliffs until we get Natalie back.”

“And worst-case?” Frank prompted.

“We waste time searching the cliffs until Natalie dies from exposure, or starvation, or injury, or a myriad of other things that would have killed her by now if she really was trapped down there,” Haley said, trying to point out the folly in that line of thought. “If she’s alive, then she’s been stuck somewhere we can’t find her or even hear her for days. Even if she survived the fall, it’s highly unlikely she’s still alive.”

“Okay, okay,” Frank said, waving for her to move on. “If Hatter is lying, what’re the worst- and best-case scenarios?”

“If Hatter is lying, which is much more likely,” Haley said, “then best-case scenario is we ignore her and keep protecting the city, and either she calls off whatever she’s planning, or we catch her and send her back to Zatvor.” She shook her head and added, “Worst-case scenario, we believe her lies and she messes up the city while we’re off on a wild goose chase. Do you see the problems here?”

Miranda nodded, but Frank kept at it. “If Natalie is alive, and we give up on her, do you think any of us could live with ourselves?” he asked loudly. A few of the wake-goers looked in their direction curiously, and he lowered his voice. “The worst scenario would be that Hatter was telling the truth, and we ignore it!”

“Frank, don’t you think you might be conflating logic with what you want to believe?” Haley asked, not unkindly. “I want her to be alive too, but this is the job: we can’t abandon the city to search for her. We all knew that when we signed up.”

“I know!” Frank snapped. “You think I don’t know that?” He gestured to where his parents stood, talking to Casey and Agent. He didn’t say it, but the story was well-known around the city: Team Ark officially broke up after Frank’s mother, formerly the hero Star, was shot in the kneecap by an ally when they faced off against the villain Jaunt. Sara Mejia still used a cane to walk, even years later, so Frank was well-informed of the consequences of mistakes in their line of work. “I’m just talking about not giving up on her yet.”

Haley sighed, beginning to get visibly annoyed. “Look, Frank, I don’t want to be the bad guy here,” she said, “but she’s dead. There is no part of those cliffs where she could be where we wouldn’t have found her already if she were alive – Earthborn even used his powers to search for her in the rocks. Now you’re talking about not giving up on her at her wake, when her funeral was this morning. How many times are we supposed to check those damn cliffs before you wake up and realize that?” She shook her head, seeing the defiant look in Frank’s eyes, and sighed before adding, “Get your head out of your ass, Frank; she’s dead, and your survivor’s guilt won’t ever change that.”

Frank was stricken, and even Miranda winced. Haley put her hand to her head, rubbing her temple as if she had a headache. She seemed to know she had gone too far, but was refusing to apologize. After what seemed like an eternity of silence, she added, “Don’t give people false hope.”

Frank slowly shook his head. “You’re an unfeeling bitch,” he said before walking away. He refused to look back at her, but felt rather than saw Miranda silently following him over to where the remnants of Team Ark were talking.

“ – don’t know what you’re talking about,” Agent was saying. “How could Casey have that vision if it wasn’t going to come true?”

“It was recently brought to my attention that I could have misinterpreted it,” Casey said. “My visions aren’t an exact science; they show me what could be, and what probably will be, but they don’t always come true.”

“Even Parker seemed sure about her still being out there,” Agent said. “The Director and Hannah decided to go ahead with the service because of what happened last time, but I’m not giving up just yet!”

Sara folded her hands over her cane, using the same gesture Agent used on the Asylum team when he was trying to convince them of something. “You’re not considering all of the consequences,” she said calmly.

“What consequences?” Agent asked.

“Tom, for one,” Frank’s dad said. Kevin Mejia, otherwise known by his Watcher name, Kindred, was a satyr/Third Gen hybrid. He had cat ears and a tail like Miranda, but unlike his daughter his eyes were also yellow and shaped like a cat’s, his teeth were pointed, and he had the Third Gen ability to create mirages. He put a hand on Agent’s shoulder to remind him to keep his voice down. “If we told him that there might have been a mistake, that his daughter might still be out there, and we’re wrong, it would shatter him. He’s barely hanging on as it is.”

Agent’s shoulders deflated under his old friend’s words. “I… I don’t want to hurt him anymore,” he said, “but what if she is still out there?”

“I actually have something to report on that,” Frank said, speaking up so the older generation noticed his presence. He told them about how Hatter had shown up at the funeral and told him and Miranda that Natalie was still alive.

“Hatter?” Sara asked. “Isn’t she the one who made you guys switch bodies?”

“She also did something so that Frank believes everything she said without question,” Miranda added. When Frank glared at her, she shrugged. “What? If we’re going to tell them, we ought to tell them everything,” she said.

“I’m fine,” Frank insisted. “From what we know about Hatter, she’s a thief, not a murderer. She also seemed to think the whole switching-powers thing was a game. From what I can tell, I don’t think she wants to hurt anybody, and she does owe Natalie her life.”

“So she says,” Miranda muttered.

Frank shut his sister up with a glare. “Anyways, I think it’s at least worth looking into,” he finished.

Agent grinned. “See?” he told the others.

Sara shook her head. “I don’t think your team should keep searching on the say-so of s criminal,” she said. “However,” she quickly added before either Frank or Agent could protest, “our team can help. Discreetly.” She looked over at Natalie’s father, who was talking to another group. “No raising false hope to anyone else, okay? Kevin, Casey, and I can search the cliffs again, and we’ll let you know if we find anything.”

“Thanks, Sara,” Agent said, looking as if a giant weight had been taken off his shoulders.

Sara shook her head. “Don’t thank me yet,” she said. “If we can’t find her, then she’s probably dead – and it’s not going to be any easier to accept.”

Agent nodded, sobering a little. “Fair,” he said. “And Casey, you’ll tell us if you – Casey!”

Casey’s pale eyes were white; she was having a vision. A long one, from the looks of things. It took her nearly a minute to come back to the present. “What did you see?” Agent asked as she shook her head to clear it. Frank and his parents crowded around, partly to obscure her from prying eyes.

Casey blinked a few times before looking at Agent. “You need to get the team together,” she gasped, still shocked by whatever her vision had shown her. “Search the base of the cliffs again.”

“What?” Agent asked, standing up at her alarmed tone. “What are you saying?”

Casey looked straight into his eyes. “I’ve never had a vision twice. Ever. But this was the same as the last one. The Gamemaster chair, the twins fighting over it, one killing the other – everything was exactly the same.”

“What does that mean?” Agent asked her, picking up his umbrella.

“It’s never happened before, so I can’t be sure,” Casey admitted, “but I think… I’m almost positive…”

“What?” Agent asked again, impatiently.

Casey grabbed his hand, a grin spreading across her face. “Agent, I think she’s alive.”

* * * * * * * *

In a cave somewhere.

Natalie Fawkes, A.K.A. Trick.

Still alive.

“Forty-two bottles of beer on the wall, forty-two bottles of beer; take one down, pass it around, forty-one bottles of beer on the wall!”

Natalie had been locked in this small, cramped cell for days. She could tell the passage of time from how often the guards brought food, but there were no windows or clocks around. She counted herself lucky that there was a flushable toilet and a sink with soap in the cell with her, but the cot was as hard as a plank of wood and the lack of interaction was starting to get to her.

The Primordials had immediately cuffed her to the hospital bed when they found out she was human, and had locked her in the cell the day after she had woken up and the doctor said she would be safe to move. After a couple days of shouting and swearing at any guard that came near her cell, Natalie had switched tactics to singing the most long-winded and annoying songs she could think of to torment her captors.

“Forty-one bottles of beer on the wall, forty-one bottles of beer…” The singing also helped mask any sounds she made while taking inventory of supplies in her uniform coat. She had used a lot of her tricks on Erinyes during that initial chase, but she still had some flash paper, gunpowder, and glitter along with most of her scarves in the hidden pockets of her uniform. They had taken her watch, but had left her rings – which included the magnetic and flint-and-steel ones she used in some of her tricks. The long scarf she had used against Erinyes had been cut, but it was only a foot shorter than usual. As long as she held it from the cut side, it would still work in a fight.

The main problem – which was the biggest reason Natalie was still locked up and hadn’t tried to escape yet – was that most of her stuff had gotten wet when Leo had saved her from the fall. Wet powder, glitter, and paper were useless. Flash paper could dry out in a day or two, but it would take time, and there was no guarantee it would not be ruined by the ocean’s salt. The clumps of glitter would never work properly again, but she luckily found a sealed baggie of it in one of her back pockets. The water had not gotten to it, so while it was much less than she usually worked with, it was something. If the saltwater hadn’t damaged it, the gunpowder could also be dried out and used – but it would take even longer than the paper.

That was where the singing came in. By singing loudly, off-key, and obnoxiously banging on her cell walls every now and then, she could hide the sounds of her testing out the drying concoctions. The paper and powder gave her some encouraging sparks today, so her spirits were lifted into the song.

“Forty bottles of beer on the wall, forty bottles of – ” The song was cut off by the sound of keys in the lock, as someone tried to enter her cell. “Who’s there?”

She scrambled to hide the flash paper under her cot’s mattress as Nadia entered holding a big wreath of white lilies. “Hey, sorry about this,” she said, her nose wrinkling. Natalie silently cursed, just now noticing the distinct smell that the gunpowder left behind. The black powder blended into the rock in the corners of her cell where Natalie had been drying it, but she was used to the distinctive smell – so used to it that she had forgotten just how distinctive it was.

“What’s with the wreath?” she asked, hoping to throw Nadia off the scent by getting her talking.

It seemed to work. “Oh, these are for you,” Nadia said. “The overlanders had a memorial service for you this morning, and they dropped this over the cliff’s edge. Leo and I saved it for you, to apologize.”

“Know what a better apology would be?” Natalie asked rhetorically. “Let me out of here!”

“I can’t do that,” Nadia said. “It’s part of our rules. We can’t have you telling people that we exist.”

“Then why bother saving me at all?” Natalie exclaimed. “If you only saved my life to throw me in a cell for the next hundred years, then why not just let me die?”

“We thought you were one of us!” Nadia told her. “If you were a Primordial, you could have lived a perfectly comfortable life in the city. We didn’t realize you were human.”

“And my life is somehow worth less to you people because I’m human?” Natalie demanded.

“You have to understand,” Nadia said, trying to placate her. “A lot of the elders here remember being forced to work for a pittance when terraforming the land over the old city. They were hunted, and forced to live underground, by human mobs. The rules about no humans are here to protect all of us.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Natalie cried. “Most of my friends are Third Gens and satyrs. Heck, even my brother has Third Gen-level super-strength. Everyone in Eon City lives in peace together, and I’ve never heard of any Third Gen being forced to do anything!”

“It’s an outdated philosophy,” Nadia admitted. “The elders all refuse to go up to the surface, but Leo and I go sometimes just to see what things are like, and it’s not nearly as bad as they told us.”

“What I’m hearing is that there is a way up to the surface,” Natalie said, folding her arms.

Nadia nodded. “Of course there is,” she said. “How else do you think we breathe underground? But rules are rules, and any overlander that comes down here can’t leave – and humans aren’t allowed to live in the city.”

“Come on,” Natalie said. “You said they had a memorial service for me up there – that means my friends, my family all think I’m dead! I have to let them know I’m okay, at least!”

Nadia shook her head, her hijab slipping back a little as she did. She tugged it forward as she said, “I’m really sorry. That was never going to be an option – you died when you went off the cliff.”

“No, I didn’t,” Natalie said stubbornly. “I’m going to find a way out, and heaven help your precious city when I do.”

“There might be a way…” Nadia said, ignoring the threat. “Leo is talking to the elders now, trying to convince them that we saved you because you had the spirit of a Primordial, if not the abilities. They might ask you to do a trial, to see if you belong in the city with us. You’d be under strict guard at all times, but at least you wouldn’t be stuck in a cell.”

Natalie recognized the gesture for what it was, but she would be damned if she was going to live her life in a cave. She just gave Nadia her most petulant stare, hoping the girl would take the hint and leave. Nadia waited for her to speak for about a minute before shrugging and going out the door, leaving Natalie to flop down on the bed with her head in her hands.

She glanced at the wreath, noting that her father must have picked it out. She had often told him when she was little how she loved the smell of lilies, and he used to wear one in his lapel on stage to cover the smell of the gunpowder and fire from his stage tricks. She wondered for a moment if Parker had been at the service, then dismissed the thought – her wanted criminal of a twin would not dare show his face at a public event, much less a private one. Then again, Parker did love a dramatic entrance, so he might have gone just for the show.

Natalie’s eyes began to burn as she thought of her family. They had already lost her mother in the line of duty, and now they thought they had lost her. She wanted nothing more than to hug her father and tell him that she was okay, but there was not even a pillow in the cell for her to scream her frustrations into.

She settled for singing. “Forty bottles of beer on the wall, forty bottles of beer…”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, Natalie’s room.

Cleaning out.

“Why are we cleaning out her room?” Frank asked loudly as he unplugged Natalie’s alarm clock and put it in a box. “Even Casey said she’s still out there.”

“Sparrow’s visions aren’t always accurate,” Eli reminded him.

Rina also chimed in as she sorted through Natalie’s desk. “Even Casey said it wasn’t definite,” she pointed out. “She and your parents agreed to check the cliffs again, but the rest of us need to act as if Natalie’s not coming back. That includes cleaning out her room and sending the boxes to her dad.”

Frank shook his head. “She’s going to kill us when she finds out we went through her stuff,” he muttered.

Eli, Rina, and Reiki gave each other a look. “Hey, where’d Haley get to?” Rina asked, changing the subject.

“Don’t know, don’t care,” Frank grumbled. “I told her not to help with this.”

“Why?” Reiki asked.

Frank sighed. “I’m just mad at her right now, okay?” he told them.

Eli straightened up from his box. “Well, the only reason I’m here is because of Haley,” he said, “and I’m sure Trick wouldn’t want me of all people going through her stuff, so I’m going to get lunch.” He waved as he walked out of the room, grinning at the annoyed looks on the others’ faces. “See ya!”

Eli went downstairs to the kitchen, noting that Granny and Haley were across the hall in the lounge. Granny was sipping a cup of tea, but Haley’s tea went untouched. Eli shrugged, taking out the bread to make some sandwiches.

Granny looked over at the kitchen as Eli worked. She excused herself from the tea table and strode over to him, looking as stern as Eli had ever seen her.

“Does Haley seem okay to you?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” Eli asked back, putting slices of ham and turkey on the two sandwiches.

“You’ve been going out on patrol with her for months now,” Granny said, putting her hands on her hips. “I’m asking how she seems to you. Because whenever I speak to her, she seems depressed.” She gestured back to the tea table, where Haley was looking out the window that overlooked the city.

Eli shrugged, popping a piece of cheese into his mouth as he answered. “She lost a teammate,” he said. “I don’t know how she felt about Trick exactly, but they seemed like decent friends. Of course she’d be sad these days.”

Granny shook her head. “You’ve been tasked with protecting Haley, correct?” she asked. Eli nodded, so she continued, “You don’t seem to know too much about your charge.”

“What am I missing?” Eli shrugged, looking at Haley again. Now that Granny mentioned it, Haley looked tired and haggard sitting at the table by herself. She wasn’t crying, or even looking morose, but her lips were pursed, and she was rubbing her temples as if she had a migraine. She was not her usual self, and Eli noticed the distinct lack of the annoyingly perky, friendly, and cocky attitude with which she usually addressed him. “Yeah, okay, she looks tired,” he admitted. “But again, this is the first time she’s lost a teammate, right? Given the circumstances, she’s okay.”

“She’s been looking like this for months, Bug-Boy,” Granny told him sternly, coming around the kitchen island to stand next to Eli, “not just since Natalie died. She was thrown into a leadership position for which she wasn’t prepared, she has been blaming herself for everything that has gone wrong in the city since the riots.” Granny pulled his chin around to make sure he was looking at her as she added, “She is not okay.”

“Okay, first off,” Eli replied, turning around to face the old lady and putting his finger in her face, “butterflies aren’t ‘bugs’; they’re insects in the macrolepidopteran clade Rhopalocera from the order Lepidoptera. If you want to insult me, at least get it right; ‘Insect-Boy’ would be better, but Lepidoptera-Boy would be more accurate.” He glanced back at Haley. “As for my charge, she’s had her confidence shaken. That’s all. She’ll be fine; all she needs is a win or two, and she’ll be back to her annoyingly perky self in no time.” He shrugged. “Besides, I’m just supposed to keep her alive. Her emotions aren’t my problem.”

Granny shook her head. “Your job is to protect her,” she insisted. “Do better.” She shook her head and turned to head up the stairs.

Eli watched her go with a sigh. He glanced at his sandwiches, then back at Haley. “Damn,” he muttered, rolling his eyes as he made his way across the rooms to her.

Sitting in the seat across from hers, Eli shoved the sandwiches under her nose. “Hey,” he greeted. “You should eat.”

Haley shook her head, swallowing as if she had a lump in her throat. “No, thanks, Eli,” she said.

Eli furrowed his eyebrows. He had never noticed it before, but Haley was still the only member of the team to use his real name. Everyone else called him “Butterfly”, or some insulting nickname. He never minded being called “Butterfly” – he really did like them – but there was something dehumanizing about it that he had never before noticed. Haley knew about his past, but she was the only one who treated him like a person and not a good-for-nothing criminal.

He shook his head. He could not get attached; he knew better than most what would happen to him if he allowed himself to develop feelings, even for a friendship.

But gosh darn it, he was getting fond of the kid.

“How’re you doing?” he asked her. “It’s not easy to lose a teammate.”

“I’ll be fine,” Haley said, giving him a shaky smile. “After all, I don’t have any feelings, right?”

Eli was taken aback by how matter-of-factly she said it. “Who told you that?” he asked. Judging from the look on her face, it was a lot of people.

Haley shrugged. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s true. I spent most of the last year on this team, training with Natalie – teaching her aikido even – and here we are, the team cleaning out her room after she died, and I don’t feel anything.” She sighed, looking back out the window. “It doesn’t feel real to me, you know. Like she was some kind of fictional character who died; except I’ve felt more for characters in books than I do right now.” She smiled sadly. “I really am an unfeeling bitch.”

“No, you’re not,” Eli said. “You’re good at compartmentalizing your feelings, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have any.”

“Yeah?” Haley asked, looking back at him. “How would you know?”

Eli thought for a moment on how best to explain it. “Do you remember when we met?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Haley said, raising an eyebrow. She remembered everything. “I was moving into the tower, and you helped me with my lamp.”

“You remember what happened next?” Eli prompted.

“Frank and Natalie came down and told me you couldn’t be trusted,” Haley shrugged.

Eli smiled at the memory. “So why didn’t you listen to them?” he asked.

Haley looked at him, not sure where he was going with this. “I don’t judge people based on hearsay,” she said. “I make my own decisions based on how they treat me, not other people. You might be motivated by money and butterflies, but you always treat me and the others with a kind of… begrudging respect, even when they’re holding a grudge against you.” She shrugged again. “You’re a good guy, even if you make mistakes.”

“Right,” Eli said. He was pleased at the praise, but this was not about him. “So why don’t you do that with yourself?” he asked.

Haley blinked. Eli could almost see the gears turning in her head as she wrapped her mind around the concept. Finally, she said, “What do you mean?”

“I’m a despicable person,” Eli admitted nonchalantly, picking at one of the sandwiches. “It’s true. I shot Trick on that mission after taking two different commissions – one from the Asylum and one from… another benefactor. Agent asked me to help the team break up a Faun ring, and the other guy wanted me to assassinate Claw. I figured the goals aligned, so I took them both. I didn’t count on the stupid nobility of the Asylum Watchers, who stopped me when they figured out what I was doing.” He shook his head. “Trick got in my way, and the team all said they’d bring me in, so I shot Trick to give myself time to get away.”

“So why did Agent keep hiring you after that?” Haley asked curiously.

Eli shrugged. “I dunno,” he admitted. “He covered the whole thing up, under the condition that I take any commission the Asylum asked of me at a discounted rate and provide information on the underworld any time I work for them. That’s why I’m not on the city’s Wanted list like Blackbird. But until you came along, I would never have officially been on the team, because they couldn’t trust me after that.” He looked at her, smiling a little sadly. “So now that you know what happened, what do you think of me?”

“You’re still Eli,” Haley said without hesitation. “That all happened before I ever met you, so it doesn’t change anything you’ve done since. You’re still the guy who got me into – and out of – that maze, and helped me out these last few months, and saved my life probably a half-dozen times by now. And you haven’t shot any of us since, so why would I hold it against you?”

“That’s my point,” Eli said. “I’ve made mistakes, but you still think I’m a good person, right?”

“Uh-huh,” Haley said slowly, still visibly confused.

“So why are you basing your opinion of yourself on what other people tell you, instead of your own actions?” he asked.

Haley shook her head. “I am basing it on my own actions,” she said. “I couldn’t figure out a plan while I was in charge of the team, so I just stumbled around blindly and hoped for the best.”

“Hey, it worked,” Eli pointed out. “You got Earthborn back and kept the city safe while it recovered from the riots.”

“And nearly got the whole team killed at least twice,” she added bitterly. “Agent had to step in and save us from the gang fight. Then I turned down the undercover job in Zatvor, and seven prisoners escaped – one of whom killed Natalie. And now I told Frank he was crazy for believing Hatter when she told him Natalie was still alive, and he hates me – and he’s right to, because I could have just humored him, but I lost my temper.” She put her head in her hands, adding, “I really hate myself sometimes.”

But Eli had stopped listening by that point. “Did you just say ‘Hatter’?” he asked, alarmed.

“Oh, yeah,” Haley said. “Hatter showed up at the funeral and told Frank and his sister that Natalie was alive. Sick, right?”

Eli’s eyes widened as he took the information in. “Hatter is a lot of things,” he said, “but she’s no liar.”

“Come on, Eli,” Haley said. “She’s one of the Zatvor escapees. She’s a dangerous thief, and she’s probably just trying to get us out of the way for a heist or something.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Eli said, standing up. “Hatter can’t lie. It’s her Third Gen power – anything she says comes true, no matter how ridiculous or far-fetched. I’ve seen her work miracles with just a sentence; the girl is a walking Deus Ex Machina.” He gestured for Haley to follow him toward the staircase. “If Hatter said that Trick is alive, then Trick is alive.”

* * * * * * * *

Trial in the caves.

Natalie Fawkes, A.K.A. Trick.

How do I keep getting into these things? Natalie thought as she faced down a giant rock monster.

The “trials” that Nadia spoke of were elemental-based, where four Primordials representing each element tested her to see if she was worthy of being released from her cell. The first of these trials was Earth, and it involved her getting past a rock monster to take a flag from a pedestal.

“Come on, Natalie!” She could hear Nadia in the stands cheering her on. In fact, it seemed as though most of the city had turned out for the event: every seat in the underground colosseum had been filled.

“Must be starved for entertainment,” Natalie muttered, bringing her focus back to the task at hand.

The colosseum arena represented all four of the primordial elements: lit torches sat in a ring around the football-stadium-sized arena, representing fire. Below them, a moat (representing water) cut the challengers off from the spectators. Sand, representing earth, covered the floor of the arena, and the air in the colosseum was constantly being whipped up by elemental Third Gens in a ceremonial gust.

Natalie spat a lock of her hair out that had flown in her mouth at the last gust. She was about to see if her tricks had dried out properly, or if she was screwed – the golem in front of her was twice her size, and entirely made of solid rock. Even with her flash-paper, she doubted that she could put a dent in the golem itself.

She looked around the arena, trying to figure a way around the golem. She saw the Third Gen controlling it standing at one side, just on the other side of the moat. Grinning, Natalie realized what she could do to win.

Turning back to the golem, she ran up and jumped on its back. Using one of her smaller scarves, she tied one end to the golem’s neck to use as reins. As the rock-monster thrashed beneath her, she leaned with all her might to guide it into the moat. The golem resisted at first, but even Third Gens had their limits – it crashed into the water with a loud splash. Natalie immediately stood up on the thing’s shoulders, and jumped towards the Third Gen that was controlling it. She tried throwing flash paper in his face to blind him, but the paper failed to ignite properly.

The unexpectedness of the attack seemed to throw him off-balance, however, and getting paper to the face would distract anybody. Natalie still managed to use her long scarf to tie his arms behind him. The golem in the moat crumbled to pieces.

Natalie jumped back into the arena, rolling when she hit the sand to keep from injuring herself. She ran up to the pedestal at the far end and grabbed the flag, yelling, “What else you got?!” to the crowd.

It was only then that she realized the crowd had gone silent.

One of the elders, an older gentleman with a grizzled appearance, stood up and addressed the arena. He must have been an air elemental, since his voice carried with no special equipment.

“The newcomer has failed the challenge,” he declared. “The task was to get past the golem, but the overlander cheated by attacking one of our citizens. Lock her back up!”

“What?!” Natalie cried, letting the flag drop to her side. “That’s not fair! You never said I couldn’t beat the golem by going for the source!”

“The goal was not to ‘beat’ anything,” the elder told her. “The purpose of this trial was to test your resourcefulness in finding a non-violent solution, even when faced with a violent enemy. You have failed.”

“Well, then someone should have told me that in the first place!” Natalie said, indignant. Four Third-Gens had entered the arena, including Leo and Nadia, who surrounded the podium. She looked around for an escape route while protesting the unfairness of the verdict, and finally spotted a way out – if she could make it back into the stands.

Nadia saw the way she was looking, and her eyes widened in understanding. Biting her lip, she whipped up a tornado that picked Natalie up and deposited her next to the exit. “What are you doing?!” asked Leo as he followed the escapee. “You’re letting her get away!”

Natalie heard Nadia address the crowd behind her, but was too busy running down a long, dark tunnel to listen.

* * * * * * * *

Tunnels underneath Eon City.

Frank Mejia, A.K.A. Shadow.

“Star told us there was something down here,” Agent said, leading the team into the tunnels. They had been following the map that Shadow’s mom had drawn for them for over an hour and had not found any signs of Natalie.

“Even if there were,” Nightmare pointed out, “how could it be Natalie? She fell off the cliffs – how could she now be in the tunnels?”

“The tunnels go all the way to the cliffs,” Earthborn said. As the team stared at him, he shrugged. “Don’t ask me how I know that. I just do. Though I don’t know why we think Natalie was able to get into one.”

The entire team was searching the tunnels under the city, while Agent had left other Watchers to patrol the city again. Most of the team thought it was overkill – particularly since Star had not actually found Natalie herself, but Shadow was with Agent on this: the more eyes they had on the situation, the easier it would be to find her.

“What’s Agent doing here?” he heard Outlier ask Reiki in a whisper as the team descended into the tunnels.

“It’s Natalie,” Reiki shrugged, as if that explained everything.

“I know she’s our teammate,” Outlier said irritably, “but we’ve had other rescue ops before, and Agent usually coordinated from the Tower. Why’s he in the field on this one?”

Reiki stopped and looked her in the eyes. “It’s Natalie,” he repeated. Outlier blinked, shaking her head in confusion, so he added, “She’s different to him.”

“How?” Outlier asked.

Butterfly came up from behind them, giving Outlier a teasing grin. “You’ll understand when you’re older,” he said, laughing at her.

Outlier looked at Reiki questioningly, but he just shrugged and walked on again.

“You know,” Outlier said, catching up to Butterfly, “I really hate it when people say that to me. My older brothers used to use that all the time – ‘you’ll understand when you’re older’. Well guess what – I’m older, and I still don’t understand. Agent coordinates from the Tower because that’s his role – he has to think of the entire city, not just one mission or one person. So why is he down here with us?”

“Agent’s always had a soft spot for Natalie,” Shadow answered from the front. Since he was walking close to Agent and Earthborn, Outlier realized that her voice carried more than she thought it did in the tunnels, and that Agent had probably heard the entire exchange.

“Even still,” she stammered, her face flushing in the dim light from their flashlights, “we can’t just leave the city undefended.”

“Feel free to go back,” Shadow said harshly.

“That’s not what I meant,” Outlier sighed. “I want to find her too. I just think we could use someone coordinating from the tower in case she’s not down here.”

 Shadow rolled his eyes. “Oh, you want to find her now,” he said. “I thought you said she was dead, and nothing would ever bring her back.”

“I was wrong, okay?” Outlier shot back. “I’ve admitted it. And I apologize for what I said to you at the wake. I lost my temper, and I’m sorry.”

“Wow,” Agent said sarcastically. “Haley’s admitting that she was wrong about something? That’s a first.”

“No, it isn’t,” Butterfly said. “You’re thinking of Trick. Stop being assholes and just accept the apology already.”

“We don’t even know if Nat’s really alive,” Earthborn pointed out. “This could just be another false hope.”

“Yeah,” Nightmare agreed. “You guys are being d– what was that?”

She had been cut off by a loud bang coming from farther down the tunnel, followed by a bright flash. “That’s not natural,” Earthborn said, stating the obvious.

Another flash lit up the tunnels, and then another. The flashes of light came closer to the team, as if something was running towards them while setting them off. Shadow thought they looked familiar, but didn’t want to get lectured again about raising false hopes from anyone on the team.

Reiki made his own light and held it up, trying to see what the source of the flashes was without getting too close. Sending a pulse down the tunnel, he reeled when it came back to him. “Hey,” he said, his eyes widening as if he’d seen a ghost. “Wait. It can’t be…”

“What is it, Reiki?” Agent asked. “What was that?”

“It’s an echolocation thing I’ve been working on,” Reiki said. “I sent out a pulse of light to see what stopped it, kind of like what Earthborn does when he senses people stepping on the ground, but more accurate.” Joining Agent at the front of the group, he sent out another pulse as if checking to be sure. “It’s…” he still seemed shocked, but he shook his head to clear it.

It was David who finished the sentence with a huge grin, using his earth powers to determine who was in front of them. “It’s Trick!” he shouted gleefully.

Shadow, Outlier, and Butterfly all snapped their heads to look at him as Agent shouted, “What?!” For someone who had been insisting that she was alive, he seemed just as shocked as everyone else to find her.

Sure enough, as the flashes got closer Shadow could see his friend’s outline running towards them as she threw some homemade explosives behind her. Trick stopped as she saw the team, breaking into a huge grin of her own. “Well it’s about time!” she cried, turning around to face whatever was chasing her as she jumped into the team’s formation.

“Nat…” Shadow whispered, awestruck that she was standing there, alive and well.

Trick turned to him and asked, “Did you miss me?” with her usual sarcastic smirk, and he knew beyond any doubt that Natalie had returned to them.

“Natalie!” he yelled in surprise. “But – we saw you fall to your death!”

“No,” Natalie corrected him. “You saw me fall. I’ll tell you all about my little adventure later, after we get out of this frickin’ cave!” She gestured into the dark tunnels, where a large four-legged beast stalked towards them. At first Shadow thought it was dripping wet, until he realized that the beast was entirely made of water. Getting his nightsticks ready, he turned them onto taser mode and waited for the beast to reach them.

“Wait a second,” Earthborn said, peering into the darkness at their opponent. “Leo? Leo, is that you?”

Another figure came running up behind the water-beast but froze when he saw Earthborn. “Uh… David?” he asked. “What are you doing back here?” He looked behind him, seeming to realize that he was alone in his pursuit.

“Ha!” Natalie said triumphantly. “I told you my friends would look for me!”

“You never said you knew him,” Leo said nervously.

Earthborn walked over to him, putting his arm around the other guy’s shoulders. Leo flinched at his approach, and the water beast dispersed. The elemental Third Gen was tall and broad-shouldered, but he seemed to shrink under Earthborn’s gaze, even to the bystanders watching the exchange.

“Leo, buddy,” Earthborn said with a friendly smile. “How’ve you been?” It seemed to be a rhetorical question, as he continued without waiting for Leo to answer. “See, I’ve been holding up my end of our bargain. I leave you guys alone, and you leave me alone. But now I see you’ve been chasing my friend here.” He nodded at Natalie, who waved.

“He did save my life from the cliffs,” she admitted, “but they were going to lock me up for the rest of my life.”

“Is that so?” Earthborn asked. Leo gulped audibly and nodded. “You see these guys?” Earthborn continued, his voice still friendly but with a menacing tone creeping into it. “They’re under my protection. So, you run back to the elders and let them know: if I ever catch you harassing my friends again, I will come back to the city. Got it?”

Leo pursed his lips as the color drained from his face. “Got it,” he said. Earthborn squeezed him in a one-armed hug before letting him go.

“Thanks for saving my friend’s life!” he called as Leo ran back down the tunnels. He chuckled to himself as the rest of the team stared at him. “What?” he said. “Dark David lived down here for a month after the riots, remember?”

“Apparently Leo does,” Natalie said, laughing. “Thanks for the save.”

“Trick!” Her words broke the shocked stupor that had settled over the team, and they all crowded around to welcome her back.

“I can’t believe you’re alive!” Shadow said, hugging her.

“No body, no death,” Natalie reminded him, grinning. “Though I hear there was a memorial service? Please tell me someone recorded it.”

Outlier spoke up from the back. “Parker did,” she said, smirking. Shadow then remembered the harsh things they had said to Trick’s brother when he had shown up at the funeral, and he decided he should let Outlier off the hook after all.

“Parker showed up?” Natalie asked, surprised.

“Yeah,” Butterfly added, seeing what Outlier was doing. “Everyone told him he was an ass for acting like you were still alive – ”

“But you’re back now,” Agent said, glaring at Butterfly. “We can let your dad know, and get your stuff set back up in the tower…” he trailed off, seeming to realize that he had messed up.

“’Set my stuff back up’?” Trick asked. “You went through my stuff?!”

Shadow grinned as they headed out of the tunnels. It was good to have her back.

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #18 – The Highest Form of Flattery

Also: Issue #17.5 – New Year Special 2020

Asylum Bonus Story #2 – The Companies

History Lesson: The Companies

From a class taught by Agent five years ago.

One hundred years ago, Pharos Industries and King Enterprises, along with a myriad of other, smaller, enterprises, changed the way our world works. Historians call it the Age of Genetics, as eugenics research was the top priority of every scientifically-inclined company on the market. Pharos and King rose to the head of the class through government funding – they both began as arms dealers, and profited from the country’s military spending by applying their research towards weapons. Aside from the obvious reasons – which we’ll get to in a moment – their continued arms dealing is the main reason why we keep them on the Agency’s watchlist.

In the Age of Genetics, the original heads of King Enterprises and Pharos Industries were Laura King and Salil Malik, respectively. They pioneered the genetics race when Pharos researchers began working on a serum designed to create super-soldiers. Now, I know you know the story; it’s taught in grade-school history class, after all. Pharos Industries created Third Gen, and King Enterprises came up with the Satyr serum to keep up, leading to the current evolutions of humanity that live among quote-unquote “normal humans”. What they don’t teach, though, are the details as to how that happened – details that I think are the whole point of the story.

Laura King and Salil Malik had always been rivals. They started out competing for Valedictorian at the same private school (which Mr. Malik won), and then at the same university (MIT, and Mrs. King won that). They started their companies at the same time, and were up for the same government contracts, the same private sector jobs, and even poached each other’s scientists over the years. The rivalry got so bad that Mr. Malik had the phrase “Pharaohs are Greater than Kings” engraved in the entrance to Pharos’ headquarters when he was first to become a Fortune 500 company. Mrs. King, for her part, had the phrase “Kings overthrew Pharaohs” etched in her headquarters when she was the first to become a Fortune 100 company. If you go to either building, you can still see the phrases over the doors etched in large gold letters.

After a major pandemic caused a massive shutdown in multiple countries, many developed nations began funding eugenics research. The world wanted a new standard so that there would never be another crisis like that again; the solution presented was to enhance the human race so that vaccines would no longer be necessary to prevent diseases. As major R&D corporations, Pharos’ and King’s rivalry led the eugenics race. Both companies began developing their own serums designed to improve a human’s durability – not just boosting their immune system, but also increasing their strength, speed, and dexterity.  By marketing their research to the military first, they acquired the funds they needed to put their companies in a substantial lead over the others.

Pharos was the first to come up with a working serum. Malik called it “First Gen”, as it was designed to create the “first generation” of superhumans. First Gen worked, to an extent – it was an immune booster, and the people who took it no longer got sick. All it took was drinking a bottle of the serum every month, and people would be immune to all but the deadliest pathogens.

In response, King created a new serum that she marketed as “Second Gen” – mainly to thumb her nose at Malik. Second Gen not only boosted a human’s immune system, but it was proven to increase metabolism and muscle mass, which worked the way First Gen was intended. It even fixed certain genetic-based health issues, such as heart disease and diabetes, if you took it regularly for a decade or so. It sold better, and in larger quantities – even though you only needed a bottle every two months.

Not to be out-done, Pharos figured out a way that the serums could be improved upon: what if they could create a one-time procedure that would permanently improve the human form? No more need to take the boosters, and Second Gen sales would plummet in response. That was when Pharos developed the Third Gen serum. They made it through three rounds of human trials before eugenics was banned.

You can see the pattern forming, right? Pharos created Third Gen, so King had to come up with her own version. At the time, she sold it as “Gen Zero” to her shareholders, and they made it through one round of human trials.

Now, this is a Task-Force history class. If you want to know the exact details about what went wrong, you’ll have to ask the scientists in your other classes. I can only tell you the socio-political fall-out of the serums.

Gen Zero killed half of its human trial sample, and the remainder became mutants. Eugenics research was banned, and even Third Gen had to stop production. King Enterprises took a major hit, and Laura King spent the rest of her life – and most of her son’s life, after she passed the company on to him – rebuilding the brand as a weapons manufacturer. But, as you know, that wasn’t the end of it – within a decade after the Gen Zero fiasco, the people involved in both serum trials began reporting strange mutations in their children.

The first of these was a kid born to a Gen Zero survivor who had goat hooves instead of feet. Because the anomaly made the news, the media began referring to King’s serum as “the Satyr serum” – and the nickname stuck, to the point where most people don’t even remember the name “Gen Zero”. That was the start of our current climate, with three different types of humanity: humans, Third Gens, and Satyrs.

At first, people thought that the mutants would die out – particularly the Satyrs.  After all, the vast majority of animals can’t cross-breed, especially not with humans.  However, time proved that wasn’t the case; not only could Satyrs and Third Gens reproduce, but their offspring usually ended up with the enhancements as well.  It wasn’t a recessive gene, but a dominant one – the first examples in eugenics history of artificially-induced dominant bloodlines.  Because of that – or, to be more specific, because of the growing concern in the public’s eye over the loss of “true” humanity – eugenics research was banned by the U.N. in all developed and developing countries.  Not that it made a huge difference – aside from Pharos and King, nobody else had even come close to what they had achieved in the twenty years of the Eugenics Race.

As for what happened to the companies: Mrs. King had founded King Enterprises off of the remnants of her parents’ company, and passed it on to her own child when she retired. Despite the Satyr fiasco, they never changed the name; the King family is still prominent in this country, and Laura King’s grandson Jonathan King is the current CEO of King Enterprises. Mr. Malik, on the other hand, was the first in a long line of executives appointed by Pharos’ board of directors. Since his own children had no interest in the company, he sold shares on the stock market and had the board pick his successor. The current CEO of Pharos Industries is Sean Hannah, who was unanimously voted in three years ago as one of the youngest CEOs in history.

We’re still seeing the effects of Laura King and Salil Malik’s rivalry today.  Not only are Third Gens and Satyrs still around (obviously), but programs like Watcher and the Satyr Preserve are still worked on by their companies. There are many other socio-political effects that branched from this, but I’ll talk more about those next time.  Class dismissed.

* * * * * * * *

Scene: King and Pharos.

The King Family Mansion.

Chip, about to have dinner with Jonathan and Lena King.

“I’m pleased to announce Pharos Industry’s Gen Juice project has yielded positive results,” a voice from the television said as Reginald, the King family’s butler, let Quinn “Chip” Kaine into the King’s mansion. “In a few years, everyone could have the powers of a Third Gen.” Thunderous applause came from the speakers as the live audience showed their enthusiasm. Third Gen abilities were uncommon, and many people wished that they had been born Third Gens – a jealousy at the heart of the current Humans First climate that had been gripping the nation for decades.

Chip strolled into the living room, surprised to see the CEO of Pharos Industries making a speech on the King’s giant screen. Lena waved to her and motioned for her to sit, making a “quiet” gesture as her gaze fell back to the TV. Mr. King scowled at the screen from the easy chair, looking as though he had just come home from the office in his neatly-pressed suit.  Only his slippers and the easy chair he sat in showed that he had, in fact, come home.

Taking a seat on the couch near the doorway, Chip focused on the man on the screen. Sean Hannah was young for a CEO of one of the most successful companies in America, if not the world. He was only in his late thirties, and seemed to play that up for the media: he wore an impeccable suit and tie, but his curly brown hair was left unkempt. His pointed chin was raised, giving him a slightly proud appearance. The camera angle, showing his face and shoulders as he spoke to the press, accentuated his pale blue eyes and sly grin. Chip noted Mr. King’s reaction, and realized that the younger man might have even been taunting him a bit.

“Pharos Industries has always been the leader in medical research,” Mr. Hannah told the camera, pausing on the word “always” and looking directly at the camera, “and now we prove once again how our innovations can take America forward in scientific discovery.”

“Gen Juice,” Mr. King scoffed when the interview was over. “I know our companies collaborate on quite a few projects, but genetics research has always been a major point of contention between us.”

Lena rolled her eyes and explained to Chip, “Ever since my great-grandma’s debacle with the satyrs, Pharos has always one-upped King in genetics research.”

Mr. King started, as if he had only just noticed that Chip was in the room. “Don’t get me wrong,” he told her, standing up and facing her as he would any subordinate. “King Enterprises does much better with weapons development than Pharos does, but all anybody ever thinks about is the Satyrs and the Third Gens. Makes it damn near impossible to get contracts unless we show collaboration with him.” He pointed harshly at the screen, indicating his frustration with Mr. Hannah. “That… boy keeps mocking me in all his interviews. It’s like he’s hoping that I’ll watch.”

“Which you do every time,” Lena pointed out.  Mr. King scoffed, but said nothing to that.

“He did say it’ll be a few years before Gen Juice goes on the market,” Chip pointed out. “Maybe King Enterprises could come up with something…?” she trailed off, seeing Lena shake her head behind Mr. King’s back.

“The name of ‘King’ has already been dragged through the mud enough,” he told her. “Pharos has a head start in this, just like they did a hundred years ago. Trying to replicate their work ended in disaster back then, and I won’t be responsible for it now!”

“The board already asked him that,” Lena said, standing up and putting a calming hand on her father’s shoulder.  “I think it’s the right thing, too – there’s no need to rush just because Mr. Hannah has something new.  We already have enough on our plate with the satyr rights laws.”

“Don’t start again, honey,” Mr. King said, his voice softening.  “Not now.”

“If not now, then when?” Lena demanded, suddenly going on the offensive.  Chip realized that she must have come in halfway through a father-daughter debate at the King’s.  “The Leash bill is going to congressional vote tomorrow.  You have to withdraw your support for it.”

“Wait, what bill?” Chip asked.  She felt lost when the Kings had conversations like this one, as if her friend spoke a language that only Mr. King understood.

“The Satyr Registration Act,” Lena told her.  “If it’s passed, all satyrs will be forced to wear a collar and tags!”

“It’s not like that,” Mr. King sighed.  “The bill is to make sure that satyrs, like any other animal, are up-to-date on their shots, and allows people to see that they are cared for.”

“It also requires them to have a human sponsor,” Lena said, “as if they were somebody’s pet.”

“Mr. King, that’s not right,” Chip protested.  “Satyrs are just like us; if a bill like that goes through, a lot of people are going to be affected.”

Mr. King shook his head at them, the picture of a patronizing father.  “You two girls are idealists,” he said, “which is good when you’re in college; you begin to think for yourself, and see possibilities that young kids can’t.  But we’re talking about the real world here, where groups like the Fauns think that it’s okay to terrorize a DMV and destroy city records. Where the Asylum Watchers feel the need to patrol the city every day just to keep an eye out for crime.”

“The Asylum patrols the city so that people can see their faces,” Chip pointed out.  “The idea is that people will trust the Watchers more if they know who they are.”

“Right,” Mr. King said.  “And while the Asylum placates the humans of the city by taking care of the Watcher lists, dozens of other Watchers take jobs from the dark web to make ends meet.  We have a city chock full of mercenaries, and everyone is applauding it!  The Satyr Registration Act will help stop at least the satyrs from causing trouble.”

“What about the Third Gens and the humans?” Lena asked.  “What’s so different about the satyrs, other than how they look?”

“It would be a good idea for everyone to have mandatory registration,” Mr. King agreed, missing her point.  “However, Congress isn’t likely to pass a bill that requires humans to register. We have to pick our battles, and satyrs are the one we can win right now – especially since it’s so easy for Third Gens to pass as humans.  One step at a time.”

“Soon Pharos will give humans Third Gen powers,” Lena said.  “Congress will never pass an equal-opportunity registration bill; if the Satyr Registration Act passes, then satyrs will never be considered equal in society again.”

“If they ever were,” Chip added.

“That’s assuming a lot, my dear,” Mr. King said.  “Pharos is still years away from mass-production.”

“At least we can all agree that the Gen Juice thing is a bad idea, right?” Chip said, trying to mediate before the argument escalated.  Both of the Kings seemed to remember simultaneously that they had a guest.

“Right,” Lena said, calming down. “Besides, the laws around eugenics research tightened after the Gen Zero disaster.  I’m not even sure how Hannah is keeping his nose clean with this one.”

“He’s lobbying to change the law,” Mr. King said, scowling at the blank TV screen where his rival had just been shown.  “In the meantime, he gets around the regulations by calling it ‘medical research’ instead of eugenics.  When questioned – and believe me, I made sure he was questioned by every agency I could find – he skirted it by citing precedents and current vaccine research at the CDC.”

Chip raised an eyebrow.  “Smart,” she said thoughtfully. “He’s toeing the letter of the law, and he can’t be arrested for violating the spirit of it.”

“But we can talk about all of this later, right Dad?” Lena asked, taking Chip’s cue and defusing the emotional tension in the room. “We’re supposed to have dinner with our guest.”

“Ah, right,” said Mr. King.  “Follow me, ladies.”

He led them through the mansion, stopping every now and then to show something off to their guest.  Chip nodded attentively, but every now and then she and Lena rolled their eyes at each other conspiratorially.  They passed fancy art hanging in expensive frames in the hallways – as they neared the kitchen, it seemed to become more food-themed.  An oil canvas painting of a bowl of fruit hung just over the kitchen doors, which Mr. King threw open with a flourish.

“We’re not eating in the dining room?” Chip asked Lena in a whisper.

“Oh, we only eat in the dining room when we have a business dinner,” Lena explained.  “When it’s just Dad and me, we eat over here.”

She gestured to a tall metal island in the corner of the enormous kitchen.  Mr. King stood on one side, prepping knives to cook.  He pointed Chip to a stool on the other side of the counter, and she gingerly took a seat next to her friend.  Chip had never eaten at the King’s mansion before, and this was definitely not what she had been expecting.

“You’re cooking?” she asked Mr. King.

He grinned, looking like a kid in a candy shop as he told her, “This is my hobby, when I’m not running the company.  I had this hibachi installed specially, so I could talk to little Lena while making dinner, and she could learn by watching me.”

“Aw,” Chip said, giving Lena a good-natured elbow jab.  “‘Little Lena’ must have been so cute, following her daddy around the mansion.”

“It’s a house, you know,” Lena said, rolling her eyes.  “You don’t have to get hung up on the word ‘mansion’.”

“Honey, I had to get directions from your mailbox,” Chip reminded her.  “You have a security guard at the gate – which is a mile from your door – and this ‘house’ has more rooms than most motels.  You have both an indoor and outdoor pool, and a small movie theatre in the basement.  No matter what you call it, it’s a mansion.”

Mr. King laughed.  “What can I say?” he chuckled.  “This mansion has been in our family for generations.  My father added the outdoor pool, and I added the rest when it was passed down to me.”

“Where is the rest of the family?” Chip asked Mr. King as he pulled ingredients out of the refrigerator.  She knew from her talks with Lena that she had a few aunts and uncles, and that her grandparents were all still alive.

“Dad and Mom retired down to the Florida Keys,” Mr. King said. “Lena’s mother is currently visiting her folks in the Hamptons – we’ll be joining her there next week, as soon as we put out some fires at the office.”

“Like the Gen Juice announcement?” Chip asked.

“Among other things,” Lena said.  She couldn’t tell Chip much, given that her friend worked for their top competitor.  Chip would never leak King secrets to Pharos, but everyone there knew that some things were better left unsaid.

“Speaking of which,” Mr. King said as he began to cook, “my daughter tells me you’re happy with your job at Pharos?”

He really was good at using the hibachi grill.  Chip felt like she was in a restaurant as he spun the metal spatulas, making dinner into a show as they talked.  “Oh, yes,” she said, remembering that he had asked her a question.  “Good benefits, and the Asylum people are super-impressed by the smallest changes I make to their outfits.”

“They’re very stylish,” Lena remarked.  “Think you could design something for me?”

“For you?” Chip asked, surprised.  “Why?”

Lena shrugged.  “Oh, no real reason,” she said, too innocently.  “I like the outfits.”

Mr. King shook his head as he stacked an onion into a volcano.  “Lena wants to take the Watcher licensing exam,” he said.

When Chip looked at her, surprised, Lena rolled her eyes.  “I don’t want to take jobs from the list,” she explained.  “Just… during the riots, I couldn’t do anything to help – not legally, anyway.  I just had to sit in our bunker like a good little girl.”  She sounded bitter, as if there were more to the story.  “If something like that ever happens again, I’d like to keep my options open.”

Mr. King looked like he was going to say something, but Chip beat him to it.  “Are you sure?” she asked.  “I saw what the Asylum guys looked like the next day.  Trick was out for months with a broken collarbone, and all of them were black and blue all over.  Especially Outlier; I’m not even sure how she managed to patrol the next day.  Dale was exhausted just by taking care of the worst injuries.”

“Exactly what I’ve been saying,” Mr. King exclaimed.  “Riots are dangerous.  They’re no place for a respectable young lady.”

“I know how to take care of myself, Dad,” Lena said irritably.  “I just don’t want to feel that helpless again.”

“I care about you, sweetheart,” Mr. King said.  “I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

“I know,” Lena sighed.

Chip put a hand on her friend’s shoulder.  “If it means that much to you,” she said, “I can whip up an outfit in my lab.  On one condition,” she added quickly, before either of the Kings could say anything.  “I’ll hang onto it until there is an actual emergency, and I’ll only give it to you if I think you can actually help.  Deal?”

“Deal!” Lena’s eyes sparkled at the thought.  Chip knew she would probably give her friend the outfit before an actual emergency, especially if she did end up getting a Watcher license.  But for now the stipulation seemed to placate her father.

“You know she’d have just found a way without me,” Chip told him as he turned a disapproving glare her way.  “This way, I can at least make sure she’s outfitted properly.  My designs are meant to be used as armor, you know.”

Mr. King sighed and started serving the food.  “I know,” he said.  “I just worry about her.”

“I’m sitting right here,” Lena reminded them.

Chip and Mr. King shared a look and chorused, “We know.”  All three of them laughed as they ate dinner.  Though the topic of conversation for the remainder of the meal switched to more mundane topics and anecdotes, Chip had a lot more on her mind for the rest of the night.

* * * * * * * *

Next: Bonus Story #3 – The Gangs

Also: Issue #17 – Fire and Water

Dawn of the Asylum, Issue #16 – Darkness Escapes

Zatvor Penitentiary, outside of Eon City.

Carson Dale, making his rounds.

“I don’t know why I need to be here,” Dale said, his Scottish accent echoing in the hallway as he walked through the gates of Zatvor Penitentiary. “Zatvor has perfectly good doctors of their own. Haven’t you asked them about her yet?”

Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries, smirked as he shook his head. “I trust you more than any of those quacks,” he said, clapping Dale on the back. “You know that.”

“Still,” Dale sighed, “Zatvor Penitentiary is nae place for someone like me. And that young lady is still dangerous even without her venom, ye know.”

“I doubt there’s a prisoner in here that’s more dangerous than you, doctor,” Mr. Hannah said, grinning as if he were joking. “Your intelligence is unmatched. You could be a supervillain if you put your mind to it.”

“Aye,” Dale said, starting to smile himself. “And dinnae forget it.”

Sean Hannah opened a small door in the hallway, gesturing for Dale to enter first. Inside was a small clinic room. Dale shook his head, looking around at the sparse and outdated equipment.

“Pitiful,” he said. “With this kind of equipment, they cannae possibly be getting the same care as outside.”

“They’re prisoners,” Mr. Hannah reminded him. “They’re all here because they made a choice and are now facing the consequences.”

“Tha dinnae mean we should treat them as less than human,” grumbled the doctor.

Mr. Hannah shrugged. “Most of them aren’t human,” he said. “Zatvor was specifically designed to house satyr and Third Gen criminals.”

“Ye know what I meant,” Dale said, glaring at the young CEO. “Dinnae pretend tah misunderstand.”

“Ah, well,” Mr. Hannah yawned, stretching and changing the subject. “We’re here about one patient in particular. If she’s recovered from her surgery, then we can tell the board that our donation was well spent. Check her out quickly, and we can get out of here.”

“Aye,” Dale said, unpacking his bag on the small desk in the corner of the room. “As ye wish. I’ll just have tah make do with what I brought.”

Mr. Hannah sighed. “Dale, I’d donate more if I could,” he said, reading between the doctor’s words. “The board agreed to help with this case due to its experimental nature, but there’s no way I could talk them into donating just for the sake of improving medical care for a bunch of criminals.”

“If ye say so,” Dale said, still pointedly unpacking. Mr. Hannah was saved from responding by a knock at the door. “Come in,” the doctor answered.

A prison guard opened the door, leading in a girl with bushy, unkempt hair. Katie Cruz, known on the streets by the moniker Skadi, used to keep her hair coiffed in a wide cobra hood to match her scaly, snake-like appearance, but she didn’t have either the time, product, or inclination to keep it up in prison. Her dark hair hung limp around her shoulders, giving her head a deflated look. She still reminded Dale of a cobra – just one with its hood down, waiting for a threat before it strikes.

“Prisoner two-one-seven-five,” the guard introduced. “Want me to shut the door?”

“On yer way out, please,” Dale said dismissively.

The guard shifted nervously. “I’m not supposed to let her out of my sight,” he said.

“Yes, well, I cannae work with too many people in this cramped room,” Dale said sternly, folding his arms over his chest. “I need the patient here, obviously, and Mr. Hannah is supposed tah observe tah make sure everything’s in order fer his Board of Directors. That leaves you, so shoo.”

“I can stand outside,” the guard capitulated, “but I need to leave the door open. You understand.”

“Fine, fine,” Dale said, waving his hand dismissively. “Now, Miss Cruz, if ye could please open yer mouth.”

Skadi narrowed her eyes at them suspiciously, biting her lip nervously with her long, pointed incisors. She was a snake-satyr, and one of the most accomplished thieves of her time, but she was still a teenager. Since being imprisoned in Zatvor more than half a year earlier, she had gotten the venom sacs with which she had been born – which had been killing her slowly since reaching puberty – removed. Pharos Industries had financed the operation, but Skadi had never learned why. Looking between the two men, she seemed to realize something; however, despite her age, she sat down on the table and opened her mouth obediently, not saying a word. Dale would have thought the teenager would say whatever was on her mind, but Skadi seemed mature for her age.

Dale looked into her mouth and prodded her scaly cheeks and neck a few times. He took out a stethoscope and checked her breathing and heartbeat. He asked a lot of probing questions about how she had been feeling since the operation. The full examination took less than fifteen minutes, after which he declared Skadi to be in good health, and fully recovered.

“The scars are healing nicely,” he reported, “and the lack of symptoms say that ye probably will nae have a relapse. I’ll just take some blood from ye, and we’ll let ye get back.”

“You’re the Scottish one, right?” Skadi asked. When Dale nodded, she smirked and continued, “They said you’re one of the best doctors in the country.”

“I dinnae like tah brag,” Dale said sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head.

“And you’re Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries,” Skadi added, turning to Mr. Hannah.

“I am,” Mr. Hannah replied.

Skadi gave a short laugh but refused to say what she had found so funny. As the guard came back in to take her back to her cell, Skadi gave both men an ironic smile. “My brother will come for me any day now,” she told them. “Just so you know.”

Mr. Hannah smiled back politely. “If you say so,” he said nonchalantly, “but no one has ever escaped from Zatvor.”

“There’s a first time for everything,” Skadi replied sweetly. “I’ll see you around.”

As the guard led her away, Dale turned to Mr. Hannah. “That was creepy,” he admitted. “Is she right?”

“Time will tell,” Sean Hannah told him. “Come on, let’s get lunch. My treat.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, Asylum Headquarters.

Kyle Warren, AKA Reiki.

“So, we’re going undercover?” Rina asked skeptically, sitting forward in her chair. “Why?” Reiki had seen her tense up when Agent had told them the plan, and couldn’t blame her. They had just finished watching the video of Skadi’s exam, and knew that she had told Dale and Mr. Hannah that she planned to escape from Zatvor, but Agent’s plan seemed like an enormously bad idea.

The team was scattered around the new tower’s new briefing room, getting their new assignment from Agent. The only member missing was Shadow, who was patrolling the city; Agent had promised to brief him later. At the moment, Reiki, Rina, Natalie, Haley, and David were looking at Agent with disbelief, while Granny seemed focused on her crocheting at the other end of the long meeting table. Eli was the only person in the room who looked amused at the mission announcement, and he was laughing from where he sat next to Haley. It was a testament to how shocked the team was that even Natalie wasn’t shooting him dirty looks across the table.

“What do you mean, ‘why’?” Agent asked. He sat at the head of the conference table, so that the team had to look over at him. “We got a tip that there will be a prison breakout, and we need to find out which of the prisoners in Zatvor know about it. We can’t just assume that Skadi and her brother are working alone, or that she’ll be the only one breaking out.”

“I know I’m new here,” Eli piped up, still chuckling ironically, “but I think Nightmare’s referring to the fact that the last time an Asylum Watcher went undercover, it didn’t end well for any of us.”

Agent glared at him, while Natalie gave him an impressed smirk. “The merc is right,” she said, turning back to glare at Agent. “Parker went undercover in the Fauns, and not only did he blow up our old tower, he’s now their leader and on the city’s Most Wanted list. What made you think this was a good idea?”

“This is different,” Agent told them. “I’ve learned from that mistake.”

“‘Mistake’, he calls it,” David said, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes, ‘mistake’,” Agent repeated impatiently. “For one, no one goes in alone. I’m sending Nightmare, Earthborn, Trick, and Outlier.”

“Hang on, did you say Outlier?” Haley asked, her eyes widening. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.” Reiki looked over at her, and if he didn’t know better, he might think she was scared. But Haley was fearless; that was what made her a good Watcher.

Natalie was the one to address the elephant in the room, however. “Look kid,” she said, conveniently forgetting that Haley was only three years younger than herself, “I know you messed up last week with the gang fight, but frankly I don’t know if anyone else would have done better.” She shrugged, leaning back on the couch and putting her arms behind her head. “Besides, you won’t be in charge this time.”

“I know that,” Haley said, visibly annoyed. “What I don’t know is what good I can do on this mission.”

“Haley, you have plenty of skills,” Agent began, but Haley interrupted.

“Darn skippy I do,” she said, “but Zatvor is a prison for Third Gens and satyrs. I know Trick can pass as a Third Gen with her skillset, but I’m human through and through; there’s no getting around that.”

Agent raised an eyebrow. “I was planning on having Chip make you look like a satyr,” he said.

“Not a good plan,” Haley countered. “Makeup can get smudged, or washed off, and prosthetics can be lost. Not to mention my bleeding problem – one small papercut and a semi-vigilant villain would give me away as human. It would be better if you got an actual Third Gen or satyr to go in.” As an afterthought, she added, “Frankly, I don’t think any of us should go in. We’re all pretty high-profile – that was the point of the Asylum, wasn’t it? To have a team of celebrity superheroes that the people know and trust?”

“Sort of,” Agent admitted. “But Rina is a satyr already, and since her uniform covers her face no one knows what she looks like. David’s electricity means he’s never been photographed clearly, and earth manipulation is a common enough power that he can pass as a weaker Third Gen. Natalie is also good at disguise as part of her tricks.” He shook his head as he continued, “But yes, Reiki puts on shows in the park and Frank is a legacy. Eli has worked with enough of the villains in Zatvor that he’s too high-profile, and Granny’s powers are too unique. That leaves you and me, Haley – two decently strong humans who might be able to pass as Third Gens or Satyrs. I don’t usually go out in the field, and you’re still new enough that people won’t recognize you. Now, if I go in, then there’s no one watching the outside to let the team know if they need help, so that leaves you.”

“I’m a high-risk option,” Haley insisted. “If I go in, our chances of being caught skyrocket. Humans don’t go to Zatvor.” She looked over at Eli and added, “Why not Butterfly? Since the villains know him, it’d lend credibility to the others.”

“Not the right credibility,” Eli pointed out, shaking his head. “I’m a mercenary Watcher. I work with the villains on occasion, but I also helped put enough of them in Zatvor who would have a grudge against me, and the rest wouldn’t trust me due to my rep.”

“Aw, nobody trusts the big bad merc?” Natalie asked in a mocking, sing-song voice. “I wonder why.”

“You just won’t let that go, will you?” Eli asked, shaking his head.

“You shot me,” Natalie reminded him.

Eli threw his hands up helplessly. “I needed the money!” he cried.

“You were supposed to be working with us, and you shot me in the back,” Natalie said accusingly.

Eli looked guilty, at least. “It was a lot of money?” he said, wincing under her glare. “Anyways, it was over a year ago now. I haven’t done it since then.”

“I am not going undercover in Zatvor with the merc,” Natalie said, rounding on Agent while pointing rudely at Eli. “If he goes, I don’t.”

“You could always ask Holmes,” Reiki interjected, hoping to end the squabble. “Since she’s not officially on the team, she isn’t well-known. She’s good at disguise, too, and as a satyr she doesn’t have to worry about fitting in.”

Natalie sighed and put her arm down. “One problem,” she said. “Holmes has been MIA since the riots. Nobody knows where she is.”

“She’s also not technically a Watcher,” Eli added. When everyone turned to stare at him, he shrugged and added, “What? I pay attention sometimes. Holmes is a Private Eye – she doesn’t have a Watcher license.”

“That never stopped us from asking her before,” Haley said. “As for where she is, I’m sure that Agent can find her.” The team turned back to Agent with expectant gazes. Even Granny looked up from her crocheting with a raised eyebrow.

Agent sighed. “Fine,” he said finally, “I’ll ask Holmes. Haley, Eli, Reiki, you guys and Frank will be on double patrol shifts until the others get back, though.”

“Fair enough,” Haley said. Reiki looked at her sideways; she seemed almost relieved.

“As for the mission,” Agent continued, “I’m sending in Nightmare, Earthborn, Trick, and Holmes, I guess. You’ll be undercover as freshly-caught villains, and your job will be to cozy up to the Zatvor inmates and find out what they know. The warden will know who you are, but the guards will treat you like any other prisoner. With any luck, we’ll get the information we need within a few days, and you’ll all be back here safe and sound.”

Natalie sighed. “You know, I’ve had to say this to Haley a few times over the last few weeks, but I never thought I’d have to say it to you,” she said, shaking her head. “‘Luck’ is not a plan! How do you expect us to get close to these guys in just a few days? All psychological research shows that inmates have a hard time trusting new people.”

Agent didn’t answer, but turned to look at David. Everyone followed his gaze expectantly. David sighed and said, “I actually have the answer for that. I was an inmate there before joining the Asylum; the guys who’ve been in there for years think I broke out, and I should have a few friends on the inside who’ll vouch for me.”

“You were a Zatvor prisoner?” Haley asked curiously.

“Yeah,” said David. “When I first got my powers, I lost control and nearly destroyed the city. You remember the earthquakes about six or so years ago?”

“That was you?” Natalie cried. “Parker and I were doing our Watcher exam at the time; I nearly tripped on the obstacle course because of that!”

“Sorry,” David muttered, shrugging. “Anyways, I was in Zatvor for over a year figuring out my powers, and then broke out by tunneling under the walls. Long story short, Agent caught up with me, but instead of throwing me back in prison he offered me a job here.”

“How come you never told us this?” Rina asked.

David grinned at her. “You never asked,” he said, shrugging a shoulder and leaning back in his chair. “You’ve met my alter-ego, and you knew I used to be human. What do you think would have happened to someone who can level a city when they first got their powers?”

Reiki looked at Haley. He knew she was remembering one of her first patrol shifts, where they both had to subdue an elemental Third Gen who had lost control of his powers in the park. “They send people like that to Zatvor?” she asked. “Even if they did it by accident?”

“Not everyone in Zatvor is a criminal,” Agent said. “The prison is large, about the size of a small town. We’ll be focusing our efforts for this mission in the criminal quarters, with the worst offenders like Skadi, but Zatvor has another wing dedicated to helping inmates control their powers so that they can be safely released back into society.”

“’Safely’ being the key word in that sentence,” Natalie added. “Even if they can’t control their powers, not many inmates in Zatvor are there by choice.” She looked pointedly at David, who shrugged apologetically.

“I had my reasons for breaking out,” he said, and left it at that. Reiki gave Natalie a “just drop it” look. Out of all of the Asylum Watchers, David was the only one with a family of his own; he was very protective of them, only referring to his significant other as “Amy” (Reiki wasn’t even sure if they were married or not, or if she had taken his last name), and never calling his kid by name to keep the bad guys from targeting them. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what he meant.

“Pharos Industries and King Enterprises both hold contracts for the work done there, and between the two of them they make sure Zatvor is escape-proof,” Agent told them. “David’s breakout is considered legendary there, so he should have an easy time getting close to the prisoners – especially those who are looking to get out themselves.”

“Well, that’s going to be fun,” Natalie said. “So what I’m hearing here is: we four will be thrown into a prison that’s the size of a small town with a bunch of criminals we helped put there, and have to figure out which villains to cozy up to so we can stop them from breaking out, but it’s okay because our local ex-con will make introductions to inmates who have been in there for years in the hopes that those inmates can – by chance­ – introduce us to the ones we’re looking for.” She folded her arms, looking expectantly at Agent. “Does that about sum it up?”

“Well, we know you can start with Skadi, since she’s the one who mentioned the possible breakout to Dale and Mr. Hannah,” Agent said, grinning playfully at her. “Otherwise, yes. Good summary.”

“Skadi,” Natalie scoffed. “The other issue. All we’re going on is her word that her brother will come for her ‘soon’ – nothing more concrete?”

“She was the snake-satyr girl you guys caught robbing that bank on my first day, right?” Haley asked.

Eli looked around the table. “You guys caught Skadi?” he asked.

“A while ago, merc,” Natalie said, rolling her eyes. “You really need to listen more often.”

“I do listen,” Eli said pointedly. “I listen when Poisonshot tells the underworld that he’s been working with a big player. I listen enough to know that Jorge and Katie Cruz never take jobs without each other, and I listen enough to know that they’re affiliated with the Fauns.” That got everyone’s attention. “Oh yeah,” Eli said, leaning back in his chair now that all eyes were on him. “Katie Cruz, also known as Skadi, is reportedly Claw’s girlfriend. Or, you know, the closest thing a psychopath like him can have.” Watching the shocked faces his new team made, he added, “But of course you big bad Watchers already knew that, right?”

“One of these days, merc,” Natalie promised, “I’m going to wipe that smug smile off your face.”

“You’re welcome to try,” Eli said, grinning at her.

“If that’s everything, I have some things to prepare,” Agent said. “Butterfly, could you brief the others on everything they’ll need to know when dealing with the inmates? Underworld gossip like that, for example?”

“Sure,” Eli said. “I do love me some gossip.”

Agent shook his head as he stood up. Grabbing his umbrella, he added, “Okay then; dismissed.”

* * * * * * * *

Zatvor Penitentiary, outside Eon City.

New prisoners have just arrived.

Zatvor Penitentiary was located on an island off Eon City’s coast. The only way on or off the island was by boat, and sharp rocks surrounded the facility itself. As the three undercover Watchers were ferried over to the prison, dressed in the standard orange jumpsuits of inmates, they sedated their growing nerves by catching up with their old ally, Holmes. Natalie in particular voiced her concerns loudly and often, as they wouldn’t have another chance to talk while in the prison.

“This is stupid,” Natalie said for the umpteenth time as they were led into the prison by the only guards that knew their true identities. “I don’t know what Agent is thinking.” She was uncomfortable without her custom-made black coat that held the majority of her tricks. She hadn’t even been allowed to put on her usual goth make-up that morning, and the occasional stares she got from her friends made her self-conscious. In Zatvor, she wouldn’t be allowed to dye her hair, either; soon she would look like a pop princess with her blonde hair, blue eyes, and pink lips. She was born with a cheerleader’s peppy looks, and soon her team would be made aware of that fact.

She was already hating this assignment.

“Ah, we’ll be fine,” said Toby. Toby Watson, otherwise known as “Holmes”, was a dog-satyr. Unlike Parker, who looked mostly human, Toby had a dog’s nose and ears, and her face was covered in soft, tan fur. Her blue eyes were large and canine-like, and anyone who looked closely enough at her long, dirty-blonde hair could see the floppy ears poking out of her head. Her fingers ended in blunt claws instead of nails, and her lips were naturally black. It wasn’t obvious, especially since she wore boots and long pants to cover her legs, but she walked on the balls of her feet because her ankles and feet were shaped like a dog’s. Her gait was graceful, however – she didn’t have any trouble moving, and Natalie had seen her outrun Frank before (which was no easy feat).

“Easy for you to say,” Natalie said dryly. “You weren’t there when the tower fell on me.”

Toby shrugged, ignoring the unspoken question in the statement. “Are you planning on blowing up any buildings?” she asked.

“No,” Natalie admitted.

“Neither am I,” Toby said, “so I doubt we’ll have that problem this time.”

Rina spoke up from behind them. “We should still be careful,” she said. “We’re walking into the highest-security prison the world has ever seen, and we’ll be hard-pressed to use our powers.”

“Speak for yourself,” Natalie and Toby chorused. Natalie looked sharply over at the P.I. with a newfound respect. As a human, Natalie had spent her life trying to keep up with Third Gens, with varying levels of success. Even though she was a satyr, Toby had done much the same – unlike Rina and Parker, the two satyrs with whom Natalie was familiar, Toby didn’t have any Third Gen-like powers augmenting her natural senses. Sure, she had a dog’s sense of smell and hearing, but that wasn’t the same thing as Parker’s super-strength or Rina’s panic-inducing powers; Toby was also colorblind, and her heightened other senses barely made up for her poor eyesight. Toby had more in common with Natalie than with the other Asylum Watchers on their team.

The guards dropped them off in a barred cell, where normal prisoners would usually be checked for hidden drugs and weapons. Given their unusual situation, the guards skipped the check, instead allowing the Watchers to wait in the room until the new guards – ones who didn’t know their identity – came.

“Hey,” Natalie suddenly asked as they waited in an anteroom to be escorted into the main compound. “I’ve always wondered, Toby: why haven’t you gotten your Watcher license?” It was the closest she could come to asking where Toby had been since the riots. She had wanted to ask as soon as she saw the P.I., but Agent had cautioned her against it.

“Reasons,” Toby shrugged. “Biggest one being that I’m not comfortable with the Government keeping tabs on me. Watchers have to register their names and powers, and I do my work better when I’m not on a national registry for anyone to look up.”

David spoke up for the first time since they were brought in. “We’re all on the registry, and we still do undercover stuff,” he pointed out.

“Trust me,” Toby answered, “it’s best if no one knows my real name.”

“We know your real name, though,” Rina said. “Toby Watson, right?”

Toby paused for a second, before shrugging. “Yeah, you just think that,” she told them, and with that the conversation ended.

Six guards walked in the room and surrounded them, marching the quartet out. These guards didn’t know about the newcomers’ status as undercover Watchers, so the four teammates kept quiet as they marched. As they were led through a large courtyard, Natalie noted the reinforced titanium floors and the high, smooth walls that didn’t allow for climbing. The walkway was covered, which is why the midday sun wasn’t bothering Rina yet, but they could see a few dozen inmates working out and socializing. The inmates watched and cat-called them as they passed, with many of the criminals referring to the new inmates as “fresh meat”. Natalie could see barbed wire at the top of the courtyard walls, though, making her smile to herself.

“Two minutes,” she said confidently, earning herself a glare from one of their new guards and a questioning look from Toby, who was marching next to her. “If I wanted to,” she said carefully, “it would only take me two minutes to bust out of here.”

The guards who heard her laughed. “What’re you going to do, sweetheart?” one asked. “You’d have to make it past us, first. Besides, your hands are cuffed.”

Natalie just shrugged, grinning conspiratorially. A crowd of inmates were now looking at them, and Natalie was pleased to note that Skadi was among them. Showtime, she thought.

Turning to the guard who had spoken, she asked sweetly in her most carrying stage voice, “Are they?” She held up the cuffs with her right hand, jingling them like keys to prove her point. Instantly, the guards surrounded her, pointing their tasers and shouting, “Hands up! Don’t move!”

“Geez,” Natalie said, still grinning. “Learn to take a joke.” She twirled the cuffs around her hands, smoothly letting them lock back in place. “Does this make you feel better?” she asked, laughing at the guards’ obvious discomfiture. They all put their tasers away, telling her not to pull a stunt like that again.

Toby shook her head in mock disapproval. “Come on, sweetie,” she said. “You can’t do better than that?”

She held up her uncuffed hands, but her cuffs were nowhere in sight. As the guard nearest to her tried to reach for his taser again, he found his hands cuffed in front of him and his taser missing. Toby pointed at the guard’s back pocket, where the taser had miraculously moved from it’s holster on his front, and laughed as the other guards pointed their tasers at her in turn.

“If we were going to make a run for it,” she told them, “we’d have done it before you led us into the compound.” As the guards continued to hold her at taser-point, she yawned and put her hands over her head. “Oh fine,” she added. “If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll walk like this from now on.”

One of the guards nodded at another, who got their keys out to unlock their comrade. Putting the cuffs back on Toby, they quickened their pace across the compound to the processing office. “Impressive,” Natalie admitted to Toby. “I’d have gone for his wallet, though.”

Toby grinned at her, putting a finger to her lips, and Natalie laughed as her victim checked his pockets for his wallet. Annoyed when he couldn’t find it there, he patted Toby down, eventually locating it in her jumpsuit pockets. The inmates watching them laughed at the guards’ discomfiture, and Toby gave Natalie a satisfied wink.

The guards seemed relieved when they finally got to the processing office, turning the new prisoners over to the Warden and taking up positions outside the office. “Watch out for these two,” the leader of their guard group said, nodding towards Toby and Natalie. The Warden assured him that he would, and the last guard left.

“You know,” came a voice from across the room, “it’s against protocol for the guards to leave you alone with this many prisoners, Warden.” Agent stepped out of the shadowy corner of the office, grinning at his team.

The Warden cleared his throat nervously. “Well, I know who these prisoners are, and I have an Agent of the Task-Force guarding me right now,” he said. “I told the guards that you would be plenty of protection from these four; I don’t know if they believed me, but they don’t question my orders.”

“This room is secure, by the way,” Agent said, nodding at his team. “The only people watching us already know about the operation.”

“Yes, yes,” the Warden said, waving his hand before Agent could say any more, “but on an island like this you’d be surprised how quickly things can get around. Never assume that nobody is listening.”

Agent nodded, silently deferring to the Warden’s experience. “I heard a commotion outside,” he said carefully.

Natalie stayed in character, tossing her head and smiling prettily at them. “Oh, that was nothing,” she said. “I was just commenting to your guards on how easy this place would be to break out of. Isn’t that right, David?”

David grinned, shaking slightly as he tried not to laugh in the Warden’s face, as the Warden turned his attention to him. “Yes,” the Warden said, frowning at him. “Well, there will be no escaping this time. I’m personally going to see to it.”

“Are you really?” David asked flippantly, smirking at him. “I escaped before, after all.”

The Warden’s frown deepened, but Agent interjected before he could respond. “We do have a goal here,” he said. “It’s good you guys are staying in character, but I’d like an acknowledgement from all of you that you aren’t going to do anything unnecessarily risky.” He looked at Natalie as he said that.

“Me?” she said in mock surprise. “When have I ever done anything unnecessarily dangerous?” She could hear David and Rina stifling laughter from behind her, and even Toby smirked at the comment.

“Nat,” Agent said. He sounded stern but she could see the concern on his face. He looked almost like a puppy when he got like that.

“Fine,” she said, giving in with a sly grin. “No unnecessary stunts.”

“What about the handcuff thing you just pulled?” Rina asked sweetly, elbowing her.

Natalie turned and grinned at her. “That was necessary,” she said, matching Rina’s sweet tone.

“Yeah,” Toby added, more seriously. “We got the criminals’ attention with that stunt. Now they’ll all want to see how powerful we are, and any who are looking to escape might want to cozy up to the two new escape artists.”

“Maybe,” David said, though he had a skeptical look on his face.

“Definitely,” Toby said. “Rina and I’ll get in good with the satyrs, and David and Natalie can work on the Third Gens. Between us, we ought to find out something about this breakout scheme they’ve got.”

“I won’t be using my powers,” Rina added, “and David will down-play his abilities to reduce the chances of them recognizing us.”

“And I’m pretending to be a Third Gen,” Natalie added, fingering the flash paper-covered cards that she smuggled in her sleeves.

The Warden harrumphed. “I’ve put the story to the guards that the Agents of the Task-Force captured the notorious David Perry,” he said. “He was working with three other low-level thieves to evade capture. We’ll be using your real first names, though your last names are different on your paperwork – except for Mr. Perry, of course.”

“They’ve been briefed,” Agent assured him. “If it comes up, they’ll know their names.”

“Good,” the Warden said. “I doubt it’ll come up, though. The guards use numbers to identify prisoners, and the inmates tend to use street names.” He brushed his mustache with his fingers as he added, “Everyone in here refers to me as ‘Warden’, so you don’t need to know my name.”

“Question,” Rina asked, raising her hand. “If we have something to report, where do we go?”

“Dale will be stationed in the prison clinic for the time being,” Agent said. “If you have any news, go to him.”

“Anything we missed?” the Warden asked.

Agent took a deep breath before looking at the Watchers. “No,” he said hesitantly. “I think that’s it.” For the first time, Natalie could see his own doubt in his plan on his face.  Not for the first time, she got the feeling that he wasn’t telling them something; he seemed worried, which took all the fun out of teasing him.

She put her still-handcuffed hand over his on his umbrella. “Hey,” she said softly. “It’ll be okay.” She noticed Toby’s raised eyebrows and added, “I mean, it’s a stupid plan, but it’s the only one we’ve got.”

Agent looked down, surprised at the contact, and blushed and stammered in response. “Just– Just don’t blow up any buildings,” he mumbled awkwardly.

Natalie raised an eyebrow. “No promises,” she said, grinning. If anyone else had said it that flippantly to her after what Parker had done, she would have punched them; but Agent just looked so cute when he was flustered. She would have to do this more often.

“If you two are done flirting?” Toby asked. Natalie saw Rina elbow her, but she and Agent broke apart hurriedly.

“Right,” Agent said, his face still red. “Well… good luck to you.” He strode to the door and got the guards that had taken up places outside to get the new inmates. As the guards took them away, Natalie turned back to look at Agent one more time, but his face had already been set back in the mask of indifference to the criminal inmates.

Looking ahead, Natalie steeled herself. You can do this, she thought, getting back into character.

There was no going back now.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Kyle Warren, AKA Reiki.

“So, fearless leader,” Reiki asked Haley after finding her in the lounge. “What’s going on?” He sat down on one of the cushioned chairs across from her.

“What do you mean?” Haley asked. She was sipping a cup of tea, having just gotten back from a patrol shift. Reiki just stared at her until she started talking. “You mean about the mission?” she asked.

“What else?” he said. “I’ve never seen you turn down an assignment before; none of us have. What’s wrong?”

Haley shrugged. “It was a bad plan,” she said. “Natalie was right; I relied way too much on luck when I was leader, and it nearly got us all killed last week. I know that another undercover mission is our only plan for stopping this breakout, so I made a suggestion to help improve our chances.”

“And conveniently, that suggestion was for you to stay behind.” It wasn’t an accusation, but Haley bristled.

“So?” she asked. “It was a good call. The team’s still settling back to our old routine, and Agent suddenly asks us to do this – he has to know how little the team trusts him after he abandoned us like that.”

Reiki was stunned for a second after her outburst. “Haley, you were the one who kept telling all of us that he would be back if we just gave him time,” he reminded her. “Now you say that you don’t trust him?”

Haley pursed her lips, clamming up again. “It’s not that I don’t trust him,” she back-pedaled. “I just wonder sometimes what took him so long, is all.”

Reiki just looked at her for a minute, noticing not for the first time how much she had changed in the last few months since the riots. She looked tired all the time, as if she wasn’t sleeping properly, and she had lost a fair amount of weight from not eating. Her hair, usually kept trimmed in a neat pixie cut, was shaggy and had grown past her ears. She used to change into civilian clothes after a patrol, but she was sitting in the lounge still in her uniform as she drank her tea.

The tea itself was unusual, as well. At this time of day, Haley used to have tea with Granny in the older woman’s room before going to the city’s community center to teach a self defense class in the evening. As he thought of it, Reiki realized that he hadn’t seen her teach that class in a while.

“Hey,” he said, concerned for his friend. “You know that if you ever need to talk about something, I’m here, right?”

Haley gave him a tired smile that didn’t quite meet her eyes. “I know,” she said. “Thanks, Reiki. I’m fine, really.”

Anyone who knew her could tell that Haley was far from fine, but Reiki let the matter drop.

* * * * * * * *

Zatvor Penitentiary.

Sabrina “Rina” Dawson, AKA Nightmare

“So,” came a voice from behind Rina, “you’re the new meat.”

The four undercover teammates were taken to their cells after their meeting with Agent and the Warden. The girls’ cells were on the same block, but they couldn’t talk to each other without their jailers shouting at them. Nor would they have had much to say in front of the other inmates, anyways. They had to keep their cover.

As the other inmates were brought back in from the yard, Rina found that her cellmate was none other than Skadi. Aside from her initial comment upon entering the tiny cell, the snake-satyr didn’t have anything to say to her; she came in and lay down on her bunk, staring at the ceiling.

If she was going to get any information, the Rina was going to have to initiate conversation. “Hey,” she said shyly. “My name’s – ”

“Don’t care,” Skadi said abruptly. “In a few days it’s not going to matter.”

“Meaning?” Rina asked, taking the opening.

“Meaning if you don’t shut your trap and let me sleep, I’ll rip your throat out.” Skadi made the threat nonchalantly, not really trying to intimidate Rina, but as if it were simply a fact.

Rina took a deep breath, knowing how risky her next words would be. They would never get anywhere by playing it safe, however. “I’d like to see you try,” she said, doing her best to match Skadi’s tone of voice. For the first time, Rina was glad that her powers weren’t working properly – the tension in the small, cramped cell was palpable, and her brand of panic-inducing fear would have instantly started a fight. Skadi was about a decade younger, but Rina had seen her fight before and was in no hurry to face off with the thief.

The silence stretched on, while Rina anticipated every possible move Skadi could make. After what felt like an eternity, she heard a soft sigh coming from Skadi’s direction. It took another minute for Rina to realize that the snake-girl had fallen asleep.

“What did you think would happen?” Toby asked her the next day at breakfast when Rina relayed the conversation. “Fighting isn’t allowed in here.” They were eating alone at their end of the table, as Natalie and David had joined some of his old acquaintances among the Third Gens.

“I don’t know,” Rina said, still confused. “This has never happened to me before. Usually people get so nervous around me that they can hardly speak, much less fall asleep.”

“Agent wouldn’t have sent you if he didn’t think you could control your powers, right?” Toby asked, dropping her voice so the other inmates wouldn’t hear.

“He didn’t send me as a Fourth Gen,” Rina whispered back. “He sent me as a satyr. I – ”

“You,” came a voice from behind her. Rina whipped her head around, trying to see who was speaking. A pale young man with white hair and red eyes was smiling at her. “You’re Nine, aren’t you? Rina?”

Rina’s eyes widened as she recognized the man. “Finn?” she asked in disbelief. “No way! What are you doing here?”

“Rina,” Toby asked, a warning note creeping into her voice, “you know this guy?”

“Toby,” Rina introduced, noticing how many eyes were now looking at them. “This is Finn. He’s a Fourth Gen, like me. I didn’t know any of the Fourth Gens were in Zatvor,” she added, turning back to Finn. It suddenly occurred to her that her cover was blown, and her eyes widened slightly as she kept the smile plastered to her face.

Finn smiled as he sat with them. “I’m the only one I’ve seen. Most of the others are still with the Fauns around the country.”

“I thought I was the only one who stayed in Eon City,” Rina said, shaking her head. “What are you doing here, Finn? I haven’t seen you since…”

“Since we broke out of the experiment?” Finn finished as Rina trailed off. “Yeah. What have you been up to?” He furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. “I thought you became a Watcher.”

Toby gave Rina a brief alarmed look, before feigning disinterest again. Rina thought fast, coming up with a story and hoping Toby would go along with it. “I got my Watcher license,” she admitted, “mainly because there wasn’t any other way for me to make money. I even tried joining a team for a while,” she added, remembering her run-in with Leech earlier that year and wondering how much Finn knew. She would have to stay as close to the truth as possible. “That life wasn’t really for me. The night of the riots… well, some stuff happened, and I lost control of my powers. I was kicked to the curb, until I met Toby here.” Toby nodded as if she already knew the story. “We lived on the streets for a bit, until we were picked up last week for expired licenses.”

The “expired license” story was one they had agreed on beforehand, believing that it would lend them some sympathy from Fauns like Skadi. Satyrs were all required to carry a special license that proved they were registered with the government, and allowing that license to expire was punishable with up to a year in prison.  Rina’s Watcher license usually served as her proof of registration, but it too had to be updated regularly.

Finn nodded, seeming to buy the tale as he began telling his own story.  “Well, as you know I’m not really a satyr,” he said. “The stupid experiment gave me the red eyes and black blood, though, so I can’t pass for human, either. I went ahead and got a satyr license to keep the cops off my back, but, well – like you said, there’s not much work that’ll take someone like us.”

“If you’re not a satyr, then you must be a Third Gen,” Toby said, acting as though she didn’t know much about the Fourth Gen experiment.

“You didn’t tell her?” Finn asked Rina, who shrugged. “We’re called ‘Fourth Gens’,” he explained. “We were part of an illegal experiment when we were kids that gave us more advanced powers than the Third Gens. Rina here can regrow any of her limbs.”

Rina looked around, suddenly conscious of the fact that they were the center of attention now. “Not that I particularly enjoy losing my arms or legs,” she said nervously.

Finn waved a hand impatiently. “Yeah, but your powers were so cool! You were almost as strong as Ryan and Katie when we finally broke out of there.”

“My fear powers are hard to control,” Rina told him carefully. She didn’t want to admit that she couldn’t use them – they had not worked reliably since the night of the riots – and so didn’t want him just shouting about it to the entire cafeteria. As a Watcher, she had put more than her share of villains behind bars in Zatvor, and she didn’t want everyone here to put it together that she was the hero Nightmare – especially when she lacked her usual intimidation.

“Don’t I know it,” Finn was saying, not taking the hint. “You hit all of us along with the scientists. I thought my heart was going to explode out of my chest!”

Rina laughed nervously. “Well, it’s good to see you, Finn,” she said, hinting that he should leave.

Finn had never been good at picking up on hints. “So have you seen any of the others?” he asked. “Leah and Mikey tracked me down earlier this year, saying something about having found the lead scientist on the Fourth Gen experiments. They wanted me to go with them to kill him, but I’ve never been into that. Forgiveness is better than hate, after all.”

“Yeah, they found me too,” Rina told him, relaxing a little as they turned away from discussing her powers. “I also heard that the lead scientist is in jail now.”

“He’s not a Third Gen, I don’t think,” Finn said, shrugging, “and he sure as hell ain’t a satyr, so he’s not in here and that’s all I know. If I never see him again, it’ll be too soon.”

As Rina replied, “True,” Toby stood up.

“I’ve got a bit of a stomachache, Rina,” she said, giving her a significant look. “I think I’m going to see the medic.”

“Sorry, Finn,” Rina said, “Talk to you later?”

“Sure,” Finn said, starting to eat now that they were done talking. “I’ll probably see you during the free hour, since we can’t go outside.”

“Right,” Rina said, smiling at him. “It really is good to see you again,” she added, before following Toby to put their trays away.

As they walked down the hallway to the infirmary, Toby looked around to make sure they were alone before asking carefully, “What the hell was that?”

“Finn’s a Fourth Gen, like me,” Rina said, not bothering to whisper. There was no point in pretending that she was a normal satyr now. “He’s a technopath; he can assemble or disassemble any piece of technology he comes across and can make it work with a thought.”

“Cool, cool,” Toby said, nodding. Then she added sharply, “He knew you. He outed your powers.”

“Yeah,” Rina said. “That’s going to be a problem, isn’t it?”

“Only if you’re recognized,” Toby hissed, “by any of the plethora of bad guys you helped put in here!”

Rina was saved a response by someone shouting, “Hey! New Meat!” from behind them.

“Great,” Toby sighed before turning to face them. “What?”

Skadi came marching up the hallway with three other satyr prisoners. From the description she had received before the mission, Rina recognized Erinyes, the bat-satyr Faun Lieutenant whom Natalie and David took down the night of the riots, on Skadi’s left. This just keeps getting better, Rina thought, schooling her face to keep her internal cringe from showing.

“You,” Skadi demanded, pointing rudely at Rina. “Is it true you’re a Fourth Gen?”

“These eyes aren’t just for decoration,” Rina said, trying to come across as tough and nonchalant. Her best hope now that Finn had outed her powers was to bluff it out.

“You’re also a satyr, right?” Skadi continued. “The Fauns could use someone as powerful as you.”

Rina raised an eyebrow. “Why would I need the Fauns?” she asked.

Skadi scoffed. “Why wouldn’t you need the Fauns?” she retorted. “You worked as a Watcher, right? You probably helped put a bunch of people in here. The Fauns can watch your back, if you help us with a little… side project we’ve got going.”

“’Side project’?” Rina asked, trying not to glance at Toby.

Skadi folded her arms in front of her. “My brother and some friends of ours are going to bust us out,” she said bluntly. “You in?”

“Whoa,” Toby said, putting up a hand. “Your brother? Who is that?”

“Poisonshot,” Skadi told her, rolling her eyes. “Duh. But I won’t give you any more details right now. Meet me tomorrow in the yard at the picnic benches.” She looked around and added, “Fewer ears there.”

Rina nodded, and Skadi and her posse moved off. She blinked a few times as she watched them go, unable to say anything.

“Okay, how the hell did you do that?” Toby asked her, awed. “I’ve never been able to get information that fast, much less a confession.”

“Is it just me, or did that seem fishy?” Rina asked, still looking at the spot where Skadi turned the corner.

“Oh, it was definitely fishy,” Toby said, “but if she really just took the bait that easily, then this mission’ll be a piece of cake. Maybe it was a good thing that Finn outed you.”

“We’ll see,” Rina said, shaking her head and looking back at Toby. “Either way, we need to see Dale.”

* * * * * * * *

Zatvor Penitentiary, across the cafeteria.

Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.

“So, where do we start?” Natalie asked. David was scanning the room as they grabbed their food trays.

“Over there,” he grunted. He was getting into his role of being the big, tough prisoner. Natalie followed as David led her to an empty table that was sitting near a group of rowdy inmates. Given the lack of markings, they were probably Third Gens.

“Oh ho ho,” laughed one as he saw David and Natalie approach. “If it isn’t the big, bad David Perry!”

The inmate was a large man, tattooed and bald. He winked at Natalie as they approached. “Well, hello sweetheart,” he said. “What’s a pretty thing like yourself doing following a great big oaf like him?”

“Sweetheart?” she asked. “I’ll give you ‘sweetheart’.” With that, she stomped as hard as she could on the big guy’s foot. As petite as Natalie looked, years of fighting training had given her powerful leg muscles – she probably had broken at least one of the big guy’s toes.

The big man howled in pain, much more loudly than Natalie would have expected. “Wh… what did you do that for?” he sobbed, crossing his leg over his knee to cradle the injured foot. “I *hic* I was only being friendly!”

“I’m not some pushover little girl that you can just…” Natalie started to tell him off, but trailed off when she saw the looks on the other Third Gens’ faces. They seemed concerned about the big guy, and shot glares at Natalie as they tried to console him.

David shook his head. “Sorry, Blitz,” he said, sounding sincerely apologetic. “Natalie’s new here, and she’s a bit jumpy. She thought you were hitting on her.” Natalie couldn’t believe it.

The one called “Blitz” was sobbing as he cradled his foot. The other Third Gens in the group looked expectantly at Natalie, frowning as they did. They obviously expected her to apologize to the hulking figure, and since she was outnumbered, Natalie decided to comply.

“Oh, um, yeah,” she said awkwardly. “I thought you were disrespecting me, and, um, I’m… sorry?”

Blitz sniffed, wiping the tears out of his eyes as he mumbled, “S’okay.” The other Third Gens clapped him comfortingly on the back, still shooting Natalie dirty looks.

David turned to her and explained. “I’m sorry, I should have warned you. Blitz here is a big softy, who likes taking care of newcomers. His Third Gen power is that he can make people feel cozy with a touch, so everyone here likes him.”

“Cozy?” Natalie asked skeptically.

“Like… like that feeling you get when you’re wrapped in a big, fuzzy blanket and have a cup of cocoa on a cold night,” said one of the other prisoners, who was still glaring at Natalie. “It’s the best feeling in the world, and Blitz is the only way we can get it in here when we have a bad day. And you hurt him!”

“Blitz calls everybody ‘sweetheart’,” added another.  “He’s mildly autistic, and it’s part of his therapy to try and connect to others.”

“Oh,” Natalie said. “I’m so sorry,” she added, more sincerely now that she knew the big guy hadn’t meant anything by the comments.

“It’s… it’s okay,” Blitz said, sniffling one more time. He seemed to have stopped crying, at least. “It didn’t hurt much, really. I just didn’t expect it, is all.”

“Can you walk?” David asked.

Blitz tested his foot out, and nodded. Natalie breathed a sigh of relief. If they were trying to get in good with the Third Gens of the prison, she did not get them off to a good start.

“Don’t mind them, Blitz,” came a voice from the back of the group. As Third Gens shifted to look at the new speaker, Natalie found herself able to see a blonde girl laying down on the table behind them. She flinched as she recognized the villainess. “I know Miss Natalie,” Hatter said, grinning over at them from her prone position on the table. “She’s not a bad person – just takes a little getting used to.”

“You know her, Hatter?” asked another of the inmates. If she had nothing else to think about, Natalie might have recognized that one from the gang fight earlier that month – as it was, however, she only had eyes for Hatter.

“You’re here,” Natalie said, her voice cracking from the tension.  Hatter had obviously recognized her, even without her usual makeup and outfit.

David looked between the two, noticing Natalie’s alarmed expression as the girls faced off. “Oh yes,” Hatter said, sitting up and spinning around daintily. “I’m here. Where else would I be after robbing a museum?”

“I don’t know,” Natalie said carefully, wondering if her cover was about to be blown. “I guess I never thought someone like you could be locked up.”

“Strictly speaking, I can’t be,” Hatter crossed her legs, still smiling that manic grin. “I’m only in here because here is where I want to be. And you can stop describing my smile,” she added, talking to the air.

The audience should note that you’re smiling, and it’s very off-putting to our heroes.

“Yes, well, it’s supposed to be,” Hatter grumbled, “but your narration is getting distracting.”

Sorry.

David looked confused, but Natalie had seen this before. “Still talking to the voice in your head, I see,” she said.

“Oh, the narrator’s not in my head,” Hatter replied, steadfastly ignoring the narration as she spoke to the heroes. “Anyways, yes, I’m here. The real question is why are you?”

“Got into some trouble,” Natalie said evasively.

“I can see that,” Hatter said dryly.  “Does this ‘trouble’ wear a three-piece suit and carry an over-compensating umbrella?”

“Anyways…” David segued, awkwardly trying to bring the conversation back around to his original purpose before Natalie took Hatter’s bait. “Blitz, we’re looking for something. Can you help us?”

“Depends,” Blitz shrugged. He didn’t seem to be holding a grudge against Natalie for hurting his foot. “What do you need?”

“I’ve been gone for a while, as you know,” David said, “so we’re looking for some updated information around here. What’s the pecking order like these days?”

Blitz shrugged. “Not much change,” he said. “Fauns still keep to themselves, though they seem to be looking to the snake-girl now. Skels added to their numbers last week, but the new guys don’t seem to belong here. My crew keeps to ourselves; we don’t want trouble, and the gangs tend to bring it with them.”

“Are the Fauns and Skels still fighting?” David asked.

Hatter suddenly jumped off the table, landing lightly in front of him. “No,” she said. “Curiously enough, they’re not. I wonder why that is.” She turned and walked away from the group, whistling as she left.

“She’s kind of weird,” David said.

“Oh, Hatter’s harmless,” Blitz told them.

“Harmless?” Natalie repeated. “Last time I saw her, she made me switch bodies with someone!”

David looked surprised. “Wait, that was her?” he asked, looking back at Hatter.

“Her Third Gen power is unique,” Blitz said. “She has what she calls ‘limited powers of narration.’ If she uses a special voice, anything she says comes true.” He shook his head. “Crazy bird, though. Constantly talks to herself.”

“Anything she says?” David asked, disbelieving.

“Anything,” Natalie nodded. “She made a stuffed buffalo come to life and ride a skateboard.”

“And she’s locked up in Zatvor,” David said, folding his arms.  “Why hasn’t she broken out before?”

Natalie tapped him on the shoulder, and David thanked Blitz and said his goodbyes. They moved off a safe distance and sat at another empty table to eat, and Natalie said, “I think we need to talk to Dale.”

 “You mean about Hatter?” David asked. “Is she a problem?”

“Well, she definitely recognized me,” Natalie said. “Damn. Haley was right; this is too dangerous. I bet most everyone in here knows who we are by now!”

“We don’t know that,” David reminded her. “She didn’t tell Blitz who you were. Trust me,” he added, glancing back over at the hulking teddy bear. “If he knew we were Watchers, Blitz wouldn’t have been able to keep a straight face. I highly doubt he’s involved in any breakout scheme.”

Natalie glanced back at Blitz as well, keeping her voice down as she said, “I’d bet the year’s salary that Hatter is, though.” She poked at the cold cafeteria food, grimacing as she added, “I don’t think I’m all that hungry anymore.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum HQ, the next day.

Outlier and Butterfly, returning from patrol.

“Do you think they’re okay?” Haley asked Eli as she parked her bike in the motor pool. “The guys in Zatvor? It’s been a couple of days now.” She had been worried about the undercover Asylum Watchers for the last two days, but Agent had not told them much about the mission.

“We would have heard if there was something wrong,” Eli said practically, shrugging his rifle off his shoulder as he dismounted from Haley’s motorcycle. “In this case, no news is good news.”

“I guess,” Haley said as they moved to the elevator to check in upstairs. “I’m just worried. They all put so many of the criminals in Zatvor there; it’d be a miracle if they aren’t recognized.”

“Oh, I agree,” Eli said. “But our dear Agent must have had his reasons for sending them there.”

“That’s what I’m worried about,” Haley admitted, as she and Eli both swiped their identification cards to show that they were back. Haley punched the button for the medic floor as they talked. “Agent’s been weirdly evasive since he’s been back. I don’t know if it’s because of what happened the night of the riots, or if he’s just embarrassed, but he refuses to tell anyone why he left us alone for four months – or what made him come back. Now, a week after he’s back, he sends our team into Zatvor with very little to disguise themselves, based on a vague tip from a criminal.”

Eli looked at her. “You think he’s up to something?” he asked. “Agent’s always been an upstanding guy, though.” Through his surprised tone, Haley noted that Eli sounded sarcastic as he said it.

“I think there’s something weird going on in this city,” Haley said. “I’ve been noticing some patterns since my first day on the job – like Poisonshot working for someone who can make portals in the walls.” She shook her head. “I’ve read every report we have, as well as every new one coming in. Almost every villain that’s escaped our team has used those same portals – as if the air in front of them just opened up. There’s some kind of big shot behind the scenes, pulling the strings, and I think Agent knows who it is.”

“That’s a pretty big leap,” Eli said. “What makes you think Agent is in league with Jaunt?”

Haley looked sharply at her partner. “Jaunt?” she asked. “You mean the guy who took down Team Ark? What’s he got to do with it?”

“Oh, yeah,” Eli said, shrugging. “What you described there is his MO. Jaunt takes criminals and puts them together to do certain jobs for clients. A Consulting Criminal, to use the Sherlock Holmes term. A – how did you put it? – ‘a big shot behind the scenes, pulling the strings’.”

“Jaunt,” Haley repeated slowly. “The Team Ark report said he could make portals in the air, too. That would make so much more sense if he’s the one behind everything.”

“But what makes you think Agent is working with him?” Eli asked curiously. “Agent was a member of Team Ark, and he took their defeat pretty hard.”

“Good point,” Haley sighed. “That part doesn’t add up. But still, there’s something fishy going on.”

“Like what?” Eli asked.

“Agent has some kind of mysterious source,” Haley said. “He has his ear to the ground in the underworld.”

“Yeah,” Eli agreed, “but he’s an Agent of the Task-Force. Why wouldn’t he?”

“I’d agree with you,” Haley told him, “but every mission we’ve failed since I got here came from Agent’s mysterious source. Every single one – Poisonshot, Parker, Hatter, Drake, Marauder, Claw. That can’t be coincidence.”

Eli whistled. “No,” he said, “that doesn’t sound like a coincidence. You said Poisonshot used portals to get away?”

“So did Hatter, and Marauder,” Haley said, ticking them off on her fingers. “Parker went into the Fauns to spy on Claw – there was some vague story mentioned about rooting out a mole that people keep forgetting – and that failed miserably. And while David took Drake down, that was the first time we saw Dark David come out.”

“You think Agent’s in league with Jaunt, though?” Eli asked curiously as the elevator doors opened again.

“You’re right,” Haley sighed again, stepping out into the medical floor. They had to get checked out after every patrol, even if Dale was still away. “That doesn’t sound like something he’d do. Still, it’s suspicious. And there’s something that’s been bothering me about the night of the riots.”

Eli hopped up on an exam table as they waited for Dale’s assistants to come check them out. “Only one thing bothers you about that night?” he asked, only half-joking.

“How did they get the bombs up here?” Haley asked. Eli stopped chuckling as the implication fell into place.

“Claw had someone infiltrate the place, right?” he asked tentatively. “I mean, there are a lot of people coming and going in the building – even more before the riots. One of them had to have snuck up here.”

“Yes, but only the Watchers are allowed on the top floors,” Haley pointed out, holding up her key card. “According to the projections, the bombs detonated from the medic floor, but also from our quarters and Agent’s office. We don’t allow just anyone up there – heck, it was a week after my first day here before I could even move in without needing an escort. The elevator locks down if you don’t use your key card, and the stairs are gated between the admin floors, the tech floors, and the Watcher floors. So, who planted the bombs on the top floors?”

Eli shrugged. “Couldn’t someone have snuck in?” he asked again. “Stolen a key card, or made a fake one, or something?”

“Possibly,” Haley admitted, “but if they did, it would have been right before the bombs went off, and the security scans would have shown something.” She sighed. “Either way, it brings us back to Agent. Why has nobody been investigating it? Nobody asked any of us if we had lost our cards.”

“They probably assume that Claw used Blackbird’s,” Eli said reasonably.

“Except that the logs didn’t show Parker’s card being used,” Haley pointed out. “Plus, my brother told me that Parker pressed that button under duress. Even if he’s well and truly a Faun now, Parker wouldn’t have given over his access card before that moment – after the bombs went off.”

“You’re making a few assumptions, there,” Eli said. “We don’t know that Blackbird wasn’t a traitor, or that Claw didn’t just steal his card.”

“Fair,” Haley said. “It’s still just speculation. I’m mainly just concerned that nobody is asking these questions.”

The medic assistant chose that moment to walk in, so Eli couldn’t respond. They both had their check-up in thoughtful silence, weighing the possibility of a traitor on the team.

* * * * * * * *

Zatvor Penitentiary.

Rina, Toby, Natalie, and David, discussing.

“This mission is a bust,” Natalie growled. “First Hatter recognizes me, then there’s a Fourth Gen who knows Rina. It’s been two days since we were burned – why are we still here?”

“Better question,” Toby said, “why did Agent send you guys in the first place? He had to have at least known the Fourth Gen guy was here, and that he’d probably recognize Rina.”

“None of that matters,” David interrupted. “What matters now is that we’re here, and we have a mission to accomplish.”

Natalie shrugged. “Not sure what more we can do but wait,” she said. “Rina and Toby got all they could out of Skadi.”

The satyr girls had reported to Dale as soon as they had finished with Skadi in the hallway two days before. Dale had assured them that he would tell Agent that Finn had recognized Rina, but so far, they hadn’t heard anything else. Later that afternoon they had met Skadi under the covered picnic tables during the yard hour. She had told them that the breakout was planned for three days later – which meant it was now less than a day from the appointed hour.

Unfortunately, the snake-satyr had not been forthcoming with the details of the escape. The undercover Watchers knew when, but not how the inmates would attempt to escape – which meant their mission was not yet over.

David and Natalie had also told Dale about Hatter recognizing them, but there was still no word from Agent about pulling them out. Now they were stuck in a potentially hostile situation and had no extraction plan in place. The teammates had gathered in the indoor recreation room after breakfast to discuss their next steps.

“Agent won’t just leave us in here,” David assured the others. “For now, we just have to lie low and wait for the breakout attempt. Once we stop it, Agent will get us out.”

“You sound like Haley,” Natalie grumbled.

David grinned at her. “You just have to have a little faith,” he said, echoing Haley’s words from earlier that summer. “I thought you of all people would trust Agent.”

“’Me of all people’?” Natalie repeated, raising an eyebrow. “I like the guy, sure, but trust has never been a part of it. Agent has a lot of moves planned out, and I’m a pawn on the board – we both understand that, or we wouldn’t be able to work together.”

“If you didn’t trust him, you wouldn’t be able to work together, either,” Toby pointed out.

Natalie shrugged. “It’s complicated,” she said. “I trust him to make decisions, and to do what’s right for the city, but I can’t forget what happened to my brother. Agent took a risk with Parker, and it blew up in all our faces; he’s not infallible, and I’m not so smitten as to think he can’t make mistakes. And I think this mission is a mistake.”

“Very wise,” Toby said, nodding. “So what are you thinking we do?”

“Do about what?” came a voice from behind them. “Hey Rina,” Finn added, squeezing between her and David. “Mind if I join you?”

“How long have you been listening?” Rina asked, startled.

Finn shrugged. “Long enough to know you four are working for the Asylum,” he said. “Really, you guys should watch what you say in here. Or did you think people wouldn’t know who Agent is?” The Watchers looked around, noticing the hostile stares from the people around them for the first time. Finn laughed at the look on their faces. “Nah, I’m just kidding. Hatter let it slip to Blitz this morning. Rina, why didn’t you tell me you were still a Watcher?”

“Do you not see how everyone is looking at us?” Rina asked, standing up as her teammates tensed for a fight.

“What?” Finn asked. “Nobody’s going to try anything. Mostly they just want to know what you’re doing here.”

“This is worse than we thought,” Natalie said. “We should have gotten out of here as soon as Hatter recognized us!”

“I knew it,” came another voice from down the table. Skadi came walking over, looking between Finn and Rina with her hands on her hips. “You’re Nightmare,” she said loudly, staring at Rina.

If there had been any inmates who didn’t already know their identities, they knew now.

Rina stared Skadi down, however, still trying to de-escalate the situation. “Not anymore,” she said coolly. “I don’t know how much you hear in here, but Eon City was hit by Faun riots nearly half a year ago, and I lost control of my powers. No powers, no Watcher license, no heroics. I was out on the streets like… well, like a satyr.”

She tucked her hair behind her ear, drawing attention to their webbed appearance, as well as the claw-like shape of her fingers. It was a huge risk to admit her identity, since she had single-handedly put down a gang fight just a week before – it was one thing for the inmates to spread rumors, but another to confirm them – but as she spoke, the story took shape in her mind. She could answer questions if needed.

Luckily for her, no one from that day seemed to be in the room at the moment – or they didn’t want to speak up. Skadi nodded and sat down next to them. After a few seconds when the cafeteria collectively held their breaths, the snake-girl looked around and said loudly, “Geez, everyone here is such a busybody. We’re trying to have a conversation here, people.”

At that, the tension around the room seemed to diffuse. Everyone went back to their conversations, and Rina saw David and Natalie out of the corner of her eye standing down.

“Nobody will bother you,” Skadi assured her. “Everyone here knows I was put in here by the Asylum, so if I say you’re good, then you’re good.” She shrugged. “Most of them don’t really hold grudges anyways – at least, not enough to risk punishment from fighting you.”

“What is it you want?” Rina asked, unsure of the teen criminal’s motives. Finn looked curiously between Skadi and Rina. Rina sat back down, but the other Watchers stayed tensed up.

Skadi raised the arches over her eyes. It would have looked human, if she had eyebrows over her scales. “What makes you think I want anything from you?” she asked sweetly, her forked tongue making her voice hiss.

“Cut the crap, Skadi,” Rina said. “Why else would you speak for me?”

Skadi grinned, showing her snake-like fangs. “I assume you all are here because of what I said to Dale and Hannah,” she said. “Oh, don’t bother telling me that story about you leaving the Asylum again; I recognized Earthborn the second I saw him.” She nodded at David, who flushed.

“Yeah, this is a bust,” Toby muttered, sharing a look with Natalie.

“Oh, no worries,” Skadi said. “Nobody here’ll bother you. There’s nothing you can do about the breakout even if you do know.” She tossed her hair, taking a bite of her porridge as she added, “No, I’m here with a friendly warning.”

“A warning?” Rina asked. “No revenge plot or anything?

“Revenge?” Skadi looked taken aback. “Why would I want revenge?”

“For putting you in here,” Rina said.

Skadi laughed. “That was nothing to be mad about,” she said. “I was sick and coming here saved my life. If anything, I owe you for catching me.”

“Thus, the friendly warning, right?” Finn prompted. He seemed to know what she was there to tell them.

“There’s something a lot bigger than us going on here,” Skadi told them, ignoring Finn. The Fourth Gen didn’t seem bothered by it, though. “My brother and I are being held over a barrel by Jaunt, and I don’t like it.”

“’Over a barrel’?” Rina asked.

Skadi sighed. “Yeah, you know: he’s got a gun to our heads, he’s making us do stuff we don’t want to do?” She looked between them. “I think you all know the feeling.”

“How?” Toby asked.

“I was sick,” Skadi said again, rolling her eyes as she explained. “We needed money for an operation, so my brother and I became thieves. Then this guy Jaunt came along, and promised he’d make me better if we did everything that he told us. I tried to get away; I joined the Fauns and hoped Claw could protect me, but my brother isn’t a satyr.”

“So you went back for him, and got caught robbing that bank,” Rina finished. “I knew bank robbery wasn’t your style.”

“You believe her?” Toby asked. “Just like that?”

David put a hand on Toby’s shoulder. “What other reason does she have to talk to us?” he asked reasonably.

Skadi nodded. “Not to mention, Claw’s under Jaunt’s thumb, too,” she told them. “That guy has his fingers in every pie in the country. There’s no getting away from him.”

“Why are you telling us this?” Natalie asked suspiciously.

Skadi grinned at her, showing her snake-like fangs. “Because if I can’t get away from him, then the least I can do is ruin his plans,” she said, her forked tongue making her voice hiss ominously. “He has ears everywhere – even inside the Asylum,” she added, “and everything he does seems to be testing people’s sense of heroics. This breakout, for example.”

“If you want to get back at him, then tell us how to stop the breakout,” Toby said.

Skadi shrugged. “It can’t be stopped,” she said. “Especially not from in here. The guy makes portals,” she reminded them. “He could be anywhere, and this breakout would still happen.”

Natalie shook her head. “Then what difference does it make if you tell us?” she asked.

“Tomorrow, be in the yard,” Skadi said. “A prison riot will start at noon, and you might be able to stop some of the villains from going through Jaunt’s portals at twelve-oh-five. Bring the rest of your team, too,” she added. “You can stop people from getting hurt in the confusion.”

“And what’s stopping us from just telling the Warden not to let anyone out in the yard tomorrow?” Natalie asked.

“Probably your biggest takeaway from this conversation,” Skadi said. “I already said, Jaunt has ears in the Asylum – and he has back-up plans upon back-up plans. If you don’t keep the prisoners lumped together, then he’ll just open the portals inside the cells and you won’t stop anybody from going through.”

David furrowed his eyebrows. “What do you mean, ‘he has ears inside the Asylum’?” he asked.

“Just what I said, duh,” Skadi told him, rolling her eyes. “He’s got people inside the Asylum telling him everything. Haven’t you wondered why you haven’t been pulled out of here yet? You’re only in Zatvor because Jaunt wants you to be – just like me, and Hatter, and a ton of others around here.”

“Yeah, right,” Natalie said. “Come on, guys – she’s just trying to get us to turn on each other. Why should we believe you?”

Skadi shrugged, but it was Toby who answered, “It makes sense.” When Natalie turned to glare at her, she explained, “I was just thinking that it was weird for Agent to send us in here when there were inmates who would recognize you guys on sight. It’s also weird that we’ve been here two days without getting jumped, even though our covers were blown a while ago.” She shook her head, adding, “Who’s protecting us? ‘Cause I highly doubt it’s the snake-girl here. No offense,” she added, nodding at Skadi.  “I also don’t think it’s Agent.”

“Our source is a criminal,” Natalie reminded her. “We’re just taking Skadi’s word for it?”

Skadi stood up. “Honestly, I don’t care what you believe,” she told them. “I told you what I know because I want to thumb my nose at Jaunt. What you do with it is up to you.” She walked away, rolling her eyes. “Tomorrow at noon,” she called back without looking at them.

The Watchers all looked at each other as she walked away.  There was a lot that didn’t add up about this mission.

* * * * * * * *

Olympus, the ruins of a once-great civilization.

Jaunt and Poisonshot.

“It’s nearly time,” Jorge Cruz, otherwise known as Poisonshot, said through his breathing apparatus.  He ran a cloth down the edge of his composite bow once more to make sure it was polished.  “Are you going to open up those fancy portals for us now?

Jaunt smirked at him through his own mask.  “Patience, my young friend,” he said, looking out at the wasteland through the balcony window.  “We have to wait for all the players to get into position.”

“More of your games, huh?” Jorge asked bitterly.  “My sister’s been rotting away in Zatvor for the better part of a year now, and you’re telling me to be patient?”

“I kept my promise,” Jaunt said.  “Your sister was cured, and now we’re getting her out.  I’m just asking for a few more minutes.”

“I’ve spent the last year running your errands,” Jorge retorted through clenched teeth.  “I’ve stolen how much for you, and that ‘final plan’ you keep talking about.  All I want now is my sister back, and then we’re both out!”

Jaunt laughed.  “Please,” he said, “don’t lie to yourself.  You’ll never be out; no one can be.”

Jorge rolled his eyes.  “I don’t care what you think,” he said.  “We’re done running your errands after this.  Katie and I are getting away from Eon City, out of the country, even.”

“And you think Claw will let her go?” Jaunt asked with amusement in his voice.  “Just like that?”

Jorge tightened the string of his bow and raised it threateningly. “Yeah,” he said, “he will.  Because you’re going to tell him to.”

Jaunt shook his head.  “That’s not how I work,” he said, unconcerned with the bow pointing at him. Jorge hadn’t yet drawn an arrow, but they both knew that he could load, aim, and fire before Jaunt could blink if he chose. “You see,” Jaunt continued, “Claw isn’t the kind of person who takes orders.  I don’t tell him what to do – I suggest things to him and let him fill in the blanks for himself.  That’s how I get things done,” he added.  “Claw is a stubborn old crocodile when confronted, but he’s incredibly easy to manipulate.  However, if you and your sister insist on leaving the country, then I will have no input on how Claw chooses to retaliate.  Fauns are for life, you know,” he said meaningfully.  “I used that fact to get Parker to switch sides, and I can’t undermine it for you.”

Jorge kept the bow raised for another few seconds, before lowering it in defeat.  He turned his head to the side as he asked, “So what do you need us to do?”

“For now?” Jaunt said, clapping his hands together, “I need you to stand back.  It’s time.”

* * * * * * * *

Zatvor Prison, noon the following day.

Natalie, Rina, David, and Toby.

Natalie, Rina, David, and Toby met in the courtyard the next day under the awning.  There were no clouds overhead, which would make it difficult for Rina to help if there were trouble. Her face and arms were bare due to the prison uniform’s cut, and her pale grey skin seemed almost translucent as she stayed in the shade.  The air was dry and cool under the awning, but she knew her skin would burn if she were to step out of the shadows.

“So what now?” Rina asked, looking around the courtyard as she blinked in the daylight.  “I can’t see too well without my mask – do any of you guys see Skadi anywhere?”

Natalie looked around, using her hand to shield her eyes from the bright sunlight.  “No,” she said, “and I’m starting to think they picked today on purpose.  Rina, without your powers or your suit you’re going to be useless out here.”

“Great,” Rina sighed.  “Of all the times to put the photosensitive Watcher in the field, it had to be this mission.”

Toby shook her head.  “I’m telling you,” she said, folding her arms, “something’s fishy in the Asylum.  You guys need to watch your back in there.”

“Agent will come through,” David said.  “We told Dale about the breakout today.  The others should be here any minute.” His doubt showed on his face.  Agent should have extracted them all when their cover was blown in the first place; they had no way of knowing if the rest of the team would come.

“Not like we know anything more than the time,” Natalie said, rolling her eyes as she tried to diffuse the tension.  “What exactly are we looking for?”

No sooner did the words come out of her mouth than a fight broke out on the other side of the yard.

“Is that Erinyes?” Rina asked, squinting to see clearly.  “I still don’t see Skadi, though.”

David sighed.  “Erinyes is still a Faun,” he said, “So I guess that answers that.  Come on, guys – Rina, you keep an eye out for anything else.” Rina nodded, and David, Natalie, and Toby ran over to the commotion.

“What’s going on?” Natalie shouted at another inmate.  The yard suddenly became very quiet, and the inmates who had been “fighting” suddenly stopped, grinning at each other as they stood up.

“Well, well, well,” Erinyes said, grinning at Natalie.  “If it isn’t the Watchers.  Didn’t we tell you guys?  If you waited, we’d get them all together for you.”  Her pointy teeth were bared as she addressed the crowd. Natalie’s stomach sank as she realized the fight had been a trap to lure them away from Rina, who was now too far away to help.  “Here they are!  Get them!”

A wave of bodies slammed into the three Watchers as the inmates suddenly became a mob.  Natalie was separated from her teammates as she fought off the criminals. She felt Erinyes’ claws grab her neck as the bat-satyr screamed in her ear, “This is for the tunnels, bitch!”

But the choke-hold was short-lived.  The one saving grace of the mob was that no one person had the time to hold her down before another criminal was pushing them out of the way.  As Erinyes’ weight was suddenly thrown off of her, Natalie stumbled forward.  She pulled her weighted scarf out of her sleeve, using it to grab any arm or leg that was thrown her way and twist it in another direction as she fought to get out of the swarm of fighting bodies.

Suddenly the earth swallowed her up.

A barrier of dirt and rock quickly rose up around her, and Natalie knew that David was trying to give them a moment’s respite by shielding them from the fray. Natalie managed to catch her breath, before remembering the second part of David’s best move. “Don’t do it,” she muttered, clenching her fists as she felt the hum of electricity pass harmlessly under her feet.

Natalie sighed, hearing the sound of criminals dropping like flies as David’s bug-zapper went off.  The last thing they needed was David’s alternate personality coming out now if they couldn’t get his treatment done in time, but as she felt bruises forming all over her body, Natalie realized it was for the best.

David pulsed the ground with his earth powers, which was his usual signal to the team that he would be releasing them back into the fray.  The team had found out the hard way in the past that waiting until the mob broke down his barriers would only mean they would be surrounded.

As soon as the barrier retracted into the ground, Natalie made a run for it. She looked around for the guards, finding none outside to help control the prisoners.  Someone grabbed her shoulder, but Natalie shrugged them off and kept running back towards the awning where they had left Rina.

Rina was not under the awning.  Natalie scanned the area, trying to fight past the panic to locate her Fourth-Gen teammate.  She could see Toby on the other side of the courtyard, catching her breath as the criminals around her stumbled around from David’s electricity.  Toby had not practiced with the team, so she would not have known the signals – but Natalie did not have time to worry about her right now.  Toby could take care of herself if she had to.

Natalie spotted David back where they had started.  He was clutching his head as he fell to his knees, surrounded by a slew of unconscious inmates that had felt the brunt of his powers.  Even from this distance, Natalie could see his eyes beginning to turn red.  They needed to get him help, and fast.

As she ran towards David, she finally spotted Rina a hundred feet away, fighting off a group of Third-Gens who had missed David’s shock attack.  The Fourth-Gen’s skin was blistering in the sunlight, smeared with black blood from the gash on her forehead.  Rina seemed to be heading towards David, but the mob was fighting her every step of the way.

Natalie turned toward her, as Rina’s injuries were the most severe.  All of them had to get out of the courtyard – now – but Rina would die soon if she did not get out of the sunlight.

Rina and Natalie reached David at the same time.  “What the hell are you doing?!” Natalie cried, taking off her own shirt to wrap around Rina’s head.

“I couldn’t just sit there,” Rina said, panting through the pain.  “David needs treatment.”

“I got him,” Natalie said, ripping the shirt off a fallen inmate to wrap around Rina’s head.  The second shirt smelled like sweat and butt, but it would help Rina get out of the direct sunlight without her skin blistering further.

“What about the breakout?” Rina reminded her.  “I spotted Skadi near the entrance, but there’s no way to know where she is now.”

“Damn it,” Natalie swore.  “We have to get you two out of here, too.”

“That’s why I’ll take David,” Rina insisted.  “We have to get out of here, right?  You stay and find Toby.”

“I can help,” came a voice from behind them.  Natalie spun around, facing Blitz, and she felt her lip split as she smiled at the big guy.  “My powers can help him,” Blitz said, reaching a hand out to David’s forehead.

Rina moved to stop him, but Natalie held her back.  “He can help,” she said.  They watched as Blitz drew a small star on David’s forehead with his finger.  Nothing obvious happened, but David slumped down, taking his hands away from his face.  When he looked up, Natalie could not see the red in his eyes anymore.

“Thanks, Blitz,” he said, sighing with relief.  “Natalie, I can take Rina now.”

“Did… did he just cure you?” Natalie asked, looking between the miraculously recovered David and the smiling Blitz.

David shook his head.  “No,” he admitted.  “I still need Dale’s cure.  Blitz just made it easier for me to fight him off until then.”  They both knew the him to whom David referred.

“You’re okay?” Natalie asked.

David grinned tiredly at her.  “Well, I got half of them off us,” he said, gesturing to the downed bodies around them.  “The others seem to be having second thoughts now.”

Natalie had been wondering why they had been let alone for so long.  She helped David to his feet, and he and rina supported each other as they made their way back to the exit.

“It’ll be okay, sweetheart,” Blitz said, grinning at Natalie. “I won’t let anything else happen to them.”

“Thanks,” Natalie said, rubbing a bump on her arm that was going to bruise nicely later.  “You can call me ‘sweetheart’ anytime.”

As she scanned the yard again, trying to spot Skadi and get the mission back on track, Natalie found herself standing face-to-face with Hatter. “And where are you going?” Hatter asked, looking bored.

“You want some, too?” Natalie snarled at her, readying her scarf again.

Hatter shook her head.  “Oh, don’t misunderstand me,” she said.  “I’m just wondering why you’re running to safety when this isn’t over yet?”  She pointed at a spot back near the mob, and Natalie saw a portal opening up.

Toby stood in front of the portal, keeping the criminals away from it, but she would not be able to hold the breach on her own for long. Natalie made to join her, but Hatter grabbed her arm.  “Watch,” the insane girl said, grinning.  Natalie then saw a branch of electricity arc out over the courtyard, knocking down the criminals that tried to escape.  Toby was the only one left standing when David was done, and Natalie saw blitz give David another dose of his powers.

Suddenly, an arrow flashed through the portal, burying itself in Toby’s arm.  Poisonshot stepped through the portal with another arrow nocked on his bow.  “Katie!” he called.  Natalie saw his bow turn to her as he saw her, and she readied herself for the arrow that would come her way.

But no arrow came.  Skadi ran towards the portal, calling her brother’s name.  Poisonshot lowered his bow, grabbing his sister and stepping back through the portal, which closed behind him.

“See?” Hatter said behind her.  “You’ll be needed over here.”

Turning back to Hatter, Natalie’s eyes grew wide.  She pushed Hatter out of the way and grabbed Erinyes’ claw with her scarf before the bat-satyr could hurt the other girl.  Using the Faun’s momentum against her, Natalie threw Erinyes over her hip and stomped on the criminal’s leg, breaking it.

“You okay?” she asked, turning to the wide-eyed Hatter.

“I didn’t see that coming,” Hatter said.  “You saved me!”

“Yeah, well,” Natalie shrugged.  “That’s my job.”

Hatter stared at Natalie for another second, before saying, “Another portal is going to open here.”

“Here?” Natalie asked, wondering if she should trust the criminal.

“Specifically, there,” Hatter told her in a daze, pointing to a spot about twenty feet away.

Natalie narrowed her eyes for a second, before running off to the spot where she pointed, leaving a stunned Hatter on the ground.  “You can stop saying that I’m stunned,” Hatter said.

What are you going to do now?

“Oh, dear, I suppose I’ll have to help them,” said Hatter.  “She did save me, after all. Ahem… The prison riot stopped.”

All of the criminals in orange jumpsuits – at least, the ones still standing after David’s electric attacks – suddenly stopped fighting. Recognizing the girl’s powers, Natalie turned back to Hatter just in time to see another portal open up next to her. “Oh, you bitch,” she muttered, turning on her heel towards the new portal as she realized Hatter had lied to her. She saw Erinyes haul herself through the portal as Hatter stood guard.

Hatter gave Natalie a mock salute as she ran up.  “I owe you one,” she said, just before stepping through the portal after the criminal who Natalie had saved her from just a few seconds earlier.  Natalie tried to catch her, but the portal shut down just before she made it there, leaving the inmates trapped in Zatvor once again.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, the next day.

Aftermath.

“That whole mission was a failure from the start!” Toby shouted at Agent.  “Where the hell was our backup?!”

The four Watchers were in the medical center, still getting fixed up from the prison riot.  Dale’s Third Gen powers had only just finished clearing Toby of the poison from the arrow wound in her arm, but it would be another day or so before she could use it.  At the moment, she was glaring at Agent, clenching the fist of her good arm as Dale fitted her with a sling.

“Agent, you owe us answers,” Rina added, hissing in pain as she tried to sit up.  Her arms, face, and neck were covered in charred blisters from her exposure to the sun, even after Dale had used his powers to stop the bleeding.  She glared accusingly at Agent with red eyes – and she was the most understanding one there.

Natalie and David were both nursing bruises and cuts.  David had been given an injection shortly after the riot so that his alter-ego would not make an appearance, but he still looked worn out from all of the electricity he had to use.  Natalie was black and blue all over, and she sported a couple of cracked ribs from the first onslaught of inmates.  Neither said anything, but they both stared at Agent expectantly.

Agent shook his head.  “I apologize,” he said, “but I didn’t hear about it until it was over.  I am so sorry you all were hurt.”  He had kept the rest of the team out of the med bay until the debrief was over, and was suddenly glad he did; he would have crumbled and spilled everything if the others also looked at him like that.

“Sorry my ass – ” Toby started, but Natalie cut her off.

“I’m sure you had a good reason for leaving us in there,” she said, glaring at him, “but don’t insult our intelligence by lying to us now.  Our identities were compromised, but you didn’t pull us out.  Then the riot began – with days’ notice, mind you – and you didn’t call the rest of the team to help.”  She shook her head, wincing from the massive bruise splashed across her face.  “So don’t give us this ‘I didn’t know’ crap,” she added.  “We told you ourselves.”

“You’re right,” Agent said, unable to look any of them in the eye.  “Please understand – if I could have pulled you out, I would have.”

No further answer seemed forthcoming, so David asked the next question on everyone’s minds.  “What was the damage?” he asked, standing up to face Agent. “How many prisoners escaped?”

“Seven,” Agent said, his gaze fixed on the umbrella handle clasped in his white knuckles.  “Including Skadi, Erinyes, and Hatter.  The other four were one satyr and three Third Gens, all low-level thugs.”

Natalie swore under her breath, and David and Rina both sighed in defeat.  “Ye did an amazing job, all things considered,” Dale said, trying to placate them as he finished adjusting Toby’s sling.  “On’y seven got through one of Jaunt’s portals, out o’ a couple hunnerd inmates that were in the yard.  That’s nothing to sneeze at.”

The Asylum Watchers seemed inconsolable, but toby stood up as soon as Dale finished with her.  “Agent, I need to speak with you in private,” she said, moving towards Dale’s office door.  “Now.”

Agent looked at his team, but Dale made a shooing motion as he moved back to check Rina’s burns.  The team leader shrugged and picked up his umbrella, following Toby into the office.

Toby shut the door as soon as they were alone.  “So,” she said, turning on Agent with a snarl, “how long have you been working for Jaunt?”

“What?” Agent asked, taken aback by the sudden interrogation.

“Don’t make up some bullshit story,” Toby threatened, baring her teeth.  “Even with one arm, I can still knock your lights out if I have to.”

“What are you talking about?” Agent asked, subtly shifting his feet into a more defensive stance.

Toby saw the movement.  “Jaunt was watching us,” she growled.  “That’s the only way he could have opened the second portal behind Hatter as soon as Natalie moved out of the way.”

“So he hacked the prison cameras,” Agent said.

“He wouldn’t need to,” Toby shot back.  “Stop playing dumb, Agent; you know exactly who Jaunt is.”

Agent narrowed his eyes, seeing a spark of knowledge behind Toby’s rage.  “You do too,” he guessed.  When Toby flinched, he knew he was onto something.  “You know exactly who Jaunt is.  My question is how?”

“I am very good at my job,” Toby answered, “which is as a private investigator – not a Watcher like the others.  I observe things for a living.”  She breathed a sigh, her fist coming unclenched.  “What I see here is a guy who’s following someone else’s orders,” she added.  “The only reason I can think that you would sell out your team like this is that he has something on you.”

Agent shook his head, dropping his own defensive stance as the tension eased.  “I didn’t sell anyone out,” he said.  “I work with Jaunt, not for him, and only to keep my team safe.”

“Oh really?” Toby asked sarcastically, gesturing to her arm.  “Good job.  They seem perfectly safe to me.”

“They’re alive, aren’t they?” Agent said. Sighing, he added,  “Think about it: David and Rina were down before the first portal opened.  You defended one by yourself, and the second was only open long enough for the two closest prisoners to get through.”  Shaking his head, he chuckled as he pointed out, “Do you really think Jaunt couldn’t have gotten everyone out of there if I hadn’t… erm, convinced him otherwise?”

“How the hell do you convince the underworld’s mastermind of anything?” Toby asked, disbelieving.

“A trade,” Agent said, the humor gone from his voice.  “You wondered why I didn’t send in backup.”

Toby’s canine eyes widened in horror as she realized what he had done.  “You left us there to die,” she said.

“I didn’t mean to!” Agent shot back.  “I told him that I wouldn’t send the rest of the team in if he only got his own lieutenants out and left the rest.  I didn’t know he was planning to start a riot!”

“So you ‘traded’ our lives for – ” Toby began, but Agent cut her off.

“For a couple hundred dangerous criminals to stay behind bars,” Agent said.  “I took a calculated risk: that you four could defend yourselves long enough for Jaunt’s test to finish, and in exchange I kept the city, the country, safe from a massive influx of criminals.”

Toby bit her cheek, considering his words.  “Why haven’t you told your team any of this?” she asked.  “I only pulled you in here because for whatever reason the others keep defending you, and I knew this was the only way you’d answer me.  But why haven’t you told them?”

“Shame,” Agent admitted.  “Guilt.  Natalie and Parker lost their mom because of my mistakes with Team Ark, and Frank’s mom is crippled because of Jaunt.  However, my biggest reason is because I need their trust if they’re going to survive Jaunt’s tests.”

“Yeah, you’ve mentioned that twice now,” Toby said curiously.  “What do you mean, his ‘tests’?”

“Jaunt is trying to find the greatest hero in the world,” Agent told her.  “The Asylum is supposed to be a proving ground of sorts; Jaunt sets up ‘tests’ for them, and judges them on their ability to handle it.”

Toby furrowed her eyebrows.  “That makes… no sense,” she said finally.  “Why would he need a hero?”

Agent shrugged.  “Why would he need a criminal network?” he asked back.  “It’s impossible to explain, and you wouldn’t believe most of it.”

“The team really should know,” Toby said, glancing at the door to the windowless office.  She sounded less certain than she had when they began the conversation.

“Will you tell them?” Agent asked, clutching his umbrella as he waited for her answer with bated breath.

After a long pause that felt like an eternity, Toby shook her head.  “No,” she answered as Agent breathed a sigh of relief.  “Besides, would they even believe me?”

“Probably not,” Agent said bitterly.  As Toby opened the door to go back to the others, Agent added, “Will you join our team?  We could use someone with your skills.”

“Hell no,” Toby said, rolling her eyes.  “Not with you in charge.”

With that, she marched back to the others.  Agent watched them talk among themselves from across the room for a minute, before turning to the elevator and leaving them alone.

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #17 – Fire and Water

Also: Bonus Story #2 – The Companies

Dawn of the Asylum, Issue #15 – In Another Time

The new Asylum Tower, a few years in the future.

Frank Mejia, AKA Shadow, dragged forward in time.

“So where’s the team?” Frank asked his older self. After being dragged into the future by Janus, the teenage Fifth Gen sitting on the couch next to him, Frank was curious. The tea he sipped was helping, though; his older self knew just how he liked it.

“What do you mean?” The older Frank asked him in return. “Look around; everyone here’s on the team.” He gestured around the tower lounge at the twenty or so people on the floor. It was still strange for the younger Frank to see it – after all, in his own time, Parker had just blown up the tower yesterday. The new tower had a few different furnishings, but appeared to be identical in the floor plan to the one Frank had just lost.

Frank shook his head. “I know that,” he said. “I mean where’s my team? Natalie, E.B., Granny, Agent, and all them.”

“Agent?” the older Frank said, surprised. “Now that’s complicated…”

“And he isn’t supposed to know it yet,” Janus piped in, leaning forward. “The timeline – ”

“Pshh,” the older Frank scoffed. “The timeline. You’re the walking paradox, Janus – if you were worried about the timeline, then you shouldn’t have brought me to see me.”

Janus crossed his arms and sat back on the couch. “You know damn well why I needed to bring you here,” he said. “He’s the one who doesn’t. Why don’t you start with that?”

“First, can I ask about Earthborn, at least?” Frank asked. “Do we get him back?”

“I can say that, at least,” the older Frank said. When Janus gave him an exasperated look, he rolled his eyes and added, “He’ll find out as soon as he’s back anyways. Yes, the team rescued David.” The older Frank turned back to the younger one, and a weight seemed to lift off of Frank’s shoulders. “Haley led the team for a few months after the tower blew up while Agent got his head on straight. She led them into the tunnels and got David back to his family.”

Frank was relieved. “Okay, so how do we do it?” he asked. “Shouldn’t I know the details so I can make sure we get it right?”

The older Frank and Janus looked at each other. “Actually, they’re doing it without you,” the older Frank admitted. “Janus, this is the part where you tell him.”

“My time travel isn’t entirely precise,” Janus admitted. “If it was, I wouldn’t have picked you up right after the riots. I’ll take you back, but you’ll have been gone for a while.”

“How long is a while?” Frank asked, looking between the two of them.

The older Frank rolled his eyes. “Four months,” he said, “and by the way, watch out for Natalie’s right hook. She’s been working on it.”

“Four months?” Frank repeated. “How could I have been gone for four months?! I just ran into Janus an hour ago!”

“Time travel,” the older Frank reminded his younger self. “You’ll learn to hate it.”

“I think I already do,” Frank muttered, before asking, “So what was so important that you dragged me away for four months to tell me?”

The older Frank leaned back on the couch. “Where to begin?” he asked. “Well, you were asking about Agent – I can’t say too much about what happened, but I can tell you he’s not here.” He gestured around the tower floor. “I’m in charge now.”

“What?” Frank looked around. “You’re kidding, right? I’m no manager.”

You’re not,” the older Frank agreed, “but I am. That was the biggest reason for pulling you forward.”

“Really?” Frank raised an eyebrow at his future self. “You pulled me out of my time just to tell me that I’ll be leading the Asylum in a few years?” They stared at each other for a moment before he shrugged. “Cool. What else?”

“You aren’t going to ask any questions?” Janus interrupted.

Frank looked at the teenager next to him. “It’s not hard to figure out,” he said. “He is me, after all, right? I’m no leader – but now that I know I will be one, I’m going to go back and learn everything I can from Agent while he’s around. I wouldn’t have done that unless I told myself that I was going to need to learn stuff, and I’m really hating time travel right now,” he added, getting a headache from trying to keep himself straight from his future self while talking.

“You figured all that out?” Janus asked, taken aback.

“You seem surprised,” the older Frank said. “I’m not an idiot. I just don’t like it when stuff is super complicated.”

Janus straightened up in his seat. “Your younger self was just asking me a hundred questions about time travel,” he said. “I thought he was a bit slow on the uptake.”

“Myeh,” Frank shrugged. “Time travel’s complicated. My own reasons for doing it aren’t, though.”

Janus just shook his head, waving for the older Frank to continue. The older Frank grinned, and kept going. “There are a couple other things that you need to know,” he said. “In your time, Parker just blew up the tower, right?”

Frank’s mood sobered. “Yeah,” he said. “The guy killed eleven people, and injured a couple dozen others. I’m not really sure why, though.”

“He was pressured into it,” the older Frank said. “Agent’ll find that he’s very helpful where he is now; Claw put him in charge of Eon City’s Fauns.”

“Seriously?” Frank asked. “Why?”

“You’ll find that out soon enough,” Janus interrupted. “It’s part of the stuff we can’t tell you yet.”

“Okay, what’s with the secrets?” Frank asked. “You keep saying ‘we can’t tell you yet’ like you two are in some secret club and I’m not invited. You brought me here, remember?”

“I told you,” Janus said, “the timeline – ”

“Screw the timeline,” Frank exclaimed. “If it was really so important, then why change it by bringing me here?!”

Janus stared at him. “We want to change some things, but others need to stay the same,” he said quietly.

“It’ll drive you crazy if you think about it too much,” added the older Frank. “All I can say is, you’ll understand someday.”

“Fine then,” Frank said, leaning back on the couch. “What can you tell me?”

“We’ve already covered the whole ‘leadership’ thing,” the older Frank said. “The rest isn’t a matter of telling; more like showing.” He looked out towards the kitchen and called, “Razor!”

As a man wearing a metallic bird mask came over to the living room they were sitting in, Janus glared at the older Frank. “Him?” he asked. “Really?”

“Who better to show me around than my best friend?” the older Frank asked, giving Janus a cheeky grin as he gave the newcomer a fist-bump. “Frank, this is Razorwing. He’ll show you around the tower.”

“‘Your best friend’?” Frank repeated. “What happened to Parker?” Even though his best friend had just committed a felony, Frank couldn’t imagine giving the title to anyone but Parker Fawkes.

Janus looked like he was about to say something, but the older Frank talked over him. “Janus, I know exactly what he needs to be told and shown around here. Will you just trust me?”

Janus’ mouth snapped closed, and he stormed off without another word. Razorwing shook his head; Frank couldn’t tell if he was smiling under the mask, but he seemed amused.

The older Frank was grinning. “I’ve been waiting years to put him in his place like that,” he said. Turning back to his younger self, he continued, “As for your question, Parker died a short while back. He finally took down Claw, but was killed in the process. Razorwing joined the team a couple months later, and we’ve been friends ever since.”

“You moved on pretty quickly,” Frank said curiously. As a sinking feeling took hold in his stomach, he pushed the news that Parker would die within the next few years to the back of his mind; he could freak out about that later. Given recent events in his time, he wasn’t even sure he knew how to feel about that.

The older Frank just shrugged. “Razor here will show you to the War Room. There’s a projector in there we can use to help explain the situation. I’ll join you in a bit.”

“Come on,” said Razorwing, his voice sounding muffled from behind his mask. “Lots to see.”

Frank followed him out of the room, shaking his head as he went. “Lots to see” was an understatement.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, last month.

Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.

“Three and a half months,” Natalie said, shaking her head as she crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s been three and a half months since Frank disappeared, and we still have no idea where he is.” She stared Agent down in his temporary office, standing over him as he sat at his computer.

“What do you want me to do about it?” Agent asked. Only his Agency etiquette training kept him from rolling his eyes at her; he might be taking a break from the Asylum, but he was still an Agent.

Natalie raised an eyebrow at him. “I want you to come back,” she said. “Haley’s in over her head, and luck only gets you so far when trying to find someone who’s vanished off the face of the planet.”

Agent glanced at her, but otherwise kept his eyes trained on the three-monitor set-up in front of him. “I’ve kept an eye on things,” he said. “She’s not terrible; the patrol schedule she’s set up works, in any case.”

“Yeah, now that David and I are back,” Natalie told him. “But we’re barely keeping the city afloat right now; we need to recruit, so we can take on more side projects – like finding Frank!”

“So recruit,” Agent shrugged.

Natalie marched around his desk and pressed the power button on his computer. Slamming her hands down on his desk, she put her face close to his as she said, “We’ve tried, but we can’t. We have no money and no resources, so nobody has the time to help us out. So far, Butterfly is the only one hanging around, and he says that’s only because somebody else is paying him to.”

Agent could smell the slightly burned aroma of her fire tricks – she must have just come off of a shift, and while she had changed out of her uniform she hadn’t taken the time to shower before coming to see him. Her braided ponytail whipped behind her as she shook her head, and Agent briefly wondered what it would be like to tug on it.

Natalie’s next words brought him back to reality: “It’s a sad day when we have to work with that two-faced mercenary because you’re too scared to come back.”

“I am not scared,” Agent said. He stood up quickly, forcing Natalie to take a step back as he grabbed his umbrella and stormed out of the office.

She followed him out. “If you’re not scared,” she asked, “then what do you call it? Why’d you just leave us in the lurch?”

“I didn’t leave anybody in the lurch,” Agent said. “The Agency paid your hospital bills, didn’t they? We’re taking care of Rina, and Dale’s still researching a cure for David.”

“And the Asylum?” Natalie asked. “Nobody’s gotten paid since the riots. The tower is being rebuilt by Pharos, but there are signs saying that the lease is open for negotiation. We have no headquarters, and the only reason the team’s hanging in there is because Haley – bless her heart – still seems to think you’re coming back!”

Agent stopped in the middle of the hallway, turning back to look at Natalie. “I take it from your tone that you’re not so sure,” he said. If Natalie didn’t know him better, she might have thought he was startled.

“I keep telling her that we can’t hold out like this,” she admitted. “Even Watchers have to eat, you know. Haley’s killing herself over a pipe dream.”

Agent smirked at her and kept walking. “Yet the rest of you keep following her,” he pointed out.

“For now,” Natalie said. “We all still believe in the work we do.”

Agent stopped outside of another office and knocked on the door. “Nat, some things take time,” he said. “For now, just keep up the good work.”

“And you’ll come back?” Natalie asked. “When?”

“I can’t say,” Agent said as the door opened.

Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Corporation, stood in front of them, slightly surprised. “Agent,” he said, “and Ms. Fawkes. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Agent looked at Mr. Hannah through a mask of indifference; Natalie knew him well enough to see the disdain dripping through the cracks in Agent’s demeanor. She didn’t know what had happened between them, but Agent looked like he hated the CEO more than anyone else in the world.

“I need to talk to you,” Agent said, folding his hands over his umbrella handle in front of him. “Alone.”

Mr. Hannah raised his eyebrows and glanced at Natalie. “Is Trick going to join us?” he asked. He seemed to know exactly what Agent was there for.

Agent shook his head, stepping through the doorway. “Trick, go home,” he ordered.

Natalie bristled, but he shut the door in her face before she could say anything. She had half a mind to pound on the door and make a scene, but she knew that wouldn’t help.

There were other ways to get information.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Tower, sometime in the future.

Frank Mejia, from our time.

Time travel sucks.

“There have been some changes to the tower since your time – at least, that’s what Frank told me,” Razorwing said, showing the younger Frank around the tower. “Some things are the same. We’re still mostly funded by Pharos Industries, but the Meta-Human and Vigilante Task Force was kicked off the project. Long story short, we had an emergency and they didn’t do so well in taking care of the city. Now we’re preparing for a war.”

Frank stopped in the entrance to the kitchen – which was admittedly nicer than the one he’d lost. “Hold up,” he said. “War? With who?”

Razorwing shrugged his shoulders, stretching them as much as it was a noncommittal gesture. It was a familiar movement, but Frank didn’t quite know what it reminded him of. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” he said, shaking his head. It was hard to tell what he was thinking with the mask on.

“Do you ever take that mask off?” Frank asked.

“Nope,” answered the vigilante.

That was confusing. “So how do people know who you are?” Frank asked. “Watchers are supposed to be in the public eye, registered with the government.”

Frank couldn’t see it under the mask, but Razorwing again sounded amused. “You actually changed that,” he said. “By the way, since they told me about Janus bringing you here, there’s a whole lot more that makes sense.”

“At least one of us knows what’s going on,” said Frank, following Razorwing again as they continued the tour of the tower. “But really – how did I change the entire Watcher system? Watchers’ identities are a big deal to the Task-Force.”

“You showed people how important it was for vigilantes to keep their identities secret, especially ones working with the Asylum,” Razorwing told him. “Some of us need to stay off the radar so we can go undercover. Others just aren’t that comfortable being celebrities – we might do this for a living, but we’d rather not do the fan service. You remember Reiki, right?”

He had a point. Reiki had never been comfortable being in the spotlight, for all that he could put on a good light show. But Frank had other questions.

“You know Reiki?” he asked.

Razorwing made the noncommittal shrug again, and Frank was again hit with a sense of deja vu. “We’ve met,” he answered. “Reiki’s not exactly sociable.”

“Where is he?” Frank asked.

“Up north,” Razorwing told him. “The Asylum is still based in Eon city, but we have another team in Coppice.” He named a city to the north of Eon. “From your time, I think you’d know Reiki, Rina, and Natalie up there.”

Frank raised his eyebrows in surprise. “All three of them?”

“Sure,” Razorwing said, leading him up the stairs. “Asylum North is our secret force – they take care of things when we don’t want people to know the Asylum is involved. Reiki works best away from the limelight, so it made sense for him to go up there. There are a few other Fourth Gens on the team, so Rina’s helping keep an eye on them, too. Your team is pretty well-known, so you couldn’t send many of them, but they’re the best to train the new Watchers.”

As he talked, they came out of the staircase onto a new floor. In the old tower, the training floor had been above the living area; here there was a large open room with white walls and a high ceiling. The only furniture there was a huge wooden office table, and about forty chairs sitting around it with plenty of space for more.

“Welcome to the War Room,” Razorwing said, spreading his arms out. “In your old tower, this was the training floor. When they redesigned it, they realized that training should probably be on ground level, especially for Third and Fourth Gens with destructive powers.”

“Earthborn,” Frank said as he gazed at the room.

“Exactly,” Razorwing nodded. “He might not have been himself when he made the old tower collapse, but it drove home the idea that some of the people training here might not be in full control of their powers. Others have since joined with similar problems, so they moved the training room to an underground bunker a few blocks from here.”

“Makes sense,” Frank said, taking a seat at the table. “So about Natalie: she loves the spotlight; why would she go to a secret team?”

“You’re still on that?” Razorwing paused for a second, as if he were considering his answer. “There were a few reasons,” he finally said, “chief of which was her brother dying; she didn’t want to stay here after that.”

“Oh, yeah,” Frank said. “Okay, how did that go down, anyways?”

“If I tell you that, you’ll try to change it,” Razorwing pointed out.

“Heck yeah I will,” Frank exclaimed. “Parker’s always been one of my best friends. I’m not just going to sit back and let him die.”

Razorwing cocked his head to the side. “You really feel that way?” he asked. “Didn’t he just blow up the base in your time?”

Frank hesitated. “Yeah, he did,” he admitted. “But it was a Faun operation. Just because Parker pressed the button doesn’t mean he wasn’t set up.” His voice grew more confident as he added, “Either way, what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t at least hear him out before writing him off?”

“You’ve never made a rash move in your life, have you?” Razorwing asked curiously.

“Well, I’m not gonna start now,” Frank shrugged. “So come on, how did it happen?”

Razorwing shook his head. “Sorry buddy,” he said. “Aside from the fact that I don’t think you can change it, it kind of needs to happen for a bunch of other stuff to fall into place.”

Frank pressed his lips together irritably. “You’re just as bad as Janus, with his whole ‘don’t screw with the timeline’ stuff,” he said. “Why would my older self tell me something that big if he didn’t want me to change it?”

“That’s for you to figure out,” Razorwing shrugged, shaking out his shoulders again as he sat down across from Frank. Suddenly, it hit Frank where he had seen that movement before. He shook his head and grinned as the pieces fell in place.

Before he could ask any more questions, Frank’s older self entered the room. “Good, you’re here already,” he said. “Let’s get to it.”

* * * * * * * *

Casey’s Bar, downtown Eon City.

Haley Prince, AKA “Outlier”.

“Okay, milady,” Eli Howard, also known as “Butterfly”, said as he sat down next to Haley at the bar. “I’m here. I could be in the garden right now, but you dragged me all the way to Casey’s. Why?” He leaned his rifle up against the counter as he ran a hand through his messy blond hair. The smell of grass and dirt mingled with the aroma of the bar’s food, and it was obvious that he had just come from the Gardens.

“The butterflies will be there when you get back,” Haley said, rolling her eyes at him. “We need to talk about your mysterious benefactor.”

Eli shrugged. “What do you want to know?”

Haley signaled to the bartender to get him a drink. “Well for starters, who is he?”

“What makes you think it’s a he?” Eli countered, grinning at her. “It could be a she, or a they, or an it – ”

“I don’t have time to play these games with you, Eli,” Haley said sternly, crossing her arms. “I want answers.”

“And I’d love to give them to you,” Eli replied, shaking his head, “but I can’t. Money shows up with instructions, and I get more money if I follow the instructions. It’s as simple as that.” He ordered a fruity cocktail from the bartender before spinning around on his stool to lean his back against the bar.

Haley raised an eyebrow at him. “Why don’t I believe you, then?” she challenged. “You forget, Eli – I’ve gotten to know you pretty well this past year. You don’t actually care about money; you only care about your butterflies. So what is it really?”

Eli looked taken aback. “You’ve been paying attention,” he said, before recovering. “I’m flattered that you take so much notice of me, but I really don’t know who is giving me the money. Why does it matter?”

“Is it Ayu?” Haley asked, grabbing his shoulder and turning him to look into his eyes.

“The crazy robot chick?” Eli asked. “I doubt it. She said she ‘wouldn’t need my services for a while’, remember?”

“She could have been lying,” Haley said.

Eli turned back to the bar as the bartender put a drink in front of him. “Doesn’t seem like her style,” he shrugged, “but since I don’t know who it is, I won’t argue.”

“Darn,” Haley cursed. Eli raised a questioning eyebrow as he took a drink. “If someone out there’s willing to pay you to help the Asylum, then they might be willing to help us recruit others.” She took a thoughtful sip of her own drink and added hopefully, “Maybe it’s Agent?”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Eli said. “I doubt it.” He set his drink down and pulled a few crumpled pieces of paper out of his pocket for her to read.

The papers looked like he had once folded them, but they had been in his pocket for so long that they would never again be smoothed out. The contents were standard instructions, though; Haley skimmed them, but couldn’t understand what Butterfly had meant.

“These seem normal enough to me,” Haley said. “They’re paying you to help me defend and protect the city.”

“Not quite,” Eli pointed out. “Pay attention to the phrasing. They’re paying me to defend and protect you, Haley Prince, specifically, in your crusade to help the city.”

Haley read them again. Sure enough, the notes did specify that he would be paid to protect one Haley Prince, otherwise known as Outlier of the Asylum, as she defended Eon City.

At that, Haley only had one question to ask. “But why?”

Eli shrugged, turning back to his drink. “Somebody out there likes you,” he suggested. “Though now that you mention it, it could be Ayu; she was interested in you before, too.”

The bell above the door rang more insistantly than usual; somebody had entered the bar, throwing the door open hard enough to make Haley and Eli turn around to see who it was.

“Outlier, you’re here; good,” Natalie said, storming up to the bar and sitting down next to her. “Merc, you can stay if you don’t talk.”

“Excuse me?” Eli started. Haley held up a hand, giving him a look that said, I’ll handle this.

“Natalie,” Haley asked in a determinedly patient tone, “is there something you’d like to talk to me about? We were in the middle of something here.”

“Information,” Natalie said, raising her hand to call the bartender over. “Hey, is Casey in today? We need to talk to her.”

The bartender was taken aback by her rude tone, but said he would call Casey out there. As the bar’s manager, she was in the back doing paperwork that day.

As the bartender scurried off, Haley turned back to Natalie. “Okay, I’ll bite. Why do we need to talk to Casey?’

“Sparrow gets visions of the future,” Eli said. “I’m guessing you want to know if she’s seen when Agent will be back.” Natalie glared at him, so he shrugged and added, “I mean, it seems like something you would do.”

“Why is he here?” Natalie asked Haley pointedly.

“I invited him,” Haley said, her patience spent. “I didn’t invite you, so the better question is: why are you here? Aren’t you supposed to be patrolling?”

“Earthborn and Reiki are out now,” Natalie said. “I’m currently trying to track down our MIA teammate; or did you forget about Shadow?”

Haley bristled at the insinuation. “I didn’t forget,” she said. “I don’t forget anything, remember? I’ve been kind of busy trying to keep the city in one piece; or haven’t you been paying attention?”

Eli put a hand on her shoulder. When she turned to look at him, he shook his head and gestured towards Natalie’s face. “She’s on a mission,” he whispered just loud enough for Haley to hear. “Yelling at her won’t help anybody.”

He was right, of course. Haley took a deep breath, trying to calm down. Not for the first time, she reminded herself that her outburst was probably due to lack of sleep; if she didn’t start taking care of herself, she’d start being rude and dismissive of everyone – just like Natalie.

When she’d gotten a hold on her temper, Haley tried again. “So you’re just here to ask Casey for information?” she asked.

“Pretty much,” Natalie said. She leaned an elbow on the bar and began idly twirling her fingers in the air, stretching them out. “Butterfly’s right – Casey has visions. But I care less about when Agent will be back than I do about how we can find Frank.”

“It’s been nearly four months,” Eli pointed out. “If he was alive – ” he cut off that train of thought, gulping at the glare Natalie was giving him, and switched tactics. “If Shadow wanted to be found, don’t you think he’d be back by now?”

“Heroes don’t give up on people that easily,” came a new voice. Casey came up from behind them, pulling another stool over to join the group. “Pete said you were asking for me?”

“Yeah,” Natalie said, turning her attention to the ex-Watcher. “I need to know where Frank is.”

Casey sighed. “You know I don’t just turn it on and off, right?”

“You don’t,” Natalie agreed, “but you can. And I’d like to know what you see about Frank.”

“Wait,” Haley said, her eyebrows knitting in confusion. “You can control when you have your visions? I thought they were more of a random thing.”

“They come when they want to, even if I don’t want them,” Casey explained. “But if I concentrate hard enough on one person I can sometimes get visions of their future. It gives me a killer migraine for a week, though – which I assume is why it took you four months to ask me?” She turned back to Natalie, who shrugged without any remorse.

“I’ve been through all other options,” Natalie said. “I’ve gone through all of our contacts, I’ve seen his parents, I’ve checked every camera in the city from the day he disappeared – twice. Last anyone ever saw of him was the morning after the riots. A camera caught him outside the ruins of the tower talking to some guy in a hoodie. He walked away, looking pissed off, rounded a corner, and poof – he was gone. The cameras on that street weren’t working, and no other cameras picked him up.”

“He probably used his shadow powers to sneak away,” Eli said, taking a drink. “He’s pretty good at not being detected when he wants to be.”

“He wouldn’t have left without telling anybody,” Natalie insisted.

Casey nodded in agreement. “You don’t know his family,” she explained to Eli and Haley. “They’re really close. Even if he wanted to give up Watcher work and run away, he’d have run it by his mom and dad first. They’d have supported him no matter what; it’s who they are.” She shook her head, finishing the thought. “Frank wouldn’t have left without telling them.”

Haley remembered being told the story about how Team Ark had broken up: after Natalie’s mom had been killed, Casey’s brother disappeared through a portal created by the villain Jaunt. Casey, who used to be known as Sparrow when she was a Watcher, left Team Ark to look for him for four years, before giving up and returning to Eon City to open the bar. Frank’s mom and dad, who were also on the team as Star and Kindred respectively, retired after Star was crippled by an injury. Agent taught a class at his Agency’s academy for a year before being tasked with creating the Asylum, and their other teammate, Marauder, became a mercenary. Casey knew Frank’s family well after working with his parents for years; if she said Frank wouldn’t have disappeared without telling them, then she knew what she was talking about.

“Okay, fair. But maybe he did tell them,” Haley offered. “Maybe they’re lying when they say they don’t know where he is. If they’re that supportive, then why would they tell us if he asked them not to?”

“Because Star’s in a state,” Casey pointed out. “Kindred has been searching everywhere, trying to find word of him. They both already came to me asking for a vision, and for me to run down my contacts from my search for my brother. And before you ask,” she added, “I got nothing. Not for Steve, and not for Frank. Those contacts are worse than useless.”

“So we have nothing?” Natalie asked, folding her arms. “I can’t accept that. He’s got to be out there somewhere.”

“I said the same thing about Steve when he disappeared,” Casey said. “But Butterfly here is right: if Frank’s alive, he’d have contacted us by now.”

“He is not dead,” Natalie countered.

“How did you hear what Eli said when you were in the back?” Haley wondered aloud. The others ignored her.

Eli took another sip of his cocktail. “I hate to disagree with myself,” he said, “but there is one more option.”

“What?” Natalie demanded.

“He could have been abducted,” Eli said. As Natalie rolled her eyes, he continued, “No, really: Haley here was taken by Ayu for a test, right? Maybe Frank was taken for the same thing.”

“Ayu only kept us for little more than a day,” Haley said. “Frank’s been gone four months. Why would she take him for that long?”

Eli shrugged. “Maybe she found what she was looking for in him. She said that you ‘weren’t ready yet’ – who knows how long she would have kept you if you had been.”

“And who knows what it was she was looking for,” Haley said thoughtfully. “You know, that makes sense. If Frank was abducted, he wouldn’t have been able to contact us.”

“You guys are talking about that day Haley went missing, right?” Natalie said. “You showed up passed out on our doorstep with a seriously burned hand, having lost a ton of blood.”

Haley shrugged. “Yeah, but I only burned my hand to stop the bleeding.”

Natalie stared at her. “My point is, you nearly died when you were abducted.”

“True,” Eli said, talking over Haley’s protest. “And it’s also possible that Shadow did die in Ayu’s tests. But it would at least explain why we haven’t found a body.”

“He is not dead,” Natalie repeated. “Come on, Case, back me up here – Casey!”

Casey’s eyes had turned white, and she didn’t respond to her name. She slumped back in her chair, nearly falling out of it, as her body went limp. Haley and Natalie immediately went to her side, while Eli took another sip of his drink.

“Must be a big one,” he commented.

“A big what?” Haley asked. Natalie just sighed in understanding.

“She’s having a vision,” Eli explained to Haley. “You’ve never been around when she had them before?”

“No,” Haley shook her head, relaxing a bit now that she knew the bartender wasn’t dying. “I’ve been pretty busy. No time to hang out in bars.”

Natalie went back to her stool. “I’ve never seen one this big before,” she said. “Usually her eyes just turn white for a few seconds before she snaps back.”

Before she finished talking, Casey shook her head to clear it. When she looked back at the others, her eyes had returned to their normal green. “I saw Frank,” she said.

“You did?” Natalie asked, hopping back off her stool to kneel in front of Casey’s chair. “Where is he?”

“He – it’s not very clear,” Casey hedged, sitting up straight and rubbing her temple. “He’s in the Asylum Tower.”

“The Tower?” Natalie asked. “You mean the pile of rubble where the Tower used to be?”

“Or, you know, the construction site that’s there now,” Haley pointed out, glancing at her teammate.

Casey shook her head. “Frank was in the completed Tower, talking to… himself?” She stood up. “Or at least a carbon copy of himself. Separate body, same face.”

“Time travel?” Eli ventured, raising a questioning hand.

“Don’t be stupid,” Natalie waved him off, still staring at Casey. “Come on, Case – that can’t be it.”

“It’s all I saw,” she said brusquely. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got paperwork to finish.” With that, Casey walked back to her office.

Natalie swore, watching her go. “Bitch’ll be on the phone with Agent in a minute,” she muttered.

“Is that such a bad thing?” Haley asked, turning back to her drink. “Agent might know what it means.”

“What have you got against Agent, anyways?” Eli asked, finishing his drink and leaving the glass on the bar.

Natalie raised an eyebrow. “You mean, aside from the fact that he left us in the lurch?” she asked.

“He’ll be back,” Haley insisted, not for the first time. “He’s just working through some stuff.”

“See, I’ve talked to him,” Natalie said, “and I don’t think that’s true. He could come back, but he’s refusing to.”

“He probably has a good reason,” Eli said. “Everything I know about Agent says that he wouldn’t just abandon your team.”

Natalie leaned against the bar and started twirling her fingers again. “The point is he’s not here,” she retorted, “and I don’t think we can count on him coming back, whatever his reasons.”

“What are you doing?” Eli asked suddenly, mimicking her finger twirls. “That’s a weird gesture to make.”

Natalie sighed, putting her hand down. “It’s a new trick my dad’s been teaching me,” she explained, “but it’s obviously not working.”

“What’s it supposed to do?” Haley wondered aloud.

To her surprise, Natalie answered. “I’m trying to hypnotize Butterfly into shutting up,” she said, glaring again at the mercenary.

Eli just stretched his arms over his head. “And with that, I think I’m going back to my butterflies,” he said, standing up. He grabbed his rifle and, slinging it over his shoulder, he said by way of farewell, “Milady. Witch.” Natalie rolled her eyes at him; Eli just grinned and turned to leave.

BEEP BEEP BEEP… BEEP BEEP BEEP…

“What’s that?” Eli asked, turning back to the girls.

“Communicators,” Haley told him, pressing a button on her watch. “Someone’s trying to talk to us. Go ahead.”

Outlier, we have a situation,” came Reiki’s voice over the comm. “There’s trouble brewing in the southeast – looks like a gang fight. We’re going to need backup.

“The southeast?” Haley repeated. “That’s Faun territory.”

Yeah,” Reiki said, “I know. The Skels seem to be making a move on it. We’re going to need all hands on deck, especially if Nightmare’s still out.

“Trick and I are on our way,” Haley told him. She glanced at Eli, who nodded. “Butterfly, too. I’ll call Granny en route. ETA five minutes.”

Natalie had already left money on the counter to pay their bill. Casey understood the Watcher life, so if it wasn’t enough she would just keep a tab open for them. “If that’s all,” Natalie said, leaving the sentence hanging as they rushed out the door. “If the merc is coming, he better keep up,” she added, hopping onto her motorcycle. She revved the engine and left without waiting for a response.

“She still hates me,” Eli sighed, going to his own bike. Unlike the Asylum-issued motorcycles that Haley and Natalie rode, which were sleek, aero-dynamic models, Eli’s motorbike was a small, compact design – one that was definitely not meant for speed.

“You did shoot her in the back,” Haley reminded him, rolling her eyes at his ride. “Hop on,” she added, sitting forward to make room on her bike for him. “You’ll never get anywhere fast on that.”

“I don’t usually need to,” he said, getting on Haley’s bike and grabbing her waist for balance. “I’m usually already out patrolling with you guys on foot, or else I take jobs that have a set timetable I can plan around. This whole ‘coming to the rescue’ thing is new for me.”

“Just hold on,” Haley sighed, revving the engine. She put her bike in gear and took off after Natalie.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Tower, sometime in the future.

Frank Mejia, from our time.

“Let me get this straight,” Frank said after being briefed by his future self. “Something big and bad is coming, and you can’t tell me what it is, but I’m supposed to stop it. Did I miss anything?”

“No, that about sums it up,” his future self nodded.

“And that’s all you brought me here for,” Frank said incredulously.

His older self gave him a knowing grin. “That, and some other stuff,” he said vaguely, glancing at Razorwing.

Frank followed his gaze and nodded. “Okay, fair. So now what? Janus just takes me back to my time?”

“Pretty much, yeah,” the older Frank shrugged.

Janus, who had joined the briefing halfway through, asked, “What more do you want?”

“I don’t know,” Frank shrugged. “Usually, in the comic books, whenever someone time travels there’s some kind of big fight happening, or something. This just seems a little… anticlimactic.”

“Why would we drag you here just to get you caught up in a fight?” Janus asked. “I chose a peaceful time so we’d have time to explain things.”

“And then you explained absolutely nothing,” Frank said dryly, folding his arms. “I don’t know. I was just expecting… more.”

Janus and the older Frank looked at each other. “You want more?” the older Frank asked, nodding at the time traveler.

“Not this trip,” Janus said, holding out his hand to Frank. “Right now I need to get you home. Next time we’ll go on a field trip, and you can have your big fight.”

The older Frank nodded as Frank narrowed his eyebrows at Janus’ outstretched hand. “Last time I shook your hand, I ended up in the future,” he said.

“Exactly,” Janus said, giving him a friendly grin.

“Go on,” his older self said. “You’ll see this place when you reach this time.”

Frank sighed. “Fine, okay,” he said, grabbing Janus’ hand. “See you in a few years, I guess.” The room disappeared as a grey haze fell over his vision.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, present day.

The Southeast side, A.K.A. Faun territory.

As Outlier and Butterfly pulled up to the scene, Earthborn and Reiki were squaring off against a large crowd. Half were satyrs – most likely Fauns defending their territory – who faced a slightly larger group of Third Gens. The Skels wore black masks, hiding their faces, and were armed for war with molotovs, spiked bats, stones, knives, and handguns. Outlier didn’t see any rifles in the crowd, which was a relief, but it probably also meant that the Skels’ Third Gen powers could probably make up the difference. The Fauns never fought with weapons bigger than the small, sharpened gauntlets known as Talons, but judging from the growls and snarls she could hear on that side of the divide, Outlier figured that most of the crowd were barely more than feral, and would be ready and able to tear their enemies to shreds if given the chance.

“So who exactly are these jokers?” Butterfly asked, dismounting the motorcycle so that Outlier could get off.

“You’ve never heard of the Skels?” Outlier asked. “I thought you kept your ear to the ground for criminal activity.” Butterfly just shrugged in response, so she explained, “You know how the Fauns are satyr extremists, right?”

“Yeah,” Butterfly said. “They fight for satyr equality, usually through terrorist actions. Like when they stuck up the DMVs earlier this year.”

“Well, the Skels are a gang of Third Gens who blame the government for not being able to hold jobs,” Outlier said. “Unions and such lobbied the federal government to keep Third Gens out of the workforce a few decades back, and while the feds didn’t bite, a lot of states have laws against Third Gens working in certain fields. The Skels hold protests and such to try and change the laws.” She looked at the crowd questioningly. “We don’t normally have a problem with them; they’re usually more civilized about it than the Fauns.”

“Not today,” Reiki growled, coming up behind them. “E.B.’s been holding them back with rock walls, and Trick’s trying to find the leaders to settle this.”

“You let Trick try to talk the leaders down?” Outlier asked incredulously.

Reiki shrugged. “You try stopping her,” he said. “Her attitude aside, she’s pretty good at making people see reason.”

“Except that half of this crowd are Fauns,” Butterfly pointed out. “Did you forget about her brother?”

“No, I didn’t,” Reiki snapped. “If anybody can get Parker to back down, it’s her.” He turned back to Outlier. “You’re probably the best suited to talk to the Skel leader,” he said. “E.B. and I can hold the line until you do.”

“If we can get the two leaders to sit down and talk civilly, it would help,” Outlier answered. She turned to Earthborn. “Hey, E.B., can you give me a platform?”

“Sure thing.” Earthborn stomped the ground, and the ground beneath her rose up over the crowd’s heads. Outlier looked around at the two crowds, trying for a second to pick out who looked like they were in charge. She saw Trick in the midst of the Fauns by the occasional explosions of glitter that her teammate used to disorient her opponents; apparently Trick was having no luck in locating Parker. Outlier stepped forward to the edge of her platform, taking out a small whistle from her utility belt. She gave three sharp blasts that could be heard for blocks.

“Okay, listen up,” she shouted as the din of the shouting mobs died down. “Who’s in charge here?”

“Why should we listen to you?” came a shout from the Skels.

Outlier looked for the source, but the Skels’ masks made it impossible to know who spoke. Instead, she just addressed the crowd. “A few months ago this city was dealing with damage from a riot,” she told them. “I don’t think anyone would want to deal with more damage from a gang war. Let’s try to solve this peacefully – if the leaders of the Fauns and Skels could sit down and talk – ”

Her speech was cut off by laughter from both sides. A muscular guy stepped forward from the Skel side to ask, “What, you think we’ll all just be best friends after a tea party?” His mask had a crossbones pattern on it, but his eyes were a deep brown.

Outlier knelt down on her platform to look directly at him. “We can have tea if you want,” she answered calmly, “and you don’t have to be friends. But our community needs peace, and these weapons are troubling.”

“Oh please,” a tiger-striped cat-faun stepped forward, and Outlier recognized her immediately from her two forays into Faun territory. “They come into our territory, and you talk about peace?”

“I know you,” Outlier said. “You’re Parker’s Lieutenant, right? Kiara.”

Kiara smirked. “And you’re the Outlier, right?” she answered. “You’re the crazy bitch who showed up in our headquarters to talk to Fallen.”

Outlier could feel the incredulous stares from her teammates. While most of them knew she had recruited Parker to help get Earthborn back, only she and Granny had known that she had walked straight into Faun Headquarters to do so. Knowing that she was going to have to listen to another lecture from Reiki later, Outlier shrugged and nodded. “That’s me,” she said. Turning to the Skel representative, she asked, “And what can we address you as?”

The Skel crossed his arms. “What makes you think I’m the leader here?”

“The fact that you’re still talking to me,” Outlier said, raising an eyebrow. She jumped off the platform, and Earthborn made it disappear back into the street. “Now that the two of you are here, can you tell your friends to stand down while we figure this out?”

After a moment of hesitation where the two gang leaders looked each other up and down, they both turned to their respective gangs and gave a signal. The gangs still gripped their weapons, but they stopped trying to get past Earthborn’s defenses to kill each other.

“So how do you expect we do this, oh great Outlier of the Asylum?” Kiara asked.

Outlier ignored the sarcasm dripping from her tone. “First I need to understand the problem,” she said. Turning to the Skel leader, she asked, “Why are the Skels here?”

“Those Fauns are the reason this city imploded a few months ago,” he said, glaring at Kiara. “They need to be taught a lesson.”

“Okay, but that doesn’t answer me,” Outlier said. “Why now? It’s been nearly four months since the riots. What changed?”

The Skel leader’s jaw clenched under his mask. “You’re kidding, right?” he scoffed.

Kiara answered for him. “Those Third Gens are blaming the Fauns for the new bill Congress introduced yesterday,” she said. “Don’t you read the news?”

“I’ve been kind of busy lately,” Outlier admitted, mentally kicking herself for not being more prepared. She used to keep up with current events, but since she took over leadership of the Asylum she barely had time to take care of herself, much less read the news. “Enlighten me.”

“The bill will cut work opportunities for all Satyrs and Third Gens on a national scale,” the Skel leader said. “If it passes, then none of us will be able to do more than the most menial jobs, or else we’ll be forced to register as Watchers.”

“Satyrs already have to register just to live in this country,” Kiara shot back. “Cry me a river.”

“It’s because of the riots across the country!” the Skel leader shouted. “They’re lumping our protests in with your violence, and life’s about to get worse for everyone!”

“Okay, okay,” Outlier said, trying to defuse the tension. “Things are bad all around. But do you really think more violence is going to help things?” She pointed to all of the weapons on both sides. “Won’t this just convince people that you really are violent thugs with no regard for the community?”

“Or it’ll show people that we’re not affiliated with these idiot animals,” the Skel leader said, clenching his fists. Kiara gave a feral hiss at his words.

“Why are we even talking about this?” she asked. “We’ll rip them to shreds, and they won’t bother any of us again.”

“Not in my city!” Outlier said, trying to sound commanding while stepping between the two leaders. “You’re going to hurt the innocent bystanders, and we’ll be right back to square one.” Looking at each of them in turn, she added, “Do either of you really want that?”

Kiara and the Skel leader glared at each other. Neither spoke for a long time. Finally, Kiara broke the silence. “We don’t want any more violence,” she said. “Lucky for you Third Gens, Fallen ordered us to defend only.”

The Skel leader barked a laugh. “You take orders from a wanted terrorist and a madman. You can’t even decide for yourself.”

“Lucky for you, jackass,” Kiara growled, flexing her hands. Her Talons glinted in the fading sunlight, the razors on the tips gleaming in the fading sunlight.

The Skel leader smirked under his mask, looking down on her. “They call me Bulldozer,” he said. “I want you to know who I am, so you can run crawling back to your masters and tell them. I’m the new leader of the Skels, and we’re not going to sit back while you destroy our city.”

Kiara hissed again, but Outlier still stood between them. “It’s our job to keep everyone in check,” she said. “Not yours. If you want to go after criminals, then get your Watcher licenses.”

Bulldozer gave a barking laugh. “Really?” he asked. “Your job? Great job stopping the riots. Oh wait – they blew up your headquarters.”

“That was – ” Outlier started, but Bulldozer cut her off.

“Isn’t the new leader of the Fauns – ‘Parker’ or ‘Fallen’ or whatever you call him – a former member of the Asylum?” he continued. “You don’t stop anybody. You’re just kids playing dress-up, running around the city like you own it. You’re just as bad as them.”

Outlier,” came Reiki’s voice over the coms. “This is going to turn nasty.

“Heck, you lost half your team in the riots,” Bulldozer continued. “What, did you think people wouldn’t notice? A human like you isn’t cut out for vigilante work. You can’t stop anything.”

“Can’t I?” Outlier shot back, letting her temper get the best of her. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned to see Butterfly standing behind her.

“Is violence really the answer here?” he asked Bulldozer. “You talk a big game, but can you really stand against both the Fauns and the Asylum?”

“Who are you, pretty boy?” Bulldozer asked.

“They call me ‘Butterfly’,” he answered. “I’m a Third Gen like you. And I’m asking now: are you really going to tear apart our city for a losing battle?”

Outlier shrugged off his hand. “I got this,” she said.

“It’s not a losing battle,” Bulldozer said. “And I’m done talking. Skels!” He backed away into his side of the mob, shouting commands.

Kiara shrugged at Outlier. “We have to defend ourselves,” she said, almost apologetically, before going back to her side and shouting orders again.

“I had that,” Outlier said again, glaring at Butterfly. She stormed over to where the rest of the team had gathered.

Butterfly shrugged. “No, you didn’t,” he said. “The Bulldozer guy wasn’t going to respect anyone who wasn’t a Third Gen. To them, you can’t possibly know their struggles in our society. You didn’t even know about the bill that started all of this; and why would you when it doesn’t affect you?” He shook his head. “There was no talking our way out of this one.”

“Well, I guess we’ll never know now, will we?” Outlier said, turning to the others. Trick had returned while they had been talking to the leaders; she did not look happy.

“No sign of Parker, then?” Outlier asked her.

“No,” she growled. “The Fauns said he’s still in hiding, so he won’t be here today. What was that about you going to Faun Headquarters?”

Outlier rubbed her temple with a free hand. “It was just before we got Earthborn back,” she said. “I was in and out, and I had Granny for backup. It was no big deal. How else did you think I got Parker to join us?”

“That was a stupid move,” Reiki said, shaking his head. “They could have – ”

“Killed me, I know,” Outlier finished for him. “Guys, there’s about to be a major fight, and right now the only one standing between them is Earthborn. Can we table this?”

“We are going to talk about this,” Reiki said, his arms crossed over his chest.

“But not right now,” Butterfly added. “What should we do, boss?”

The only active member missing was Granny, who was supposedly still on her way. Reiki, Trick, Butterfly, and Earthborn looked at Outlier expectantly, awaiting her orders.

“Reiki, report,” she ordered. “Anything change while we were talking?”

“We bought enough time for the police to get here,” Reiki said, pointing behind himself where blue lights flashed, “but this is going to turn into a fight if either side can get around Earthborn’s walls.”

Just as he said it, a loud rumbling noise thundered through the street as the walls came down. Outlier could see Bulldozer’s crossbones mask leading the Skels as he punched through the wall – the Skel leader’s Third Gen ability must have been super-strength.

Reiki cursed. “What do we do?” he asked Outlier.

“Trick’s still over on the Faun side,” Outlier said, making sure the whole team could hear through the coms. Trick might still be listening, and she and Granny were going to need to know where the others were. “Reiki, use your light to disorient who you can. Earthborn, keep trying the walls to separate fighters. Butterfly, get somewhere your sniping ability can be put to use. You still have the blowgun?”

“Nope,” he said cheerfully, “but I do have rubber bullets in my rifle. I’ll shoot to subdue.” He ran off to find a good place to shoot from.

Outlier called over her coms, “Granny, you here yet?”

Almost, dearie,” came the reply. Outlier heard a loud roar from the next block over.

“Good,” she said. “When you get here, the goal is to separate the fighters. Use Herchel and Louise to pull them off each other.”

Sounds like a plan,” Granny answered.

With another loud rumble, the last of Earthborn’s walls crumbled under Bulldozer’s strength, and the fight began.

* * * * * * * *

Agency Office Building in Downtown Eon City.

Headquarters of the Meta-Human and Vigilante Task Force.

“They’re getting their asses kicked down there,” Jaunt remarked, looking out of the office window with his hands folded behind his back.

“They’re in over their heads,” Agent said through his clenched jaw. “Is this entertaining enough for you?”

Jaunt smirked, turning back around to face him. “You understand, I needed to test them,” he said. “They could be the greatest heroes in the world, but if they can’t operate without you, then they’re worse than useless.”

“To you,” Agent added, not bothering to hide the disgust in his voice. “They were the perfect defenders for the city as they were. Your little ‘experiment’ over the last few months might have ruined them.”

Jaunt rolled his eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic, Agent,” he said. “I just gave them the push they needed to improve. Like a mother bird pushing her fledgelings out of the nest – and these fledglings flew spectacularly. Until today, of course,” he added with a regretful sigh. “I’m sorry to say that Outlier isn’t much for leadership. She takes on too much by herself, and relies too heavily on luck to be consistently effective.” He turned back to the window, watching the fight on the street a block away. “It’s too bad Shadow isn’t around. Given his lineage, I’d like to see what happens if he took charge of the team.”

“Bring him back, then,” Agent said, leaving the accusation – that Jaunt was responsible for Frank’s disappearance – unspoken.

“I would if I could,” Jaunt said wistfully, ignoring Agent’s implication. “Unfortunately, he was taken by outside forces, and my network hasn’t seen him.”

Agent clenched the handle of his umbrella with white knuckles, but smiled at the villain. “I can’t tell if you’re lying to me or if your cruddy network of thieves, spies, and sociopaths are lying to you,” Agent said pleasantly, “but I’ve been wondering these last few months if this arrangement of ours is really worth it.”

“You want to end our agreement?” Jaunt said, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “Even after I showed you the dangers out there?”

“I mainly just want to punch you in your smug face,” Agent said, grinning at the thought.

“Hm. That’s fair,” Jaunt shrugged, turning back to the window. “After everything that’s happened between us, I’d be really surprised if you actually liked me.”

“‘Everything that’s happened between us’,” Agent repeated incredulously. “That’s a heck of a way to put it. Are you talking about keeping me away from my team? How about the little ‘tests’ you’ve been pulling to keep them busy? Or maybe the riots you organized across the city – or should I go back farther than the last four months?”

“I was actually talking about Team Ark,” Jaunt pointed out, “but what I’ve done to the Asylum is bad enough, isn’t it?”

“You turned Parker into a wanted criminal,” Agent accused. “Rina might never be the same again, Granny lost her zoo, Earthborn spent a month hiding underground, Frank has disappeared, Natalie thinks I abandoned them, and Haley’s been running herself ragged trying to hold them all together. You destroyed our headquarters, leaving half the team homeless, and you call that ‘bad enough’?!”

“Bad enough for you to hate me, yes. Wouldn’t you?” Jaunt was infuriatingly calm as he surveyed the city from his ivory tower. “You really seem to care about them,” he remarked.

Agent took a deep breath to calm himself. “They’re my team,” he said.

“There’s always another team,” Jaunt told him, “and this one wouldn’t be in such bad shape if they didn’t keep failing my tests.”

“You and your tests,” Agent scoffed.

“Blackbird wasn’t supposed to still be undercover,” Jaunt said. “If he had stuck to the plan, he wouldn’t be a wanted criminal now, would he?”

“He was trying to get information on Claw,” Agent countered.

Jaunt raised an eyebrow. “That wasn’t the mission,” he reminded him. “Blackbird was supposed to cess out a mole in your organization. Not only did he fail to do so, but he also failed at that side job you gave him. Either would have stopped the destruction of your tower, but Blackbird was outsmarted by that overgrown lizard.”

“You work with Claw,” Agent pointed out.

“I put up with him because he’s useful at times,” Jaunt admitted. “He’s the main reason the city is in such bad shape, though.”

Agent crossed his hands over his umbrella handle. “Ever consider that the city – the country – probably wouldn’t be in such bad shape if you didn’t play Moriarty with the criminal underground?” he asked.

“‘Moriarty’,” Jaunt mused. “I like that. The criminal consultant who beat Sherlock Holmes.”

“He didn’t ‘beat’ him,” Agent said. “He disappeared, and then Holmes rounded up his organization.”

“Winning is in the eye of the beholder,” Jaunt replied, and left it at that. He left his spot at the window and sat down at Agent’s desk. “In any case, your team looks like it could use some help.”

Agent narrowed his eyebrows in suspicion. “You mean…”

“You’d better go help them,” Jaunt said, smiling pleasantly. “I received reports that the tower – as well as the new training bunker – are finishing up tomorrow. What’s one day between friends?”

“We’re not friends,” Agent said automatically, but nonetheless he started rushing to the door.

“Quite right,” Jaunt said. “Oh, and Agent? Bring her with you too.”

Agent stopped, his hand on the doorknob. “Who?” he asked.

“You know – her. The scary one,” Jaunt said, his tone finally showing his annoyance.

Agent shook his head, opening the door. “I know you like to be mysterious,” he said, “but I need more details than that.”

“Nightmare!” Jaunt said. “Bring Nightmare with you! She can stop a fight like that in an instant.”

“Rina’s still recovering,” Agent said, shaking his head while trying not to grin at Jaunt’s annoyance. “Her powers aren’t reliable.”

“She’s better than you think,” Jaunt told him, going back to his mysterious airs. “Better than even she knows. She doesn’t have to be precise – just stop the fighting.”

Agent nodded, and headed out. As soon as he knew Agent couldn’t see him, Jaunt rushed back to the window. “This ought to be interesting,” he said to himself. Looking around Agent’s office, he sighed. “Too bad he doesn’t keep the fun stuff in here,” the villain lamented. He paused for a minute, then chuckled to himself. “I wonder if he left his computer unlocked?”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, Southeast Side.

Fight scene.

How the heck are we supposed to end this?” Reiki asked over the coms. “They just keep coming!

Outlier was busy wrestling a monkey-satyr to the ground, but Earthborn answered, “I wish Nightmare was here; she’d have this place on its knees in seconds.

“Yeah, well, she’s not,” Outlier said. A rubber bullet whizzed past her cheek and hit the monkey-satyr square in the shoulder, allowing Outlier to zip-tie his wrists together. “Thanks, Butterfly.”

Just take ‘em one at a time,” Butterfly said over the coms. “They’ll stop coming eventually.

“Eventually might not be soon enough,” Outlier said, turning to the next brawler as she dodged a swipe from someone’s talons. “We can’t keep this up forever!”

Says you,” said Trick. “I can do this all – ahh!”

“Trick!” Outlier cried. “What happened? Anyone have eyes on her?”

She’s okay,” came Reiki’s voice. “A Third-Gen hit her, but they’re seriously regretting it now.”

There was no time to be relieved, as Outlier had two more of the brawlers join into her fight. She hadn’t been prepared for the chaos of the fight – Fauns and Skels seemed to want nothing more than to rip each other to shreds, but they would team up against the Watchers trying to stop the brawling.

As she slipped out of a satyr’s grip and knocked her on the head to get her out of the brawl, Outlier realized that she felt unusually warm. The zip-ties she used to hobble the Faun were sticky and wet – it was then she realized that she was bleeding from a long gash in her arm. She hadn’t felt it when it happened, so she had no idea how much blood she had lost by that point. A lot, she figured, given how dizzy she suddenly felt.

A distant sense of emergency gripped her – this fight needed to end soon. She tried to dodge another blow, but someone clipped her jaw, knocking her off-balance. Another fighter pushed her down, and kicked her in the back. Outlier could hear her teammates talking on the coms, asking her what they should do to end it, but she couldn’t think – much less speak – and they were going to lose.

It was a bad idea to hold the team together, she thought, just trying to protect her face from the barrage as she began to lose consciousness. We’re going to die here, and it’s all my fault…

A sudden wave of fear gripped her, and the blows stopped raining down on her. An unearthly sound pierced the air, and it took Outlier a minute before she realized what it was – satyrs and Third Gens alike were crying and screaming, falling to their knees as their bodies all gave out at once.

Despite her own terror, Outlier managed to uncover her face and look around. All around her, the battle had come to a standstill. Most of the brawlers had fallen to the ground, but those who were still able to move were crawling away from the one person left standing.

Outlier had never seen Nightmare in action before, and so she had never truly understood why she was called “Nightmare” until this moment. She looked the same as ever, covered head to toe in her white uniform, but she radiated fear – Outlier knew instinctively that she couldn’t let this girl get near her.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. Nightmare stopped being a monster and Outlier could remember their friendship. She even managed a smile before she blacked out.

The police, who had been outside of Nightmare’s powers when she arrived, began rounding up brawlers before they could recover. Butterfly dashed down the fire escape he had been perched on, expertly avoiding the fallen brawlers as he made his way to Outlier. “Hey, come on,” he said, crouching down next to her figure. “Haley, you can’t die on me or I’ll never get paid. Come on, wake up!”

“She won’t die,” said another girl next to her. Kiara stumbled to her feet, shaken from the experience but still mobile. “She wasn’t hit that badly – I mean, she’ll be hurting for days, don’t get me wrong, but – ”

“I’m talking about the gash on her shoulder,” Butterfly said. “She’s lost a lot of blood.”

“She’s… tough,” came Outlier’s voice. Her eyes were still closed, but she started to stir. “How long was I out?” she asked weakly.

“Less than two minutes,” Kiara answered. “See? I told you she was fine.”

“Need to stop bleeding,” Outlier mumbled, trying to grip the wound. She opened her eyes to see Kiara walking away. “Hey!” she tried to call, but couldn’t get the sound loud enough.

“Let her go,” Trick said, coming up next to Butterfly. Her face was starting to bruise, and she was holding her shoulder carefully as she watched Kiara leave. “We got most of them tied down, and we’re not in any shape to stop any that can still stand after Nightmare got to ‘em.”

Kiara turned back to them, adding, “Parker says hi, by the way.” Then she ran off into a side street before anyone could stop her.

“You know,” Trick said, trying to fold her arms and then wincing as her shoulder hurt, “I do believe that woman is schtupping my brother.”

“What?!” Outlier asked incredulously. She tried to sit up, but a wave of nausea hit and Butterfly helped her back down.

“You heard me,” Trick said, smirking at her. She pulled out a spare handkerchief and tied her teammate’s wound. “By the way, I’m glad you’re not dead. You gave us all a scare there when you stopped talking. The merc told us you went down, and we didn’t know what to think.”

“I’m sorry,” Outlier said. “This was my fault – I shouldn’t have had us go into the fight.”

“As long as you’re breathing, you’re learning.” Agent walked over to them. He tried to appear nonchalant, but the white-knuckled grip on his umbrella showed how scared he had been for them. “Next time, you’ll realize that you have more distance-fighters than just Butterfly here.”

“Agent,” Trick said, sounding like she couldn’t believe he was really there. “You came.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t been there,” Agent said. “I’m back now, and the Task-Force is ready to help again.” He picked up Outlier, and, after a glare from Butterfly, allowed the others to follow as he took her to an ambulance that had shown up sometime after the fighting had begun.

“You’re back?” Trick asked suspiciously. “Just like that?”

“Just like that,” Agent confirmed. “I’ve got other Watchers patrolling the city for the next couple days. You guys need to rest and recover, and then I’ll show you our new headquarters.”

“So we’re back at the tower?” Trick asked. “We can search for Frank?”

“Frank is number one on the priority list,” Agent said, setting Outlier down on a stretcher and letting a medic take over. “As for the tower, we’ve made some changes in the rebuild. We’ll have plenty of room for more members, too.” He turned to Butterfly, adding, “You’re welcome to join the team, if you like.”

“Me?” Butterfly asked, surprised. “I thought I wasn’t eligible. Something about not getting along with the other teammates, and caring more about money than about the work; stuff like that.”

“He shot me,” Trick also reminded them.

“And I shot her that one time,” Butterfly agreed.

“You stuck around when we needed you here,” Agent said. “If the last few months have taught me anything, it’s that this little experiment of ours won’t work unless we have more people – Watchers like yourself, who can help us out. Motives aside, you’re really good at what you do,” he added, holding out his hand for Butterfly to shake.

Butterfly looked at it for a second before hesitantly shaking Agent’s hand. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll try it. If nothing else, it should make watching out for that one easier,” he added, pointing his thumb at Outlier. “I’ve never had a protection detail with a suicidal mark before.”

Agent grinned at him before adding, “Just know that I’m watching you. If you try to shoot anyone in the back again, I won’t hesitate to put you down myself.” He gave Butterfly’s hand a sharp squeeze before letting go, while Trick cackled behind him.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, Abandoned Construction Building.

New Asylum Training Ground, a few days later.

“I still can’t believe you sent the helicopter to pick us up,” Haley said as soon as they had landed. Her arm was still in a sling to keep her from pulling her stitches, but she had mostly recovered from the anemia thanks to Dale’s administrations.

“Technically, it’s not a helicopter,” Quinn “Chip” Kaine piped in, stepping out of the vehicle. The Asylum’s tech wizard combed her fingers through her hair as she explained, “Legally speaking, it’s a gyrodyne. It’s a rotorcraft like a helicopter, but the engine and propeller design is more efficient. I designed this one myself; since the Asylum’s jet went down with the building, I figured we could use another aircraft.”

“Much appreciated, Chip,” Agent said, stepping out after her. “And I thought you guys would like the ride. This place isn’t exactly easy to find, for all that it’s in plain sight.”

“Where are we?” Haley asked, looking around. There was nothing here but an abandoned construction site; it looked like it was going to be a hospital at one point, but nobody had ever finished it. Haley had passed it on her patrols dozens of times, never giving it a second thought.

“Hey, I know this place,” Natalie said, crawling out of the vehicle next. Her face had fully recovered from the bruising, and she was pretty chipper as she remembered. “Frank, Parker, and I used to practice parkour here. But that was years ago – why is the building still not finished?”

Agent smiled at them, looking proud of himself. “This is the old Team Ark headquarters,” he said. “Nat, you and Frank met here for a reason. Your parents were in the basement planning patrols while you kids crawled all over the roof.”

“Wait,” Natalie said, turning pale. “You mean to tell me that Mom knew about all the crazy stuff we did here?”

“Yes,” Agent replied, raising an eyebrow, “though, surprisingly, you didn’t get up to nearly as much as Frank did around here. That jump off the roof was particularly cool – and I never did get the courage to tell his mom about it,” he added sheepishly.

“That was after Team Ark broke up,” Natalie pointed out, folding her arms. “Parker and I had just gotten our Watcher licenses.”

“True,” Agent nodded. “How do you think I knew your skills to offer you a spot in the Asylum?”

“I always assumed you could just read minds,” Reiki piped in as he, Eli, David, Rina, and Granny got out of the copter after them.

“Not quite,” Agent laughed. “Here, this way.” He led them to a trapdoor on the bottom floor, tapping the ground with his umbrella until he found the right spot. Opening the door, he gestured for the team to go down first.

After a short ladder, they entered a huge space that resembled their old training room in the last tower. The entrance this time was on the observation floor, but there was a staircase nearby that led to a large gym. There were no windows, but they still had the sparring equipment, the hologram rooms, and the exercise stuff in the same set-up as before. On the observation level near the entrance was a lounge area with couches and a small kitchenette, and across the cavernous training area was Agent’s computer room.

“Welcome to your new training hall,” Agent said, sweeping his arms out proudly. “We replaced the top floors of the tower with another level of dorms and briefing rooms. This is where you’ll come from now on to train – no more putting all our eggs into one basket.”

“So this is the place,” Haley said, looking around. “Not sure that I like the whole ‘underground’ thing.”

“I like it,” David said, grinning.

“You would,” Reiki sighed. “So, what’s next?”

Natalie folded her arms, grinning at them. “Now that we’re back together,” she said, “we go find Frank.”

“Where are we supposed to look?” Haley asked, testing out one of the couches. “Frank’s been AWOL for months – and trust me, I’ve tried to find him.” The others sat down as well while they figured out their next move.

“We’ll figure it out,” Natalie shrugged. “Have a little faith.”

“Is this what I sounded like these last few months?” Haley asked Reiki, who nodded emphatically.

“Sometimes worse,” he said. “Seriously, why did you think Parker and Eli were a good idea?” Eli raised his eyebrows, but didn’t say a word.

Haley sighed, shaking her head. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Might have been the lack of sleep, or just needing something to go right for once. I get Parker, but why did you think Eli wasn’t a good idea?”

Reiki gave her an incredulous look. “Seriously?” he asked. “He kidnapped you! Your hand was useless for a week after that, and you’re asking why you were the only one who thought it was a good idea to trust him?!”

Haley shrugged. “He’s trustworthy,” she insisted, “once you understand how he works. He likes being around butterflies, and anything that furthers that goal will get him to be on our side.”

“Butterflies?” Reiki asked. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Eli said, shrugging. He wasn’t the least embarrassed by it. “All Haley had to do was get me access to Eon City’s butterfly garden overnight. It had been closed since the riots.”

“You also mentioned another revenue stream,” Granny reminded him.

“Apparently we have a mysterious benefactor,” Haley told them. “Someone paid him off. I thought it was Ayu, or maybe Agent.”

“Wasn’t me,” Agent said, shrugging. “Up until the gang fight a few days ago, I’d labeled him as ‘unreliable’.”

“That’s fair,” Eli shrugged again. “I’ll do my best now that I’m actually on the team, though.” Some of the other members looked like they wanted to say something, but Haley gave them a look and they backed off.

“Whatever,” Natalie said, rolling her eyes. “Doesn’t matter. Butterfly can do whatever he wants. Let’s get back to business.”

“Right,” Haley said. “So that brings us back to Frank.”

“Somebody call?” came a new voice near the door. They all turned around in shock to find Frank Mejia, also known as Shadow, coming down the ladder and grinning at them like he’d never left. “Mom told me you guys were down here.”

The team just stared at him. “Okay, I know I’ve been gone for a few months, but you won’t believe what happened to me!” he said.

The last thing he remembered seeing before the world went black was Natalie pulling back her fist.

* * * * * * * *

Casey’s Bar, Downtown Eon City.

Closed for the night.

“Uh-huh,” Casey said, listening to Agent over the phone. “I’ll keep an eye out.” She sighed, rolling her eyes. “Good-bye, Agent,” she said pointedly, hanging up on him. “Man, that guy doesn’t know how to stop talking,” she muttered, grabbing a bottle of vodka and two glasses and sitting down at one of the tables. The bar was closed, but she had a guest tonight.

“Was he lecturing you again?” the man asked, taking one of the glasses from her and letting her pour a generous serving for them both. He was in his thirties, sporting a thin beard that was a shade darker than his short, unkempt brown hair. Dressed in a long faux-leather trench coat, he would stand out if he went outside. Taking a sip from his glass, he kept his eyes on Casey as they spoke.

“Always,” Casey said, rolling her eyes. “Now that the team’s back together, he was asking again if I wanted to join.”

The man raised an eyebrow. “‘Back together’?” he repeated.

“Oh, right, I forgot,” Casey said, rubbing her temple. “You’ve been away. Frank just returned from his trip to the future, and Rina got her powers back – sort of. She just needs to gain more control before she can use it reliably. It’s been four months since the riots.”

“Ah,” the young man nodded, taking a sip of the liquor. “I remember that. Frank was pissed that four months had gone by.”

“Rightly so,” Casey pointed out. “His parents were worried sick, and I only ever got the one vision of him. If I hadn’t met you last year, I would have been worried, too.”

“Sorry about that,” the man said. “Would have avoided it if I could, but once it’s been done it had to happen.”

“Anyone ever told you that time travel sucks?” Casey asked rhetorically. “Honestly, I don’t know how you keep it all straight, Janus.”

Janus – older than when Frank met him, but still the same time-traveler – gave her a grim smile. “It helps that I’ve been doing this my whole life,” he said. “Do you have any idea how many times I’ve tried to get this right?”

“And every time you meddle, something else changes irreparably,” Casey finished, having heard it before. “I know. I still can’t tell you if anything has changed yet, so I’m not sure what brings you here tonight.”

“Oh, I just needed a place to crash,” Janus said nonchalantly. “Tell me, is Butterfly hanging around this time?”

“That was you?” Casey asked. “You know, Haley is dying from curiosity. She’s been asking around to see who paid him.”

Janus smirked. “I’ve tried leaving them to their own devices,” he said, “but Eli’s stubborn and anti-social. If I didn’t pay him, he’d never join the Asylum.”

“True.” Casey nodded, shooting her own drink before adding, “I still don’t know what you think’ll come of it all.”

“You’ve seen some of it,” Janus pointed out to her. “That vision of the twins and the Gamemaster?”

“Where one of the twins becomes the Gamemaster?” Casey asked. “That vision was hazy, at best. I couldn’t even tell which was which – which is saying something, since Parker has those wings and super-strength, and Natalie usually uses her tricks. In my vision, they were evenly matched, and they had similar builds.”

“That’s because it’s not set in stone yet,” Janus said.

“What happens if it comes true?” Casey asked him.

Janus gave a short, ironic laugh. “If that should happen, you can rest assured that I will do everything in my power to make sure that it’s not my fault,” he told her, inviting her to share the joke. As Casey laughed, he added, “But seriously: I can’t tell you too much, but there’s something I’d like you to consider.”

“Meaning there’s something you want me to tell Agent,” Casey said pointedly.

Janus shifted uncomfortably. “Yes, that,” he said. “I’m sorry for the roundabout methods, but – ”

“But you have to be careful,” Casey interrupted, finishing his sentence. “I know that better than anyone. What’s the message, then?”

“Consider this,” Janus told her. “Are you entirely sure that there were only two people in that vision?”

Casey looked stricken. “More than… wait, that would mean…” she trailed off, thinking about it. As the implications dawned on her, her eyes became unfocused and turned white.

As Casey became lost in another vision, Janus shook his head. “Sorry, Cassandra,” he said, shooting back the rest of his drink and standing up. “I hate doing this to you, but I need you to start meddling for me.” He turned to leave, looking back only once at Casey’s still form. “I know you have your own curse, but I need you to fix mine, too,” he added.

Then he left, before Casey could wake up.

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #16 – Darkness Escapes

Dawn of the Asylum, Issue #14 – Complicated

Eon City, four months ago.

Frank Mejia, AKA Shadow.

Frank walked away from Parker with mixed feelings. On the one hand, everything was falling apart around them, and it was all Parker’s fault. On the other hand, Parker had been one of his best friends since middle school. Injuries and exhaustion aside, Frank couldn’t fight him. So he had let him go.

As his stomach rumbled, Frank realized that he hadn’t eaten yet. His body was screaming at him to find someplace to sleep – he had been awake for nearly two days now. His muscles were on fire, and it hurt to move. His eyes kept closing, too – so he didn’t see the kid until he ran into him.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, his eyes snapping open. “I didn’t think anybody was out now. Curfew, and all.”

“Not a problem, Shadow,” the kid said. He was a teenager, at least – obviously younger than Frank, but not yet fully grown. Frank was used to people recognizing him, so the kid calling him “Shadow” wasn’t out of place.

“Look, you should go home,” Frank told him. “The Asylum is still patrolling, but law enforcement is stretched thin right now. It’s not safe.”

“Oh, I agree,” the teenager said. “It isn’t safe right now. But it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.”

Frank frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, wondering if the scrawny teenager knew something he didn’t.

The kid looked him up and down. “I’d have preferred to get you at your best, but you’ll have to do as-is,” he said cryptically. He held out a hand for Frank to shake, adding, “My name is Janus, by the way.”

“Shadow,” Frank said, shaking the kid’s hand reflexively.

Janus grinned, tightening his grip. “Good to officially meet you, Shadow,” he said. “On your side, anyways. Now, please come with me.”

It wasn’t a request. As Janus’ grip tightened, the air around them turned opaque – as if a thick fog had settled over everything. It cleared in what felt like only a few seconds later, but when Frank looked around, the sun had set.

Looking to his left, Frank saw that the Asylum Tower was suddenly whole again. It looked a little different from before, but there was a building where only seconds ago there had been rubble. The air smelled different; there was a distinct odor that hadn’t been there before, and Frank saw trash lining the streets.

Janus began pulling him back towards the tower. “Come on, Shadow,” he said. “You need to meet yourself.”

“Wait, what the heck just happened?” Frank asked, pulling his hand out of the kid’s grip. “This is Eon City, but it’s not – where am I?”

Janus turned back and gave him an exasperated look. “I keep forgetting this is your first time,” he sighed. “I know you’ll need a warning or five about what’s coming, but it still should be obvious.”

Frank just glared at him until he answered the question. “Oh, all right,” Janus said. “You’re right – this is still Eon City. Just, for you it hasn’t happened yet.” He grinned, throwing his arms out in a ta-da gesture. “Welcome to your future,” he added. “Hope you enjoy the show!”

“‘My future’?” Frank asked.

“Yes, your future,” Janus said. “I’ve brought you a few years into the future. You need to talk to yourself.”

Frank shook his head, trying to wrap his mind around what had happened. “So your Third-Gen power is time travel?” he finally asked. “Who even are you?”

Janus gave an exasperated noise before answering. “Seriously?” he asked. “Are you really that slow? I told you already, my name’s Janus. And I’m not a Third Gen,” he added as an afterthought.

“So what are you, then?” Frank demanded. “Are you a Fourth Gen like Nightmare?”

“I’m what will eventually come to be known as a Fifth Gen, if you’re going to obsess about it,” Janus said. “My parents were both Fourth Gens, and their powers mutated – kind of like what tends to happen in your time when Third Gens and Satyrs mix. You have Hybrids – we have Fifth Gens.”

Frank was lost. “What?” he asked again, his eyebrows narrowing in confusion.

“I’m not going to explain it again,” Janus said. “Look, if you want answers, you’ll go into the Asylum building and talk to yourself. The you of this time,” he added slowly, as if Frank wouldn’t understand.

Which, to be fair, he didn’t.

“This is the future?” he asked.

Janus put a hand to his forehead. “Come on, man, the concept isn’t that hard to get,” he said. “This is a few years into your future. I’m not giving you the exact date because then it all might start getting messed up, but there are some things you need to know about what’s coming for you if you’re ever going to survive it.”

“Where do you fit into all of this?” Frank asked, still suspicious.

“I’m a traveler,” Janus said. “I’ve been running around time since I was born, the way you ran around the construction site when you were a kid. I can’t change anything, but I have a little influence if I can push people in the right direction.”

“You ought to talk to Casey,” Frank muttered.

“Sparrow’s powers aren’t the same,” Janus said. He apparently knew exactly who Frank was talking about. “She gets limited visions of the future, kind of like she’s skipping to the last page of a book. And most everybody around her doesn’t believe a word of it, because her powers influence them, too. I travel through time, so I can see everything – as long as I know when and where to go. People believe me when I tell them what’s coming, at least as much as they would believe anybody else. Right now, I’m trying to get you to talk to yourself so you have an inkling about what’s going to happen.”

“Why don’t you just tell me what you want me to know?” Frank demanded. “Why bother bringing me here?”

“It’s complicated,” Janus said, shaking his head. “If I interfere with things directly, then other stuff starts changing until what’s supposed to happen happens anyways. If I want to take steps to change the world – to, say, save everybody on it – then I have to work indirectly. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen, but I can take you to the guy who knows; namely, you.”

Frank stared at him. “Say I believe you,” he said, folding his arms over his chest. “Isn’t that… I forget the word for it, but isn’t there some kind of physics law or something that breaks?” he asked.

“You mean a paradox?” Janus asked.

“That’s the word,” Frank said. “Isn’t that a paradox?”

“Of course it is,” Janus shrugged. “Paradoxes are kind of my specialty. I’m a time-traveling kid who messes around the universe in six dimensions – I’m a paradox. This,” he added, gesturing around them, “is nothing. Now, are we gonna stand around yapping all day, or are you going to go inside?”

Frank thought for a moment, before nodding and walking to the edge of the alley. “Thank you,” Janus said, walking right behind him.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, four months ago.

Parker Fawkes, AKA Fallen.

Parker watched his old friend until Frank rounded a corner. He put his hands back into his hoodie pockets and turned to get away from the rubble. As he wasn’t watching where he was going, he nearly ran into a man in a suit.

“Excuse me,” he muttered, moving to walk around him.

The man grabbed his arm with a gloved hand, making Parker look at his face for the first time. The well-dressed man was wearing a mask, smiling kindly at him. “Parker Fawkes?” he asked.

“You’re Jaunt,” Parker said, freezing in his tracks. “You broke up Team Ark!”

“And you just broke up the Asylum,” Jaunt reminded him. Parker hung his head, all the fight leaving him for shame. “The whole country is calling you the worst criminal since… well, since me. Everyone knows your face by now, because you broke their heroes. You have no place to go, and nothing to do – except, of course, run from the law.”

Parker sighed. “What do you want?” he asked. “Here to rub it in?”

“No,” Jaunt said. “I’m here to offer you a job.”

“You can’t be serious,” Parker scoffed, folding his arms in front of him. “Why would I ever work for you?”

“There’s a lot more going on here than you know,” Jaunt shrugged. “I think it’s time to fill you in on some of the more… finicky details.”

Parker rolled his eyes as Jaunt clapped his hands together to summon a portal. “‘Finicky details’?” he repeated. “You can’t be serious.”

“I’m not,” Jaunt admitted, throwing his hands apart to tear a hole in space. “It’s a gross understatement, I know. But take a look through here, and I think you’ll have too many questions not to follow me through.”

Parker peered through the portal, seeing a blue haze on the other side. “What the…” he trailed off, his eyes widening as he saw what lay beyond Jaunt’s portal.

Jaunt smiled beneath his mask, putting an arm around Parker’s shoulders. “Like I said,” he repeated as they stepped through to the other side, “there’s a lot more going on here than you know.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, three months ago.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

Not him,” came Reiki’s insistent voice over the comms. “I don’t care who we get, just not him.

“Trust me,” Outlier said grimly, “he’s far from my first choice, too. But once we locate David he’ll be our best bet of getting him back. Name one person half as accurate with a blow gun.” She walked down the sidewalk, shaking her head as she began listing to one side.

I don’t see why we can’t just do it ourselves,” Reiki grumbled. “He might not even show up – it’s not like we can pay him.

“David’s a powerhouse,” Outlier explained for what felt like the millionth time, stopping to lean against a building. “He can level the tunnels if he wants to, and right now he doesn’t have any inhibitions. He’s why we’ve been having all the earthquake tremors this last month, and we need to stop him before he causes serious damage – he’s already been delaying work on rebuilding the tower. Now, half the team’s down, and we’ll only get one chance at getting him Dale’s treatment. If we miss, then he could disappear for good. You and Granny can take him on head-to-head while I run interference, but we’ll need somebody else to shoot him with the blow gun, to get the treatment into his system. With David’s powers, he’ll probably protect himself with his usual rock shield; we need somebody who can make a bull’s eye shot through any crack in his defenses.” She sighed, hating to be right, before adding, “That means we need him. He’ll show up.”

I don’t trust him,” Reiki growled, sounding even more surly than usual. “Ten bucks says he won’t show. Are you sure there’s nobody else? What about Holmes?

“I’ll take that bet,” Outlier said. “And Holmes hasn’t been seen since the riots. A lot of Watchers were hurt that day, not just Natalie and Rina. Either that, or she can’t get away from her day job. That’s why the three of us have been on overtime since the curfew was lifted.”

Which begs the next question,” Reiki muttered – though since he was speaking into his comm unit, he must have wanted Outlier to hear him.

“We’ve been over this, Reiki,” Outlier said patiently. “The city needs the Asylum now more than ever. We can’t just give up on it.” She noticed some people walking towards her, so she ducked down an alley and began climbing up a fire escape to scope things out from a rooftop while she finished the call. Agent had once told her that the point of patrols was to show the city their faces, to gain the public’s trust – so it wouldn’t do any good for people to see Outlier collapse from exhaustion.

Why not call the team quits?” Reiki asked. “We went from a team of ten down to a team of three in one night. Even Agent gave up on us; why won’t you?

Outlier bit her lip and counted to five before responding as she climbed up a fire escape. Yelling at Reiki wouldn’t help matters, even if it was the hundredth time she had to answer the same question. “I told you,” she said, “the city needs us. Even if we’re not at full strength, it gives people hope to see our faces.” Pulling herself up over the top of the building, she added, “Besides, what would you do without the Asylum?”

Probably go to the Watcher board myself and take a paying gig,” Reiki answered immediately. “It’s easier to be idealistic when we have a place to live and a steady paycheck coming in.

“Agent will be back,” Outlier told him. “He just… needs some time.”

Haley,” Reiki started, but Outlier interrupted him.

“I’m Outlier when we’re on duty, remember?” she said.

Fine, Outlier,” Reiki grumbled. “Agent’s probably not coming back. He’s been through this before with Team Ark, and they didn’t lose so many people.

Outlier sighed. “We didn’t lose anybody, Reiki,” she said. “We know exactly where most of them are, and once they get back on their feet, things will get back to normal. We’ll get Earthborn back, Rina and Natalie will heal, Agent will snap out of it, and we’ll find out where Frank went. We’ll rebuild the tower, and it’ll be how it was.”

I sometimes forget how new you are,” Reiki said dryly. “Things will never ‘get back to normal’ for us. Even if everything goes according to your plan and the others get back to Watcher work, we lost Parker.

“Parker isn’t dead,” Outlier pointed out.

No, he’s not,” Reiki agreed. “He’s a traitor, which is worse. We worked with the guy; he was on my patrol shift before you came along and he went on that undercover thing. He’s Natalie’s brother, and he was Frank’s best friend. No wonder Frank ran off.

“Frank didn’t run off,” Outlier said. “His family hasn’t even seen him since the day of the riots. He used to go see them every week; he wouldn’t have left without at least talking to them.” She shook her head. “No, something happened to him, and as soon as we get Earthborn back, we’ll find out what. In the meantime, you and I’ll patrol the city and keep people from taking advantage of our lack of manpower.” She dropped to a knee on the rooftop, still watching over the city while giving in to her fatigue.

“When was the last time you slept?” came Reiki’s voice from behind her. Outlier shut off her comm and spun around to face him, ignoring the slight tilt in her vision as she stood up.

“I’m fine,” she said, folding her arms. “You’re supposed to be patrolling the other side of the city.”

“Haley, go home,” Reiki growled. “I can handle things until dark; you can pick back up after you eat something and sleep for eight hours.”

“I told you, I’m fine.” She took a step forward, and her vision swam. “You can cut out your light tricks, too. I’m not falling for it.”

Reiki scoffed. “Fine,” he said as Outlier’s vision cleared, “but I’m not the one making you lean to one side. You were doing that before I came up.” He raised an eyebrow. “You patrolled yesterday, you stayed out patrolling all last night, and you’re still here this morning. Haley, you’re human – you need breaks at some point.”

“Just because I’m human doesn’t mean I can’t keep up with the rest of you,” she shot back.

Reiki raised his hands innocently. “I’m not saying you can’t,” he told her. “I’m a Third Gen, and I need to sleep, too. That’s where I was while you were patrolling last night – sleeping. Like a normal person.” He put a hand on her shoulder, adding, “You’re not immortal.”

Outlier took a deep breath, steadying herself. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll go home and take a nap. I’ll be back to take the night shift.”

“Good,” Reiki said, letting his hand drop. “That gives you nine hours, at least.”

“And then I’m making that call,” Outlier added rebelliously. “We need him.”

“Fine,” Reiki growled. “Call the merc. Natalie won’t be happy about it, though.”

Outlier shrugged, stepping back down to the fire escape. “She doesn’t have to be,” she pointed out with an innocent smile. “Trick’s in no shape to go up against Dark David, so she won’t even have to know we called him.”

Reiki rolled his eyes. “She’ll know,” he called after her. Outlier just gave him a jaunty wave as she descended the ladder.

Haley Prince, also known as the hero “Outlier”, found her way home somehow. She didn’t remember much of the drive once she got back to her motorcycle, but she had made it home without crashing so she must have been awake.

“Damn,” she muttered as she took off her helmet. “I guess I do need sleep.”

But she didn’t go to bed right away. Since the Asylum building had been blown up, she was staying at her parents’ house in the suburbs. Her mom had left a plate of ham and cheese sandwiches out for her and her brothers, with a small note.

Kids, the sandwiches are to share.

Dad and I will be home at 5 o’clock to start making dinner.

I love you!

Since Haley was the youngest at twenty-one years old, her mom didn’t need to go through the trouble of taking care of them – but ever since Haley and her brother Scott moved back home, they regularly found their mom treating them like they had never left. Haley shook her head, grabbing a sandwich and moving to the living room to eat.

Scott was sitting on the couch, staring at the blank TV. Haley took one look at him, then returned to the kitchen to grab the plate of food and brought it back with her. “Scott, Mom made sandwiches,” she said, putting the plate down on an end table next to him. “You need to eat something.” she flopped back into the recliner, taking a big bite of her own sandwich.

Barely moving his head, Scott’s eyes moved to look at Haley. He raised an eyebrow as he took in her uniform. Haley looked down before rolling her own eyes and turning back to her sandwich. “No, I didn’t bother to change,” she said between bites. “I’ve been out on patrol for thirty-six hours straight, and I’m hungry. So sue me.”

Scott shook his head slightly, grabbing a sandwich from the plate. After another few seconds of awkward silence between them, Haley sighed. “You’re going to have to say something to me eventually,” she told him. “I know you can – you were pretty chatty with Mom the other day until I came in the room. What’s the matter?” she added, taking a bite of her sandwich and talking with her mouth full to hide the tremble that came into her voice. “You still hate me for becoming a Watcher?”

“That had nothing to do with it,” Scott muttered.

“Excuse me?” Haley raised her eyebrows. “Did you just deign to speak to me?”

“Haley,” Scott sighed, resigned to his little sister’s attitude towards him. “It wasn’t about you becoming a Watcher.”

“You could have fooled me,” Haley said. “The last time we spoke, you called me a ‘blood-traitor’ and said I was no sister of yours. You said the Watchers and the police were arresting the Fauns – whom you called ‘activist seekers of justice for the satyr community’, if I remember correctly.” The last part was redundant; they both knew that Haley had an eidetic memory, and never forgot details. “Then you ran off to join the Fauns, cutting off contact not just with me, but with the rest of the family, too. Mom and Dad were worried sick!” She was nearly yelling at this point, pointing at him with her sandwich. “Then, a month ago, the day after the riots, you come crawling home with your hat in hand asking Mom and Dad for a place to stay, but not saying a word to me. You wouldn’t even stay in the same room as me for two weeks!”

At the end of her rant, Haley was panting – she really needed sleep, if she could get that worked up. Scott raised another eyebrow at her as she sat back down and took a defiant bite of her sandwich.

“Like I said,” he told her, “it had nothing to do with you being a Watcher. I said those things because I was taken in by the Fauns’ ‘equality for all’ message.” He shoved the last bit of his own sandwich in his mouth. “I was wrong, okay?” he said with his mouth full. Swallowing, he added, “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and I’m sorry for all the stuff I said before leaving.”

Haley stared at him, dumbstruck. Scott had never apologized to her before, not even when they were little and he had pulled the head off of her favorite stuffed animal. Not when he had broken her arm while sparring in high school. Haley’s memory was close to perfect, and this was the first time Scott had ever apologized for something.

All she could think of to say was, “Thank you.”

“I didn’t mean to snub you when we got home,” Scott continued. “I just didn’t know how to face you after… you know, the riots and stuff.”

He was clamming up again. Tired as she was, Haley didn’t want her brother to stop talking. “You’ve been different this past month,” she told him. “What happened with the Fauns? Why’d you leave?”

“You sure you want to talk about that?” Scott asked, resting his elbows on his knees and putting his head in his hands. “You and me, we never saw eye-to-eye on a lot of stuff, but the Fauns were at the top of the list.”

“You were so gung-ho about joining them,” Haley said, polishing off her sandwich. “Then the riots happened, you left them, and now you’re apologizing for what you said.” She shrugged, dusting her hands of crumbs as she stood up to get the vacuum from the hall closet. “I’m curious.”

Scott rolled his eyes as she got the vacuum out, but didn’t say anything about it. Their mom would lecture them for an hour if she came home to find crumbs all over the carpet. Instead, he said, “It has to do with Parker. You know, the Asylum guy?”

Haley stopped dead in her tracks when he mentioned Parker’s name. “You mean the traitor who blew up our tower?” she asked carefully, starting to regret her line of questioning but too curious to stop. “What about him?”

“He saved my life,” Scott said, standing up and taking the vacuum from his sister. “The night of the riots, Claw was going to kill me, but Parker stepped in. Then that video went viral, but it didn’t show the whole story. Claw and I were off camera, and if Parker hadn’t pressed that button, I’d be dead now.”

Haley shook her head. “Wait,” she said, “you’re telling me that Parker sold out the team to save you?”

“Yeah,” Scott said, looking away. “Pretty much.”

Haley sat down hard in the armchair, the vacuum forgotten. “That… that changes things,” she muttered, before suddenly standing back up. “I need to go, there’s way too much to do – ”

“You aren’t going anywhere, baby sister,” came another voice from the doorway. Apparently Haley had been so caught up in Scott’s revelation that she didn’t hear the front door open. Dean, her oldest brother and a bear-satyr, marched over to her and pushed her back down into the chair.

“Hey!” Haley cried. “Dean, what’re you doing here?!”

“That friend of yours, Reiki, stopped by the bakery,” Dean said. “He asked if I could make sure you got home and got to sleep. Good thing I came by, too, since you seem to want to run yourself into the ground.”

Haley jumped up. “I’m fine,” she insisted. “I have to get some things together, and I need to talk to some people about tomorrow. This is important, Dean!”

“You’re no good to anyone if you collapse from exhaustion, Haley,” Dean pointed out, sounding annoyingly like Reiki. “You get to bed and get some sleep first, then you can go.”

“This can’t wait,” Haley insisted. “If I’m going to talk to Parker – ”

“You are not just going to walk into Faun headquarters,” Scott piped in, his eyes going wide. “That’d be suicide!”

“Not necessarily,” Haley shot back. “Have a little faith.”

Dean folded his arms. “Okay, tell you what, baby sister,” he growled. “If you can get past me to the door, I’ll let you walk out of here. But if you can’t, then you go to bed and sleep for at least six hours before you go gallivanting off somewhere.”

Haley balanced her stance and raised her arms, preparing for a fight. Dean raised his eyebrows – he never could raise just one, even when he tried – and the fight drained out of her. She couldn’t take Dean on in her current state, which meant that walking into the Fauns’ lair without a plan and before getting some sleep was a stupid idea. Slumping a little in defeat, she muttered darkly on her way to her room.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, a few years in the future.

Frank Mejia, very confused.

“This is supposed to be the Asylum building, right?” Frank asked Janus as the elevator took them up to the top floor. “Where are the licenses? They used to be hanging in the entrance hall.”

“Only copies were ever hanging there,” Janus said. “Besides, you all don’t need them now.”

Frank shook his head. “‘Don’t need the licenses,’” he repeated. “I’m not even going to ask. So, the future, huh? You can travel through time.”

“And space,” Janus told him. “To me, it’s like walking down the street is to you. I go where and when I want.”

“I only know of one other person who can go where he wants, when he wants,” Frank said. “Jaunt. Any relation?”

“Oh please,” Janus said, waving a hand lazily in the air. “That hack? His portal-jumping isn’t even a Third-Gen power. He gets it from… but I wasn’t supposed to tell you that. I really shouldn’t have said that,” Janus began muttering to himself. “The timeline needs to be handled carefully. Stupid!”

The elevator dinged, and the doors opened onto a large living area. It looked identical to their home before Parker had blown it up, and Frank looked around in awe.

The only difference he could see was the people. Instead of his team, there were about twenty people in the different rooms, hanging out as if they were at home. Frank had known that the Asylum was supposed to grow over time, but seeing how many members there were in the future shocked him a little.

“Who are all these people?” he asked his guide. “How did the Asylum expand so much in just a few years?”

“Shit happened,” Janus shrugged unhelpfully. “You recruited a lot over time, and more people began stepping up to follow your team’s example. Come on, this way.”

Janus began leading Frank to the lounge, but they were stopped by a few people along the way.

“Hey, Shadow,” asked a young guy with a scottish accent. “Merlin and I were wondering if you’d like to join us for dinner. We’ve got a lot to talk about lately, what with Avis’ – ”

“Not now, Duck,” Janus cut him off.

“Janus,” the one called “Duck” greeted, “didn’t see you there. So today’s the day, huh? Shadow’s been waiting.” He looked Frank up and down curiously.

Janus nodded. “Yep. He’s in the lounge, right?”

“If I knew where he was, I wouldn’t have mistaken this one for him,” Duck replied, nodding back at Frank.

“Thanks anyways,” Janus said, continuing to lead Frank.

Frank had a million questions about this time, but he started with, “Who was that?”

“Oh, Duck? You’ll meet him in a couple of years,” Janus told him. “In your time, Duck, Merlin, and the rest of Avis are a group of Scottish heroes who basically do what the Asylum does, just in Scotland. Ah, here’s Shadow!”

They entered the lounge, and Frank had a disconcerting moment when he first saw himself. The other version of Frank – the one from this time – looked older, and had a few more scars. One in particular ran along his jawline, which the younger Frank didn’t have yet. Frank rubbed his goatee, noticing that his older self had changed the cut.

The older Frank looked up from the papers he had been pouring over. “Janus!” he cried, standing up suddenly. “Today’s the day, then?” He looked over at the younger Frank, looking him up and down. “Dang, this job’s aged me,” he muttered. He gestured for the younger Frank to take the seat opposite him. “Let’s get to it,” he said. “You have a ton of questions; I’ll try to answer them.”

Frank sat down across from himself, and began to hear about his future.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Hospital Rec Room, a little less than three months ago.

Natalie Fawkes and Sabrina “Rina” Dawson.

“Hit me,” Natalie said, tapping the table between herself and Rina. Rina dealt a card face-up, shrugging as she did so.

“Not sure why you’re obsessing,” she commented. “They’re going after Dark David tomorrow because he’s a danger to the city until they get him the treatment. They can’t wait for us.”

“Easy for you to say,” Natalie scoffed. “Your powers just got a little out of control. You might be down for weeks. I’m fine; the stupid doctors just want to keep me here for ‘observation’.”

Rina raised her eyebrow at her. “You think this is easy for me?” she asked. “My powers imploded. I’m kept in isolation at night so I can get some sleep without the entire hospital freaking out over imaginary monsters from my nightmares. I can’t even use them the way I normally would to help during the team out during the day, not accurately. I have to stay behind because I’m powerless to help my friends – that’s far from ‘easy’.”

“You know what I mean,” Natalie muttered by way of apology. “I never had powers. I’m used to going out exactly like I am right now – tricks up my sleeves and cards in the air.” She threw her hand down and pulled a card from the top of the deck. Tossing it up, she caught it by making it float between her fingers. “I could help right now, if the doctors weren’t so… so mother hen-ish.”

“That’s a neat trick,” Rina admitted, having seen her friend pull it many times over the last few weeks in the hospital. “Let’s see you do the scarf-throwing one. You know, like you’d actually do in a fight.”

She grinned at the annoyed look on Natalie’s face. Natalie had been trying unsuccessfully to toss her scarf around a practice dummy in her room for weeks – her shoulder hadn’t quite healed enough to use that particular trick, which is the real reason the doctors were keeping her in the hospital. Dale had done his best with his Third Gen power, but some things would only heal over time.

“I just can’t believe Haley’s in charge,” Natalie said, changing the subject as she put the card back in the deck. “Agent left the team in the lurch.”

“Agent’s dealing with his own stuff,” Rina said, shrugging. As Natalie picked her hand back up, she added, “You know this isn’t the first time he’s lost a team.”

Natalie pursed her lips. “Don’t make me say it,” she warned. Rina just smiled knowingly. “Seriously, I hate agreeing with Haley on anything, but it’s like she and I are the only ones who haven’t given up on the team. We’re not lost, we just had a setback. A big setback,” she admitted, “but not insurmountable. Agent needs to pull his head out of his ass and realize that, because Haley’s not a leader.”

“She’s not doing a bad job,” Rina shrugged.

“Did you not hear what Reiki said earlier?” Natalie asked. “Haley’s running herself ragged trying to do everything instead of delegating anything. That’s not a leader.”

“You should be happy,” Rina pointed out dryly. “We finally found something that Haley’s bad at. You don’t have to call her ‘Little Miss Perfect’ anymore.”

Natalie rolled her eyes. “I liked calling her that,” she said. “When the team fell apart, it was comforting to know that Little Miss Perfect could hold everything together.”

“Except that it’s been a month, and she’s barely hanging on to it all,” Rina added.

“Right,” Natalie said, showing her royal flush and raking in the chips. “I need to get back out there, and so do you. We can get Earthborn back, and when the team’s back together Agent will come back.”

Rina nodded, twisting her mouth as if she didn’t want to say the next words. “And what about Frank and Parker?” she asked.

Natalie’s face turned stoney. She didn’t say another word, but stood up and left the room. Rina watched her go, not surprised at her reaction. She sat back in her chair, wondering how her friends could have left them like that.

“Agent, we need you,” she muttered to no one.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, Faun Headquarters, four months ago.

Parker Fawkes, AKA Fallen.

Parker was battling cabin fever.

He had never been good at waiting around, and that’s all he had been able to do for the last month. Sure, Claw left him in charge of Eon City, but he was still on the ECPD’s Most Wanted list. He had been holed up in the Faun’s headquarters since the riots, and he was going stir crazy from it. He had taken to working out in the afternoons, just for some sort of movement – and because sitting around gave him too much time to think.

“You know, I don’t understand your obsession with push-ups,” Kiara remarked from the doorway, crossing her arms and smirking at him. “Aren’t you supposed to be super-strong, or something? What’s the exercise supposed to do?”

“Did you want something, or are you just here for the snarky comments?” Parker asked, standing up and dusting his hands off.

Kiara raised her eyebrows, coming further into the room. “Can’t I just be here to admire the view?” she asked, grabbing his shirt from the chair and holding it out to him.

“Thanks,” Parker said, grabbing the shirt and putting it on. “Sorry I’m being a grouch. I can’t stand being cooped up like this.”

“I’m surprised you came back here after Claw leaked that video,” Kiara said, shrugging as she sat down on one of the room’s folding chairs. “How can you trust him after that?”

“Didn’t have much of a choice,” Parker said, fitting his wings through the slits in his shirt and sitting down across from her. “He leaked that video to make sure I had nowhere else to go.”

“I’d have just flown away,” Kiara said, “just to spite him after a stunt like that.”

“Then I’d be dead.” Parker shook his shoulders loose, his wings feeling heavy. “Law enforcement, Watchers, and the FBI are all hunting me – I couldn’t run from them and the Fauns, too.”

“But then he put you in charge here,” Kiara added, a curious tone creeping into her voice.

So this was why she was there. “Well, you almost went a month without bringing that up,” Parker remarked, standing back up and stretching his arms.

Kiara stood up, too. “You’re at the top of the Eon City police’s list for blowing up the Asylum building, and Claw put you in charge of the Eon City Fauns.”

“Is there a question in there?” Parker raised an eyebrow.

Kiara threw up her hands. “Only the obvious ones,” she said. “Why the hell are you now the leader here? Why didn’t he send you someplace else until the heat cooled? How does he trust you enough to put you in charge of the city?”

“It’s complicated,” Parker answered, shrugging. “You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you, too – I almost didn’t believe it, myself. But the short answer is that Claw’s not the only one calling the shots.”

“Oh, come on,” Kiara said, twirling one of her whiskers with a clawed finger. “You can’t say something like that and not give me any details!”

“Kiara, you once told me that you kept your head down around here because that was the only way to stay safe,” Parker said, leaning against a table. “Trust me when I say that asking questions about this will bring the wrong kind of attention.”

Kiara sighed, but said, “Point taken.”

She might have continued the conversation, but Lizard chose that moment to interrupt. “Fallen!” came the cry by the doorway. “We have company!”

“What?” he asked, following Lizard into the hallway. “What do you mean, ‘company’?”

“She just showed up,” Lizard explained. “Walked through the front door like she owned the place. Under Claw we would have just killed her on sight, but she’s… she’s asking for you, Fallen.” Lizard shook his head. “By name, too. I thought we ought to let you see her before we cut her throat.”

“We’ll see about the whole throat-cutting thing, Liz,” Parker said. “That’s how Claw does things, but I’m not Claw.”

“If she knows you’re here, then chances are she’ll tell someone else if you let her go,” Lizard warned.

“If she knows I’m here, then others might already know, and it’s a moot point.” Parker shook his head. “Just take me to her,” he instructed.

They came to the room Claw had once used as a throne room. Parker was still uncomfortable taking Claw’s usual seat on the dais, so he entered the room intending to stand in front of the intruder…

… and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw who it was.

“Is she trying to get us both killed?” Parker muttered.

“Who is she?” Kiara asked from behind him. Apparently she had followed them to the throne room.

Parker sighed in defeat. “Kiara, meet Haley Prince, Scott’s little sister,” he said. “Otherwise known as Outlier of the Asylum.”

“She’s an Asylum Watcher?” Kiara repeated. “I thought they were disbanded.”

“Not quite yet,” Haley said with a cocky grin. The Fauns had tied her hands behind her back and forced her to kneel in front of the dais, but she didn’t seem bothered by it.

“There’s only two of you left,” Kiara shot back. “The night of the riots we took your team down.”

Haley shrugged. “Sure, we’re running on fumes,” she admitted, “but we are still running. I’m making sure of that.”

“What the hell are you doing here, Outlier?” Parker asked tiredly.

“I had an interesting chat with Scott this morning,” Haley told him. “Should I keep talking, or do you want this conversation to be more private?”

Parker paused for a second, before telling the Fauns, “Clear out.”

“Fallen – ” Kiara started, but Parker cut her off.

“Whatever else you all might think right now, I’m in charge here,” he said. “Clear the room.”

The Fauns all looked confused, but they obeyed. Haley watched them go with raised eyebrows. “I honestly had no idea if that would work,” she admitted once they were alone. “So the rumors are true; you are in charge here.”

“So you had a chat with Scott,” Parker prompted, impatiently.

“I did,” Haley said. “He had an interesting story to tell me. He said the only reason you pressed that button was to save him – not just to save your own skin, like the video implies.”

“And you walked into Faun headquarters to confront me about it,” Parker finished for her. “That was probably the stupidest thing you could have done. You realize that I can’t just let you go.” He started pacing, shrugging his shoulders to loosen them. Of all the idiotic things…

“Since the video, you’re labelled as ‘unreliable’ to the team,” Haley pointed out. “You think I walked in here without an exit strategy?”

“What team?” Parker asked, suddenly coming to a stop and rounding on her. “You and Reiki are all that’s left, and Reiki won’t stick around forever. As for the others…” he trailed off, wanting to ask about his sister and his friends, but dreading what Haley might tell him.

“That’s actually the real reason I’m here,” Haley said, raising an eyebrow. “We’re going after David.”

Parker blinked. “David?” he repeated. “You and Reiki are going after the guy who can shoot lightning from his fingers? You’ll never be able to take him down.”

“We have help,” Haley said, “but it would be even easier if we had a super-strong bird on our side. Especially one who knows what David can do.”

“Ha ha, very funny,” Parker crossed his arms. “But right now, you have bigger things to worry about. How do you plan to get out of here? You’re tied up, and I can’t hold back the Fauns forever. Claw still has a kill-on-sight order out on you guys.”

Haley held up an arm, showing him the rope that had previously been holding her. “You mean this?” she asked innocently. “I told you months ago, Natalie’s been teaching me some tricks.”

“Impressive,” Parker said dryly. “That still doesn’t tell me how you’re getting out of here in one piece.”

Haley shrugged, standing up. “Like I said, I’ve got an exit plan.” She looked at the watch on her wrist. “In fact, I’ve only got about a minute left. You in, or what?”

Parker shook his head, smirking. “Okay, tell you what: if you can make it out of here alive, I’ll help you guys get Earthborn back,” he said.

“Awesome,” Haley said. She held up a hand and started counting down the seconds on her fingers. “Three, two, one…”

Right on cue, there came a loud BANG from outside the throne room. The sounds of panicked Fauns mingled with loud animals roars from behind the closed door.

“What, exactly, was your exit plan?” Parker asked, staring at the source of the commotion. His tone was unconcerned, but his eyes were screwed up with worry.

“I like to call it, ‘Little Old Lady With Dragon,’” Haley said, grinning proudly.

Parker raised an eyebrow at her. “Granny?” he asked.

“And Herchel,” she confirmed.

“They sound pretty pissed off,” Parker observed as a loud roar shook the building.

“You did blow up her zoo,” Haley pointed out.

Parker put a hand to his forehead. “Fine,” he said, waving his free hand in the direction of the door. “Go on, get out of here.”

“We’re going after Earthborn tomorrow at noon. Meet us at the caves,” Haley told him, heading to the door. “Oh, and Parker?” she said, her hand on the doorknob.

“What?” Parker looked up at her.

“It’ll work out. You’ll see.” Haley turned the doorknob, then stopped and looked back at him again. “I’m glad we didn’t lose you,” she added, then opened the door and raced through it.

Parker watched her go, dumbfounded. “She’s either the bravest or the craziest person I’ve ever met,” he observed to the empty room, “and I grew up with Natalie.” Shaking his head, he waited until the sounds of roaring had faded before checking on the Fauns.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Tunnels, four months ago.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

“You made it,” Haley said, biting back a grin as Eli Howard, also known as Butterfly the mercenary, strolled up. Reiki was standing next to her, rolling his eyes. He silently handed over a ten-spot, and Haley took it with a satisfied smirk.

“Well, I wouldn’t have missed this fiasco,” Eli said, grinning at her. “Besides, I have a different revenue stream for this gig. You’re in luck.”

“As long as you can use that thing,” Reiki growled, nodding at the blow gun Eli had strung across his back.

Eli shrugged. “I’ve never actually used one before,” he admitted. “But how hard can it be?”

Reiki started protesting, but Haley cut him off. “We need him,” she reminded her teammate.

“So when’s the party going to start?” Eli asked, nonplussed.

“As soon as the other two members get here,” Haley answered evasively.

Reiki turned towards her in surprise. “Two?” he asked. “I thought we were just waiting for Granny.”

“Right.” Haley bit her lip. “I didn’t want to tell you, because then you’d tell Natalie and it was bad enough that I called Butterfly…” she started babbling, talking around the answer.

Reiki saw through her mumbling. “Who is it?” he demanded.

“Yo,” came a greeting from behind him. Reiki spun around, his eyes narrowing as he saw Parker walking up.

Him?” he cried, getting into a fighting stance. “What the hell is he doing here?!”

“I asked him to come,” Haley said, shielding her eyes from the sun as she glanced upwards. “Hey, Granny’s coming now.”

“Don’t change the subject!” Reiki barked. “What’s he doing here?”

Haley gave Reiki a patient stare, one she often used to let him know that he was being testy. “There’s more to the story than the video showed,” she explained. “Parker’s not a bad guy; he was just put in a difficult spot. He’s here to help.”

“Don’t worry, sonny,” Granny called over, dismounting from her dragon as it landed. “Herchel and Louise will keep him in line. Bird-boy’s not going anywhere.” She took her plush wolf doll out of her bag, tapping her knitting needles to it and whispering something. Louise the wolf sprang forward towards Parker, hackles bared. Granny laughed as Parker stumbled backwards in surprise.

“I forgot how big she is,” Parker said defensively, flapping his wings to get his balance back. “Look, I’m sorry about the tower. Nobody was supposed to be there.”

Reiki relaxed his fighting stance, but crossed his arms as he glared at Parker. “‘Nobody was supposed to be there’?” he repeated. “Natalie, David, and Dale aren’t ‘nobody’. And the security guards. And the people we were saving from the riots. And the rescue workers from the riots.”

“And my zoo,” Granny piped in, giving Parker a disapproving look.

“And Granny’s zoo,” Reiki agreed. “You know the riot drills: the tower was a designated safe area for civilians!”

“And the bombs were on the top floor,” Parker snapped back. “The garage was reinforced, and the whole building wasn’t supposed to come down on top of it! I took a calculated risk to save the life of the guy in front of me, and I stand by it!”

“Reiki,” Haley warned as her teammate opened his mouth to respond. “He saved my brother’s life.”

Reiki turned to stare at her. “It’s true,” she told him. “So just… stop. Okay?”

He nodded and turned towards the tunnels. “Let’s just get this over with,” he muttered. Granny followed, with her wolf and dragon shuffling behind her. Louise gave Parker another growl for good measure before stalking off after Granny.

“Well, that was entertaining,” Eli said jauntily, putting his hands behind his head in a stretch. “Parker, glad we’re on the same side.”

“Shut up, Butterfly,” Parker growled at him, shaking his shoulders to loosen his wing muscles. He followed behind Granny, keeping a safe distance back from Herchel and Louise.

Eli shrugged, saying to Haley, “You’ve got yourself quite a ‘team’ here,” he said. “Everybody’s got each other’s backs, in any case. Just need to know if it’s help or a knife coming.”

“We can work together long enough to get David back,” Haley said hopefully. “We may not trust each other, but we can get the job done if we all stay professional.”

“Not sure where you got that idea,” Eli muttered.

“So, you have an ‘alternate revenue stream’?” Haley asked, changing the subject as they all headed into the tunnels.

“Yep,” Eli said. “Somebody seems to like you, in any case. They paid for me to help you get Earthborn back.” He peered ahead as the dark of the tunnels closed around them. “How did you say we were going to find him?”

Haley marched on. “He’s in here,” she said. “I got reports through Agent’s network of crackling lightning down here, and a commotion involving new tunnels being created. He’s definitely holed up here.”

“So… you have no idea how to find him,” Eli translated. “Great.”

“Have a little faith,” Haley said. “I have a plan.” Eli said nothing, waiting for her to continue. “Okay, I have part of a plan,” she finally admitted.

“There it is,” Eli said.

“It’ll work!” Haley insisted.

“Milady, you are an excellent fighter, and I have great respect for your lack of fear,” Eli told her, “but a leader you are not. When’s Agent going to start calling the shots again?”

“He’ll be back,” Haley said. “I’m only here for now. We can do this!”

Eli shrugged, barely visible in the dark tunnels. Haley found her flashlight in her utility belt and switched it on as Eli continued, “You rely a lot on faith, milady. People aren’t all good, and life isn’t made of sunshine and rainbows.”

“I know that,” Haley said. “I just think there are more good people in the world than bad, is all. And I know that Agent will be back before we know it. Natalie’s looking after him, after all.”

“Oh, Natalie’s got him,” Eli said in mock surprise. “That’ll fix everything!” He grinned, teasing her. “What’s with you two, anyways? I can’t tell if you’re friends or what.”

“Me and Natalie? We work together,” Haley said. “She and I came to an understanding, and we help improve each other.”

“So you’re rivals,” Eli said.

Haley shrugged. “I guess, if you want to put a label on it,” she said.

“Hey, you two in the back,” Reiki growled from farther ahead in the tunnels, “this works better if we’re quiet.”

“Reiki’s mad,” Eli whispered, teasing Haley.

Haley took a deep breath. “One more mission, one more mission…” she began repeating under her breath. The familiar feeling of being watched crept up again, and Haley shuddered in the dark. The tunnels were creepy.

The team came to the opening where they planned to set up their ambush. Haley pointed Eli to the pile of rocks where they had captured Dark David the last time. Eli mimed a salute, and hid behind the rubble.

The rest of the team took positions with their backs to the wall – which was pointless, since they didn’t know where David might appear. They all looked at Haley expectantly.

“What now?” Reiki asked in a whisper.

Haley responded in her normal tone. “Now we get his attention,” she said. “David, I know you’re there. Come out where we can see you; we just want to talk!”

“That’s your plan?” Parker scoffed, rolling his eyes. “‘Come out and talk to us’? You know, I thought you were gutsy for barging into Faun Headquarters like that, but you really are just making this up as you go along, aren’t you?” He shook his head and started back towards the entrance to the tunnels. “I’m out of here.”

Louise jumped in front of him, baring her teeth in a snarl. Parker jumped back in alarm as Granny laughed. “Nobody leaves until we see Earthborn,” Granny said. “At least give her a chance.”

She nodded at Haley, who took a breath and continued. “David, you told Natalie last time that you felt trapped,” she called. “You said you just wanted your freedom. If you talk to us, we might be able to work something out!”

“This is stupid,” Parker muttered, eyeing Louise warily. “It’s not going to – ”

“Last time I trusted one of you, you just trapped me again,” came a growl from behind Haley. “Why should I trust you now?”

Haley turned around to face him. Dark David’s face stuck out of the wall, but the rest of his body was still behind the brick of the tunnel. “Because we just want our friend back,” Haley told him, keeping her hands in view so that he could see she wasn’t carrying anything. “We’re tired of chasing after you, and you’re tired of running from us or you wouldn’t be here. Let’s work together to find a compromise.” She gave a hand signal to Reiki, and he lit up the tunnels so that they could see.

“What compromise is there?” Dark David spat, squinting in the sudden light. “Either he’s in control, or I am. We both can’t be there!”

“Help me understand,” Haley said, trying to keep him talking. “Why not?”

“It just doesn’t work that way!” Dark David said. His head came out of the brick wall, as if he took a step forward. “He’s got different plans, different goals. When he comes out, I get locked up! It’s not fair!”

Haley kept her eyes on his, showing him that she was sincere. “I want to help you, David,” she said. “We need you.” She took a step back.

Dark David followed, stepping fully out of the tunnel wall. “You need me?” he repeated, disbelieving. Electricity began crackling around his hands. “You brought the traitor, the mercenary, the grouch, and the Djinn all because you need me?”

“How did you know about that?” Granny asked, surprised. “I never told Earthborn; I never told any of the team!”

“Oh please,” Dark David smirked. “It’s so obvious. You have one of the talismans. Those needles – am I right? You meet some interesting people in the dark places of the city.”

Haley stepped between them. “David, we all want to help you,” she began again, but David cut her off.

“Help me? Then why does the mercenary have a blow gun?” he demanded to know. “You plan to trap me again.”

“If that were true, then he would have fired already,” Haley pointed out. “You don’t exactly have your armor on.”

Dark David looked uncomfortable. “That’s the only reason I’m still here,” he said. “I can pull up my armor faster than he can shoot.”

Haley narrowed her eyes, taking in the scene. He was hiding something; she silently thanked her brother for making her get a good night’s sleep so she could see it. “I don’t think so,” she said slowly. “I think you and our David are more symbiotic than you let on. He controls the earth, and you control the lightning, right?” She stepped towards him, making him back up, but he didn’t retreat into the wall like before. “That’s why your own mud armor held you down when Natalie faced you. That’s why Earthborn has such a hard time keeping his lightning straight – you two are fighting each other, so neither of you can use all of your power.”

“No,” he said. “I can use the earth powers just fine on my own.”

Haley took another step in. “I doubt that,” she said. “I think the reason you aren’t running right now is because our David won’t let you.”

“Haley…” Reiki warned. She held up a hand to quiet him.

“Eli could shoot you right now, and you couldn’t stop him,” she said confidently. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

“You want to find out?” Dark David said, raising a brick off of the floor with his powers. “Try me.”

Haley took in the scene, calculating the odds. He could raise a brick, but could he escape? “You’re bluffing,” she decided, reaching out to grab his arm.

Dark David let the brick drop as he shot her with a bolt of lightning from his hand. Haley fell to the ground, a burn mark on her uniform where the lightning had hit it. Her arm twitched from the voltage, but she was otherwise motionless. “Clever,” he said, stepping towards the rest of the team. “But not quite clever enough.” He raised his hands, readying another lightning bolt, but Parker darted forward, grabbing his arms and holding them behind his back.

“Now, Butterfly!” he cried.

Eli used the rocks to keep the blow gun steady and fired. In seconds, Dark David stopped struggling against Parker’s super strength and fell limp. Parker let him fall, then turned to help Haley. She had fallen against the tunnel floor when the lightning bolt had hit her, and her shoulder had a large burn on it right above her heart.

“Outlier?” Parker said, almost afraid to touch her. “Come on, you can’t die. Outlier!” Reiki and Granny came over, pushing him aside as they checked their teammate. “Hey!”

“Haley,” Granny said, picking up her hand. “Come on, dear, wake up.”

“Ugh,” Haley groaned, opening her eyes. “That hurt more than I thought.”

“You freaking idiot,” Reiki muttered at her. She tried to sit up, but he pushed her back down. “Stay down,” he ordered. “You’re lucky that blast didn’t kill you.”

“Chip does a good job,” Haley pointed out, pulling some of the torn fabric of her uniform away from the scorch to reveal an insulated layer underneath. “My uniform took most of it.”

Eli came over next to Parker. “You didn’t think a little thing like that would kill her, did you?” he asked, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Haley’s made of tougher stuff than that.”

Parker shook his head. “I can’t decide if she’s insanely brave or bravely insane,” he admitted. “She took that bolt on purpose?”

“One thing I’ve picked up on, working with the Asylum,” Eli said, “is that you all have your roles. Haley’s role seems to be taking whatever beating is necessary for the rest of the team to do their job.”

“So why did she even need us?” Parker asked.

Haley sat up, shaking off Reiki’s worrying as she looked at Parker. “I had no idea until we were down here that he didn’t have the same rock armor as Earthborn,” she admitted. “Reiki was here to light up the scene, and Butterfly was here to take the shot. Granny’s now going to get him out of here and back to Dale, before the tranquilizer wears off,” she said pointedly. “I’m fine, Granny. Go.”

Granny shrugged, and whistled for Louise and Herchel. The big wolf darted forward to Granny as the dragon walked over to David and picked him up in his jaws. As Granny’s animals moved David out of the tunnels, Haley continued.

“When my brother told me what you’d done for him, I figured we could trust you enough to help hold David while Eli took the shot,” she said. “That would make it easier for us. Then we got down here, and I found out that he didn’t have full control of Earthborn’s powers, and it suddenly got much easier. I love it when that happens,” she added with a sigh.

Parker stared at her. “So your plan really was to just come down here and ask him to talk?” he said disbelievingly.

“Yep,” Haley grinned as she stood up.

As Parker stood blinking at her, Eli and Reiki looked at each other and shrugged. “You get used to it,” Reiki said, turning down the tunnel to head outside. “Come on, Outlier; you should see Dale about that shoulder.”

As they left the tunnels, Parker just shook his head. “I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to that level of insanity,” he said, unfurling his wings in the sun, “but thanks for getting me out for a morning.”

Reiki glared at him. “This doesn’t mean you’re forgiven, Fallen,” he spat, using Parker’s Faun name. “Next time we meet, you’re fair game.”

Haley elbowed Reiki in the ribs, but Parker just flapped his wings. “I wouldn’t expect any less,” he said. Giving Haley a cheeky grin, he took a running start to fly back to the Fauns.

Haley shook her head as she turned to Eli. “You know,” she said, “even with Earthborn back, we could use an extra hand on the team.”

Eli considered it for a moment. “Let’s let Agent get back first,” he answered. “Sorry, Milady, but your particular brand of insanity isn’t something I can take on every mission.”

“Offer’s always on the table,” Haley said.

“Don’t push it,” Reiki growled. “Natalie will be back any day now, too.”

“She’s still upset about the whole ‘I shot her’ thing?” Eli asked. “She really needs to chill out.” He gave a jaunty wave as he jogged off.

Haley turned back to Reiki, grinning. He stared back with a questioning look. “How are you this happy?” he finally asked.

“I love it when a plan comes together,” Haley said. “We got Earthborn back – that’s a huge victory. Rina and Natalie will heal, Agent will snap out of it, and we’ll find out where Frank went. We’ll rebuild the tower, and it’ll be how it was.”

Reiki just sighed and walked away. Haley looked back at the tunnels before following him.

Things really could get better.

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #15 – In Another Time

Dawn of the Asylum, Issue #13 – Fallen Angel

Faun Headquarters.

Parker Fawkes, undercover.

“Three, two, one…” Kiara counted down, a spoonful of mashed potatoes in her hand. “Blast-off!” She flicked the potatoes at Parker, who threw his head to the right to catch the potatoes in his mouth.

“Ack!” he gagged as the fluffy white stuff choked him. The gorilla-satyr to his left patted him on the back between his wings, and Parker managed to swallow. “Thanks,” he said, turning to the satyr who had helped him. “Scott, right? Scott Prince?”

“Yeah,” said Scott. “You know me?”

“Only by reputation,” Parker answered carefully. “I met your sister the other day.”

Scott’s eyes widened in alarm. “You met Haley?” he asked nervously.

Parker knew why. Haley Prince was a Watcher in the Asylum, who was better known around the city by her moniker “Outlier”. The Asylum was making a name for itself in the underworld by bringing criminals in, and the Fauns – a terrorist group by anyone’s definition – had standing orders to take members of the Asylum down by any means necessary.

“That was the drunk chick, right?” Kiara asked, loading her spoon again. “What happened to her?”

“I sent her home,” Parker said, raising his eyebrows at Scott. “No point in waylaying bakers, right?”

“Right,” Scott said weakly. “Thanks, Fallen.” He used Parker’s nickname among the Fauns.

“So Fallen,” Kiara said sweetly, arming another scoop of potatoes, “Rumor has it that you’re going to take over Eon City when Claw leaves. You’ll be in charge of all of this!”

Parker shrugged, shaking his shoulders to loosen them. “That’s the rumor,” he agreed. “I haven’t heard anything from Claw about it, though. I know he plans to leave the city soon, but I don’t know where or when.” With any luck, it’ll be to jail within the week, he thought.

Another satyr slammed their plate down next to Parker. “Did you hear?” Lizard asked them. “The House just passed the Leash Law!”

“What?” Parker jumped up from the table. “When?” The Leash Law had been a bill in contention for more than a year: if ratified, then all non-citizen satyrs would be required to be kept on a leash in public areas. Satyrs already needed a special license before they could become citizens, and unlike humans and Third Gens, they weren’t born with their citizenship – they had to go through the naturalization process when they turned twenty-five, unless they opted for government service when they turned eighteen, as Parker had done. Some states already had the Leash Law (or laws like it) in effect; the current threat was the law becoming a national standard.

“Last night,” Lizard reported. “If the Senate passes it, then we’ll all be reduced to nothing more than animals.”

“I can’t believe it,” Kiara said, her spoon prepped to fling another scoop of potatoes at Parker. She had frozen in position at the news. “How could they do that? How could anyone vote for that?”

Lizard rolled his eyes. “King,” he said simply.

The CEO of King Enterprises, Jonathan King was a vocal opponent of satyr rights. The Fauns had been at war with King Enterprises for years, protesting the unethical treatment the company gave satyrs, but King was an influential force and had the resources to lobby for the Leash Law.

“Of course,” Parker muttered. “When’s the Senate vote?”

“Next week,” Lizard said, before taking a big bite of his lunch. “If we want to stop it, we’ll have to move fast.”

Parker nodded at Kiara, who began clearing his plate. Without another word, he was off to find Claw.

Claw took his meals in his War Room – a large meeting place where he briefed his lieutenants on the Faun’s strategy. He was alone when Parker found him, pouring over maps of the city. “Parker,” he acknowledged without turning around. “Just the guy I want to see.”

Parker came up next to him, looking at the maps for himself. “I just heard about the House vote,” he said. “I came straight here.”

There were five maps spread out on the large table, each of a different sector of the city. Different spots were marked with exes, marking areas where crowds were known to gather. Claw studied these, his eyes narrowed in concentration.

“The vote is troubling,” he said. “We’ll have to move up our timetable.”

“What’s the plan, boss?” Parker asked, every bit the picture of a loyal Faun lieutenant.

Claw looked at him. Parker knew that Claw was suspicious of his motives, and rightfully so – he might not have known about Parker’s double life as an Asylum Watcher, but he did know that Parker was in contact with his sister. Natalie was a well-known Watcher in Eon City, going by the moniker “Trick” in the Asylum. Parker had so far earned Claw’s trust by being the model Faun, and he was considered the next logical choice to run the organization in Eon City, but he knew how precarious his position was. He could see all of the doubts flashing through Claw’s mind as the crocodile-satyr considered.

“Okay, Fallen,” Claw finally said, moving over to give Parker a better view of the table. “I think it’s time to let you in on the big picture.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Natalie Fawkes, training.

“Damn!” came the shout from across the room.

Natalie had been training on a Wing Chun dummy, and the shout was just distracting enough to let her get hit by one of the spinning arms. “Hey!” she cried, marching over to the bench where Haley sat. The new girl was checking her phone, taking a break from her workout. “What’s the big idea?” Natalie asked, shoving Haley’s shoulder as she rubbed the spot on her arm where the dummy hit her. “That’s going to bruise!”

Haley looked up. “Did you hear about this?” she asked, ignoring Natalie’s ire. “The House just passed the Leash Law!”

“What?” Natalie snatched the phone out of Haley’s hand, her bruise forgotten for the moment. “When?”

“This morning,” Haley said as Natalie scanned the article. “The Senate vote is next week. How could they do this?”

“That doesn’t matter,” Natalie said, tossing the phone back to her. “What matters is that it’s done. We need to be on our toes for the next week – the Fauns have been pretty quiet lately, but shit’s gonna hit the fan sometime before the Senate vote. Be ready.” She walked off, grabbing a towel to dry off.

“Where are you going?” Haley called after her. “Training’s not over!”

“I need to talk to Agent,” Natalie called back, not turning around.

She headed up the stairs to Agent’s office, not bothering to knock as she barged in. Agent was sitting at his desk, staring intently at his surveillance screens. “I had a feeling you’d be here, Nat,” he said. “The answer’s still no.”

“This is going to blow up in our faces,” Natalie said. “The Leash Law is the biggest issue on the Fauns’ agenda – they already trashed a bunch of DMVs in the state because of the licensing; what do you think they’ll do after this?”

“I’m hoping they’ll focus their efforts outside of our city for once,” Agent said. “I’m planning on them starting some kind of riot, though. That seems to be Claw’s pattern – hit multiple areas at once to spread police forces thin, and then run and hide.”

“Parker’s still undercover,” Natalie pointed out. “He needs to be out of there before Claw makes his move, or he could get hurt!”

“Nat, we’ve been over this,” Agent said. “Pulling him out now would only put a target on his back. Parker’s doing well where he is – he’s one of Claw’s closest lieutenants now, and this is the exact opportunity we need to get enough evidence to take down the ringleader. You think Claw’s going to sit this one out? If Parker can tell us where he’ll be, we can catch him red-handed, and send him to Zatvor where he belongs.”

Natalie folded her arms. “You know this for sure?” she demanded. “Or is this just you trying to placate me again?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Agent asked.

“It means I know you’ve been lying to me!” Natalie grabbed his shoulder and spun him around to face her. “You’ve been lying to me for months! Parker’s been missing check-ins, and he’s all but gone off the grid. You told me everything was fine!”

Agent looked surprised, which was rare for him. “How did you – oh.” He closed his eyes as he realized. “Haley told you. I thought she didn’t remember anything from when she was under the drug.”

“She has an eidetic memory, remember?” Natalie reminded him.

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Agent said dryly.

“Parker acted like she had been down there to see him,” Natalie hissed. “He admitted to missing his check-ins. Now tell me – are you refusing to extract him, or is he the one refusing to get out?”

Agent looked away, saying nothing. His silence told Natalie everything she needed to know.

“I need to see him,” she said. “You need to set up a meeting – ”

“Absolutely not.” Agent looked straight into her eyes, glaring intensely. “And don’t you dare go behind my back on this one, Nat. I mean it. If you talked to Haley, you’ll know that the reason he’s been ghosting us is that he’s being watched. Haley got away with that little excursion because she’s still new enough that some people don’t know her face on sight. You’re much more recognizable, especially to the Fauns. They have kill orders out on all of the Asylum Watchers; I’ve had to use my other resources to keep an eye on that side of the city.”

“Fine; so send one of them,” Natalie demanded. “Get him a message from me.”

Agent stood up, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I know you’re worried about him, Nat,” he said, “but Parker’s an adult, and a Watcher. He’s not defenseless – he knows just as many illusions as you do, and he’s also a hybrid. He can fly, and he has super-strength; he can handle himself.”

Natalie took a deep, shuddering breath. “I like you, Agent,” she said, “but if my brother gets hurt, I’m holding you personally responsible. Got it?”

“That’s fair,” Agent said, nodding. “Can you keep a cool head?”

“Always,” Natalie said wryly.

“Then let me bounce some ideas off of you.” Agent turned back to the screens, pulling up a map of the city. “Here’s what I think they’ll do.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Park, Two A.M.

Parker Fawkes, deeply concerned.

“Come on, pick up,” Parker muttered to his burner phone. He had to sneak out of the Fauns’ headquarters, which was made harder by the tension in the air. None of the Fauns seemed to want to sleep with the news of the Leash Law hanging over their heads. While Claw only shared the details of his plans with his trusted commanders, all of the satyrs in the organization knew that something big was coming.

The line clicked, and a voice came through the other end. “Hello?” Frank said sleepily.

“Frank! Thank god,” Parker said. He ran a shaking hand through his hair as he nervously shook his shoulders out. “I’ve got news; it’s pretty bad. Can we meet?”

Parker?” Frank asked. “Where are you? What’s wrong?

“Frank, it’s bad. Please,” Parker pleaded. “I need to talk to you. I couldn’t call Agent because it’s too risky, but you can sneak in a lot better. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”

No problem, buddy,” Frank said, sounding a lot more alert at Parker’s tone. “Meet me at the last place I saw you.

“Thanks,” Parker said. He suddenly realized he had been pacing. “Twenty minutes?”

See you there.” Frank hung up. Parker shrugged his shoulders again, taking off in the direction of the docks. It took him exactly twenty minutes to run there – he didn’t dare fly.

The shadows on the dock were dense at this time of night. Parker couldn’t see Frank and Natalie approach until they were right in front of him. Both were dressed in their full Watcher gear; the Asylum Watchers were all quick-change experts out of necessity.

“Parker!” Natalie ran over and hugged him. She had been worried – it was obvious from her relief at seeing him. Parker hugged her back, just as happy to see his twin as she was to see him, until she pulled away and began hitting his arm. “You idiot!” she said. “Why won’t you let Agent extract you?”

“Ow!” Parker cried, rubbing the spot she had hit. “What are you even doing here? I called Frank!”

“Sorry buddy,” Frank said, shrugging. “She wouldn’t leave me alone until I brought her.”

“You have news?” Natalie asked, folding her arms in front of her and tapping her foot impatiently.

Parker shook his shoulders out, and Natalie’s face softened at the familiar gesture. “Yeah, I’ve got news. It’s pretty bad,” he said again.

“Spit it out,” Natalie said.

“Claw’s planning multiple riots around the country,” Parker told them. “The Fauns have grown so much lately that he basically has an army at his command. They’re going to form up the day after tomorrow, posing alongside peaceful protesters, and then Eon City will be turned into a war zone – along with five other major cities in the country.”

“A war zone?” Frank asked. “I mean, riots can get pretty bad, but that has to be an exaggeration…”

“No, it’s not.” Parker began pacing again. “The Fauns as an organization are bigger than anybody realizes, even other Fauns. I just found out how big this afternoon; Claw has other Fauns coming in from the rest of the state for this. We’re expecting around ten thousand people, and most of them are going to be Fauns with weapons. They’ll outnumber the police three-to-one. I think ‘war zone’ is the right term.”

“How do you organize a riot?” Natalie asked. “Aren’t they usually just protests that get out of hand?”

Parker shook his head. “Mob mentality isn’t that hard to control,” he explained, “especially when you have the numbers to back it up – which Claw has. And that’s not the worst part.”

“Gen Juice,” Frank said, a note of accusation in his voice as he raised an eyebrow at Parker.

“You saw that, did you?” Parker said, dropping his eyes.

Natalie looked between the two of them. “What’s he talking about, Parker?” she asked.

“You want to tell her, or should I?” Frank asked.

Parker let out a sigh. “I was under orders from Claw,” he said by way of excuse. “I was supposed to grab a vial of the stuff they used on Miranda and bring it back to him. It was a test of loyalty, and I’d never have been able to help Frank get her out of there if I didn’t take it. I swear, Frank,” he added, looking his friend in the eye, “I had no idea what it was at the time, or what Claw had planned.”

“I couldn’t believe it myself,” Frank replied. “I heard what it was from Jaunt, after all.”

Natalie looked between the two of them, putting two and two together. “Agent doesn’t know about this, does he?” she asked. “This… ‘Gen Juice’, whatever it is – neither of you told him that Claw has it. Why?”

“It’s a Third Gen power enhancer,” Frank explained. “Kind of like Elutherios – it makes Third Gen powers stronger for a time, but all of the satyrs who had been given it turned feral.”

“Even your sister?” Parker asked, worried.

Frank waved a hand dismissively. “No, not her,” he said with relief, “but all of the others had to be taken to the nature preserve in California. The powers faded, but the psychological damage is permanent. I can’t believe Claw would use something like that on his own people.”

“Wait, hold up,” Natalie said waving her hands to get the boys’ attention. “Claw has some of this Gen Juice that turns satyrs feral?”

“Yeah, but just a vial,” Frank said, shrugging. “He’ll probably make our lives harder by dosing a few satyrs and letting them run amok, so the police would have to handle the riots without the Asylum.”

“It’s worse than that,” Parker said, fidgeting. “I only took one vial – but Claw has scientists of his own. They managed to duplicate it and turn it into a gas that Claw plans to release throughout Eon City during the riots.”

Natalie stared at him. “The protest isn’t going to just be Fauns,” she whispered. “He’s organizing a real protest with civilians that he’ll turn into a riot by dosing everybody in the city with the Gen Juice!”

“And it won’t just be satyrs turning feral,” Frank added, horrified. “Third Gens will lose control of their powers. Humans might start developing powers of their own. It’ll be chaos!”

“The riots will take place in five other cities around the country – I don’t know which ones, but it’s a good bet that any protests organized over the Leash Law are at risk of turning violent,” Parker told them. “But here in Eon City, it’ll be disastrous. And it’s all my fault.”

“But we know now,” Natalie reminded him. “We have a day and a half to figure out how to contain it. Claw would have gotten his hands on the Gen Juice whether it was you or someone else making the pickup – but by telling us, you’ve just saved a bunch of lives.” Parker looked away again, so Natalie grabbed her brother’s jaw and forced him to look at her. “You’re a hero, Parker,” she insisted. “You’re a Watcher, like us, and you just saved the city. And now you’re coming home.”

Parker pulled away. “I can’t, Nat,” he said, shaking his head. “Not yet. All we have on Claw right now is circumstantial, and he’ll be leaving the city soon. If I pull out now, we’ll never get him – but if I wait until after the riots…”

“Parker!” Natalie was the only person who could make Parker feel guilty, reckless, and ashamed, all at once, just by saying his name. He saw his own blue eyes reflected back in her identical ones – eyes that were worried about him – but he had his own goal in mind and he wouldn’t abandon it, even for his sister.

“Here,” he said, pulling a sheet of paper out of his pocket. “I copied the map of Claw’s plans. I put exes over the spots where the riots will concentrate, and circled the spots where he plans to release the gas. If you guys can be waiting there for him, we can stop this.”

“Who else did he show this to?” Frank asked, frowning. Parker didn’t answer, so Frank continued, “Nobody, right? You’re high enough in the Fauns now that he expects you to lead this, so you’re the only one who knows the full plan.”

Natalie punched Parker on the shoulder again. “You idiot,” she said. “If we take this to Agent, if Claw sees that we were ready for him, he’ll know that you’re our informant. He’ll kill you, Parker!”

“Maybe,” Parker admitted. “But this is our last chance to get him, Nat. All I have to do is place him at the center of the riots, and he’ll be charged with reckless endangerment, incitement to violence, the full monty. I just have to grab his plans from the war room, along with the tapes from the security cameras in there, and we’ve got him!” He turned a pleading look on his sister, knowing that she would understand. “This is the guy that killed our mom, Nat. He’s killed so many people without even a moment of guilt, and I can bring him – and the Fauns – down once and for all. Then I can come home – you’ll see.”

“Or you’ll die,” Natalie said bluntly. “Claw will go free, and I’ll be left to tell Dad why I let you do this alone.”

“I don’t intend to die,” Parker said, giving her a cocky grin. “Count on that.” He looked at his phone, checking the time. “I have to get back. Promise me you’ll show this to Agent,” he said, looking at both his sister and his best friend.

“You need to get rid of that phone,” Frank pointed out. “You’ve had it for too long. If this works, then you won’t need it, and if it doesn’t…”

“Then I won’t need it,” Parker finished, nodding. He handed the phone to Frank, adding, “I have some pictures on there that put Claw at the center of it all. If something happens to me, you still might be able to bring him in.”

Natalie gave him a swift hug, growling, “Nothing better happen to you, idiot. If you die, I’ll kill you myself.”

“Always with the death threats,” Parker grinned. He gave them both a jaunty wave and turned to walk back to the Fauns’ headquarters. He wished he felt as confident as the show he had just given them, but deep down he had a feeling that this would end badly for him. He only knew one thing for certain:

One way or another, this assignment would end with the riots.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, the next evening.

Trick, Shadow, Nightmare, and Granny.

“You sure about this?” Earthborn asked as they headed down into the tunnels. “I know that Parker’s info said that they’d be releasing gas from the sewer lines, but it seems… I dunno, too complicated to be one of Claw’s plans.”

“Blackbird risked a lot to get us the information,” Trick said. “He sounded sure.”

“Earthborn has a point, dear,” Granny told her. “The riots sound real enough – the Fauns have pulled similar things before. But I don’t see how they could have replicated that Gen Juice stuff to cover the whole city in just a few weeks, especially from only four points underground. Something seems off.”

Shadow shrugged, bringing up the rear. “Dale confirmed it,” he said. “Apparently it’s possible, so we have to assume Blackbird’s info was right.”

“We’re heading underground, splitting up, and we left Nightmare back at base in case she’s affected by this stuff,” Earthborn pointed out. “Since when have these tunnels ever been nice to us? This smells like a trap.”

“If something goes wrong, you can collapse the entire tunnel network, E.B.,” Shadow reminded him. “What are you so worried about?”

“We left Nightmare, Reiki, and Outlier to take care of the riot,” Earthborn said practically. “Nightmare’s powers would only make a mob that big worse, Reiki’s powers don’t work so well after dark, and Outlier’s human and a newbie. Agent’s last update put the numbers at close to fifteen thousand protesters throughout the city; I’m worried, that’s all.”

“It’s not just them,” Granny said, pulling her wolf doll out of her bag and touching her knitting needles to it. As Louise the wolf grew to life-size, Granny said, “Agent is calling in all of his seconds and mercenaries. Every Watcher in the city will be helping to quell the riots – Holmes, Vulcan, Butterfly, all of them.” She mounted her wolf, smiling down at the others. “They can get along without us for a few hours.”

“Besides,” Trick added, “Outlier and Reiki are just going to keep an eye out for anyone who needs shelter. Nightmare’s going to keep an eye on things from a distance, and Agent’s going into the field for this one. Agent knows what he’s doing.”

“We can hope,” Earthborn muttered. He knelt down, putting a hand to the ground. “I don’t feel anything unusual down there, but it’s hard to tell. We all know where we’re going?”

“We all have copies of the map,” Shadow said. “What do you mean by ‘unusual’?”

“There are people down there,” Earthborn said, “but there are always people down there. I can count them for you, but I can’t tell you which ones are usually there and which ones might be Fauns.”

“Well, we aren’t getting anywhere standing around here,” Trick said. “Keep in touch over coms, and let’s get started.”

The others nodded, and they all headed off in different directions.

* * * * * * * *

Faun Headquarters.

Parker Fawkes, AKA Fallen.

Parker deployed the Faun teams according to Claw’s plan, still playing the role of the good lieutenant. He watched the clock, waiting for his chance to go into the war room to steal the plans. Claw was watching Parker from his throne in the main meeting room, lazily sprawled over the armrests as he listened to Parker addressing the team leaders.

When he finally dismissed the Fauns to the protest, Claw finally spoke up. “Scott Prince, could you stay back a moment?” he said in his soft voice. Scott looked around, confused, but stayed back in the room while his team left. Despite phrasing it as a question, Claw had given an order – and nobody disobeyed an order from Claw.

“I think we should talk in private,” Claw said, jumping up from his seat at the front of the room. “Meet me in my war room, both of you.”

Parker walked silently beside Scott as they headed for the room, wondering what Claw wanted with them. This was his chance, though – all he needed was a moment of distraction, and he could get everything he needed to take down Claw.

Scott nodded to him as he entered first. They both stood at attention in the dim room, in front of Claw; Parker was dwarfed next to Scott, but he kept his wings unfurled to show his status as a satyr.

“You both are wondering why I called you here.” Claw didn’t look at them. He was standing at the table, looking over his plans as he spoke. “I’m sure you already know what you two have in common.”

A chill went down Parker’s spine as Claw spoke. He was Natalie’s brother, and Scott was Haley’s – what they had in common was the fact that their sisters were both Asylum Watchers. He knows, thought Parker, fighting back a shudder. Any sign of weakness from him, and Claw would kill him before he could blink. Waiting for confirmation was his best bet for survival.

“Tonight’s operation was carefully planned,” Claw continued. “Every piece was in place, and every team leader knows their part. I have teams of Fauns mobilizing to create chaos in different sectors of the city. So imagine my surprise when Erinyes reported that the Asylum was waiting for us in the sewers, to stop the gas from being released.”

He turned around to face them. “It doesn’t matter too much,” he continued. “There is no gas to release. But I do wonder why the Asylum thought there was.”

Parker’s eyes widened slightly as he realized what was happening. The story of the gas had been a trap, and he had walked straight into it – leading his friends in, too. “What happened to the Asylum, then?” he asked, trying to feign nonchalance.

“Erinyes’ team is taking care of them now,” Claw answered. “But there’s a bigger issue to address. I know that I was betrayed,” he hissed, baring his teeth in a crocodile smile. Walking slowly over to Scott, he added, “I know exactly who it was, too.”

“I didn’t betray you!” Scott cried. “I swear! I haven’t seen my sister in months, and I only knew where my team was going to be stationed, nothing else. Honest!”

Claw put one of his claws up against Scott’s chin. Scott gulped, looking like he was about to cry; he knew as well as Parker did what would happen if Claw didn’t believe him. Parker had to do something.

Terrified, and knowing that it would kill him, Parker said, “It was me.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Tunnels.

Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.

“I’ve got nothing,” Trick said to her comm unit. “Anybody else see anything?”

No,” came Shadow’s voice over the comm. “There’s no movement here, but it feels like I’m being watched.

That’ll be the people who usually stay down here,” Earthborn added. “Are we sure that Parker’s intel was good?

“Granny?” Trick asked, ignoring the question. “What about your side?”

All clear here, dearie,” she replied. “Earthborn, would you mind checking the tunnels again? Louise is getting a bad feeling, too. I think there are more than the natives down here.

There was a brief pause while Earthborn used his powers to scan the tunnels again. “That’s weird,” he reported. “There’s a crowd of people at all four of the spots on the map. Guys, check your six – I think we should meet back up at the entrance and get out of here…

Trick looked up, just in time to see a large bat-satyr jumping towards her. Jumping out of the way just in time, she spun around to find five more satyrs facing her. Trick backed down the tunnel, knowing that the five-on-one fight was very bad for her.

“Oh, come on,” said the bat-satyr. The girl had short, dark hair and black eyes, but her teeth were bared in fangs. Her arms were leathery, and extended down to make bat-like wings. Her long fingers ended in claws, which were currently poised as weapons.

“How could you miss, Erinyes?” one of the other satyrs asked. “She’s a sitting duck!” The satyr’s own webbed fingers made it almost a joke, but Trick wasn’t laughing.

“Shut up,” the bat-satyr – Erinyes – said. “The squad in tunnel C shouldn’t have let Earthborn get off a warning. But no worries – we can still take them all down.”

Trick pulled her scarf out of her front pocket, along with another packet. “You’re all welcome to try,” she said to distract them. “But I doubt you’ll be much more than a nuisance to us. After all, you couldn’t even surround me properly.” She grinned at the Fauns, and threw the packet to the ground. It exploded in a cloud of colored chalk and glitter, making the Fauns cough and buying her a minute’s head start.

Trick ran back towards the entrance, where the team was supposed to meet if anything went wrong. She had the closest position to the entrance, as the others all had powers to draw on; Granny could easily out-distance the Fauns on her wolf, Earthborn could travel underground, and Shadow could hide himself in the dark tunnels.

It was a three-minute run for Trick, but she could hear the bat-satyr screeching from behind her. Despite the twists and turns in the tunnels, Erinyes could at least keep up with the Watcher – though the other satyrs in her group seemed to be falling behind.

Just as Trick turned a corner to see the light at the end of the tunnel, Erinyes slammed into her back. Trick gripped the scarf she still held, twisting around to wrap it around the bat-satyr’s neck. She yanked it downwards, slamming Erinyes’ head against the cold concrete floor. Erinyes fell off of her, dazed, allowing Trick to jump to her feet and reach another pocket.

“Echolocation, huh?” she asked, pulling out a small pellet. “Try this on for size!” Trick closed her eyes and threw the pellet down next to Erinyes’ head, where it exploded with a flash and a loud BANG. Erinyes screeched, and Trick ran to put some distance between her and the rest of the Fauns that were starting to make up the distance.

Erinyes recovered quickly – at least enough to continue the chase as the rest of her squad caught up. The five Fauns raced for the tunnel entrance, only to find Trick stopped there, facing them with her arms crossed.

“Giving up so soon?” Erinyes spat at her. “I’m disappointed. Fallen made you out to be some kind of demi-god with the tricks you have up your sleeves, but you’re just a lowly human after all.”

“‘Tricks up her sleeve’,” the duck-satyr sniggered. “I see what you did there.”

“Shut up, Lou,” Erinyes rolled her eyes.

Trick raised an eyebrow at them. “I’m no god,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “I just happen to know something you don’t.”

“Oh yeah?” one of the other Fauns sneered. “What’s that?”

A burst of electricity shot through the corridor, hitting all five Fauns in a chain of lightning. “Earthborn’s right behind you,” Trick said dryly as the Fauns all fell, unconscious, to the ground.

“You okay?” Earthborn asked. As Trick opened her mouth for a sassy reply, he staggered.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” she asked instead.

Earthborn shook his head. “That’s the fourth time I’ve done that in the last few minutes,” he pointed out. “Granny and Shadow are tying up the other Fauns now – I need to see Dale.”

“Dark David?” Trick asked hesitantly.

“Yeah, he’s… argh!” Earthborn clutched his head as he cried out in pain. “He’s trying to break out. I need to get to Dale, now!” He looked up, and his eyes glowed red in the dim corridor.

“Granny, Shadow, come in!” Trick called over her communicator.

On our way to the entrance,” Shadow reported. “Granny’s got her wolf and dragon carting the Fauns that tried to ambush us.

Shadow took a beating, but he should be fine,” Granny added. “How are you doing?

“There are five more Fauns lying at the entrance to the tunnels,” Trick told them, helping Earthborn to his feet. “E.B.’s in bad shape; I’m going to take him back to Dale. Can you guys handle clean-up?”

I’ve already called it in to Agent,” Shadow said. “We’ll pick up those others on our way out; we should be there in a minute or so. You go on ahead.

“Got it,” Trick said as she helped Earthborn into the car. She didn’t like leaving the five Fauns unattended, but they didn’t have any time to waste. Granny and Shadow could handle themselves against a bunch of tied-up satyrs, and they could get a ride back to Headquarters from Granny’s dragon if need be, after they brought the Fauns to the police.

Trick drove as fast as she could through the city, needing to get Earthborn help as soon as possible. The protest was already in full swing, with satyrs blocking off many of the streets downtown – Trick had to take three detours before they pulled up into the Asylum tower’s motor pool.

* * * * * * * *

Faun Headquarters.

Parker Fawkes, formerly Blackbird of the Asylum.

Claw looked at Parker from the corner of his eye, not moving a muscle for a long minute after Parker admitted to betraying the Fauns for the Asylum. Slowly, he smiled. “I know,” he said, taking his claw away from Scott’s neck and giving the kid a fatherly pat on the cheek. “I just wanted to see if you’d come clean.”

The scary part was that he wasn’t angry. Claw seemed almost gleeful that Parker had confessed. He turned to look at Parker, putting an arm around Scott’s shoulders. “You were a Watcher,” he continued. “It stands to reason that you would tell Agent what I had planned. I had to test your loyalty, see; I told each of my lieutenants something different about tonight’s operation. So yes, I knew that you were the one to betray me as soon as I saw where the Asylum Watchers were headed.”

“So why’d you call us both here?” Parker asked, confused. Now that his charade was finally over, a calm settled over his nerves. He knew that he would die before he could leave this room, so now his only concern was Scott’s safety.

“Fallen, you’re a hybrid,” Claw said, as if explaining to a child. “Hybrids are rare when born. So far, any attempts to create them have had problematic consequences – they go insane, or they have serious drawbacks. You’re unique, and I can’t just throw you away that easily.”

Parker’s heart skipped a beat. There was a chance he might get out of here alive, if he played his cards right. “What do you want from me?”

“Loyalty,” Claw said, shrugging. “But since you’ve already proved yourself a traitor, I’ll settle for insurance.” His left arm still around Scott’s shoulder, Claw used his right hand to point at the table, where a small box sat. “Open it,” he instructed.

Parker didn’t hesitate. He went over to the table and picked up the box, opening the lid. He hadn’t seen it when he first came in the room, but first Claw had been standing in front of it and then his attention had been on Scott. It was a reasonable oversight, and if Parker had not been scared out of his wits he might have seen what was coming.

The cardboard popped open easily. Inside was a small, metallic cylinder with a small, unassuming red button on one end. “Pick it up,” Claw told him.

Parker gingerly took the detonator out of the box with a shaking hand. His heart was racing, and his apprehension made it seem like the walls closing in. Tossing the box to one side, he turned back to face Claw, who gave him a smile that didn’t quite meet his eyes. Claw pulled a remote control out of his pocket, and as he pressed a couple of buttons on it he told Parker, “Stay right there. I’m just turning on the cameras.” Parker looked into the corners of the room, noting the security cameras as little red lights blinked on.

Claw took a few steps backwards out of the camera’s sights, still hanging onto Scott. “To leave the room, all you need to do is push the button,” Claw said. “But first, I want to make sure you know all of the consequences.”

He ran a claw under Scott’s chin pointedly. The gorilla-satyr’s eyes were wide, and he gave Parker a pleading look as Claw silently threatened his life. Parker gripped the detonator as his heart beat faster.

“That button is a remote detonator,” Claw continued. “My associate has planted bombs on the top floors of the Asylum tower, where the Watchers live. Three bombs, to be precise – one in the medical bay, one in the weapons lab, and one in Agent’s office, where all of his spy equipment is based.”

He raised his eyebrows at Parker, who said, “It’ll destroy the Asylum’s infrastructure. They’ll be crippled for months until they can rebuild.”

“Yes,” Claw confirmed. “Now, the time is currently…” he checked his watch, to be accurate, “twelve-forty-two in the morning. At this time of night, the building is closed to their regular workers. The only people in the building would be the Watchers – except at this moment, the Watchers are currently spread out across the city, dealing with the riots that have broken out.”

“Nobody should be in the building,” Parker clarified. He didn’t doubt Claw’s word – the Faun’s leader was ruthless, but he was no liar.

“Correct,” Claw said. “Nobody should be in the building. Now, to be fair, we have no way of confirming that. So pressing the button is taking a chance with people’s lives. If you press it, you might kill or seriously injure someone. At the very least, debris from the explosion will fall out onto the street, and any civilians walking by could be injured or killed.”

Claw was careful not to say it, but another stroke of his claw against Scott’s neck showed Parker the ultimatum: either Parker pressed the button, or Claw would kill Haley’s brother.

Parker hesitated. If he pressed the button, chances were that nobody would get hurt. If he didn’t, then he and Scott would die here and now. Parker took a deep breath to calm his nerves. If it had just been him in the room with Claw, he would have broken the detonator and thrown it as far away as possible – but he wasn’t alone. Scott’s life also hung in the balance, and Parker couldn’t be responsible for the other guy’s death.

“The choice is yours, Parker Fawkes,” Claw said, licking his lips. The psychopath didn’t care what Parker chose – if Parker chose to die, it would be done in a flash, and if he pressed the button then Claw would gain a new lieutenant, as no sane person would testify against Claw as long as he had proof that they had committed this level of terrorism. Even if nobody was hurt in the blast, Parker would be facing twenty to life for his role in detonating the building. Since Claw had this on camera, while carefully keeping himself and the ultimatum out of it, he could use it any time he thought Parker might turn on him again.

Parker narrowed his eyes at Claw, hating the Faun’s leader for putting him in this position. He glanced at Scott, seeing the fear on the other guy’s face.

Closing his eyes, Parker made his choice.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.

Outlier was there with a few civilians. “Trick!” she called as they opened the car doors. “What happened? You guys stop the gas already?” The civilians crowded around the car, looking the worse for wear. Nobody seemed injured yet, but all of them were frazzled by the commotion outside.

“There was no gas,” Trick explained, helping Earthborn out of the vehicle. “It was a set-up. Shadow and Granny are cleaning up now, but we need to get E.B. his treatment soon.”

“Maybe the whole riot rumor was a set-up, then,” Outlier said hopefully. “Reiki and I have been getting people off the streets who are just caught up in the crowd; apparently the motor pool was designed as a bomb shelter. They should be safe down here until it blows over. There hasn’t been any violence yet, though, so maybe – ”

Reiki chose that moment to come crashing down, leading a young mother and her two toddlers while flashes of light burst behind them. “It’s starting!” he called over. He checked to make sure the civilians were okay before coming over to the others. “Some kind of signal went off. Sounded like gunshots, and suddenly people began pulling out weapons – molotovs, knives, stuff like that. The police are already out in riot gear, but there are way more protesters than there should be.”

“Better get out there, then,” Outlier said grimly. “Agent’s downtown at the city capitol building, protecting the government officials – he’ll need our help.”

“No,” Trick told her. “You and Reiki keep doing what you’re doing. Agent can take care of things down there; right now, the important thing is to save the civilians. Earthborn and I will join you after Dale sees him.”

“Better get going,” Reiki said, looking at Earthborn. “He’s in bad shape.”

“No duh,” Trick said. “Good luck out there.”

“You too,” Outlier told her, before she and Reiki ran back out into the fray.

It took only a few minutes more before the elevator reached the fourteenth floor. “Dale! Glad you’re here,” Trick said breathlessly, helping Earthborn to a medical table as she greeted the doctor. “He’s used too much electricity – he needs treatment!”

Dale’s eyes widened as he shut the lid on a box. “I have to treat patients downstairs,” he said, grabbing a medical kit and heading for the stairwell door. “Please, take him and follow me down.”

“He can’t wait,” Trick insisted. “Look at him!”

Earthborn’s rock armor had crumbled, leaving David’s face exposed. They could see his eyes burning red like Nightmare’s, and static electricity crackled around him. Trick’s hair was frizzing from being in contact with him, and David’s face was screwed up in concentration as he fought back against his alternate personality.

“I’m sorry, Trick,” Dale said, heading for the stairs. “Now that the riots have started, there will be people in the motor pool who will also need immediate treatment. I’ll treat him on the way down, if you can follow me.”

“It’s fourteen flights down,” Trick pointed out. “Wouldn’t the elevator be faster?”

Dale looked around, as if dazed. “Maybe. We don’t have time to debate this, Trick!”

“Dale, come on – he just needs a shot. You treat Earthborn, and I’ll go stock up on my supplies. I’ll meet you two downstairs, and we can get back out there.” Trick opened the door to the stairs despite Dale’s protests, and started up the stairs to her room where she kept her spare tricks.

A flash of heat hit her from behind, and a roaring sound filled her ears. She was dimly aware of rubble falling around her, before a piece of the building hit her head and she blacked out.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, night.

Nightmare.

It took fifteen minutes for the rest of the team to make it back to the tower. Firefighters were already at the scene, helping Outlier and Reiki evacuate the civilians from the lobby where they had been waiting out the riots. They needed to get people as far away as possible, as debris was still raining down from the top floors.

“What happened?” Nightmare asked, looking up in shock.

“Someone planted bombs in our living quarters,” Agent told her, coming from the direction of the Police Chief. “I was just debriefed. I’ve got the rest of the team helping the evacuation – Granny’s up on the top floors trying to find survivors, and Shadow’s helping get people out down here.”

Nightmare took a deep breath, trying to get her emotions – and her powers – under control. The last thing they needed in the current atmosphere was more panic and fear. “What about the others?” she asked. “Outlier and Reiki were supposed to be guarding civilians here.”

“They’re fine – a little shaken up, though,” Agent told her. “Outlier took a hit from a beam that fell, but aside from a nasty bruise she should be all right. Reiki’s already helping Shadow. You okay?”

“Fine,” Nightmare told him. “How can I help?”

“Probably not with the evacuation,” Agent admitted. “I need eyes – my main server was destroyed. You can help by getting me my data pad from the car.”

Nightmare nodded and ran for the back entrance to the motor pool. The motor pool was underground and reinforced, meant to act as a bomb shelter for the building. Most of the civilians that Reiki and Outlier had saved from the riots had been bunkered down there, and none had been injured. Nightmare dashed down to Agent’s car and grabbed the pad for him, avoiding contact with any of the civilians or rescue workers. Her powers would only hurt the situation, and they made her feel useless in times like this.

She ran back to Agent, staying close in case he needed something else. Agent turned the data pad on, scanning the many cameras around the city to assess the damage. At his side, Nightmare grimaced when she saw images of looted businesses and rubble in the streets. It would take them weeks to clean up the damage. It almost didn’t seem real, watching it through a computer screen – if she hadn’t been out during the riots, seeing the writhing mob destroy everything in its path first-hand, she might have thought it had been a television show.

The sound of a roar brought her back to reality, as Granny landed her dragon in front of them. Nightmare’s breath caught as she saw the dragon set two bodies down at the medical station. One stirred, and Nightmare saw Dale’s face screwed up in pain as he slowly sat up. The other body lay deathly still. Nightmare felt Agent tense up next to her as they recognized Trick.

Granny motioned frantically for everybody near the building to move. She brought the dragon around, pointing up at the top floors. A loud rumbling started, drowning out anything she might have said. The dragon began picking people up from around the building, setting them down a ways away from the building as the rumbling grew louder.

“Oh, no…” Agent muttered. He shoved the data pad into Nightmare’s hands before running to help. Nightmare looked down at the pad, which showed the view from the news chopper circling the tower. There was no sound, but she could see a figure standing at the top of the shattered floors.

David swept rubble out of his way with a flick of his hand as he made his way to the edge of the building. He looked into the camera for a second, grinning maniacally. Nightmare flashed back to the memory of Dark David impaling her as she recognized the expression on his face, and the red eyes that shone in the predawn darkness.

She barely had time to shout before Dark David clenched his fist. The building shook, rumbling for one long minute before it collapsed. Nightmare saw through the data pad that David dove off the building, and looked up to see the ground rise up to meet him. There was a roaring in her ears – someone was screaming, and it almost felt like her own voice. She was dimly aware of Agent running towards her, until a sharp blow to her head left everything mercifully dark.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, the next day.

Aftermath.

Parker kept his hood up in the crisp fall air as he watched the cleaning crews clear the rubble that used to be a building. He had spent the morning trying to find some kind of news source – he had dumped his burner phone after warning Frank and Natalie two days before, and he had left the one he had gotten as a Faun behind after last night. The city was still under curfew from the riots, so the papers hadn’t been distributed yet. Aside from the cleaning crews that the government and big businesses in the city coordinated, there was nobody out on the streets.

He closed his eyes, clenching his fists as he tried to remember something – anything – that made sense.

Scott’s safe, he thought. Claw let him go once I… once it happened. As soon as Parker had pressed the button, Claw turned off the cameras and released his hostage. Scott ran for the door without looking back, and never came back to the base. If he’s smart, he’ll go home and forget about the Fauns, Parker thought bitterly.

He couldn’t do the same, no matter how much he wanted to right then. His home had been destroyed when he pushed that button.

Until he saw the rubble of the tower for himself, Parker had hoped it wasn’t true. The last few days – the last few months, even – had to all be just a bad dream, and he would wake up any minute. When he opened his eyes, he’d be on the Asylum’s couch, and Natalie would be giving him grief for napping so long just before their patrol. He couldn’t have gone through all of it – living in the Faun’s squalor, alongside feral satyrs, trashing a DMV, committing crime after crime, and pressing the button that – it couldn’t have all been for nothing.

A sudden, sharp pain to the back of his head made him open his eyes, bringing him back to reality. “You have a lot of nerve showing up here,” came Frank’s voice from behind him.

“Frank!” Parker cried, spinning around. “Thank god!” He stopped suddenly, seeing the state his best friend was in.

Frank was still in his Watcher gear from the night before. He was covered in dust and bruises as he glared at Parker from behind his goggles. He held his phone in his hand, letting the news clip play for Parker.

“ – an anonymous source. The video shows Parker Fawkes, formerly a Watcher of the Asylum known as Blackbird, detonating the bombs that destroyed Asylum Tower. The Asylum had been using the Tower’s underground parking levels as a shelter from the riots. Rescue teams pulled twenty-one injured people from the scene before the building collapsed, killing eleven. Bodies have been identified as – ”

Frank stopped the clip there. “Eleven dead,” he repeated. “Four were night shift security guards, and seven others were firefighters and EMTs who were checking to make sure people got out. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

“I can explain,” Parker said, closing his eyes again in shame. He opened them again to say, “I had to do it, Frank. Nobody was supposed to be there, and – ”

“Maybe I wasn’t clear,” Frank interrupted, clenching his fists at his sides. “Do you have any idea what all of this has done to the team?”

“They weren’t up there,” Parker pleaded, his heart beating faster as the bottom dropped out of his stomach. “They couldn’t have been. You guys were supposed to be handling the riots, and the rest of the building is closed at night…”

Frank shook his head, not taking his eyes off of Parker. “Earthborn needed treatment,” he explained. “Nat had taken him back to see Dale in the medical center – where one of the bombs went off.”

“No,” Parker said, shaking his head. “No, Nat couldn’t… They aren’t…” He refused to finish the thought.

“Dead?” Frank said the word for him, and Parker hung his head. “No. They’re not.” Parker glanced back up, hope rising in his chest. “Earthborn was in enough of his right mind to cover them from the blast. Granny pulled Dale and Nat out of there with her dragon.”

“And David?” Parker asked. Frank’s tone was making him dread the next words out of his mouth, but he had to hear it.

“He didn’t get the treatment in time,” he said.

Parker shook his head, trying to deny the accusation he heard in his friend’s voice. “You said they weren’t dead,” he countered.

“Oh right, you weren’t here for that part,” Frank said. “Turns out that when he uses too much of his electric powers – like he did in the tunnels last night – David turns into a supervillain. I mean full-on, stab-Rina-in-the-chest type bad guy. He brought the rest of the tower down before he disappeared.”

“Rina?” Parker asked.

“The stabbing thing was last month,” Frank explained. “She got better. But right now they have to keep her sedated – between the riots and the building coming down, she’s lost control of her powers. Agent had to knock her out to keep her from starting another riot last night, and every time she wakes up, she causes a stampede in the hospital. Have you ever seen injured and terminally ill people try to run for cover?” He let out a short laugh, and Parker’s mouth twisted up at the mental image until Frank added, “It probably would have been funny if it didn’t rip IVs out and break bones further. The hospital staff had to work overtime last night strapping the worst cases down in case it happened again.”

“Where’s Nat?” Parker asked. “I need to see my sister.”

Frank shook his head. “She’s still unconscious,” he said. “Earthborn hit her with a literal ton of bricks while he was saving her life. She has a bad concussion, and a lot of broken bones.”

“What about the others?” It was like watching a train wreck – the more Frank told him, the worse the news got. Parker couldn’t stop listening.

“The riots disbanded when the building came down,” Frank said. “People who had just been throwing molotovs came to help us dig through the rubble. Even the protesters knew you’d gone too far.”

“The others?” Parker asked again.

“There was no gas,” Frank continued, ignoring him. “I don’t know what Claw plans to do with the vial you gave him, but the riots here were the same as the others around the country. Mob mentality struck, and five cities are now trying to clean up the mess. I don’t know what you thought this would do, but the anti-satyr feeling is only growing. Mom’s keeping my sister at home for now – ”

“What about the others?!” Parker was shouting now, his own fear and guilt crushing him like a weight.

“Granny lost her zoo,” Frank said. “Those stuffed animals she had knit? She only had the dragon and the wolf on her last night. The rest of them were in her room, which went up in flames. I’d steer clear of her if I were you,” he added wryly. “She’s pissed off, and she still has the dragon.”

Parker bit his lip as Frank continued. Granny loved her zoo; they were living creatures when she was around, after all. But there was more to worry about. “Reiki’s fine,” Frank said, “but he’s worried about the girls, who are all in the hospital right now. Haley was hit in the shoulder by a falling cinderblock in the first explosion – her collarbone is broken, but she’s still looking to patrol today because apparently she’s a masochist. Let’s see…” he began counting on his fingers. “I told you about Rina and Nat. And David. Chip wasn’t there last night. Dale was dazed, but he’ll be okay – he says he was right next to Earthborn when the bomb went off, but Nat was on the staircase. E.B. didn’t need to throw rocks at Dale like he did her. But Agent’s only barely keeping his head above water.”

“Why?” Parker jumped on the news. “What’s wrong with him?”

“What do you think is wrong with him?” Frank asked. “A teammate turned on the rest of us, another one disappeared, and half the remaining team is down for the count. This isn’t the first time it’s happened to him, too – Team Ark disbanded for less!”

“I had a reason…” Parker said weakly. After hearing about the fallout, it sounded bad to him, too.

“Eleven people are dead, Parker,” Frank reminded him. “Your own sister was nearly one of them. Your team could have been on that list, too. The country wants to blame you for the nationwide riots last night, too. Please tell me you at least got what you needed on Claw,” he added. “Something had to have come from all this.”

Parker hung his head again, clenching his fists by his side. “No,” he admitted. “Claw left the city this morning, and all evidence against him was destroyed before I could get to it.” He nodded towards the phone in Frank’s hand, adding, “He wasn’t even on that video. He thought everything out.”

So we lost him,” Frank said. “Parker, if you’d come back with us the other night…”

“Then none of this would have happened, I know!” Parker shouted. “I was stupid, okay? Is that what you want to hear?!” He could feel his fingernails digging into his palms, but he didn’t care. Frank was staring at him calmly as he ranted, and that just made him hate his friend more. “I thought I could take down Claw; I was so close to getting him, too! Except I wasn’t,” he spat bitterly. “He knew everything. He saw it all coming, and planned around it, and I stepped right into his trap. And I brought the Asylum down with me. Is that what you want to hear me say?” he demanded. “I screwed up, it’s all my fault! And nothing anybody says will compare with how hard I’m kicking myself right now, okay?”

Parker wasn’t crying; he was still shaking from the shock of the news. Frank just stood there, silently waiting for him to finish. When Parker stopped his rant, they stared at each other in silence for a minute before Frank said, “Agent already gave the order to arrest you.”

Parker had to laugh at that. “Arrest me?” he repeated, rolling his eyes at the irony. “In the aftermath of Claw’s riots? They’d throw the book at me!”

“Claw wasn’t on the video,” Frank said, shrugging. “You were.”

“You know I was being coerced,” Parker said, almost asking. “Claw would have killed someone right then and there if I hadn’t pressed the button. The building was supposed to be empty – I traded the building for Scott’s life.” He put a hand on Frank’s shoulder. “You believe me, right?”

Frank looked away, staring at the rubble heap that had once been Asylum Tower. Pulling out of Parker’s grip, he said, “I want to believe you, buddy. I can only see it from hindsight – but there’s just so much damage… I don’t even know if the team can recover from this.”

Parker let his hand drop to his side. “Are you going to take me in?” he asked.

Frank hesitated. He pressed his lips together, coming to a decision, before saying, “I’m supposed to. I got banged up in the riots last night, too – I couldn’t force you to come with me. I won’t fight you, buddy. At least, not now.” He turned around, calling back as he walked away, “I’ll have to arrest you if I ever see you again.”

Parker watched his old friend until Frank rounded a corner. He put his hands back into his hoodie pockets and turned to get away from the rubble. As he wasn’t watching where he was going, he nearly ran into a man in a suit.

“Excuse me,” he muttered, moving to walk around him.

The man grabbed his arm with a gloved hand, making Parker look at his face for the first time. The well-dressed man was wearing a mask, smiling kindly at him. “Parker Fawkes?” he asked.

“You’re Jaunt,” Parker said, freezing in his tracks. “You broke up Team Ark!”

“And you just broke up the Asylum,” Jaunt reminded him. Parker hung his head, all the fight leaving him for shame. “The whole country is calling you the worst criminal since… well, since me. Everyone knows your face by now, because you broke their heroes. You have no place to go, and nothing to do – except, of course, run from the law.”

Parker sighed. “What do you want?” he asked. “Here to rub it in?”

“No,” Jaunt said. “I’m here to offer you a job.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, outside of the former tower.

Frank Mejia, AKA Shadow.

Frank walked away from Parker with mixed feelings. On the one hand, everything was falling apart around them, and it was all Parker’s fault. On the other hand, Parker had been one of his best friends since middle school. Injuries and exhaustion aside, Frank couldn’t fight him. So he had let him go.

As his stomach rumbled, Frank realized that he hadn’t eaten yet. His body was screaming at him to find someplace to sleep – he had been awake for nearly two days now. His muscles were on fire, and it hurt to move. His eyes kept closing, too – so he didn’t see the kid until he ran into him.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, his eyes snapping open. “I didn’t think anybody was out now. Curfew, and all.”

“Not a problem, Shadow,” the kid said. He was a teenager, at least – obviously younger than Frank, but not yet fully grown. Frank was used to people recognizing him, so the kid calling him “Shadow” wasn’t out of place.

“Look, you should go home,” Frank told him. “The Asylum is still patrolling, but law enforcement is stretched thin right now. It’s not safe.”

“Oh, I agree,” the teenager said. “It isn’t safe right now. But it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.”

Frank frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, wondering if the scrawny teenager knew something he didn’t.

The kid looked him up and down. “I’d have preferred to get you at your best, but you’ll have to do as-is,” he said cryptically. He held out a hand for Frank to shake, adding, “My name is Janus, by the way.”

“Shadow,” Frank said, shaking the kid’s hand reflexively.

Janus grinned, tightening his grip. “Good to officially meet you, Shadow,” he said. “On your side, anyways. Now, please come with me.”

It wasn’t a request. As Janus’ grip tightened, the air around them turned opaque – as if a thick fog had settled over everything. It cleared in what felt like only a few seconds later, but when he looked around, the sun had set.

Looking to his left, Frank saw that the Asylum Tower was suddenly whole again. It looked a little different from before, but there was a building where only seconds ago there had been rubble. The air smelled different; there was a distinct odor that hadn’t been there before, and Frank saw trash lining the streets.

Janus began pulling him back towards the tower. “Come on, Shadow,” he said. “You need to meet yourself.”

“Wait, what the heck just happened?” Frank asked, pulling his hand out of the kid’s grip. “This is Eon City, but it’s not – where am I?”

Janus turned back and gave him an exasperated look. “I keep forgetting this is your first time,” he sighed. “I know you’ll need a warning or five about what’s coming, but it still should be obvious.”

Frank just glared at him until he answered the question. “Oh, all right,” Janus said. “You’re right – this is still Eon City. Just, for you it hasn’t happened yet.” He grinned, throwing his arms out in a ta-da gesture. “Welcome to your future,” he added. “Hope you enjoy the show!”

* * * * * * * *

The Asylum will return after the mid-season break.

Next: Issue #14 – Complicated

Dawn of the Asylum, Issue #12 – Butterfly Net

Olympus – the ruins of a once-great civilization.

The timetable is accelerating.

“He said we had two Earth years,” Jaunt said, glaring from behind his dust mask. “He promised!” The dry desert air chafed his exposed forehead, but he was too focused on his current problem to bother putting on a hat.

The blue-tinged hologram he addressed smiled pleasantly at him. “He did not lie. He will arrive in two years, two weeks, five days, four hours, two minutes – ”

“Then why are you taking over?” Jaunt demanded. “I promised to have a candidate ready, and I meant that I would find one!”

“There is a candidate we have scouted,” the hologram said. “We simply intend to test them. They are currently incomplete, but show an indication of aptitude for the prerequisites.”

Jaunt rolled his eyes. “And exactly what ‘aptitude’ are you talking about?” he asked. “If they don’t meet your standards, then why bother?”

“Humans have shown resilience, particularly this one,” the hologram said. “They adapt easily, and can be molded to fit the standard if they show the proper aptitude. Based on your current reports, this one seems promising.”

“So you’re just going to take over now, is that it?” Jaunt demanded. “I have done more than a decade’s worth of research for you, trying to find the best candidate, and you just take a random kid?”

“The selection was hardly random,” the hologram said, still giving Jaunt that annoying, mechanical smile. “We have received your data on the team known as ‘The Asylum’, and made a preliminary hypothesis about one of the members. Given the data provided, we think she will be an excellent candidate.” The hologram’s face didn’t change, but it moved closer in a slightly threatening manner. “Of course, if you disagree with our assessment, we can always change the timetable. However, given his excitement over the current rounds, I cannot imagine that he would be pleased with you interrupting him.”

“You’re a machine,” Jaunt countered, hiding a shudder at the veiled threat, “you can’t imagine anything.” He sighed in defeat, adding, “Nevertheless, I see your point. Fine; if you want to waste your time with an unqualified candidate, be my guest. I’ll be continuing my other research.”

“Very good,” the hologram said, backing up. “I look forward to working with you.”

Before it could disappear on him, Jaunt asked, “Hey, which Asylum member are you testing?”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, evening.

Casey’s bar.

“Woo-hoo!” Natalie cried, slamming a shot glass down on the table. “I win! Pay up.”

Haley shook her head, pulling her wallet out of her pocket. “I can’t believe you just took ten shots of Jack,” she said, handing Natalie a twenty-dollar bill. “Good thing we walked here.”

The bar was only a few blocks away from Headquarters, so Haley, Natalie, and Reiki had decided to walk down for a change of scenery after their patrols. Earthborn and Granny were busy with the evening patrol, and Frank and Rina declined to join them; neither of them drank alcohol. Rina said it made her nauseous, and Frank just didn’t like the taste. Since they also had the night patrol, they decided to just stay at Headquarters until the shift change.

“Ah, this is nothing,” Natalie said, grinning. “Agent has rules about us getting too drunk in our off-hours; my limit is thirteen.”

“Though you still hope that we aren’t called in,” Reiki pointed out. “Especially not tomorrow morning.”

Natalie shrugged, picking up a shot glass from the table in front of her and licking the rim. “I don’t get hangovers,” she pointed out. “I’ll be fine.”

“That may be,” said Casey as she cleared the empty glasses off of their table, “but you’re still cut off.” Cassandra “Casey” Johnson was an old teammate of Agent’s from Team Ark. Despite her codename being “Sparrow”, Casey wasn’t a Satyr; she was a Third Gen with the ability to see the future. She still reported her visions to Agent, but was otherwise retired from Watcher work.

“Come on, Casey,” Natalie pleaded. “Just one more?”

“Nope,” Casey said, picking up the shot glasses and putting them on a tray, “Agent would kill me if he found out I served you this much.” She took the glass out of Natalie’s hand last, bringing them back to the dishwasher behind the bar.

“Fine then,” Natalie said, beginning to slur her words a little. “Anybody up for karaoke?”

Haley pursed her lips. “I don’t sing,” she said.

“Sure you do,” Natalie told her. “I heard you last week, singing that one song for the doctor…”

“‘Lavender Blue’ is an old tune my mom taught me as a kid,” Haley pointed out. The night was young, but she had to raise her voice over the growing din of customers. “I hummed a few bars to distract the mark; that’s very different from singing a pop song in front of everybody.”

“You’re no fun,” Natalie said. She stood up from the table and grabbed Haley and Reiki’s hands. “If you won’t sing, then at least come dance.”

The bar had a dance floor in the back room, while karaoke was done in the front. On the weekends the place was crawling with satyrs, Third Gens, and humans all looking for a good time. Casey had a heavy hand and a good wait staff, so her place was pretty popular.

Haley groaned, but got up – she knew that Natalie wouldn’t let it go unless she did one or the other, and dancing seemed like the lesser evil. After a sharp tug on his arm by the insistent Natalie, Reiki got up as well. He and Haley exchanged glances as they allowed Natalie to drag them to the dance floor.

After a few minutes of awkward movement, Natalie stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Haven’t you guys ever been clubbing before?” she asked.

Haley was stiff in her movements, self-conscious of the people watching from the sidelines. In contrast, Reiki looked like he was having an upright seizure: his arms were flailing while his feet tangled around each other. Natalie stopped them, shaking her head. “Come on guys, like this.” She demonstrated, keeping her feet close together while she swayed to the beat of the music.

Haley tried to copy her, but Reiki just shook his head and went to find a seat on the sidelines. Watching him leave, Natalie shrugged. “Oh well, looks like we’re the ones having fun tonight. Right Haley?”

“I’m not sure I call this ‘fun’,” Haley pointed out. People were beginning to look their way; as Watchers of the Asylum, most of the city knew their faces. Even though most of Casey’s other patrons were also Watchers, Haley could just see a video of her awkward dancing going viral.

“If you’re really that worried about it,” Natalie told her, “then I’ll take the pressure off of you!”

Natalie left Haley’s side, moving to the center of the dance floor. She strutted to the beat of the music in a large circle, opening up some room in the dancers as the song changed. When the first beat dropped in the new song, she began to really let loose.

When they were kids, Natalie had trained in many styles of dancing with her brother. Along with some of the acrobatics she learned when training to be a Watcher, she combined different dance styles into something graceful and unique. Once the spotlight was on her instead of Haley, the bigger, less coordinated girl faded back to the sidelines.

After a minute of watching Natalie on the dance floor, a vaguely familiar voice came over Haley’s shoulder. “She really does love the spotlight, doesn’t she?”

Haley spun around, coming face-to-face with Eli Howard, also known as the mercenary Watcher, Butterfly. “You!” she cried, startled. “What are you doing here?”

“Can we talk?” he asked, gesturing for them to take it outside. Haley nodded, allowing him to lead her out the front door.

Once they were outside in the brisk summer night air, Haley asked, “What is it?”

Eli was looking around for something. “I just wanted to see how you were,” he said distractedly. “I haven’t seen you in a while, and I thought we could talk.”

Haley narrowed her eyes. “You know where I live,” she said. “If you wanted to talk, then why follow me to the bar?”

“That’s presumptuous,” Eli scoffed, his eyes still darting around. “What makes you think I followed you here? I happen to like Casey’s.”

“Then what are you looking for?” Haley asked, narrowing her eyes in suspicion. “You’re acting shifty. I think I’m going to get the others.”

“Wait,” Eli said. “You know Trick hates me.”

Haley shrugged, turning to go back inside. Eli grabbed her arm, and years of fighting practice took over; reflexively, Haley swung his arm up behind him and held it there, slamming Eli up against the wall of the bar.

“Why did you want me out here?” she asked. “No lies this time!”

“I don’t know,” Eli admitted, his face pressed painfully up against the bricks. “I was paid to just get you out of the bar and away from the others.”

“What?” Haley asked. “Paid by who?”

A bright, bluish spotlight came down on them. “I assume by them,” Eli said, glancing up at the source.

Haley shoved him against the wall again in annoyance. A tingling sensation ran up her spine, and she suddenly couldn’t feel anything – not the night air on her face, not the concrete under her feet, not even Eli, who looked as if he was dissolving in front of her. Haley looked down at her hands, noting with detached alarm that she could see straight through her hands. She tried to look up at the spotlight’s source, but her vision chose that moment to go white.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, the next morning.

Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.

Natalie fought back a yawn as she poured herself a bowl of cereal. She might not get hangovers, but the dancing and alcohol from the night before really took it out of her. It was lucky that her patrol shift didn’t start until the afternoon; she could stand for some downtime until then. Poor Reiki had the early morning shift; it was a good thing he didn’t dance much the night before. Natalie’s muscles ached from the hours-long unscheduled workout she had given them.

She had just decided to get a glass of water with her cereal when Agent stormed into the living area. “It was pretty stupid to get that wasted last night,” he said loudly, crossing his arms.

“Wasted?” Natalie asked, blinking innocently. “What ever gave you that idea?”

Agent gestured to his data pad. “We keep track of your vitals, remember?” he said. “If I had needed you three, you wouldn’t have been fit for duty. You guys already missed training this morning.”

Natalie’s heart skipped a beat in nervousness. “I didn’t have training this morning,” she said, shaking her head and checking her schedule. “I double-checked before we left last night – yep, says right here: I have patrol this afternoon, but I have the morning off.”

Agent took a breath before responding, irritated. “I know you didn’t,” he told her, “but Haley did. And Reiki was ten minutes late to his patrol shift.”

“Then why are you asking me?” Natalie said, turning on the sink for her water.

“Because you’re here,” Agent said, “and the others aren’t. I’ll be having words with them, too.”

“Reiki didn’t drink that much last night,” Natalie told him. “He had, like, two beers. He was swaying a bit on the way home, but I thought he was just dancing. He should have been fine this morning.”

“And Haley?” Agent asked. “I’ve never had a problem with her before, and I don’t want your influence rubbing off on her.”

“Because I’m such a bad influence?” Natalie said sweetly, grinning at him.

Agent smiled despite himself. “Exactly,” he chuckled. “Do you know where she is?”

“No idea,” Natalie said, shrugging. “Haley left a couple of hours before me and Reiki last night. Casey said she left with Butterfly, so I assumed she had just gone home with him.” She took a swig of water before adding, “Don’t you keep track of our vitals? She’s fine, right?”

“Her chip malfunctioned last night,” Agent admitted. “I was going to tell her at training this morning to see Dale to have it checked out, but then she didn’t show up.”

Natalie finished chugging her water and refilled the cup. “She left with Butterfly last night,” she repeated. “You might try asking him.”

“I’ll make the call,” Agent said. “If you see Haley, tell her I’m looking for her. And don’t you be late for your shift,” he added.

Natalie gave him a mock salute. “Yes, mon capitan,” she said. As Agent left for his office, she picked up her spoon and stared at it.

Last night at the bar hadn’t been a first for the group – Natalie dragged them out every other week to blow off some steam. Haley had never skipped training before; she loved the job too much.

Shaking her head, Natalie began eating her breakfast. It’s probably nothing, she thought.

She couldn’t shake a nagging feeling in the back of her mind, as if she had missed something important.

* * * * * * * *

A metallic room, on board a ship.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

Haley groaned as she sat up. Her head was pounding, and her mouth tasted like sandpaper. She could hear a feint humming noise, and the metal floor beneath her seemed to be slightly vibrating.

Remembering what had happened the night before, Haley’s eyes snapped open. She was alone in a large, sterile room; there was no furniture, no door, and she couldn’t even tell where the light was coming from. It seemed as bright as any office in the room, but there were no lamps, windows, or overhead lights.

“What the hell?” she asked herself, standing up. She still wore her casual outfit from the night before: a sleeveless floral-patterned nylon shirt, a knee-length black skirt, and dress sandals.

“Hello?” she called angrily. “What the hell am I doing here? What’s going on?”

As if summoned by Haley’s questions, a small bluish figure appeared out of nowhere in front of her. It looked kind of like a little girl, with high cheekbones and big eyes. On second glance, however, she could see that it had ridges on her nose, and long, pointed ears. The little girl was wearing long robes that covered her feet; it took Haley a second to realize that she had no feet, and was floating a foot off of the ground. The girl flickered, and Haley realized that she was just a projection.

A holographic screen appeared across the girl’s chest. Words began typing across it, as if the girl were speaking.

Hello. My name is Ayu, it wrote. How might I be of assistance?

“Um, hello?” Haley said once she got over the initial shock of the girl’s appearance. “Where am I, and why the hell am I here?”

You have been selected. The little girl had a pleasant smile on her face, but it didn’t meet her eyes. We require you for testing.

“‘Testing’?” Haley asked. “What testing?”

You have exhibited traits that we find desirable, Ayu wrote. We would like to see if you have more.

“What do you mean, ‘desirable’?” Haley asked. “What have I done?”

You are the hero known as ‘Outlier’ on your planet, correct? Ayu said. You have caught our attention.

Haley rolled her eyes. “So I ask again: What have I done? I just started as a Watcher three months ago.”

In that time, you have been tested along with the other members of your team, Ayu explained. You have demonstrated wit, cunning, patience, diligence, discipline –

“As much as I enjoy being complimented,” Haley said, interrupting the list, “I must insist you take me back. I have training in the morning, and I’d like to punch Eli in the face before bed.”

It is midday in your sector of Earth, Ayu told her. It has been twelve Earth hours since you arrived on board.

“Twelve hours?” Haley sputtered. “What… why?”

The transfer can be difficult for a species that has not yet adapted to space travel, Ayu explained. You needed to… “sleep it off”.

“You’re kidding,” Haley said, exasperated. “Fine. I missed training. I still need to get back; or am I a prisoner here?”

You will be tested, Ayu wrote. Then you will be returned.

“Tested for what?” Haley asked.

Testing will begin shortly. Please enter the next room, Ayu wrote.

A door opened in the wall in front of Haley. Sighing in annoyance, she stepped through. “Better get this over with,” she muttered.

The next room was just as sparse as the one she had left, with two key differences. First, there was a big red button on the far wall – which was about twenty feet away from the entrance.

Second, Eli stood on one side of the room.

“You!” Haley started towards him, flexing her arm threateningly.

“Now, hang on one second,” Eli said, putting his hands out as if to hold her back. “I was just doing a job, and now I’m stuck here just like you.”

“A job, huh?” Haley said. “You get me away from my teammates, so that I can be abducted and brought to who-knows-where, and I have some kind of alien kid telling me that I have to be ‘tested’ before I can go home. That was a ‘job’ to you?” She strode over to him and grabbed him by the collar.

Eli shrugged. “It paid well,” he said. “They just want to see what you’re made of, then we can go back.”

“When we get back, I’m getting Agent to lock you up,” Haley told him, letting him go. “I agree with Natalie and Frank: you’re a menace.”

“Whatever,” Eli said, straightening his shirt and rubbing his neck.

Haley looked around at the room. “So when is this ‘test’ supposed to start?” she asked the room.

Nothing visibly happened, but the soft hum of energy was suddenly in the room with them. A female voice spoke over an intercom, saying, “The test has begun. Push the button.”

“That’s it?” Haley asked. “Just push that big button over there?”

“Push the button,” the disembodied voice said again.

Raising her eyebrows, Haley started forward. Eli shook his head. “Wait, Outlier, maybe we should – ”

“You don’t get to talk,” Haley said, walking backwards. “I’m taking this test, and getting us out of here so I can bring you in.”

“I’m just saying, it can’t be that easy,” Eli said, putting his hands on his hips.

Haley ignored him with a wave of her hand as she turned back around – just in time to walk face-first into an invisible wall. “Ow,” she said, rubbing her nose where she hit it. “Damn.”

“Told you,” Eli said, smirking. “What kind of idiot are you? Of course there’s going to be something else to it.”

Haley turned to glare at him. “Okay, smart-ass,” she said. “What do you recommend?”

“No idea.” Eli shrugged, walking over to her and feeling for the invisible wall. “I’m guessing it’ll be a maze.”

As if it heard him, the voice said again, “Push the button.” Haley looked around the room, but she couldn’t tell where the wall was or which way to go.

This was going to be harder than she thought.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, evening.

Outlier has been missing for twenty hours.

“You haven’t seen him either?” Agent was taking a call in the common room, as most of the team gathered to compare notes. “… Okay. Let me know if he turns up.” He hung up, turning back to the others. “Haley didn’t show up for her patrol this evening,” he said. “I checked with building security, and she didn’t come back last night after the bar. The last time anybody saw her was when she left the bar with Butterfly – I just heard from some of my contacts on that end, and nobody’s seen him, either.”

“That’s not so unusual for Butterfly, though,” Rina pointed out. “He comes and goes as he wants.”

“But Haley is Miss Perfect,” Natalie pointed out. “She’s never so much as stepped a toe out of line before; she wouldn’t just disappear on us.”

Frank pulled his uniform hoodie over his head, getting ready for his patrol as he spoke. “So what do you want us to do about it?” he asked. “Any places we should check?”

“I have another person to check with,” Agent said. “If you guys could canvas the city, that might turn something up. Earthborn is currently checking the tunnels, to see if either of them turn up down there. I’m also asking Toby to check with the Fauns – she can get in and out of there a lot more discreetly than any of you, and she won’t raise a flag with them. I’m not sure what other enemies she might have made,” he admitted. “Our best bet is to figure out where Butterfly might have taken her. I have a list of his usual haunts; you guys check these places out.”

He set a very short list down on the counter. Natalie took one look and raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re kidding, right?” she asked. “‘Butterfly Garden’, a studio on the north side, and then a few dives?”

“He’s a pretty straightforward guy,” Agent said, shrugging. “If he’s in the city, he’s usually at these places unless he’s on a job.”

Granny stood up from a chair in the corner. “I’ll check out some of the dives,” she said. “I can handle myself if there’s trouble – though most people wouldn’t trouble an old lady,” she added with an impish grin.

“I’ll take the studio,” Natalie said. “If he took Haley somewhere, I doubt we’ll find them at any of these places, though.”

“I’ll check out Butterfly Garden,” Frank said.

“That leaves me splitting the dives with Granny,” Rina said.

Agent nodded. “You have your assignments, then,” he told them. “Get to it.”

* * * * * * * *

The Invisible Maze.

Haley and Eli, still trapped.

“Push the button,” came the robotic voice yet again.

Haley was really starting to hate that voice.

“I’m trying,” she growled, as Eli laughed at her. She spun to face him. “What’s so funny?” she demanded.

“You,” Eli said, still chuckling. “You’re yelling at a machine.”

“Oh, she knows what she’s done,” Haley said, shouting. Whether she was shouting at him, or the voice, or at the general situation, she wasn’t sure. “She knows exactly what she’s done! We’ve been at this for two hours now, and not only can I not figure out where we’ve gone wrong, but the only path I can seem to find leads us to the wrong wall!”

“Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of genius?” Eli asked, mocking her.

Haley took an angry breath. “I have an eidetic memory,” she said. “In this case, that means I can draw a map in my mind of where the walls we’ve found are. But no matter which way we go, it always leads us back to this one point – nowhere near the button!”

“And of course we can’t climb it,” Eli said, also frustrated. “We can’t see how high it is, but the sides are smooth, and apparently the top is out of jumping range.”

“It’s a stupid optical illusion,” Haley fumed, pounding her fist on the nearest invisible wall. “I don’t know how she’s doing it, but I swear, next time she shows that smug little holographic face…”

“You’ll beat up a kid?” Eli said. “Or will you just throw your fists through the air, since holograms don’t actually have bodies to hit?”

Haley pressed her lips together in annoyance. “You know,” she said, “you have a body I could hit. Maybe I’ll just take out my anger on you.”

“Idle threat,” Eli said, completely unconcerned. “You’d never hit me. It goes against that whole Asylum ‘holier-than-thou’ complex you’ve got.”

“Lucky you,” Haley said drily. She pounded her fist against the wall again.

Something suddenly occurred to her. She hit her fist against the wall again, but more thoughtfully than angrily this time. “The walls all lead back to this spot,” she muttered.

“Oh, gears finally turning in that rusty brain of yours?” Eli said.

“Are you trying to be annoying, or does it just come naturally to you?” Haley asked.

Eli shrugged, putting his hands behind his head. “It’s a gift,” he answered.

“Well, if you’d shut up for a minute, you might figure it out, too.” Haley walked over the metal wall, feeling the invisible one beside her as she went. “We’re still assuming that what we see matters,” she explained. “We can’t see the walls in the middle of the room…”

She put her hand on the metal wall, but met no resistance. Eli stared as her hand went through the wall. “So why would the walls on the edge of the room be real?” he finished.

Haley stepped through the holographic wall, coming into another room on the other side. This room glowed green, and the invisible walls reflected the light enough to be seen – while they were still sheer enough to see what was on the other side, at least now they showed up to the naked eye.

“Video game logic,” Haley muttered as Eli stepped through the wall behind her. “Rina’s much better at those.”

“Well, we’re not done yet,” Eli said. He clapped her on the shoulder, then walked ahead. There was a soft click as he stepped on a loose tile on the floor.

“Wait!” Haley cried, pulling him back.

Three knives flew in front of Eli’s face, where he would have been standing if Haley hadn’t stopped him. “Whoa,” he muttered, his eyes wide.

“Video game logic,” Haley repeated. “Rina’s always telling me that you have to be careful of traps in dungeons like this.”

“Noted,” Eli said, pulling his arm out of her grip. “So what do we do?”

“No idea,” Haley said, peering around through the green light. “I’m horrible at these kinds of games.”

The voice chose that moment to come back on. “Push the button.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, Butterfly Garden.

Frank Mejia, AKA Shadow.

“He lives here?” Shadow asked the groundskeeper, looking around at the field.

Butterfly Garden was a nature preserve on the edge of Eon City, where hundreds of butterflies nested. The air around them was humid, as the garden was kept at optimal conditions for the winged insects. The smell of the plants around them was unlike anything Shadow could smell in the city – the air was fresh, and the dew sparkled in the sunset.

The groundskeeper shrugged. “Eli often comes and helps out with the grounds,” he said. “So I let him kip out here when the weather’s nice, or in the main building when it’s not. He’s got a way with the butterflies, see – he moves like them, and he can walk into the middle of a flock without hurting any of them. It’s that Third Gen power of his, all kinds of useful.”

Shadow stopped gazing around the picturesque garden to look at the groundskeeper. “When was the last time he came here?” he asked.

“Few days ago,” the man said. “He’s a drifter, that one – he don’t hang around much. He just likes the butterflies, when he’s got no other place to go.”

“So he didn’t come here last night?” Shadow asked, his shoulders slumping slightly. The garden was a dead end.

“Nope,” said the groundskeeper. “Try the Essex Studio across town – he sometimes talks about going there.”

“Thanks,” Shadow said, turning away and turning on his com unit. “Butterfly Garden was a dead end. Any luck, guys?”

* * * * * * * *

Green Room.

Haley Prince, on her last nerve.

“Push the button,” said the robotic voice.

Haley started mocking it. “Push the button, push the button,” she said. “I know I have to push the freakin’ button – I’m just not sure how to get there!”

The floor was covered in hidden switches, and it seemed like every time they made some progress something would force them back. They were still a ways away from wherever the maze was leading them this time, and had already had to backtrack twice.

“I think we have to go through the choke point,” Eli said, citing a spot they had passed by twice due to the size of the spinning blades shooting from the walls.

“And what, dance our way through?” Haley asked sarcastically. “Every time we try going there, it’s a close call.”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Eli argued. “We’ve tried all of the other paths – the other walls are all solid!”

“I know, I know,” Haley said. “I just have a really bad feeling about that one.”

Eli shrugged. “Doesn’t that mean it’s the right path?” he asked. “Video game logic, remember?”

Haley rolled her eyes, but she led the way back to the choke point. There were two spinning buzzsaws moving quickly up and down the corridor, but they had already discovered that other traps were peppered along the way.

“On three?” Eli asked.

“Okay,” Haley said, a nervous feeling in her stomach. She hadn’t felt such a sinking feeling since her last Watcher license rejection. “One… two… three!”

She darted forward, keeping an eye peeled on the ground for the loose tiles that indicated a trap. Dodging the blades on the sides, she saw the first volley of arrows zip out of the wall in front of her with a SHUNK.

“Allow me, milady,” Eli said, coming up beside her and using a break in the saws to get in front. He tapped out a beat on his leg with his fingers, counting the time between arrow volleys. In rhythm, he said, “Three, two, one, now!” and pulled Haley forward. He stopped suddenly, allowing another volley to pass in front of him before pulling her again.

Five volleys later, they had made it to the other side. “That was incredible!” Haley said, looking at him in awe. “How did you know?”

“My Third Gen ability is hyper-proprioception,” Eli explained, grinning at the praise. “I know exactly where I am in regards to everything around me. It gives me excellent aim, and – more importantly – a really good sense of timing. Come on, let’s move.”

He took one step, straight onto a trap tile. A knife shot out of the wall, aimed straight at his head.

“Watch it!” Haley said, catching the blade just before it reached Eli’s head.

His eyes widened as he turned to see how close he had come to dying. “Thanks,” he said as Haley dropped the knife.

Haley swore. “I’m still in my clubbing clothes,” she muttered, looking down at her outfit as she held her hand away from her body. Blood began to well up in her palm from where she had gripped the edges of the blade.

“Afraid of getting a bit of blood on your pretty shirt?” Eli teased.

“No,” Haley said. “I just don’t have my first-aid supplies; they were in my purse, which I left in the club.” She shook her head, wincing as the blood in her hand began dripping onto the floor. “From now on, I’m not going anywhere without my utility belt.”

“Here,” Eli said, taking off his shirt and handing it to her. “Wrap it with that. Least I can do, since you saved my life and all.”

Haley took it, thanking him. She gripped one of the sleeves with the bleeding hand and wrapped the cloth tightly around it. “Well, it looks like we made it to the wall,” she said.

Eli picked the bloody knife up off the floor and slipped it into his pocket. “Never know when a weapon might come in handy,” he said. “No pun intended.”

“Ha ha,” Haley said dryly. “Let’s see what’s next.”

The two Watchers stepped through the wall into the next room, which was bathed in a red glow.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, Essex Studio.

Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.

“Trick here,” she said over the coms. “The studio is a bust, too. They haven’t seen Eli since yesterday morning.”

Roger,” Agent told her. “You and Shadow check out the next bars on the list.

“How are things on your end?” Trick asked him, getting onto her motorcycle and revving up the engine. “Any leads from your contacts?”

No,” Agent sounded mad. “They are being purposefully vague in their answers. I think they know something, but they aren’t talking.

Trick pressed her lips together as she drove off. “Want me to go kick their asses for you, Agent?” she asked.

I’d love that, actually,” Agent admitted, “but it’s more than my job’s worth at this point. Did the studio tell you anything?

“It’s a gymnastics studio,” Trick said. “Butterfly’s been a gymnast since he was a kid. Who knew?”

The guy sleeps in a field of butterflies,” Shadow added over the coms. “At this point, I don’t think anything would surprise me about him.

“Apparently he’s pretty good. He teaches gymnastics to kids in his spare time,” Trick said. “He’s got that in common with Haley, at least.”

Haley isn’t in the Watcher business for the money, though,” Agent pointed out. Trick could hear the worry in his voice. “We still need to find her; if she isn’t back yet, then there’s something wrong.

“We’ll find her,” Trick promised. In the silence that followed, she knew that Agent was remembering the day they found her mom. She might not get along with the Outlier, but Trick hoped that history wouldn’t repeat itself.

They might find her, but in what condition?

* * * * * * * *

Red Room.

Haley and Eli, and a lot of fire.

“Something’s wrong,” Eli said, looking at Haley. “Why are you losing so much blood?” She had already re-wrapped the shirt twice, and it was nearly soaked through.

Haley looked down at it and grimaced. “My blood doesn’t clot,” she told him. “It’ll keep bleeding until I get to a first-aid kit.”

Her face appeared bright red in this room, reflecting the light around them. Eli couldn’t tell in the light, but he thought she looked paler than she had in the last room. “Hang on,” he said, counting the time for the next trap. “We’re almost through this one.”

“You know that for sure, huh?” Haley asked him. She had let him take the lead a while ago, as her head was starting to get fuzzy. “We could be going around in circles for all I know.”

“What happened to that eidetic memory of yours, huh?” Eli asked. “Shouldn’t you know where we are?”

Haley shook her head, stumbling. “I lost track after the last fire burst,” she admitted. “I could really use some water.”

The red room didn’t use blades and switches like the green room had done. Instead, flames shot in random patterns through the corridors. They could see the jets that would shoot the flames, which was a blessing – they could avoid getting burned, though the temperature in the room rose with each burst of fire. The main walls were still metallic – if they didn’t find their way through soon, they could be cooked alive.

Eli tried to wipe the sweat off his forehead, only to find that his hand was too wet to do any good. Haley was worse off – she was swaying, and her breathing was coming more heavily. The dry air burned, and he knew they needed more than water to make it through.

“We need to stop the bleeding,” he said. He began to shout to the air, “Hey, hologram lady! She needs medical attention if you want us to finish!”

“Push the button,” the voice repeated.

“She’s no help,” Haley said, shaking her head in an attempt to clear the dizziness. She began to unwrap the shirt from her hand. “If bandaging isn’t working, then I’m going to need to cauterize it,” she told Eli.

Confused, Eli asked, “What do you mean, ‘cauterize it’?” He looked back just in time to see Haley grab the metal base of a flame jet with her injured hand. “Hey!”

Haley gritted her teeth as the jet roared to life, keeping her head and torso as far away from it as possible. When the fire died, she pried her hand from the metal surface and cradled her arm. “Bleeding stopped,” she muttered, shivering in pain. “I just hope Dale’s on hand whenever we get back – I’m going to need his healing powers.”

“Here, let me see,” Eli said, reaching for the injured hand. Her palm was charred, and her fingers were covered in blisters. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“I don’t even feel it,” Haley told him, smiling weakly.

“Yeah, because the nerves are fried,” Eli said.

Haley gingerly yanked her hand away from him. “I can function,” she said. “Stronger than a rhino, steady as a boulder. It was the fastest way.”

She pressed forward, Eli following closely behind her. “Now you aren’t bleeding to death,” he said. “You’re just cooking yourself. I got stuck with a masochist, and if she dies then I’m never getting out of here. That’s just great.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Haley asked. Her charred hand did one good thing – it took her mind off of the burning air.

“It means that this is your test,” Eli said angrily. “You have to be the one to push the freakin’ button.”

“And I will,” Haley said, shrugging. “Look, here’s the far wall.”

She reached her injured hand out to touch it, just in case they had reached one of the real metal walls; she couldn’t afford to burn her other hand. As the burned hand passed through, she turned back to give Eli a confident grin, even as her eyes watered in pain –

– and was pulled through by something on the other side.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Agent, about ready to bust some heads.

That’s the last one,” Granny said over the coms. “Roberta didn’t hear anybody talking about a missing Watcher.” She referred to her dragonfly, who allowed her to listen to multiple conversations at once.

I got nowhere, too,” Nightmare said from her own location. “It’s another dead end.

Nobody’s seen or heard anything from Butterfly in the last two days,” Trick added. She and Shadow had finished checking the other bars on the list. “Any luck on your end, Agent?

“Earthborn hasn’t found them in the tunnels,” Agent told them, “and my contact is still being dodgy. You four meet up back at headquarters; I’m going to meet them in person.”

You could use some backup,” Nightmare pointed out. “We’ll go with you!

“No,” Agent said. “It’ll go better if I’m alone. They’re not dangerous,” he added, just to put their minds at ease. “Just annoyingly unhelpful. Agent out.” He muted his com, banging a fist on the table next to him in frustration. He had spent the last five hours trying to contact anybody who might know where Butterfly had taken Haley, to no avail. Now there was only one person left to try – and he really hoped it was another dead end.

Agent went down to the motor pool and took his car out across the city. At this time of night, the roads were mercifully clear – he arrived at the dock warehouses in minutes. When he stepped out of the car, a hole ripped in the air in front of him.

“Jaunt,” Agent said, gripping his umbrella.

Jaunt stepped through the portal, looking around. “Pretty clandestine, don’t you think?” he asked. “Where’s your team?”

“I’m here alone,” Agent told him.

Jaunt chuckled. “That must be killing you,” he said, “to be meeting with me like this. Now, what did you want to talk to me about that needed such a dreary meeting place?” He looked around at the warehouses, wrinkling his nose at the fishy smell coming from the wharf.

“Stop playing around,” Agent said. “You’ve been ducking my call all evening. Don’t pretend you don’t know what this is about.”

“You’ve misplaced a teammate,” Jaunt said, smirking at him. “Or should I say, another teammate.”

He was trying to get a rise out of Agent, referring to Striker. When Agent worked with Team Ark, they had tried and failed to arrest Jaunt – and it had torn the team apart. Striker had vanished from the face of the earth that day, and the team couldn’t recover. It was Agent’s worst failure, and it had been entirely Jaunt’s fault.

Jaunt knew how Agent felt about him, and reminded him of it every time they met. Now with Haley missing, there was no doubt in Agent’s mind that Jaunt was behind it.

“Listen here,” Agent said, using his umbrella’s handle to drag the thief’s face close to his. “You know where Outlier is. You’re going to tell me right now.”

“Pretty touchy for an Agent, aren’t you?” Jaunt said, unconcerned. He didn’t even try to pull free of Agent’s grip. “I didn’t take the girl.”

“You know who did, then.” It wasn’t a question – Jaunt knew more than he was saying.

Gingerly, Jaunt pulled the umbrella handle away from his neck. “She was last seen with the mercenary, wasn’t she?” he asked, evading the question.

“Mercenaries are hired,” Agent said, swinging the umbrella back down to his side. “I want to know by whom.”

“We don’t always get what we want,” Jaunt told him sagely. He clapped his hands together, preparing to leave again. “Don’t worry about the girl,” he added once the portal was open. “If she survives, she’ll be returned to you.”

Agent caught Jaunt’s arm. “I’m not done yet,” he growled. “What do you mean ‘if she survives’?”

“She’s being tested,” Jaunt told him, shrugging. “That comes with some risk. But Outlier should have no problems with that, right?” he asked, smirking. “After all, you hand-picked her for your team. The human girl with the extraordinary willpower.”

Agent’s grip loosened for a second, and Jaunt yanked his arm free. He stepped through the portal before Agent could grab him again.

“Damn him,” Agent muttered, getting back into his car. If he didn’t need the thief…

But he did. That line of thought would get him nowhere, and Haley was still missing. He could only hope that they found her – or that she passed this “test” – before it was too late.

* * * * * * * *

Blue Room.

Haley’s in trouble.

Haley kept her charred hand behind her as she faced off with her opponent. She barely registered Eli running through the wall behind her, keeping her eyes on the giant figure that had pulled her into the room.

This room was different from the others. Aside from the blue lighting, it was round instead of square, and it didn’t seem to have any maze walls, invisible or otherwise. The floor was covered in a small pool of clear water, coming up to Haley’s ankles. However, the biggest difference loomed in front of her: instead of traps, this room had –

“Is that a knight?” Eli asked, his eyes going wide.

“Boss fight,” Haley said. “Video game logic, remember?” The knight was in full armor, complete with sword – but it stood ten feet tall in the large chamber.

“At least this room has water,” Eli said weakly. “We have to fight that thing?”

Haley pointed towards the opposite end of the room with her good hand. Eli followed it, seeing a door on the other side that was covered in bars. “I’m guessing we have to subdue it,” she told him, grimacing as she tried to flex her injured hand behind her.

“You’re in no shape to fight,” Eli pointed out. “You’re injured, and you lost a lot of blood…”

“Yes, I’m aware,” Haley said, exasperated. “There’s got to be a trick to this room, just like everywhere else.”

Eli rolled his eyes. “I’m all ears,” he said.

The knight drew its sword, coming after them. Haley pushed Eli out of the way, then dove to the other side to avoid the knight’s swing. Luckily for her, the knight was slow and lumbering, as if it weren’t alive. She rolled to a stand, looking around for its next attack.

It had to have a weakness. Haley could try taking its sword, but strong as she was, she would never be able to wield it with one hand. There had to be another way – even if she just disarmed it, she had no way of knowing what would open the door in front of her.

The water seeped into her shoes, tripping her as she tried to dodge the knight’s next attack. Tripping saved her life – the knight sliced his sword through the air over her, and would have bisected her if she had been upright.

“What do we do?” Eli cried, rolling away from another swing of the giant sword.

Haley scrambled to her feet, wincing as she kicked something under the water. A loose tile! “Eli, there are switches in this room, too!” she called over. “I think we need to press them all.”

“Press the switches? Are you mad?” he called back, dodging another swing of the sword. “The last ones tried to kill us!”

“Just trust me, okay?” Haley said, stepping on the switch by her foot. “Find a switch!”

Eli shook his head in disbelief, but began feeling his way through the water for loose tiles. Haley, for her part, tried to keep the attention of the knight to give him space to move. Her clothes were soaked from falling into the water, and her skirt felt like a weight around her legs. Her breathing picked up again as her heart rate rose, and a wave of nausea washed over her as she narrowly avoided the knight’s sword.

“Haley!” Eli called, snapping her back into the moment just in time to dodge another hit. “Almost there!”

He stepped on two more switches, but Haley saw the problem: the final switch was at the knight’s feet. She braced herself, blinking the water out of her eyes as she forced herself to focus on the sword. Eli looked over, crying, “What the hell are you doing?!”

As the sword came down again, Haley dove forward towards the giant knight. She pressed the switch with her good hand, using her injured one to push off of the knight’s legs in the direction of the door.

The knight raised its sword again, but instead of swinging it at the pair it held it out in front of its sightless face. The bars in front of the door swiftly retracted into the floor with a shwoop.

Haley stumbled over to the door, meeting Eli there. Giving him a grin as he opened the door for her, she said, “We did it!”

Stepping through the door into the original room, her eyesight began to blur. She could tell that they were only a few feet away from the big red button now, and she stumbled towards it. Eli caught her injured arm, putting it around his shoulders to help her walk forward. “Come on, Outlier,” he said. “We’re right here; don’t quit now.”

Haley took a deep breath, taking it one step at a time. She couldn’t even speak, feeling as if she would puke if she opened her mouth. Her injured arm burned, and the rest of her body felt heavy. She reached out with her good arm, but she couldn’t see if it was touching the button; her eyes chose that moment to roll back into her head, and she gratefully passed out.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, outside of Asylum Headquarters.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

Somebody was talking; that was the first thing Haley realized as she came to. “Hey, you did it,” Eli said. “Come on, Haley; you beat the test, and you pressed that stupid button. Don’t you dare die on me now. Come on, wake up.”

“‘M not gonna die,” she mumbled, opening her eyes. She saw Eli’s face staring down at her, but above him was a pinkish dawn sky. “We’re back?”

“Haley!” Eli said, grinning at her. “That was the stupidest, bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Raising an eyebrow hurt. “What?” she asked, trying to sit up.

“I got you into that mess,” he said. “I was as annoying as I could have possibly been, and you still caught that dagger for me. Then you burned that cut closed – which, frankly, I thought was both idiotic and the most badass thing I’ve ever seen. You figured out the puzzle in the knight room, and still managed to press the button at the end.” He shook his head as he summed up the adventure. “I’ve never seen anybody keep their cool like that.”

“You weren’t so bad yourself,” Haley said, finally managing to prop her arms against her legs to keep herself sitting forward. It was still early enough that nobody was around, but she would rather avoid the awkward questions if anybody had seen her. “You figured out the pattern to the knives and the fire.”

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t supposed to do that,” Eli said, then bit his lip. At Haley’s questioning – but not surprised – expression, he admitted, “I was paid to hold you back. I was supposed to insult you, and basically be as annoying as possible to keep you from focusing.”

“Makes sense,” Haley said. She looked around and saw the familiar doors of Asylum Headquarters. “I need to get in there,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief. “I missed both practice and my patrol yesterday.” She didn’t try to move from her sitting position yet, though. Her head was pounding, and her stomach still threatened to rebel at the first sign of movement.

“You need help,” Eli said. “You’re injured, anemic, and you’re talking about missing work.”

Haley looked down at her hand, wincing as she saw the injury. The blisters weren’t as bad as they had looked in the fire room, but the charring around the wounds kept her from flexing it fully. “Meh,” she shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”

Eli gave a surprised laugh. “You’ve had worse than that?” he asked, disbelieving.

“My brother once dislocated my shoulder while breaking my arm in three places when we were sparring,” she told him.

“Ah.” Eli obviously didn’t know what to say to that. He was saved responding when a flash of blue light appeared next to them.

Ayu still looked like a smiling alien kid, but she spoke with the same grown woman’s voice that had kept repeating “push the button” on the ship. “You gave us excellent data,” she said. “Haley Prince, you exhibited more of the qualities we are looking for in our candidates. You are still incomplete, but you show promise.”

“So you’re talking now, are you?” Haley asked, moving as if to stand up. The world spun around her with the motion, so she elected to remain sitting.

“My vocal emitters function better in the atmosphere of a planet,” Ayu said. “On the ship, my voice echoes loudly, and some species have difficulty understanding. I wanted to be sure you understood the parameters of the test; for that reason, I kept vocal instructions to a minimum.”

“I passed your test,” Haley said irritably. “What else do you want?”

“She’s injured,” Eli added. “Can’t you do something?”

“She will live,” Ayu said, looking Haley up and down. “Her own doctor will be able to treat her injuries with minimal scarring.”

Haley blinked. “Well, that’s something,” she said. “So why are you still here?”

“I have been tasked with testing the heroes of your planet,” Ayu explained. “I have delegated this task for too long; now I must begin to take a more active role. I wish to inform you that you are still incomplete; however, you show promise. We will see whether you have been completed in two years; in the meantime, I will continue to test the other possible candidates from this world.”

“Why?” Haley asked. “What happens in two years?”

“The Gamemaster will arrive,” Ayu said simply. She didn’t elaborate, but turned to Eli. “The agreed upon sum has been deposited in your bank account. Thank you for your service.”

“No problem,” Eli said, giving Haley a guilty look. “Let’s not do this again, okay?”

“I will not require your services again for some time,” Ayu told him. She nodded first at Eli, then at Haley in some kind of farewell, and then disappeared in another flash of light.

Haley leaned back, laying back down on the sidewalk. If she had trouble sitting up, then standing was probably out of the question. “I think I’ll take a quick nap before going in,” she muttered. “It’s been a long day.”

“Wonder what that ‘Gamemaster’ thing is that’s coming in two years,” Eli mused.

“You don’t know?” Haley asked.

Eli shrugged. “They paid me to do a job. I did it,” he said. He stretched his arms for a minute, then got to his feet. “Anyways, I’d better get going before your friends come down. Trick and Shadow wouldn’t be too happy to see me.”

Haley reached an arm up to him, and he pulled her to her feet. The world still spun around her, but she managed to stay upright. Eli helped her to the doorway of the tower, then turned around and walked away.

“Eli,” Haley called after him. He turned back, stopping on the sidewalk. “Thanks,” Haley said.

Eli gave her a deep, mocking bow. “Any time, milady,” he said with a grin. Then he turned around and walked away.

Haley watched him leave for a minute before pressing the building’s buzzer. The security guard at the front desk hurried to let her in, catching her before she could fall through the open door. “Outlier!” he said, obviously startled to see her. “What happened? Everybody’s been looking for you all night!”

Haley gave him a sheepish smile. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” she said.

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #13 – Fallen Angel

Dawn of the Asylum, Issue #11 – Jekyll and Hyde

Pharos Laboratories, eight years ago.

Laboratory outside of Eon City.

“What do you mean, ‘our funding’s being cut?” cried Doctor James Samson, ripping the paper out of Doctor Carson Dale’s hands.  “The work we’re doing here could change the course of human history!”

“Come off it, Samson,” Dale said, shaking his head.  “You know as well as I tha Ethics Board always had a problem with your work.  This la’est project – ”

“This latest project is about understanding the human brain’s effect on the body,” Samson retorted.  “It could tell us how the Third Gen and Satyr serums progenerated so easily, when all other evidence says that neither species should be fertile.  They both should have died out in a generation or two, but instead the population rates have been hitting record highs. With further study, this project could have told us how that happened!  We might have even found a cure – ”

“A cure for wha’?” Dale asked.  “For Third Gens an’ Satyrs? We’re talkin’ about people, Samson; this is who they are!”

Samson shook his head.  “We’re talking about an anomaly,” he argued.  “Neither evolution was natural; they were both man-made.  They’re closer to genetic disorders than actual identities.”  He walked back over to his lab table, still talking. “If we could find a cure for autism, or Achondroplasia, or some other disability, then nobody would bat an eye.  Third Gen and Satyrism are no different – they just weren’t caused by any environmental factor other than human error.”

“Human error is wha’ tha ethics board is tryin’ ta prevent,” Dale pointed out.  “Unauthorized human experimentation is how Third Gen and Satyrism came about in tha first place.”

“Dale, you may have just gotten here last year, but I have been studying the effects of the serums all my life,” Samson said.  “My research has already led to breakthroughs that nobody else had seen before! Pharos hired me because of my work – ”

“Oh, you mean tha Fourth Gen serum?” Dale asked.  “Sure, tha was a ‘breakthrough’.”

“I recreated the effects of Third Gen and Satyrism in a controlled fashion,” Samson countered.  “I controlled what powers the subjects got – ”

“You mean tha kids,” said Dale.  “You experimented on children, and called it ‘progress’.  Now you run human trials on an experimental drug without goin’ through tha proper channels, and next you would have combined it with one o’ tha serums!”  He slammed his hand on the table to accentuate his point. “You’re jus’ lucky that nobody was hurt this time!”

Samson sighed.  “Scientific discovery takes risk, Carson,” he said.  “If Pharos doesn’t want to take them, then maybe I’ll take my work to King.”  He started stacking loose papers, as if he would leave right away.

Dale raised an eyebrow.  “Pharos an’ King both play by tha same rules,” he said.  “King more so, since the Satyr serum first came out. If Pharos will na’ fund your research, wha’ makes ya think King will?  Especially since tha protests started last year; all companies are playin’ by tha letter of tha law.”

Samson stopped shuffling, putting his hands on the table in defeat.  “So if Pharos is cutting this project, what do they intend for me to work on?” he asked.

“Pharos wants us on tha ‘Gen Juice’ project,” Dale told him.  “By tha time we come in tomorrow, this stuff will be packed up in storage, an’ we’ll be startin’ fresh.”  He clapped Samson on the back. “Come on, we’ll go ta tha pub, have a drink.”

Samson shook his head.  “You go on without me,” he said.  “If they’re packing all this up tonight, I need to get some things in order first.”

Dale shrugged, and walked out the door.  Samson looked around at the lab. This project had taken over the last seven years of his life; for the funding to be lost felt like his legs being cut out from under him.  He waited a minute to make sure that Dale wasn’t coming back before moving over to the vials labelled “samples”.

Checking over his shoulder in case anyone came into the room, he pocketed three vials.  This work is too important to lose, he thought rebelliously.  Maybe he could continue his work on his own.

After all, scientific discovery takes risk.

* * * * * * * *

Pharos Laboratories, present day.

Agent meeting with O.N.C.

“Why, exactly, are we here?” Agent asked, looking uninterestedly around the laboratory.  Trick, Outlier, and Shadow had all been ordered to come with him, but he addressed the lady who had just entered the room.  She wore a business suit and horn-rimmed glasses, giving her the appearance of an executive. Her steel-grey hair was tied back in a no-nonsense bun, and the way she carried herself suggested that she was in command.

“Who’s that?” Outlier whispered to Shadow.

“Agent’s boss,” he whispered back.  “They call her O.N.C.”

Outlier frowned.  “‘O.N.C.? Why?” she whispered.

As the executive lady turned her intense stare on the whispering duo, Shadow added, “You’ll see,” under his breath.

“Mr. Hannah has requested our presence by name,” O.N.C. told them.  “There was apparently a break-in at one of the more sensitive labs, and he wants to keep this quiet.”

“‘He wants to keep it quiet’,” Trick scoffed.  “So he called in three of the best-known Watchers from the highest-profile team in the country, along with their supervisor and his boss, because…?”

“Because you three have impressed me.”  Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries, chose that moment to walk through the door.  “Blackbird is currently on an undercover assignment, Reiki is a loose cannon, the Fourth Gens are unstable, and, frankly, Granny’s just weird.  The people in this room have shown ability and restraint,” he added, glancing at Trick.

“I’m sorry, but what is this research?” Outlier asked, trying to ease the tension from the CEO’s implication.  “We haven’t been briefed at all yet.”

“Right,” Sean Hannah said, picking up a sheet of paper.  “Eight years ago, my predecessor had research here called Project Eleutherios.”

“‘The liberator’,” Outlier said.  “Eleutherios was one of the names for Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry.”  As the others stared at her, she shrugged, adding, “I did a project on Dionysus in middle school.  The guy was scary.”

Shadow raised his eyebrows.  “‘God of wine and revelry’,” he quoted.  “Sounds like he had fun.”

“He made people lose their inhibitions,” Outlier explained.  “In small amounts that could be a good thing, but Dionysus could drive people crazy – literally insane – with his powers.  Some of his followers even turned to cannibalism. Some legends even claim that Dionysus was a conqueror – ”

Sean Hannah cleared his throat, and Outlier cut herself off with a sheepish apology.  “Origins of the name aside,” the CEO continued, “Project Eleutherios was supposed to be a drug that heightened a human’s natural abilities.”  He looked at Agent, adding, “Much like the Fourth Gen serum, except not quite as powerful.”

“This was the precursor to Fourth Gen?” Trick asked, glaring at him.

Agent narrowed his eyes.  “It was shut down only eight years ago,” he pointed out to his team.  “More like this was what Fourth Gen led to.” Crossing his arms, he asked, “So what was the problem with this one?  Photosensitivity? Dual personalities?”

“Lack of inhibitions, as the name suggests,” Sean admitted, nodding to Outlier.  “The lead scientist, Doctor Samson, was called in front of the Ethics Board for attempting human trials without authorization.  While the effects proved to be temporary without continuous application, the subjects became unstable, and a danger to themselves and others.  Watchers managed to get the situation under control, and Pharos Industries immediately cut funding to the project.”

“So why now?” Outlier asked.  “Eight years later, why would anybody steal this drug?”

“Better question: why wasn’t the research destroyed?” Agent asked.

O.N.C. answered.  “Projects like Eleutherios cost a lot of time and money,” she said.  “Most companies would rather store such a thing for possible reuse later than to start from scratch in the future.”

“So again,” Outlier repeated.  “Why now?”

“I’m sorry, who are you?” O.N.C. asked her.

Outlier looked at her, seeing what she was trying to do.  “They call me Outlier,” she said, extending her hand. “And you are?”

“My name is of no consequence,” O.N.C. said dismissively.  Behind her, Shadow mouthed to Outlier the letters O-N-C, trying not to laugh.

Outlier bit back a grin of her own as she said, “Fine, O.N.C.  Now if somebody would please answer my question: why now?  What changed to bring this research back to light?”

“Doctor Samson was recently fired,” Sean Hannah told them.  “We believe that he might have stolen the research before he left.”

“Wait, back up,” Trick said, walking up to the CEO and getting in his face.  “You’re saying that this guy, who by your own admission was a sociopathic jerk called in front of the Ethics Board, wasn’t fired until eight years later?”

“And that he stole proprietary information from you?” Agent added, also crossing his arms.

Sean Hannah gently pushed Trick away, saying, “I only became the CEO here five years ago.  I had no idea that the company had done such things, and it wasn’t brought to my attention until he almost tried a similar stunt on the Gen Juice project.”  He straightened his jacket. “Of course, he was fired for even suggesting we go to human trials at this point.”

Shadow stepped up next to Trick.  “I recently had a run-in with your Gen Juice project,” he said.  “My sister and a bunch of other satyrs were kidnapped and tested for it.”

“That wasn’t Pharos Industries,” the CEO said sternly.  “That was a copycat, trying to catch up with our research.  Pharos has always been ahead of the curve in the R and D department, and so we have a lot of rivals trying to catch up.  Unfortunately, word about the Gen Juice project leaked to the public years before it was supposed to – again, probably Samson trying to accelerate it – and I’ve been running damage control for the last year because of it.”  He shifted on his feet, putting a hand to his temple. “You have no idea how many press conferences I’ve had to make just to tell people that it’s years from being finished.”

“Okay, so you know what was stolen, who stole it, and why,” Outlier said.  “So what do you need us for?”

“Muscle,” Agent answered, still glaring at both O.N.C. and the CEO.  “This is a test, right? You want my team to find Samson and bring him in so that you can see them in action.”

“And evaluate them,” Sean Hannah added.  “You three have done exemplary work thus far.  Trick took down King Enterprises’ pet project – in front of a crowd, no less.  Shadow broke up the satyr kidnapping ring last week, and Outlier has been making quite a name for herself around the city.  Didn’t you help stop the museum thief?”

“Along with Reiki,” Outlier said, folding her arms.  “Why isn’t he here?”

The CEO shook his head.  “As I said, Reiki is a loose cannon.  He doesn’t work well with others, and if he gets involved there’s usually violence.”  He walked around a table, adding, “I would prefer to avoid a scene, if you can.”

“Fine,” Agent said, uncrossing his arms but still glaring.  “We’ll help. Do you know where this Doctor Samson is?”

“Yes,” O.N.C. told them.  “In fact, we do.”

* * * * * * * *

Doctor Samson’s home lab, Eon City.

Outlier, Shadow, and Trick.

“Doctor Samson?” Outlier called, knocking on the doctor’s door.  “We’re Watchers from the Asylum. We have a few questions for you.”

“Doesn’t seem like he’s home,” Trick said after a minute, nudging Outlier aside.  “Give me a sec.”

Neither Outlier nor Shadow saw what she did to the lock, but in a few seconds the door was unlocked.  “How’d you do that?” Shadow asked.

Trick shrugged.  “Magic,” she answered, grinning secretively and holding up her hands to show that they were empty.  Given that she wore her Watcher outfit – which Chip had helped design with plenty of hidden pockets – Outlier was pretty sure she had just slipped something up her sleeve.

Shaking her head, Outlier stepped into the lab calling for Doctor Samson again.  “Hold up,” Shadow told them. “I sense something.”

“Something’s in the shadows?” Trick asked him.

“Shh,” Outlier held up a hand.  “Do you hear that?”

Someone was muttering to themselves in the dark house.  “Doctor Samson?” Trick called, heading towards the noise.  “Is that you?”

“I think he’s singing,” Outlier said.  “Listen.”

Sure enough, the halting voice was singing a jaunty tune from the next room:

“Lavender blue, dilly-dilly

Lavender green

If I were king, dilly-dilly, I’d need a queen

Who told me so?, dilly-dilly

Who told me so?

I told myself, dilly-dilly, I told me so…”

“Any guesses?” Shadow asked, heading to the next room.

Trick shrugged, but Outlier answered, “Lavender Blue, by Sammy Kaye from the nineteen hundreds.  My mom sometimes plays classical stuff like that. But why is he singing it?”

As they entered the room, they saw a small laboratory.  The tables were heavy and metallic, and the only light came from a few desk lamps scattered around.  Various test tubes and jars were scattered about the room; a few had flowers in them, while others had A man was dancing around the table, still singing:

“If your dilly-dilly heart

Feels a dilly-dilly way

If you’ll answer yes

In a pretty little church

On a dilly-dilly day

You’ll be wed in a dilly-dilly dress of

Lavender blue, dilly-dilly

Lavender green

Then I’ll be king, dilly-dilly, and you’ll be my queen…”

The man was dressed in beige slacks and a white lab coat.  His hair was pulled back into cornrows, and he had a flower in his hands.

When he caught sight of the heroes, he grabbed Outlier’s hand with his free one and pulled her closer to dance with him.  “Umm, excuse me?” Outlier asked, trying to push herself free of the madman. “Are you Doctor Samson?”

“Doctor, doctor…” Samson chuckled.

“Doctor Foster went to Gloucester 

In a shower of rain; 

He stepped in a puddle 

Right up to his middle 

And never went there again!”

“Doctor Samson!” Trick practically shouted at him, startling him into letting go of Outlier.  “Snap out of it!”

“That’s not helping,” Outlier said.

Samson shoved the flower at her, saying, “Pretty flower for the pretty girl.  Smells like… smells like…

“Lavender blue, dilly-dilly – ”

“Nope, not starting that again,” Trick said, grabbing his wrist and wrenching it behind him.  “Doctor Samson, you’re under arrest for the theft of – ”

“No!” Doctor Samson suddenly screamed, wrenching his arm around and throwing Trick over his hip in a display of inhuman strength.  “No! Not theft – this was my life’s work!”

He picked up the metal table, looking like he would throw it on top of Trick while she was down.  The jars and vials flew everywhere around the room, smashing against the floor and walls and splattering their contents everywhere. Shadow stepped forward to tackle the man, but Outlier grabbed his shoulder to stop him.

“Doctor Samson!” she shouted, trying to grab his attention as she wiped a few drops of liquid off of her wrist.  “Don’t you want to dance? Lavender blue, dilly-dilly, lavender green…

“If I were king, dilly-dilly, I’d need a queen

Who told me so? dilly-dilly

Who told me so?

I told myself, dilly-dilly

I told me so…”

Doctor Samson began singing again, swaying to the tune.  He put one end of the table on the floor and began to dance with it.  Trick scrambled back to her feet, wiping some of the test tube contents off of her coat with her hand.  Shadow clapped her on the back, shaking off his gloved hand as he realized she was soaked in the stuff. Outlier breathed a sigh of relief, saying, “He must have been affected by his own drug.  We should take him to Dale.”

“Dale?” Samson said, still dancing with the table.  “Doctor Carson Dale? I know him!”

“You know Doctor Dale?” Outlier asked slowly.  “Do you want to go see him? He wants to see you.”

Samson paused for a second, considering.  “Nah, not really,” he told them. “Dale helped the board cut my funding, see.  He’s a liar, and I don’t want to see him.”

“He says he’s really sorry about that,” Trick said, taking her cue from Outlier.  “He’d like to be friends. But you have to come see him.”

“I’m uninhibited, not stupid,” Samson told her, setting the table down.  “No need to talk to me like I’m a child. Dale said many years ago that he wanted nothing more to do with Eleutherios.”  He put his hands on the table, adding, “I was so close, too!  I could have stabilized it, but I needed test subjects.  Human ones, not those satyr or Third Gen ones.”  He turned back to the Watchers. “That’s why the Fourth Gen project failed, you know – we used satyr and Third Gen subjects.  Fourth Gen enhanced their powers, yes – and even gave them new ones. But at a cost, a terrible cost. Even my own children…”

He hopped up to sit on the table, swinging his legs freely as he started singing again:

“Here shines the sun,

Shining so bright;

Now the whole world’s emblazoning.

Flowers in bloom,

Spring will come soon; we’re waiting.

When the green grass grows,

And the trees are close,

And the soft rain falls on the ground…

Here shines the sun,

Clouds gone away,

Rainbows are pretty amazing.

Just close your eyes;

You’ll see the sky someday…”

Tears started falling down his face as he said, “They never did see the sky, though.  They had to run away to leave the room, and they still can’t go out in the day. And poor Ryan, number one, he can’t even walk on the ground any more.”  He stopped crying suddenly, growing angry as he continued, “They all left me; abandoned me.  Those freaks of nature, who owed me their lives!  I saved them, you know – my work would have cured them and everyone like them of Third Gen and Satyrism!  Why doesn’t anybody see that?”

He gripped the side of the table, and the metal started bending under his strength.  Outlier hummed a couple bars of Lavender Blue, and Samson seemed to calm down. He began singing again, moving his head side to side in time with the tune.

“I wonder…” Trick muttered under her breath.  Turning to her teammates, she asked them in a whisper, “Should we tell him about Rina?”

“You think he’ll come if we tell him we’re taking him to her?” Shadow replied.  He sneezed, putting his hand to his mouth to cover it. “We really should get out of here.”

Outlier shook her head.  “We can’t take him to Rina,” she said.  “Anybody with eyes can see she tries to forget the Fourth Gen experiment.  I don’t know the details, but I don’t want to open up old wounds for her.”

“We won’t actually bring him to her,” Trick said, her voice as low as she could make it.  “We just tell him we will, and bring him to Dale instead.”

“Bad idea,” Outlier warned.  “His history with Dale, plus his super-strength and lack of inhibitions?  That’s asking for trouble.”

“You got a better plan?” Trick demanded.  “No? Okay then.” She turned back to Samson, saying, “Doctor Samson?  We might know where a Fourth Gen is. Do you remember Sabrina Dawson?”

Samson looked taken aback.  “Sabrina?” he asked. “The Nightmare Child?  She took her mother’s name, then – makes sense.  Her mother died young. Two children, nine years apart – but complications took her a week after Sabrina was born.  Sabby always looked up to her brother. Didn’t know he was her brother – that would have been problematic.” He hopped off of the table, adding, “Take me to her – I want to see Sabby again!”

Outlier gave an alarmed look at Trick, who avoided her eyes.  When she looked at Shadow, he was slowly becoming a smudge against the wall as his powers his him from sight.  They both understood what Samson had said, then.

“Oh dear,” Samson cut through the silent exchange, looking at the smashed jars and test tubes on the ground.  “Eleutherios – who smashed the vials? Shouldn’t have done that.” He shook his head. “Now the whole place is contaminated.”  He started humming Lavender Blue again, as the Asylum teammates looked at each other.

“Call Agent?” Trick asked, wincing at their mistake.

“Call Agent,” Outlier agreed.  Shadow turned on his com to ask for backup.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

After a decontamination scrub.

“Well, I feel like I lost a layer of skin,” Natalie said, rubbing her pink face as she guzzled water in the kitchen.

“Do you guys feel any… effects?” Agent asked.  “Seriously, at the first sign of trouble, I’m sending you down to Dale.”

“Don’t worry, mother,” Frank said from the couch.  “We’ll be fine. I mean, look at Doctor Samson: mostly he was just humming some classical music and sitting around.  What’s the worst that could happen to us?”

Agent glanced at Natalie.  “I’m not sure,” he admitted, “but I’d still feel better if you three would stay here for the next few days – just in case.”

“Can’t,” Haley said, sitting in a chair across from Frank.  “I teach self-defense at the community center tomorrow. I can’t just cancel.”

“I’ll send someone to cover your class for you,” Agent told her.  “Most of the people in this business are good enough at martial arts to teach a basic move or two.  I think Sara would be more than happy to help, and she’s a certified instructor.”

“My mom?” Frank said.  “Sure, she’d be awesome.  But she also teaches at the dojo.”

“We’ll make it work,” Agent said.  “If not Sara, then I can find someone else.  You guys just rest up, and if we don’t see any symptoms in the next few days you’ll be back to your routine.”

Natalie gave him a mock salute.  “Aye, captain,” she said, grinning.  Agent flashed her a smile and went into the elevator.

As he stepped in, Rina and Reiki stepped out.  “How are you guys feeling?” Rina asked, seeing the teammates sprawled across the living area in their pajamas.  “We heard what happened.” She and Reiki were still in their uniforms, having just returned from patrol.

“Ugh,” Natalie called from the kitchen.  “Agent just grounded us for ‘a few days’.  Didn’t even say how many.”

“Myeh,” Frank shrugged from the couch.  “Could be worse. What would you guys do if we were affected?”

“Sit around singing Lavender Blue?” Haley giggled.  Natalie rolled her eyes.

Rina furrowed her eyebrows, sitting across from Haley in another chair.  “Lavender Blue?” she asked. “Why that song?”

“Oh, nothing,” Haley said, waving a hand dismissively.  “The guy we were tracking down was dancing around his laboratory singing it.”

“He’s the guy who ran the Fourth Gen project,” Frank blurted out.  “Apparently he continued researching it on Project Aloofness – ”

“Eleutherios,” Haley corrected.

“Yeah, that.”  Frank turned over on the couch so that his head hung upside-down on the seat.

“Guys!” Natalie was looking at Rina, who looked stricken.  “I thought we were going to avoid the whole Fourth Gen thing?”

“Oh pish,” Haley said.  “She deserves to know. This is the guy who ran the experiment on her, remember?”

Natalie walked over to the living area, hands on her hips.  “Haley, it was your idea in the first place,” she pointed out.  “Rina, I’m so sorry – ”

“No, it’s okay,” Rina said.  “I’m glad you guys told me. I… I just need to talk to Agent.”  She headed back to the elevator as Reiki moved over to Frank.

“You happy?” he asked, pulling Frank up by the collar.  “Rina’s upset. Why’d you tell her that?”

“Dunno,” Frank said, looking confused.  “I guess I just felt like it. Weird.”

“‘Weird’,” Reiki repeated.  “I’ll show you ‘weird’, you – ”

“Reiki, drop him,” Natalie said.  “I think we may have been more affected than we thought.  The experiments he was running, Project Eleutherios, it had a side-effect of making people lose their inhibitions.”

Shadow grinned as Reiki let him go.  “Hey, you think I got super-strength like Samson did?” he asked, not even fazed by Reiki’s threat.  “That would be cool; I might beat Parker at an arm-wrestling match.”

“Parker knows how to control his strength,” Natalie pointed out.  “He’s also still with the Fauns.”

“Oh yeah,” Shadow shrugged.  “Here, let me try – ”

He went over to Haley’s chair and tried to lift it, but it barely budged while she was sitting in it.  Haley shrugged at him. “Samson was human,” she reminded him. “Maybe the serum affected your Third Gen powers.”

Frank frowned, concentrating.  Shadows around the room began expanding until they covered the lamps, putting the room into complete darkness.  “Whoa, cool!” Frank exclaimed as their sight was completely cut off. He had never been able to make an entire lit room go dark before.

“Frank, stop,” Natalie said.  “We need to get you down to Dale.  Haley, we’ll all go; if Frank was affected, then we probably were, too.”

There was no response.  At Natalie’s command, Frank dimmed the shadows until they could see again, just in time to see the door to the stairs close with a click.

Haley wasn’t in the room any more.

Natalie put a hand on Frank’s shoulder, shaking her head.  “Aw, fu – ”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Agent’s office.

“Where is he?” Rina demanded, bursting into Agent’s office.  “Where did you take Doctor Samson?”

“He’s in the holding cell at the ECPD,” Agent answered calmly.  “Why do you need to see him?”

Rina shook her head.  “Of all people, you know what I’ve been through,” she said.

“Yes, and that’s why I ask,” Agent told her.  “You’ve known who he is, obviously, so you’ve had plenty of chances to see him, but you didn’t.  Why now?” He gestured for her to have a seat.

“I found out a month or so ago,” she said, slumping into the prooffered chair.  “After the stuff with Leah and Mikey, I looked into it. It wasn’t hard – I don’t know why the others had even waited that long.  I just… I’ve been putting it behind me for so long, I didn’t want to dredge it up.”

“And now that he’s been involved in a case, you want to face him,” Agent finished for her.

Rina shook her head.  “No,” she said. “Now that I’ve found out he’s been continuing his experiments, I want to ask him why.”

“Who told you that?” Agent asked, concerned.  “I thought the others agreed not to bring it up to you.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Rina muttered, but Agent stood up.

“It does matter,” he said.  “The other three have been exposed to the same thing Samson was.  The main side effect is a loss of inhibitions; if they’re spilling secrets, that might be a symptom, so who told you?”

“Frank,” Rina answered, standing up and heading to the elevator with Agent.  “But Natalie was telling him to stop.”

Agent pursed his lips as the elevator doors opened.  “Frank’s a little impulsive on his own, so it may be nothing,” he said, “but heaven help us if they’ve been affected.”

“Why?” Rina asked.  “So they act drunk for a day or so; no big deal, right?  They’re adults, they’ll be fine.”

As they stepped onto the elevator, Agent pointed out something that made Rina’s blood run cold: “Have you met Natalie?”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Medical Center.

“There you guys are,” Agent said, breathing a sigh of relief when he saw Natalie and Frank in the medical center.  “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“I made Frank check in when he found out his powers were enhanced,” Natalie said.  “But I lost Haley.”

“What do you mean, you ‘lost’ her?” Agent asked.  “Where is she?”

“Best I can figure, she left.”  Natalie said. “But you know, it’s Haley; what trouble could she get into?  She’s the sensible one.”

Agent looked at his data pad, typing something in.  “Not sure,” he said, “but I’d feel better if we found her.”

Dale chose that moment to come in.  “I know why you didn’t bring Samson to me,” he said, “but I think I’ll need to see him after all.  This isn’t the same as the project we worked on eight years ago – he’s been tweaking it.”

“What do you mean?” Agent asked.

“Frank’s Third Gen powers are erratic,” Dale pointed out.  “He can’t control them. He also doesn’t seem panicked, but that could just be because he’s Frank.  I’ll need another subject to compare in order to be sure, and I’d like to ask Doctor Samson what he did to Eleutherios.”

“I’ll get him here,” Agent promised, “and I’ll track down Haley.  Natalie, you stay here; text me the second you start feeling the effects of it.”

“Will do,” Natalie said, swinging her legs off the side of the table.  “You let me know when you find Haley.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, night.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

About to do something stupid.

Haley danced down the street, humming her favorite songs as she went.  On some level she remembered that Agent had told them to stay in the building, but she didn’t care.  There was something she had been curious about, and she was on her way to get answers.

She was still dressed in her pajamas, barefoot, but she didn’t care about that, either.  There wasn’t any reason to worry about her outfit – she was just going to ask a question.

A section of the south side of the city was Faun territory – Haley had learned that in her Watcher training, which is why she was currently dancing down their streets.  When she went on patrol in the afternoons, she rode a motorcycle through this side of the city. Many satyrs were nice people; Haley had met plenty of them on her rounds, as she kept an eye out for trouble.  Most of the people in the city knew her face as a Watcher of the Asylum, so a lot of them would greet her during the day. She had met a lot of people in her last few months as a Watcher, so she had no fear of the south side.

Although, she usually met people during her daytime patrols when she had a mode of transportation, a com unit, and her uniform’s utility belt to help get her out of trouble.  But she had spent the last hour walking down here, and she had left her equipment at the tower.

The thought was in the back of her mind, but like her lack of shoes it just didn’t seem to matter at the moment.  That’s something for future Haley to worry about, she thought, still dancing down the street to the songs stuck in her head.

“Who’s this?” came a voice from behind her.  Seven satyrs stepped out of the shadows, surrounding Haley before she could react.

The satyr who had spoken first was a cat-satyr.  She had round, cat-like ears, and a striped tail that waved in the night breeze.  Her eyes were small and yellow, and she had tufts of white fur – whiskers – on the side of her face.

Another satyr, a small man with a rat-like nose, spoke up as well.  “Hey, she looks like one of those Asylum guys. That new one, what’s-her-name.”

“Outlier,” said a third, a burly fellow with lizard scales covering his skin.  “The new Asylum Watcher’s name is Outlier – I’ve seen her around here when she patrols.  But she’s a sensible person; she wouldn’t have come down to this side of the city without a reason… or backup.”  Haley could see the glint of knives in his jacket.

Despite the threatening poses the satyrs had adopted when the rat-satyr called her a Watcher, Haley didn’t feel any danger.  “I’m looking for somebody,” she said. “You wouldn’t happen to know him, would you?”

“Depends,” the first satyr said, grinning like a hungry cat.  “Who are you looking for at three in the morning in Faun territory?”

“Brother of mine,” Haley said.  “He works as a bouncer on this side of town – I’m just not sure where.  Name’s Scott Prince; would have just gotten off work. You wouldn’t know him, would you?”

The cat-satyr raised her eyebrows.  “You’re looking for Scott?” she asked, disbelieving.

“Yep,” Haley said with a cheeky grin.  “He’s my brother.”

“Hey, what’s going on here?” came a familiar voice from behind the cat-satyr.  “Who’s this?”

Another satyr stepped up.  This one seemed vaguely familiar to Haley: he had feathery blond hair and a pair of speckled black-and-white wings growing out of his back.  “You!” she cried, pointing at him. “I think I’ve seen you. You know my brother?”

Parker Fawkes cleared his throat.  “Kiara, why are you guys harassing a drunk chick?” he asked the cat-satyr.

“We think she might be a Watcher from the Asylum,” Kiara reported.  “The new one, Outlier.”

Raising an eyebrow, Parker asked reasonably, “Do you guys really think an Asylum Watcher would get this drunk and come into Faun territory at night without weapons or backup?  She doesn’t even have shoes on,” he pointed out.

“Do any of you guys know where I can find Scott?” Haley insisted.  “I need to find him. I need to ask something.”

Parker shook his head.  “She might not be a satyr,” he said, “but she’s related to one.  She probably just looks like the Watcher, but Scott’s family are all bakers.”  He walked over to Haley, adding, “I’ll see she gets out of here. You guys get back to patrols.”

The satyrs scattered at his command, and Parker guided Haley over to the sidewalk.  Once they were alone, he hissed, “Are you trying to get us killed, or are you just stupid?  If Agent needed me – ”

“Agent?” Haley asked.  “Agent doesn’t know I’m here.  I have the next few days off – I wanted to see my brother.”

Parker’s eyebrows furrowed.  “Wait, Scott’s really your brother?” he asked.  “You know he’s a Faun, right?”

“Right,” Haley said.  “That’s why I came here – he ran away from home a few months ago.  Well, I say ‘ran away’; he’s an adult, he can do what he wants,” she added.  “But I wanted to know why. And why he never comes to a family dinner any more.  And why I can’t see him…” Tears began to mist in her eyes, making her vision blurry as her brain went down that trail of thought.  “He’s my big brother. I’ve only got four; Sean’s been upset since Scott left. They were close, you know – the satyrs in the family.  Scott’s a gorilla, and I miss sparring with him and Sean. My mom’s been sick with worry, and my dad, well, he doesn’t emote. But he’s also had Scott on the brain, you know?”

Parker sighed.  “I know where Scott is,” he told her.  “I can give him the message. But it was stupid for you to come down here on your own – you’re a Watcher of the Asylum, Agent has rules against getting this wasted.”

“Oh, I’m not drunk,” Haley said, starting to dance again.

“Yeah, pull the other one,” Parker laughed, watching her, “it has bells.”

“Really,” she said, grabbing his hand and starting to dance with him.  “I just got hit by Eleutherios.” She grinned, repeating the name. “That’s a fun word: Eleutherios.  Eh-loo-theh-ree-ohs. E-leu-therios…”

Parker smirked.  “Isn’t that another name for Dionysus?” he asked.  “‘God of wine and revelry?’”

“You know stuff!” Haley exclaimed happily, throwing her arms in the air as she twirled.  “Oh, man, I had to tell Natalie and Frank who it was!”

She had been back-leading their dance to the tune in her head, but Parker took over the lead at that.  He was rolling with Haley’s drunk behavior so that she wouldn’t cause too much of a scene; while he could smell that the other Fauns weren’t within hearing distance, he had no idea who might be watching.  “Yeah, my sister’s studious, but she forgets stuff as soon as she doesn’t need it any more,” he said. “Besides, Nat was always more into Norse mythology than Greek. She wouldn’t know Dionysus from Apollo.”

“Natalie’s mean sometimes,” Haley said, “but she’s a good Watcher.  Small but scrappy; I’ve been teaching her Aikido.”

“Really?” Parker said, slowly leading the dance down the street to the edge of Faun territory.  “Nat listens to you?”

Haley shrugged.  “As much as she listens to anyone,” she admitted, twirling in the dark.  “Anyways, if you’re giving Scott a message, then you’re not taking me to him, right?”

“Right,” Parker said.  “I’m taking you out of here before you get in trouble.”

Haley stopped dancing and started walking.  “You’re a good guy, you know that?” she said.  “I know you’ve had to do some bad things, like sticking up that DMV, but you’re still a Watcher under it all.”

Parker bowed his head to hide a sheepish smile.  “I’m not so sure,” he said. “The DMV was small potatoes compared to some other stuff I’ve done.  If you remember this conversation in the morning, you might ask Agent about it tomorrow.”

“I always remember everything,” Haley said.  She shook her head. “Agent doesn’t talk about you,” she told him.  “Last I heard, he hadn’t heard from you in a while. But Frank contacted you last week.”

“I talked to Agent after that,” Parker said.  “But yeah, I haven’t been reporting in as regularly as he’d like.  Claw’s been onto me for a while, so I’ve been keeping my head down.”

“You okay?” Haley asked, hugging his side and leaning against him as they walked.  He smelled like flowers and some kind of citrus, neither of which fully covered up the scent of blood on his clothes.  “You sound sad.” She looked up at his face, studying it. “No, not sad… scared. You’re afraid of something.”

Parker tensed at the scrutiny, and Haley stepped away from him.  “You don’t even know me,” he said.

“True,” Haley nodded.  “We’ve never been properly introduced.  I’m Haley Prince, also known as Outlier,” she added, holding her hand out for him to shake.

Parker gave a short laugh at the sudden change of subject.  Taking her hand and giving it a mock kiss, as if she were a princess, he said, “I’m Parker Fawkes.  I went by Blackbird in the Asylum, and now the Fauns call me Fallen.”

“Pleased to meet you, Parker,” Haley said, grinning.  “Thank you for walking me this far. I guess you can’t go too much farther.”

Parker shook his head.  “But if you follow this road, you’ll get back to the tower.  I’m also texting both Agent and Frank to pick you up.” He pulled out an old-fashioned cell phone, which was how he contacted the Asylum members.

“Oh, Frank was hit by the Eleutherios too,” Haley said.  “So was Natalie. But Agent should get the message.”

Parker looked like he wanted to ask, but shook his head.  “I can’t be seen with you when Agent gets here, but I’ll keep an eye out so you don’t get into any trouble.”

“Nice to meet you, Parker,” Haley said, grinning at him.  “I hope you come home soon.”

Parker nodded.  “Tell Natalie I intend to,” he said.  “And Haley?” he added as she started to walk away.  She looked back curiously. “It was really nice to meet you, too.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Medical Center.

“So this drug makes people dance randomly?” Natalie asked.  “If I try that, please stop me.”

“Eleutherios releases inhibitions,” Dale pointed out.  “We’re just lucky Haley didn’t try to use any powers.”

“Don’t need powers,” Haley said.  “I’ve been fine ‘til now, I can go without.  No, thank you.”

Agent crossed his arms.  “You’re lucky Parker found you and convinced those Fauns that you weren’t Outlier.”

“Meh,” Haley shrugged.  “I am who I am.”

“Still,” Dale said, “for tha sake of research, Haley, could you grip tha table?”

Like the table in Samson’s lab, the one Haley now sat on had a metal frame.  She studied it for a second, before grabbing the edge and squeezing until her knuckles were white.  “Nope,” she said. “No powers. No, thank you.”

“Hmm.”  Dale studied the table, before looking back at Haley.  “I guess this version of tha serum in’t as potent as tha one Samson took.”

“Or else it just got mixed with a bunch of other stuff,” Haley said, hopping back up on the table.  She began humming to herself.

“Not that song again,” Natalie said, rolling her eyes.  “It’s never going to get out of my head now.”

Dale moved over to his work station, where he had a microscope slide with some of the Eleutherios on it.  “She has a point,” he said. “Dinnae you say tha you got soaked with the stuff after some jars broke?”

“Yeah,” Natalie said.  “Samson pushed me to the ground and the jars broke around me; I got it all over my back.  Shadow put his hand in it, and some must have splashed on Haley.”

“But you’re na affected,” Dale pointed out.  “You got tha worst dose, but you arenae loopy like these two.”  He gestured to Haley, who was still humming to herself, and Frank, who seemed intent on doing handstands.

“Okay, so I’m not dancing in the streets yet,” Natalie shrugged.  “So?”

“So maybe you have a natural immunity,” said Dale, still adjusting his microscope.  “I have samples of yer blood on file; I’ll need a sample now, post-affliction, to compare.  Agent, this might take a bit.”

“Not a problem,” Agent said, pressing the elevator button.  “Rina asked to see Doctor Samson, and she might help us get some answers out of him.”

“Good luck,” Natalie called wryly.  “Have fun interrogating the prisoner, while I’m stuck here getting poked with needles.”

“There’ll be other prisoners,” Agent told her as the elevator doors opened.  He flashed her a grin as he stepped on. “I’ll make sure you get a turn, too.”

Natalie threw a hospital pillow at him as the elevator doors closed, Agent laughing from behind them.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Police Department, interrogation room.

Sabrina “Rina” Dawson, AKA Nightmare.

Rina shuddered when she saw the lead researcher through the two-way mirror.  Samson was hunched over the table, looking like he was asleep; he could just be any other old man, except she knew him as a monster.

Agent looked at her with concern in his eyes.  “You sure about this?” he asked. “He might talk to you more than he would to me, but if it’s upsetting…”

“I can do it,” Rina said, cracking her knuckles.  “I rarely saw his face, so it’s not that bad. He’s just another bad guy, right?”

“We need to know what was in the Eleutherios,” Agent reminded her.  “Also if he’s been conducting human, satyr, or Third Gen experiments outside of Pharos.”

“And about how he stole the research from Pharos, and what else he might have.  Yeah, I know,” Rina said impatiently. “Can we get this over with?”

Agent nodded.  “He’s still under the effects of the drug,” he added, “so he might have trouble staying on topic.  You need to guide the conversation.”

Rina looked at him sideways as she opened the door.  “I have done this before, you know,” she pointed out.  “I worked as a police interrogator before you recruited me for the Asylum.”

“Right, right,” Agent said.  “Just… you can pull the plug at any time.  I know how personal this is for you.”

“I’ll be fine,” Rina told him.  “You just worry about him.”

She left the viewing room and entered the interrogation room.  Agent watched from the sidelines, letting Rina talk to Samson on her own.

Samson’s head snapped up to look at her as she walked in.  “Sabby?” he asked, studying her. “It’s my Sabby! Number nine, the Nightmare Child.”  He chuckled. “You really put the nurses through the ringer, you know.”

“Good,” Rina said, sitting down across from him.  “I need to know what was in Eleutherios.”

“Dionysus, Bacchus… probably a lot of wine!” Samson giggled.

Rina raised an eyebrow, letting her power affect the doctor.  “The drug, doctor. The one you’ve been working on in secret. What’s in it?”

“Ooh,” Samson shivered.  “You’re controlling your powers, and you didn’t even need a shock.  Impressive.”

“I’ve learned a lot since we broke away from you,” Rina hissed.  “I don’t have time for games. Tell me what I need to know so I can help my friends.”

Here shines the sun,” Samson sang.  “Have you ever seen the sun, Sabby?  I’d love to take you to the beach. Why don’t we go to the beach?”

Rina slammed a hand on the table.  She took a few deep breaths to calm herself before asking again, “What was in the drug?”

Samson considered her for a moment.  He could see that she was close to snapping, and realized that he might not want to be on the receiving end of that.  “I don’t really know,” he admitted. He lost the silly grin, straightening up in his seat and folding his hands on the table in front of him.  “I know what you’re asking me, Sabrina, but I’m not sure what affected your friends.”

Rina’s eyes widened.  “You weren’t really affected,” she accused.  “You’ve been foxing this whole time!”

“On the contrary, I was affected,” Samson said.  “It wore off about an hour ago.  I maintained the charade because that Agent and his like were less likely to let me see you while I’m sober.”

Rina stood up, knocking her chair over.  “Sabrina, wait!” Samson said, reaching for her hand.  The handcuffs chaining him to the table prevented him from reaching her.  “Sabrina!”

“You want me to wait?” Rina said.  “Tell me what I want to know.”

“I’ve already told you, I don’t know,” Samson said.  As Rina turned for the door, he added, “There were five different trials of Eleutherios on that table, and when they smashed they combined.  I’m not sure what combination might have affected your friends – they might have canceled each other out, or strengthened each other’s effects.  I just don’t know!”

“Are they in danger?” Rina asked, turning back to him.  “The drug that you were under wore off; won’t it wear off for them?”

“Probably,” Samson said.  “All five had a limited effect in my trials.  Without further exposure, they’ll probably be back to normal in a day or two.”

“Okay then,” Rina said, picking her chair back up and sitting down.  “Next question: what other experiments have you done using humans, satyrs, or Third Gens as subjects?”

Samson looked her in the eyes.  “I’ll make you a deal, Sabrina. An answer for an answer – you answer my questions, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

“What could you possibly want to know about me?” Rina scoffed.

“Can’t a father want to know his daughter?” Samson countered.

Rina could almost hear Agent’s hiss from the other room; she had never told him that particular piece of information before.  “You stopped being my father the first time you cut off my arm,” she told him.  “Heck, you stopped being my father as soon as you put me in your precious Fourth Gen experiment.  So no, we can’t go to the beach, because you made me allergic to the sun!”

“That was unintended,” Samson said.  “I was trying to save your life.”

“From what?” Rina asked.  “I was perfectly healthy before you gave me the serum.”

Samson shook his head.  “You were born a hybrid, Sabrina,” he said.  “Your nightmare powers killed your mother before you were three.  I was trying to get rid of them.”

“Right,” Rina scoffed.  “You started me on Fourth Gen as a baby.  You ‘wanted to get rid of them’, but instead you made them stronger. Then you marketed me to any military, government and private sector, to say that you could create super-soldiers.  And then you cut off my freaking arms and legs just to show them that they’d grow back.” She cracked her knuckles again, showing him her hands.

Samson looked away.  “I’ll admit, I was not exactly father of the year,” he said.  “I needed funding, so I had to give them something. It wasn’t until your brother rebelled and broke you all out of there that I – ”

“Wait, hang on,” Rina said, leaning forward.  “‘My brother’? Ryan was the one that got us out of there.”

“Yes, Ryan,” Samson said.  “Your older brother. He was one of the first experiments in the project.”

Rina took a deep breath, trying and failing to calm herself.  “So it wasn’t just me,” she said. “I wasn’t even your first child to be born as a guinea pig.  Ryan was my brother…”  She shook her head to clear it.  Act now, emote later, she reminded herself.  She had learned that lesson in her early days as an interrogator, but she had never dealt with information that personal before.  “You said you had a question for me,” she continued, getting back on topic. “If I answer, you’ll answer my questions. Deal?”

“Deal,” Samson said.  “All I really want to know is: how have you been?  Since leaving the laboratory,” he clarified. “You’re currently a Watcher in the Asylum, correct?”

“I’ve been great,” Rina told him.  “Nobody prodding me, or making me learn to do things one-handed or use crutches.  I get to bring bad guys like you to justice.” She leaned forward. “My turn. What other projects have you been on?”

Samson shrugged.  “Aside from Fourth Gen and Eleutherios, I worked on the Gen Juice project at Pharos Laboratories.  In my spare time, I tried to perfect Eleutherios at home, but I could never get it to take away Third Gen or Satyrism.  It only enhanced the effects.” He sighed. “I don’t know what they put into the original Third Gen or Satyr serums that made them so resilient,” he said wistfully.  “We – humanity – created our own demise in trying to perfect ourselves. I want you to know,” he added, leaning in towards Rina, “that I only ever worked on these projects to help you and your brother.  I want to find a cure, so you can be a normal girl.”

Rina shook her head.  “How did you get the research out of Pharos?” she asked.

“Oh, that part was easy,” Samson said.  “When Eleutherios was shut down eight years ago, I just omitted certain parts from my inventory report and took them home with me that night.”

Rina glanced towards the mirror, knowing Agent was hearing every word.  “I’m asking about your recent theft,” she said. “When you were fired from Pharos, you took more.  What did you take, and how did you take it?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Samson said.  “I didn’t take anything else when Pharos fired me; just the research from eight years ago.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Police Department, interrogation room.

Agent and Rina.

“You believe him?” Rina asked Agent once the interrogation was over.  She joined him in the viewing room, noting that O.N.C. and Sean Hannah had both joined them at some point during her questioning.

“If he’s lying, he’s the best I’ve ever seen,” Agent admitted.  “Which then begs the question: why did you two put my team on a cold case without telling us?”

Sean raised an eyebrow, folding his arms in front of himself.  “Does it make a difference?” he asked. “The research he stole was proprietary, and he was recently fired.”

“It means you never answered Outlier’s question,” Agent said, folding his arms to mock the CEO’s posture.  “Why now? What changed?”

Sean grinned.  “Her,” he said, nodding to Rina.  At her startled look, he added, “I wanted to see how she could handle pressure; nothing seems to phase her, and I knew this would.”

Rina glared at him.  “She’s standing right here, and can be addressed directly,” she said.  Her powers began to flood the room, making the CEO twitch uncomfortably.  O.N.C. took a few steps back, and both of their breathing got harder and faster as Rina gave them the anxiety attack that she herself had been holding back since the start of the interrogation.

“Enough!” Sean roared, waving a hand through the air as if that would stave off the panic.  “If you can’t behave like an adult, then you can just leave!” Rina released the pressure on the room, turning and storming out the door.

Agent shook his head at them, unaffected by her powers.  “You deserved that,” he said, turning to follow Rina. “Don’t ever mess with my team again.”

He caught up to Rina halfway down the hall, calling her name.  “You okay?” he asked, tentatively.

Rina had tears rolling down her cheeks, and she was shivering.  Agent put his arms around her, letting her get control of herself.  “It’s okay,” he said. “He can’t hurt you any more.” Rina could feel him shivering from the effects of her powers, but he didn’t let go.

“It’s not that,” Rina sniffed, biting her lip to control the quiver in her voice.  “He said… Ryan was my brother. My actual brother! I always thought he was just another kid in the experiment.”  She sniffed, trying to control her crying. “This is stupid. It’s been nearly fifteen years since he died; I don’t know why I’m so upset now.”

“Hey,” Agent said, pulling away to look her in the face.  “Traumas like that don’t just leave,” he told her. “All we can do is move on and try to live despite them.  It doesn’t matter if it’s fifty years later and his name comes up – you take the time you need to mourn. As long as you don’t let it consume you, it’s healthy to cry sometimes.”

Rina sniffed.  “Thanks,” she said.  “You sound like you know what it’s like.”

“I was the Agent of Team Ark,” he reminded her.  “I lost friends, and other friends got badly hurt under my watch.  So yeah, I know what I’m talking about.” He gave her a sad smile. “If I ever found out that Striker was my brother, I’d be crying in the hallway, too.  I’m impressed you didn’t lose it in front of the others.”

Rina shook her head. “‘Interrogate now, emote later’,” she told him, turning to walk down the hall now that she had gotten herself under control.  “The detective I worked with taught me that. If you cry in front of the perp, you’re only giving him power.”

“True,” Agent said, falling into step beside her.  “Hey, while you were in there I got news from Dale.  Haley and Frank seem to be returning to normal.”

“That’s good!” Rina said.

“He’s still not sure why it didn’t affect Natalie, though,” Agent added, worried.  “I’m just hoping it doesn’t have any long-lasting effects.”

Rina put a hand on his shoulder.  “She’s fine right now,” she told him.  “We’ll worry about anything else as it comes.”

Agent nodded.  “Yeah,” he said.  “I guess I should be grateful she didn’t go berserk.”

“Super-powered Natalie with no inhibitions,” Rina said thoughtfully.  “That’s a scary thought. Then again, how can we be sure the drug didn’t affect her?”

“Meaning?” Agent asked.

Rina shrugged.  “Natalie doesn’t let much of anything stop her,” she said.  “That’s when she’s sober, and that’s why it seems scary for her to be on a drug like that.  But then, since she already lives her life with few to no inhibitions, maybe the drug did affect her – we just couldn’t tell.”

Agent raised his eyebrows, considering the point.  “That… sounds plausible,” he said slowly. “That actually makes me feel a lot better.  Thanks.”

“No problem,” Rina said.  “Now what say you we stop and get some ice cream on the way back?”

“Sounds good,” Agent said, grinning.  “Chunky monkey?”

“Chocolate chip cookie dough,” Rina said.  As they got to Agent’s car, Rina began humming an old tune that her mother used to sing as a lullaby:

Lavender blue, dilly-dilly

Lavender green

Then I’ll be king, dilly-dilly, and you’ll be my queen…

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #12 – Butterfly Net

Asylum Bonus Story #1 – Team Ark

History Lesson: A Watcher’s Function in Society.

From a class taught by Agent five years ago.

Watcher licenses are one of the most difficult achievements in today’s society.  An individual who wishes to become Watcher-certified must complete either a year-long training program or one thousand hours of apprenticeship.  When a licensed Watcher signs off on the training portion, Watcher hopefuls must pass multiple tests of their physical and mental skills, as well as a physical exam of their well-being.  Most people these days believe that one must be either a Third Gen or a Satyr to pass all of these tests, given how few humans have managed to do so since the regulations were enacted.

This was not always the case.

Watcher testing used to be only a simple written exam.  Anyone who read a rule book could pass the test and gain their license for government-sanctioned vigilante work.  The Watchers were originally established as a means of keeping the super-powered among us from destroying our country’s economy by streamlining other work.  Why would a construction company hire a hundred human workers if they could get the same job done in less time with one elemental Third Gen? Delivery companies who hired speedsters would monopolize the market.  And so on, and so forth.

To contain the ire of the humans – who outnumbered the Third Gens and Satyrs two hundred to one – most state governments bowed to union regulations, and passed bills that prevented employers from hiring Third Gens and Satyrs.  Some states only enacted one or two such laws, giving local authorities the option at the city and county levels to enact further ones. Others enacted dozens of these bills, outlawing more than employment, but also inter-racial marriage, children, education, and in two extreme cases, outlawing any persons legally labeled as Third Gens and Satyrs from entering the state in an attempt to curb the non-human working populations.  Some of these laws are still in effect today.

These were dark times for those with heightened abilities.  In a few short decades, they went from being the desired state of humankind to “freaks of nature”.  Most Third Gens chose to pass as regular humans, hiding their abilities and keeping their heads down.  Satyrs lacked that option, as their abilities showed in their animalistic features.

The inequality between the humans, Third Gens, and Satyrs led to the rise of gangs such as the Fauns and the Skels, who used violence and intimidation to keep employers from discriminating against them.  Gangs and mob families began employing satyrs as muscle, and the police were unable to keep up with the rising crime rates.

Enter Julius Reign, the Senator from New York who proposed the first Watcher bill, known colloquially at the time as the Superhero bill.  The bill proposed that the government create a website that allowed any registered person to post or find jobs based on their ability level.  Based on superhero comics from previous generations, it would give the Third Gens and Satyrs the option of using their powers to fight crime instead of causing it.

It was shot down in Congress five times before a draft was considered good enough to pass.

The draft to make the final cut became the current federal Watcher Licensing Program.  Using contractors such as Pharos Corporation and King Enterprises in a joint-venture operation, they developed a website that would allow anyone to post job listings for individual or ongoing tasks that required greater-than-human abilities.  The Meta-Human and Vigilante Task-Force was formed under the Agency to regulate these postings, and provide any government-related assistance they might require. Agents of the Task-Force were assigned to assist certain postings, and in most major cities teams of Watchers would work with an Agent to complete the hardest assignments.

Posts were generally made from the police departments, who put their most-wanted bounty lists up to take the edge off of their officers in hunting down dangerous criminals.  Missing persons reports, bouncer gigs, legal odd jobs, and other such matters were also posted for Watchers to take as they were able. For twenty years, the system worked: crime rates began to fall to manageable levels, and employment was on the rise.

Then, about ten years ago, something changed.

A criminal codenamed “Jaunt”, who had started out as a petty thief, began amassing an underground network of criminal activity.  He began connecting people who wanted an illegal job done with criminals who could pull it off. For an as-yet unknown reason, he also began targeting Watchers.

Around the same time, the Task-Force created a team in Eon City to reign in the growing crime rate.  These Watchers, known as Team Ark, were meant to be not only vigilantes, but heroes – Third Gens and Satyrs that people could look up to and emulate.  Unlike most Watchers, Team Ark was constantly in the public eye. Everybody knew their codenames, and listings on the Watcher site specifically requested them.

Last year, as most of you know, Team Ark disbanded over a few serious incidents.  The first of these was the death of Hippolyta – after her patrol, her body was found in an alley.  Evidence points to a Faun attack, but without proof of which individuals committed the murder, the case cannot be closed.

Lyta had a very public funeral, at the insistence of the Task-Force.  They made her a monument in Eon City’s cemetery, and news crews covered the event.  This led to protesters gathering, claiming that satyrs and Third Gens – like Lyta’s family – were a danger to society.  Lyta’s funeral turned into a media circus, and her husband and children were accosted by the protesters. Her daughter wound up punching one in the face, and frankly I couldn’t blame her…

But I digress.

Team Ark continued to operate for three months after Lyta’s death before one final incident broke them apart.  Jaunt – the criminal who was hunting Watchers – came to Eon City. After a few robberies, Team Ark managed to track him down and confront him.  While the details of the encounter are not public knowledge, the aftermath was picked up by the media: Striker had disappeared, and Star was crippled.

After that, the team fell apart.  Sparrow left to try and find Striker, and Kindred and Star went into retirement.  Marauder, one of the younger members of the team, tried to keep up the work for a couple of months, but then even he left over differences with the Task-Force.

Watchers still function in society, but the standards of those who carry licenses have become more strict.  The protests that began at Lyta’s funeral have caused the government to tighten their regulations across the board to appease the vocal masses.  Recently there has been talk of certain state laws becoming federally-mandated: the Satyr licensing laws, interspecies marriage acts, and others like those that are meant to curb and control the Satyr and Third Gen populations.

I’ll let you decide the morality of that.  It seems like our time’s up – class dismissed.

* * * * * * * *

Scene: The Fall of Team Ark

Eon City, nine years ago.

“Okay, I’ll admit this guy’s good,” Star said over her com to her team as she skated down Main Street after their target.  “Three jumps later and he hasn’t even slowed down.”

“That’s why it’s a bad idea to get cocky,” came the dry voice over the intercom.  Agent, the team’s young coordinator, had warned Star about exactly that when they had finally managed to put a tracker on this guy.

“Star can’t help getting cocky,” said Marauder’s voice in her ear.  “She won a steak dinner when she put the tracer on his foot. I can’t believe you got close enough.”

“Ninja skills,” Star said, grinning, “and a whole lot of luck.”

“Luck only gets you so far,” Sparrow told her.  Star caught a glimpse of the girl’s russet-brown cape jumping over the rooftop next to her.  The name “Sparrow” was a misnomer; Cassandra Johnson had the ability to see into the future. She modelled her outfit to make her look like a Satyr, to thumb her nose at the Task-Force’s policy of only hiring Third Gens.  The girl’s outfit included a sturdy, kite-like cape that attached to her arms, allowing her to glide over rooftops and helping her keep up with the speeding Star.

Sparrow’s older brother, Striker, stayed silent as he ran next to Star, but he did nod in agreement when the older woman glanced at him.  He was the only member of the team who could keep up with Star when she wore her Seven-League Boots – which was the fancy name for her rocket-powered skates.  Striker could move at superhuman speeds, giving him an edge in most fights.

The last member of Team Ark was Kindred, who drove a motorcycle on her other side.  Star’s husband was a Satyr-Third Gen hybrid, who had a cat’s tail and ears but also the ability to make people see things that weren’t there.  He usually used his illusions to make bad guys think they had been surrounded, so most articles written about him made people think he could duplicate himself.

Star was the only human in the group, but the Task-Force insisted that the media call her a Third Gen.  It was plausible; her ninja-like ability to sneak into places could be seen as superhuman sometimes. The head of the Task-Force insisted that only Third Gens – or those with Third Gen abilities, such as Kindred – be allowed on the team for public relations purposes.  Third Gens were seen as the most powerful Watchers, so the team had to reflect that ideal. Most of the team disagreed with the standard, especially in light of the current protests, but there wasn’t much that they could do about it.

Star kept skating, turning her attention to the siblings.  “I know you two were practically raised by the stiff-necks at the Task-Force,” Star told them, “but we really need to work on your sense of humor.  No offense, Agent.”

“None taken,” came the jocular reply.  “At the Task-Force we might be stiff, but either one of our prodigies there could probably kick your ass.”

Star snorted.  Unlike other Agents she had worked with over the years, this one was the first to respond to her banter.  It made for a refreshing change of pace; this Agent was young, only in his early twenties, but he had a reputation for being the best.  So far, he had lived up to the hype in Star’s eyes.

Team Ark was the Alpha Team of the Meta-Human/Vigilante Task-Force, a branch of the DoD specializing in tracking down Third Gen and Satyr criminals.  Their current target was a Third Gen who seemed to be able to open holes in space that would take him anywhere in the country. Star had finally gotten close enough to him on their last encounter to put a small tracking device on him, and now they were following it to the thief’s current location.

“So what are we calling this guy again?” Marauder asked as the team came to a stop outside of the building that they were led to; it was an office building for Pharos Industries, the top defense contracting firm in the country.  Star used her goggles to scan the place, noting that the tracking device was on the top floor.

“’Jaunt’,” she answered, retracting the wheels on her boots and opening the door.

“Ridiculous name,” Sparrow muttered, following Star into the building.

“Star’s right,” Marauder said, grinning, “you do need to lighten up.”  He waved a hand in a vague gesture, and Sparrow started chuckling.

“Stop… it,” she chortled, obviously trying not to laugh out loud.  “I need… to concentrate…”

“Marauder,” Star warned, leading them all over to the stairs, “not now.”

The young man sighed.  “Fine,” he said, waving his hand in the air again, “but princess over there ought to learn to laugh on her own.”  Striker bumped him with his shoulder. “Ow,” Marauder said, rubbing his shoulder. “Same goes for Chuckles, here.”

“Ten floors,” Sparrow sighed as they all got in the elevator.  “Do you think you can be quiet just for ten floors?”

“Doubtful,” he grinned.

Star shook her head.  Sometimes her younger teammates reminded her of her children; she and Kindred were the only ones over thirty.

She shook that thought out of her head.  Not lately, she reminded herself.  Since Lyta’s death, Sparrow and Striker seemed older, never laughing or having fun.  Marauder seemed to want to make up for it – he and Striker had always been close, and now Marauder seemed to make it his personal mission to cheer them up.

Sparrow knocked Star out of her reverie by falling into her.  “Hey,” Striker said, catching his sister before she hit the ground.  “What was that?”

“Vision,” Sparrow said, putting a hand to her head as she got back to her feet.  “A big one – they don’t usually hit that hard.”

“What about?”  As Star asked the question, the elevator opened at the top floor.  Star scanned the area for Jaunt with her goggles set to infra-red. There was only one heat signature on the floor, so she silently directed the team towards it.

The signature led them to a large office bullpen, with rows of desks lining the giant office space.  It didn’t seem like an important part of the building, until they came to a small plaque that read, “Sean Hannah, CEO”.  The thief was rummaging through a nearby desk.

The thief known as Jaunt looked unremarkable at first glance.  He was an average height and a skinny build, though his pale blue eyes shone through his mask as he looked up in alarm.

Next to Star, Marauder raised a hand.  Star knew from experience that Marauder would make the bad guy feel guilty.  Jaunt closed his eyes and shook his head, but then picked up a sheaf of papers and did a kong vault over the desks behind him.

“What?!” cried Marauder.  “He’s not supposed to do that.”

“Maybe you messed up,” Sparrow said.  She looked at her brother, still shaking her head from the vision.  “Striker – ” she started, but he cut her off.

“I got him,” Striker said, before speeding around the desks to where Jaunt was running away.  The air shimmered around the thief as Jaunt clapped his hands together.

“No, wait!” Sparrow shouted, grabbing Star’s arm.  “We need to stop him – ”

“That’s what we’re doing,” Star told her, yanking her arm out of the girl’s grip.  She jumped onto a desk, heading towards Jaunt.

Sparrow called after her, “No, Striker – ”

Jaunt pulled his hands apart, and a man-sized hole opened up in the air next to him looking onto a deserted landscape.  Striker tried to stop before he ran into it, but Jaunt grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him through. Sparrow screamed a warning, but Star was already in motion.

Marauder pulled out his handgun, firing at the thief just as Star reached him.  Star felt a blinding pain in her leg, knocking her down before she reached the thief.  Dimly she heard Sparrow screaming again in the background. In front of her, Jaunt stepped through the portal, clutching a graze on his forearm as it closed behind him.

Star suddenly felt cold, as if she was missing something significant.  She looked at her leg, and saw that her knee was a bloody mess. There were white shards sticking out of the hole, and it felt like that might be important.

She felt rather than saw her husband run up to her.  She tried to tell him that she was fine, but then everything went black.

* * * * * * * *

Team Ark Headquarters, an hour later.

What just happened?

“What the hell happened?!” Agent shouted.

“I don’t know.”  Tears absently fell from beneath Sparrow’s mask as she and Marauder reported back to Team Ark’s headquarters.  The spacious training room was silent, but Sparrow felt as if she was being bombarded by a din of noise from her own thoughts.  She had seen it coming; she knew it was going to happen before it did. Why couldn’t she stop it?

Marauder’s voice added to the mix, snapping her back to the present.  “Somehow he knew we were coming. He was prepared to get away.”

“Kindred took Star to the hospital for her leg,” Sparrow added, her voice sounding hollow, even to her.  “And Striker…” She trailed off, refusing to think about her brother’s fate.

“I saw.”  Agent ran his fingers through his impeccably-groomed hair, mussing it for the first time in front of other people.  “This is a disaster,” he said, closing his eyes. A second later, he was running back to his computer screens, pulling up security footage from two different buildings on the monitors.

The first, Sparrow recognized as King Enterprises’ Laboratory; that was where it had happened.  The footage was from the past hour, replaying the worst moment of her life. She refused to look at the screen, choosing instead to focus on the second: current footage from Eon City’s hospital, following Star as she was carried on a gurney into surgery.  Kindred followed his wife, but was told to wait in the hallway outside. He raised his hands as if he was going to fight the doctor to stay, but then his shoulders slumped in defeat. He obediently moved to the opposite wall, collapsing to the floor. Next to Sparrow, Marauder was flinching away from that screen.

Good, she thought, narrowing her eyes at him.  She knew that she just needed someone to blame, but if Marauder hadn’t fired at the wrong moment then Star could have easily caught the target.  Instead, she now had a bullet stuck in her shattered kneecap, and Striker…

Even before joining Team Ark, Sparrow and Striker had been a brother-sister duo of vigilante Watchers.  He was her best friend, her teammate, and now he was… he must be…

Sparrow snapped herself out of that line of thought, shaking her head to clear it.  She didn’t know what had happened to her brother; he had just disappeared.

She forced herself to look back at the first screen, which showed the moment that the mysterious portal had opened.  On the monitor it looked like bad CGI, but in person it had been like a hole had opened in midair. It could have been a jagged mirror or a large picture, if it hadn’t been for the dusty, sandy scent coming from the other side.  The hole was just large enough for a person to step through, if they stooped a little to fit.

A bolt of lightning – which is what Striker looked like when he moved at his fastest speeds – ran towards Jaunt, who pushed it into the portal.  Star jumped off the desk to stop Jaunt, but missed when Marauder fired his handgun into her kneecap. The bullet went through, but only grazed Jaunt’s arm.  The target stepped through the portal, which closed behind him, leaving four team members in the otherwise empty room. Star’s knee bled profusely as Kindred ran up to her, and she passed out from pain, shock, and blood loss within a minute.

Sparrow watched herself on the screen as she cried out for her brother.  Sparrow had seen all of this before it happened, from her vision in the elevator.  Before she could warn her teammates, though, it seemed like it had already played out.  Now Star was fighting for her life in the hospital, while her brother was who-knows-where fighting the most dangerous criminal that the team had ever faced by himself.

“I’m going to find him,” she announced suddenly.  She hadn’t realized that she was going to leave until she said it.

As she turned towards the door, Agent said, “You know that he could be anywhere.  If he’s still alive, he’ll come back to us as soon as he can on his own.” She stopped, considering his point.  “Please don’t go,” he added. Marauder stood silently, still watching the screens.

Agent was only a few years older than her, and they both were in their twenties.  That’s why Star and/or Kindred usually led the missions: their experience was usually invaluable to the team.  Agent was the tech guy who only joined a fight when necessary. His pleading eyes reminded her how they had trained together in the Task-Force, unlike the rest of the team.

Star and Kindred were in their late thirties, parents of two young teenagers, and had joined the team to keep their family safe.  Marauder was an ex-marine in his mid-twenties who joined because of his love of adventure. Agent joined as part of the organization sponsoring their team, to make sure that they toed the line and followed the rules.  But Sparrow…

Sparrow had followed her older brother.  She was his sidekick when they were teenagers, and joined Team Ark when he did to stay with him.  Their parents were killed when she was ten, and he had been all she had left. When Striker decided to join the Task-Force program to help make Eon City safer, Sparrow went with him because she didn’t know where else to go.

The same feeling hit her now: she had to find her older brother.  If he was injured, he might not be able to make it back. If he was okay, he probably would have gotten back to headquarters before she did.

“I’m sorry,” she said, walking out the door.  She had made up her mind, and nothing was going to change it; and if she looked back on the remnants of her team, it was only because she was closing the door behind her.

* * * * * * * *

Agency Headquarters, four years ago.

Agent.

The briefing room was quiet.  Agent liked it that way; it gave him time to think as his gaze slid over the papers on the table in front of him for the hundredth time that morning.  He didn’t need to read them again – he had memorized their contents after the second reading – but the misgivings he felt over this assignment made him worry over the papers like a dog with a bone.

Shaking his head, he sat back in the large, cushioned seat, letting his umbrella rest against his leg as always.  Like every other Agent, he could trust that his appearance was impeccable in his three- piece suit, and years of habit kept him from slouching even when he was alone.

Agent wasn’t alone, however.  A woman, equally impeccably dressed, sat across the table from him with her hands folded in front of her.  The grey bun and horn- rimmed glasses made her look like the world’s strictest librarian, but Agent knew better.  “Well?” she asked him, seeing that he had finally met her gaze.

“It’s not every day that I get a mission briefing from O.N.C. herself,” Agent said, crossing his arms.  “This must be big.”

“Don’t be pert,” O.N.C. told him, straightening her glasses.  “I’m here to discuss the new team you will be forming.”

Agent rolled his eyes.  “You mean the team I’ll be babysitting,” he told her, pointing to the papers on the coffee table between them.  The papers were personnel files on different vigilantes in Eon City, most of whom were either new on the scene or came from problematic backgrounds.  Which pretty much summed up every vigilante that Agent had ever met, if he was honest with himself.

He was not happy about his latest assignment.

“Half of these people are so green, you could juice them for a mojito,” he told O.N.C., who looked confused.  Agent clarified, “Like limes.”

Raising her eyebrows, O.N.C. smirked at him.  “Your euphemisms were better in training.”

“Beside the point,” Agent said, waving a hand irritably.  “I can’t run a half- baked team to defend a safety deposit box, much less a city.”

“These kids are the best at what they do,” O.N.C. told him.  “You need a team to handle the bigger assignments – ”

“So why can’t I use an Agency team, like normal?” Agent asked.  “You know what happened last time I tried to run a Watcher team!”

O.N.C. paused before answering, long enough that Agent muttered a short apology for interrupting.  She stood up slowly, looking straight into his eyes as she answered. “I’m not sure you’re understanding me,” she told him.  “I’m not asking you. You do not have the option of turning this assignment down. In the interest of compliance, however, I will tell you that there is more riding on this than you know.”

She began walking around the table with her hands behind her back, the picture of nonchalance.  “Eon City has turned into a virtual rat’s nest for underworld activity,” she told him. “Thieves with Third Gen abilities prowl the streets at night.  Gangs like the Fauns have set up bases there. Most recently,” she added as she stopped right in front of Agent, “there have been a rash of Satyr kidnappings in the area.”  O.N.C. folded her arms in front of her. “The Agency is already stretched thin between our overseas operations and the small task- forces we’ve set up at home, and Eon City isn’t the only city like this in America right now.  Project Asylum is meant to use the resources already in place – the cities’ Watchers – to help clean up the crime running rampant in this country. The goal is to fund them, outfit them, and use their abilities and their drive to help the Agency with issues that arise.  These people are untrained, but their abilities are unmatched in the city, and with our help and guidance, they could do a lot more than they currently are.

“Maybe I need to find someone who’s got more balls,” she finished dismissively, “but I need my best agent on this job, and right now that’s you.”

Agent stared for a second, this time making sure that she was done before answering.  “I understand that I can’t turn this down,” he said. “As much as I want to. What I’m questioning are the exact choices you’ve made here.”  He pointed to the personnel files. “First is Shadow, who has only been doing this for a few months.”

“He’s the best infiltrator you’ll find,” O.N.C. said.  “He trained with Star herself. He also finished his Watcher training by shadowing Kindred on missions.  With a pedigree like that, you won’t find anybody better at what he does.”

“His Third Gen power is negligible, and he’s not a satyr,” Agent argued.  “How could there be no one better?”

O.N.C. smiled, leaning against the table.  “You’ll just have to meet him and find out,” she told him.  “I know your history with his parents, but Frank Mejia is very good at what he does.  You worked with Star, who was human – and you know that she was still the best. I have to insist on Shadow joining the team.”

Taking a frustrated breath, Agent continued.  “What about Reiki?”

“A Third Gen who creates light from his hands,” O.N.C. prompted.

“A circus act who has no business at a crime scene,” Agent protested.  When O.N.C. didn’t respond, he gestured to the others. “Kindred, Sparrow, and Marauder, all a part of Team Ark.”

O.N.C. walked back to her seat.  “They all have years of experience working on a team like the one you’re forming,” she said, “What’s the problem?”

Agent sighed.  “Don’t beat around the bush,” he told her.  “Team Ark fell apart five years ago, in a very messy fashion.”

“I know the details,” O.N.C. said.

“Then you know that there is no way that I’m going to get these guys to work together,” Agent insisted, pushing the papers away.  “I’d have a better chance of training a cat to do ballet.”

O.N.C. sat down, entwining her fingers on the table in front of her.  “What are you hoping to accomplish here?” she asked. “We’ve established that this is not an optional assignment for you.”

“Let me pick my own team,” Agent said.  “I’ll ask Shadow and Reiki, if you insist, but there are more qualified candidates in the city that don’t have the history and stigma of being on Team Ark.”

O.N.C. stared at him calmly.  “I must insist that you at least ask your former teammates,” she said.  “But, given their history, I will concede that you might not get them to agree.  Who would you suggest we take instead?”

“The Fawkes twins,” Agent said immediately.  “Natalie and Parker were the top of their class in training, and they’re already doing well as Watchers.”

“Parker Fawkes, yes,” O.N.C. admitted.  “But Natalie Fawkes? The girl has a record!”

“Nothing proven,” Agent pointed out.  “She was never caught.”

“She climbed Pharos tower and shot fireworks off the top,” O.N.C. said.

Agent shrugged.  “She was fourteen years old at the time,” he pointed out, “which shows her physical abilities.  And she was never convicted.”

“She’s human,” O.N.C. said.

“We went with all Third Gens on Team Ark,” Agent pointed out.  “We need some diversity. Which is why I’m also suggesting Sabrina Dawson.”

“The Fourth Gen girl?” O.N.C. said, considering.

“She has abilities, but she’s also a satyr hybrid – as is Parker Fawkes,” Agent said.  “My other candidates would include Brittany James, Toby Watson, and Eli Howard.”

O.N.C. was silent for a minute.  “I hope we’re thinking of different Brittany Jameses,” she finally said.  “The one I know of is an old lady who claims to know demons.”

“Crazy or not, she has a dragon,” Agent said.  “I’ve seen her powers; she would be a heavy-hitter.”

“Toby Watson keeps a low profile,” O.N.C. continued.  “She’s a satyr who already leads a double life; this team would require her to give one up.”

“She’s the best forensic tracker I know of,” Agent said.  “I can at least ask.”

“Eli Howard is a sociopath,” O.N.C. said.  “He’s known as Butterfly because he doesn’t have a focus, and he prefers the company of bugs to people.”

“He’s a Third Gen with hyper-proprioception,” Agent said.  “He’s a sharpshooter with extraordinary fighting abilities.”

“I’ll approve Brittany James and Toby Watson, assuming you can get them,” O.N.C. said, “but I will not have someone with Butterfly’s track record.  This team is supposed to be in the public eye – Watchers that people can look up to as heroes.”

“But the others?” Agent asked.

“You may ask them to join,” O.N.C. said, “on a probationary basis.  If these work out, then you can have more autonomy in your other choices.”

“Great,” Agent said, standing up.  “One more name to consider: David Perry.”

“There is no doubt about that one being a criminal,” O.N.C. said, alarmed.  “He destroyed half the city!”

“He wasn’t himself,” Agent insisted.  “He’s on a treatment plan now, and we can keep him in the background until people get used to the idea…”

O.N.C. stood up as well, straightening her blouse.  “He is not Asylum material,” she insisted.

“He needs a place to stay, at least,” Agent said.  “He’ll be released from the hospital soon, where he has been a model patient.  His powers would be too much for even Zatvor to handle – at least let him stay in the headquarters, where these Asylum heroes can keep an eye on him.”

At this point, the door to the briefing room opened.  Sean Hannah, the new CEO of Pharos Industries, entered saying, “Sorry I’m late, traffic was awful.”  He closed the door behind him.

“Ah, Mr. Hannah,” O.N.C. said.  “Let me introduce you to the Task-Force’s top Agent.”  She turned back to Agent, adding, “Pharos Industries will be helping to fund this project.”

“Pleasure,” the CEO said, shaking Agent’s hand jovially.  “You’ll be the one to spearhead Project Asylum, then?”

“Looks like it,” said Agent with a glance at O.N.C.  “We were just discussing names of Watchers to add to the list.”

“Good,” Sean Hannah said, sitting down.  “Any I might have heard of?”

“Mr. Hannah was a Watcher himself in Colorado,” O.N.C. mentioned.

“Ah, but my team was never as well-known as Eon City’s Team Ark,” he said, waving a hand dismissively.  “I understand you were a member?” he asked Agent, who stiffened at the mention of his old team.

“That was years ago,” he said, “and it didn’t end well.”

Sean nodded, perching on his seat with his elbows on the table.  “I understand,” he said. “This must be hard for you, but it is vital that we form this team.”

“The Watchers in Eon City are good enough as-is,” Agent said.  “Why do Pharos and the Task-Force suddenly want to try again, when Team Ark was such a failure last time?”

Sean Hannah and O.N.C. looked at each other for a minute, as Agent counted the seconds in silence.  They seemed to be silently considering what to tell him – when they looked back, O.N.C. said nothing while Sean Hannah said, “There’s something you should probably know about what’s coming.”  He folded his hands on the table.

“Have you ever heard of the Gamemaster?”

* * * * * * * *

Next: Bonus Story #2 – The Companies

Also: Issue #11 – Jekyll and Hyde